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Life Science


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip by Keith J. Devlin (Basic Books) Argues that mathematics is a great artistic triumph of the race, one made possible by an innate human ability. Offers a new theory of language development that describes how language evolved in two stages and how its main purpose was not communication. Suggests ways in which we can all improve our mathematical skills.
A groundbreaking book about math and language, from the well-known NPR commentator Keith Devlin  If people are endowed with a "number instinct" similar to the "language instinct"-as recent research suggests-then why can't everyone do math? In The Math Gene, mathematician and popular writer Keith Devlin attacks both sides of this question.

Devlin offers a breathtakingly new theory of language development that describes how language evolved in two stages and how its main purpose was not communication. Devlin goes on to show that the ability to think mathematically arose out of the same symbol-manipulating ability that was so crucial to the very first emergence of true language. Why, then, can't we do math as well as we speak? The answer, says Devlin, is that we can and do-we just don't recognize when we're using mathematical reasoning.

What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr (Basic Books) A compelling and highly readable explanation of evolution, by the grand old man of evolutionary biology and one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century.

At once a spirited defense of Darwinian explanations of biology and an elegant primer on evolution for the general reader, What Evolution Is has several audiences in mind: those scientists and nonscientists who accept evolutionary thinking but do not know exactly how it works, and those who accept evolution but are not sure the Darwinian explanation is correct.

With rare clarity, Mayr poses the questions at the heart of evolution-What is the evidence for evolution on earth? What is the origin and role of organic diversity?-and describes in refreshingly nontechnical language how the search for answers has over the years revealed solutions to the most challenging problems posed by evolutionary theory. In a provocative final section, Mayr considers how our improved understanding of evolution has affected the viewpoints and values of modern man.

Quantum Evolution: The New Science of Life by Johnjoe McFadden (Norton) A brilliant new application of the principles of quantum mechanics to explain the origins of life. Living organisms are controlled by a single molecule--DNA. The study of modern physics tells us that the behavior of single molecules is governed not by familiar classical laws but by the strange laws of quantum mechanics. The biological applications of this principle have never been fully explored--until now. McFadden's novel theory of quantum evolution shows how quantum mechanics endows living organisms with the ability to initiate specific actions, including new mutations. This simple but staggering theory has radical implications. Debunking the recent propositions of evolutionary theorists, McFadden argues that evolution may not be random at all. Rather, it may be directed--that is, in certain circumstances, cells may be able to choose to mutate particular genes that provide an advantage in their environment. This property of living organisms to direct their actions undoubtedly lies at the core of the much disputed issues of consciousness and free will.

Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution by Michael J. Behe (Touchstone Books) also touches upon design inference as a challenge to how evolution has been conceived as a casual process. Virtually all serious scientists accept the truth of Darwin's theory of evolution. While the fight for its acceptance has been a long and difficult one, after a century of struggle among the cognoscenti the battle is over. Biologists are now confident that their remaining questions, such as how life on Earth began, or how the Cambrian explosion could have produced so many new species in such a short time, will be found to have Darwinian answers. They, like most of the rest of us, accept Darwin's theory to be true.

But should we? What would happen if we found something that radically challenged the now-accepted wisdom? In Darwin's Black Box, Michael Behe argues that evidence of evolution's limits has been right under our noses -- but it is so small that we have only recently been able to see it. The field of biochemistry, begun when Watson and Crick discovered the double-helical shape of DNA, has unlocked the secrets of the cell. There, biochemists have unexpectedly discovered a world of Lilliputian complexity. As Belie engagingly demonstrates, using the examples of vision, bloodclotting, cellular transport, and more, the biochemical world comprises an arsenal of chemical machines, made up of finely calibrated, interdependent parts. For Darwinian evolution to be true, there must have been a series of mutations, each of which produced its own working machine that led to the complexity we can now see. The more complex and interdependent each machine's parts are shown to be, the harder it is to envision Darwin's gradualist paths, Behe surveys the professional science literature and shows that it is completely silent on the subject, stymied by the elegance of the foundation of life. Could it be that there is some greater force at work?

