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LETTERS TO A YOUNG SCIENTIST

What Makes a Good Scientist?

LETTERS TO A YOUNG SCIENTIST. Edward O. Wilson. 244 pp. W. W. Norton and Company, 2013. $21.95.

2013-09BREVBurkeF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImagePart memoir and part advice column for budding scientists, Edward O. Wilson’s Letters to a Young Scientist is short on practical advice and long on philosophical maxims—as it should be. During his long and highly successful career, Wilson has advised numerous doctoral students and helped them launch their careers. Along the way, he has developed a strong sense of what it takes to thrive in the realm of science.

Nevertheless, the routes to success have changed in notable ways since the 1940s, when Wilson embarked on his career. He gives no specific advice on how to find employment in today’s hypercompetitive world of biology, largely because he can’t. Wilson acknowledges this limitation in the book’s first chapter: “I grew up in a different age. You, in contrast, are well into a different era, where opportunity is broader but more demanding.” Those looking for practical advice about the job market would be better served seeking counsel from those who have more recently experienced it. Instead, he builds his book around a more fundamental and timeless career question: What makes a good scientist?

As Wilson works toward an answer, he backs up his arguments with firsthand evidence. It is obvious that he deeply appreciates the creativity of the scientific process. In his first few chapters, he encourages the reader to daydream, work hard, and mess around. Wilson relates several examples of “messing around” in his own career. Some led to major discoveries—for example, developing a new “chilling and mixing” method for swapping ant queens of different species to determine whether trait differences are genetically determined. A smattering of others led to nothing at all, as when he checked to see if a powerful magnet held near an ant trail influenced their navigation (it didn’t). Quick, uncontrolled experiments open the potential for major discovery without committing much time in case they fail.

I found Wilson’s writings on the importance of failure especially affecting. Most young scientists are not prepared for the level and number of setbacks they are likely to encounter in their early careers. As scientific funding has been cut and tenure-track jobs have grown scarce, today’s young scientists will be rejected more than any scientists of equal caliber in the past century. “Be prepared mentally for some amount of chaos and failure. Waste and frustration often attend the earliest stages,” Wilson writes. He illustrates this warning with the story of one of his greatest disappointments, a failed search for the “dawn ant,” the ancestor of all modern ant species and the mysterious missing link to understanding the evolution of social behavior.

Graduate students will inevitably encounter failed experiments, failed teachable moments in the classroom, and time spent on research that never gets funded or never comes to fruition. Wilson counsels patience: “A strong work ethic is absolutely essential. There must be an ability to pass long hours in study and research with pleasure even though some of the effort will inevitably lead to dead ends.” Time that is seemingly wasted may later prove to have been well spent. Wilson asserts that the process of exploring and gaining intimacy with one’s studies—even the ones that don’t go as planned—is essential to the creative process of a scientist.

In the popular view, a successful scientist must be brilliant, skilled in mathematics, and impeccably precise. Wilson debunks this myth. He argues that entrepreneurship trumps brilliance; that shortcomings in mathematics can be overcome by identifying good, mathematically inclined collaborators; and that the most important part of the scientific process is messing around with your system to see if you notice something no one else has noticed.

2013-09BREVBurkeF2.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageContinuing his exploration of what helps a scientist flourish, Wilson resorts to broad generalizations to describe the scientific personality. Scientists, he claims, tend to be introverted and prone to daydreaming. They reject authority and therefore dislike being told what to do. Their attention wanders. This pigeonholing made me uncomfortable, because I think science benefits from incorporating a diversity of personalities. It should allow room for extroverts, individuals who are highly focused, and those who willingly take on leadership roles. That said, I’ll admit that his description of the scientific personality fits me to a T, and it fits many of the scientists whom I respect the most.

Wilson concludes by enumerating the big questions that inspire him—those that define the cutting edge of his field of biology and those that point to promising new directions for research. With the enthusiasm of a true devotee to the art of inquiry, Wilson contends that there is no higher calling than filling those gaping holes in our knowledge:

Ponder these questions for a while: How do pond, mountaintop, desert, and rain forest ecosystems really work? What holds them together? Under what pressures do they sometimes disintegrate, and how and why? In fact, many are crumbling. Humanity’s long-term survival depends on acquiring answers to these and many other related questions about our home planet. Time is growing short. We need a larger scientific effort, and many more scientists in all disciplines. Now I’ll repeat what I’ve said when I began these letters: you are needed.

My immediate response to his message was jaded but perhaps typical of a generation of young scientists who came of age during the Great Recession. Having watched funding for science and higher education in steady decline over the past five years, I wanted to reply, “Tell that to Congress, Dr. Wilson.”

RACE?: Debunking a Scientific Myth

Race Finished

unking a Scientific Myth. Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle. xviii + 226 pp. Texas A&M University Press, 2011. $35.

RACE AND THE GENETIC REVOLUTION: Science, Myth, and Culture. Edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan. xiv + 296 pp. Columbia University Press, 2011. $105 cloth, $35 paper.

Few concepts are as emotionally charged as that of race. The word conjures up a mixture of associations—culture, ethnicity, genetics, subjugation, exclusion and persecution. But is the tragic history of efforts to define groups of people by race really a matter of the misuse of science, the abuse of a valid biological concept? Is race nevertheless a fundamental reality of human nature? Or is the notion of human “races” in fact a folkloric myth? Although biologists and cultural anthropologists long supposed that human races—genetically distinct populations within the same species—have a true existence in nature, many social scientists and geneticists maintain today that there simply is no valid biological basis for the concept.

The consensus among Western researchers today is that human races are sociocultural constructs. Still, the concept of human race as an objective biological reality persists in science and in society. It is high time that policy makers, educators and those in the medical-industrial complex rid themselves of the misconception of race as type or as genetic population. This is the message of two recent books: Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth, by Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle, and Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture, edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan. Both volumes are important and timely. Both put race in the context of the history of science and society, relating how the ill-defined word has been given different meanings by different people to refer to groups they deem to be inferior or superior in some way.

Before we turn to the books themselves, a little background is necessary. A turning point in debates on race was marked in 1972 when, in a paper titled “The Apportionment of Human Diversity,” Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin showed that human populations, then held to be races, were far more genetically diverse than anyone had imagined. Lewontin’s study was based on molecular-genetic techniques and provided statistical analysis of 17 polymorphic sites, including the major blood groups in the races as they were conventionally defined: Caucasian, African, Mongoloid, South Asian Aborigines, Amerinds, Oceanians and Australian Aborigines. What he found was unambiguous—and the inverse of what one would expect if such races had any biological reality: The great majority of genetic variation (85.4 percent) was within so-called races, not between them. Differences between local populations accounted for 8.5 percent of total variation; differences between regions accounted for 6.3 percent. The genetic divergence between geographical populations in the course of human evolution does not compare to the variation among individuals. “Since such racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance,” Lewontin concluded.

Further research has supported that conclusion. In 2000, at a White House event celebrating their completion of the first draft of the human genome, Craig Venter of the Institute of Genetic Research and Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health declared that the concept of race had no genetic basis. Genetics offered no support for those wishing to place precise racial boundaries around groups. Despite rebuttals and objections, no matter how one cuts it, the data have come out much the same: Between 5 and 7 percent of human genetic diversity is between subgroups within the classically defined races; 6 to 10 percent of the total human variation is between those groups that we think of as races in an everyday sense based on skin color. The remainder of the variation occurs at the individual level and cannot be categorized by group or subgroup.

Certainly some traits are more clustered in specific populations than in others, such as skin color, hair form, nose shape and blood type. But race is little more than skin deep in biological terms, and individuals are frequently more genetically similar to members of other so-called races than they are to their own said race.

Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth is a beautifully presented book, elegantly reasoned and skillfully written. Tattersall, a physical anthropologist, and DeSalle, a geneticist, are both senior scholars at the American Museum of Natural History. Their aim is to explain human diversity in terms of human evolution and dispersal since our ancestors walked out of Africa some 100,000 years ago. The patterns of diversity, they write, reflect the processes of divergence and reintegration, the yin and yang of evolution.

In biology, a grouping has biological meaning based on principles of common descent—the Darwinian idea that all members of the group share a common ancestry. On this basis, and on the ability to interbreed, all humans are grouped into one species as Homo sapiens, the only surviving member of the various species that the genus comprised. Species are arranged within the “tree of life,” a hierarchical classification that situates each species in only one genus, that genus only in one family and so on. Nothing confuses that classification more than the exchange of genes between groups. In the bacterial world, for example, gene sharing can occur throughout the most evolutionarily divergent groups. The result is a reticulate evolution—a global net or web of related organisms, and no species. Among humans, reticulation occurs when there is interbreeding within the species—mating among individuals from different geographical populations. The result of such genetic mixing of previously isolated groups—due to migrations, invasions and colonization—is that no clear boundaries can be drawn around the variety of humans, no “races” of us.

