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 – Planetary Accounting: Quantifying How to Live Within Planetary Limits at Different Scales of Human Activity

7-minute read

What I am about to write is probably going to upset many people, but… I am growing frustrated with the narrative of much of the environmental movement. Taking to the streets to protest and demand change, to “do something!”, is all fine and dandy, but it is also a bit hypocritical. It fosters a narrative in which the onus is always on others and it begs the counter-question: “what are you willing to give up?”. That is the hard question.

There, I said it. You have the option to stop reading now.

In all seriousness, if we want to avert dangerous climate change or allow forests to recover from deforestation, how much change is enough? How much are we allowed to consume? Planetary Accounting will not offer you final prescriptive answers, but it is an important first step in quantifying per capita quota for what each of us can consume and pollute without it costing the planet.

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Book review – Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care

6-minute read

Despite its purposefully provocative title, Limits is not a pro-growth book that panders to the illusion of endless economic growth. Starting with a thought-provoking re-reading of Malthus, ecological economist and political ecologist Giorgos Kallis examines how his ideas have influenced economics and have been misinterpreted by environmentalists, before ending with a call to collective self-limitation. Along the way, there is a healthy dollop of reflection and pre-emptive defence of his arguments. Though I have some points of criticism, Limits by and large concisely formulates ideas that I have found myself gravitating towards more and more lately.

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Book review – Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities

8-minute read

Growth as a process is ubiquitous. It is the hallmark of every living organism. It motivates much of what we as humans do, as often unspoken as it is outspoken. It is the narrative lens through which we examine societies and civilizations past and present. And it is the altar at which economists worship. You would think that nobody in their right mind would write a book that tries to encompass all of the above. Leave it to a deep thinker such as Vaclav Smil to prove to you otherwise.

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Book review – The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation

8-minute read

The robot apocalypse has become a well-worn trope that will elicit laughter more than concern. But there is a far more direct threat from artificial intelligence or AI: economic disruption. Technology can and has taken jobs away from humans. I first started taking this idea more seriously after watching CGP Grey’s short documentary Human Needs Not Apply. If you enjoyed that video, this book is the must-read follow-up. Economist and historian Carl Benedikt Frey provides a soundly argued and clearly written book on the history of technological revolutions and what lessons these hold for future job security.

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Book review – How to Predict Everything: The Formula Transforming What We Know About Life and the Universe

6-minute read

How do you predict something that has never happened before? That is the question heading this book. And as it so happens, there is an app formula for that. Purportedly a book about Bayes’s theorem, author William Poundstone quickly latches onto the doomsday argument and whizzes the reader through a mishmash of thought experiments and philosophical puzzles that try to answer the question how long humans will survive.

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Book review – More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources – And What Happens Next

8-minute read

More from Less makes the optimistic case that our impact on the planet is diminishing. We are past “peak stuff” and thanks to continued technological innovation our economy is dematerializing. That is to say, economic growth has become decoupled from resource consumption. Or, as the title puts it succinctly, we are getting more from less.

I was initially sceptical when I learned of this book. My outlook on the state of the world is not nearly as optimistic. So, from the blurb’s counterintuitive claim that “we’ve stumbled into an unexpected balance with nature”, to Steven Pinker’s triumphant endorsement that those who think we’re doomed by overpopulation and resource depletion are wrong – I was ready to go bananas on this book. But I would be a poor reviewer if I let my prejudices get the better of me.

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Book review – The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop

6-minute read

With the world in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the questions posed by the subtitle of this book are on everyone’s mind. Associate Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Adam Kucharski here takes the reader through the inner workings of contagion. From violence and idea to financial crises and, of course, disease – some universal rules cut right across disciplines. So, is this the most topical book of the year? Well, yes and no.

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Book review – Before the Collapse: A Guide to the Other Side of Growth

6-minute read

Collapse is a feature, not a bug. This motto is almost like a mantra to physical chemist Ugo Bardi. He is interested in complex systems and how they collapse. Whether they be human-made structures, companies, societies, or ecosystems; he follows the thinking of Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BCE–65CE) who wrote, in Bardi’s words, that “growth is slow, but the way to ruin is rapid”. This led Bardi to write The Seneca Effect in 2017, which was reviewed here previously. Now he is back with Before the Collapse, a book aimed at a wider audience that promises to help readers understand and navigate collapses in their lives.

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