My New Years’ resolution for 2020 was to read more nonfiction, but I didn’t initially envision starting a blog to write about all the books I didn’t have time or energy to read during my Ph.D. I posted more sporadically than I would have liked, but it was 2020, so I’m cutting myself some slack and calling my resolution a success.
Here’s a look back at the science non-fiction books I read this year:
Coyote America by Dan Flores
Coyote America is a story of resilience and was a necessary contrast to the multiple books about extinction on this list. Coyotes will always be fascinating to me, and I regret not reading this book when I was an active coyote researcher.
Superior by Angela Saini
Science has undeniably racist origins that persist today in a big way. This book wasn't from my backlog, but it should have been, especially given my background in population genetics. Rethink any "well- intended" study of human diversity and read this book.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
While Hope Jahren can’t speak for everyone, Lab Girl certainly showcased many of the issues that young female science professors face in a world still dominated by white men. Jahren is not my favorite writer, but it took courage to tell her story, and I have a lot of respect for this book.
How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro
Beth Shapiro’s whimsical guide to the complicated and controversial science of de-extinction is probably my favorite of the books I reviewed this year. Still, I’m not fully convinced that bringing back anything that even slightly resembles a species that has been extinct for over 3,000 years is a good idea.
The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson
My full review is coming in January 2021, but The Feather Thief is an extraordinary story of natural history, a peculiar heist, and above all, the scientific value of museum collections.
Welcoming in 2021 (finally)
Next year, I’m committing to a more regular schedule of one review per month. To keep the theme of the blog alive, approximately 2/3 of the books I read and write about will be from my “backlog.” But, to stay up to date on newer science books, every third post or so, I’ll review a book that wasn’t already on my shelf.
In no particular order, some titles I’m looking forward to reading:
Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space by Lynn Sherr (backlog)
Darwin’s Ghosts by Rebecca Stott (backlog)
How to Tame a Fox and Build a Dog by Lee Alan Dugatkin & Lyudmila Trut (backlog)
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery (backlog)
Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller (new)
The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair (new)
Happy New Year! Look for my first post of 2021, covering Kirk W. Johnson’s The Feather Thief, this January.
Why this book?
I have never met or corresponded with Beth Shapiro, but I sure have heard a lot about her over the years. I could probably fill an entire post just on our tangential connections, but for the sake of everyone, I’ll keep it to one story:
On a snowy afternoon in early 2014, on my first ever overnight trip to New Jersey, I was sitting in Eno Hall for a day of interviews with professors in the Princeton Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department. During the sixth iteration of my spiel on my undergraduate research project, which involved extracting DNA from museum samples, I got a question that had not come up in my first five interviews: had I considered reaching out to Beth Shapiro for insights on the best extraction techniques for museum specimens? I had not. But, feeling the need to prove that I at least knew who she was, I commented instead on her move from Penn State to UC Santa Cruz at least two years earlier. The day after the interview, I wrote thank you notes to everyone I had spoken to and tried my darnedest to make them as specific as possible. In my note to interviewer number six, I kindly thanked him for the suggestion to contact Beth Shapiro. Two days later, I received the unofficial “you’re in” email from the department.
Who is to say that this sequence of events had any real impact on, well, anything. But I like to think that my obscure knowledge of where Beth Shapiro was employed before 2014 had positively impacted my graduate school application.
Despite all this, my loose professional connection to the author isn’t the primary reason I purchased this book. In my final year of graduate school, I started thinking about a new career in science publishing. Alison Kalett, the biology editor at Princeton University Press, was one of the first people I met for an informational interview about this crazy idea. Around the time we spoke in late 2018, I did a quick search for books she had worked on over the last few years, and that is how How to Clone a Mammoth ended up on my shelf.
Mindset going in:
I’m not going to deny that the prospect of bringing back the mammoth is “cool,” but my stance of de-extinction before I read this book was largely negative. That may be surprising, as my research investigated reintroduced populations of wolves following a period of total extinction in the wild for several years (red wolves) or extinction in a particular region for over six decades (Yellowstone wolves). While I stand behind these wolf reintroductions, reintroducing a species that has been completely extinct for over 3,000 years sounds so scientifically and politically challenging that it is hard to argue that the ecological benefits could be worthwhile. Nevertheless, I’m glad Shapiro took up the challenge and wrote this book.
