Tag Archives: books

How Dogs Won The World

Years ago I proposed a theory (not anywhere in print, just in seminars and talks) that went roughly like this. Humans hunt. Dogs hunt. Prey animals get hunted. Each species (or set of species) has a number of characteristics such as the ability to stalk, track, kill, run away, form herds, etc. Now imagine a landscape with humans, wolves, and game animals all carrying out these behaviors, facilitated with various physical traits. Then, go back to the drawing board and redesign the system.

The hunting abilities of humans and dogs, the tendency of game animals to herd up or take other actions to avoid predation, etc., if disassembled and reassembled with the same actors playing somewhat different roles, give you a sheep herder, a protecting breed of dogs (like the Great Pyrenees or other mastiff type breeds), a herding dog (like a border collie) and a bunch of sheep, cattle, or goats.

Even human hunting with dogs (not herding domesticated animals) involves a reorganization of tasks and abilities, all present in non-dog-owning human ancestors and wolves (dog ancestors), but where the game are, as far as we know, unchanged. Human hunters documented in the ethnographic record, all around the world, had or have dogs, and those dogs are essential for many hunting types. The Efe Pygmies, with whom I lived in the Congo for a time, use dogs in their group hunting, where they spook animals into view for killing by archers, or drive them into nets that slow the game down long enough to be killed. The Efe actually get a lot of their game by ambush hunting, where a solitary man waits in a tree for a game animal to visit a nearby food source. He shoots the animal from the tree with an arrow. But, even then, the dog plays a role, because the wounded animal runs away. The trick to successful ambush hunting is to do it fairly near camp so you can call for help when an animal is wounded. Someone sends out a dog, and the dog runs the animal to ground. And so forth.

Scientist and science writer Pat Shipman has proposed another important element that addresses a key question in human evolution. Neanderthals, who were pretty much human like we are in most respect, and our own subspecies (or species, of you like) coexisted, but the Neanderthals were probably better adapted to the cooler European and West Asian environment they lived in. But, humans outcompeted them, or at least, replaced them, in this region very quickly once they arrived. Shipman suggests that it was the emerging dog-human association, with humans domesticating wolves, that allowed this to work. Most remarkably, and either very insightfully or totally fancifully (depending on where the data eventually lead), Shipman suggests that is was the unique human ability to communicate with their gaze that allowed this to happen, or at least, facilitated the human-dog relationship to make it really work. We don’t know if Neanderthals had this ability or not, but humans do and are unique among primates. We have whites around our Irises, which allow others to see what we are looking at, looking for, and looking like. We can and do communicate quite effectively, and by the way generally viscerally and honestly, with our glance. This, Shipman proposes, could have been the key bit of glue (or lubricant?) that made the human-dog cooperation happen, or at least, rise to a remarkable level.

The Invaders: How humans and their dogs drove Neanderthals to extinction, by Pat Shipman, outlines this theory. But that is only part of this new book. Shipman also provides a totally up to date and extremely readable, and enjoyable, overview of Neanderthal and contemporary modern human evolution. Shipman incorporates the vast evidence from archaeology, physical anthropology, and genetics to do so, and her book may be the best current source for all of this.

This is a fantastic book, and I highly recommend it. Shipman also wrote “The Animal Connection,” “The Evolution of Racism,” “The Wisdom of the Bones: In Search of Human Origins,” and several other excellent books on human evolution and other topics. Shipman, prior to becoming mainly a science writer, pioneered work in the science of Taphonomy, developing methods for analyzing marks on bones recovered from archaeological and paleontologic sites, such as those marks that may have been left by early hominins using stone tools to butcher animals.

Seriously, go read The Invaders: How humans and their dogs drove Neanderthals to extinction.

Science, Social Activism, Sexual Minorities, and Galileo’s Middle Finger

I think most people who have read Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger feel at some point a bit annoyed at the title, and especially, at the way the book is marketed by the publisher. You could take Galileo and his finger entirely out of the book and you would still have the same book.

Alice Dreger’s book is about the relationship between social ethics, activism vis-a-vis science, and the science itself. It is about academic freedom and intellectual honesty, but again, not a history of as the reference to an old dead white guy in the title might suggest. Dreger’s book is not a history of science, nor is it pure philosophy, but rather, a set of case studies exposing how things go wrong at the intersection of science and social justice.

