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.

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.


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.

Cheese and Microbes, Edited by Catherine W. Donnelly

My latest post for Small Things Considered, an American Society for Microbiology blog, is up with a review of Cheese and Microbes, an interesting collection that may be of interest to general readers with scientific interests (or those who just simply adore cheese!).6a00d8341c5e1453ef01b7c7551c32970b-800wi

“Well-established centuries prior to discovery of the unseen universe of life, cheese production seems perhaps closer to an art than to a science — look no further than that descriptor artisanal… Now an entire book of cheese-related microbiology reviews awaits the curious with the publication by ASM Press of Cheese and Microbes, edited by Catherine Donnelly… Donnelly opens the collection with a brief historical overview of cheese and the microbes involved in its production and Kindstedt follows this with a chapter covering the general processes of cheese making that covers the basic chemistry of milk and the techniques for each common step of its transformation into cheese including coagulation, maintenance of pH, moisture, and salt levels, control of environmental temperature/humidity, physical manipulation, and ripening/maturation. These opening chapters, together with the final ones, form easily readable bookends of with broad appeal and provide excellent resources for someone curious about the food they eat…”

Read my entire review at Small Things Considered!


Chapter 1 : From Pasteur to Probiotics: A Historical Overview of Cheese and Microbes
Chapter 2 : The Basics of Cheesemaking
Chapter 3 : Cheese Classification, Characterization, and Categorization: A Global Perspective
Chapter 4 : Mesophilic and Thermophilic Cultures Used in Traditional Cheesemaking
Chapter 5 : The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Tales of Mold-Ripened Cheese
Chapter 6 : The Microbiology of Traditional Hard and Semihard Cooked Mountain Cheeses
Chapter 7 : The Microfloras and Sensory Profiles of Selected Protected Designation of Origin Italian Cheeses
Chapter 8 : Wooden Tools: Reservoirs of Microbial Biodiversity in Traditional Cheesemaking
Chapter 9 : The Microfloras of Traditional Greek Cheeses
Chapter 10 : Biodiversity of the Surface Microbial Consortia from Limburger, Reblochon, Livarot, Tilsit, and Gubbeen Cheeses
Chapter 11 : Microbiological Quality and Safety Issues in Cheesemaking
Chapter 12 : Towards an Ecosystem Approach to Cheese Microbiology

Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives—and Our Lives Change Our Genes, by Sharon Moalem

Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives – and Our Lives Change Our Genes, by Sharon Moalem
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
ISBN: 1455549444
272 pages, hardcover
Published April 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This popular science book is a broad overview of genetic and epigenetic inheritance, basically exactly what the subtitle says. The introduction oversells the epigenetic focus (how life experience or environment can lead the changes in DNA that are not strictly sequence-based) because the majority of the book does stay within the realms of traditional sequence-based inherited genetic variation. Moreover, given Moalem’s specialty, the focus is not so much on inheritance itself, nor even the specific mechanisms of inheritance.

Instead this book really comes down to these ideas: 1) There are a lot of genetic disorders. 2) Individually these disorders are often rare. 3) It is fairly likely that any given individual though will have some kind of disorder. In other words, everyone is unique; most of us have unique rare disorders of some severity or another. The truth of this may surprise some, as may the implications: namely that any health advisories are tailored for the ‘average population’. But no one is average. So not everyone can take the same amounts of medication. Eating high amounts of fat may be great for some people. Eating any fruits may be really bad for someone else. Running is good exercise for your spouse, it might give you a heart-attack, etc.

“Inheritance” thereby sweeps across a wide realm of human genetic variation, threading topics together under common themes. Moalem avoids getting bogged down into a lot of detail, making this book of greatest interest to the general public with medical interests, or those in particular who find medical anomalies interesting. For those that are really ignorant just how much variation there is to life, and how easily life can go wrong, this book is an excellent primer, and even for those with a background in medicine or biology, many of the specific rare disorders in the book that Moalem discusses may be new to them.

