The best introduction so far to one of the most controversial elements of 21st-century evolutionary science.

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LAMARCK'S REVENGE

HOW EPIGENETICS IS REVOLUTIONIZING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF EVOLUTION'S PAST AND PRESENT

A fascinating journey into the relatively new field of epigenetics, which “has a great deal to add to the overall understanding of the history of life, beginning with the origin of the first living species itself.”

According to this outstanding account by paleontologist and astrobiologist Ward (The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps, 2010, etc.), epigenetics is the biological revolution du jour. The author explains that Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), a predecessor of Charles Darwin, believed that species evolved by passing on acquired characteristics. The oft-repeated example was a giraffe stretching to reach leaves in tall trees and giving birth to offspring with longer necks. However, Lamarck was marginalized by Darwin’s teaching that acquired traits are never inherited but that children vary slightly from their parents. When a variation provides a survival advantage, its possessor produces more offspring, and this “natural selection” slowly drives evolutionary change. Yet fossil evidence doesn’t support it. “New species,” writes Ward, “appear with what seems like too much rapidity to be explained by current theory.” Bacteria routinely pass genes to neighbors, including unrelated species. Does “horizontal gene transfer” occur in complex organisms? The answer came when studies showed stretches of bacterial and viral DNA in the human genome. Biologists also knew that stressful environmental conditions change gene function. They mistakenly assumed that these changes vanish when the organism produces sex cells for reproduction. It turns out that “major environmental changes during the life of an individual can cause heritable changes to that organism, that can then be passed on to the next generation.” This defines epigenetics: a better explanation for life’s history and the quick appearance of unique body plans after mass extinctions. Skilled in both science and writing, Ward walks readers through its history, mechanisms, and the current fierce debate over its role.

The best introduction so far to one of the most controversial elements of 21st-century evolutionary science.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-63286-615-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2018

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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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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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