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Profile for Edward F. Strasser > Reviews


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The Cell: A Molecular Approach, Fourth Edition
The Cell: A Molecular Approach, Fourth Edition
by Joshua Lund
Edition: Hardcover
94 used & new from $0.01

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Very Good Reference for a Host of Areas of Biology, July 7, 2007
This is a textbook for undergraduates, but I'm not a student. I've been studying evolution from a variety of books and I finally decided I needed a systematic look at the biology of the cell. I shopped Amazon and decided on this book and I am well satisfied with it.

There is too much information for me to summarize, but the book's Table of Contents does an excellent job of that. (Click on "Search inside this book".) The book also has an abbreviated Table of Contents, not shown in this product page, which will help the reader locate a particular topic within the longer ToC.

The book starts with "Introduction", which provides background material and gives a glimpse of the book ahead. I think that a student using this as the text for a course for a one-semester course will probably need to know most of this beforehand. A person with more time will still need some background. You should already know what carbohydrates, amino acids, lipids, and nucleic acids are; the basics of the DNA-to-RNA-to-protein pathway; the fact that a membrane consists of a double layer of phospholipids, with other molecules embedded in it; and other basics of the cell. You will need at least a modest familiarity with diagrams of molecules and molecular processes. If the Table of Contents doesn't look like nonsense to you, you're probably prepared.

The exercises are important because they contain material that is not in the main text. For example, there are exercises that ask you to apply what you learned in the text to a problem similar to the ones scientists try to solve. It is doubly important for non-students because they let you verify your learning.

The Book Description says this book has "the most current information". This isn't possible in a book; in a field as active as cellular and molecular biology a lot happens between the time the manuscript is completed and the time the book is released for sale. What this book can do is to give you the background you need to read the science news articles. And that's doing quite a bit.

I mentioned that I had been reading other material wanted to fill in my background. The other material included such topics as molecular biology of the gene, signal transduction, mitochondria, and cancer. Since the cell is the basic unit of biology, The Cell is a gateway to many other topics as well. It would have been easier if I had read The Cell first, but I didn't know that. If you might be interested in some of the earlier books, they are listed in my Listmania "Natural Processes That Promote Evolution". There is a link to it in my Amazon Profile. (Click on my name at the top of this review.) But, of course, I recommend reading The Cell first.

If you're a student wondering what kind of nut reads books like this for fun, the Profile also has a bit about me under the title "In My Own Words".

I finished The Cell a few weeks ago and since then I have referred to it a few times for help in understanding science news. Given that I found it useful, there must be plenty of other people who would, and so I wrote this review.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 26, 2007 9:51 PM PST

Little Tiny Teeth (A Gideon Oliver Mystery)
Little Tiny Teeth (A Gideon Oliver Mystery)
by Aaron Elkins
Edition: Hardcover
94 used & new from $0.01

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A vacation trip down the scenic Amazon, with unusual companions, a weird guide, drug smugglers and one humongous spider, June 9, 2007
The spider is a Goliath, the largest of the tarantulas, with a fist-sized body and big hairy legs, and, according to entomologist Duane Osterhout, he's an adorable little creature who will make the perfect centerpiece for Duane's living room. I mention this to give you an idea of what I mean by "unusual companions". The weird guide is Cisco, full name unknown, a stone freak who is so far tripped out that people are afraid of him. See the next paragraph for the drug smugglers.

Gideon Oliver thinks he can take a quiet vacation and this time his friends John Lau and Phil Boyajian are with him. They are cruising the Amazon on a former cargo boat which has not yet been fully converted into a low-budget tourist boat. (Phil is an expert at finding such things.) The other passengers are a professor of ethnobotany and some people whom he is leading on an expedition. Gideon and his friends are unaware that the boat is being used to smuggle coca paste from Peru to Columbia nor that some of the other people on board have very good reasons to want to kill the professor, but Elkins reveals these to us early on. Other reviews describe the rest of the plot, so I'll leave it at that.

