A short, sweet, and scientifically solid view of life.

A SERIES OF FORTUNATE EVENTS

CHANCE AND THE MAKING OF THE PLANET, LIFE, AND YOU

The award-winning science writer offers evidence that pure chance governs life.

“Look at…all the beauty, complexity, and variety of life,” writes Carroll. “We live in a world of mistakes, governed by chance.” Near the beginning, the author looks at the asteroid that struck Earth 66 million years ago, throwing up so much debris that it blocked the sun, cooling the planet for decades and exterminating most species, including the dinosaurs. Within a few hundred thousand years, the survivors, including mammals, flourished and evolved into many families, including primates and then humans. Such a collision is extremely rare, but humans wouldn’t exist without it. Carroll then offers an expert summary of evolution, a process heavily influenced by geological processes and climate changes that have fluctuated wildly over the past 1 million years, during which our species appeared and grew its large brain. Darwin explained evolution as a series of random variations in offspring that persist if they increase an organism’s reproductive fitness and, over time, spread throughout the species. His work teems with evidence, but scientists found much to quarrel with. Nearly a century passed before discoveries in genetics (the dazzling if clunky mechanism through which variations are passed on) and details of DNA (the engine of genetic changes, itself an ad hoc collection of chemicals) convinced the scientific community. Readers will learn numerous fascinating tales, such as a failed effort to produce a human-chimpanzee hybrid (a “humanzee”), how the ancestors of wooly mammoths from tropical Africa learned to live in the Arctic, and how the AIDS virus jumped from chimps to humans. An amusing coda featuring an invented conversation between dead geniuses and living comedians reinforces the necessity of science even when millions eschew it in favor of a belief that things happen for a reason. Ricky Gervais: “[Science] doesn’t hold on to medieval practices because they are tradition. If it did, you wouldn’t get a shot of penicillin, you’d pop a leach down your trousers and pray.”

A short, sweet, and scientifically solid view of life.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-691-20175-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: June 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2020

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An oft-ignored but fully convincing argument that “we cannot prevent the next pandemic without creating a healthy world.”

THE CONTAGION NEXT TIME

The Covid-19 pandemic is not a one-off catastrophe. An epidemiologist presents a cogent argument for a fundamental refocusing of resources on “the foundational forces that shape health.”

In this passionate and instructive book, Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, writes that Covid emerged because we have long neglected basic preventative measures. “We invest vast amounts of money in healthcare,” he writes, “but comparatively little in health.” Readers looking to learn how governments (mainly the U.S.) mishandled the pandemic have a flood of books to choose from, but Galea has bigger issues to raise. Better medical care will not stop the next epidemic, he warns. We must structure a world “that is resilient to contagions.” He begins by describing the current state of world health, where progress has been spectacular. Global life expectancy has more than doubled since 1900. Malnutrition, poverty, and child mortality have dropped. However, as the author stresses repeatedly, medical progress contributed far less to the current situation than better food, clean water, hygiene, education, and prosperity. That’s the good news. More problematic is that money is a powerful determinant of health; those who have it live longer. Galea begins the bad news by pointing out the misleading statistic that Covid-19 kills less than 1% of those infected; that applies to young people in good health. For those over 60, it kills 6%, for diabetics, over 7%, and those with heart disease, over 10%. It also kills more Blacks than Whites, more poor than middle-class people, and more people without health insurance. The author is clearly not just interested in Covid. He attacks racism, sexism, and poverty in equal measure, making a plea for compassion toward stigmatized conditions such as obesity and addiction. He consistently urges the U.S. government, which has spared no expense and effort to defeat the pandemic, to do the same for social injustice.

An oft-ignored but fully convincing argument that “we cannot prevent the next pandemic without creating a healthy world.”

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-19-757642-7

Page Count: 280

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2021

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A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

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THIS IS YOUR MIND ON PLANTS

Building on his lysergically drenched book How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan looks at three plant-based drugs and the mental effects they can produce.

The disastrous war on drugs began under Nixon to control two classes of perceived enemies: anti-war protestors and Black citizens. That cynical effort, writes the author, drives home the point that “societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it.” One such drug is opium, for which Pollan daringly offers a recipe for home gardeners to make a tea laced with the stuff, producing “a radical and by no means unpleasant sense of passivity.” You can’t overthrow a government when so chilled out, and the real crisis is the manufacture of synthetic opioids, which the author roundly condemns. Pollan delivers a compelling backstory: This section dates to 1997, but he had to leave portions out of the original publication to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration from his door. Caffeine is legal, but it has stronger effects than opium, as the author learned when he tried to quit: “I came to see how integral caffeine is to the daily work of knitting ourselves back together after the fraying of consciousness during sleep.” Still, back in the day, the introduction of caffeine to the marketplace tempered the massive amounts of alcohol people were drinking even though a cup of coffee at noon will keep banging on your brain at midnight. As for the cactus species that “is busy transforming sunlight into mescaline right in my front yard”? Anyone can grow it, it seems, but not everyone will enjoy effects that, in one Pollan experiment, “felt like a kind of madness.” To his credit, the author also wrestles with issues of cultural appropriation, since in some places it’s now easier for a suburbanite to grow San Pedro cacti than for a Native American to use it ceremonially.

A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-29690-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021

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