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

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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THE GREAT BRIDGE

THE EPIC STORY OF THE BUILDING OF THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE

It took 14 years to build and it cost 15 million dollars and the lives of 20 workmen. Like the Atlantic cable and the Suez Canal it was a gigantic embodiment in steel and concrete of the Age of Enterprise. McCullough's outsized biography of the bridge attempts to capture in one majestic sweep the full glory of the achievement but the story sags mightily in the middle. True, the Roeblings, father and son who served successively as Chief Engineer, are cast in a heroic mold. True, too, the vital statistics of the bridge are formidable. But despite diligent efforts by the author the details of the construction work — from sinking the caissons, to underground blasting, stringing of cables and pouring of cement — will crush the determination of all but the most indomitable reader. To make matters worse, McCullough dutifully struggles through the administrative history of the Brooklyn Bridge Company which financed and contracted for the project with the help of the Tweed Machine and various Brooklyn bosses who profited handsomely amid continuous allegations of kickbacks and mismanagement of funds. He succeeds in evoking the venality and crass materialism of the epoch but once again the details — like the 3,515 miles of steel wire in each cable — are tiresome and ultimately entangling. Workmanlike and thorough though it is, McCullough's history of the bridge has more bulk than stature.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1972

ISBN: 0743217373

Page Count: 652

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 12, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1972

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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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