I always say that what I love about Gideon Oliver is the forensics, but this one has very little. Near the end of the story, a human skull and some neck bones are found. Gideon rapidly runs through the indicators he sees in the skull, explaining nothing. He does, however, spend some time explaining how two neck vertebrae reveal the identity of the deceased. However, Elkins kept me absorbed in the book all the way through, so obviously there's more to Gideon Oliver than forensics.

For starters, there are the characters. There's Gideon himself, of course, the cerebral professor type who loves to lecture and keeps coming out with arcane scientific facts. A bit like me, actually, although I only taught college for a few semesters. Then there's John Lau, the practical FBI agent who balances Gideon's intellectualism. And Phil is always fun. As always, there is a cast of unusual characters invented for this novel. Elkins gives us brief sketches of these people at the beginning and then uses conversations through most of the book to further develop their personalities and their motives for killing. One character in particular brings back fond memories of people I used to know; he almost makes me wish I had misspent a tad more of my youth while I still had it.

There is one character, expedition leader Scofileld, who, from the beginning, is portrayed as such a cad that mystery readers will feel just has to be the murder victim. But Elkins doesn't kill him off right away. Instead he stretches out the suspense. Along the way, there are two attacks on Scofield - or are they really attacks on Scofield? Then he disappears and is presumed dead, although there is no evidence yet.

Elkins is a master craftsman when it comes to clues. There are obvious clues, clues which seem irrelevant at the time, and clues pointing in false directions. And, of course, there are a lot of details which really do have nothing to do with the plot. One critical clue comes in a scene which doesn't seem at first to be important to the plot. Along with that clue was a clue pointing in another direction, and farther away was information that can help the reader to see through the false clue, if he catches it. As for the ending, there was one clue which was too obscure for me, but there were other factors which narrowed it down to one person. There's a lot more I wish I could say about the clues, but that would spoil things. Based on previous novels in the series, I'm confidant that I will find more clues when I reread it.

The characters get into some tight spots where things get a bit hectic, but that doesn't dominate the book. There is plenty of room for Gideon's brilliant detective work. And he explains what he's thinking, so a reader who hasn't met a scientist or read other Gideon Oliver novels can get a look into the mind of a scientist. Altogether a great read.

Appendix: After writing the review, I looked up the two papers to which Elkins referred in his Acknowledgements. One was the inspiration for the very peculiar bone fragment that Gideon analyzes along with the skull. The other inspired the damaged neck vertebrae that Gideon analyzed. Elkins is very thouough with his science.

[Original review 9 June 2007; this added 29 June 2007] I finally read Elkins's description of his trip on the Amazon, which was research for this novel. I recommend it for what it can add to your appreciation of this novel. Click on the link to his Profile page, above, and you will find a link to his website. Also at his website is a link to a forensics page which will be interesting to readers who like real forensics.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 8, 2007 1:04 PM PDT

Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human
Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human
by Chip Walter
Edition: Hardcover
92 used & new from $0.01

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All the Things We Are, May 30, 2007
How do toes rate a spot in the title? As Chip Walker says "The same big toe made thumbs - and the tools they fashioned - possible, which led to the evolution of language, arguably the greatest tool of all." Mind you, he said this after spending 200 pages justifying it.

The big toes of apes are toward the side, rather like thumbs, and are used for grasping branches while climbing. Humans' big toes are in the front and support our striding walk. As Walter points out, this doesn't necessarily involve major genetic change; a small change in a regulatory gene, such as a Hox gene, could have made most of the difference.

Once our ancestors were walking upright, their hands were free to make and use tools, to carry food and tools, and to gesture to others while walking. This new posture led to changes in the shape of the neck. This increased the range of vocal sounds our ancestors could make. After further evolution, each of us is born with the capacity to make all of the sounds in all of human language.

Walter brings up the hypothesis that language began with gestures and only later was connected with speech. This may sound far-fetched to some, but humans communicate with gestures and speech together, so it would have been easy for gesture-language to give rise to speech-language.

From toes to speech covers the first half of the book. This is in 3 sections: "Toes", "Thumbs", and "Pharynx". Then come "Laughter", "Tears", and "The Language of Lips". 4 of these are obvious, but "Pharynx" deals with language and with the nature of consciousness, and "Lips" covers a wide range of topics, including kissing, pheromones, and why women prefer big, strong men.
There is also a short, mostly speculative section about current topics, such as why men are better at math and women at language.

