A dense but often illuminating book that provides a hopeful look at what it means to be human.

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FREEDOM

THE END OF THE HUMAN CONDITION

Griffith (A Species in Denial, 2004, etc.) offers a treatise about the true nature of humanity and about overcoming anxieties about the world.  

The author states at the outset that “this book liberates you…and all other humans from an underlying insecurity and resulting psychosis.” He goes on to explore a contradiction of human history: humanity has made incredible achievements, he says, while at the same time being “the most ferocious and malicious creatures to have ever lived on Earth!” He argues that living in such a state creates a rather bleak feeling for the average person and provides various examples of this feeling; for instance, he shows how J.D. Salinger’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, goes through “Resignation.” Griffith’s overall question, though, is how anyone can manage to live in a world that’s so full of reflective despair: “How could we be good when all the evidence seems to unequivocally indicate that we are a deeply flawed, bad, even evil species?” Clearly, it’s not an easy question to answer, and the author succeeds in not treating the subject lightly. He includes a plethora of material for readers to absorb, including poetry, song lyrics, information on bonobos (“humans’ closest relatives”), and thoughts from thinkers from Plato to Søren Kierkegaard to E.O. Wilson. He also offers a crash course in various sociological trends, such as the environmental movement, which, he says, “removed all need to confront and think about the human state because all focus was diverted from self onto the environment.” The book does answer Griffith’s questions about the predicament of human existence, but getting to these answers is a time-consuming task. The author’s penchant for lengthy sentences can make absorbing the information difficult; in a discussion of symbols, for example, he says, “Another universally iconic symbol that can now be interpreted through the truthful lens that this explanation allows is the Statue of Liberty that stands so proudly in New York Harbor.” Allusions to Griffith’s own writings may also be speed bumps for those who haven’t read them. That said, the work as a whole provides an undeniably intriguing, well-organized investigation.

A dense but often illuminating book that provides a hopeful look at what it means to be human.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: 978-1-74129-028-8

Page Count: -

Publisher: WTM Publishing & Communications Pty Ltd

Review Posted Online: May 17, 2016

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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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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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