I am a physicist, with a specialty in optics, so I was especially interested in The Mind’s Eye, by Oliver Sacks (not to mention the less well known The Island of the Colorblind). The Mind’s Eye is a fascinating book about the visual system, many of the things that can go wrong with it, and what we learn from them. It is also the book in which Dr. Sacks reveals that he suffers from prosopagnosia, or face blindness; is not a surgeon because he cannot visualize; and functions only with great difficulty now that he has monocular vision as a result of a retinal cancer. I have great difficulty recognizing faces, but nothing approaching prosopagnosia, and it is a marvel to me that he could cover it up for the better part of 80 years.
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This novel by Lauren Grodstein is about Andy, a once promising biology professor now languishing in the tenure-track of a third-rank university in New Jersey. Andy teaches a course nicknamed There Is No God, whose principles are these:
1: Evolution is the explanation for everything
2: Darwin is right
3: And people who don’t believe Darwin are wrong
That is about right, at least to first order and as far as biology is concerned, but naturally such an explicit statement is bound to attract attention. Indeed, it attracts the attention of Lionel, a Campus Crusade type who has received permission to take Andy’s course for a second time in order to make a case against Andy. More importantly, as it turns out, Lionel sets Andy up by encouraging another student, Melissa, to ask Andy to mentor her in a reading course on intelligent-design creationism. Andy resists but finally gives in, with predictably dire consequences.
I occasionally get books for review unsolicited, and many of them are not worth noticing. However, Kostas Kampourakis' Understanding Evolution is a wonderful resource for students of all kinds, including biology students.
Note: this is an off-the-cuff review that I wrote while experiencing jet-lag induced insomnia (I am in Canberra, Australia, to give a workshop on BioGeoBEARS at the 2014 meeting of the International Biogeography Society at Australia National University). I have a more formal review in preparation for the Reports of the National Center for Science Education.
Today, a book is coming out that is destined to become a classic of science writing. Normally, popular science books popularize well-established science. The research being popularized may be decades or centuries old. Certainly popularization of such material is important, but I found that for me, the appeal of such works dropped off as I matured as a scientist. There are only so many times you can read about Darwin and the Beagle, or Laplace and the hypothesis he had no need of, or the sequence from Mendel to Watson and Crick, before you feel like you’ve heard it all before and it ceases to become interesting.
Alan de Queiroz is doing something different. He is popularizing an active scientific controversy in biogeography. Biogeography is the science of where species live and how they got there. The biogeographical controversy is termed “dispersal versus vicariance,” and it runs long and deep. Understanding what the controversy is about, and why anyone would care, takes a little bit of background.
This is a splendid book, though frankly it does not entirely live up to its subtitle, “The scientific method in action.” What I learned most from it is that there is no scientific method, at least as it applies to startling new discoveries, and that those new discoveries are often made by people who are utterly single-minded in their dedication to their subject.
This is a biology book written by a physicist who performs research in cellular biology. I picked it up and started reading it, but I got stuck somewhere in the chapter on thermodynamics. So I contacted Mike Elzinga, a frequent commenter on PT, and asked him to explain something. In the process, I somehow conned him into writing a review of the book for PT. I will add only that the figures in the book are less than desirable on a Kindle (and some are fairly crude hand sketches), and I indeed intend to read Chapter 7 again when I get a chance.
Here, with appreciation, the book review.
Donald Prothero, paleontologist and author of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, has reviewed Meyer’s “Darwin’s Doubt” monstrosity on Amazon. Money quote:
In short, Meyer has shown that his first disastrous book was not a fluke: he is capable of going into any field in which he has no training or research experience and botching it just as badly as he did molecular biology. As I’ve written before, if you are a complete amateur and don’t understand a subject, don’t demonstrate the Dunning-Kruger effect by writing a book about it and proving your ignorance to everyone else!
Mario Livio definitely does not pick on someone smaller than he. Indeed, when he decided to write about what he considers scientific blunders, he went after Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein.
The full title of his latest book is Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, which is more of an abstract than a title. It would be incorrect to claim that Livio has not laid a glove on any of his subjects, but neither, it seems to me, are all of the errors “colossal.” Still, the book was well worth reading and contains excellent introductory material for those who are not experts in the subjects and even for those who are. The organization of the book is also interesting in that every chapter relates in some way to evolution, whether of life or the earth or the universe, and the transitions from scientist to scientist are relatively seamless.
My first reaction when I received this splendid book was, “Wow! Great pictures!” Not to mention high-quality printing, paper, and layout. At 22 x 28 cm, the book is not exactly a coffee-table book, but neither does it feel like a textbook. And no wonder: It is published by a publisher, Vivays Publishing, which apparently specializes in art, architecture, and interior design, with, now, several science titles.
You could probably get by by looking at the pictures, which range from DNA to diatoms to Darwin to Darrow to dinosaurs, and reading the occasional caption. That would be a mistake, though; the text is clear and concise and, as the title promises, explores evolution.
Erythropsidium – a protist with a simple eye, or ocellus. Figure 2.2 of Evolution’s Witness. Image � F.J.R. “Max” Taylor, Ph.D.
Who knew? A single-celled organism has a camera eye with a lens. A certain fish has two corneas and controls the intensity of light on its retina by injecting pigmented particles between them. Other animals can shield their rods (the receptors for low intensity) during the day. A conch can grow a wholly new eye. A flatfish has both eyes on the same side of its head, but starts life with bilateral symmetry. A sea snake has a light sensor in its tail to ensure that the tail is hidden under a rock. Some birds cram their corneas through their irises in order to focus on nearby objects under water. The woodcock can see behind its own head - in stereo. Some animals have two foveas in each eye, one for peripheral vision and one for binocular vision.
