A highly illuminating look at the cross-species biological basis for human culture and sociability.

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DOMESTICATED

EVOLUTION IN A MAN-MADE WORLD

“The human population explosion has been bad for most other living things, but not so for those lucky enough to warrant domestication,” writes science journalist Francis (Epigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance, 2011, etc.) in this provocative account of the latest developments in the field of evolutionary biology.

“In an evolutionary sense,” writes the author, “it pays to be domesticated.” Not only do humans breed animals for our own purposes—pets, horses, and cattle—but we have been an “unconscious evolutionary force.” Francis cites the famous 1959 experiment by the Russian scientist Dmitry Belyaev, who explored the domestication of foxes by selecting for tameness. By the sixth generation, they developed physical and behavioral characteristics normally associated with dogs. The author suggests that the driver in this case—also exemplified in the descents of dogs from wolves and humans from primates—was natural selection of those animals best able to tolerate the social stress of life in the vicinity of human habitations. Selection for tameness was related to “a general dampening of stress responses,” and over several generations, stress hormones decreased. In the author's view, a similar process of self-domestication occurred in the evolution of humans from their primate forebears. Francis astutely substantiates this thesis with fossil evidence from a variety of mammal species, including cats, dogs, raccoons, mice, and more. As the author writes, the concept of survival of the fittest was not based solely on competition for resources, nor initially on transformations in the brain, but rather on “parallel neuroendocrine alterations in humans (and bonobos) on the one hand, and dogs, cats, rats, and other domestic creatures on the other.” This leads him to the novel conclusion that rather than just human intelligence, the extraordinary evolutionary success of our species has depended on our “hypersociality and unprecedented capacity for cooperative behavior.”

A highly illuminating look at the cross-species biological basis for human culture and sociability.

Pub Date: May 25, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-393-06460-5

Page Count: 472

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2015

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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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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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