Book Review: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw

Book Review: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw

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Nonfiction Science: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw

 

Unnatural Selection is a beautiful book. Oversized, coffee-table style, Unnatural Selection’s first impression grabs you. Katrina van Grouw has illustrated the text with her own line drawings, and she is an impressive artist. Her degree is in art, she has experience as a curator in the ornithology department of the Royal Museum in London, and she is married to an expert in (among other things) breeding pigeons. (She jokes that sharing information like that on a first date may not be the most romantic gesture a man might use…but since it worked, perhaps breeding fancy pigeons is an underappreciated way to a person’s heart.) Therefore her text is sound and scientific, and her art is informed by both passion and expertise.

 

Unnatural Selection is almost a book about evolution. Almost. It is a book about selective breeding, human guided breeding of animals to obtain desired characteristics and to minimize unwanted traits. Natural selection, part of the process that shapes evolution, does not “care” whether an animal is pretty or friendly or any one of a number of other traits that human breeders might look for. Therefore, although the results are the same in terms of animals being changed over generations, the changes among domesticated animals tend to happen more quickly and do not necessarily carry any survival advantage to the animal, at least not one outside of captivity.

 

In fact, many of the changes would certainly lead to death in the wild. White plumage may be appreciated by bird fanciers, but it would also be appreciated by predators outside of snow country. When I kneel down and tell my little smush-faced dog, “You used to be a wolf,” she does not actually appear very wolf-like. (She does try to lick my face, though, maybe in a vicious carnivorous attempt to soften it prior to eating?) Pigeons that can’t fly, cattle with double-muscled bodies (great for meat, poor for mobility), and many other domesticated species show the results of being bred to our desires and not to the demands of “survival of the fittest.”

 

Selective breeding, though, relies on the same genetic basis that governs evolution in the wild. Dominant and recessive genes show themselves according to the same laws whether an animal is born in the jungle or in the barn. The difference is instead of a predator looking for a weak animal to eat, a breeder or farmer is looking for specific traits to perpetuate. Although we may not like to think about this aspect of animal husbandry in our era where meat comes from supermarkets, the culling of animals that do not show those desired traits is just as efficient as predation in guiding the direction of a species.

 

Van Grouw is a terrific writer with great passion and insight into her subject. Her drawings add beauty to the text and show the reader actual examples of the structures she is writing about. Whether the drawing is of a rare pigeon, a series of dog skulls, a detailed comparison of feathers, or a transitional drawing of a single animal showing hindquarters covered with skin, midsection with musculature, and the skeletal shoulders and skull, van Grouw’s drawings are exquisite and tell the story as eloquently as do her words. Her text is factual and informative, but also delightful and affectionate. I love how she simply refers to her spouse as “Husband.” She does not shy away from the realities of animal breeding: successful breeders cull. But she also fairly points out that the results are not inherently cruel or unfair, any more than disease or predation are cruel or unfair. The “goal” of life is to continue, and domestication is a form of symbiosis that has allowed dogs and chickens and cows and many other species to thrive around the world as they accompany humans.

 

Unnatural Selection is a book that delights on multiple levels. It is well written, expertly researched, and beautifully illustrated. Any student of science, including younger readers, will appreciate it.

 

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Book Review: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw

 

Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, Chris Stringer

Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer

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Nonfiction Science: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer

 

Chris Stringer’s book Lone Survivors (outside the USA this book is titled The Origin of Our Species) takes a long look at the theories behind human origins. One thing I learned from this book is how unusual a species humans are. Despite the obvious differences in skin color, hair texture and color, facial shape and contours, etc., human DNA is shockingly consistent. There are more differences between groups of chimpanzees in Africa than there are between any two humans. Another difference is that there are no other living human species. Neanderthals and Denisovans and other members of genus homo have been extinct for millennia. There are multiple species of gorilla, chimpanzee, and virtually any other type of organism you could name, but only one species of human. Speaking scientifically, this is highly unusual, and well worth evaluation.

 

Stringer was one of the first scientists to strongly espouse the ROA theory of human origins. ROA stands for Recently Out of Africa, and alludes to homo sapiens having their beginnings in Africa then spreading around the world from there. Other homo species appear to have developed from a common ancestor in other parts of the world. Neanderthals may have been the most successful other types of humans, both in terms of population size and area, but the fossil record is a challenge for definitive conclusions in this regard. Nor is it certain why the Neanderthals and other human species died out. It is possible they were killed by advancing bands of homo sapiens. Fossil evidence does suggest some died through violence, possibly even cannibalism, and that violence may have come from contemporary modern humans. But it is also possible they were victims of climate change, dietary challenges, or disease. What is now almost indisputable is that sometimes the two groups of humans were not fighters but instead were lovers. Enough Neanderthal (and Denisovan) DNA has been recovered from fossils to determine that modern humans are partially descended from hybrid ancestors. We are not Neanderthal or Denisovan, but some of our genes definitely are.

