Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.
Complexity: The Evolution of Earth's Biodiversity and the Future of Humanity
Botanist William Burger conducts a grand tour of life's complexity, emphasizing cooperation and symbiosis in evolutionary history. He segues deftly from the towering success of beetles and bacteria to the formation of new species and the distribution of biodiversity. The story culminates with humanity's cognitive and cultural hegemony. But however ascendant we are as a species, Burger dispassionately notes, our explosive global population growth and overuse of resources mirror the behaviour of locust swarms.
The seepage of neuroscience into economics and policy should be deeply questioned, argue sociologist of science Hilary Rose and neuroscientist Steven Rose in this crisp, astringent analysis. In a historically and scientifically contextualized critique of this “data-rich and theory-poor” discipline, they examine claims made for the US and European 'big brain' projects, and for the findings that feed into UK policy on child-rearing and early education. Ultimately, they aver, neuroscience can indeed change our minds — but social and political understanding of the issues must be factored in.
More than 30,000 species of fish — about half of all vertebrates — roam global waters. And as ethologist Jonathan Balcombe notes in this engrossing study, breakthroughs are revealing sophisticated piscine behaviours. Balcombe glides from perception and cognition to tool use, pausing at marvels such as ocular migration in flounders and the capacity of the frillfin goby (Bathygobius soporator) to memorize the topography of the intertidal zone. Yet, he argues, the over-exploitation of wild stocks, notably of apex predators such as tuna, points to the need for change on moral as well as ecological grounds.
Historian Lawrence Goldstone follows the momentous patent war that ended in 1911, when George Selden's case for a patent on a “road carriage” powered by internal combustion was broken by arch-industrialist Henry Ford, who adapted existing technology to craft the wildly successful Model T. Goldstone weaves in accounts of European innovators such as Karl Benz, and road races such as the 1907 Peking-to-Paris dash. But as the market-savvy maverick who “did not so much create demand as anticipate it”, Ford dominates the story.
The pulsing glow of massed fireflies is a nocturnal wonder of nature. Biologist Sara Lewis has spent decades studying these beetles of the family Lampyridae, which spans nearly 2,000 species. Here she expounds on firefly metamorphosis, courtship, reproduction and bioluminescence — from the exquisite anatomy of the Photinus firefly's lantern to the chemical 'light switch' that enables flash control. (A field guide to North American fireflies is included.) An illuminating peek into a fascinating corner of field biology.