David Dobbs has written an insightful and thorough review of the book, in which he notes,

Dreger joined … in a decade-long effort to persuade doctors to let intersex infants grow up and sort things out for themselves.

This was her activist phase. Her ­anti-activist phase began when she ­decided to defend the research psychologist J. Michael Bailey, who created a firestorm with a 2003 book titled “The Man Who Would Be Queen.” The book, based on well-supported, peer-reviewed research by him and others, argued that some men want to change sex not simply because they are “born trapped in the wrong body,” as Dreger describes the common view, but because they were sexually aroused by the idea of themselves as women.

This notion enraged advocates who insisted that transsexuality came invariably from an unavoidable mind-body mismatch … These advocates sought not only to refute Bailey but to ruin him. When Dreger defended him, they targeted her too.

So, right there you can see that there are middle fingers, not Galileo’s in particular, at play.

Dreger also takes on a subject I’ve addressed as well, Napoleon Chagnon. This is a situation where well meaning activists who are pretty much on track with the ethics buy into a story that is largely fabricated and become themselves rather unethical.

Laura Miller also has a review here.

…in addition to being highly readable, “Galileo’s Middle Finger” has an important and seldom-voiced message. “Science and social justice require each other to be healthy,” Dreger writes, “and both are critically important to human freedom.” Yet, too often, from Dreger’s perspective, ideological or politically strategic needs take priority over the evidence. People, while trying to do good, find themselves deliberately ignoring or obscuring the truth.

This is a book most people will find a way to love and to hate. Most of those people will do so without reading it, of course. But I recommend it.

Guide to the Sharks of the World

I love field guides. One should own a lot of field guides, not just to things you might go out in the field to see and identified, but just to browse through.

David Ebert, Sarah Fowler and Marc Dando have produced A Pocket Guide to Sharks of the World It is put out by Princeton, which does excellent guides (this is part of their Pocket Guide series).

From the Princeton site, about the authors:

David A. Ebert is the program director for the Pacific Shark Research Center and a research faculty member at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. Sarah Fowler cofounded the UK Shark Trust and the European Elasmobranch Association. She has been a member of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group since 1992 and is currently vice-chair of international treaties. Marc Dando is a freelance artist specializing in marine ecology and wildlife.

Don’t go to sea without this book, just in case you come across a shark.

This is a standard Petrides/Peterson style guide, with plates showing various sharks, and associated ID text. The front matter includes guides to fins and teeth, some basic information on biology and reproduction, the usual overview of external anatomy so you know what the terms are (so you know what a caudal keel is, and such). There is an extensive guide to teeth. There is a species checklist, an excellent glossary, and a list of species. Here’s a PDF of the book’s Introduction.

There are 501 species of shark known today, and all of them are in the book.

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 6.29.10 PMOne of the coolest things about the book is how they show relative size. Sharks vary a great deal in size across the diverse species. To show the size of the sharks on a given page, the authors use an image of a human next to the shark.

There really aren’t any other field guides out there like this, as far as I know. In my experience, if you come across a shark in most waters, it is highly likely to be one of a small number of common species and you don’t really need a guide to determine what it is. You just need the old salt down on the pier to tell you. But beyond the first couple of common species, the next shark or two down the line in commonness may be any of a large number of sharks, and for that you need a guide.

Sadly, but out of necessity, the guide includes information on identifying sharks from the fragments that are cut off and sold by shark hunters and poachers.

Sharks are cool, and this is a cool book.

Please Don’t Paint Our Planet Pink!

Please Don’t Paint Our Planet Pink!: A Story for Children and their Adults” is a new children’s book by Gregg Kleiner about global warming. The idea is simple. Imagine if you could see CO2? In the book, it is imagined to be pink. The imagining takes the form of a quirky father, one imagines him to be an inventor of some sort, coming up with the idea of making goggles that would allow you to see CO2 as a pink gas. This is all described by the man’s patient but clearly all suffering son, who eventually dons the prototype goggles and sees for himself.

I read this to Huxley, age 5, and he loved it. He kept asking questions, and saying things like, “Is that true? Really?” I knew he would enjoy the book for its witty chatter and excellent illustrations, but frankly I did not expect him to be enthralled. He is fairly laid back when it comes to matters of science, nature, and for that matter, mathematics. He tends to absorb, then, later makes up song about it or comes up with difficult questions. His reaction was unique.