The data for tracking lineages come from genomics, DNA comparisons and the study of genetic markers. Tattersall and DeSalle argue that not only are the differences between the classically defined “races” very superficial, they are also of surprisingly recent origin; the variety of human populations seems to have both accumulated and begun to reintegrate within the past 50,000 to 60,000 years. The diversity among us has arisen in a blink of evolution’s eye. The process of relative geographic isolation of local populations into what might have been true races (genetically differentiated populations) during the last Ice Age began to reverse as formerly isolated human groups came back into contact and interbred. That reintegration, which has occurred intermittently throughout human history, is sped up today because of great migration and widespread mating of individuals from disparate geographic origins. The result is that individuals identified as belonging to one “race,” based on the small number of visible characters used in historical race definitions, are likely to have diverse ancestry. The distinction between ancestry and race has important implications, as the authors discuss.

Although race is void of biological foundation, it has a profound social reality. All too apparent are disparities in health and welfare. Despite all the evidence indicating that “race” has no biological or evolutionary meaning, the biological-race concept continues to gain strength today in science and society, and it is reinforced by those who design and market DNA-based technologies. Race is used more and more in forensics, medicine and the genetic-ancestry business. Tattersall and DeSalle confront those industries head on and in no uncertain terms, arguing that “race-based medicine” and “raced-based genomics” are deeply flawed. Individuals fall ill, not populations. Belonging to any socioculturally defined race is a poor predictor of an individual’s genes, and one’s genes a poor predictor of one’s health.

Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture arose from two projects, both funded by the Ford Foundation and organized by the Council for Responsible Genetics, that “examined the persistence of the concept of human races within science and the impacts such a concept has had on disparities among people of different geographical ancestries.” The first project brought together academics and social-justice advocates to discuss “racialized” forensic DNA databases and seek policy solutions. The second focused on the effects of modern genetic technology in reinscribing and naturalizing the concept of race in science and society. The resulting book is a fine and richly textured compilation, in which a multidisciplinary group of scholars explore racialized medicine, various uses of genetic testing in forensics and the genetic-ancestry industry, and attempts to link intelligence and race.

Sociologist Troy Duster argues that the growing genetic-ancestry industry not only reinforces a biological conception of race but is sorely in need of government regulation in regard to claims made and accuracy of methods used to pinpoint ancestry, as was suggested by the American Society of Human Genetics in 2008.

Nowhere is the need for new government regulations more evident than in the collection, use and storage of DNA for forensic purposes, all of which have increased dramatically over the past two decades. In the chapter opening a section devoted to this subject, Michael T. Risher, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, explains that in California suspected felons are required to give DNA samples. About 30 percent of those suspects are not convicted; whether they are convicted or not, their DNA profile remains in the database, making them “potential suspects whenever DNA is recovered from a crime scene.” A disproportionate number of those innocent people whose DNA is stored are people of color.

The same holds for Britain, as Helen Wallace, director of the advocacy group GeneWatch UK, explains. Six percent of the white population of Britain has records in the country’s DNA database. In contrast, Wallace writes, “approximately 27 percent of the entire black population, 42 percent of the male black population, 77 percent of young black men and 9 percent of all Asians have records on the National DNA Database.” An estimated 55 percent of these people have not been charged or convicted of any offense. The retention of DNA from everyone who has been arrested raises important privacy and civil-rights concerns, Wallace notes. The creation of a permanent “list of suspects” has the potential for various abuses and misuses. The practice may result in “the exacerbation of discrimination in the criminal justice system,” she writes.

A different aspect of racial profiling is evident in the growing industry of racialized medicine, whose proponents might argue that even if race has no evolutionary or biological meaning, it can still be useful for medical treatments. After all, more and more diseases are reportedly correlated with ethnicity and race. But as evolutionary biologists Joseph L. Graves Jr. and Jonathan Kahn argue in their respective chapters on the subject, racialized medicine is a bad investment and is bound to fail for two reasons. First, although individual ancestries are useful on medical questionnaires, ancestry should not be conflated with race. “The issue is not primarily one of whether to use racial categories in medical practice but how,” Kahn writes.

Carefully taking account of race to help understand broader social or environmental factors that may be influencing health disparities can be warranted. . . . But it is always important to understand that race itself is not an inherent causal factor in such conditions.

As an example, he considers the drug called BiDil, FDA approved as an anti–heart-attack agent specifically marketed to African Americans on the grounds that they have a biological propensity for heart disease brought on by high blood pressure. Not only is the drug not effective for all African Americans, it is quite effective for many individuals who self-identify as Caucasian.

The second problem with racialized medicine is that it tends to overlook the evidence that discrimination, poverty, stress and restricted access to education and health care underlie the health disparities between ethnic groups in the United States. High blood pressure may be as much a social disease as a biological one. Graves notes that the U.S. National Institutes of Health allocates $2.7 billion per year for health-disparity research, much of which is based on the assumption that ethnic-minority populations are genetically predisposed to specific complex diseases. Graves argues that until this “false paradigm” that focuses on genes instead of social causes of diseases is toppled, “much of this research is following a fool’s errand.” There is no pill we can take to cure social disorders, but genetic-testing technologies may provide insight into an individual’s predisposition for a disease and the optimal use of certain drugs. Racialized medicine needs to be replaced by sound “evolutionary medicine,” based on ancestral geographic origins, socioeconomic status and other cultural factors.

Science has exposed the myth of race, but as the diverse array of essays in Race and the Genetic Revolution shows, folk conceptions of racial typology are kept alive in various sociopolitical forms, and proponents of various DNA-based technologies continue to use erroneous biological conceptions of race as the rationale for using these technologies. Race is not just a sociocultural construct; it is a technological and commercial artifact that persists today.

MERCHANTS OF DOUBT: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

Manufactured Ignorance

MERCHANTS OF DOUBT: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. x + 355 pp. Bloomsbury Press, 2010. $27.

Historians a thousand years from now may wonder what went wrong: How, after scholars had so thoroughly nailed down the reality of anthropogenic climate change, did so many Americans get fooled into thinking it was all a left-wing hoax?

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway give us some very good—if disturbing—answers in their fascinating, detailed and artfully written new book, Merchants of Doubt. In it they show how a small band of right-wing scholars steeped in Cold War myopia, with substantial financing from powerful corporate polluters, managed to mislead large sections of the American public into thinking that the evidence for human-caused warming was uncertain, unsound, politically tainted and unfit to serve as the basis for any kind of political action.

Their story begins with what they call the “Tobacco Strategy,” the campaign launched in the mid-1950s by cigarette makers to refute and ridicule the evidence linking smoking to mass suffering and death. One might suppose the strategy is connected to global-warming denial purely by analogy—a case of yet another powerful industry trying to stave off regulation by obfuscating—but Oreskes and Conway show that key climate-change denialists actually became masters at doubt-mongering while working for the tobacco industry.

Frederick Seitz, for example, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences and ex officio member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, in 1979 was hired by the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, makers of Camel cigarettes, to head their Medical Research Committee. A solid-state physicist with Manhattan Project credentials, Seitz was assigned the task of handing out $45 million in research grants to buttress the prestige of tobacco—grants that, as he would later admit, steered clear of anything that might impugn tobacco. “They didn’t want us looking at the health effects of cigarette smoking,” he said in a 2006 interview. Seitz was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over the six years during which he served in this capacity. It was not long thereafter that he and a crew of Cold Warrior colleagues also began denying the reality of human-caused climate change.

And deny they did, with a vengeance. In 1984 Seitz, Robert Jastrow and William Nierenberg founded the George C. Marshall Institute, which basically did for climate change what the Tobacco Institute had long been doing for cigarettes. Seitz and his colleagues claimed that global warming was caused by natural variations in solar flux, just as acid rain was caused by volcanic eruptions. They argued that any warming caused by greenhouse emissions is swamped by natural climate variations. The Marshall Institute on its Web site claims even today that there is no global climate-change consensus, and that there may actually be “benefits” from having more CO2 in the atmosphere (higher agricultural productivity is one fantasy). Seitz and his cohorts, joined by another Cold Warrior physicist, Fred Singer, gained enormous media attention from journalists taken in by the bluster. Their claims also found sympathetic ears among higher-ups in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Why were Seitz and company so adamant in their opposition to the reality of global climate change? Oreskes and Conway show that climate change was really a surrogate for larger fears of a regulatory state—a state seen as increasingly willing to curtail free-market liberties in the name of environmental protection. To counter an imagined Soviet missile threat, Seitz and his clique had defended President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a multibillion- dollar effort to weaponize space. In fact, the original purpose of the Marshall Institute was to defend Reagan’s hawkish—and much criticized—plan to erect a high-tech missile shield in orbit. When the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989, these Cold Warrior physicists moved on to attack a new enemy, environmentalism, which they saw as furthering the same anti-American agenda. Environmentalism (and in particular climate science) was conjured up as the latest in a long line of threats to liberty—“a green tree with red roots,” as conservative journalist George Will once put it.

