MIND Reviews: April/May 2005

Reviews and recommendations from the April/May 2005 issue of Scientific American MIND

Scientific Whydunit

A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought
by Stephen Kern. Princeton University Press, 2004 ($29.95)

Did you forget to take "Quantum Physics and the Murder Novel" your senior year? If so, Kern's book on causality will guide you through a daunting yet enlightening survey of how science has affected literature.

By "murder novels," Kern does not mean whodunits. His focus is on the "whydunits" written by Victorian and modern writers: books that revolve around murder but dwell on their characters' motives, not crime solving. Science comes into play because of the revolution in thought and knowledge between the period 1830 to 1900 and the 20th century. Over these years, Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel revolutionized biology, Sigmund Freud revolutionized psychology, and physicists changed our view of the universe.

The result, Kern says, is reflected in these novels: the protagonist of Émile Zola's Germinal (1885) kills because of a murderous rage inherited from distant ancestors--"an explanation," Kern writes, "that is unlikely in a serious modern novel." In Compulsion (1956), however, Meyer Levin has killers driven by childhood sexual traumas, a cause of psychosis unknown before Freud. Although Kern cites more than 100 novels, he concentrates on a dozen or so exemplary authors, with Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoyevsky as leading Victorians and Theodore Dreiser, Franz Kafka and Albert Camus as modern thinkers.

Kern's central idea is the "specificity-uncertainty dialectic." Roughly summarized: the more specific information scientists gained about the world, the more they realized how little they knew. For example, geneticists in the 20th century learned about genes and had a far better understanding of inherited characteristics than Victorians had--but the very breadth of this knowledge made the idea of a character inheriting an instinct a laughable notion.

Kern, a humanities professor at Ohio State University and expert on intellectual history, has mastered the novels, the critical literature, and the works by philosophers and sociologists bearing on his thesis. His descriptions of the genetics, neuroscience and physics that influenced writers are much briefer but accurate. A Cultural History of Causality is structured like a college course and can be heavy-going. But readers familiar with the novels will see them in a new light and--who knows?--scientists may be drawn by the connections Kern reveals to read these tales of murder. --Jonathan Beard

Sex and Learning

Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences
by Leonard Sax. Doubleday, 2005 ($24.95)

When I was a college freshman, a male teaching assistant I sought help from told me matter-of-factly that women were not good at inorganic chemistry. Had I been armed with Why Gender Matters, about how biological differences between the sexes can influence learning and behavior, I could have managed an informed rejoinder to go along with my shocked expression.

Sax--a pediatrician and psychologist in the Washington, D.C., area and founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education--hopes to make today's teachers and parents aware of the science behind differences between girls and boys. He was inspired to write the book as more and more parents brought their young sons to his office in the mid-1990s, seeking an evaluation for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Recalling studies that show boys do not hear as well as girls, Sax felt that for some of the boys he assessed, simply not hearing the teacher led to their inattention, a problem that could be solved by a front-row seat.

This article was originally published with the title "Mind Reads."

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