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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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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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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