Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, Jonathan B. Losos

Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan B. Losos

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Nonfiction: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan B. Losos

 

Improbable Destinies is a delightful book. It is hard science with a very personal and human touch. Jonathan Losos is an expert in the field: professor of biology, director of the Losos Laboratory, and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (all three positions with Harvard University). His scientific credentials are apparent throughout the book. It is thoroughly researched and referenced, with 10 pages of notes at the end (prefaced with the comment that they are “not exhaustive.”). What is also apparent throughout Improbable Destinies is his love and passion for both the subject and for the people who are involved in evolution research.

 

 

In 1989, Stephen Jay Gould wrote an amazing book about evolution. Wonderful Life explored the findings at the Burgess Shale fossil depository. Marvelous creatures abound there, creatures unlike anything we see today. Relics of an explosion of life millennia ago, they tell the story of creatures that inhabited the earth long before the dinosaurs–creatures that for some mysterious reason disappeared in a mass extinction. Gould uses the creatures of the Burgess Shale to make the point that evolution is random. Drawing his metaphor from the iconic Frank Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Gould posits that changing one thing in evolution–removing one “George Bailey” life form or one DNA change or one climate event–from the timeline would result in an entirely different evolutionary outcome.

 

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Gould suggested that testing this hypothesis was essentially impossible. It would require rewinding the clock and allowing millions of years of evolution to unfold again and again to see what the outcome was. But Gould’s conclusions have been challenged in recent years, most notably by Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University (Gould actually is quite effusive in praise of Morris in Wonderful Life, but their professional differences are significant). Morris believes that natural selection has much more predictable outcomes: The Runes of Evolution and The Crucible of Creation. Evolutionary adaptations are responses to natural stimuli, and given the same stimuli we often see very similar life forms evolve. Nose horns work well for rhinos and presumably did so for triceratops. Wings lift bats and birds just as they did pterosaurs. Sharks and whales and tuna all power through seas once patrolled by ichthyosaurs. The outcomes may not be identical, but convergent evolution is clearly powerful.

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Historically, from Darwin forward, evolution has been thought to require millennia to observe. This was still true in 1989 when Gould wrote Wonderful Life. However, we are finding that sometimes evolution can be seen in a matter of just a few generations. And in short-lived animals, that may mean a period of just a few years. What happens in a few generations of ground-based lizards if they are stranded on an island full of bushes? Or tree lizards on an island without trees? These are questions that can be answered, at least partially, within the span of a single research grant

 

Enter Improbable Destinies. Losos is a fan of both Gould and Morris, and his book acknowledges the profound contributions both men have made. He introduces us to new heroes in the field of evolutionary research. His book takes us to research sites in England and the Bahamas and Trinidad and exotic East Lansing. He looks at field studies of plants and lizards and fish and at laboratory experiments with yeast and e coli. Some of these experiments have lasted for decades. In some cases, scientists have even “rewound the clock,” reviving bacteria literally frozen years before in order to see whether the same adaptation occurs in their descendants as was observed in descendants of bacteria from the same source that was not frozen.

 

Not to give the plot away, but the results are….complex. Science is. And the conclusions Losos draws are essentially that both Gould and Morris are right, and both Gould and Morris are wrong. Convergent evolution is an observable phenomenon. Unique species of anole lizards live on different Caribbean islands, but on each island there are species that share many similar characteristics filling different ecological niches. Cuban anoles that live in trees are different species from Puerto Rican anoles that live in trees, even though they look very similar. Their ecological niche has favored selection of babies that are well adapted to living in trees. Those adaptations make for similarly sized and shaped lizards from island to island, but they are still different species. Equally observable is the one-off life form: there are no real equivalents to platypus or kiwi or any number of other unique animals…including humans. Hairless, bipedal, tool-using apes with large brains may now live all over the earth, but amid the catalog of species they are unique in their adaptations to their environment.

