Unfit for Purpose expands on a familiar-sounding theme: humans evolved over millions of years for a certain set of circumstances, but in recent centuries we’ve changed how we live entirely so that the bodies that we’ve developed and the genes we carry are optimised for a hopelessly different world… and sometimes they prove to be a disadvantage. The obvious first target is body fat storage, and Adam Hart goes straight there like a bird to the nest.
I’m not an expert on the subject, but I know I’ve read better coverage of the “obesity crisis” than Adam Hart manages here. Obesity is just bad, per Hart, and though he doesn’t embrace the idea of BMI uncritically, I know I’ve read counter-arguments for several of his points. As a scientist, I probably should spend some time tracking down this info… as a person, however, this doesn’t interest me, so it’s just worth being aware of if you pick the book up. There is not even a mention of “health at every size” thinking here.
I found the other topics similarly skimmed across. It’s amazing that he managed to mention Stanley Milgram’s experiments as a key part of how our psychology makes us ill-adapted to modern life… and used only a page to discuss them, even though it’s actually a complex issue, with many critiques of Milgram’s experiments (not least the accusation, per Gina Perry’s book, that he cherry-picked his data and massaged the scenarios to get the answer he wanted).
In the end, Hart’s main point isn’t wrong. We didn’t evolve for a situation like this… but I think part of the problem is imagining that any organism ever did. Evolution broadly shapes a species, of course, but what each species is adapted to is not the current circumstances, but those of their forebears. Humans have created change on a massive scale, shaping our environments, rapidly changing the way we live and altering our interactions with other species.
Of course we’re not adapted for this. No species ever is, and we’ve sped things up so much that it becomes incredibly obvious. I found Hart’s analysis fairly obvious and high-level — which one would expect from a popular science book, of course, but even if the pop-science book doesn’t dig deep, the author should have. There were some interesting bits, but knowing there was more digging to be done on some of these topics to get a fair impression of the landscape leaves me very hesitant to uncritically believe the pictures Hart paints.
Brian Switek is better known, perhaps, for writing about palaeontology — and particularly dinosaurs. The Secret Life of Bone is all about a much more familiar skeleton in the closet — well, actually, it’s not even in the closet, so that’s really a bad joke. Ahem. Anyway. The point is, this book focuses mostly on human bone, though it gets there by way of our evolutionary history. Want to know how bones evolved? What bones can tell you about an individual? Freaky facts about bone growing inside soft organs? How bones are formed and reformed throughout your life? How bones fossilise?
This book is all of that, in a pretty breezy and entertaining style. It’s anecdotal, of course, as is common for popular science books — so if you have absolutely no interest at all in knowing Switek’s own thoughts, feelings and experiences, it probably won’t be for you. It makes the descriptions and explanations accessible, and I think really the thing that’s most lacking is some colour-plates to illustrate some of the skeletons he discusses from photographs.
The Contact Paradox is all about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the various issues surrounding it: how are we searching? What are we looking for? Do we expect to find anything? Should we send out signals to help ET find us? How? Why haven’t we found anybody else yet? Are we looking in the right place? Etc, etc, etc. It’s mostly a good exploration of the options, though as always I find myself totally frustrated by the assumptions made on either side of the debate. As I’ve written before elsewhere, I don’t think we have enough data to speculate from. We have one dataset, Earth, and that’s all.
Not that this is the book’s fault; part of SETI is figuring out whether there is other life in the universe or not, and this stuff has to be thought out to know what we’re looking for. The book just discusses the arguments and tries to be reasonably balanced about it… it’s just that I find most of the arguments lacking, or rather, I find that they come to premature conclusions and that people’s attitudes tend to harden on their preferred end of the spectrum.
What I did really enjoy about the book is being reminded about how amazing the universe is — and how much we do understand about it. The stuff we know or can theorise about is mind-boggling in the best way.
This is popular science, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it’s shot through with references to popular science fiction, and even discusses the point of view of various science fiction writers. I couldn’t help but notice they were all dudes, though, and that in all the references to all kinds of science fiction, not one female author was named. Sigh and eyeroll. I’m sure there are dozens of excuses for that on the part of the author, and I’m not really interested in hearing them.
Though in terms of fiction that he could’ve referred to, I thought the author really missed a trick in not referring to the Mass Effect games, which have their own answer to Fermi’s paradox and the Great Filter.
