Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book #3 of 2010


Author: Stephen Jay Gould
Year Published: 1977
Category: Non-fiction. Natural history/evolution/biology.

I've been meaning to read this for years, and I'm so glad I finally did. It's a masterful popular science collection -- I'm not surprised it became a bestseller when first published in 1977, and has been in print since. More than thirty years have passed since its original publication, but Gould's style remains fresh, his subject matters contemporary, his presentation insightful and timely. His writing is articulate, erudite yet accessible, and reflects a remarkable breadth of knowledge, often connecting apparently disparate branches of science in an elegant fashion.

This books collects the first thirty-three pieces Gould wrote for Natural History magazine and is the first of ten such volumes. I'm already looking forward to the remaining nine.

I'm going to summarize a few of my "key learnings" here, for handy future reference:
  • Chapter 6. The concept of allopatric speciation, "the phenomenon whereby biological populations are physically isolated by an extrinsic barrier and evolve intrinsic (genetic) reproductive isolation, such that if the barrier should ever vanish, individuals of the populations can no longer interbreed."
  • Chapter 7. The theory of neoteny in humans. In neoteny the "the physiological (or somatic) development of an animal or organism is slowed or delayed (alternatively, seen as a dilation of biological time)."
  • Chapter 8. Altricial vs. precocial mammals. Altricial: "pattern of growth and development in organisms which are incapable of moving around on their own soon after hatching or being born." Precocial: "refers to species in which the young are relatively mature and mobile from the moment of birth or hatching."
  • Chapter 9. Orthogenesis and allometry. Orthogenesis: "the hypothesis that life has an innate tendency to move in a unilinear fashion due to some internal or external 'driving force'." Allometry: "the study of the relationship between size and shape."
  • Chapter 9. The Allerod Interstadial phase. "A warm and moist global interstadial that occurred at the end of the last glacial period."
  • Chapter 10. r/K selection. "Relates to the selection of combinations of traits that trade off the quantity and quality of offspring to promote success in particular environments."
  • Chapter 11. Predator satiation. "An antipredator adaptation in which prey occur at high population densities, reducing the probability of an individual organism being eaten."
  • Chapter 29. Bergman's rule. "An ecogeographic rule that correlates latitude with body mass in animals. Broadly it asserts that within a species the body mass increases with latitude and colder climate, or that within closely related species that differ only in relation to size that one would expect the larger species to be found at the higher latitude."
  • Chapter 30. Analogous vs. homologous features. Analogy: "Two structures in biology are said to be analogous if they perform the same or similar function by a similar mechanism but evolved separately." Homology: "Refers to any similarity between characteristics of organisms that is due to their shared ancestry."
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