Book reviews

Guns, Germs, and Steel/Collapse- Book Reviews

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse. Penguin Group, New York. 525 pp.

Diamond, Jared. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel. W. W. Norton and Company, New York. 441 pp.


A major factor contributing to a society’s success or failure is its response to environmental problems. While some of these problems are determined geographically and escalate independently of human intervention, often people must make decisions during environmentally unstable times. How do these decisions affect a society as a whole? Is it possible for people to know they are making the right decisions? Jared Diamond addresses these questions in two of his books, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse.

Diamond presents an excellent case for geographic determinism throughout Guns, Germs, and Steel. Some societies were blessed with an ideal location and climate which caused them to domesticate plants and animals faster and easier. For example, Cortes and Pizarro both had the advantage of technology that, according to Diamond, existed because they were both from a more suitable geographic location. However, Cortes and Pizarro were not successful just because they were from an environmentally friendly area. A determining factor in a society’s success is the ability to make decisions that will benefit future generations. These decisions may certainly be influenced by biogeography, but certain choices stand alone and can make or break a society. Diamond addresses this very issue in Collapse.

Humans respond to ecological problems in different ways. Some responses and decisions cause a society to flourish while others lead a society in a downward spiral toward disaster. Decisions such as these are usually based on a number of different factors. For example, leaders are influenced by personal beliefs, religious beliefs, and the population’s beliefs. In societies that do not have any form of central leadership, the people in the society are influenced by these same factors. Some people may feel strongly about long-term issues and others want to fix small problems immediately. Some leaders are concerned with their people’s happiness and well-being, yet others are selfish and greedy. As mentioned above, these decisions almost certainly affect biogeography. If a society chooses to clear forests to build houses, it may take into account how much wildlife would be destroyed in the process and how that action would affect the area as a whole. Another society clearing the land may not care about the loss of wildlife as long as it is benefited financially from the houses. This is just one example of how decision-making is often determined by a society’s priorities.

Guns, Germs, and Steel explains the events that unfolded at Cajamarca in 1532 (Diamond 1999). This event clearly shows how decisions benefited a society. The Spaniards, being so close to the Fertile Crescent, had advantages because they benefited from food surpluses, domesticated plants and animals, and were writing by this time. This was only possible because of decisions made by the early Europeans (Diamond 1999). Pizarro took advantage of the technology afforded to Spain. Pizarro and the rest of the Spaniards had steel swords, lances, daggers, armor, a few guns, and horses – technological developments that enabled them to defeat the Incas. The Europeans could have responded to the environment in ways that would have harmed the society, but instead they had a vision in mind for the future. It was not that the Incas made bad decisions; they just did not have the opportunities that the Spaniards had. This ties in nicely with Diamond’s point that biogeographical factors are already determined for a society.

Diamond states five factors that contribute to a society’s downfall in Collapse. The first four factors that could contribute are environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, and friendly trade partners (Diamond 2005). According to Diamond, the last factor – a society’s response to environmental problems – always plays a role (Diamond 2005). These first four factors are sometimes out of a society’s control. The Incas did not have a clue that the Spaniards would come and not be friendly. The Anasazi people had no idea that their climate would change. The Easter Islanders could not have predicted that having no trees would be detrimental. How a society deals with environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, or friendly trade partners always proves significant. These responses could then cause one or all of the remaining factors. For example, if a society is experiencing a shortage of trees (environmental problem) and decides to do nothing about it, the climate could be altered and friendly trade partners could turn into hostile neighbors. If this particular society decides to do something about the shortage of trees, the climate may not change and once hostile neighbors could become friendly. This sounds like a simple concept, but these responses must sometimes be quick and well thought out to be successful.

All societies and the individuals that comprise these societies have certain core values that they consider to be important parts of their decision-making process. These core values may include religious beliefs or convictions, traditional opinions, or cultural beliefs. These three are often blended together. On page 409-410 of Collapse, Diamond explains this as “the challenge of deciding which of a society’s deeply held core values are compatible with the society’s survival, and which ones instead have to be given up.”

The Vikings in Greenland clearly show what happens to a society when poor choices are made. A series of mistakes led to the downfall and eventual collapse of their society. The Vikings started raiding other countries in AD 793, which led to an accumulation of wealth (Diamond 2005). When Eric the Red landed in Greenland in the AD 980’s, he found a land with a mild climate and green landscape; however, in time the Vikings destroyed the environment. As soon as they arrived they began clearing forests and causing soil erosion. They also stripped massive amounts of turf to insulate their houses (Diamond 2005). The Vikings also brought cows and sheep with them from Europe, but they soon found that the cows could not survive the cold weather. When times got tough, they went hungry because they refused to eat fish, an abundant food source in Greenland (Diamond 2005). The Vikings failed to learn from the native Inuit living on the island. A friendship with the Inuit could have led to a friendly trading system with the Inuit. They could have learned how to build long canoes to hunt and kill fish, seals, and whales. The Inuit may have taught them to use blubber as a fuel source. The Vikings did not understand which core values to abandon to survive in Greenland. They were a proud people who valued independent living. This pride turned into stubbornness and ended up blinding them. The Vikings were unable to make choices that would lead their society to success.

