THE BIOLOGY OF VIOLENCE

HOW UNDERSTANDING THE BRAIN, BEHAVIOR, AND ENVIRONMENT CAN BREAK THE VICIOUS CIRCLE OF AGGRESSION

A masterful, much-needed primer on how a disruption of the interweaving of biology and environment can lead people to hurt each other. This makes clear that most current rhetoric on the subject is totally out-of-date and must be discarded. Niehoff, who has done research herself in neurobiology, points out that the last 25 years of studies in the neurosciences have given us myriad tools to reduce the level of violence in society; we now need to stop reacting (basically, sending increasing numbers of people off to prison) and start thinking about solutions from a new perspective. Niehoff begins with an historical overview of our antipathy toward biological explanations of aggression. Many such efforts, she acknowledges, have been racist at their core. But the new perspective of “holistic biology” is based on greater understanding of the physical processes of the body, and on how they continue to develop for years after birth in response to one’s surroundings. “Behavior is a dynamic process integrating physiology and experience,” Niehoff writes—in short, biology is not destiny. Another popularly held notion to discard, Niehoff explains, is that violence is a single entity with a single cause, always to be treated in the same way. At the center of this work is a comprehensive tour of the relevant structure and function of the nervous system, in which Niehoff makes clear the different types of aggressive responses, how they arise physiologically, at what different points and from what causes the system can go awry, and at what different junctures critical and effective interventions can be made. Finally, Niehoff pulls together all her evidence into a well-based practical treatment plan for violence in society—one that we have the ability to embark on now. Throughout, Niehoff informs, rather than sensationalizes. This should be required reading for the powers that be, and those who cling to outdated notions about violence and crime. We really can do better. (b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-684-83132-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1998

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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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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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