We take it on faith that Alaskans love the wilderness. Yet many of the state’s city-dwellers say in surveys that they avoid venturing deep outdoors for one reason: bears. It defies reason. Even in a state where grizzlies roam in the tens of thousands, attacks are rare compared to the threats of everyday life surrounding people and their machines. Compare the notion “of perishing in a car accident with that of being reduced to meat by teeth and claws,” writes Sherry Simpson, exploring one of the many bear-human dualities in her gripping and sweeping Dominion of Bears: Living with Wildlife in Alaska (Kansas). “The prospect seems not only horrific but also profoundly wrong because it fractures our idea of ourselves as the apex species.” Simpson gracefully weaves her observations and interviews with historical and scientific accounts in riffs on the bear as a metaphor, social animal, target of nature-watchers and hunters alike and, not least, as predator. At her best, Simpson keeps company with the likes of Barry Lopez, Rick Bass and Gretel Ehrlich.
For an engrossing look at a key document in the evolution of evolution, Harvard University Press presents On the Organic Laws of Change: A Facsimile Edition and Annotated Transcription of Alfred Wallace’s Species Notebook of 1855-1859. Wallace, an early and enthusiastic Darwin booster, is regarded as co-discover of natural selection. The “Species Notebook,” which records Wallace’s observations from his Malay Archipelago expedition, is a primary document of biogeography, a field Wallace pioneered. Until now, researchers like James T. Costa, whose annotations face transcribed and reproduced notebook pages, had to travel to the Linnean Society of London for a glimpse of this treasure. Costa also fashions a fine bio-bibliographic sketch of Wallace and his work in the introduction.
In his provocative and often laugh-out-loud funny Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us (Scientific American/FSG), Jesse Bering proves a gifted synthesizer of historical studies and current literature about what drives humans as sexual beings. He chronicles the evolving views on what we’re born to be versus what we choose and guides readers through studies that suggest early imprinting leads to particular objects of desire (amputees, say, or shoes). He offers no cover for predators while making a persuasive case to replace scorn with sympathy for non-victimizers whose sexual appetites, through no fault of their own, fall outside the norm.
Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion (Vintage paperback original) is a virtuoso performance, a thinking-person’s Inconvenient Truth without a Hollywood ending. The global disaster of out-of-control human population growth—its toll on land, water and air—plays out in bold and simple language, interspersed with photographs and well-chosen scary graphs. This rapid-fire treatment infuses the topic of resource depletion and environmental ruin with an urgency that trumps metaphors about amphibians in hot pots. The upshot and ultimate spoiler: Hope is slim and, to paraphrase Emmott (who selects a shorter, less delicate word to describe our fate), we’re screwed.
Erudite yet accessible, Identically Different: Why We Can Change Our Genes (Overlook), delights and informs. Geneticist Tim Spector, creator of Britain’s twin registry, explains how the study of epigenetics, Greek for “what’s around the gene,” has debunked the dogma that genes determine everything. The reader glides through sections titled “Why do Californians want to live like worms?” and “Gay genes and randy aunts” in childlike anticipation of what’s next (“Super poo,” say). “Genes are certainly the star players in the body,” Spector concludes, “but they can’t act alone and are one part of a complex team” in the cell.
Like many of its prehensile subjects, Primates of the World: An Illustrated Guide (Princeton) is thoroughly gripping. The late Jean-Jacques Petter and translator Robert Martin introduce the anatomy, behavior, habitat and distribution of 300 of our nearest evolutionary relatives. François Desbordes’ 72 masterful illustrations (pictured here: tamarins) set this volume apart.
Two notable paperback releases this week, both from Norton: Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen and The Spark of Life by Frances Ashcroft.
In The Science Writers’ Handbook (Da Capo), editors Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis have gathered guidance on the how of science writing as well as the freelance writer’s emotional and financial health. The volume provides a valuable companion to Oxford’s A Field Guide to Science Writing, especially for beginners.
Every page, from crater to quasar, of Your Ticket to the Universe: A Guide to Exploring the Cosmos (Smithsonian) testifies to authors Kimberly Arcand and Megan Watzke’s devotion to their work as media officers for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Pictured here: a three-telescope composite of the Crab Nebula.
Seaweeds: Edible, Available & Sustainable (Chicago) presents a tasteful hybrid of natural history, culture, commerce and cuisine. Author Ole G. Mouritsen notes that people have supped on macroalgae for a long time. Just how long remains a mystery; algae leaves no trace in the prehistoric dietary record. (Photo by Yann Fontana, from Seaweeds.)
21 October 2015
The simple message of The Secret Lives of Bats (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Humankind should praise these seed-spreading, pollinating, insect-pest-munching flying mammals rather than kill them. Unfortunately, we have been more successful at the latter, and in alarming numbers worldwide, as author Merlin Tuttle tells the tale, subtitled My Adventures with the World’s Most Misunderstood Mammals. Tuttle, a bat researcher since boyhood who founded Bat Conservation International, has spent the past 50 years in the field (and the cave) setting the record straight. Spinning engaging stories that star moonshiners, farmers and other bat-curious, Tuttle is a personable and plainspoken guide through a world inaccessible to most.
21 September 2015
Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century isn’t just a good writing guide. It’s one of the best books published in the past year. Wise, funny, practical and, as of this writing, ranked in the top 20 of three Amazon writing-guide categories, it will find an even wider audience after its Penguin-paperback debut this week. Pinker isn’t a scold who ascribes bad writing to laziness or ill will. He explains why otherwise well-intended writers fail. For example, are scientists and other jargon-drenched writers trying to shut the rest of us out? No, he says. In the subtitle of a chapter called “The Curse of Knowledge,” Pinker nails it: “The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know.” He’s also strategic, preparing readers before laying a serious but fascinating grammar lesson on them unlike anything you’ll find in The Elements of Style, in print for 56 years. May Pinker’s words on writing enjoy a similar run.