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Science Books

November 9, 2006

Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human
Chip Walter (2006)
ISBN: 0802715273

We all know that having opposable thumbs is pretty darn good, but did you know that our pharynx, big toe, laughter, kissing and tears have also played a vital role in human evolutionary development? Science writer Chip Walter, I'm Working on That and Space Age, draws on a multitude of scientific disciplines to show how each specific trait contributed to an evolutionary split from the rest of the animal pack. It may not look like much, but our big toe was actually the pathway for the development of speech, as it allowed hominids to stand upright and eventually develop the pharynx. Progress is often marked by our tool-making ability and the technologies that this attribute brings, but other less recognized human traits have helped foster social environments in which these technologies can thrive. Self-image, social relationships and language have all equally dictated the form that societies take and the way that we behave within them. Walter discusses eloquently and at length about how and why we fall in love, have a particular physical form, worry about what others think, adopt deceptive behaviors, laugh, and crave affection. And while there may be behaviors that we share with the animal kingdom, many of our traits define us as a unique species. While other animals may cry for practical reasons, such as eye protection, humans are the only species known to cry while both happy and sad. Described by Ray Kurzweil as a "vivid" and "fascinating" account of how we came to be a "technology-creating species," Thumbs, Toes, and Tears is a must have for anyone interested in our humble beginnings and what evolution has in store for our species next.

The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter
Colin Tudge (2006)
ISBN: 1400050367

The human lifespan pales into insignificance when compared with the ancient majesty of some of the world's oldest trees. There are trees still standing today that predate the arrival of Columbus to the Americas, and that germinated around the time that writing was invented. But despite their age and beauty, how often do we ponder questions regarding why they grow so old and so tall, how they reproduce, why they exist at all, or how they manage to talk to one another? Ok, it's unlikely that anyone would consider the latter question, but biologist and BBC documentary maker Colin Tudge assures us that it's true. Tudge has been tending to trees ever since he was 11 years old, and has spent much of his life traveling the world examining them. The Tree is packed full of surprisingly fascinating tree factoids that will amaze and astound, such as the football field-sized banyan tree in Calcutta, or that a separate species of wasp exists for each of the 750 species of fig. As he foregrounds the beauty and wonder of trees, Tudge's passion is obvious. Rather than viewing the tree as a mere backdrop to other more animated natural features, Tudge frames the tree as an aesthetically pleasing and indispensable mainstay to Earth's diverse array of life. He tells stories of his trips to the Amazon where whole forests are submerged, allowing fish to feed on the fruit of the trees and enticing dolphins to playfully dart through the canopy. Tudge manages to proficiently blend his rich depictions of the magnificence of trees with his scientific knowledge. He explains how "memory" allows trees in high-wind areas to thicken their trunks and branches over time, or for pest-infested trees to become a smaller target the following year by growing smaller leaves. Described by The Times as "the best nature writing," The Tree superbly captures our innate affinity with trees, and surprises us with plenty of astonishing arboreal anecdotes.

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