How the book stacked up:
How to Clone a Mammoth is literally written as a “how-to” guide, with sequential chapters laying out the steps theoretically needed to resurrect an extinct species. As someone who works for a methods journal and spends her days reading technical protocols, I have a deep appreciation for this format, and it adds an extra element of fun- something that is missing from a lot of science books.
With a spirit of cautious optimism, most of the book is dedicated to outlining the challenges associated with de-extinction and carefully walking through the relevant science. Shapiro emphasizes early on that the title of the book is a misnomer- it is not actually possible to clone a mammoth. Cloning (much like the term “evolution”) has a precise scientific definition that hasn’t been properly communicated to most non-scientists. I blame the sci-fi industry. In a scientific context, “cloning” doesn’t just mean to make a copy of a living thing; it refers to one specific method of removing all the DNA from one cell and transferring it to another cell. Cloning a mammoth, in the true technical sense of the word, hinges on finding a mammoth cell with all the DNA still intact, which is highly unlikely given how DNA degrades.
Shapiro and her colleagues in de-extinction research are trying to achieve something distinct from bringing back a living, breathing mammoth. Their focus is on ecological restoration, not the restoration of a nominal species. Their best-case scenario is the genetic engineering and eventual reintroduction of an extra hairy elephant-like animal that isn’t technically a mammoth but fills a similar ecological niche. While not without substantial challenges, this goal is theoretically achievable with existing technology, namely CRISPR/Cas9.
CRISPR made headlines (again) this fall after the two scientists who led the initial effort behind the method, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel prize for chemistry. While it is undoubtedly superior to the previous genome engineering methods, that doesn’t mean CRISPR is “easy” to pull off. I knew plenty of people in grad school who were frustrated to no end while trying to get their CRISPR lines up and running, and Shapiro emphasizes this hard reality. In collaboration with George Church (the eccentric Harvard professor who recently vaccinated himself for COVID with an untested DIY shot), Shapiro and other de-extinctionists are actively working to make CRISPR more tractable for editing large segments of the genome. However, these efforts are still on-going and represent only one piece of a much larger story. Where the “mammoths” would eventually be reintroduced and how they would be regulated by the relevant governments remain open questions.
Shapiro ends the book with an FAQ on the common objections to reintroducing extinct species. While she did anticipate and thoroughly answer many of my questions, I can’t say that I’ve been definitively swayed towards supporting de-extinction efforts of this magnitude. I gained a much clearer understanding of de-extinction research, and I appreciated Shapiro’s emphasis on ecological role rather than any particular species identity. Still, I’m not fully convinced that the scientific and political hurdles needed for de-extinction could be cleared in my lifetime or even this century. I’d also like to know more about the hypothesized ecological benefits (and risks) of reintroducing long-extinct species, but I concede that deciphering complex ecological interactions wasn’t the point of the book.
In addition to those interested in biodiversity, I highly recommended this book for anyone interested in how genome editing works. Shapiro’s primer on CRISPR for a general audience is one of the best that I’ve read, and she certainly didn’t gloss over how challenging it actually is to make changes to the genome.
Why this book?
Hope Jahren's Lab Girl was a gift from my dad. I can't remember the year exactly, but it was long enough after it was published in April of 2016 to be 15% off at Barnes and Noble. I recently removed the sticker to make the book cover more photogenic. The glue is just visible in the upper right corner of the image shown here, alongside some of my favorite wine from Long Island.
How the book stacked up:
Based on the name she chose for her website, hopejahrensurecanwrite.com, Jahren has a certain confidence in her writing. While I can appreciate a bold domain purchase (see loser.com), I found her writing to be so excessively poetic that it sounded insincere. I eventually acclimated to the style, but the first few chapters were difficult to get through, and perhaps why I didn't get far the first time I picked up this book.
Stylistic differences aside, Jahren's memoir resonated with me in two notable ways. Jahren recalled her years as a student with such insight and accuracy that, as someone fresh off of the academic biology pipeline, it was therapeutic to read. My favorite line from the book was Jahren's take on what made her a good science student as an undergrad: "my inability to let things go, coupled with my tendency to overdo everything." The sentiment is dead on, and her take on grad school, particularly the transition from student (doing what you are told) to scientist (telling yourself what to do), was similarly accurate.
