A lively addition to the literature on the “unfathomable mystery” of human beings.
With the genetics revolution in full swing, a steady stream of books explains the role heredity plays on our development and behavior with the proviso (most authors agree) that it is not the sole influence. In their contribution to the genre, Tattersall and DeSalle (co-authors: A Natural History of Beer, 2019, etc.), both scientists at the American Museum of Natural History, deliver a highly learned lesson in what we do and don’t inherit from our parents. “We all come into the world,” they write, “with the potential to absorb any language or set of cultural norms…yet by an early age, we may have absorbed an unshakeable perspective on the world that is completely incompatible with that of members of other societies (or even, occasionally, of our own).” Genes have a great deal to do with this, so the authors rock no boats by beginning with Gregor Mendel, whose discovery of simple, single gene inheritance has the advantage of being easy to understand but the disadvantage of explaining little because essentially all inherited traits result from the complex interaction of many genes. Discoveries of the gene for (…homosexuality, violence, religion, IQ, etc.) make headlines but turn out to be wrong. Evolution proceeds through the selection of organisms whose traits give them a reproductive advantage. Plenty of brilliant researchers have contributed to understanding this process, and the authors show little patience with a few whose theories and books seem to simplify matters and have convinced many colleagues. These include works that attempt to explain evolution as the result of competition between units of heredity—e.g., Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Tattersall’s legions of fans will recognize his contribution in the eloquent history of the evolution of Homo sapiens, both in body and brain. Genomicist DeSalle delivers an intelligent lesson in the basics of heredity and population genetics, although readers will have to pay close attention.
A concise and useful book of evolutionary science.