There is much here that is well established, but there is also much that is hypothetical or even speculative. For example, the importance of big toes for upright walking is well established, while the question of whether men are better at math and women at language is still being debated. Fortunately, Walter points out the uncertainties frequently. We read "says", "thinks", "believes" and so on. Too often, science writers report unverified results and researchers' interpretations as if they were established facts. Walter lets a few such items slip by, but he's generally more careful.

Thumbs, Toes, and Tears covers a lot of territory that doesn't leave a lot of room for in-depth analysis. The goal is for the reader to see that all the many pieces fit together into one picture. We know the pieces must because WE are the picture. Walter himself describes the main fun of the book: "I do hope that the science in the book can help curious mainstream readers learn something interesting and thought-provoking about themselves. I want them to have those `Ah-ha' moments.' (Walter, W.J., Jr., personal communication.) I had several of those moments myself, and I am a fairly advanced reader.

There is a final chapter, "Cyber sapiens", about our species' bionic future, which should stimulate a lot of thinking. Walter doesn't go into the area I find more exciting: genetic engineering. For a few thousand years men have been genetically modifying crops, livestock, and pets using techniques that have been in nature for hundreds of million years. Now a few labs are working out how to create new genes. There's not much to say yet, but it's worth thinking about how both bionics and genetic engineering will affect society. Will the new technology be available, or will the super-rich make of their descendants a new Master Race of ubermenschen?

It is not a criticism to say that much of the material is uncertain; it is one of the strengths of the book. Science starts with speculation, with scientists asking questions. Questions lead to testable hypotheses and testing sorts out the ideas that work from those that don't. Eventually there is solid, established theory. Walter gives a look at the beginnings of a science of the human mind. perhaps some of the younger readers will be inspired to join this quest.

Why Beauty Is Truth: The History of Symmetry
Why Beauty Is Truth: The History of Symmetry
by Ian Stewart
Edition: Hardcover
74 used & new from $0.01

81 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Walking Tour of Group Theory in Math and Physics, May 21, 2007
"Beauty" in Stewart's title refers to symmetry in mathematics and physics, and to the mathematical structures called groups, which express this symmetry. "Truth" refers to the fact that the fundamental laws of the universe are described by such symmetries.

Before Stewart goes into this, he builds up for about 100 pages, giving the historical background of the ideas leavened with some biographical sketches. Then he gives two simple examples which form a basis for going into the later topics. I can't match Stewart's simplicity in a brief review, but I hope I can give you an idea of the nature of the examples.

Symmetry here has a somewhat more general meaning than in ordinary language. Ordinarily we say that something is symmetric if it looks the same as its mirror reflection. It is often said that a starfish has "radial symmetry" because, if it is rotated by 72 degrees (1/5 of a circle), it still looks the same, right down to the legs pointing in the same directions. Stewart considers the rotations and reflections of an equilateral triangle and defines a sort of "multiplication" of these turnings. The turnings together with the "multiplication" have a structure known as a "group". (It is called "multiplication" because it follows the same rules as multiplication of numbers. Any set of things which follow these rules is a group.)

There is also purely mathematical symmetry. For example, suppose you have a formula containing 3 numbers. If you rearrange those numbers in any order and the value of the formula is still the same, that rearrangement is called a symmetry. Instead of preserving the shape of an object, it preserves the value of an expression. Stewart shows that there is a deep connection between this group and the triangle group: both have the same multiplication table.

From there, Stewart goes on to applications of groups, symmetry and connections, mostly in physics. Here, he can't go into as much detail because the mathematics is too advanced. Like others who write on Physics for a general audience, he gives an impression of what the physics is like. This is why I called it a "walking tour". Unlike many others, however, he makes it clear he's not telling the whole story. For example, when talking about the spin of a particle, authors often have a drawing of a ball with a curved arrow indicating a spinning motion. "The particles did not spin in space, like the Earth or a spinning top. They "spin" -- whatever that means -- in more exotic dimensions." Before I read this, I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out explanations while visualizing a spinning ball. Now I just understand that spin is an abstract property and I have a better feel for the character of the science. I think that many readers will have a clearer notion of Einstein's (and Riemann's) curved space than can be gotten from the misleading "rubber sheet geometry" analogy that is so popular with science writers.

