A dense, lucid, and often unsettling exploration of how our brains interpret the world.

According to this expert account, evolution shapes our view of reality, but accuracy is not its priority.

In his first book, Hoffman (Cognitive Science/Univ. of California, Irvine) emphasizes that evolution designed our perceptions “to keep us alive,” so we must take them seriously. “But it is a mistake of logic,” he writes, “to assume that if we must take our senses seriously then we are required—or even entitled—to take them literally….I explain why evolution hid objective reality and endowed us instead with an interface of objects in space and time.” What we observe is simply a virtual world delivered by our senses to help us play the game of life. Having announced this disturbing premise, the author provides a steady stream of explanations of how the brain processes perceptions. Observing a member of the opposite sex, we pick up dozens of sensory cues, run them through an algorithm refined by evolution to evaluate reproductive potential, and reach a conclusion. It’s not a given that the outcome—marriage, or at least children—is ideal. To those who doubt that the world we observe is simply a useful interface such as an icon for a computer text file, Hoffman suggests we look in a mirror. We see expression, flesh, hair, clothes, and other elements, often with a great deal of artificial overlay. The reality—our nature, feelings, experiences—remains hidden. Would we want it any other way? Few readers will be surprised when the author concludes with the evolution of consciousness, a subject that continues to obsess neuroscientists without producing anything more than generalities such as, “conscious experiences are tightly correlated with specific patterns of activity in neural circuits. But no scientific theory that starts with neural circuitry has been able to explain the origin of consciousness.”

A dense, lucid, and often unsettling exploration of how our brains interpret the world.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-25469-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019



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

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