 

Lone Survivors often raises more questions than it answers. How did modern humans become so smart? There are proposed possible answers: social living, genetic mutation, dietary changes among them. No one really knows the answer, though. Why did homo sapiens survive when other human species did not? Varied diet, warlike behavior, social cooperation, adaptability, high intelligence? Perhaps, but again, no single answer or group of answers seems to be persuasive. This is not a weakness of the book, though. Stringer is willing to hear out opinions that contradict his own. He gives them fair treatment in the book, and is willing to point out the weaknesses in his own opinions on these and other questions. The reader is left wanting more answers, just as Stringer and other paleoanthropologists are left wanting those same answers. We will all have to wait together while more evidence is compiled and more discoveries are made.

 

Like many newer science books, Lone Survivors also tells us about some of the scientists involved in this research. Stringer talks about his days as a graduate student traveling through Europe and studying skulls firsthand. He lived out of his vehicle for many months, and later ruefully confesses that modern DNA techniques proved that he left his own DNA on many of these fossils. Another scientist is a member of a band. These personal anecdotes may or may not enhance the research being done, but they help humanize the researchers and add interest to topics that can occasionally challenge with dry jargon and statistical data overload.

 

Lone Survivors is a thorough, deep book. Written for a general audience, it is not written down to its readers. The author assumes a willingness to challenge assumptions and a desire to learn new information, so he doesn’t shy away from technical data. This means the book is not for every reader, but it definitely is for anyone interested in the scientific questions surrounding human origins and the disappearance of our closest biological relatives.

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Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer

 

 

Book Review: The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, Peter Brannen

Book Review: The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, Peter Brannen

 

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Nonfiction Science: The Ends of the World:Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, Peter Brannen

 

Peter Brannen is a science writer. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines. He writes about discoveries and professors and interesting and fun things.

 

So why has his book given me nightmares?

 

The Ends of the World is not a futuristic “aliens attack” novel. Nor is it an apocalyptic war/genocide vision. This is not about a prospective “how the world will end” scenario–at least, not entirely. This is a well written, thoughtful, clear look at how the world has ended. How life has been scrubbed from our planet. How the tenuous hold of biology has been torn away from Earth before. And this has happened not once, not twice, but five previous times in our planet’s history.

 

And some argue we are in the midst of the sixth.

 

Brannen’s The Ends of the World covers the history of life–focusing specifically on the history of death. Not just any ordinary deaths, either. Five times our planet has faced mass extinction events that have had worldwide effect. Once, the result was a rounding error away from 100% fatality of every species of animal AND plant alive. The most well-known of these events resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs, but the four previous events were just as cataclysmic and possibly even more comprehensive in their life-ending totality.

 

The Ends of the World goes around the world in search of clues to these abrupt breaks in the story of life on Earth. Six chapters are specifically named after these interruptions: “The End-Ordovician Mass Extinction,” “The End-Devonian Mass Extinction,” and following the same titular pattern he looks at the Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous extinctions. Each of these ancient eras had an abundance of life, though much of it would be strange to us. Trilobites and ammonites and giant fish and salamanders the size of cars and, of course, dinosaurs. In their time, they walked or swam the world as its masters. Many times the world they inhabited was very different from our own: warmer, more carbon dioxide, a single massive continent instead of the global distribution of land we currently have. And the length of time they had on the planet was also significantly longer than we appreciate. Humans have been around for only 2 million years or so. Global distribution of our species goes back maybe 30,000 years, and civilization less than 10,000 years. Some of the earth’s previous masters were dominant for tens or even hundreds of millions of years. Yet all of them eventually faced a crisis which ended their course. Only hubris would say we are immune to the same fate.

 

As a species we have trouble agreeing on what to have for dinner any given night, so it should come as no shock that scientists differ on the causes and reasons for previous mass extinctions that happened long before humanity was a twinkle in evolution’s eye. Even the one which has the most hard evidence to support it, the impact of a six-mile wide asteroid in what is now Mexico, is not universally believed to be the cause of the End-Cretaceous extinction; although most agree that an asteroid hit at the same general time as the mass extinction with catastrophic effect, there were other roughly contemporaneous events that might have been as much or more responsible for the end of most life. Two things consistently appear in the geologic record at the same time that fossils disappear from it. Those two things have different indicators, but similar causes. One cause is massive activity from volcanoes. The other cause is dramatic climate change.

