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Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada)

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The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution
The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution
by Sean B. Carroll
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.28

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Building from basics, 15 Jan. 2009
It's a sad commentary that any introductory book on biology published in the US must devote pages and ink to refuting the rants of "anti-Darwinists" in that nation. Richard Dawkins ["The Selfish Gene"] holds a chair at promoting "Public Understanding of Science" at Oxford. Carroll, whose role as a professor of genetics provides firm underpinning, is establishing himself in a similar niche in the US. This book is an example of how well he can fulfill that undertaking. In his previous work "Endless Forms Most Beautiful", Carroll described some of the manifestations of the genome's activities. In this book he delves more into today's operations within the genome and how those were derived from the distant past.

The author's selection of examples to explain DNA's role in life may seem bizarre at first glance: "icefish" carrying "anti-freeze" in their bodies, what humble pigeons tell us about life, and what human skin colour really means. Each of his examples carries an historical record of how they came to be that way. Evolution, he reminds us, builds upon what went before. Once a trait, no matter how "primitive", is established, mutation may improve its possibility of success down the generations. "Primitive", by the way, is a term Carroll shuns, since those traits that survive are clearly best suited for that organism in that time and place. It's important to understand that, since a good many health issues relying on genetic research must be considered in the light of environmental conditions. Infectious organisms change to cope with treatment and medicines must be developed to cope with their adaptations. This is the record of life, with the earliest genes bifurcating to form new traits with the passage of time and new conditions.

Carroll's chapters address a number of life's little quirks. There's a discussion of how populations shift and divide when conditions change [stickleback fish], an account of the discovery and significance of "thermophilic" microbes found in Yellowstone Park hot springs, and how Soviet politics dabbled in science to virtually destroy agriculture in the communist empire. Every chapter contributes to learning how genetics works and why some understanding of the processes involved is important. For this reviewer, however, the author's presentation of the historical beginnings and development of eyes remains the most fascinating. Although Darwin was greatly disturbed that he couldn't conceive how eyes could have evolved, modern research has determined the process. In Carroll's hands, the mechanism producing eyes is clearly revealed and almost exquisitely explained. He shows how light perception across various species provides clues to past ocular structures. Once you have read this section, you will never be able to consider "the" eye [which is too often presumed to be human] in the same way again.

The book's close, which Carroll clearly feels necessary, is somewhat depressing. Evolution shouldn't need defending - it's clearly how life works. The author has the good sense to apply practical logic in itsdefence, using the issues of over-hunting and -fishing to show how humans indifferent or hostile to the concept of life changing over time are driving evolution themselves. He deems the result of that indifference "Unnatural Selection" since it is driving down the size and adaptability of more than one species. There are plausible arguments for starting this book with the final chapter. No matter where started, however, this is a book to be read. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 2, 2011 2:30 PM GMT

The Folklore of Discworld
The Folklore of Discworld
by Jacqueline Simpson
Edition: Hardcover

42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nineteen versions??, 20 Oct. 2008
Folklore, ancient or modern, is one of the major foundation stones of the Discworld books. Human nature being another, one assumes. Discworld folklore is a trivia test among Discworld fans who will slyly ask one another [generally over a pint], if they can identify the origins of a certain figure or idea. With some slight discrepancies between UK and North American versions, such exchanges can become, well, spirited. "Elves or elfs?" is always good for starting an evening.

Pratchett and Simpson sort all this out - and much else besides - in this delightful work on matters folklorish. Typically, the prompt for the book was Pratchett chanting as he signed a previous release: "How many versions of the Magpie Song do you know?" A distinguished-looking lady gave the query a moment's thought and responded "about nineteen" Thus began the wonderful collaboration leading to FoD. It's typical also of the theme of the book. Discworld and Roundworld [Earth] are linked by the universal presence of narrativium, which Dimitri Mendeleev inexplicably omitted from the Periodic Table. Pratchett knows all about narrativium, carefully explaining how it drifts between universes, carrying ideas or stimulating new ones. Folklore on the Discworld compared to that of Earth may demonstrate strong similarities, or just vague likenesses that have been severely modified. The process is unhelpful, the authors note, in determining which world is the source of the story, which is sometimes a let-down.