As he gets into the physics, Stewart brings up a new type of mathematical object, the Lie groups. I have seen these a few times before with no understanding at all. I assumed that they involved some abstruse math that would require more work than I was willing to put out. But Stewart defines two of these groups, called O(2) and SO(2), and they turn out to be very like the triangle group. No one had been able to explain this for general readers before because no one was prepared to spend over a hundred pages working up to it.

There is a lot of good material in this book and none of it requires any knowledge of high school math, although a little algebra will enhance some people's appreciation.

At this point I have to mention that I have a Ph.D. in math, although not in areas related to group theory. Much of the material in this book is new to me. Over the past few decades I have spent considerable energy learning how the general public sees math and science and thinking of how to explain ideas in non-technical ways, so I am confidant when I say: Why Beauty Is Truth is an excellent book to give general readers a view of how the beauty of symmetry, expressed in the language of groups, has helped to shape modern physics.

Addendum: (This is strictly for people who want to think seriously about the math.) The "multiplication" I mentioned in the triangle example means one turning followed by another. Once you get to the definition in the book, you might like to do some calculations to verify that the turnings really do form a group, that the "multiplication" table is correct, and that the triangle group and the permutation group have the same table. (This kind of equivalence is very important in mathematics.) I don't recommend this for all readers, but for some it will give a real insight into how mathematicians work. I do recommend it very strongly for young readers who might like to major in math.

Unnatural Selection (Gideon Oliver Mysteries)
Unnatural Selection (Gideon Oliver Mysteries)
by Aaron Elkins
Edition: Hardcover
81 used & new from $0.01

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Mystery, Great Forensics, May 7, 2007
Gideon Oliver is a forensic anthropologist, a person who studies human bones to help the police determine who the deceased was and/or how he died. This is what distinguishes Oliver from other detectives in fiction. By now, Elkins has consulted with quite a number of scientists to make sure that Gideon gets his facts straight, and there are lots of facts. Unnatural Selection has more forensics in it than any of the others in the series.

Other people on this page have described most of the plot, so I'll just say a little about it. The action starts with Gideon, on vacation, examining a partial bone that had been discovered in the sand on a beach. He realizes that the marks on one end show that it had been sawed through and concludes that the person was probably murdered. He notifies the local police, they dig up more bones, and Gideon starts to piece together the story of the murder.

This all takes place in the context of a conference attended by several rather unusual people. Elkins likes to populate these novels with odd characters and he accomplishes that here by having a rich man convene a conference of people who are very interested in ecology but not very interested in scientific standards of evidence. Naturally, there are a lot of conflicts. Since we have to spend time with the suspects as Elkins establishes their personalities and their motives for murder, it's good of him to give us such interesting ones.

For me, a mystery writer should present enough evidence for the reader to guess who the murderer is, but should distract the reader so that he doesn't actually guess before the denouement. When Gideon and police sergeant Clapper confront the killer using evidence that had not been presented before, I felt that Elkins had "cheated". But I reread the book and I realized that there was enough information for us to guess. However, that would not be enough to justify an arrest in real life, so the, in order to make a satisfying ending to the story, Elkins provides additional info to the police. Interestingly, there is one clue that is so subtle that most readers will miss it. As we're reaching the end, Elkins puts in a suggestion to go back and reread that passage, but I was too eager to get to the end and I just kept reading.

As for the bones, this one is a solid winner for Gideon Oliver fans. Even before any crime is discovered, he describes to a regional museum director what the bones of a Cromwellian soldier tell about the soldier's life and death. As far as I can tell, this is a bonus, having nothing to do with the plot. Then he finds the sawn-off tibia and sets off the investigation. He uses some of the methods that appear in earlier books, but he also uses some new ones. For example, in the past he has used dentition and the ossification of long bones and the pubis to determine age; here he uses ossification of the cartilage connecting the ribs to the sternum - similar idea, but expanding our knowledge. For those who are not already Oliver fans, I have to mention that Elkins uses technical terms and explains them. There are only a few per book, so anyone who is interested can learn them. He also shows Gideon in the act of thinking through the clues he finds. Unlike the TV crime shows I've seen, you get real forensics here.