 

Although earthquakes and volcanoes make frequent headlines today, we live in a fairly quiet time compared to others. The Permian era seems to have ended when Siberia erupted. Not one or two or ten volcanoes in Russia. Siberia. Virtually the entire region began spewing lava and gases, enough lava to deeply bury the entire United States under many feet of flaming molten rock! At the end of the Cretaceous period, around the same time as the asteroid hit, volcanoes in India began erupting and spewing enough lava to bury the United States under 60 feet of the stuff! (Some argue that the volcanoes were already impacting life before the asteroid hit, while others suggest that the impact of the asteroid in Mexico actually supercharged the volcanoes across the world in a sort of ripple-effect, one-two punch to the biosphere.)

 

Living in an era where climate change is an existential threat, reading that massive climate change contributed to several (if not all) of the previous mass extinctions is disturbing. The good news, such as it is, is that the climate change shown in the fossil record is often greater than the climate change we see today. The bad news is that it is not always greater, nor is it always dramatically greater. Anthropogenic climate change may not usher in the next great extinction event, but it has enough similarities to those previous events to concern us all. Furthermore, we are not “just” changing the climate. Our plastics are fouling the ocean, our pollution is changing the very air we breathe, and our homes and appetites are destroying species and habitats at alarming rates. But although our methods have changed, our impact on the world is a time-honored one.

 

One chapter is titled, “The End-Pleistocene Mass Extinction.” This dates back several thousand years, tracing a line of destruction around the world affecting primarily (though hardly exclusively) mega fauna. Giant kangaroos and moas, American rhinos and lions and sabre-toothed tigers and mammoths and mastodons, European elephants and aurochs and even Neanderthals. Cause and effect cannot be conclusively determined, but it seems unlikely to be a coincidence that the extinction of all of these species followed the introduction of a new, invasive species that has spread around the world. That species is us.

 

The Ends of the World is a powerful, well-written and deeply researched book. It is dark, though there are light-hearted moments throughout as Brennan interacts with scientists and amateur paleontologists around the world. Despite the planet’s best efforts to rid itself, the good news (as Jurassic Park character Dr. Ian Malcolm might say) is that “life will find a way.” That may not be good news for us, though. The dinosaurs ruled the world for millions of years. Then, one day, they were just gone (well, except for the birds). Someday our story may also be told only in fossils and strange remnants left in rocks of a bipedal primate that spread around the planet, only to fail to adapt when the planet changed around them. The question is: are we the agents of that very change?

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Book Review: The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, Peter Brannen

Book Review: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures, Nick Pyenson

Book Review: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome CreaturesNick Pyenson

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Nonfiction: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome CreaturesNick Pyenson

 

Nick Pyenson is a whale paleontologist working for the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Although whales may not have captured the paleontological imagination the way dinosaurs have, maybe they should. In his 2018 book Spying on Whales, Pyenson reminds us that whales are the largest creatures that have ever lived. Although the largest brontosaurus might barely exceed their length from nose to tail, the blue whale is much more massive. In weight, they are many times heavier than any dinosaur, heavier than any other sea creature that has ever lived, and they are living in our oceans right now.

 

Although Pyenson is a paleontologist, he also studies living whales. Spying on Whales is not just about fossils and times long ago. Pyenson takes the reader to current expeditions where living whales are being watched and tagged. Clear-eyed about the realities of a world where whaling remains an ongoing concern, Pyenson also takes us on board a whaling ship and to a whale-rendering plant in Iceland. He acknowledges the ethical dilemmas faced in using these operations for scientific research and is clearly conflicted by the choices he has made. Whaling has not stopped, and his presence neither encouraged nor discouraged the whalers. He and other scientists have made some groundbreaking discoveries from the fresh carcasses of the killed beasts. Whether that justifies his presence there or not is left to the reader to decide.

