Two things, or so the joke goes, are sure in life: death and taxes. Entropy, that existential bummer*, is another candidate for that list. Why Fish Don’t Exist sees science reporter Lulu Miller grapple with the question of how to find meaning in a world where “there is no escaping the Second Law of Thermodynamics” (p. 3), to quote her biochemist father. She does so by examining the life of fish taxonomist David Starr Jordan who saw his life’s work destroyed – twice – and responded by rebuilding it bigger and better. But is Jordan a suitable role model? In vivid prose that jumps off the page, Miller attempts to come to terms with his complex character, tracing the heights to which confidence can lift you, but also the depths to which it can plunge you.
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 the field of palaeoanthropology, one name keeps turning up: the Leakey dynasty. Since Louis Leakey’s first excavations in 1926, three generations of this family have been involved in anthropological research in East Africa. In this captivating memoir, Meave, a second-generation Leakey, reflects on a lifetime of fieldwork and research and provides an inspirational blueprint for what women can achieve in science.
When thinking of human ancestors, the name “Lucy” will likely come to mind. But a dedicated team of scientists spent decades labouring on the discovery of a species more than a million years older still, at 4.4 million years of age. Nicknamed “Ardi” and classified as Ardipithecus ramidus, it was finally revealed to the world in 2009. For a full decade, journalist Kermit Pattison immersed himself in the story of Ardi’s discovery to bring to life both the science and the scientists. The resulting Fossil Men is an incredibly well-researched book that tells the definitive insider’s story of how one of the most divisive fossils in palaeoanthropology was discovered by one of its most divisive characters: Tim White.
Most people might not quite realise this, but our picture of dinosaurs and other prehistoric life is largely based on a small number of very-well researched fossil localities. The Morrison Formation in the American Southwest is one example, offering a window on life during the end of the Jurassic, between 157 and 150 million years ago. First published in 2007, the second edition of Jurassic West updates you on the latest findings and the many taxonomical advances and stands out for just how readable and comprehensive it is.
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.
The history of human evolution has become firmly wedded to the Out of Africa hypothesis: the idea that we evolved in Africa and from there spread around the world. Back in 2015, palaeoanthropologist David R. Begun gave the proverbial tree of life a firm shake with The Real Planet of the Apes, making the case that the picture is a bit more complicated than that. Providing an incredibly well-written overview of the deep evolutionary history of great apes and humans, an interesting picture emerges of species moving into and out of Africa over time. Some reviewers hailed it as provocative – but is it really?
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.
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.
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.