Of Mars, Antarctica, and the human condition

Mars is a cold tease, an object of immediate interest to anyone who believes humanity needs to continue to venture outward.  It’s neither so hostile or so far from us to preclude manned missions entirely,  and it has its own resources that could, with a bit of planning and savvy, be used to support an expedition. Still, Mars: A Natural History is as close as you or I will ever get to Mars:   not only does Simon Borden take us through its past, told through the features of its landscape, but he uses bursts of a second-person narrative to put us on the surface of Mars itself, both in the past and present, to as though we were literally exploring the red tunes.  Borden’s  talent for description, already developed through his primary vocation as a science fiction author, is well on display here, both in the analysis of Mars’ geological features, and in the narrative imaginings that take us there as future and past explorers.  

Why can’t we all just…get along?  But we do. Our bodies are forged in cooperation, writes Nichola Raihani:   we are the creation of cells that banded together,  strengthened by outside prokaryotes who we put to work as mitochondria.  Our cells create organs, tissues, and structures, culminating in an individual, who then cooperates with still others to form a massive global society of people sitting and staring at their phones.  Humans are uniquely cooperative, frequently coming together en masse to help out perfect strangers — behavior unobserved in any other species, where altruistic behavior is limited to one’s immediate family circle. Nevertheless, we’re still fairly fluid about expanding or reining in the circle of those we care about; a wide-scale disaster can elicit both solidarity (volunteer search efforts, blood banks, etc) and selfishness (supply hoarding). I thought her analysis of the role of cooperation in human evolution and society to be a mixed bag; her observation that cooperation and competition are usually conjoined (we cooperate most often to compete against others or a mutual obstacle) was noteworthy, for instance, but understanding menopause as a cooperative action (grandmothers shutting down their own systems to prioritize her children’s child rearing efforts within the same household) was needlessly subtle compared to Jared Diamond’s more straightforward speculation that menopause is a way for the female body to protect itself against increasingly more dangerous pregnancies, and to focus resources on existing children or grandchildren. Raihani’s own speculation depended on a pervasive mother/daughter-in-law dynamic and potential power struggle. On the whole, The Social Instinct is full of interest, and I especially appreciated its expansive cell-to-societies survey, but I found some of its claims more dubious than others.

The Call of Antarctica introduces younger readers to the lure of Earth’s most remote continent,  which despite its withering severity has attracted explorers for over two centuries. The title alternates between history and an introduction to Antarctica’s unique climate, including the threats posed to it by human behavior, and prominently features the career of George W.  Gibbs Jr, a black man who joined several Antarctica expeditions and whose journal is quoted throughout the text, offering a first-hand look into early exploration.  Gibbs’ story is unusual in that despite the era (the 1940s), he was regarded among the expedition members as one of their own, and went on to serve in the US Navy during World War 2, earning a series of medals for his steadfast service there. The photographs included in the book are well-chosen to convey the continent’s savage beauty, and though this is written for younger readers, I still found a few surprises in store – like the existence of dry valleys,  areas locked off from the ice by mountains and which see less precipitation than any place on Earth.   Although the book’s mix of biography and natural exploration is sometimes distracting, I appreciated learning Gibbs’ story.  (On an interesting note: the author is a direct descendant of Gibbs, allowing for a generous amount of Gibbs’ personal photos to be used.)

Note: All three of the above were NetGalley advance reading copies, provided to me by the publisher with no expectations other than a review.

Still more science to come — including climate change-induced evolution, the chemistry of everyday life, and the stars in their courses. (And believe it or not, I still have astronaut books…)

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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4 Responses to Of Mars, Antarctica, and the human condition

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    Although I’ve yet to read either (yet!) you might like: ‘The Human Swarm – How our Societies Arise, Thrive and Fall’ by Mark W Moffett and in fiction: ‘Anthill’ by E O Wilson.

    • That first one was my planned-for anthropology read for 2021! Haven’t gotten to Anthill but his “Tales from the Ant World” was a possible Flora/Fauna entry. At least half the titles I PLAN to use get supplanted by others before the year is out. This year I’ve only used -two-. This is the list I sketched out last autumn:

      The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Oceans’ Are One, Sylvia Earle (Ecology)
      Fathoms: The World in the Whale, Rebecca Giggs (Flora & Fauna)
      The Journeys of Trees, Zach St. George (Ecology or Flora & Fauna)
      Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Merlin Sheldrake
      Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects (Ecology)
      Where Do Camels Belong? (Ecology)
      Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antitbiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues
      *The Last Stargazers, Emily Levesque (Local Astronomy)
      A Furious Sky: The Five Hundred Year History of America’s Hurricanes, Eric Jay Dolin (Weather and Climate)
      *Clean: The New Science of Skin (Wildcard – Science and Health)
      Tales from the Ant World, E.O. Wilson (Flora and Fauna)
      The Reality Bubble (Thinking Scientifically)
      Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever Changing Brain, David Eagleman (Brains)
      The Human Swarm / Transcendance, Anthroplogy
      Timefulness: Thinking like a Geologist (Geology)
      Skeleton Key: the Secret Life of Bone (Biology)
      A Brief History of Earth: Four BIllion Years in Eight Chapters (GEOLOGY)
      Liquid Rules (Chemistry)
      Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things

      • Cyberkitten says:

        NEAT List!

        The only one I’ve read is ‘Where Do Camels Belong?’ which I thought was REALLY good. I think the author also wrote the brilliantly titled ‘Do We Need Pandas?’

        I’m trying to schedule in more Science ATM but am having issues trying to fit it in with everything else. Definitely more Genetics stuff in the pipeline but I do feel the need to move away from Biology a bit more [grin].

      • One of the advantages of being a librarian is that spending time on Amazon reading book reviews is legitimately productive. 😉

        I know how the bio-fix is! That’s the whole reason for the survey — forcing myself to read about subjects I’d otherwise avoid for fear of seeing a math formula.

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