All of which helps explain why these free-market fundamentalists, steeped in Cold War oppositions (market economies versus command economies, the individual versus the state, the free world versus Big Brother), attacked any and all efforts to trace environmental maladies back to corporate chemicals. Chlorinated fluorocarbons were not really eating away at the ozone layer, and the sulfates being belched from coal-fired plants were not causing forest-harming acid rain; even secondhand cigarette smoke was not causing any provable harm. This tobacco connection is significant. Oreskes and Conway show that Singer, Seitz and a number of other climate-change denialists served as advisors to the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, a Philip Morris front run by APCO Associates to challenge the evidence linking secondhand smoke to disease.

Of course, efforts of this sort don’t come cheap. Oreskes and Conway describe an elaborate network of extremist scientists, all with links to well-endowed “think tanks” such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Trade associations such as the Electric Power Research Institute, the Global Climate Coalition and the Tobacco Institute have provided funding as well. Denialists also have at their disposal polluter-friendly media outlets such as the Washington Times, Fox News and the National Review. Additional assistance comes from libertarian talk radio and Web sites fronting for one or another well-oiled interest.

Oreskes and Conway lament the fact that climate-change denialists have been so successful in getting their message out. Legitimate climate scientists publish corrections or refutations, but these usually appear in publications read chiefly by other scientists. The doubt-mongers, however, are often able to effectively exploit the “balance bias” of the mainstream media. Newspapers often take the position that a good story has “two sides.” Controversy sells, which makes it easy to overlook settled facts. In one study of U.S. media, Max and Jules Boykoff found that more than half of all stories on global warming from 1988 through 2002 gave equal time to denialists, with another 35 percent giving space to them while recognizing the consensus view. This helps explain why the U.S. Senate in 1997, only three months before the Kyoto Protocol was finalized, resolved to block its adoption by a vote of 97 to zero. Oreskes and Conway put it grimly: “Scientifically, global warming was an established fact. Politically, global warming was dead.”

Oddly enough, that ignorance seems to be continuing, or even growing, despite the presence of a more science-friendly president in the White House. A number of national polls indicate an increase in public disbelief in the reality of global warming in recent years. Oreskes and Conway lay part of the blame on the Internet, which they describe as “an information hall of mirrors” where disinformation can flourish without hindrance—“pluralism run amok.” A particularly snowy winter seems to influence public opinion, but so do the utterances of some media ideologues. Glenn Beck, “the second most popular television personality in America” according to a 2010 Harris poll, often regales his viewers with gems like this: “I see the issue of global warming as nothing but trying to entangle us and the rest of the world into one world government.”

There is much in this book to outrage anyone who cares about the future of the planet, human health, or scientific integrity. We find an excellent account of revisionist attacks on Rachel Carson (now blamed for deaths from the banning of DDT), and a good explanation of the links between recent authors of antienvironmentalist screeds and right-wing think tanks. There is an interesting discussion of the politics of type I error (thinking an effect is real when it is not) versus type II error (missing effects that are really there). Some statisticians say that the latter are not really errors at all, just “missed opportunities.” Lots of tobacco-industry conniving is exposed, and the science and politics behind the discovery of ozone depletion, acid rain and climate modeling are clearly explained.

The authors also point to a certain irony in the fact that libertarians are now using tricks once pilloried by one of their traditional heroes—the great George Orwell. Orwell’s is one of the most powerful literary voices ever to speak out against fact-crushing authoritarianism. He coined such expressions as “memory hole” and “newspeak” to designate the means by which totalitarian regimes suppress the truth. Oreskes and Conway point out that the “right-wing defenders of American liberty” have resorted to similar tactics, seeking to ambush facts judged inconvenient for their corporate paymasters.

There are other books treating the history of manufactured ignorance: Think of David Michaels’s Doubt Is Their Product (2008), Ross Gelbspan’s The Heat Is On (1997), James Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up (2009), Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science (2009), David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz’s Deceit and Denial (2002), my own book Cancer Wars (1995), and a book I coedited with Londa Schiebinger—Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (2008). But Oreskes and Conway’s book is the most powerful exploration to date of how climate-change denialists managed to infiltrate high ranks of the Republican establishment and to block the translation of scientific facts into intelligent action.

Of course what’s really at stake in most environmental science defiance is the proper role of government in limiting the right to pollute. The Seitz-Singer-Nierenberg crew are not so much antiscience as antigovernment and pro–unfettered business. Ever since the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, libertarian ideologues have managed to convince large numbers of Americans that government is inherently bad—worse even than carcinogens in your food or poisons in your water. So for followers of this line of thinking—expressed in some recent Tea Party activities but more potently in many of the trade associations and “think tanks” established by major polluters—the view seems to be that if science gets in your way, you can always make up some of your own. The foolishness of such myopia is now evident in the oil spreading throughout the Gulf of Mexico—vivid proof that, as Isaiah Berlin once observed, liberty for wolves can mean death to lambs.

Why Youth Is Not Wasted on the Young: Immaturity in Human Development

The Benefits of a Long Childhood

Why Youth Is Not Wasted on the Young: Immaturity in Human Development. David F. Bjorklund. xii + 276 pp. Blackwell Publishing, 2007. $24.95.

Why do children take so long to grow up? From an evolutionary perspective, the fact that humans reach maturity so slowly, relative to other species, is a puzzle, because the leisurely pace of their development clearly has costs: It requires greater parental investment and increases the risk that offspring will die before reproducing.

One possible explanation for our slow rate of maturation is that it is an adaptation—that is, natural selection may have favored a long childhood because it had benefits that outweighed its costs. However, most scientists who have examined this issue have assumed that immaturity has no inherent advantages and that our extended period of development must therefore be a by-product of selection for some other characteristic.

The most popular candidate has been intelligence. A big and complex brain takes a lot of time to develop, and in humans much of that development must occur after birth, because bipedalism limits birth-canal width, which has in turn constrained the head size of newborns. More specifically, social intelligence has often been postulated as the driving factor. In this view, as humans achieved ecological dominance, they became one another’s principal competition for resources. Consequently, the ability to manage social relations and alliances was selected for, in what evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander has characterized as a cognitive “arms race” within the species. The result is that we are much smarter than we would need to be simply to succeed at hunting and gathering, and we are thus capable of creating complex cultures.

David F. Bjorklund, an influential leader in the emerging area of evolutionary developmental psychology, does not dispute the foregoing account in his new book, Why Youth Is Not Wasted on the Young. But he does question the assumption that extended immaturity has no benefits. He suggests that a long period of development, although it may have arisen as a by-product of other factors, does confer advantages—behavioral flexibility, for example—that have contributed to our success as a species. In other words, he believes that childhood is an evolutionary spandrel (although he doesn’t use the term)—a side effect, which in this instance turns out to be adaptive itself.

Children’s thinking differs from that of adults, and people tend to view those differences as deficits that need to be overcome—the sooner the better. Bjorklund argues, though, that some aspects of children’s immature cognition are actually adaptive, both in preparing them for adulthood and in allowing them to flourish in childhood. He gives several examples: Children typically overestimate their own abilities, which may maintain their motivation in the face of failure and lead to eventual success. Their limited information-processing capacity may help them learn language, because it forces them to focus on constituent components and build upward from there, whereas adult language learners skip straight to semantics, often failing to master underlying grammatical structures. And play in childhood may promote later social competence, as neuroscientist Sergio Pellis has demonstrated in rats.

Bjorklund stops short, however, of claiming that a long childhood is a genuine adaptation. He acknowledges that maturity is still the goal of development and that adults shouldn’t try to extend childhood artificially “by ‘babying’ children.” He simply argues that slow development has some benefits that may, in concert with other selection pressures, help explain why it evolved. He also maintains that childhood should be appreciated and not rushed.

Although Bjorklund contends that immaturity has benefits, he doesn’t come up with very many. He is still using mostly the same examples that he and Brandi Green included in “The Adaptive Nature of Cognitive Immaturity,” their classic 1992 article in American Psychologist.

In several places in his new book, Bjorklund appears to be on the verge of endorsing the fallacious argument that big brains and slow development evolved to allow individuals to learn about the complexity and variability of human cultures. (In fact, human cultural complexity and variability could not exist without big brains and slow development and thus cannot be the cause of them, as a cause must precede its effects. Culture cannot arise independently, without individuals capable of creating it.) Fortunately, Bjorklund catches himself before falling into this trap. He asserts instead that perhaps these characteristics coevolved:

There is no simple cause and effect here; the relation among these three factors [social complexity, big brains and slow development] is synergistic, with changes in one factor being both a cause and a consequence of changes in related factors. But social complexity was a required ingredient in human cognitive evolution. It exerted selection pressure for a bigger brain and a prolonged childhood, which in turn permitted increased levels of social complexity to be attained.

