BOOK: How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society

A couple of years ago, Princeton University Press published the huge volume, The Princeton Guide to Evolution (out in paperback in February 2017), which provides a large overview of evolutionary biology, as a science and its relationship to human society (you can read the introduction here). Now the press has condensed a variety of chapters that address evolution as it relates to human society into a shorter book.


Jonathan B. Losos and Richard E. Lenski, eds., How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 416 pp.

Publisher’s description It is easy to think of evolution as something that happened long ago, or that occurs only in “nature,” or that is so slow that its ongoing impact is virtually nonexistent when viewed from the perspective of a single human lifetime. But we now know that when natural selection is strong, evolutionary change can be very rapid. In this book, some of the world’s leading scientists explore the implications of this reality for human life and society. With some twenty-three essays, this volume provides authoritative yet accessible explorations of why understanding evolution is crucial to human life—from dealing with climate change and ensuring our food supply, health, and economic survival to developing a richer and more accurate comprehension of society, culture, and even what it means to be human itself. Combining new essays with essays revised and updated from the acclaimed Princeton Guide to Evolution, this collection addresses the role of evolution in aging, cognition, cooperation, religion, the media, engineering, computer science, and many other areas. The result is a compelling and important book about how evolution matters to humans today. The contributors are Dan I. Andersson, Francisco J. Ayala, Amy Cavanaugh, Cameron R. Currie, Dieter Ebert, Andrew D. Ellington, Elizabeth Hannon, John Hawks, Paul Keim, Richard E. Lenski, Tim Lewens, Jonathan B. Losos, Virpi Lummaa, Jacob A. Moorad, Craig Moritz, Martha M. Muñoz, Mark Pagel, Talima Pearson, Robert T. Pennock, Daniel E. L. Promislow, Erik M. Quandt, David C. Queller, Robert C. Richardson, Eugenie C. Scott, H. Bradley Shaffer, Joan E. Strassmann, Alan R. Templeton, Paul E. Turner, and Carl Zimmer.

You can read the first chapter here.

BOOK REVIEW: Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

Things happen when humans mess with the environment. It’s a simple statement, cause and effect. What happens to tiny animal-dwelling organisms (viruses and bacteria) when humans encroach into the territories of their host animals, kill them, and even eat them? They can jump to humans and cause all manner of unpleasant infectious diseases. This jumping over is called spillover, and such infectious diseases are known as zoonotic diseases (or individually as a zoonosis). The complex story of how zoonotic diseases have emerged and are affecting animal and human populations across the globe is the subject of nature writer David Quammen’s new book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.

Quammen brings his usual style to Spillover: his global travels as a writer, the story of current research, and the history of science. All melded together, they make for an engrossing read. Spillover is, honestly, a scientific thriller (but nonfiction!), and I really had a hard time putting it down. He took me to Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, and parts of North America I’ve never been. He introduced me to scores of epidemiologists and disease ecologists who work tirelessly to make sense of disease outbreaks, constantly risking their own lives by exposing themselves to pathogens (Quammen, on the other hand, noted several times in Spillover that he is just writing about this stuff: “I didn’t intend to let anyone hand me a Nipah-dripping bat if I could reasonably avoid it”). He brought me close to those bats, as well as pigs, civets, horses, mosquitoes, gorillas, chimpanzees, and somewhat unexpectedly, caterpillars.

While I am happy to know much more about the zoonotic diseases that Quammen focuses on – Hendra, Ebola, Malaria, SARS, Q fever, Psittacosis, Lyme disease, Herpes B, SFV, Nipah, and AIDS – it is the larger, overall message that he shares that I find important. “Shake a tree,” he writes, “and things fall out.” In the last chapter of the book, Quammen offers a long list (he is prone to listing in his writing) of human actions that affect our connectivity to the natural world, and disease. And from those actions will likely come the Next Big One, as it is called by those working on emerging diseases, comparable to the Black Death (bubonic plague) in Europe in the fourteenth century, smallpox brought to the North American continent in the sixteenth century and killing millions of native peoples, the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, polio (in America), also in the nineteenth century, and the current AIDs crisis worldwide. And as the case has been made clear in Spillover, it will jump from an animal to humans. Should it not be imperative that we think about how we treat animal populations around the globe, especially those that harbor zoonotic diseases? Here Quammen raises the question, but does not have much time to go into how to solve the problem. Raising that question and describing the problem in such detail makes Quammen’s Spillover a must read. To me, with its emphasis on the relationship between humans and other organisms, and with its stressing of the importance of biogeography, evolution, and ecology, this book took me back to Quammen’s two other long-researched books, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction and Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind; and it will take a place next to those on my shelf.

Spillover will be released by W.W. Norton & Company on October 1, 2012. Here’s a trailer (yes, a trailer!) for the book:

Hopefully soon I can make that a signed copy to have on my shelf, as Quammen will be in Portland on October 22nd for an OMSI Science Pub. Full details here.