Bill McKibben’s reaction was pretty strong too. He is quoted as saying, “I’ve often wondered what would happen if CO2 were visible. Now I know!” … except he already knew. There would be pink everywhere. At the density of about 400ppm. More than the 350 value that gives his organization its name!

I had only one small problem with the book, and that is the description of what fossil fuels are. The majority of oil probably formed in aquatic, mainly marine, environments as the detritus of mostly small organisms and invertebrates, not dinosaurs and old trees like the book says. Coal is probably most plant matter, but boggy plants and detritus formed in low spots. And so on. Had I edited the book, I would have asked for a sentence or two to broaden the concept of where fossil fuels come from, and maybe a sentence or two to underscore the fact that the fossil fuels we use today were deposited in fits and starts of many tens of millions of years. The process of painting our planet pink over just several decades has released a huge percentage of that Carbon, mainly as CO2. It is like taking five years to fill up a glass of milk then spilling half of it on the sofa in one second. (A proper analogy for the targeted reading age for this great book.)

People often ask me for a recommendation on a book about climate change for kids. This book is great for that purpose. It fits a wide range of ages, but primarily little kids and elementary school. This is not an explainer on global warming, but rather, a great story that gives a sense of the importance of climate change without totally freaking out the audience. The illustrations by Laurel Thomson are excellent.

Of you want to do something about climate change, buy a few copies and give them to your local school’s library (they probably call it a media center) or your local preschool. And your kid, of course. Or to your annoying climate denying cousin’s kids. That would be good.

Gregg Kleiner also wrote Where River Turns to Sky.

Steampunk LEGO

You know Guy Himber’s work. He worked on special effects for Aien 3, Underworld, Independence Day, Edward Scissorhands, I, Robot, lots of other productions. And now, he is playing around with LEGO.

Steampunk Lego by Guy Himber is subtitled “The illustrated researches of various fantastical devices by Dr. Herbert Jabson, with epistles to the Crown, Her Majesty Queen Victoria; A travelogue in 11 chapters.” The book itself is all steampunky, in fact heavily steampunky, with brown colors, gears and wheels as background images, and victorian techno-objects decorating a faux photographic album motif. Meaning, Himber did not really write a travelogue in 11 chapters because, I assume, a true Victorian Travelogue would be mind numbingly boring. Everything is taped, glued, or in some cases, riveted onto the pages (no actual rivets were used in making this book).

Guy_Himber_Author_of_Steampunk_LegoIt may not be a Travelogue but it is very Travelish.

By my estimation about half the book involves depictions of things that travel. Lots of trains, boats, some bikes, Zeppelins, other lighter than air craft, other things that fly, and more. There are numerous robots, and a variety of other things. There is even a LEGO moon. All the contrivances are LEGO constructed and then photographed usually but not always using a victorian looking technology.

There is some background on what Steampunk is, which may be necessary for the LEGO-crazed who don’t happen to now much about this genre. Then there is background on the key players in the story, Sir Herbert Jobson and Lt. Penfold.

Then it is trains, monowheels, horseless carriages, automatons, weapons, a “cabinet of Curiosities”, boats, things that fly, clockwork animals, and floating islands. Then there is Space, the final frontier. I mean chapter. The final chapter.

The book is so visual, I think the best way to indicate its qualities is to show a number of spreads from within. With no particular introduction, these (click to see a larger version of the image):





This is a great coffee table present for the holidays. It is not a huge coffee table format, more like 10.5 by 8.5 inches, but somehow it looks bigger.

Pterosaurs by Mark Witton

Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy by Mark P. Witton is a coffee-table size book rich in detail and lavishly illustrated. Witton is a pterosaur expert at the School of Earh and Environmental Sciences at the University of Portsmouth. He is famous for his illustrations and his work in popular media such as the film “Walking With Dinosaurs 3D.”

