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.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by Todd S. Purdum

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
by Todd Purdum
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
ISBN: 0805096728
416 pages, hardcover
Published April 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“An Idea Whose Time Has Come” relates the convoluted steps leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, starting with the championship and oversight of the bill’s design by the executive branch (namely the Kennedy brothers) and its subsequent evolution through passage in the House and Senate. This political development, rather ‘dry’ in itself, is of course set amid the turbulent social upheavals of the era and that event that both helped propel this ‘project’ forward and led to new difficulties in its realization, namely the Kennedy assassination and the new leadership of Southerner Johnson.

Purdum does a fine job relating the details of the Act’s development and ultimate passage, and after reading about the many failed party compromises of recent years it is interesting to read about one instance where something substantial was achieved. Unlike recent issues, however, this Act had split support and opposition from wings of both Republican and Democratic parties, and thankfully the extreme wings of each party that fought against this Act were each in the minority, unlike today.

The majority of focus in the book is on the executive branch, pervading each step leading to the final passage, and as such the people involved in the legislative branch on either side get relatively less attention. Already less familiar with these people, greater biographical detail on these players and their pasts would have been nice.

While the book does an excellent and fair job of relating the history involved, it spends very little space on any type of analysis. Largely this seems to avoid any kind of bias or opinion, as opposed to just stating the facts or reporting the recorded opinions of those involved in the process at the time. This is not a fault, but if you are looking for something beyond a simple history of passage this may not be of interest. But if you are largely unfamiliar with the details of this period of history, Purdum’s work serves as an excellent primer and education, offering glimpses not just into politics, but the social situation of the United States in the early 60’s and the racial injustices so many citizens endured and fought to overcome.

Four Stars out of Five