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Chicken Soup for the Evolutionist’s Soul

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A review of Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.

Humans are pattern-seeking, storytelling animals. We look for and find patterns in our world and in our lives, then weave narratives around those patterns to bring them to life and give them meaning. Such is the stuff of which myth, religion, history, and science are made.

Sometimes the patterns we find represent reality — DNA as the basis of heredity or the fossil record as the history of life. But sometimes the patters are imposed by our minds rather than discovered by them — the face on Mars (actually an eroded mountain) or the Virgin Mary’s image on the side of a glass building in Clearwater, Florida (really an oil stain from a palm tree, since removed to enable the faithful to better view their icon). The rub lies in distinguishing which patterns are true and which are false, and the essential tension (as Thomas Kuhn called it) pits skepticism against credulity as we try to decide which patterns should be rejected and which should be embraced. (continue reading…)

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Bicycles, Baseball, Bacteria & Bach

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A review of Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin.

For the past 15 summers I have either competed in or directed the 3,000-mile, nonstop, transcontinental bicycle Race Across America; for the first decade the transcontinental record plummeted from 12 days 3 hours to 7 days 23 hours, but for the past five years it hasn’t budged even though half the field now routinely breaks earlier records. Why? Some of the pioneers, not surprisingly, believe that they were simply better; current riders claim weather conditions and other variables. I now know that both sides are wrong, thanks to the work of paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and trend setter (and observer) Stephen Jay Gould, whose new book, Full House, explains how systems change over time — from the history of life to the history of sports. (continue reading…)

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