H. Allen Orr is University Professor and Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester. He is the author, with Jerry A. Coyne, of Speciation.
 (June 2016)

DNA: ‘The Power of the Beautiful Experiment’

Matthew Cobb’s absorbing book Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code serves as a useful primer for those interested in the brave new world of genetic intervention made possible by the rise of biotechnology. But Cobb’s book will also be of interest to professional scientists as it recounts events in one of the most transformative periods in the history of science: the rise of a molecular understanding of life.

The Biology of Being Good to Others

Scientists Richard Owen and Thomas Henry Huxley studying a water-baby in a flask; illustration designed by Linley Sambourne and engraved by Joseph Swain, from Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby, 1885
Altruism may seem a good thing—unless you happen to be an evolutionary biologist. Then it may seem a mixture of a mystery and a curse. The reason isn’t hard to see. How could a ruthless process like Darwinian natural selection give rise to altruistic organisms, human or nonhuman, that act in ways that are costly to themselves and helpful to others?

Stretch Genes

Bushman children playing games on sand dunes in the border area between Botswana and South Africa, 1947. The photograph appeared in the Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Family of Man’ exhibition, organized by Edward Steichen in 1955.
Science and science journalism are different things. Nicholas Wade’s latest book, A Troublesome Inheritance, reminds us of the risks inherent in blurring the distinction between these endeavors.

Awaiting a New Darwin

‘A Sun of the Nineteenth Century’; cartoon from Puck magazine showing Charles Darwin as a shining sun, chasing the clouds of religion and superstition from the sky, 1882
The history of science is partly the history of an idea that is by now so familiar that it no longer astounds: the universe, including our own existence, can be explained by the interactions of little bits of matter. We scientists are in the business of discovering the laws that characterize this matter. We do so, to some extent at least, by a kind of reduction. The stuff of biology, for instance, can be reduced to chemistry and the stuff of chemistry can be reduced to physics. Thomas Nagel has never been at ease with this view.

Fooled by Science

Science has a lot of uses. It can uncover laws of nature, cure disease, inspire awe, make bombs, and help bridges to stand up. Indeed science is so good at what it does that there’s a perpetual temptation to drag it into problems where it may add little or even distract from the real issues. David Brooks appears to be the latest in a long line of writers who, enamored of science, are bound and determined to import the stuff into their thinking.

The Science of Right and Wrong

Sam Harris, right, with the evangelical pastor Rick Warren at a group discussion on religion and faith at Warren’s Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California, March 2007
Once upon a time popular science was the attempt to explain the achievements of scientists to a broad audience. This was a noble endeavor that performed a useful function. How else was the public to learn what physicists, chemists, or biologists had accomplished? Recently, however, a new genre of popular science has appeared, one that shifts the tense from past to future. These new books focus on the great things that science will achieve, and allegedly soon. The latest entry in this new genre of popular science is Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape.

Is Goodness in Your Genes?

The scientist George Price, who did ‘fundamental work’ in evolutionary biology
Before Darwin, the only problem with altruism was that there wasn’t enough of it in the world. After Darwin, altruism emerged as a genuine scientific problem. If animals, including human beings, evolved by natural selection—a merciless process in which organism struggles against organism and all that matters is outcompeting everyone …

Can Science Explain Religion?

Rembrandt: Belshazzar’s Feast, circa 1636–1638, showing the moment when a divine hand appeared before the Babylonian King Belshazzar and wrote on the wall a phrase interpreted by Daniel to mean: ‘God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; your kingdom is given to the Medes and Persians.’ Belshazzar was slain that night.
Robert Wright is not afraid to think big thoughts. Wright, who contributes regularly to a host of magazines including Slate and Time and who edits the Web site Bloggingheads.tv, has written several intellectually ambitious books. In TheMoral Animal (1997), for example, he considered the young (and controversial) science of evolutionary …

Which Scientist Can You Trust?

Ronald Colman as a doctor torn between conflicting goals in medicine and scientific research in the 1931 film Arrowsmith, adapted from Sinclair Lewis’s 1925 novel. According to Steven Shapin in The Scientific Life, ‘Generations of American scientists traced their conceptions of scientific research and their vocation for science to their youthful reading of Arrowsmith.’
Since science is the defining intellectual enterprise of our age, it would seem worth understanding who the scientist is. This is the task Steven Shapin takes on in his latest book, The Scientific Life. Shapin’s book represents something of a departure from his previous efforts. The Franklin L. Ford Professor …

The Genetic Adventurer

Most science proceeds quietly. Many scientific problems are tackled by one or a few laboratories and the results are published in a journal that the public has never heard of. And even when science does make it into the mainstream press, it’s almost always briefly and after the fact: the …

A Religion for Darwinians?

Darwinism seems to occupy a special place at the intersection of science, philosophy, and religion. One result is that evolution gets featured in controversies as different as those over theism versus materialism and nature versus nurture, to mention just two. In America, any discussion of evolution typically turns to the …

A Mission to Convert

Scientists’ interest in religion seems to come in waves. One arrived after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Another followed in the 1930s and 1940s, inspired by surprising revelations from quantum mechanics, which suggested the insufficiency of conventional physical theories of the universe. And now scientists are …

Talking Genes

Within the world of popular science the subject of human evolution never goes out of fashion. While formerly one could complain that the number of new books on this topic bore little relation to the volume of new discoveries—a stray skull unearthed in Tanzania might unleash four books—this is no …

Vive la Différence!

The human genome is made up of forty-six chromosomes, the rod-like structures that reside in the nucleus of every cell. These chromosomes carry all of our genes, which, in turn, are made of DNA. Two of these chromosomes, called the X and the Y, are different from the rest: they …

A Passion for Evolution

Most science popularizers are not controversialists. Most see their task as a simple explanation of science that already sits, tedious and unread, in textbooks. The job of making science appealing to the layman often encour-ages breathless tales of high-tech adventure (a genome project, say) and almost always entails a good …

What’s Not in Your Genes

If, by magic, I could make a single interminable debate disappear, I’d probably pick “nature versus nurture.” The argument over the relative roles of genes and environment in human nature has been ceaselessly politicized, shows little sign of resolution, and has, in general, grown tiresome. This is perhaps most obvious …

Darwinian Storytelling

What do Stalin, modern architecture, radical feminism, and most parenting experts have in common? They are all products of the false belief that we are born with empty minds, a tabula rasa. Or so says Steven Pinker in his new book, The Blank Slate. If the aim of science is …