Book Review: The Making of the Fittest

Author: Sean B. Carroll
Title: The Making of the Fittest
Publication Info: Tantor Media (2007), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD
ISBN: 1400103150


This book is a primer on how natural selection works.  Carroll approaches this topic from a mathematical perspective through statistics and probability, but does so in layperson’s terms (which means I can just barely understand it – hah!).  The book uses examples such as Antarctic icefish for whom natural selection has chosen genes that give them enlarged hearts, blood without red blood cells, and a natural antifreeze.

Mutation is a key idea, with Carroll stressing that mutations despite their bad PR can be beneficial and points out that in fact we are all mutants.  While mutation is blind, natural selection is not.  Natural selection acts cumulatively.  Carroll also takes on the people who deny evolution by natural selection, refreshingly pointing out that it’s not just religious conservatives with examples of Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko who persecuted proponents of Medelian genetics and chiropractic practitioners who denied germ theory.

This is a good practical summary of the fascinating key ideas of biology.

Recommended books: On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
Rating: ***

Book Review: Where the Wild Things Were

Author: William Stolzenburg
Title: Where the wild things were : life, death, and ecological wreckage in a land of vanishing predators
Publication Info:  New York : Bloomsbury : Distributed to the trade by Macmillan, 2008.
ISBN: 9781596912991


This book explores the role of predatory carnivores in ecosystems.  Far from just being the top of the food chain, Stolzenburg shows the evidence of numerous researchers that predators are necessary for maintaining a healthy balance of prey and vegetation.  Without predators, ecosystems collapse completely.

Stolzenburg shows evidence of similar regions with and without their primary predator – whether it be sea otters, sharks, or wolves – and the differences are alarming.  The most dangerous predator of course is the human, and we have a long history of exterminating predators.  Stolzenburg believes this goes back to the Pleistocene when the first humans arriving in the Americas eliminated the megafauna of two continents.  Some of the most fascinating and controversial ideas are to “rewild”the Americas by introducing large mammals such as camels, lions, and elephants into the wild!  While discussing the objections to the plan, I am surprised that Stolzenburg made no mention of the unfortunate history of invasive species (cane toads anyone?).

This is a very illuminating, saddening, but ultimately important perspective on how to preserve and recreate damaged ecosystems.

Read this Conservation magazine article by Stolzenburg for more details.

Favorite Passage:

The most dangerous experiment is already underway.  The future most to be feared is the one now dictated by the status quo.  In vanquishing our  most fearsome beasts from the modern world, we have released worse monsters from the compound.  They come in disarmingly meek and insidious forms, in chewing plagues of hoofed beasts and sweeping hordes of rats and cats and second-order predators.  They come in the form of denuded seascapes and barren forests, ruled by jellyfish and urchins, killer deer and sociopathic monkeys.  They come as haunting demons of the human mind.  In conquering the fearsome beasts, the conquerors had unwittingly orpahned themselves. – p. 200

Recommended books: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
Rating: ****

Book Review: Little Fingers by Filip Florian

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Romania

AuthorFilip Florian
Title: Little Fingers
Publication Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2009)
ISBN: 0151015147


The hot new novel from Romania is based on the premise of excavations of a Roman fort in a small town unearth a mass grave.  It is immediately rumored and believed that the bones belong to people executed by the communist regime in the 1950’s and the situation denigrates into a morbid and sensationalist media circus.

Florian builds around this premise a series of biographies and set pieces.  Multiple voices speak that tell stories often tangentially related to the main story.  There’s Petrus the archaeologist who spends a lot of time listening to the stories, dreams, and prognostications of the elderly women of town.  There’s the priest who waits on the next apparition of the Virgin.  There’s the lone partisan, survivor of the communist era.  Then there are the Argentinians, experts in political murders, who fly in to examine the grave.

I’d admit this is not a straightforward nor easy to read novel.  Still I enjoyed the humor and the writing of Florian (as translated by Alastair Ian Blyth) which is both poetic in the dreamy sections and poetic in the many portions that describe and list ordinary objects.  Florian is an interesting voice and addition to my Around the World For A Good Book project.

Recommended books: The Joke by Milan Kundera, A Mercy by Toni Morrison.  This book falls well into the magical realism category, so if you enjoy that you’ll probably like Little Fingers.
Rating: ***