The next section of the book on Jahren's life as a junior professor also resonated with me, but in a different way. It reaffirmed that I didn't want that life. Jahren describes the struggle of first setting up a lab and the sheer amount of time she has to spend applying for grants- even stating that money is the number one thing scientist are worried about. She recounts not being able to pay her lab manager, Bill, a living wage, and taking a disastrous budget road trip to a conference across the country. Almost nothing about this part of Jahren's life sounded appealing, and even though it was the 90s, I don't believe much has changed for science funding.
Lab Girl isn't just a memoir. In nearly alternating chapters, plant biology is weaved into the story. Sometimes, the connection to Jahren's life is subtle, and other times more apparent, as when the chapter on plant reproduction preceded the birth of her son. While I enjoyed the plant chapters, I am struggling now to remember anything specific I learned. I can't hold this against Jahren; it is well established that people are better at remembering human stories than scientific knowledge. Though it was so odd that I might prefer to forget, I have no trouble recalling the story of Jahren and Bill stashing some of Bill's hair in a tree and periodically going to visit it.
Lab Girl is genuine, brave, and honest. Jahren speaks openly about her mental illness and the sexism that she experienced throughout her career. Although I didn't love the writing style, and some anecdotes were strange (i.e., Bill's hair), Lab Girl is an important book for anyone trying to understand life in academic biology, especially for a woman.
Jahren's second book, The Story of More, was released earlier this year and discusses climate change and human activity. I'd like to read it eventually, but it won't be jumping to the top of the queue just yet.
Rules need to be broken:
Technically, Angela Saini's Superior is not from my backlog of "too busy to read while in the throes of my Ph.D." titles. But, in the wake of George Floyd's murder in late May, concurrent with the harassment of birder Christian Cooper, and the numerous other grave injustices that have come to light, this book was too important not to break my arbitrary and self-imposed blogging guidelines.
I'm a geneticist. During my dissertation research, I spent some 5,000 hours considering how populations of coyotes and wolves can be defined by the genetic differences among them, and if any of these genetic differences have functional relevance, particularly for behavioral traits. Though the only time I worked on human genetics was when I accidentally sequenced my own mitochondrial DNA, it would be an understatement to say that this book hit me particularly hard when considering the widespread biases in research design and execution.
What is race science?
Superior contains no shortage of terrifying accounts of racial persecution, supposedly in the name science. However, it was not the most extreme cases- the Nazis, the slave trade- that truly scared me. Of course, there is no way to adequately state the horrors of the slave trade, the Nazis, or the eugenics movement more broadly. Still, in a more enlightened time, these actions are all recognized as racially motivated. Instead, it was Saini's recounts of well-intentioned scientists that sent my head into a tailspin, questioning if I have a firm grasp on what it means to be racist in science.
Take the Human Genome Diversity Project, a multi-university collaboration that began in 1991, riding the wave of enthusiasm for human genetics generated by the Human Genome Project one year earlier. The project's initial goals were to sample genetic material from several hundred small indigenous populations, to be interpreted alongside archeological and linguistic data. Ultimately, the results from the project were expected to paint a cohesive story of prehistoric human migrations.
When I first read this part of the book, I did not immediately recognize how the Human Genome Diversity Project could be considered race science. After all, while they obviously aren't humans, hadn't I done the same thing with coyotes dozens of times? Sample some coyotes from the north, some from the south, throw in a few from the east, run the data through a series of analyses to delimitate genetically similar groups, compare the results to natural history records, and now people call me "doctor." Well, my mom does, anyway.
I won't go into the various ethical considerations needed when researching humans versus other animals, but at first glance, the basic underlying principles of this project and my own research were unsettlingly similar. As I kept reading, Saini did outline the critical distinction. Before collecting any data, the scientists behind the Human Genome Diversity Project had already decided that specific indigenous populations were likely to carry genetic differences, despite a lack of evidence that these populations were even small and isolated. If the scientists behind the project truly wanted to understand human genetic diversity, the correct approach would have been to sample individuals from all over the globe, without any preconceived notions of results.
The Human Genome Diversity Project is just one example that happened to be close to my research field. Superior is full of similarly unsettling anecdotes from other fields, most notably biomedicine. Anyone with interest or experience in scientific research needs to read this book.
reading more about coyotes was entirely unappealing and I brushed off the suggestion. About a month ago, as the one-year anniversary of my Ph.D. defense was approaching and I was feeling nostalgic, I finally decided to pick up my copy of Coyote America and re-immerse myself in coyotes. Below, I focus on my impressions from the book, and I’ve tried to avoid discussing the aspects of coyote biology that I was already intimately familiar with from my research career.