The first pterosaur fossil was found in the late 18th century in the Jurassic Solnhofen Limestones, in Germany, the same excellent preservational environment that would later yield Archaeopteryx. They person who first studied it thought the elongated finger bones that we now know supported a wing served as a flipper in an amphibious creature. Not long after, the famous paleontologist George Cuvier recognized the winged nature of the beast. Witton notes that at the time, and through a good part of the 19th century, it was possible to believe that many of the odd fossils being unearthed were of species that still existed but were unknown to science. This is because most of the fossils were aquatic, and who knew what mysterious forms lurked beneath the sea? But a very large flying thing like this first pterosaur was very unlikely to still exist, unseen by European and American investigators. It had to be something major that was truly extinct. So in a way the history of extinction (the study of it, that is) was significantly shaped by this find. By the early 20th century there had been enough publication and study of pterosaurs to give them a place in paleontology, but not a lot else happened until the 1970s, when a combination of factors, including advanced technology that allowed more detailed and sophisticated study of fossils, led to much more intensive study of pterosaur anatomy and behavior.

Pterosaurs are part of the large taxonomic group that includes the lizards, dinosaurs, and birds, but they branched off within that group prior to the rise of the latter two. So, they are not dinosaurs, but cousins of dinosaurs. You can call them flying lizards, but not flying dinosaurs.

Witton explores this interesting history in some detail, and then proceeds to explore various aspects of pterosaur biology, starting with the skeleton, the soft parts (of which there is some direct but mostly indirect evidence), their flight, how they got around on the ground, and their reproductive biology. These explorations into pterosaurs in general is followed by several chapters devoted to the various groups, with a treatment of the evidence for each group, reconstructions of anatomy, locomotion in the air and on the ground, and ecology.

The resemblance of this layout to a detailed field guide for birds (or some other group) is enhanced by the use of color-coded bleeds at the top of each page, separating the book’s major sections or groups of chapters. The book ends with a consideration of the origins and endings of the “Pterosaur Empire.” It turns out that we don’t actually know why they went extinct. They lasted to the end of the Cretaceous, so going extinct along with their dinosaur cousins is a reasonable hypothesis, but they had already become somewhat rare by that time.

Pterosaurs are cool. Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy is a cool book.

Of related interest:

  • LOL Pterosaurs ….
  • Reconsidering the Reconstruction of the Pterosaur
  • Flying Dinosaurs: A New Book on the Dinosaur Bird Link
  • Giant Semiaquatic Predatory Dinosaur
  • Titanic Fearless Dinosaur Unearthed
  • Honey, I Shrunk The Dinosaurs …
  • The Age of Radiance

    The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era by Craig Nelson (author of Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon) is a well done history of the atomic age. If you are a bit squeamish (justifiably I’m sure) about the nuclear industry or nuclear stuff generally you’ll find Nelson’s dismissal of your concerns as the product of a public relations fail on the part of the nuclear industry to be patronizing and annoying, but there isn’t too much of that in the book, and he’s partly right; most fears people have about nuclear energy are not especially accurate, but then again, that applies to all fears all the time, it seems. Nuclear power does not have as much of a power to make people stupid as nuclear power advocates suggest. But I digress…

    …. this is a biography of an important age in our history, one that we are currently leaving but will still be with us for hundreds of thousands of years, seeping into the groundwater. It is a fascinating story. I mean, seriously, the whole idea of nuclear physics is fascinating. Everything we knew about everything prior to the discoveries related to the cracking of the atom have two important characteristics: 1) almost off of that applies perfectly to the world around us (basic chemistry and Newtonian physics) and 2) it is all wrong. The opening days of the nuclear age involved that remarkable discovery. There was research, radiation, x-rays, then bombs and power generation. The cold war, terrorism, accidents. Nelson’s book is, really, just full of interesting stories.

    Rare Birds of North America

    Rare Birds of North America is the only extensive treatment I’ve see of the so called “vagrant birds” in the US and Canada. Most, or at least many, traditional bird books have a section in the back for rare birds, occasionals or accidentals, which one might see now and then. But when you think about it, how can five or even a dozen species in a bird book really do justice to the problem of spotting birds that are normally not supposed to be spotted?

    I’m reminded of one South African bird guide that has a half dozen penguin species listed in it. There is only one species of penguin in South Africa but a handful of others have shown up, almost always as a corpse floating around with other junk on the beach somewhere. I suppose when we’re talking penguins, that counts.

