Feats of Strength is well worth reading for any interested student of biology: a pleasurable read and fascinating analysis of amazing examples of biological adaptation. The theme is the central concept of biology itself: the driving force of evolutionary fitness (successful transfer of genes to the next generation). The author, a scientist who obviously loves biology, provides the reader with clear and fascinating examples of evolutionary fitness, along with interesting descriptions of the research behind our understanding of these traits. Further, Lailvaux is clearly interested in asking the question “Why?” – why has this trait evolved – and in developing research methods to find the answer.
Each chapter examines a theme of biological fitness (survival and successful reproduction): “Running, Jumping, and Biting,” “Eating and Not Being Eaten,” “Lovers and Fighters,” and so on. Final chapters address the complex question of “nature versus nurture” in evolution and phenotypic expression, as well as applications in understanding human evolution. Examples lead to frequent mental exclamations of “No way!” or a need for the reader to find a family member to read a choice tidbit out loud. The author’s love of biology is evident throughout, as he presents stalk-eyed flies, migrating swifts, mating spiders (a highly risky business for the males), and racing lizards in his overarching discussion of animal adaptation for survival and reproduction. The overarching imperative of reproductive fitness is evident in examples such as the wolverine frog, which fights to the death for reproductive rights by creating claws by “breaking the tips of its own fingers such that sharp broken bones pierce the flesh”; the mantis shrimp, which can break aquarium glass with a snap of its claw; and the cellular structure of snakes’ muscle, which gives them extra strength. Key concepts about evolution are highlighted, including that adaptation is a functional tradeoff (excellence in one trait often comes at a cost to other traits), that organisms must balance their “energy budgets” (every physical or behavioral adaptation has both a benefit and a cost), and that “evolution is a tinkerer.”
Lailvaux’s easy, conversational writing style makes his delight in his material obvious. Particularly evident is his interest in observing a phenomenon, asking why, and figuring out how to research the question. His descriptions of research highlight both elegant solutions to research problems (including lizards in mink coats!) and the difficulties of obtaining research results in a true field setting, or in applying results from controlled experiments to conditions outside the laboratory. There are some flaws in this generally excellent presentation. Lailvaux’s descriptions are occasionally marred by analogies to movies or sports that are not necessarily helpfully familiar to the reader. In several instances, the author alludes to videos that clearly demonstrate the phenomenon under discussion, but without specifically naming the video or including the link, leaving an interested reader to hunt through YouTube to find the material. His final chapter on “Mice and Men” is less clearly organized and presented, perhaps as a reflection of the more theoretical and fluid nature of the research involved. Despite these issues, Feats of Strength is an excellent recommendation for any interested student or teacher of biology and the evolutionary process.