The book's organisation is appropriate for what it must cover - it begins with the entire universe. From there it works its way through Dwarfs and Elves, giving us an interesting account of how the Elves, feared and despised on Discworld for their dark and evil ways, have somehow become transformed in modern times into charming little creatures who make toys for children. Drifting through space, narrativium must form some bizarre isotopes. The two witch types - those from Lancre and the Witches of the Chalk Downs are described. The Nac Mac Feegle are given a full chapter, which might be viewed as insufficient as you read it. Granny Aching truly deserves a book of her own. The chapter on Heroes is extensive, justifiably, when you discover the variety of Heroes Pratchett has introduced to us. Finally, almost as icing on a delicious cake, the authors provide a "Bibliography and Suggestions for Further Reading". Plan your book budget carefully.

For those in North America who think this book might be too limited in scope to be worth the investment, think carefully of your own family ancestry. While much of the material is limited to the British Isles, no small part is derived from the rest of Europe and elsewhere. Those tales and legends your ancestors took on board ship to cross the Atlantic didn't go over the rail with breakfast at the first roll of the vessels on the high seas. Those stories survived to take root here and sprout new versions of themselves in the new environment. Go through this book and see if you can't find a few you recognise. Besides the bloody elves and the obese bloke with the demented laugh. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]

Prehistory: The Making Of The Human Mind
Prehistory: The Making Of The Human Mind
by Professor Lord Colin Renfrew
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

52 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Building a new mind, 13 Oct. 2008
Combining a long career in the field with a fine narrative style, Renfrew provides a succinct summary of human origins. In a brief overview, the author manages to trace the beginnings of humanity in Africa and how we learned to follow its track across the planet. Well formulated for the reader new to the various research tools that have helped this process, it's also an excellent reference for those conversant with the basics to enlarge their view.

Relying on a global perspective, his account stretches from African beginnings through Asia and Europe and to Mesoamerica. His expansive view allows him to address the question of "how we came to be" with deep insight. "Prehistory", he reminds us, is a term difficult to define. We're accustomed, he says, to view anything prior to written records - even clay ones - as prehistory. That leads to an over-focussed view of areas like Mesopotamia and Egypt. Renfrew opens the book by demonstrating how that approach should be modified. There are other forms of records and other conclusions to be drawn by understanding them. Renfrew stresses that there are few global patterns to rely on and each region must be considered through the available evidence. Among the many ways of doing this, he pays special attention to radiometric dating, a technique he helped foster in the UK. Another significant method, following shortly after the introduction to isotopic analysis is that of reading DNA. Together, these two analytical techniques overturned many previously held misconceptions.

The explanation on what constitutes prehistory and the rise of analytical technology requires less than a third of the book. The remainder is dedicated to a discussion of what makes humanity special in the animal kingdom. One thing our species excelled at is change - adapting to it or creating it. Even before H. sapiens, early hominids were scattering across the face of the planet at a faster rate than any other. He notes the unexpected find of occupation by H. habilis in Dmanisi [Georgia] 1.7 million years ago. From such beginnings, Renfrew sees human development as a two-phase system: the "Speciation", or biological phase, followed by the "Tectonic", or constructive period leading to arts and social and economic hierarchies. The combination of the two phases is summarised under what he calls "The Sapient Paradox": how did so many drastic cultural changes come about without a similar change in the genotype? Studying how these changes emerged and drove innovative social structures is termed "cognitive archaeology" - the archaeology of the mind.

