Have you ever wondered why some men choose pornography over actual women? Why so many people watch Friends instead of going out with their own buddies? Why a person would "feed" a plastic Pocket Pet while shirking real duties? Why both sides of every war see the other as the aggressor against whom their "Department of Defense" must respond?
Harvard evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett explains how human instincts--for food, sex, or territorial protection--developed for life on the savannah ten thousand years ago, not for today's world of densely populated cities, technological innovations, and pollution. Evolution, quite simply, has been unable to keep pace with the rapid changes of modern life. We now have access to a glut of larger-than-life objects--from candy to pornography to atomic bombs--that gratify outmoded but persistent drives with dangerous results.
In the 1930s Dutch Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen found that birds that lay small, pale-blue eggs speckled with gray preferred to sit on giant, bright-blue, plaster dummies with black polka dots. He coined the term "supernormal stimuli" to describe these imitations that appeal to primitive instincts and, oddly, exert a stronger attraction than real things. Obviously these hard-wired preferences pose a danger to a species' survival. Barrett's singular insight is to apply this phenomenon for the first time to the alarming disconnect between human instinct and our created environment. Her book adroitly demonstrates how supernormal stimuli are a driving force in many of today's most pressing problems, including obesity, our addiction to television and video games, and the past century's extraordinarily violent wars. Man-made imitations, it turns out, have wreaked havoc on how we nurture our children, what food we put into our bodies, how we make love and war, and even how we understand ourselves.
Barrett does more than pull the fire alarm to show how these unfettered instincts fuel dangerous excesses. There is a hopeful message here as well. Once we recognize how supernormal stimuli operate, we can craft new approaches to modern predicaments. Humans have one stupendous advantage over Tinbergen's birds: a giant brain. The message of this book is that this gives us the unique ability to exercise self-control, override instincts that lead us astray, and save ourselves from civilization's gaudy traps.
The well-known astronomer and astrobiologist surveys current knowledge of the development of intelligence on Earth in various forms of life and explains his persuasion that intelligence must have developed along similar paths throughout the universe
From one of the world's leading natural scientists and the acclaimed author of Trilobite , Life: A Natural History of Four Billion Years of Life on Earth and Dry Storeroom No. 1 comes a fascinating chronicle of life's history told not through the fossil record but through the stories of organisms that have survived, almost unchanged, throughout time. Evolution, it seems, has not completely obliterated its tracks as more advanced organisms have evolved; the history of life on earth is far older--and odder--than many of us realize.Scattered across the globe, these remarkable plants and animals continue to mark seminal events in geological time. From a moonlit beach in Delaware, where the hardy horseshoe crab shuffles its way to a frenzy of mass mating just as it did 450 million years ago, to the dense rainforests of New Zealand, where the elusive, unprepossessing velvet worm has burrowed deep into rotting timber since before the breakup of the ancient supercontinent, to a stretch of Australian coastline with stromatolite formations that bear witness to the Precambrian dawn, the existence of these survivors offers us a tantalizing glimpse of pivotal points in evolutionary history. These are not "living fossils" but rather a handful of tenacious creatures of days long gone. Written in buoyant, sparkling prose, Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms is a marvelously captivating exploration of the world's old-timers combining the very best of science writing with an explorer's sense of adventure and wonder.
Neil Shubin, the paleontologist and professor of anatomy who co-discovered Tiktaalik, the "fish with hands," tells the story of our bodies as you've never heard it before. The basis for the PBS series.By examining fossils and DNA, he shows us that our hands actually resemble fish fins, our heads are organized like long-extinct jawless fish, and major parts of our genomes look and function like those of worms and bacteria. Your Inner Fish makes us look at ourselves and our world in an illuminating new light. This is science writing at its finest--enlightening, accessible and told with irresistible enthusiasm.
How language evolved has been called the hardest problem in science. In Adam's Tongue, Derek Bickerton--long a leading authority in this field--shows how and why previous attempts to solve that problem have fallen short. Taking cues from topics as diverse as the foraging strategies of ants, the distribution of large prehistoric herbivores, and the construction of ecological niches, Bickerton produces a dazzling new alternative to the conventional wisdom.Language is unique to humans, but it isn't the only thing that sets us apart from other species--our cognitive powers are qualitatively different. So could there be two separate discontinuities between humans and the rest of nature? No, says Bickerton; he shows how the mere possession of symbolic units--words--automatically opened a new and different cognitive universe, one that yielded novel innovations ranging from barbed arrowheads to the Apollo spacecraft. Written in Bickerton's lucid and irreverent style, this book is the first to thoroughly integrate the story of how language evolved with the story of how humans evolved. Sure to be controversial, it will make indispensable reading both for experts in the field and for every reader who has ever wondered how a species as remarkable as ours could have come into existence.'
How did the replication bomb we call "life" begin and where in the world, or rather, in the universe, is it heading? Writing with characteristic wit and an ability to clarify complex phenomena (the New York Times described his style as "the sort of science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius"), Richard Dawkins confronts this ancient mystery.
Three great scientific revolutions have shaped our understanding of the cosmos and our relationship to it. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed the Copernican Revolution, which bodychecked the Earth as the pivot point of creation and joined us with the rest of the cosmos as one planet among many orbiting the Sun. Three centuries later came the second great scientific revolution: the Darwinian Revolution. It removed us from a distinct, divine biological status to place us wholly in the ebb and flow of all terrestrial life. This book describes how we're in the midst of a third great scientific revolution, five centuries in the making: the Stardust Revolution. It is the merging of the once-disparate realms of astronomy and evolutionary biology, and of the Copernican and Darwinian Revolutions, placing life in a cosmic context. The Stardust Revolutiontakes readers on a grand journey that begins on the summit of California's Mount Wilson, where astronomers first realized that the universe is both expanding and evolving, to a radio telescope used to identify how organic molecules-the building blocks of life-are made by stars. It's an epic story told through a scientific cast that includes some of the twentieth century's greatest minds-including Nobel laureate Charles Townes, who discovered cosmic water-as well as the most ambitious scientific explorers of the twenty-first century, those racing to find another living planet. Today, an entirely new breed of scientists-astrobiologists and astrochemists-are taking the study of life into the space age. Astrobiologists study the origins, evolution, and distribution of life, not just on Earth, but in the universe. Stardust science is filling in the missing links in our evolutionary story, ones that extend our family tree back to the stars.
The remarkable and unique ways that male and female animals play out gender roles in natureWhile we joke that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, our gender differences can't compare to those of many other animals. For instance, the male garden spider spontaneously dies after mating with a female more than fifty times his size. And male blanket octopuses employ a copulatory arm longer than their own bodies to mate with females that outweigh them by four orders of magnitude. Why do these gender gulfs exist? Introducing readers to important discoveries in animal behavior and evolution, Odd Couples explores some of the most extraordinary sexual differences in the animal world. Daphne Fairbairn uncovers the unique and bizarre characteristics of these remarkable species and the special strategies they use to maximize reproductive success. Fairbairn also considers humans and explains that although we are keenly aware of our own sexual differences, they are unexceptional within the vast animal world. Looking at some of the most amazing creatures on the planet, Odd Couples sheds astonishing light on what it means to be male or female in the animal kingdom.