Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Science Challenge - Made for me?

My lovely wife Debi told me about The Science Challenge. I simply must participate. Here's a list of possibles:

- Bones of Contention by Paul Chambers
- The red queen by Matt Ridley
- Life of insects by Wigglesworth
- The pleasures of entomology by Evans
- Any one of the wonderful books by Stephen Jay Gould, especially Wonderful Life
- Biology of the amphibia by Noble

Now I guess the one, maybe two, readers of this blog will note that I am using a few books from the Decades Challenge. So much to read. So little time. So little time.

A new year...a new decades challenge

Happy new year to my reader(s): Just popping in to make a list for the new decades challenge. Last year, I went from the 1830s and worked my way toward modern times. This year, we begin in the 1990s and work back. Here goes:
1990s - Darwin: the life of a tormented evolutionist
1980s - Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut or Pleasures of entomology by Howard Evans
1970s - On Human Nature by E. O. Wilson
1960s - Cat's cradle by Vonnegut or Life of Insects by Wigglesworth
1950s - Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
1940s - The natural history of mosquitoes by Maston Bates
1930s - Biology of the amphibia by Noble
1920s - The biography of spiders by Savory
1910s - The life of the caterpillar by Fabre
1900s - Insect life by Comstock

After looking at the list, I do detect an insectish theme here. We may play with this list over the coming months, but tomorrow I begin to read...and read...and read.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Finishing up the Decades Challenge

Well, I finally made it. I finished the Decades challenge almost a year after it began. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. Read a bunch of stuff I wouldn't have otherwise read. Here's what was read:
1830s - Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
1840s - Vestiges by Robert Chambers
1850s - The origin of species by Charles Darwin
1860s - Man's place in nature by Thomas Huxley
1870s - Descent of Man by Charles Darwin
1880s - The formation of vegetable mould by Charles Darwin
1890s - The island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells
1900s - The natural history of aquatic insects by H. Miall
1910s - The lost world by A. C. Doyle
1920s - The origin of birds by Heilmann
1930s - Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernie Hemingway.

I'm definitely going to do this challenge again in 2009, but I won't go so deeply into the past. I really wanted to read the old evolution masterpieces. In the coming year, I may begin in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s and work my way back. Thanks for doing this challenge, Michelle, and I can't wait to get back to it in January!

Friday, December 19, 2008

The lost world

I was happy to read The lost world by Arthur Conan Doyle for the Decades challenge (1910s). I haven't read any A.C. Doyle since I read some Sherlock Holmes as a kid. In short, I really loved this book. It was full of interesting characters and adventure. I wish I read it as a kid. I would've loved this book when I was 10.

As a biologist, I do have some issues with the science, but I don't want to be a spoil sport. This is a fast reading, well written (and easy to read for an almost 100 year old book), adventure story. I can't wait until I can read it again. It usually only takes me about 18 months to completely forget a book so I can read it again. Middle age and stupidity do have their up sides.

Hemingway: Stories where nothing happens Part II

In college a friend of mine suggested that I read The Sun also rises. I was amazed at how it was an entire book where absolutely nothing happened. I kept waiting for SOMETHING, but that something just never came.

Well, I gave Ernie another try with pretty much the same results. For Annie's What's in a Name Challenge as well as the Decades Challenge (1930s), I read Snows of Kilimanjaro. It was a series of short stories where basically nothing happens. Nada. After a whole series of such stories, imagine my surprise when I got to the last story where something actually happened. The last story is a humdinger and I recommend it. The rest of the book I would only recommend for people whose lives are way too and they need a book to calm them down. For such people who couldn't take any excitement at all, this is a good read.

My Ph.D. adviser did tell me not to tear down a barn unless I could rebuild it better. I definitely can't write better. His prose is actually very nice, but story-wise I really would have liked some plot. My advice is to skip to the last story, "The short happy life of Francis Macomber.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What's in a Name II

I am delighted to sign up for my daughter's new reading challenge, What's in a Name II. Here are some possibilities:

1. Profession: Darwin: the life of a tormented evolutionist by Desmond and Moore, Time traveler by Novacek

2. Time of Day: The search for Dawn Monkey by Beard, Night Prey by Sanford, Dawn of the Dinosaurs by Prothero.

3. Relative: Beyond Band of Brothers by Winters, Wifey by Judy Blume (no giggles, please, New Guinea tapeworms and Jewish Grandmothers by Desowitz

4. Body Part: Bones of contention by Chambers, Taking wing by Shipman, Fins into limbs by Hall.

5. Building: Welcome to the Monkey House by Vonnegut, The Haunting of Hill House by Jackson

6. Medical Condition: Musicophilia by Sacks, Death Trap by McDonald, Fates worse than death by Vonnegut

Thanks for the Challenge, Annie!

