mutations

Book review – Understanding Coronavirus

7-minute read

With the COVID-19 pandemic shaping up to be one of the most influential public health crises in living memory, it was only a matter of time before books would be written about it. One of the first to make it to press is Understanding Coronavirus by systems biologist and bioinformatician Raul Rabadan. Amidst the swirl of dubious and outright false information that is circulating, there is desperate need for a book that clears up misconceptions and gives a concise introduction to what we know about the virus so far. Given that he spearheaded research in 2009 that confirmed the animal origin of swine flu, Rabadan seems like the right man for the job. Is this the primer that everybody should have on their bedside table?

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Book review – Universe in Creation: A New Understanding of the Big Bang and the Emergence of Life

7-minute read

Did life arise merely by accident? Many scientists feel uncomfortable with talk of goal-directedness and greater plans, as it reeks more of religion and theology than rational explanation. And with creationists lurking, the risk of “smuggling God in through the back door” under scientific pretences (as Richard Dawkins put it) is something to be wary of. Without descending into this territory, Universe in Creation might skirt dangerously close to it for some. In turns lyrical, unsettling, and, yes, speculative, this book argues that life may be written into the most basic laws of nature.

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Book review – Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA

7-minute read

The history of life is punctuated by major transitions and inventions: fish that moved onto land, reptiles that turned into birds. But how did these happen? In Some Assembly Required, Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy Neil Shubin provides an up-to-date and utterly engrossing account of the latest thinking on the great transformations in evolution. And he has one clue for you: nothing ever begins when you think it does…

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Book review – Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

7-minute read

Some books, it seems, sit on your shelf just waiting for the right moment. David Quammen’s Spillover may have been published back in 2012, but it eerily foreshadows the 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic that currently keeps the world in its grip, and provides many insights. Right now, most people are of course concerned with the direct impact on public health and their jobs. While we try to slow down the spread of this disease, the global economy is taking a nosedive as country after country goes into lockdown. Once we come out on the other side though, there will be deeper questions to be asked. Could this happen again? How do we prevent that? And what the actual fuck just happened? Let Quammen be your guide, for, as he will show, everything comes from somewhere…

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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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Book review – Rates of Evolution: A Quantitative Synthesis

The question of the tempo of evolution cuts right to the heart of evolutionary theory. Emeritus professor in evolutionary biology (and a list of other disciplines) Philip D. Gingerich here takes an empirical stab at quantifying how fast evolution happens, something which has not been done very often. The resulting Rates of Evolution is a technical monograph for an academic audience that contains thought-provoking ideas.

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Book review – Unravelling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA

Most people will at least be mildly familiar with the story of how the structure of DNA was discovered. Francis Crick and James D. Watson are household names in this story as they went on to win a Nobel Prize. But can you name the third person to share it with them? Most people will also have heard of Rosalind Franklin, but as Gareth Williams shows, so many other people were relevant to this story. Watson and Crick only put the finishing cherry on the cake. Unravelling the Double Helix covers the preceding 85 years of breakthroughs, blind alleys, near-misses, and “beautifully executed bellyflops” by some of the greatest scientists of their time.

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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 – Biology’s First Law: The Tendency for Diversity & Complexity to Increase in Evolutionary Systems

The subtitle of this book points to an observation that most biologists will anecdotally agree with. Looking at the long sweep of evolutionary history, there is indeed a clear overall tendency for life forms to become more diverse and complex. Daniel W. McShea and Robert N. Brandon, the one a biologist with a secondary appointment in philosophy, the other a philosopher with a secondary appointment in biology, here declare it the Zero-Force Evolutionary Law or ZFEL. But is this a law of nature? And does it really differ from stochastic processes or even entropy?

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Book review – Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity

Back in 2014, evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner blew my mind. His book Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle gave fascinating answers to the question of where evolutionary innovations come from. I will say more about it below, but in short, there are many ways to solve a problem. But, as Life Finds a Way shows, not all solutions are equally good. To evolve from a suboptimal solution to a superior one usually involves several steps through intermediary solutions that are even worse, something that natural selection acts against. So how does evolution overcome such obstacles? And what does the answer have to do with human creativity? Can we apply these ideas further afield in education or economics? And is this book going to be as good as his last one? So many questions…

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