Skip to main content

The Darwinian Tourist – Christopher Wills ****

Biologist Christopher Wills encourages us here to look at the living world from an evolutionary perspective, and to appreciate the extent to which evolution has shaped all of life. Seeing the world in the context of evolution, he argues, enhances the richness and our understanding of earth’s species and ecosystems, and the book takes us on a wide-ranging tour of nature, based on the author’s own travels, to illustrate this point.
We start by looking at the evolutionary processes which account for why individual species are the way they are, and how new species come into being. We go on to see how co-operation and symbioses between living organisms come about as a result of evolution. Later, we see how evolutionary processes have led to the huge diversity of life we find on earth, and how patterns of human migration have been shaped by, and have influenced, evolution.
Along the way, we also discover that an evolutionary perspective on the world helps us understand how to protect earth’s ecosystems. For example, in broad terms, the evolutionary processes that have shaped ecosystems have often led to there being a delicate balance between the numbers of living organisms that make up those systems. This balance can easily be disturbed, putting whole ecosystems at risk. But if we understand how evolution has created this situation, we are in a better position to preserve these balances, and can appreciate the need to be cautious when we interfere with ecosystems.
Wills mixes in amongst the science various personal stories whilst carrying out his research – such as, for example, where he gets caught up in an earthquake while studying life underwater – and these make the book highly readable. Also useful is the large number of photographs taken by the author of the landscapes and individual organisms being discussed, some very exotic, printed on the book’s glossy paper – there are photographs on probably close to half of the pages. Occasionally they can get in the way of the flow of the main text, but by and large, this does not happen, and many of the author’s photographs are captivating. They often highlight much better than text is able to the sometimes extraordinary adaptations species have evolved over time.
Given the large number of topics covered, there are inevitably occasions where the author moves a little too quickly, and assumes a touch too much prior knowledge. But this never becomes a big problem.
Overall, the book conveys well the significant explanatory power of evolution, and the benefits of taking account of the lessons an evolutionary perspective on the world can teach us. Ultimately, it is hard to disagree with the author’s message, and I would highly recommend this book.
Review by Matt Chorley


Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…