Capsule Reviews

Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life
by Marcus Wohlsen
Current, April 2011

In the 1970s brash, young mavericks like Bill Gates and Apple’s two Steves (Wozniak and Jobs) toiled in their respective garages creating software and hardware that would one day revolutionize society’s relationship with computers—all without the benefit of towering office high-rises or financial backing from investors with bottomless pockets. These days, like-minded hackers inhabit their own crucibles of innovation, but instead of bits and bytes, they tinker with exons and introns. San Francisco–based science writer Marcus Wohlsen peels back the curtain on the world of do-it-yourself researchers in this engaging romp through biology’s underground. Biopunk is a tour that visits the “labs” at the forefront of homegrown biotechnology. For example, readers stop by the kitchen where a pair of biologists launched a cancer-drug company using little more than ziplock bags, a handful of HeLa...

The Belief Instinct:
The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

by Jesse Bering
W.W. Norton & Company, February 2011

What makes humans so “susceptible” to religion? This is the question that Queen’s University Belfast evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering set out to answer in his recently published book The Belief Instinct. Rather than trotting out the tired old tropes about the human psychological need for a higher power, which bog down so many other books of this ilk, Bering presents a refreshingly scientific take on the adaptive benefit of religious beliefs. In presenting the latest findings from developmental and evolutionary psychology, he develops and supports the hypothesis that believing in God served our ancestors well in their struggle to survive, a view different from that of Richard Dawkins, who holds that the human propensity to adhere to religion is an evolutionary by-product of other psychological adaptations. Bering argues that observing religious customs benefited early human communities by making individuals more connected, less selfish, and more attractive to potential mates. Though he and Dawkins arrive at the same conclusion—that God is an invention of man—the question of exactly why humans are so drawn to religion and how we got this way remains unsettled. Bering’s contribution to answering the question is worthy of consideration by any thinking person.

Biology Is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life
by Robert H. Carlson
Harvard University Press, April 2011 (paperback)

The leading chronicler of biotechnology’s rise, Robert Carlson writes in Biology Is Technology that, “Biology is a young technology in the hands of humans.” Though germinal, he goes on to explain, the shift in perspective and motivation from observing biology to manipulating it has already started to change the world as we know it. However hard it might be to predict how this new human endeavor will play out, one thing is certain—the revolution is upon us. Carlson details advances in biotechnology that are starting to have real impacts on global economies and ecosystems. Genetically engineered crop plants, bacteria engineered with hacked DNA, and cutting-edge vaccines are just a few of the examples of small-scale or open-source biotechnology that he considers. Carlson also addresses the problems, from patent issues to the threat of bioterrorism, that come along with the profusion of technologies and knowledge that allow virtually anyone to tinker with biology. The world of biotechnology is about as fast-paced as it gets, but Carlson does a good job keeping his finger on the pulse.

Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris
by Asti Hustvedt
W.W. Norton & Company, May 2011

The father of modern neurotechnology, Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893), is best known for defining “hysteria” as a neurological disorder and demonstrating that patients suffering from it were more susceptible to hypnosis. Throughout his career, he made important discoveries involving a slew of diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease. But in the 1870s, Charcot captivated the collective imagination of the Parisian public when he studied three high-profile hysteria patients in the historic Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. In an era when scientists and physicians attained fame and notoriety on par with today’s sports or film stars, Charcot would regularly draw crowds clamoring to see him demonstrate the disorder in the women—Blanche, Augustine, and Geneviève—whose hysterics he’d manipulate in theatrical fashion. Medical Muses, a new book by French-literature scholar Asti Hustvedt, exposes not only the motivations of the famous doctor, but the personalities and aspirations of his patients. The book fully explores this bizarre episode in medical history using a variety of sources, including medical illustrations, sketches, and photographs of the three patients taken at the hospital as part of their treatment.

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