Saturday, April 19, 2014

Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion by Anne Somerset

Queen Anne: The Politics of PassionThe opening weeks of the year 1665 were particularly cold, and the sub-zero temperatures had discouraged the King of England, Charles II, from writing to his sister Henrietta in France.

"She ascended the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1702, at age thirty-seven, Britain’s last Stuart monarch, and five years later united two of her realms, England and Scotland, as a sovereign state, creating the Kingdom of Great Britain. She had a history of personal misfortune, overcoming ill health (she suffered from crippling arthritis; by the time she became Queen she was a virtual invalid) and living through seventeen miscarriages, stillbirths, and premature births in seventeen years. By the end of her comparatively short twelve-year reign, Britain had emerged as a great power; the succession of outstanding victories won by her general, John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, had humbled France and laid the foundations for Britain’s future naval and colonial supremacy. While the Queen’s military was performing dazzling exploits on the continent, her own attention—indeed her realm—rested on a more intimate conflict: the female friendship on which her happiness had for decades depended and which became for her a source of utter torment."

Despite having no interest in this period in history or in this particular monarch, once I cracked open this book I rather quickly found myself immersed in Anne's story (take that whichever way you choose). I received a copy from a Goodreads giveaway many month ago, and initially I was sorry that I didn't take a look at this engaging biography sooner.

That said, I never finished the book because I kept starting other ones that appealed to me more. It started to get bogged down, and probably because I wasn't interested in this particular monarch I felt like there were better things to be reading. It's not a bad biography though; a lot of the politics involved was quite interesting to read about, and parts of the book were downright suspenseful to a point. For anyone interested in British royalty in general this is a worthy book to add to your shelves. From the parts I read, Somerset is detailed and accurate, drawing from many primary sources.

640 pages.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts, Emily Anthes

Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New BeastsIn China, the world's manufacturing powerhouse, a new industry is taking shape: the mass production of mutant mice.

"For centuries, we’ve toyed with our creature companions, breeding dogs that herd and hunt, housecats that look like tigers, and teacup pigs that fit snugly in our handbags. But what happens when we take animal alteration a step further, engineering a cat that glows green under ultraviolet light or cloning the beloved family Labrador? Science has given us a whole new toolbox for tinkering with life. How are we using it? In Frankensteins Cat, the journalist Emily Anthes takes us from petri dish to pet store as she explores how biotechnology is shaping the future of our furry and feathered friends. As she ventures from bucolic barnyards to a “frozen zoo” where scientists are storing DNA from the planet’s most exotic creatures, she discovers how we can use cloning to protect endangered species, craft prosthetics to save injured animals, and employ genetic engineering to supply farms with disease-resistant livestock. Along the way, we meet some of the animals that are ushering in this astonishing age of enhancement, including sensor-wearing seals, cyborg beetles, a bionic bulldog, and the world’s first cloned cat. Through her encounters with scientists, conservationists, ethicists, and entrepreneurs, Anthes reveals that while some of our interventions may be trivial (behold: the GloFish), others could improve the lives of many species—including our own. So what does biotechnology really mean for the world’s wild things? And what do our brave new beasts tell us about ourselves?"

There were many fascinating aspects to this book; the subject is so, so interesting, and the book could have been an intriguing and absorbing look at various new techniques for altering and creating animals. Instead, I was annoyed by the author's writing and use of tacky language, as well as by her heavily, heavily biased slant (more on all of this later). 

What Anthes is writing about should be astonishing to anyone; the very idea that humans would be able to say control animals' movements through their brains is such a new one. This is just one of the many mindblowing technologies covered in Frankenstein's Cat, and I certainly enjoyed reading about them. For that alone, this book would get a good rating. But even though the author has a master's degree in science writing, she doesn't know how to write well. Her diction is simply cringe worthy, and I winced many times as I read the book. She uses words like "critters" and "pooches" and at one point talks about using eggs from "plain ol' tabbies". The only reason I finished the book was because what she was writing about interested me immensely. If I had been any less interested, I would have put it down after a few chapters. As it was, I learned a lot, but the experience wasn't exactly enjoyable. The mediocrity of the writing got harder and harder to ignore as the book progressed; perhaps that kind of folksy writing is to some people's taste, but it certainly isn't to mine, especially in a science book. That's not to say that science writing can't use humor to great effect, but this wasn't humor; I don't even know what it was. Perhaps Anthes speaks like this, or perhaps she was trying to interest readers. 

