I suppose that the author of Medieval Bodies: Life and Death in the Middle Ages felt he had to start by defending the Middle Ages from the usual contempt of readers who think that the Renaissance is the interesting period, but his book is so fascinating that prejudices will fall away. Drawing from documents and artifacts from the Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic traditions, in multiple languages, he explores illness, conceptions of the body and brain, competitiveness amongst saints (pro tip: the more extreme the martyrdom the better), race, the crazy mechanics of bleeding patients, and chiromancy. The result is that we enter into the logic of medieval people, in a kind, not mocking way.
My favorite part of the books was the set of medical textbooks he references, some actually kinda correct, others very entertaining and always beautifully illustrated.
Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other Animals is a delightful exploration of adolescent animals of all kinds, including penguins, wolves, hyenas, whales, birds, and humans. The authors, a biology professor and a science journalist, show how teenagers of all species learn to feed themselves, navigate hierarchies, stay safe, and find a mate. (Curiously, they discuss feeding themselves last!) They are able to knit together stories of completely different animals into a satisfying whole and convincingly present key elements of the life of teenagers and young adults: risk taking (even in rodents, who are eaten by owls mostly as adolescents), quick learning from others’ bad consequences of risky behavior (rather than their parents, seen as too old, and too staid), anxiety (shelter dogs who are attacked as adolescent are likely never to shed their fear-based aggressive tendencies), privilege (yes, even with scrub jays, who inherit their territories from their parents), and, my favorite, the ability to sometimes overcome privilege deficits through deft social navigation (by a young hyena, in the book).
They also introduce two wonderful words, which really should exist in English: mamihlapinatapai, the awkward longing of a young would-be mate, and zugungruhe, or migration anxiety. A great science book that reads like a novel.
Following Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, De Waal tackles emotions in Mama’s Last Hug: Animal and Human Emotions. We see a capuchin monkey losing it when his friend gets a delicious grape instead of the cucumber he receives for the same task, smiling primates (including humans) trying to make amends, chimps who recognize other chimps’ behinds (but only for chimps they know), bully alpha male apes who get killed by their fed-up troops, and orphan bonobos who can’t quite self-soothe. The author’s deft and empathic observations make it very clear that, of course, animals have emotions, and not too different from ours.
Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone will make you think about all the times you just bypassed dusty bones in museums. The author tells their stories, whether it’s competing archeologists bribing miners to steal fossils from others, the reasons why exoskeletons cannot support huge creatures, creatures breathing with their ribs rather than diaphragms, the not-really-awful consequences of corsets, and why bears’ bones don’t just disintegrate during hibernation. He also describes how the very holding of human bones in museum collections is controversial, reminding us that it’s a privilege to be able to observe them, dusty or not.
The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life discusses three new ideas in biology: a new domain of creatures, Archaea, the proof that genes can transfer “horizontally” and not just from parent to child, and the realization that our microbiome may be more important than the rest of our bodies. All that puts into serious question the orderly tree of life we all learned in school.
The author spends rather too much time describing various scientists, sometimes with satisfying results (I did not know that Lynn Margulis was once married to Carl Sagan, who from this account was a cad when young) and other times not so much (Carl Woese’s feuds with pretty much everyone). His descriptions of labs and sometimes dangerous lab techniques are always welcome and lively, however. A long book but worth reading.
Let’s start with what does not work so well in Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past: the author’s repeated insistence that DNA analysis will change every field of inquiry (please show us, don’t tell!), and his decision to include minute details of how his team conducted various analyses he describes in the book.
Apart from that, the stories are fascinating: who invaded, who introduced new technologies, who imposed draconian restrictions on marrying outside the group, can be revealed through DNA analysis, with the main obstacle being the availability of ancient DNA. Indeed, many of the theories (and boy, do geneticists like theories!) seem to be built on very small data sets, suggesting that they will likely be toppled as we find more remains. I was most interested by the idea that humans, even very ancient ones, roamed a lot, so that the ancestors of people living in a given regions routinely came from very far away. This seems to be a very inconvenient truth to racists everywhere, as well as to nationalists. Let’s find and analyze more ancient DNA!
Champion: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree is a book with modest aim, pitched towards young readers but highly enjoyable for adults, of the science and politics behind the revival of the American chestnut tree. After a fungus infestation, scientists identified the issue and painstakingly crossed the species with others to create a resistant tree. Inspiring!