Monday, November 03, 2008

Miocene Apes: Here's what I think

I read The ape in the tree: an intellectual and natural history of Proconsul by Alan Walker and Pat Shipman, the husband and wife team from Penn State, which is my wife's alma mater and where my academic career got off to a very inauspicious beginning in 1984, but it wasn't all a bust because I met my wife who is my favorite person as well as my best friend. But, this isn't the time or the place to walk down memory lane. This was an interesting book. I read this for the What an Animal Challenge. The first part was a travelogue and discussion of the logistics of major paleological expeditions. This part of the book was interesting, but I was really itching to learn more about them miocene apes, which was the subject of the second half of the book. This part was enlightening and somewhat frustrating. I learned a bit about Proconsul and a few other early apes, but I was left really longing for more. I wanted more in depth natural history of all of the miocene apes, but I feel like I didn't get it in this book. I did enjoy the style and writing of the book. It was a nice fast read, but now I've got to dig deeper into the literature to learn more about my early ancestors.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Not Fantasy Island

Once again, my wonderful wife, Debi, recommended a winning book. She knew I would like The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells and indeed I did. I read this one for The Decades Challenge (1890s) as well as for R.I.P. Challenge.

A man is lost at sea in a lifeboat and "lucky" for him he is picked up by a ship. He can't help but notice that one of the men on the ship is strange. He has a beastly snout and ears. But, once they arrive at the Island, he soon realizes that there are many beast-men roaming free on the Island. And to compound the tension, there are horrible screams coming from Dr. Moreau's lab at all hours of night and day. Well, it turns out that Moreau has the lab skills necessary to turn animals into men-like creatures. The men-like creatures are not supposed to eat meat, but some of the island's rabbits have been turning up half eaten. The tension builds and before long, the man finds himself alone with the beast-men, who are becoming more beastly by the day. If Something Wicked This Way Comes was creepy, this book was really creepy. But excellent.

As if this story wasn't fascinating enough, the author's writing was absolutely captivating. The writing was amazingly elegant. This book is over 100 years old, and older books can sometimes be a real bummer to read sometimes (e.g., Dickens' Great Expectations...I anxiously await the wrath of the Dickens crowd). Not this book, however. I can't wait to read more Wells, especially War of the Worlds. This was an extremely interesting story that was written in amazingly engaging and elegant prose.

Something wicked

I had a tough time picking books for the RIP Challenge, but my lovely wife, Debi, recommended Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. I've never read any Bradbury before, so I gave this one a shot. It does have a very catchy title, I thought. And it is a very interesting and creepy book. A carnival rolls into town in the wee hours of the morning and two teenage boys have to check it out. They see some very strange things involving, among other things, the time space continuum and a shrunken salesman, and get the carnies angry. These are carnies you don't want to be angry with you. They engage the boys in a cat and mouse game for a while. Ultimately, the Rooseveltian concept that there is nothing to fear but fear itself wins the day and puts the carnies in their place. Ray Bradbury has a very distinctive style of writing that definitely helps keep up the creepy tone of the book. I'm very glad I read this one, especially at this time of year.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Thoughts on Stalking the Plumed Serpent

This is another one I read for the What an Animal Challenge. I didn't PLAN to read this one for this challenge, but I found out about this book, which is new, and I couldn't resist furthering my snake theme that I have going. This book is a series of "adventures in herpetology" that are mainly about snakes by D. Bruce Means, who is a herpetologist at Florida State. He travels around the world in pursuit of interesting species of snakes. His stated goal in this book is to make more people appreciate snakes and other "creepy crawlies". Like many herpetologists, he things warm and fuzzy mammals get most of the conservation efforts, and, of course, he is correct. I think that he will mostly be preaching to the choir, as this book will probably be read by people like me who already love creepy crawlies, snakes, sharks, worms, bugs, and other things that make many people scream. But if he succeeds and converts a few people, then it will be well worth the effort. I enjoyed this book, which could've used a few more pictures of the creatures he was "hunting". It did have 10 pages or so of pictures, but it is hard to get an idea of the beauty of a rare snake without seeing it. Sometimes a picture is worth 1000 words as they say. One part of this book stood out to me. The author hiked a several hundred mile "trail" that John Muir hiked in the early 1800s. It was now nothing but highways and strip malls and the author was almost run over several times. It does speak volumes about the progress of mankind and how we treat our world. We are paving and building all animals into oblivion. And we are animals, too.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Natural History of Aquatic Insects

I read Natural History of Aquatic Insects by Professor L. C. Miall for the Decades Challenge (1900s) and for the What an Animal Challenge. You know this book is old when the author refers to himself as "Professor". I'll have to do that when I write my first book. This book was written in 1903. It contains the level of nauseating descriptive detail only found in nature books from this era. It goes through various groups of aquatic insects and lists all of the information known about each. Usually one or two well known species are highlighted. But the level of detail is intense and you can and will learn quite a bit about this group of creatures from this book. All told, there really are not many books about the ecology of aquatic bugs. Even though it's 105 years out of date, this is a very educational book. I learned a lot. I did, in fact, forget much of what I learned because I read it months ago and am just now doing the review. But whenever I need to know how a midge larvae breathes or what a whirligig beetle eats, I know which book to use.

