A lucid, concise overview of human evolution that mentions tools and brain power in passing but focuses on the true source...

GENESIS

THE DEEP ORIGIN OF SOCIETIES

The acclaimed naturalist delivers a pithy summary of evidence for Darwinian evolution of human behavior.

The truth of human physical evolution, although denied by many laymen, hasn’t troubled scientists since the 19th century. Behavioral evolution acquired a bad reputation when social Darwinists taught that being rich or powerful showed superior fitness (Darwin disagreed). In the 1960s, Wilson (Emeritus, Evolutionary Biology/Harvard Univ.; The Origins of Creativity, 2017, etc.) became a world expert on ants, a social insect, but he broadened his sights to include social evolution in general. In 1975, he published Sociobiology (1975), which provoked a firestorm; however, once accusations of fascism died down, biologists decided that he was onto something significant. The subject is only mildly controversial today, and Wilson, a skilled writer who accessibly addresses lay audiences, explains that simple cooperation exists throughout biological systems as far back as bacteria, and plenty of advanced species show a modest degree of division of labor. Extremely few—perhaps 2 percent—have reached the highest level of “eusociality,” a rare condition that “has conferred ecological dominance on land by some of the species that possess it, particularly the ants, termites, and humans.” The author proceeds to deliver a magisterial history of social evolution, from clouds of midges or sparrows to the grotesqueries of ant colonies to the perhaps parallel features of human society in which childless elements (grandparents, maiden aunts, young siblings, priests, nuns, etc.) seem to participate in nurturing the next generation. Altruism turns out to be a powerful evolutionary tool when employed on a broad scale. A selfish individual prospers compared to his neighbors, but a group that cooperates always outcompetes one with selfish members.

A lucid, concise overview of human evolution that mentions tools and brain power in passing but focuses on the true source of our pre-eminence: the ability to work together.

Pub Date: March 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63149-554-0

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

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

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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