While I received a review copy from the publisher, I should note that David Quammen is a friend. He lives in Bozeman, MT (queue the caterpillars in the book!) where I went to school. He was well connected to the history department there and so I often heard about his research for the book and places that he had been. He also gave lectures at the Museum of the Rockies on this topic, and wrote several articles as well. I saw him last when I was in Montana in June for the John Tyndall Correspondence Project conference as he was on the home stretch with his manuscript. Congratulations on a wonderful book, David.

Tyndall Conference at 320 Ranch in Big Sky, Montana

Today in Science History

My grandfather would have been 89 years old this day. A World War II veteran, amateur geologist, gardener, metal-detector, interested in butterflies , and 60 minutes-watching man, I wish I would have spent more time with him before he passed away in 2002 from pancreatic cancer. He could have taught me things, but I was too busy hanging out with my friends, going to amusement parks, and watching movies. I have two large storage containers full of rocks, magazine clippings, an old microscope and accessories I inherited after he died (also in there, this Life issue and the 1942 National Geographic issue with Charles R. Knight‘s “Parade of Life through the Ages”) out in my storage shed – I’ll get to going through it in the future. Here are two pictures of him on my photo site.

From Today in Science History:

Jacques-Yves Cousteau (Born 11 Jun 1910; died 25 Jun 1997). French naval officer, oceanographer, marine biologist and ocean explorer, known for his extensive underseas investigations. He was co-inventor of the aqualung which made SCUBA diving possible (1943). Cousteau the developed the Conshelf series of manned habitats, the Diving Saucer, a process of underwater television and numerous other platforms and specialized instruments of ocean science. In 1945 he founded the French Navy’s Undersea Research Group. He modified a WWII wooden hull minesweeper into the research vessel Calypso, in 1950. An observation dome added to the foot of Calypso‘s bow was found to increase the ship’s stability, speed and fuel efficiency.

Mary Jane Rathbun (Born 11 Jun 1860; died 4 Apr 1943). American marine zoologist known for establishing the basic taxonomic information on Crustacea. For many years she was the Smithsonian’s complete department of marine invertebrates where she studied, cataloged, and preserved specimens. Through her basic studies and published works, she fixed the nomenclature of Crustacea and was the recognized, and the much sought after, authority in zoology and carcinology (thestudy of crustacea). When the department needed an assistant, she resigned as superintendent and used her salary to hire someone. She continued to work without pay as a dedicated volunteer carcinologist. She published over 160 papers on a wide variety of scientific subjects.

Leland Ossian Howard (Born 11 Jun 1857; died 1 May 1950). American entomologist noted for pioneering efforts in applied entomology and his experiments in the biological control of harmful insects. He is regarded as the founder of agricultural and medical entomology. He proposed that natural enemies rather than pesticides be used for controlling pests. Howard was head of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture for over 30 years. He described 20 new species of mosquitoes, and 47 new groups of parasitic wasps. Howard revealed that houseflies carry and transmit many diseases. He was the first to suggest covering standing water with oil to control egg-laying by mosquitoes and kill larvae to reduce disease transmission. His work led to belief that great natural balances are mainly due to the action of the parasites.

Alfred Newton (Born 11 Jun 1829; died 7 Jun 1907). British zoologist, one of the foremost ornithologists of his day. In 1866, he was appointed the first Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge University. Despite the fact that he suffered from diseased hip joints and walked with the aid of two sticks, he traveled throughout Lapland, Iceland, the West Indies, and North America 1854-63. During these expeditions he studied ornithology and became particularly interested in the great auk. He was instrumental in having the first Acts of parliament passed for the protection of birds. He wrote a great deal on the subject, including a 4-volume Dictionary of Birds, and the articles on Ornithology in several 19th century editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Roger Bacon (Died 11 Jun 1292; born c.1219). English scholar who was one of the first to propose mathematics and experimentation as appropriate methods of science. He studied mathematics, astronomy, optics, alchemy, and languages. He elucidated the principles of refraction, reflection, and spherical aberration, and described spectacles, which soon thereafter came into use. He developed many mathematical results concerning lenses, proposed mechanically propelled ships, carriages, and flying machines, and used a camera obscura to observe eclipses of the Sun. Bacon was the first European give a detailed description of the process of making gunpowder.

PODCAST: David Quammen on Zoonotic Disease

David Quammen’s latest article, “Deadly Contact: How Animals and Humans Exchange Disease,” is in the October issue of National Geographic, and is available online here. Quammen lives here in Bozeman and holds the Stegner Professorship in the History and Philosophy Department at Montana State University, and back on October 11th, he spoke on the topic at the Museum of the Rockies. The lecture, “Thirteen Dead Gorillas: Zoonotic Disease and the Future of Human Health,” is now available online here. He entered the auditorium in a Hazmat suit (the picture is from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle of October 12th). I’m still bummed that I missed his talk on Darwin and religion last spring.