The editors, professors of psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, have produced an edited volume that is suitable for senior undergraduate or beginning graduate courses in evolutionary psychology and psychobiology. The handbook consists of 21 chapters divided into three parts: ideas, issues and applications. Each chapter is written by a noted specialist and, together, the chapters cover most of the domains interest in evolutionary psychology. An attractive feature of the book is that the chapters are quite even in quality and level of difficulty, with the exception of an interesting chapter by Hudson Kern Reeve on kinship and reciprocity that is a little more difficult than the others.
Not surprisingly in a handbook of evolutionary psychology, the authors are like-minded in their commitment to a Darwinist approach to behavior. Nevertheless, there are three areas of continuing debate that are well explicated in this volume. The first is the tension between evolutionary psychologists who are primarily interested in a species-typical design of the mind and a growing number of behavior geneticists who seek to understand heritable behavioral differences among individuals from an evolutionary perspective. This issue is beautifully captured by Michael Bailey's evenhanded chapter, Can Behavior Genetics Contribute to Evolutionary Behavioral Science?
The second debate is between those theorists who conceive of people as "adaptation executors" and those who conceptualize people as "fitness maximizers." The former argue that, because current psychological mechanisms were designed to maximize reproductive success in ancestral environments, current reproductive success is not theoretically informative. The latter argue that relative reproductive success in current environments provide useful information concerning species-typical reproductive strategies. In her concise chapter, Not Whether to Count Babies, but Which, Laura Betzig argues strongly that contemporary relative reproductive success is more lawful from an evolutionary perspective than popularly believed, a conclusion that is buttressed by Bobbi S Low's chapter on the evolution of human life histories.
The debate over the theoretical merits of examining contemporary reproductive success is closely related to the broader issue of the nature of the environment of evolutionary adaptation and its relation to contemporary environments. Charles Crawford, in his chapter, Environments and Adaptations: Then and Now, argues that no general answer is possible because different adaptations were created at different times, and because people tend to re-create features of the ancestral environment in contemporary societies. A possible example of this tendency is the limited (constant?) number of close friends and collaborators with whom people interact, regardless of the complexity and size of larger social systems. Crawford advises a piecemeal approach to the important question of the nature of the environment(s) of evolutionary adaptation.
A fourth issue, although not one that divides evolutionary psychologists, deserves comment. The most frequent criticism of a Darwinist approach to behavior is that evolutionary hypotheses cannot be rigorously tested. In his chaptmon R Hoer, Testing Evolutionary Hypotheses, Harlcomb III provides a thoughtful discussion of the progress that has been made and the most promising strategies for improving Ernst Mayr's "one long argument."
In conclusion, Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology is a very worthwhile book. Apart from its great expense, it would make an excellent textbook for an upper-level undergraduate course in evolutionary psychology. My solution to the pricing issue for my course is to put a copy of the book on reserve in the library and to assign chapters from it to accompany Robert Wright's easy-reading but persuasive The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology in Everyday Life (1994. New York: Pantheon Books).
Chitty, D. (1996). Do lemmings commit suicide? Beautiful hypotheses and ugly facts. N.Y.: Oxford.
No they don’t but there is a picture on the cover of a lemming making a non-fatal leap from a rock.
Written by the elder statesman of population ecology. Chitty argues that we still don’t understand population swings in animals and that it is our (including his) fault. The science just hasn’t been good enough. Not enough strong inference research.
This book is jumpy and hard to follow. Some of the book’s features seem to be a result of the author’s aging. The early history of population ecology is interesting. Each section is begun by a quote of some kind, many of these are quite good.
Cockburn, A., Cockburn, E., & Reyman, T.A. (Eds.). (1998). Mummies, disease and ancient cultures (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.
A very odd new edition of the original mummy book. Very uneven chapters, some of which shouldn’t have been included. Among the book’s problems is the frequent failure to present enough context to inform very particularized and detailed discussions of individual mummies and, more understandably, missing information about some of the cases presented. Nevertheless, there are items of interest. I was absolutely amazed to discover the enormous number of mummies there are, especially in Egypt. There are some pathetic stories of how individuals met their demise, like the chronically unhealthy Inuit child who ate gravel (not gravol) in a futile attempt to keep from starving and the folks who got buried by accident and inhaled earth. Ancient populations had lots of parasites as well as lung damage from inhaling smoke from cooking fires in enclosed spaces or in Egypt, from inhaling sand.
Coen, E. (1999). The art of genes: How organisms make themselves. Oxford University Press.
Absolutely brilliant. The best science book I’ve read in a long time. Coen starts with a kind of far-fetched metaphor of organismic "hidden colours" that is a little off-putting at first but it soon becomes apparent that the metaphor greatly facilitates an intuitive understanding of the process of development. Coen does indeed explain how organisms make themselves while avoiding the problems of infinite regress that are fatal to many explanations of development, such as those postulating that genes create the organism from a DNA blueprint-- recent work reviewed in this book shows that it’s much more complicated and interesting than that.
Coen is a snapdragon runner and one of the highlights of the book is a description of how two groups of investigators (one of them Coen’s) independently developed a theory of floral differentiation from studying mutants; the theory predicted in detail the function of specific organ identity genes that were later identified.
By the time readers have mastered the meaning of Coen’s metaphors, they are ready to understand the deep parallels between the development of snapdragon flowers and fruit flies.
Very highly recommended.
Coren, S. (1993). The left-hander syndrome: The causes and consequences of left-handedness. NY: Vintage.
Coren writes page turners. Always lots of interesting facts.
So, where have all the left handers gone, long time passing, where have all the left handers gone, long long ago? Well, it turns out they’re dead. Why do left-handers die (relatively) young? Because they are sinister? Gauche? I won’t tell you.
Good book up until the last chapter. Interesting theory of left handedness that could also apply to homosexuality. An important theoretical update on the genetics of left-handedness has appeared in Psychological Review (2000)
Crump, T. (2001). A brief history of science as seen through the development of scientific instruments. London: Constable & Robinson.
Crump is an excellent guide who provides exactly what the title promises. The book is well organized, has good pictures, and the scientific concepts are clearly explained. The book mostly concerns physics and chemistry together with little biographies of the principal protagonists. Highly recommended—even if you know most of this stuff, it’s a good review.
Dawkins, R. (1995). River out of Eden. N.Y.: Basic.
The Selfish Gene this is not. A well-written book and an easy short read but not anything new. The central metaphor (that of a river of information separating into streams which intertwine for awhile, and then flow separately forever) is fatally flawed by the wholesale exchange of genetic material between species that has been documented in recent years.
Dawkins, R. (1996). Climbing mount improbable. N.Y.: Norton.
I liked this book better than River out of Eden but it’s not as good as The Selfish Gene or even the Blind Watchmaker or the Extended Phenotype. Essentially, I think, every good story or analogy has already been used by Dawkins or Dennett or Wright or some other member of the "Darwin Industry” to explain selectionist theory to the masses. As fundamental and important as it is, there ain’t nothing left to say.
The most interesting part of the book is the last bit on figs and fig-wasps. They seem damned improbable, if you don’t know better.
Dawkins, R. (2004). The ancestor’s tale: A pilgrimage to the dawn of life. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson.
A very large coffee table-type book in which the story is very loosely modeled on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Well and clearly written, although Dawkins can’t help giving his opinions on various matters every so often. The idea is that we go backwards in time meeting ever more remote ancestors. At times this involves a bit of conjecture because our precise lineage has not been worked out. Despite our knowing an enormous amount more than we did when I took a course in invertebrate zoology in the sixties, some of the uncertainty about phylogenetic relationships persists. There’s a very nice and interesting little summary of recent empirical work on the origin of life.
In all, this is a worthwhile book. I’m not clear, however, who the audience is. It’s not written for professional biologists but I don’t think people without considerable prior knowledge of biology could follow it.
Dennett, D.C. (1995). Darwin’s dangerous idea: Evolution and the meanings of life. NY: Touchstone.
You have to love a guy who doesn’t like the people you don’t like and likes the people you like. Darwinism for the philosophically inclined. Dennett is one smart cookie.
Dennett is at his best when critically evaluating other people’s arguments. He does a very nice job of debunking Gould (not nearly so savage and amusing as Wright’s reply to Gould that appeared in Slate).
So, a sprightly defense of Darwinism, full of interesting and often illuminating thought experiments, and a few interesting facts, such as a nice description of Haig’s work on maternal-fetal competition. Highly recommended.
Desowitz, R.S. (2002). Federal bodysnatchers and the New Guinea Virus: Tales of parasites, people and politics. N.Y.: Norton.
Not nearly as good as his previouis book, Malaria Capers. Desowitz retains his eye for the ridiculous and his fine sense of outrage but there is not as much content in this book. There are, however, some interesting comments on the use of patents in tropical disease research.
Desowitz, R.S. (1991). The malaria capers: More tales of parasites and people, research and reality. N.Y.: Norton.
This is indeed about reality--it’s as real as plastic hip joints. All of the waste, fraud, and stupidity that we are aware of in safe little Canada is exaggerated on the international stage in the failed control of diseases like malaria and kala azar with results so cruel that the mind boggles. If there is a history of depression in your family, do not read this book.
Desowitz is pissed off and pulls no punches. A real interesting book but it sure paints a bleak picture. In addition to all of the incompetence, there are the inadvertent effects of almost any intervention imaginable. On the other hand, a book like this makes one appreciate what great luck we and our friends have had to date (this and the Margulis book below show quite clearly that a plague of some sort is going to be the Malthusian agent that deals with the ridiculously large human population). Child molestation and homicide are not really big deals in the grand scheme of things.
Devine, R.S. (1998). Alien invasion: America’s battle with non-native animals and plants. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.
I had planned to write a book on exotic species, entitled "Alien Invasions of North America." I am now making other plans....
A thoroughly depressing book on alien invasions. There are a lot more foreign species introduced into habitats everywhere than I was aware of. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it can’t be gotten back in. It’s like taking a bunch of species, putting them in a bottle, and shaking vigorously. This phenomenon appears to be much more important in causing extinctions than I had thought.
Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. New York: Norton.
This is a wide ranging and cogently argued book. Diamond’s thesis is that differences in intellectual abilities of the peoples of the earth are irrelevant to the historical ascendancy of particular societies. The book takes an evolutionary selectionist perspective that accounts for the success of particular societies on the basis of geography. Some of the ideas are similar to those proposed by Wilson to explain the success of animals and plants derived from large continents when in competition with those evolved on islands.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is Diamond’s description of how we have been domesticated by plants. We have been enslaved by such plants as wheat and rice to serve their reproductive purposes. Aspects of Diamond’s discussion are reminiscent of Morley’s (1984) article on the domestication of the dog that I highly recommend.
Diamond’s assertion that it is guns, germs, and steel that have determined the fate of societies is compelling in explaining phenomena such as why Spain invaded Peru rather than vice versa. The historical vignettes he presents are gripping, some, such as the complete massacre of hunter gatherer island Maori by the New Zealand Maori ("because it is our custom”), confirming the wisdom of Bertrand Russell who commented on the old mistake of believing that the oppressed are morally superior to their oppressors.
The final third of the book is a little repetitious and a bit preachy, nevertheless an excellent read. Of course, Diamond does not demonstrate that there are no important intellectual differences among the varieties of humankind but does show, I think, that the differential success of societies can be explained on historical, ultimately, geographical grounds. Reference:
Morey, D.F. (1984). The early evolution of the domestic dog.
American Scientist, 82, 336-347.
Dodwell, P. (2000). Brave new mind: A thoughtful inquiry into the nature and meaning of mental life. NY: Oxford University Press.
