human evolution

Book review – Why Chimpanzees Can’t Learn Language and Only Humans Can

7-minute read

The title of this book leaves little to the imagination and seems like a strong statement – how can we be so sure? The author, behavioural psychologist Herbert S. Terrace, is in a very strong position to make this claim though. Here, he revisits a remarkable experiment conducted in the 1970s to teach a chimpanzee to speak using sign language that ultimately failed. Bringing together subsequent developments in linguistics, palaeoanthropology, and developmental psychology, he has written an incredibly interesting and well-structured book on the evolutionary basis of language.

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Year list – The Inquisitive Biologist’s top 5 reads of 2019

2-minute read

Let me first welcome all my readers to 2020. Casting my gaze back over last year, 2019 was an exceptionally productive year where I managed to read and review 107 books. Although I fully intend to bring you many more book reviews this year, I am not sure whether I will match that output again.

For those who do not feel like trawling through that many reviews, here is my personal top 5 of the most impactful, most beautiful and most thought-provoking books I read during 2019.
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Book review – How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories

8-minute read

To understand something, you need to know its history. Right?
– That sounds reasonable.
Wrong“, says author and professor of philosophy Alex Rosenberg.
Feeling especially well informed after reading a book of popular history on the best-seller list?
– Well, since you are asking…
Don’t. Narrative history is always, always wrong.
– Oh…

That is the rather provocative premise that Rosenberg pushes with How History Gets Things Wrong. Given that I review both pop-science books and books charting the history of certain academic disciplines, will this be the book that brings on a bout of existentialist doubt, and cause me to abandon reviewing books? Is this book the proverbial blog killer??

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Book review – Slime: How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us

6-minute read

In Algae We Trust. That might just as well have been the subtitle of this book. In Slime (published in the UK as Bloom, but I read the US version), author Ruth Kassinger writes of the many fundamental, often eye-opening roles that algae play in our ecosystems. But she also travels around the world to talk to farmers, scientists, and inventors. From food to plastics to fuel, entrepreneurs are discovering that these little green powerhouses hold immense biotechnological potential.

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Book review – The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching & the Cognitive Revolution

Why are we, from an evolutionary standpoint, the last man standing? This question fascinates archaeologists and anthropologists, and the dominant narrative is one of humans outcompeting other hominin lineages, driving them extinct. In the process, our evolutionary cousins, such as Neanderthals, always get the short end of the stick, being clumsier, dumber, or just generally inferior to us. In a book that is both a popular summary of his work and a critique of current thinking in archaeology, evolutionary biologist Clive Finlayson aims to redress this balance. Neanderthals, he says, were a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and one unexpected line of evidence comes from the birds that lived alongside them.

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Book review – The Selfish Ape: Human Nature and Our Path to Extinction

Having just read Barash’s Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, it seemed logical to next read The Selfish Ape by biologist Nicholas P. Money. With the dustjacket calling the human being Homo narcissus, and the book “a refreshing response to common fantasies about the ascent of humanity“, these two clearly explore the same ideas, though one look at the cover suggests a darker tone. Money mostly takes the reader on a tour of human biology to show how we are little different from our fellow creatures, spicing up his writing with bleak observations. This one, my friend, sees through the glass darkly…

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Book review – Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are

Science has brought us many advances and has deepened our understanding of the world around us, pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance. But as it has given, so it has taken. It has revealed a vast stage whose age is measured in incomprehensible epochs of Deep Time and whose dimensions stretch away into the frigid depths of an uncaring cosmos. Leaving us bereft of meaning and purpose, science has driven home how utterly insignificant we, the denizens of that Pale Blue Dot, ultimately are. Personally, I find this perspective deeply humbling and I know many scientists feel likewise, but I also realise we live in a bubble of our own.

The notion that we are unique, special, or – in the eyes of many still – God’s chosen children, persists. Luckily for us all, evolutionary biologist David P. Barash is here to take down our “species-wide narcissism” a peg or two (or three). But far from a self-congratulatory circle-jerk, Through a Glass Brightly is an erudite, life-affirming, and sometimes riotously amusing look at ourselves.

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Book review – Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Teach Us about Ourselves

Do animals experience joy, grief, or shame? Most people will be quick to attribute all sorts of emotions to pets and other animals. But many biologists remain uncomfortable with this, well, touchy-feely subject. As scientists, we are trained to be objective, cool, and detached when making observations. Anthropomorphism – the attribution of human traits to animals – has traditionally been a big no-no. But the tide is turning, and well-known Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal is here to help it along. Mama’s Last Hug is a smart, opinionated, and insightful book arguing we have long overestimated humans and underestimated animals.

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Book review – Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society

In popular discourse, the theory of evolution has become a victim of its own success, reduced to sound-bites such as “survival of the fittest”. Biologists will of course quickly point out that this is an oversimplification, though philosopher Daniel S. Milo takes things a few steps further. Good Enough is a thought-provoking critique of the dominance of adaptationist explanations. He argues that, while natural selection is important, it is not the only, possibly not even the default mechanism, in evolution. No, Milo claims, the mediocre also survive and thrive.

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Book review – Superior: The Return of Race Science

Over something as mundane as the tone of one’s skin humans have been inflicting intense grief and misery upon each other for centuries. And when biology and anthropology arose as scientific disciplines, they were brought into the fold to justify subjugation, exploitation, and slavery. With Superior: The Return of Race Science, journalist Angela Saini has written a combative and readable critique of race science that seems to be rearing its ugly head again. But in her fervour, does she take it too far to the other extreme?

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