 

Much less controversial is his work with fossilized whales. Pyenson takes us to Chile, where several layers of whale skeletons were discovered when a road was cut through a high mountain desert. Walking in the footsteps of Darwin, Pyenson tells a gripping story of how a local paleontologist made the discovery, how the Smithsonian was able to field a team to not only help with the dig but also to pioneer techniques in x-ray mapping the bones in situ, and how this all had to be organized and accomplished within a month because of the demands of the road construction timeline. Pyenson is a good story-teller and he gives much of the credit to the rest of the team. The working theory is that there were at least four occasions within a few thousand years when an algae bloom wiped out huge numbers of local creatures, not only whales but fish, birds, and other sea mammals. Those animals died and washed ashore in what was then a low lying area. Much later when the region was lifted above sea level by plate tectonics and then later still when it was exposed by the road construction, several virtually intact skeletons of early whales were identified and preserved for study by the team.

 

Whales today are known for their size, although there are a few that are quite small. Unfortunately, most of those smaller whales are very endangered. It is likely that the Yangtze River dolphin has gone extinct, and a species of small dolphin in Mexico has fewer than 30 remaining individuals. Many larger species were hunted nearly to extinction. Blue and right whales may never recover their pre-whaling numbers, Humpback whales, though, seem to be nearing or at their pre-whaling numbers, and gray whales may be using new ice-free channels through the Arctic Ocean to recolonize the Atlantic, where they had not been seen for centuries until recently when two individuals were spotted far apart from each other.

 

Whales today face many challenges. Although hunting is greatly restricted, it has not ended. Climate change is putting new pressures on whales, potentially affecting their migration patterns and feeding habits. Thousands of whales are killed accidentally by ship strikes and by getting caught in fishnets. Plastic and other pollutants are being eaten by whales with unknown consequences long-term. And the sounds made by our industrial and military work in the ocean has unknown effects on animals which use sound to communicate over vast distances.

 

One other unknown effect humans have had on whales is changing the whales’ cultures. Whales communicate, and different whale pods have developed different cultures. For example, although they are biologically indistinguishable, there are three distinct cultures of orcas in the Pacific. One culture eats salmon almost exclusively, and stays primarily in fixed locations near the mouths of rivers where salmon go to spawn. Another group travels up and down the coast and eats primarily marine mammals. The third is much more oceanic than the first two, and their hunting is focused largely on sharks. Although there is no difference in the DNA between the three groups, they seldom interact and in their behavior patterns they are essentially different subspecies. Distinct cultures have also been observed in pods of sperm whales…but sperm whale populations were devastated by whaling ships. We will never know what effect the depopulation of the species had on its culture, nor will we ever know if or how that can be recovered even if the population rebounds.

 

Spying on Whales is a warm book about fascinating creatures. It is a great book for kids interested in science (it ends with a heartwarming story about the accidental discovery of a whale skull by the author’s preschool son–and how there is now a specimen in the Smithsonian’s collection whose discovery is credited to the child). It is also a fascinating read for those of us who maintain our childhood fascination with science and with the amazing creatures that share this planet.

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Book Review: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome CreaturesNick Pyenson

Book Review: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

Book Review: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

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Nonfiction Science: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

About Time reminded me of two truths about my life. The first truth has been a core part of my personality since my earliest memories. I love science. I find physics and cosmology fascinating. Adam Frank is a professor at the University of Rochester and a commentator on science and cosmology for NPR. He is known for taking deep subjects and putting connective tissue on them so that non-scientists can appreciate and relate to the astounding discoveries being announced by CERN and other high-powered labs and leaders in various fields.

 

About Time tries to do this as well. Frank looks at time in both practical and scientific terms. It is easy to forget in our always connected, always clock-aware culture that timekeeping is itself a relatively new invention. Sundials and general awareness of the passing of time go back centuries, even millennia, as natural phenomena follow rhythms set by the passing of days and seasons. As humans began agricultural pursuits, awareness of times to plant and harvest became important. People responsible for marking time’s passage also became important, as planting too early or harvesting too late could lead to catastrophe. As urbanization eventually led to manufacturing the marking of smaller increments of time became important.

 

Another often forgotten reason for the “invention” of time (or at least more accurate time-keeping means) was the need for accuracy in measuring distance. Time and distance are related, as we may vaguely remember from early algebra (rate x time = distance) and the always invigorating word problems: if Sally is on a train traveling west at 60 mph from New York and Johnny is on a train traveling east at 70 mph from Chicago, and both trains leave at the same time, when will you crumple up your homework and throw your book against the wall and burst into tears? (I have painful memories of many math classes, so my apologies for the cathartic outburst.) Much more dire than my painful memories is the fact that incorrect longitude leads directly to maritime catastrophe, and longitude is essentially a measure of time/distance from a fixed point. Accurate time keeping leads to accurate location and that leads directly to ships not sinking.