Bjorklund finds implications that will interest parents and educators. Parents often want their children to be the first among their peers to reach every developmental milestone, but Bjorklund points out that earlier is not always better and may sometimes be worse.

For example, abnormally early visual experience in birds disrupts development of the auditory system. Also, in a classic study published in American Scientist in 1959, “The Development of Learning in the Rhesus Monkey,” psychologist Harry Harlow found that the ability of rhesus monkeys to discriminate objects on various dimensions such as shape was impaired by starting the training too early in life—the monkeys who started training at older ages reached higher peak levels of performance. In a 1977 study by developmental psychologist Hanus Papousek, human infants who started learning to turn their heads to specific sounds at 31 days of age mastered the task, on average, at 71 days of age, whereas infants who started learning to do so at birth did not master the task, on average, until the age of 128 days.

Bjorklund’s message is that human development takes as long as it does for good reasons and that experiences should be introduced only when children are cognitively ready for them. Early education should foster a love of learning, which will pay dividends in the long run, rather than a fear of falling behind, which increases stress and decreases motivation. He acknowledges that schooling is necessary for success in the modern world and that direct instruction is sometimes useful. But as much as possible, he believes, we should let children enjoy childhood. We should even seek to maintain some “immature” qualities, such as curiosity and playfulness, into adulthood. As Aldous Huxley observed, “The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.”

Bjorklund is well qualified to write authoritatively on this topic, as evidenced by his seminal 2002 book The Origins of Human Nature: Evolutionary Developmental Psychology (which he coauthored with Anthony Pellegrini) and the essential 2005 collection Origins of the Social Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Child Development (which he coedited with Bruce Ellis). Fortunately, Bjorklund does not view everything through the lens of his particular research area. He is a successful textbook author, with a breadth of knowledge that allows him to draw examples from across the field of developmental psychology.

Why Youth Is Not Wasted on the Young is that rare sort of science book that will be interesting to researchers as well as to laypeople and readers from other fields. Bjorklund provides enough background for anyone to understand his arguments. However, focus on the overall argument is lost in occasional passages that read like a textbook, listing concepts and terms. Fortunately, the book is enlivened by amusing anecdotes, such as one in which Bjorklund recalls how he, as a first-grader, discovered in front of a room full of his classmates that he had overestimated his ability to tap dance. The content is accessible enough for use with undergraduates, yet sufficiently meaty for a graduate course. And throughout, Bjorklund is a beautifully smooth writer.

SEXUAL COERCION IN PRIMATES AND HUMANS: An Evolutionary Perspective on Male Aggression Against Females.

 

Despicable, Yes, but Not Inexplicable

SEXUAL COERCION IN PRIMATES AND HUMANS: An Evolutionary Perspective on Male Aggression Against Females. Edited by Martin N. Muller and Richard W. Wrangham. xii + 483 pp. Harvard University Press, 2009. $55.

When A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion was published nearly a decade ago, a lot of people were angered by its claims. The authors, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, contended that rapists were men with limited social skills or limited mating opportunities who were carrying out a Pleistocene-engineered program that dictated that any attempt at procreation was better than none at all. Scholars, including myself, heaped criticism on the book because almost nowhere in it did Thornhill and Palmer present any empirical data in support of their view. And many people took exception to the assertion that rape might be better considered an act of attempted reproduction than one of violence, as it is widely understood to be.

Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans, a fine new volume edited by Martin N. Muller and Richard W. Wrangham, replaces hand-waving with hypothesis testing and should be much better received. The contributors’ focus is on sexual selection—in the form of observed patterns of sexual coercion in nonhuman primates—and its implications for the evolution of human behavior.

sexually mature male orangutansSexual aggression by males toward females is widespread among social mammals. In the first article in the book, Muller, Sonya M. Kahlenberg and Wrangham define terms in order to establish “a basic taxonomy of coercion.” Direct coercion, which “involves the use of force to overcome female resistance to mating” and is taxonomically widespread, may take the form of forced copulation, harassment or intimidation. Indirect coercion, which is more common, is meant to make it less likely that a female will mate with other males; it may take the form of herding (using aggression toward females to separate them from other males), punishment (physical retribution toward females who associate with other males), or sequestration (forceful separation of females from the group). When a male chimpanzee attempts to monopolize a female while she is ovulating, that is sexual coercion. When a male baboon (usually one that is new to the group or newly dominant) harasses or kills the infant of a female in the group (to shorten the period during which she will be sexually unavailable because she is lactating), that is another form of sexual coercion; the mother is harmed reproductively rather than physically. Sexually coercive males are not just attempting to have sex with particular females, they’re trying to control female sexuality in general.

The science that allows us to understand sexual coercion by males is drawn directly from Darwin’s own work on sexual selection. There is, however, another layer here, because of course one cannot talk about the evolution of sexual aggression in male primates without pondering the social consequences of the same behavior in our own species. Are domestic violence and sexual assault simply human homologues of the same conduct seen in chimpanzees and baboons? Many social scientists bristle at this suggestion, with its invocation of biological determinism. This volume’s authors, many of them female researchers, do an excellent job of sensitively exploring the boundary between phenotype and environment that is the stuff of which human behavior is made.

The book is divided into four sections. The first covers the ideas that serve as the theoretical basis of the volume. Here the contributors review the most widely accepted explanatory hypotheses from an evolutionary perspective. Coercive males may seek mating access through intimidation. They may seek advantages in feeding competition, or they may be engaged in an intersexual struggle for social dominance. They may coerce as part of a mate-guarding strategy, to maintain reproductive control. Sexual coercion might even be redirected aggression between males, in which the stress of male competition leads males to vent their frustrations elsewhere.

The second section consists of a series of papers describing patterns of male sexual coercion among nonhuman primates. Richard C. Connor and Nicole L. Vollmer compare the behavior of male chimpanzees with that of male bottlenose dolphins, which serve as a useful out-group for understanding the evolutionary forces molding male aggression toward females. Male bottlenose dolphins are well known for their alliances, their group coercion of females and their generally nasty behavior toward unrelated dolphins. All these traits are prominent features of chimpanzee society, and some would argue that they are features of many traditional human societies as well.

Muller, Kahlenberg and Wrangham present the evidence regarding male chimpanzee sexual coercion that led them to organize the symposium on which the book is based. Because female chimpanzees rarely put up strenuous resistance, sexual aggression is not as physically violent in chimpanzees as it can be in humans. But harassment and physical intimidation occur, especially on the part of low-ranking males who seek to coerce reluctant females into mating despite the fact that those females risk being punished with aggression by higher-ranking males. The authors’ analysis of the ways in which male chimpanzee aggressive behavior may constrain female sexuality is insightful and introduces themes that will be taken up again in the next section.

Perhaps the most revelatory paper in the second section is by Cheryl D. Knott, describing her research on the widely reported but little-documented occurrence of forced copulation in orangutans. Knott uses field data from a variety of sites to test various hypotheses. She shows that, contrary to time-honored belief, “rape” is not a mating strategy practiced solely by unflanged male orangutans (that is, those who have not yet developed protruding cheek flanges, which signal dominance and are accompanied by high testosterone levels); rather, it is employed generally in the species. However, female orangutans (unlike female mammals of other species who are objects of male aggression) are almost never physically injured in such mating attempts. Knott argues that most mating between orangutans involves elements of both cooperation and resistance. Male orangutans (unlike male humans and chimpanzees) do not use coercion as an indirect way of controlling female sexual behavior. Knott concludes that “resisted mating” might be a more appropriate term than forced copulation for what happens between orangutans, noting that the level of force involved reflects the female’s level of resistance. The likelihood of direct sexual coercion in any species will be strongly influenced by both a male’s ability to obtain matings by force and a female’s ability to avoid forced mating.

Section three concerns sexual coercion in the human species. Shannon A. Novak and Mallorie A. Hatch draw intriguing comparisons between craniofacial trauma inflicted by male chimpanzees on female chimpanzees and that inflicted by men on women. For example, female chimpanzees are most often assaulted from behind, whereas men and women fight face to face. Margo Wilson and Martin Daly present an analysis of domestic violence by men against women.

