The Social Conquest of Earth
by Edward O. Wilson. Liveright, 2012
The Harvard University naturalist and Pulitzer Prize winner angered many colleagues two years ago, when he repudiated a concept within evolutionary theory that he had brought to prominence. Known as kin selection or inclusive fitness, the half-century-old idea helped to explain the puzzling existence of altruism among animals. Why, for instance, do some birds help their parents raise chicks instead of having chicks of their own? Why are worker ants sterile? The answer, according to kin selection theory, has been that aiding your relatives can sometimes spread your common genes faster than bearing offspring of your own.
In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson offers a full explanation of his latest thinking on evolution. Group dynamics, not selfish genes, drive altruism, he argues: “Colonies of cheaters lose to colonies of cooperators.” As the cooperative colonies dominate and multiply, so do their alleged ”altruism” genes. Wilson uses what he calls “multilevel selection”—group and individual selection combined—to discuss the emergence of the creative arts and humanities, morality, religion, language and the very nature of humans. Along the way, he pauses to reject religion, decry the way humans have despoiled the environment and, in something of a non sequitur, dismiss the need for manned space exploration. The book is bound to stir controversy on these and other subjects for years to come.
Sensitive Matter: Foams, Gels, Liquid Crystals, and Other Miracles
by Michel Mitov. Translated by Giselle Weiss. Harvard University Press, 2012
A slim, engaging volume that mixes mini lessons on such subjects as thixotropic fluids—think house paint and ballpoint pen ink, both of which flow when someone applies pressure to them but gel when left alone—with anecdotes from the author’s adventurous life. In one, Mitov, a liquid-crystal expert in France, travels to Naples, Italy, to solve the mystery behind a religious ritual: why a vial of dried “blood” associated with the martyr San Gennaro often liquefies when brought near the saint’s relics. Although Mitov fails to find a definite answer, he concludes it must be a “yield-stress fluid” that changes with time, temperature and touch. Readers come away from the book with a renewed appreciation for the complexity of such everyday substances as champagne, rubber and toothpaste.
Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist
by Christof Koch. MIT Press, 2012
Neuroscientist Koch first stumbled across Francis Crick, the preeminent molecular biologist, lounging under an apple tree in Germany. A few years later the two launched a decades-long inquiry into the problem of consciousness. The hunt for the essential substrate of our every thought propels Koch through a whirlwind tour of neuroscience, philosophy, physics and information science. The power of the mind’s “zombie routines”—those neural machinations, underneath our awareness, that drive a startling number of our decisions and actions—further underscores the mystery of consciousness. We may be less free than we think, but Koch clings to the belief that we are still the masters of our own lives.
Space Shuttle Discovery. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. The former workhorse of the U.S. space fleet is due to arrive at the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport on April 19. Check the museum’s Web site for updates: http://airandspace.si.edu
Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence. American Museum of Natural History, New York City. Open until January 6, 2013. Visitors learn about the nature of bioluminescence in mushrooms, fireflies and sea creatures and the ways scientists study the phenomenon.