The changes were there, they just weren't immediately visible. Mostly, they were in the brain which was adapting to the needs of a species more intensely cultural than before. None of the other primate species produced the social changes Homo sapiens did. "Sedentism", the foundation of human communities became increasingly common even before agriculture and pastoralism restricted human mobility, Renfrew argues. From that shift, humans created hierarchical social systems, mediums of exchange and longer and more extensive trading networks. Not all of these changes seem logical or meaningful in an evolutionary context. What possible adaptive trait did the accumulation of a material like gold represent? Particularly at a time when communities were just being formed? The shift to sedentism had strong, long-lasting influences, most visible in today's life. Renfrew has exposed those roots well, and the result is well worth your time to view and reflect on. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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Cerebrum 2007: Emerging Ideas in Brain Science
Cerebrum 2007: Emerging Ideas in Brain Science
by Cynthia A. Read
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughts for the day, 12 Oct. 2008
The way cognitive studies are going, this book's subtitle: "Emerging Ideas in Brain Science" suggest it should be published on a continuous roll of paper. New ideas in neurosciences seem to be occurring on a monthly, if not a weekly basis. This noteworthy collection is indicative of the challenge readers face in the effort to maintain the pace set by research in this field. These sixteen timely and well-presented essays cover more than just the mechanics of the brain. There are some serious social issues to be considered relating to the brain's capabilities and limitations.

Editor Cynthia Read provides us with a collection of new considerations in what we would normally deem "brain science". These include an article delving into a basic of brain operations - the neurotransmitter dopamine and the basal ganglia. Those who expound on human "free will" have two opportunities to review the topic. One is a debate by Mark Hallett and Paul McHugh which raises once again the issue of "personal responsibility" and how we make even political decisions. Those seeking clinical studies related to these issues should peruse Michael Frank's article closely, as he explains how the "pleasure transmitter" can influence our behaviour - particularly the forming of habits and blockages to establishing new ones.

Another chemical messenger, glutamate, is described as "the major signalling chemical in nature". An amino acid, it is both highly useful and highly destructive if released in dangerous amounts after a brain injury as explained by Vivian Teichberg and Luba Vikhanski. Therapies for this condition are being studied through a new class of drugs known as "biologics". Their discovery and applications are explained by a trio of authors who note how these new drugs can block invaders at entry rather than treating the results. The brain is vulnerable to internal threats, as well, as Scott Edwards reveals. A form of erratic protein in the brain, prions, are difficult to deal with as they possess their own defence mechanism in changing shape. Since most medicines dealing with similar diseases have shapes to latch on to or destroy such threats, the prion's ability to shield receptors makes treatment a challenge. One which is still being defined.

The social issues dealing with new brain research are many and varied. The lead article in this series, by Kayt Sukel and Russell Epstein, explains how cognitive science and architecture can work together to provide assistance to Alzheimer's patients. David Drachman raises another, little considered, issue concerning Alzheimer's sufferers - when does the effect of a mental disability disallow such a victim their right to vote? Many US States have vague regulations on this matter, but there is neither uniformity nor recent brain research underpinning those statutes. Fabien Mackay examines the role of stress and how it affects brain chemistry.

This book is a fine collection of well-written and timely articles. The brain is only lately receiving the kind of consideration due its importance. This book raises many questions worthy of any reader's attention and interests. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]

Lord Beaverbrook (Extraordinary Canadians)
Lord Beaverbrook (Extraordinary Canadians)
by David Adams Richards
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.09

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Little Giant, 10 Oct. 2008
He wasn't physically large, but his physical presence was never in question. His horizons were endless, but he had the drive and ambition to strive to reach them all. Max Aitken's story reads like a modern fairy tale, but the people and circumstances are real. From a Newcastle, New Brunswick childhood, during which his ability to maneuver people for his own ends was manifested early on, Max rose to become a Peer of the Realm, much to the distress of several of the other peers. At the same time he had become the most influential newspaperman in the world. All this before the age of forty!

David Adams Richards was the ideal choice to portray Max. As a novelist, his approach to Aitken's life bears an intimacy few historians possess. A native of Beaverbrook's home town, he has a fine writer's touch for bringing Max Aitken to life. The author's style is well-tuned to the personality of his subject. Aitken's career seems to have left him little time for reflection, there was always something else to accomplish.

