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Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel

I’ve never really thought much about the banana. I was terrified of them as a child, suspecting that there were deadly poisonous spiders concealed within each bunch. I’ve gotten a little older now, and occasionally enjoy them, but they’ve not really ever been on my mind until I read Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World that tells the reader all about its past, its present, and its future.

Dan Koeppel, the author of Banana, has a wonderful sense of humor throughout the book. He actually goes to visit banana plantations and other notable locations, such as Leuven, Belgium, the seat of banana research. I found his levity delightful; I like microhistories, but not those that take themselves so seriously as to squish the fun out of their topics.

The first thing Koeppel does that I think is great is explore how bananas most likely spread throughout the tropics. He makes the important point that plants, unlike us animals with our easily (in comparison) bones, plants are made of materials that don’t fossilize well. The path of the banana is a guessing game, one that has better odds now that there is genetic testing, but it’s still not perfect.

The majority of Banana, though, is spent discussing the more recent history of the fruit. I found it most interesting that United Fruit Company (what became Chiquita) allowed its competitors to survive only to avoid anti-trust lawsuits. The businesspeople behind the companies were something else — I think it’s incredible how ruthless the leaders of fruit packing companies were. You think fruit and you think happy, but that’s not often the case.

Koeppel talks extensively about the conditions on the ground in Central America. Workers were treated as if they weren’t human, but animals; when they tried to stand up for themselves, the fruit companies got the local (or American) governments to squelch the rebellions. The banana literally helped shape the way government functions today in Central America. How sad it is that it’s often a brutal and militaristic regime that’s in power.

Even more interesting is the disease that killed the banana type most eaten before the 1940s — the gros michel. It was not immune to Panama disease, but the Cavendish was. Thus, we now eat the Cavendish … but it’s not immune to all forms of Panama disease, only those found in Central America. The thought is that the banana will eventually die out like the gros michel, and it’s up to us to find another variety, create another variety (which is difficult with an asexual organism), or find a way to beat Panama disease.

Koeppel presents the banana in both a fun and a serious way, interspersing humor with gravity well. I think anyone who likes microhistory will enjoy Banana.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

Having read Cod, I was expecting Four Fish to follow in Mark Kurlansky’s tradition of the microhistory. Sure, maybe this one talks about four fish, I thought, but it’ll still be really meticulous, detailed, and contain almost more information than you’d ever want to know about the topic. Paul Greenberg surprised me by being both focused and able to bring me the big picture in a wonderfully cohesive and intelligent way. He doesn’t write his books like Kurlansky, but he doesn’t have to. He’s capable of producing something that’s just as subtly informative in his own way.

Since the book is called Four Fish, let’s take them one by one. The first is salmon. Greenberg discusses the drop in wild salmon populations, colored by a trip to Alaska to see a fishing operation that runs by the graces of the government. He also talks about the farmed salmon industry, which is where I got my first exposure to the amount of energy it takes to produce a pound of fish. Some fish are not very efficient at using the resources available to them, and quite a few of those are the first ones we’ve picked for domestication.

Greenberg next exposes us to sea bass, another fish people are trying to domesticate. He talks about the guidelines Francis Galton put forth for domestication (hardiness, an inborn liking for man, comfort-loving, be freely breeding animals, and easy to tend), and then discusses how sea bass, a favorite fish food for the Mediterranean peoples — and then much of the rest of the world — doesn’t fit any of these criteria. I found it interesting that researchers have put a lot of effort into fish that are so hard to tend. The process for sea bass started in Israel and then spread from there, and scientists have gotten remarkably far considering that they are such difficult fish.

Cod is where things get really interesting. First of all, Greenberg has the Mark Kurlansky come and taste cod from wild and farmed sources, which I thought was just great. Kurlansky actually picked out the wild cod as one of his favorites; pretty cool when someone can do that! Wild cod stock has, with the rest of these four fishes’ populations, declined wildly. What I found fascinating was that, while there are people trying to farm cod, there’s already some fish that are readily domesticated and require fewer resources — like tilapia (my mother’s favorite). I found that fascinating, and Greenberg talks about how the name recognition (or lack thereof) goes a long way toward whether a seafood is going to be accepted by the public.

The last fish is the tuna. Tuna is the top predator in its habitat, meaning that they are long-lived and take a long time to recover from population drop-offs. One interesting fact about tuna and its consumption in Japan that Greenberg shares with us is that the Japanese found it too fatty to eat before the American occupation, and only developed a taste for it during that time. Tuna also have a counterpart that are a better choice for domestication — the kahala — and eating these fish would allow tuna stocks to replenish.

