Skip to main content

Improbable Destinies - Jonathan Losos ****

There's always a danger when a science author puts themselves at the heart of their book that it can come across as 'Me, me, me!' - but Jonathan Losos has a very amiable personal style that gives the impression of having a chat with the author over a beer - and some of the best parts of the book are those that talk about Losos's own work.

The topic here - whether evolution inevitably tends to produce particular biological approaches given an environmental niche - is an interesting one, so the combination of the writing style and the topic make the book well worth reading, but there are some drawbacks, particularly with the first 150 pages or so. Arguably these suffer rather from the 'Is it a book or an article?' syndrome - there really isn't enough going on in them. What we are told is that often there will be convergence on similar biological solutions, but equally sometimes you'll get an oddity (think duckbilled platypus). The vast majority of those 150 pages involve going through many examples of both possible outcomes, making the reader inclined to yell 'Okay, I get it! Move on!'

Things get much better when Locos tells us about his own attempts in experimental evolution - one of the central threads of the book, that when ideas moved from Darwinian evolution over eons to the possibility of very quick adaptation, it was possible to put evolution to the test experimentally over periods of years. Cleverly, Locos picked up on a pre-existing experiment looking at something totally different that had involved starting lizard colonies on small islands. He was able to experiment with their development and adaptation to environmental issues and show that the populations converged on similar solutions (at least until population after population was wiped out by a hurricane). 

This increased level of interest continues to a degree when we get onto other people's experiments with evolution, though again we get something of a repetition problem. The trouble is, I think, partly that Losos is so immersed in his subject that he assumes we will find every detail fascinating too, and that science requires lots of boring repetition to establish a theory. This doesn't necessarily make for engaging reading, and a good science writer has to get a feel for when to use a few examples rather than plodding through endless detail as a scientist would expect to do.

Despite these issues (you can always skip a bit), I repeatedly come back to the warm, approachable Locos style and the genuinely interesting (even to a non-biologist) aspects of how much evolution will tend to converge on similar solutions to environmental pressures, but how much novelties will also tend to arise - meaning the answer to the old Stephen Jay Gould 'Replay life's tape' idea is that sometimes it will be very similar, sometimes it won't. Incidentally, the blurb suggests this focuses on humans and whether life on other planets would end up fairly humanoid - that is certainly mentioned in the text, but it's far more about lizards and the like.

This is a book that deserves to be widely read.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…