plants

Book review – From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds: Six Myths of Evolution

8-minute read

If you have read up on palaeontology, you will likely have encountered the name of Cambridge palaeobiologist Simon Conway Morris. Known initially for his work on the invertebrates of the Burgess Shale, he has since also written on both astrobiology and convergent evolution, which he explored in The Runes of Evolution, his first book with Templeton Press. Always ready for some good-spirited provocation and mischief, he here dissects six supposed myths of evolution, providing a thought-provoking mix of ideas. I found as much to agree as to disagree with.

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Book review – Sex in City Plants, Animals, Fungi, and More: A Guide to Reproductive Diversity

6-minute read

Where evolution is concerned, the city is a cauldron exerting its own unique mix of selection pressures on the organisms living here. The metronome beating at the heart of this process is sex. For this book, retired physician Kenneth D. Frank has explored his hometown of Philadelphia in the Eastern US state of Pennsylvania and documented the astonishing variety of sex lives playing out right under our noses. Many of these organisms can be found in cities around the world. Remarkably well-researched and richly illustrated with photos, this collection of 106 one-page vignettes shows what amateur naturalists can contribute both in terms of observations and in terms of highlighting the many basic questions that are still unanswered.

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Book review – The Earth: A Biography of Life

6-minute read

I have previously jokingly called the “Earth biography” a rite of passage for science writers; many authors try their hand at it at some point. Fortunately, the Earth is big and time is deep, so there are numerous ways to tell this story. Here, it is palaeontologist Elsa Panciroli’s turn. Next to many unusual examples by which to tell the story of life’s evolution, her writing stands out for correcting common misconceptions and for its inspired language.

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Book review – The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World

7-minute read

The day an asteroid slammed into the Yucatán Peninsula some 66 million years ago is a strong contender for “the worst day in history”. The K–Pg extinction ended the long evolutionary success story of the dinosaurs and a host of other creatures, and has lodged itself firmly in our collective imagination. But what happened next? The fact that a primate is tapping away at a keyboard writing this review gives you part of the answer. The rise of mammals was not a given, though, and the details have been hard to get by. Here, science writer Riley Black examines and imagines the aftermath of the extinction at various times post-impact. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs ends up being a fine piece of narrative non-fiction with thoughtful observations on the role of evolution in ecosystem recovery.

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Book review – Tropical Arctic: Lost Plants, Future Climates, and the Discovery of Ancient Greenland

7-minute read

Greenland’s name might be considered one of history’s great ironies, apparently part of a cunning plan to attract Viking settlers. The locals simply called it Kalaallit Nunaat or “land of the Kalaallit”, after their people. However, once upon a time, Greenland was green. Tropical Arctic is the fruit of an 18-year collaboration between two palaeobotanists and an artist to bring to life the plant fossils found in East Greenland. In three paintings, it provides a glimpse of Greenland during a 10-million-year window at the Triassic–Jurassic boundary, some 200 million years ago. Much more than a coffee table book, it details the research that goes into producing scientifically accurate artwork, making it a rare treat for readers interested in botany and palaeontology.

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Book review – The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present

7-minute read

Before reading this book, I admit that my knowledge of Madagascar was shamefully rudimentary: I knew its location on the world map, the name of its capital city, and that lemurs are part of its endemic fauna. Fortunately for me, anthropologist Alison Richard, backed by her five decades of research experience, has written a natural history book in the broadest sense of the word, encompassing geology, (palaeo)climatology, botany, zoology, conservation, and much else besides. She skillfully dismantles simplistic dichotomies and is particularly passionate about challenging the dominant conservation narrative that Madagascar was a forested paradise until humans arrived. The Sloth Lemur’s Song is revelatory in more than one way and I came away with a much deeper understanding of this remarkable island.

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Book review – Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us

7-minute read

We often think of tropical forests as pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands. In Jungle, archaeologist Patrick Roberts shows otherwise. A wealth of research reveals a long and entwined history that saw cities and agriculture flourish in this habitat, while later brutal colonial exploitation underlies many of today’s inequalities and environmental problems. Though revisionist and confrontational in tone, Jungle is a breath of fresh air by not falling for simple narratives. Instead, it retains a welcome dose of nuance and willingness to acknowledge complexity.

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Book review – Otherlands: A World in the Making

7-minute read

Our planet has been many different worlds over its 4.5-billion-year history. Imagining what they were like is hard—with our limited lifespan, deep time eludes us by its very nature. Otherlands, the debut of Scottish palaeontologist Thomas Halliday, presents you with a series of past worlds. Though this is a non-fiction book thoroughly grounded in fact, it is the quality of the narrative that stands out. Beyond imaginative metaphors to describe extinct lifeforms, some of his reflections on deep time, taxonomy, and evolution are simply spine-tingling.

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Book review – Notes from Deep Time: A Journey Through Our Past and Future Worlds

6-minute read

Deep time is, to me, one of the most awe-inspiring concepts to come out of the earth sciences. Getting to grips with the incomprehensibly vast stretches of time over which geological processes play out is not easy. We are, in the words of geologist Marcia Bjornerud, naturally chronophobic. In Notes from Deep Time, author Helen Gordon presents a diverse and fascinating collection of essay-length chapters that give 16 different answers to the question: “What do we talk about when we talk about deep time?” This is one of those books whose title is very appropriate.

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