The Origin of Birds - A must for vertebrate zoologists

I read the Origin of Birds by Gerhard Heilmann for the decades challenge. This book was published in the US in 1927 and was very much ahead of its time in its content. It is more than anything else a book about the similarities between birds and reptiles and makes one of the stronger arguments I've ever read for common ancestry between these groups. Long before Velociraptor and Deinonychus and other very famous bird-like dinos were found, Heilmann saw the important similarities. He found, as have later researchers, so many similarities between certain reptiles and birds that they MUST be related. My students are to this day absolutely astounded to hear of this, but it was noted as soon as Archaeopteryx was found in the 1860s. This book has a wonderful description of Archaepteryx.
It is an incredibly detailed book. The level of anatomical detail would probably bore most people without a vested interest in vertebrate zoology to tears. But I found it extremely educational. Heilmann, as I stated earlier, was a great arguer. His rebuttal of the hypothesis that birds are related to bird-hipped Ornithischian dinosaurs was scathing.
This is not an easy book to get one's hands on. I managed to buy an old library copy for only $37, but some copies approach $100. Glad I got it and glad I read it.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Stephen Jay Gould's Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes

I read this as part of the What an Animal Challenge. It is a collection of the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould's essays that he used to publish in Natural History magazine. It is an older collection, originally published in 1983, but still very relevant and interesting. There were essays on the history of evolutionary thought and evolutionary politics, such as the Scopes "Monkey" Trial. Several essays were on exceptions to "traditional" thinking on evolution and "Darwinism". Gould is an interesting mix of scientific and professional ego, love of Darwin, and hatred of "dogma" and a need to "think differently", especially about "Darwinism". Some of his thoughts are so bogged down in his own personal issues that he can't see facts right in front of him, while at other times he is incredible free thinking and poking fun at people who are "stuck in the rut" of traditional thinking. I used to think he was a bit more of an egomaniac, but after seeing him on the Simpsons, I saw his lighter and funnier side. But, as a lover of evolution, I must respect him and admire his erudition. Much of the time, we see the world in very similar ways. In this particular collection of his essays, Gould is, I think, at his best. The essays are thoughtful, interesting, educational, and well worth reading even 25 years after the fact. I had some of my students read an essay from a similar book last year, and many of them found Gould to be a bit tough to swallow. He was an academic and an intellectual and was very fond of big words. But he was a fascinating author full of fascinating ideas, and I will not rest until I've read all of his collections of essays. I've read several other of these collections as well as bits and pieces here and there. This collection is the best I've read to date.

Spiders of the World

I read Spiders of the World by the Preston-Mafham brothers for several reasons, not the least of which is that I love spiders. I also read this one for the Nonfiction Five as well as the What an Animal Challenge. This book is part of a series that includes Insects of the World, Rodents of the World, Sharks of the World, etc. It's the first one of the series that I read and I really enjoyed it. It was a very thorough introduction to all aspects of arachnology, including different groups of spiders, anatomy of spiders, and all aspects of the natural history of spiders. The natural history of spiders was my favorite part, especially the low-down on the sex lives of spiders. This was not too technical and not too basic. It was the perfect mix. If you want to learn more about the lives of these creatures that share our homes, yards, and lives, this is an excellent place to start. Not sure if it's still in print or not, but lots of used copies must be floating around. I bought this book over a decade ago. I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. And remember, kids, spiders really are our little friends. It's almost always much more dangerous to be bitten by a human than a spider...and more likely too, especially if you have a toddler in the house.

Mean and Lowly Things by Kate Jackson: My Thoughts

I do love a good story of field biology. When I saw this book, I knew I had to read it, and I read this one for the Nonfiction Five. It is the story of Dr. Kate Jackson, a herpetologist who was looking for a field study in which to "make her name in the field". She decided to go to the Congo to study the snakes and frogs in a relatively unexplored area. She made two expeditions to two different areas and this book is the story behind these trips. She certainly had more than enough misadventure and excitement to fill a book. It wasn't all fun and games. The main challenges did not appear to be venomous snakes, scorpions, bugs, etc., but people. The people she had to work with to get permits and the local people who helped her were very interesting. This was a good adventure story and was definitely a good read if you like such books. The only thing missing from my perspective was information about the biology of the reptiles and amphibian species she was collecting for the Smithsonian. As a biologist who relied on the Smithsonian to no small degree for my Ph.D. work, I understand the need for museum specimens such as those she collected. But I really would've liked to learn more about natural history of the beasts she encountered and collected. But this was a very enjoyable book and it really made me wish I could've been there in the Congo too.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Sign me Up for the RIP Challenge

My girls have gotten me excited about Carl's RIP Challenge. It does seem the season to read something creepy. Here's my list of possibilities:

- The haunting of hill house by Shirley Jackson
- We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson
- Something wicked this way comes by Ray Bradbury
- The halloween tree by Ray Bradbury
- Duma Key by Stephen King
- Cell by Stephen King
- Lisey's Story by Stephen King
- Bag of Bones by Stephen King
- Murder in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe

I am going to try to try, as Bart Simpson says, to read 2 of these fine books, or do the Peril the 2nd. Sounds fun.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Blue Blood by Eddie Conlon

This is a big book, 559 pages with SMALL text, which is why I included it for the Chunkster Challenge. I also read it for Annie's What's in a Name Challenge and the Nonfiction 5.

