SATURDAY, 7 MAY 2011
As our closest relatives and surviving alongside us until 28,000 years ago, our fascination with the Neanderthals is understandable. How similar to us were they? How intelligent were they? Most importantly, why did they die out? Clive Finlayson addresses these fundamental questions head on in The Humans Who Went Extinct. He challenges the central dogma that humans drove Neanderthals to extinction. Instead Finlayson places greater emphasis on the role of serendipity in the Neanderthals’ demise, demonstrating the importance of rapidly fluctuating environmental conditions during this key period of evolutionary history. The equally important question of why humans survived is also brought to our attention and the book charts the journey from our birth in Africa to our establishment across the wider world. The great strength of the book is that Finlayson avoids subscribing to traditional viewpoints that may hinder our understanding, providing a refreshing and perceptive overview of a topic fraught with controversies. The book leaves the reader with a sense of humility that our survival as the only species of the human lineage was strongly shaped by the environment, climate and chance. Talya Underwood
Delusions of Gender
Is there a female brain? By its biased formulation, the question induces the various stereotypical schema that stain any attempt to answer it. We assume, from the very basis that men and women do exist, that male and female ‘brains’ must also exist. Then, so very often, we, as scientists, work backwards: our culture has found its conclusion—that men and women are different in most aspects—so we search for evidence to support this thesis, uncharacteristically turning the scientific process on its head.
This is why we should be ever grateful for Cordelia Fine’s latest book. Fine makes a strong neuroscientific case for the cultural—rather than biological—dimension of gender. But Fine is not trying to convince you that gender is a purely cultural phenomenon. Rather, her conclusion is much humbler—and more palatable than the overextended conclusions of much gender research: the debate is still open, and that research on the ‘biological’ basis of gender is largely inadequate.
At the very least, Fine has provided us with an engaging, literate and powerful argument for thinking twice about gender ‘science’, bringing our brains back from Mars and Venus to a culturally complex Earth. Taylor Burns
The Three Cultures
“It is time for the members of the three cultures to adopt a posture of greater humility.” Humble, says Jerome Kagan, because they are losing their appeal.
The ‘three cultures’ of the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities are, Kagan claims, plagued by insularity and a lack of mutual respect. Now, it seems, all three cultures only share one characteristic: their claims and authority are only valid and substantive within their own specific communities. Accordingly, the influence of all three areas of study is receding in the public sphere, and whenever borders are crossed, it is usually marred by impotence and misunderstanding. Their primary concerns are scattered, they have no respect for the others’ sources of evidence, they are increasingly jargon-rich and dominated by hegemonic funding bodies.
But, Kagan is clear, there is reason for hope. Though they each have their flaws and limitations, including natural science, they all contribute to a shared understanding of the universe that would be impossible if one was not present. Narrow-mindedness, then, is the danger, and it was not so long ago that a healthy integration existed between the three cultures—a paradigm that Kagan would like to reinvent.
The book is certainly with some flaws. For instance, barely 10% of the book is dedicated to the humanities, while the social sciences receive well over half of the attention. But the importance of the message remains: that the sum of the human pursuit for knowledge is greater than its parts. Taylor Burns