In Unnatural Selection, the forensics sections are more extensive than in most of the others in the series, and also more integrated. In order to guess whodunit, or to appreciate the revelation when it comes, you have to read both the conversations with the suspects and the conversations with the police.

Real mystery, real scientific investigation, really interesting characters - it's a great combination.

Signal Transduction
Signal Transduction
by B. D. Gomperts
Edition: Paperback
Price: $76.98
38 used & new from $3.60

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Solid Look at an Important Part of How Our Bodies Work, and Sometimes Don't, February 14, 2007
This review is from: Signal Transduction (Paperback)
The authors intended this book for students and professionals. I don't fall into either group but I enjoyed it and learned from it, so I'm reviewing it for other similarly inclined non-scientists.

Cell-to-cell communication is of supreme importance to multicellular organisms and so it is of interest from many points of view. For example, I am very interested in its role in evolutionary developmental biology. Other people will be more interested in hormones, nerve signaling, et al. Signal Transduction is that part of communication that happens inside the cell, between the signal and the DNA. Thus it doesn't include neurotransmitters which activate ion channels in the membrane, nor does it include steroids, which pass through the membrane and into the nucleus. Nevertheless, it covers most cell communication. In particular, there is a lot of material on G-protein-coupled receptors, which make up a majority of the receptors, and tyrosine kinase receptors, which are also plentiful.

As the authors describe it, chapters 1-9 are on the "nuts and bolts" of transduction. This includes a very brief introduction to intercellular signaling molecules (such as hormones and neurotransmitters) and receptors, followed by some details about the internals, including calcium ions and phosphate exchange. In the second part, "attention is concentrated on transduction processes set in action by growth factors and adhesion molecules". There is also a short section on insulin. This part fills in the chains from the receptors to the DNA and describes the processes which regulate the chains and switch them off after they've done their jobs.

The choice of emphasis in the second part allows the authors to spend some time on cancer. Failure in the growth factor pathways can cause cells to proliferate out of control; failure in cell adhesion can result in metastasis. Accordingly, there are sections on the cell cycle, the transformations of cancer cells, and apoptosis.

(For more details, click above on "See all Editorial Reviews".)

I said that I am not a scientist, but that doesn't mean that Signal Transduction is a book for beginners. The reader must have some experience with molecular biology diagrams in which symbols stand for molecules that are interacting with each other. Some biochemistry is required, though not a lot. The reader will need to know what amino acids, lipids, and nucleotides are. If you're unsure if this is the level for you, it might help you to click on my name above and read the "In My Own Words" part of my profile and to click on "Read all my reviews" to get some idea of what I've been reading. Signal Transduction isn't the most advanced book that I've read, but it's more advanced than most.

The book jacket calls this book a "text reference" and a "valuable resource". That is the right way to see it; I have already used it to help me understand some articles on the Internet. But I also recommend that you read the book at least once all the way through, both to get the lay of the land and to enjoy this fine book.

I mentioned that cell signaling is very important in evolutionary developmental biology ("Evo-Devo"). For any reader interested in that subject, I highly recommend Sean Carroll's From DNA to Diversity. If you are interested in evolution, note in Signal Transduction how enormous complexity comes about through duplication and modification of genes; indeed, whole transduction chains can be regarded as modules that are duplicated with modification.

If you want to know more about what happens at the other end of the chain, at the DNA, I recommend Molecular Biology of the Gene by Watson, et al. If you want to know more about cancer, there is an excellent elementary book, Molecular Biology of Cancer, by Lauren Pecorino; this book helped prepare me for Signal Transduction.

