About Books: Reflections on the World Within Us and Without

Fall 2017

By Richard Barbieri

Has the better part of your mental horizon been limited to the political and its manifestations for the past year or more? Do you check the front page for the latest hits and errors more often than the sports page, and the political pundits for humor more often than the comics?

It’s time to take a break and turn attention to the things that exist inside and outside of us, that were here before us and, we presume, will be here after us—and that have no interest in or even awareness of our socio-political doings.

“I will praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”—Psalm 39

Following his encyclopedic study of cancer in The Emperor of All Maladies, physician Siddhartha Mukherjee has widened his scope even further in The Gene: An Intimate History.

Mukherjee starts at the beginning of Western speculation about genes—Aristotle’s refutation of Pythagoras’ theory that male sperm contains all the parts of a human being in miniature form. (The clincher: If men are the template for all other people, how did women get here?) But the book’s “history” is necessarily unbalanced: A single chapter covers biological theories from antiquity until 1935, another to 1970, and the remainder of the book, more than 60 percent of the total, is about our exponential recent growth in understanding “one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science.”

Only months after the publication of The Gene, Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life arrived. Just when we thought we had a clear idea of the double helix and mitochondria, Yong informed us that, “All of us have an abundant microscopic menagerie, collectively known as the microbiota or microbiome. … Every one of us is a zoo in our own right—a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.” Like Mukherjee, Yong focuses his attention on the very recent past, during which almost every discovery about this biota has been made. Along the way, he extends our vision of evolution, describing microbes that contain the genes of multiple species. Most valuably, he corrects our 150-year-old vision of microbes as enemies, and envisions a future in which we “weed” the bad while cultivating the good, for our own and other creatures’ benefit.


How to you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way/Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your sense five?”—William Blake

No one would claim that the subjects of The Gene or Multitudes are conscious actors, but research into larger life forms has been focusing on the degree to which other animals might share to some degree in the title sapiens. Two recent books each stake out a claim in this new territory. The most penetrating of these is Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. Godfrey-Smith agrees with philosopher and physician William James who said, “We…ought to try every possible mode of conceiving the dawn of consciousness so that it may not appear equivalent to the irruption into the universe of a new nature, non-existent until then.” 

As a philosopher, historian of science, and underwater researcher, Godfrey-Smith is uniquely qualified not only to describe the remarkable accomplishments of various cephalopods, their neural design, and their evolutionary history, but to raise the most challenging, and perhaps unanswerable questions that these creatures raise. As he puts it, “Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior…. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” 

As the Bible suggests, our world is composed of sea, land, and air creatures. Jennifer Ackerman takes us aloft to consider The Genius of Birds, making her case instantly and wryly: “The expression ‘bird brain’…entered the English language in the early 1920s because people thought of birds as mere flying, pecking automatons, with brains so small they had no capacity for thought at all. That view is a gone goose. In the past two decades or so, from fields and laboratories around the world have flowed examples of bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those found in primates.” 

Language, numeric calculation, facial recognition, complex decision-making, and even a theory of mind in parrots, crows, bowerbirds, and the lowly pigeon have caused ornithologists to reconsider avian intelligence. Like Godfrey-Smith, Ackerman delves beneath the anecdotal to consider the neural bases of bird capabilities, explaining in detail how, like the cephalopods, birds’ brains, though differently designed, “pack very high numbers of neurons where it counts, with densities akin to those found in primates, and links and connections much like ours.”

But what about plants? We’ve heard bizarre advice about playing Mozart to your fern. But Peter Wohlleben,
lifelong German forester, states that trees, especially when connected in a forest, display group behaviors, from warning other trees through odor release that an insect predator is attacking, to sharing water resources in times of drought, to working collaboratively with fungal networks to manage their environment. In the book
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World, Wohlleben writes, “It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.”


“The thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”—J.R.R.Tolkien

Not all science, of course, is concerned with living things. In Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos, Michio Kaku reaches back into the history of proto-scientific thought and forward to the heat-death of our universe. Combining physics, chemistry, and astronomy to answer such “questions that have puzzled and intrigued humanity since we first gazed at the blazing celestial beauty of the night sky,” Kaku sweeps us from the Copernican Revolution onward through Albert Einstein, who by comparison to later cosmologists seems surprisingly comprehensible. In his assault on our everyday thinking, Kaku proposes that “intriguing possibilities arise when the usual laws of physics are repealed and new ones are introduced,” as they might be in parallel universes—which some unimaginably distant descendants of ours may need to reach through cosmic wormholes, following e.e. cummings’s advice: “Listen, there’s a hell of a good universe next door: let’s go.”

Three characteristics connect these books, and bring us back, at least momentarily to the human world. First, each dazzles with its descriptions of what scientists have and are accomplishing: Finding new ways to see—literally or figuratively—what has never been seen before, to manipulate the tiniest portions of matter, and stretch our senses to the farther reaches of the universe, and our speculations even farther, and to imagine ourselves into other beings and construct ingenious experiments that help us understand how they live, think, and respond to their worlds. We have moved from the solitary work of Anton van Leeuwenhoek, Gregor Mendel, Louis Pasteur, Charles Darwin, and a few others to a worldwide community of passionate scientists, who show us, in the words of George Herbert, “What willing nature speaks, what forc’d by fire.”

But, in addition to praising the dedication and ingenuity of the scientific community, each of the authors, as mentioned, views contemporary discoveries as proof of “a grander view of life,” in which interconnection, cooperation, and even intelligence are more widely distributed than we have imagined, and where survival of the fittest often means survival of the most cooperative rather than the most competitive.

Third, most of these authors are not content to report on past successes and future goals, but each has a warning as well, about the risks that we face, both from scientific hubris and anti-scientific suspicion or indifference. Mukherjee recalls the inhumane uses to which early genetic theories were put, and Yong suggests we may be causing serious unforeseen consequences not only by larger species extinction, but also by eliminating from our local environments microbes with powerful preventive or curative effects. Godfrey-Smith ends his exploration of marine minds with a deep concern for their home: “There are many reasons for us to appreciate and care for the oceans, and I hope this book has added one. When you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origin of us all.” Ackerman laments that “humanity is driving roughly half of all known life to extinction, including one in four species of birds.” Wohlleben urges us to preserve, while we still can, “the fullness of life with tens of thousands of species interwoven and interdependent.” Even Kaku, whose unimaginably long view of the universe might seem to minimize the importance of life, concludes, “The generation now alive is perhaps the most important generation of humans ever to walk the Earth. Unlike previous generations, we hold in our hands the future destiny of our species, whether we soar into fulfilling our promise as a Type 1 civilization or fall into the abyss of chaos, pollution, and war.”

So, in the end, we return to humanity’s unique position of being either the protector or the bane of all creatures, great and small.

Richard Barbieri

Richard Barbieri spent 40 years as teacher and administrator in independent schools. He is currently the editor of AC Resolution, the quarterly publication of the Association for Conflict Resolution. He can be reached at richarde.barbieri@gmail.com.