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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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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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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