The most compelling contribution in this section is a paper by Melissa Emery Thompson, who argues persuasively that most rapes are not committed by lonely, socially maladjusted men, as Thornhill and Palmer imagined. Instead, rape is a crime most often carried out by men who are sexually experienced and connected to the victim in some way. This changing view of rape is no doubt a reflection of better reporting of crime statistics. That in turn is a result of society having begun to take a more expansive view of such criminal acts, which women of earlier generations might not have been willing to report due to fear of social stigmatization. It should not surprise us that acquaintance rapists far outnumber stranger rapists, nor that the modus operandi of sexual assaults differs in the two different contexts. Acquaintance rapists are not necessarily pathological in other social contexts; they rarely resort to the levels of physical force or violence that stranger rapists employ. All this, Thompson argues, should contribute to a view that acquaintance rape accords with evolutionary perspectives about the rationales for male dominance over and control of female sexuality. And as Thompson puts it, even if an evolutionary perspective does not help us understand how to prevent sexually coercive behavior, “it may give us a clearer picture of the enormity of the problem we are dealing with.”

Section four concludes the volume with chapters on the counterstrategies employed by females to cope with the risk and the reality of male sexual coercion. A female may form an alliance with one male in hopes that he will protect her from aggression by other males, especially aggression toward her infant. Such “friendships” have been well-known for decades now, but as Ryne Palombit points out in his chapter on baboon protective friendships, it’s not entirely clear how these alliances work. Nevertheless, the data are clear in showing that such friendships do make life safer for females. Tommaso Paoli notes that in bonobos, alliances between females may be the primary factor in discouraging intense male sexual coercion.

The editors of this volume deserve high praise for having avoided the weaknesses to which such collections are prone—the book is uniform in tone, and the papers are all of high quality. There are no polemical rantings here, nor are the contributors concerned with political correctness; the empirical evidence is what matters to them, and their analysis of it is perceptive and nuanced. One obvious quibble is that the book’s title—presumably chosen by someone in marketing—will annoy all self-respecting primatologists with its implication that humans are not primates too. But Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans is an important work and will be a valuable addition to the bookshelves of specialists and nonspecialists alike.

Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax

 

Benjamin Franklin’s Science

Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax. Tom Tucker. xx + 297 pp. Public Affairs Press, 2003. $25.

An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment. Patricia Fara. vi + 177 pp. Columbia University Press; first published in the United Kingdom by Icon Books in 2002. $19.50.

Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment. Michael Brian Schiffer. xiv + 383 pp. University of California Press, 2003. $34.95.

America is rediscovering Benjamin Franklin. Stroll through any Barnes and Noble and you might find five recent Franklin biographies crowding the shelves next to perhaps a dozen old standbys. With so much written about the man, one might think that there was little left to say about the great patriot printer from Philadelphia. Not so. Although these works speak volumes about Franklin the revolutionary, they pay woefully scant attention to Franklin the scientist.

It’s a scandal, because Benjamin Franklin was, without a doubt, the greatest scientist of his age. Although he receives almost no credit for it today, Franklin’s theory of electricity lies at the heart of modern electrostatics. Through his invention of the lightning rod, Franklin was the first person to prove that pure science could benefit ordinary people. And that realization gave a bigger kick in the pants to the Enlightenment than any philosophical discourse penned by Voltaire.

Franklin was first to suggest how to size the atom, first to realize that the Earth’s climate could change, first to track a hurricane and first to chart the Gulf Stream. He won every major scientific honor his world bestowed, including the Royal Society’s highly prestigious Copley Medal (the Nobel Prize of its day); election to the Royal Societies of England, France and Germany; and numerous honorary degrees. Moreover, it was Franklin’s scientific achievements that raised this self-made tradesman into the lofty sphere of international politics. Simply put, Franklin the statesman never would have stepped onto the world stage had Franklin the scientist not first cleared the way. Despite all this, few people know anything of Franklin’s science beyond the lightning rod, bifocals and a newfangled stove. Oh yes, and wasn’t he the guy who flew that kite in a lightning storm?

Unfortunately, even those few books about Franklin’s science don’t always shed light on the significance of his accomplishments. Some writers try to build up their own reputations by tearing down those of great men and women who are no longer around to defend themselves. Ben Franklin has long presented a tempting target to these drive-by historians. One was a Harvard professor named Alexander McAdie, who in 1925 published an article questioning whether Franklin ever actually performed his most famous experiment—drawing electricity out of a thundercloud. McAdie’s intellectual descendants are still trying to shoot down Franklin’s electric kite, although they have never managed to convince most Franklin scholars.

The latest to take aim is Tom Tucker, an English instructor at Isothermal Community College in North Carolina. To Tucker’s credit, Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax is the best-researched polemic of its kind. Tucker even attempted to replicate Franklin’s experiment. With that background, he could have delivered an erudite treatment of what every historian agrees was a bizarre affair in American history. Unfortunately, he chose to go for Franklin’s jugular, and as a result Bolt of Fate reads more like sophistry than serious history.

Like a prosecuting attorney arguing every possible angle to get a conviction, Tucker splits historical hairs, spins the written record and dismisses eminent antiquarians by selectively citing writers of deservedly lesser stature. Tucker makes his case in part by subtly shifting the meanings of words that appear in historical documents. For example, historians have long questioned why Franklin permitted only his son to witness the kite experiment. Joseph Priestley’s account, which he got directly from Franklin, explains it this way: “But dreading the ridicule which too commonly attends unsuccessful attempts in science, he communicated his intended experiment to no body but his son.” Tucker quotes this accurately but then spins the meaning. “Priestley explains,” says Tucker, “that Franklin did the experiment in secrecy because he was afraid of being embarrassed if the experiment failed,” and then Tucker argues that Franklin wasn’t prone to embarrassment. But ridicule and embarrassment are not at all the same thing. Embarrassment is a completely personal feeling. Ridicule, however, is an expression of public disdain and is something that every politician is quite right to dread. Tucker has altered the record here to slip a pry bar beneath Franklin’s perfectly reasonable explanation. Clearly, Tucker knew what conclusion he wanted to reach.

Then, there’s the heavy-handed hype: In a P. T. Barnum-esque bit of hucksterism, the book’s jacket claims that Tucker has proved “that Franklin never flew the kite at all.” Tucker never equivocates on Franklin’s guilt in the text (saying, for example, that “The kite experiment was [Franklin’s] scientific hoax”), but he eventually admits that “There’s no proving Franklin never flew his kite. It will always remain possible.” Unfortunately, this admission is hidden in an endnote, right next to another surprise: a description of Tucker’s attempts to replicate Franklin’s experiment. As Tucker’s most direct evidence, this material should be front-and-center, but instead it sits tucked away in the back of the book. Tucker reports that he tried to get a Franklin-style kite aloft, but it failed to fly even in a 20-mph wind. The exculpatory fact that three NASA aerodynamics experts studied Franklin’s kite design and saw it as “feasible” is also buried here in the notes.

Oddly, Tucker failed to test what he calls the “most convincing evidence against the kite story.” Had Franklin not electrically isolated himself from the kite string, his experiment would have failed, because any charge collected by the kite would have traveled through Franklin’s body to ground. That’s why Franklin held a silk ribbon that he had tied to that famous key. Wet silk is, of course, a conductor. So to keep the silk dry, Franklin took cover inside a shed and flew the kite out a door or window. But Tucker insists that that wouldn’t have worked. “The kite line,” he states, “is above the insulating silk ribbon. When the rainwater moistens the twine and moves down it, the water will continue freely over the surface of the silk.” This problem, Tucker insists, must have foiled Franklin’s result.

Tucker might be right. But any kite flyer knows that the string sags considerably and presents a surprisingly shallow angle at the hand. Tucker doesn’t say just how vertical a hemp string has to be for water to flow along it. Also, couldn’t other circumstances, such as the key deflecting any water stream, have protected the silk? Tucker doesn’t mention the possibility. Indeed, self-skepticism, the process of putting your own ideas to the critical test, is Bolt of Fate’s most glaring omission and the primary reason that it fails. So long as his antagonists lack such skepticism, Benjamin Franklin’s scientific reputation will be ever secure.

Franklin’s science also figures prominently in Patricia Fara’s new work, An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment. However, her subject is much broader. Fara, a historian of science at the University of Cambridge, presents an overview of the science behind the Enlightenment.

Sadly, An Entertainment for Angels disappoints. Written at about the level of a senior thesis, the work reads as if its author had mastered neither the history nor the science of the Enlightenment. The text contains many small errors. For instance, referencing the dangers of some early experiments in atmospheric electricity, Fara notes that “one fatality” took place “when adventurous experimenters clambered about on rooftops trying to record a charge.” This unfairly makes serious scientists sound like the Keystone Kops; moreover, the only person killed while conducting these experiments was Georg Wilhelm Richmann, and he wasn’t clambering about on a rooftop at the time. Rather, he was standing still, carefully reading a delicate instrument inside his apartment, when lightning struck an iron rod outside to which the electrometer was connected.

In addition, several omissions mislead the reader. For example, on reading Fara’s chapter titled “Robert Boyle and the Air-pump,” one might infer that Boyle invented the first hand-cranked vacuum pump. In fact, Boyle’s device was merely an improvement on a two-man pump demonstrated by Otto Von Guericke about 20 years earlier. Von Guericke receives not a mention, even though he had become quite famous for performing spectacular demonstrations of the power of his pump.