The author is a NYPD officer and we follow him from the Academy through getting his Detective badge. He works in the Bronx mainly in the public housing division. Needless to say, the author has seen some shit over the years. He has seen what people do to each other. Better him than me. Most of the time, he worked in Narcotics...setting up buys, etc. There is some interesting material about what it was like in Manhattan on 9/11.

What really struck me from learning about what it's like being a cop is how hard it is dealing with the beaurocracy...sorry I just can't figure out how to spell that @%^&*( word. Captains, Sargeants, etc. are constantly interfering with their work and preventing them from making arrests and "sting" operations. One day, the author recalled that he woke up and didn't want to go to work...his boss was an ass. When he realized he had a root canal and didn't have to go in, he was thrilled. That was the moment he decided to transfer to a new division. Things did get better.

Our author is no "ordinary" officer, however. Before NYPD, he got a degree in English from Harvard. He does write a good book. If you want to learn about what it's really like to be a big city cop, this is an excellent book. I didn't fall in love with it the way I did David Simon's Homicide, however. But, Officer Conlon did not work with murder most of the time, so he had different material to work with. This is a good read.

Vestiges: One Crazy, but important, book

I read Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers for the 1840s installment of the Decades challenge. This is an interesting mixture of wild Victorian aged conjecture about how the natural world works based on the old notions of progress. It was one of Stephen Jay Gould's goals in life to stamp out this kind of idea that the entire history of the world has been leading up to the moment when humans, clearly the pinnacle of evolution, appear. Ya gotta forgive the author for this, as it was the 1840s. It is also necessary to forgive the usual Victorian racism where Caucasians are clearly the most intelligent and advanced of all humanoids. But it appears that all Caucasians who could publish believed that at the time. But, Chambers was ahead of his time. He without a doubt influenced Darwin...a lot I think. Chambers discussed how life clearly went from simple to complex. He discussed the origin of species and how new species come from existing species. He strongly hinted at the tree of life. He recognized how embryology suggests common ancestry. He discusses how existing structures are modified over time. And, most importantly, he breaks the biblical literal interpretation thinking about the natural world.
I think he also influenced the intelligent design folks as well. Chambers clearly believed God was behind it all, but not by micromanaging, but by establishing the laws by which nature will "work". At one point, however, he states: "design presided in the creation of the whole design again implying a designer, another word for a Creator".
I'm glad I read this book. People have discussed in several books I've read the influence this book had on Darwin. Some say a lot. Some say a little. I think it definitely was important. Luckily, Darwin was intelligent and cherry-picked the most accurate observations.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Kurt Vonnegut at his best

For the nonfiction five challenge, I read Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Armageddon in Retrospect. I've never met a Vonnegut book I didn't like. Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the best, if not the best, books ever written. Armageddon in Retrospect is a series of short stories, most fiction, but some nonfiction that included a speech Vonnegut was going to give before his death last year. The thread connecting all of the stories was war. If you know much about Kurt Vonnegut, you know he served in WWII and was a POW in Dresden during the U.S. and British bombing campaign that essentially leveled the city. The war was clearly a defining experience of his life. This was a wonderful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. 2007 was a tough year. The world lost two great men, my father, and Mr. Vonnegut. I will leave you with one of Vonnegut's humdingers that he put in between chapters of the book:
"Where do I get my ideas from?
You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of the sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music.
I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization."

I believe it's time to read Cat's Cradle again.

Distracted by Scooby-Doo

This morning I woke up early and planned to get to the grocery store and buy the weekly victuals before the mob arrived. My boys, however, were watching a Scooby-Doo movie, which was titled "Scooby-Doo and the alien invaders", or something like that. I happily sat on the couch much like a bum and watched the movie. It was wonderful. I got the damn groceries in the afternoon.
More deep and exciting nonsense soon.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Not Darwin's best book, but his last book

As part of the decades challenge, I read Charles Darwin's final book, The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms with observations of their habits. If you are thinking that there is NO WAY a book with a title like that could be disappointing, I'm afraid you are wrong. This book was boring. At times, it was excruciatingly so. Making matters much worse was the fact that the copy of the book I got had none of the figures. There were supposed to be 20 or so photographs of fun stuff like worm castings and excavations of roman ruins that worms had some influence upon, etc., but none were in my copy, which by-the-by was published by and purchased through If you really want this book, the figures would be essential.
Darwin was ever the scientist. He fed worms in pots different garden veggies to determine their favorites (I won't tell you the results...wouldn't want to ruin your read), and calculated the amount of soil eroded per acre per year by worms by measuring the amount of soil (castings) they bring up to the surface that will be washed away through surface runoff. He had an attention to minute detail to say the least. I remember from my visit to his home that he had large rocks placed in his backyard so he could calculate how fast the action of worms would "sink" the rock. The man did not do half assed science ever. When he tackled a problem like worms, he tackled it full bore. I totally respect that. But it doesn't always make exciting reading and now I'm somewhat scared to tackle his book about the various contrivances of orchids to ensure pollination by insects. But I'll definitely read "On the origin of species" again. That was a great book, as was "The voyage of the beagle". So enjoy your Darwin, but make a wise choice.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Another damn review: "the snake charmer" by Jamie James

