Jesse Bering asks thoughtful questions in this examination of what acts or even thoughts are considered deviant in our culture. Are you ready to label someone deviant because you’re grossed out by the thought of their behavior, or because you’re concerned about the harm to the individual (or animal)? Nope, its Not 50 Shades of Gray. He draws a distinction between pedophilia and hebephilia (attraction to physically mature teenagers). He asks us to make choices that actually improve children’s lives, and not prioritize moralizing. Bering uses both logical arguments as well as scientific research.
Corvids outscore dogs and equal primates on a number of dimensions, with their tool use, and understanding that other creatures have minds (minds that can be deceived) capabilities. Also, Corvids engage in play, from repeatedly sliding down snowbanks, to using a piece of bark to surf the air via updrafts. They recognize individual humans, and have been know to gift humans with small tokens,
Initially, I really wanted a New Caledonian Crow for a pet (they seem to be the brightest of the lot). However, after reading the sections where the crows mob other individual birds, and mercilessly tease other animals, I changed my mind. The authors present a very balanced look at corvids, including the limitations of corvids as demonstrated by the research. Some of the sections on how corvid brains function, shed light on human brains (yes, these avian dinosaurs show convergent evolution with humans).
The Doctor: Donna, come on, think: Earth, there must have been some sort of warning. Was there anything happening back in your day, like… electrical storms, freak weather, patterns in the… sky?
Donna Noble: Well, how should I know? Um, no. I don’t- I don’t think so. No.
The Doctor: [disappointed] Oh, OK, nevermind.
Donna Noble: Although, there were the bees disappearing.
The Doctor: [dismissive] The bees disappearing.
The Doctor: [sarcastic] The *bees* disappearing.
The Doctor: [revelational] The bees disappearing!
Of course the bees are disappearing, any fan of Dr. Who knows that. In fact it is true that honeybees at least have been disappearing. Colonies have collapsed and scientists have been trying to work out why. They have explored changing habitats, overwork, diet, mites, fungus, pesticides, and cell phones. Luckily cell phones have been cleared, but the others have all been found to contribute to colony declines. I didn’t realize how important bees were to our way of life. They are the main pollinators for not just flowers but many of the foods we rely on. This book is a wake up call to the role bees play in our lives and what we should do to protect them.
John Bradshaw (not to be confused with the guy who wrote about the family), challenges the conventional wisdom that dogs need to be dominated. He examines the myth that wolves live in a strict hierarchy with submission and dominance displays.
He contends that the wolves that had been studied, were captive wolves confined much closer together than what wolf groups experience in nature – also that the wolves that were studied were American Timber wolves, NOT the European Grey Wolf, the closest Canid ancestor from which ALL domestic dogs have descended (he explores the genetics of domestic dogs, and though it would have been possible to domesticate other canids – jackals, coyotes, dholes, foxes).
He notes that in the wilderness, groups of wolves form around familial bonds, with the supposed alpha pair, being the parents of the others in the group.
Bradshaw then outlines why punishment is ineffective in training animals (including dogs).
Sugar is something we take for granted. It is always available at the store. It isn’t very expensive. We can add it to anything we want and it is in a lot of what we eat. And there are alternatives to regular brown or white sugar. This was not always the case. Sugar was an unknown until around a thousand years ago. However, once people got a taste of it they wanted more. It started out as a spice added to foods like any other spice, but then it separated itself from others and became a sweetener. As the demand for sugar grew, production also had to grow. Huge sugar plantations sprouted up throughout the Caribbean and South America. Millions of slaves were brought from Africa to work in the brutal plantations. More slaves actually than were brought to America. Sugar was a time sensitive crop the required back-breaking labor, hot fires, and lots of slaves.
This book starts with the stories of how Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos were connected to sugar and how they decided to write this book. Then we go into the history of sugar and the sugar/slavery connections. Next we see how sugar helped shape the world and abolish slavery. France, England, America, the Caribbean, India, Africa, Asia: slavery and sugar helped mold these places into what they are today. Slavery was abolished in many countries because of the sugar slaves. Gandhi started his peaceful resistance movement because of sugar slaves. It is amazing how many connections you can draw throughout history and the world all because of sugar. Aronson and Budhos did an excellent job highlighting these connection and writing a very readable nonfiction book.
Mammoths, mastodons and elephants are all cousins. They all appeared around the same time, but for some reason 10,000 years ago mammoths and mastadons went extinct. Scientists don’t know why they disappeared. The two leading theories are global warming or over hunting by humans. It is hoped that by studying mammoths and mastodons and why they went extinct a way can be found to help elephants who are endangered. This is a very informative, interesting and well-researched read.