I really liked how Greenberg wound his story about how we’re damaging fish stocks through some interesting interactions with scientists and fishermen. The best part, though, is that he found fish that fill the same niches as these staple ones — and do it better. For drawing in a vegetarian whose only caught seaweed (and been happy about it), I think Greenberg deserves some credit.

Rating: 4/5.

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Eight Little Piggies by Stephen Jay Gould

I have to love Stephen Jay Gould. I like most popular science writers, like Carl Sagan, but how many title their books so that the library clerk comes back with a surprised look on his face? He said to me, “It’s a little thicker than I was expecting.” It was about the thickness I was expecting, and I enjoyed every page of it. Gould has a way of writing about evolutionary science that makes it approachable without dumbing it down.

Gould breaks the book down into several sections, so I’ll talk about each section in turn.

The Scale of Extinction

The book starts out with several essays on modern extinction. I thought he spoke particularly well about the dangers of human-introduced flora and fauna, giving the example of land snails on the south Pacific island of Moorea being killed off by African tree snails. I think it’s an important topic (what with living in Michigan with the fear of Asian carp coming into the Great Lakes), but I also like that he discussed the difference between the wiping out of a particular population as opposed to the extinction of a species. He discusses how unique populations don’t necessarily warrant protection against human encroachment, which I thought was interesting.

Odd Bits of Vertebrate Anatomy
This section contains the eponymous essay. It discusses the history of how vertebrate toes have been viewed — for a long time, it was thought that five was the original number … and then came along older fossils with animals with seven and eight toes. I love how this shows that “scientific certainty” has the potential to change on a dime because of new evidence and new thinkers.

Gould also uses this section to talk about errors Darwin made in his writings. He reminds us that judging Darwin by our own standards leads to knee-jerk reactions without taking into account the times, and he makes the argument that, while some of his thoughts on human behavior and development are racist by today’s standards, they were an attempt to make sense of the world through the nineteenth century’s lens. I liked that essay a lot; it reminded me that my grandchildren will think I have all sorts of old-fashioned and biased ideas, and not to judge too harshly until you see the entire picture.

Vox Populi

Gould breaks this up into two sections, but I’ll just treat it as one big group. Here he talks about the true spirit of scientific inquiry, giving the example of his father, who honestly tried to understand concepts that were blurred for him by the sniping back and forth of two authors of different books on the same topic. I thought it was provoking; I liked the fact that he made me think about whether I can respect and trust what someone says based on authority — indeed, it hammered home that logical fallacy for me.

I also loved his article on Bishop Ussher. This is the man who said that the world started in 4004 B.C. Gould explores how he got that date — and provides the reader with a genuine way to respect the man’s technique (though not the motivation or the end result).

Musings

This is also in a couple of sections. Gould talks about how fallible memory can be while exploring one of his own false memories, and he also discusses authenticity, which I found especially interesting. How odd it is when something is taken out of its proper context, or when a replica is put in its place. Gould gives the example of London Bridge, which was disassembled, shipped to America, and then reassembled for display. That’s not nearly as awesome as seeing it in its original setting, and I get what he’s saying. If we don’t have the right context for something, it won’t make sense, and, worse, it won’t invoke interest or curiosity. Artificiality deadens the imagination — and I think he’s right.

Human Nature

Gould here talks about the human brain and the nature of genius, with Mozart as the example. Mozart wrote amazing music at a tender age, but remained the same developmentally in every other category. I liked that he pointed this out; smart people (or talented people) are not supermen. They’re normal except in specific ways, and we all have our high points.

We also get to hear about the branching of primates. How sad it is to learn that we aren’t a successful part of that lineage — too few primates to view it any other way — but that does make us precious, I suppose.

Grand Patterns of Evolution

This was probably my favorite part of the book. There’s one section that talks about creatures that had hard parts that fossilized easily that were once thought to be individual species because of the lack of any connecting material. It took until someone found a rare fossil that preserved soft tissue that it was known to be one larger creature! I thought that was great, and also very much in the spirit of this book — science is fallible and science is changing. Neat!