    Anyway, Rare Birds of North America by Steve Howell, Ian Lewington and Will Russell includes 262 species illustrated across 275 plates, from the Old World, the New World Tropics, and the planet’s oceans. The first 44 pages or so are about rare birds, and the rest of the book is a morphologically-grouped compendium of the species. The species discussion run from page to page (unlike a typical modern guide). They include common name, binomial, basic size stats, then info on taxonomy, rarity, normal distribution, and as appropriate, subspecies Most of the plates have multiple illustrations showing various angles and flight vs. non-flight, sex-specirc, and other views. The illustrations are drawings and as far as I can tell are good quality. But since you never see these birds who the heck knows!?!?

    An appendix includes brand new rare species not covered in the book. A second appendix includes species that may or may not have occurred. A third appendix lists the “birds new to North America” by year. This appendix and various data presented at the beginning of the book are analyzed in the work, but seem ripe for further Science by Spreadsheet!

    This is a Hefty, thick-leaved, well made book (I reviewed the hardcover). Not a field guide but not a big coffee table book either. More like the bird-book-shelf and truck of the car style book.

    Steve N. G. Howell is research associate at PRBO Conservation Science and is affiliated with WINGS, an international bird tour company. Hew wrote Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America. Ian Lewington a bird illustrator famous for the high quality of his work. Will Russell is cofounder and managing director of WINGS.

    Sins of Our Fathers by Shawn Otto

    JW, protagonist, is a flawed hero. He is not exactly an anti-hero because he is not a bad guy, though one does become annoyed at where he places his values. As his character unfolds in the first several chapters of Shawn Otto’s novel, Sins of Our Fathers, we like him, we are worried about him, we wonder what he is thinking, we sit on the edge of our proverbial seats as he takes risk after risk and we are sitting thusly because we learn that he does not have a rational concept of risk. We learn that his inner confusion about life arises from two main sources: the dramatic difference between his temperament and upbringing on one hand and the life he ended up with on the other, and from unthinkable tragedy he has suffered. And so it goes as well with the other hero of the book, Johnny Eagle, who is a flawed, almost Byronic antagonist. Flawed because he is not the bad guy yet is an antagonist, Byronic because of his pride. There is also a troubled young man, a full blown antagonist we never come close to liking, and a horse.

    SinsOfOurFathersWhen I moved to Minnesota from the East, I quickly encountered “The Indian Problem.” Not my words; that is what people called it. Very rarely major news, but still always a problem, the concept includes the expected litany. Poverty, fights over spear fishing rights, casinos and fights over off-reservation gambling, and the usual racism. I lived near the “Urban Res” but was told never to call it that. Doing some historic archaeology in Minneapolis I came across a hostess, of the first hotel built in the city, who had written elaborate stories of Indian attacks in South Minneapolis, part of the Indian Problem, after which she and her hotel gave refuge to the victims. None of which ever actually happened. I read about trophy hunting by the farmers in the southern part of the state, who took body parts from the Native Americans executed as part of the Sioux Uprising, and heard rumors that some of those parts were still in shoe boxes in some people’s closets.

    Later I married into a family with a cabin up north. I remember passing Lake Hole-In-The-Day on the way up to the cabin, and wondering what that meant — was a “Hole in the day” like a nap, or break, one takes on a hot lazy afternoon? And the cabin was an hour or so drive past that lake. Many months later, I did some research and discovered two amazing facts. First, Hole-In-The-Day was the name of two major Ojibway Chiefs, father and son, both of whom were major players in the pre-state and early-state histories of the region, of stature and importance equalling or exceeding any of the white guys, like Snelling, Cass, Ramsey, after which counties, cities, roads, and other things had been named. But no one seemed to know Hole-In-The-Day. It was just a lake with a funny sounding name like most of the other lakes. The other thing I learned was downright shocking: The cabin to which we have driven many summer weekends is actually on an Indian reservation, as is the nearby town with the grocery store, ice cream shop, and Internet. On the reservation, yes, but not near any actual Indians. So, I could tell you that I spend many weeks every summer on an Indian Reservation up north, and it would not be a lie. Except the part about it being a lie.

    Otto’s book pits the white, established and powerful, Twin Cities based banking industry against an incipient Native bank and the rest of the reservation. The story is a page turner, but I don’t want to say how so, because I don’t want to spoil any of it for you. I am not a page-turner kind of guy. I am a professional writer, so therefore I’m a professional reader. I can put a book down at any point no matter what is happening in order to shift gears to some other task awaiting my attention. But I certainly turned the pages in Sins of Our Fathers. The most positive comment one can make about a piece of writing is probably “this made me want more.” That happens at the end of every chapter in Otto’s novel.