The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries, Donald R. Prothero
This one is quite an expensive tome, so I was pleased when the library got it for me in ebook! It’s not quite as good as being able to see the full-colour, full-size illustrations, but I’m not very visual so I was here for the text anyway. I could get a quick look at the interesting ones, and that’s enough for me; I recommend experiencing it in colour, though, and probably in pbook form instead of ebook.
Overall, it was… pretty much as I’d expect, from a fairly generalised dinosaur book: there was a lot that I already knew, with some nuggets that I didn’t, and different interpretations of some fossils while trying to portray a fairly broad consensus. There are some gossipy stories about palaeontologists and work in the field, enough to give you a little taste of the conditions fossils get collected in and the history around their study.
There’s nothing particularly surprising, if you’re interested in dinosaurs and tend to pounce on books about them… but for me it was nice to wander through the Cretaceous landscapes for a while and let it wash over me. It’d be great if you were interested in dinosaurs as a kid, don’t know much about them now, and would like a refresher that brings up to date whilst being informative and fairly thorough.
Invasive Aliens: The Plants and Animals From Over There That Are Over Here, Dan Eatherley
Invasive Aliens discusses invasive organisms that are not native to Britain and how they got here, how they affect their new home, and what that implies for the future. Some of the invasives we’ve embraced as our own (rabbits and buddleia) while others are hated (grey squirrels)… and others, of course, we know very little about.
I actually picked this up partly because one of the reviews on Amazon complained about “snide references” to Brexit and Nazis. For your pleasure, I’ve pulled out those three quotations! From the introduction:
Many Brits pride themselves as stoic defenders of a green and pleasant land, boasting a record of resistance against aggressors dating back centuries, be it weathering the Spanish Armada or defying Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. This patriotic fervour, and its clarion call ‘to control borders’, may in part explain the 2016 Brexit vote. Yet, a cursory examination of the natural world reveals that while many interlopers of the human variety have been kept at bay, our islands have throughout history been colonised by a succession of animals, plants, fungi and other organisms that apparently belong elsewhere. Indeed, it’s often hard to sort out the native from foreign.
Which doesn’t exactly make the book “political cant disguised as a book on nature”, to my mind, given it’s mentioned once in the commentary and almost never again. There’s one other reference to Brexit in the entire book:
The UK has often taken a lead; for instance, in banning the sale of certain aquatic plants in 2013. But the political imperative of maintaining and boosting frictionless international trade – Brexit or no Brexit – risks trumping concerns about the unavoidable corollary of that flow of goods and people, namely, the arrival of unwanted new species.
Oh noes, the politics. Picture me with my hand to my forehead, swooning.
Finally, the book wraps up with some thoughts about how we’re going to treat invasive species in the future, mentioning the contention of some people that invasives actually boost biodiversity, and trying to tease apart what policy could and should be — and I guess this particular paragraph could come off as a bit pointed.
Public awareness of the issue is higher than ever before, with sensational news headlines stoking our fears. Giant hogweed, introduced as a horticultural curiosity from the Caucasus mountains in the 1820s, has been recast as Britain’s ‘most dangerous plant’ with sap that ‘melts’ a child’s skin. ‘Monster goldfish’ are on the prowl. ‘Sex mad Spanish slugs’ are terrorising our gardens. Emotive terminology isn’t just the preserve of tabloids: even serious scientists will talk about ‘demon shrimps’ and ‘killer algae’ with a straight face. Some of the language has a xenophobic flavour: introduced plants and animals are ‘ex-pats’ or ‘immigrants’, which ‘pollute’ our pristine environment and need to be ‘bashed’ and ‘sent home’. Perhaps it’s telling that the Nazis were among the first to take against non-natives, drafting a ‘Reich Landscape Law’ in 1941 banishing exotic plants from pure German landscapes. Some argue that the current fixation with non-indigenous wildlife is bound up with subliminal, and not so subliminal, antipathy to arrivals of the human kind. Concerns about non-natives and immigration to our small, overcrowded island are, they say, all of a piece.
Despite those snippets, I promise the rest of the book is actually focused on exactly what it suggests — those are the sole references to Brexit or Nazis in the entire 326-page volume, and politics in general impinges very little beyond the mention of initiatives here or there to eradicate this or that organism, due to impacts on the environment or native species. And, you know, I do wonder if these remarks put their finger on something.