Personally I wish that given the title he had delved a little more in-depth, particularly into the mechanisms of inheritance, and variations across life. The book is squarely human- (or at least mammalian-) centric. Moalem’s style is very light-hearted, at times veering into stories whose connections to the actual topic at hand aren’t apparent, but for its intended audience, I find the style appropriate. Finally, I appreciated him bringing up discussion on how studies of genetic disorders allow us to have a firmer grasp of how ‘normal’ biology occurs.

An episode of the X-Files I adore, “Humbug” addresses several of the issues covered in “Inheritance”, including the speculative ones regarding the increasing genetic technologies available to our society. At what point will we be able to eradicate all genetic disorders? What understanding will we lose in the process? How do we decide what is a serious enough disorder? Though briefly touched upon, the book could have spent more space covering the implications of our increasing knowledge and technological powers.

Four Stars out of Five

The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes, by Nicholas P. Money

The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes, by Nicholas P. Money
Publisher: Oxford University Press
239 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

The purpose behind Money’s “The Amoeba in the Room” resonates strongly with me as a microbiologist. It should resonate with anyone who is a biologist or is interested by the varied types of life on Earth. The TV documentaries “Life” and “Planet Earth” infuriated me with their focus on animals and plants alone. The vast majority of life on Earth is ‘other’ and microbial. “The Amoeba in the Room” sets out to make this clear and detail what exactly that microbial world looks like.

I personally was interested in reading this because I was expecting a focus on the protists, eukaryotic microbes that I’m not nearly adequately familiar with. The first chapter nicely gives a tour of this eukaryotic microbe world, including the amoeba, but much of the remainder of the book covers the prokaryotes: bacteria and archaea. This isn’t a problem by any means, but for me personally, everything in the remainder of the book was well-known to me and probably will be to any microbiologist.

And that final point does get at the major concern I have with Money’s work, namely who is the audience supposed to be. Parts of the book are written with a fair amount of scientific detail (or at least jargon that goes undefined) that it would be hard reading for someone who is not trained in modern molecular biology at least. Yet the scope covers such a broad range of topics that the information given should be familiar to most scientists. I can see this working best for perhaps a well-trained biologist who happens to be in macrobiology fields. It is unfortunate that the language of the book and its style weren’t written to better serve as a general audience book for microbiology popularization. Instead, “The Amoeba in the Room” seems to exist partially in both worlds of general and technical, not being of prime use to either despite noble purpose and accurate, impassioned writing.

Three Stars out of Five

John Snow, by Jack Challoner

John Snow, by Jack Challoner
Publisher: A&C Black (Bloomsbury)
ISBN: 1408178400
112 pages, paperback
Published March 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This short biography covers the work of doctor John Snow in investigating outbreaks of cholera in England, a key event in the development of the science of epidemiology, tracing an illness back to its source and ultimate cause. Although Snow was no microbiologist, and it fell to Koch to eventually clearly identify the bacteria Vibrio cholera as the causative agent of the disease, Snow’s work laid the foundations for establishing a way to control cholera, namely to focus on water supplies rather than the prevailing view of the time, ‘bad air’.

Challoner, an established writer of communicating science to a lay audience, particularly youth, writes this geared for older children and young adults, but for those unfamiliar with Snow’s work and epidemiology, it would be quick, highly readable primer on the topic. Challoner focuses on the cholera-related work of Snow, rather than writing an all-encompassing birth-to-death biography, though he does discuss tangentially Snow’s role as physician and pioneering anesthesiologist.

Despite focusing on this history of science and medicine, Challoner relates the story with descriptive warmth, including small details of everyday life at the time (mid-late 1800s) and conversationally, anecdotally through the thoughts of Snow and those he comes in contact with in his endeavors. Though fabricated in that retelling, the facts behind the story, the history, remain solidly accurate to my eye.

Beyond introducing Snow’s accomplishments, this book in general outlines the scientific process of mystery, curiosity, research, refinement, and ultimate success, but with more work for others to carry on. In this sense it is a good general introduction of children to science in general.

