My review of Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods, a not-unsympathetic exploration of timber poaching on the margins of Redwood National and State Parks, is online (and in print) in this week’s Science.
It’s a good book, following a small group of “outlaws” in the depressed logging community of Orick and the park rangers trying to prevent and prosecute their thefts of valuable old-growth coast redwood from park property. The author, Lyndsie Bourgon, blends that true-crime narrative with bigger-picture perspective on the history of forest management and the global trade in illegally harvested timber. Maybe not surprisingly, it ends up being more a critique of global capitalism than an indictment of the tree thieves, and my review follows it all the way to Full Space Communist:
The book’s unavoidable conclusion is that the problem manifest in timber poaching is not the destruction of a particular tree or the failure of a conservation plan but rather a social and economic system that roots personal identity in wage-earning work (or lack thereof) and that describes a tree by its value as board feet in a lumberyard. Tree Thieves thus suggests that the theft of a tree may be a category error … so pervasive that we don’t know we’re standing in its shade.
The world is heating up, and it often seems that the intellectual luxuries afforded to scientists of the past — Darwin’s leisurely publication schedule, Haldane’s dalliances with radical politics — are gone. Lab Girl’s rendition of the daily institutional frustrations of research marks it as a different kind of scientific memoir — but also as a product of twenty-first century science. If you navigate among scientists’ blogs or scroll through their Twitter feeds, you’ll quickly find the same fears and vexations and injustices Jahren describes, intertwined with accounts of the work that excites scientists’ passions. … Jahren does not makes science look like an easy career choice, but it isn’t her job to do so — and if Lab Girl chronicles the real and substantial barriers to becoming a successful scientist, it also makes that life compelling: she shows the fruit that can still grow from the rocky soil of a research career.
Jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) mating. (Flickr: Lisa Brown)
Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, I’ve posted a long-overdue review of a terrific little book about naughty parts. Genitals. Junk. It’s called Nature’s Nether Regions, by evolutionary biologist and entomologist Menno Schilthuizen, and it puts the weird world of (animal) reproductive anatomy on full display, while avoiding the cliches and pitfalls into which so many popular accounts of sex and evolution fall.
The book’s subtitle What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves, might be a bit ominous to a reader familiar with the many hazards of evolutionary hypothesizing about human behavior, but Schlithuizen’s chatty tour of animals’ sexual anatomy dodges them all. He does this, in large part, by devoting far more time and attention to the “evolution” and “biodiversity” than to “ourselves,” putting the rather pedestrian reproductive arrangements of Homo sapiens in their place amidst the baroque diversity of appendages, receptacles, secretions, and behaviors other animals employ to multiply their kinds.
Go read the whole review, which includes some sampling of the natural history Schilthuizen covers, and then check out the book itself.
Nothrotheriops shastensis, the giant Shasta ground sloth, is one of many large North American mammal species that went extinct when the ice age ended and humans arrived on the scene. (Wikimedia Commons: Michael B. H.)
Over at The Awl, I reviewed paleobiologist Beth Shapiro’s new book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Exitinction. Shapiro argues that we can and should resurrect mammoths, then release them into the best approximation of ice age habitat we can assemble. Which is crazy! Right?
Shapiro frames mammoth resurrection, or de-extinction, or recreation, or whatever this would be, as part of a broader effort called “Pleistocene rewilding.” The idea is not to put recreated mammoths in zoos—it is to release them into wilderness preserves in Europe, Asia, and North America, as part of re-establishing the community of large animals that lived in those regions during the last ice age, the geological era called the Pleistocene.
… proponents of Pleistocene rewilding argue that it could provide new habitat for megafauna species that are critically endangered in their native ranges, like lions and rhinoceros, and that it would have significant benefits for the health of the ecosystems into which they are introduced.