 

Travel on land also required accurate timekeeping. Railroads tied the burgeoning US together, and the need for accurate schedules led directly to the creation of time zones. Although the US led the way in this, the rest of the world quickly followed for the same logical reasons. As telegraph, telephone, radio, and television allowed vast distances to experience the same “now,” our reliance on accurate timekeeping increased.

 

I did not appreciate how grounded in the practical world Einstein’s relativity was. His job at the patent office was to evaluate patents dealing with accurate measurements of time. Swiss clocks were expected to be accurate and technology increasingly required them to be both accurate and synchronized. Einstein’s job required him to think about time and timekeeping–then at night he worked on the equations that eventually became the Theory of Relativity. Instead of time being fixed and universal, Einstein realized that time was fluid and changed depending on perspective, gravity, rate of motion, and other variables. The universe is not set to a cosmic clock. The experience of time changes as one approaches light speed, and even incremental changes are measurable. Clocks synchronized and then placed at sea level and at high altitude will eventually show different times simply because the rotation of the earth is marginally different depending on how close one is to the earth’s center. Einstein dealt with the practical aspects of measuring time. We may never know how much that practical experience influenced his thinking about the scientific aspects of time/space/relativity, but the duality of his life must have had some effect.

 

The main thrust of Frank’s book is on the Big Bang. The Big Bang theory has many problems with it. The obvious one is, “What came before?” So far there has been no adequate answer scientifically or mathematically proposed. However, no adequate replacement has yet been posited, either. Frank looks at several, including string theory and “banes,” but admits in the end that although Big Bang can no longer be considered as settled science (he offers no opinions on it’s role in television sitcom history) there is no other theory ready to take its place.

 

I started this review by noting that About Time reminded me of two truths about my life. The first was of my love for and fascination with science. Frank is a terrific writer. The book is full of interesting anecdotes, scientific history, and changes in culture prompted by science as well as changes in science prompted by culture. About Time reminded me of a second truth as well: I am not a scientist. I will confess, this is not an easy book to read. I was often lost and confused, which I fear is much more reflective upon the reader than on the writer. If you have a strong background and interest in science, especially in astrophysics and cosmology, then this is a terrific book. If you struggle with occasional terrifying flashbacks of 8th grade algebra, then this may not be the best addition to your library. An extremely adept younger reader would find it challenging and a great read, so if you have a young person interested in a career in the sciences, then About Time might be just in time to push her or him in that direction.

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Book Review: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

Book Review: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth,  Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans

Book Review: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on EarthJuan Enriquez and Steve Gullans

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Nonfiction Science: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on EarthJuan Enriquez and Steve Gullans

The premise of Evolving Ourselves is simple. Human evolution has not stopped. It has accelerated. We are making unprecedented changes to our world, our lifestyle, our behavior, our environment, and those changes are making unprecedented changes in us. Evolving Ourselves boldly asserts that we are redefining homo sapiens in unknown ways, most of them probably good, and the potential to make further changes to our species is at hand.

 

Virtually all of human history has been intimately tied to nature. People grew up in small villages, rural communities, family farms, surrounded by forests and plains and animals and jungles and dirt. Life was dirty. Even a century ago, fewer than 2 in 10 people lived in cities–and cities were largely dirtier and less sanitary than rural areas. Modern cities would be unrecognizable marvels to our great-great grandparents. Clean, sanitary, with waste disposal and running water and hospitals and health departments. The percentages have flipped, with 80% of Americans living in urban centers and 54% of the world living in cities. Life expectancies have shot up as well, from an average life span in the 40s to one in the 70s through much of the world–in the 80s in some countries. Child mortality is down, overall health has improved, and clearly life is better for many, many people.

 

There are some consequences to these changes as well, though. Allergies are rare among children who grow up on farms, but they are quite common among the more urbane. The cleaner the environment a child grows up in, the more likely she is to have a severe allergy problem. The root causes of autism are unknown (though vaccines have been ruled out), but modernity has brought an epidemic of autism-spectrum disorders with it. Antibiotics and vaccines have conquered many of the killers of previous generations, but they are leading to the evolution of “superbugs” that are resistant to every drug we currently have available. Our divorce from nature has given us longer and healthier lives, but sometimes those lives are also prone to mental disorders that are less common among those who spend more time outdoors. Breastfed babies usually require vitamin D supplements, now, because their mothers do not get enough sunlight.