I saw this book at the bookstore and bought it after reading the cover. I love snakes and this was part biography, part adventure/travelogue and part snake natural history. I enjoyed the entire book except that throughout the book, I knew the ending was tragic. The hero of our story, Joe Slowinski, is a herpetologist who was a born snake lover and an up and coming snake researcher who was at the zenith of his career. Everything in his life has come together. He's got a great job, a great girl, etc., and is leading an expedition to Burma to study snakes, which is one of his lifelong dreams. Unfortunately, during this expedition, he is accidentally bitten by a banded krait and dies. It's uncertain exactly why he got bitten; perhaps a snake was mislabeled, but at any rate, our hero put his hand into a bag with a krait and got bitten. In the middle of nowhere with no antivenom, to which he was allergic anyway, there was no real hope. So, if you love happy endings, don't read this, or any of the Lemony Snicket books either. But it was a fascinating read. I could not put this book down.

A review of Bonk

Bonk by Mary Roach is a fun book. It is an interesting and very funny overview of some of the "research" on human sexuality. Much of Kinsey's research was highlighted. Kinsey wrote the famous books on the sexual behavior of males and females in the 1950s and he and his fellow researchers were into filming some pretty wild stuff. The author tried to get access to the films, but was denied by "Kinsey" people who have his archives. The author not only discussed past and current research and interviewed current researchers in the field, but she actually participated in some research. She and her husband traveled to England where they were "scanned" using a CT scanner (I think it was a CT scanner; it's been a while since I actually read the book) whilst they had intercourse. Her description of this participation was interesting and enlightening. Her husband and the researcher were discussing golf as they were "scanned". Doesn't sound very romantic or very represntative of real sex...being crammed into a machine and having sex while your partner makes pedestrian conversation with a total stranger.
I did learn a little bit about "how things work", but mostly I learned about some of the research into sexuality. It is also abundantly clear from this research how little we know about such an important activity. The author made this book much fun, and I will definitely read her other books.

Monday, July 14, 2008

What an Animal Challenge

My girls have talked me into joining another challenge. The What an Animal Challenge sounds like much fun. I am having a bit of trouble narrowing my selection down, so I will try the old strategy of making a long list and vowing to read some of them. Here goes:

Hen's teeth and horse's toes by Stephen Jay Gould
The life of insects by V. B. Wigglesworth
Ants at work by Deborah Gordon
Insects of the World by Anthony Wootton
Spiders of the World by Rod and Ken Preston-Mafham
The alchemist's cat by Robin Jarvis
Snakes: a natural history edited by Roland Bauchot
The ape in the tree by Alan Walker and Pat Shipman
Lizards: windows into the evolution of diversity by Eric Pianka and Laurie Vitt
Discovering Fossil fishes by John Maisey
Dogs: their fossil relatives and evolutionary history by X. Wang and R. Tedford
Dinosaurs, spitfires, and sea dragons by Christopher McGowan
Among orangutans by Carel Van Schaik

I'm still working on a few challenges, but I look forward to getting on this list. Just don't know where to start.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Joining the Nonfiction 5

My lovely and bibliophilic wife Debi has gotten me into another reading challenge, the Nonfiction 5. I love nonfiction books and am currently reading 3 of them. I vow to read the following:
Bonk by Mary Roach
Crickets and Katydids: concerts and solos by Vincent Dethier
Blue Blood by Edward Conlon
The Translator by Daoud Hari
and one of the following:
A brief tour of human consciousness by V.S. Ramachandran
Sense and Nonsense: evolutionary perspectives on human behavior

Can't wait to start reading...but I guess I need to finish those 3 books first.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Another decade and chunkster bites the dust

As my family and students are all too aware, Charles Darwin is one of my personal heroes. I think his theories are among the most important ever in the history of science. And yet, at my age, I have never before read his SECOND major book, the Descent of Man, until now. I'm glad I did.

The book is divided into two sections. The first is the Descent of Man which attempts to convince the skeptical reader of how humans really are animals, really are primates, and must be part of the tree of life he discussed in The Origin of Species. The second part is about sexual selection, or how female choice in mates and fighting among males for mates has affected evolution. Both parts are really "very long arguments" that provide much nauseating detail in order to convince a Victorian audience that Darwin felt was dubious. He lays on the evidence and he lays it on thick. All this evidence can make the modern reader a bit, well, bored. Interspersed with the boring parts, however, are moments of typical Darwinian brilliance. And again, looking back at all of the information we have today and now take for granted, all readers of this book must remain in awe of Darwin's prescience. He was a man well before his time and a master at argumentation.

Darwin himself sums up the book in the opening sentence to chapter 5 where he states, "The subjects to be discussed in this chapter are of the highest interest, but are treated by me in an imperfect and fragmentary manner". The entire book is rather like that. Very important indeed, but not as clearly and concisely written as his "The origin of species". I did find it interesting how hard he had to work to try to convince his Victorian readers that females could actually THINK about things such as who to mate with. Females were not given much credit in that era.

