Ten books by Richard Dawkins

You don’t have to agree with everything professor Dawkins stands for to acknowledge that, since Carl Sagan, he has been one of the most prominent science popularizers lately. He has succeeded in putting his message across several times throughout his more-than-30-year-long career as a science writer. I decided to draw up a list of his books and give a short account of each, though I must admit I haven’t read them all myself.

The Selfish Gene (1976)
The one that made him famous and controversial overnight. In it he argues that natural selection acts on genes, not on the level of populations as previously held. This is where he invented the term meme as a unit of cultural transmission, analogous to the gene. This is still the book most people identify Dawkins with, although some of the ideas might seem outdated.

The Extended Phenotype (1982)
Here he elaborates on the ideas put forward in The Selfish Gene, but in a way that’s a tiny bit more technical, while retaining its readability. Dawkins regards this book as his most significant contribution to evolutionary biology. Subtitled The long reach of the gene, phenotypes are not necessarily limited to the organism itself, but can be manifestations extended beyond that. Think of the beaver’s dam.

The Blind Watchmaker (1986)
One of his most popular works, in it he takes on the task of explaining how evolution works, using the metaphor of a blind watchmaker, meaning that evolution has no purpose in creating endless forms. He wrote the book to, in his own words, “persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence.”

River Out of Eden (1995)
His shortest book, it basically contains summaries of topics mentioned in his previous books. He goes on to explain evolution through genes and human ancestry. He also contemplates how Darwinian evolution may take place outside our planet.  The title comes from Genesis. Illustrations by his wife, actress Lalla Ward, can also be found in here.

Climbing Mount Improbable (1996)
This work is a book-long rebuttal of the obnoxious creationist claim that the chances for complex organs, like the bacterial flagellum or the human eye, to evolve are so meagre that they surely must be the handiwork of an intelligent designer. At first glance it looks improbable, but evolution moves across the adaptive landscape gradually, and given enough time, it will certainly reach the peak of that metaphorical mountain.

Unweaving The Rainbow (1998)
The relationship of science and art is dissected here. John Keats once blamed Isaac Newton for destroying the rainbow by simply explaining it. He tries to persuade the reader that natural wonders like the rainbow do not necessarily lose aesthetic value once their mystery is solved. To the contrary, dissecting nature has the capacity of actually enhancing its beauty.

A Devil’s Chaplain (2003)
This is a collection of essays written over the years. The subtitle says it all: Reflections on hope, lies, science, and love. The topics are diverse, it contains a eulogy for his friend Douglas Adams, an essay that disrobes postmodernism, as well as an open letter to his then minor daughter, giving her advice on how to evaluate evidence and view things with a critical and open mind.

The Ancestor’s Tale (2004)
In the fashion of The Canterbury Tales, Dawkins takes a pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution starting from humans. Along the way he stops at every major cornerstone to relate the most interesting facts (tales), and what we need to know about that particular ancestor. Spanning billions of years he finally arrives at the origins of life. My personal favourite. It’s time for a re-read, I reckon.

The God Delusion (2006)
Sold over 2 million copies, this one virtually made him an international superstar and an iconic figure of atheism. It became one of the four great books of the so-called “new atheism”, the others being The End Of Faith by Sam Harris, God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, and Breaking The Spell by Daniel Dennett. Not the easiest read, but well worth the effort.

The Greatest Show On Earth (2009)
He had written books on evolution for decades, before he realized he never actually laid out the evidence for it. With the upsurge of the intelligent design movement and its dumbed down version creationism, he felt the need, alongside other notables like Jerry Coyne or Neil Shubin, to lamentably write this book. The evidence is clearly demonstrated here, to deny it, like all creationists do, would be an act of lunacy.

As revealed in recent interviews, Dawkins is currently working on a children’s book, in which he intends to explain evolution in a way that’s understandable even to the youngest of the inquirers.

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Last Chance To See

In 1990, a book appeared in the shops called Last Chance To See. It was the account of the journeys made by Douglas Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine in their pursue of some of the most endangered animals on the planet. Twenty years later, the same zoologist hooked up with Stephen Fry, a great friend of the late Douglas Adams, and together they revisited the same animals. This time not only a book was released, but a spectacular six-part BBC documentary series came along with it as well.

Dr. Carwardine is an extremely knowledgeable naturalist and conservationist, author of about 50 books. Stephen Fry, one of my favourite public figures, is an out of place man, he simply doesn’t know what he’s doing in the jungle. He’s a gadget freak, first thing he does in the middle of the Amazonian Basin is to check if there’s broadband available on one of his several iPhones. Awkward and unfit, he falls on his arm and breaks it in three in the very first episode. The comic value added by Stephen is a major factor in propelling the film and in setting the series apart from other nature programs.

