Skip to main content

Improbable Destinies - Jonathan Losos ****

There's always a danger when a science author puts themselves at the heart of their book that it can come across as 'Me, me, me!' - but Jonathan Losos has a very amiable personal style that gives the impression of having a chat with the author over a beer - and some of the best parts of the book are those that talk about Losos's own work.

The topic here - whether evolution inevitably tends to produce particular biological approaches given an environmental niche - is an interesting one, so the combination of the writing style and the topic make the book well worth reading, but there are some drawbacks, particularly with the first 150 pages or so. Arguably these suffer rather from the 'Is it a book or an article?' syndrome - there really isn't enough going on in them. What we are told is that often there will be convergence on similar biological solutions, but equally sometimes you'll get an oddity (think duckbilled platypus). The vast majority of those 150 pages involve going through many examples of both possible outcomes, making the reader inclined to yell 'Okay, I get it! Move on!'

Things get much better when Locos tells us about his own attempts in experimental evolution - one of the central threads of the book, that when ideas moved from Darwinian evolution over eons to the possibility of very quick adaptation, it was possible to put evolution to the test experimentally over periods of years. Cleverly, Locos picked up on a pre-existing experiment looking at something totally different that had involved starting lizard colonies on small islands. He was able to experiment with their development and adaptation to environmental issues and show that the populations converged on similar solutions (at least until population after population was wiped out by a hurricane). 

This increased level of interest continues to a degree when we get onto other people's experiments with evolution, though again we get something of a repetition problem. The trouble is, I think, partly that Losos is so immersed in his subject that he assumes we will find every detail fascinating too, and that science requires lots of boring repetition to establish a theory. This doesn't necessarily make for engaging reading, and a good science writer has to get a feel for when to use a few examples rather than plodding through endless detail as a scientist would expect to do.

Despite these issues (you can always skip a bit), I repeatedly come back to the warm, approachable Locos style and the genuinely interesting (even to a non-biologist) aspects of how much evolution will tend to converge on similar solutions to environmental pressures, but how much novelties will also tend to arise - meaning the answer to the old Stephen Jay Gould 'Replay life's tape' idea is that sometimes it will be very similar, sometimes it won't. Incidentally, the blurb suggests this focuses on humans and whether life on other planets would end up fairly humanoid - that is certainly mentioned in the text, but it's far more about lizards and the like.

This is a book that deserves to be widely read.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  



Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

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 …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …