Nothing world-shaking but a tasty nibble for the bookish, science-inclined foodie.

READ REVIEW

DINNER WITH DARWIN

FOOD, DRINK, AND EVOLUTION

A science-informed tour of the table, showing how our fare comes to us courtesy of natural selection—and, of course, survival of the fittest.

Why does food taste different to different people? Did Australopithecus cook? Why can’t some people handle booze—or milk? The taphonomic, paleontological, and archaeological records are full of pointers to the answers to questions like these, but it’s only with modern genetic and genomic analysis that full replies emerge. Silvertown (Evolutionary Ecology/Univ. of Edinburgh; The Long and the Short of It: The Science of Life Span and Aging, 2013, etc.) delves in with gusto, opening by noting that “everything we eat has an evolutionary history,” a history that opens onto other questions of evolutionary biology. He notes that Darwin’s most famous book, On the Origin of Species, opens with a discussion of plant and animal domestication precisely because “Darwin realized that the process of artificial selection that breeders use to produce new varieties is analogous to natural selection.” Thus cocktail corn and bespoke pigs. The foods we select in turn select us: the evolutionary record is light on information about vegetarianism, what with the absence of datable bones, but by Silvertown’s account, humans may have been cooking food—and eating meat—by the time Homo erectus emerged on the scene nearly 2 million years ago. The author’s accessible discussion ranges from shellfish gathering to bread-making to gardening, from issues of food security (which “depends on being able to continually match the challenge posed by constantly evolving diseases”) to the genetic basis for taste and genetic variability among populations of food plants, with local adaptations governed by sets of genes charged with protecting plants from predators. Along the way, he ponders matters such as why we drink milk, which raises further issues of distinguishing cause and consequence—which, in turn, teaches novice readers how scientists approach problems.

Nothing world-shaking but a tasty nibble for the bookish, science-inclined foodie.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-226-24539-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2017

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

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
more