Jason Rosenhouse moved from the east coast to Kansas for a postdoc. He had studied a bit about creationism while a graduate student at Dartmouth, so it would be an exaggeration to say that he was surprised to learn that not everyone in Kansas was a liberal Democrat (even by today’s standard of liberalism). Nevertheless, for reasons that are not made completely clear, he humored his inner anthropologist and attended a handful of creationist conferences over a period of several years. The result is the splendid book Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line, which both shows creationists as regular people, just like scientists, and also takes them seriously, without condescension or sarcasm.
Not that Rosenhouse cuts them any slack. He gets up to the microphone and asks pointed questions, and he is completely open about who he is and what he believes. He mingles with the conference attendees and is impressed by how very pleasant they are; he is pleasant in return, except for one apparently unfortunate interaction with Ken Ham. Nevertheless, however pleasant the creationists may be, Rosenhouse makes clear that he and his interlocutors are always talking past each other, and his critiques have virtually no effect - except occasionally, when he sees a young student listening intently and thinks he may have planted some seeds of doubt.
“Science and Human Origins” (Amazon; Barnes&Noble) is a slim book recently published by the Disco ‘Tute’s house press. It’s by Ann Gauger and Douglas Axe, members of the Disco Tute’s Biologic Institute, along with Casey Luskin. The book is blurbed thusly:
In this provocative book, three scientists challenge the claim that undirected natural selection is capable of building a human being, critically assess fossil and genetic evidence that human beings share a common ancestor with apes, and debunk recent claims that the human race could not have started from an original couple.
In other words, down with common descent, and while we’re at it, a literal Adam and Eve could have been the ancestors of the whole human species.
And by three scientists? Ah, yes, I momentarily forgot that Casey Luskin got a Master’s in Earth Science before he went off to law school and then got a job with the Disco ‘Tute, where he is now listed as “Research Coordinator” (and is there called an attorney rather than a scientist). Once again, one detects a touch of inflationary credentialism.
Fortunately for me, I’m spared the chore of reading and critiquing the book. Paul McBride, a Ph.D. candidate in vertebrate macroecology/evolution in New Zealand who writes Still Monkeys, bit the bullet and did a chapter by chapter (all five chapters) review of the book. The book doesn’t come out looking good (is anyone surprised?). I’m going to shamelessly piggyback on McBride’s review. I’ll link to his individual chapter reviews, adding some commentary, below the fold.
If you want to publish a book with a vanity press and no editorial assistance, you had better know what you are doing. Charles M. Woolf, an emeritus professor of zoology at Arizona State University, unfortunately does not know what he is doing. His book, Darwin, Darwinism, and Uncertainty, is a series of three more or less unrelated essays. The first is a biography of Darwin and attempts to show that Darwin was a believing member of the Church of England until the ascent of Darwin to agnosticism later in his life; hence, “Darwinism” and theism are not necessarily incompatible. The second and least important essay is called “Theories for the creation of the universe,” but it concerns mostly the origin of complex, self-replicating molecules, and I found much of it very difficult to understand.
The subtitle of this book is “Confessions of a religious paleontologist,” but you will find only one confession: that the author, Robert Asher, believes in God. More on that later.
The heart of the book is 8 chapters that irrefutably demonstrate descent with modification. I found much of the book compelling, but also fairly difficult and much more detailed than I thought appropriate for a lay audience. A number of times, Asher uses a term that is obviously well known to biologists, but known to me only vaguely if at all – and I have been a fellow traveler in biology for approximately a decade. Pseudogene, for example, appears, undefined, in the very last sentence of the chapter that describes the evolution of whales from terrestrial to marine animals. I looked it up in the index and found that it is defined, implicitly at best, 50 pages later.
The following article is a draft of a review by Paul R. Gross of Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, by Mark S. Blumberg. The review will be published in Reviews of the National Center for Science Education.
An important subtext of Freaks of Nature, by the developmentalist Mark S. Blumberg, is the central importance, indeed the necessity, of monsters. To appreciate them is important, the argument goes, not only for progress in developmental biology, but also for solving the most challenging contemporary problems of evolutionary mechanism. A concomitant of this subtext is pleadings for an unmistakably more positive view, at least within those two sciences, of monsters and – as per the title – freaks of nature.
[Review of Shapiro, James A. Evolution: A View from the 21st Century. FT Press Science, ISBN: 0-13-278093-3, $34.99 Publisher’s site]
Over the years there have been many books that purport to “radically revise” or “supplant” Darwinian evolutionary biology; they come with predictable regularity. Usually they are of three kinds: something is wrong with natural selection, something is wrong with inheritance, or something is wrong with phylogeny. This book, by geneticist James A. Shapiro, exemplifies all three.
Editor’s Note: We are giving away copies of The Way of the Panda in our photography contest.
What is a panda? Ever since the French naturalist-priest Armand David “discovered” the panda in 1869, this question has fascinated people the world over. In The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China’s Political Animal (Amazon), Henry Nicholls explores the development of natural history knowledge about the panda as well as how politics and popularization shape science. The panda’s distinctive markings, scarcity, and relative mystery have made it useful as a symbol, and few other animals are as closely identified with a particular nation. In other words, a panda bear is often not just a panda bear.
Written in three parts, The Way of the Panda covers a lot of ground from bringing pandas into the consciousness of the world outside China to the future of pandas and people. It sometimes wanders a bit from its focus on pandas, such as when the reader learns about a hullabaloo raised over the remains of a beloved London Zoo gorilla. Overall, though, it seems to be a thorough history of pandas and what we’ve made of them.