Dodwell, formerly a colleague of mine at Queen’s, has long retired but, as evidenced by this book, still very active and sharp. His central thesis is that the implicit reductionist philosophical project of neuroscience is doomed to failure because of its logical incoherence. Dodwell makes a good case using visual perception, the most advanced area of the neurosciences, as his principal example. He is most convincing when discussing how the predictions of a successful mathematical theory are its necessary (deductive) consequences.
This work is not aimed at a lay readership. It is quite a bit more sophisticated than most of what is written on consciousness and the reductionist enterprise, although I don’t mean this statement to damn the book with faint praise.
Draaisma, D. (2004). Why life speeds up as you get older: How memory shapes our past. NY: Cambridge University Press.
A charming set of informal historically oriented essays about memory. The book is translated from the Dutch and has a European feel to it. The author contrasts Ebbinghaus’s memory experiments with Galton’s research on autobiographical memory. This book is concerned with the latter, in particular in explaining the reminiscence effect, first documented by Galton. The reminiscence effect is seen among people in their mid- to late fifties or older and consists of a bump in the quantity and quality of the memories they laid down in their late teens and early adulthood. In an engrossing chapter, Draaisma uses the autobiography of an eighty-year old Dutch schoolmaster, Willem van den Hull (b. 1778), to describe the effect and to explore some of its possible causes. This chapter is also a deeply touching essay on the human condition—you should read it.
Dufresne, T. (Ed.). (2007). Against Freud: Critics talk back. Stanford University Press.
Dufresne is a philosopher based at, of all places, Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. This little book is a series of interviews with the most prominent modern critics of Freudian theory, including Frank Sulloway (who is now even more critical than he was when he wrote his book on Freud, Biologist of the mind) and that ever most delightful professor of English, Frederick Crews (read his Postmodern Pooh). Only MacMillan, of the totally devastating Freud evaluated: The completed arc critique appears to be missing. This is a fun read, partly because there are some insiders included from the early days of psychoanalysis and partly because of the spontaneity engendered by the interview technique. It continues to amaze me that so many people bought into psychoanalysis.
Duncan, D.E. (1998). Calendar: Humanity’s epic struggle to determine a true and accurate year. N.Y.: Avon.
As the cover blurb asserts, this is an engaging little book. It turns out that it is harder to determine an accurate year than one would think. The book presents an interesting history of attempts to improve the accuracy of the year’s measurement and follows how these become entangled with politics and theology. Ironically, we can measure too accurately now; because the earth’s movement is less accurate than our clocks, these have to be periodically adjusted. It seems like you just can’t win sometimes.
Editors of Linqua Franca. (2000). The Sokal Hoax: The sham that shook the academy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
The book begins with physicist Alan Sokal’s delightful article ATransgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity” reprinted from the 1996 special "science wars" issue of Social Text. Sokal subsequently revealed that he had duped the editors of Social Text with his article that comprised scientific nonsense, assertions supported only by appeals to modernist authority, unreadably dense prose, and so forth. There has been a great deal of controversy about this event and the remainder of the book captures this controversy by reprinting a variety of responses to the hoax. Some of these are interesting but in all, they become a bit repetitive by the end of the book. Two things are clear: Sokal’s hoax succeeded because of a lack of intellectual rigour in the review process and the editors of the journal are not only fools but dishonest fools.
Ellis, L. & Ebertz, L. (Eds.). (1997). Sexual orientation: Toward biological understanding. Westport, CT: Praeger.
This book is the product of an interdisciplinary meeting held in Minot, North Dakota in 1995. The chapters are written for scientists and most present original research data in addition to reviews of the literature. To my mind, the first chapter, Neuroendocrine foundations of diverse sexual phenotypes in fish by Matthew Grober, is the most interesting. Interesting because it documents the conservation of the mechanisms of neural sex differentiation over species from fish to primates and because it describes our understanding of the fascinating phenomenon of ontogenetic sex switching in certain species of fish. Very cool stuff.
There is more disagreement about models of sexual differentiation in rat brain than I had thought. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough to critically examine these disagreements and will have to wait for the dust to settle.
Halpern & Crothers present a nice summary of the effects of biological sex and sexual orientation on cognition. They have some challenging data on homosexual men that indicate they are more masculinized on cognitive variables than heterosexual men.
Worth looking at.
Evans, D. & Zarate, O. (1999). Introducing evolutionary psychology. Cambridge, U.K.: Icon Books.
An introduction to evolutionary psychology in 178 pages of text and cartoons. The first author, Dylan Evans, is a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy, Logic, and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics. The second author, Oscar Zarate, is an illustrator and graphic novelist.
What can one say about a comic book introduction to evolutionary psychology? In particular, a comic book introduction that is published at the same time as a whole raft of serious books on the subject have appeared, including a weighty introductory textbook by David Buss. In this case, I think one has to say "well done!"
The text is very simple, very clear, and deals exclusively with important topics and issues. It is remarkably free from error. My only serious complaint about the book is its construal of evolutionary psychology as the merging of cognitive science and evolutionary biology. In my view, there is much more involved in this merger on the psychology/behavior side than cognitive science.
The illustrations are generally apt. Most entertaining to people in the field will be the caricatures of many leading evolutionary biologists and psychologists. The caricatures are not flattering but all of them, with the exception of those of Martin Daly and Margot Wilson, are easily recognizable.
The authors have succeeded in producing a very short, entertaining, and accurate introduction to evolutionary psychology. The book would not stand on its own as a undergraduate university level text in evolutionary psychology but would be useful as a supplement to such a text or even as a supplement to an introductory psychology text. More importantly, the book provides easy access to important and useful knowledge to a wide reading public outside of academe.
Falk, D. (1992). Braindance. NY: Holt.
The thesis of this book is an interesting one. We evolved in a very hot climate, hence standing erect, a first class sweating system, hairless body, but lots of hair on the head (to insulate the brain). In addition, our ancestors developed a more efficient manner of cooling the brain (involving a very large occipital venous sinus visible in cranial endocasts) that allowed the brain to grow larger. We now have a somewhat more complicated cooling system.
The author seems to thrive on controversy and often seems like she has a bit of a chip on her shoulder.
Feduccia, A. (1996). The origin and evolution of birds. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs? That animals evolved wings to help them run (the cursorial theory)? Forget it (even though the recent Chinese finds muddy the waters).
Feduccia is a no nonsense, give me the facts kind of guy. I don’t believe he has a romantic bone in his body. This book is a portrayal of the broad sweep of vertebrate evolution through a detailed interpretation of both old fossil discoveries and the very many new finds. The fossil record is, of course, incomplete but it is truly remarkable how much is known and how much can be inferred.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the discussion of the evolution of flightlessness and gigantism among island birds. Flightlessness involves a neotenous process and certain families of birds are more likely to become flightless because of the order in which structures develop in embryos (if flight muscles and associated structures appear after structures vital for survival, the flight apparatus can easily be jettisoned by small changes in ontogenesis). Emus and ostriches are, in a sense then, just "big chicks.”
There are some very strange facts. Among these, the eerie resemblance of the feeding filter apparatus of flamingoes and right whales produced by convergent evolution.
This book, although fascinating, may be a little too detailed for some: "Right tarsus of the late Triassic Coelophysis with distal ends of tiba-fibula, fused astragalocalcaneum, and proximal ends of metatarsals....Even if the ascending process of the astragalus was homologous with the ratites, it also matches with late theropods and the ornithischian Hypsilophodon.” Of course.
Fiest, G.J. The Psychology Of Science And The Origins Of The Scientific Mind. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
As indicated by the title, this book has two parts, the first is a plea for a new discipline, the psychology of science, and the second explores the origins of the scientific mind--where does the ability to do science originate? With respect to the first part, although one can debate the question of whether there should be a formal psychology of science to complement the extant major science studies disciplines of history, philosophy, and sociology, it is clear that psychology can make contributions to the selection and recruitment of successful scientists and to understanding the nature of scientific thinking. There are, for example, instructive similarities in abilities, motivations, and training experiences among elite scientists, chess players, musicians, and athletes.
In the second part, Fiest traces the origins of the scientific mind back through prehistory. Unfortunately, in so doing, the issue of the origin of the scientific mind gets swamped by a lengthy and sometimes speculative discussion of the origins of the mind per se.
The book ranges widely over different areas of psychology, the philosophy, history, and sociology of science, and hominid evolution. In fact, the principal difficulty with this work is that the author has cast his net too widely in both sections, resulting in an unfocussed exposition that often reads like an introductory undergraduate survey text as opposed to a work designed for professional scientists and academics.
Forsyth, A. (1993). A natural history of sex: The ecology and evolution of mating behavior. Vermont: Chapters.
Very nicely written introduction for layfolk. Not anything new, but interesting examples of odd reproductive behaviors. Theoretically sound. He doesn’t like Gould, always a plus in my view.
Gerhart, J. & Kirschner, M. (1997). Cells, embryos, and evolution: Toward a cellular and developmental understanding of phenotypic variation and evolutionary adaptability. Malden Mass.: Blackwell Science.
Opening up the black box. It is insufficient to know that natural selection is the engine of evolution, one must know the mechanics of how it accomplishes evolutionary change. These mechanics have to be understood at both the cellular and developmental levels.
This is a fine book. The authors summarize a phenomenal amount of recent research in a manner intelligible to those who have sufficient background. I found it in places extremely difficult reading; not so much because the ideas were hard to grasp but rather the memory load that is occasioned by so much unfamiliar detail.
This book, however, is very much worth the effort. I will definitely read it again when my brain feels less tired. Some structures are more evolvable than others for essentially chemical reasons. The conservation of principles and even structures across a wide range of organisms is truly remarkable. We’ve come a long way from the pharyngula stage, but each of us, in common with all other chordates, must pass through this stage during embryonic development. This book explains why.
One wonders what profound philosophical meaning resides in the observation that we share genes, not only with fruit flies and peas, but yeast.
Gibson, G. (2006). The bedside book of birds: An avian miscellany. Toronto: Random House.
This is an attractively produced book, meant to be kept at hand and perused from time to time. I am incapable of such activity and read it in a couple of settings—a mistake I think because there isn’t much of a theme here, unless it be that birds are neat and often mistreated. The book is comprised of short sections written in very different styles from different periods and the authors aren’t identified until the end of each—I found this disorienting. I also found the stories concerning extinctions and slaughters depressing, although that was not the author’s intent.
Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York: Knopf.
This is a breezy account of what academic psychology has to say about happiness. I imagine Gilbert is a fabulous teacher, given the humour and clarity of this book. Although most of what is presented about how the brain works will be no surprise to cognitive psychologists, this body of work is put to very good use in showing how and why we are poor at anticipating correctly what will make our future selves happy. Imagining the future is even more problematic than accurately reconstructing the past and for some of the same reasons, for example, the difficulty in escaping the influence of the present.
After reading this book, I was struck once again by just how different the world is from what it appears to be—weird in a different sense than quantum mechanics but certainly not what I signed up for.
Gilmore, J.B. (1998). In cold pursuit. Toronto: Stoddart.
Gilmore used to teach introductory psychology to enormous classes at the University of Toronto. He became interested in the transmission of the cold virus toward the end of his career and wrote this book during his retirement.
He presents some very interesting accounts of studies conducted at remote islands in various God-forsaken parts of the world and somewhat less interesting descriptions of natural and contrived experiments in England and North America. I’m sure that Gilmore used the cold experiments to teach elements of experimental design to undergraduates, he can’t help being an academic psychologist.
The book would be great if it ended with a definitive set of studies. Alas, the transmission mechanism has not been conclusively demonstrated, giving the book an unsatisfying conclusion. Gilmore also ends with a bit of whining about the research priorities of funding agencies; going out with a whimper instead of a bang.
