A challenging though rewarding exploration of the meaning and purpose 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 quirky wonder of a book.



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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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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