Written by a trained scientist, 10% Human: How Your Body’s Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness takes its title from the fact that we carry so many bacteria in our bodies that one could say, strictly speaking, that we are only 10% human. The book summarizes research that shows how these bacteria influence the way we eat, think, and defend ourselves against infections and diseases. All that is good. What’s not so good is that the author is often carried away, and transgresses from describing correlations to causation (while sternly explaining that there is a difference between the two). It’s too bad because much of the advise she proffers is sound: avoid antibiotics for undiagnosed diseases, eat your vegetables, and carefully choose your mother, it seems.
Tag Archives: biology
If you are a biology nerd, you will enjoy The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath our Feet. If not, you will certainly appreciate knowing about ichnologists (people who study animal traces, as the author), and many other fun facts, from where to find the secret nuclear bunker for members of congress to the existence of a keratin-eating moth, to the strange molting habits of coconut crabs, and how gophers were the first to reestablish themselves on the site of the Mount St Helen’s volcanic eruption. But I bet that, like me, you will mostly enjoy the first 100 pages of the book, exploring alligator burrows in the South East, rather than the recounting of the author’s Ph.D thesis, or traversing the stories of many extinct creatures with obscure names, linked only by their love of underground living.
With Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society, Cordelia Fine (of Delusion of Gender fame) is at it again, this time attacking the supposedly obvious finding that biological sex causes testosterone-laden men to take more risks, be more aggressive, and in general want to subjugate the world. She counter-attacks by showing how some classic experiments were designed with obvious biases, or used statistics in frowned-upon methods (the testosterone probably made the researchers do it, right?), and in any case are now supplanted by newer, better-designed studies of animals and humans that show both sexes making similar decisions, seemingly ignoring their T hormone levels.
It’s funny and personal anecdotes are skillfully woven in, which is not a given in nerdy books. The first page features a dinner-table discussion of what to do with the family dog’s soon-to-be-removed testicles. Lovely, in my book!
Written by a scientist in a light, storytelling mood, The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History talks about all kinds of seeds, from cotton (to explain dispersion by sea) to castor beans (killers of spies), to nuts (predictors of large teeth, when hard), wheat (to illustrate that building dams may be motivated by the need to move grain)
The author’s adventures with fossil hunters are hilarious, but he takes advantage of them to remind us that spore plants may dominate the fossil record, but did not necessarily dominate the world. They just preserved better. There’s always some science under the stories.
Written in a lively and appropriately personal style (at least if you skip the awkward first two pages), The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures starts with entertaining and sympathetic descriptions of genealogists, moves to the terrifying eugenists and the gas chambers of the Nazis (who, among many others, killed hundreds of thousands of disabled children and mental patients in their quest to improve the Aryan “race), and then tells dozens of stories of how modern DNA analyses are helping to confirm individual family trees and, more intriguingly, to validate and disprove hypotheses about cultural mixing. No Ancient Italy genes in modern Britain, so the conquerors did not physically stay there (but lots of Norwegian DNA, pointing to the Vikings). An intriguing mix of science and history.
By the author of The Disappearing Spoon and with the same verve, The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code tells the story of DNA discoveries, organized around memorable characters, be they scientist-nuns, Jefferson instructing Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for mastodons (really!), freakish Paganini, he of the hyper-flexible thumb — and assorted scientists’ fights and political intrigues. He has a great time with cute gene names (my favorite is “turnip” for one that creates stupid flies, but only because I already knew “sonic hedgehog” and crazed crossbreedings of (yes) humans and chimps. My disappointment in the book is that I seem to have promptly forgotten most of the real science in it. Perhaps I have the turnip gene after all…
This Mushroom is the scientist’s counterpart to the lightweight, if amusing, Mycophilia I read a few months ago and I would recommend this one over it, should you want to explore the wonderful world of mushrooms. The author is a self-professed geek and geeky humor abounds (including his flogging at the hand of a demanding teacher — the charms of English public schools!), together with geeky fear-mongering (in his case, that Malthus is right) and geeky knowledge, such as the very complicated and very dreary details of mushroom reproduction. But overall the book is quite easy to read and full of fun facts, from mushrooms in symbiosis with termites to crazy French physicians who willingly ingest deadly mushrooms to prove that they have found a cure for them.