Skip to main content

Making Eden - David Beerling ****

I'll be honest up front - I found parts of Making Eden hard work to read. But the effort was more than rewarded. David Beerling makes a good case that botany is unfairly seen as the Cinderella of biology - it simply doesn't get the same attention as the animal side. I realised how true this was when I saw a diagram of a 'timeline of evolution of life on Earth' the other day. Out of about 30 entries, arguably three of them applied to plants. And yet, as Beerling makes clear, without plant life, the land would still be barren and the seas far less varied. No plants - no animals.

As someone with a very limited background in biology, I learned a lot here. The sophistication of some plant mechanisms are remarkable. Beerling dedicates a chapter, for example, to what he describes as 'gas valves', the stomata that open and close on the underside of leaves, allowing carbon dioxide in. The apparent downside is that they let moisture out - but as Beerling describes this is what allows, for example, trees to lift water up through their trunks in what are kind of upside-down fountains. It makes remarkable reading.

Similarly, I was fascinated by the discussion of a special kind of evolutionary jump that could have been responsible for major changes in evolutionary development, rather than natural selection as a result of the impact of individual mutations. In these jumps, whole genomes were duplicated, allowing one set of genes to carry on their jobs, while the copies could change, taking on different roles, before the two genomes merged back together. (There is apparently still some uncertainty about this, but Beerling tells us that 'evidence is mounting'.) And there was plenty more on where plants came from in the first place, deducing the role of ancient genes, the interaction between plants and symbiotic fungi, the contributions plants have made over history to climate change and the environmental crisis we currently face. I loved the suggestion that one contribution to mitigating growing carbon dioxide levels could be to give crops access to crushed basalt, which would encourage the plants to capture and store more of the carbon than usual.

Some of these chapters (such as the climate change and environmental ones) were straight forward, readable popular science. I found with some of the others I had to do a little light skipping when Beerling got too technical or delved into unnecessary detail. In the genetic-based chapters, this came across in the abundance of technical terms. I was reminded of Richard Feynman's infamous remark in Surely You Are Joking, Mr Feynman when naming cat muscles during a talk and the other students told him they knew all that. 'Oh, you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you've had four years of biology. They had wasted all their time memorising stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.'

Picking a page at random in the Genomes Decoded chapter, I find at least 10 technical terms, some of which are mentioned here, but then never used again. It just makes the brain rattle a little. In other parts, Beerling describes in elegant detail how a particular distinction about a fossilised plant could be deduced - but there is so much detail I found my eyes drifting onwards to move things on a little.

Don't get me wrong - I am really glad I read this book. I have learned a lot and many parts were simply fascinating. I just wouldn't want to give the impression it's an easy read, where instead it takes some work, but rewards the reader richly.

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

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 …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…