Virolution, Frank Ryan
The cover made me worry that this was going to be complete pseudo-science, but it’s not bad at all. It’s a little scatterbrained — although the title is Virolution, a good chunk of it involves epigenetics, and it isn’t very clearly linked to the viral theme. The main thrust of the book is: evolution didn’t just happen by natural selection, but also through symbiosis. That symbiosis includes symbiosis with bacteria and viruses, as we co-evolved.
It’s not something I disagree with, and Ryan lays out the ideas clearly and informatively. I’m not sure I see such a huge role for viruses in evolution, at least not in the sense that he does. I don’t think it really modifies natural selection that much. Perhaps I’m just a little too familiar with stuff like Lynn Margulis’ theories about symbiosis? I’d always seen a fairly big role for symbiosis in evolution, because of course it drives co-evolution to establish stable mutualism.
Not a bad book, but perhaps a little too enthusiastic about its claims, and a little too scatterbrained about the content.
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith
A mixture of science and philosophy about consciousness, I found this book really fascinating. The joins between the two are pretty seamless, so they lead into one another and contribute to one another — if you hate philosophy, this would probably still be okay for you, because it does lean a little toward the science end. To my mind, anyway. If you don’t have a strong grounding in either, it’s still accessible and fascinating, as long as you have some level of interest in the subject.
What we know about cuttlefish and octopus minds is just astounding — their intelligence is almost uncanny, and yet we know very little about how they experience the world. There were a few surprises here for me — their typically short lives, their decentralised control of movement, the seeming personalities of the animals the author observed…
There’s a lot of anecdotes and such, so if you’re looking for hard science, this isn’t really what you want. But if you’re casually interested, then I recommend it. And if you can end it without wanting to dive and meet some cuttlefish and octopi for yourself, you must be made of stone. (Not really, but. I’m left so curious! That’s a thing I love in a book.)
The Human Brain, New Scientist
It may not be surprising to learn that this collection, featuring articles and features about the human brain, was absolutely right up my street. If you’re interested in the human brain, but you’re not ready to dive into a full book about it, this makes a great, varied collection, focusing on different things like memory formation, the ageing brain, psychology, sleep…
There’s a lot of stuff in here, but it’s all in bitesize chunks. I do recommend this, and the other New Scientist collections — but if you’ve collected issues religiously, there’s nothing new in here as far as I know.
Mind-Expanding Ideas, New Scientist: The Collection
Possibly necessary for full disclosure: I got four of these as a free gift for subscribing to New Scientist. They contain articles from past issues, generally the ones that stand the test of time, and collect them together by topic. This one is mostly physics, which… is not so much my thing. It’s “the most incredible concepts in science”, can’t we have some more love for biology? Epigenetics is mind-expanding — and probably more personally relevant than quarks and leptons to most readers.
That said, I am into biology and find physics a little frightening. Reading this volume mostly left me a little scared and at least halfway to an existential crisis.
If your interest is in dark energy and quantum theory and special relativity, though, then there’s a good chance it’s perfect for you.
How Long is Now? New Scientist
If you know what New Scientist is like and what these books are like, this is more of the usual. People ask their strange or not-so-strange questions about topics scientific, and other people chip in with what they know. Where one answer didn’t quite cover all the angles, another one is often included. You’ll notice folks like David Muir of Portobello High School answering a lot of questions, while others are answered by people who happen to work in something related or had that curiosity themselves and carried out experiments. Sometimes the questions are interesting, sometimes less so — and sometimes the answers are satisfying, and sometimes they’re not quite enough.
It’s an excellent source of general science knowledge, and a good type of book to dip in and out of casually. I did notice that some of the answers are also included in at least one of the New Scientist collections, which I guess is to be expected.
Touch: The Science of The Hand, Heart, and Mind, David J. Linden
Touch is a pretty fascinating book, delving into the importance of the sense of touch for us and what it would mean to lose that sense. It’s not just losing the sensation of your skin touching something, after all: touch receptors also play a part in interpreting pain, heat, etc. In a way, the book as a whole tells you about more than just touch, since it also gives a solid background in the nervous system and the brain.
It’s also pretty focused on stuff like orgasms and sensual touching, sometimes with fairly explicit (and somewhat unnecessary) examples, e.g. a description of a couple having sex. You may or may not find that helps your understanding; I found it intrusive to be told to imagine these things in which I have no interest! Particularly as some of these descriptions are addressed to you, the reader.
I felt that it got a bit scatterbrained at times — sometimes I felt that it wandered away from touch onto other aspects of our sensory experiences, though that’s almost to be expected. We divvy up our senses into some rather artificial boxes at times; just think of how linked scent and taste are. But mostly I found it interesting and easy to read.
On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
I’m doing a biology degree, and I’ve always been an admirer of (and a believer in) the theory of evolution through natural selection, so it seemed high time I finally went to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Not that Darwin came up with the idea out of nothing, of course; it was “in the air” at the time, and other scientists were thinking along similar lines — Lamarck and Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, to name just two. Not to mention, of course, Alfred Wallace, who could’ve beaten Darwin to publication.
But Charles Darwin was the first to publish a theory which really made sense, which hung together and was testable. He may not have known about genetics or had a clear idea of how heritability occurs, yet it’s startling to read this and realise how close he was to right at times. He may not always have backed the right theories, but he considered everything he could imagine, and carefully related it to his own theory. It’s remarkable just how willing he was to consider where his theory might be wrong, and discuss those weaknesses. It’s also remarkable how often he tested what he could, whether it be the germination of seeds soaked in sea water or how pollination works; he may not have had the equipment that we have now, but his attitude is surely a lesson that every aspiring scientist should take to heart.
Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can read this and come away without understanding Darwin’s theory. He’s painstakingly clear, at length, with examples. If you’re reading this and coming to the conclusion that he didn’t support the idea of one species evolving into another, “macroevolution”, your reading comprehension is at fault. He makes it quite clear that “microevolution”, small changes in existing species, can and will lead to new species.
Darwin was not right about everything, but he was right in many key ways — and he would be the first to admit that he could be wrong. He gave us a working, testable theory, one which has ample proof both in his work and in the world around us. Creationists have far too much to explain, by comparison.
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Richard Wrangham
I know I’ve been reading and reviewing a lot of non-fiction lately, but this is probably one of the more entertaining and accessible of the bunch in style. It’s a convincing idea: what caused humans to be able to evolve such big brains and short digestive tracts, compared to other species? The answer, according to Wrangham: first the ability to hunt and eat raw meat, then control of fire for cooking meat.
It’s a very readable book, making all the science and history easy to follow. For me, it was an enjoyable read, though not exactly revolutionary; I was aware of most of the ideas already, since I’m fascinated by human evolution. It pulls together various different threads of the story, bringing together evidence from different ways of understanding human evolution.
(Oh, but if you don’t believe in evolution, this… will not be the book for you. That’s definitely an assumption of the book.)
Deadly Companions, Dorothy H. Crawford
If you’re looking for a book about how human history has been shaped by microbes, and to some extent the evidence from microbes about our own development, this book is definitely going to be of interest. It’s not just diseases, though it does mention a lot of them; it does also touch on some of the more harmless microbes we’ve been carrying around. And of course, it talks about how we’ve shaped the evolution of microbes, as well.
If you’re a nut about this kind of topic, this isn’t very in depth and I don’t think you’re going to learn much from it. Something like David Quammen’s Spillover hits some of the same points while going a bit more into depth. But it’s a well-written survey of the subject, perfect for a layperson.
Gaia, James Lovelock
When I’ve heard of the Gaia theory before, I’ve usually heard of it in a sceptical sort of context that criticises the tree-hugging idea that Earth has a soul. That is not actually the main thrust of Lovelock’s argument at all: instead, what he argues is that Gaia, or Earth, is a self-sustaining system with in-built feedback loops which hold it more or less steady and capable of supporting life.
If you’ve studied climate or geology or even the water cycle, you know that he’s not wrong about the self-sustaining system. There’s so many negative feedback loops which keep things in check — some of which are, of course, threatening to be sabotaged by the action of one particular upstart mammal species with delusions of grandeur. We’re a part of the system, of course, but one which may have got out of hand. Or maybe not; maybe our intelligence will help rein us back in. We can only hope.
The point is, Lovelock’s not saying anything about a cosy loving Earth Mother spirit watching over us. Though his language in this book is sometimes poetical, and his sense of wonder at nature is clear, he’s talking about self-regulating, self-sustaining systems. He’s talking about the fact that the world has checks and balances in place which bring Earth into equilibrium, even though other factors — like the sun’s energy output — have changed over time. And okay, at some points he goes off on a tangent about whale intelligence and a hypothetical future in which whale brains give us technological advances, but the science here isn’t wrong.
There’s nothing actually revolutionary or tree-hugging here. It’s just true. Call it Gaia or call it a complex set of feedback loops; whatever you’re comfortable with, I guess. I do wish I’d read Revenge of Gaia instead, since this is horribly optimistic that humans will pull our collective fingers out and stop damaging the planet. I suspect Lovelock’s less sanguine about that prospect now.