Nature books for giving
Learn about genes, sand, crawdads, and more
This year, I offer two very serious books for holiday giving or personal reading. Each requires an investment of time and concentration, but they have important stories to tell and are well worth that investment. For those who prefer lighter fare, I also recommend two less demanding, but equally interesting titles.
Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, I can only say, “curiouser and curiouser.” When I studied biology in high school, we learned that, following Linnaeus’ guidance, all life was divided into two kingdoms, plants and animals. Among animals, there were a number of phyla with strange names like mollusca and porifera, to one of which, cordata, we belonged. David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (Simon & Schuster) makes it clear that schoolchildren nowadays have a much more complex picture to assimilate. And one thing is clear: new thinking places us much farther out on a limb if we continue to think in tree terms. Many scientists today reject the idea of the tree metaphor as a way of understanding lifeforms.
Phylogenetic analysis—using genes as a basis for determining the relationships and history of life forms—now inserts above plants and animals three domains: bacteria, archaea, and eukarya. The earlier kingdoms of plants and animals—as well as fungi, ciliates, flagellates, and microsporidia—are now included among the eukarya domain. Clearly, we have been downgraded.
And the picture is still more confusing. Today’s researchers, in addition to providing the basis for these more recent divisions, suggest that there is what is called horizontal gene transfer between life forms. No longer is the concept of species so clear; rather, our cells include a mosaic of genes taken from all kinds of life forms not only over our past evolutionary history but continuing through today. For example, the establishment of our domain, eukarya, which includes all life whose cells contain nuclei enclosed within membranes, almost certainly initially gained those nuclei by capturing bacteria or another life form from one of the other domains. To further confuse this reassessment, we have not yet found a place for viruses. (To gain further insight into the complexity of this new picture, visit the Life on Earth website.)
I can think of no better writer than Quammen to take readers by the hand and guide them through the history of phylogenetics since Darwin and the current state of this complex subject. He does so—thankfully—in brief chapters, many of which include personal interviews with the geneticists who have wrestled with these complex forms. (None of the forms are even visible, except as blurred images produced by electron microscopes.) In one of my favorite passages, Quammen tells of a researcher taking him out—after hours of discussing these exotic forms—to a nearby marsh, where he showed him a white-faced ibis, thus reestablishing contact with the world about them.
Much of Quammen’s story centers around a researcher whose name you will almost certainly not even recognize: Carl Woese, a University of Illinois professor who died in 2012. Woese revolutionized the discipline of microbiology. Woese worked with his students and investigators from around the world, which occasionally led to arguments about whose name should appear where on the resulting publications. Quammen makes it clear, however, that Woese carefully designed these cooperative investigations to contribute to his own overarching thinking about how evolution works. Woese comes across as a kind of crotchety individual who felt that his contributions were more important than Darwin’s, and that he should have received a Nobel Prize. Those attitudes may seem grandiose, but most of the scientists to whom Quammen talked agree with at least the latter claim.
In his earlier books, The Song of the Dodo, Monster of God and Spillover, Quammen took on complex subjects—island biogeography, animal predators of humans and animal diseases transmitted to us—and provided clarifying insights, but here he outdoes even those achievements. Highly recommended.
Most of us think about sand as that stuff along shorelines that on hot days burns our bare feet when we head for the water. In The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization (Riverhead Books), Vince Beiser makes it very clear that sand is deeply underestimated.
Think concrete: this basic building block is three-fourths sand. Think glass. Think iPhones and TVs whose microchip circuits are embedded in high quality sand-based products. As Beiser makes clear, “Sand is about the most taken-for-granted natural resource on earth.”
While it is useful to realize that sand has an important role in modern living, it’s even more important to know that we are rapidly running short of this seemingly infinite resource. As Beiser writes, “New sand is constantly being created as the elements erode mountains, but the amount we use far exceeds the amount being made. It would require one-and-a-half Earths to sustainably generate all the materials we use each year. If everyone on Earth had an American standard of living, we’d need four and a half Earths.”
In the face of this shortage, we are far too profligate with sand. For example, many lovely Florida beaches have to have their sand replenished regularly. In Broward County alone, each night, ten thousand tons of sand, mined from an inland quarry, are trucked in and spread on the beaches.
The effects of sand shortages are being felt around the world. There are rising prices, sand stolen, politicians bribed, and even people killed. The overuse has other effects as well: desertification around mined areas and flooding as natural areas are covered with parking lots.
Eli Knapp is a professor at Houghton College where, among other duties, he teaches an ornithology course and takes students on birding tours. In The Delightful Horror of Family Birding: Sharing Nature with the Next Generation (Torry House), he tells stories about the adventures he shares with his wife, three children, and students, only some of whom share his interest in ornithology. Your wife or husband is a birder and you are not? If your answer is yes, this is the book for you, though dedicated birders will enjoy it as well.
Despite the title and humorous passages, this is not a superficial look at birding. Knapp has led field trips not only to the American west and south, but also to exotic places like Tanzania and Ecuador. And he is not simply a lister; rather, he digs deep into bird life histories, the lives of ornithologists, and even ornithological etymology.
Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing (G. P. Putnam’s Sons) is a mystery novel, but earns a place here for its often-poetic evocation of the Atlantic Coast salt marshes. For anyone who has visited that region, this book evokes pleasant memories. Consider just one paragraph chosen almost at random:
“The shack sat back from the palmettos, which sprawled across sand flats to a necklace of green lagoons and, in the distance, all the marsh beyond. Miles of blade-grass so tough it grew in salt water, interrupted only by trees so bent they wore the shape of the wind. Oak forests bunched around the other sides of the shack and sheltered the closest lagoon, its surface so rich in life it churned. Salt air and gull song drifted through the trees by the sea.”
Owens won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing for her earlier nonfiction reporting. Here she draws upon her deep knowledge of these marshes to enhance an interesting murder mystery with its associated courtroom drama, against a salt marsh background.