Greaves, M. (2000). Cancer: The evolutionary legacy. Toronto: Oxford University Press.
Once cancer is conceptualized as an evolutionary process involving mutation and selection, the facts about it obediently fall into place. Such a view accounts for the differential likelihood of different tissues to become cancerous, the cycles of remission and metastasis, the effects of age and toxins, and so forth. The occurrence of cancer is fundamentally related to the retention of primitive properties of propagation of certain cell lines inherited from single celled ancestors. The selfish success of these cells leads to the death of the commonwealth of cells.
Worth reading as an advanced primer or case study of evolutionary biology.
Greene, B. (1999/2003). The elegant universe: Superstrings, hidden dimensions, and the quest for the ultimate theory. NY: Random House.
Beautiful description of relativity—for a brief period I felt that I really understood it. Not so with string theory—I can read the words but I just don’t get it. Dimensions in Calabi-Yau shapes indeed.
The quest for a theory of everything and the glimmers of success that have been had so far raise the perplexing question of how numbers relate to fundamental reality. If our intuition can’t help us with the very small or very large, then interpretation of the mathematics is simply a psychological crutch, not part of an understanding of physical reality. In any event, there is a lot that is completely beyond our ken (multiple universes, the nature of the universe before the big bang) and so forth. Even a theory of everything isn’t really.
Grove, J.W. (1989). In defence of science: Science, technology, and politics in the modern world. University of Toronto Press.
A comforting book for beleaguered scientists. Very well written and erudite. This is the sort of book that humanities students should read. He presents a differentiation between science and technology that I have found useful in several contexts.
Hauser, M.D. (2000). Wild minds: What animals really think. N.Y.: Holt.
Hauser gave an excellent presentation at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society meeting in Amherst Mass. last year on the topic of this book. The book reviews some of the more recent experimental studies of animal cognition that use audio playback (a la Cheney) and formal experiments (a la Premack and Hauser himself). This is interesting work but I don’t think that there was enough new material or enough definitive work to support a book length treatment. We still don’t know what it’s like to be a bat, for example.
Heinrich, B. (1999). Mind of the raven: Investigations and adventures with wolf-birds. N.Y.: Harper Collins.
Heinrich doesn’t like to climb but is willing to lightly freeze his gonads by lying still in the snow for hours on end and to handle rotting carcasses. He thus has two of the three personal attributes needed by scientists who study ravens. An intense attraction to road kills also helps.
Although this book is written for non-scientists, the theory is nevertheless pitched a little too low and slow. The state of knowledge of raven behavior and cognitive abilities is somewhat frustrating; one wishes we knew more and more definitively. Nevertheless, the natural history aspects of the book make it well worth reading, particularly those involving the symbiotic relationship between wolves and ravens. Very amusing tales of people who report being "warned” by ravens about the approach of large carnivores; amusing because the ravens were signalling the carnivores about the presence of a meal!
Hellman, H. (1998). Great feuds in science: Ten of the liveliest disputes ever. Toronto: Wiley.
This somewhat Richard Scarryishly titled book covers Urban the VIII vs Galileo on the heliocentric theory, Wallis versus Hobbes on geometrical method, Newton versus Leibnitz on the invention of the calculus, Voltaire vs Needham on spontaneous generation, Huxley versus Wilberforce on natural selection, Kelvin vs the geologists and biologists on the age of the earth, Cope versus Marsh on dinosaur evolution, Wegener vs everybody on continental drift, Johanson versus the Leakeys on hominid evolution, and Freeman vs Mead on nature vs nurture.
These disparate controversies are covered in less than 200 small pages. The stories are more interesting if you haven’t read longer versions of them. Taken together, there are few morals to be drawn from these controversies. Some are simply priority disputes (Newton vs Leibnitz and Cope vs Marsh), some in which one party is completely right and everyone else wrong (e.g., Wegener, Huxley).
Henry, C.J.K. & Ulijaszek, S.J. (Ed.). (1996). Long-term consequences of early environment: growth, development, and the lifespan developmental perspective. N.Y.: Cambridge University Press. (appeared in The Quarterly Review of Biology, 72, 357).
The title of this book aptly captures the theme of its 14 chapters. The editors' introduction is a very brief and accurate summary of the content of the remaining chapters. The first chapter examines human growth and development from an evolutionary perspective; a related chapter describes research on the determination of human sex ratios. Five of the chapters deal with the effects of early nutrition on later growth, examining such questions as whether children who are undernourished at various ages can "catch up" in growth if later nourished adequately. Other chapters concern the development of human taste and smell preferences, the development of sexuality, and the relationship of puberty to fertility. The book concludes with R.M. Garruto's very interesting chapter on late onset neuro-degenerative disorders that compares amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinsonism-dementia common in the Western Pacific with Alzheimer's disease.
To a reader outside the specialties represented in this book, three findings concerning the long-term consequences of early environment seemed of particular interest. The first, reported in A.H. Goodman's chapter Early life stresses and adult health: insights from dental enamel development, is that linear enamel hypoplasias can be used to study the longitudinal pattern of morbidity, mortality, and stress, not only in living populations, but also in past populations. The teeth's memory of stress can thus provide information about the living conditions of ancient groups not otherwise attainable.
Two surprising findings are described by D.J.P. Barker in The origins of coronary heart disease in early life. The first of these is that females conceived or born during a brief period of famine in Holland were of normal birth weight and achieved normal adult size but had small babies themselves. The second is that homeostatic settings are established in response to in utero malnutrition that lead eventually to premature death from coronary heart disease.
Overall, this book is, like most edited books, somewhat uneven in the quality of its chapters and, despite the unifying theme, quite diverse in content. However, the writing is clear enough to be accessible to nonspecialists and, as the examples above attest, there are some interesting long-term consequences of early environmental conditions.
Hixson, J. (1976). The patchwork mouse: Politics and intrigue in the campaign to conquer cancer. NY: Doubleday.
This is a story about an infamous scientific fraud. Dr. William Summerlin claimed he could graft foreign tissues onto mice without them being rejected. Get this, he painted some white mice to make them appear as if they had black (transplanted) fur on them. Makes a person believe in Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime (crimes are easy things done opportunistically and impulsively).
Hixson tries to conclude that the pressure to get results and lax supervision (of this fully grown MD) is the culprit. Well, maybe a little character weakness as well--it turns out that the good doctor had been suspected of fraudulent activities much earlier. So crimes may all be easy things done opportunistically but they are differentially likely to be committed by certain kinds of folks.
Holmes, H. (2001). The secret life of dust: From the cosmos to the kitchen counter, the big consequences of little things. Toronto, ON: Wiley.
I think I’ll stop breathing now--too much Mongolian dirt, rubber tire bits, and strangers’ skin flakes. If it weren’t for the garbage transport system in my lungs, I would have stopped long ago. A very interesting book covering lots of things that I didn’t know--like just how much dust there is and how far it travels, for example.
Hooper, E. (1999). The River: A journey to the source of HIV and AIDS. N.Y.: Little, Brown.
A meticulously researched investigation of an iatrogenic hypothesis for the origin of the AIDS pandemic. Hooper attempts to show that the HIV retrovirus was introduced to people from chimpanzee kidneys used to produce polio vaccines in Africa in the 1950's. Hooper can’t prove his case because he discovers no smoking gun; he does, however, provide compelling circumstantial evidence. If it didn’t happen as Hooper suggests, it certainly could have.
This is a very long book but, despite a little repetitiveness, retains the reader’s interest by presenting the argument in the context of the author’s investigations and describing the personalities of the parties involved. Most of these individuals do not come across very well-of course, who could blame someone who may have been involved in the introduction of AIDS for being a little defensive.
In the fight for the glory of developing an anti-polio vaccine that occurred during the polio panics of the fifties, many short cuts were taken, particularly by Albert Sabin’s chief rival, Hilary Kropowski. Producing vaccines turns out to be extremely risky and remains so today, despite technological improvements.
An interesting side note: William Hamilton acted as a benefactor to this research and his African involvement ultimately led to his premature death.
Hrdy, S.B. (1980). The langurs of Abu: Female and male strategies of reproduction. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
When this book was written, infanticide by male langurs was little known and very controversial. Now, of course, both the practice, in species ranging from lions to grizzlies, and its explanation are known even to those who only watch nature shows on TV.
How did the idea, a kind of a noble savage mythology, ever arise that animals were kindly social democrats? Prior to the seventies, didn’t anybody watch cats play with mice or male pigeons peck squabs to death very, very, slowly while their mothers watched impassively?
A good book.
Johnston, V.S. (1999). Why we feel: The science of human emotion. Perseus.
This book reads like it is from a very good set of lectures. The arguments are crystal clear and presented without distractions. The Darwinian selectionist paradigm is central to Johnston’s thought, not on the periphery; it informs not only his science but also his epistemology.
Emotions are conceived of as exaggerated representations of likely changes in fitness that are tightly linked to motivations. Johnston presents some neat computer simulations to illustrate his points. For example, a computer program that allows the user to chose a face from among those of a "genetically related” group of faces on the basis of its similarity to the remembered target face (that of the perpetrator). The program then uses this face to form the basis of the next generation of mug shots (similar to Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker program). Johnston reports better results with this technique than those produced with identikit drawings. Other interesting data come from a similar program on the web that for the user-guided evolution of beautiful faces.
This book doesn’t require any specialized knowledge to understand but is informative to people who have already read a lot of this literature. Highly recommended.
Jones, S. (1999). Darwin’s ghost: The Origin of Species updated. Toronto: Doubleday.
An interesting idea to update Darwin’s Origin. The work is competently executed in a somewhat odd style--a mix of laconic summary and quasi-nineteenth century exposition. Not a heavily referenced book and written for non-biologists. In general, good reading but surprisingly weak on the sociobiology side.
Jones, S. Martin, R, & Pilbeam, D. (Eds.). (1992). The Cambridge encyclopedia of human evolution. London: Cambridge University Press.
The editors have done a fine job of very clearly explaining a great deal of material. The chapters are very short, written by experts, and among the easiest to understand that I’ve come across. Because of the breadth of material covered, no one is likely to know all of it.
The book is a bit dated now but still very worthwhile. Interestingly, in a few spots, the author of a chapter will predict what should be found in future. In some of these cases, we already know they were right! Very strong on primate evolution.
Kagan, J. (1998). Three seductive ideas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
And the flawed ideas are: Psychological processes generalize broadly, infant determinism (the effects of the first two years of life are observable throughout life), and that most behavior is motivated by sensory pleasure. I concluded after reading this book, that criticisms made at this level of generality aren’t very helpful. Exceptions can be noted in which some aspect of these "flawed ideas” are in fact correct. We can’t tell, for example, how broadly psychological processes are likely to generalize from history or methodological caveats, only through investigation.
Kevles, D.J. (1998). The Baltimore Case: A trial of politics, science, and character. N.Y.: Norton.
This is the Kafkaesque story of Nobelist David Baltimore and his colleagues who ran afoul of the NIH bureaucracy and a committee of the Congress. It started with a disgruntled postdoctoral fellow alleging sloppiness and errors of interpretation in a paper published in Cell and grew to encompass charges of scientific fraud. The "whistle-blower” informally became part of the NIH investigative team and the congressional committee treated this team as if it were in its employ. The charges kept changing but the defendants were neither allowed to know what these charges were nor to be privy to the evidence upon which they were based.
Scientific rivals of Baltimore were the most vociferous critics. Semi-professional "fraud busters” became involved and, together with members of the congressional committee, leaked all of the investigative details to the lay and scientific press (who published it and editorialized about it). The careers of all of the defendants were permanently damaged. This sorry business took a decade to sort out and ended with the exoneration of the investigators.
