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.

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

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats, by Sandra Markle

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery,
by Sandra Markle
Publisher: Millbrook Press
ISBN: 1467714631
48 pages, Hardcover
Published: 1st Sep. 2014
Source: NetGalley

 With bat decorations just around the corner for Halloween, now is a perfect time to check out this wonderful nonfiction science book with any curious young scientists in your life.
The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats is about the recent fungal infections (white-nose syndrome) that has decimated brown bat populations in North America.
As a biologist and bat lover myself, I appreciated the way that Markle told this scientific story of epidemiology in an engaging way that can introduce children to diverse concepts: the wonders of nature, the effects of the microbial world on larger familiar organisms, the process of scientific investigation, the power of curiosity and creativity, and the importance and benefit of research.
Markle relates these rather complex ideas with straightforward language that is ideal for a middle school (or even late elementary) aged child, all in the format of a ‘scientific mystery’: the observation that something is wrong with bats and the steps that were taken to try and discover what was causing the problem. Only then, with dedicated research and understanding can the problem be addressed, a mystery must be solved.
Apparently this book is part of an entire series, so I’ll have to look into the other titles offered. Although I could only look at this on a Kindle, the photos and illustrations are plentiful, bright, and well-done. I should note that given the topic of a deadly disease of bats, there are illustrations that may be considered ‘gross’ or ‘uncomfortable’. I appreciate the honesty that the text and photos show in just how awfully devastating disease can be for any organism and the price that must be paid to try and determine its cause and treat it. I also really appreciated the realistic images of scientists just simply doing their work in the lab, the latest equipment at hand.
This book is really a great opportunity to expose a child to the wonder of nature and the appeal of science. It makes complex, and perhaps even frightening realities accessible to children and may help inspire curiosity or dreams in a future scientific researcher.

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

Archangel, by Andrea Barrett

Archangel, by Andrea Barrett
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393348776
238 pages, paperback
Published: 7th July 2014
Source: Goodreads’ First-reads

 This small collection of five interconnected stories was a fabulous discovery. National Book Award winning author Andrea Barrett is now a professor of English at Williams College, but graduated from college with a degree in biology. With these stories she uses these interests and experience to brilliantly and lovingly explore the process of scientific investigation and discovery and its effects on society’s view of the universe and the ties between individuals.
The five stories non-chronologically span from the late 1800s through the early 1900s, linked both by science and character relations, covering monumental discoveries of evolution, genetics, Einstein’s relativity, and particle physics over the sociopolitical historical backdrops of each ear. They therefore will appeal to readers that appreciate fiction that is historical, scientific, literary, or (like me) all three.
As a scientist I was immediately struck by how realistically Barrett portrays the practice of science.  I often think that the genre term science fiction is better dubbed speculative fiction, or even technological fiction. Rarely is SF concerned with the actual process of science and its social implications, rather it becomes about future applications of science and their effects on life. I’ve always looked for science fiction that was realistically just that: fictionalized accounts of doing current or past science. In Archangel, the characters and stories themselves are infused with a sense of excitement, wonder, and impatience,  yet also a bit of skepticism, doubt/uncertainty, and inadequacy. Barrett touches upon the differences between science and pseudoscience and the sometimes hazy divide that can appear between the two.
Ultimately, science is a social activity, it is not a cool Vulcanesque rationality divorced from humanity, culture, and relationships. Barrett’s recognition and exploration of this is what wraps the historic and scientific foundation of her writing with a delicate literary silk. The characters of Archangel exist in periods of world-shifting ideas that call into question the beliefs and assumptions of individuals and society. They must struggle with their own preconceptions and the expectations of others as they are confronted with new evidence and models of the universe. This is difficult when one has built their reputation on alternate ideas, when one’s respected and accomplished mentor is falling on the wrong side of scientific understanding/history, or when family members or the national culture have deeply seeded convictions that stand in opposition to what rational evidence presents to oneself.
Despite its historical nature, Archangel thus has significant relevance to even our current times: the rights of women, anti-science politics, alteration of the environment, and hope in a better, prosperous, and enlightened future. By linking the stories through time Barrett is able to explore shifting attitudes through changing generations and individual lifespans. These are captivating stories that stand on rich character and solid foundations of setting rather than plot, and Barrett’s writing flows pleasingly with artistry without being bogged down with academic or haughty pretentiousness. I’m really thankful to have won the giveaway for this and am looking forward to discovering Barrett’s past work and seeing what is to come.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway 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.

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