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 This is still the book most people identify Dawkins with, although some of the ideas might seem outdated.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.

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.

Inside Nature’s Giants

A great new series was broadcast in the UK this summer: Inside Nature’s Giants. In each programme, veterinarians and biologists dissect a big animal to trace its evolutionary past. It contains numerous explicit scenes showing the giants’ internal anatomy. It is as enjoyable as any of BBC’s nature series, including those narrated by Attenborough.

The first series can now be viewed on YouTube. Here I embed the first 10 minutes of each four episode.

Tongue-eating isopod: an amazing parasite

FishParasite My favourite parasite is back in the news. This is an isopod (a crustacean, closely related to woodlice) named Cymothoa exigua, and here’s what it does: it slips into a miserable fish’s oral cavity and clamps itself on the base of the tongue and commences to drain blood. As it grows on the fish’s expense, the tongue will atrophy and waste away completely leaving but a stub. Then it assumes the role of the tongue and starts acting like a normal tongue! It is no doubt hideous to look at, but it just as much amazes me how this sort of adaptation can come about. It apparently does no other harm to the host, but I still definitely don’t want one in my mouth.

Great tits took to bat-eating

An incredible behaviour has been observed in the Bükk Mountains of Hungary. Great tits (Parus major) developed the habit of hunting down and killing bats for food. Scientists are quite taken aback, for these nice little passerines were not expected to be able to predate on prey as large as pipistrelle bats. The behaviour is most likely a ‘cultural phenomenon’, that is one of them made a hit by trial and error and, being quick-learners, the new type of food acquisition quickly spread through the population.

See more on this in BBC News (with a grisly photo of a half-eaten bat) and Times Online. The original results appear today in the journal Biology Letters.

Snow leopard

Now that Apple has released the latest operation system for Mac, OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, here’s a short clip about what it takes to capture an image (one of which is included in the desktop pictures) of this elusive animal in its natural habitat 5,000 metres above sea level:

Evolution in action

PD*30858692 I’ve just come across an interesting evolution item in the news. A North American mouse species has changed its fur colour from brown to blonde in a mere 8,000 years. It is a very fine opportunity to understand natural selection at work.

Let’s consider a mammalian species that lives in an environment it has adapted to through the millennia. Let it be a mouse and let’s pick a particular trait – fur colour. When the mouse lives in an area where the soil is dark, it is advantageous to sport a dark fur in order to avoid predators. But if an ice age happens to occur and a glacier deposits sand (which is much lighter in colour) onto that particular area, then, all of a sudden, the dark brown pelage turns disadvantageous and counter-adaptive. What this means is that the brown mice against the yellow background are too conspicuous to evade the attention of predators. Now, if a random mutation occurs in the colour, say blonde, and it happens to be advantageous, natural selection will preserve it. How? Let’s say in a litter of eight mice, seven is brown and one is blonde. Only one gene regulates fur colour in mice, and the blonde allele (variant of the same gene) happens to be dominant. In a light-coloured environment, the one blonde mouse is hugely favoured with respect to camouflage as opposed to its brown siblings. All the browns are selected out, and the light-coloured individual has increased chances of survival, because it blends in the colour of the sand dunes. Then in a couple of  generations (this means, of course, given the reproduction rate of mice, thousands of generations) the new colour will be fixed and the species will have adapted to its new environment.

It took about 8,000 years for the deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) population of this area in Nebraska to gradually change from brown to blonde. How do we know they used to be brown? Deer mice of surrounding areas of darker soil all wear dark brown fur.

Athletic gibbon

I’ve always been fascinated by the gibbon’s mode of locomotion. It swings from branch to branch using mainly its ridiculously long arms. It is called brachiation. Here’s a short clip I recorded today of a male black crested gibbon (Nomascus concolor) brachiating:

His voice is great as well.
(Szeged Zoo)

Bamboo lemurs – food specialists

1635644Three species of bamboo lemur exist in the same (and ever-shrinking) tiny area in Eastern Madagascar. They provide us with a singular example of adaptive radiation. All three eat bamboo, but in a very civil manner they feed on different parts of the plant. Why do they have to split the bamboo that way? Short answer: niche partitioning. A somewhat extended answer: closely related animals living in the same area (sympatric species) can not occupy the same biological niche (which can be a habitat or merely a certain type of food, like in this particular case), because sooner or later the stronger one would displace the other.

Ha-bs.1024Now, the gentle bamboo lemur (Hapalemur griseus) eats the leaves, while the greater bamboo lemur (H. simus), a more robust species, eats the pith of mature stalks. The golden bambo lemur (H. aureus) confines itself to the new shoots, leaf bases and the pith of narrow stems.

Here’s the catch: the parts that H. aureus recklessly gobbles up contain cyanide. No small amounts of this lethal substance is consumed by this unheeding furry creature. About 4 mg/kg of body weight would certainly kill a dog. It has been estimated that the golden bamboo lemur eats 78 mg/kg on a daily basis. Scientists are understandably baffled at this self-poisoning behaviour and can only guess in what way the animal tackles it, for the digestive system of this species has never been studied. It is another great mystery of nature that remains to be revealed. But again, evolution through adaptive radiation has found a way to allow three very similar animals to co-exist peacefully.

Primary source: The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen, one of my favourite non-fiction books.

The kiwi’s egg

My colleagues incredulously rejected the notion that the chicken-sized kiwi lays eggs six times the size of a chicken egg. Well, it wasn’t just a fancy, it really is the case. A couple of days before the egg is laid, it assumes so gigantic proportions that it fills the female’s whole body cavity, forcing the bird to fast. It’s a huge burden for the kiwi, while developing the egg, it needs to eat three times as much as usual. The kiwi has the largest egg-to-body ratio (1:5) among all birds.
kiwi with egg

I wonder what adaptive advantage this bird gains by producing such a monster egg. I think the answer lies in the lack of natural predators. No native mammals exist in New Zealand (except for bats) that could prey on them, which is the primary reason for the loss of most of the birds’ ability to fly (think of the kakapo or the takahe, all flightless) on the island. The energy necessary to fly is turned over to producing enormous eggs. Not incidentally, the lack of predation allows for the birds to have very low reproduction rates, raising only one chick per season. As a matter of course, the whole agenda is turned upside down by the introduction of invasive species like rats, pigs and feral cats, wreaking havoc in the bird nests and effectively reducing the population size of these wonderful, but hapless birds.

An X-ray image:
Kiwi egg

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