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.
Convergent evolution was the subject of the first book I reviewed on this blog and is a topic I keep returning to. MIT Press recently published two further books on it, Convergent Evolution on Earth in 2019 and Contingency and Convergence in 2020. I felt the time was ripe to finally read their 2011 book Convergent Evolution that I bought some years ago. All three of these are part of The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology, a series I hold in high regard. This, then, is the first of a three-part dive into what I consider one of evolutionary biology’s most exciting topics.
One objection sometimes raised against the search for extraterrestrial life is that our planet is rich with bizarre life forms that we still poorly understand. As a biologist, you are usually so close to the subject that you sometimes forget just how otherwordly our home planet can be. With his beautifully written book Entangled Life, biologist Merlin Sheldrake shook me out of that daze by offering a truly mind-opening book on fungi. Excitingly, he does so without floating off into speculative or esoteric territory.
I will come right out and say this: if the subtitle turned you off, give this book a chance. Yes, this is a sceptical take on the subject, but without the typical mockery and ridicule. Natural sees religious scholar Alan Levinovitz critically but thoughtfully examine the appeal to nature fallacy*: the idea that just because something is natural it is good. For a biologist, the “natural goodness” myth is particularly grating as it requires some exceptional cherry-picking to come to this conclusion. As far as logical fallacies go, this is a big personal bug-bear. Why is it so compelling?
When it comes to modern palaeoartists, Mark Witton has become a leading light in my opinion. Next to bringing a background as a professional palaeontologist to his artwork, he also wrote The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, which is a unique resource for this field as far as I can tell. Who could be better suited to produce a homage and sequel to one of the most iconic palaeoart books of all times: Knight’s Life through the Ages?
Extremes fascinate us: the biggest, the fastest, the oldest, the tallest. Books and TV-programmes regularly scratch our itch for records, whether it is feats of engineering or biological extremes, and many sporting events revolve around humans attempting to set new records. One glance at the cover of Matthew D. LaPlante’s book Superlative and you might think that this is yet another book offering lots of gee-whiz factoids. You would also be wrong. Instead, this is an amusing and fascinating book that digs just that much deeper into the biology behind extremes, and why studying them is so worthwhile.
The honey bee has a very positive reputation: a clever, industrious insect that organises itself in remarkably collaborative societies. But bee researchers Robin Moritz and Robin Crewe want to balance this picture. Yes, bee colonies are a marvel, but once you stop focusing on the level of the colony, all sorts of imperfections become apparent: cheating, robberies, regicide, euthanasia, evolutionary maladaptations, illogical reproductive strategies, etc. Welcome to the dark side of the hive.
For all my reading of scientific books, I have a little secret (though judging by the number of books, it is actually not all that little): I am a huge fan of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and of books exploring his world in further detail. Despite Tolkien’s world being fictional, he populated it mostly with real plants. Retired plant systematist Walter Judd, also a huge fan, took it upon himself to write a flora with detailed species accounts of all the plants Tolkien mentions, with artist Graham Judd providing illustrations. The resulting Flora of Middle-Earth is a tastefully illustrated and botanically sound book, but who on (Middle) Earth will read this?
Sea otters don’t eat algae. And yet, their diet influences the abundance of seaweed. How? Indirectly. Sea otters eating sea urchins (spiky animals in the same class as sea stars) eating kelp has become a textbook example of a trophic cascade, and Serendipity is a first-hand account by ecologist James A. Estes of how this happened. A trophic cascade refers to the indirect effects that ripple through a food web as a result of, for example, a predator consuming its prey. Simultaneously, the book is a searingly open account of how science is done, how ideas change, and how fortuitous events can suddenly send your research programme off in a whole new direction.
Since being released on the world in 2012, the biotechnological tool CRISPR has been making headlines. Biologists used to rely on the relatively blunt tools of genetic modification, but this new tool is so precise and versatile that they now speak of gene editing instead. For people in a hurry, Nessa Carey here provides a primer on the powers and pitfalls of gene editing. Hacking the Code of Life is accessible to readers without much background in genetics, focusing more on the applications and the questions it raises than the nitty-gritty details of the tool itself.