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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However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.

I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS

Maya Angelou is a natural writer with an inordinate sense of life and she has written an exceptional autobiographical narrative which retrieves her first sixteen years from "the general darkness just beyond the great blinkers of childhood."

Her story is told in scenes, ineluctably moving scenes, from the time when she and her brother were sent by her fancy living parents to Stamps, Arkansas, and a grandmother who had the local Store. Displaced they were and "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat." But alternating with all the pain and terror (her rape at the age of eight when in St. Louis With her mother) and humiliation (a brief spell in the kitchen of a white woman who refused to remember her name) and fear (of a lynching—and the time they buried afflicted Uncle Willie under a blanket of vegetables) as well as all the unanswered and unanswerable questions, there are affirmative memories and moments: her charming brother Bailey; her own "unshakable God"; a revival meeting in a tent; her 8th grade graduation; and at the end, when she's sixteen, the birth of a baby. Times When as she says "It seemed that the peace of a day's ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes and the crippled was still in effect."

However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1969

ISBN: 0375507892

Page Count: 235

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1969

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ORIENTALISM

One may quibble with the title: this is a study of Islamic Orientalism solely, of Western representations of the Near East, with little or no direct reference to Persia, India, China, Japan. 

Professor Said (Comparative Literature, Columbia) explains the limited focus as both methodological (coherence over exhaustiveness) and personal: he is an Arab Palestinian. But among Eastern civilizations, as he recognizes, Islam is a special case, particularly in relation to Christian Europe: a "fraudulent," competing religion (doggedly miscalled Mohammedanism), a longstanding military threat, and all the more, therefore, as affront. Singularity, however, is no handicap to what is essentially a case study of Western ethno-centrism and its consequences, while the very persistence of the generalizing and dehumanizing attitudes that Said condemns, unparalleled in regard to either Africa or the Far East, argues the urgency of the enterprise. Drawing, most prominently, upon Foucault's history of pernicious ideas, Said traces the development of Orientalism from Silvestre de Sacy's fragmentation of Oriental culture into "a canon of textual objects" and Ernest Renan's incorporation of the fragments into the new comparative philology: "the Orient's contemporary relevance [was] to be simply as material for European investigation." Ascribed traits—passivity, eroticism, etc.—became fixed; travelers, ostensibly sympathetic, added exotic tales; and the presumed inferiority of Islam served as the pretext for its political domination, its supposed backwardness the excuse for economic intervention (with even Karl Marx writing of England's "regenerating" mission in India). Not until after World War II does Islam enter the American consciousness, and then—with Arab specialists in attendance—as "the disrupter of Israel's and the West's existence." Said's recent citations are devastating, and add force to his final challenge: how to avoid all categorization of one people by another?

The book is redundant and not always reasonable, but bound to cut a wide swath and leave its mark.

Pub Date: Nov. 30, 1978

ISBN: 039474067X

Page Count: 417

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 22, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1978

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