Life on Earth by David Attenborough review – a reissued classic

The classic TV series and book influenced a generation. Its welcome reissue and update reveals how scientific knowledge has moved on

Somewhere in my parents’ photo albums there is a picture of me, aged seven or eight, lying in my bed, reading. On the wall, there are postcards from holidays, a poster of space pirate Han Solo crouching above a fictional snow lizard called a Tauntaun, and a picture of an equally alien but very real cephalopod, a nautilus, a mollusc with a pin-hole eye and tentacular cirri projecting from its tiger-striped shell. It was cut out from the second copy of Life on Earth that my father had acquired, the book that accompanied the BBC series by David Attenborough. The first was for reading, the second, bought cheap without a dust cover, was for the photos.

It’s difficult for me to appraise the work of Attenborough critically. I do ...

The human league: what separates us from other animals?

From masturbating dolphins to chimps using tools, animals often display behaviours that we’d consider uniquely human. So what makes us unique?

You are an animal, but a very special one. Mostly bald, you’re an ape, descended from apes; your features and actions are carved or winnowed by natural selection. But what a special simian you are. Shakespeare crystallised this thought a good 250 years before Charles Darwin positioned us as a creature at the end of the slightest of twigs on a single, bewildering family tree that encompasses 4bn years, a lot of twists and turns, and 1 billion species.

“What a piece of work is a man!” marvels Hamlet. “How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! … In action how like an angel! / In apprehension how like a god! … The paragon of animals!” Hamlet then ponders the paradox at the heart of humankind: what ...

The Beautiful Cure by Daniel M Davis review – how our immune system has shaped world history

A terrific book by a consummate storyteller and scientific expert considers the past and future of the body’s ability to fight disease and heal itself

Nature wants to destroy you. volution has been driven by aggressive forces in which organisms will enact their livelihood at the expense of yours. Any top 10 list of the greatest killers in human history will not include war or famine, or guns or drugs. Of the voracious beasts that might feed off your flesh, lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) wouldn’t even scrape into the top 20. It is the smallest things in the living world that have had the biggest impact on humankind: malaria, plague, Spanish flu, cholera, tuberculosis, HIV/Aids and smallpox. These diseases are all caused by entities unseen until modern history. From smallest to largest, Aids, smallpox and flu are triggered by viruses, which are tiny compared with the ...

A Day in the Life of the Brain review – rethink required

Susan Greenfield’s attempt to explain the latest research into consciousness has an interesting framing device, but that’s where the clarity endsYou are a male office worker. Your day begins with the buzz of the alarm, and ends uneventfully back in bed. During the day, you interact with characters in your life, including your son Jack, and Bobo the border collie, who is so insistent on a walk first thing in the morning, that – heaven forfend – you skip coffee. The day progresses, and you experience it in the only place that subjectivity occurs, which is in your brain. It’s this device that neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has chosen to frame her latest wade into brains and consciousness. Each chapter begins with a flourish of sorts, a short portrait of the key moments in this nameless drone’s day. It’s a joyless grind – Fight Club without the fighting. Your avatar’s ...