So why did all those critters go extinct? MacPhee suggests rather than asserts, but his book, featuring beautiful...

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END OF THE MEGAFAUNA

THE FATE OF THE WORLD'S HUGEST, FIERCEST, AND STRANGEST ANIMALS

Working the “borderland between archeology and paleontology,” a paleomammalogist examines a suite of causes for the extinction of large animals during the late Pleistocene.

In 1814, when John James Audubon observed a flock of passenger pigeons over the Ohio River, the population numbered in the untold billions. A century later, the last passenger pigeon died in a zoo. That, notes MacPhee (Race to the End: Amundsen, Scott, and the Attainment of the South Pole, 2010, etc.), who has worked at the American Museum of Natural History for three decades, is the “fastest decline on record for a vertebrate with an initially large population size”—and, he adds cautiously, the “most supported” cause is overhunting. Why the caution, when the historical record is full of accounts of passenger pigeons being blasted out of the sky? Because the author is wrestling with the thorny question of what brought on the deaths of so many large animals, including mastodons, marsupial lions, dodos, and baboon lemurs. In a noir film, the smoking gun would be in the hands of the humans who just happened to show around the time of extinction. In science, greater care must be taken in establishing causality, and even if MacPhee bridles at the line of argument established by Paul Martin and his followers blaming the megafaunal extinction on the human “blitzkrieg,” he at least includes human killing among the causes. Others factors include climate change, the collapse of food webs, and the introduction of invasive species. Concluding that there is no compelling common cause in the extinctions, MacPhee closes by considering the possibilities of genetically reviving lost species, or “de-extinction,” noting, finally, “it is to be hoped that any brave new creations can be integrated into existing ecosystems without destroying them—something we have been unable to do with ourselves, for at least the last 50,000 years."

So why did all those critters go extinct? MacPhee suggests rather than asserts, but his book, featuring beautiful illustrations from Schouten, adds thoughtful fuel to a scholarly debate that shows no signs of ending.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-24929-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Aug. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2018

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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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