by Peter Ward ‧ RELEASE DATE: Aug. 14, 2018
The best introduction so far to one of the most controversial elements of 21st-century evolutionary science.
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
Page Count: 288
Review Posted Online: May 27, 2018
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2018
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A quirky wonder of a book.
A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.
Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.A quirky wonder of a book.
Pub Date: April 14, 2020
Page Count: 224
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020
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by Bill Bryson ‧ RELEASE DATE: May 6, 2003
Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...
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
Page Count: 304
Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003
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