This is a tale of political correctness gone nutty, the peculiar relationship of big government to expensive science, the corrosive effects of professional jealousy, and how specialized scientific knowledge has become.
Half way through the book, I realized that I knew one of the NIH principals (a villainess of course) from my days dealing with NIMH.
Nobody is safe from this sort of thing.
Kimura, D. (2000). Sex and cognition. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.
Doreen Kimura is Professor of Psychology at Simon Fraser University. She provides an accessible and brief summary of sex differences in cognition in this book. Many of the findings are derived from the program of research she maintained for many years at the University of Western Ontario.
It is likely to be a surprise to nonspecialist readers that there are so many sex differences in cognition and that some of them are of considerable magnitude. The documentation of these differences, together with their evolutionary implications, has been unwelcome in some academic and social policy circles. Kimura doesn’t say much about the criticism her work has received but the book is organized so as to preempt knee jerk politically correct criticism and she makes a few comments that suggest that she is a little weary of it.
Another surprise to nonspecialists will be the findings on sex differences in directional bilateral dermatoglyphic asymmetry (people have more fingerprint ridges on their right than left sides and men are more strongly lateralized than women). Surprising, because homosexual men are less lateralized than heterosexual men, making the former resemble women more than the latter. This finding, among others, supports a neurohormonal organizational theory of sexual orientation.
In sum, Kimura has achieved her goal of writing an accurate summary of the research on sex differences in a form suitable for a lay audience. The illustrations complement the text nicely and contribute to the book’s comprehensibility.
Koertge, N. (Ed.). (1998). A house built on sand: Exposing postmodernist myths about science. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.
The authors of these chapters are profoundly unimpressed with the contributions of "science studies” to the sum total of human knowledge. Only one author, Philip Kitcher, offers (a somewhat lame) defense of science studies. However, none of the authors object to the scrutiny of science by nonscientists or to historians who attempt to construct theories of scientists’ behavior, rather they object to the scientific illiteracy of many of the practitioners of science studies and their ideological axe-grinding.
The state of science studies is much worse than one would naively expect. Three examples from the many presented will suffice. The first is Alan Sokal’s "Social Text Affair” in which his farcical parody of postmodernist criticism entitled "Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity” was published as a serious paper in Social Text, a leading postmodernist journal . One of the most interesting aspects of the hoax is that the paper was deliberately written to be funny to anyone trained in mathematics or the physical sciences. "Liberatory mathematics” shall set us free.
A second example is a John Huth’s detailed examination of Latour’s influential critique of Einstein’s theory of relativity. An examination that reveals Latour’s understanding of relativity to be inferior even to mine (and that’s saying something). Equally amusing is the third example in which Paul Gross dissects the "discovery” that male scientists suppressed knowledge of the active role of the egg in fertilization. His chapter is titled "Bashful eggs, macho sperm, and tonypandy”. "Tonypandy” is a dramatic story without a word of truth in it.
Unfortunately, it’s not all funny. Some of the chapters are densely written academic treatises and do not deal with the palpably absurd in an amusing way. However, the last chapter by Meera Nanda is not only unfunny, it’s quite disturbing. This chapter "The epistemic charity of the social constructivist critics of science and why the third world should refuse the offer” describes the use that Hindu nationalists, Islamic fundamentalists, and Chinese communists have made of cultural relativity and social constructionist criticisms of science in bolstering extreme nationalist and ultra-conservative agendas.
Although many postmodernist arguments reflect simple ignorance and fuzzy thinking, they are advanced in all seriousness from reputable academic institutions; scientific illiterates, whether in the third world or elsewhere, cannot be expected to detect their fundamental flaws. Thus, underlying the "science wars” is the very real problem caused by the combination of the exponential growth of factual knowledge and theoretical understanding with brains that are no smarter they used to be. Not only is more stuff known, what is known is understood at increasing levels of abstraction. Each of us knows less and less of what is known and are increasingly dependent on specialists for understanding issues outside of our narrow window of personal expertise. But scientists at least understand something of the methods used in other areas of science, people without much training in mathematics and science do not even have that, and are completely dependent on faith for their knowledge of the world. For such individuals (the overwhelming majority of the world’s population), the postmodernist critique actually applies, one truth or way of knowing appears to be as good or authoritative as any other. It is no wonder that there are science wars.
Kummer, H. (1995). In quest of the sacred baboon: A scientist’s journey. Princeton University Press.
Very well done personal history of Kummer’s fieldwork on baboon behavior. Kummer comes across as a very...well, noble guy. The book illustrates how much we have learned about primate behavior over the past twenty years because of Kummer and other people doing careful studies in the field.
Larsen, C.S. (2000). Skeletons in our closet: Revealing our past through bioarcheology. Princeton University Press.
Despite a somewhat wooden expository style, a sparsity of data on several central issues, and a little too much on the author’s own career, an interesting book. The very idea that one can find out about the nutritional status and amount of physical activity by looking at skeletons can’t help but engage the reader. The author reviews how activity and disease affects bones, the now standard story of how the adoption of agriculture can cause health problems, and attempts to reconstruct how colonization affected colonists and aboriginals in the New World.
Lax, E. (2004). The mold in Dr. Florey’s coat: The story of the penicillin miracle. NY: Holt.
Wow! An exceptionally interesting book. Florey and his lab developed Fleming’s discovery of penicillin at Oxford during the dark days of the battle of Britain. The science, the personalities, and the politics involved are presented in engaging detail. The book communicates the excitement involved in doing important research during the war years (reminding one of the Rad Lab), the naiveté of scientists (especially the English scientists), and the reach and importance of the Rockefeller Foundation. The title refers to the lab’s plan to put penicillin mold in their coats if the Germans invaded and they had to destroy their lab—if any made it to North America, they could grow new cultures of penicillin from the mold in the fabric of their jackets. But this is primarily the story of a scientific project and its products--the end packs quite a punch and I won’t give it away.
Leroi, A.M. (2003). Mutants: On genetic variety and the human body. NY: Viking.
This is a first class book--easy to read, with up-to-date science, and a real, if politically incorrect, fascination with human variety. Each chapter takes a condition (red-headedness or no-headedness, for example) describes some affected or afflicted individuals together with a bit of history, and then provides the genetic and developmental explanation for the condition. Excellent.
Lucas, J.R. & Simmons, L.W. (2006). Essays in animal behaviour: Celebrating 50 years of animal behaviour. London: Elsevier Academic Press.
This is a series of self-congratulatory historical essays written by leaders in the field of behavioral ecology. These authors have in fact a lot to congratulate themselves about, although some areas have moved much faster than others. I read Wynne-Edwards’ tome invoking group selection as the explanation for stable population densities when a graduate student but didn’t read the critical rejoinders by Williams and others that initiated the period of theoretical progress caused by focusing on the gene as the locus of selection. Too bad, I would have been a lot further ahead in my thinking in the seventies and early eighties.
The next development that contributed to rapid progress was the development of genetic methods of testing kinship. This has paid off big time in contributing to our knowledge of mating systems in a wide variety of species, leading to the current focus on sexual conflict.
Parker, one of the big guns in this area, remarks “Mercifully, the political feuds about human nature and criticisms that the adaptationist approach was “Panglossian” (Gould & Lewontin, 1979) proved to be only diversions that obscured what was happening: the explosion of one of Tingbergen’s (1964) celebrated “four questions”." The fourth question pertained to the evolution of behavioral characteristics.
Parker is certainly correct about animal behaviourists but the confusions caused by the sociobiology controversy live on in psychology. The majority of psychologists read only biology books and reviews written for a general audience rather than the primary literature. These books, many of which are quite good, nevertheless mistakenly give the impression that the controversies about genetic determinism, political correctness, and so forth are current in biological circles.
Maples, W.R. (1994). Dead men do tell tales. Toronto: Doubleday.
A bit disappointing. Lots of description of what happens to dead bodies. Amazing to what lengths forensic anthropologists will go to find out the cause of death or the identity of a body. The author is a little full of himself. A few interesting cases, one is establishing the identity of the murdered Tsar and his entourage (see Massie’s book on the last days of the Romanovs for a very different view).
Margulis, L. & Sagan, D. (2002). Acquiring genomes: A theory of the origins of species. N.Y.: Yale University Basic.
Very interesting reading and not very technical. The authors argue that speciation requires acquisition of genomes from unrelated organisms (as in chloroplasts and mitochondria by eukaryotes) rather than mutations and natural selection. The wholesale horizontal transfer of genes among bacteria and the lack of clearcut species of bacteria are emphasized. There are many fascinating examples of weirdly hybridized organisms.
I'm no evolutionary theorist but it seems to me that Margulis and Sagan simply push back the creative role of natural selection one step - how did the incorporated genome acquire its useful properties in the first place? I have no problem with the belief that "random" mutations have been overemphasized. Indeed, I think that biologists do not really mean "random" in the ordinary sense when they speak about mutations - instead they mean that their origin is unknown and their nature orthogonal to the purpose to which natural selection may put them.
Margulis, L. & Sagan, D. (1986). Origins of sex: Three billion years of genetic recombination. New Haven: Yale University Press.
I can remember how excited I was when mitochondria were asserted to have originated as separate organisms. Margulis was the originator of that now accepted hypothesis. She believes that all cellular organelles originated similarly.
This book is incredibly difficult reading. I was not convinced by her final thesis on the origin of sex but it is an interesting one. Worth the trouble.
Mayor, A. (2000). The first fossil hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman times. Princeton University Press.
The book presents good evidence that the Griffin is based upon findings of Proterceratops fossils in the Gobi desert. Many Greek towns had "hero’s bones” on display. Mostly these were enormous mastodon and mammoth remains. It’s not hard to understand why the ancients believed that the world had been populated by giants. The author argues for greater collaboration between paleontologists and classical scholars.
McDougall, C. (2009). Born to run: A hidden tribe, superathletes, and the greatest race the world has never seen. NY: Knopf.
I remember being absolutely amazed by a video showing a small group of bushmen running down a healthy antelope. How did they do it? They picked the largest and followed it. They had to track it part of the time because it would run out of sight. The idea was to prevent it from resting and cooling down. They picked the largest because it would overheat the fastest. One can imagine the use of a bow and arrow to improve the method—a blood trail would prevent the animal from disappearing into a larger group, make him easier to track, and of course the loss of blood would cause him to tire and overheat more quickly.
This book is about these sorts of issues—in particular, how we appear born to run. Only animals that run have an Achilles tendon for spring and a nuchal ligament to stabilize the head. We are designed to dissipate heat (with our upright stance and hair-covered head, together with our magnificent ability to sweat). People can run successfully even late in life. Of course, we are designed to run bare foot. McDougall argues that people in ancestral environments ran in hunting groups. This strategy worked particularly well in savannahs and parkland but not so well in ice age Europe where the non-running Neanderthals practiced ambush hunting.
The book makes these arguments entertaining by telling us about an amazing race between the fabled Tarahuamara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyons and elite American super endurance runners, such as Caballero Blanco and Scott Jurek.
McGrew, W.C., Marchant, L.F., & Nishida, T. (Eds.). (1996). Great ape societies. London: Cambridge University Press.
I can remember being enthralled by Irvin DeVore’s (1965) book on primate behavior. Made me want to leave the rat lab for the veldt. It is of interest to see what has changed in nearly thirty years. Well, certainly a lot more is known about a lot more species. Analyses of primate behavior are much more detailed now than formerly, there are longitudinal data on chimpanzees and gorillas, and there is new technology (establishing paternity from DNA obtained from hair found in sleeping nests and playback experiments that allow one to determine what particular calls mean).
