Wrangham’s book adds materially to a conversation that includes Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Matthieu...

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THE GOODNESS PARADOX

THE STRANGE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN VIRTUE AND VIOLENCE IN HUMAN EVOLUTION

“If we evolved to be so good, why are we also so vile?” Wrangham (Biological Anthropology/Harvard Univ.; Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, 2009, etc.) looks at the nobler—and ignobler—characteristics of our kind.

The fact that we have societies—and such things as schools, medicine, music, and the like—is evidence, by the author’s account, that humans have evolved a vast capacity to collaborate and cooperate, with attributes including “tolerance, trust, and understanding.” So it has been since the Pleistocene, he adds, though of course humans have also evolved in ways that allow us to band together to perform unspeakable acts of violence and cruelty. Wrangham closely examines the social behavior of chimpanzees, who are far more disposed to violence than humans, as well as the ways of bonobos and other simians. “The human rate of physical aggression,” he writes, “within social communities is…strikingly low.” He also looks into the neurobiology of violence, implicating the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and other brain structures, and at the biological and cultural implications of “self-domestication,” a process by which humans school themselves out of their feral nature and into habits of being that moderate violence—though, as he adds, while other domesticated species such as dogs and guinea pigs are “delightfully tractable,” human adaptability and cultural learning add up to something more. Yet, he notes, both intelligence and adaptability contribute to our inclination toward “coalitionary proactive aggression,” which enables us to plan acts of violence against victims who cannot fight back. The resultant outbursts of war and other violence are expressions of the human penchant for “vying for power,” but that contest doesn’t preclude cooperative behavior: “To avert episodes of violence,” concludes the author, “we should constantly remind ourselves of how easily a complex social organization can decay, and how hard it is to construct."

Wrangham’s book adds materially to a conversation that includes Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Matthieu Ricard’s Altruism, and other recent texts on human behavior.

Pub Date: Jan. 29, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-87090-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Oct. 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2018

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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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