ANIMAL WEAPONS: THE EVOLUTION OF BATTLE by Douglas J. Emlen

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Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle
By Douglas J. Emlen
Henry Holt and Co. – November 2014
ISBN 9780805094503 – 288 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads First-Reads


This is an engaging pop sci look at the evolution of morphologies and behaviors that influence conflict in animals. Why can animals display such starting traits of aggression? Why do some species have such stunning features like the teeth of sharks, the tusks of an elephant, or the elaborate, varied horns of beatles? These features seem to often defy logic. Sucking an exceptional amount of precious energy from the animal, conflict and the ornamentations associated with it (defensive and offensive) seem to evolve in some species to absurd extremes that shorten an animal’s life span.
Emlen explains how such traits and behaviors evolve, and why. The simple answer for the latter is what drives evolution of any characteristic. Those with the genes to produce the characteristic have better reproductive success – of passing on those genes to the next generation.
Chapter by chapter Emlen describes particular cases observed in animals where evolution of defensive or offensive traits is evident. Tying these to a human metaphor of war and technology, Emlen draws parallels between what is seen in biology and what is seen in human history in terms of weapon and armor development.
In terms of the science I am a little disappointed in the focus on animals alone. The weapon metaphor could certainly extend through all of life, with more interesting and varied examples. Moreover, the evolution of battle long predates animals; he really is only covering a tiny recent set of biological developments in this realm. But Emlen’s expertise is in animals and that is the group of organisms that everyone is most familiar with, so okay.
I did appreciate the basic history of human developments in battle that Emlen used to compare with the biological examples. The battle metaphor begins to stretch a little though with the close of the book which begins to postulate on how the future of human developments in weapons could lead to unavoidable catastrophe. This is certainly true. I am not convinced that biological systems of evolution are good proof of this however. Biological evolution is not the same as the ‘evolution’ of technology. The selection for weapon-like traits or battle-related behaviors in animals is not the same as in human war. While it makes for a catchy close to the book, it isn’t accurate or particularly meaningful, beyond a play on emotions.
Though I feel there are some issues with this book in taking very precise scientific concepts and trying to popularize them to a general audience, for the most part I think Emlen does well and would recommend this to anyone with an interest in biology or nature.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher via the Goodreads First-Reads program in exchange for an honest review.

Small Friends Considered

My latest post on the microbiology blog Small Things Considered, hosted by the American Society for Microbiology, features a trio of brief book reviews that should actually be of interest to a broad audience, not just microbiologists. See the reviews here.

The first two are of children’s picture books that tell fictionalized stories telling the biology of symbiosis in the microbial world. They also include fantastically illustrated appendices explaining the science in more detail:

25022719The Squid, The Vibrio & the Moon
by Ailsa Wild (Illustrated by Aviva Reed)
Scale Free Network – September 2014
ISBN 9780992587208 – 36 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher

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Zobi and the Zoox
by Ailsa Wild (Illustrated by Aviva Reed)
Scale Free Network – December 2014
ISBN 9780992587215 – 44 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher

The third book reviewed is of a new graphic novel from the publisher that unfolds on two levels: a macro level from the point of view of a Victorian nurse during World War I, and a micro level from the point of view of the resident gut microbes (including the roles of phage) that fight to keep the nurse alive when she contracts dysentery.

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The Invisible War: A Tale on Two Scales
by Ailsa Wild (Illustrated by Ben Hutchins)
Scale Free Network – August 2016
ISBN 9780992587253 – 88 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher

Please check out the post on Small Things Considered to read more about these. Also keep your eyes here for an upcoming link there to reviews I’m now writing on The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health by David R. Montgomery & Anne Biklé, and of Ed Yong’s new release I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life.

DISCOVERING TUBERCULOSIS, by Christian W. McMillen

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Discovering Tuberculosis: A Global History, 1900 to Present
By Christian W. McMillen
Yale University Press – 30th June 2015
ISBN 9780300190298 – 352 Pages – Hardback
Source: NetGalley


For now, just a short posting review of this, as I will be writing a more complete review soon for incorporation into a Small Things Considered piece on the topic of current tuberculosis vaccine research, addressing some of the science behind what this book addresses from a primarily historical perspective.
While the author of this is a historian and the realm of history is the primary focus of this book, it obviously contains some medical and scientific details. But it should be easily accessible for any lay reader. As a microbiologist familiar more with the bacteria than the disease and its treatment history I found a lot in this that I hadn’t been aware of, particularly in the earlier periods when Tb was frequently thought to be more easily contracted by non-white groups of people, such as the American Indians.
The book covers these early views steeped in racism and colonialism through the data that argued against such interpretations. It then covers the development of the Tb vaccine and consistent questions/uncertainties of its effectiveness. Finally the book covers the more modern – but at this point hardly new – threat of Tb infection in the face of HIV. Throughout, McMillen addresses the question of why Tb continues to be a scourge despite a century of global health efforts.
Overall McMillen provides a good historical coverage of the topic. At times I was annoyed at repetitiveness in the text, and I would have appreciated both more coverage of  future prospects for Tb vaccines, and more of a scientific discussion of the issues behind this whole history in general. I would recommend this for a general audience with interest in history, medicine, and/or global humanitarian health efforts. I will post a link to what I write for Small Things Considered after its publication.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Free eBook Debut Offer for Illustrated Microbiology Children’s Book

