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.
Given that we are nothing but mammals, it is perhaps understandable that humans are rather mammal-centric, something that conservation organisations capitalise on. But where palaeontology is concerned, dinosaurs get all the love. And that does early mammals little justice says Scottish palaeontologist and Palaeocast co-host Elsa Panciroli. Far from mere bit players cowering in the shadows of these “terrible lizards”, mammals have a long and rich evolutionary history that predates the dinosaurs but is poorly known outside of specialist circles. Panciroli’s debut changes all that and does so in a most readable and immersive fashion.
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.
In his previous book, Beyond Words, ecologist Carl Safina convinced his readers of the rich inner lives of animals. Just like we do, they have thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But the similarities do not stop there. Becoming Wild focuses on animal culture, the social knowledge that is transmitted between individuals and generations through sharing and learning. The more we look, the more animals seem less different from us – or we from them. On top of that, Safina puts forward several eye-opening and previously-overlooked implications of animal culture.
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.
The story of human evolution is constantly being refined with new findings and there is a glut of accessible books that cover this topic from various angles. Yet, with The Cradle of Humanity, geography professor Mark Maslin manages to provide an interesting and novel take on the subject, showing the reader how a happy combination of larger factors conspired to influence and steer our evolutionary trajectory. It could have ended up so differently…
Here is a strange question: does the sight of a peacock’s tail make you sick? Well, it did have this effect on Charles Darwin. The reason was perhaps more cerebral than anything else. With A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction, professor in animal behaviour Michael J. Ryan gives a superbly readable and accessible account of his and other’s studies that address how sexual beauty comes about, and why we see such a bewildering diversity of traits used in mate choice.
We biologists are a moody bunch, aren’t we? Forever lamenting the loss of biodiversity and unspoiled wild nature around us as humanity transforms the planet. The Anthropocene, the sixth extinction – I dare say you could accuse us of a certain doom-mongering. We ought to present a united front to the many threats unscrupulous groups in the outside world throw at our precious wildlife. So, beware the biologist that breaks rank and suggests a different narrative – he or she can expect a healthy amount of criticism. So it was with Chris D. Thomas’s recent book Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction (read my interview with him over at my employer’s blog The Hoopoe). And so it is with Menno Schilthuizen’s new book Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution. You leave it to us pragmatic Dutch to say out loud the things you don’t like to hear…
I have to preface this review by pointing out that I did not read this book from a fully neutral position. Gil Rosenthal, a professor in biology, ecology and evolutionary biology at Texas A&M University, does mate choice research on fish. So did I. Though he works on live-bearing swordtails and I worked on threespine sticklebacks, some of the work he discusses has been written by people I knew personally as supervisor, co-workers or colleagues. Many more publications referenced are ones I also read during the course of my PhD research. You could say that mate choice research is a field I am, errr, intimately familiar with. At least where fish are concerned. At the same time, I left academia after graduating in 2010, so this book seemed like a good opportunity to get back in touch with this research field.