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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2007

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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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