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22 March 2015

Book Review | The Next Species: The Future of Evolution in the Aftermath of Man by Michael Tennesen

The Next Species: The Future of Evolution in the Aftermath of Man by Michael Tennesen | March 2015 | Simon & Schuster | Hardcover $26.00

★ ★ ★

This is a decent pop-sci introduction to modern hypotheses regarding mass extinction events and evolutionary mechanisms, with a bit of "humans are probably going to accidentally suicide as a species" thrown in for funsies.

I guess I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. Perhaps my problem is simply that I'm not the target audience for it? I'm already familiar with many of the concepts discussed therein, and I'm quite interested in learning more about various subjects covered in the book, but there was never enough depth  in the coverage of any topic to satisfy me. On one page we're reading about the Burgess Shale, and on the next it's tuskless elephants. I think the author must have been trying to gather lots of related topics into broad but shallow overviews of his ideas, but this left me unsatisfied.

One of the things I did like about this book is the inclusion of the author's own experiences. From the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas to Vilcabamba in Peru, the readers is treated to first-hand accounts of various ecologically interesting locations. If the entire book had been a kind of travelogue from the perspective of an ecologist or evolutionary biologist, I'd have been 100% pleased.

- - - - - -

If it had been a mere matter of my preferred content vs. the actual content, I'd certainly have rated the book a little higher. But unfortunately, some key concepts are poorly explained. I'll demonstrate this with an example:

"For life to really get going, to produce the complex forms of more evolved beings, it had to have oxygen. [....] But then some of the oxygen-free bacteria evolved into cyanobacteria or blue-green algae [....] Photosynthesis used sunshine, water, and carbon dioxide to produce carbohydrates and, finally, oxygen. [....]

"Oxygen was the critical element in the burst of evolution that occurred during the Cambrian Explosion about 570 to 530 million years ago, when most of the major animal groups suddenly appear in the fossil record. At the time the air was murky, since there wasn't enough oxygen to scrub the atmosphere of haze and dust1. Without oxygen, there was no ozone, either, so the searing intensity of ultraviolet light from the sun could fall without obstruction2. Ultraviolet life [sic] breaks up water (H2O), and since hydrogen (H) is so light, it can slip into space, and there goes your ocean3. Without oxygen holding on to hydrogen, the world today might look a lot like Mars: a dry, dusty, pockmarked planet with no seas, lakes, rivers, or streams and no visible sign of life.

"Oxygen gradually accumulated on earth from the photosynthesis of plants4. Once oxygen reached critical mass, changes were sudden. If you look at the paleontological record in the soil, there is evidence of oxygen-free microbes in one layer, followed closely by oxygen-dependent microbes in another layer. This introduction of oxygen, though a boon to most life, spelled destruction for a good deal of earth's [sic] early ancestors who excelled without it.

"Oxygen made the planet livable. Once established, oxygen patrolled the atmosphere capturing all the hydrogen atoms trying to get away [....]"

1 I'm not clear on how a single elemental gas is supposed to "scrub" the atmosphere of haze (made of what?) and dust.

2 Wait, you just said the atmosphere was full of "haze and dust"... which sound like obstructions to me.

3 OK, so let's get this straight: There was no oxygen in the atmosphere, so UV light could break up the water molecules of the ocean. The hydrogen just floated off into space, presumably leaving the oxygen behind. So what happened to the left-behind oxygen molecules?

4 I though you JUST said it was cyanobacteria? I mean, multicellular plants took X years to develop, well after single-celled organisms caught on to the whole photosynthesis thing.

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I guess the author is trying to simplify things to make the book more readable for the lay person, but (in my opinion) he succeeded only in making these science concepts more confusing than they have to be.

Though the review copy I read was full of random grammar or word choice errors, which have presumably been picked up prior to printing the final copy, I really think this book could have used the attentions of a more thorough content editor. In the same way that long fiction books/series need someone to keep an eye on the continuity of the plot, someone has to pay close attention to the flow of thought (from premise to evidence to reasoning) in science nonfiction books. The Next Species could have been so much more enjoyable and informative if only I didn't have to constantly try to "translate" what the author was attempting to say or second-guess the logic behind the conclusions.

Perhaps this disconnect was due in part to Tennesen's experiences as a writer for science magazines like Discover and Scientific American. Perhaps I may have found the book more enjoyable if it were published as a series of articles instead? I don't know.

To end the review on a more positive note, I did appreciate the obviously massive amount of research that went into this book. Thorough evidence gathering/sharing is so important in science and Tennesen does this very well in The Next Species.

Visit the author's website (currently featuring a cool photo of him w/ a sea turtle) HERE.

Publication information: Tennesen, Michael. The Next Species: The Future of Evolution in the Aftermath of Man. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. EPUB.

Source: Provided by the publisher via Edelweiss.

Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Cait said...

Woah, I think this book would go completely over my head. 0_0 I'm sorry it wasn't a fabulous read for you though...although I guess a 3-star read isn't a total loss??

Thanks for stopping by @ Paper Fury!

Louise said...

Oh, I don't think it would go over your head at all! You seem like smart folk. Also I think the target audience really is non-scientists, no assumptions about preexisting knowledge, just an interest in the subject (the paragraphs quoted above are more intense than the bulk of the book).

But yeah, 3-star reviews are kind of the hardest to write because leaving it at just "This was pretty OK I guess, if you like author photos involving sea turtles" is silly.

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