Skip to main content

Homo Mysterious – David R. Barash ***

There is an interesting premise (and a dubious assumption) underlying this book. The premise is that some of the most interesting bits of science are the bits where we don’t actually know the answers – in this case, in the ‘evolutionary puzzles of human nature’ to quote the subtitle. The dubious bit is the author’s assumption that this is a new idea. David Barash comments ‘One of these days I will design a course titled something like “What we don’t know about biology,” hoping that my colleagues in chemistry, physics, geology, mathematics, psychology, and the like will join in the fun.’
It may be true that biologists often present their science as if it were all known facts, but I think physicists, for example, have always emphasized the gaps in out knowledge in their courses. If you think of cosmology, for example, with about 95% of the mass-energy of the universe unexplained, or the uncertainty over the standard model or quantum gravity, I think that it’s clear that in at least some sciences there is already a fairly widespread awareness, and maybe it’s just a matter of biology catching up.
Even so, it’s a good thing to acknowledge this – homing in on the detailed human biology aspects of what Stuart Firestein identified as the driving force of science: ignorance (in a good way). Barash takes on a detailed exploration of many of the mysteries of human biology – primarily sexual features (particular in the female), homosexuality, art and religion. He does this by examining different hypotheses for why, for example, menstruation takes such a dramatic form in humans (different from pretty well every other mammal), or why we create art.
In the process of examining these hypotheses, Barash can be quite vicious in attacking some ideas that he doesn’t like (particularly those proposed some while ago by poor old Desmond Morris, who gets a lot of stick). On the whole Barash’s writing style is good – amiable and approachable (though I think Richard Dawkins goes over the top calling it ‘A beautifully written book.’
In principle this should be good stuff, and bits of it are, particularly, I think, the first of the two chapters on art. However the reality is, to be honest, rather boring in far too many places. It’s partly because there’s no resolution. Of course it’s important to know that there are these areas where we don’t know the answers, but we all like to get to some conclusions, so the sheer open endedness of it can be trying. But it’s also because reading repeated hypothesis after hypothesis to explain particular traits, some of which can be rather samey, just gets dull after a while.
If this is an area that particularly interests you, then these different possibilities should be both informative and exciting. But if you are coming at this from a general interest in science, wanting to explore a new area, then the lack of conclusions will probably prove a touch frustrating, and the strings of hypotheses will test your boredom threshold.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…