Reference DeVore, I. (1965). Primate behavior: Field studies of monkeys and apes. NY: Holt Rinehart, & Winston.
McQuaig, L. (2006). War, big oil, and the fight for the planet: It’s the crude, dude. Canada: Anchor.
Superbly organized and very clearly written. The story of Standard Oil's achievement and maintenance of a monopoly is well known and infuriating. The plundering of Middle East oil and the blundering of recent American foreign policy is also well known. Putting all this together, however, makes a very compelling story. The most interesting (and depressing) part of the book is on how SUVs arose as a byproduct of the Japanese challenge to the North American car market.
McNeill, W.H. (1977). Plagues and peoples. New York: Double Day.
A classic review of the relationship of disease to history. Despite a little conjecture, the book presents a compelling argument. It now seems strangely up to date and foreshadows more recent reviews, such as Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Meinesz, A. (1999). Killer algae. University of Chicago Press (trans. D. Simberloff).
Warning: If you have high blood pressure or a familial history of aneurisms, do not read this book. The killer algae, Caulerpa taxifolia, were deliberately introduced into the Mediterranean (or accidentally introduced and deliberately ignored) by the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco (the Jacques Costeau Institute). The author of the book valiantly battles the prestigious Museum, hostile scientists, ignorant bureaucrats, mindless journalists, and corrupt politicians and sort of wins......but too late.
Miles, J. (2003). Born cannibal: Evolution and the paradox of man. London: IconoKlastic. £9.99. Paperback, 229 pages with a foreword by George Williams.
This is one of many recent books on Darwinism intended for the intelligent layman. It advances the thesis that, because evolution occurs through selfish genes prospering at the expense of less efficiently selfish genes, immoral organisms are the only possible end result of evolutionary processes. Man's evolved nature is therefore evil and only culture can make mankind moral.
The tone of this volume is quarrelsome and the arguments are often supported by repetition and appeals to authority. Thus, readers will tend to find only the arguments they already agree with convincing. The following quotes give the flavor of the book. "Mankind has a universal, innate nature. It is a nature shared with every other ape. A nature shared with every other mammal. It is the nature of the selfish gene, and of pure, unalloyed, genetic self-interest. It is a nature of sexual eclecticism, horrific violence, cannibalism and infanticide." (p. 73, bold and italics in original). "Culture is not the product of biology, the claim of the evolutionary psychologists. Culture must combat biology, as Thomas Huxley said. And as Williams, Maynard Smith and Dawkins have all written." (p. 74, italics in original).
The manner in which the moral nature of man is conceptualized and argued about in this book is strikingly reminiscent of 17th century debates on the same topic. Despite their hoary vintage, however, there are many problems with these arguments, some of which occur in other works applying evolutionary theory to human behavior. Perhaps the most obvious of these in this work is that "culture" is never defined and in any case does not provide an explanation of anything-it is merely a hopeful label for things not popularly considered to be "biological."
A similarly serious problem is that, although this book is concerned with man's morality or immorality, as exemplified by cannibalism and violence, there is no definition of morality and no consideration of human cannibalism or violence. Granted, there is but a modicum of knowledge about human cannibalism from archeology, anthropology, and history, but there is an enormous amount known about human violence and antisocial behavior more generally. None of this information informs this book and it is, therefore, unclear what an evolutionary theory of human immorality is intended to explain. For example, a successful theory of violence and antisocial behavior must explain the ubiquitous age and sex differences in perpetration (and victimization), the stable individual differences in antisocial propensities together with their degree of heritability, the striking cross-cultural similarities in the perception of certain behaviors as criminal, the well-documented influence of an individual's peers on that person's criminality, and so forth.
Part of the recurring confusion among biological theorists concerning the applicability of evolutionary theory to human behavior is likely caused by their frequent failure to take human behavior seriously. This is particularly the case because evolution has acted by creating proximal mechanisms that addressed immediate problems of survival and reproduction in ancestral environments. In the human case, contemporary problems may or may not be similar to those in which the mechanisms originally developed. In order to develop successful theories to account for human behaviors, these behaviors must be understood in detail. Of course it also helps to know something about the proximal mechanisms that cause the behaviors in the current environment. To return to the problem of evil, the devil is in the details.
Mithen, S. (2003). After the ice: A global human history 20,000-5000 BC. London: Orion House.
This is a survey of what is known about prehistorical history. The author covers the principal archeological sites and describes the scientific methods and sleuthing that allow their interpretation. The author attempts to bring this large work to life by inventing a person who visits each of the sites at the time it was occupied. The difficulty with prehistory for readers of it is that, unlike actual history, there are usually no actual personalities to capture our interest and sympathy. Similarly, the invented person/observer of this prehistory has no personality and doesn't really interact with the people he observes. Thus, this narrative technique fails to achieve its purpose. Nevertheless, for those of us who like archeology, it's a useful summary of contemporary knowledge on a very broad scale.
Mithen, S. (1996). The prehistory of mind: The cognitive origins of art and science. N.Y.: Thames and Hudson.
This is an archeologist’s reply to Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind. After a superb summary of what traditional and evolutionary psychologists have to say about the structure of the mind, especially the controversy over a general purpose computer versus a modular mental organization, Mithen attempts to relate the archeological record to the changing nature of our ancestors’ minds.
Mithen makes a good case for a general purpose brain organization developing through the elaboration of mental modules to a mind in which the modules can communicate with each other. I don’t think there are enough data to prove the author’s thesis but it is plausible. This book shows, however, that there is enough known now from archeology and cognitive science to start addressing questions concerning functional mental organization. There are exciting times ahead.
Very enjoyable book and an easy read.
PS. A relevant and noteworthy new study: Roche, H., Delagnes, A., Brugal, J.P., Feibel, C., Kibunjia, M., Mourre, V., & Texier, P.J. (1999). Early hominid stone tool production and technical skill 2.34 Myr ago in West Turkana, Kenya. Nature, 399, 57-60.
Monbiot, G. (2007). Heat: How to stop the planet from burning. Toronto: Anchor.
I suppose that if there was a "must read" book, this would be it. I learned a lot about global warming--some of it should have been obvious (e.g., freezers in supermarkets without lids!). Monbiot is very clear and knowledgeable. He reviews the biggest energy-using human endeavours, identifies the problems, and for every instance, except aviation, is able to identify measures that would produce massive carbon dioxide emission savings, at least in principle.
Morris, S.C. (1998). The crucible of creation: The Burgess Shale and the rise of animals. Oxford University Press.
Not a very good read. This book describes what has already been better described by Gould (although this author does not have an ideological axe to grind) and does not have anything more general to say of much interest.
New Scientist. (2005). Does anything eat wasps? Toronto: Free Press.
The New Scientist has long had a column of questions and answers supplied by readers. This book comprises selections from the column. How fat would you have to be to be bullet-proof? Can a person survive on only beer? What nutrition is lost when vegetables are pickled? These and many other questions are answered in this book. A fun little read.
Nüsslein-Volhard, C. (2006). Coming to life: How genes drive development. Kales Press.
A book on evo-devo written by a Nobel laureate. It clearly and concisely describes the scientific history leading up to the revolution in embryology. Not nearly as good as some of its splendid competitors, such as Endless forms most beautiful, though.
O'Brien, G. & Yule, W. (Eds.). (1995). Behavioural Phenotypes. Cambridge University Press. (appeared in The Quarterly Review of Biology, 72, 105).
A behavioral phenotype is a characteristic pattern of behavioral abnormalities associated with a biological disorder, as found, for example in Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome, where severe self-injurious behavior and sometimes compulsive aggression accompany mental retardation.
This edited book describes what is known abut behavioral phenotypes, primarily in conditions associated with mental retardation. The first chapter by O'Brien and Yule, very clearly describes the conceptual and empirical background of the concept. The second chapter (Richards) provides a general overview of recent genetic research. The next two chapters concern methodology and measurement issues; these, however, are written at a more elementary level than the others and therefore seem a little out of place. Chapter five reviews recent research on the Fragile X Syndrome.
Jonathon Flint's chapter "Pathways from genotype to phenotype" makes fascinating reading. The research it describes is exciting because the path from genotype to behavior is frequently not too complex to be followed, permitting not only the use of animal models but the actual genetic dissection of behavior. By the end of this chapter, readers may contemplate jettisoning their own research program in favor of unravelling these paths.
The last chapter, "Psychological and behavioural phenotypes in genetically determined syndromes" by Udwin and Dennis, comprises over half of the book. It summarizes what is known about each, beginning with Aicardi Syndrome and ending with Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome. This chapter is a useful reference for those working in the field but is not intended to be read through.
In all, an uneven but worthwhile contribution to the literature. It will be of particular interest to clinicians who are interested in collaborating with geneticists in the study of mentally retarded individuals, although the more general chapters contain information relevant to genetically influenced psychiatric disorders as well.
Plotkin, H. (2004). Evolutionary thought in psychology: A brief history. Oxford: Blackwell.
Having written extensive notes for a distance course on the history of psychology, I had been thinking about what further use I could put them to. There were too many fine books on the history of psychology written by actual professional historians to make it worthwhile for me to write another. Because of my interest in evolutionary psychology, my notes covered the history of Darwinian thinking in biology and psychology in some detail. I thought therefore that a book on the history of selectionist thought in psychology was well within my grasp.
Mindful that some years ago I had abandoned a project to write a book about the problems caused by the introduction of exotic species, cleverly entitled Alien invasions of North America, when I discovered that a book had on the same topic with the exact same title had already been published! So, I thought I had better check for books on the history of Darwinism in psychology.
Lo and behold, what pops up on my screen but just such a book by an English psychologist named Plotkin! My first hope was that the book might have been so poorly done or at least written from a point of view sufficiently different from my own that another book on this topic would be justified. Alas, not only is this book well done but the author’s favourite sources are my favourite sources (in particular, Richards’masterful Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary theories of mind and behavior (1987)).
A friend suggested that I conceptualize having been scooped as having one less thing to do and I’m trying that.
Poinar, G. & Poinar, R. (2008). What bugged the dinosaurs? Insects, disease, and death in the Cretaceous. Princeton University Press.
One couldn’t construe this book as well-written. The authors use too many species names, introduce species without describing them adequately or memorably, and weary the reader with “could haves” and “maybe dids”. Nevertheless, the overall story of disease in the Cretaceous is very interesting—ancient versions of all of the viruses, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, ticks, lice, biting flies, and mosquitoes that make vertebrates miserable and sick today were present in the Cretaceous.
There is, in addition, one spectacular find that makes the whole book worthwhile. A sand fly was preserved in Burmese amber 100 million years ago and, remarkably, amastigotes of Paleoleishmania proterus could be observed in its proboscis and flagellated adults in its midgut. These are the first sightings of ancient trypansomatids (protozoans that cause leishmaniasis in a wide variety of vertebrates today). In humans, Leishmaniasis symptoms include anemia, skin lesions and damage to the spleen and liver. The ancient sand fly resembles modern flies that prey on reptiles rather than mammals. More remarkably yet, reptilian blood cells were found in the gut and some of the blood cells contained developing amastigotes. It thus appears that the sand flies fed on reptiles, most likely, dinosaurs, and, from additional finds, that the reptile/dinosaur population was heavily inflected.
Poinar, G. & Poinar, R. (1994). The quest for life in amber. Don Mills: Addison-Wesley.
An interesting book in spots but often amateurishly written and in need of an editor. The husband of this team very frequently comes close to getting himself killed; the reader starts to wonder about this guy and whether he carries enough life insurance. Fossils in amber are much more common than I thought. One can get a picture of ancient forests.
Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma. Toronto: Penguin.
