And evidence, brilliantly presented and celebrated, is what readers will find here.

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A DEVIL’S CHAPLAIN

REFLECTIONS ON HOPE, LIES, SCIENCE, AND LOVE

Collection of mostly previously published pieces that’s no déjà vu trip, but a pleasure-inducing voyage into scientific principles.

To be sure, there are familiar essays on the meme (the word Dawkins coined to describe how cultural phenomena are transmitted from mind to mind like viruses able to infect and replicate) and in celebration of Darwinism. But the title piece, derived from Darwin’s comment on the “book a Devil’s chaplain might write” about the clumsy, wasteful, and cruel works of nature, has inspired Dawkins (Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998, etc.; Science/Oxford). Yes, nature is cruel, he writes, but we have the capacity to combat it, using our brains and science to make things better and overcome delusions. And so he does, in essays attacking genetic determinism, homeopathy, and postmodernism; a particularly splenetic section excoriates religions as the root cause of war. Halfway through, and the pace and tone change. Dawkins gives moving eulogies for friends and mentors: Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton, who wanted to be buried where dung beetles could transform his corpse into new life; and Stephen Jay Gould, subject of an entire section that includes Dawkins’s reviews of his books as well as commentary revealing the mutual respect that transcended their differences. The collection ends with a section on Africa, where Dawkins was born, with visits to Richard and Maeve Leakey, adventures with a couple devoted to saving wildlife, and descriptions of two exceptional books about Africa, one written by the three children of an Englishwoman who decamped to Botswana to bring them up in the wild. As a last word, there is a letter Dawkins wrote to his daughter when she was ten admonishing her not to take anything on faith or tradition—but to ask for the evidence.

And evidence, brilliantly presented and celebrated, is what readers will find here.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2003

ISBN: 0-618-33540-4

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2003

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

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF PLANTS

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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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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