Non-Fiction Reviews

Life on Earth
Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged Stressed-out World

(2011) Stanley A. Rice, Prometheus, 22.95, hrdbk, 251 pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14225-4


Most books that look at life on Earth recount a chronological history or alternatively take a snapshot of life as it is now. Stanley Rice has done neither. Instead, what he has done is to look at some of the interesting developments both in terms of biology but also human biology/psychology (albeit with a zoological twist).

In addition to an introductory chapter on the Earth (and its formation), there are chapters on evolution, innovation, symbiosis, sex, altruism, religion science and finally 'faith in photosynthesis'. This may seem an eclectic mix (and in one sense it is) but these are also a mix of topics that are either key to the biosciences or are of 'popular science' debate principally among non-scientists. This last gives you a clue as to this books readership. It is written to the lower New Scientist level and so would be accessible to reasonably intelligent non-scientists, or teenager school pupils. Clearly some of the topics are more debatable in Rice's home country, the USA: in Britain Biblical creationists and climate deniers/sceptics are thinner on the ground. And the no nonsense writing style is clearly aimed at those seeking to make their mind up and in doing so want to hear a summary of the science side of things.   What Rice mercifully does not do is to present a detailed counterargument to creationist and climate sceptic arguments: that way lies a mire of specious argument, non sequitors and cant.   Instead we get a to-the-point, brief and easy-to-read introductions to these topics. If the reader wants detail then there is good academic referencing throughout to the key science papers (many of which admittedly you would need to be an undergraduate scientist to follow-up). So this book can also be a light, non-fiction beach read for scientists who have gotton too specialist for the big picture. (This last occurs a lot given the way our high-tech, expert-dependent society has developed, and is nothing to be ashamed of but does need to be recognised as all too often happening.)

Quibles: a few but they are all of nuance or to do with cutting research of the past half decade. In an introductory summary of a number of related topics nuance is inevitable due to the necessary brevity. Furthermore, no scientist can be totally on top of everything.

Rice's conclusions are that the Earth is a natural home for a diversity of life including humans and that many aspects of our culture spring from natural and impartial systems; that we need to value ecology and 'ecosystem services', and recognise that we humans are just passing guests on the surface of the Earth which will go on without us.

If you are a fan of David Attenborough's TV documentaries then you may well enjoy this take on our home planet and life.

Jonathan Cowie

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