No more successful than the hunting of the snark.




Cultural evolutionist Aunger stalks the wild meme in this abstruse treatise.

Zoologist Richard Dawkins originally coined the word “meme” as the cultural analogue of a gene: an idea, artifact, or piece of behavior that can be transmitted from person to person, survive competition, and be shared by a group in the course of cultural evolution. Memeticist Susan Blackmore chose imitation and social learning as the sine qua non of memes. Daniel Dennett raised the question of who benefits, putting memes in contention with genes to win a race involving cultural traits. Their ideas (as well as those of sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists) are flawed—too simplistic, too reductionist, or too conflating of genes and memes, according to Aunger, who wants to establish a physical realty for the concept. Memes must first and foremost be replicators, he states, faithfully producing duplicates of themselves according to strict rules. He elaborates on this notion by detouring into two other forms of non-genetic replication: computer viruses and prions, which are malformed proteins in the brain. Memes, too, are in the brain: the electric meme exists at a “node”—a neuron in a particular state or a set of interconnected neurons—and is able to induce the same configuration at another node (allowing for modification so as to evolve) in a matter of milliseconds and in a manner akin to short-term memory. Indeed, he asserts, neuromemes are memories. Memes can’t move from brain to brain, however; they use “instigator signals” for transmission. Signals also can emanate from artifacts such as wagons, books, or computers; they are the means by which complexity is built into cultural evolution. In the end, Aunger offers a theory of co-evolution of memes and technology. By this time, skeptical readers, while marveling at the colossus he has constructed to account for culture (with a few deus ex machina elements thrown), will probably remain unconvinced.

No more successful than the hunting of the snark.

Pub Date: July 11, 2002

ISBN: 0-7432-0150-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2002

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


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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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


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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