BOOK REVIEW

Life on land, how we see faces, and reforming capitalism: Books in brief

Andrew Robinson reviews five of the week’s best science picks.

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A History of Plants in 50 Fossils

Paul Kenrick Natural History Museum (2020)

One of many wondrous photographs of plant fossils from around the world in this fascinating history enlarges a 1-centimetre film of carbon in 420-million-year-old UK sandstone to reveal a forked strand with trumpet-shaped ends. Spore extraction in the 1930s proved it to be the earliest known plant truly capable of living on land, notes palaeobotanist Paul Kenrick. He covers all aspects and major varieties of plants in scientifically detailed yet accessible prose. However, he concedes, “No one can say for certain when the first flower bloomed.”

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What’s Wrong with Economics?

Robert Skidelsky Yale Univ. Press (2020)

Economists often compare themselves with natural scientists, argues economic historian Robert Skidelsky. They refuse to admit that their mathematics inadequately model individual and group behaviour, hence their failure to predict the 2007–08 financial crisis. This impassioned critique aims to show how economic laws have limited scope compared with the laws in natural science. To be effective, Skidelsky argues, economics must include institutions and their power, and move towards social sciences such as politics and sociology.

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Some Assembly Required

Neil Shubin Pantheon (2020)

As a graduate student in 1986, palaeontologist Neil Shubin was inspired by a cartoon of a fish next to an arrow pointing to an early fossil amphibian. How could fishes have evolved into land creatures? Today, many non-biologists assume that feathers originated to help animals fly, or lungs and legs to help animals walk on land. But they are “entirely wrong”, says Shubin. His four-billion-year history from ancient fossils to DNA presents the true picture to the general reader, with engaging portraits of contributing scientists past and current.

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We Know It When We See It

Richard Masland Basic (2020)

How do we recognize faces? So asks neuroscientist Richard Masland throughout his rich historical analysis of human vision, ranging from neurons to artificial intelligence and consciousness. He cites a study of monkeys raised from birth without seeing faces; brain scans revealed that the monkeys’ facial-recognition area responded to the hands of the experimenters who nurtured them. Yet after six months of facial exposure, the same area gradually became face-sensitive. Defective “face patches” explain Masland’s own face blindness.

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Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism

Anne Case and Angus Deaton Princeton Univ. Press (2020)

In this hard-hitting study of US capitalism, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton note that median earnings for white men without a bachelor’s degree lost 13% of their purchasing power between 1979 and 2017, whereas national income per head grew by 85%. They tell of blue-collar despair and deaths from addiction, alcoholism and suicide, and a rapacious health-care sector. Hence, no doubt, the “gesture of frustration and rage” that elected Donald Trump president. The authors’ proposed solutions involve reforming capitalism.

Nature 580, 184 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00995-5

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