‘Many animals learn. Only humans teach’
scientists are working to save the northern white rhino, currently on the verge of extinction, by freezing its cells. It’s a beautifully written and perceptive book, that also poses sharp questions about environmental nostalgia and the true value of species.
In the meantime, the actual dinosaurs who live right now in our cities – commonly known as birds – are continuing to evolve. Some birds today sing at a higher pitch so they can hear one another over the roar of traffic; others have been seen teaching themselves new tricks to get into feeding boxes. Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution (Quercus, £20), by Dutch biologist Menno Schilthuizen, is a fascinating survey of how evolutionary change is happening in cities at previously unsuspected speeds. Urban lizards have stickier feet, and each London Underground line now has its own separate species of mosquito.
Ecosystems, the author emphasises, are always in flux, and we should recognise and value the new city ecosystems that are springing up everywhere. Indeed, his book is a challenge to standard conservation practices that attempt to turn back the clock and get rid of so-called “invasive species”. Nature has become irreversibly globalised, and – as Jeff Goldblum said in the original Jurassic Park film – life finds a way.
Sometimes, though, it could use a helping hand. Evolution has given us a highly sophisticated weapon to respond to threats – we call it the immune system. But could it be improved? One of the frontiers of medical science is now the research into how to supercharge the immune system to fight off cancer and other serious diseases.
This is the subject of Daniel M Davis’s superb The Beautiful
Cure: Harnessing Your Body’s Natural Defences (Bodley Head, £20). Davis deftly sketches the history of immune science and the surprising discoveries made by scientists who were initially ridiculed by their peers – the man who first named interferon, an anti-viral agent in the blood, was met with disbelief by colleagues who jokingly called it “misinterpreton”. Today, scientists are successfully tinkering with our natural immune response in the molecular equivalent of taking the brakes off, so that our hunter-killer cells launch war against tumours.
Cancer isn’t unique to humans, of course, and neither are a lot of other things we used to think made us special. In Adam Rutherford’s splendid The Book of Humans: The Story of How We Became Us (Weidenfeld, £18.99), we learn how giraffes enjoy homosexual assignations, how dolphins use sponges to protect their noses, and how birds of the raptor class have been observed picking up smouldering twigs from forest fires, flying away and dropping them to start new fires, at which point they swoop and gobble up the panicked mammals and lizards rushing away. So what really makes us human? “Many animals learn. Only humans teach.”
Unfortunately, being good at teaching – or, for that matter, surviving cancer – won’t help us if a large asteroid strikes the planet, like the one that killed off all the dinosaurs (except the birds) 65 million years ago. And the physicist Stephen Hawking, in his posthumously published little gem, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (John Murray, £14.99), reckons that either that, or global nuclear war, or environmental catastrophe are certain to make Earth uninhabitable for us within the next 1,000 years. Bit of a downer. To which the answer is a bit of an upper, in the shape of rockets taking us to colonise other planets.
Hawking also talks about: aliens (they probably exist but they haven’t noticed us yet, for which we should probably be thankful); God (he doesn’t think a deity explains anything); the origin of the entire universe (it’s complicated); and much else, in elegant and often funny prose. There is also a short preface by Eddie Redmayne, who played a young Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and here bravely vouchsafes the information that the first time he met Hawking he made small talk by observing that they shared a star sign. The great man responded by pointing out that astrology is not the same as astronomy.
If we are going to colonise Mars or other planets by rocket, we’re going to need rocket-builders. Luckily we already have a few swashbuckling souls intent on doing just that, and they are the subject of Christian Davenport’s The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos (PublicAffairs, £20). This was written before Musk’s rather picaresque behaviour this summer, when he was interviewed while smoking a massive blunt, to the consternation of some shareholders, and investigated for fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission after claiming he had the funding to take his electric-car company Tesla private. But in this book he still comes over as the most humorous, as well as the most competent, of the billionaire rocket-men.
The Space Barons combines cloak-and-dagger corporateespionage yarn-spinning and a lucid history of rocket technology, with daredevil stories about test pilots, and a number of very large explosions. It also suggests one answer to the de-extinction problem: if we’re going to bring back the dinosaurs, best do it on another planet altogether.
Each line on the London Underground has its own separate species of mosquito
Laika stamps from Animal (Phaidon, £39.95)