Aitken's drive for success emerged early - he started a newspaper at 13. After a short term as an office boy in a law office, he moved to Halifax, where he came under the tutelage of John Stairs, who taught him financial matters. A somewhat shady business affair led him to leave Canada for Britain. There, he moved upward with amazing speed to earn a Knighthood in 1911. The outbreak of WWI prompted the Canadian government to put him in charge of an archive of Canadian activities in the conflict. Not a record-keeper, Max used the role to promote Canada's role in the war. Before the Armistice was signed, Max Aitken had become Lord Beaverbrook - title taken from the region near his home.

In the interwar years Aitken had his foot in two, related realms. Intelligence and propaganda were closely related in those days. But his other interest lay with the newspaper business, and his takeover of the 'Express" papers rejuvenated the chain. Among other causes it promoted was Free Trade among the members of the British Empire. As a Canadian, Max had suffered a good many snubs and sneers for being a "Colonial", but his wish for equal status really was based on economic issues. The culmination of all these activities, of course, was the appointment of newspaper baron Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, to being in charge of aircraft production shortly after the breakout of WWII. How incongruous - a publisher doing manufacturing? On reflection, the answer is dead easy. Aircraft production requires organisation and management skills. Max Aitken had demonstrated such abilities from an early age. This is a little giant of a book about a little giant of a man. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]

The Atheist's Bible: An Illustrious Collection of Irreverent Thoughts
The Atheist's Bible: An Illustrious Collection of Irreverent Thoughts
by Joan Konner
Edition: Hardcover

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Assembling the dissenters, 4 Oct. 2008
Producing books on "a-theism" have become something of a cottage industry. There are scholars such as Atran, Boyer and Lewis-Williams examining how humans deal with the spiritual realm. General science has finally entered the fray by demonstrating the lack of evidence for gods with Richard Dawkins' recent book. And philosophers have at last conceded religion is a proper topic for research investigation. Nearly all these works are by individual writers and an anthology of those works is now overdue.

This little tome offers readers a different tack, both in approach and style. On the bookstore shelf, the first thing one notices is the lack of an editor's credit. Fitting, as it's in line with the example set by its predecessor. There is no opening essay to explain or justify the publication of the book. A short disclaimer notes that some citations are from works of fiction and that authors don't always use fabricated characters as a mouthpiece for their own views. This, of course, immediately raises the question of out of context quotes. Each citation must, therefore, be considered on its face value.

The citations, which are derived from a broad chronology of human expressions, are arranged in "Books of" with a particular topic or individual as the focus. Some, such as "Genesis", bear little resemblance to the original model. Neither whipping up a universe, staffing it with an "Original Couple", and human submission to divine wrath appears. Instead, the issue of whether that scenario, or the idea that humans create their own gods should prevail is the central theme.

Other Books are more tightly focussed. One is given over to examining the role given women by the original combined with declarations of women over the years concerning that role. Several Books are lists of quotes by particular authors, notably Ambrose Beirce, Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll - leading commentators on the topic. Konner has thoroughly combed the literature to glean a fine harvest of material for this book. Its slim size must not deceive the potential reader into thinking there's little of convincing value here. Quite the reverse. Anyone wondering why there is such a thing as "a-theism" should consider taking this up - a treasure of answers will bring Enlightenment [p. 16]. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 24, 2013 3:09 PM GMT

Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (Indigenous Americas)
Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (Indigenous Americas)
by Thomas King
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Who are we?, 25 Sept. 2008
The simple truth about stories is that they impart who we are. Whether telling tales or reading/listening to what others have to say. King suggests that not only do stories explain us to ourselves and others, there are often deeper implications - sometimes dangerous ones. In this series of essays derived from the CBC's Massey Lecture series, this talented novelist and social commentator brings a fresh view to telling stories - a Native American outlook. This compelling overview is long overdue, and King manages to cover a great deal of territory in six essays. The questions he raises are a combination of long-standing viewpoints along with modern shifts of emphasis.

