Smith writes clearly for the lay reader, so a background in the sciences is not required—though a strong stomach is.

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THE MOST DANGEROUS ANIMAL

HUMAN NATURE AND THE ORIGINS OF WAR

The roots of war lie in the evolutionary history of our species, according to arguments forcefully presented here by the director of the University of New England’s Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology.

Smith (Philosophy/Univ. of New England; Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, 2004) draws on anthropology, psychology, archeology and philosophy to speculate about the link between violent conflict and human nature. He posits that, like chimpanzees today, early hominids probably formed small hunting bands. Skills first used against predators evolved into organized raiding parties against rival communities; this was the first step in the evolution of warfare. Those able to kill their neighbors and capture their resources flourished, passing on their warlike nature to future generations. However, once humans mastered conceptual thought and recognized that we are all members of a single species, the inhibition against killing same-group members was activated. The way we overcome this aversion to killing other human beings, Smith asserts, is by persuading ourselves that they are not truly human. This dehumanization of the enemy can be accomplished by demonizing them as monsters; by viewing them as prey to be hunted down and killed; or by portraying them as disease-carrying vermin that must be exterminated. Smith provides dozens of examples of these mindsets from ancient Greece to the present day. Some are blatant wartime propaganda (for example, posters depicting the enemy as a nonhuman predator), but others are simply quotes from soldiers recounting their attitudes and actions in the field. The best hope of stopping war, avers the author, is ending the self-deception that allows us to see others as not human.

Smith writes clearly for the lay reader, so a background in the sciences is not required—though a strong stomach is.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-312-34189-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2007

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF PLANTS

A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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