Top banner


The Evolution Explosion, Thieves, Deceivers, and Killers, and more . . .

In The Evolution Explosion: How Humans Cause Rapid Evolutionary Change (Norton, $24.95), Harvard biologist Stephen R. Palumbi has penned a series of short essays about Homo sapiens as a potent selective agent in nature. His examples include such expected topics as antibiotic resistance, evolution of HIV in response to drugs, and pesticide resistance, but there are many gems of insight to be gleaned from these. The chapter on anthropogenically driven selection in marine systems is particularly interesting; examples include the reduction in body size of salmon in response to selective fishing of large adults and the cultural evolution of whale migratory pathways in response to whaling. Clearly, evolution often gallops rather than plods, and we are important agents of selection. Unfortunately, Palumbi serves up this message with syrupy verbosity and approximately one cloying metaphorical cherry per page. Perhaps his copy editor was on vacation.

Populated by antibiotic-toting ants and invading fungi, William C. Agosta's Thieves, Deceivers, and Killers: Tales of Chemistry in Nature (Princeton, $26.95) should prove absorbing for even the most chemistry-challenged reader. These brief stories about remarkable uses of chemicals in nature are well told. The opening chapter reads like a science fiction war story: Ants belonging to the species Protomognathus americanus have mastered the use of chemical weapons and used them to enslave Leptothorax curvispinosus ants, thereby building a luxurious lifestyle. In later chapters, animals and prehistoric peoples use naturally occurring chemicals to improve food supplies, fight off enemies and cure disease. The common occurrence of antibiotics in nature is discussed in the context of the search for new medicines. Agosta's careful explanations will appeal to readers at all levels.

Figure 3. Lead use in paint peaked . . .Click to Enlarge Image

The evolution of life may be the greatest story ever told, so it doesn't hurt that it gets told once again in The Book of Life: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth (Norton, $45), a reissue from 1993 with a new introduction by general editor Stephen Jay Gould. The highlights of evolutionary history are recounted here in authoritative essays by a small group of prominent scientists. The many illustrations put the book at the head of its class. Early 20th-century paintings of dinosaurs appear alongside modern depictions commissioned for the book. In the preface, Gould argues that these "iconographic" images play a profound role in how lay people and scientists think about early life and are perhaps more influential than the words of the scientists. Gould's introduction and preface should be read by anyone who wants to understand the role of our biases in portraying the rise of life on this planet. Below is a depiction of feeding time for newborn pterodactyls in their cliff-top nest 150 million years ago.

Click to Enlarge Image

Illusions are remarkable in their ability to elucidate the workings of the brain—a fact pleasingly demonstrated by Franklin Philip's new translation (Cornell, $25, paper) of Jacques Ninio's illustrated The Science of Illusions (La Science des Illusions, 1998). Try giving this page a quarter-turn, and your perception of "Floatation 2" (right), from an op-art painting by Reginald Neal, will change—demonstrating Ninio's point that one problem in human vision "lies in its tendency to relate everything to the terrestrial vertical." Some of his wry insights need no illustration. He begins an inventory of common illusions with "the illusion of always being right" and finds among his own bugbears the researcher's illusion: "believing one has had a brilliant idea that is merely a recollection of something read long ago."

William Dietrich's novels are set in extreme places and populated by brainy characters in dire circumstances. In his new novel, Dark Winter (Warner Books, $24.95), Dietrich hardwires the reader to the head of Jed Lewis, a geologist-turned-South-Pole-weatherman at the Amundsen-Scott research base. Lewis is a "fingie" (for "f***ing new guy on the ice") who, in short order, becomes suspected in the sequential murders of fellow "beakers" (the Antarctic slang term for scientists). This does not endear him to his new neighbors. The plot is right out of Hollywood: Lewis must find the real killer to clear his name. A superb writer, Dietrich manages to put fresh meat on these cold, dry old bones, drawing on his experiences in Antarctica as a Seattle Times science reporter. Pulling for Lewis turns out to be as fine an excuse as any to enter the not-quite-workaday world of polar research in a landscape masterfully painted as the most inaccessible, inhospitable, unforgiving and alien place on earth—even without a killer on the loose.

Click to Enlarge Image

The earliest uses of botanical compounds in healing were early indeed. Consider the 60,000-year-old skeleton of a Neanderthal man, found buried with plants known to have medicinal properties. Detailed information about plant medicines can be found in works more than 3,000 years old, among them Sumerian clay tablets, an Egyptian scroll, the Rig Veda and a Chinese emperor's herbal book. Chimpanzees (left) apparently treat their own parasitic infections by swallowing whole the hairy leaves of Aspilia mossambicensis. Although more than 80 percent of the world's population still relies primarily on traditional plants for medicine, in the West much of this hard-won knowledge has been lost through disuse. And we are in danger of losing the plants themselves—the medicinal potential of fewer than 5 percent of the 250,000-plus species of flowering plants has been investigated, and as many as 60,000 species may become extinct within the next 50 years. Fortunately, interest and research in medicinal botany is on the rise. Judith Sumner, who teaches botany at Harvard's Arnold Arboretum and elsewhere, apprises us of these and other absorbing facts in The Natural History of Medicinal Plants (Timber Press, $24.95).

Click to Enlarge Image

In The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception and Human Frailty (Oxford, $27.50), Walter Gratzer unearths tales of scientists led astray by the promise of success. In many cases, not even the most irrefutable counterevidence is enough to shake the deluded scientist's resolve. With clarity and an ever-so-subtle sense of humor, Gratzer considers such follies as polywater and autointoxication. The former—reported by Boris Derjaguin to have greater viscosity, lower density, greater thermal expansion and a higher index of refraction than ordinary water—turned out to be water contaminated with everything from silica to sweat to sodium acetate. Autointoxication, which was believed to be the result of colonic obstruction or stasis, was decried by Élie Metchnikoff (right), who believed the colon to be toxic and harmful, proclaiming that "to shorten the gut is to lengthen the life." In the early 20th century, his protégé, Sir William Arbuthnot Lane, began surgically removing the colon from individuals he believed to be suffering from autointoxication. Variations on the practice, the benefits of which were never proved, continued until the 1940s, when it gradually fell out of fashion.



Bottom Banner