An appealing celebration of our better nature.

READ REVIEW

THE AGE OF EMPATHY

NATURE’S LESSONS FOR A KINDER SOCIETY

What other primates can teach us about human nature.

Addressing the question of whether it is possible to “combine a thriving economy with a humane society,” zoologist de Waal (Psychology/Emory Univ.; Our Inner Ape, 2005, etc.) answers with a resounding yes, turning the tables on economists like Milton Friedman, who justify cutthroat competition based on the notion of survival-of-the-fittest. The author also suggests that the central metaphor in Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976) has been taken too literally. The contagion of phenomena such as laughter, yawning, stretching and stampedes in the face of danger are evidences of herd behavior that we share with other species. A new field of research, “embodied” cognition, explores how empathy emerges as we and other primates “involuntarily enter the bodies of those around us so that their movements and emotions echo within us as if they’re our own.” In 1992, researchers found a mechanism for this behavior, observing “mirror neutrons” firing in a monkey’s brain whether they themselves were eating a peanut or watching an experimenter do so. While not denying the existence of aggression and competition in nature, de Waal provides many charming examples of how empathy—especially when it is coupled with the higher-order cognitive abilities of primates, whales, dolphins and humans, which all have the ability to “adopt another’s point of view”—allows animals to show compassion across species boundaries. This social glue is evidenced in pets who act as companions, peacemaking primates who try to stop fights and offer comfort to the vanquished and mothers responding to their young. De Waal cites the “evolutionary antiquity” of empathy to argue that “society depends on a second invisible hand, one that reaches out to others.”

An appealing celebration of our better nature.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-307-40776-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Harmony

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2009

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2019

  • New York Times Bestseller

EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

Did you like this book?

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

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2016

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • National Book Critics Circle Winner

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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet
more