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.” (more…)
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Posted in Book reviews on 04/16/2013 |
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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. (more…)
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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. (more…)
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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. (more…)
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Yesterday I came home from the Science Writers 2012 conference in Raleigh, N.C. feeling very good about seeing many old and new friends. Despite dealing with the travails of traveling as a nursing mom without her baby, it was an awesome trip. But even more awesome awesomesauce was awaiting me at home. Lurking in the middle of my stack of mail was the new UNC Press catalog for their spring/summer book releases—and gracing the cover is a large, handsome red wolf, a nice nod to the upcoming release of my book, The Secret World of Red Wolves next April! (Click here to download a partial PDF of the catalog and read more about the book.)
I am thrilled the press chose a photo from my book to put on the cover of their catalog! It is a wonderful gesture to their faith in the importance of this book, and it is also a welcome bit of positive news for the red wolf which is currently plagued by the fallout of a decision by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to allow the night spotlighting of coyotes throughout the state, even within the endangered red wolf’s five-county recovery area. For this, they are being sued. (I first wrote about the threat of this change to the state hunting regulations for the Scientific American Guest Blog, and for the Charlotte Observer, and I’ll be writing more about it elsewhere in the coming month.)
The photo on the catalog cover is also the photo for my book cover, which will look like this:
Now, is that a nice cover or what? I love the way they framed the wolf’s gaze with the title.
But back to the catalog. This is the first step in marketing my book, and that makes me very excited because I actually finished writing the book in November of 2011. At the time, I had no idea that it would take more than a year for the project to transform into a saleable hardback form! (In fact, the process took so long, I actually went through pregnancy and birth and now have a beautiful baby boy! Some people have commented that it must feel pretty good to have a book and a baby both “born” within the same year. It does feel good, though also a tad overwhelming as I try to regain my foothold with writing now that my life is re-centering around another human being.) Because of my recent inauguration into motherhood, I’ve not been blogging much the past few months, but I hope to rectify that situation in the months to come. Goodness knows there is so much to write about with recent developments for the worse for red wolves.
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The Wolverine Way, by Douglas Chadwick
Wolverines are badass animals. That’s probably why Marvel Comics made a character based on them. But unfortunately, we know more about the comic character than the real deal! Myth tells us that these animals are enormous gluttons, so much so that their latinized name is Gulo gulo, which means glutton glutton. I suppose the double name speaks to the intensity of glutton they were once thought to be.
Wolverines are a modest sized animal that can weigh anywhere from 15 to 70 pounds, with most being in the 30-50 pound range. They have the lithe muscular bodies of young black bear cubs, but with the wide digging-ready paws of a badger. Their heads look like a mashup of a Tasmanian devil with a mongoose. They have enormous strength that allows them to gallop for hours on end through deep snow fields, swim through freezing streams and rivers, and haul their bulk up nearly vertical cliff faces. And did I mention their skulls harbor bone-crushing teeth? Well, they do, and they make good use of them, gobbling up bones from carrion and fresh kills alike to process the fatty, nutritious marrow that many other animals can’t access.
Despite their obvious badassery, wolverines have remained one of the most understudied mammalian predators on the continent.
A few years ago, a multi-year project to study the life history details of these animals was undertaken at Glacier National Park, where a small population of the animals still remain. The study provided the perfect vehicle for Douglas Chadwick, who volunteered on the project, to write a book about these amazing but largely unknown carnivores.
In The Wolverine Way Chadwick narrates the time he spent as a volunteer on the Glacier project. His voice offers a mix of wonder and humility with just the right amount of swagger. But that last element stems almost solely from what we learn of wolverines: how they can scale sheer rock and ice mountain faces in times that make the most ardent mountaineers green with envy; how they can roam twenty or more miles across rugged topography in a single day, treating mountain slopes as if they were flat; how they can go head-to-head with grizzlies to stake a carcass as their own; and how they can munch bones like so many stale breadsticks to carry them between meaty meals.
Chadwick’s engaging, at times poetic, writing and reflections of the natural world are what elevates this book from a mere documentation of a project to an insightful tome into what I can only call the mindset of a wolverine. Check out this video trailer to see what I’m talking about:
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Cover of MountainFit; art by Diana Sudyka.
I don’t recall how or when I first came across the writing of Meera Lee Sethi at her blog, The Science Essayist, but I remember slowing down my normal speed reading to savor her thoughts and words. While there are many blogs I enjoy for their content, I enjoy Meera’s blog for her lyricism, poetry, and sharp insight. She has a way of taking a seemingly ordinary natural thing, like dragon flies along the Gulf Coast, and imbuing it with extraordinary meaning, sense of place, history, and ecological and literary context.
Her writing dissects in detail things from the natural world that most people would simply lump into an archetypal category such as “insect” or “bird;” but she patiently peels back layer after layer until whatever thing it is she’s writing about is laid bare, explored, and exposed as a unique organism with a unique story and a unique place in the universe.
Meera volunteers at the Chicago Field Museum’s ornithology lab a day or two each week where she prepares bird skins. Sometimes she writes blog posts about the birds she encounters there. Sometimes it’s a tidbit about the species, sometimes it’s a tale of a particular bird or an interesting nugget about its life cycle, behavior or ecology. It’s always interesting.