Overall, despite my overall feeling of entertainment about that review, the book felt a little bogged down. The chapters are roughly themed (e.g. around freshwater invasives), but the examples start to feel like a succession of “and ANOTHER thing” — just as I felt it was wrapping up toward a conclusion, we’d look at another example (and it probably wouldn’t add much). Personally, I’d have refined the chapters down a bit and stuck to 2-3 examples per chapter to illustrate the points and the particular difficulties facing a certain part of the ecosystem, and overall slimmed things down. Even finishing the chapters off with some tables of other relevant invasives would have given all the examples in a way that’s a bit easier to digest…
It’s not unenjoyable, taken in short bursts, but my attention did wander quite a lot. The author’s voice is not super-engaging, even though he explains well and chooses good examples. Maybe I also suffer from knowing this stuff a little too well; reading popular science is sometimes the equivalent of shouting “HE’S BEHIND YOU” for an entire play, for me. Bit of a problem of preaching to the choir, except it’s a very opinionated choir (with some facts backing up its opinions) that is not sure they are wholly against invasive species as a general principle.
This book is really a short-ish essay, broken up into very short segments, written very early in the course of the pandemic. It explains — very briefly — some of the numbers and concepts that render COVID-19 a global concern, and tries to contextualise some of the public health measures being taken.
For me, it’s very basic, of course: I know what the R-nought is, I know why it’s important, and I know what it isn’t. This is much more for a layperson, something on the level I might write on my science blog, with a touch of personal reflection as well. It’s mildly interesting to me, but I suspect it’s of much more value to people who are newer to these concepts. Given that, I can’t say it was more than a curiosity for me, or something that sticks in my head — but it may be better for others in encapsulating and explaining some of the ideas we need to get a handle on right now.
The COVID-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop It Happening Again, Richard Horton
The COVID-19 Catastrophe was written by the editor-in-chief of The Lancet. Most of the papers I needed to cite in my dissertation on tuberculosis were published in The Lancet, if the name doesn’t mean anything to you; it’s a prestigious medical journal, and Horton himself has a medical degree and a BSc in physiology. He knows whereof he speaks, in other words, and in this book he tears into the failings of governments (mostly the UK, somewhat the US) in coming to grips with the pandemic.
He is very clear in discussing these failings, though he more or less ignores the idea that China had any role to play here. There’s one brief reference to the doctor who tried to raise the alarm and was cautioned by the police, if I remember correctly… but if he does mention it at all, it’s a very bland reference with no further digging into why that occurred, and whether if people had listened at that point, we’d be in this position now. That’s a pretty grave lack.
If you’re curious for his position on matters in the UK, here he doesn’t hold back. I needn’t go over it all again, but suffice it to say that our government was slow to react, loath to give things the weight they deserved, and too quick to lift restrictions. People have died, are dying and will die as a result of the government’s actions; they are massively culpable for a lack of leadership and clarity. And he doesn’t even have to get onto the mess with Dominic Cummings, probably revealed as the book was already going to press.
The final section looks at what we can do to handle future pandemics better: as he rightly points out, this is only the first, and more are inevitable. Other books have done a better job on the whys (Spillover, by David Quammen) and hows (The End of Epidemics, by Jonathan D. Quick), but it’s not a bad high-level summary.
I do worry that one of his final remarks (that COVID marks an end to “sovereignty”) is going to be a massive red button for some people that leads them to just ignore everything he says. I don’t think he’s wrong; I think fragmenting into separate nations with wholly different ways of handling the virus is far from ideal, and I think the WHO has too little power (it has historically received so much of its funding from the US that its policies always have to consider “will this annoy the US?” first and foremost) and funding. We need more unity, not less, if we want to have all this trade and mixing of peoples between different countries… which Britain needs, because we don’t produce everything we need… and that call for unity clashes really badly with current politics.
But them’s the breaks. Pandemics don’t give a fuck about Brexit. If anything, it makes it easier for them as it erodes cooperation, goodwill and information-sharing.
Part of the entertainment factor of this book is the fact that it takes its theories too far. After explaining Chimaera legends as the result of animals wandering into a tar pit and becoming fossilised in a weird tangle, the author goes on:
And Chimera was hardly alone. If a horse went down to a tar pit for a bit of water, got stuck, died, and was subsequently fed upon by a vulture that also got stuck in the tar, that would provide an explanation for the legendary Pegasus. Some art even shows Chimera battling with Pegasus. Was this linked to a find of fossils that people could barely make sense of?