The parallels of the modern condition of Australia and the past failures of Greenland are striking. Australia is currently using some of its resources faster than they can be replaced. In Collapse Diamond states, “At present rates, Australia’s forests and fisheries will disappear long before its coal and iron reserves, which is ironic in view of the fact that the former are renewable but the latter are not.” Just like the Vikings in Greenland, this situation seems illogical. The people in Australia continue to destroy the environment when they are already the most unproductive continent. Diamond states that the soils in Australia have the lowest nutrient levels on average which leads to the lowest plant growth rates (Diamond 2005). To be fair, Australia is unfortunate in that the climate is undesirable and rainfall levels are very low. However, bad choices led to today’s low productivity.

The British settled Australia so that they could have a place to put all of the jailed, impoverished people. They were afraid that these people would rebel if they were kept close to Britain. The British were only concerned about themselves, as were the Vikings; neither of these groups cared about the future of the islands they were settling. The British also introduced rabbits and foxes into Australia, which still causes problems today with the vegetation. They, like the Vikings, were too concerned with making this new place seem more like their native land. They introduced species that did not belong, and the Australians are still fighting the effects of these bad decisions.

Even though biogeography plays a part in the advancements and failures of societies, human decisions also play a significant role. Long-term vision is the key to establishing a healthy society that will thrive. Societies must be willing to let go of old habits if it is in the interest of future generations. The histories of the Vikings in Greenland and the British in Australia show what happens when societies hold on to core values and familiar habits. There are similar patterns developing in the U.S. Exotic species, global warming, fertilizer and chemical runoff are just a few examples of environmental problems. Educational programs must be organized so that people will recognize these problems and make decisions that will influence the future environment in a positive light. Adults need to recognize examples of past failures so that the same mistakes are not repeated. Parents must share these concerns with their children. Apathy, ignorance and stubbornness can and will ruin this country if environmental problems are not taken seriously.






















Microbe Hunters- Book Review

De Kruif, Paul. (1926). Microbe Hunters. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc.

First published in 1926, Microbe Hunters follows the many adventures of the first scientists to discover and study microorganisms. Paul de Kruif starts off with Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), who biology students would recognize as a major contributor to the improvement of the microscope, and ends with Paul Ehrlich, a German physician and scientist who lived from 1854-1915.

What makes this book so fun to read is how de Kruif brings the personalities of the scientists to life. Here are some examples:

1. The Royal Society dispatched a representative to go and ask Leeuwenhoek about his instruments. The representative offered money to buy a microscope to which Leeuwenhoek exclaimed, “No!” The representative pressed further by saying, “But your instruments are marvelous! A thousand times more clear they show things than any lens we have in England.” Leeuwenhoek simply responded, “How I wish, Sir, that I could show you my best lens, with my special way of observing, but I keep that only for myself and do not show it to any one– not even to my own family.”

2. At the end of one of his experiments, Spallanzani exclaimed, “I have discovered a great new fact: living things exist that can stand boiling water and still live– you have to heat them to boiling almost an hour to kill them!”

3. After Pasteur’s swam neck flask experiment, he shouted, “Never will the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow that this simple experiment has dealt it.”

4. Robert Koch had observed Bacillus anthracis transform its shape into beads. After a month, the beads were still there. After he took some fluid from the eye of an ox and dropped in onto the beaded bacteria, Koch observed, “Those queer shiny beads have turned back into ordinary anthrax bacilli again. The beads must be the spores of the microbe– the tough form of them that can stand great heat, and cold, and drying…THat must be the way the anthrax microbe can keep itself alive in the fields for so long– the bacilli must turn into spores…”

5. Koch confessed to Dr. Rudolph Virchow that he had discovered a way to grow microbes pure and unmixed from other germs. When Virchow asked how, Koch explained, “By growing them on solid food– I can get beautiful isolated colonies of one kind of microbe on the surface of a boiled potato…And now I have invented a better way than that…I mix gelatin with beef broth…and the gelatin sets and makes a solid surface” (does this sound familiar, micro students?).

This book is great. Read it and have fun with it. It’s described this way:

Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters is a timeless dramatization of the scientists, bacteriologists, doctors, and medical technicians who discovered microbes and invented the vaccines to counter them. De Kruif reveals the now seemingly simple but really fundamental discoveries of science—for instance, how a microbe was first viewed in a clear drop of rain water, and when, for the first time ever, Louis Pasteur discovered that a simple vaccine could save a man from the ravages of rabies by attacking the microbes that cause it.

