What does it mean to be human? Henrich’s book, a pleasure for the biologically and scientifically inclined, doesn’t provide...

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THE SECRET OF OUR SUCCESS

HOW CULTURE IS DRIVING HUMAN EVOLUTION, DOMESTICATING OUR SPECIES, AND MAKING US SMARTER

As Henrich (Evolutionary Biology/Harvard Univ.; co-author: Why Humans Cooperate, 2007, etc.) notes, we humans are big-brained but not big enough, for “our kind are not that bright, at least not innately smart enough to explain the immense success of our species.”

A glance at the TV would bear out that idea, but the author means the observation as a prelude to a larger construct: individually, we harbor all sorts of weaknesses, from shortness of step to smallness of thought, but collectively, we are capable of arriving at solutions to problems that would elude any single one of us. Just so, he observes in an often repeated formula, though by brain size alone we should be able to beat apes in most tasks, in an important study, our “hairy brethren…mostly tied [us] in a wide range of cognitive domains.” Where we excel over other species is in social learning and behavior of related kinds; in another important study, “chimpanzees and capuchins revealed zero instances of teaching or altruistic giving,” whereas the human preschoolers the apes were compared to showed all manner of teaching, learning, sharing, and giving. It may not be a Mister Rogers world out there, but Henrich’s point, though belabored, is well-taken. While it is true that, left to their own devices, humans are prey to every fallacy there is, together we manage to think and muddle through. That’s culture, and that’s our advantage as humans. It’s good ammunition for the crowdsourcing advocates among us, though Henrich’s argument is more extensive than that. The writing is sometimes dense but always comprehensible, and it’s refreshing to see someone argue from an unabashedly Darwinian—or post-Darwinian, anyway—point of view without trying to edge away from terms such as “natural selection” and “evolution.”

What does it mean to be human? Henrich’s book, a pleasure for the biologically and scientifically inclined, doesn’t provide the definitive answer, but it does offer plenty of material for a definition.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-691-16685-8

Page Count: 456

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: Aug. 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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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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