 

Improbable Destinies is a fascinating book. Part history, part mystery, all science and all amazing. It is written for an adult audience, though scientifically minded tweens and teens would love it as well. And if, like me, you read and loved Gould’s Wonderful Life, this is a fantastic book to bring you up to date on the current state of evolutionary science. I enthusiastically recommend it.

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Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan B. Losos

Quote: Nora Ephron, Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape…

Quote: Nora Ephron, Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape…

“Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it's a way of making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real.” ― Nora Ephron
Nora Ephron

 

“Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real.”
― Nora Ephron

 

Quote: Nora Ephron, Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape…

Book Review: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

Book Review: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

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Nonfiction: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You ThinkHans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

 

I once thought I was smarter than a chimpanzee. I am, after all, human. I can read a book. I can work with a computer. I can type a review of a book I read on a computer. Those are all things a chimpanzee cannot do.

 

Then I read Factfulness by Hans Rosling, et al, and I am no longer so certain of my superiority to chimpanzees. In fact, the book unfavorably compares my answers to its opening chapter quiz to the answers given by chimpanzees picking at random. And the reality is that I did not know as much about the world as I thought I did.

 

Perhaps you don’t either. The quiz asks thirteen multiple-choice questions about the world. The correct answers come directly from UN statistics on disease, wealth and poverty, education, birthrates, life expectancy, and other information that most of us would deem important. Questions include: “In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?” [a) 20%, b) 40%, c) 60%] and “How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?” [a) 20%, b) 50%, c) 80%], and “How many people in the world have some access to electricity? [a) 20%, b) 50%, c) 80%]. If you picked answers at random, the way a chimpanzee might do, you would expect to average 1 out of 3 correct answers. Most of us do much worse. By the way, in each of those questions, the correct answer is the largest number. Sixty percent of girls worldwide finish primary school (additionally, the average number of school years completed by 30-year-old women is 9, only one behind the 10 years completed by 30-year-old men on average). Eighty percent of the world’s babies have had at least one vaccination. And eighty percent of the world has access to at least some electricity.

 

This book is full of positive information. Although population is increasing worldwide, birthrates are down. The reason population is increasing is that fewer people are dying in childhood. Incomes around the world are increasing, and they are increasing the fastest in some of the areas we might least expect. Deaths from natural disasters and infectious diseases and wars are also at historic lows.

 

This is not to say that everything is great or that there are no challenges. Rosling uses the analogy of an infant in an incubator. A premature infant may be put in an incubator and after a week go from 2 to 3 pounds in weight. That does not mean we should remove the baby from the incubator. Things are not yet good. But they are improving. They are on a positive track. We have reasons to be hopeful.

 

Rosling uses examples from his long career in public health and his own life growing up in Sweden to make his points. As a child, he fell into an open sewage ditch and almost drowned. In Sweden. It was a time when modern sanitation facilities were uncommon and there were no laws requiring open ditches be fenced off to prevent toddlers from wandering into them. Those days are long gone in Sweden–but not so long gone that he could not remember them. He equated the Sweden of his childhood to Egypt of today. His grandparents were born into a Sweden that had more similarities to present-day Lesotho, Africa, (one of the poorest countries in the world) than it does to the current modern wealthy country in Europe. Other countries around the world have made an even faster transition from poverty to wealth: Malaysia and Singapore and South Korea among them.

 

In fact, most people in the world live in “middle income” countries. That is not to say they are “middle class” in the American or European sense, but neither are they crushed by the total poverty that may have been their lot a generation ago. They have enough money for regular meals. They have access to enough electricity to cook their food. They can afford decent shoes. Their children don’t have to work and are instead in school, offering hope for a still better future. They may even be able to take their families to the occasional movie, or afford a small television. They have indoor plumbing. These basics may not be the stuff of dreams for Americans, but they are life-changing for many around the world, and they are now commonplace where just a few decades ago they were unattainable.

 

So why are we so ignorant about the world? Rosling posits several reasons. One is simply that we haven’t been told. Educators often work from outdated textbooks which still show data from years ago. Journalists cover “news,” and small, incremental, steady improvements don’t qualify as newsworthy. A plane crash is news–it is dramatic, it is unusual, and it catches our attention. But the takeaway should be that it is rare. 2016 was the safest year for air travel in history. There were only 10 commercial airline crashes worldwide, despite there being more flights than ever before. That is good news, but the safe arrival of a plane is not going to get much attention from headline writers.

