Technofile

In the all-important matter of understanding the history of life, Technofile makes a natural selection; and hears from a man so highly evolved that he has built a working computer from sticks and string
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The Independent Culture
GETTING A GRIP ON LIFE

Artificial life, secret life, private life, Real Life, Life, an Unauthorised Biography, Life, a User's Manual, Life, with David Attenborough ... Life: there's just no getting away from it. Now we have life in hypermedia, with the suspiciously plain title The History of Life (Ransom, Windows, pounds 20, or pounds 35 with educational pack for schools). Under the wrapper though, it's a knockabout, ironic, self-conscious life. A cute little baby seal appears. A rhinoceros drops down and squashes it. A human skeleton produces a pistol and shoots an ape skeleton, which reappears and pulls the human skull off. You get the picture. Somebody, it appears, is trying to invent post-Darwinism.

That somebody is Stephen Rickard, author of Ransom's earlier release, The History of the Universe. By and large, he offers older children and teenagers a sound introduction to the history of life, with the emphasis on evolutionary theory - as it should be. His approach is orthodox, reflecting mainstream opinion on how natural selection works. The History of Life is not afraid of the selfish gene.

The disc is organised under five main headings, including a timeline. There is a "Life Games" area which features a demonstration of Mendelian inheritance using coloured blob creatures, an artificial life simulation routine, and a jukebox affair which demonstrates how difficult it would really be for monkeys to type the works of Shakespeare. "Thinking" is a sparky quiz which tests factual knowledge, theoretical insight ("Describe three problems with William Paley's `argument from design'") and the student's deeper understanding of what evolution means ("`Organisms always destroy other organisms when they can.' Discuss").

The big ideas get bandied around in the other two sections, "Ideas" and "Brain Elastic". Some are textbook favourites, such as "if evolution's so clever, what's the point of half an eye?" (Answer: it's better than no eye at all, as is a clump of light-sensitive cells, from which an eye can evolve in time.) Others speculate on what aliens look like, or inquire about the point of sex is. The latter is actually rather more of a puzzle than the former, though you wouldn't know it from Rickard's account.

One of the nice things about Life is the sense it conveys of how exciting the relevant sciences are at the moment. The buzz is there in menu options such as "Mass Extinctions", or "Gaia", or "Language, Mind and Morality". In the latter area, though, Rickard fails to appreciate just how much co-operation selfish genes can produce. His guidance becomes somewhat unsteady as a result. "It's been said that the only truly altruistic species on the planet is humans: we practice reciprocal altruism without expecting it to increase our fitness," he observes. This implies that baboons, or members of any other species that engages in mutual favours, consciously expect to leave more descendants as a result. If adaptive behaviour required conscious insight, we probably wouldn't even have got up the trees, let alone come down from them.

Misleading messages such as these are particularly damaging in hypermedia productions, which will typically be read in bits and pieces, and the wrong bits and pieces at that. They are compounded here by mistakes which undermine the intended impression of pace, and make it look like haste. The link for "punctuated equilibrium" in the glossary goes to "parallel universe", for example, and the student wishing to learn about what Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge think about the tempo of evolution will not be mollified to find that the onward link to Howard the Duck works fine. Nor is confidence in the intricacies of biology encouraged by the claim that worker bees are male. Real life may be full of bugs too, but that's no excuse.

ONE-STOP CHECKING (ON DISC)

The latest edition of the Penguin Hutchinson Reference Suite (Helicon, Windows, pounds 30) adds two new volumes, dictionaries of the Net and of computing, to the seven reference works already in the package. You can bring the whole battery to bear on a search term at once, which makes this a handy tool for fast checks, though the design leaves some room for improvement: the indistinct icons and colour codes for the individual books are obvious candidates for a makeover.

ONE-STOP CHECKING (ON-LINE)

In a perfect Web, everything would be linked to everything else. VoyCabulary does a neat impression of this state of affairs by taking a page of your choice, and linking every single word to a dictionary - particularly useful, it suggests, when reading scientific or medical pages. At your disposal are English, Spanish, German, French, Japanese, Dutch, Swedish, Portuguese, Russian, Hungarian, Welsh Medical, Acronym and Computer dictionaries, plus a thesaurus for hypertext word-association.

SO WHAT IS IT YOU DO, EXACTLY?

"I etch a pattern of geometric shapes onto a stone ... I know that when arranged correctly they will give the stone a special power, enabling it to respond to incantations in a language no human being has ever spoken. I will ask the stone questions in this language, and it will answer by showing me a vision: a world created by my spell, a world imagined within the pattern on the stone. A few hundred years ago in my native New England, an accurate description of my occupation would have gotten me burned at the stake."

- Computer designer W Daniel Hillis waxes lyrical in The Pattern on the Stone (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 13) before getting down to explaining "the Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work". Contextual note on "simple": Hillis is an uberbrain whose idea of fun is making a computer out of sticks and strings. It required parts from more than a hundred Tinker Toy Giant Engineer construction sets, and it's in a museum now.

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