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.

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.

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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!

CONTENTS:

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
ASIN: B00I7TR8L0
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
ASIN: B00GL9OBCM
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