philosophy

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 Science of Middle-Earth: A New Understanding of Tolkien and His World

7-minute read

I will make no secret of my love of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. Equally, I am always entertained by books looking at the science behind fictional worlds depicted in books, movies, and TV series. The Science of Middle Earth is a remarkable undertaking, with three editors bringing together contributions on a wide range of topics, from humanities such as sociology and philosophy, to natural sciences such as geomorphology, chemistry, and evolutionary biology. Tying it together are Arnaud Rafaelian’s beautiful drawings that immediately draw your attention. Both a serious appreciation of Tolkien’s world and an entertaining work of popular science, this book hit the sweet spot.

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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 – 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 – Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment

9-minute read

The best way to introduce this book is to quote the first sentence of the blurb: “Techno-Fix challenges the pervasive belief that technological innovation will save us from the dire consequences of the 300-year fossil-fuelled binge known as modern industrial civilization“. Stinging, provocative, and radical, Techno-Fix puts its fingers on many a sore spot with its searing critique.

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Book review – Metazoa: Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness

7-minute read

In 2016, the scuba-diving philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith wrote Other Minds where he explored the mind of the octopus – I reviewed it right before reading this book. Its bestseller status, including translations in more than 20 languages, was not entirely unpredictable. Octopuses are a sexy topic. Four years later, he explores animal minds further with Metazoa, with the tour now also including sponges, corals, shrimp, insects, fish, and mammals. Godfrey-Smith convinced me he is no one-trick pony when it comes to writing a good book, though this one is more cerebral than its predecessor.

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Book review – Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life

6-minute read

Peter Godfrey-Smith is popularly known as the scuba-diving philosopher and has just published his new book Metazoa, in which he plumbs the evolutionary origins of minds. In preparation for reviewing that book, I am (finally) turning my attention to his initial 2016 bestseller Other Minds. Here he beholds the octopus, only to find that, behind those eight tentacles, an intelligence quite unlike ours beholds him in turn.

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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 – Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason

6-minute read

2020. A time of Trump. Written during a period of pandemic, it is a chronicle of conspiracies embellished with the flowers of falsehoods. In other words, it is tempting to think of the current moment as one of irrationality run rampant. If you have been entertaining similar thoughts, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason provides a poignant note and a fascinating reflection. Because, when you take some distance, you might ask if it has ever been different. How many people past have wondered the same from their unique vantage point? Have we really made any progress towards enlightenment, or is our history merely the back-and-forth sloshing of the tides of reason and unreason?

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