Murderous Contagion: A Human History of Disease, Mary Dobson
I’d expected this to be right up my alley, but in the end, it was too general to really serve up the kind of titbits I’m looking for. Each chapter is a pretty high-level summary of the disease, its effects, its place in history and the current state of affairs, and though here and there some snippets were new to me, on the whole it just wasn’t deep enough for me. There’s some sourcing and recommended further reading, which is worth digging into, but it’s very much a layperson’s book.
As a layperson’s book, because of course I’m not a layperson in this field, it’s a pretty good overview of some very important diseases. The section on SARS and MERS is, well, not prophetic, but an intelligent person mentioning a warning they were aware of which we should all have heeded. The information in the book, as far as my own knowledge goes, is correct and interesting, though I wondered now and then if some things might be apocryphal (Albert Szent-Györgyi calling vitamin C “godnose”, for example).
I think the writing style might be a bit dry at times, though. I can’t tell if I thought so because so little of the information was new, or whether it was genuinely boring.
How to Tame a Fox (And Build A Dog), Lee Alan Dugatkin, Lyudmila Trut
This book discusses one of the most famous experiments on the domestication of animals: the silver fox experiment, originally conceived by Dmitri Belyaev. Generations of foxes were bred during this experiment, selecting from each generation only the tamest animals… and quickly, the experimenters found the behaviour and appearances of their subjects converging on that of dogs. Floppy ears, curly tails, play behaviour even in adults, interest in humans, affection — even protective behaviour.
This book discusses these experiments and their context (shadowed at the start by Lysenko’s hold on the government, their funding fluctuating according to who was in power), and some of their implications. It discusses the morphological and behavioural changes, picking apart some of the known or hypothesised causes (like differences in levels of hormone production, including melatonin and serotonin).
It doesn’t go into any of the criticism of the project’s far-reaching conclusions, which I’ve been seeing a bit of around now Google knows I’m interested in this subject. For instance, at least one study has suggested that the foxes used in the experiment weren’t wild to begin with; though it was always acknowledged that they were from fur farms (and the descriptions of their behaviour, per the book, certainly don’t make it sound like any tameness had been selected for)… it’s still a confounding variable. The book is wildly positive about the experiments, so it’s worth noting that slant and the fact that the story here definitely isn’t the full story. It’s very much a story, though, including a touching tale from Belyaev’s funeral and snippets about the lives of those who worked with the foxes, so it’s pretty much to be expected.
It’s a very clear and easy to follow read, and I think it would be perfectly fine for a complete layperson, even when it dips into the science. It makes me wonder very much about whether these foxes will become common pets in future.
How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, Michael Pollan
If you’re interested in the recent findings that psychedelic drugs (like LSD and magic mushrooms) could help treat forms of depression that have proven themselves resistant to the usual standard of care, this is pretty helpful in many ways as a survey of how LSD et al were originally perceived, how and why things changed, how a psychedelic experience feels, and where things are right now with research (roughly, given that anything based on research can be refined or retracted by the time the book’s printed).
It is also, however, very much about the author: his experiences with various different psychedelic substances take up a whole chapter, and another chapter is given over to the hunting of mushrooms (and the descriptions of a psychedelic trip based on those, too). It’s a very personal history, though I feel that Pollan does make his biases and prejudices — and how they changed with the research — pretty clear, so the unwary reader is still aware that some of this is coloured by opinion.
It sounds like psychedelics are a pretty promising avenue not just for treatment-resistant depression, but for quite a few other mental health issues too. I don’t think that I’m ever likely to see out psychedelics recreationally: the described dissolution of the ego and changed perceptions don’t really appeal to me, and I’d rather find my oneness with the universe through meditation and just trying to be a good person. The one way in which it appeals to me is the finding that it often changes people’s relationship to death (having been used with great success as part of palliative care). As someone with 10-15 years of constant anxiety about my health and anxious predictions of my imminent death under my belt, the idea of feeling able to let that go to some extent sounds very appealing… if only there were an exact science to having the kind of trip that leads to that outcome.
There are a few things that bother me about the current perception that psychedelics could be a panacea for almost all mental health problems, and to his credit, Pollan does discuss them despite his enthusiasm. One is the near-impossibility of randomised controlled studies; another is the impossibility of tightly controlling all the variables when psychedelic drugs are used, because people’s experiences depend highly on their setting and their mental state beforehand, and crucially, what they expect to happen. As soon as you’ve got someone’s informed consent for a psychedelic to be administered, you’ve changed the outcome of their trip.
Finally, we’ve had seemingly amazing breakthroughs in mental health treatments before, but over time they have lost their efficacy — repeat studies on antidepressants like fluoxetine (Prozac) now find far smaller effects, even when everything is carefully controlled. It’s not entirely clear why that is, so it is also unclear whether that will apply to psychedelics as well, and to what extent.
In any case, Pollan’s book is an interesting survey of the history and the state of the field now, and well worth it if you’re interested in the topic.
Stuck: How Vaccine Rumours Start — And Why They Don’t Go Away, Heidi J. Larson
I was really interested to read this, partly because Heidi J. Larson’s position at LSHTM (where I now study) caught my eye. Hey, I’ve picked books for worse reasons, and the issue this book is trying to dissect is really, really important — and something I might perhaps be interested in working on someday in terms of trying to reconcile people to vaccines.
Anyway, the gist of the argument is that scientists and government officials aren’t listening to the concerns of people who are worried about vaccination. At the same time, it points out that when governments have listened to such concerns and paused vaccination schemes, it’s legitimised that view — often again years of studies — and resulted in even more people losing their trust in vaccines. It pings around between those points a bit and comes to no conclusions.
There’s no additional wisdom here: Larson never manages to get beyond “people feel their [fictional, unscientific, ungrounded in fact] concerns about vaccines should be listened to and investigated very carefully, and they’re mad that governments aren’t doing so… but it’s also bad when governments do so.” Thanks, I figured that out. Somehow governments/health officials need to listen to people with concerns and made them feel valid, without actually making those concerns sound valid.
I get that it’s a difficult subject, but this book — short though it is — takes too long to tell me nothing I didn’t already know. If you’ve never thought about why vaccine refusal happens, and never tried to dig into the consequences, then this book will be useful, though.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake
I’ve been looking forward to Entangled Life for quite a while, so hurrah! It’s finally here. I read it pretty quickly, and then had to put it aside and think whether it actually met my expectations. Sheldrake’s really, really keen on fungi, that much is obvious; sometimes I was less interested in his poetic hands-on eagerness to understand them close up — I wouldn’t wax lyrical about Mycobacterium tuberculosis in quite the same way, however wonderful and terrible I find it.
In the main, it’s accessible and interesting, and centres fungi completely in a way that normally doesn’t happen. There are lots of books about microbiology and few are the ones that really delve into fungi, partly for the good reason that we don’t actually understand fungi very well and have a lot to learn. There are a lot of interesting facts in this book, and some interesting speculations as well.
I just… I don’t know, I ended it feeling that Sheldrake was more interested in evangelising for fungi than anything else. The bit at the end where he says he’s going to seed a copy of the book with spores and dampen it, and then eat the mushrooms that grow… and then pulp another book to make alcohol out of it — I don’t know, it had me pulling back a lot and saying “y’what, mate?” There’s something very performative about it, and if someone were to tell me he were being mind-controlled by our secret fungal overlords, well… In fiction, that’s exactly what’s going on.
It’s odd for me that I ended the book with that strong feeling of “…dude, what?” instead of fascination with the genuinely interesting scientific titbits newly learned.
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.