Many books have been written in recent years, by scholars, about the need to expand our feelings of kinship. Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene is an example; Timothy Morton’s forthcoming Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People is another. Such works are highly theoretical and dense with reference, and while there is a place for all that, I suppose, it is something of a relief to turn from such writers to one whose deep feelings of kinship with the nonhuman arise from the touch of a hawk’s feathers, the meeting of eyes with a mouse, the discovery that what lay next to his boot as he dozed in the shade of a mesa was not a pile of pebbles but a rattlesnake, taking his own calm siesta.
Everyone’s genome contains genetic mutations. Some mutations might raise our risk for a disease or slightly change our propensity to freckle in the sun, but other mutations do not change such phenotypes at all. Still, greater knowledge of our genetic makeup necessarily involves greater awareness of potential health risks. As Dr. Colleen McBride, the former chief of the Social and Behavioral Research branch of the National Human Genome Research Institute, explained in an interview with Rochman, “The more [parents] anticipated feeling good, the more they wanted to test. But the reality is, those parents are going to get bad news. Their kids are going to be at risk for something.” Risk and destiny are not equivalent, but that news does not always calm an anxious parent.
One can legitimately question why Godfrey-Smith’s story about how nature—or creation—became aware of itself features a protagonist that is alien to the human species. It seems that it would make more sense to talk about nonhuman intelligence—which to a degree is a requirement for consciousness—by starting with mammals or at least birds. These animals are known to possess high levels of cognitive functioning exhibited in the form of learning, memory, and decision-making. But perhaps the octopus is smarter than we think. Certainly Other Minds makes a compelling case that this is so.
In Numbers and the Making of Us, Caleb Everett starts with a neat idea but, in filling out the length of a book, settles into depicting sequence as inspiration, when the two are often distinct. Everett teaches that numbers “ultimately resulted in a cognitive and behavioral reorientation of humanity.” “Resulted in,” yes—but only in the sense that the technique of recording images on film “resulted in” Citizen Kane.
Dava Sobel has done it again. In The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, the author of Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter has thrown open a window into a bygone era “when computers were human” and when, at the Harvard College Observatory, most of those humans were brilliant women.