BOOKS / In Brief

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The Independent Culture
In the Beginning by John Gribben, Viking pounds 16.99. Is there one universal principle of evolution at work, linking the structure and development of the cosmos with the evolution of biological life forms on earth? Is there natural selection and 'survival of the fittest' among galaxies, or even among universes? Following the discovery by the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite (Cobe) of ripples in a universal background radiation, cosmologists established that the universe began with a Big Bang. But what was it born out of? This led to the speculation of parent universes coming before and of black holes within our own universe leading to further 'offspring' - all evolving according to Darwinian principles of selection. John Gribben builds on these theories to suggest the universe is literally alive 'in the full biological meaning of the term'. Gaia on a cosmic scale.

Perilous Knowledge by Tom Wilkie, Faber pounds 14.99. The recent discovery of the 'gay gene' highlighted yet another scientific breakthrough in understanding the genetic code that gives us so many of our biological traits, congenital illnesses and human characteristics. The discovery followed from work on the Human Genome Project, the pounds 2bn program to map and analyse every single gene within the double helix of humanity's DNA. More expensive, ambitious and time-consuming than the Apollo space missions, the Genome Project promises to liberate us from afflictions like cancer, diabetes and heart disease, as well as some psychiatric illnesses. Tom Wilkie describes the science, methodology and vision behind the project and, more importantly, explores in depth the grave and pressing moral questions raised by our new ability to tamper with our genes. A valuable and necessary read.

The Spice of Life by Lord Walton, Heinemann pounds 25. Originally conceived as a private memoir for circulation among family and friends, Lord Walton's autobiography tells of his Durham boyhood, adventures in the Territorial Army and years of service to medicine and academe - as Research Director and Professor of Neurology at Newcastle University, President of the British Medical Association and Warden of Green College, Oxford. The honours and awards are numerous, as are the rounds of golf.

The Myth of Irrationality by John McCrone, Macmillan pounds 16.99. A psychologist steps headlong into the nature vs nurture debate, on the side of nurture. Human beings, he argues, are made not born: self-awareness, memory, higher emotion and imagination are skills that we learn. McCrone's mentor is the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotaky, whose emphasis on the role of cultural (particularly linguistic) and social factors strongly influenced Marxist psychology. McCrone recognises some biological basis to things like madness and creativity, but draws a sharp distinction between the animal (biological) and human (cultural) in us. The resulting 'bifold' theory of mind will please cultural determinists, but flies in the face of much evidence that a great deal of our humanity is in our genes.