Skip to main content

Lonesome George – Henry Nicholls ****

Pinta Island in the Galapagos has a particularly famous inhabitant – the giant tortoise, Lonesome George, the only known survivor of the Pinta variant of that species. (Technically he isn’t an inhabitant, as he has been moved to a sanctuary on another part of the archipelago, but Pinta is where he came from. PS Also even more technically now George has sadly died.) George inevitably features regularly in the press, thanks to the combination of being a striking animal, a Darwinian icon and a very isolated creature, but does he warrant a whole book?
In a word, yes. Henry Nicholls cleverly makes George a central focus that he keeps returning to, but is able to use the tortoise as a springboard to examine everything from Darwin’s voyages to threats to the Galapagos from incoming, non-native wildlife, eco-tourists and the action of illegal sea cucumber fishers (who have threatened to kidnap George, or worse, in the past).
Some might find the description of the attempt to get George interested in the opposite sex from nearby islands (a lack of interest that seems largely due to lack of practice) a little too detailed, but it too is entertainingly told, bringing in some of the human characters involved along the way. It’s not all about George’s inclinations, though. As well as giving serious consideration to cloning, Nicholls looks at the possibility there might be another Pinta variant out there in the collections of giant tortoises around the world (these are long-lived beasts, and one may have been taken before their scarcity was noted), at various attempts to track down another tortoise on Pinta itself (it’s difficult to be absolutely sure something isn’t there), and at the state of the other sub-species of Galapagos giant tortoise.
There is one aspect of the story that seems underplayed in the book. The only reason George is a celebrity is that he is a one-off – the only representative of the Pinta version of the Galapagos tortoise. But he is quite similar to the tortoises on one of the other islands, and it is known that tortoises have travelled between islands in the past. Could George just be a reptilian island hopper, and not a true Pinta tortoise at all? If this were the case he would just be one of many – no more special than any of the other Galapagos tortoises, rather than the tourist attraction he is today.
There have been two tests, comparing George’s DNA with the skin samples of three tortoises killed on Pinta in 1906. One test found that George didn’t match, one found George did. Nicholls’ conclusion “On balance it looks like Lonesome George fully deserves his hard-earned celebrity status,” sounds more like wishful thinking than a scientific conclusion. When two tests come up with opposite results, you don’t pick the result you want, you do a whole series of tests, reproduced in different labs – this hasn’t been done, so George’s status has to remain in doubt. This doesn’t stop him making a good story, though.
Nicholls gives us a good balance of George himself, the natural and political history of the Galapagos and the inevitable Darwinian connections. It’s a warmly enjoyable book – a pleasure to read.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…