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 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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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

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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