A lucid, entertaining synthesis of current research providing plenty of food for thought on why we took a different road...

ALMOST CHIMPANZEE

SEARCHING FOR WHAT MAKES US HUMAN, IN RAINFORESTS, LABS, SANCTUARIES, AND ZOOS

If humans and chimpanzees share a 99 percent genetic similarity, why are we so different?

Science magazine correspondent Cohen (Coming to Term: Uncovering the Truth About Miscarriage, 2005, etc.) isn’t on an anti-evolution jag. He’s simply curious that a nearly identical molecular makeup doesn’t result in more identical organisms. Since Robert Yerkes’s Almost Human (1925), the similarities between humans and chimpanzees has been scrutinized, and for good reason—chimpanzees needed all the goodwill they could muster, or they would go extinct. Though chimpanzees still need protection, Cohen suggests that they would not be imperiled by exploring our genetic and behavioral differences to see what current chimpanzee research can tell us about that divergence. Thus starts a worldwide quest to witness that research at close range, from laboratories to the wild. The author’s enthusiasm is communicable and his writing is crystal clear. Even readers who have forgotten their biology will follow, for instance, his explanation of how the quantity of gene expression helps differentiate the two apes or the possibilities attendant upon non-coding ribbons of DNA regulating that expression. There is a jaw-dropping chapter on hybridization and how it could have played a part in the human-chimpanzee split as a bridge for genes across the species divide. (Much here is speculative, in a hard-science sense.) Cohen wades into work on sialic acid that may explain why a long list of infectious cancers and heart ailments more often afflict humans than chimpanzees. The author also examines how memory quality, sexuality and diet helped drive the behavioral wedge deeper between us. There is much conflict and turf-staking. A respected cognitive evolutionist says, “evidence has forced me to seriously confront the possibility that chimpanzees do not reason about inherently unobservable phenomena,” while a few pages earlier Cohen describes experiments with chimpanzees that “demonstrated that they could understand—to a degree—the psychological states of others.” Such is the “theater for intellectual daring” of chimpanzee behavioral theory that the author so ably delineates.

A lucid, entertaining synthesis of current research providing plenty of food for thought on why we took a different road from our kissing cousins.

Pub Date: Sept. 14, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-8050-8307-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Times/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2010

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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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THE RIGHT STUFF

Yes: it's high time for a de-romanticized, de-mythified, close-up retelling of the U.S. Space Program's launching—the inside story of those first seven astronauts.

But no: jazzy, jivey, exclamation-pointed, italicized Tom Wolfe "Mr. Overkill" hasn't really got the fight stuff for the job. Admittedly, he covers all the ground. He begins with the competitive, macho world of test pilots from which the astronauts came (thus being grossly overqualified to just sit in a controlled capsule); he follows the choosing of the Seven, the preparations for space flight, the flights themselves, the feelings of the wives; and he presents the breathless press coverage, the sudden celebrity, the glorification. He even throws in some of the technology. But instead of replacing the heroic standard version with the ring of truth, Wolfe merely offers an alternative myth: a surreal, satiric, often cartoony Wolfe-arama that, especially since there isn't a bit of documentation along the way, has one constantly wondering if anything really happened the way Wolfe tells it. His astronauts (referred to as "the brethren" or "The True Brothers") are obsessed with having the "right stuff" that certain blend of guts and smarts that spells pilot success. The Press is a ravenous fool, always referred to as "the eternal Victorian Gent": when Walter Cronkite's voice breaks while reporting a possible astronaut death, "There was the Press the Genteel Gent, coming up with the appropriate emotion. . . live. . . with no prompting whatsoever!" And, most off-puttingly, Wolfe presumes to enter the minds of one and all: he's with near-drowing Gus Grissom ("Cox. . . That face up there!—it's Cox. . . Cox knew how to get people out of here! . . . Cox! . . ."); he's with Betty Grissom angry about not staying at Holiday Inn ("Now. . . they truly owed her"); and, in a crude hatchet-job, he's with John Glenn furious at Al Shepard's being chosen for the first flight, pontificating to the others about their licentious behavior, or holding onto his self-image during his flight ("Oh, yes! I've been here before! And I am immune! I don't get into corners I can't get out of! . . . The Presbyterian Pilot was not about to foul up. His pipeline to dear Lord could not be clearer"). Certainly there's much here that Wolfe is quite right about, much that people will be interested in hearing: the P-R whitewash of Grissom's foul-up, the Life magazine excesses, the inter-astronaut tensions. And, for those who want to give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt throughout, there are emotional reconstructions that are juicily shrill.

But most readers outside the slick urban Wolfe orbit will find credibility fatally undermined by the self-indulgent digressions, the stylistic excesses, and the broadly satiric, anti-All-American stance; and, though The Right Stuff has enough energy, sass, and dirt to attract an audience, it mostly suggests that until Wolfe can put his subject first and his preening writing-persona second, he probably won't be a convincing chronicler of anything much weightier than radical chic.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 1979

ISBN: 0312427565

Page Count: 370

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1979

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