Life: The Leading Edge Of Evolutionary Biology, Genetics, Anthropology, And Environmental Science

Editor: John Brockman
Publisher: Harper Perennial, nonfiction

John Brockman is a colourful character, known to share photos of himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, or John Cage. That popular culture should include intelligent conversations about science is a given for him.

Edge.org, sometimes dubbed “the world’s smartest website”, was born out of an idea from Brockmann’s late friend, performance artist James Lee Byars, who suggested that rather than trying to assimilate the information contained in the six million books housed in the Harvard library it might be more productive and instructive to assemble the hundred most brilliant minds and have them ask each other questions in order to achieve what Brockmann has referred to as “a synthesis of all thought”.

Life is the fifth volume in The Best Of Edge series, and as with previous books, most of the featured content has already appeared on the Edge.org website.

str2_marclifeR_coverThere are 18 essays in the book. It is perhaps worth noting that not a single one of them is written by a woman, underlining the demographic generally represented (and unrepresented) on Edge.org.

Some leeway may be given to the fact that science is still a male dominated field, and obviously a scientist’s gender is separate from the science, but whether Edge.org’s male-centric editorial policy is just a symptom or part of the problem is something that bears examination.

The book starts off with an essay by Richard Dawkins, a man more coherent when expounding on his specialised subject of genetics than in his frequent rants and diatribes about his personal bug bear, religion.

He revisits the basic theme of his 1990s bestseller The Selfish Gene (again) – ie that genes try to maximise themselves by any means available, stopping short, or more accurately being stopped short, of undermining the viability of the organism it inhabits.

Genes seek maximum replication, whereas the organism seeks survival for at least long enough to release copies of the genes into the world. There is a large overlap in the agendas of the gene and the organism, but occasionally they conflict.

This idea is taken up by Harvard professor of organismic (yes, that’s a word – I know, because I had to look it up) and evolutionary biology David Haig.

He discusses the conflict between the genes of both parents as they seek expression in an embryo, but also the battle fought between the embryo and the mother. It’s a tricky game of give and take where the mother’s interests are not necessarily those of the foetus. For example, the foetus secretes massive amounts of hormones that raise the mother’s blood pressure, thereby increasing the flow of nutrients to the foetus, but also placing additional stress on the mother’s body.

Rober Trivers runs with this theme and explores how the mother’s genes have in turn evolved to minimise the impact of these occasionally inappropriate hormonal messages.

Compromises are made by both foetus and mother so that neither’s viability is compromised.

The speed at which knowledge is expanding, and the access to that knowledge, is dizzying in pace. In the fields of genetics, neuroscience, and neurobiology new discoveries are being made almost every day.

Just recently it was announced that the brain has its own nervous system. This rewrites the books on what to date has been the received understanding, and is just one example of the many, many new additions to how we understand life in all its fantastic forms and myriad manifestations.

Literary agent and editor John Brockman, founder of science lit website, edge.org. Photo: edge.org

Literary agent and editor John Brockman, founder of science lit website, edge.org. Photo: edge.org

With this is mind it is surprising that some of the content in this book is close to 20 years old. Of course, time doesn’t necessarily invalidate science. The work of ancients such as Pythagoras, or Copernicus, or Newton’s observations on gravity still hold valid after centuries.

But since much of this book’s focus is on genetics, at times the content could have benefitted by being more up to date.

The book also occasionally suffers from an overly casual tone, this due to the content being mainly transcriptions of talks.

As a result, some of the arguments, theories, and discussions are a little less coherently structured than a reader might expect in book dealing with science, no matter how vulgarised. A little light editing might also have eliminated unnecessary repetition and fluffiness.

But despite these few shortcomings there is an advantage to reading the essays featured in Life as opposed to gleaning information from random articles on the Internet.

On the net knowledge is dispersed, whereas this book has a structured sense of narrative, showing how research from different disciplines, and their disciples, can bolster and inform each other.

Ultimately, the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, perhaps an apt and fitting off-the-cuff metaphor for the subject matter – life.