Dead people are fascinating. Long dead people are a puzzle. Figuring out who skeletons were is a fascinating puzzle. This book by Sally Walker investigates the graves in and around the Chesapeake Bay. All the graves date from the 17th century and were some of the first people in the Jamestown colony. It is amazing what scientists can find out about people just from looking at their bones. Teeth have ridges: must have used some corrosive materials to clean them. Buried in a trash pit under a house: must have been an indentured servant who died. Small holes in bones: must have had rickets. Archaeologists are even able to figure out who exactly a person was just by where and how they were buried. This book highlights how graves are found and excavated, the steps taken to preserve the remains and what is learned from them. If you are a fan of CSI or Bones, you will definitely appreciate the science of this book.
The coelacanth was a fish that many thought had went extinct 70 million years ago. No fossils of this fish have been found since then. Imagine the surprise when a live specimen was found in 1938. It turns out the coelacanth is not extinct at all but lives off the southern coast of Africa and India. Since 1938 researchers have been looking for and studying these amazing fish. There are still lots of things we don’t know about the coelacanth, but researchers and ichthyologists are still looking for answers. Sally Walker did a great job detailing the hunt for these prehistoric fish. The way this book was written really builds anticipation for each discovery. I loved the many photos and illustrations and the details included by Walker. Highly readable nonfiction.
Paleontologists have done for Dinosaurs as Astronomers have done for the Ex-Planet Pluto. Pluto is No longer considered a planet, and Brontosaurus is No longer the name of a dinosaur, rather it is the Ex-Name of Apatosaurus. What happened is that overly enthusiastic paleontologists discovered “new” species or even new genuses when they found slightly different skeletons. Othniel Marsh was quiet prolific in this respect.
Brian Swintek weaves the story of his childhood fascination wit h dinosaurs into this scientific history of dinosaurs and our knowledge about them. Like Swintek, I was myself was interested in dinosaurs as a kid, especially pterodactyls. I was entranced with the mural and skeleton of pteranodons in the New York Natural History Museum. You turned around a corner and entered a 3-story high exhibition room with a pteranodon skeleton aloft in the air, then as your rounded the corner fully you saw this 3 story mural of pteranodons perched on a cliffside with the beach and ocean behind them. I visited this museum 3 different times in my life separated by 10 years each time, and I always found myself entranced with this display.
Also, did you know that Dinosaurs still roam the earth? or should I say flit about. All birds are a subgroup of dinosaurs.
Mary Roach is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. Not only are the subjects she chooses to write about fascinating, but her writing style is both humorous and educational. She takes topics that most people don’t think about or want to think about, like dead people and digestion, and makes you want to learn more. I am always amazed at the people she finds to interview, the resources she uses and the topics she chooses to discuss. Gulp is all about our digestive system from one end to the other. Your average person doesn’t really want to know that much about the processes of the alimentary canal. As long as things are working properly we are ok in our ignorance. Not Mary; she wants all the dirty little details and she wants to share them with us. After reading several of her books I really do believe poop might be one of her favorite subjects since she incorporates mention of it in a lot of her books. I learned many things in this book: cows chew a mouthful of food up to 40 times; rats and rabbits eat their poop to get needed nutrients and without it their growth will be stunted; Elvis died due to an enlarged colon and constipation. Seriously! There is a disease that causes your colon to not push things through which causes it to be enlarged and you to have constipation. There are documented cases of 28 inch colons (average is 3 inches or so). Elvis could change waist sizes by several inches depending on whether he had gone to the bathroom that week. While these things might seem like stories you would read in the National Enquirer, Roach backs them all up with research studies and interviews of scientists. I will definitely continue reading everything she chooses to study as I haven’t found a clunker yet.
Temple Grandin does for Autism what Susan Cain did for Introversion. Grandin shows us the strengths associated with Autistic and Asperger’s syndrome, citing research showing superior ability to focus on details. She suggests that we quit seeing only the deficits, but acknowledge that some characteristics are actually strengths. Her attention is limited to high-functioning end of the spectrum while, the lower end of the spectrum is given short shrift. She backs up most of her arguments with scientific research (though a few times, she just says “That doesn’t make sense” without showing why). Interesting, but not as enjoyable as Animals in Translation.
This book starts out interesting enough. Did you know they’ve found cancer in Dinosaurs brains? and that mammals are more likely to get cancer than reptiles. But it ends there. No mysteries were unlocked, no important information to take away. I was really hoping for something along the lines of Racing to a Cure, where the author looks at a type of vaccine, where they take your fighter blood cells, expose them to the cancer and then inject them back in your body, and the fighter blood cells, then do a much better job of attacking the cancer.