How it stacked up:
My previous read, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, examines the many species that have been driven to extinction as a direct or indirect result of human activity. Dan Flores’ Coyote America deals with the exact opposite phenomenon: the unyielding persistence of a species that humans have repeatedly tried to kill off.
It’s challenging to overstate how hard humans really did try to exterminate coyotes; Flores devotes roughly a third of the book to describing the predator control efforts implemented by men armed with guns, strychnine, and overly inflated egos following the “successful” near-extinction of wolves through similar methods. I found it somewhat challenging to follow all the exact details of the legal history, the precise timeline, and the various agencies involved, but the point was clear: over the past few centuries, humans wanted coyotes to die, and instead, the exact opposite happened. Coyote population sizes grew, and their range expanded in all directions.
As is the case with most scientific observations, the persistence of coyotes in the face of aggressive management efforts aren’t the result of a single ecological factor, and several reasonable and non-mutually exclusive explanations were described in the book. Simply put, coyotes have weaker social bonds than their wolf cousins, and killing one coyote is far less likely to lead to the dissolution of an entire pack. In that sense, successful wolf-killing methods wouldn’t be expected to work as well for coyotes. Further, coyotes are also known to have a highly variable number of offspring, and when population density is low, they repopulate pretty efficiently with increased litter size. Combine that with a largely wolf-free landscape, and you get resilient coyotes on the move, expanding eastward to their final frontier of Long Island, New York, which also happens to be my homeland.
Despite these brutal control efforts, it is essential to note that human hatred of coyotes is not a universal phenomenon. It is from the Aztec word coyotl from which we actually derive the word coyote, and coyotes hold spiritual significance in many Native American cultures. Throughout the book, Flores steps away from the scientific descriptions and retells the stories of “Old Man Coyote,” an anthropomorphized deity whose escapades reveal the human condition. It is with these stories that Flores drives home the central metaphor of the book; as animals resilient to sweeping changes in their environments, coyotes are a lot like humans.
One downside to books is that the publication process is so long that certain conventions and observations will inevitably be outdated, especially in the sciences. Accounting for the fact that the book was published in 2017, there were still a handful of studies I was surprised not to see mentioned. For example, while the topic was covered, some of the more recent studies on coyote, red wolf, and eastern wolf genomics concerning a possible hybrid origin of the latter two groups, were not mentioned. I don’t mean this to be a knock at Flores’ research; the book was comprehensive and distilled complex scientific and political controversy to highly accessible and well-written prose. This is a broader comment on the reality of the book publishing industry for popular science, which is perhaps more obvious to someone who has done extensive research on coyotes over the last half-decade. And it’s also what I tell myself to explain why none of my work was cited in the book.
Why this book:
Elizabeth Kolbert has been on my radar since the fall of 2011 when her New Yorker article on Human/Neanderthal hybridization–a topic she returns to in the book at hand–was assigned for my college seminar on global change, the sort of hybrid biology and anthropology class you’d expect at any halfway respectable liberal arts school in the Northeast. At the time, I wouldn’t have classified the article as a profound moment in my career development. In hindsight, however, this was the first time I was introduced to the concept of admixture. This word would eventually become so integrated into my vocabulary that I’d forget it wasn’t “normal” to use it conversationally. I went on to study inter-species hybridization during my Ph.D., which at the genetic level leads to “admixed” offspring with genes from both parent species, precisely the phenomenon Kolbert describes in Neanderthals and humans.
The following year of my undergrad, Kolbert’s first book from 2006, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, was assigned for my science writing course, and my enthusiasm for Kolbert’s work faltered. I admit to having no specific memories of the book thinking back to spring 2013, but I recall being excited to read it, and then felt somewhat blah about it. The Sixth Extinction was published in 2014, won the Pulitzer in 2015, and has been sitting on my bookshelf since 2016. For a brief period, I even had two copies of it. I made one previous attempt to read it, but due to the ever-present “grad student burnout,” I didn’t get beyond the first chapter.
Mindset going in:
I have controversial opinions on wildlife conservation. Or, to phrase it more diplomatically, I enjoy spirited and intellectually challenging conversations with conservation biologists.
