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.

Echopraxia, by Peter Watts

Echopraxia, by Peter Watts
Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 076532802X
384 pages, hardcover
Published: 26th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

An anticipated sequel to his 2006 hard science fiction novel Blindsight, Echopraxia exists in the same ‘universe’ but can easily be read on its own as the two novels do not directly share any characters and the plots of each are self-contained. While largely disconnected by story or character, these sister novels do share style and theme, so that those who have read Blindsight can reasonably expect to find a similar work here.
Each novel is staggeringly intelligent, dense with science, technology, philosophy, and speculation. The major theme of Blindsight is speculation on the evolution of consciousness and intelligence. In Echopraxia these themes are revisited, but they are expanded upon into new arenas, not merely rehashed. I personally found the first novel both infuriating and wondrous. Much of how I responded to it held true for my reaction to Watt’s latest.
However, I began Echopraxia actually relieved and hopeful, for in addition to its heady, hard SF mastery, it appeared to not be avoiding actual action. The novel opens with Daniel Bruks, a field-biologist who has fled into exile into a remote wilderness. Bruks has fled from a humanity that is becoming decreasingly biological in favor of technology and computation, and he has fled a horrific violence for which he unwittingly served as pawn.
A sudden attack on an isolated desert monastery near Bruks pulls him into their conflict with other factions of Earth’s growing post-human society and leads Bruks, along with some other visitors to the monastery, on the monk’s journey to discover a truth of the divine at the center of the solar system.
The opening action of the novel sets the stage for the actual bulk of the book, which similar to Blindsight, skips action for the play of ‘big ideas’ between characters, the relatively familiar/normal Bruks and the more foreign post-humans (which include zombies and the vampires already familiar to readers of Blindsight that Watts has so fabulously rendered plausible in a hard SF setting.)
As Blindsight contained the very basic SF trope of first contact as a basis for its deep investigation into those themes of consciousness/intelligence, Echopraxia‘s plot at its simplest level bears familiarity to the much maligned Star Trek V to delve more seriously into the concept of the divine and of faith and science in understanding/predicting the universe. I personally find myself drawn to these themes, and for that reason (in addition to some more moments of entertaining action) I ended up appreciating this novel to its predecessor.
The heavy nature of the ideas in Echopraxia make it a novel that really requires rereading to sufficiently grasp, and it is the type of novel that makes you want to talk to other people about, at least in terms of those themes/ideas. Thus, as with Blindsight and much of hard SF, the ideas here trump the actual fiction. Over some drinks you’ll want to talk about the science and the speculation on matters religious and biological and physical. You won’t want to talk about the characters much or what happened in the story because those details are all relatively throwaway.
As fascinating and as intellectually stimulating as Echopraxia is, its entertainment never goes beyond academic. So filled with post-human characters and events the very human reader finds very little to emotionally connect with, leaving the novel feel rather hollow outside of the ‘hard SF/technology’ department. This novel is going to be loved by people who appreciate a secular and actual scientific take on the concept of divinity and who aren’t uncomfortable with emphasis on speculative, sometimes disturbing, scientific content above more traditional aspects of story. While not my favorite kind of SF, this is well done.
Four Stars out of Five

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