Did you think Darwin was a great scientist? Well, one thing he got very wrong is his belief that women were inferior to men (in intellect; somehow, he thought them superior “in moral qualities”, reflecting the prejudices of his time) — and we now have over a century of so-called science “proving” him right. Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story sets out to show that studies designed and conducted overwhelmingly by men can confirm traditional roles and stereotypes, and even exclude women entirely from some studies, with the assumption that the results would be same. It all reminded of the discussion of whether animals are intelligent (not that women are animals, right?!)
Tag Archives: science
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.
The long and awkward subtitle of Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies says it all: it’s a long and often awkward book that tries to tie together physics, biology, geography, and business — and I found is fascinating despite its gawky structure. The core of the book is simple: scale matters and the world does not usually work linearly so that a large animal (like an elephant) is much more efficient than a small one (say, a mouse). Same for cities and perhaps for companies, too. The author has gathered scores of examples to illustrate his points, from heartbeats to growth rates to income and patent filings to, more surprisingly, crime and stomach flu.
Now to the not-so-accomplished part: the author insist on explaining everything in “plain English” which makes for eye-watering complication and length. I salute his concerns for the less numerically literate but he would have been better off to include a simple (graphical) lesson about exponential functions and logarithms — and proceed with equations and graphs. And his belabored references to the Santa Fe Institute, which he directed for a while, could be streamlined into a single tribute. Still, this is a wonderful look at how the very large is very different from the very small.
70,000 years of history in 400 pages. That’s the challenge that Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind tackles, and it is, perhaps surprisingly, successful at showing coherent themes with strong opinions and a good sense of humor. It’s fun to read, and the illustrations are well-chosen and not the same old ones we have seen dozens of times. Still, some will quibble that some important aspects of humanity are not covered at all (looking at you, art), and that interpretations of archeological data can be uncertain. Still, it’s very satisfying to get through so many years and so many concepts (empires, the market, religion, law, ecology) in a concise way.
Written by a biology professor, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History is divided between the non-human world, where cannibalism is common and marvelously varied, and the human world, where we, as usual, have complicated the practice with all kinds of cultural and religious practices and taboos. I much enjoyed the first half, which leaps deftly from sharks eating their siblings inside their mothers’ oviducts to amphibians that consume the mothers’ oviduct lining using their special spoon-shaped teeth (yikes). It took me a while to appreciate the human stories, but the author investigates the Donner party (and gives us a lovely hand drawing of a beautiful Ponderosa pine supposed to be the tree where George Donner lived his last days), the fearsome original fairy tales in which ogres ate many young children (whitewashed by Disney), gruesome stories of the siege of Leningrad (do not use your imagination), and his memorable adventures eating placenta (does not taste like chicken).
Great book. Try not to read it in public, at least if you are reading a hard copy!
Be patient if you decide to pick up The Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids–and the Kids We Have. It starts slowly, describing standard pregnancy genetic testing techniques that seem mundane — but it ratchets up to much more technically complex and ethically challenging techniques, from preimplantation genetic diagnosis to systematically screening parents for potentially devastating genes. The author does not shy away from discussing how genetic testing is linked to abortions or how to imagine a world in which particular disabilities have become very rare. While definitely not a book to recommend to a pregnant woman, it’s a great way to think about the choices to make as a prospective parent and as a society.
The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time talks about the work that Peter and Rosemary Grant have been doing for twenty years in the Galapagos islands, studying the so-called Darwin finches. (Let’s just say that Darwin did a poor job of studying them, including neglecting to properly tag the origin of the ones he shot! They should be called the Grant finches.)
I thought that the book would focus on the studies they conducted, and the ascetic life on Daphne Major, which is a caldera with steep walls, no shade, and no permanent source of water, and I was initially disappointed that the author instead chose to use the scientists’ stories as interludes in a more ambitious discussion of evolution, but the approach is an educational success. Not only can we follow the living proof of Darwin’s theories, but also appreciate how quickly evolution can work, in a single very rainy or very dry season for example, and how very tiny differences (a single millimeter of a bird’s beak) can separate survivors from the others — showing the importance of proper analytical techniques.
It’s a little scary to think of the consequences on pesticide or antibiotic use, but think we must, and the author helps with that, too. Perhaps the best book about evolution I have read.