The Wolverine Way- Book Review

Chadwick, Douglas. (2010). The Wolverine Way. Ventura, CA: Patagonia Books.

In 2004, Douglas Chadwick joined a 5-year wolverine study in Glacier National Park. In this book, he documents his time as part of this project. Chadwick documents the natural history of this remarkable animal and goes into detail about the experiment itself.

While reading this book, you are bound to fall in love with the wolverine. “Tenacious”, “vicious”, “a ball of energy”, “a glutton” are just some of the ways the wolverine has been described. Even with these descriptions, Chadwick argues for their protection. In the last several chapters, he talks about game management in relation to wolverines and other midsize carnivores. Chadwick does make the disclaimer that his purpose is not to argue one way or the other when it comes to hunting or trapping, but to “look more clearly into how we interpret  nature and go about conserving it.”

Chadwick makes a very important point about how we manage prey species. Managers tend to produce hoofed animals, like deer and elk, in good numbers. Then, these animals are hunted. The idea is that if we don’t hunt, these herbivores will get “out of control”. Chadwick argues that nature tends to have its own game managers, predators and scavengers. Chadwick ends his argument this way:

“Managers may prefer nature neat and orderly – cropped and mown. But gulos depend on the flux and swirl in wild communities – the bulging out to the sides, the slop and the silver. As far as wolverines are concerned, there is no such thing as too many prey animals.”

There is also a PBS special about this extraordinary animal. Check it out.

The Vital Question- Book Review

The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life by Nick Lane

Single-celled organisms like bacteria did (and still do) really well for two and a half billion years with very little change in form. Why did some bacteria then make the jump to complexity on just one occasion in four billion years? Why did some bacteria become endosymbionts of archaea? Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life by Nick Lane seeks to answer these questions. The book reads like one-long hypothesis in which Lane makes the case that the answers to these important questions had to do with energy. The whole book argues that energy is connected to evolution.

The following are many “sub” questions about eukaryotic cells that Lane attempts to answer throughout the book:

  1. Where did all the “parts” of a typical eukaryotic cell come from?
  2. How and why did the nucleus evolve?
  3. Why do just about all eukaryotes have two sexes?
  4. Where did the extravagant internal membranes come from?
  5. How did the cytoskeleton become so dynamic and flexible?
  6. Why does sexual cell division, or meiosis, halve the chromosome numbers by first doubling them up?


Lane initially explains to the reader what constitutes life. He then goes through the origin of life and how energy was involved in a detailed manner. Finally, Lane discusses the idea of cell complexity and some of his predictions. In this journey of a book, the reader accumulates lots of interesting information, some of which are included in the following:

  1. A single cell consumes around 10 million molecules of ATP every second!
  2. As far as energy output, life is more like a rocket launcher that a candle.
  3. All life is driven by redox chemistry.
  4. One mitochondrion contains tens of thousands of copies of each respiratory complex. If you took the combined surface area of all the mitochondria in your body, it would cover 4 football fields!
  5. Energetically speaking, enzymes are not powerful because they speed up reactions, but because they channel their force and maximize the output.
  6. Different genes in the same eukaryotic organism do not all share the same common ancestor.
  7. Eukaryotes have close to 200,000 times more energy per gene than prokaryotes.
  8. The benefits of sex are greatest when the mutation rate is high, selection pressure is strong, and there is a lot of variation in a population.

Lane shows that the simplest possible scenario for the origin of eukaryotic cells/organisms was a single chimeric event between a host cell (archaea) and an endosymbiont (bacteria). Even though the reading is technical, this book is very much worth it to work through.

A Planet of Viruses- Book Review

A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer

“Viruses are unseen but dynamic players in the ecology of Earth.”

Carl Zimmer originally wrote the essays contained in this book as an educational tool to help people understand more about viruses. This newly released second edition certainly educates.

The Introduction traces the history of viruses as well as viral research by intertwining the story of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. The second section of the book, “Old Companions” highlight several viruses that have accompanied humans throughout history. You will learn interesting things about Rhinoviruses, Influenza, and Human Papillomavirus (HPV). For example, HPV can speed up the cell cycle without allowing the cell to kill itself for protection (p.30). This could, in fact, cause cancer.

The next section shows just how prevalent viruses are throughout ecosystems. Our genomes contain viral genes (p.57). Virus genes carry out nearly 10% of all the photosynthesis on Earth (p.51). Finally, Zimmer discusses the future of viruses. The following show some very interesting facts:

  • HIV is so well studied that we know the molecular steps it took to adapt to us (p.68). Can this help in treating this virus?
  • The West Nile virus can survive inside 62 species of mosquitoes. 150 different bird species in America have been found to carry it (p.75).
  • There are giant viruses that can actually be infected by smaller viruses (p.106).

Zimmer tells a great story in this book. He leaves the reader with something to think about: Should viruses be considered a “deadly venom” or a “life-giving” substance?