A challenging though rewarding exploration of the meaning and purpose of life.

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FROM DARWIN TO DERRIDA

SELFISH GENES, SOCIAL SELVES, AND THE MEANINGS OF LIFE

Of Mendelian demons, genetic catalysis, and other evolutionary matters having to do with why we’re here.

We are born, we grow up, and we die. If we have fulfilled our biological mandate, we produce others who do the same. Is that all there is? Biologists have long shied away from the question of whether life has meaning. For instance, writes Harvard evolutionary biology professor Haig, the great scholar Ernst Mayr dismissed early efforts as “impoverished and inadequate for understanding the living world.” Charles Darwin provided a framework for that understanding with his evolutionary theories, though, especially natural selection. Haig explores ideas from Aristotle to Richard Dawkins, examining teleological questions that seek answers for the “end” of why we live and what we live for. The author accomplishes this with, among other avenues, a detailed exploration of how genes work. Sometimes his explanations are resoundingly clear, as when he likens organismal behavior, made up of the interactions between “the historical individuals we identify as organisms and the historical individuals I have called strategic genes,” to the relationship between a nation and its citizens. At other times, it helps to have some background in modern biology and its concepts and language, as when he writes, “bacterial recombination involves the formation and dissolution of partnerships between coreplicons or the substitution of one gene for another in a process that has clear winners and losers.” Winning and losing are part of the whole process of evolution but not all of it. As Haig writes, departing from that terminology to add a fresh concept to the mix, “fitness is the telos of our genetic adaptations, but each passion has a proximate telos toward which it cajoles us to action.” That is to say, when we’re hungry, we seek food—and, according to other moods, sex, fame, and the like, a comprehensible notion made all the richer by Haig’s capable layering of more complex ideas. Daniel Dennett provides the foreword.

A challenging though rewarding exploration of the meaning and purpose of life.

Pub Date: May 19, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-262-04378-6

Page Count: 464

Publisher: MIT Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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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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As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

THE ORDER OF TIME

Undeterred by a subject difficult to pin down, Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, 2017, etc.) explains his thoughts on time.

Other scientists have written primers on the concept of time for a general audience, but Rovelli, who also wrote the bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, adds his personal musings, which are astute and rewarding but do not make for an easy read. “We conventionally think of time,” he writes, “as something simple and fundamental that flows uniformly, independently from everything else, uniformly from the past to the future, measured by clocks and watches. In the course of time, the events of the universe succeed each other in an orderly way: pasts, presents, futures. The past is fixed, the future open….And yet all of this has turned out to be false.” Rovelli returns again and again to the ideas of three legendary men. Aristotle wrote that things change continually. What we call “time” is the measurement of that change. If nothing changed, time would not exist. Newton disagreed. While admitting the existence of a time that measures events, he insisted that there is an absolute “true time” that passes relentlessly. If the universe froze, time would roll on. To laymen, this may seem like common sense, but most philosophers are not convinced. Einstein asserted that both are right. Aristotle correctly explained that time flows in relation to something else. Educated laymen know that clocks register different times when they move or experience gravity. Newton’s absolute exists, but as a special case in Einstein’s curved space-time. According to Rovelli, our notion of time dissolves as our knowledge grows; complex features swell and then retreat and perhaps vanish entirely. Furthermore, equations describing many fundamental physical phenomena don’t require time.

As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

Pub Date: May 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1610-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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