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)

IN THE REVIEW

DNA: ‘The Power of the Beautiful Experiment’

Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code

by Matthew Cobb
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

Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others

by David Sloan Wilson
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.

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History

by Nicholas Wade
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

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False

by Thomas Nagel
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

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

by David Brooks
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

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

by Sam Harris
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

The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness

by Oren Harman
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 …