29 March 2012

Matt Ridley's The Red Queen

In The Red Queen, Matt Ridley  provides an excellent introduction to the evolution of sex.  While "Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature" is eventually delivered, in fact he starts at a more basic level - why does sex exist at all?

He begins with the simplest of single-celled organisms - indeed, with their predecessors - to show why gene swapping is useful.  He looks at parasites as a driver of evolution and a promoter of genetic diversity in a population, and how "the tragedy of the commons" is a good analogy for why species with sexes generally (but not quite universally) settle on two.

Throughout the book, there are fascinating details of biology that I had not been exposed to before - like the chromosomal system in lemmings which ensures that there are three females for every male.

Much of the book looks at the behavior of birds - Ridley considers bird mating behavior, which in many species consists of "monogamy with cheating" a fair match for human behavior.

When the book moves on to cover human nature, much attention is also given to our closest relatives.  I now have a fair better understanding of why gibbons are monogamous and chimpanzies are not, for example.  He also presents reasonably convincing arguments for the relative occurrence of polygamy and monogamy (and the near total absence of polyandry) among humans.  

Throughout the book, Ridley reveals science as a human endeavor.  Scientists are names and their theories are examined in context.  Where there is no clear consensus between contending theories  as of yet, the contending arguments are laid out and there is no pretext that "Science knows the truth".  For a reader interested in real science and not just in a collection of "facts" this is invaluable.

The final chapters, which look at asymmetries between male and female human brains and at contending theories of cultural rather than biological origins for modern human behavior, Ridley is well aware he is entering contentious ground.  His arguments are convincing, but he does not pretend that they are the only ones available.

Published in 1993, the book may be mildly dated on matters of biochemical detail but not to an extend that would affect his arguments.  It is entertaining and well worth reading.

24 March 2012

Steven Jay Gould's Essays on Natural History - 1998

Harvard University Press (under the Belknap imprint) has brought Steven Jay Gould's amazing essays on natural history back into print.  My latest Gould purchase is Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms.

Gould set himself the challenge of writing an essay every month, and having set to carried on until his death in 2002.  This particular collection was first published in 1998.  It is not my favorite Gould collection (that this remains Bully for Brontosaurus) but it contains one very important essay - the best and clearest explanation I have found of the teaching of the Catholic church on the matter of evolution.

It is not surprising, of course, that Gould would write about evolution; he was a very important paleontologist who has made important contribution to evolutionary theory.  What is more surprising is that an self-described agnostic Jew would write an essay on Catholic doctrine.  The essay (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) is an example of the respect with which Gould approaches all his subjects of study no matter how far they are from the core of what we would expect to be his world-view.

He begins with an anecdote of a meeting at the Pontifical Institute of Sciences with a group of European Jesuit priests who are also scientists; they were mystified by the idea of scientific creationism and asked what might be wrong with the theory of evolution in America.  He then goes on with the method that makes his essays so powerful - he goes directly to the source documentation to seek the original message.  In this case, Pius XII's Humani Generis  of 1950 and John-Paul II's Truth Cannot Contradict Truth of 1996.  He even goes on to research an error in translation from French into English of John Paul's pronouncement and to confirm the correct translation with the director of the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Science and Human Values.  And what is the key statement?  Referring to Humani Generis, the Holy Father John Paul wrote

Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than an hypothesis.
In other words, that not only are Catholics permitted to believe that the human form came about through evolution (as distinct from the human soul, each individually created by God.) but that evolution should be considered a fact established  beyond reasonable doubt.

That essay is a fraction of the book.  Other gems are an piece on how the meme (common in popularizations of evolution, you have probably read it) that Lamark's prime example of evolution through acquired characteristics was the neck of the giraffe does not actually appear in his books (The Tallest Tale) ; the amazing complexity of apparently simple parasites in their life histories (Triumph of the Root-Heads); an essay on how we know about the hump of the extinct Irish Elk only from ancient cave paintings (A Lesson from the Old Masters); and a look at how a Victorian craze for aquariums changes the way marine creatures are illustrated (Seeing Eye to Eye; Through a Glass Clearly).

It sometimes seems that the short factual essay is a lost art.  Certainly a search for a collection of essays in most bookstores will simply lead to mystified staff.  In Gould's collections you will read fascinating things about important subjects that can be read and digested in a couple of hours.

Since the majority of Gould's writing revolve around Natural History and Evolution, you should not read his books if you do not care about those subjects.  The actual material is aimed at an educated reader (no "grade-5-reading-level" here), and the collections are quite eclectic so hard to use for a student searching for research material on a given topic -- although if you hit one of these essays that matches your topic you have hit pay-dirt.  Mostly, these are just great top-quality brain food.  New ideas, well presented and flawlessly researched with a diverse mix of subjects to keep your reading fresh.