Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane- Book Review.

I hate biochemists. Call it petty envy, I don’t care, I’ll happily admit it. Perhaps its the bitter memories of seeing my university colleagues head off to tinker with their expensive equipment in over-funded labs while there I was, in a back of a van, sifting through dead bugs with plastic tweezers. Maybe it’s the thankless of task of trying to make sense of their overly complex metabolic pathways. To be frank, it’s having to begrudgingly admit the importance of their research, which does nothing to alleviate the tedious slog of reading through their dry, stale academic papers. So it’s deliciously ironic that one of the more accessible and engaging accounts of life should be delivered by none over than a biochemist. Well played.

Life Ascending is a run down of evolution’s 10 greatest hits, or as Lane calls them, ‘inventions’. These are defined as evolutionary game-changers; adaptations that have transformed life’s landscape since their initial conception. Lane devotes an entire chapter to each, however, being a biochemist, he’s less concerned with the flashy crowd pleasers (e.g. flight, predation etc.) as he is with the likes of photosynthesis or DNA. Despite my urge to fall asleep at such topics, my main concern was that surely these went without saying. Like listing ‘human’ as a preference on a dating app. That’s until I realised that the book wasn’t just celebrating life’s handy traits but also giving a detailed account as to how they may have first evolved. 

Armed with a biochemist’s lens, Lane does away with the vague speculative prose that so often accompanies evolutionary history and divulges the nitty gritty detail down to the passing of individual electrons. By appreciating the mechanics, the reader is imbued with a profound understanding; not just how life evolved these adaptations but also how easily it could not have evolved them in the first place. Here he has exercised a superb argument for the chaotic nature of evolution over the traditional fatalistic attitude. We’re invited to imagine a plausible alternate reality of life on earth devoid of the likes of an oxygen rich atmosphere or complex-celled lifeforms, and the result is one of the most stimulating reads I’ve had in a while.

I’d force this book on every science professional, student or general reader if only to make them read the first two chapters on the origin of life and evolution of DNA. He moves away from the dated organic pea-soup theories and proposes hydrothermal sea vents as a likely candidate for the source of life. Although this sounds more like something out of a sci-fi novel, the level of detail he goes into as well as the sheer volume of evidence he provides makes for a convincing (even if not definitive) argument.

My one issue with the book, admittedly more of a pedantic annoyance than a genuine criticism, is with the final chapter on ‘death’. It took me longer than usual to get through the first pages, it’s hard to focus your eyes on a text when they’re busy rolling in every direction. “Oh so there was life happily getting along being immortal then whoosh something evolves the ability to die and takes over?”. As I read on I realised this wasn’t detailing an evolutionary ‘invention’ so much as summarising the biology of ageing and the extension of life. Whilst still a fascinating read, it would have been better placed in a different book.

“No I’m not an ‘escort’”- and other awkward scenarios for bat surveyors.

The Bat Conservation Trust were happy to publish this piece on their blog. Check it out to see the different pictures.

natterer's highgate tunnel
A Natterer’s bat I found hibernating in the abandoned tunnel

It’s dark, damp and reeks of fox dung. I’m in a disused train tunnel in north London, tagging along to a survey for hibernating bats. As I inch along I stick close to the walls keeping an eye out for the little critters squeezed in-between the brick crevices. I need to be mindful of train tracks, loose rubble and syringes. Lots of used syringes. The tunnels have been sealed for a while now so, although I doubt I’ll be stumbling into whoever left these, it does bring to light a small yet unfortunate risk with bat surveying; you wouldn’t want to stop and chat with some of the people you might find. Never mind the tunnels and graveyards, but even walking through a park at night can turn dodgy, especially if you’re in a city. Bumping into the unsettling ‘types’ was at the back of my mind when I first started looking for bats around London, but little did it occur to me that I would be the ‘type’ to unsettle others. After all bat workers lurk in bushes with funny equipment in the middle of the night, what could possibly go wrong?

There’s a park just around the corner from my home which has a great site for spotting bats. In a dark corner under an oak tree, when the weather is nice and warm, you can see bats swarming; effortlessly flitting between the gnarled branches chasing midges and flies. Armed with my heterodyne detector, I can pick up on their ultrasonic calls as they’re converted into audible sounds helping me detect the presence and species of bats nearby. When I arrive the detector is silent save for the background static hiss. All of the sudden a series of quiet pops crackle from the speaker, a bat’s in the area. The pops get louder turning into rhythmic wet slaps, must be a pipistrelle species. I tune through the frequencies finding the pitch where the slaps are deepest to help me discern what species I’m listening to. 45khz, it’s a common pipistrelle! In a matter of minutes the air is seething with bats while my detector emits a symphony of pop, squeak, smack and fart sounds as the pipistrelles acoustically feel their way through the air searching for insects to eat.

soprano pip highgate
It’s a pipistrelle. It’s a soprano pip unlike the common pips in my park. The simplest way to tell the species apart is by the peak frequency of their calls; soprano (55 kHz), common (45kHz).

