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




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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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.


A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 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...


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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