THE PONY FISH'S GLOW

AND OTHER CLUES TO PLAN AND PURPOSE IN NATURE

Williams (Ecology and Evolution/SUNY, Stony Brook) explores how organisms have evolved in nature to ``solve the problems of life.'' Williams accepts the so-called ``adaptationist program'' of ``plan and purpose'' in biology: that is, the idea that each attribute of an organism relates in some way to its efforts to survive and pass on its genes. The fish referred to in the book's title possesses light-generating cells that glow through its belly. The point of this uncanny quality, Williams suggests, has to do with the fish's habitat: It lives in deep ocean waters, and the light cells in its belly will match whatever faint sunlight penetrates the water, rendering the fish invisible to potential predators lurking below. There are also some teacherly essays on Darwinism in nature, rehearsing the old vitalism versus mechanism debates, describing with clarity and skill how natural selection operates to keep what has proven to be adaptive and cull the extremes. Williams uses as his examples such disparate events as the long evolution leading to the right size egg for a given species or the process leading to establishing the right number in a litter of young. He considers such essential matters as sex, pregnancy, aging, and death in a series of chapters exhibiting a fascination with the art of conflict and compromise in nature. Among the topics: why we have sex, why sperm are so small and eggs, in comparison, so big, why women get morning sickness and sometimes develop high blood pressure or diabetes while pregnant. Considering the evolution of body parts, Williams makes clear that we are flawed creations, demonstrating both ``the power and the limitations of the evolutionary process.'' In sum, some old, some new variations on the question of design (or the lack of it) in nature, by an old hand, who, if he hasn't quite the style of Stephen Jay Gould, is nonetheless well worth reading.

Pub Date: April 9, 1997

ISBN: 0-465-07281-X

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1997

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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

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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