A smooth, expert, and often startling history that emphasizes that no behavior separates us from other animals, but we...

HUMANIMAL

HOW HOMO SAPIENS BECAME NATURE’S MOST PARADOXICAL CREATURE—A NEW EVOLUTIONARY HISTORY

A lively exploration of “the epic meandering journey that every organism has made.”

That humans are conscious, cultured, and much cleverer than any other animal—but an animal nevertheless—is no secret to popular science writers. A steady stream of books explains how we got that way, and readers will not regret choosing this cheerful addition to the genre from British science journalist Rutherford (A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes, 2017, etc.). Humans use tools, he explains, but many mammals and birds do the same. They are often no more than sticks poked into a hole to tease out food, but ingenious variations arise; many are adopted by others, becoming a rudimentary cultural element. In the author’s native Britain, out of 1,000 sexual acts that could result in a baby, only one actually does, as he reports in a long section shooting down the belief that only humans have sex for pleasure. The author then steps back, admitting that one can never know why nonhumans engage in nonproductive intercourse, but innumerable creatures do so. Readers under the illusion that behavior like homosexuality, anal intercourse, and even necrophilia are “contrary to nature” will learn that the opposite is true. Rutherford also ably explores current conceptions and focus on cooperation through communication. Animals can deliver signals, and a few ancestors of Homo sapiens may have talked, but we took it to a new level. “We transmit information,” writes the author, “not just via DNA down the generations, but in every direction, to people with whom we have no immediate biological ties. We log our knowledge and experience, and share them. It is in the teaching of others, the shaping of culture, and the telling of stories, that we created ourselves.”

A smooth, expert, and often startling history that emphasizes that no behavior separates us from other animals, but we remain an utterly unique species.

Pub Date: March 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61519-531-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: The Experiment

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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