Molecular Biology of Cancer: Mechanisms, Targets, and Therapeutics
Molecular Biology of Cancer: Mechanisms, Targets, and Therapeutics
by Lauren Pecorino
Edition: Paperback
36 used & new from $3.15

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Introduction to the Biology of Cancer - and More, January 11, 2007
I'm one of those people who like to know how things work - especially if those things are inside my body and are likely to shorten my life span. Since my doctors don't tell me anything, I need other sources, and since the Internet is unreliable, I need a guidebook I can trust. Molecular Biology of Cancer turned out to be just the right book for me. It is also an excellent first book for anyone interested in the molecular biology of cancer.

First, as to technical level: This is very much what one expects in an undergraduate science text, with lots of section headings, lots of diagrams, and lots of boxes highlighting important points. If, like me, you're a non-student and non-scientist but interested in the subject, you'll probably find it very readable. You'll need to have some experience of reading diagrams in which symbols (squares, circles, etc.) represent molecules interacting with each other. And you'll have to be comfortable reading books with plenty of technical language. The terms specific to cancer biology should be no problem since they are well-explained and the terms that are in the glossary are printed in red in the text. You won't need to know anything about the chemistry involved in the molecular interactions (nothing about hydrogen bonding or redox, for example).

Some single-celled organisms can simply grow and divide as fast and as long as their food supply allows. Those that live in colonies must have chemical signals to regulate each cell's growth and activity. Mammals, being enormously more complex, need much more sophisticated communication between cells. That means, of course, that there are many things that can go wrong and many mechanisms to fix things that go wrong. And therefore, there are many things to be considered when diagnosing and treating cancer. Pecorino chooses particular examples to explain general principles.

First, a cell normally doesn't divide until a signal from outside sets off a chain of events that leads to division. An error in this chain, caused by an abnormal protein, can cause the cell to divide without the external signal. Pecorino chooses epidermal growth factor (EGF) to show the working of such a chain. When a cell does start to divide out of control, there are mechanisms which try to stop the reproduction, or to kill the cell. Pecorino focuses mostly on one molecule, called P53, which is involved in a number of such mechanisms and is abnormal in a majority of tumors, including mine. Most cells are fastened in place, so it takes a further abnormality for them to break loose. Since most cancers are caused by abnormal or inappropriately expressed genes, DNA repair and regulation are important. Here, Pecorino mentions the BRCA genes, which turn up often in articles about breast cancer. These are major topics, but there is much more than I can mention in an Amazon-size review.

So many genetic flaws don't show up all at once; a cancer is the product of evolution within one body. This is implicit in Molecular Biology of Cancer, but it is more developed in another book, Darwin in the Genome. (See my review for more info; click above on "See all my reviews".)

Given that there are so many molecular systems involved in cancer, one can see why there are many points at which drugs may inhibit or kill cancer cells. Pecorino points out a number of these. She even flags many these with red target icons, symbolizing potential drug targets. Perhaps by the time a student gets to be a researcher, most of these will be passé - a lot of people are working hard on them -- but her aim is to teach them how to spot potential target molecules and interactions and I think she succeeds.

Cancer can be of interest to people who aren't affected by it because, by showing what happens when things go wrong, it gives new insight into how these systems work in general. For those interested in developmental biology, it shows what happens inside a cell in response to a signal whereas most of the books I've read just mention the cellular interactions. Pecorino also gives examples of how a large variety of molecules may be created by mixing and matching a much smaller collection of simpler molecules or domains; this modularity is important in evolution.

So this book will be of interest to a variety of readers for a variety of reasons. Pecorino is particularly interested in students and hopes that some will be inspired by this book to take up cancer research. I second that and I hope that some will find metastatic prostate cancer to be a worthy field.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 6, 2010 3:01 PM PDT

Dawn of the Dinosaurs: Life in the Triassic (Life of the Past)
Dawn of the Dinosaurs: Life in the Triassic (Life of the Past)
by Nicholas C. Fraser
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $31.46
60 used & new from $10.24

74 of 74 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Intermediate-Level Look at the Roots of Modern Life, November 28, 2006
Based on the product page, I couldn't be sure this book wasn't just another dinosaur picture book. But Douglas Fraser specializes in Triassic vertebrates, so I figured he would include some solid information. Dawn of the Dinosaurs exceeded my hopes. The focus is on vertebrates and there are descriptions of many of them, but plants, invertebrates, the physical environment, and climate are also covered.

