There are plenty of strong personal opinions here (Neanderthals were a dead-end species; human evolution has stalled for the...

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THE MONKEY IN THE MIRROR

ESSAYS ON THE SCIENCE OF WHAT MAKES US HUMAN

A collection of eight original essays that make up a primer on evolution.

Beginning with an explanation of how scientists work, Tattersall, curator of Human Evolution at the American Museum of Natural History and author of Becoming Human (1998), etc., moves on to the mechanism of evolution, and our changing ideas about it—entirely Darwinian in Darwin’s time, still Darwinian at the core. He stresses that living creatures, including humans, are not finely engineered organisms with every component perfectly adapted to its function. They are complex and clever, yet often clumsily improvised, owing as much to chance as to ingenious adaptation. There’s no denying that humans are unique, but even our most dazzling cerebral powers did not spring up full-blown. Our sense of ourselves as individuals is an example. It turns out we can teach apes, our closest cousins, to recognize themselves in a mirror. They were the first species capable of making that connection—even monkeys can’t. Halfway through, Tattersall turns to our immediate ancestors and asks the traditional question: What is the single change that set our ancestors apart from apes and placed them on the path to becoming human? Big brains and clever hands were leading candidates until a few decades ago. Today almost all experts agree that walking upright made the difference. Hominids walked for millions of years before Homo sapiens appeared a hundred thousand years ago. Soon after, the fossil record blossoms with evidence of painting, sculpture, music, notation, sophisticated, decorated tools, and elaborate burial rituals. These all result from the capacity for abstract, symbolic thinking, which differentiates modern humans from those that came before. Clearly something important occurred in the evolving brain, yet the modern big brain had existed for thousands of generations before this cultural explosion.

There are plenty of strong personal opinions here (Neanderthals were a dead-end species; human evolution has stalled for the foreseeable future), but they ring true. The whole production is as absorbing and literate as one would expect from Tattersall.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-15-100520-6

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2001

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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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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