Michael Behe is not a creationist. He believes in the scientific method, and he does not look to religious dogma for answers to these questions. But he argues persuasively that biochemical machines must have been designed -- either by God, or by some other higher intelligence. For decades science has been frustrated, trying to reconcile the astonishing discoveries of modern biochemistry to a nineteenth-century theory that cannot accommodate them. With the publication of Darwin's Black Box, it is time for scientists to allow themselves to consider exciting new possibilities, and for the rest of us to watch closely.

The Genetic Gods: Evolution and Belief in Human Affairs by John C. Avise (Harvard University Press) provides a popular account of the genetic rethinking of the mechanisms of evolution.  Avise is especially keen to abolish the false dichotomy of nature/nurture figures in our development, by explaining how the genetic gods not just metabolism and physiology, but also our emotional disposition, personality, ethical leanings, and, indeed, religiositymake what we will become and us who we are. So the study dares us to make the indispensable correlations between what we know, what we believe, and what we embody as crucial to experience and evolution.

The Genetic Gods is intended for the reflective, open‑minded reader who would appreciate a simplified discussion of recent evolutionary‑genetic findings. Human beings, like all other species on earth, are biological products of evolutionary processes, and as such are physical expressions of genes, the "genetic gods." Genes and the mechanistic evolutionary forces that have sculpted them thus assume many of the roles in human affairs traditionally reserved for supernatural deities. Some may find this argument blasphemous or sacrilegious; others may find it prosaic. Such contradictory responses reflect the paradoxical state of philosophical affairs, in which religious revelation and scientific rationalism uncomfortably coexist as powerful but opposing means of knowing.

During the development of an individual, genes influence not only bodily features at microscopic and macroscopic levels and the metabolic and physiologic conditions underlying medical health, but also the more ethereal aspects of human nature, including emotions, psychologies, personalities, and even ethical and religious predilections. These genetic influences often are indirect, mediated and modulated by diverse social and cultural experiences, and manifest through genetically based cognitive abilities unique to our species. Even the most sacrosanct of human affairs, sexual reproduction and death, are products of evolutionary processes, firmly ensconced in our genes.

The sciences of evolutionary biology and genetics, with roots little more than a century deep, have blossomed in recent decades to provide mechanistic understandings of human conditions that until recently had been within the exclusive purview of mythology, theology, and religion. Yet most people remain either blissfully ignorant of these discoveries or openly hostile to their implications. As a practicing evolutionary biologist, I live in two worlds. I work in a university setting surrounded by the astonishing pieces of laboratory equipment and biochemical tools of molecular genetics, and by reams of computer output on DNA sequences and evolutionary‑genetic simulations. My colleagues and graduate Students take for granted that natural forces have shaped the biological objects of our studies (in my case, mostly fishes, reptiles, and birds), and research grants fund us to work out the genetic mechanisms and processes by which these evolutionary outcomes have been achieved. Yet when I return home to read the local newspaper, I find editorials lashing out against evolutionary biology in the name of religion, and reports of school boards mandating equal time for creationism in the science classroom. On TV and radio, evangelists prohibit any departure from the word of God as they hear it. Almost as disturbing are the technocrats or laboratory researchers who naively proclaim that science and technology alone can provide certain salvation from humanity's ills and all the world's problems.

This is a book about causation in biology. It makes no pretense to wrestle seriously with the theistic ramifications of evolution from the perspectives of religious philosophers or theologians, who also have dealt with such issues extensively.' However, a clearer understanding of recent empirical findings in human molecular genetics and conceptual advances in evolutionary‑genetic theory may increase communication between the social and the natural sciences, and between theology and evolutionary biology. I hope to diminish the hostility between these differing epistemological approaches, which at their best do share a goal of attempting to understand human nature.

