CHILDREN OF PROMETHEUS

THE ACCELERATING PACE OF HUMAN EVOLUTION

Building on earlier ideas (presented in The Runaway Brain, 1993, and Exons, Introns and Talking Genes, 1991), Wills, an English evolutionary biologist transplanted to the Univ. of Calif., San Diego, makes a cogent case for the continued and even more rapid future evolution of our species. The counterargument: Since the advent of life-saving drugs, vaccines, clean water, and other public health measures, even the —unfit— survive so handily that natural selection has nothing to work on. Not true, says Wills (and most evolutionary biologists), presenting such interesting evidence in support of his position as the finding that native Tibetans have as a group lived longer than anyone anywhere else at extreme altitudes with the help of adaptive changes. (Even during pregnancy, the Tibetan fetus is able to extract more oxygen and achieve a normal birth weight more successfully than newborns of nonadapted Chinese living the same area.) Wills is at his best in presenting examples such as this, as well as in his detailed discussions of the genetic trade-offs that have led to the survival of sickle cell or cystic fibrosis genes. Via these, he reprises the paleontological literature, focusing on his pet theme: the rapid growth of the human brain and mental faculties. His opinion: Environment plays a major role in interactions with genes, which among themselves may act quite mysteriously. He also points to new evidence that the uterus itself constitutes an environment that contributes to the concordance for certain traits seen—and the difference in others—in identical twins. Ultimately, Wills forecasts a rosy future: ’smart— pills for us to swallow as we learn more about the makeup of biochemical mind boosters; a gene pool diverse enough to meet future contingencies; life spans double what they are now. More important than this clearly optimistic vision are the cogent arguments about our evolutionary path to date and that make possible the uniquely human qualities of language, culture, and civilization.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-7382-0003-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Perseus

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1998

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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