So an A for laying out the situation, a B for partial solutions, but an Incomplete for not addressing the fundamental...

READ REVIEW

THE FUTURE OF LIFE

Never one to shrink from the Big Picture, Harvard antman Wilson (Consilience, 1998, etc.) addresses the decline and fall of species but sees the potential for the survival of biodiverse life on earth if . . .

. . . we do the right thing. But first comes the lugubrious recital of the status quo. Wilson regulars know the tune—so many creatures great and small, with losses of species at a rate of one thousand to ten thousand per million a year. To his credit, Wilson explains how such estimates are made, while admitting that no one really knows the denominators: how many species there are. The malady is familiar as well, even has an acronym: HIPPO, for Habitat destruction, Invasive species, Pollution, Population, and Overharvesting—all revealing the hand of Homo sapiens. Wilson singles out Hawaii, Madagascar, Vancouver Island, and other defined sites to provide convincing details. But just at the point of reader despair, he turns the tables to offer solutions. Here, he draws on theses he has defended elsewhere: e.g., “biophilia,” defined as humankind’s innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike forms, attracts us to our fellow creatures. Wilson’s reliance on instinct, on developmental stages that hone biophilia, and on certain heritable factors have him out on speculative limbs he has pursued previously. His political and economic arguments for preserving biodiversity are more persuasive, dwelling on how much a well-preserved nature gives back in the form of diverse food, medicine, clothing, shelter, etc. That, and an increasingly rich and more savvy group of international conservation organizations may save the day, he suggests. Their savvy lies in buying reserves, plowing money back into the local economy, and allowing peripheral communities to draw (modestly) on the reserve, while encouraging bioprospecting and ecotourism. While these solutions are promising, Wilson does not really grapple with how to stem the tide of overpopulation—and the religious, sociopolitical, and economic imperatives that maintain it.

So an A for laying out the situation, a B for partial solutions, but an Incomplete for not addressing the fundamental problem.

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 2002

ISBN: 0-679-45078-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2001

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2016

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • National Book Critics Circle Winner

LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet
more