Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Tag: evolution

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Subtitled The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, this book swiftly became a classic as rumour of its excellence spread. I really enjoyed it, for insight, for originality and for its science.

Each of eight chapters deals with an aspect of the topics in question, beginning with the tree of life and Darwinian evolution. Octopuses are cephalopods, evolving alongside molluscs and splitting from the vertebrate group six hundred million years ago, i.e. before the Cambrian Explosion. This in itself is a fundamental part of the author’s argument, in that cephalopods seem to have evolved intelligence in a completely different way to vertebrates, an origin sourced in the enigmatic Ediacaran biota. Next up comes a chapter on the evolution of nervous systems and remembered experience, before what in my view is the most significant and interesting chapter, dealing with sensation and perception, and the rise of internal experience. I sense a debt to the work of Nicholas Humphrey here, not least from his book Seeing Red.

Subsequent chapters deal with colour changes on cephalopod skin, and the difference between too much “bandwidth” with not much to say (octopi) and not enough with too much to say (baboons) – an intriguing distinction I’ve not seen before. The remaining chapters deal with experience and language, inner monologue, the relationship between lifespan and metabolism, and finally a look at an octopi heartland, Octopolis off the Australian coast, which the author knows well.

All in all, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking read, which I much enjoyed, and which complements the more recent Metazoa rather well. Both these works are significant additions to our understanding of the evolution of animal minds.

Otherlands by Thomas Halliday

Touted as the best-written journey back into the evolutionary past of life for some time, this is indeed a superbly evocative trip into the mists of time. It’s the debut book of a new author, the young biologist Thomas Halliday: the start of a promising career, hopefully.

The book is split into sixteen sections, each of them a vivid description of a particular environment at a particular time, beginning with the Pleistocene a mere 20,000 years ago and concluding with the Ediacaran, 555 million years ago. Halliday focuses on the animals and plants of the time, but includes much by way of geology and environment too, each section with a theme. This structure makes for a fascinating read.

The writing is deliberately poetic, and in the main it works, with very few slip-ups owing to excess purple. This dedication to lyrical prose isn’t forced however, and overall the tone is superb.

I particularly liked the Eocene, Chixulub and end-Permian sections, also the last three or four, where all the action turns to the seas and life becomes increasingly strange. The last section in particular evokes a seascape part way between animal life and other almost-animal lifeforms very well.

Overall, a very good book indeed, deserving of the praise placed upon it. Great cover too!

The Tangled Tree by David Quammen

This is a really good book. I’m partial to histories of pre-Cambrian life on Earth, and this is one of the best I’ve read. The author is not only an experienced science writer, he has wit and wisdom, and a way with words too.

The book is split into seven sections, covering early, Darwinian notions of a tree of life, ideas about bacteria and other tiny organisms, ideas of biological symbiosis, a new, more accurate form of the tree, horizontal gene transfer, changing the lower section of the tree into a more accurate (but far more complex) network, and how what we know today affects human beings.

A few major characters stalk this marvellously written book, the main one being Carl Woese, responsible for the discovery of how different Archaea are from Bacteria. A difficult, complex man, except to those friends who liked him and stood by him, he is the heart of this book, though some of his ideas turned out to be wrong. But he did get a lot right. Another major character is Lynn Margulis, who put forward the accepted theory of mitochondria and chloroplasts being captured bacteria. Many other notables inhabit these pages, all sympathetically drawn.

The science is fascinating, the story is compelling and the details of personality and other quirks not intrusive. Too often (I’m looking at you, Adam Rutherford), writers over-do the human interest angle or, like Suzanne Simard, get it half right. Quammen’s notes on character are all perfectly judged and occur at just the right rate. These are really interesting people, and we do need to know a little about them. It’s a tribute to this author that he knows how to get that balance right.

You do need a bit of biological knowledge to get the full effect – the section on antibiotic resistance is pretty dense – but this is certainly a book for the lay reader. Highly recommended.