CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE

Dawkins (River Out of Eden, 1995, etc.), who now holds a Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, is at pains in this new work to refute creationists, who have long championed the argument that organs like the human eye could never have arisen "by chance" and that therefore a "Designer" must be at work. The point made early and oft repeated here is that creationists have got it all wrong: Mutations happen by chance (and are usually bad or at most neutral). But natural selection is not random: If the mutation confers an advantage, its possessor has the potential of leaving more offspring, allowing the mutation to spread. The book's title refers to Dawkins's metaphor for evolution: The process is, he suggests, somewhat like the act of climbing a mountain. One doesn't proceed by launching an immediate assault in a straight line from the base to the peak, but by necessarily working through a series of smaller hills first, attaining the summit gradually, in a seemingly roundabout way. Dawkins uses the evolution of eyes, of spider webs, and of wings, among other features, to press his argument, providing wonderfully rich examples from extinct and contemporary species. There are, however, some assumptions that may be questioned by other equally ardent Darwinists: For example, is evolution necessarily "good"? Dawkins seems to think so, and, of course, from a selfish point of view it is, since it produced us. But, as Stephen Jay Gould has recently pointed out, the most successful creatures on earth are bacteria and insects, species that have been around for eons and probably will outlast the rest of us complex critters. A second debatable assumption is that evolution necessarily proceeds toward complexity, when much evidence seems to suggest otherwise. Wonderful metaphorical trees examined in minute detail (including a tour de force on actual fig trees and their pollinating wasps), but Dawkins's evolutionary forest may be just a bit overpopulated with complex and improvable species.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-393-03930-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1996

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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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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