Omnivores have to decide what to eat among a wide variety of alternatives. Pollan investigates where his dinner comes from in an effort to decide what he should be eating. He buys a beef calf and follows it through the feed lot to the abattoir, he works on a sustainable farm and participates in slaughtering chickens, he follows the route industrial corn takes from farm to soft drinks and fast food--most of what we eat is corn, even (indirectly) our meat.
The pervasiveness of corn, the reasons for its pervasiveness, and the destructiveness of its pervasiveness are the biggest surprises in this book. Corn is a great plant turned into a monster by government policies that drive farmers off the land, wreck whole ecosystems, and encourage the ascendancy of giant corporations (which, needless to say, are indifferent to our welfare). Talk about unsustainable!
The most interesting chapter of this book describes the operation of a sustainable farm. Very cool stuff, most of which I didn’t know before. It’s clearly possible to practice sustainable farming, the problem of implementation is primarily one of scale.
Apart from the practicalities of food production, Pollan is primarily interested in its ethics. His discussion of these issues is sensible and I, think, sound.
In all, a compelling read and highly recommended.
Pollan, M. (2001). The botany of desire: A plant's eye view of the world. New York: Random House.
An entertaining and thought provoking little book. Pollan considers apples, potatoes, tulips, and marijuana. The book is written for laymen but contains some little known information. There are some interesting observations on monocultures and genetic modification of plants. The plant's eye view of the world cannot be maintained for long but is only occasionally necessary as a narrative vehicle to get one in the mood.
Pringle, H. (2001). The Mummy Congress: Science, obsession, and the everlasting dead. Toronto: Penquin.
The book moves between the personalities of the mummy scientists and the science of mummy investigation. This is an interesting book, particularly the scientific parts, although the pronouncements about the deep psychological reasons that people are interested in mummies are too numerous to be an effective literary device.
Quammen, D. (1996). The song of the dodo: Island biogeography in an age of extinction. NY: Simon and Schuster.
This book is a real winner. Imagine reading a whole big book on extinction without becoming suicidal depressed, just a little sad. Quammen has literally gone to the four corners of the earth to research this book, scared himself silly on a cliff side in Madagascar, traveled to remote Southeast Asian Islands on tramp steamers, collected ants on islands off Mexico, and interviewed all of the big guns in biogeography. And he has read a great deal.
All of this traveling and reading permits Quammen to present a nice little course on biogeography, a discipline founded by some of my favorite people like Jared Diamond and E.O. Wilson. Quammen takes us through how the seminal ideas about speciation and extinction on islands developed by telling us about the people who developed the ideas, from Wallace to the present. Usually, he writes about the ideas in the actual locations where they were developed. He also covers the substance and personalities involved in the major scientific disputes, it sounds oh so familiar.
Despite the very annoying practice of occasionally talking directly to the reader "don’t worry, this won’t be hard, and will be over soon,” this is a remarkably well written and engaging book. The reader actually learns a great deal of material without hardly noticing (it really isn’t hard).
Quammen, D. (Ed.). (2000). The best American science and nature writing 2000. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
I bought this because I greatly admired Quammen’s Song of the Dodo. This collection contains some very good essays and a few that are mediocre to a little dumb. Good ones include Judith Hooper’s Atlantic Monthly article entitled AA new germ theory” that describes Paul Ewald’s evolutionary analysis of changes in germ virulence. Dumbish ones include Nathalie Angier’s AMen, women, sex, and Darwin” from the New York Times Magazine. Angier believes she is arguing against an evolutionary view of human behavior whereas in actuality she is annoyed by some relatively minor issues and some casually made silly overstatements; the chapter ends with arguments supporting an evolutionary interpretation. Other articles deal with themes of consumerism, conservation, and declining species diversity; these chapters are OK but very depressing. The book as a whole is a good choice for those who prefer to or must read in snippets.
Repcheck, J. (2003). The man who found time: James Hutton and the discovery of the earth’s antiquity. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
Hutton was part of the Edinburgh enlightenment of the late 1700’s. He was enlightened himself in many areas other than geology (such as in improved agricultural practices) and a great friend of intellectual luminaries like Joseph Black, the chemist, James Watt, the inventor of the two cylinder steam engine, and Adam Smith, the economist. These folks, including David Hume, happily socialized in supper clubs they organized to promote discussion and to give each other’s work encouragement and friendly criticism.
Hutton, through his geological rambles and association with the digging of the Forth and Clyde Canal, made observations on patterns of erosion suggesting the earth’s great antiquity. Again, in contrast to prevailing views, Hutton believed that rocks were made in the interior of the earth rather than solely by deposition in oceans. During his lifetime and for a time thereafter, Hutton’s views received a very rough ride from dismissive and acerbic critics. Eventually, however, his theories were to emerge triumphant through their influence on Lyell’s decisive magnum opus.
A very good little book.
Ridley, M. (1999). Genome: The autobiography of a species in 23 chapters. N.Y.: Harper Collins.
Ridley’s idea of having a separate chapter about each of the chromosomes is clever and effective. This is an easy read and the book covers a lot of interesting topics on the cutting edge of genetic research.
Rolls, E.T. (1999). The brain and emotion. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.
A book that demonstrates that the brain works like the systems of relays that used to be used to work pinball machines and run psychological experiments (talk about an obsolete programming skill!). The principal experiments are based on a very clever idea for studying the neural basis of reward that entails looking for individual cells that respond to cues associated with food reward but that cease responding with satiety. The experiments demonstrate the hierarchical and functional organization of the primate and rodent brain. For example, in the visual system, the first neurons in the system respond to points of light, at the next level to lines, and so on until the neurons respond to objects regardless of their context or orientation. At the next level, neurons respond when a food object or cue appears and the subject is hungry and stop responding when the subject is full. From this explication of the hardware, one can see the system is organized to achieve functional ends and how it would be easy to develop during evolution in stepwise fashion.
I was reasonably knowledgeable about this literature in the late sixties and early seventies and it is remarkable to see how knowledge has progressed in such an orderly fashion. Whereas thirty years ago, most workers in the area thought of the brain as a machine, the actual mechanisms were only guessed at except in the most simple cases. The mechanisms underlying motivation and object recognition are now known , at least in outline. They turn out to be just as mechanical and simple in principle as people hoped.
Regrettably, the book is much weaker toward the end. There are some speculative chapters and the chapter on sexual motivation is not particularly good. Written for an academic audience.
Rose, M.R. (1991). The evolutionary biology of aging. N.Y.: Oxford.
Not for the faint of heart, this is not a book written for the Aintelligent layman.” Rose is good and knows his stuff and the stuff is theoretically important. I think with a good understanding of population genetics, this book wouldn’t be nearly so hard.
The basic idea is that in expanding or even stable populations having children younger is more important to one’s fitness than having them older. The effects of selection are therefore more important in youth than in old age (where we, dear reader, are abandoned).
Rosenthal, J.S. (2005). Struck by lightning: The curious world of probabilities. Toronto:HarperCollins.
Amusing in spots. Explains how to think about probabilities. Not for people who have taken statistics courses.
Ruggiero, G. (1980). Violence in early renaissance Venice. Rutgers University Press.
There is a surprising amount of documentation concerning crime and punishment in Venice in the 1300's. Should we be surprised that people murdered for the same reasons they seem to now? Trivial quarrels, quickly escalating to murderous brawls. Contract killings of business rivals. Murdering unfaithful wives, husbands in the way of love affairs, and unwanted children.
And sex offenses. Rape of children was punished most severely. Rapes of post-adolescent girls not very much. Rapes of married women the most severely. Rape was not, however, seen as that important (there were problems of corroboration, potential blackmail of the rich by the poor, and so on). Physical injury and breaking into one’s house to commit the crime were viewed as more serious. In general, compared to today, property crimes were viewed as more serious than non-fatal crimes against the person.
The nobility were a violent lot who were not punished very severely for transgressing against the non-nobility. Punishments were meted out in a politically sensitive manner. The stability of the state was the most important issue (vendettas among the nobility had to be suppressed and the poor must not strike against the rich). In this connection, a great distinction was made between crimes of passion and premeditated crimes (the latter punished more severely).
Ryan, W. & Pitman, W. (1998). Noah’s flood. NY: Simon and Schuster.
WOW!! A real good one. The authors argue that there is a real-life basis to the Biblical and Sumerian flood stories. Melting glaciers raised the sea level until the Mediterranean erupted into an arid valley that became the Black Sea. This is about as interdisciplinary an enterprise as can be imagined, archeology, drill core samples from glaciers and sea beds, stories in ancient texts. It’s written in kind of a breathless detective story style.
Sabbagh, K. (1999). A rum affair: A true story of botanical fraud. Da Capo.
Well constructed book concerning allegations that J.W. Heslop Harrison, a professor at Newcastle University, had literally planted specimens of rare plants on the remote Hebridean island of Rum and claimed to have discovered them. These plants supported Harrison’s theory that certain species living on the island periphery of Scotland had survived the last ice age.
Harrison’s botanical frauds, long suspected by many, were uncovered in an investigation by John Raven, an amateur botanist and professional classicist at King’s College, Cambridge. Raven’s damning report was never published, although elliptical excerpts appeared in the literature and its contents were widely known by rumour within the botanical community.
Harrison’s reaction to these allegations in several letters is one of self-righteous anger, self-pity, and (to some degree justified) paranoia. The letters remind one strongly of the literature on pro-criminal sentiment and neutralizations. In line with this theme, we learn that Harrison had committed other frauds involving butterflies, other insects, his name, and his address!!
Strangely reminiscent of the English amateur, Charles Dawson, who in 1912 was responsible for the very destructive Piltdown hoax. It turned out later that all or most of Dawson‘s previous historical and paleontological “finds” were frauds. This inspired me to write a haiku poem about the Piltdown affair:
Mispilt, pit down,
But not out--design,
Not nat silection
Sapolsky, R.M. (2005). Monkeyluv: And other essays on our lives as animals. Toronto: Scribner.
A very readable and entertaining set of eighteen short essays reprinted from a variety of magazines such as Discover, the New Yorker, and Scientific American. Sapolsky, Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford, covers a wide range of loosely related topics ranging from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, through the consequences of genetic imprinting, to sexual attraction among monkeys. A helpful set of notes and recommendations for further reading follow each essay. The author has a light and humorous touch and, although the material is written for non-biologists, the information is scientifically accurate. Mercifully, there is only a little of the tiresome sermonizing about the evils of genetic determinism that mars so many books on biology and behavior that are aimed at educated lay folk.
Sargent, T. (2005). The dance of molecules: How nanotechnology is changing our lives. Toronto, Penquin.
Great start to this little book. What good is technology and science for really important things? Sargent wants to re-create Greta Garbo but to “push around carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms to form 50 kilograms of luxurious closet-Swede is a major enterprise. The math tells the story: [Mass of Greta Garbo ~ 50 kg] + [Mass per carbon atom ~ 2x10-23] = 2x10-27 atoms to be arranged.” We’re not quite up to it yet but nanotechnology promises us Swedes of our own designing.
The book is organized into three sections Health (Diagnose, Heal, Grow), Environment (Energize, Protect, Emulate), and Information (Compute, Interact, Convey), followed by an epilogue (Humanize). There are some amazing feats of technology in all of these areas coming soon. It is all very simply and clearly written. The basic idea is to modify matter from the molecule up.
Schopf, J.W. (1999). Cradle of life: The discovery of the earth’s earliest fossils. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
A book about pushing back the limit of paleontological frustration. There is remarkably early evidence for the existence of life from tiny fossils. Since this book was written, still earlier fossils of eukaryote cells have been found in Australia. Schopf is one of the pioneers in this area and provides a very basic and reader friendly review of the chemical fundamentals of life. Curiously, Schopf is a name dropper and clearly fascinated with the famous. For example, we are treated to a completely irrelevant section on Dali whom Schopf met after a scientific conference, complete with (not very good) pictures. Despite these occasional irrelevancies, this is a good book by a guy who has his scientific head screwed on straight.
