Earth’s history and biodiversity – in Technicolor!

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Biodiversity and Earth History. Authors: Jens Boenigk, Sabina Wodniok and Edvard Glücksman. Springer, 2015.

BookCover-9783662463932This book just blows me away!

It is so richly illustrated – adorned is probably the more appropriate word – with colour photographs, images and diagrams that it is a technicolor spectacular (and probably the reason why the pdf version is almost 300 MB) *. Indeed, the stats for this tome are awesome: 401 (+ xiv) pages with 476 illustrations and tables (>97% in colour)!! But, just because it’s exceptionally ‘pretty’, is it any good at what it (cl)aims to do..?

What is the book’s aim?

What is the aim of Boeningk et al’s Biodiversity and Earth History [hereafter shortened to BioHist]? First off, it’s not one aim, but several – and simultaneously; to be “a reading reference, illustrated guide, and encyclopaedia of organismal biology and geology”, and for “school- and university-level students, as well as members of the public fascinated by the intricate interrelationship of living organisms and their environment”. With multiple aims, and arguably for two quite distinct audiences, there’s a lot of pressure on this book to deliver. In evaluating BioHist I reviewed it as a botanist, and primarily as a lecturer who aspires to educate UK university undergraduates. And, as a botanist, I’m acutely aware that a lot of texts that purport to deal with biodiversity and evolution (major themes of BioHist) usually mention plants in a fairly cursorily way, relegating them to minor roles – mere bit-players – in the drama that is Earth history and evolution. Is BioHist better than the would-be competitors in that regard?

How BioHist works

Before we consider plants specifically, a few words about the book’s layout are in order. Although BioHist consists of four chapters, the first is really a user’s guide to the book. At 9 pages it is the smallest division, but importantly explains the layout of the book. Essentially each two-page spread is a single topic with text on the left (even page numbers) and graphics on the right. The text is designed at two levels of understanding; the upper portion, preceded by a green square, is introductory material providing a broad overview of the topic, and featuring general principles; the lower text block offers a deeper understanding of the subject. Although complementary to the main text, in most cases the figures are independent thereof and should be understandable on their own. In the systematics section – Chapter 4 – a box at the bottom of the figures’ page gives extra information about the organisms featured. Additionally, the text page features a thematic glossary (for terms introduced on that page), and cross-referencing terms to link this section to others elsewhere in BioHist.

And that rigid organisation works and helps one concentrate on the important stuff – the explanatory text and illustrative images on each page. Guiding principles for the book as a whole are also welcome – especially the interdisciplinarity that is necessary and essential to a proper appreciation of the inter-relationships between biota and planetary processes. There is also a welcome emphasis on microscopic life in BioHist, for, as the authors quote on p. 4, “… the contribution of visible life to biodiversity is very small indeed.”

In other sections, Chap 2 (approx. 144 pp.) deals predominantly with Earth’s history (because one can’t consider the evolution and diversity of life on earth without a good scene-setting consideration of the evolution of the Earth itself); Chap. 3 (c. 67 pp.) summarises the distribution of present-day biodiversity; and Chap. 4 (c. 137 pp.) deals with Megasystematics (essentially an overview of classification with short accounts of many groups of living organisms). Strangely, the term megasystematics is never actually defined in BioHist. Resorting to a ‘Google’ search it appears to be defined as “systematics that concentrates on the higher levels of classes, phyla, and kingdoms” (Cavalier-Smith, T. (1998), A revised six-kingdom system of life. Biol. Rev. Camb. Philos. Soc. 73(3): 203-66 [Abstract only examined]).

Plants fare well

Well, what of BioHist from the ‘plant educator’s’ point of view? It’s good. I was suitably relieved to note that plants (or green plant-related processes such as photosynthesis) fare pretty well in BioHist, their mentions beginning – and quite rightly so! – in Earth’s History. Thus, in the Precambrian, we have Evolution of the Archean photoautotrophy: energetics of the anoxygenic and oxygenic photosynthesis (pp. 40/1). However, despite the importance attributed to oxygenic photosynthesis to life on Earth and its evolution, the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) is not mentioned by name(!) Plants get equal billing with animals in the extinction events’ timeline graphic on p. 67, but warrant – and deservedly so – their own Land plants section (pp. 96/7), and have a prominent role in Colonisation of terrestrial environments (pp. 110/1).

But, Development of the cormus [pp. 118/9] caused me to pause in my scrutiny of the text. This was a term that was not familiar to me. I now know – thanks to BioHist’s glossary – that cormus is Greek for “plant body divided into root, leaves and shoot axis” (so, not only a genus in the rose family). Whilst this degree of organisation is an important event in plant development/evolution, its significance may be overlooked by those skimming the book because of use of this ‘unusual’ word..

However, other nicely plant-specific entries follow: Towards a smaller and shorter-lived haploid generation (gametophyte) (pp. 120/1); Towards an increasingly dominant diploid generation (sporophyte) (pp. 122/3); Evolution of pollination (pp. 136/7); Evolution of C4 photosynthesis (pp. 144/5) (its C3 variant having been mentioned already, on p. 42); Physiological efficiency of C4 and CAM photosynthesis (pp. 146/7) (which is equally unexpected in such a text, but really nice to see!) As you’d expect there’s a good mention of plants in the tour of various biomes (pp. 200 – 225; curiously, there is no p. 226) in Chap. 3, and a rather thoughtful, and timely consideration of “What is a plant?” (pp. 236/7) near the beginning of Chap. 4 (and “What is an animal (pp. 238/9), and “What is a fungus” on pp. 240/1…). And we get nicely technical and taxonomic with consideration of plants and plant-like groups, from the Archaeplastida (p. 306) with 20 pp. on the Viridiplantae to end with the Asterids (p. 331). So, all-in-all, pretty decent representation of plants in BioHist (plus there’s lots of mention of photosynthetic microbes…). The book also benefits from plant-oriented Subject Boxes showcasing such topics as Cell wall materials, Chlorophyll, Alternation of generations, Vascular bundles, Coevolution within pollination biology, and Algal blooms.