Revising and Extending Darwin

Here, Gould discusses the changes evolutionary theory has gone through. I think this is important information — we all know about Darwin and his ideas, but how many of us know the amount of tweaking those ideas have gone through? Gould talks about his own idea of punctuated equilibrium (although I’m not sure he actually ever uses the term), which states that things change little during down times, and then explode during times of great catastrophe or environmental upheaval. He also discusses neoteny,which is one of the few things I remember from my psychology classes in college — mainly because I think it’s a clever little tool evolution developed.

Reversals — Fragments of a Book Not Written

One of my favorite concepts is in this section. At one point, a species of clam was thought extinct because there were no fossils found of it after a certain point in the strata. Then they were found in the 1800s, alive, in Australian waters. Here Gould drives home the point that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. How could it be? You can’t prove a negative — you just have to hope that you’re going in the right direction, and if there are exceptions, that you can accept them.

Overall, I love Gould’s writing. It shines with a humor and feels researched without being tedious. I think anyone interested in natural history or the history of science would love Eight Little Piggies.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

I waited a long time to read The Botany of Desire.  When it first came out, the local library couldn’t keep it on the shelves; I ended up on long waiting lists that I never reached the end of before having to go back to college in the fall.  So I was excited to be able to get it and read it.  It’s not quite what I thought it would be, but that’s mostly in a good way.  Michael Pollan has written a book that is thought-provoking, unexpected, and wide in scope.

The book starts with a short introduction, in which Pollan states that he is interested in how certain plants meet certain human desires:  the apple satisfies sweetness; the tulip, beauty; marijuana, intoxication; and the potato meets our need for power.  He also sets forthhis hypothesis that cultivated plants have used humans to their advantage in order to survive in conditions they wouldn’t normally be able to.

This was probably my biggest disappointment with the book — it seems a fairly obvious idea that plants we care for have used us for their purposes, just as we use them.  It’s an idea I remember encountering in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (although on a smaller scale, and with bits that are much more integral to our physical makeup and survival), and, indeed, Pollan admits that The Selfish Gene played a role in the development of his book.

I loved reading the four chapters, though, because they don’t just push this idea.  Pollan starts out with the apple.  He discusses how wild apples are normally so bitter as to be inedible, and that grafting is the only way to ensure that a tree will bear tasty fruit.  He also gives quite a history of John Chapman — Johnny Appleseed — that I quite enjoyed.  Chapman was a character, spreading seeds (and thus unpredictable apple trees-to-be) into Ohio and, later, Indiana.  He was a vegetarian who went barefoot and enjoyed best sleeping in hollowed out trees.  His story is a charming one that I was completely unfamiliar with.  It was a delight to find such a piece of American history included here.

The section on tulips was a little less interesting to me.  The fact that color variation is due to a virus was news to me, but I’ve heard the story of tulipomania quite a few times.  Pollan brings some insight to the craziness — mainly, that the Puritan conditions of the Netherlands led people to indulge their lust in something relatively harmless, rather than the more earthly pleasures their religion prohibited.  Overall, though, I found it a little long and prone to navel-gazing.

Marijuana, the next chapter, discussed not just intoxication by that particular drug, but also talked about the historical use of many types of substances to induce altered states of consciousness.  Pollan talks about the science at the cutting-edge (at least for the time the book was written) of how marijuana affects the brain.  It’s incredibly fascinating to think about — substances in so many plants, that developed for so many purposes, also have a place in human culture and in human biology both in order to give us experiences we otherwise would never experience.

The lowly potato is the subject of the last section.  I found it a bit preachy; Pollan spends most of the time talking about how the Monsanto corporation has developed a potato with genetic modifications that make the plant create its own pesticide.  He visits some potato farmers, grows his own Monsanto potatoes, and eventually can’t eat the produce once they’re fully-grown, despite the fact that he’d already eaten them at one farmer’s home and in processed potato products.  As a man who is an avid gardener — and who put himself up to the task of growing these potatoes — I would think that he should have at least given them a shot.

The Botany of Desire was a mix of biology, culture, and personal experience.  It worked well in some situations, but not in others, but I think the good parts of the book overshadow the flat ones.  Just don’t look for a straightforward cultural history of agriculture, and you’ll have an enjoyable read.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Death by Black Hole: and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Let me just get this out:  I love Neil deGrasse Tyson.  I’ve enjoyed watching him on television and have read a couple of his other books.  He’s my favorite astrophysicist.  I’ve even gotten my fiance to start watching Nova scienceNOW with me, which makes me beyond happy.  This book also makes me beyond happy; Tyson makes astronomy and physics delightful to read.