The author also churns out painful similes in another attempt to relate to readers. Or something. I don't even know. I also found at least a few portions of the book that seemed somewhat inaccurate to me; at the very least, these passages were vague and misleading. For example: "Consider the enormous variation among human beings, all the different traits possessed by the people in your family, or in your state, or in Mozambique, Sri Lanka, and Iceland." I'm probably just being nitpicky, but despite our physical differences in fact there's not actually a whole lot of genetic variation among humans due to the fact that we all originate from a small original band of Homo sapiens. I get the point she was trying to make (if a lot of individuals of a species are wiped out, there's less genetic variation), but the whole comparison just fell apart for me. Also, she goes on to imagine that only you and the people on your block survive a meteor hitting the earth. But in fact there might be comparatively large genetic diversity on your block (especially if you have the good fortune to live in a city like New York). 

And my last criticism: the author's heavy, heavy bias. Inevitably the author's opinion is always a part of a book, but in this case her constant cutting in to talk about her own opinions annoyed me. That actually happens in many science books (in fact many science books are written to persuade people of things), but with such complicated issues, scientific and ethical, at the heart of this book, I couldn't help wondering if there were negative aspects of bioengineering that Anthes was leaving out.

Something about the whole tone of the book set my teeth on edge. I don't understand the recognition it's received or how the serious science community (like Science magazine) can endorse this book. The topic's fascinating, and I suppose Anthes is pretty comprehensive, but the writing to me was atrocious. I wouldn't recommend this one at all unless you're a fan of corny language. It's a shame; the book could have been really intriguing and enjoyable.

181 pages. 

Rating: **

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, Rebecca Stott

Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of EvolutionJust before Christmas in 1859, only a month after he had finally published On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, Charles Darwin found himself disturbed, even haunted, by the thought of his intellectual predecessors. 

"Soon after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin received an unsettling letter that accused him of taking credit for a theory that had already been discovered by others. Realizing his error of omission, Darwin tried to trace all of the natural philosophers who had laid the groundwork for his theory, but he found that history had already forgotten many of them. Rebecca Stott goes in search of these ghosts, telling the epic story of the discovery of evolution and natural selection from Aristotle to the ninth-century Arab writer Al-Jahiz to Leonardo da Vinci to the brilliant naturalists of the Jardin des Plantes to Alfred Wallace and Erasmus Darwin, and finally to Charles Darwin himself. Evolution was not discovered single-handedly. It was an idea that was advanced over centuries by daring individuals across the globe who had the imagination to speculate on nature’s extraordinary ways—and the courage to articulate such speculations at a time when to do so was often considered heresy."

The idea behind this book is a fascinating and fairly original one; so often, many people who contributed to the creation of something great are forgotten, with only one person heralded as the genius. But through the centuries, there were many who flirted with many concepts related to evolution, even if they didn't come up with the theory of natural selection.

Although it took me quite a while to finish Darwin's Ghosts, I don't think it was because the book was uninteresting. It profiled many figures who I'd never heard of, like Jahiz and Abraham Trembley, as well as many who I had heard of but didn't know much about. The book also has a chapter on Lamarck and Cuvier, who are both quite well known for their contributions to evolutionary science (Cuvier more so than Lamarck, who tends to be ridiculed).

Some of the chapters captured my interest more than others, but nevertheless Stott writes engagingly of all of these historical figures. She provides some background information but mainly focuses on their work and on the attitudes of the period. I found the chapter on Trembley and his discovery of the polyp particularly fascinating; it's an organism that we now know as a protist, and at the time it challenged the distinctions between animals and plants, exhibiting some characteristics of each. Which as you can imagine caused a lot of religious tension.

Stott uses Darwin's compiling of a sketchy list of figures in order to begin her own; she reveals that Darwin himself was no great historian, and so wasn't entirely sure whether all of the people on his list actually contributed to evolutionary research. For instance, someone informed him that Aristotle wrote of species changing over time, but in fact that was the very thing Aristotle was deeply scornful of (in the passage in question he was actually quoting and criticizing someone else who believed in species change). Darwin, not knowing Greek, included Aristotle's name, and Stott begins with him. Aristotle did do a great deal of research on animals after all.

There's a large gap in terms of time period (from the 9th century to the 17th or 19th century), but somehow the narrative still flowed seamlessly over centuries and over continents. It's all woven together quite skillfully, and the book is also so atmospheric. There are lush, evocative descriptions of the historical settings, particularly in the sketch on Aristotle, and the general societal and scientific attitudes of each period are vividly conveyed. Stott also conveys the fascination of the research, and the various scientists' burning desire to get to the bottom of it.

Many of the chapters are short, but they are succinct and informative; however, within chapters the transitioning was sometimes a bit shaky. Although they're all tied together superbly, the conclusions of many of the chapters felt too much like a broad restatement of the chapter's topic. I was glad there was some sort of resummarizing, but all the same it felt like a bit too much.

Other than that, Darwin's Ghosts was an original and engaging book, blending science and history quite well (although I'd say there was more history). I would recommend it to those interested in evolutionary theory.

300 pages.