Books: A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 21 June 1997
To the neo-Darwinists themselves, the victory hardly needs a moment's thought. With a few tweaks from genetics and sociobiology, their chap's theory simply out-evolved its rivals into a leaner, fitter, more resourceful model of culture as well as nature. A shrewd Freudian might reply that the evolutionary paradigm gives us all a very gratifying fantasy: aggression leads to altruism, private vices to planetary virtues. Meanwhile, a diehard Marxist might mutter about the role of John Brockman.
Brockman is the busy New York agent who first sold life-science narrative as - along with cosmology - the new bookish rock'n'roll. He signed up a galaxy of stars (such as Dawkins and the Wisdom of the Bones pair), and made a a market for them. In the scientific community, you know when you've been Brockmaned. Late nights at the lab and meagre stipends give way to six-figure advances and prime-time schmoozing. So the science wave does owe a splash or two to hype and cash. All the same, its finest beneficiaries do deserve their fame.
Arty sceptics should sample the essays just collected for In Search of Nature (Allen Lane, pounds 16.99) by Edward O Wilson - the author of Sociobiology himself - and ask how many cultural critics can can now hit such heights of elegance, lucidity and breadth. From his teeming anthill of beautiful ideas about the links between "wild nature" and "human nature", I shall choose just one. Wilson - a great entomologist - imagines the world from a termite's-eye view. In Will Self-ish vein, he speculates that "civilised termites ... would support cannibalism of the sick and injured, eschew personal reproduction, and make a sacrament of the exchange and consumption of faeces". He calls this termite ethic "immensely different from the human spirit". This man has clearly never visited the Groucho Club.
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