natural selection

Book review – Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive

7-minute read

The word biology derives from the Greek words bíos (βίος in Greek), meaning “life”, and -logía (-λογία in Greek), meaning “branch of study”, and is usually defined as “the study of life”. But what is life? Remarkably, biologists cannot agree on a definition. Everyone can name clear examples of living and non-living things. However, as so often in biology, there is no sharp demarcation between the two. There is a grey area where things are, well, somewhat alive? Lifelike? It is these borderlands between life and non-life that famous science writer and journalist Carl Zimmer explores in Life’s Edge. Instead of providing an answer, this intellectually stimulating and rewarding book will help you understand why it is such a hard question to begin with.

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Book review – The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer

7 -minute read

Fifty years ago, US President Richard Nixon declared a “war on cancer” when he signed the National Cancer Act. Despite fantastic progress on some fronts, overall it is clear that we are not winning this battle. Cancer remains one of the leading causes of human mortality. But what if the tired war-metaphor is getting it all wrong? Brimming with thought-provoking questions, The Cheating Cell looks at cancer through an evolutionary lens and forces the reader to radically reconsider cancer; not as a bug, but as a feature of life.

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Book review – On the Origin of Evolution: Tracing ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ from Aristotle to DNA

8-minute read

History will forever associate Charles Darwin with the theory of evolution, but the idea was in the air. Had not Darwin published his famous book, someone else would have likely snatched the prize. Husband-and-wife duo John and Mary Gribbin here examine the wider milieu in which Darwin operated and the many thinkers who preceded him. Given their previous collaborations, the first two parts of On the Origin of Evolution read like a well-oiled machine, but the book falters when they turn their eyes to the legacy of Darwin’s ideas.

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Book review – The Story of Evolution in 25 Discoveries: The Evidence and the People Who Found It

6-minute read

After three previous books in this format on fossils, rocks, and dinosaurs, geologist and palaeontologist Donald R. Prothero here tackles the story of evolution in 25 notable discoveries. More so than the previous trio, this book tries to be a servant to two masters, resulting in a mixed bag.

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Book review – The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens – and Ourselves

6-minute read

Can we predict what aliens will look like? On some level, no, which has given science fiction writers the liberty to let their imagination run wild. On another level, yes, writes zoologist Arik Kershenbaum. But we need to stop focusing on form and start focusing on function. There are universal laws of biology that help us understand why life is the way it is, and they are the subject of this book. If you are concerned that consideration of life’s most fundamental properties will make for a dense read, don’t panic, The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy is a spine-tingling dive into astrobiology that I could not put down.

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Book review – Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils

6-minute read

Say “dinosaurs”, and most people imagine fossilised bones and spectacular museum displays. But body fossils are not the only remains we have with which to reconstruct dinosaur lives. Nor, and this might sound controversial, are they the most important. Or so argues palaeontologist, geologist, and ichnologist Anthony J. Martin. Ichnology is the study of animal traces, whether modern or fossilised. Most traces are ephemeral and disappear within hours or days, but occasionally some are buried and end up in the fossil record. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, and with more puns than you can shake a T. rex thigh bone at, Martin forays into the rich dinosaur trace fossil record: from footprints, burrows, and nests, to teeth marks and fossil faeces. For all the jokes, and despite having been published in 2014, he raises some really interesting points.

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Book review – A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane

7-minute read

Students of genetics and evolution might be familiar with the name of J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964), particularly for his contributions to population genetics. What I did not realise before reading A Dominant Character was that he had many more strings to his bow and was a larger-than-life character. In a fascinating biography that never seeks to downplay his complicated character, journalist Samanth Subramanian effortlessly switches back and forth between Haldane’s personal life and his many scientific contributions.

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Book review – New World Monkeys: The Evolutionary Odyssey

6-minute read

When I recently reviewed The Real Planet of the Apes, I casually wrote how that book dealt with the evolution of Old Work monkeys and apes, ignoring New World monkeys which went off on their own evolutionary experiment in South America. But that did leave me wondering. Those New World monkeys, what did they get up to then? Here, primatologist Alfred L. Rosenberger provides a comprehensive and incredibly accessible book that showed these monkeys to be far more fascinating than I imagined.

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Book review – Viruses, Pandemics, and Immunity

6-minute read

Last year August, science writer Ed Yong put it very nicely: “you see, the immune system is very complicated”. Yet, understanding it is important to understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic might evolve, why we are faced with certain public health measures, and how we can hope to combat the pandemic with tests and vaccines. In this brief book, physics and chemistry professor Arup K. Chakraborty and immunologist Andrey S. Shaw offer a general introduction to how our immune system reacts to viruses, and how our medical inventions help out.

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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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