Tempting as it may be to stand there oohing and aahing at this mesmerising display I need to be aware of the other people in the park. Fortunately for me I’m standing next to the exit so I’ve got an easy way out if I don’t like the look of anyone approaching. Not so fortunate for the hapless jogger, there’s a man standing in the shadows just off the path right next to their exit point. It’s hard enough not to be confused for a nut in the daytime when justifying to people why you spend your nights looking for bats. Trying to do the same with a wary stranger in the park isn’t any easier. But it isn’t just late night joggers and dog walkers that I’m making anxious. A man pulls up in a car just outside the exit and waits with the engine running. I doubt it’s an uber, unless ‘tuned up with spoilers’ is now a selectable option. “He’s probably just picking up a mate” I’m thinking. His ‘mate’ turns up and they talk for less than a minute. Whats this? No hugs, no kisses? It’s starting to look more like a transaction now. What kind of a person conducts business from their car outside a park at night I wonder? At what must be the worst possible timing, my detector screeches and whistles as it picks up some feedback. The two men stop talking and turn to me. Now my gear is looking more like recording equipment or even a radio. For the police perhaps? I take my queue and leave before things get more awkward.

Surveying with a heterodyne needn’t be such a conspicuous display; a pair of headphones can cut out the noise while the detector is hidden in a pocket. However, other survey techniques require the use of less subtle hardware, like say a large antenna for radio-tracking. Remember the documentary clips of tranquillised lions and wolves being fitted with radio collars? Same principle applies except on a smaller scale. You catch your bat, glue a tracking device to their back and let them go. Equipped with your antennae you can map out their movements before the device falls off them, by which point you’ve got an idea as to where the bat flies and roosts; an invaluable insight for a researcher or conservationist. One such specialist goes by the name of Sam, a spectacled, soft-spoken bat ecologist who’s as comfortable researching in a library as he is trekking through the jungle. The kind of breed who could recount a scientific paper while changing a jeep tyre. One night our bat worker was driving around for a radio-tracking session. One hand on the wheel the other holding the antenna out the window. After having done a few circuits, he decides to take a little nap in the car. Not much time passes until he’s rudely awoken by an elderly man brandishing bills and documents at him through the wind screen. “I pay for my TV license!”. Sam’s groggy and confused at first until he realises the strange man is gesticulating partly at the antenna that’s been propped up on the passenger seat. The concerned resident thinks he’s under surveillance! Who’d of thought the BBC employed such drastic fee collection tactics?

Being confused for an authority figure is one thing, getting the authorities called on you is another. I had the pleasure of working with a researcher named Alison; a friendly, ebullient post-doc, not the kind of person you’d consider a delinquent. But like Sam, her equipment didn’t do her any favours. She was carrying out bat surveys in Birmingham using full spectrum bat recorders; the mac daddy of bat recording equipment. These are designed to be left in the field unattended where they continuously record at all frequencies providing tonnes of high quality data for later analysis. They’re typically incased in secure boxes to protect them from the weather, vandals and thieves (human and animal alike). The issue with setting these recorders up in an urban environment, thieves aside, is that you’re lurking around neighbourhoods hiding nondescript boxes around the place. Imagine what that would look like to someone peering out of their window. As if getting the police called wasn’t bad enough, she was once approached, mid-survey, by someone hoping to solicit a service. How hiking boots, rain macs and head torches could be interpreted as sex worker attire is beyond me, but we’ve all got our kinks I suppose.

Nature nugget #1: a wrapped up reptile is more likely to cool down

This might sound counterintuitive to some of you, but that’d be because you’re taking for granted one of the privileges of being warm-blooded; the ability to generate your own heat.  Unlike us, cold-blooded animals rely on an external heat source to raise their body temperature.   So if you were to wrap up a lizard in say a fur coat (scientists have actually done this) the added layer would interfere with heat absorption, thus resulting in a steady drop in body temperature. True, this would also slow down heat loss but you need to gain the heat first to lose it.


‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins- Book Review

The Selfish Gene’ popularised the radical idea of genes being the fundamental units for natural selection. That’s not to say that the individual plays a part, but its role is delegated to that of a vessel as far as evolution’s concerned. Dawkins argues that we are just ‘vehicles’ being manipulated by a committee of genes acting in their own ‘selfish’ interest to propagate themselves. Such a gene-centric account of life does sound rather extreme and I wouldn’t blame you for approaching this book with your tongue lodged firmly in your cheek as I did. But after having read it I can happily declare myself a convert.

Just to be clear, you’re not expected to believe that genes are selfish in the literal sense, just that their effects can be metaphorically described as such. He argues that for a gene to spread it would need to serve its own interests in being replicated, even if it’s at odds with other genes within the same organism or even the organism itself. This might sound counterintuitive after all how can an individual, let alone a species, survive without some degree of cooperation? But Dawkins would argue that any form of cooperation wouldn’t evolve if it weren’t directly beneficial for the genes involved. If this sounds fallacious or a bit too extreme of an interpretation, good. This isn’t lost on Dawkins who likens the book to science fiction, as the truth can be stranger than fiction.

You’re probably more familiar with Dawkins for his theist bashing antics in ‘The God Delusion’. Considering the odd looks I had thrown my way when reading this book, I think it’s fair to say he’s garnered quite the reputation; most likely as a narrow-minded smart-arse. However, I found his choice of language to contradict this. Dawkins writes with great self-awareness; appreciating the limits of his knowledge and underlining his argument as meticulously as he picks others apart. He’s so conscious of being misinterpreted that he repeatedly clarifies his definitions to the point where I felt I was reading a beautifully drafted contract at times. Whenever switching to more poetic prose, such as discussing a gene’s ‘intentions’, he quite endearingly excuses himself to the more scientifically minded reader. Another point he hammers home throughout the book is that it’s not a manifesto for how we should behave, pointing out the distinction between natural and moral law. I can only presume that those who argue this book to advocate selfish behaviour have skim read it, if even at all.

To be honest, pure genetics doesn’t exactly get me hot under the covers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fascinating when applied to something more tangible like how it influences behaviour, but a discussion on genes for genes’ sake does lead me to start eyeing up exit points. The fact that I was able to get past the first couple of chapters, where the fundamentals of DNA and natural selection were broken down, speaks volumes in Dawkins ability to engage with an audience. As the book progresses, Game theory and Evolutionary Stable Strategies feature heavily. You could think of these as the strategies or economics of evolution; explaining how something like a behaviour can be a success or a failure in relation to others. This was easily my favourite part of the book as he explains how the evolution of ‘nice’ or ‘nasty’ behaviour boils down to context, such as when does it pay to cheat or be faithful.

It’s not all argument debunking and reductionism however. Dawkins puts forward some imaginative concepts in his playful thought experiments, such as ‘memetics’; an analogy likening the spread of ideas and information to Darwinian evolution. He also makes the argument for the ‘extended phenotype’ (a.k.a. the long reach of a gene). For example, if a gene makes a beaver construct a dam, then surely the proceeding changes to the ecosystem could be interpreted as an extension of that gene in the same way as eye colour? However, he does devote the last chapter to this idea which, fascinating as it is, doesn’t feel that relevant to the book’s central argument. The fact that this was added in a later edition does make it seem rather transparent a plug for his later book ‘The Extended Phenotype’.

The Selfish Gene’ is that rare gem of a science book, accessible to all but also a valuable contribution to its field. While it’s fair to argue that gene-selectivism isn’t the be all and end all of natural selection (see Stephen J Gould), it’s importance would not be as appreciated had it not been for Dawkins. As relevant today to when it was first published, ‘The Selfish Gene’ is a must-read for anyone with an interest in evolution.

Waxwings in London

Holloway Road, London. A 3km stretch of grubby, congested high street home to London Met University, HM Prison Holloway, Emirates Stadium and now exotic migratory birds. Granted, I don’t expect everyone to be familiar with Holloway, but if you were to ask a Londoner to describe it; “green, leafy” or a “nature-hub” would not come to mind. However, “traffic, kebabs and drunk Arsenal fans” would perhaps be more appropriate.

We’re in April, an ornithologist has invited me to join him for some waxwing bird spotting just outside of Holloway Road Station. I arrive early to see if I can find these birds unaided, admittedly to reveal birdwatching for the doss hobby I think it is (I’m a petty man). Half an hour and a fruitless search later, I find my friend around the corner from the jagged Libeskind building, binoculars out, standing opposite a tree of pigeons. Much to my deserved embarrassment the penny doesn’t drop until I take a closer look. “These are some funny looking pigeons” I’m thinking. “Black throat, black eye-stripes, punky head crest….ah I see”. There they were in plain view and yet completely unnoticed, a tree full of Bohemian waxwings.

