Odd Couples, book cover
Since becoming a first-time mum last summer, I’ve become painfully more aware of the sexually-based differences between myself and my husband as we navigate the new-to-us territory of parenthood. (How can men listen to a baby wail for so long without doing anything?! And why do I feel I traded my career for motherhood, while his career is taking off and he gets to be an awesome dad?!) Yet, no matter how baffling these differences feel to me, they are negligible compared to the ones explored in Odd Couples: Extraordinary Differences Between the Sexes in the Animal Kingdom (Princeton University Press, 2013).
Odd Couples is a refreshingly informative and passionate jaunt through the extreme differences found in the sexes of eight different animal species. Evolutionary biologist Daphne Fairbairn infuses her rigorously researched text with elegant and poised language, a pervasive sense of insatiable curiosity, first-hand experiential scenes and learned suppositions. The result is a feeling of listening, enthralled, to the best lecturer in far-and-away the best college biology course you ever experienced.
Fairbairn begins the book with a standard introduction revealing biographical information which exemplifies her expertise in evolutionary biology. She shares that the roots of her questions about sexual differences stretches back to her early-career field studies on wild deer mice. The main questions her book explores are “why sexual differences are such a pervasive and significant part of the fabric of animal variation and, in particular, why males and females have come to differ to truly extraordinary degrees in some animal lineages.” Continue Reading »
Posted in Book reviews, Natural History, Science and nature writing, Wildlife | 7 Comments »
Frankenstein’s Cat, by Emily Anthes
When I picked up a copy of Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts by Emily Anthes, I can honestly say I harbored few expectations—because I know exactly zilch about biotech. It’s one of those phrases I hear and think, “Ooooh, bio….” then the “tech” part crashes in my ear and my flicker of interest withers. But Anthes’ tour of how humans are modifying both domesticated and wild animals’ bodies hooked me from the starting gate.
Frankenstein’s Cat is written in an entirely accessible manner. It’s sometimes whimsical, sometimes humorous, deepy informing—and always understandable. Anthes’ love of alliteration is sprinkled throughout the text with cheeky phrases such as “creature copies, cloned kittens, feathered fowl, and robo rats.” She clearly explains scientific and technical processes while also probing what biotech experiments and applications mean in philosophical, moral, ethical and ecological frameworks.
Near the beginning, Anthes refers to a book called The Frankenstein Syndrome, in which the author posits that not all genetic engineering harms animals. I can only assume her own book’s title is loosely pulled from this idea. Though this review on Forbes.com offers an alternative explanation, that it’s a reference to a previous work of the same title.
Anthes explores using genetic engineering for seemingly harmless and frivolous applications, such as creating glow-in-the-dark fish whose luminescent chroma exist thanks to splicing jellyfish genes into zebrafish; and the use of biotech for things like inserting fake gonads into recently neutered dogs to make them (or their owners) feel less traumatized. But she also contemplates more productive applications of biotech, such as the genetic manipulation of goats to produce lysozyme, a component of human breast milk which has anti-diarrheal compounds; and the use of orthapedic prostheses to aid injured wildlife and pets with both “slip on” types as well as ones that are surgically implanted and fully integrated with the animal’s skeleton and tissues. She also delves into the use of remote-controlled insects as military robo-voyeuristic spies, as well as educational applications that use robo-cockroaches to bring neuroscience into any classroom or home in the world. Continue Reading »
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This is a sense-of-place essay I started writing before I became pregnant. It’s harder to find the time to ride now that Haydn is here. I still ride, though hardly as many miles as when I wrote this piece. I’m posting it now, finally, out of a sense of longing for wanting to get back to this place where I once was, this groove of being so intensely aware of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and of paying attention to how it changes day-to-day and season-to-season.
Not far down the road from my home in Asheville is a shortcut through a sparse tree line that edges Bull Mountain Road. The humble dirt trail is a bit like the magical armoire in Narnia—when I pass through it I’m transported to a different world, the otherness of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s rolling black pavement, which snakes through the Appalachian mountains. I pick it up is southwest of Mt. Mitchell, elevation 6,683 feet, and the highest point in the East.
Five summers ago, my husband and I rode the entire Blue Ridge Parkway from north to south, all 469 miles in five days. We rode for three days, took a rest day in Asheville, and then finished in Cherokee two days later. I found the descent into Asheville thrilling — the road kept unfurling down, down, down. We lost elevation by the minute. I had no idea, then, that I would one day live a few minutes from that same stretch of parkway, and that I would be blessed enough to be able to ride it everyday of the week, if I so wished.
But that’s just what happened, and after we moved to western N.C. in January of 2011, I fell into the habit of rolling my bike out the back door by eight a.m., then winding through a series of streets for a mile and a half to the end of Bull Mountain Road where the twenty-foot-long dirt trail lies off the shoulder. The trail pops me out near mile-marker 382, which is fondly associated in these parts with the Folk Arts Center and Big Boy, an amiable, often-seen local black bear. As the skinny tires of my Orbea road bike pinball through the obstacle course of roots, I peer through the trees both ways for cars and then dart out onto the parkway. I turn north and begin to climb up to Craven Gap, then past Bull Gap, through the unlit Tanbark Ridge tunnel (forever uneasy for passing cars), past the Bull Creek overlook and up to the Lane Pinnacle overlook. Continue Reading »
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One of my favorite narrative books: Monster of God, by David Quammen. And look who signed it!