Fraser opens by describing the early Triassic landscape. It is often said that the Triassic was hot and arid, but Fraser also tells of more hospitable environments, some home to amphibians and crocodile-like animals. There is an overview of the animals, especially the vertebrates, and the plants that supported them. The rest of the book goes chronologically through the Triassic, with sections devoted to various geographic locations in each period.

There are many animals named here, far more that a reasonable person can memorize. My approach was not to try to remember names, but to get an idea of the diversity in the various environments. It is necessary, however, to know some of the groups of animals. For example, the ornithodira were the pterosaurs and dinosaurs and their unique common ancestors. To keep track of these I looked up some in Google, and I printed off cladograms from [..]

There is quite a bit of specialized vocabulary, especially regarding vertebrate anatomy and the time divisions within the Triassic. Some of this is found in the glossary and in the appendices. I suggest that you go to the appendices before reading the book and make sure you are familiar with the material. I also found myself looking up a number of words on the web.

Despite the specialized vocabulary, I would not say this is an advanced book. There are no difficult concepts here, no obscure principles and no mathematics. It may take time to absorb the vocabulary, perhaps more than one reading, but someone with a modest knowledge of ancient life can follow it. And it is worth it because, as far as I can tell, this very important period in the history of life is not well represented in popular media. There are explanations of such things as how to tell a dinosaur ancestor from a crocodile ancestor and how animals interact with each other and with their environments. There are also explanations of debates among paleontologists, showing the evidence and arguments they use. Thus it goes beyond a mere catalog of animals and that is why I ccall it "intermediary".

One section of the book is titled "The Birth of Modern Terrestrial Ecosystems" and it's very appropriate. The mass extinction at the end of the Permian had wiped out nearly all animal life and, unlike Noah's flood, this catastrophe left no boat filled with millions of animals ready to repopulate the earth. The few survivors grew in numbers and diversified and by the end of the Triassic there were new ecosystems very different from those before the crash. I'm not saying that you should regard Triassic animals as merely transitional forms on their way to becoming modern. Nature doesn't work that way. They thrived because they were well suited to their times and places. It's just that the world they created is very much the one we live in today.

While this is not primarily a picture book, I have to say that Douglas Henderson has created a number of attractive pictures which illustrate the text well.

Creatures of Accident: The Rise of the Animal Kingdom
Creatures of Accident: The Rise of the Animal Kingdom
by Wallace Arthur
Edition: Hardcover
70 used & new from $0.01

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly Good Science for Such Plain English, November 7, 2006
I read a lot of magazine and Internet articles about science and written in plain English for general readers. The science is usually vague and often inaccurate. Wallace Arthur manages to get across real science while avoiding jargon. For example, the old biology cliché "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" is rendered as "development repeats evolution". This is followed by a few paragraphs of explanation. And he covers a number of topics which are important for understanding evolution that aren't generally included id beginners' books.

The most important of these is gene duplication. The machinery that manages our DNA sometimes makes extra copies of one or more genes. The duplicate copies may then undergo mutation and take on new functions while the old ones remain unchanged. A LOT of evolution involves gene duplication. Arthur doesn't say how gene duplication happens - that requires biochemistry - but it is important to know that it happens.

Another topic is development, from egg to adult. This is critical for understanding the evolution of complexity. Some genes involved in development, such as the Hox genes that Arthur mentions, are important in evolution. Copying of Hox genes is a major factor in the increasing complexity of animals; some more advanced books have charts showing the parallel between Hox gene duplication and increasing complexity. The interaction of genes and proteins is another important topic. And there are other topics, too much for me to cover in a short review.

Arthur frequently pauses to relate a current topic to what came earlier in the book, or to suggest what is to come. People who read a lot of science books are used to doing this for themselves and might be annoyed by Arthur's doing it. But for true beginners, this will probably be helpful.

