Evolution isn’t limited to biology. It’s everywhere. Descent with modification, according to Geerat Vermeij’s thesis, organizes, explains, and predicts unconnected facts and provides a coherent framework for understanding the world. In The Evolutionary World, Vermeij takes on the skeptics—both those with valid questions and those with irrational ones—and shows how the struggle for existence leads to variety and creativity. His show-and-tell tour of the adaptive universe includes global warming, religion, Adam Smith’s theories of economics, “Darwinian homeland security,” and the future of the human species.
Fortunately for his polemic, Vermeij isn’t the straw man of creationist fantasy—joyless, ascetic, and amoral. Rather, despite—or maybe because of—the fact that he has been blind since the age of three, Vermeij sees wonder and beauty everywhere. Understanding previously undiscovered details of how life originated and how it has adapted and diversified adds to his love and admiration for his fellow humans. In Vermeij’s view, evolutionary theory and history provide a solid foundation for meaning and purpose in our lives.
We think we know what Charles Darwin’s claim to fame is. But in The Darwin Archipelago Steve Jones shows us how wrong we can be. Remembering Darwin just for The Origin of Species, Jones points out, is like celebrating Shakespeare for being the author of Hamlet alone. The “archipelago” in thetitle comes from Darwin’s collected works—six million words in books, papers, and letters forming a congruous set of connected observations. Jones takes us on a journey along this archipelago, showing us what Darwin worked on for forty years, in addition to the great voyage of discovery aboard the Beagle. Tiny changes over a long time result in massive changes: just as this is true of evolution, so Jones teases out how our knowledge of evolution has changed since Darwin’s time. The Sage of Down’s less appreciated muses include the carnivorous sundew, the evolution of Western civilization, his uneasiness with his own consanguineous marriage, and, finally, the humble earthworm as it simultaneously destroys and renews.
Darwin looked at the past to understand the present. But Jones, concerned with the same unifying narrative of gradual change and selective pressure, at the end of the book turns away from Darwin to look at the present. He warns us of the danger of the “triumph of the average,” describing how we have broken up ecological niches and spread different species far and wide. Inequality, he points out, is the raw material of evolution.
What is the relationship between dreaming and consciousness? J. Allan Hobson has made a career of challenging what he considers to be Freud’s deficient theories of dreaming, dragging dream analysis, and indeed consciousness, off the psychoanalytical couch and onto a biologically testable foundation. Hobson recognized early in his career that there were “severe intellectual, institutional, and moral problems” with psychoanalysis, but during his psychiatric training he found that his contemporaries had little interest in supporting a more rigorously scientific approach. This conflict is at the heart of Hobson’s reasoning, leading him to write Dream Life as a sort of laboratory report—an autobiography with Hobson playing both experimentalist and subject. He describes, in candid detail, his life—from conception through the brain-cell death suffered during his stroke—weaving into the story his theories on dreaming, long-term memory, and consciousness. Hobson also explains how his experiences and observations have led him to conclude that dreaming is a universal and essential part of brain development. Not an easy read, the book is as valuable for its insights into the motives and aspirations of a scientist throughout his long career as it is for anyone looking to learn about neuroscience in general, and brain development specifically.
Science, as I keep telling my friends, is not about facts. Rather, it’s about processes and theories—and especially about stories. Boffinology is a fascinating and engaging collection of the real stories behind inventions and scientific discoveries—revealing the people who actually made them and those who got the credit. Some stories will be familiar to many, such as the inspiration for Velcro and the dreams of Mendeleev and Kekulé, but other intriguingly populated tales, such as the invention of the first electrical telegraph, the real builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, and how Nobel medals were hidden from the Nazis during World War II, less so. From physics to chemistry to biology, from Ancient Greece to the invention of Post-It notes, this book is crammed full of arrogant, absentminded, football-playing, dogged, creepy, and downright crazy scientific heroes and heroines—and the occasional antihero. Boffinology is sometimes predictable, but always enjoyable, and it doesn’t skimp on the science, frequently inspiring this reviewer to Google his way into further details. Appropriately, then, the book ends with a section on the “enchantress of numbers” credited with writing the first computer algorithm, Ada Lovelace.