Frans de Waal – Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are
De Waal is the world’s most famous expert on bonobos, who along with chimpanzees are humanity’s closest relatives. Here, he shows how observing primate behavior can shed light on human behavior. This book takes an informal, almost chatty tone, with de Waal often writing in the first person about his personal experiences with both apes and with humans. Even though our species branched apart a good 6 or 7 million years ago, we still have very much in common with chimps and especially bonobos. Our resemblance is more than physical. It is also cultural. Moreover, the two are often intertwined.
Chimps form complex alliances in the same way humans do, forming 2-against-1 relationships where possible, and scheming to divide enemies where so they don’t put up a united front. In a 2-against-1, don’t be the 1. As de Waal points out, human diplomacy follows similar strategies, just on a global scale. Nation-states play the same roles as individual chimps.
De Waal also offers some insight on biology and anatomy, especially sexual dimorphism. Species with drastically different male-to-female size ratios tend to have male-dominant cultures. Similarly, testicle size is related to promiscuity. Gorillas and human cultures tend towards monogamy, and this manifests itself in smaller testicles. Promiscuous chimps and bonobos have more competition, so they have larger testicles to produce more sperm. These dynamics show up in their behavior. Male chimps will often commit infanticide when they know the child is not theirs. Females intentionally confuse matters by having several possible fathers. This strategy changes male behavior, saving young lives.
De Waal goes off the rails toward the end, when he makes it uncomfortably clear that his expertise does not extend to economics or public policy. Here, the discussion is on par with a Facebook or Twitter political rant, lacking of command of either emotions or facts. That awkwardness can be safely skipped. The rest of the book is excellent.
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan – Comet
The first edition of this lavishly illustrated book coincided with Halley’s comet’s 1986 appearance, and the second edition was timed for 1994’s Hale-Bopp comet. A further 20 years of observation—not to mention landing freaking satellites on comets and returning samples to Earth—make some of the science here dated. But Sagan and Druyan’s book contains their trademark accessibility and sense of wonder, which will never be obsolete.
Brian Switek – Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone
A history of bones that makes for a fun read. The stuff initially began as armored plating for fish nearly 500 million years ago. It also turned to be a good protector for the spinal cords that were starting to appear, and eventually became spines with separate vertebrae. Bones made possible complicated nervous systems, our sense of hearing (ears have bones to shape and conduct sound), and more. Ribcages guarded organs. Without them, lungs would never have evolved, and neither would air-breathing animals like us. Bones do not move, but they make movement possible. Bones gave structure to fins. Their radial structure turns out to also have been perfect for land-dwellers’ limbs, and fins gradually became feet with toes and hands with fingers and knuckles. The bone structure was already there in fins; they just needed to lose the webbing and add some new muscles to control the articulation points.
Switek also shows how much bones can tell us from both archaeological and paleontological finds, and even among the living. He also briefly discusses bones in literature in popular culture near the beginning. People associate bones and skeletons with death, and rightly do. Switek’s goal is to bring some life to the subject, and mostly succeeds.
Venki Ramakrishnan – Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome
Ramakrishnan won the 2009 chemistry Nobel for figuring out the structure of ribosomes. DNA and RNA contain instructions for protein molecules; ribosomes use that information for actual protein assembly. Ribosomes are an organelle that exists in every cell. There are more than a trillion ribosomes in your body right now; they are not rare. But getting a handle on their structure and how they go about their work was a longstanding mystery. It took Tamakrishnan more than two decades to suss out. Along the way he pioneered the use of x-ray microscopy and crystallography. Some of the science went over my head, but this career autobiography still offers plenty for a layman. As I so often find with these sorts of books, it unintentionally confirms the arguments in the economist Gordon Tullock’s 1966 book The Organization of Inquiry (free PDF), a public choice analysis of professional scientific behavior.
Ed Yong – I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
Every human being contains a good pound or two worth of microbes, and we could not live without them. Yong gives a good popular-level account of who these little guys are, what they do, and shares plenty of insights about symbiosis, evolution, and more, while puncturing a few common myths about health and microbes. It’s a good way to see the world a little differently, and hopefully dispels the common notion that all bacteria are bad.
David Salsburg – The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century
A history of the discipline of statistics that I found immensely useful. Rather than memorizing by rote what a p-statistic is or what regression does, this book tells the stories behind them. Salsburg tells the why and the how, rather than explaining the what and being done with it. Salsburg tells the stories of the people who invented modern statistical techniques and concepts, their historical context, why their innovations were needed, what types of problems they were built to solve, and what their techniques’ drawbacks and limitations are, as well as their positives. This book was recommended by Michael Munger, who heads Duke University’s Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) program, and I am glad I listened.
Edward Dolnick – The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World
A look at the 16th-century Scientific Revolution as one of the founding processes of modernity, with a special focus on England and the Royal Society. Pairs well with much of Joel Mokyr’s work on how cultural attitudes affect technological progress. Dolnick’s book is narrower in focus and not as rigorous, but it is more accessible, and provides a good look at the Republic of Letters, though its England-heavy focus doesn’t fully capture the scientific movement’s cross-national and cross-religious character. Dolnick could also have done more on the Scientific Revolution’s greater historical context. Its secular, cosmopolitan, and dynamist outlook built upon earlier Renaissance and Reformation thought, or at least their more liberal strains. At the same time, the Scientific Revolution was a necessary practical predecessor to the more philosophical Enlightenment that flowered in the 18th century in Scotland, France, America, and elsewhere. A useful book, but more of a sketch than a full-fledged investigation of the beginnings of modernity.