 

More challenging is overcoming our own biases. If you were to ask most people from wealthy countries, they would reflexively say that highly religious people have more children than more secular people. That is not entirely wrong, but it is hardly cut and dried. Iran, home of the Ayatollah and ruled by theocracy, has a lower birthrate than the United States. A much greater predictor of birthrate than religion is income. Extremely poor people tend to have more babies for two reasons: 1) the need for child labor, and 2) the need to replace children who die young. As Iran and other countries have moved from low to middle income, child labor has become less necessary and infant and child mortality has decreased significantly. Rather than assuming that someone’s religion (or ethnicity or skin color or any other artificial distinction) means that they are destined to a particular kind of life, we should look at the facts and let them speak to our expectations. Reality can be very different than we think.

I wholeheartedly recommend Factfulness! It will make you think. It will give you hope. It will help you see the world differently. I also recommend visiting the authors’ website https://www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/matrix to see comparisons between people of similar incomes around the world. If you think people around the world are very different, this website will challenge your assumptions. You can also follow up by watching the authors’ TED Talks (one is at https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world). If you are curious about the world, if you are depressed about the current state of affairs and thinking things are just going from bad to worse, or if you begin to think you know more than a chimpanzee, this book is for you.

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Book Review: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You ThinkHans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

 

 

 

Book Review: Attached, Levine and Heller

Book Review: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, Levine & Heller

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Nonfiction: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Loveby Amir Levine and Rachel Heller

 

Despite its subtitle, Attached is in many ways a book about the “old art” of love rather than the “new science” of adult attachment. It is an easy to read self-help book, but that is not to make light of nor diminish its value. On the contrary, its approachable style and encouraging message should make it very useful for people looking for a relationship and for people who want to improve their relationships.

 

Attached divides people into three broad categories based on their “attachment styles.” “Secure” people comprise roughly one-half the population. They are people who generally enjoy intimacy and are not afraid of it. They communicate their needs effectively and care deeply about meeting the needs of those they love. “Anxious” people crave intimacy but struggle to effectively communicate or advocate for their own needs. They tend to blame themselves for any problems in their relationships. “Avoidant” people are just the opposite: they fear intimacy. They may also struggle to effectively communicate or advocate for their own needs, but unlike anxious people they will blame the other party for any problems in the relationship. One very helpful (if sobering) point the book repeatedly makes is that anxious and avoidant people are often drawn to each other, usually in ways that are mutually unhealthy. The avoidant person tends to give mixed messages about their desires, which anxious people will misinterpret as an invitation to try a little harder–something they are hardwired to do. This is a challenging pattern that is hard for both sides to break.

 

Throughout the book are quizzes designed to help you determine which attachment style describes you. The book is non-judgmental. All three attachment styles are evolutionary responses to environmental stimuli. In regions of great danger, where life is short and violent, an avoidant attachment style is invaluable. If one cannot emotionally move on from a relationship that ends prematurely, the species is threatened. That gift in those troubling circumstances can be a burden in a less traumatic civilization. Other dangers are perhaps less life-threatening, but require a tightly connected family unit in order to successfully navigate them. The anxious style forges that tight unit and promotes looking out for unseen dangers facing our loved ones. That, too, can be a burden in safer environments. Most human societies are more stable and interdependent, where a secure attachment style reinforces that stability. But we all carry the DNA that can express itself in any of the three styles.

 

Attached makes the point that successful relationships can occur no matter what your attachment style is. A major contributor to success is effective communication. This can be a challenge for anyone, but the book’s examples and tips are designed to encourage even the most timid to take this essential step.