Segal, N.L., Weisfeld, G.E., & Weisfeld, C.C. (1997). Uniting psychology and biology: Integrative perspectives on human development. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
How can a book like this fail? Well by not being nearly selective enough in choosing authors, I suppose. Not nearly as good as its competitors. Even Trivers gives a weak contribution to this volume. Despite the title, the theoretical focus of this book is weak and not sustained over chapters.
Segerstrale, U. (2000). Defenders of the truth: The battle for science in the sociobiology debate and beyond. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.
Having heard Segerstrale talk, I can conclude that she’s a better writer than speaker. This is a very detailed account of the sociobiology controversy from a quasi-insider. The protraction of the conflict between Lewontin and Gould on the one side and Wilson and Dawkins on the other suggests that dominance rivalries lie at the heart of the matter. Firmly held ideological positions were attached to what were essentially technical scientific questions. However, the connections between these moral concerns to real issues of social and scientific policy are, at least in my view, highly speculative and likely nonexistent. For example, people don’t need scientific justification to persecute groups that they don’t like. History shows that they will legitimate their prosecution using whatever is at hand, if the pointy-headed scientists don’t provide something appropriate, they’ll misrepresent the science, use religion, history, Realpolitik, or whatever. In any event, these ideological positions appear to have been used primarily to discredit opponents and occupy the moral high ground (not that all the participants were equally guilty). Lewontin and Gould come out as the losers on the "let’s try to be objective” metric.
Short, R.V. & Balaban (Eds.). (1994). The Differences Between the Sexes. Cambridge University Press.
This book consists of 22 chapters and covers a great deal of ground. Differences between the sexes are described over a wide range of species from the cellular to the behavioral level. Aside from an Overview and an Afterword section, the chapters are grouped into four sections: Somatic dimorphisms across the species, sexual dimorphisms in organ systems, sex differences in behavior, and genetic and environmental control of gonadal sex.
Most of the chapters are well written and all are informative. There are some memorable passages, of which my favorite is the following: "The female germ cell enters into a long metabolic sleep from the moment of its formation in the embryo, thereby preserving the beauty of its mtDNA. It is awakened only by the kiss of the Prince, in preparation for the ensuing ovulation and fertilization." (p. 21). Most of this book would be comprehensible to anyone who has taken introductory courses in biology and genetics. The dominant impression that one has after reading this book is that there has been a tremendous explosion of knowledge in the last ten years.
A curious and regrettable feature of this book, however, is its failure to review the scientific literature on human behavioral sex differences. As is the case with non-human animals, the adaptationist perspective has made good progress in explaining human sex differences in a variety of behaviors, from homicide to mating. Instead of reviewing this extensive literature, the book concludes with an After word describing the editors’ opinions about whether the adaptationist paradigm can be applied successfully to human sex differences in behavior and, if so, whether it should be. The inconsistency in the application of a scientific approach between the body of the book and the After word is striking.
Quinsey, V.L. (1999). A review of the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Quarterly Review of Biology, 74, 113.
Shreeve, J. (1995). The Neandertal enigma: Solving the mystery of modern human origins. N.Y.: Morrow.
This book, like several others, such as Wright’s Moral Animal and Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, raises the question of when science reporters become contributors to the scientific enterprise on which they are reporting. Some of these exceptional reporters appear to become as well informed about their subject matter as the scientists they interview and often reach a much wider audience.
Shreeve is passionately involved in the search for understanding human origins. He travels the earth to interview the principal anthropologists and strives mightily to reconcile their conflicting views.
Shreeve is at his absolute best in describing the strangeness of a creature who is closer to us than chimps. There are many mysteries about Neandertals. Why was there no interbreeding with other hominids? Is it really true that Neandartal females and males lived apart from each other? Why would it be that Neandertals don’t appear (from the trailing end of their thigh bones) to have walked long distances? Why were they so extremely robust? And why did they lead such rough lives (they were subject to the same sorts of injuries as rodeo riders)? What was the significance of their protruding nose and mouth?
Shreeve ends the book in barely concealed agony over not being able to definitively select the correct theory. If he would have waited a little, he would have been helped a lot by Krings, M. et al. (1997). Neandertal DNA sequences and the origin of modern humans. Cell, 90, 19-30. I hope he writes a second edition of this very interesting and worthwhile book.
Shubin, N. (2008). Your inner fish: A journey into the 3.5 billion year history of the human body. Toronto: Pantheon.
An interesting little book with a fabulous title. Shubin is well qualified to write on this topic, having discovered in the Canadian arctic the 375 million year old Tiktaalik, an intermediate between fish and primitive land dwelling tetrapods. Not at all a fluke, this discovery was entirely the result of knowing what age and what type of rocks to examine. “Tiktaalik” means “large fresh-water fish” in Inuktitut.
Some of the signs of our fishy ancestry are well known to anyone with a nodding acquaintance of comparative anatomy, for example, that the jaws, ears, larynx and throat develop from fetal gill arches. Other origins are more surprising: Skull bones originally developed from teeth. “It turns out that exactly the same process underlies the development of all the structures that develop within skin: scales, hair, feathers, sweat glands, even mammary glands. In each case, two layers [of tissue] come together, fold, and secrete proteins. Indeed, the batteries of the major genetic switches that are active in this process in each kind of tissue are largely similar.” (p. 78).
Singer, C. (1928). From magic to science: Essays on the scientific twilight. Montana: Kessinger Publishing Co.
In those bygone days early in the century, one could still characterize folks from the dark ages as dirty, ignorant, barbaric, superstitious savages and not have one’s office picketed. Singer demonstrates that the old saw that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste (or the intelligence) of people applied to the mediaeval peasantry.
Knowledge in the dark ages was very limited in extent and a perverted and corrupt version of that developed in the classical world. The botanical works, for example, were entirely based on idealized and not very good copies of Roman works. It was often unclear what plant was actually being depicted. Because nobody had any idea about the geographical distributions of different plant species, people were generally confused.
Part of this book’s appeal is its very arcaneness. The reader learns about the sixth or seventh century "Lorica of Gildas the Briton.” A lorica is a chain mail shirt which is used as a metaphor in a very lengthy charm designed to protect one from the darts foul demons were wont to hurl at Amy flanks, skull, head with hair and eye, forehead, tongue, teeth, and nose, neck, breast, side and reins, thighs, under-rump and two hands.......uvula, larynx, and frenum of the tongue, to head-pan, brain and gristle......breast, peritoneum, and breast bone, mammae, stomach and navel.....bladder fat.....” and so forth, including anything the reciter forgot.
Then there are the migrainous visions of Hildegaard of Bingen (b. 1098) woven into a theoretical tapestry of the mind and cosmos. All in all, an appealing book. Too bad many of the figures did not fare well in the reissue.
Smith, J.M. & Szathmary, E. (1999). The origins of life: From the birth of life to the origin of language. Toronto: Oxford University Press.
A precis of their larger book. Although the book is well done, it is too difficult for non-biologists and not detailed enough for professional readers (they should get the unexpurgated version).
Sobel, D. (1996). Longitude: the true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time. London: Fourth Estate.
John Harrison, the Yorkshireman who, after a lifetime of trying, solved the problem of longitude, appeared to be an entirely self made man. He made his first clocks almost entirely of wood when he was yet very young. The book presents a very clear description of the problem of determining longitude and how it was solved by accurate time keeping. Not enough historical detail for my liking but a good little book nonetheless.
Spalding, D.E. (1993). Dinosaur hunters. Toronto: Key Porter.
This is about the people who found dinosaurs, particularly in the 19th century. The book is organized by geographical area. Some interesting stories but also a lot of uninteresting details about not very important events and people.
Spindler, K. (1994). The man in the ice. Toronto: Doubleday.
This is the very interesting story of the 1991 discovery of a man who had lain frozen in the ice for 5,300 years. Looks like he was a shepherd who got caught in a storm and fell asleep. Neat to see what he was carrying and from that to infer something about his life and the material culture of the society in which he lived.
A little too much about the reaction to the discovery but highly recommended.
Sternberg, J. & Grigorenko, E. (1997). (Eds.). Intelligence, heredity, and environment. Cambridge University Press.
The list of authors is a who’s who in the nature-nurture intelligence debate. This is a fascinating book in the context of the philosophy and history of science. The editors in the introduction say that they don’t want to give away their position on the controversy.
By the time the end of the book was nearing, I kept on thinking "What controversy”? As the feminists used to like to say, it was crazy making. The chapters divide neatly between those who find substantial heritability estimates in well designed sophisticated studies and those who don’t appear to understand the literature, are ideologues, or deal primarily with irrelevancies.
Fortunately for my sanity, the last two contributors review the previous chapters and come to the same conclusion as me.
The only possible way in which these high heritability estimates can be off is if the effects of intrauterine environments are more important than previously thought. There is a recent paper in Nature that argues that this is so but this has been looked at before and the jury remains out. Thus, individual differences in intelligence are surely pretty much established at birth in any event. Plomin’s yet unpublished finding of a gene related to high intelligence and the also yet unpublished discovery of a gene related to visual construction ability points to the direction this field is moving in. Inevitably but ironically, this genetic research will mean that intelligence will eventually become malleable.
Stewart, I. (1995). Nature’s numbers: The unreal reality of mathematics. N.Y.: Basic.
A beautifully written, very thoughtful, slim volume. Stewart describes the patterns in nature that numbers describe. This is written for non-mathematicians, yet for those of us who are not used to thinking abstractly (we really could if we wanted to....couldn’t we?), it is occasionally difficult. That said, it is well worth reading and I think I’ll read it again.
The beauty of a mathematical understanding of some phenomenon is the recognition that the it emerges as a necessary consequence of a simple underlying regularity.
There is a great figure of a computer simulation of the evolution of the eye in this book that I plan to use in my lectures. 256 steps and each one an optical improvement on the former as theory requires.
Sykes, B. (2006). Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The genetic roots of Britain and Ireland. NY: Norton.
A fascinating little book describing recent results of DNA analyses in the British Isles. In sum, the matrilineal history of the Isles is ancient, probably over 10,000 years old. One route that these maternal genes took was along the coast from the Middle East to Iberia, and then to England. The migrants were likely to have been family groups. The maternal stalk of the Isles has remained Celtic/Pictish, with the exception of the Orkney and Shetland Islands where more than a third of the maternal genome is Viking. Nevertheless, above the Danelaw Line (from Chester to London) there is an overlay of Viking female genes (5 to 10%).
On the male side, the strongest genetic signal is again Celtic and the origin Iberian. However, the lack of male genetic diversity strongly suggests that a few men monopolized reproduction and hints at the genetic rewards to successful warrior-politicians.
Taubes, G. (2007). Good calories, bad calories: Fats, carbs, and the controversial science of diet and health. NY: Anchor Books.
There are some great quotes in this book.
“A colleague once defined an academic discipline as a group of scholars who had agreed not to ask certain embarrassing questions about key assumptions.” (Mark Cohen).
“The researches of so many eminent scientific men, have thrown so much darkness upon the subject that if they continue their researches we shall soon know nothing.” (Hilde Bruch, quoting Artemis Ward).
Being the end of an unbroken line of millions of successful ancestors extending into the primordial ooze, one would think that we’re pretty well designed. One expects the weight of a well-designed animal to be well regulated—it should eat more if many calories are burned and eat less if fewer calories are burned. Nevertheless, there is an epidemic of obesity. What is going on?