    But just as important as Sins of Our Fathers being a very very good book, which it is, it also addresses the Indian Problem. It does not matter if you are in, of, or familiar with Minnesota. The theme is American, and I use that word in reference to geography and not nationality, through and through. Everybody has an Indian Problem, especially Indians. Tension, distrust, solace and inspiration in modernized tradition, internal and external, are real life themes and Otto addresses them fairly, clearly, and engagingly. “Fathers” is plural for a reason, a reason you can guess.

    It is important that you know that Sins of our Fathers is not Minnesota Genre though it is set here; it is not Native American Relations and Culture Genre though that is in the book. It is action, mystery, adventure, white knuckle, engaging, well-paced, and extremely well written. There are aspects of this writing that recommend this book as an exemplar in plot development, character construction, dialog and inner dialog, narrative distance, and descriptive technique.

    Sins of Our Fathers is Shawn Otto’s first novel (but not his first book); it is due out in November but available for pre-order.

    Shawn Otto is the founder of Science Debate. He is a science communicator and advocate. He is also a film maker, and among other things wrote the screenplay for the award winning movie “House of Sand and Fog.”

    Evolution Book For Young Children: Grandmother Fish

    In a previous life (of mine) my father-in-law, an evolutionary biologist, kept an oil painting of a fish on the wall of the living room. At every chance he would point out, to visitors or to anyone else if there were no visitors, that he kept a portrait of his distant ancestor hanging in a prominent location, pointing to the oil painting. It was funny even the third or fourth time. It isn’t really true, of course, that this was his ancestor. It was a bass, more recently evolved to its present form than humans, I suspect. But it is true that the last common ancestor of humans and fish was a lot more like a fish than like a human.

    I know it is hard to find good books about evolution for kids, and it is even harder to find a book for really young kids. A book needs to be written for the audience, engaging, entertaining, and all that — it needs to be a good book — before it can also teach something. A book that teaches but sucks as a book doesn’t really teach much.

    Recently, Jonathan Tweet of Seattle Washington sent me a draft of a book he was working on that is such a thing, a good book that teaches about evolution and targeted to young kids. He had sent the book around to a number of experts for two reasons. First, he wanted to make sure he wasn’t saying anything wrong vis-a-vis evolution. Second, he wanted to make sure he got his facts straight at another level so he could provide useful and accurate footnotes for the adults who might read the book for the kids. I had a comment or two, but really, he already had his ducks in a row and the book, with the notes, was in good shape. It had evolved, as a project, very nicely.

    The book is: Grandmother Fish: a child’s first book of evolution. From his blurb:

    Grandmother Fish is the first book to teach evolution to preschoolers. While listening to the story, the child mimics the motions and sounds of our ancestors, such as wiggling like a fish or hooting like an ape. Like magic, evolution becomes fun, accessible, and personal. Grandmother Fish will be a full-size (10 x 8), full-color, 32-page, hardback book full of appealing animal illustrations, perfect for your bookshelf. US publishers consider evolution to be too “hot” a topic for children, but with your help we can make this book happen ourselves.

    Jonathan made a kick-starter to raise 12,000 to produce the book. He’s already reached that goal and is now edging towards the stretch goal of $20K.

    You can visit the kickstarter site HERE. You can download an early draft of the book. Personally, I plan to make this a Christmas gift for several friends and relatives who have kids the right age, assuming it is available by then. You can also see a several videos by the author and illustrator.

    You can go to the Kickstarter site now and invest in any one of several different products that will be sent to you.

    You may know of Tweet’s other work on Dungeons & Dragons and similar projects.

    I recommend the book, strongly. Thank you for writing it, Jonathan.