Narrative writing is as hard to define as porn: you know it when you see it. (Or in this case, read it.) I was lucky enough to co-moderate a session at ScienceOnline2013 with the amazing David Dobbs, a veteran writer and author, and a talented public speaker. The session grew out of last year’s ScienceOnline when I noticed people using the term “narrative” at several different discussions, but they used it in different ways. Some people referred to short news articles as narratives (can narratives really be a few hundred words?), while others used “story” and “narrative” almost interchangeably (what differentiates them?), and others treated the term “narrative” like tofu: letting it soak up whatever flavor of meaning they wanted it to.
David and I offered a working definition of sorts for the session, in which we defined narratives as an account of connected events. I think he got this straight out of the dictionary. But I liked it because it was simple and concise and broad enough to encompass many different things. A while ago, I read Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story, in which he defined narratives using classic story-telling techniques borrowed from fiction: characters, plots, conflicts and resolutions. In this narrow definition, narratives must have a central character who encounters a problem, and the problem is somehow resolved. While I truly enjoyed Franklin’s book, I find the definition a little to narrow and exclusive. Not all of the wonderful things that can be made into science narratives may have all of these elements, but they may still make wonderful and entertaining narrative stories. This is why I liked David’s broader and all-encompassing definition. (Or maybe there are two genres of narrative: the Classic Narrative Story as defined by Franklin, and the Malleable Narrative as defined by David and I.) Continue Reading »
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On a Farther Shore is an excellent biography of science writer Rachel Carson, whose work many people consider to be the foundation of modern environmentalism. I picked this book up out of general interest; and although I considered myself loosely familiar with Carson—I confess I’ve never read Silent Spring, although a copy sits on my bookshelf—in short order I came to understand that I knew nothing about her at all, except, of course, her instantly-recognizable byline.
Author William Souder pieced together major portions of Carson’s personal and professional life from collections of her extensive correspondence, journals and other papers, and interviews with family members of her friends. The result is an almost cinematic narrative of her life meshed with major cultural, political and environmental events—such as radiation fallout from nuclear bomb tests, insecticide vaporizers used within homes, and campaigns to eradicate gypsy moths—which defined her time. Souder’s approach yields a rich context for the issues and influences that surely helped to shape Carson’s thinking.
I wrote to Souder and asked him to participate in a Question and Answer about his newest book and the research for it. He graciously agreed, and I hope you enjoy reading his responses:
Q: What inspired you to write about the life of Rachel Carson?
A: My interests include science, the environment, and history. Carson was the embodiment of all three, so I felt a kinship with her, a sense that I saw the world at least somewhat as she did. I was also wanted to explore the question of why we have this bitter, partisan divide over environmental issues. Why should republicans and democrats have different views on the environment when it is of equal importance to both? And it turns out the answer can be found in Silent Spring and maybe more importantly, in the reaction to Silent Spring. There was one more thing: Rachel Carson, despite being one of the most consequential figures of the 20th Century, is unknown to many people nowadays. Baby boomers—people in their fifties and older—tend to remember her. And Millennials know Carson because they study her now in high school and college. But in between those ages a lot of people don’t know who she was. So I thought there was an opportunity to correct that on the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring. Continue Reading »
Posted in Biodiversity & Conservation, Book reviews, Science and nature writing | 4 Comments »
Captive male red wolf. Photo courtesy of Ryan Nordsven/USFWS
After completing my recent book on red wolves, I began to set up a Friends of the Red Wolf group to support the conservation of Canis rufus in the wild. Working in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Wolf Recovery Program, the Friends group will focus on augmenting conservation efforts in the Red Wolf Recovery Area in North Carolina. Our main function is to raise funds which will be used to execute projects and purchase field supplies needed by the red wolf recovery program.
Red wolves are critically endagered, and some consider them to be among the most endangered canids on the planet. A network of forty-one captive breeding facilities across the U.S. work to safeguard the species from extinction while the FWS works to restore a population of about 100 wild red wolves in northeastern North Carolina. My book on red wolves traces their modern reintroduction and management as well as what is known of their past history in the eastern United States. Some of the modern reintroduction challenges include managing them to prevent hybridization with wild coyotes, mitigating disruptions to packs due to human-caused red wolf deaths, and changes to their habitat cause by sea level rise due to climate change. (All of these issues are explored in depth in my book.)
Another recent threat to red wolves came about last year when the state of North Carolina allowed open-season daylight hunting of coyotes to be extended to night. Red wolves are mostly nocturnal, and they appear visually similar to coyotes (although adults are larger), so by allowing the night hunting of coyotes the state’s newly proposed hunting regulation potentially places red wolves at risk of being shot in cases of mistaken identity. An injunction was placed on the night hunting rule, although a permanent change to the hunting regulations remains a possibility.
You can visit the website for the new Friends of the Red Wolf group and find photos of red wolves and a blog post explaining a little bit more background about the formation of the Friends group. If you feel so inclined, there is also a page explaining how to make a donation.
Posted in Biodiversity & Conservation, Endangered species | Tagged red wolf | 2 Comments »
This is a LONG overdue review for the formerly indie anthology known as The Best Science Writing Online 2012. It was released a few months ago and is a collection of science blog posts selected as the cream of the crop from the online world out of some seven hundred or more submissions. While this series used to be self-published on Lulu.com, it was picked up last year by Scientific American/Farrar Straus and Giroux. The 2012 edition includes fifty blog posts and one poem. The editors did their best to make sure that little was lost in the translation from pixels to paper, and they spent a good deal of effort making sure that graphics associated with the original online posts made their way into the final printed and e-book formats. These were my favorite posts (listed in no particular order):
David Winter’s “The Origin and Extinction of Species.” This is a tidy little synopsis of the study of speciation, variation and diversity with a modern twist regarding the (too common) negative effect of invasive species upon native populations. Winter turns an example of land snails found on Pacific Islands into a wildly interesting case study of speciation and extinction. Continue Reading »
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