Monday, January 21, 2013

The Best American Science and Nature Writing, Edited by Dan Ariely

Each January I can barely wait to purchase three books of The Best American Series: The Best American Science and Nature Writing, The Best American Sports Writing, and The Best American Travel Writing. The Best American Series is the premier annual showcase for the country’s finest short fiction and nonfiction published in North American during the previous year, and chosen for inclusion by recognized writers within each given field. Today’s review is of my personal favorite, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2012, presented by guest editor, Dan Ariely (pictured), Duke Professor, and probably best know as the author of best seller, Predictably Irrational. 

Articles chosen annually for The Best American Science and Nature Writing tend to come from Scientific American, Discover, National Geographic, Outside, Popular Science, and Wired. And all genres of The Best American Series typically include a heavy dose of writing featured in The New Yorker and The Atlantic, which speaks to the publication standards of those two magazines.

Whether you have any interest in science or not, the annual articles published in The Best American Science and Nature Writing are easily digestible, and if you’re an armchair scientist like me, they are fascinating. For example, David Dobbs’ article in National Geographic, Beautiful Brains, in which he explains that although the dangerous risks taken by teen children cause their parents’ hair to turn gray overnight, risk taking is fundamental to the development of the brain, generates better adaptive abilities, and thus an improvement to the species. If early man hadn’t taken risk, we probably would even be around. Here’s an excerpt that further examines the intriguing peculiarities of developing teen brains:  CLICK ON READ MORE BELOW...

This helps explain another trait that marks adolescence: Teens prefer the company of those their own age more than ever before or after. At one level, this passion for same-age peers merely expresses in the social realm the teen's general attraction to novelty: Teens offer teens far more novelty than familiar old family does.

Yet teens gravitate toward peers for another, more powerful reason: to invest in the future rather than the past. We enter a world made by our parents. But we will live most of our lives, and prosper (or not) in a world run and remade by our peers. Knowing, understanding, and building relationships with them bears critically on success. Socially savvy rats or monkeys, for instance, generally get the best nesting areas or territories, the most food and water, more allies, and more sex with better and fitter mates. And no species is more intricately and deeply social than humans are.

This supremely human characteristic makes peer relations not a sideshow but the main show. Some brain-scan studies, in fact, suggest that our brains react to peer exclusion much as they respond to threats to physical health or food supply. At a neural level, in other words, we perceive social rejection as a threat to existence. Knowing this might make it easier to abide the hysteria of a 13-year-old deceived by a friend or the gloom of a 15-year-old not invited to a party.

These people! we lament. They react to social ups and downs as if their fates depended upon them! They're right. They do.

Another brain-focused article that sparked my imagination was by Baylor College of Medicine Neuroscientist, David Engleman. The Brain on Trial dissuades the notion that all adults posses the same capacity to make sound decisions.

Our laws are written to judge people equally which Engleman deems “a charitable idea but demonstratively wrong.” What if some people who break laws can’t help themselves?   Consider these passages from his article:

If you think genes don’t affect how people behave, consider this fact: if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You’re three times as likely to commit robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder, and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1 percent of death-row inmates do. These statistics alone indicate that we cannot presume that everyone is coming to the table equally equipped in terms of drives and behaviors.

Genes are part of the story, but they’re not the whole story. We are likewise influenced by the environments in which we grow up. Substance abuse by a mother during pregnancy, maternal stress, and low birth weight all can influence how a baby will turn out as an adult. As a child grows, neglect, physical abuse, and head injury can impede mental development, as can the physical environment. And every experience throughout our lives can modify genetic expression. In this way, genes and environments intertwine.

When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that we choose neither one. We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens—equal before the law—possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt.

And finally, The Crypto Currency by Joshua Davis. We’ve all heard stories of the death of money. As the owner of a 3-inch stack of credit cards, the extinction of currency is a graspable concept, but I was not ready for the very real bitcoin mining business!

As of 2013, bitcoin, which is a decentralized digital currency based on the open source protocol, is the most-widely used alternative currency. There are people who, through a very complicated process, exhaustively collect bitcoins (bitcoin miners), and a good number of US businesses that accept them. Some think that bitcoins, instead of silver and gold, have become the most valuable currency or commodity of the future.

This issue is a little too complex for me to explain, but Davis brings it to life and makes it easy to grasp, which is what I loved about this article and many of the articles featured in The Best American Science and Nature Writing.

Hopefully I’ve triggered your interest in The Best American Series, which was my goal. And, if you ever want to do a test drive, I have a whole shelf of the series books. Just ask.

No comments:

Post a Comment