 

Evolving Ourselves by no means rejects natural selection as the primary driver for evolution. But it accepts the newer understanding that not all changes require multiple generations to manifest. One pivotal study has been done of families in Europe following World War II. When the Germans began losing the war, they subjected some areas to great deprivation. Women who were pregnant during this period of famine gave birth to smaller babies than average. Surprisingly, women who were not pregnant during the famine but still experienced the suffering also gave birth to smaller babies. Decades later, the daughters born to those mothers ALSO gave birth to smaller than average babies. These children were also more prone to other health issues than similar populations without the history of famine.

 

Genetic studies have concluded that the famine changed the way a specific gene operated. This gene and its altered operational instructions both passed to children of those mothers–and despite decades of plenty, the gene and instructions passed again to a third generation. Studies showing that children have been getting larger and populations becoming more obese may be a reflection of similar genetic changes that are occurring.

 

The last part of Evolving Ourselves considers potential futures where humans deliberately rewrite our own genetic code to guide evolution of our species. This is obviously quite controversial, and the authors try to wade carefully through these waters. Some work is already being done to address severe genetic abnormalities that impact lives and longevity. Few would argue with genetic manipulations that would cure diseases in adults and children. More controversial are genetic edits that might “enhance” our bodies or our minds. Do we want designer children, with genetics that give them better athletic or academic ability? Can, or should, we stop this from happening? If/when our species expands to other planets, will we need to genetically engineer those explorers and colonists to endure space, withstand alien environments, and live long enough to succeed? The authors take a very optimistic view toward these things. I am not fully persuaded that we have the wisdom, trust, or fairness to see these changes done well…but I am becoming less confident that we have the ability to prevent it from happening. Gene modification is too appealing, and becoming too easy, and I suspect the genie has already escaped the lamp or will very soon.

 

Evolving Ourselves is written for a general audience with a scientific interest. I found it easy to read, sometimes quite funny, and always very approachable. It is informative and understandable and very, very interesting. I think anyone interested in science, evolution, genetics, and the future of humanity will find it a fascinating addition to their bookshelf.

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Book Review: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on EarthJuan Enriquez and Steve Gullans

Book Review: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body, Armand Marie Leroi

Book Review: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human BodyArmand Marie Leroi

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Nonfiction Science: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human BodyArmand Marie Leroi

 

Mutants is probably not your first choice for a beach read unless you are a geneticist or medical professional. It is a fascinating book. It is educational both for its genetic insight and for its historic perspective. Mutants is comprehensive and unafraid to explore challenging questions of ethics, bias, racism, human experimentation, and other controversial subjects. Although it is written for a general audience, it assumes a great deal of previous knowledge for its readers (or easy access to a large dictionary).

 

Armand Marie Leroi is a professor in London, and the subject of Mutants became a television documentary after its publication. Throughout Mutants, the author stays true to his teaching roots. We learn about different mutations, the causes and possible reasons they persist in our species, the genetic changes that underlie mutations, and the historic and medical responses to these mutations. More than that, however, Leroi introduces us to people who have lived with these mutations. He does not allow readers to forget that real people with real lives are the subjects of this book. Some of them are victims: most mutations are harmful and many are fatal. They can be debilitating, disfiguring, and painful. But regardless of their circumstances, people, with families and friends, with lives of their own, are the subjects of this book. “We are all mutants,” the author writes, and he makes that point using examples and stories throughout the course of the book.

 

Leroi is clearly fascinated by what mutation teaches us about human development. He poses questions that I suspect most of us never considered. Several of these relate to conjoined twins. One question that cannot be fully answered is whether the conjoining is an imperfect separation of identical twins, or whether it is a merger of separated twins who grow back together. Another question deals with the internal organization shared by most humans. Conjoined twins are typically organized internally the way most of us are. The exception is when they are conjoined side by side. In those cases, organs in one twin are often reversed: the heart on the right side instead of the left, with similar displacement of other internal organs. In extremely rare cases, individuals who were not twins (conjoined or otherwise) have similar reversal of their internal symmetry. Given the rarity of this phenomena, it seems that the usual placement of the organs confers an evolutionary advantage that is not immediately obvious. Mutants does not find the answer, but it asks the question: why? Why should it matter that the heart is on the left side? I honestly had never thought about it before–it was where it was. But the fact that it is so extremely unusual to find this reversed, and then almost always only when there is a disruption in development as significant as conjoining twins, makes me quite curious to learn the answer. Hopefully, someday, we will.