    Sugar: A Bittersweet History by Elizabeth Abbott (Review)

    Somebody tipped over a bag full of a white powdery substance. Most of what fell out splayed across the dirty wooden table, but about a cup poured onto the dirt floor of the open-air Baraza at our research site in a remote part of the Congo’s Ituri Forest. Embarrassed about tipping onto the ground more of this valuable substance than most people living within 50 kilometers would ever see in one day, the tipper started to push loose dirt onto the powder to cover it up. But the spill had been noticed by two children lounging nearby; in what seemed like a fraction of a second, the boys were face down on the ground licking up the spilled material, taking with it mouthfuls of dirt and who knows what parasites and other kooties. It was a sudden and short lived fiasco and a scene etched hard into my mind. To this day, decades later, when I think of this I breathe a sigh of relief that it was not me who tipped over the bag of white sugar.

    These kids and everyone else in the Baraza that day were very familiar with sugarcane. Everyone grew at least a little. Sugarcane was to the Ituri Forest villagers what Hastas is to urban gardeners in the US. Everyone grew at least a little where it would fit and not get trampled or take up extra gardening space for real food.

    The sugarcane was eaten raw. You would use a machete to cut a off a long section of the giant grass plant, and carry it around. With your teeth or with the help of a knife you would slice open a section of the cane and chew on it, sucking out the sweet water inside. When the sugarcane was ripe, the pathways and, really, any open surface would be littered with spent wadges. But still, not much sugarcane is grown in the Congo compared to other crops then or now. Sugarcane, originally from the Pacific and India, was, however, grown for centuries in large quantities where it was transplanted in the New World. You probably know of it as one of the vertices of the Triangle Trade (sugarcane = rum). But there is still a connection to these kids, the two who scarfed up the dirt and sand and sugar spilled on the baraza floor.

    No sense sugar-coating it. The story of sugar is the story of slavery. The Congo was probably not the biggest source of slaves for the Caribbean and South America. The eastern Congo, especially, was on the Indian Ocean slave route. But generally speaking, West and Central Africa supplied millions of people, captured, owned and sold, to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Over the centuries since its introduction to West Asia and Europe, and by extension, the New World, sugar grew in importance from a rarity to a common element in the diet, often carrying with it symbolic importance as an indicator of class or by its use in food art. Sugar is distilled and concentrated solar energy that preserves well and is easily transported. The production and distribution of sugar is one of a handful, maybe the most important of engines for the rise of Immanuel Wallerstein’s global system (that I almost did my PhD on by the way).

    You’ve got to love it when a molecule changes history. Primates (and a few other groups of animals) lost their ability to synthesize and use ascorbic acid because fruit producing plants had evolved to have their seeds dispersed in exchange for Vitamin C rich pulp. Therefore, the British Mercantile System. Similarly, C12H22O11, one of a class of molecules used by plants to store energy (and sometimes entice monkeys or ants to do their bidding) drove the most momentous of historical changes and its production, in one form or another, makes up an inordinate percentage of the effort expended to feed our species.

    Nobody really questions the importance of sugar, but how aware is the average person of the details of its sweet success? More so than before for those who have read Elizabeth Abbott’s “Sugar: A Bittersweet History.” Before you go check and yell at me for not restricting my writing to things that happened during the last five minutes, I’ll admit that the book came out in 2010 and I’ve only just now noticed it. I was focusing on other things, I promise. But I am pretty sure that no major revisions of history of the last thousand years or so have been made that would make this engaging book out of date or less relevant.

    We all like to consume knowledge, but if you also like knowledge of what you consume you should read this book. It will make you feel bad, and likely awed, but also, a lot smarter, hopefully enough to offset the shame.

    One of the most important things that ever happened in history is really a category of things and took a few centuries. This was the transplantation of crops and to a lesser extent horticultural technologies across the globe beginning with the Portuguese and extending at a quickened pace with all the major colonial ventures. This is probably more pervasive than you think. The lifeways and culture of the Yanomamö were greatly transformed, in my opinion, buy the introduction of south and southeast Asian (and possibly African) crops, mainly the plantain. The earliest records suggest that the Yanomamö were foragers, but all the later ethnography shows them as horticulturalists. The difference between “typical” equatorial foragers and the Yanomamö may well be the inclusion in their economy and society of a key crop that is also a highly vulnerable resource. Vulnerability of one’s resource base can shape one’s attitude at the socio-cultural level. What crops are mainly grown in swidden fields in Africa? South American ones. There would have been no Irish potato famine had there been no potatoes. They come from the Andes. And as mentioned sugar/rum was one of the vertices of the Triangular Trade and along with a few other crops (like Cotton) formed the agricultural structure of the slave-based economy that made up the largest single capital component of the rise of the United State’s economy. If the modern US economy is the fat bank account, slavery was the first big deposit in that account and New World Slavery happened because of this small number of transported crops.

