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D.G. Hart / Edward E. Ericson, Jr.
The Spirit in the Gene: Humanity's Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature
by Reg Morrison
Cornell Univ. Press
286 pp.; $27
"The human animal," we say—but what precisely do we mean by that? The dominant answer (though not the only answer) in the West since the Greeks is that human beings are indeed animals and yet also more than animals: not just unique (isn't each animal unique?) but set apart from all the rest of the animal kingdom.
In our time that answer is increasingly contested. A case in point is photojournalist Reg Morrison's new book, with an introduction by Lynn Margulis and superbly illustrated with photo graphs and drawings. Like many popularizers of science, Morrison believes that humans would be far less likely to allow overpopulation and sanction the direct or indirect destruction of other species if they realized that they are (as Morrison puts it) "entirely typical animals" who exist in a complex and interconnected biological web.
At the same time, Morrison holds to a genetic reductionism—we are our genes—that would seem to let us off the hook and render his exhortations futile. So, for example, under the heading "The Cult Boom," he writes,
The more mystic, grandiose, and frankly unbelievable the scenario, the more attractive it is to our mystery-starved hunter-gatherer genes. In those nations where extended-family structures have virtually disappeared and genetic relatedness no longer provides a practical glue to cement communities together, any tribelike cults that dispense bizarre mystical dogma on a wholesale basis tend to prosper and proliferate.
This seeming contradiction between genetic determinism and human responsibility mars an otherwise interesting look at human evolution and the environmental concerns that humanity faces going into the new millennium.
Morrison's movement from genetics to philosophy and theology has been repeated many times in recent decades by Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and others. It always begs ...