 

Some mutations remain isolated, rare, but clearly heritable. Some families are known for generations of members who are literally covered in hair, including foreheads, cheeks, and other areas where virtually no hair grows on the rest of us. Arguably, red hair is a mutation of that sort, with a relatively few people from specific European countries exhibiting that coloration. Other mutations also span generations but create more physical challenges than cosmetic differences. Leroi cites examples of families with “claw shaped” feet. And some mutations, like Huntington’s disease, are deadly, but the effects do not appear until middle age so they do not directly impact the reproductive success of its victims. This example is part of an intriguing chapter that questions whether ageing is itself a type or series of mutations–and if so, whether it is something that can be treated or even reversed with advanced medical care in the future.

 

Leroi clearly accepts that humans are one species. Mutations may make the Afe (Pygmy) tribes smaller than the average people, they may make the Dutch taller than average people, they may make Europeans in general more prone to baldness and may make Africans in general less susceptible to malaria (than are Europeans), but those mutations do not change the basic humanity of us all. Indeed, there is on average more genetic diversity within any given people group than there is between any two groups of people. That being said, though, he does believe that more research into the differences between “races” should be done. Given the terrible history and awful political applications which accompanied such research in the past, though, I am wary of this suggestion.

 

Mutants is a sensitive, detailed, challenging book. It is not for every audience, but readers with an interest in genetics and human differences will find it fascinating. Fundamentally, it is a celebration of how intricate our bodies are, how easily that intricacy can be undone, and how resilient humans are even in when facing amazing challenges.

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Book Review: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human BodyArmand Marie Leroi

Book Review: The Future of Humanity, Michio Kaku

Book Review: The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond EarthMichio Kaku

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Nonfiction Science: The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond EarthMichio Kaku

You cannot avoid physicist Michio Kaku if you watch science shows on TV. Nor would you want to. He has hosted or guest starred on programs for Discovery Channel, Science Channel, BBC, PBS, and other networks, sharing his expertise on physics, string theory, and other scientific disciplines. Well known for popularizing these challenging subjects, Kaku is also a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York. (Probably unrelated to his brilliance or his fame, I would argue he also sports one of the most distinctive heads of hair in science since Einstein, but that may just be follicular envy on my part.)

 

His 2018 book The Future of Humanity explores the possibilities of humans leaving earth to colonize other planets. Clearly written for an audience with one foot in science and one foot in science fiction, Kaku has a breezy style that is easy to read and carries you along. He quotes from theoretical physicists and NASA astronomers, then switches effortlessly to recaps of Star Trek episodes and references to visionary works by Jules Verne and Olaf Stapledon, among others. He looks at both the possibilities and the pitfalls of living beyond our comfortable planet. Could we survive long-term in an environment we were not evolved for? Could we “terraform” another planet? What would it take to make Mars (or any other planet) livable? What are the possibilities and potentials beyond our solar system? How could we get there? Is there intelligent life beyond our solar system? If so, could we coexist? Could we even communicate?

 

Kaku’s The Future of Humanity also looks at colonizing space through unexpected means. If we find that the speed of light is indeed insurmountable (which is a depressing implication of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), can we send multi-generational ships? If so, how could we guarantee that those great-grandchildren of the pioneers were willing and able to colonize a new planet when they arrived? What are the ethics of sending, say, 200 people from earth who would give birth to children that would live and die on board a ship, and expect that some 250 years later their descendants would be expected to colonize a world they likely knew little to nothing about? What kind of governance would be required to assure the ship-dwellers neither had too many, nor too few, children? Kaku may be a physicist, but his questions and explorations are deeply rooted in a very humanistic ethic. What if we were able to extend life indefinitely–would a 250-year journey be worth making if we lived 1000 years? Or, what if we could upload our consciousness to a machine which would make the journey? Or genetically modify our descendants to live in inhospitable environments? What would it mean to humanity if our galactic descendants no longer looked like us physically–or were no longer even made of the same organic stuff that we consider essential to life?

 

The Future of Humanity definitely walks the line between science fact and science fiction. It does clearly show where science is right now. If we were to try to colonize Mars tomorrow, we would likely fail. Fifty years from now? It is quite likely the tools will be available. Whether the will and the money will be available is a much dicier proposition, and Kaku acknowledges that. But insert enough time, enough scientific progress, and enough environmental pressure on earth from climate change and overpopulation, and the equation may change. Mars may look very attractive in 200 years when compared to a polluted, crowded, hotter earth. Kaku is not necessarily a pessimist, though, when it comes to earth. He acknowledges that birth rates are slowing, that there are reasons to hope for a cleaner tomorrow, and that climate change has uncertain consequences. Earth itself may not be such a bad place in 200 years. And his vision of an inhabitable solar system relies heavily on technologies that are little more than dreams in visionaries’ minds. For a book of scientific fact, there is a significant amount of hopeful speculation. Someday we might look back at this book in amazement at the technological breakthroughs it foresaw. Or, as we did in 2015, we may be asking ourselves why “Back to the Future” hoverboards aren’t parked in our garages.