Death by Black Hole is composed of essays Tyson originally wrote for Natural History.  They’ve been broken up into sections, which is in keeping with the greats of popular science writing — it’s definitely what Stephen Jay Gould did with his books, and those are almost unfailingly fantastic.

The first section, “The Nature of Knowledge,” contains essays about how we gather information about the world around us.  As a geography nerd, I loved his explanation of how something that seems as simple as measuring the length of a border becomes more complex when you adjust the scale at which you’re looking at it, as well as your rules for what to do about curves, tides, and other things that can affect a border.  It all fits in with the concept of measurement, and how it works differently depending on your tools, your intent for the result, and the time and culture in which you live.

The next section, “The Knowledge of Nature,” discusses what we do know about how things work.  The section on antimatter and subatomic particles was particularly good.  They’re such weird concepts that I love to read anyone’s description of them, and Tyson’s particularly enjoyable.

“Ways and Means of Nature,” the third section, discusses how nature appears to us.  Tyson discusses constants and limits found in nature, which are interesting to know about.  He also discusses how the work of people like Newton still contains practical, useful concepts and rules.  This is nice; I like knowing that my high school physics hasn’t all gone out of style.

The fourth section, “The Meaning of Life,” has information about how life started on Earth and how it might start other places.  This is probably one of the more controversial sections.  People vary widely in their opinions on both topics, but, in my opinion, Tyson gives a nice rundown that seems very reasonable.

The most entertaining section is next.  “When the Universe Turns Bad” contains his essays on how people, Earth, and the Sun can be destroyed by outside influences.  He also talks about what it would be like to fall into a black hole (not so awesome), have Earth hit with a large meteor or asteroid (also not awesome), and to be hit with massive amounts of gamma radiation (surprisingly enough, not awesome).  It’s a fun section, in a morbid sort of way.

“Science and Culture” is all about people, how they perceive science and nature, and how often they get it wrong.  One particular essay that made me laugh was how movies get science wrong.  I found this entertaining for a couple of reasons.  The first was that Tyson said he hates people who say, “the book was better,” because he often doesn’t read the book — the movie’s more condensed!  The second reason was that, for Pete’s sake, it’s a movie.  As long as it’s not egregious, can’t you suspend disbelief for two hours?  That essay was still entertaining in the way he intended it to be, but I also thought it was cute for those other reasons.

Lastly, we have “Science and God.”  While Tyson doesn’t come right out and say that science and religion are incompatible, he does mention that God has become the answer for the gaps, which I think is very true.  The more we know about nature, the less God is responsible for and the less he’s needed in a creator role.  He’ll always be needed for comfort and faith; that’s just a fact.  But he’s not very effective as a causative factor regarding the physical universe and all it contains.

My only complaint with Death by Black Hole is that sometimes Tyson’s humor doesn’t come through as he intends it to.  Sometimes he sounds grumpy, which I don’t think he is.  I think he just has a subtle or wry sense of humor that doesn’t translate very well on the page.  Having seen him many times in many different appearances, I’m able to gauge his intent a little better than a reader coming to him for the first time.  It’s unfortunate that’s the case, and is the only thing that kept me from giving the book a perfect score.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass, the first in the Arbai trilogy, is nothing short of amazing.  We are given a multi-layered story that keeps true to the science fiction and fantasy genres while managing to create something completely new and fresh, which is no easy task.  I was so engrossed in the book that I read the last 250 pages or so during one day.  It’s just that good.

A universal plague has broken out amongst the people of Grass‘ universe.  People are becoming sick and dying, even years after being exposed.  The doctors and scientists don’t know how to stop it.  The only ones with any information, it seems, are the leaders of Sanctity, the most popular religion.  The head of Sanctity decides to send his nephew to Grass, the only planet that has had no sickness.  And thus, Rigo, Marjorie, and their two children end up in an entirely new world with unfamiliar rules and strange taboos.

The wonderful about Grass is that Tepper has shaped it to be so many things.  The main plot circles around Grass and its relationship with the plague.  But it’s easy for the reader to completely forget about the disease and explore the relationships between Marjorie and those around her.  She’s our protagonist, and Tepper positions us well in her head.

Marjorie’s marriage is not a good one.  Her husband and she have personalities that tend to make things worse for one another, rather than better.  Stella, their daughter, takes after her father, much to Marjorie’s chagrin.  Rigo’s mistress is along for the ride, to round out the dysfunction.  These people can’t work together in a cohesive unit.