I'm damn glad I read this book. I'm a better evolutionary proponent and educator for it. But I'll probably never read it again, while I may very well read The Origin again and The Voyage of the Beagle again. Any of the two or perhaps three readers of this blog who want to read this book may want to go with Carl Zimmer's abridged version that is now available. Carl provides summaries and commentary on each chapter also, that is very helpful.

Two more for Annie's what's in a name

I've finished two more for Annie's wonderful What's in a Name Challenge.

The first was "The new world primates" by Martin Moynihan. It was published in 1976 and thus, was a bit out of date, but I had a hankering for more wisdom about the little new world monkeys, since I am an old world monkey. I almost read David Rains Wallace's "The monkey's bridge: mysteries of evolution in Central America" instead, and, now that it's over, I wish I had. Not that "The new world primates" is a bad book, it isn't. It is a broad overview that is simply so broad that one is left with an even stronger hankering for wisdom. I don't feel that I know much more about these guys than I did before. The other problem with the book is the antropocentric, Darwin-like attitude about "intelligence" and progress (i.e., smarter is better always). I just watched a video on you-tube about Stephen Jay Gould who hated the old-school idea of evolution as progress and I must agree with him on this one. Here's one example: " The smallness of most tree squirrels, whatever the cause, must have contributed to their continuing dullness" (p. 218). I've got several issues here... but I'll try to ignore the obvious body size issues of squirrels and keep to the fact that squirrels are NOT "dull". Squirrels are incredibly intelligent, if you measure intelligence by the ability to solve problems, reason, and learn. Of course, primates do have a great capacity for all of these, but I must object to anyone, especially a mammalogist, that considers tree squirrels dull. I'll leave this book with another quote from the author (p. 177). "Presumably wild individuals are seldom frustrated enough to go really queer". Enough said.

I have much kinder words for the other book I read for Annie's challenge, Brian Jacques' Mossflower. This was the third "tale from Redwall" that I have read and this one was wonderful, just like the others have been. It's another great good versus evil story, filled with amazing animals doing amazing things. The evil in this one is a truly evil cat, named Tsarmina. She is Macbethian in her ambitions and has her father killed to ascend to the throne of Kotir. She rules with an iron hand and takes food from the woodlanders as "tax" to fill the larders of Kotir castle. The woodlanders finally have enough of her crap and move away from the area to mount a revolt. Our hero, Martin the warrior, a mouse, is captured by Tsarmina, but escapes and leads the revolt. Overall, the book is extremely charming. The woodlanders have feasts with October ale and all sorts of wonderful sounding foods and pastries that make me want to go to Mossflower and join the revolution. I cannot recommend this book enough for anyone who wants to read some fine fantasy. I am so glad that there are plenty of more books in this series!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Inkheart: Thankfully a Happy Ending

I read this book for Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge and because I felt the pressure to read it before the movie came out. I have promised to take Annie to all movies based upon books that she has read. The movie was supposed to be out in late April, but has since been postponed. But, on with the book review...

Inkheart is a wonderful story about a genetic predisposition to read characters out of books when reading out loud. Basically, a man, Mo, can cause characters from books to come to life and appear before him. His daughter discovers that she has the same ability. To summarize this long and wonderful story, Mo is reading a book called Inkheart to his toddler daughter, and several bad guys come out of the story along with one complex firebreathing, juggling, "carnie" type guy named Dustfinger. As these characters appeared, Mo's wife disappeared into the book. The bad guys are really bad, and they want Mo to read a friend of theirs out of the story. Mo spends approximately a decade running from these guys, who in case I didn't say, are REALLY bad, before they finally get him and his daughter along with an Aunt. We book lovers definitely relate to Mo's family, especially the Aunt, as they are all major book lovers. I was really hoping for justice to happen in this book...I really wanted a happy ending, and thankfully, all ended well. For the most part...

This is a great story and I now see why my wife and daughter encouraged me to read it. It was also mentioned to me that once I read this book, I would need to read the next book in the series called Inkspell. I definitely will do that. Right now, I'm reading a Brian Jaques book for Annie's What's in a Name Challenge, but rest assured that I will get to Inkspell soon, as well as any other books written by Cornelia Funke. I have loved all of her books thus far.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Movie Keywords

My wife Debra found this meme. I have made a list of 10 wonderful movies and looked up keywords. The idea is for you, the one or two readers of this blog, to guess the name of the movie based on the official plot keywords. Good luck.

