Proceed with caution—enjoy the folklore but beware the folly.

“No life form has had greater impact upon this planet than the human male,” claims Morris in this follow-up to The Naked Woman (2005, etc.)

The author begins with a discussion of the primeval male, who honed his skills, took risks and indulged his curiosity, eventually evolving into a “startlingly efficient prey-killer.” In this manner, females, “too valuable reproductively to be risked in the chase,” became specialized as “cautious, caring, maternally efficient individuals.” The man-the-hunter image still persists today, writes Morris, in competitive sports and games, muscle-building and collecting hobbies, along with the sexual strategies that allow for pair-bonding but also for sowing one’s seeds when opportunity knocks. Following this chapter on evolutionary processes, the author devotes much of the rest of the text to the specifics of male body parts. Here Morris covers body language, clothing styles and adornments that males have adopted to endow body parts with symbolic meaning and significance, much of it gender-associated. Some of this is intriguing (the contradictions that allow both baldness and hairiness to be signs of virility), some is minutiae (the free-type ear lobe is twice as common as the attached type), much is folklore (a precious metal earring would distract the devil from entering the body through the ear) and some is simply Morris’s penchant for Guinness-type records (who has the longest nose, pigtail, etc.) There are neat nuggets like “playing a hunch”—which refers to “making a play at the gaming tables after touching [a] hunchback [person]”—but there is also insufficient information. Weighing the pros and cons of male circumcision, for example, Morris makes no mention that the procedure can lower the odds of contracting HIV. Finally, the author advances the bizarre theory that homosexuality is the result of boys never outgrowing the middle childhood years when girls are shunned.

Proceed with caution—enjoy the folklore but beware the folly.

Pub Date: Aug. 18, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-312-38530-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2009



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


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

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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

Close Quickview