She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer. 2018. Dutton. ISBN-13: 978-1101984598 (genetics book)
Carl Zimmer is arguably the best known science writer today, for good reason. His books are informative and fascinating to read and he has a knack for breaking hard, complex subjects down so that they are understandable to most people. In this book, he has taken on the challenge of explaining the incredibly complicated topic of heredity. He covers how heredity works at the molecular level and proceeds to discuss how it affects us as people, how we are shaped as individuals by our DNA. If that was all he did, it would be an extraordinary book, but he doesn’t stop with that. He also talks about how our environment, what we eat, what we are exposed to, the actions we take and have done to us. how these and other factors can affect what we pass on through our genes to our children and what that means for us. Heredity is more than our DNA and it is complex. Fortunately Zimmer is up to the task of making it engaging and understandable for us.
Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity by Theodore Porter. 2018. Princeton University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0691164540
What Zimmer does for modern heredity, Porter does for the history of human genetics research and its development in the insane asylums of the 1800s and early 1900s. As more people were being placed into asylums, doctors became interested in curbing the increase of insanity by studying its heredity through family histories. Before anything was known of DNA, they traced incidents of supposed insanity through families attempting to identify which families were presdisposed to insanity and what traits were being inherited that led to insanity. This led to the eugenics of the early 20th century, as their research moved from the lab into sociopolitical agendas. Along the way, they worked out many techniques later used for the study of heredity far removed from the moral debates over eugenics.
Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity by Andreas Wagner. 2019. Oneworld Publications.
How does evolution get across adaptive peaks, when to reach a more optimal level, one first has to go through a less than optimal phase? What does this have to do with human creativity? This is one of the questions that Dr. Wagner explores. In this book, he explores the way evolution, through trial and error, reshuffling of traits, and natural selection creates creativity in biological systems. As Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.” By looking at the importance of diversity in nature and the ways nature is creative, Wagner discusses how we can use these traits ourselves to surmount obstacles and why it is important we work to inspire creative thinking in ourselves and our schools for society to progress.
From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel Dennett. 2017. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN-13: 978-0393242072
Dr. Dennett has written several well received books on evolution. His latest book explores how human consciousness and abstract thinking arose through unguided and natural evolutionary processes. He writes that a turning point in our evolution came about when we learned to share memes, thoughts and ideas, when we learned to teach those beyond our own kin. In short, he is following similar ideas to that of Rutherford in Humanimal and Richard Dawkins before that. What Dennett brings to the table is less original idea and more a wealth of observations and explanatory power to really dive into the evolution of the human mind without any need of special creation.
Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry by Randolph Nesse. Dutton (Penguin Random House), 2019. ISBN-13: 978-1101985663
If our minds developed through evolution and natural selection, why do we have mental illness? One answer is that creating offspring doesn’t require perfection, just good enough. Another is that our cultural evolution has vastly outpaced our biological evolution. But could it be that the feelings that may give rise to mental illness actually serve a purpose? That is the question Dr. Nesse explores in his new book. He explores the gamut of bad feelings and negative human behavior, discussing how those feelings serve useful purposes, but can lead to mental illness when unchecked, how behaviors that at one time were valuable in smaller settings, but a detriment in larger societies built on cooperation between individuals and other groups. He also discusses why what seems to be disorders persist, rather than being selected against and removed from the gene pool. Evolutionary psychology may be ridiculed by some as social Darwinism and “just-so” stories, but deciphering how evolution has affected our behaviors may help in the treatment of patients and guide society into better and more fruitful directions. If the intersection of evolution and clinical psychology is f interest to you, this book will be of interest to you.
Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present by Peter Ward. 2018. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN-13: 978-1632866158
Lamarck is often ridiculed for having gotten it wrong. We all know that heredity is controlled through our genes and is unaffected by changes in our bodies during our life, right? Turns out Lamarck wasn’t as wrong as people think. Epigenetics is the study of hereditary changes that are not passed on through changes in DNA sequences and recent work has shown this is far more powerful and common than previously believed. Epigenetic changes can be passed down for generations and sometimes become fixed into the DNA itself. Dr. Ward leads us through how epigenetics works, what changes it has wrought upon evolution and our current existence, and what we are opening ourselves up to through exposure to a wide variety of deleterious influences that leave their mark on our DNA through epigenetic alteration. DNA mutation is only part of the story. If you want more of the story of heredity, check this book out.
The Tangled Tree: A Radical new History of Life by David Quammen. 2018. Simon & Schuster. ISBN-13: 978-1476776620
The other bookspreviously listed have talked about the genetics of heredity and how evolution has affected human behavior in all manner of ways. Quammen goes more into evolutionary genetics focusing on a specific, important, and often overlooked issue that has been a thorn in the side of molecular systemacists since the beginning. Horizontal, or lateral gene transfer has traditionally been considered too rare to be important. However, a lot of recent work has proven this to be false. Not only is it more common that we used to think, it is spread throughout the tree of life and it has caused some of the most revolutionary evolutionary leaps that led to humans. When people talk about genetically modified organisms and gene splicing as being unnatural, they don’t realize nature has been doing this since the beginning and still does it. Viruses have been shuffling genes between unrelated organisms for billions of years. Without it, we would not be here. More importantly, it is proving to be not only a possible benefit to us now as we learn more about it and how to do it, but a threat to our existence as it creates such things as antibiotic resistance in pathogens that cause serious illness and death (it also is what will allow us to fight it). Check out The Tangled Tree for a good look at the past, present, and future possibilities of how nature and we create genetically modified organisms and what effects that has brought and what it may bring.
Tune in tomorrow for more books on Darwin and evolution.