The LA Review of Books has just posted my review of Unnatural Selection: How We Are Changing Life, Gene By Gene—a highly accessible book about how insect pests, weeds, disease organisms, wildlife, and even cancer cells evolve in response to the chemicals and drugs we use to contain them. I particularly focus on the skin-crawling case of bedbugs:
Bedbugs are a particularly intimate example, at least from the human perspective, of the broader trend. Surveys of exterminators report that between 2001 and 2007, the number of bedbug infestations across North America increased 20-fold, concentrated in places like apartment complexes, college dormitories, and homeless shelters in major urban areas. Some of this resurgence is due to international travel. Major ports like New York, San Francisco, and Miami are epicenters of bedbug activity, and genetic surveys show that the bugs are arriving from multiple populations, not spreading from a single geographic source. Still, a large part of the bedbug revival is attributable to the fact that the bugs have developed a resistance to many of the insecticides that kept them down for decades.
I’ve written (another) review of Nicholas Wade’s “science of race” book A Troublesome Inheritance, this time for the Los Angeles Review of Books. If you’ve read the my previous review for The Molecular Ecologist, you won’t find much new here, but the LARB piece is pitched at a less technical audience, and takes a somewhat different point of entry:
CHARLES DARWIN is more usually cited for his scientific discoveries than his moral insights. In the closing pages of his travelogue The Voyage of the Beagle however, he condemns the practice of slavery — which he observed firsthand in the colonized New World — in blistering, heartfelt terms worthy of an Old Testament prophet
In this testimony against the great social sin of his age, Darwin makes an observation that should unsettle us even here and now: “if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”
I’m extremely pleased for the chance to contribute to a great literary magazine, and I’m also quite happy to see that LARB went with my suggested, punny headline: “Cluster-struck.”◼
Over at The Molecular Ecologist I’ve done an in-depth review of the population genetics data cited by Nicholas Wade in his book A Troublesome Inheritance, which argues that social, cultural, and economic differences between human populations are all in our genes. Digging into the book’s endnotes, it didn’t take me long to find discrepancies between Wade’s description of basic population genetic results and the actual, um, results.
First and foremost, Wade claims that when population geneticists apply a class of statistical methods called clustering algorithms to datasets containing hundreds or thousands of genetic markers, they objectively identify five geographic groups that he calls “continental races”—differentiating African, European/Middle Eastern/South Asian, East Asian, Oceanian, and American people. What he does not make particularly clear is that while clustering methods do group genetic samples without direct instructions, the algorithms do not decide how many clusters there are. The geneticists using them do.
To make me feel somewhat better for having paid actual money to read this book, go read my whole review.◼
A book-sale table at Twin Cities Pride 2013. I bought some books at the sale—but not any of these. Photo by jby.
I read 17 books in 2013. I actually have no idea how this stacks up to past years, though I did set myself the goal of 20, and that proved to be a bit ambitious. Here’s the list, more or less in chronological order, with notes about what I thought of each:
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell — I read this after watching the film adaptation, and came away with a deeper appreciation for both versions of the layered, multi-generational story. As a book, it’s an endless pleasure of renewed recognition as themes and images repeat and evolve.
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson — This is a really lovely, optimistic vision of humanity’s future. It has some great set-piece scenes, including one in which space-dwelling communities drop animals from orbit to repopulate the Earth’s biosphere. The actual plot—something about politics across the Solar System—is rather thin, and mostly happens in the background, but 2013 is grade-A hard science fiction with a humanist soul.
Children of the Sky, Vernor Vinge — A nice continuation of the series started with A Fire Upon the Deep, which explores a society reshaped by the arrival of aliens (humans!) bearing hyper-advanced technology. Unfortunately it’s a little less self-contained than the earlier books, leaving a number of plot threads loose in anticipation of a sequel.
Sticks and Stones, Emily Bazelon — I wrote a full-length review for this one—I think it’s a great and important collection of research.
On Being Different: What it Means to Be Homosexual, Merle Miller — This was a self-assigned reading in what I think of as my ongoing class in remedial Queer Studies, and it’s remarkable both for how much has changed since Miller first wrote the essay, just a couple years after Stonewall, and how much really hasn’t.
Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective Science Teaching, Gregory Light and Marina Micari — I reviewed this for ProfHacker. Coming from the perspective of someone who wants ideas about what to actually do in a classroom, rather than general statements of principle, I didn’t find it very helpful.
Matter, Iain M. Banks — Banks (who died this year, unfortunately) is my current go-to for solid, exciting space opera that doesn’t require me to stop thinking critically when I pick it up. Matter describes the interactions of a primitive culture with much more advanced ones—and the deadly outcomes of political maneuvering within each.
Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi — More space opera, this time about human colonists on a new world and their efforts to avoid war with non-human intelligent natives, and hostile off-world aliens. Like Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead without any of the mystical fluff or weird sexual baggage.
The Second American Revolution and Other Essays, 1976-1982, Gore Vidal — I’m ashamed to admit this was my first in-depth exposure to Vidal. He’s a bit classist for my taste, but at his catty best, he’s great. This got me wanting to write essays.
The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks — Another solid hit, this one a story of interstellar war in which ancient and apparently gormless, anarchic aliens turn out to be more than they seem.
Paleofantasy, Marlene Zuk — This is a lively debunking of some recent pseudo-scientific fads, and a nice introduction to better-supported thinking about recent human evolution.
The Murder Room, P.D. James — The first old-school mystery novel I’ve picked up in ages. It’s a good, straightforward murder procedural.
Fun Home, Alison Bechtel — This graphic novel-format autobiography about Bechtel’s childhood with her closeted father may be the best thing I read all year. I blew through it in two evenings of sitting up late.
The Green Hills of Earth, Robert Heinlein — This was my first in-depth exposure to Heinlein (I never did make it through Starship Troopers), and I mostly liked it. Green Hills is really a collection of short stories, set over the course of humanity’s expansion across the Solar System. I like Heinlein’s focus on (mostly) men doing the grunt work of colonization, though his writing is workmanlike at best, and definitely a product of its time.
A Dance With Dragons, George R.R. Martin — I waited for this one until it came out in mass-market paperback, both because I’m a cheapskate and because I know I’ll have a long wait for the next book in the series. Like every entry in Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” since the first A Game of Thrones, this isn’t a particularly self-contained story, but it’s a good continuation, and it made for good holiday-break reading.
Darwin’s finches, like this medium ground finch, are a prime example of what John Thompson calls “relentless evolution.” Photo by David Cook Wildlife Photography.
When I was just starting graduate school, one of the first things I wanted was readings to get me up to speed on the current state of research on the evolution of interactions between species. My dissertation advisor handed me The Geographic Mosaic of Coevolution, by John Thompson (who, it should be said, had been my advisor’s postdoctoral mentor). Thompson turned out to be just the author for the job, wrangling a huge body of research into a clear, straightforward text, and all in support of his argument that metapopulation dynamics—populations linked by migration across a landscape of varied environments—are the engine driving much of evolution.
Now, Thompson’s published a new book, titled Relentless Evolution, which pretty much picks up where The Geographic Mosaic left off. And I’ve reviewed it for The Molecular Ecologist.
Gould’s “paradox of the visibly irrelevent” holds that, if we are to understand the river of evolutionary history, we must look below the spume and spray of year-to-year adaptative change to find the deeper currents that can, over time, carve canyons. In his new book Relentless Evolution (University of Chicago Press, $35.00 in paperback), John N. Thompson makes the opposing argument with gusto: To Thompson, studying the roiling eddies that Gould dimissed as transient and superficial is the only way to understand the deeper currents, and the river’s course ahead of us.
Should you run out and buy a copy? If you’re even slightly on the fence, I suggest you go read my whole review.◼
In their new book Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching, (Harvard University Press, $24.95) Light and Micari argue that undergraduate education in the sciences should go beyond imparting a basic set of knowledge, and make learning science more like the experience of doing scientific research.
If teaching science to undergraduates is also a thing you do, may I suggest you go read the whole thing?◼