The author offers few crushing debating points but an excellent overview of human genetics.



An earnest review proving that the concept of “race” has no basis in science.

The title is misleading because it implies that, confronted with the evidence, a typical white supremacist will admit the error of his or her ways. Sadly, countless scientific studies have proven that deeply held beliefs are usually impervious to facts. Regardless, British science writer and geneticist Rutherford, author of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (2017), writes a lucid history of Homo sapiens, emphasizing that 200,000 years of wandering, breeding, and wandering again has jumbled our DNA so thoroughly that we have become a single species with a great deal of genuine though not terribly consequential variation. “Racial purity is a pure fantasy,” writes the author. “For humans, there are no purebloods, only mongrels enriched by the blood of multitudes.” This didn’t prevent dominant cultures—e.g., the Chinese for millennia as well as the Romans and Aztecs—from taking their superiority for granted. Skin color played almost no role until the Age of Exploration, when white Europeans encountered societies that, lacking Western technology, were easy to exploit, often to brutal ends. Since almost all of the members of these societies had dark skin, that seemed a proxy for their weakness. After the scientific revolution in the 17th century, research overturned many nonsensical beliefs, but scholars still can’t explain why, with few exceptions, it missed the boat on skin color. Great thinkers, including Linnaeus, Kant, Voltaire, and others, expressed confidence in black inferiority, and 19th-century anthropology remained in the dark ages. In the 20th century, genetics came to the rescue by proving that far more variation exists within than between traditional races and that many racists beliefs are based on explanations that don’t involve genes. Rutherford admits that refuting the pseudo-scientific arguments of racial ideologues is futile, but he spends a great deal of time doing so; hopefully, readers are open to his arguments.

The author offers few crushing debating points but an excellent overview of human genetics.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-61519-671-5

Page Count: 224

Publisher: The Experiment

Review Posted Online: April 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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A quirky wonder of a book.



A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 4, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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