 

Science can be both hopeful and hopeless. Kaku’s book envisions a very hopeful future, one where we colonize first the solar system and then the galaxy, one where humanity has a future in the stars for even millions of years. Eventually, though, it will all end. Science is divided on whether it all ends with the galaxy collapsing upon itself in a spectacular reversal of the “big bang,” or whether it ends with the second law of thermodynamics winning and everything just running out of energy and freezing, but either way we may only have several billion years left to prepare ourselves for our eventual end. Somehow, though, even though our earth may burn up in an expanding sun sometime around 5 billion years from now, and even though the universe as a whole will end some unknown billion years after that, Kaku seems to find reasons to hope that humanity has a bright future among the stars.

 

Leave it to a theoretical physicist to remind us that the universe will eventually end. At least, though, we have still some time to prepare for that.

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Book Review: The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond EarthMichio Kaku

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

Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman

Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in MaineAlan Lightman

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Nonfiction Science: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman

 

Theoretical physicist. Novelist. Professor of both science and humanities. These are the biographical bona fides of Alan Lightman, author of National Book Award Finalist novel “Einstein’s Dreams.” But the author of Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is also profoundly human, and questions of the eternal, the immutable, the transcendent, dwell in his mind as they do in the minds of most people.

 

Searching for Stars is a deeply personal book. Lightman considers questions of faith and eternity from the perspective of a scientist, but also from the perspective of a man entering his later years. Science answers many questions for us, but certain ultimate questions cannot be empirically answered or experimentally tested. Lightman recounts conversations with persons of faith: Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim. He looks at sacred texts from those faiths. I cannot say he finds the answers he is looking for, but the process of asking the questions is intimate and compelling.

 

One answer Lightman does find is that science itself is an act of faith. Every faith holds central a series of absolutes: doctrines and credos which may not be provable but are inseparable from the faith itself. For example, Jesus cannot be removed from Christianity. You can have faith, you can even share many of the tenets of Christianity, but without Jesus you have something other, something different from Christianity. Science also has absolutes. One of those is that natural laws always work. If they don’t work, they are not laws. Gravity is always gravity. It always works. It doesn’t take days off, it doesn’t work on earth but not on Alpha Centauri. Because natural laws always work, they allow us to predict natural behaviors. Planetary orbits can be determined mathematically because gravity is a constant. Alterations in orbits indicate other factors at play, such as the presence of moons, another planet, or quantum forces. When those other factors are accounted for, measurements confirm predictions. The law is the law.

 

Ultimately, though, we cannot “prove” that natural laws always work. It is possible, if only as an intellectual exercise, that somewhere in the universe is a place that does not obey the laws of gravity. Or those laws work every day of the week except Tuesday. But it is impossible to account for such a place, because every measurement we have, every theory we hold, every experiment we run, every observation we make both confirms natural law to work AND relies upon it working. We cannot escape the framework in which natural laws work without them no longer working. Thus, at the core of science, is an absolute that cannot be proven or disproven, but must rely upon faith.

 

If science itself is built upon a core belief, what implication does that have upon other articles of faith? Perhaps none. But Lightman speculates that perhaps scientists should employ a little more humility than some do when it regards areas of faith.

 

Lightman’s musings on meaning touched me deeply. He wonders whether impermanence is equal to irrelevance, a question I suspect every person asks as she or he ages. Has my life mattered? What defines this? Will I be remembered? If a civilization of ants lasted for 100 years, built an amazing city full of beautiful architecture, stunning works of art, literature, philosophy, then was completely wiped out by a storm leaving no trace of their existence, did they “matter”? Those are not questions science can answer, and Lightman knows this. Meaning and purpose cannot be measured or calculated. Each person will have to search for those stars in their own personal quest.

 

Searching for Stars is a beautiful, unexpected book. I can’t say Lightman found everything he was looking for. But sharing his journey with us is a gift, one that can encourage us all to explore those questions with every tool available to us.

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Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in MaineAlan Lightman