Beyond these immediate aims, I hope to resolve a central issue in my own life: how to reconcile the intellectual demands and pleasures of critical scientific thought with the sense of purpose and fulfillment that a rich spiritual life can provide. I subscribe to the proposition that scientific rationalism is the surest route to objective understanding available to mortal humans, but I hold no illusions that the pursuit of objective reality is necessarily satisfying. The Genetic Gods champions science as the preferred path of rational route to inquiry and makes not metaphysical claims.

Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction? by Michael Ruse (Harvard University Press) provides an enlightening inquiry into the nature of science using an excellent short history of evolutionary thinking as a case study. It gives informative, brief biographies of some of the prominent figures in the field. With the recent Sokal hoaxthe publication of a prominent physicist's pseudo-article in a leading journal of cultural studiesthe status of science moved sharply from debate to dispute. Is science objective, a disinterested reflection of reality, as Karl Popper and his followers believed? Or is it subjective, a social construction, as Thomas Kuhn and his students maintained? Into the fray comes. Mystery of Mysteries. Michael Ruse begins with such colorful luminaries as Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) and Julian Huxley (brother of novelist Aldous and grandson of T. H. Huxley, Darwin's bulldog') and ends with the work of the English game theorist Geoffrey Parker-a microevolutionist who made his mark studying the mating strategies of dung flies-and the American paleontologist Jack Sepkoski, whose computer-generated models reconstruct mass extinctions and other macro events in life's history. Along the way Ruse considers two great popularizer of evolution, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, as well as two leaders in the field of evolutionary studies, Richard Lewontin and Edward O. Wilson, paying close attention to these figures' cultural commitments: Gould's transplanted Germanic idealism, Dawkins's male-dominated Oxbridge circle, Lewontin's Jewish background, and Wilson's southern childhood. Ruse explicates the role of metaphor and metavalues in evolutionary thought and draws significant conclusions about the cultural impregnation of science. Identifying strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the "science wars," he demonstrates that a resolution of the objective and subjective debate is nonetheless possible.

HANDBOOK OF HUMAN SYMBOLIC EVOLUTION: edited by Andrew Lock and Charles R. Peters ($225.00, cloth, notes, bibliographies, time chart, index, illustrations, Oxford Science Publications, Claredon Press, 1996 ISBN: 0-19-852153-7)

When the Societe de Linguistique de Paris was established in 1865, its statutes expressly forbade papers on the origins of language. The first two of its dozen statutes precluded as acceptable inquiry much of what appears in this Handbook. They have been translated as follows:

Article I: The Society of Linguistics has as its object the study of languages, and of legends, traditions, customs, and documents which could clarify ethnographic science. All other objects of study are rigorously forbidden.

Article II: The Society Will accept no communication dealing with either the origin of language or the creation of a universal language.

Much has transpired in the one hundred and thirty or so years since that perhaps laudable SLP ban. Explanations and accounts of our own origins have become one of the most popular of all the areas in science that are now regularly brought into the public arena via television, lavishly illustrated books, and even cartoons. The discovery of fossils and artifacts has its own intrinsic interest, but it is the origin of our characteristically human abilities—to be able to speak, create images, read and write, etc.—that holds the imagination. For it is in these areas that science bears directly on a demand that many hold to be the first step in making sense of this life of ours: ‘Know thyself.’

The aim in this book is to create a reference work that sets out and evaluates the basic knowledge and theory relevant to human evolutionary origins that has accumulated in the scientific literature, especially over the last few decades. It is a compendium and a guide, to the general topics that might help in understanding human symbolic evolution. There are several meanings of ‘evolution’ and ‘symbolism’ that fall within the scope of inquiry as presented in this handbook. The appropriate senses of Evolution’ include: the origin of species by a process of development from earlier forms; the process of unrolling, unfolding, or opening out, as in an orderly succession, of a long train of events; the process of developing from a rudimentary to a mature state; the working out in detail of what is implicitly or potentially contained in a principle or idea; and the development or growth, according to its inherent tendencies, of anything that may be compared to a living organism for example, that of a political constitution, a science, a language, and so forth.