King starts by contrasting two mythologies - one probably wholly unknown to you and one familiar. The first is the story of the Woman Who Fell From the Sky. Tumbling from the depths of space, "Charm" [for such is her name] arrives on a world completely covered in water. After several attempts, Charm convinces Otter to bring mud from the sea bottom so that there may be land for creatures to walk on. Not all wanted to be on the new land, so the animals divided the world into water creatures and land creatures with the birds able to cope with both. Thus the world was founded on a spirit of cooperation.

The other myth is called "Genesis", the Judeo-Christian version of similar events, but with a very different frame of reference. The humans are restricted by One Rule - break it and you will die. The Rule is broken, of course, and King is at pains to avoid pointing the finger of guilt. The point of this comparison is that the Judeo-Christian myth contains the absolute condition of the One Rule, and the vengeful deity that imposed it. Charm would never have laid down such a stricture and King suggests that the Genesis story need not have done so either. Native American spirits have little need for such single-mindedness, as he explains in the following lectures. Why does Judeo-Christianity need it?

King intertwines a number of personal accounts with his Aboriginal stories, and these are hardly intrusive in the narrative. He follows his mother's attempts to gain employment equity in an industry she's well-qualified to excel in. Looking for some adventure, he travels to New Zealand taking up various roles - one of which lasts but a day. Throughout his journeys, his origins become a question of increasing importance. In the European ["white"] world, the image of "the Indian" is in a constant state of flux. Ignorant on the one hand, but devious and cunning on the other. The Indian as Entertainer takes up much of one essay, and you are made aware that you likely hold that view without being aware of it. When the white world finally realised that neither extermination nor assimilation was going to define the fate of Aboriginal people, forms of "protection" were introduced in both the US and Canada. The "protection" must rest on defining just what an Indian is, and the long-term impact of the legislation is closely examined by King in the lecture "What is it about us that you don't like?" and that title proves symptomatic. The Indians don't know and the whites haven't even asked the question. It must be asked and clearly answered.

King concludes the series with an essay on "Private stories". While those might seem out of place here, the author shows how small, personal tales have long-reaching implications. A "private story" almost certainly carries elements that have meaning to each of us. He concludes each story by asking whether you think your life might have followed a different path if you'd only heard this story earlier. "You've heard it now" he says, throwing down the gauntlet to challenge the reader to consider what changes in your life to make now. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 7, 2009 2:46 PM GMT

After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals (Life of the Past)
After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals (Life of the Past)
by Donald R. Prothero
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £28.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unleashing a great diversity, 23 Sept. 2008
For life on the land, it was simply a resetting of the clock. A great rock arrived on Earth to precipitate - or complete - a massive extinction. Successfully dominating the planet for over 120 million years, the hordes of saurians were expunged. The sea-side plains and woodlands they had inhabited were now empty. Not entirely devoid of life, however, for sharp-eyed creatures who had been around as long as those dinosaurs peered out from hiding places, observing the emptiness. They quickly began to occupy it for themselves. In so doing, they founded an immense diversity of lineages, one of which ultimately led to ourselves.

Donald Prothero, who has contributed much to our knowledge of fossils, the scientific process and mammalian evolution, offers here a work of great scope. Tracking the changes in life over 65 million years is no small task, and he copes with the challenge well. In this work, he lists the forms of mammal life, some of the sea life along the shore and in the deep, and the environment shifts in general. Those environment shifts were great prompts to changes in life and he explains as much as is known about what caused the Earth to warm from the end of the Cretaceous through the Eocene when temperatures went into decline.

Although North America receives what seems an inordinate amount of attention, that is due to geophysical conditions here through the Cenozoic and to the rich fossil trove it has produced. That doesn't prevent the author from addressing the rest of the planet, which he does in extensive detail. The interaction of life between Europe, Asia and North America is nearly continuous during the period. Africa remained close, but detached, as was the case with South America for many millennia. Australia was increasingly isolated over time, while India was making a mad dash to link with Asia. All these geologic shifts had major repercussions on climate, as well as plant and animal life. It is those great interactions which form the underlying theme of this book. Climate change institutes other change, much of it severe and long-lasting. Prothero's message is clear, if subtly presented: human induced climate change is already underway, and we'd best prepare to learn to cope with the changes that will follow.

