Book Review: The Gyroscope of Life

Gyroscopes are entertaining toys and incredibly useful tools. They retain their balance and resist changes to their orientation as long as their flywheel is spinning. As the flywheel slows or stops, the gyroscope wobbles out of control and ultimately quits. Considering their design and function, it’s easy to find parallels between gyroscopes and living systems. Consistent energy inputs keep living things alive. Changes can bring imbalance; major disruptions can lead to death. There is a reason we often describe the natural world as a sort of balancing act. It is the work of an ecologist to make sense of this balancing act. The better we understand it, the more equipped we are to protect it and operate responsibly within it.

It is through this lens that David Parrish writes about the biological world in The Gyroscope of Life, a book that Parrish refers to as “a love song to the field of biology.” Parrish has spent much of his life observing and studying the natural world and, as professor emeritus of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech, undoubtedly shared much of what he presents in his book with countless students over the years. The Gyroscope of Life reads like part memoir and part last lecture, and is the work of someone who has an obvious passion for science and nature.

Parrish spends the first few chapters of his book writing mostly about his life and how he came to be a biologist. He acknowledges his privelege – “born male, white, and American in an era where each of those attributes provided me major advantages” –  having essentially been placed on third base from the start, “well down the third base line.” An aspiring zoologist turned botanist, he spent his early years in graduate school studying seeds and seed dormancy. It’s a topic that obviously interests him, as several pages of the book are spent considering what’s going on inside of a seed. “Seeds provide the widest-spread examples of suspended life,”  Parrish says. Are they alive or dead or neither?

Two additional, major life events play a prominent role in the arc of Parrish’s book. One being his break from organized religion and the other his battle with advanced prostate cancer. He grew up in an orthodox Christian home with a very literal understanding of the Bible. His education put him at odds with what he was taught growing up about (among other things) the age of the earth and its creation. Eventually he came to understand that science and religion “exist in separate non-overlapping spheres – the physical and the metaphysical.” He doesn’t necessarily see science and religion as being inherently at odds with each other, but his understanding of science makes it difficult to “find resonance in religion” due to the “cacophony of dissonance” it offers.

In addressing his prostate cancer, Parrish underwent an operation that gave him a newfound perspective on gender. Freed from “testosterone poisoning,” he was able to more fully consider sex and gender from a biological perspective, which he says he had been doing for decades prior to the operation. He spends a good portion of the book “demystifying sex and gender.” One compelling example he offers involves avocado flowers, which actually change gender over time, a phenomenon known as synchronous dichogamy.

avocado flowers (Persea americana) via wikimedia commons

Over the course of its pages, The Gyroscope of Life covers a significant number of topics in the fields of biology and ecology. It’s a relatively short book, but as it careens through such wide-ranging material, it does so in an approachable and suprisingly succint manner. Parrish’s sense of humor, which doesn’t waver despite how bleak the discussion sometimes gets, helps carry the story along and keeps things interesting. Parrish covers evolution (“[Biologists] argue that, if evolution didn’t happen, it should.”), taxonomy (“the name for naming things”) and sytematics, ecological niches (“[humans] are essentially living niche-free and ecosystemless”), domestication, and so much more. The last chapter is spent discussing agroecosystems (“the organisms and abiotic environment that interact in a human-managed agricultural setting”), a topic he spent much of his career studying.

The underlying message of this book, as I see it, is a simultaneous celebration for life on earth and a concern for the direction things are going considering how humans have managed things. Parrish has some admonition for humans in light of how we’ve treated our home planet, but he isn’t too heavy-handed about it. Overall, reading the book felt like sitting in on a lecture given by a friendly and dynamic professor who has obviously given a lot of thought to what he has to say.

Check out the following video to see David Parrish describe the book in his own words.

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