The appropriate senses of ‘symbol’ include: something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else, concrete, abstract, or immaterial, not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or some conventional or accidental relation, for example, a gesture or a word; or a written character or mark used to represent something, such as a figure or sign conventionally standing for some object, process, quality, or condition. The editors concern, in part, is with the establishment of the symbolic, specifying those capacities that are necessary to allow symbols to be created, and how those capacities may themselves have been established. Secondly, they are concerned with the elaboration and use of the symbols themselves. They have, then, to distinguish between the abilities that make symbols possible, and the capabilities that are made possible by the use of symbols.

Their primary purpose is to provide the reference materials that would help in developing a clearer picture of what has occurred over time in the performance and elaboration of human symbolic abilities. This is seen as a necessary prerequisite to any theorizing as to how that elaboration is to be explained. The history of the scientific investigation of human symbolic evolution is briefly summarized by Hewes in Chapter 21 of this hefty volume. There are a number of points in his outline that should be kept clearly in mind, lest anyone’s expectations of what we can accomplish here exceed all reasonable possibility.

First, it is a short history, essentially having its scientific origins in the mid-twentieth century. Since then the field has developed as new fossil specimens and artifacts have been recovered, as new dating techniques have been developed, and as evidence has accrued in allied fields such as primatology, linguistics, and developmental psychology that allows wider and more informed hypotheses about, and interpretations of, the significance of the material record. But the amount of time within which this development has occurred is not sufficient for a mature science to have been established. There is little consensus as yet; no long-established and widely accepted core to the field.

Thus, secondly, there is a sense in which this area of inquiry has not yet, so to speak, left the nineteenth century, that stage in proto-scientific time when ruling theories and single-minded ideas held sway, before Chamberlin’s (1890) reform placed the method of multiple working hypotheses at center stage. Earlier abuses, like current successes, may be exaggerated; but it was characteristic of that period for theories to be advocated and proliferate without any hope or means of being tested. This justifiably led to the ban by the Paris Linguistic Society, and to Whitney’s observation (1870) that: ‘No theme in linguistic science is more often and more voluminously treated than this, by scholars of every grade and tendency; nor any, it may be added, with less profitable result in proportion to the labor expended.’

Advocacy; the omission of contrary evidence; and in some cases a predilection for untestable theories: all can still be found in the field today. But the immense intrinsic interest in the topic remains unabated, and this Handbook marks a new attempt to bring us closer to a science of symbolic origins and evolution. It is indicative of the field’s having reached that healthy period in which it has articulated a sufficiently rich framework of concepts and knowledge to begin to be thoroughly self-critical: to take stock and establish the limits of what it can claim. Progress has been made since the unearthing of Neanderthal Man in 1856 marked the turning-point that forced humans to realize the antiquity of their heritage, and we should not seek to deny that it has. But approach the field with a healthy skepticism; beware of interpretative errors and over-attribution: progress is more likely to come from that frame of mind than any other.

There is, moreover, a third point to be made by the editors. The number of disciplines that contribute, either directly or indirectly, to this area of inquiry is such that no single investigator can reasonably hope to judge all the sources of evidence that bear on the topic. This is one of the motivating factors behind this volume: to have evaluated and make accessible as much of this material as possible.

A glance at the Contents will show how they have cast their net widely. They have tried to include authoritative reviews on the many topic areas that contribute fundamentally to our goal. Inevitably they have missed some, through various combinations of ill luck, limitations of time and talent, and oversight. Perhaps some of the shortcomings can be put right in a second edition, some time in the twenty-first century. Our most notable omission is the anthropological literature dealing with culture as a set of symbols, typically represented by a group of publications by Clifford Geertz Victor Turner (1974), Dan Sperber, and Claude Levi-Strauss.

In many ways this Handbook will do much to reorient the evolutionary thinking that is ever more deeply influencing the juncture between the biological sciences with language and culture theory and history. Truly a remarkable achievement.

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