 

I think that many authors have addressed similar relationship issues over the years. Several have written about the “Five Love Languages,” which at its heart is Attached but with additional subdivisions. Attached, though, does bring some fresh scientific (and non-religious) perspective to the conversation. It may not be quite as personal as “Dear Abby” or “Dear Anne,” but it does give specific tools and goals for improving your current relationship or for improving your chance at long-term love.

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Book Review: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, Levine & Heller

Book Review: The Tenth Justice, Brad Meltzer

Book Review: The Tenth JusticeBrad Meltzer

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I will admit, I am a sucker for some of the blockbuster authors. Baldacci, Grisham, Clancy, Patterson–I have read and will continue to read their books. An author who can tell a story, make me like a character, and pull me into a place will get my attention. 

 

Brad Meltzer’s debut novel, The Tenth Justice, was published in 1997. Supreme Court clerk Ben Addison knows he cannot reveal deliberations or decisions outside the court. When a friendly former clerk just wants to casually reminisce and talk shop, though, what could it hurt? As it turns out, plenty. Meltzer’s book introduces sharp characters, has an intriguing plot with several twists, and pulls the reader inside the Supreme Court and into the life of one of its clerks–a life that is unraveling before our eyes.

 

Meltzer is at his best when painting the portraits of Ben’s closest friends. Although from Boston, Ben’s roommates have been besties with him since high school. Nathan, Ober, and Eric each found their own way to Washington, DC, but they also found their way together. Sharing a house, the friends are each deeply affected by Ben’s troubles. The consequences of their actions together and separately test the limits of friendship and make for some of the funniest and some of the most painful scenes in the book.

 

Meltzer has written several books since this auspicious debut. I may be late to the party, but I definitely plan to add his later works to my TBR list. It may not carry the weight of the Supreme Court, but that would be a good decision for you as well.

 

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Book Review: The Tenth JusticeBrad Meltzer

Book Review: Foreigner Series,  C. J. Cherryh

Book Review: Foreigner Series, C. J. Cherryh

 

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Science Fiction: Foreigner Series, C. J. Cherryh

 

The first Foreigner book was published in 1994. C. J. Cherryh won her first (!) Hugo Award in 1979. Sustained excellence is hard. Bands come and go. Companies wax and wane. Even countries rise and fall. In any walk of life, maintaining a high standard is a constant struggle. After twenty-four years, nineteen novels and two short stories, she could perhaps be forgiven if she went through the motions on her latest offering. Instead, she continues writing must-read books in a must-read series. In a genre that has tended to overlook talented women, Cherryh’s body of work demands respect.

 

Bren Cameron is the main protagonist through the series. Cameron is the “paidhi,” an intermediary between the native (non-human) “Atevi” population and the human colony on the planet. The role developed almost 200 years earlier, created to maintain peace between the species after a war almost wiped out the humans soon after they landed. Traditionally, the paidhi translated documents, negotiated trade deals, and basically tried to stay out of sight. Largely ignored by the atevi and forgotten by the humans, for two centuries the paidhi was kept in the dark and left to his own devices, unable and unwilling to serve the needs of either species.

 

A young Bren Cameron accepted the position straight out of college, about the same time as a new ruler became “aiji” of the Atevi. “Tabini” became supreme leader of the Atevi with a vision to unify the Atevi and to reconsider the relationship between humans and Atevi. In these goals he found a willing ally in Cameron. The need for change accelerated when a new spaceship appeared in the sky. The space station humans had built and abandoned two centuries before still orbited the planet, but when a new ship with humans arrived, the Atevi realized they needed to catch up technologically to their visitors and the guests they shared their planet with.

 

Through the Foreigner series, Cameron strives to be the impartial mediator that the “paidhi” role requires. He redefines it multiple times, developing it under Tabini’s direction into essentially a cabinet role within the Atevi government. He becomes a negotiator, not only between the island community of humans and the mainland population of Atevi, but between the spaceship humans and the planetary populations, between different Atevi factions and Tabini’s government, and ultimately between a new species, the Koh, and the two populations he serves. Cherryh does a remarkable job shepherding Cameron’s growth as a character through the series, changing his perception of himself from that of a human serving a human function to a human serving an Atevi function to a person–still human–but representing people of whatever species they may be.

