Books: A week in books

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The Independent Culture
As anyone who hears Melvyn Bragg's Monday-morning seminar on Radio 4 will know, popular science writing has boomed at a pace that almost matches the shrinkage of the rainforest. On Thursday, one of the sturdiest recent specimens - The Wisdom of the Bones: in search of human origins by Alan Walker and Pat Shipman - beat a field that included Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones and Dava Sobel to win the Rhone-Poulenc award for science books. Yet the work I'd like to consult - which does not now exist - would never reach that shortlist. It would seek to explain how and (above all) why it is that Darwin has usurped Marx and Freud as Top Brain among the reading classes of the west. This is one of the most extraordinary comebacks in intellectual history. And only a cultural historian could do it proper justice.

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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