A delightfully accessible and ingenious series of lessons on humans and our societies.

THE HUMAN SWARM

HOW OUR SOCIETIES ARISE, THRIVE, AND FALL

Scientists routinely explain that humans rule the planet because of our intelligence, tools, or language, but this eye-opening account will convince most readers that our biggest asset is our ability to be comfortable around strangers.

A research associate at the Smithsonian and a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Moffett (Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions, 2010, etc.) points out that humans will walk into a cafe or stadium full of unfamiliar people without thinking twice. A chimpanzee, wolf, lion, or mouse encountering strangers could be attacked and perhaps killed. This ability—not IQ—has allowed humans to swarm over the world, argues the author. We belong to a society Moffett defines as “a discrete group of individuals amounting to more than a simple family…whose shared identity sets them apart from other such groups and is sustained continuously across the generations.” Most animal colonies, flocks, herds, schools, packs, swarms, or prides are simply creatures getting together informally, but a small minority qualify as societies because members recognize who belongs and who doesn’t. These provide access to resources and protection; however, despite the popular belief, cooperation is optional among higher animals. Lions do not necessarily hunt as a team, and a chimpanzee feels no obligation to share food. The author leaves no doubt that ants form the only society rivaling that of humans, featuring mutual cooperation, division of labor, and self-sacrifice. Much of the book is a fascinating exploration of how members of human societies identify who belongs and why most believe that their society is superior. Flags, food, hairstyle, dress, and heroic founding myths (their truth is irrelevant) all play significant roles, and infants absorb the prejudices of the adults around them as effortlessly as they do language.

A delightfully accessible and ingenious series of lessons on humans and our societies.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-465-05568-5

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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