Creatures of Accident provides only a beginning look at the natural processes that give rise to complexity. A number of other books - all more advanced - go into the subject in more depth. I have reviewed several of these and I recommend them. Click above on "See all my reviews" for more. There is also a brief summary in my Listmania list "Natural Processes That Promote Evolution". To find it, click on my name, above, and scroll down my profile page to that title. I will mention here that Sean B. Carroll's The Making of the Fittest is an excellent next book for someone who has read Creatures of Accident; a reader who has had a decent HS biology course might want to start with that book. Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful would be suitable for a college course, but is suitable for readers who are not bio students. Darwin in the Genome by Lynn Caporale looks at the evolution of those natural processes themselves. There are a number of very good books ranging from elementary to some suitable for graduate bio majors.

Creatures of Accident won't convince anybody that the ID claim is false; there's not enough detail for that. But it will give beginners a start to learning what evolution is really about. And that means the prospect of a lot of exciting reading ahead.

The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution
The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution
by Sean B. Carroll
Edition: Hardcover
47 used & new from $4.50

185 of 189 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Primer of Evolutionary Theory for Beginners, October 13, 2006
Richard Dawkins wrote a very enjoyable book titled The Ancestors Tale. It traces our evolution backwards, from humans, through apes and monkeys and so on, back to simple one-celled organisms. It tells the who of evolution: which species were descended from which. The Making of the Fittest tells the how and why: how variations appear in organisms and why they survive, or don't. This is the story of natural selection. Darwin told the story, but a lot more has been learned since then, especially in recent decades, and Sean B. Carroll has been one of the discoverers. But, unlike many researchers, he can write a readable book for beginners.

Carroll focuses on DNA because that's of prime importance. When DNA is copied, for the reproduction of the cell or the organism, the copy is not always exact. The new variant is usually harmful, but might be helpful. Carroll shows, using elementary arithmetic, why helpful variants occur and prosper much more often that most people would guess. Keep in mind that, when a bad gene does come along, the organism usually dies and the gene disappears from the pool. The good genes usually accumulate.

Carroll tells the story mostly through examples. For example, we humans are descended from animals that could see only 2 colors. Carroll tells of the duplication of the gene for one of the colors and the mutation of the second copy to react to a third color. (I simplify; Carroll tells more of the story.) Duplication and subsequent mutation of genes is very important in evolution. It allows organisms to develop new capabilities without losing the old.

Another important mechanism involves genes which control the expression of other genes. Even with no change in a given gene, a change that causes the gene to be expressed in a new place or at an additional stage in development can give rise to a new capability with no harm to the old. (Again I simplify.)

Gene duplication, changes in gene expression, and other mutations leave traces in our DNA and these give clues to our ancestry. This fact explains the book's subtitle. More important to Carroll, these traces also demonstrate natural selection at work. To give a personal example, an examination of my genome would show that the gene which shuts off lactose digestion in adults had been knocked out by mutation; as a result, I have a source of nutrition that is not available to most humans.

There's not much that one has to know to read this book. It probably helps to know that a gene is a segment of DNA and that the sequence of its bases determines the sequence of amino acids that makes up a protein. However, Carroll explains this. I haven't been a beginner for a few decades now, but I think Making of the Fittest will be accessible to a bright high-school.

As elementary as it is, it still has information that is of interest to me. The most important concerns the evolution or the eye. (He doesn't indicate the value of a cup-shaped eye: the animal can tell the direction from which the light comes by the part of the eye which isn't receiving it. And an eye that has only a small opening can form a rough image even without a lens.)

Carroll says a lot about disproving creationist arguments. This is probably futile. Most creationists are convinced that they have a Higher Truth revealed to them by God Himself. This book will, however, be useful for people who accept creationism simply because they don't know the science. And, of course, for beginners who are simply interested in the science.

For those who are interested in the material in this book and would like more information, there are a few books, ranging from elementary to advanced, which I recommend and which I have reviewed. Two are by Sean Carroll himself, on the topic of "evolutionary developmental biology; one (Endless Forms Most Beautiful) is excellent for those who have absorbed the material in Making of the Fittest and the other (From DNA to Diversity) is considerably more technical. Other books cover different related material. Click on "See all my reviews", above for the reviews. (There are 3 pages of them.) Or, to see only books related to evolution, click on my name and, on the profile page, click on the Listmania "Natural Processes That Promote Evolution".

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