mass extinctions

Book review – Dinopedia: A Brief Compendium of Dinosaur Lore

6-minute read

In 2019, Princeton University Press published Fungipedia, being a brief compendium of mushroom lore. The format was clearly successful, because in 2021 they expanded the concept into a small series, adding books about flowers, birds, trees, and now dinosaurs. A further two on geology and insects are in the making. Each of these is illustrated, pocket-sized A-Z miscellanies with a hardback, cloth cover that is very giftable. In Dinopedia, palaeontologist Darren Naish has written 75 entries on dinosaurs and relevant people and places, and added a selection of his illustrations. Is October too early to start talking about stocking fillers?

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Book review – Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape

7-minute read

When humans abandon a place, nature comes rushing back in. Dotted around our planet are numerous areas now devoid of human habitation: ghost towns, conflict zones, pollution hotspots, and areas wrecked by natural forces. Author and journalist Cal Flyn explores thirteen such locations and here reports their sights, sounds, and smells. Surprisingly rich in ecological and biological detail, Islands of Abandonment is a poetic and spellbinding travelogue. A dark howl of decay and human hubris, shot through with the inevitable rebirth of nature, this book haunted me long after I finished it.

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Book review – Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse

8-minute read

I remember, some years ago, the news headlines of an impending insect mass extinction. But I similarly remember pushback against the term “insect apocalypse”. When the publisher Jonathan Cape announced that well-known entomologist Dave Goulson was working on Silent Earth, my interest was naturally piqued. So, how bad is it, really?

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Book review – Life Changing: How Humans Are Altering Life on Earth

7-minute read

Ever since humans appeared on the scene, we have been altering life on Earth. Where once our actions could be considered part of nature’s fabric, our influence has become outsized and our options to exercise it have multiplied. Though the subtitle of Life Changing does not make it explicit, science writer Helen Pilcher focuses on our impact on the genetics and evolution of life around us. A book that stands out for its balanced tone, it managed to surprise me more than once, despite my familiarity with the topics considered.

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Book review – Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Extraordinary Fossils

7-minute read

Fossils can tell us what animals living in the distant past looked like. Over the centuries, palaeontologists have made incredible strides in reconstructing extinct life forms, helped along by cumulative experience, technological advances, and a steadily increasing body of rare but truly exceptionally preserved fossils. But reconstructing their behaviour – surely that is all just speculative? In Locked in Time, palaeontologist and science communicator Dean R. Lomax, with the able help of palaeoartist Bob Nicholls, presents fifty of the most exceptional fossils that preserve evidence of past behaviour: from pregnant plesiosaurs to a pterosaur pierced by a predatory fish. I was eagerly awaiting this book from the moment it was announced, but I was still caught off-guard by some of the astonishing fossil discoveries featured here.

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Book review – Catastrophic Thinking: Extinction and the Value of Diversity from Darwin to the Anthropocene

7-minute read

The idea that extinction is a bad thing and diversity a good thing seems self-evident to us. But, by surveying more than two centuries of scholarship, science historian David Sepkoski shows that this was not always the prevailing belief. Rather than a book discussing mass extinction, Catastrophic Thinking is more meta than that, discussing how we have been discussing mass extinction. So, we have an interesting premise, but also an interesting author because – bonus detail – the work of his father, J. John (Jack) Sepkoski Jr., was instrumental in recognizing the Big Five mass extinctions. I could not wait to get to grips with this book.

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Book review – Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity

6-minute read

What is the price of humanity’s progress? The cover of this book, featuring a dusty landscape of tree stumps, leaves little to the imagination. In the eyes of French journalist and historian Laurent Testot it has been nothing short of cataclysmic. Originally published in French in 2017, The University of Chicago Press published the English translation at the tail-end of 2020.

Early on, Testot makes clear that environmental history as a discipline can take several forms: studying both the impact of humans on the environment, and of the environment on human affairs, as well as putting nature in a historical context. Testot does all of this in this ambitious book as he charts the exploits of Monkey – his metaphor for humanity – through seven revolutions and three million years.

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Book review – Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind

6-minute read

This is the final of three reviews of MIT Press books in The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology dealing with convergent evolution, something I consider to be one of evolutionary biology’s most exciting topics. Are evolutionary changes happy accidents, i.e. contingencies? Or is there a law-like repeatability underneath, explaining why some traits evolve time and again, i.e. convergence? Is it even a matter of either-or? And what lessons does this hold for life elsewhere in the universe? Philosopher Russell Powell wrestles with these questions in a manner that is as rigorous as it is intellectually rewarding. Evolutionary biologists will want to give this excellent book a very close read.

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Book review – Convergent Evolution on Earth: Lessons for the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

6-minute read

Planet Earth might just as well be called Planet Water. Not only is our planet mostly ocean, life also started out here. Following his 2011 book Convergent Evolution, palaeobiologist George R. McGhee returns to MIT Press and The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology to expand his examination to oceanic lifeforms, with the tantalising promise of applying the insights gained to astrobiology. I was particularly stoked for this second of a three-part dive into what I consider one of evolutionary biology’s most exciting topics.

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