This lack of unity hurts them.  Meeting the “bons”, the noble families of Grass who exercise their veiled hostility toward all non-bon people, in such a state makes gaining their trust a difficult task.  They could try hunting with the bons, but one view of the creatures these settled people both hunt and hunt with disturbs Marjorie greatly.

On another part of Grass, Brother Mainoa of Sanctity is working on the Arbai village ruins.  The ruins of several Arbai villages have been found on many planets now inhabited by humans.  No one knows what happened to the Arbai; all the villages show few remains and relatively obscure relics.  Except for the one on Grass.  The Arbai remains there are ripped apart.  Brother Mainoa studies the site in order to gain new insight, whether from the artifacts or from the strange friend he gains.

Mixed into all this are religious anarchists, monstrously evil creatures, horsemanship, disease vectors, people with their minds wiped blank, murderous monks, and kind people in unexpected places.  Grass is so complex that I don’t really feel that I can describe it properly.  It’s a marvelous story.  I especially enjoyed the option Tepper gives the reader of focusing on one particular part of the story — they don’t all wind together until close to the end.  It makes it more difficult to predict what’s going to happen, which is great.  I like to be surprised when I read!

Once everything is together, things still go off in surprising directions.  So surprising that I’m going to have to get the next book in the series soon.

Rating: 5/5.

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On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz’s book, On Aggression, wasn’t what I was expecting at all.  I thought it would be an in-depth look at human aggression, and how it affects humanity in general and small populations in particular.  Instead, what the book is about is Lorenz’s studies of the aggressive behavior of fish and bird species.  While these studies are interesting to read about, and may provide insight into some of the behavior of people, I found it ultimately unsatisfactory in meeting its goal of explaining human aggression.

Let me also say that, had I known about Lorenz’s history with the Nazi party during World War II, I would never have picked the book up.  I felt a little dirty while finishing it after I found out.  I wish I had known beforehand, so I could have avoided the entire thing.

I must say, though, that the sections Lorenz writes about animal behavior were very interesting.  I liked the discussions on how fish behave toward members of their own species depending on whether they have a mate, whether they’re defending a clutch of eggs, and how big they think their territory should be.

Especially interesting to me was the fact that some species depend on color markings to determine whether to attack another fish of their species.  Lorenz talks about coloring a drab female fish with crayons (I’m not sure this is true, or an artifact of imperfect translation) and then reintroducing her to her mate; he attacked her until he realized, most likely through chemical signals, that she was female.  Afterward, he would check invading males to ensure they weren’t female instead.  That’s interesting.

Also interesting was some of Lorenz’s examples of how geese behave toward members of their own families and those of other groups.  It was easy to see how, to a certain extent, those findings might help explain human aggressive behavior and triggers that are in place to protect those familiar to us from our own aggressive impulses.

I do, however, have some issues with Lorenz’s conclusions.  He bases human behavior on animal instincts.  Humans have the ability to reason.  Lorenz himself devotes the last chapter to uniquely human developments — art, humor, science, and medicine.  These are not extensions of some sort of inhibitory drive, in my opinion.  They are conscious, constantly developing attributes of a species that has the capability to make decisions based on more than just whether someone presents to us an aggressive or appeasing stance.

I also have an issue with how Lorenz considered the youth of his day — he complains several times throughout the book about how young adults of the time (which is 1966, in case you’re curious) are aimless, shiftless, and lazy in America.  Well, sure, maybe some of them were.  But others took the mood of the time and did good things, like helping push civil rights forward.  People can’t be painted with such a broad brush, no matter how annoying or frustrating one finds some members of the group.

My last big issue with Lorenz was actually a very small part of the book overall, but was something that bothered me greatly.  He talks in great detail about male homosexual relationships between male geese with considerable insight and compassion.  He then turns around and states that the behavior of the geese is “far less ‘animal’ than that of most human homosexuals, for they seldom if ever copulate or perform substitute actions”.  Ignoring the fact that I’m not sure what he’s referring to as a “substitute action”, my first thought about homosexual geese is that there’s proof of a genetic inclination for some of us to be attracted to individuals of the same sex.  It disgusts me that he could have such a compassionate understanding of geese while considering other humans to be no more than debauched men and women.

Overall, I found Lorenz’s description of animal behavior insightful and informative.  His attempts to connect that behavior to the ways humans act, however, I found lacking in the extreme.  He should have stuck to a simple exploration of aggression and aggression-inhibiting behavior and attributes.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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