As with all Prothero's books, this one is richly illustrated. It presents informative photographs of working digs and museum specimens, artwork of skeletal reconstructions filled in with flesh and fur. There are explanatory diagrams showing the relationships of various fossil species and the significant changes occurring over time. There are some jarring images, such as the sabre-toothed cats, who at first glance seem unlikely to survive with the extended dentition they carried about. Yet, they persisted successfully for nearly two million years. Huge, flightless predatory birds inhabited South America instead of the sabre-toothed cats. Prothero's diagram [p. 225] of these creatures' size compared with a human, should give anybody watching a passing robin a bit of pause. Today those creatures are docile seed or insect eaters, but not long ago they would have been pleased to feast on you.

Finally, of course, Prothero must bring in the most ecologically successful species of them all. The hominids and their many precursor species in Africa. Throughout this segment, he explains how climate was a prompt for many of our accomplishments as a new species. He puts the rise of proto-humans in context with events and conditions over the rest of the planet. The Ice Ages is given detailed attention with what is known of the Neanderthal subspecies living through the early stages. In all this is an excellent book for anybody who cares to learn the background of our lineage and that of our mammalian cousins. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]

No Title Available

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A queen's accession, 13 Sept. 2008
Over time, legends and their icons tend to grow, enhanced by successive elaborations. One of Canada's best-known icons is the fishing schooner "Bluenose". Known by some as "the boat on the dime", many Canadians have lost sight of just what made her worth putting there. Something about racing, racing against the Yanks and winning, right? Partly correct, but the whole story involves more than beating lesser boats and crews. The Bluenose was the apex of a long-running industry of fine ship-building challenged by the rising power of motor-driven vessels. In this excellent recounting of the Bluenost legend, de Villiers applies his fine journalistic skills to survey the context of the industry in a rapidly-shifting environment.

Framing his narrative in a roughly chronological order, de Villiers opens with the final race. Bluenose had been specially conceived from a challenge to hold races between fishing schooners crewed by fishermen. In fact, the contenders, even in new boats, had to engage in at least one fishing season to qualify for entry. Prompted by the cancellation of a yacht race due to "excessive winds", William Dennis of the Halifax Herald scorned the Yanks of New England for scrubbing a race due to weather that was ideal operating conditions for Atlantic fishers. The challenge was taken up and the North Atlantic Fishermen's International Competition was formed. Dennis' challenge wasn't the first suggestion for such an event, but the timing was fortuitous. The search for contenders caught up fisher Angus Walters, already in the process of building a new schooner.

Angus' long career as skipper of the Bluenose rightly dominates this tale. Among other things, he posed a late design suggestion to William Roue revising the form of the bow. It proved an immensely successful change. A significant trait of a fishing schooner is its ability to "sail close-hauled" - as near to heading into the wind as you can. The effect is to tilt the schooner until one rail [and no little deck area!] remains under water during a given tack. Bluenose excelled at close-hauled sailing, as many of her competitors learned to their chagrin. With a master like Angus Walters, who sailed with every stitch of canvas possible, Bluenose romped past its competitors with deceptive ease. The author might have skimmed over the details of the races for brevity's sake. Instead, he presents the action with animation, turning fine points into gripping accounts. Each race, and the later career of The Queen of the Atlantic are depicted with precision laced with sensitivity and pathos.