At the outset, this unlikely duo tries to track down the Amazonian manatee, a peaceful aquatic mammal that looks like an oversized underwater bulldog, but can’t find any. What they find is the pink river dolphin or boto, which still thrives in reasonable numbers, as opposed to the Chinese river dolphin that has gone extinct since Douglas and Mark encountered it in the Yangtze. In the next episode they hop over to Africa to search out the Northern white rhino. Along the way, they meet chimps, wild elephants and gorillas, but eventually decide against entering the rhino’s territory stricken by civil war. In Madagascar, a pygmy chameleon, a mouse lemur and the indri are the main sensations, before finding the aye aye, one of the rarest primates, up in a coconut palm.

In Indonesia, they find themselves surrounded by Komodo dragons and releasing newly hatched sea turtles on the beach. In New Zealand, we learn that the black robin came back from the brink of extinction from as few as 5 individuals and only one breeding female. This success story inspired those responsible now for the rescue of the kakapo, which a couple of years ago dwindled to a mere 40 individuals. All were captured and translocated to a tiny island south of New Zealand, and due to an effective breeding program their numbers now climbed up to 123. One of the most memorable moments of the series was when a male kakapo tried to mate with Mark’s head, much to Stephen’s amusement:

The kakapo’s clumsiness was most endearingly described by Douglas Adams:

It is an exceptionally fat bird (a good-sized adult weighs roughly two or three kilograms) and its wings are just about good enough to waggle about a bit if it thinks it’s going to trip over. But flying is completely out of the question. Strangely, not only has it forgotten how to fly, it also seems to have forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly. Legend has it that a seriously worried kakapo will sometimes run up a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it flies like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground.

The final episode is spent tracing the blue whale off Baja California in the Sea of Cortez, and while they’re at it, they collect and analyze sea lion poo, and measure a whale shark. The crew also observes the Humboldt squid, a fierce apex predator that’s gradually taking the place of sharks at the top of the food chain.

I haven’t read the book yet, but the series I thoroughly enjoyed. This is no ordinary entertainment, carried out by BBC’s decades-old professionalism conveying amazing wildlife shots and a profound message.

Don Quixote

Don_Quixote_5 People in general don’t read classic literature. If you ever pick up a book it will most likely be a pulp fiction. After a long day’s work who has the energy to read anything substantial? You’re not going to tire yourself even more by reading long, tedious, nonsensical passages by obscure writers from the 19th century. So you think. How wrong can one be? Long, granted. Tedious, occasionally. Nonsensical, not a single one of them. In no way were authors of former times stupid. In actual fact, reading classic literature can be life changing. How come? Why bother to read something that was written hundreds of years ago?  What relevance can it bear on my everyday struggle, also known as life? The reason is that these books teach you the meaning of being human. They teach you the way to interact with fellow humans. The epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, contained everything there is to know about the human nature and heart  as early as 2,800 years ago.

Enter Don Quixote.

Here’s a book that is more talked about than read nowadays. It’s really unfair, to say the least. Written by Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra exactly 400 years ago in two parts, it is not uncommonly ranked among the greatest novels of all time. That sounds strong, eh? There must be good reason for such a strong claim, right? There is.

I’m not trying to write another review here. Literature scholars have done that countless times and will be doing so in the future. Having said that, allow me a couple of remarks that have been concocted by the neurons in my cerebral cortex about this timeless classic.

Don Quixote is not just one of the greatest novels, it is also considered one of the earliest in the western world. This is the greatest adventure story I’ve ever read, which is supremely humorous at the same time. No doubt a bit long-winded (the version I read is 760 pages long), but well worth the effort. The Don, having read all the available books of chivalry, proclaims himself a knight-errant, whose only purpose in life is to serve those who he deems to be in need of his knightly service. He is an extremely likeable figure. Wise and knowledgeable in matters of worldly affairs and human nature, but very naïve and credulous at the same time.  In effect, he requires to be offset, or buffered, if you will, by his loyal squire, Sancho Pança, who is an ignorant countryman, but very down-to-earth. Together they get into countless comic situations, often ending up severely battered, but somehow they invariably manage to keep their good cheer. Proper English translations do not diminish the eloquence of the protagonist, which is unparalleled in all literature. Take a look at the famous windmill scene, for instance:

‘Fortune,’ cried he, ‘directs our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished: look yonder, friend Sancho, there are at least thirty outrageous giants, whom I intend to encounter; and, having deprived them of life, we will begin to enrich ourselves with their spoils: for they are lawful prize; and the extirpation of that cursed brood will be an acceptable service to Heaven.’ ‘What giants?’ quoth Sancho Pança. ‘Those whom thou seest yonder,’ answered Don Quixote, ‘with their long extended arms; some of that detested race have arms of so immense a size, that sometimes they reach two leagues in length.’ ‘Pray, look better, sir,’ quoth Sancho; ‘those things yonder are no giants, but windmills, and the arms you fancy, are their sails, which, being whirled about by the wind, make the mill go.’ ‘It is a sign,’ cried Don Quixote, ‘thou art but little acquainted with adventures. I tell thee they are giants; and therefore, if thou art afraid, go aside and say thy prayers, for I am resolved to engage in a dreadful, unequal combat against them all.’

