Darwin Day

Today is Darwin’s 200th birthday and in November will be the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Today is Darwin Day, the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the man who revolutionized biology. 2009 is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work, On the Origin of Species. Thus there are events planned all through the year. Some fun reading is:

I have not actually read On the Origin of Species yet, but I plan to before November 24, which is its original publication date (in 1859).

Of course, everyone has heard of Darwin and his theory of natural selection. But it was only while doing some literature search for my graduate work that I actually read one of Darwin’s works. That is his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. I found it a fascinating read and my estimation of Darwin as a great scientist grew as a result.

You can read the book on Google Books or Project Gutenberg and see the images included on Wikimedia Commons.

An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore and the makers of the documentary do a great job in presenting the global warming issue. Highly recommended as it is about a very important issue of our times.

Finally, we watched the documentary An Inconvenient Truth on TV.

The documentary basically follows Al Gore as he gives a presentation on global warming. I was skeptical about the format as it intersperses Gore’s past (including his childhood and his election loss in 2000) with the lecture on global warming. However, it does humanize the presentation and is probably more effective than just presenting information on climate change by multiple people.

I would highly recommend everyone watch An Inconvenient Truth as it is done well and is about (probably) the most important issue of our times. I rate it 9/10.

If you are interested in information about global warming, I would suggest the list of links compiled by the Real Climate blog, or you could read the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Third Chimpanzee

This is a good, though somewhat dated, book about the rise of Homo Sapiens. While eminently readable and full of interesting information, I found the focus on nuclear or environmental holocaust to be a hindrance.

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond is an interesting book.

I found out about Jared Diamond when Captain Arrrgh lent me his Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies many moons ago. I loved that book. So I was expecting something great here too.

The Third Chimpanzee is about human history and how we developed the way we did. It talks about sexuality and sexual selection, language, art, agriculture, drugs, and conquest. In many ways it is a very similar book to Nick Wade’s Before the Dawn. In fact, I should have read The Third Chimpanzee first since it was written more than a dozen years ago.

The first half of the book is a good exposition of several human traits and accomplishments and efforts to trace their origin. However, late in the book, Jared Diamond turns pessimistic. As he says in the theme for the book:

How the human species changed, within a short time, from just another species of big mammal to a world conquerer; and how we acquired the capacity to reverse all that progress overnight.

This last part is what worries Diamond and what makes the book so pessimistic in tone as he discusses world conquest, genocide and the environment. His last chapter titled “The Second Cloud” is about what he terms the environmental holocaust and the epilogue is titled “Nothing Learned, and Everything Forgotten?”

While I share some of these concerns with Diamond, I am a technophile and somewhat of an optimist. Also, I think The Third Chimpanzee would have been a much better book without this focus on future catastrophes.

The First Human

The First Human is a good and readable book about the search for the oldest hominin fossils. It describes the science, the fieldwork as well as the disputes in the field of paleoanthropology.

The First Human by Anne Gibbons is about the search for the oldest hominid (or is it hominin?) fossils. It focuses on paleontology and the search for the earliest fossils close to the divergence of humans from the common ancestors of humans and chimpanzees. As such, it describes the fossils and our current understanding of them and does not deal with other related topics of human origin like genetics (more on that later in my review of Before the Dawn).

I was afraid the book might just be a catalog of facts: This fossil was found there by X on this date and so on. But it is much more interesting due to the way Anne Gibbons writes and organizes the facts. It also describes the disputes and the politics of the discipline of paleoanthropology and it seems like this is an acrimonious field.

John Hawks who makes a very brief appearance in the book also has a review on his weblog.