The only drawback to the book relates to who the audience may actually be. With text alone, it tends towards the dry and detail-laden, including some medical/scientific vocabulary, despite being related in a straight-forward way, more relatable perhaps to an adult. Yet, it is written in a short and succinct manner with phrases interspersed in the detail that seem geared towards the young. It thus seems most appropriate for a teen with a keen interest in science or medicine, or as a fine source for some school project or paper.

Four Stars out of Five

Beyond the Rift, by Peter Watts

Beyond the Rift, by Peter Watts
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
240 pages, Kindle Edition
Published November 2013
Source: NetGalley

I count myself very fortunate to have discovered the work of Peter Watts through NetGalley. I don’t recall hearing of or reading this Canadian author before, but his writing is something that I know I will be returning to both for new works and reference back to these incredible stories. Watt’s writing is some of the most literary science fiction I have read, while also maintaining a strong undercurrent of ‘hard’ sci fi details. With so much sci fi being grounded in astronomy, it is nice to read these stories by someone with a background in biology and puts the focus on science and speculation from that point of view in particular.

This point of view, coupled with his writing talent, allows Watts to excel at writing stories that feature the truly alien. This is no small thing, and actually rather unique amid the wealth of SF out there. So much SF contains aliens that are really easily recognized as human, or humanoid at least. Or they are described in terms of familiar creatures we know, like lizards or fish or bears. Most writers need this crutch to make the story and characters – even if alien – still relatable. Make them a little bit abnormal, or give them some familiar characteristic in extremis and go with it.

Watts doesn’t settle for that. Most all of the stories in this collection feature alien life that is far more unique, bizarre, and unfamiliar than the norm. Using his command of realistic biological extrapolation he is able to describe things that are novel and foreign while allowing the reader to understand and still even sympathize at times with that alien Other. This skill is nicely made clear with the opening story, a take on the film “The Thing” told from the perspective of the alien. In each story that follows that alien perspective remains at the fore.

In the afterward portion Watts discusses how his work is often described as dark, or horrifying, intense, disturbing, etc, and how these labels have some merit, but aren’t completely or singularly accurate. I think this label is attached to his writing not because of the overall plots or the tone of the stories, but the ease at which he writes that alien mind, mysterious and kind of unsettling in just how unrecognizable it is to our notions of culture, society, or biological behavior. The aliens are intelligent, but they don’t have a human-like civilization, making them more ‘animal’ and frightening to the reader than other common alien depictions.

Despite the point of view of things alien, the stories ultimately lend one to consider what it is to be human, both in terms of biology and culture, and in that sense these stories are fantastic literature with a scientific bent.

Five Stars out of Five

Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet, Maria Mudd Ruth

Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet,
by Maria Mudd Ruth
Publisher: Mountaineers Books
ISBN: 1594858357
310 pages, paperback
Published August 2013
(Original Publ: 2005)
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Ruth’s book chronicles the history of our discovery and understanding of this enigmatic Pacific coastal bird, the people involved in uncovering the data on its basic biology and behavior, and the threatened state the birds face on account of the direct and indirect influence of humanity. Throughout, Ruth chronicles her own burgeoning fascination with the elusive and unfamiliar bird.

Although I found this book difficult to get into, it grew on me enormously as it continued, as I became more aware of exactly where Ruth was going in relating the story and what she was focusing on. As others here have mentioned, the book focuses far more on the details of human behavior than that of the birds, such as descriptions of what birders, biologists, rangers, etc, do to observe the birds, gather data, fight for their protection, or adversely impact the population. In this way the book is actually far more about people and their relation to the bird than the bird itself. Yes, the book covers bird behavior, particularly in terms of nesting and raising chicks. But still, these details flow from the focus on relating the tale of human discovery of the bird’s actual nesting and rearing behaviors. As I realized the book wasn’t going to be zeroed in on the birds quite as I expected, I found myself intrigued in the tales.

The final chapters detailing the conundrums of modern conservation – regardless of what species one is talking about – or what habitat were the most intriguing and thought-provoking. Faced with our dependence on modern conveniences and the necessities of this world for sustaining the human population at its size – nevermind growing – it becomes easy to see how hard it is to champion conservation fully. Yet, when one considers what is at stake, honestly, it is a question worth seriously addressing. Overall the book ends up being inspirational as one realizes the boundless complexity of biology and its interaction with the environment that is exemplified in this bird’s story. Reading this affirms the beauty of life and the importance of its appreciation and study.

