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See Inside August 2007

Cosmic Questions--Baboon Melodrama--Cold Coors

COSMIC JACKPOT: WHY OUR UNIVERSE IS JUST RIGHT FOR LIFE
by Paul Davies. Houghton Mifflin, 2007

The head of a new cosmology think tank—provocatively named Beyond—at Arizona State University, physicist Paul Davies says he wants to look into “the origin of the universe, life, consciousness and the emergence of humanity.” In this, his 27th book, Davies examines the perplexing fact that many basic features of the physical universe seem tailor-made to produce life. He embraces the so-called anthropic principle: the idea that the universe’s suitability for intelligent life is not an accident but a logical development. In accessible, relatively jargon-free language, he summarizes the current state of knowledge in cosmology and provides an introduction to particle physics. He then asks the question: Does the design of the universe imply the existence of an intelligent designer? Davies comes down on the side of some sort of undefined “life principle” in the cosmos, but he says that this “is something I feel more in my heart than in my head.”

BABOON METAPHYSICS: THE EVOLUTION OF A SOCIAL MIND
by Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth. University of Chicago Press, 2007

In one of his notebooks, Charles Darwin wrote: “Origin of man proved.—Metaphysic must flourish.—He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” Robert M. Seyfarth and Dorothy L. Cheney—pioneers in the study of primate psychology—take up the challenge. Baboons live in groups of up to 100, which include a few males and eight or nine matrilineal families of females. Daily life encompasses intrigues that range from alliances of three individuals up to battles that involve three or four extended families. Paste on top of this a complicated mix of personal relationships—from short-term bonds for mating to long-term friendships that lead to cooperative child rearing—and the result “is a kind of Jane Austen melodrama,” in which each individual must predict the behavior of others and take care to form the most advantageous relationships. Any way you look at it, the authors say, most of the problems facing baboons can be expressed in two words: other baboons. The authors aim to understand the intelligence that underlies this social organization: How do baboons conceive of the world and their place in it? Do they understand kinship relations? How do they infer the motives of others?

THE SNORING BIRD: MY FAMILY’S JOURNEY THROUGH A CENTURY OF BIOLOGY
by Bernd Heinrich. Ecco, 2007

“Mamusha is just settling down on her bed to watch the evening news when I arrive. Two cans of Coors, which she has opened with the point of a pair of scissors, are on the table next to her, along with a box of German chocolates. She used to make her own beer, but now, in her mid-eighties, she likes Coors from a can; and because her gnarled hands are too weak, she cannot pull off the tabs. Duke, the huge shepherd-hound that she rescued from the pound, is at her feet, and a one-legged chicken lies cradled in her lap. She is mildly irritated at me for arriving unannounced ... but soon I have placated her and she offers me a beer.”

How can you resist an opening paragraph like this? Bernd Heinrich (a professor of biology at the University of Vermont and author of several best-selling books) relays the adventures of his father, Gerd, a naturalist who, among other things, captured a rare rail called the snoring bird in the jungles of Sulawesi, flew a Junkers for the Luftwaffe in World War I, and at the end of World War II rescued his family from the invading Red Army and lived in the woods of northern Germany for five years until they could emigrate to the U.S.

This article was originally published with the title "Cosmic Questions Baboon Melodrama Cold Coors."

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