For example, in reference to controversies related to invasive species, I may ask how long a species must be established in a particular area before it can be considered native. Then, depending on the answer, I might ask if all species that have expanded their range (i.e., every species that’s ever existed) could be considered invasive at one point in their evolutionary history. Or, if humans are above this distinction even though our species evolved in Africa and expanded elsewhere. What the term “natural” even means. And so on.
To be clear, I am not at all anti-conservation. But I do believe that conservation approaches should be rooted in ecological and evolutionary principles rather than emotional connections to wildlife, which are all too easy to get caught up with.
How the book stacked up:
While I was genuinely interested in what Kolbert had to say about human-driven biodiversity declines, I was also concerned that the book might lean towards the emotional and call on the decline of charismatic megafauna to tug at the heartstrings of readers. This perception wasn’t entirely wrong. There is a chapter on Suci, the resident female Sumatran Rhino at the Cincinnati Zoo, and the unsuccessful attempts to get her pregnant through artificial insemination. Most of the book, however, dealt with plenty of less charismatic species, many of which I had not previously heard of. These species included those that are long-extinct (graptolites from the Ordovician), those recently departed (Great Auks from the 19th century), and those declining right before our eyes (Acropora corals of the Great Barrier reef).
Though deconstructing the argument is beyond the scope of this blog post, Kolbert does provide an answer to one of my go-to questions for conservation biologists: Why is the involvement of humans in the decline of other species fundamentally different from the other ecological interactions that may lead to biodiversity decline?
For Kolbert, it’s a two-part answer: speed and scope. To illustrate this point, Kolbert first calls on the example of the spread of the deadly chytrid fungus in frogs in Central America. Although humans didn’t directly cause the fungus (it evolved in the usual way), humans have spread it across the globe at an unprecedented rate as an indirect result of other activities. Kolbert argues that in a world without widespread and rapid human activities, deadly diseases would still inevitably evolve. The total global impact on biodiversity, however, would be less severe, as infections are far more likely to remain geographically restricted and spread at a much slower rate. This same sentiment is also echoed later in the book with the rapid spread of the similarly devastating white-nose syndrome in bats. It is then further extended to other examples of the indirect consequences of human activities, such as ocean acidification, over-hunting, and so on.
In summary, according to Kolbert, human-driven biodiversity decline is fundamentally different from other ecological forces because it occurs more quickly and over more extensive geographic areas. Species simply don’t have the opportunity to adapt to the changing conditions.
An inevitable reoccurring theme in popular science writing is that it’s tough to tell compelling science stories to general or even specialist audiences. I love science, and I still find myself occasionally bored by science writing (see above comment about Kolbert’s first book). The Sixth Extinction, however, was an impressive comeback. The one-species per chapter format helped to create a sense of novelty every 15 or so pages, and I never felt fatigued reading about the same thing for too long. While I’m not about to stop having spirited conversations with those who work directly in applied conservation, Kolbert’s eloquent perspective on the scale and scope of human-driven biodiversity decline was well-received.
Part writing exercise, part communication initiative, and part motivation for me to finally make some progress on the backlog of books I have on my shelf, I’ve decided to repurpose my research website as a popular science book blog.
Prior to beginning my Ph.D. in Fall 2014, I was a huge fan of popular science books. Partly inspired by a science writing course I took as an undergrad, and partly a natural extension of my interest in the life sciences, I read and analyzed popular science books with some frequency. When I began my Ph.D., however, I found it difficult to spend all day reading scientific papers and technical protocols, and then come home are read more about science. To be clear, I enjoyed my Ph.D. research immensely and was exceptionally lucky to have a fantastic advisor. I never spent more than an average 8 or 9-hour workday in the lab, and more often than not, was able to take weekends off. Still, a sense of scientific knowledge overload persisted, and all my non-fiction science books went unread.
For better or worse, my enthusiasm for buying popular science books never faded, only the brain energy to actually read them. This habit is not without physical consequences; I’ve moved four times since 2014, and books are pretty freaking heavy. It’s been exactly one year since I defended my dissertation, and as I’m once again about to pack up my apartment and move, I’ve decided my brain is ready for more scientific knowledge. That, and there’s a global pandemic preventing me from hanging out in bars in my free time.
Each post will be 500 words or under and cover my experiences with reading a non-fiction science-related book written for a general audience. As a starting point, these books will have been purchased before starting this blog, hence, the backlog. Comments, dank memes, and book recommendations are welcome.