Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, Nick Lane
I read this while I was preparing for one of the final exams of my biology degree, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I found it helpful in revising some of the topics (mostly apoptosis!), but also found that knowledge useful in understanding the book itself. To me, it seemed an incredibly clear and well-written account of the role of mitochondria in life and the origin of life, and I didn’t really find any major holes in it based on what I know. If you’ve read The Vital Question, then a lot of the ideas in it aren’t new — but of course, that makes sense, since The Vital Question is a more recent book by the same author.
And since this is pop science, I should add that you don’t need the biology degree to understand it. It might be slower going and less like pleasure reading if you don’t have a solid background in science, but it should work at that level too.
I do roll my eyes a little bit at the title, which is obviously drumming up excitement by sounding provocative and then like a self-help book, but hey, maybe it’s persuaded someone on the fence to pick it up just through sounding a bit unusual for the section it’s in. It’s worth picking up, definitely.
Way back possibly even before I was doing my biology degree, I was doing all the MOOCs (massively open online courses) I could, and one of them was run by John Hawks. So when I stumbled across this book I had to have it. I’ve always been vaguely aware of and interested in what’s understood about hominin evolution, but I mostly knew about the big classic hits like Lucy. Homo naledi, discussed in this book, is new and rather surprising.
The story of excavating the remains is also pretty fascinating, with a team of female scientists picked for their ability to wriggle into the cave systems to retrieve the items, and all the science and planning that went into understanding what was happening. The book does also include some info on Berger’s career in general, which is less interesting to me, but his excavations of hominin remains… it’s all astounding and exciting to me.
Knowing that Berger’s work can be controversial, I’d love to read some other takes on the same info. I might even dig into the journals while I still have access, before my degree’s done. Either way, it’s fascinating stuff, though.
I’m not entirely the audience for this one, since I know the subject from a reading-scientific-papers and writing-a-dissertation-on-tuberculosis level, and this is like the other Bloomsburg Sigma books aimed at a casual, pop-science kind of audience. Not a bad thing, but if you’re here to seriously buckle down and learn (e.g. because you have an immune condition), then it’s going to feel far too light and flippant, and the focus will be all wrong. For me, it was a good opportunity to revise my understanding of some of the topics I’ve been learning about, and see an alternate way to describe them, but it’s nothing new and Carver couldn’t get me more excited than I already am about the subject.
A couple of times the topics lean towards the memorable and thus aberrant things like the boy who grew up and lived entirely in a bubble due to immune problems; this can be fascinating, but you could see it as an element of sensationalism in a topic that needs no sensationalising to be fascinating and deeply relevant to all of us. After all, the same illnesses and malfunctions await all of us if our immune systems fail, and our immune systems are the only things that really have a hope of continuing to be effective against the pathogens around us in the long run.
I expected to enjoy this a lot — I typically do like the Bloomsbury Sigma books, even if they tend to take on quite a chatty tone. But this one just felt boring: partly that was because I wasn’t learning anything, because everything seemed obvious, and partly because I wasn’t interested in the flippant remarks, etc. It felt like it was pitched to someone who knows less about this sort of thing than I do, but also someone who is rather more interested in the ins and outs of the science applied to the city, if that makes sense.
Whatever, in the end it didn’t work for me and I was, in fact, deadly bored.
There’s a lot of research going on into neuroscience, and it can lead us some pretty tricky places — morally and socially, as well as in terms of the science itself. Taylor’s book is very much a warning note, sometimes verging on the melodramatic, about the kinds of technologies which might be on the horizon. It’s worth noting though that the book came out in 2012, and I haven’t seem much in the way of the kind of exponential progress she envisages.
At times her style is a little dry, but it’s mostly readable and the warning note is worth sounding — and the technology itself is fascinating.
Kin is a book about microbes and how they’re related to us, and the surprisingly close ties between microbes and humans. It does a lot of digging into the origin of life in general, really; I didn’t find it as interesting as Nick Lane’s The Vital Question, and ultimately I was also surprised by how bad some of the editing was — it was just careless, typos and missing words, etc.
If you’re looking for a book about where life came from, I probably recommend Nick Lane’s book; I’ll have to have a think for some others which present alternative ideas. Ingraham’s book is easy enough to read, but it didn’t feel quite worth the time for me. Bearing in mind, of course, that I’m finishing up my biology degree at the moment with a dissertation on one particular microbe, so I guess I’m not really the target audience here.
The Great Mortality is how the Black Death was referred to, before we came to know it by that evocative name. There’s a lot of detail here if you’re interested in the historical aspects of the plague: where it struck, how people reacted, the changes it brought about. The scientific background is a bit more lacking, though: there’s some tantalising hints, like a brief discussion of the increased virulence of the illness compared to the modern version that’s still endemic in some parts of the world, but for me with my primarily scientific rather than purely historical or sociological outlook, it began to drag.
So, not a bad read, but not what I was really looking for.
It’s been a while since this book was published, of course, and the science of investigating ancient mitochondrial DNA has been going from strength to strength, but this is still a good book on the background of that research, the importance of mitochondrial DNA, and the idea that we can trace our lineage back through the female line to just a few specific women. (Actually, this is very Europe-centric, a fact that becomes clear when you read the whole book: the seven ‘clan mothers’ mentioned are only the last common ancestors of European mitochondrial lines.)
Sykes writes clearly and well, and the only bit I wasn’t happy with as popular science writing is the little fake histories of the seven women. He tries to put flesh on the bones of what the women might have been like, the environment and social situations they would have encountered, but it’s really far too much like pure fiction for me. If he’d even included some more perhapses and maybes and alternative scenarios, I might have been more comfortable with it. As it is, it gives us a false idea that there were seven such knowable women.
Still, it’s fascinating stuff and I do love reading about this kind of genetic detective work.
This is really clearly written, it covers fascinating subjects, and the authors have tried really hard to equip readers with the ability to think things through for themselves. They don’t just state conclusions: they lead the reader through how those conclusions were reached, until they are also inevitable for the reader. It’s a smart way to write, although the right people — the people who look at the conclusions and decide they’re wrong without any evidence — probably won’t actually go through the evidence.
Unfortunately, a lot of this evidence involves thinking mathematically, which is not a strong point for me. I can hammer something into my head for practical purposes (I can now do a bunch of statistical tests using paper and a calculator!) and I can remember how to calculate something I find interesting (the number of base pairs in a fragment of DNA from how far it travelled during gel electrophoresis), but I’m not good with big concepts. And Cox and Forshaw tackle some of the biggest here.
At another time, I might be in the mood to work through this more thoroughly. As it is, I didn’t finish it — not because I think it’s bad (it’s not), but just because this is not the time. Too much for me to learn that’s more immediately relevant.
(Remember that my ratings denote enjoyment, not usefulness or interestingness per se. It’s just… maths. Not for me, not right now.)
Evolution in Four Dimensions, Eva Jablonka, Marion J. Lamb
This is really clear if you know a bit about what it’s talking about, and probably impossibly dense if you don’t. The illustrations are rather whimsical usually, rather than being useful (even for people who aren’t me and can make sense of things they’re looking at!), and there are “dialogues” at the end of each chapter which go over the previous points and basically play a bit of Devil’s advocate. They didn’t work for me because it was so artificial — obviously they wrote the dialogues entirely themselves, so it was just the questions they wanted to answer — but it might be helpful in clarifying some things for some readers.
There’s some new stuff since this revised edition came out, but it’s still a good primer on epigenetics and some of the other things that are significant when you discuss evolution (like culture). I probably wouldn’t recommend it to a layperson, but if you’re already interested, it’s a good one.