Various reservations…

In a bid to aid understanding – and in addition to boxes in-text that define certain terms – there is a welcome 10 pages of 2-columned Glossary (pp. 367 – 377). But, it includes the term “Quarternary” (p. 375). I assumed this was a ‘typo’ for quaternary (the name for the last 2.6 million years of Earth’s history). But it’s shown as quarternary in-text (on p. 192 and in the Index on p. 398). However, we also have the word quaternary in the Table of Contents (p. viii) and in-text on pp. 68, 74, 138, 148. Two different words? Or poor editing?

Teasingly, there is a section entitled “References” (pp. 379 – 385; there is no p. 378…). However, this turns out to be a list of sources of the book’s illustrations – which is needed for the many images that are adorn BioHist. But, since there are no in-text citations, I was hoping that this section would give the necessary route to finding out more about the topics covered in the text. A hope dashed. So, and sadly, BioHist is devoid of References – or even Further Reading for those who have been sufficiently “fascinated by the intricate interrelationship of living organisms and their environment”, whether as a member of the public or a student. And one is therefore reliant upon the accuracy, diligence, etc. of the authors and what they have written. Although I have little reason to question the text’s veracity (but see Venus flytrap reservation below…), it is a pity that one is unable to follow-up some of the information presented here, especially where there are inconsistencies in the text. A good example of this concerns the number of plant species acknowledged by BioHist. On p. 4 we have mention of >400,000 plant species (but reduced to just 400,000 on p. 8). But, what is meant by ‘plants’? And what is the source of the number? And how does this relate to p. 176 where we have 290,000 land plants (although stated as 289,000 in the table on p. 177, and where there is also estimated to be 444,000 of them (although declared as 440,000 on p. 176))? Furthermore, where do the values of 258,650 described angiosperms – and an estimated 320,000 angiosperms (both on p. 177) – come from? And there’s also the case of the 2004 paper in Nature – which is quoted from on p. 4 – but nowhere in BioHist is the full source given! **

It’s good to see a substantial – 3-columned, approx. 14 pp. – Index (from Abiogenesis to Zygote, with entries for all 26 letters of the alphabet). But, I was rather surprised not to see Anthropocene listed (nor included in-text…). Although not yet officially adopted, this term is widely recognised as indicating the current stage in Earth history that has been dominated by human activities, and would seem ideal to have been included in an up-to-date encyclopaedia dealing with Earth history and biodiversity.

As a declared educational/teaching aid, it is incumbent on such a tome to exemplify highest standards in writing, and in accuracy. In that former regard, a revised version of BioHist would benefit from a thorough proof-read to eliminate its numerous ‘typos’ and errors, e.g. electrods (for electrodes – p. 35), inappropriate use of the definitive article in heading on p. 40, and in 3rd paragraph on p. 52, globale (for global on p. 47), Brasil (for Brazil? – p. 71), cloaka (p. 129, although more usually written as cloaca). What are ‘horst’ grasses (p. 207)? I also note that BioHist is not keen on closing a final sentence in a text box with a full-stop – there are several examples of this curious phenomenon in the graphics on pp. 15, 17, … (although the main text seems fine…), and inelegant phrasing – e.g. “the ability to absorb in particulate substances” (p. 55). On a matter of botanical accuracy, is the trap of the Venus flytrap really made of two specialised leaves as stated (p. 327)? Surely, it’s one modified leaf whose two blade portions are hinged to make the trap? Whilst these are largely matters of irritation rather than damning indictments of BioHist, they did detract from my appreciation of the text.

Projects such as BioHist in a post-Brexit era…
Although one probably shouldn’t use book reviews to express messages that might be considered political, I note (p. iv) that Jens Boenigk and Sabina Wodniok are at University Duisburg-Essen’s Faculty of Biology in Germany, and Edvard Glücksman is at the University of Exeter’s Environment & Sustainability Institute in the UK. Seeing what great things have been achieved by this Anglo-German co-operation, one hopes that future such projects may still be permitted as we await the uncertainty that surrounds the UK’s recent referendum recommendation. But, already there are indications that such EU-UK collaborations may be under strain

 

Overall…

From this plant educator’s perspective Biodiversity and Earth History is a welcome addition to the literature on Earth history, evolution and biodiversity and has set the bar really high in terms of its production standard for those that follow. But, it would be nice to see a revised, updated, follow-up version/edition that’s been thoroughly proof-read (and corrected), and with – at least – key references added.

 

* With such gorgeous graphics in the book, it would be great if instructors could get access to the illustrations for teaching purposes (rather than try to crop-and-copy them from the pdf version for display). Does such a facility exist?

** Although it appears to be from Sean Nee’s Commentary “More than meets the eye” (Nature 429: 804-805, 2004; doi:10.1038/429804a). And the correct full version of the quote is, “But it is now time for biologists — by whom I mean people who think of themselves as biologists, zoologists, botanists and ecologists — to cease presenting to their students and the public a perspective of life on Earth that is so biased towards the visible. This will not be easy. The first part of the challenge is accepting that the contribution of visible life to biodiversity is very small indeed.”


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