NATURAL SELECTIONS

SELFISH ALTRUISTS, HONEST LIARS, AND OTHER REALITIES OF EVOLUTION

A journey to the center of human nature, where the view is not always agreeable.

The most literate popularizer of Darwinism since Thomas Huxley visits evolution’s Dark Side, the front-lines where biological realities clash with cultural idealism, and returns with news both depressing and cheering.

The latest from Barash (Psychology/Univ. of Washington, Seattle; (Madam Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature, 2005, etc.) bristles with evidence of his wide reading in the Western canon. Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Poe, Twain, Hardy, both George and T. S. Eliot, Stephen Crane, Thomas Pynchon, Ian McEwan, Barbara Kingsolver, SpongeBob SquarePants and others make appearances to animate his breezy intellectual tour. Here, too, are Barash’s customary cool critters from elsewhere in the animal kingdom (worms that reprogram the brains of ants, gang-raping male mallards) and sensible explanations of common conundrums (why dogs are easier to toilet-train than humans, why males of all species do most of the murdering). He takes some sly shots at creationists and delivers some heavier body blows to the Bush administration, but he is less interested in piling up the bodies of his adversaries than in exploring the most fundamental questions of human experience. Is it hopeless, he wonders, to attempt to combat our biology? Aren’t our selfish genes always going to trump our social consciences, our stewardship of our families, our communities, our planet? Unfortunately, the case for hopelessness is a compelling one: Humans didn’t spread across and dominate the planet by saying please and thank you. “We are all time-travelers,” Barash writes, “with one foot thrust into the cultural present and the other stuck in the biological past.” However, he notes, we are probably the only species capable of rising above our biology—and we’d better get on with it.

A journey to the center of human nature, where the view is not always agreeable.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-1-934137-05-5

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2007

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

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

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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. 7, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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