 

The other main character of the books is Tabini’s young son, Cajeiri. Cajeiri is born early in the series, but as he becomes a boy his role in the books becomes more prominent. The most recent books in the series split their attention and their perspective between Cameron’s activities and Cajeiri’s. Cajeiri starts as a brash, immature child who tries to escape his caregivers and find adventure. Not appreciating that as the son of the ruler, adventure could quickly become danger, Cajeiri is wont to make poor choices and rash decisions–just like many 7-year-old humans do. As he ages through several of the books, though, Cajeiri matures. He learns from his mistakes, he embraces his role as future ruler of his people, and he begins to attract followers who are loyal to him personally. A bright and precocious child, he brings a point of view to the books that is both childlike (and sometimes childish) and distinctly non-human. He deeply admires both his father and Bren Cameron, and they in turn grow to trust him. Through his adventures in space with Cameron, he develops his own human friendships that violate tradition and precedent. Cajeiri will clearly become a leader who takes his father’s vision of interspecies cooperation to new heights.

 

Cherryh is remarkable at switching perspectives from human to Atevi, from adult to child, and from planet to space. Atevi dialog is distinct from human. Relationships are different. “Love” and “friendship” mean very different things to humans and Atevi, and those relationships and the words we use around them figure prominently through the series. Loyalty and service, politics and tradition, all the sundry inner workings of family and clan and city and community are outwardly similar in many regards between the species, but the devil is in the details and without understanding the differences misunderstandings are easy–and potentially deadly. Cherryh weaves a tapestry that is both familiar in its threads and yet deceptively intricate in its stitches.

 

The Foreigner series is actually several series, each a trilogy. The most recent book (2018) is Emergence. Although you can enter the series at almost any point and quickly capture the direction, it is well worth the investment of time to go back to the original book (Foreigner, 1994) and start from the beginning.

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Book Review: Foreigner Series, C. J. Cherryh

 

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Book Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, Matthew Sullivan

Book Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas BookstoreMatthew Sullivan

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Fiction: Midnight at the Bright Ideas BookstoreMatthew Sullivan

 

Lydia is a bookseller at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. A large, independent bookstore in Denver, CO, it is the home for a number of quirky employees and for a number of regular patrons, the BookFrogs as the employees call them. One night a young member of the BookFrogs, Joey, hangs himself on the third floor during Lydia’s shift. This tragedy starts Lydia on an arc of discovery, about Joey, about herself, and about the night twenty years earlier that changed her life forever.

 

First, this is just a cool book. The characters are fun, the dialog is fresh, and the story feels real. Lydia’s journey is authentic. She is a young woman who survived a brutal event, an event that cost her almost everything dear to her. This has left scars that cannot be hidden, though hide them she tries: a new name, a refusal to discuss her past, complete disconnection from her father. But Joey’s death draws her reluctantly down a path of rediscovery and reconnection with that past. Old faces return to her life in new ways. In unraveling the threads of Joey’s life, she begins reweaving threads of her own. Matthew Sullivan makes Lydia a heroine that we can cheer for. She is broken, but her response to the brokenness is hopeful and empowering.

 

For an adult with fond memories of his childhood in Denver, this book is delightful. Colfax Avenue could almost be a character in the book. America’s longest street, Colfax winds through the neighborhoods of Denver carrying traffic to every kind of business. Sullivan takes his readers through some of these neighborhoods. The LoDo of the book is a real place. The Bright Ideas bookstore itself is a thinly veiled homage to the venerable Tattered Cover Bookstore, one of the best bookstores in America! (No hometown bias in this review!) Sullivan knows Denver–he used to work at the Tattered Cover–and his love for the city is apparent throughout.

 

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is a solid book. It is a mystery, but it is not bogged down in procedural drama that so often marks the genre. Instead, the mystery of Lydia’s self-discovery, her journey toward finding her own answers about her own life, guides the reader through the streets of Denver into the life of a special young woman.

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Book Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, Matthew Sullivan