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THE EVOLUTIONARY ORIGINS OF A GOOD SOCIETY

A refreshingly optimistic view of our kind.

A social scientist looks at the good and bad sides of human character, arguing that we are evolutionarily inclined “to make a particular kind of society—a good one full of love, friendship, cooperation, and learning.”

How should one behave in the wake of a tragic shipwreck? Writes Christakis (co-author: Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, 2009, etc.), director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, two 1864 incidents in the South Pacific offer “an almost perfect natural experiment.” One crew, led by a captain who “seemed mostly interested in his own survival,” splintered and finally resorted to cannibalism, while on the other ship, “the men stuck together and worked collaboratively from the very beginning,” with no humans eaten. The men on the successful crew even organized an adult education program of sorts, playing chess and teaching each other mathematics, languages, and the like. By the author’s fluent account, the fate of the Grafton speaks to the better angels of our nature, which in turn tends to the good. What he calls a “social suite” of positive features that incline us to love, altruism, selflessness, learning, collaboration, and other such desiderata has an evolutionary nature and may even carry an adaptive advantage, certainly as compared to the dysfunctional characteristics that so often emerge in times of stress. Christakis examines the positive traits of communal societies such as the Shakers (a group that has disappeared, of course, thanks to a curious view of human reproduction), which exhibit altruism, compassion, and, interestingly, “an acceptance of individual differences” that can manifest in many ways. On the nature/nurture front, Christakis notes that kindness and altruism, or alternately nastiness and avarice, “may depend heavily on how our social world is organized.” The shipwreck experiment would seem to speak to that, as does the roiling social division of today. As he explores human nature and its possibilities, the author touches on all sorts of fascinating anthropological matters, such as the evolution of monogamy and the relative friendliness of affluent vs. working-class people.

A refreshingly optimistic view of our kind.

Pub Date: March 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-23003-2

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Little, Brown Spark

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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