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Showing posts from 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 ab…

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 onl…

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 noi…