2020. A time of Trump. Written during a period of pandemic, it is a chronicle of conspiracies embellished with the flowers of falsehoods. In other words, it is tempting to think of the current moment as one of irrationality run rampant. If you have been entertaining similar thoughts, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason provides a poignant note and a fascinating reflection. Because, when you take some distance, you might ask if it has ever been different. How many people past have wondered the same from their unique vantage point? Have we really made any progress towards enlightenment, or is our history merely the back-and-forth sloshing of the tides of reason and unreason?
Whatever mental image you have of our close evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, it is bound to be incomplete. Kindred is an ambitious book that takes in the full sweep of 150 years of scientific discovery and covers virtually every facet of their biology and culture. Archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes has drawn on her extensive experience communicating science outside of the narrow confines of academia to write a book that is as accessible as it is informative, and that stands out for its nuance and progressive outlook. Is this a new popular science benchmark?
In his previous book, Beyond Words, ecologist Carl Safina convinced his readers of the rich inner lives of animals. Just like we do, they have thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But the similarities do not stop there. Becoming Wild focuses on animal culture, the social knowledge that is transmitted between individuals and generations through sharing and learning. The more we look, the more animals seem less different from us – or we from them. On top of that, Safina puts forward several eye-opening and previously-overlooked implications of animal culture.
Recognising that animals are intelligent beings with inner lives, emotions – even personalities – has a troubled place in the history of ethology, the study of animal behaviour. For most pet owners, these things will seem self-evident, but ethologists have long been hostile to the idea of anthropomorphising animals by attributing human characteristics to them. The tide is turning, though, and on the back of decades-long careers, scientists such as Frans de Waal, Marc Bekoff, and Carl Safina have become well-known public voices breaking down this outdated taboo. In preparation of reviewing Safina’s new book Becoming Wild, I decided I should first read his bestseller Beyond Words. I have to issue an apology here: courtesy of the publisher Henry Holt I have had a review copy of this book for several years that gathered dust until now. And that was entirely my loss, as Beyond Words turned out to be a beautiful, moving book.
Growth as a process is ubiquitous. It is the hallmark of every living organism. It motivates much of what we as humans do, as often unspoken as it is outspoken. It is the narrative lens through which we examine societies and civilizations past and present. And it is the altar at which economists worship. You would think that nobody in their right mind would write a book that tries to encompass all of the above. Leave it to a deep thinker such as Vaclav Smil to prove to you otherwise.
Having just read Barash’s Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, it seemed logical to next read The Selfish Ape by biologist Nicholas P. Money. With the dustjacket calling the human being Homo narcissus, and the book “a refreshing response to common fantasies about the ascent of humanity“, these two clearly explore the same ideas, though one look at the cover suggests a darker tone. Money mostly takes the reader on a tour of human biology to show how we are little different from our fellow creatures, spicing up his writing with bleak observations. This one, my friend, sees through the glass darkly…
Do animals experience joy, grief, or shame? Most people will be quick to attribute all sorts of emotions to pets and other animals. But many biologists remain uncomfortable with this, well, touchy-feely subject. As scientists, we are trained to be objective, cool, and detached when making observations. Anthropomorphism – the attribution of human traits to animals – has traditionally been a big no-no. But the tide is turning, and well-known Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal is here to help it along. Mama’s Last Hug is a smart, opinionated, and insightful book arguing we have long overestimated humans and underestimated animals.
This book was originally announced with the subtitle Every Body Leaves a Mark. Next to a clever play on words, it also nicely captures the subject. Patricia Wiltshire is a professor in forensic ecology, botany, and palynology. That last discipline is the study of pollen and spores and is widely used in archaeology, for example for radiocarbon dating. Wiltshire used to be an environmental archaeologist before stumbling into a new career in her fifties when a phone call heralded an unexpected career change. Traces tells that story and is a fascinating first-hand account of her pioneering contributions to forensic science.
Underground spaces exert a strong pull on the imagination of most people, although for some this morphs into a fascination bordering on the obsessive. American author Will Hunt is one such person, part of a worldwide community of urban explorers who infiltrate into “the city’s obscure layers”. Though this encompasses more than underground spaces, they are a big part of it, and this book is Hunt’s story of how he fell in love with them. It is one of two big books published only five months apart on the subterranean realm, and I previously reviewed Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey. Here I will turn my attention to Underground.
As mentioned previously in my review of Barbara King’s Evolving God, religion is a pervasive phenomenon, and many scholars have put forward explanations of how, when, and why it arose. The arguments King put forth did not convince me that religion is anything more than a by-product of our evolution. Apparently, so did Darwin. Though believers often like to point out Darwin was a Christian too, he struggled to reconcile the two and ultimately lost his faith. American psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey gracefully acknowledges this intellectual heritage and here updates this idea, putting forth the convincing argument that religion arose as a by-product of brain evolution.