Harris Tweed, the miracle fabric

To understand the development of technology, you may be better off studying evolutionary biology rather than, say, computer science. A grasp of evolutionary theory, with the facility for reasoning backwards which it brings, is a better model for understanding the haphazard nature of progress than any attempt to explain the world by assuming conscious and deliberate intent. One useful concept from evolutionary thinking is the idea of the ‘adjacent possible’. As the science writer Olivia Judson explains: ‘Evolution by natural selection only works if each mutational step itself is advantageous. There’s no such thing as advantageous in a general sense. It’s advantageous in the circumstances you’re living in.’ In the

Not everything in the garden is lovely

While I was reading Most Delicious Poison, I visited a herbal garden in Spain which features the plants grown by the Nasrid rulers of Granada hundreds of years ago. They cultivated myrtle for its medicinal uses and jasmine for its fragrance. How did they know of myrtle’s properties? Some ancient ancestor must have figured it out. And that ancestor might be more ancient than we realise. Noah Whiteman explains that DNA from plants found in Neanderthals’ teeth tartar suggests even they were self-medicating with herbs. We have been entangled with the chemicals around us for as long as we have been human. The author of this book, a professor of

Laurel Hubbard is the beginning of the end of women’s sports

When women’s professional soccer was deemed good enough for our TV screens a couple of years ago, I was watching with a friend and her four-year-old son. He was enthralled by the game, and asked his mother, ‘Are boys allowed to play football as well as girls, mummy?’ This little boy’s comment clearly highlighted the insidious sexism prevalent in all aspects of competitive sport. When it comes to soccer, rugby, weightlifting, darts, you name it, commentating, sports writing, sports photography and so many other operational aspects of competitive sports are dominated by men. Female sports champions can be such important feminist role models for girls. Look at Martina Navratilova, Jessica

The solving of a biological mystery

DNA is the blueprint that encodes the instructions to make proteins. Proteins are the building blocks and the machines that power life. And proteins make up the tissue that in turn comprise the organs and muscles that make up us. Considering how crucial proteins are to life itself, there is still so much we do not know about them. But Google’s AI firm Deepmind may just have helped us make a giant leap forward. When a protein is first made inside a living cell, it is merely a chain of connected amino acids — like beads on a string. Yet, it instantaneously folds into unique three-dimensional, beautiful shapes, which enable

Covid’s metamorphosis: has lockdown made the virus more deadly?

‘Nothing makes sense in biology, except in the light of evolution,’ the splendidly named biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in 1973. It’s a good rule of thumb. Despite near-miraculous advances in medical science we remain biological beings, subject to biological laws. None is more central to our understanding of disease than evolution. Yet this theory remains poorly understood and poorly utilised in medicine. And an evolutionary perspective raises important questions about the drastic action we have been taking to confront Covid-19. Most doctors are too busy dealing with the day-to-day deluge of cases to have much time for what they may consider abstruse academic ideas. I can see why: it’s hard