THE RUNAWAY BRAIN

THE EVOLUTION OF HUMAN UNIQUENESS

Remember the ``mitochondrial Eve'' (popularly interpreted to mean that we're all descended from an African mom upward of 200,000 years ago)? Remember Carleton Coon and the independent origin of the races of mankind? These are among the new and older ideas revisited in this wide-ranging review by Wills (Biology/UC San Diego; Exons, Introns, and Talking Genes, 1991). Essentially, Wills agrees with Stephen Jay Gould and others that evolution doesn't mean progress and hasn't stopped with Homo sapiens. What appears to be progress in our case, he says, is not a case of the uniqueness of human evolution, but of the evolution of human uniqueness. This has come about by interactions between the genome and the cultural milieu that have led to the feedback phenomenon of the ``runaway brain.'' Contributing factors include the narrowness of the birth canal, which ushers babies into the world at an immature stage, and personal interactions that facilitate the rapid growth and expansion of the brain, with its diverse systems and capabilities. To arrive at these conclusions, Wills summarizes the paleontological evidence, including the personae and controversies: He offers the corrective that the mitochondrial Eve might be much older and have had numerous companions who passed on their nuclear (as opposed to mitochondrial genes); he speculates that Homo erectus might have spread across the continents with all its apparatus in place to evolve to sapiens. Wills undergirds this argument with the latest findings from molecular genetics about the roles of duplicate genes and mutations with ``potential.'' Along the way, he finds time to discuss the origin of language, the brains of idiot savants (now called ``individuals with savant syndrome''), and the potential for human self- and planetary destruction. An impressive compendium of data and theories of human evolution, along with the author's own speculations—sure to trigger controversy in a field known for contention.

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 1993

ISBN: 0-465-03131-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1993

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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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