The question Losos asks, and tries to answer, is this: can we predict evolution? Are certain things inevitable in development — birds, humans, antibiotic resistance, etc, etc? He writes engagingly about field work, experiments, thought experiments, the various theories and people who have supported them… I definitely want to do more reading on this.
Am I convinced? Well, I’m not sure Losos is convinced that evolution can be predicted in detail; he presents some good evidence that suggests that you can predict the sorts of changes in gene function that will be beneficial in a certain environment, but that you can’t predict exactly how those changes will come about. Sometimes one gene might be altered, sometimes another. The phenotype is predictable (unsurprisingly: look for what would benefit the species in breeding successfully) but the genotype is not, unless it’s a fairly simple case of one particular molecular switch needing to be flipped on or off. There is a great deal of contingency in the process of evolution: Gould was (at least to some extent) correct in suggesting that we can’t “rewind the tape of life” and then see things proceed in exactly the same way.
As with determinism in any sense, I generally believe that if all factors were known, we would also know the result. I’m just not sure we can know those factors (and I dislike and squirm away from applying it to human ethics — our actions may be caused by previous events, but we don’t experience the process that way, so it’s irrelevant in how to be moral) — especially given events on a quantum level.
If you’ve read much about animal intelligence, most of the stuff in this book won’t be all that surprising, though of course since it’s entirely about birds, it includes a lot more anecdotes and bird-focused studies. As a whole, the book definitely makes a case for birds as specialised, well adapted, and very intelligent in their own spheres. We won’t be having philosophical discussions with them any time soon, though, if that’s what you thought ‘genius’ meant. And I think honestly that Ackerman makes less of a case for bower birds’ displays being art than others I’ve read.
It’s an easy read, and good for some ‘huh, cool’ moments, but not the most rigorous or unmissable popular science book out there.
The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Gene isn’t quite as great as The Emperor of All Maladies: the fact that this isn’t as much Mukherjee’s forte definitely shows, and there’s a couple of points of fact I’d quibble about. For the most part, though, it’s a really great discussion of genetics and the way they actually affect people, tracing a history of mental illness in Mukherjee’s own family as an example. I know this field pretty darn well by this point, and this is far from the first book I’ve read about genetics, but Mukherjee is a good writer, making it all seem fresh and worth reading even when it’s stuff I know backwards and forwards, and probably inside out too.
If you’re curious about genetics, about what genetics can do for us, and about how exactly things like recessive genes and pleiotropy work, this is a good choice. It’s not for experts, but it’s still a pleasant read even if you do know the topic already.
I initially picked this up because of the subtitle, which specifically mentions the discovery of a cure for tuberculosis. In fact, for the most part it isn’t about the science, but more about the intellectual property battle that surrounded the discovery of streptomycin. It’s more about the two main scientists it discusses, and their struggle over who really found streptomycin. The way the book tells it, I think it’s clear that Waksman was wrong to claim all the credit, and knew he was; Schatz should have received much more credit and recognition for what he did.
It’s interesting in the sense of illuminating what goes on to get drugs from the lab bench to actual development, where Waksman really did play a key role. It might be a bit wearing if you’re not that interested in what’s essentially a biography of the two scientists, though.
This is a really good account of the outbreak of cholera that led to John Snow’s famous map, showing that a particular water pump was the culprit. He traces the history of how London dealt with sewage and how it became such a big issue, and also examines some of the main characters in the drama of trying to stop the outbreak — and trying to challenge miasma theory, which was so much the paradigm at the time. There isn’t a lot of specific science stuff here, but Johnson makes clear why the cholera pathogen is so deadly in a very accessible way.
The only weird part is in the conclusion/afterword to the book, where Johnson talks more generally about the risks to city life and starts discussing nuclear war and terrorism. It seems very much a non-sequitur, and adds nothing to the book to my mind.
Wonderful Life is pretty, well, wonderful. If your curiosity about the Burgess Shale or the weird and wonderful beings of the Cambrian period needs sating, this book should more than do it. It is quite dense — Gould may have been a popular science writer, but he didn’t dumb it down — but it’s worth the time investment.
It’s true that some of the reconstructions of these beings have been challenged since Gould wrote, but it’s still worth reading for his overall theory about the development of life, and much important (and correct) detail about the Burgess Shale.
This is a bit out of date now, in that there are emerging viruses it doesn’t touch on and scientific advances in studying them that it doesn’t include, but it’s still a fascinating glimpse into some of the emerging diseases of the last century or so, how the outbreaks were handled and what they mean. If you’re read David Quammen’s Spillover, it’s somewhat along the same lines, discussing many of the same diseases; it’s been a while since I read Spillover, so I found this a good refresher on the diseases mentioned and the early stages of their emergence.
If you find this whole subject a little stressful, this won’t exactly be reassuring; it does show that the world simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with the kind of pandemics that are coming our way. We’ve been lucky so far — I’m honestly shocked there’s been nothing worse since this book was published.
If you’ve read The Emperor of All Maladies, you already know a little about the Philadelphia chromosome, but this book goes into more depth on it and focuses exclusively on this form of cancer, bringing in some case studies and describing the scientists and physicians who were intimately involved in the research and the long road to a treatment for the cancer caused by the Philadelphia chromosomal translocation. It’s a fascinating story and well written — actually oddly gripping, if you find research like this interesting. Like a lot of the best books describing research, it made me want to get out there and do some of my own, and maybe someday be as instrumental in saving lives as some of the scientists mentioned.
I was asked with The Emperor of All Maladies if I thought the book would be a stressful read for someone who is afraid of cancer. So the same report for The Philadelphia Chromosome: I think some of the treatments and symptoms described are pretty awful, as you’d expect, but it doesn’t tend to get deeply personal or emotional about them, and the cancer caused by this particular mutation is actually extremely treatable. You might even find it a good place to jump on with learning more about cancer to demystify and undemonise it a little for that reason.
After reading his book on polio and his book on smallpox, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Gareth Williams turning his hand to something like the Loch Ness Monster — but nonetheless, I knew he was a good writer and understands science and the importance of evidence. And Nessie is fascinating, of course; even if there is no Nessie (and I tend to think there isn’t) then it’s fascinating how people have believed there was a Nessie, and spent their whole lives searching for her. I needn’t have worried, anyway: Gareth Williams presents the evidence without much sign of being partial. He notes when people’s evidence was convincing or their testimony likely to be trustworthy, as well as noting when people carried out fakes.
It turns out to be exactly as fascinating as you’d expect, looking at all sorts of people who made or broke their reputations hunting for the monster. In the end, we have very little direct evidence pointing to the existence of a Nessie, so unsurprisingly the book looks at the human side of the drama, along with the sciences that, over time, people have brought to bear on the problem.
I’m sure some writers wouldn’t be able to make this interesting, but to me, Williams did. And if nothing else, he had me wanting to believe in Nessie, for all that he attempted to stay neutral himself (and I wouldn’t like to pin him down on either side of the debate for absolute certain, though I think a lot of people wish it could be true but don’t think it is).
The topic of this book — evolutionary biology from the point of view of the importance of locomotion — is fascinating, and I can’t actually point to anything about the writing or structure that bothers me. I just found that I didn’t enjoy it. Part of that is probably because I’m not interested in the physics, and though I think HOX genes are fascinating, I’m already aware of them and the homology in them between species.
I think some of the sections on the physics of motion genuinely dragged a little; if you’re into physics, it’s nothing new, and if you’re not, then it’s not exactly the most fascinating stuff. It’s an interesting topic, and Wilkinson writes pretty clearly, so that might be a personal thing.