A fascinating though occasionally crotchety scholarly presentation of the relationship among biology, genetics and culture....

THE UNPREDICTABLE SPECIES

WHAT MAKES HUMANS UNIQUE

Lieberman (Emeritus Linguistics/Brown Univ.; Toward an Evolutionary Biology of Language, 2006, etc.) examines the unique creative potential of the human brain.

While fully supporting natural selection, the author argues against a narrow approach that overemphasizes genetic determination, a shortcoming that he attributes to evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. Lieberman seeks to establish the basis for the superiority of human cognitive abilities over those of chimpanzees, although 99 percent of their genes are similar to our own. “The human brain has evolved in a way that enhances both cognitive flexibility and imitation, the qualities that shaped our capacity for innovation, other aspects of cognition, art, speech, language, and free will,” he writes. In his zeal, the author sometimes creates straw men out of his chosen opponents, exaggerating and misrepresenting their points of view. Describing himself as an evolutionary biologist rather than a psychologist, Lieberman deconstructs the complex nature of human speech, which depends on unique biological features. A fascinating example is the human tongue, which descends into our throat in the first years after birth, allowing us to enunciate clear vowel sounds while also conferring the disadvantage that we are at risk of choking on food. Offering evidence from CT scans, Lieberman dismisses the notion that language ability is localized in the brain. He calls attention to the role of neural circuits and basal ganglia buried deeply in the brain, which link cortical areas “that act as the brain's sequencing and switching engine.” These circuits, controlled by a specific gene, are present in other primates. Lieberman suggests that it may be the specifically human variant (the FOXP2Human gene), that “supercharg[es] the circuits that confer [our] cognitive flexibility.”

A fascinating though occasionally crotchety scholarly presentation of the relationship among biology, genetics and culture. May be difficult going for some general readers.

Pub Date: April 21, 2013

ISBN: 978-0691148588

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

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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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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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