Preaches to the converted, but will leave others unconvinced.



Prominent animal-rights activist and lawyer Wise (Rattling the Cage, 2000) makes a case for animal rights based on “practical autonomy.”

He begins with the now-familiar analogy between animals and slaves. His discussion adds nothing new to the parallel, nor does it address the contention that the argument insultingly patronizes slaves, distorting their status as responsible agents both before and after liberation. Wise also compares animals to the mentally deficient and to children. While he mentions the objections to his arguments posed by primatologist Franz de Waals, who insists that rights are tied to responsibilities it would be absurd to enforce on other species and that rights talk debases animals (apes, de Waals has said, aren’t “retarded people in fur coats”), he never really ponders these objections. Instead, Wise seeks to back up his argument by showing that animals can be assigned “autonomy values” based on a scale deriving from developmental psychology. This makes an implicit reference to Kant’s notion of autonomy, or the fundamental and incorrigible freedom of the subject, while adding to it the very un-Kantian features of Piaget’s developmental psychology. In this way, Wise contextualizes the freedom of the subject as a result of a psychological process with certain supposedly extra-species features. He then adduces seven cases (honeybees, African gray parrots, elephants, dolphins, gorillas, orangutans, and dogs) in which he gives reasons to assign autonomy values. Except for the chapters on bees and elephants, he concentrates less on ethological studies than on human-to-animal communications studies, such as that conducted on African gray parrots at MIT. From the animal as communicator, Wise goes through other developmental tests, like “mirror self recognition.” Unfortunately, his extrapolation of practical autonomy gradients seems dubious on ethological grounds, as well as displaying a contradiction in the animal-rights position: far from combating anthropocentrism, this procedure universalizes it.

Preaches to the converted, but will leave others unconvinced.

Pub Date: June 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-7382-0340-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Perseus

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2002

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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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A quirky wonder of a book.



A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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