    By the twentieth century, sugarcane had circled the globe, traveling north and west from New Guinea then back again to the Pacific, and its legacies mark its global passage even where it is no longer grown… In the Caribbean, where King Sugar is now expiring as a major industry … and where most former colonies have become independent, political and commercial unions remain skewed along historical lines. Sugar culture is at the root of why Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians and Guyanese are mired in political enmity, why Hawaii and Fiji endure perpetual conflict between their Native and their Asian populations and why the official currency fo Mauritius, off the coast of Africa, is the rupee and its population is primarily Indian…

    It is a good book. Overlook Publishers, available for the Kindle. I am probably going to work this into this week’s lecture in Intro to Archaeology.

    The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines

    51c9ZYOtkvL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_You probably already know about Michael Mann’s book, “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.”

    The ongoing assault on climate science in the United States has never been more aggressive, more blatant, or more widely publicized than in the case of the Hockey Stick graph — a clear and compelling visual presentation of scientific data, put together by MichaelE. Mann and his colleagues, demonstrating that global temperatures have risen in conjunction with the increase in industrialization and the use of fossil fuels. Here was an easy-to-understand graph that, in a glance, posed a threat to major corporate energy interests and those who do their political bidding. The stakes were simply too high to ignore the Hockey Stick — and so began a relentless attack on a body of science and on the investigators whose work formed its scientific basis.

    The Hockey Stick achieved prominence in a 2001 UN report on climate change and quickly became a central icon in the “climate wars.” The real issue has never been the graph’s data but rather its implied threat to those who oppose governmental regulation and other restraints to protect the environment and planet. Mann, lead author of the original paper in which the Hockey Stick first appeared, shares the story of the science and politics behind this controversy. He reveals key figures in the oil and energy industries and the media frontgroups who do their bidding in sometimes slick, sometimes bare-knuckled ways. Mann concludes with the real story of the 2009 “Climategate” scandal, in which climate scientists’ emails were hacked. This is essential reading for all who care about our planet’s health and our own well-being.

    The book is now available in paper back, and as a reader of Greg Laden’s blog I’m happy to give you a way to get it at 30% off.

    Just go to the Columbia University Press site for the book and use the promotional code HOCMAN. It is an important book, if you don’t have it, go get it!

    The Best Raptor Book Ever – The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors

    The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors is just now coming out. I was able to spend a little time with it a few weeks ago, though my official copy has not arrived yet. But Princeton (the publisher) is organizing a major blog hoopla over the publication of this new book, and I’ve signed on to participate. Starting yesterday a number of bird-related blogs are producing posts related to this book. My post comes out next Tuesday and it will consist of a quiz, a bird quiz. Anyone who gets the quiz right will be eligible for random selection, and whoever gets randomly selected will be hooked up with Princeton who will give you something nice.

    I’ll review the book officially next Tuesday, in the same post as the bird quiz. Meanwhile, you may want to look at these posts that have already come out. I’ll up date this list as I get more information.

    The Natural and Unnatural Histories of the Chicken

    I liked Chickens: Their Natural and Unnatural Histories by Janet Lembke even if it is annoyingly unscholarly in places where it should be (assertions of fact are frequently made with zero or poor referencing). As far as I can tell, the writing is accurate in its coverage of all things Chicken. Chickens in science, chickens in stories, chickens in the back yard, chickens in history, chickens in evolution, chickens in art, chickens in mythology, chickens in medicine, chickens in Medieval times, chickens in Renaissance times, chickens all the way down.

    If you are a chicken person you should have this book. If you are The Chickenman, you should be happy with some roadkillicon.

    This is not a manual for how to own and operate a chicken, but if you do happen to own and operate chickens you’ll find the literature and tradition exposed here enriching.

    Lembke is a skillful writer and has quite a few books of non fiction, as well as translations of classic literature, behind her. I was hoping she would some day soon write a book about swine. The modern-classic overlap, interesting origin stories, and role in many areas of art and life of chicken is paralleled by, perhaps eclipsed by, the not very humble pig. Just sayin’

    Finally, in case you were wondering about the origin of the chicken, click here.