The Brain: Big Bangs, Behaviors, and Beliefs

Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall. Yale Univ. Press 320 pp. £29.95 (2012)

Dream-weaver, computer, “evolutionary mess”: however we view the human brain, thinking about thinking never palls. Here, two eminent curators from New York's American Museum of Natural History — anthropologist Ian Tattersall and genomicist Rob DeSalle — cherry-pick the latest research in evolutionary biology, molecular biology and neuroscience to fashion a considered take on why humans have reached cognitive supremacy. The resulting brainfest covers the Big Bang, the evolution of nervous systems, the senses, data processing, emotions, memory, language, behaviour and more.

The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body

  • Frances Ashcroft
Allen Lane 352 pp. £25 (2012)

Physiologist Frances Ashcroft celebrates the “body electric” — animal electricity — in this interweaving of research breakthroughs, science history and human stories. Membrane proteins found in all cells, known as ion channels, produce electrical signals that control processes including the human heartbeat, vision and sexual attraction through electrical 'events' in neurons and muscle cells. Ion channels also have a role in insulin secretion, and among her fascinating offerings, Ashcroft recounts how her own findings in this area have improved treatment of a rare genetic form of diabetes.

The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire

Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus. Harvard Univ. Press 544 pp. £29.95 (2012)

The extreme disparities in prosperity and status that plague societies and spawn empires had their roots 4,500 years ago, argue anthropological archaeologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus. Drawing on ethnography and archaeology, they reveal how societies create elites and tyrants. High rank for the ambitious and talented, for instance, becomes problematic when translated into hereditary rights, and competition among the privileged can lead to despotism.

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power

  • Steve Coll
Penguin 704 pp. $36 (2012)

Oil giants don't come much bigger than ExxonMobil or, claims Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist Steve Coll, more secrecy-shrouded. On the basis of more than 400 interviews, Coll explores the years from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill to 2011 — a period when the business's net cash flow was, he says, US$493 billion — and tracks ExxonMobil's accrual of power, from Equatorial Guinea and Iraq to its Texas headquarters. A vast cast, including world leaders, corporate scientists and influential former chief executive Lee Raymond, enriches the deeply researched proceedings.

Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline

  • David Sepkoski
Univ. Chicago Press 440 pp. $55 (2012)

In the 1970s, a new kid on the block was shaking up palaeontology, geology and biology. Historian David Sepkoski charts the rise of palaeobiology from 1945 to 1985, driven by a small but illustrious band of palaeontologists including Stephen Jay Gould and David Raup, who grappled with how the geological record could produce evidence for evolution. The solution, as Sepkoski engagingly relates, lay in quantitative analysis of evolutionary patterns in fossils.