What’s more, Fara’s analysis of the complex interplay among the genius, personalities, and scientific and political philosophies that lay at the heart of the Enlightenment is disquietingly clichéd and superficial. Also, her viewpoint is colored by biases that historians often bring to their studies of science. One of the worst of these is the tendency to portray all competing theories as equals, even when one clearly trumped its rivals at explaining the experiments of the day. For example, consider how Fara compares Franklin’s theory of electricity with that of Jean-Antoine Nollet, his chief rival. With the concept of the electric field still 100 years away, Franklin tried to develop a mechanical model to explain electrical action-at-a-distance. That part of his model was wrong. Yet the essence of Franklin’s single-fluid theory, that all matter contains vanishingly small charged particles and that charge is conserved, lies at the foundation of modern electrostatics. In contrast, Nollet’s quasi-magical two-fluid theory retains no toeholds in science today. Nevertheless, Fara implies that no one could tell at the time which way history was going to go. For instance, she states that “Neither side had completely convincing evidence to support its case, but immediately interpreted any new results to lend weight to its own arguments.”

True enough. But by 1755 most of the world’s electricians had become self-professed Franklinists, because Franklin’s theory explained important phenomena, such as electrostatic induction, that Nollet’s model could not. Referring in part to Franklin’s theory, Fara says, “Eighteenth-century electrical theories are often hard to understand because they use poorly defined terms (such as ‘atmosphere’ and ‘fluid’) and gloss over inconvenient results that don’t fit in.” Although that is true of Nollet’s theory, the statement is horribly unfair to Franklin. By tossing both theories together into the same dustbin, Fara creates the impression that the two models were equivalent because they were equally flawed. Not so. Franklin was by far the better scientist, and most fair-minded skeptics of his day realized that, despite its shortcomings, Franklin’s single-fluid model was fundamentally sound.

In short, An Entertainment for Angels is one book that is best left on the shelf.

In contrast, Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment, by Michael Brian Schiffer, is an engaging work of quality scholarship. Schiffer, a professor at the University of Arizona, presents this subject from the perspective of a seasoned anthropologist. And although the field of anthropology has its own biases, they are quite different from those that pollute the work of some historians. Instead of focusing on personalities or ideas, Schiffer is interested in the physical artifacts that people leave behind, and so he follows the evolution of technologies.

First, like any good anthropologist, he divides the people he studies, namely Enlightenment electricians, into communities: the electrophysicists, who tried to understand how electricity worked; electrotherapists, who tried to use it to heal the sick; electrochemists, who tried to use electricity to study the structure of matter; and so on. Then he focuses on the equipment they constructed to drive their fields forward. He elaborates on many marvelous but strange contrivances, such as the electric pistol, the electric harpsichord, “electrovegetometers” and Volta’s electric lamp. Since the fledgling field of electricity is what binds these communities together, Schiffer does not skimp on Enlightenment science.

Draw the Lightning Down offers the reader a novel, and downright refreshing, viewpoint on the science and technology that were most central in bringing about the Enlightenment. Physicists may quibble with Schiffer on some of the fine points of electrostatics, but the man certainly knows his history. Draw the Lightning Down presents the reader with a wonderfully researched and delightful voyage into the past. This one is well worth taking.

Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It

Not So Black and White

Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It. Jon Entine. 400 pp. Public Affairs, 2000. $25.

Are all races equally gifted when it comes to athletic ability? A quick observation casts doubt on the notion. Roughly three-quarters of the players in the National Basketball Association and the National Football League—two of the largest commercial sports industries—are African-American. Further, Olympic track events have for years been dominated by black athletes from across the world. How can we explain the disproportional presence of black athletes in these elite classes of professional sports? Liberals and black activists argue that black dominance is environmentally or culturally produced, or that it merely illustrates entrenched stereotypes that keep African-Americans entertaining white audiences. In his new sensationally titled book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, journalist Jon Entine argues that the environmental explanation is an orthodoxy that must be challenged. Instead, he suggests, it is “natural” ability, understood as genetic difference, that accounts for the disproportionate success of black athletes.

The crux of Entine’s claim begins with his description of the resistance faced by scientists and even athletes who believe a genetic difference explains the gulf in athletic performances across races. He then provides a detailed analysis of black athletic dominance across several sports and across countries. An account of Kenya’s production of nearly all of the world’s top middle-distance runners is central. The opening chapters thus outline the problem that Entine claims to address: Black athletes dominate some of the most visible sports, but societal norms prohibit explanations of this success based in scientific analysis of physiology.

The bulk of the book blends historical anecdotes about the intersection of race, science and sports with genetic research underwritten by a supposed objectivity of observation. Entine refutes deterministic environmental explanations for athletic superiority. Too often, he argues, such accounts completely ignore the contribution of genes in our ability to dunk a basketball, run long distances or elude a defensive back. But Entine goes too far in the opposite direction. Although he occasionally gives lip service to the idea that nature and nurture both contribute to athletic ability, Entine ultimately dismisses substantive consideration of environmental factors as ideological or self-censoring. He leaves the impression that there are clear racial differences in athletic abilities and that all such differences are traceable to genes.

Regrettably, Entine’s version of genetics constitutes a caricature of that science. His account of the debate over the “out-of-Africa” hypothesis is lopsided and reflects the hastiness and sloppiness that also bedevils the proofreading, organization and argumentative structuring throughout the book. Ultimately, Entine takes what may be a kernel of truth—that there are very small differences in frequencies of particular physical structures in some geographically localized populations—and distorts it into the claim that “blacks” are universally better athletes because of their genes. (The quotation marks are intended to differentiate between Entine’s notion of biological homogeneity and our use of the terms for their social utility.)

The flaws in this larger claim are illustrated by Entine’s use of Tiger Woods as an example of the physical superiority of black athletes. Entine admits Tiger Woods’s multiracial origins but then lumps him back into a mythical racial group called “blacks.” Throughout, Entine plays fast and loose with categories in this fashion. He proves that a local group of Kenyans dominate middle-distance running, then uses this to make generalized statements that “blacks” are better “athletes.” Sports where “blacks” do not dominate (swimming, cricket, gymnastics, polo) are quickly dismissed on grounds of nurture or environment (for instance, blacks don’t have access to polo ponies), but in either case, the difference somehow is treated as support of his claim that “blacks are innately superior athletes.”

Entine’s claim is thus severely distorted. Localized differences in genetics may make some contribution to patterns of success in sports, but such differences are not summable in the social categories of “black” and “white,” and they do not efface environmental inputs. To succeed in a given sport, athletes of all geographic backgrounds must still train hard, think hard, have facilities, receive good coaching and live in a culture that values cricket, tennis, basketball or boxing. Additionally, at the elite level, the physical potential for greatness is so rare among all populations that geographic differences do not swamp the significance of individual variation.

If taken seriously, Entine’s claims could only support the silliest of propositions. Entine maintains that the “disparity between blacks and whites in sports is at least as pronounced” as the disparity between women and men. Do we need, therefore, a separate “white men’s league” for basketball and tennis? Should Title IX agents worry about the inadequacy of opportunities for young white boys to play basketball or go bowling? Any other suggestions? As long as white-skinned boys, even those who are relatively untalented, continue to have greater opportunities for athletic self-development than boys of all other cultural and geographic heritages and than all girls, Entine’s argument will remain one undeserving of much concern.—Paul Achter and Celeste M. Condit, Speech Communication, University of Georgia

THE XENOTEXT

Poetry for the Apocalypse

THE XENOTEXT: Book 1. Christian Bök. 200 pp. Coach House, 2015. $19.95.

Oh! why hath not the mind
Some element to stamp her image on
In nature somewhat nearer to her own?
Why, gifted with such powers to send abroad
Her spirit, must it lodge in shrines so frail?
—William Wordsworth, The Prelude

Affectionately nicknamed “Conan the Bacterium,” Deinococcus radiodurans, a so-called polyextremophile, has an uncanny ability to rapidly repair damage to its genome. As a result, it can resist the most hostile conditions, from drought to radiation to acid baths to a Martian atmosphere. And if Canadian conceptual poet Christian Bök has his way, it will compose verse that will outlive our Sun.

Bök has earned a reputation for conducting extremely difficult poetic experiments and executing them with technical wizardry. In his award-winning 2001 bestseller Eunoia, for example, he uses only a single vowel in each chapter, a constraint that produces a form known as a univocalic. The first section is composed of words that include no vowels other than a, the second includes no vowels other than e, and so on. To build an appropriate lexicon for this demanding work, Bök read through Webster’s Third International Unabridged Dictionary five times and spent six years writing. His latest poetic challenge takes him into trickier and more technically specialized territory. Taking on the very perishability of text, Bök has devised a novel solution: In composing his verse, he is employing the medium of life itself.