Not many works of literature can boast phrases that most people recognize immediately. The adjective quixotic, for example, bears the following definition in the dictionary on my laptop: “exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical”. Also, it’s not too hard to deduce from the above passage the origin of the phrase tilting at windmills.

This tome was my everyday companion for more than two months (I’m a slow reader). I felt a slight sadness upon turning the last page, but also a good deal of contentment at the same time. People are afraid of touching serious, thick books such as this one, but once you manage to surmount your (unwarranted) prejudice, you’d be surprised how quickly and completely it absorbs you.

I reckon I’d best stop besmirching this great work by my rather sloppy and incoherent writing and better wind up with what Clifton Fadiman (a more competent critic than I am) has to say about Don Quixote:

Is this book a burlesque of chivalry? Or is it the most persuasive of pleas for the chivalric attitude, apart from any specific time or institution? Is it a satire on dreamers? Or is it a defense of dreaming? Is it a symbol of the tragic soul and history of Spain? If so, why does it speak so clearly to men of all nations and races? Is it the author’s spiritual autobiography? A study of insanity? Or of a higher sanity? Or is it a dramatized treatise on illusion and reality? Finally, is Don Quixote a kind of actor, who chooses his role because by so doing he can absorb life and reflect on it in a way denied to the single, unvarying personality?

I leave you to the golden book that Macauley thought “the best novel in the world, beyond comparison.”

It is easily one of my all-time favourite books.

Why Evolution Is True

why-evolution-coyneJerry A. Coyne from the University of Chicago is a distinguished biologist of Speciation fame and a well-known figure in the intelligent design vs. evolution debate. He for some reason felt obliged to lay out the evidence for evolution, but unlike the one mentioned above, which is a highly technical textbook (co-authored with H. Allen Orr) and an embarrassingly difficult read even for professionals, Why Evolution Is True is a delightful book designed for the average reader.

Isn’t this so-called ID-evolution debate already settled? Apparently not. Not in America, at any rate. While it’s not really an issue in Europe, a great number of people in the United States flatly reject evolution and literally interpret the Bible as the ultimate truth.

But here’s the thing: the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. It’s there for all to see. Paleontology, geology, plate tectonics, biogeography, comparative anatomy, genetics, molecular biology – all these disciplines have their share to add to the ever-growing pile of evidence. You have to be blind or just plain stupid to deny it.

At any rate, Dr. Coyne makes his attempt to impart this intelligence to the lay people. After explaining in the first chapter what evolution is, in the following chapters he makes his case clearly with numerous examples from the above disciplines. Chapter 2 deals with fossils, how paleontologists work, radioactive dating methods, prominent transitional fossils like Tiktaalik (fish to amphibian), Archaeopteryx (reptile to bird), Indohyus (an artiodactyl ancestor of whales). This is really just an excerpt. There are a lot more.

Chapter 3 happens to contain my favourite example, one from ontogenesis. Not the easiest to understand, but I hadn’t known about it before. I recommend medical students pop this to their anatomy teacher: why the heck does our left recurrent pharyngeal nerve go all the way down to the heart and come back only to innervate the larynx?

The answer lies in ontogenesis and common ancestry:

One of nature’s worst designs is shown by the recurrent laryngeal nerve of mammals. Running from the brain to the larynx, this nerve helps us speak and swallow. The curious thing is that it is much longer than it needs to be. Rather than taking a direct route from the brain to the larynx, a distance of about a foot in humans, the nerve runs down into our chest, loops around the aorta and a ligament derived from an artery, and then travels back up to connect to the larynx. It winds up being three feet long. In giraffes the nerve takes a similar path, but one that runs all the way down that long neck and back up again: a distance fifteen feet longer than the direct route! When I first heard about this strange nerve, I had trouble believing it. Wanting to see for myself, I mustered up my courage to make a trip to the human anatomy lab and inspect my first corpse. An obliging professor showed me the nerve, tracing its course with a pencil down the torso and back up to the throat.
This circuitous path of the recurrent laryngeal nerve is not only poor design, but might even be maladaptive. That extra length makes it more prone to injury. It can, for example, be damaged by a blow to the chest, making it hard to talk or swallow. But the pathway makes sense when we understand how the recurrent laryngeal nerve evolved. Like the mammalian aorta itself, it descends from those branchial arches of our fishlike ancestors. In the early fishlike embryos of all vertebrates, the nerve runs from top to bottom alongside the blood vessel of the sixth branchial arch; it is a branch of the larger vagus nerve that travels along the back from the brain. And in adult fish, the nerve remains in that position, connecting the brain to the gills and helping them pump water.
During our evolution, the blood vessel from the fifth arch disappeared, and the vessels from the fourth and sixth arches moved downward into the future torso so that they could become the aorta and a ligament connecting the aorta to the pulmonary artery. But the laryngeal nerve, still behind the sixth arch, had to remain connected to the embryonic structures that become the larynx, structures that remained near the brain. As the future aorta evolved backward toward the heart, the laryngeal nerve was forced to evolve backward along with it. It would have been more efficient for the nerve to detour around the aorta, breaking and then re-forming itself on a more direct course, but natural selection couldn’t manage that, for severing and rejoining a nerve is a step that reduces fitness. To keep up with the backward evolution of the aorta, the laryngeal nerve had to become long and recurrent. And that evolutionary path is recapitulated during development, since as embryos we begin with the ancestral fishlike pattern of nerves and blood vessels. In the end, we’re left with bad design.

The following chapters deal with the geography of life, how animals came to live in the separate continents, island biogeography, bees killing giant hornets by heating them up to 80 degrees centigrade, evolution in the test tube, drug resistance, a whole chapter on sexual selection, speciation (the process of distinct species formation), population genetics, human evolution (including Homo floresiensis, the hobbit), etc.

All in all, a profoundly satisfying read, a rare gem in the market of popular science books. Last words:

We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe. And we should be proud that we are the only species that has figured out how we came to be.

Gargantua and Pantagruel

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Gargantua and Pantagruel (La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel) is a French satire from the 16th century written by Francois Rabelais, a medical doctor. The tome consists of five books that chronicles the life history of two honourable giants, Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. The author is a ruthless social critic, sparing nobody from uppity academics to the clergy. Bawdy and extremely vulgar and violent at times, the stories revolve around the everyday routine of the giants and their sidekicks as they mock and tease everybody who is unfortunate enough to get in their way.

It’s definitely not a novel, the chapters are loosely connected with not much of a plot. I laughed out loudly several times while reading it, I guarantee your eyes will not be left dry, should you give it a try.

I’m quite certain the English translation could not entirely convey the humour and poignancy of the French original, but allow me to give you some excerpts to give you a taste. On one occasion Pantagruel is browsing the books in a library, and the author lists the titles (on several pages) our good giant comes across:

The Testes of Theology;
On the Art of Discreetly Farting in Company, by Magister Noster Ortuinus;
Tartaretus: On how to Defecate;
Three Books On How to Chew Bacon, by the Reverend Father Provincial of Drivell;
Magister Noster Rostock-Assley: On the Serving of Mustard after Dining, Fourteen Books;
Eleven Decades on the Taking-off of Spurs, by Magister Albericus de Rosate;
Marforio, a Bachelor lying in Rome: On Skinning and Smudging Cardinals’ Mules;
Putting Things into the Mouths of Masters of Arts;
The Surgeon’s Kiss-me-arse.

Another time, young Gargantua imparts the art of arse-wiping to his father. After listing about a hundred ways and means to wipe one’s bottom, here’s his conclusion:

But to conclude: I affirm and maintain that there is no bottom-wiper like a downy young goose, provided that you hold its head between your legs. Believe me on my honour, for you can feel in your bumhole a mirifical voluptuousness, as much from the softness of its down as from the temperate heat of the young goose which is readily communicated to the arse-gut and the rest of the intestines until it reaches the region of the heart and the brain. And do not believe that the blessedness of the heroes and demi-gods in the Elysian Fields lies in their nectar, asphodel or ambrosia, as these old women would maintain: in my opinion it consists in the fact that they wipe their bums on a young goose.

Highly recommended.

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

This little book reports the discovery of one of the most spectacular transitional fossils of recent years, that of Tiktaalik. It’s a fish that crawled ashore 375 million years ago with limbs and a skull that are more similar to those of terrestrial vertebrates.

The author is a paleontologist who also happens to teach anatomy in a medical school. He claims that it would be far easier for students to comprehend seemingly illogical anatomical structures, if they looked into their actual phylogenetic past. Have you ever wondered, for example, what the three minute bones in your middle ear are doing? How did they get there? They used to be parts of the jaw of fish. The book is loaded with tons of plausible facts one wouldn’t find in anatomy textbooks.

Highly recommended, especially to blockheaded medical students and practising physicians who don’t know the first thing about evolution through natural selection.

Not incidentally, it is shortlisted for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books, the winner (out of six) of which is to be announced in September