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

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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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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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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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