Wonderfully written history that provides a challenging perspective on what it is (or what people have thought it is) to be...

IN SEARCH OF HUMAN NATURE

THE DECLINE AND REVIVAL OF DARWINISM IN AMERICAN SOCIAL THOUGHT

The sobering conclusion one reaches at the end of this immensely informative and detailed history of social thought is that there is more to human nature than earlier commentators have imagined.

Degler, (American History/Stanford; At Odds, 1980) is marvelously adept at synthesizing paradigms past and present, quoting the prime movers in anthropology, psychology, biology, and other social sciences. Much of his test is devoted to a chronicle of the nature (biology) or nurture (culture) debate in relation to race, male/female differences, and intelligence. Darwin is seen as partly responsible for Social Darwinism and racism since he deplored the propagation of ``the weak members of civilized societies'' and despised the Tierra del Fuegans as savages. The swing away from biological determinism came with Franz Boas and his followers and later with cultural supremists such as Leslie White and Claude Levi-Strauss. In the decades between came the intelligence-testing movement, sterilization laws, behaviorism, the ``new syntheses'' of evolutionary biology and genetics, ethology, and sociobiology. World War II did much to counter racism, and the postwar years defeated behaviorism. Today, no one paradigm rules the roost, although Degler clearly sees value in the contributions of ethology and such ideas of sociobiology as inclusive fitness. His final chapters present varying contemporary interpretations of the incest taboo, male/female differences, and evolutionary theory in relation to sociopolitical thought. He concludes with conjectures on the evolution of culture itself, with discussions of the continuity from animals to man in self-awareness, planning, and even ethics- a discussion that leads him to conclude that some of Darwin's most radical ideas are only now coming to the fore.

Wonderfully written history that provides a challenging perspective on what it is (or what people have thought it is) to be human.

Pub Date: April 1, 1991

ISBN: 0-19-506380-5

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1991

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SLEEPERS

An extraordinary true tale of torment, retribution, and loyalty that's irresistibly readable in spite of its intrusively melodramatic prose. Starting out with calculated, movie-ready anecdotes about his boyhood gang, Carcaterra's memoir takes a hairpin turn into horror and then changes tack once more to relate grippingly what must be one of the most outrageous confidence schemes ever perpetrated. Growing up in New York's Hell's Kitchen in the 1960s, former New York Daily News reporter Carcaterra (A Safe Place, 1993) had three close friends with whom he played stickball, bedeviled nuns, and ran errands for the neighborhood Mob boss. All this is recalled through a dripping mist of nostalgia; the streetcorner banter is as stilted and coy as a late Bowery Boys film. But a third of the way in, the story suddenly takes off: In 1967 the four friends seriously injured a man when they more or less unintentionally rolled a hot-dog cart down the steps of a subway entrance. The boys, aged 11 to 14, were packed off to an upstate New York reformatory so brutal it makes Sing Sing sound like Sunnybrook Farm. The guards continually raped and beat them, at one point tossing all of them into solitary confinement, where rats gnawed at their wounds and the menu consisted of oatmeal soaked in urine. Two of Carcaterra's friends were dehumanized by their year upstate, eventually becoming prominent gangsters. In 1980, they happened upon the former guard who had been their principal torturer and shot him dead. The book's stunning denouement concerns the successful plot devised by the author and his third friend, now a Manhattan assistant DA, to free the two killers and to exact revenge against the remaining ex-guards who had scarred their lives so irrevocably. Carcaterra has run a moral and emotional gauntlet, and the resulting book, despite its flaws, is disturbing and hard to forget. (Film rights to Propaganda; author tour)

Pub Date: July 10, 1995

ISBN: 0-345-39606-5

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1995

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A brief but sometimes knotty and earnest set of studies best suited for Shakespeare enthusiasts.

THIS IS SHAKESPEARE

A brisk study of 20 of the Bard’s plays, focused on stripping off four centuries of overcooked analysis and tangled reinterpretations.

“I don’t really care what he might have meant, nor should you,” writes Smith (Shakespeare Studies/Oxford Univ.; Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book, 2016, etc.) in the introduction to this collection. Noting the “gappy” quality of many of his plays—i.e., the dearth of stage directions, the odd tonal and plot twists—the author strives to fill those gaps not with psychological analyses but rather historical context for the ambiguities. She’s less concerned, for instance, with whether Hamlet represents the first flower of the modern mind and instead keys into how the melancholy Dane and his father share a name, making it a study of “cumulative nostalgia” and our difficulty in escaping our pasts. Falstaff’s repeated appearances in multiple plays speak to Shakespeare’s crowd-pleasing tendencies. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a bawdier and darker exploration of marriage than its teen-friendly interpretations suggest. Smith’s strict-constructionist analyses of the plays can be illuminating: Her understanding of British mores and theater culture in the Elizabethan era explains why Richard III only half-heartedly abandons its charismatic title character, and she is insightful in her discussion of how Twelfth Night labors to return to heterosexual convention after introducing a host of queer tropes. Smith's Shakespeare is eminently fallible, collaborative, and innovative, deliberately warping play structures and then sorting out how much he needs to un-warp them. Yet the book is neither scholarly nor as patiently introductory as works by experts like Stephen Greenblatt. Attempts to goose the language with hipper references—Much Ado About Nothing highlights the “ ‘bros before hoes’ ethic of the military,” and Falstaff is likened to Homer Simpson—mostly fall flat.

A brief but sometimes knotty and earnest set of studies best suited for Shakespeare enthusiasts.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4854-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Dec. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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