Wolves Unleashed, is a nonfiction book that takes the reader on an incredible journey into the lives of wolves. Andrew Simpson is our guide on this journey. Andrew is an animal trainer for Hollywood and his animals have been seen in numerous films. Besides the story, there are fascinating pictures of the wolves. This is a must read for anyone who enjoys animals.
Paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin presents a dazzling exploration of how life co-evolved with the changes in our planet.
Cool things I learned:
Camp Century, a U.S. Army cave city carved inside Greenland’s glacier before they realized that glaciers move and would ultimately crush the base.
How algae made the earth habitable for other organisms because they produce oxygen.
Blake’s quote ‘To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, / And eternity in an hour’ is an apt description of this book, encompassing both the awe and wonder of the universe and life.]
Scientist John Medina presents 12 basic principles on how your brain works. He illustrates how you can apply these principles to improve your life. Medina uses stories to demonstrate how these principle work. Some of the principles include: the best way to exercise your brain is actually physical exercise – not cross-word puzzles or Sudoku, or special computer games, rather aerobic exercise! it improves cognition and cuts the risk of dementia in half; the brain is incapable of multitasking that involves dividing one’s attention; we learn and remember best through pictures not through words – so chuck your old text-based power-point presentations and create new ones filled with graphics and pictures. He also discusses learning from 1 form of sensory input – visual or auditory – versus 2 forms of input – visual AND auditory – and how multi-sensory learning is quite superior to a single mode of input. In connection with his discussion on sleep, he highlights the time period with the highest # of accidents 3-5pm in the afternoon.
I enjoyed learning about the way our brains work, Medina’s writing is clear, engaging and infused with a sense of humor.
Medina knows what holds people’s attention, and knows how helpful narratives are to explaining impersonal research studies.
Now you know why I include so many graphics in my reviews!
Interesting book on the history of salt. It is amazing what is now so plentiful that we throw on our roads as a de-icer was once a precious and rare commodity that caravans crossed the desert for and created empires. Salt discusses methods of salt extraction, uses of salt as a preservative and seasoning, and the practical applications of salt in industry. Fun fact for the day; salted fish sauce has long been a flavoring used by societies from the Romans and Greeks in antiquity to the cuisine of southeast Asia and China today and initially, our favorite condiment catsup was an anchovy tomato sauce until the Americans and the British moved away from having fish in the sauce.
Far From the Tree is perhaps the greatest non-fiction book that I have ever read. It is luminous and extraordinary, lucid and clear eyed, heartbreaking and redemptive. A spare description is to say that Far From the Tree is about parents of exceptional children and their relationships with their children, the medical and educational communities, societal systems, and the greater world itself. Those few words though fail to even begin to capture the complexity of emotions, personality, and humanity that this book about. Framed by an introduction and a summation, each of the ten chapters deals with a specific condition; some of them conventional disabilities like autism, deafness, or down’s syndrome, and others less easily cataloged, like prodigies, criminals, and children of rape. Solomon draws from forty thousand pages of interviews he conducted over a decade with parents, children, doctors, educators, activists, and researchers. He discusses not only the spectrum of each condition but also the causes and treatments. He cites both cutting edge science and historical precedents. He debates controversies of limb lengthening, cochlear implants, sexual reassignments and executing children. But at its heart, Far From the Tree is about parent and child. What is it like to have a child that is vastly different than you, with experiences you can never really understand, who will likely fail to achieve the basic milestones of life? The parents in Far From the Tree run the gamut of reaction, some become activists and tireless supporters of their children, some try to endure to the best of their abilities, and some institutionalize, abuse, or even murder their children. Solomon never flinches from the complexity of his subject’s lives. The chapters on transgender children and the children of rape are especially heart-rending. Solomon is gay which gives him great insight into being a very different person than a parent expected and also is a parent which gives him the emotional insight of child-love. Far From the Tree is far from an easy read, it is long, extremely dense, and often emotionally wrenching. It is though an extremely worthwhile read that will touch your soul.
Inside of a Dog is a must read for any dog lover. It is a beautiful and engaging book not just about the relationship of people and canines but about dogs themselves and how they perceive their world and how we crazy hominids fit into it. Horowitz balances cutting edge scientific research about dogs and other canids with personal anecdotes of dog owners. Inside of a Dog is not your typical anamorphic dog tome but a fascinating insight into the umwelt of all things dog.
You probably think you would notice if a Gorilla came onto a basketball court, and beat its chest-center stage right? Actually chances are pretty good that if you were counting bounce passes versus aerial passes, you would miss the gorilla – yep 50% of people don’t notice the gorilla. We think we know how our minds work, but this proves to be an illusion. Know exactly where you were at, and who you talked to on 9/11? We feel pretty certain about our memories for these things, but again, the more certain we are about our memories, the less likely they are to be accurate. Read this book to figure out where your blind spots are!