taxonomy

Book review – The Real Planet of the Apes: A New Story of Human Origins

7-minute read

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?

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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 – Convergent Evolution on Earth: Lessons for the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

6-minute 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.

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Book review – Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures

6-minute read

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.

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Book review – The Inside Out of Flies

6-minute read

Flies do not get a lot of love. Their culinary choices, from cow-pats to corpses, do not endear them to us. Add to that that the order Diptera also hosts mosquitoes, called our deadliest predator by some authors, and you can begin to see why. Entomologist Erica McAlister, the senior curator for Diptera at the Natural History Museum, London, is on a mission to change your mind. Chances are you never have been able to admire a fly close-up.

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Book review – On the Prowl: In Search of Big Cat Origins

7-minute read

Charismatic as big cats might be, their origins and evolutionary history are still not fully understood. In a mind-bogglingly beautiful marriage of art and science, On the Prowl provides a current overview of big cat evolution that will have many a book lover purring with pleasure.

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Book review – The Invertebrate Tree of Life

6-minute read

To outsiders, phylogenetics, the study of the evolutionary relationships between organisms, must seem like quicksand: the landscape is ever-changing and what you thought was solid ground can turn into contested and unstable territory overnight. Even so, we are getting an ever-clearer picture. In no small part this is due to new methods: the rapid technological progress in DNA sequencing has now made it both feasible and affordable to sequence whole genomes (all of a cell’s DNA) instead of selected genes for many taxa. And when you can bring multiple lines of evidence – morphological, developmental, genetic, and palaeontological – to bear on the question of evolutionary relationships, the resulting family trees become better supported and more credible. That is exactly what Gonzalo Giribet and Gregory Edgecombe, both experts in invertebrate biology and palaeontology, have done here in The Invertebrate Tree of Life – a work of dizzying scope since 96% of all known species are invertebrates. They have synthesized a truly monstrous amount of research to give an overview of our current thinking on invertebrate phylogeny, writing a new benchmark reference work for students of invertebrates.

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Book review – Tracking the Highland Tiger: In Search of Scottish Wildcats

The Scottish wildcat is one of Britain’s most threatened wild mammals. Legend and lore tell of a fierce animal capable of taking down a man if cornered. Once common, only a small remnant population survives in the Highlands of Scotland and now faces the unlikely threat of genetic dilution by hybridisation. Tracking the Highland Tiger sees nature writer Marianne Taylor go in search of this mysterious cat. But it quickly becomes apparent that the book’s title can be interpreted on several levels.

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Book review – Kin: How We Came to Know Our Microbe Relatives

The problem with many history books is that they are written long after the facts, sometimes when the original protagonists are no longer alive. Historians or journalists often have no choice but to puzzle together the pieces of their story from eyewitness testimony or archival sources. Kin: How We Came to Know Our Microbe Relatives is a welcome exception to this rule. Written by emeritus microbiology professor John L. Ingraham, currently 94 years young, this book gives an intellectual history of the discipline of microbiology based on over seven decades of first-hand involvement and observation.

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Book review – Smilodon: The Iconic Sabertooth

When it comes to Ice Age fame, sabertooth cats are right up there with mammoths. And within the sabertooth cats, the best-known group is the genus Smilodon. Even if you have not heard that name, you will very likely have seen it depicted. Rather than a pop-science book, this edited collection brings together the who-is-who of sabertooth palaeontology to provide a thorough and technical overview of the current state of the field. And if I did not know any better, I would say that the research community has developed an almost unhealthy obsession with this cat’s large canine teeth.

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