The Xenotext: Book 1 represents the first phase of Bök’s wildly ambitious project—nearly 15 years in the making and still ongoing—of encoding poetry into the genome of the bacterium D. radiodurans. Using a substitution cipher, Bök “translates” his poetry into what he calls a “chemical alphabet” representing a genetic sequence. After simulating the resulting protein’s folding pattern, which is essential for its functioning, Bök sends his specifications to a biotechnical lab that engineers the gene accordingly. Finally, Bök’s team of biologists transplants a plasmid carrying the gene into the bacterium.

But why introduce such complexity into the process of poetic composition? The Xenotext provocatively wagers that—in the face of global catastrophe, whether in the form of ecological collapse, drug-resistant pandemic, or nuclear war—D. radiodurans can preserve at least a bit of humanity’s poetic heritage after the apocalypse. DNA, with its remarkable storage capacity and stability, is perhaps the “natural element,” the worthy vessel for the mind’s substance that Wordsworth expresses longing for in the epigraph above.

IT IS A FELICITOUS coincidence that Bök, born “Christian Book,” is so radically rethinking the media format that his surname evokes. In a 2007 interview with the journal Postmodern Culture, he expressed an explicit desire “to extend poetry…beyond the formal limits of the book,” to have his writing “burgeon into the world, like a horrible parasite, exfoliating beyond itself, evolving along its own trajectory.” Indeed, besides imagining D. radiodurans to be a resilient linguistic ark, Bök has conceived of the bacterium as a living, versifying respondent to his “parasitical” poem.

The Xenotext,” he explains in the book’s afterword, “consists of a single sonnet (called ‘Orpheus’), which, when translated into a gene and then integrated into a cell, causes the cell to ‘read’ this poem, interpreting it as an instruction for building a viable, benign protein—one whose sequence of amino acids encodes yet another sonnet (called ‘Eurydice.’)” Bök uses the term translate here in an extended sense, which makes us realize the many different levels of encoding and translation necessary for the success of his project. To “translate” his original poem (in the sense of encoding it into a gene), Bök first needs to assign a letter of the alphabet to each of 26 codons, the nucleotide triplets that form the basic units of genetic code. He then writes a sonnet and strings together a transplantable segment of DNA that corresponds to the poem letter by letter. Ultimately, the creation of the benign protein depends on RNA transcription and ribosomal translation, just as the legibility of “Eurydice” depends on a cipher that makes “Orpheus” and “Eurydice” mutually transposable.

The Xenotext: Book 1 doesn’t explain the mechanics of these steps in detail—likely such information will be forthcoming in Book 2—but Bök has given us tantalizing previews of the process in other venues. In a 2011 interview with the Montreal-based magazine Maisonneuve, he says, “Because there exists a codependent, biochemical relationship between any preliminary DNA sequence and its resulting RNA sequence (which creates the string of amino acids in the protein), my two poems must likewise be bijectively codependent for my project to work.” He adds, “No poet in the history of poetics has ever actually imagined creating two texts that mutually encipher each other in this way.”

Bök’s allusion to the Greek myth is apt, showing his commitment to relating novelty to tradition. His ongoing experiment summons the plight of Orpheus, the virtuosic singer who attempts to bring his dead wife, Eurydice, back from the underworld. Orpheus fails, for all his efforts, while on the very brink of success. For the French writer and literary theorist Maurice Blanchot, “Eurydice is the limit of what art can attain.”

The question remains: Can Bök, a virtuosic poet in his own right, surmount the limit of death and achieve true literary immortality? Thus far, he has been successful in provoking Escherichia coli (which Bök used for his initial tests, as it’s simpler and less expensive to engineer) to respond to his implanted verse. He reports that his poem “Orpheus,” which begins “any style of life / is prim,” causes the bacterium to respond by producing another poem, “Eurydice,” which begins “the faery is rosy / of glow.”

This promising development with E. coli yielded proof of concept, but working with D. radiodurans has proved to be much more challenging. When interviewed for a 2015 article in the Calgary Herald, Bök said, “The extremophile is more difficult to engineer and the protein that is produced is not fully expressed. It’s either destroying it too quickly for us to characterize it, or it’s censoring it during its production. We can’t really tell, but it’s not making the entire protein stably. So you can’t read the poem.” Thus, for the moment, Eurydice is silent.

WE WILL HAVE TO WAIT for Book 2 of The Xenotext to ascertain Eurydice’s eventual fate—whether she will be unearthed by Bök’s orphic attempt or remain shrouded in Hades’ impenetrable shadows. In the meantime, Book 1 is, in Bök’s words, “an ‘infernal grimoire,’ introducing readers to the concepts for this experiment.” A heterogeneous set of spin-off poems tangentially related, in theme and technique, to The Xenotext proper, The Xenotext: Book 1 is what Bök calls a “movie trailer for the second book,” which will more directly document his experiments with “Orpheus” and “Eurydice.”

Although some readers may be disappointed that Book 1 does not chronicle the successful insertion of “Orpheus” into D. radiodurans, The Xenotext: Book 1 is nonetheless a volume displaying staggering talent and genuine interdisciplinary imagination. It is at once rigorously scientific and rigorously literary. As Bök dynamically reflects on “biogenesis and extinction,” poetic knowledge and scientific awareness intertwine as if in a double helix. If The Xenotext proper—that is, the actual poem embedded in the bacterium—is a text intended to be recovered by intelligent life long after our planet and civilization have collapsed, then The Xenotext: Book 1 is a kind of introductory sourcebook allowing human readers to at least appreciate its concept in the here and now.

The Xenotext: Book 1 consists of a series of poetic suites, each expressing a tighter relationship with science and a greater degree of formal innovation than its predecessor. In the tradition of French experimental poetry, including that of the Oulipo, a neovanguard group dedicated to exploring both mathematical and nonmathematical constraints, The Xenotext: Book 1 presents a cornucopia of literary structures, from the prose poem to the sonnet to the computer-generated visual poem.

The opening section, “The Late Heavy Bombardment,” is a prose poem beginning with a depiction of the hell on Earth of the Hadean period, the geologic eon during which our highly volcanic planet endured numerous meteoric impacts, setting the stage—somehow—for the formation of life. In a series of rhetorical questions, Bök demonstrates both a manic verve for metaphor making and a methodical penchant for parallel structures:

What dire seed must these onslaughts have scattered, like shrapnel, across your cremated badlands? What prion? What virus? What breed of spore must have emerged, like a spear point or a sword blade, from these early ovens of Auschwitz (each cyanide bonfire, burning in reverse, spitting forth a fitful embryo, cloned from the smoke and the dross)?

Later in the section, Bök imagines a future cataclysmic scenario, a perfect test environment for his hypothetical Xenotext to survive: “What Great Comet has yet to plummet from the heavens, like a rocket engine dousing its jets during splashdown in your oceans of nitroglycerine?”

The next section, “Colony Collapse Disorder,” is a translation of Book 4 of Virgil’s Georgics, a four-book poem about agriculture, completed around 29 or 28 BCE, into 50 fast-moving unrhymed sonnets. Book 4 is, famously, an account of beekeeping, complete with practical instructions (“Contrive that the ingress to the sanctum / of the bees be narrow, made from woven / osiers or cedar braids”). It also enfolds a story within a story, recounting the myth in which Aristæus, a pastoral god, loses his bees and has to coerce the shapeshifting Proteus into divulging the cause of his apiary’s collapse. Proteus relates the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, explaining that Eurydice’s death had been caused by a snake bite received while she was fleeing a pursuer—none other than Aristæus himself. Click to Enlarge ImageProteus reveals that, in vengeance, “Orpheus, / the widower, hath inveighed against” him. Aristæus then makes appeasing sacrifices to Orpheus, Eurydice, and her nymphs to regenerate his beehives.

Bök’s deep engagement with classical literature here connects to a contemporary scientific conundrum: What has been causing the recent decline of honeybees, key pollinators for a range of crops? “Colony Collapse Disorder” gives dimension to intimations of doom that recur throughout the book. In this case, a collapse of apiculture would trigger another in agriculture, which would lead to the collapse of culture writ large.

Bök’s translation of Virgil is a beautiful one—precise, elegiac, intense: “Now harken to the keening of the hive: / not a wind that sighs amid the aspens / nor a tide that booms upon the oceans, / but more akin to some hellish bonfire, / trapped within the crucible of its kiln.” Bök’s nod to Virgil also references the Latin poet’s curious role in biogenetics: In 2003, a team at Icon Genetics enciphered a line from the Georgics—Nec vero terræ ferre omnes omnia possunt (“Nor can the earth bring forth all fruit alike”)—into the DNA of Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress, to show how scientists can effectively label genetically modified organisms. In “Colony Collapse Disorder” we see Bök exploring problems of science through decidedly humanistic and literary lenses. Further, this section demonstrates to critics who may be inclined to view The Xenotext as a mere fetishization of scientific novelty that Bök’s poetic chops and understanding of the Western canon are as good as any classicist’s.