He then goes on to use tar pits to explain sphinxes and Scylla: “Indeed, if there is a monster that stands as evidence that the ancients were looking at fossils of multiple animal skeletons jumbled together, it is Scylla.”
He does nobly admit right after that that “this requires tar pits, and Greece (and the rest of Europe) doesn’t have any”! Yes, that would be a bit of a problem for this theory, but it’s okay — he then posits trade routes as bringing the stories to Greece…
The problem with this book is that there is a lot of truth in it: it discusses gigantism in humans as arising due to tumours in the pituitary gland and suggests that could be the source of some monstrous legends; it points to fossils and tar pits as origins of various monstrous legends and ideas; it points out that giant predators were around in the past. However, it leans on these ifs and maybes — and on a good deal of special pleading — and takes it way too far. Maybe we imagined Cerberus because a giant slavering dog with three heads just seemed scary, you know? No need for three wolves to be swept off to sea together and fossilised as a jumble of bones with three heads.
In the end, I got tired of the exercise for my rolling eyes and put this down, relieved that I never paid for it and instead borrowed it. Whew. If you’re interested in some of the potential scientific seeds of monster stories, there are definitely nuggets of truth here. I learnt that the pituitary tumour thing actually ran in families due to a genetic disposition, producing families of giants! I learnt about some monsters I didn’t know that well! But… I have serious questions about the author’s seriousness here: his Chimera and Pegasus idea really begs for us to ask whether he thinks the fights between King Kong fighting Godzilla were inspired by film-makers finding an enormous ape fighting an enormous reptile in a tar pit? Or does he recognise that while the monstrous can (probably always does) grow from seeds of reality, probably a lot of ancient story-tellers were just thinking up ways to scare the shit out of each other, create amazing spectacles for artwork, or just tell a good story.
I love the idea of books like this: here in one book, we’re going to impart to you the principles behind everything you need to know to rebuild all the comforts of home from nothing. This one has a fun gimmick: it’s been found embedded deep within rocks, and it claims to be the repair manual for a time machine. Since you can’t repair the time machine, instead here’s how to create the comforts of civilisation that you’re used to by accelerating technological progress. To that end, it has some flowcharts for figuring out what time period you’ve ended up in, and technology trees to help you trace out what you need to do to get particular results.
It’s also packed with information, which it delivers in a pretty light style, keeping to the basics. It’s all easy to understand, and the unfortunate thing is that for me the jovial tone got old. Yes, I know, we need XYZ invention to eventually have pizza. I get it. The pizza joke is old now!
The lists for me were kind of… I didn’t like dipping in and out, but it’s also not a great experience to just sit and read it all the way through, either. (For one thing, I think that’s why I got sick of the jokes.)
It’s a really fun gimmick, and there’s a lot of information in here and plenty to pique your curiosity, if a) you know a bit less about science than I do and b) you’re a dip-in-and-out sort of reader. I am just a curmudgeon.
This one is frustrating as an ebook — Adobe Digital Editions wouldn’t let me view all of the images no matter how I adjusted the pages — but fascinating; I’d love to get my hands on a physical copy for a while to look at some of the figures again. It’s not just maps, really; it’s a world-tour of disease, with a lot of other illustrations as well. There are reproductions of informational posters, images showing the course of disease, and descriptions of the origins of diseases, the symptoms, their impacts on humanity…
Though there are a lot of images, there’s much of interest in the text as well. Much of it isn’t new to me, of course — but even when it came to tuberculosis, there was a surprise or two for me. (Alright, alright, I’ll tell you: I was surprised that the BCG vaccination actually has very mixed results: the efficacy is 60-80%, but falls as you approach the equator. It’s probably an artefact of different studies or different ways of preparing the actual vaccination, if you think about it, but it’s really interesting to try and figure out how a vaccination could lose efficacy based on geography.)
I’d recommend a physical copy to get the images, but it was interesting even when they weren’t always easy to examine. The facts are somewhat basic, since it doesn’t go into great depth, but there was enough to keep me (as someone who has studied infectious diseases and reads a lot about them) interested.