Last summer, Meera sent an email to her friends and colleagues asking them to support a project she’d posted to Kickstarter. She was going to volunteer at a bird lab in Sweden, and she wanted to self-publish a book about the experience. I happily donated $50 and wished her well though secretly I was a bit jealous. Whereas I would spend my whole summer indoors planted at my desk, having an intimate affair with my laptop (writing my own book), she would spend hers hiking rugged mountains in Sweden and spending her daylight hours out of doors, chasing beautiful birds with beautiful stories.
A few months ago, her book arrived. It’s called MountainFit: Fjall Sommar, Fjallsjalv. Though she’d originally pitched the book as a “thank you” to folks supporting her project, I got the sense through various emails and tweets that her book had taken on a strange life of its own in the ensuing months since she’d returned from Sweden to her home in Chicago. It seemed she was wrestling with something deeply internal and personal… which is why I knew it was going to be an awesome read before I even cracked it open. (more…)
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Cover of The Tiger, by John Vaillant.
Can a tiger hold a vendetta against a person? This is a central question in The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant. The book holds a haunting tale you won’t soon forget. It’s based on true events that transpired in Russia’s Far East in the late 1990s. The truth of the events portrayed in this book will stalk your conscience until you are forced to confront several revelations: that animals like tigers may possess an intelligence which allows for pre-meditated action, that animals like tigers may have emotions and act upon them, that tigers may have the emotive and cognitive capacities to possess grudges and enact vendettas, and that most humans who don’t live with wild tigers tend to downplay and discredit these possibilities.
The story Vaillant tells in this book is based upon a series of events that took place in the far eastern Soviet taiga, which is a type of habitat that transitions between tundra and temperate forests. The bulk of the book takes place in Primorye Territory, a maritime province which harbors one of the last reservoirs of wild Siberian tigers. The opening scenes begin in December 1997 on the sliver of Russia’s eastern coast that lies between China and the Sea of Japan. A man had just been attacked and partially eaten by a tiger, about 60 miles from the logging town of Luchegorsk.
But it wasn’t just any man, and very soon the tiger’s act of killing and consuming this man takes on a chilling revelation: the tiger knew this man. The tiger, in fact, was carrying a bullet that the victim had shot into it just weeks before. Did the tiger remember that this particular hunter had shot it? Did the tiger seek out revenge? (more…)
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Cover to The Species Seekers, by Richard Conniff
The Species Seekers: Heroes, fools, and the mad pursuit of life on earth, by Richard Conniff, is a delightful natural history story that toes the line of an adventure book. The theme of the text explores various historical characters — their personalities and their deeds — who discovered a wide variety of nature’s bounty across the globe and across time. Conniff expertly weaves personality traits and anecdotes about the people who seek new species — the species seekers — so that readers learn not only who discovered what, but why they were driven to wander in new countries and trek through jungles and mountains to find new natural treasures. But it’s the way in which Conniff presents these characters, their travels and discoveries, that injects a fast-paced adventurous feel to the book.
He leads with a French colonel in Napolean’s army who spots an unusual beetle as he was about to lead his men to attack a Spanish line during the Battle of Alcaniz in 1809. The colonel dismounts, collects the beetle and pins it to a prepared piece of cork attached to the inside of his helmet. The cork was there for just this purpose, and the colonel had trained his men to collect interesting insects for him. His love for describing new species was so was so great that even his enemies sent him unusual specimens.
From this departure point, the narrative’s pace skips along like a light-hearted summer trip; the kind where you explore a multi-country itinerary in a condensed time period. (more…)
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Cover of Shell Games, by Craig Welch
Shell Games, by Craig Welch, is hands-down one of the most interesting wildlife stories I’ve read in decades. (Admittedly, the subtitle, Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty, snookered me from the outset.) Welch is an environmental writer at the Seattle Times, and the book grew from stories he first reported for his newspaper about wildlife trafficking in the Puget Sound. The more he looked into it, the more convoluted the tales became. The result is Shell Games, a story of the shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest, how it went horribly wrong, and the crazy, greedy characters that sped it on the path to illicit international markets.
The shellfish in question is a long-lived clam called a geoduck. They are the antithesis of the big, fuzzy charismatic megafauna that so many wildlife stories depend upon to generate interest. Geoducks are large burrowing clams that live immersed in mud on the ocean floor for decades, with only a fleshy siphon thrust up through the sediment. Through their long-necked siphon, they feed, defecate and expel gametes. They live up to a century and a half, all within their ocean floor burrow. So, why on earth should we care about a long-lived, sedentary clam that weighs a couple of pounds (whoppers weigh up to 15) and garners $6 to $12 per pound of its flesh?
How about, because they are dug up illegally by the thousands and smuggled out of the country to Asian markets — and because competition for them is so fierce that fishermen literally blow up each other’s boats, smugglers inform on their biggest competitors, and the industry garners millions and millions of black-market dollars. Criminal rings form to harvest these shellfish at night, with divers sucking air from secret lines drilled through the hull of ships to maintain clandestine secrecy. Some bandits even use re-breathers so that their illegal harvests can’t be detected by tell-tale bubbles at the surface. All this so that tasty geoduck can be served night after night in seafood restaurants, at home and abroad. Now that is pretty interesting! (more…)
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