In the section “The March of the Nucleotides,” Bök brings didactic poetry into the 21st century by offering “a poetic primer, reacquainting the reader with some basic ideas in genetics.” Beneath short sections of explanatory prose that read like textbook excerpts (“The information enciphered by the series of bases in a strand of DNA is read from the 5′-end to the 3′-end”), Bök includes poetic fragments that elegantly translate scientific concepts into poetry, converting descriptions of DNA processes into metaphors with considerable aphoristic force: “DNA is a metamorphic scriptorium, where life transcribes, by chance, whatever life has so far learned about immortality.”

But the highlight of this section is Bök’s experimentation with visually striking poetic configurations and formal constraints—characteristic elements of his work, found not only in Eunoia but also in his 1994 debut, Crystallography. He cleverly acknowledges the structure of DNA and RNA nucleobases through the structure of the poems themselves. He restricts the vocabulary of the poem featuring uracil (C4H4N2O2), for instance, to four words beginning with “C,” four words beginning with “H,” two words beginning with “N,” and so on (see poem above). He calls the form a modular acrostic.

“Uracil” begins, “nymphical, honeybees / coproduce oversweet / nepenthes,” and the thick assonance echoing throughout the short piece seems to be figured in the bees’ “oversweet / nepenthes,” nearly to the point of miring down in it. Horace, Virgil’s friend and contemporary, remarked that poetry should be dulce et utile—sweet and useful. Bök takes this Horatian dictum to the extreme as he dazzles us with formalist brilliance while insisting on the importance of scientific literacy if we are to survive as a species.

In another, more complicated series of poems, Bök conveys the form of DNA to the two-dimensional page. In a DNA double helix, the nucleobases pair in complementary ways (adenine always bonds with thymine and cytosine always bonds with guanine) because of certain hydrogen bonding patterns; these form the “rungs” of the spiral ladder. In these poems, Bök makes each letter that appears before a gap in the poetic line function as a corresponding nucleotide for the first letter that appears after the gap (see poem below right). Each line has nine letters, and either “A” and “T” or “C” and “G” conjoin, facing each other across the gap as it angles across the poem.

Moreover, the letters on the left-hand side of the gap form a sequence of codons, or nucleobase triplets, from the 5′-end to the 3′-end. The codons, then, have enciphered a chain of 15 amino acids (the chain of isoleucine, serine, isoleucine, alanine, and so on is symbolized as “I S I A L I W L L L I R I F L”), which comprise a segment of protein. Bök then used a supercomputer to simulate models for the protein’s structure, from the folded sequence to its atomic backbone to the entire molecule with its charge envelope (see model, below left). Across the trajectory of this poetic suite, we witness the radical translation of a series of innovative typographical poems into a fascinating series of visual poems without letters or words.

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Bök’s processes may seem needlessly convoluted, but they make us productively think about our expectations of what work in the arts and humanities is supposed to accomplish and how that work is regarded by various audiences. For example, if a reader assumes that biotechnical processes of genetic engineering are complex—and, indeed, they are—why would that same reader expect a poem (or a work of literary criticism) to be immediately understandable? Poetic thinking, Bök seems to be arguing, should be as rigorous and, if need be, as complicated as scientific thought.

IN THE REALM of contemporary art and writing, there is a common perception that, since Marcel Duchamp’s bold provocations in the early 20th century, concept has trumped skill. In other words, the sort of idea that drove Duchamp to create, say, his infamous sculpture Fountain (1917)—a prefabricated urinal placed on a pedestal—takes precedence over any considerations of craftsmanship or execution. Indeed, art historian Benjamin Buchloh has remarked on the phenomenon of deskilling, the “persistent effort to eliminate artisanal competence and other forms of manual virtuosity from the horizon of both artistic production and aesthetic evaluation.” The conceptual premise behind Bök’s xenotext project—encoding poetry into bacteria—might strike some as the preposterously high-concept equal of that behind Duchamp’s Fountain.

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But rather than being an example of deskilled poetry, The Xenotext: Book 1 is hyperskilled: The complex structures that appear throughout the book, which include an extended anagram that is also a double acrostic, assure readers that high concepts and manual virtuosity can go hand in hand. Few poets have the technical excellence (or the patience) to pull off such feats, and in doing so Bök proves that he is as skilled at encoding extra layers of meaning into a poem as he is at encrypting poetry into DNA. Moreover, The Xenotext: Book 1 is an example of what I would call reskilled poetry, one that insists that writers learn new capabilities to respond to the complexities of 21st-century life. In an interview with New Scientist, Bök explained, “In order to do this project I’ve given myself a crash course in molecular biochemistry. I have taught myself computer programming skills; I have done all the genetic engineering and all the proteomic engineering myself. I think that part of the artistic exercise has been to acquire these skills.”

Given the extremity of its concept and its reliance on a mixed array of scientific and representational strategies, The Xenotext: Book 1 is bound to provoke questions from various ideological camps within both scientific and literary studies. What are the gender politics of the call and response of Bök’s projected poems “Orpheus” and “Eurydice”? How viable is Bök’s assertion, based on the work of environmental biologist Chensheng Lu, that the pesticides called neonicotinoids are likely the cause of colony collapse disorder in bees? What are the bioethical ramifications of Bök’s overall project? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, Bök’s work is an important bridge not only between conservative formalists and cutting-edge conceptualists but between poetic and scientific communities. If The Xenotext does not save Bök’s poetry from future apocalypse—we will have to find out in the highly anticipated Book 2—it may, at the very least, save poetry from cultural irrelevance.

Logic Made Easy: How to Know When Language Deceives You

 

Logic Made Easy: How to Know When Language Deceives You. Deborah J. Bennett. 256 pp. W. W. Norton, 2004. $24.95.

You enter the voting booth and there is a local measure to repeal term limits. You vote yes. Does this mean you favor term limits?

A mother says to her son, “If you finish your vegetables, you can have dessert.“ Does this mean that the child must eat all of his vegetables in order to get dessert?

The answer to the first question is no. If you said otherwise, then you just voted the wrong way! The answer to the second question: It all depends. Formal logic (sometimes called classical logic) says the answer is no. Strictly speaking, the sentence says nothing about what happens if the child does notfinish his vegetables. Consequently, it is possible for the son to get dessert without finishing his vegetables. But every parent and child in the world knows the correct answer is yes: No vegetables, no dessert. Period. Only grandparents may follow the rules of classical logic in this situation. Everyone else must follow natural logic, the logic that underlies the normal, everyday use of language within a society.

These are just two of the many examples Deborah J. Bennett discusses in her superb little book Logic Made Easy. Some of the problems she presents will challenge even experts. In particular, a very clear head is required for the well-known Wason Selection Task and for the THOG problem, both of which were devised by cognitive psychologist Peter C. Wason. Many of the other examples Bennett gives come from the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).

If I were giving a university-level course on logical reasoning, this would be my textbook, and I would demand that the students read it from cover to cover. The only caution I would give them would be to ignore the book’s title. In fact, one thing Bennett makes crystal clear is that logic is anything but easy. Her subtitle, How to Know When Language Deceives You, is more to the point, and I suspect that the main title is a product of those in charge of marketing the book, rather than an attempt by the author to describe the content. An accurate, but perhaps less salesworthy, title would be “Logic explained in an entertaining and intelligent fashion,“ or perhaps “The best introduction to logic currently available.” You get my drift.

By and large, Bennett sticks to the classical propositional logic that we inherited from the ancient Greeks—and, or, not, implies, if and only if—barely mentioning quantification and not covering the work of Kurt Gödel and Alfred Tarski at all. These are entirely the right choices, given that this is a book aimed at helping people from all walks of life to become better reasoners, not a textbook in logic for mathematics students.

The underlying material is for the most part standard and has been covered many times by a great many authors. What Bennett brings to the table are a superb compact history of the subject and a broad view of the relationship between formal logic and everyday human reasoning (both features that are sorely lacking in many other books on logic), backed up by research results from cognitive psychology and supported by a collection of excellent examples.

In the latter part of the book, Bennett touches on some extensions of classical Greek propositional logic—such as Venn diagrams, truth tables, modal logic and fuzzy logic—that bear upon everyday reasoning. But here, and throughout, for the most part she stays well clear of mathematical formalisms, and the closest she gets to mathematical logic is a brief mention of George Boole’s algebra of logic.

In a blurb on the front cover, veteran mathematics writer Martin Gardner calls the book “The best and the most lucid introduction to logic you will find.” I can’t argue with his logic.—Keith Devlin, Department of Mathematics and Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University

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