I wanted to let readers know about this beautifully illustrated children’s book that is having its debut as an eBook today, and is on special FREE download offer for this week! This and a newer volume are in my pile for a future posting on Small Things Considered, but I was able to get the electronic version to preview in the meantime to check out before letting you know about it.

SquidVibrioMoon_free_eBook

The Squid, The Vibrio, and the Moon
By Ailsa Wild and Gregory Crocetti
Illustrated by Aviva Reed
Scale Free Network – 1s January 2014
ISBN 9780992587208 – 36 Pages – eBook

If you don’t know about the bacteria species Vibrio fischeri and its symbiotic relationship with the Hawaiian bobtailed squid, then this is a perfect introduction to the fascinating pair – whether you are a child or not. It is told in two parts, first from the perspective of the bacteria and then the point of view of the squid in a way that explains how the two species are mutually beneficial in their pairing. A science section that follows the story goes into greater detail of the microbiology.

I’ll write up some more on this in the future along with the authors/illustrator’s new book Zobi and the Zooxon coral symbiosis.

For the promotional period this week of 1st – 7th May 2015 follow this link to get your FREE copy of The Squid, the Vibrio, and the Moon, in iBook or GooglePlay format, or (if like me you prefer the physical beast) order a printed copy.

Microbiology: Four References and a Fiction

I recently had a post on Small Things Considered, a blog from The American Society for Microbiology that combined reviews of four recent nonfiction books that I’ve read, and one fiction, featuring microbiology. Many of these could be of interest even to general readers with scientific curiosity.

6a00d8341c5e1453ef01b7c774ece8970b-800wiConfronting Contagion: Our Evolving Understanding of Disease
By Melvin Santer
Oxford University Press – 2nd October 2014
ISBN 9780199356355 – 384 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


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To Catch a Virus
By John Booss and Marilyn J. August
ASM Press – 25th March 2013
ISBN 9781555815073 – 364 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Publisher


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Scientific Integrity, 4th Edition
By Francis L. Macrina
ASM Press – 23rd July 2014
ISBN 9781555816612 – 530 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


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Principles of Microbial Diversity
By James W. Brown
ASM Press – 23rd July 2014
ISBN 9781555814427 – 416 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


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Petroplague
By Amy Rogers
AuthorHouse – 27th October 2011
ISBN 9781467038270 – 336 Pages – Paperback
Source: Author, via Small Things Considered


You can find short reviews on all of the above in my original post found here on Small Things Considered.

Disclaimer: I received advanced reading copies of these books from the publishers in exchange for honest reviews.

INTRODUCING EVANGELICAL ECOTHEOLOGY

20665283Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology:
Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Praxis
By Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L. Butler, and A.J. Swodoba
Baker Academic – 14th October 2014
ISBN 9780801049651 – 262 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Existing in worlds of both religion and science I come across people who are radically biased against one or the other, and there will be certainly people who see this book and think it is too great a stretch of Biblical theology into realms of science, or politics. And there will be those who see the science, the ecology as clearly important, but the theology not mattering, even perhaps being detrimental. I’ve met ecologists who want nothing to do with Christianity because they feel that the religion has been used to great environmental harm, and see no value in it. I’ve met Christians who think scientists make up data that overemphasizes the fragility of the environment, or view any environmentalism as equating idolatry.
Thankfully this book exists as a focused middle of the road alternative to those who do not accept either of the extremes and feel there is a place for the two worlds to dialogue. And here, not surprisingly the emphasis is for arguing for Christian involvement in ecological concerns, and providing the resources to act, the intended audience is Christian, but it is geared towards either end of the cultural spectrum from progressive to more conservative.
I haven’t come across anything like Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology before and was curious to see how it was approached while not outright alienating people who may be close to the borders of the Christian spectrum extremes. Written by a trio of people from a range of Christian backgrounds, the text largely succeeds. The premise at the book’s heart is the concept that Jesus’ message was for all people and that he held specific regard for those on the margins of society. As we now see that people on the margins are most vulnerable to ecological conditions – and that the health of the environment is of growing concern – then care for the environment should be a concern for discipleship.
This premise is not simply asserted only to move ahead, but the authors spend time arguing for its accuracy. Throughout they try to base that argument on a combination of science, theological tradition, Biblical interpretation, and Jesus’ message in word or deed. Some may disagree with aspects of the premise even after the arguments – or find some arguments a stretch, but the authors do an admirable job of making an effort at convincing, again with experiences and interpretation born from varied sociopolitical backgrounds. Though they excel at discussing the theology and history, they do a good job of covering the science, though I’m not a climate or environmental scientist to be fully certain on all details. (I can’t recall if one author in particular tackled more of science talk than another though.)
As an integrated text from multiple voices, there are certain issues where precise agreement wasn’t reached. The authors chose to put key discussion of these issues into separate boxes called ‘Tension Points’ and within the purpose of the book it works very well, as the book’s best audience would likely be a book club type group or class within a church, who may find these good discussion points, providing a format to keep the talk civil between disagreeing views. A large number of references are also provided for a serious student’s interest in the topic to go deeper, or back to the sources.
Readable without dryness this would be a wonderful book for either an individual or group to read, and the latter portion of it provides challenges to take the ecotheological themes to heart and put them into practice in meaningful ways both large and small. While the intended audience is Christian the book as a whole or in key parts would also be effective for showing to non-Christians allies in addressing these ecological concerns, simply as evidence that not all Christians are uninterested or unconcerned over the health of the environment. Many see it the problems and see it as a failure on many levels (including within the faith) and feel called on levels both religious or humanist to address them.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Baker Academic via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

