Forced to Choose
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
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.