1. lion, goat, hostage, car trouble

2. police, pizza, Mother, adultery

3. frozen corpse, informer, whacking, bar fight

4. toddler, criminal, dream, parenthood
Answer: Raising Arizona, guessed first by Rebecca

5. mistaken identity, bus station, train, police

6. sword fight, rabbit, shrubbery, coconut
Answer: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, guessed by Rebecca
NOTE: having this movie #6 in the list does not mean that it is my 6th favorite; it is way closer to #1

7. cross, justice, rooftop, revenge

8. panties, fence, laughing, oppression

9. flat tire, eyeglasses, essay, bully

10. discussion, problem, continuously, virus


On the Origin of Species

It's a bit overwhelming "reviewing" this book. There is so much to say, and yet the words seem inadequate. It is a brilliant piece of work that was meticulously researched and written. Darwin did not simply state his brilliant insights concerning how species evolve through natural selection, how new species can be "created" by this process, and how all organisms on earth are related in a huge "tree of life". He also discussed alternatives to these hypotheses, problems raised by the hypotheses, inadequacies of these hypotheses, and ultimately, how these hypotheses compare to the predominant idea of the time, which was that species were individual acts of creation by a deity. If all the man wrote about was natural selection, the book would have been brilliant. But, by throwing in the origin of species and the common ancestry of all life (descent through modification), he really wrote one of the most, if not the most, important books on biology ever.

I loved each and every chapter, but my favorite was the one about geographical distribution. He discussed how species came to be where they are. Creationism states that god put them there in current form. Darwin thought that this made God one busy micromanager. Darwin thought seeds could float from mainland to islands. He even tested this by soaking seeds in ocean water for a month and then planting them to prove that they were still viable. (My class is currently repeating this experiment). He thought that mollusc (snail, clam, etc) larvae could be transported on duck feet. He also tested this. He thought mud on duck feet could transport seeds as well (which he also tested!). I loved his idea of how seeds could be transported to distant islands because fish eat seeds, birds then eat the fish, and then the bird will defecate the seeds on the island (he did not test this idea, however!).

It is an excellent persuasive essay, or "one long arguement" as he put it. At one point in the book he asked "does my theory or their theory explain these facts?" Well, if you ask me, yours does, Darwin.

A brief review of Huxley's "Man's Place in Nature"

I read this book as part of the Decades Challenge. I've always admired Thomas Huxley simply by reputation as "Darwin's bulldog", and especially for his response to Bishop Wilberforce who asked him if he was related to apes on his Mothers or his Father's side. Huxley responded basically that if he had a choice of being related to an ape or a man who was an idiot like Wilberforce, he would gladly choose the ape. Huxley did state it much more eloquently, however. And his writing was eloquent in this book in a Victorian kind of way. The book was written in 1863 and did have the long, run-on sentences characteristic of Victorian science writing. The book basically reviewed what was known at the time about chimps, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons, discussed anatomical similarities between man and apes, and then discussed some of the "newly" discovered fossil homininds of the day, notably the Neandertals. I found it all interesting, but especially the part where Huxley dismantled Richard Owen's claim that only humans had a hippocampus minor (brains structure related to memory formation). Huxley knew better, but Owen was obstinate. Huxley's evidence was overwhelming and time has proved him to be correct and Owen to be incorrect. Huxley wrote a new preface for this book in the early 1890s and he admitted that much of the information was out of date. It certainly is today, but for those interested in the history of evolutionary thought, Huxley is a very important and interesting character, and this is a very enjoyable read.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Signin' up for a Challenge

Debi and Annie, my wife and daughter, respectively, have joined the Once Upon a Time challenge, and I have decided that I can't stand to be left out. I have been intending for quite some time to read Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, and with the movie coming out, and Annie wanting to go see it the day it comes out, could there be a better time to read it? Somehow, I think not. So, I will be a joiner and do the "Journey" and sign on to read this book, about which I have not heard a discouraging word.
My son and I have been reading Ms. Funke's Ghosthunters series and we love them. The family and I also read When Santa Fell to Earth and loved it. Can't believe Inkheart will disappoint.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Weird Science

I love being a biologist, even if I do more teaching of biology than actually doing biology these days. Call me if I can clarify that last sentence. At any rate, biology is easy to make fun for my students because there is no shortage of fascinating and weird stuff to bring in to the classroom (figuratively). I was just goofing off online and came across a paper, summarized at, that found a single mutation that caused a family to have a host of strange symptoms including shrinkage in certain brain parts and most interestingly, the inability to walk bipedally (on 2 feet). These folks walk on all fours (with palms down in a plantigrade fashion, as we nerds call it rather than on fingers, or digitigrade). Actually, there are 2 families that have these symptoms and researchers found two simple mutations that are the cause. Each family has a different mutation, both of which are simple single base pair mutations. This will make my discussions of mutations much more fun this least for me.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Scotland, PA. One Great Film

I do love a dark comedy, and last night, we watched a doozie. Scotland, PA is basically Macbeth set in modern times. The story revolves around a Diner in town, Duncan's (owned by a guy named Duncan), and two employees, the McBeths. You can figure out the rest I'm sure. Andy Dick was apparently overlooked for an Oscar for his role as one of the witches/warlocks. Another one of Hollywood's great injustices.

