Friday, 16 January 2009

Freaks of Nature – Mark S. Blumberg ***

This is an interesting book to set alongside Armand Leroi’s remarkable book Mutants. As a pure reading experience, Mutants is without doubt streets ahead. Leroi’s style is much more readable and engaging, where Blumberg tends to the pompous and resorts to academic pronouncement. However he does have a good criticism of the dependence of Mutants on a genetic basis for unusual physical formation in animals and humans. After all, as Blumberg points out, human beings have produced quite dramatic variants through environmental pressures – head and foot binding, for instance. Development is as important to the production of freaks of nature as is the genetic material and its flaws.
That said, Mutants is, not surprisingly, about, well, mutants – so it’s hardly surprising that this is the main thrust of Leroi’s story. But the distinction does give Blumberg a broader canvas to work with. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is Blumberg’s stress on the way animals develop over and above pure genetic shaping of evolution. It gives some interesting insights into the nature of species and variation. We see just what a delicate process the development process is – and how those who have not formed along normal lines have developed mechanisms to cope.
The blurb on the back calls this book ‘beautifully written’ and calls Blumberg a ‘scientist-writer who can sweep us along’ – I’m afraid I couldn’t warm to this book, but do recognize it has an important message for those who see everything as written in the genes.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Sex, Drugs and Chocolate – Paul Martin ***

Perhaps it’s the buried puritan in me, but I found the pleasures of Paul Martin’s book, subtitled The Science of Pleasure, a trifle elusive. The concept was good – looking at why we feel pleasure and our complex relationship with hedonism – why small amounts of pleasure on a regular but occasional basis are better than continuous pleasure, which defeats the whole purpose of the exercise. There’s also plenty on addiction and our attitude to both pleasure itself and pleasure seekers. But there is something about the approach that put me off.
The book is, without doubt, well written and covers a reasonable amount of science (though arguably the anecdote to science ratio is perhaps a bit high). In fact I can only identify two clear reasons why it didn’t entirely work for me. One was the slight jokeyness that pervades the writing – this was a mild irritant. The other was the snobbishness that comes through heavily in the section on chocolate. Time and time again Martin asserts that the only real chocolate is the fancy dark stuff with 60% cacao solids or more, referring to what most of us think of as chocolate as ‘ersatz sugary confectionaries masquerading as chocolate’ and many more insults. I think he is fundamentally wrong here. In fact the chemical-driven pleasure principle from chocolate is primarily from eating the Cadbury’s/Hershey style stuff. The pleasure available from ‘real’ chocolate is like the intellectual pleasure that is gained from drinking dry sherry or eating caviar. It’s not really pleasurable at all, but it makes you feel good because it sets you apart from the masses.
However, if you overlook this, there’s a lot to like in this book. Martin does explore subjects that are often brushed aside, yet have a huge significance for human beings. As such this is a worthwhile and sometimes thought provoking read. I just wish it could have been done without the irritation factor to dampen the pleasure.
There is (the clue’s in the title) a lot about sex and drugs, so this is unlikely to be a suitable title for the younger reader.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 12 January 2009

Witness to Extinction – Samuel Turvey ****

Subtitled ‘how we failed to save the Yangtze River Dolphin’ this is the sad tale of the disappearance of the baiji, the pointy-nosed white dolphin of China’s Yangtze river. It’s a moving tale and told from personal involvement by Samuel Turvey, who worked for years on the attempt to save the baiji without ever managing to see one alive. In fact, but for one significant failing this is a very impressive five star book that treads that fine line between personal story and scientific discovery extremely well.
I’ll come back to that failing in a moment, but first let’s consider the good side. Turvey describes the practical difficulties of working in China, the complexities of organizing a conservation project and the life and times of the baiji from venerated (though occasionally eaten) animal to accidental victim of the fallout from human activity on that bustling river. It wasn’t, it seems, one problem, but a combination of many factors that doomed the baiji. Frequent heavy shipping noises practically blinds the animal by wrecking its sonar echo location. Illegal fishing with many-hooked lines ripped horrific cuts into the animals, and nets that drown them littered the river. Pollution poured into the river from human waste and many factories. It all conspired to make the environment of what seems quite a delicate animal practically uninhabitable.
Equally fascinating is Turvey’s exploration of the conservation world. We are horrified by the incompetence of some of the Chinese attempts to save the baiji – several die in captivity after attempts to feed them on bread, fruit and practically anything but the obvious fish that is their natural diet. Then there are the conservation purists who repeatedly waste time by arguing that it’s not acceptable to remove animals to a reserve – they have to be preserved in their original environment, even though this will only be possible when large stretches of the Yangtze are cleaned up: impractical in the timescale the animal had left to live.
Perhaps worst of all was the sheer bureaucratic incompetence of those involved, who seemed capable of organizing conference after conference, flying academics across the world, but not of making anything practical happen. Sadly this all too often seems to be the case when academics become involved in practical work. I remember back in the early 1990s, when working for an airline, being involved in a joint EU project with academia to develop a new check-in system. The academics’ first line of attack at one of many meetings was ‘let’s design a new computer terminal from scratch.’ The professionals thought this ridiculous – we would just buy PCs and get on with it. In the end, the project had to be abandoned and we did it ourselves. This academic tendency to ignore pragmatism and insist on getting it just right is great for getting good scientific results, but is useless for practical solutions: arguably the baiji would have done better without the academics involved. It’s a sad and gripping story.
The only reason the book doesn’t get five stars is that, as presented here it’s little more than a long magazine article that has been filled out to make a book. It’s a slim volume (I’ve nothing against that – I like slim volumes), but even within that it says the same thing over and over again. There certainly is a book in here, but it could have done with a combination of heavier editing and additional material.
Even so this is an excellent book that clearly identifies what’s wrong, what’s difficult and what’s possible for the future in conservation of rare animals – and acts as an effective farewell to these remarkable river creatures.
Review by Brian Clegg