Four Stars out of Five

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Doubleday
384 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

Yanagihara’s “The People in the Trees” is a captivating, rich novel that delves into both large-scale cultural conflicts and intimate psychology behind human relationships and family. The novel is written a an edited compilation of memoir-like letters from the protagonist Dr. A. Norton Perina, a Nobel Prize winning scientist who discovered a source for vastly extended life span while on an anthropological expedition to an isolated Micronesian tribe, and who is now serving a sentence in his advanced years after conviction for sexual assault on children from the tribe who he has adopted through the years. Perina’s obviously biased epistolary recollections are edited by his only remaining friend and support following the conviction, and thus also biased, Dr. Ronald Kubodera.

Yanagihara begins with Perina recounting his childhood and relationship with his twin brother and their parents and then moves onto his schooling and events the lead up to his participation in the life-changing expedition. These early chapters at first seem quite separate from the story of cultural conflict that dominates the central portion of the book and I initially questioned the choice of this extended ‘introduction’. Part of that reaction came from the descriptions provided with the novel and the focus of comparisons to themes found in something like “The Poisonwood Bible”, highlighting cultural clashes between isolated tribes and the ‘civilized’ West. In reality this is only one half of the book’s import, and these early ‘introduction’ chapters leading to the anthropological expedition nicely set up the psychology of Perina, the disfunction of his familial relationships, and the notable absences of sexual encounters or apparent interests during his schooling. All these become immensely important in the final third of the book following the impacts of the expedition on Perina’s career and private life, ultimately leading to the cause of his conviction.

The central third of the book with Perina travelling with an anthropologist to the fictional Micronesian island, his encounters and responses to the alien culture of the isolated tribe, and his gradual discovery of the islander’s profound life spans and the cause are clearly the most exotic and succulent portions of the novel, where Yanagihara’s skilled use of language and colorful description shines. Beyond making the text enjoyable to read, this fact ironically highlights Norton Perina’s inherent unreliability as a narrator of his internal self. Norton frequently comments how he is the scientist with little artistic capability, while his twin, a renowned poet, is the literary talent. Yet the words we read in this letter declare to the reader otherwise.

Perina’s inability to truly understand himself, joined with his extreme arrogance and the results of the announcement of his medical discovery of prolonging life on the Micronesian island and its people lead to the events of the final third of the novel, Perina’s adoption of dozens of children from the tribe over a span of decades, their possible betrayal, and his possible guilt. Completed with a powerful ending that unites the two major themes of the novel, Yanagihara manages to keep the reader invested even beyond the closing lines.

The novel is described as being based upon true events, and the obvious source for Perina is Dr. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, an NIH scientist and Nobel Prize winner who investigated the cause of the Kuru disease in Papua New Guinea and thereby helped establish the existence of prions – infectious misfolded proteins (in contrast to the living infectious agents known: bacteria, parasites, and (arguably ‘alive’) viruses). Like his fictional counterpart, Gajdusek adopted many children from the island nation, gave them Western educations, and ultimately was convicted to their sexual abuse, marring his scientific career.