If you liked Raising Arizona, I Love You to Death, and other offbeat, dark comedies, this one can't be missed. I give it two thumbs up, 4 stars and a mighty strong recommendation to boot.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Voyage of the Beagle

Well, there aren't many people that I love more than Charles Darwin. He is one of my heroes. So I may be biased...a lot. But I loved this book. It was a true adventure tale and one that just could never be repeated in this day and age. The world is a much different place than it was in 1832. Darwin often has a reputation of being a reclusive hermit. And he was in his middle and old age. But the Darwin that cruised the world on the Beagle was young and full of piss, vinegar, and plenty of guts. He headed off into unknown terrain to collect plants, animals, and fossils with nothing more than a compass, a rock hammer, and a single shot pistol that couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. He had no idea where he would sleep each night or what he would eat. He often crossed through territory where local "indians" as he called them had killed European folk. He got rained on, snowed on, and survived several massive earthquakes, not to mention all of the stormy seas that drove him to the rail of the ship to barf. He climbed and crossed the divide of the Andes...several times. With none of the ropes, Gore-Tex and other modern amenities. He never stayed at the Holiday Inn. I guess you get the idea that I think Darwin was cool.
This book could also be painfully boring at time, at least to me. Darwin was a geologist as well as a biologist. His rock discussions were a bit too much for me, mostly because I am geologically challenged. But this book is wonderful. It is an amazing adventure story written by one of the greatest scientists of all time.
Today is Darwin's birthday (he would've been 199 years old today (2/12/08)), and people around the world are celebrating "Darwin Day". I hope you will celebrate too sometime by reading one of his great books. I will soon post about more of his books, as I have 3 or 4 more to read this year! Happy Birthday, Charlie and thanks for this book.

I read "Midnight for Charlie Bone"

I read this book for my daughter's What's in a Name Reading Challenge. Annie strongly recommended it to me after I finished the Harry Potter series this summer. I can see why she did because it is similar to Harry Potter in several respects. A boy gets sent to an "academy" after his family realizes he has a special talent. He is not a wizard in the Harry Potter fashion, but he is what is called "endowed". Each endowed person has one particular "special" ability. One boy at the academy feels the emotions of people whenever he puts on their garments. Charlie Bone's "endowment" is the ability to hear the conversations that took place when a picture was taken whenever he looks at a photo. Early in the book he looks at a picture and hears an intriguing conversation that took place as the photo was taken. The mystery began. It was light and enjoyable "good v. evil" story. I enjoyed it so much that I am reading the second volume of the series. Midnight for Charlie Bone was a good read, and the second installment is even far. Thanks for the tip, Annie.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Another Challenge!

My beautiful wife Debi informed me of the banned book challenge. Being a former hippie, I had to join in. I decided to read 4 books:
1. Darwin's The Origin of Species - had to read it anyway
2. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss - read this to my class each year
3. The Giver by Lois Lowry - highly recommended by my girls, Debi and Annie
4. Slaughterhouse five by Vonnegut, Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury, or another of the many fine books banned by idiots.
My adorable daughter Annie has tagged me to do Eva's reading meme. Here goes my first meme. (Nerd note: a meme to a biology nerd is somewhat different. Someday when I get ambitious, I'll blog about it)

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews?

Chick lit.

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be?

Travis McGee, his friend Dr. Meyer (from the famous series by John D. McDonald), and Glen Bateman from Stephen King's The Stand, along with me, would take a fishing trip in Florida on Travis' boat. This would hopefully take place in January or February. Travis is necessary to provide boat and gin. Meyer and Glen would provide the intellectual stimulation.

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): you are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realize it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave?

Les Miserables...what a miserable book.

Come on, we’ve all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it?

I haven't fibbed about reading a book since I was in high school, when I was known to occasionally run to the mall to buy the Cliff's Notes the night before we began discussing a book in school.

You’re interviewing for the post of Official Book Advisor to some VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (If you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead and personalize the VIP).

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Everyone alive should read this book once each decade at least.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with?

Elizabethan English so I could figure out what the hell William Shakespeare was talking about.

A mischievous fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick?

Tough one...maybe one of Gary Larson's Far Side Galleries.

I know that the book blogging community, and its various challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)?

I'm such a bad blogger. I don't spend much time blogging, as anyone who actually reads this blog is well aware, nor do I spend much time reading other blogs except my wife Debi's (which I have to read to see what she is saying about me...gotta check for accuracy). I have gotten some solid recommendations from Debi that have come from others in the blogosphere. One notable one is Neil Gaiman. Debi absolutely loved his book "American Gods".

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leather-bound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favorite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free.

It would be a very large room with lots of dark wooden bookshelves covering each wall and very high ceilings. The bookshelves would go up to the ceiling. Wooden floors with a few nice rugs, a fireplace, and a few well placed biological specimens (skulls, etc.) and fossils would provide atmosphere and flavor. There would be lots of windows for natural light, preferably with a fine view of our natural world. A few couches here and there and some nice comfy chairs would provide seating. A few antique wooden desks would provide workspace. A well hidden sound system would play Miles Davis and other fine jazz as needed.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Chunkster challenge

I've been pestered into joining the chunkster challenge by my girls: Debi, my lovely wife, and Annie, my wonderful daughter.

I've decided to make it my year to read Darwin's major books, and he wrote mostly chunksters. Three-quarters of my books will be his. I shall read:

1. Voyage of the Beagle by Darwin
2. The origin of species by Darwin
3. The descent of man and selection in relation to sex by Darwin
4. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Wish me luck.