An exemplary work of popular science, challenging but accessible.

BEHAVE

THE BIOLOGY OF HUMANS AT OUR BEST AND WORST

A wide-ranging, learned survey of all the making-us-tick things that, for better or worse, define us as human.

Do bacteria have moral understanding? Do fleas have emotions? Such questions are meaningful, especially when, as MacArthur Fellow Sapolsky (Biology and Neurology/Stanford Univ.; Monkeyluv: and Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals, 2005, etc.) writes, it is possible to describe some of the actions of E. coli as altruistic. A distinguished primatologist, the author works broadly in the life and social sciences to examine human behavior, manifestations of which, he writes, belong to the nervous system and to sensory stimuli—and all of which make for a “big sprawling mess of a subject.” Thus, this fittingly long book, which opens with the problem of defining terms—aggression, sympathy, even love—and proceeds by exploring every nook and cranny. Some of our behavior is purely mechanical, with payoffs in dopamine, that “invidious, rapidly habituating reward.” Other aspects are located at the intersection of nature and nurture, as with the plummeting U.S. crime rate in the 1990s, attributable in part to accessible abortion—for, as Sapolsky notes, nothing is quite so sure to lead to a life of crime as “being born to a mother who, if she could, would have chosen that you not be.” As the narrative progresses, it ascends into headier realms, examining problems both biologically and philosophically. Can there be a science of morality? If so, how is it best addressed? The answers are as thorny as the questions: “If harm to the person who is the means is unintentional or if the intentionality is really convoluted and indirect, I’m a utilitarian consequentialist, and if the intentionality is right in front of my nose, I’m a deontologist.” Those answers may not satisfy strict sociobiologists on one hand or Heideggerians on the other, but they’re unfailingly provocative, as is Sapolsky’s closing observation that whenever we talk of human nature or natures, we’re talking about averages in a world of endless variation.

An exemplary work of popular science, challenging but accessible.

Pub Date: May 2, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-59420-507-1

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: March 7, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2017

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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