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Forced to Choose

et al., Roald Hoffmann


Gaia hypothesis co-proponent and author of several acclaimed books, including the one that made our list (with Karlene V. Schwartz), Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth

It seems I have always had my nose in a book. Classics are raised to classic status for a reason: Winnie-the-Pooh, Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger, Emily Dickinson's poetry. Although I understood very little about "aperiodic crystals," at an extremely young age I read Schrödinger's What is Life? and marveled at the fact that he could pose the question and grope for an answer. Even more bizarre was the week I spent with heavy-duty and little-known scientific detective tales: Andre Lwoff's Morphogenesis in Ciliates, Pontecorvo's rare masterpiece on parasexuality in fungi and Stanier and Van Neil's book The Microbe's Contribution to Biology. Like E. B. Wilson's Cell in Development and Heredity and Jean Brachet's cell monograph Biochemical Cytology, these have in common a first-person authenticity. In the one-voice science book, an author poses the question, ferrets out possible answers and bases his statements on evidence, strong inference and good taste.

Very few scientists write these one-voice books anymore. The articles and grant proposals of today's scientific establishment seem indistinguishable from advertising copy or newspaper hype. I seek in a book new ideas and scientific propositions that may be of lasting value. Only one such new book, just published by Cornell University Press, comes to mind: Reg Morrison's Spirit in the Gene: Humanity's Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature. It is exceptional. This well-illustrated book is the single best science-based original statement that I have seen in a decade. Perhaps Morrison's observations are so keen and unfettered because he is both a professional photographer (who sees things as they are) and an Australian (who sees landscapes and niches different from those familiar to us Europeans and Americans). He claimed in a recent letter that he does not much care how his book is received. After he spent some 25 years "field testing my genetic-spirituality ideas," he is well satisfied that he has come very close to "pinning down the true nature and origin of human behavior."

Morrison says he wrote the book to record his ideas "in semi-permanent form." Indeed any book is a prolonged conversation far less chatty than any telephone call or Internet message. I invite you to converse with him. He is open to criticism and suggestion. Do you want to know why some obscure, small group of East African apes, unlike other members of the genus Homo, did not become extinct? Why instead did we big-headed Africans in fewer than a million years become a "plague mammal" some 6,000 million strong, at the expense of everyone else's habitat? If you are curious, read Morrison's thesis. Fully in the realm of evolutionary biology, he teaches not only to infer the behavior of our ancestors but also to ask why they (we, all of us) still act the way we do.

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