Friday, September 4, 2009

Book Review: Why Evolution is True

Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne

Book description: What is evolution? What proof is there that it exists? Jerry Coyne answers those questions in a very accessible and interesting way. He explains exactly what evolution is (and isn't), and then provides specific examples of proof that evolution exists.

Eighty-three years have passed since Scopes v. State, also known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. John Scopes, a high school science teacher, was found guilty of teaching evolution. However, due to a technicality on appeal, he was never actually punished.

But surely we have moved beyond that, right? Coyne's book starts out with some personal reflections on Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District et al: a modern day Scopes monkey trial in which the Dover, PA school district board passed a resolution requiring biology teachers to read a short statement offering intelligent design as an alternative theory to evolution. Some outraged parents sued, and thankfully, the judge ruled in their favor. That case was in 2005.

In 2009, band members of Smith-Cotton High School (Sedalia, MO) were forced to return tee-shirts that were promoting their fall program because the shirts depicted the evolution of man. (The theme of the program was "Brass Evolution".)

Obviously, evolution is still a contentious issue. Creationism has been renamed "intelligent design" and is still being pushed to be offered as an "alternative" in parts of the country. In his book, Coyne does an admirable job in not only defending evolution but, by implication, exposing intelligent design's lack of foundation.

He begins by explaining that a scientific theory is much stronger and unimpeachable than laymen consider a theory. The "theory" of evolution is commonly accepted in the scientific community as scientific fact. There has been no evidence to contradict it, despite creationists assertions to the contrary (he also debunks a number of those in his book). And he points to evidence that not only did the planet and all plants and animals on it evolved, but that humans did as well.

I find evolution absolutely fascinating, and I am constantly amazed when I run into someone who turns a blind eye to all the evidence that it happened and that it's still happening today. I love learning how different species evolved in a community and formed relationships with other species (predator-prey, symbiotes, etc.), and within species.

Evolution has always been wrapped up in my head with the environment thanks to my college course "Ecology & Evolution" - but it does make sense. If you're learning about ecology, learning about how said ecology came about can be extremely enlightening in understanding why things are they way they are.

Just call me an evolution fangirl.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Book Review: Bird Flu

Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching by Michael Greger, M.D.

Book description: Dr. Michael Greger walks the reader through the history of avian flu and its implications for us today. The threat of avian flu can be directly linked to industrialized animal agriculture which weakens the animals' immune systems, and threatens our own health.

If you are not scared shitless at the thought of a pandemic flu, you're not paying attention. While the focus has shifted from avian to swine flu, the information in this book is no less relevant. Birds, pigs, and humans form a close-knit disease vector triangle. It is strongly suspected that the 1918 influenza epidemic was an avian flu that made the leap to humans through domesticated pigs.

Human domestication of animals has had enormous benefits throughout history. Unfortunately, it also has its downsides. As humans and the animals they domesticated lived together, their immune systems became intricately linked and disease transmission became easier. Viruses by their very nature can mutate very fast. Thankfully, the avian influenza virus has not developed the mutation necessary to cause human-to-human transmission.

However, I have heard a number of epidemiologists say it is only a matter of time.

Dr. Greger lays out how intensification of animal agriculture has exacerbated the threat. By moving towards confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), animals are placed in closed proximity to each other and have suppressed immune systems due to high stress levels and poor living conditions. He argues that when the flu pandemic comes, it will be due to Western agricultural methods. He makes a very convincing case -- even after I learned he works for PETA. But Bird Flu is meticulously researched and I've read other articles and books about influenza that back up what he says.

Just because he may have an axe to grind, that does not make Greger's thesis any less true.

But you be the judge. Read it for yourself -- the entire book, including endnotes, is available online for free.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Read an eBook Week

March 8-14, 2009 is Read an E-Book Week. There is something to be said for the feel of a physical book in your hands. I love the smell of books and that is, unfortunately, something that no ereader has been able to replicate. But I discovered the great world of ebooks years ago and found, interestingly enough, I like them.

I am the very satisfied owner of a Sony Reader which perpetually lives in my bag and at any one time holds 300+ short stories, novellas, novels, and non-fiction books. In my mind, the Reader has more than paid for itself by allowing me to start another book immediately after finishing one on my train ride to work.

Ebooks also have a much lower carbon footprint than a traditional dead-tree version. A paperback book uses energy to produce the raw materials needed to print the book (paper, ink, glue), and then the actual energy used to assemble the book. Then there is the energy used to transport the books to the store, the energy the consumer uses to drive to the store and back, and if the books are not sold, the energy to send them back to the publisher to be pulped. The necessary energy increases with a hardcover book. An ebook, however, saves the vast majority of all that. Yes, it uses electricity - you need it to read the darn thing! - but I can order it at home, download it, and start reading immediately. An ebook cuts out raw materials, production, and transportation.

Ebooks are still very much a niche market but a growing one. More publishers are experimenting with electronic books and many authors have used the medium to publicize themselves, sometimes giving away free copies of their books in electronic format.

Read and E-Book Week is a great way for readers to experiment with ebooks themselves. There are number of websites that have collections of ebooks available for public consumption free. The most famous of these is Project Gutenberg, which is a collection of public domain books. But if you aren't interested in classics, there are also ManyBooks and Feedbooks which house both public domain books and contemporary books published under a Creative Commons License.

While not everyone will be a convert, how will you know if you like ebooks or not if you never try?