DANGEROUS GAMES, Edited by Jonathan Oliver

21412123Dangerous Games
Edited by Jonathan Oliver
Solaris Books – 2nd December 2014
ISBN 9781781082683  – 320 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig
“The Yellow Door”, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“Die”, by Lavie Tidhar
“Chrysalises”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“South Mountain”, by Paul Kearney
“The Game Changer”, by Libby McGugan
“Distinguishing Characteristics”, by Yoon Ha Lee
“Captain Zzapp!!! – Space Hero from 3000 AD”, by Gary Northfield (Comic)
“Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem
“The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan
“Honourable Mention”, by Tade Thompson
“Loser”, by Rebecca Levene
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, by Ivo Stourton
“Ready or Not”, by Gary McMahon
“The Monogamy of Wild Beasts”, by Robert Shearman
“The Stranger Cards”, by Nik Vincent
“All Things Fall Apart and Are Built Again”, by Helen Marshall
“Lefty Plays Bridge”, by Pat Cadigan

 Among the short story collections that I’ve read recently, Dangerous Games was unfortunately one that I enjoyed less. While certainly not a poor showing, I personally found most of the stories going in styles or directions that simply weren’t my favorite. This may be from the luck of the draw. I don’t love everything and in the game of collection readings there are going to be some that just don’t fit. It may also arise from the theme of the title, which limits the stories somewhat, where most fit into the description literally with characters in some dire scenario of competition. There is less here of internal struggle than one might find in a general collection or with another given theme.
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig opens the book with a story that was a superb choice for lead-off hitter. It sets the tone with a bit of darkness to accompany that ‘danger’ and presents a present day horror without flowery adornment with a very readable voice. It also introduces a common theme of making circumstances of the horror/fantasy open to reader interpretation.
While I enjoyed this start well enough the next series of stories made it more difficult for me to get into things. Lovecraftian stories (like Moreno-Garcia’s) elude me, perhaps I really just need to take the time and read some of his classic works. Lavie Tidhar is an author who I find hit or miss, and here the miss arises from a similar sense of the story not packing enough of a punch or depth despite well handled language; similarly, Sriduandkaew at times connects, but I often get lost in her dense word spinning web. This one (or duo of tales) just confused me despite reading twice.
This trend of the stories being okay but not really resonating with me in terms of the plot, action, or underlying theme continued through the comic by Northfield and beyond. I cannot comment at all on “Captain Zzapp…” at all. An eReader is simply useless to me for being able to resolve a comic’s panels or text.
Eventually I came to a pair of stories I really did adore, “Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem and “The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan. These each had a strong sinister factor mixed with underlying themes/character psychology that connected with me, mental health in the case of addiction in the case of the former, and sacrifice/servitude in the latter. “Loser” which follows soon after had a similar dark tone with strong characterization to deal with a troubling subject that I found impressive.
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, a spin on Russian Roulette, no pun intended 🙂 was the one more literal take on a game that kept me fully interested in as a tale, mostly because I was eager to see how it turned out. And as I enjoyed her Gifts for the One Who Comes After, I loved the mystique and mood of Helen Marshall’s story. However, while I loved the style and feel of the words on my brain, the plot left less of a mark as notable.
And that situation is somewhat emblematic of many of the other stories here, there may have been an elements that I enjoyed, but other aspects of the given work failed to engage me and that one aspect that hit just wasn’t strong enough to carry everything. In the end your reaction to this, like many collections will come down to personal preference and is harder to predict. But if the theme of Dangerous Games sounds interesting to you and you know a large chunk of these authors as ones you’ve liked before then it’s worth a try.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Solaris Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.