Bohemian waxwing

These are plump, grey bodied, starling-sized birds. Give them a closer look and you’ll see a large head crest, bright red and yellow wing-tips, a striking black face-mask and black bib (throat). You’ll find them breeding in Russia and Scandinavia but they’ll migrate south during winter when food is sparse. Sometimes they winter in the British Isles for our berries, particularly off Rowan and Hawthorn trees. Unlike our native insectivorous birds, they can survive on a diet solely of fruit which gives them quite the advantage. When they arrive, it’s typically along the east coast in modest numbers but this winter we’ve seen what birders call an ‘eruption’. Our strong crop of berries have sustained a particularly large population thanks to last years wet spring and warm summer.


Epilogue- Falcon sighting

We must have looked pretty odd standing on a street corner with our binoculars, oohing and ahhing at what passersby would presume to be pigeons. After a few minutes of this, our ranks are joined by a third birdwatcher, only this one is more interested with something on top of one of the tall, concrete buildings. I take a look, once again all I see is pigeon; but my friend points out the yellow eyes, black moustache, hooked beak…it’s a peregrine falcon! Birdwatching isn’t so easy after all. Despite my astonishment, it turns out that falcons are well adapted for city living; the high rise ledges substituting the cliff edges off mountain ranges and coastlines they’re so suited to. Not to mention our limitless supply of pigeon meals. “So why haven’t I seen any around?” I hear you ask. As bird-eating specialists, peregrines can skewer and carry their prey in flight, so they rarely need to come to ground level unless they have a large catch. However, a tell-tale sign of a falcon are the dismembered wings of their prey as these are usually discarded.

A peregrine falcon on top of Tower Building (London Metropolitan University)

Photos courtesy of Sam Jones.

Garden Fox

I think it’s fair to say that foxes have earned themselves quite the reputation for being a little bit of a nuisance. Speaking not even for the irate chicken farmers, but from personal experience; the gift turds they leave for me to pick up, the midnight alarm calls and my traumatised cat who learned the consequences of squaring off against them the hard way.

Yet despite all that I find it really hard not to love them. Don’t get me wrong I’m not biased towards all things cute and cuddly (most dog breeds can jog on for all I care), but surely we should relish the privilege of getting to live alongside such a charismatic, native species.

Growing up in London I’ve seen urban fox numbers increase over the years. Whilst it’s an unfortunate result of their shrinking habitat, I must admit I quite like having the extra wildlife in my garden. You don’t have to go far to find a Londoner who takes issue with these animals, but I think there’s something to respect in their tenacity to cling on despite our destructive habits. Also, not to sound like Farage, but it’s a lovely change seeing a native species thrive.

There are benefits to having them around, namely their appetite for rats. Say what you will about foxes but I’d rather have them crapping in my garden than rats crapping under my kitchen sink. Yes, the tabloids love scaring us with stories of children getting bitten, but try approaching a fox and you’ll find that they’re more than happy to keep their distance. If you want to remove one from your area I wouldn’t recommend poison as it not only endangers other wildlife but another fox will simply take its place (being a territorial species). The reason they thrive so well in our urban sprawls is because we don’t bother to secure our rubbish, giving them an easy source of food. So if you don’t want them near your home, it’d be best to ensure that you and your neighbours are securing your rubbish.

You’re more likely to see foxes at dawn or dusk (if you’re not being woken up by their howls in the middle of the night), so it was a pleasant surprise seeing this one relaxing in my garden this afternoon.




Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer

Just to be clear, I speak as someone with very little interest in bacteria. The notion (and memory) of fiddling around with petri dishes in stuffy labs, gazing at dots through a microscope  doesn’t exactly instil me with rapturous wonder. But after having read this book, I’m happy to admit a complete turn around. ‘Microcosm’ is not only mind blowing but incredibly readable, the fact that Zimmer has picked a seemingly uncharismatic subject makes it all the more impressive.

‘Microcosm’ gives an account of life told through the lens of the world’s most underrated organism; E. coli. We’re taken through its pervasive influence on some of biology’s greatest discoveries, like say DNA, as well as how it challenges our very perception and definition of ‘life’. Zimmer keeps ramping up the stakes throughout the book, ending on a rather chilling climax as to what our future may hold owing to this bacterium.

All this is delivered with little to no fanfare, yet I found myself slack jawed on a few occasions, pondering life’s futility. This book is truly, if I may pinch another reviewer’s quote, ‘quietly revolutionary’.

An accessible and revolutionary book, celebrating the world’s most underrated organism. This should be read by everyone, especially those (like myself) who profess little interest in the field.