Archive for the 'Biology' Category

Adam’s Curse: A Future without Men, by Bryan Sykes

SEL Books: QH600.5 .S98 2004

By turns fascinating and disturbing, Adam’s Curse explores the possible causes, ramifications, and solutions to a currently intractable problem–the human male is facing extinction.

The human male is facing two dangers–decreasing sperm count and the deteriorating Y chromosome. Dr. Sykes predicts that, if no solutions are found in the meantime, human males will disappear from the earth within the next 125,000 years (roughly 5000 generations).

This sounds like an awfully long time to come up with a solution, but when we’re talking about changes that occur slowly, planning ahead apparently can’t begin too soon.

Genome : The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, by Matt Ridley

SEL Books: QH431 .R475 1999

Science writer Matt Ridley hit upon a creative method for introducing lay readers to the human genome—to write its biography.

Each chapter focuses on a particular chromosome (Chromosomes 1 through 22, plus one chapter coupling X and Y together). For each chromosome, the author focusses on one or two genes, using it as a launching pad to explore a particular topic, such as fate, instinct, sex, conflict, or free will.

Of course, we learn a lot about the human genome, genetics, and evolution along the way, but it all leads to his central question: are we nothing more than the sum total of our genes? Ridley presents the Nature v. Nurture debate, and takes it further by introducing a third factor—free will.

Both “sides” of this age-old debate are on the side of determinism; our personalities are determined either by our genes or our environment. But do we have a say in this at all? Ridley presents compelling evidence that who we are is an amalgamation of all three influences, though not necessarily in equal measure.

This book was written more than eight years ago, so a greater body of knowledge on this subject has been amassed since then. The Human Genome Project completed its mapping in 2003, and scientists are using the information for a wide variety of research projects, including solving crimes, discovering relationships among all living things, mapping the evolutionary process, discovering more about our ancestors, following the movements of peoples across time and space (as in Mapping Human History, the “Pick” for September 2006), and, of course, disease treatment and prevention.

Yet, despite its age, I still recommend this book as a wonderful introduction to genetics. Its language is comprehensible and its tone inviting. This book is evidence that learning can be fun.

Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes, by Steve Olson

SEL Books: QH455 .O474 2002

In Mapping Human History, geneticist Steve Olson follows the migration of humans from Africa out into the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. He does not use the traditional “bones and stones” archeological approach. He looks one place for his evidence—inside our DNA.

Along the way, Olson takes great care to discourage those who might desire to use DNA testing to justify racial distinctions between groups. The human race has interbred among groups for thousands of years, and attempting to determine genetic markers that represent distinct races is virtually impossible.  We are so inbred that it is likely that every person on earth today has DNA from Julius Caesar, Confucius, and Nefertiti.

The book is broken down into sections representing different continents, and ending with one called “The End of Race,” which looks at Hawaii as a case study. The author also looks at connections between genetic studies of human connections and the evidence found in the archeological record and with linguistic studies of human connections. Languages apparently evolve in a similar manner, though there are not exact correlations, as one can easily adopt a particular language and culture independent of one’s genetic makeup. The evidence accumulated among these various disciplines can work together to provide a clearer picture of human movements over time.

I have long been fascinated by connections among cultural groups, and this book provided exactly the kind of information I’ve been seeking.

(Originally published in Connections, September 2006)

Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, by Carl Zimmer, introduction by Stephen Jay Gould

SEL Books: QH361 .Z48 2003

I provided a brief recommendation of this book in conjunction with Evolution vs. Creation, by Eugenie Scott, but at that time our collection did not contain this book. We have recently acquired Evolution, and it is such a fascinating and informative book that it deserves its own recommendation.

This is a great introduction to evolutionary theory, intertwining the histories of the theory and its founder with current findings and ideas. It follows the pre-Darwinian progression of the concept, Darwin’s initial antagonism towards it, the data that led him to alter his ideas, and the reasons he avoided publishing his findings for thirty years.

Other topics discussed at length include the biological “tree” of living species, coevolution, disease evolution, extinction, and the evolution of sex. Zimmer also includes a section on human evolution and the consequences of evolutionary concepts on society.

Evolution can become an explosive issue. Lots of misinformation is floating around on all sides of the issue. Read this book if you want a good, basic understanding of the scientific claims about, and the evidence for, evolutionary theory.

(Originally published in Connections, March 2006)

Animals in Translation : Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

QL751 .G73 2005

Temple Grandin has a Ph.D. in animal science and is renowned as a specialist in facility design, livestock handling, and animal welfare. She is also autistic.
This fascinating book compares and contrasts the animal mind with the human mind. Surprisingly enough, a human brain differs little from a mammalian brain in substance, yet it performs many functions that other mammals cannot perform. Why that is so is both a compelling mystery and a scientific challenge.

I looked forward every night to keeping my date with Dr. Grandin. This book is enjoyable not only for the information one gains but for the sheer pleasure of reading its prose. The author’s voice is refreshingly straight-forward—open and honest. I had heard her on several television and radio interviews, and her voice was clear in my mind as I was reading.

This book would appeal to several different types of readers—people interested in autism, people who love or study animals, people who are interested in how the mind works, and people who are interested in biology (both human and animal). I found it interesting on all counts.

I definitely recommend it to anyone who owns or is planning to own a pet. Dr. Grandin emphasizes the importance of pet owners understanding more than simply how to physically care for their pets; she claims that owners have a responsibility as the animal’s caregiver to consider its emotional and psychological needs when making decisions about its welfare.

(Originally published in Connections, December 2005)

Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, by Eugenie Carol Scott

QH367 .S395 2004

Teaching creationism alongside evolution has once again become controversial with the advent of the intelligent design movement. This book, written by National Association of Science Educators president Eugenie Scott, provides a well-rounded approach to viewing each side of the issue.

I recommend this book to people whose views fall on any side of the issue. It explains, calmly and concisely, with no inflammatory language, all or most of the facets of this controversy. The second half of the book consists of selections written by creationists or intelligent design advocates juxtaposed with selections from scientists. In each section, an issue is raised, such as the Cambrian explosion or the second law of thermodynamics, and both sides weigh in. This method allows readers to compare and contrast these ideas while reading original arguments, rather than arguments as interpreted by the other side.

Different sections tackle a different aspect of the controversy. The book looks at issues from different branches of science, from a legal perspective, from an educational perspective, and from various religious perspectives. It also contains a wealth of references to complete works, by scientists and creationists, so that readers can investigate further on their own.

I think reasonable people on either side of this issue often respond to extremists on the other, and the arguments become increasingly shrill. We need calm, rational, respectful discussions like this for people to really hear the true points of view of others. And it’s crucial that we do so. This country faces a shortage of American students entering scientific fields, which makes this issue important for the future of our country.

Note: This book does not provide a good overview of evolutionary theory, since it focuses solely on the controversy. For those wanting to dig a little deeper, I recommend Carl Zimmer’s Evolution : The Triumph of an Idea. It is not available at UTA Libraries, but the collection contains two other books by him: At the Water’s Edge : Macroevolution and the Transformation of Life (SEL: QH 371.5 .Z55 1998) or Soul Made Flesh : The Discovery of the Brain — And How It Changed the World (SEL: QP376 .Z555 2004).

(Originally published in Connections, October 2005)