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Scientists' Nightstand: Peter Corning

Greg Ross

Peter Corning directs the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Friday Harbor, Washington, a research organization specializing in evolutionary and functional approaches to complexity. His most recent book is Holistic Darwinism: Synergy, Cybernetics, and the Bioeconomics of Evolution (University Of Chicago Press, 2005).Peter CorningClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

After a B.A. from Brown University, I became a naval aviator and served in a fleet squadron for two years, then moved on into journalism, first as a freelance writer, then as an editor at Yachting magazine and finally as a science and space writer at Newsweek. It was the pioneer ethologists of the 1960s who inspired me to go back to graduate school at NYU for a then highly unusual interdisciplinary Ph.D. spanning the social sciences and life sciences. This led to a two-year NIMH postdoc at the Institute for Behavioral Genetics at the University of Colorado, where I got additional training in the biological sciences and did some pioneering experiments on the genetics of different kinds of aggression. From there I went to Stanford University and taught for many years in the then-new interdisciplinary Human Biology Program. Among other things, this led to my first major book on the role of synergy in evolution, called The Synergism Hypothesis (McGraw-Hill, 1983).

I now head up a small research institute focused on the study of complex systems and have produced various journal articles and two more books about what I refer to as a bioeconomic approach to the evolution of complexity. I also have various "spare time" projects in the works—a two-part article in press on "Synergy Goes to War: An Evolutionary Theory of Collective Violence" and a co-edited volume on the evolution of war, plus a recently published article on the evolution of "fairness" that has drawn me into writing my first novel, an historical epic related to the vicissitudes of social justice over many centuries.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

Jared Diamond's recent book Collapse (Viking, 2005). This is a vastly important "message" book that has been underappreciated and even unwelcome in some quarters. Diamond warns, vividly, of the great environmental perils that may lie ahead. As a global civilization that is addicted to material progress, we are woefully unprepared for the kinds of ecological disasters that have already happened, repeatedly, in the past. It's a subject I've also written about.

Frans de Waal's newest book, Our Inner Ape (Riverhead Books, 2005). I am one of de Waal's fans and have read almost everything he's done. De Waal exemplifies an older tradition in science writing. He combines deep knowledge with consummate writing skills, mature and balanced judgment and plain good will.

Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons (1962), one of the great stage plays of the 20th century. At a time when venality, partisanship and opportunism dominate our politics, Thomas More provides a still-relevant alternative model—the very definition of a statesman who stood firm for higher principles at the cost of his life. As Bolt describes him in his preface: "Thomas More, as I wrote about him, became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases. ... Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at length he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff."

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

When I am reading—or, better said, "processing"—material for work, it is usually in the office, in the morning. Reading for pleasure is done mostly at night, in our den.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

This is a hard question. There are so many "favorites." Generally they are first-rate scientists who are also masterful writers. They include Julian Huxley, George Gaylord Simpson, Theodosius Dobzhansky, John Pfeiffer, John Maynard Smith, Edward O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, Carl Zimmer, Jared Diamond, Stephen Jay Gould and others.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

That's an impossible question for me. I can only think of those that have influenced me profoundly, and there have been many. Among the more important: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (Riverside Press, 1962), Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (Macmillan, 1962) and The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (Knopf, 1984) (a revised edition could include Iraq), Arthur Koestler's The Ghost in the Machine (Hutchinson, 1967), Dobzhansky's Mankind Evolving (Yale University Press, 1962), Niko Tinbergen's Social Behavior in Animals (1953), Darrell Huff's How to Lie With Statistics (1954), Nancy Cartwright's How the Laws of Physics Lie (Oxford University Press, 1983), John Tyler Bonner's The Evolution of Culture in Animals (Princeton University Press, 1980), Donald Griffin's Animal Minds (University of Chicago Press, 1992), William T. Powers's Behavior: The Control of Perception (Aldine, 1973), Aristotle's The Politics and, of course, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859). On The Origin, I should add that a great many people who have been influenced by Darwin's theory have not actually read his masterwork. Too bad, because it is still richly rewarding. He was a superb, even eloquent writer, and he provided an abundance of evidence, and apt examples, drawn from a lifetime of research and reading.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Again, it's impossible to say. All of the above and many more. I'll choose one of the above just to illustrate. Bill Powers's book absolutely demolished the behaviorist learning paradigm, which then dominated psychology. He convincingly showed that the most valid model for how the mind works, in humans and other animals, is a cybernetic control system.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813), Carl Sagan's Contact (Simon and Schuster, 1985) and A. S. Byatt's Possession (Random House, 1990), all superb movies or TV series where I would like to read the book and see how it was reshaped for modern media. (An earlier example is Robert Bolt's screenplay for Doctor Zhivago (1965), which was a great improvement on the original.)

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

There are, of course, many good science books written for young readers. Two that might be overlooked are Lewis Thomas's classic The Lives of a Cell (Viking Press, 1974), an older book but still captivating. Another, more recent book, one that is written for a general audience but is very accessible to young readers as well, is Bernd Heinrich's The Mind of the Raven (Cliff Street Books, 1999). Ed Wilson called it "an amazing book by an amazing author." I'd second that and add that it documents in depth the amazing feats of an amazing bird.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Two of the best recent "overview" books on evolution that are written for a broad audience are Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan's lavishly illustrated What Is Life? (Simon & Schuster, 1995) and A Walk Through Time: From Stardust to Us, by Sidney Liebes, Elisabet Sahtouris and Brian Swimme (Wiley, 1998).

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend to scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

Answering this question is a definite problem for me, since I try to keep abreast of several different disciplines, and there are important books in each of them. But if I had to pick one subject area that spans various disciplines, the evolution of humankind is an example—and a common thread in much of what I have been writing about. So I would recommend the new, up-to-date, fifth edition of Roger Lewin's Human Evolution: An Illustrated Introduction (Blackwell, 2005). Lewin is one of our finest science writers, and these gifts are fully utilized in this classic text. His scholarship is meticulous, his coverage is comprehensive, and his presentation is lively and illuminating. He's another "favorite writer" of mine.

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