This book is a detailed review of the research on the relationship of diet to obesity and longevity. To make a very long story short, the author argues that the emperor of dietary wisdom has no clothes. Most of the research on diet is correlational, motivated by preconceived notions that the studies are designed to support (rather than falsify), and fatally confounded. Recommendations to eat a “balanced diet”, to burn more calories than one consumes in order to reduce weight, and to avoid fat appear to be unfounded. The author has characterized the recommendations of the nutritionists accurately as the following guidelines for prevention of obesity from PEDIATRICS (2007) 120, Supplement 4, show.
“Evidence supports the following:
- limiting consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (CE or consistent evidence)
- encouraging consumption of diets with recommended quantities of fruits and vegetables (ME)
- limiting television and other screen time (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television viewing before 2 years of age and thereafter no more than 2 hours of television viewing per day), by allowing a maximum of 2 hours of screen time per day (CE) and removing televisions and other screens from children’s primary sleeping area (CE) (although a relationship between obesity and screen time other than television viewing, such as computer games, has not been established, limitation of all screen time may promote more calorie expenditure)
- eating breakfast daily (CE)
- limiting eating out at restaurants, particularly fast food restaurants (CE) (frequent patronage of fast food restaurants may be a risk factor for obesity in children, and families should also limit meals at other kinds of restaurants that serve large portions of energy-dense foods)
- encouraging family meals in which parents and children eat together (CE) (family meals are associated with a higher-quality diet and with lower obesity prevalence, as well as with other psychosocial benefits)
- limiting portion size (CE)
The prevention writing group also suggests, on the basis of analysis of available data and expertise, the following behaviors:
- eating a diet rich in calcium
- eating a diet high in fiber;
- eating a diet with balanced macronutrients (energy from fat, carbohydrates, and protein in proportions for age, as recommended by Dietary Reference Intakes)
- encouraging exclusive breastfeeding to 6 months of age and maintenance of breastfeeding after introduction of solid food to 12 months of age and beyond,
- promoting moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 60 minutes each daylimiting consumption of energy-dense foods.”
- The author argues that most of these guidelines are either wrong or based on inadequate evidence (although the first recommendation on sugar sweetened beverages is in line with his thesis).
Toward the end of this tome, the author betrays increasing frustration with low inference research that leads to conclusions betrayed by the “inadequacy of lesser evidence”. The parallels between diet research and research in a number of other applied areas, such as the treatment of sex offenders, are palpable. This low inference research is associated with a politically correct style of orthodox discourse among nutrition professionals that similar to that observed in many other areas.
I think that at a fundamental level, we all suffer from the primitive belief that we are what we eat. If we get fat, it’s because we eat fat. Moreover, because it is a just world, fat people are fat because they are lazy gluttons. If they’d just straighten up and live right, they’d be OK.
The dietary culprits appear from this book’s review to be carbohydrates (bread, rice, pasta, sucrose, and fructose). High proportions of these foods are a very recent change to our diets. These culprits induce obesity by altering insulin metabolism such that the cells starve while the body stores calories in the form of fat. Sedentary behaviour is a consequence of obesity, rather than its cause.
What is the evidence for these radical claims? According to the author, restricting calories and/or increasing activity levels are not associated with reduced weight in the long-term—indeed, episodes of caloric restriction are often associated with increases in weight. Obese individuals ordinarily maintain their weight at a particular level, just as non-obese individuals do. Obesity is rare among hunters and hunter-gatherers, even though they apparently spend a lot of time leaning on their digging sticks. An exclusively meat diet containing lots of fat (as among the Inuit) is healthy. Laboratory animals can become fat on reduced calorie diets. Fat animals who are starved do not become lean, they lose muscle mass. Skin from the abdomen transplanted to the hand will become fat when the abdomen becomes fat. There are individuals who are fat from the waist down and lean from the waist up.
I have read next to none of the primary literature that the author cites but his interpretation certainly fits with what I do know. Interestingly, there is new evidence on exercise that supports part of the thesis of this book. Four 30-second sprints on a stationary bike twice a week were found to be at least as effective as 30 minutes of daily exercise in improving sugar metabolism. In another recent study, school exercise programs were found not to reduce weight among children (of course, exercise is good for many other things). However, reducing TV time did reduce weight (perhaps because it reduced the opportunity to binge on carbohydrates).
In conclusion, this is a very thought provoking book that has pervasive implications for our diets and health. I think I’ll go out for a burger and skip the bun.
Trautmann, T.R. (1987). Lewis Henry Morgan and the invention of kinship. Berkeley: University of California Press.
How many famous fathers of twentieth century thought can there be? Well, too many for me to remember or even know about. Morgan is one of the fathers of modern anthropology who invented kinship by being the first to father lots of kids by many wives who varied in their genetic relationship to him, ending up by being his own grandfather. OK, OK, not really. Morgan became a lawyer for the railways and made enough money to indulge his serious intellectual interests. Starting in the 1860s, he studied the Iroquois kinship system in New York and attempted to derive principles from it that could be applied more broadly. Morgan was sympathetic to Darwinism and, remarkably for the time, not particularly religious or racist. Nevertheless, he tended to see the modern European kinship system as the most advanced and made some errors as a result. Morgan believed that the stages of man’s development from a promiscuous horde to monogamous families with kin-related property rights could be traced in the meaning of kinship terms used by societies around the world. Thus, the key to understanding ethnology and social evolution lay in comparative philology.
The reception of Morgan’s research by anthropologists has varied through the years. His work on kinship was certainly influential early on, mostly through its effects on the quite different theories of later investigators.
This book is interesting in spots, particularly in its description of the 19th century scientific establishment in the US and the influence of religious political correctness on anthropological work. It’s also interesting how Morgan became involved with the Iroquois. But a bit tedious in spots and not always easy to follow.
Vaillant, G.E. (1995). The natural history of alcoholism revisited. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
This is a revised edition of a classic book describing a longitudinal study of identified alcoholics, a sample of ivy league kids, and a low socioeconomic status group. Vailliant seems like an intelligent and careful thinker with a high quality data set. Which is why it is disappointing, at least to me, that more definitive conclusions could not have been drawn. Vailliant postulates that the best single definition of an alcoholic is a person who cannot predict when a drinking bout will end. He adopts a disease model of alcoholism and is very sympathetic to AA. All this is OK, but the disease doesn’t appear to have a predictable course, leading to the enduring debate with psychologists who endorse Marlatt’s social learning approach. Oh yeah, we don’t have treatments known to reduce drinking in the long-term, although, as everybody knows, some people stop drinking.
Ward, P.D. (1997). The call of distant mammoths: Why the ice age mammals disappeared. N.Y.: Copernicus.
Ward mixes science fiction and personal reminiscence with straightforward science reporting. Usually this mixture works. The book gets better toward the end and is written as a mystery. It looks like the smoking gun has been found or close to it--the crucial data come from cross sections of mammoth tusks (which are ringed like tree trunks). The rings show patterns of nutritional variation and indicate pregnancies in the females because the fetus takes the calcium from the mother. I won’t tell you who- or what-dunnit.
Did you know that dwarf mammoths were alive on islands off of Siberia when the pyramids were built?
Weiner, J. (1994) The beak of the finch: A story of evolution in our time. N.Y.: Knopf.
Written for non-biologists. This is a fun read and highly recommended. Evolution looks slow in the fossil record because of changes in the direction of selection over short time periods.
Weiner, J. (2004). His brother's keeper: A story from the edge of medicine. NY: HarperCollins.
This is an odd departure for the author of the Beak of the Finch and Time, love, memory, both first class popular science books. This book is about a young man of promise who contracts amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) and the frantic efforts of his brother to save him by raising money and encouraging scientists to invest in long-shot, high pay-off efforts at developing a cure. Because one knows how the story must end, it's difficult to suspend belief while reading the book. I'm not sure what I think about the book or the characters involved. One issue that clouded the picture was the entrepreneurship and profit motive of the altruistic brother and another was the relationship of the writer to the story (part reporter, part confidante, part publicist). The whole thing made me (and the author) a bit uncomfortable.
Weiner, J. (1999). Time, love, memory: A great biologist and his quest for the origins of behavior. N.Y.: Vintage.
A charming book by the author of The beak of the finch. The book is beautifully written and Weiner can clearly communicate complex arguments. Ironically, in the last chapter Weiner falls prey to the disorder that causes otherwise sensible people to speculate about consciousness and cosmic significance, a disorder that the hero of this volume, Seymour Benzer, would have warned him against.
Weisman, A. (2007). The world without us. Toronto: HarperCollins.
There are some arresting descriptions of the world without us—the remaining rump of a primeval forest in Poland, New York City streets becoming rivers without human attention, and an abandoned strip of land between the Turks and Greeks on Cyprus. Most of our creations are ephemeral. Depressingly, some are not—untended oil refineries will wreak catastrophe for generations and untended nuclear reactors indefinitely. Otherwise, the rest of creation will gladly be rid of us.
Whitehead, H. (2003). Sperm Whales: Social evolution in the ocean. University of Chicago Press.
Looking for culture in all the salt-water places......The author argues that there is evidence for cetacean culture in which mothers teach their offspring cultural traditions, including foraging patterns and particular patterns of vocalizations. There is some evidence to support the author's thesis but it is not yet overwhelming. Sperm whales are nevertheless such very strange beasts that they are well worth reading about.
Williams, G.C. (1997). The pony fish’s glow and other clues to plan and purpose in nature. N.Y.: Basic.
Yet another book by the master. Although surely everything about Darwinism has been packaged for the masses by some academic or other in the recent past, Williams’ book is very much worth reading. The arguments are presented in a spare style so that one is not distracted by irrelevancies and unnecessary detail. This is the clearest exposition of selectionist thinking I have seen.
Wilson, E.O. (1998). Consilience: The unity of knowledge. Toronto: Random House.
The subtitle could be "Why oh why are people so dumb and why don’t they listen to me?” If Wilson wasn’t right most of the time, this would be incredible pretentiousness. Nevertheless, although tactfully written, it comes across as a bit preachy, even to the converted. The text is designed for lay people but is remarkably up to date and flows from a clear understanding of the important issues. There is a nice critique of the state of theory in economics in which Wilson accurately complains that economics does not predict actual behavior despite its mathematical sophistication.
There have been a number of negative reviews of this book. The ones that I have seen argue that the philosophy Wilson presents is naive. Maybe so, but I think these reviewers miss the essential point. The important and convincing point that Wilson makes is that if you’re not part of the mainstream scientific enterprise, you’re not likely to get anywhere in a cumulative sense and not likely to have much fun either.
Winchester, S. (2003). Krakatoa: The day the world exploded: August 27, 1883. NY: HarperCollins.
A good book, although written in a very digressive style. Digressive, because the actual explosion didn’t take very long. What saves the book is the excellent quality of the digressions. I learned a lot about colonial Java and the rise of Islamic militancy there. A nice mix of history, biology, geology, and personal reflection.
Wrangham, R. & Peterson, D. (1996). Demonic males: Apes and the origins of human violence. N.Y.: Mariner.
I liked the book and highly recommend it. It contains very good description of chimpanzee warfare ("gorilla” warfare--ha, ha).
Zimmer, C. (2000). Parasite rex: Inside the bizarre world of nature’s most dangerous creatures. Toronto: The Free Press.
There are more parasites than any other type of organism. This book is a fast paced romp through this enormous group of organisms that focuses on a variety of evolutionary oddities. A good, if sometimes disturbing, read.
If the Victorians knew that "let others do all the hard work while exploiting them cruelly and mercilessly” was nature’s basic moral premise, while "nature red in tooth and claw” was for romantic panty-waists, what kind of social Darwinism would they have developed?