For de Villiers, the true tragedy isn't the loss of the Bluenose in the post-War Caribbean. It's the fact that this grand sailer was built in the era of industrialisation and early globalisation. Gasoline and diesel-powered boats were already at sea when the Bluenose's keel was laid. They were erratic and unsafe, and could land too many fish. Schoonermen protested their introduction with exactly the same complaints heard years later. Engine-driven boats weren't fast, but they were constant, and did the same job with smaller crews. Bluenose thus was not merely the most attractive and fastest schooner in the Western Atlantic, she was also the symbol of a fading excellence of design. Schooners have gone extinct like the great lizards - due to conditions beyond their control. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 23, 2009 1:51 PM BST

Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA
Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA
by Daniel J. Fairbanks
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.99

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reclaiming the reluctant, 2 Sept. 2008
The focus of resistance to Charles Darwin's "dangerous idea" was, and remains, the place of the human species. Even in Darwin's time, most educated people could perceive how natural selection solved many of the issues of life Nature posed. Humans, however, were excluded from the process in the minds of some. The thought of humanity emerging from the African continent millions of years ago stuck in the craw of those who wanted our species to be something special. That reluctance to accept the human heritage is shown to be false by this fine volume. Daniel Fairbanks offers us an excellent overview of how humans came to be. In doing so, he utilises the firmest and most secure tool in science's kit. If similar physiology and the fossil record wasn't sufficient, genetic research has proven beyond doubt that our heritage rests on the primate lineages beginning in Africa thirty million years ago.

Early genetic studies demonstrated that the genome of chimpanzees and humans were strikingly similar. More recent work has examined those similarities in greater detail. The evidence shows how specific areas in the human and chimp genomes are often duplicated exactly. Fairbanks, after noting how DNA's structure has some deceptive tricks up its molecular sleeve, explains how these have been used to trace the links between apes and humans. There are "transposons", segments of DNA that "Cut and Paste" themselves to new locations. We have many of these, but they seem to have settled down to become analytical tools. There are pseudogenes, retroelements, introns and other characteristics which add to the researcher's analytical tool kit in making studies across species. Just one example, locating pseudogenes, has permitted mapping of the divergence of orang utans, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans. Many more such examples abound in this book.

He explains how our cells contain DNA segments "independent" from the main DNA molecule in the cell's nucleus. The little energy-providing mitochondria are the result of bacteria invading ancient cells and taking up residence. These supplied the larger cell with energy while the host provided shelter to these miniscule entities. Further, he shows how the Y chromosome, which determines if the human embryo will be male, has its own "markers" to trace changes. From this, he begins to match up the human and ape genomes in building his explanation of our roots. One of the more unexpected finds was the merging of two ancient ape chromosomes into one in humans. Apes have 24 chromosomes to humans 23. Fairbanks explains how we know the fusion took place by pinpointing the loci indicating it.

Perhaps the most gripping chapter of this book is "A Spectacular Confirmation". This segment resulted from the mapping of the full Chimpanzee Genome in a manner similar to the Human Genome Project. An excellent diagram portrays the two genomes together, with the similar and differing areas clearly mapped out. One of the first things the reader will note are the little arrows showing how some human and Chimp chromosomes are reversed relative to each other. He goes on to explain how natural selection can bring such inversions about and what, if any, impact they have.

Lest all this appear to be an overwhelming academic treatise, have no fear. Fairbanks' intention is to bring this information to the widest possible audience. He does so with an almost conversational style. That clarity is enhanced by the fine illustrations accompanying the text. Only rarely is he forced to recapitulate the eye-warping string of As, Ts, Cs and Gs making up your DNA. In so doing, however, he points to the significant segment and explains its importance. That wide audience, of course, includes the element of the population still resisting the idea of natural selection and how it works. In "When Faith and Reason Clash", Fairbanks demonstrates how the US "creationist" element is misguided in claiming that evolution by natural selection and their god cannot co-exist. He shows how misconception and sometimes outright chicanery have combined to mislead the US population into continuing to buy into the Biblical "creation" account at one level or another. It's interesting in this regard that while he addresses mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome, he fails to point out the "first couple" of the creationist Bible would have lived eighty thousand years apart according to that research. Given the title of this book and the audience he addresses, this might be considered a major oversight. In all, this is a highly informative book, free of polemical thrusts or deep philosophical concept. It's straight science, well presented and should end one part of the struggle over our roots. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]

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