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25 October 1990
The Ants 
by Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson.
Springer, 732 pp., DM 198, March 1990, 3 540 52092 9
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... biology, biochemistry, and a wealth of extraordinarily interesting detail. I have no doubt that E.O. Wilson is the most distinguished biologist of our times, but it is surprising, even so, that he not only combines profound knowledge of these ‘little creatures who run the world’ with considerable insight into the ...

Human Nature

Stuart Hampshire

25 October 1979
Beast and Man 
by Mary Midgley.
Harvester, 396 pp., £7.50
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... ethics has been an intellectual fad of the last decade, and Mrs Midgley is trying to restore a sense of proportion. Sociobiology has had its home principally in the United States rather than in the land of Herbert Spencer, and Professor E.O. Wilson of Harvard, author of Sociobiology the New Synthesis, is now the leading ...

Short Cuts

Thomas Jones: Evolution versus Metamorphosis

1 September 2005
... That the human brain is the way it is because it evolved to be that way is what you might call a no-brainer. As Ian Hacking said in the last issue of the LRB, quoting Steven Rose quoting Theodosius Dobzhansky, ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution ...

Look!

Jerry Fodor

29 October 1998
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge 
by Edward O. Wilson.
Little, Brown, 374 pp., £18.99, September 1998, 0 316 64569 9
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... Suppose God took it into his head to make another world just like ours; if one is good, why wouldn’t two be better? There’s a lot he’d have to see to; dividing the light from the dark and the seas from the dry land would hardly make a start. He’d need to conjure up another Milky Way, for example, that’s exactly counterpart to ours, and arrange the very same number of stars in the very same relative locations ...

Consider Jack and Oskar

Michael Rossi: Twin Studies

7 February 2013
Born Together – Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study 
by Nancy Segal.
Harvard, 410 pp., £39.95, June 2012, 978 0 674 05546 9
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... In a tongue-in-cheek editorial in the February 1927 issue of the Journal of Educational Research, the psychologist Guy Whipple announced that ‘the age-old perplexity of heredity has been banished; the old riddle of nature versus nurture has been solved ...

Short Cuts

Thomas Jones: E.O. Wilson’s ‘novel’

8 July 2010
... and as the anaesthetist’s putting you under you make small talk about the surgeon who’ll be operating on you. ‘Don’t worry, he’s very experienced,’ the anaesthetist says. ‘Actually, he’s won a Nobel Prize.’ ‘Really?’ you say. ‘What for?’ ‘Physics.’ ‘Physics?’ ‘Yes, he’s a very distinguished rocket ...

A Duck Folded in Half

Armand Marie Leroi

19 June 1997
Before the Backbone: Views on the Origins of the Vertebrates 
by Henry Gee.
Chapman and Hall, 346 pp., £35, August 1996, 0 412 48300 9
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... The evening of 22 August 1799 – the eve of his departure from Egypt – was surely one of the less happy that Napoleon Bonaparte had known. Unusually mindful of the mortality of empires, he is said to have declared to the mathematician Gaspard Monge, one of a collection of savants he had brought to Egypt, that he would far rather be a Newton than an Alexander ...

Cleaning up

Simon Schaffer

1 July 1982
Explaining the Unexplained: Mysteries of the Paranormal 
by Hans Eysenck and Carl Sargent.
Weidenfeld, 192 pp., £9.95, April 1982, 0 297 78068 9
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Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts 
by R.C. Finucane.
Junction, 292 pp., £13.50, May 1982, 0 86245 043 8
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Hauntings and Apparitions 
by Andrew Mackenzie.
Heinemann, 240 pp., £8.50, June 1982, 0 434 44051 5
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Beyond the Body: An Investigation of Out-of-the-Body Experiences 
by Susan Blackmore.
Heinemann, 270 pp., £8.50, June 1982, 0 434 07470 5
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...  ...
19 February 1981
The Red Lamp of Incest: A Study in the Origins of Mind and Society 
by Robin Fox.
Hutchinson, 271 pp., £7.95, January 1981, 0 09 144080 7
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Betrayal of Innocence: Incest and its Devastation 
by Susan Forward and Craig Buck.
Penguin, 154 pp., £1.95, February 1981, 0 14 022287 1
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... as a British social anthropologist. He has published two excellent monographs in that field, one of them quite recently, as well as a short but useful textbook on anthropological kinship theory (somewhat strangely described in the blurb of this book as a ‘classic work’), but the attitude which he has adopted towards the work of his professional ...

Plumage and Empire

Adam Phillips: This is an Ex-Parrot

31 October 2002
Spix’s Macaw: The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird 
by Tony Juniper.
Fourth Estate, 296 pp., £16.99, September 2002, 1 84115 650 7
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... Any form represented by few individuals,’ Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, ‘will, during fluctuations in the seasons or in the number of its enemies, run a good chance of utter extinction.’ That both these words need qualifying should give us pause. Darwin could see the appeal of extinction; or rather, something about extinction appealed to him ...
6 March 2003
Freedom Evolves 
by Daniel Dennett.
Allen Lane, 347 pp., £20, February 2003, 0 7139 9339 1
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... a thing? Been feeling that the laws of nature are pushing you around? Here’s a book-length dose of Daniel Dennett’s Cold Comfort Cure. According to Dennett, ‘naturalism is no enemy of free will; it provides a positive account of free will.’ Sound too good to be true? Well, so it is. Proposals for ‘compatibilist’ r...

Don’t wear yum-yum yellow

Theo Tait: Shark Attack!

2 August 2012
Demon Fish: Travels through the Hidden World of Sharks 
by Juliet Eilperin.
Duckworth, 295 pp., £18.99, January 2012, 978 0 7156 4291 7
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... have been observed mating – the business is ‘very rough’. Larger male sharks have to bite or trap the females to keep them around during courtship; marine biologists can tell when a female has been mating because her skin will be raw or bleeding. The process is so violent that, come the mating season, female nurse sharks will stay in shallow water ...
7 May 2014
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History 
by Elizabeth Kolbert.
Bloomsbury, 336 pp., £12.99, February 2014, 978 1 4088 5122 7
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... In​ 1739, Captain Charles Le Moyne was marching four hundred French and Indian troops down the Ohio River when he came across a sulphurous marsh where, as Elizabeth Kolbert puts it, ‘hundreds – perhaps thousands – of huge bones poked out of the muck, like spars of a ruined ship.’ The captain and his soldiers had no idea what sort of creatures the bones had supported, whether any of their living kin were nearby and, if so, what sort of threat they presented ...

The Darwin Show

Steven Shapin

7 January 2010
... 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, ‘Darwin Day’ – there were more than 750 commemorative events in at least 45 countries, and, on or around 24 November, there was another spate of celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species ...

Crops, Towns, Government

James C. Scott: Ancestor Worship

21 November 2013
The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? 
by Jared Diamond.
Penguin, 498 pp., £8.99, September 2013, 978 0 14 102448 6
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... are the contingent result of a unique historical conjuncture. Jared Diamond, ornithologist, evolutionary biologist and geographer, is best known as the author of Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, one of the most influential accounts of how most of us came to live in places ...

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