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J.Z. Young

J.Z. Young is a Fellow of the Royal Society. His most recent book is Programs of the Brain.

An Emotional Subject

J.Z. Young, 21 April 1983

A great many new facts about human evolution have been found in recent years, all of them strengthening the belief that our ancestors were rather like apes. Indeed it becomes more and more likely that there were no fully human creatures on earth until as recently as forty thousand years ago. It is a great pity that these new discoveries have been written up in a sensational manner by some anthropologists. The title of this book, The Myths of Human Evolution, panders to the idea that there is some doubt about whether evolution has occurred at all, which is of course just what creationists are saying so vociferously in the United States. Their clamour, and the political and educational issues raised, make the subject into News, and one can’t help suspecting that the authors of the book (or their publishers) mean to exploit this interest with their title.

Signs of Affection

J.Z. Young, 1 October 1981

This is a sort of encyclopedia for people interested in watching animals. The naturalist who wants further information about the habits of his subjects will find much of it here. There are fine articles on things such as flight, homing, nest-building, song, courtship, migration and many other avian activities. Unfortunately, the book will not be so much use to anyone who wants details about particular species. There is no section that deals with the whole life of each type of bird or other animal. But one can learn about the idiosyncrasies, say, of cuckoos, homing pigeons, owls or bower-birds.

The Hadar Hominids

J.Z. Young, 21 May 1981

It has only been recently that anthropologists have realised that their best friends are volcanoes. The ash falling from a series of eruptions can produce sequences of fossils nearly as good as those that are normally formed by silt in the sea, and their dates can be accurately measured. Skeletons preserved in this way in the Great Rift Valley of Africa have revolutionised knowledge of man’s ancestry. The first were found by the Leakey family at Olduvai in Tanzania. Expeditions were then undertaken by teams from various countries to sites further north, around Lake Turkana in Kenya, in the Omo Valley, and at Hadar in the Afar triangle in Ethiopia.

The Teaching Gene

J.Z. Young, 4 September 1980

It is a pleasure to write about a book that is so well-written. John Tyler Bonner is a biologist who not only knows a great deal about plants and animals but has thought long and carefully about problems of evolution. He has a cool and judicious attitude that allows him to settle contentious questions without fuss. For example, in order to show that ‘there is no need to be tyrannised by words,’ he makes fun of anthropologists who object to the use of such words as ‘slaves’ or ‘castes’ in describing colonies of ants, because it may imply that if these practices are natural to them they are legitimate also for us. The biologist thinks that both the similarities and the differences are so obvious that it is convenient to use the words and ‘unnecessary to drag in all the possible political, psychological, or strictly human nuances’. This question of the use of words is important for Bonner because he proposes to use the word ‘culture’ to cover a great variety of living activities.

People as Actors

J.Z. Young, 24 January 1980

We often read attacks on linguistic philosophy as an arid, inhumane and unproductive academicism. It is refreshing to find a sustained and ingenious attempt to build a whole theory of human action on ‘the extremely subtle analysis of ordinary language developed by the Oxford School of Philosophers’ – especially, one may add, by John Austin. Unfortunately Dr Harré finds it necessary to develop his thesis by the use of language that is very far from ordinary. Those who are not familiar with the jargons of philosophy and sociology will find it hard to follow. Nevertheless, for me, the effort has been well worth while.

Towards the Stars

J.Z. Young, 22 November 1979

When I saw the title of Carl Sagan’s new book, I was troubled. I was afraid he might have followed the path of other scientists who turn to study the brain because they are disillusioned by the inhumanity of physical science. I need not have worried. He remains an enthusiastic astronomer. The title refers to the sprightly opening piece in which he describes a visit to the backstage storerooms of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. There he happened to come upon the brain, in a bottle, of the famous Dr Broca, who in 1861 first showed evidence of an area in the human brain which controlled speech. The specimen prompted Sagan to speculate that Broca’s memories and insights might still be there in the brain in the bottle. This macabre but imaginative thought is typical of him, and it does indeed prompt reflection in the neuroscientist.

Is that you, James?

Thomas Nagel, 1 October 1987

Your nervous system is as complex a physical object as there is in the universe, so far as we know: 12 billion cells, each of them a complex structure with up to sixty thousand synaptic points of...

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