The author’s offbeat view of human evolution makes for lively reading and invites readers to think deeply about some of his...

HUMAN ERRORS

A PANORAMA OF OUR GLITCHES, FROM POINTLESS BONES TO BROKEN GENES

Natural selection made us what we are today, and that is deeply flawed. So argues Lents (Biology/John Jay Coll., CUNY; Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals, 2016) in his second book.

The problem is that selection happens through random mutations, which are rarely useful. When good, the bearer may leave more offspring and spread the change to future generations. So over millions of years of evolution, our species has been shaped, but not to a state of engineered elegance according to some master plan. By way of demonstration, Lents lists some of our serious defects: The retinas of our eyes face backward so that light has to pass through nerve fibers to reach the photoreceptors. Gravity (from bipedalism) strains the knee’s delicate ligament structure. We suffer more colds than other species because of the poor design of the mucus drainage system to our sinuses. The author goes on to review defects in the human genome itself and in major systems: An overactive immune system can result in autoimmune disease and allergies. Regarding reproduction, the hazards to successful conception and childbirth are such that it is a wonder the species has survived. At points in the text, Lents explores cultural evolution, such as the formation of pair bonds and the division of labor, as well as the fixes that science has developed to fight some of our flaws. These aspects are further developed in the final chapters, as the author describes foibles of the brain, including false memory, optical illusions, and various forms of bias and illogical thinking. He goes on to ponder the fate of the species, growing ever more speculative: Maybe stem cells, gene editing, and other miracles of medicine will render us immortal, and maybe we can move to other planets. Or maybe we will implode, since we are already overpopulated and prone to violence and destruction of the environment.

The author’s offbeat view of human evolution makes for lively reading and invites readers to think deeply about some of his wilder conjectures.

Pub Date: May 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-32897469-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2018

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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