And this brings us to the only flaw I see in this book – the science is poorly rendered and unrealistic. Kuru, like “Mad Cow Disease” and all prion diseases are neurodegenerative. They target the mind and involve protein aggregations and effects much like seen with something like Alzheimers. Rather than staying with prions, Yanagihara chooses to go with the more clichéd concept of seeking eternal life. This does allow display in the novel of scientific and economic greed more than a cure for prion disease might. But, Yanagihara still includes the neurodegeneration and subsequent slowing of the mind as a side effect of the longevity seen in the island tribe. Despite the perfect health of their body and the lack of its aging, their minds do slowly go until they become not unlike ‘vegetables’, or “Dreamers” as Perina dubs them. Their longevity as described in the novel is related to telomeres – the ends of chromosomes. And here is where the novel – for me, a biologist – failed miserably. While telomeres and aging are speculated to be related, it is hard to imagine how preventing aging in most of the body through alteration of telomere maintenance would somehow just not work in the brain, leading to the more prion-like side effects. In fact, it is more likely that a substance that extends overall life span by acting on telomeres would lead to a side effect of cancer, as telomere maintenance has a role in preventing cancer development. The copy I read is an uncorrected proof, so I also can only hope that the novel’s explanation of telomerase (the enzyme that MAINTAINS telomeres – not degrades them) is corrected. The description as it stands in the novel is backwards, and the inhibition of telomerase the text claims would rapidly shorten life, not extend it. Even with that correction, the overall ‘explanation’ is more of a MacGuffin than I would hope for from such an otherwise richly constructed novel.

Despite that flaw, I obviously enjoyed this novel immensely and it is one that would be amenable to rereading one day. Highly recommended for its beauty and the subtle undercurrents beneath the visible cultural reflections.

Four Stars out of Five

Virus Hunt: The Search for the Origin of HIV, by Dorothy H. Crawford

Virus Hunt: The Search for the Origin of HIV, by Dorothy H. Crawford
Publisher: Oxford University Press
224 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

Other books, such as “And the Band Played On” have well-covered the story of HIV and AIDS breaking into public consciousness throughout the world in the early 1980s, its social and political effects, and the response of the medical and scientific community. Here, however, the focus is on the actual appearance of HIV in the world – long before we humans were aware of its existence. Where in Africa did HIV come from? When did it first arise to infect humans? How did it get from a virus that infects monkeys and apes to one that infects humans? I have even heard people ask, “If HIV is gotten through sex, then that means someone must have had sex with a monkey at some point!” Well, this is untrue, so if you ever thought something like this, then please please do read this book. These are the questions addressed by Crawford, and their answers have ramifications both for how AIDS seemed to suddenly spring out of nowhere into our human lives and for how we should consider future viral pandemics.

The answers to those questions take the reader through chapters that blend medicine, science, ecology, evolution, and the sociopolitical history of West-Central Africa. Unless you are already an expert on the latest scientific findings on the origin of the HIV, you will probably learn a great deal that is new. The book begins by briefly introducing and dispelling one of several misconceptions or ‘mis-informations’ about AIDS, namely the erroneous assertion that AIDS is not caused by HIV. Crawford then introduces the topic of related viruses that infect are evolutionary relatives (the simian immunodeficiency viruses or SIVs) and begins to set the stage for explaining how we know where AIDS generally comes from. She then focuses in with each chapter to address more specific matters that recent scientific experiments have brought to light, such as what kind of ape the different types of HIV variants came from, down to the specific area and people who were likely the first infected back around the early 1900s, approximately. The book concludes with a molecular discussion of HIV and how that relates to its origins and dissemination and a final discussion on the nature of viral pandemics in general, with future prospects considered.

The copy I read is an unfinished proof, and I assume misprints will be caught and changed. However, the start of the book in particular was hard to get into due to some very awkward sentence structures and several sentences that were vague or grammatically problematic. Beyond the first chapter this issue went away, and it may not even be a problem in the final product.

Crawford knows the material, and she does a fine job of distinctly conveying information that we know as scientific fact from that which leads to educated guesses or downright conjecture. However, her familiarity with the material may also be an impediment for the general reader who does not have any prior knowledge of virology or HIV. Many concepts are discussed in bits throughout the book, only being completely explained later, and many of the more scientific sections can be daunting and dry to read for a nonspecialist (such as the myriad SIV and HIV variants and subtle – though important – differences). Her writing becomes far less technical and more ‘natural’ sounding when she discusses matters outside of direct virology, such as history or anecdotes.

I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in HIV or those curious to learn just how a virus can go from being in a population of non-human primates for centuries, only to cross suddenly into the human population with devastating consequences decades later. If you are concerned if just such an event could happen again then there could be no better volume to read, despite its detailed technical portions.

Four Stars out of Five