Wading into current gender debates is not for the faint of heart, but that has not discouraged Dutch-born primatologist Frans de Waal from treading where others might not wish to go. In Different, he draws on his decades-long experience observing our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, to see what we can learn from them about us. As much as many people would like it to be otherwise, our ape heritage influences us strongly, also where sex and gender are concerned. Unbeholden to ideology, this nuanced book is a breath of fresh air that is sure to simultaneously delight and upset people on both sides of various gender-related discussions.
Every one of us is here through a long string of happy accidents that might just as well not have happened. That is the contention behind A Series of Fortunate Events, a short and snappy book by evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll. Examining planetary events, evolution, and our personal lives and deaths—and introducing one remarkable French biologist—it read like an appetizer that left me wanting to explore this topic further.
Our planet has been many different worlds over its 4.5-billion-year history. Imagining what they were like is hard—with our limited lifespan, deep time eludes us by its very nature. Otherlands, the debut of Scottish palaeontologist Thomas Halliday, presents you with a series of past worlds. Though this is a non-fiction book thoroughly grounded in fact, it is the quality of the narrative that stands out. Beyond imaginative metaphors to describe extinct lifeforms, some of his reflections on deep time, taxonomy, and evolution are simply spine-tingling.
Scottish geologist Charles Lyell quipped that the present is the key to the past. To say that the reverse also holds is more than just circular reasoning. Felisa Smith, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, studies extinct mammals and applies this knowledge to the present. This book is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge, while its case studies make for fascinating reading. (Spoiler alert: packrat middens are my new favourite discovery.)
In Being a Human, Charles Foster attempts to inhabit three past eras to find out first-hand how humans came to be who they are. He lives like an Upper Palaeolithic hunter–gatherer, an early farmer in the Neolithic, and he briefly visits the Enlightenment—or so we are promised. When I received this book, I was, admittedly, slightly unsure. Any attempt to live like past humans, especially hunter–gatherers, is fraught with difficulties as so many things have irrevocably changed: the flora and fauna, the landscape, the knowledge most of us have gained (you cannot really unsee germ theory) but also lost (who here can kill and prepare an animal or make a fire without modern tools?), or the fact that we lived in large communal groups. When the flap text also mentions shamanic journeys I was fearing the worst: am I about to witness yet another affluent man’s mid-life crisis?
Animals are frequently celebrated for their exceptional senses, being able to hear, see, or smell things that we cannot. In Sentient, zoologist and television documentary director Jackie Higgins shows that some of this research has taught us more about how humans perceive the world, while other research reveals that we are less of a pushover in the sensory department than we previously thought. And do we really have only five senses? We need to talk about Aristotle.
Throughout human history, wood has been our constant, if somewhat overlooked companion. With The Wood Age, professor of biological sciences Roland Ennos delivers an eye-opening piece of environmental history. Reaching beyond the boundaries of this discipline, it gives the reader a comprehensive picture of how we have shaped wood and how, in turn, wood has shaped us.
Deep time is one of the most mind-boggling yet underappreciated concepts to come out of the disciplines of evolutionary biology and the earth sciences. As an editor with Nature for over three decades, Henry Gee has had a front-row seat to numerous exciting scientific developments that have enriched our understanding of Earth’s vast 4.6-billion-year history. This high-octane popular science book is his take on the genre of the “earth biography”.
Are we alone in the universe? For the moment, this question remains unanswered, though there are many ways to tackle it. Just how many was something I did not appreciate until I sunk my teeth into Harvard University Press’s new flagship astronomy title Life in the Cosmos. Written by astrobiologist Manasvi Lingam and theoretical physicist Abraham “Avi” Loeb, this is a book of truly colossal proportions, clocking in at over 1000 pages. It boldly goes where few academic books have gone before by seriously and open-mindedly considering the possibility of extraterrestrial technological intelligence on par with, or far beyond humans. I found myself gravitating towards this book on account of more than just its size.
Books can be like buses: nothing is written on a topic for ages and then two books appear in quick succession. The subtitle of Life as We Made It resembles that of the recently-reviewed Life Changing. Both books indeed cover the same topic: how humans have shaped the genetics and evolution of plants and animals around them. Despite some inevitable overlap, Beth Shapiro draws on two decades of her career as a geneticist to make Life as We Made It a beast all of its own. I found myself both thoroughly enjoying her fantastic science communication while disagreeing with her outlook.