Tag Archives: evolution

“Eva” by Peter Dickinson

Eva

This book was loaned to me by a friend, who asked for my opinion of it. Sometimes this means my “scientific” opinion, since I am a scientist. I earned a Master of Science in Chemistry in 1973.

My academic degree is no particular help in evaluating this book, but I have relevant informal experience. I’m married to an ecologist well versed in evolution, who taught an undergraduate course called “Animal and Human”. That course focused on the research of Jane Goodall and other primatologists. Our home bookshelf includes works by Goodall, Frans de Waal and others. I particularly like de Waal’s Good Natured – the origins of right and wrong in humans and other animals.

Back to the book… Eva is a 13 year old girl who suffers devastating physical injuries in an auto accident. Her (less damaged) brain is transplanted into the body of a young female chimpanzee. (No, I don’t think will happen in my lifetime, despite rapid advances in neuroscience.) Against all odds, Eva survives, the first (and only) member of a new life form. Everything about Eva is novel and much is unexpected – to her, her family and the doctors and scientists who made her treatment possible.

Eva turns out to be more chimpanzee than human. She feels more at home in a chimpanzee colony called “the pool” than with her parents or school friends. Their habitat destroyed by human overpopulation, all surviving chimps live in “the pool”, a zoo-like urban setting where chimps face one of three fates. Some are sold to corporations or universities for research. Others are kept in a zoo, for the (paying) public to see and appreciate them. The luckiest ones live mostly undisturbed in a private compound, observed (remotely) by scientists who want to understand their biology and behavior. Even that is not a “good” or “natural” life for a chimpanzee, and they have lost skills, including the ability to forage for food. Eva, the daughter of one of the scientists, played with chimps as a child and felt positive towards them. This helps her survive the shock of “waking up” in a chimpanzee body.

Eva wants a more natural setting for herself and the other chimps, and, against the odds and at great risk, she gets it. A chimp colony is established (in Madagascar). Eva attempts re-teach chimps “wild” life skills and to import a few human behaviors into the colony (tying knots, for example). She breeds only with chimps she considers intelligent and socially cooperative. She dies (of old age) hoping “her” chimp descendants will thrive in the future at a time when humans seem doomed. 

My opinion? Highly entertaining. Dystopian fiction, however, is not a genre I like. It can be cynical and broadly antisocial (imho). Is Eva anti-science? Borderline. If you’re looking for “bad” scientists, you can find them. I don’t consider this a trivial issue. Not while climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers show up in my own community. If we reject science across the board, we humans are doomed, and may destroy other species as well.

This book was published in 1989.  Peter Dickinson died in 2015. It is categorized as Young Adult fiction. Dickinson doesn’t talk down to his readers. If anything marks it as YA oriented, it’s the emphasis on plot (over character, setting or reflection) and the brisk pace. One category of YA is “dystopian YA fiction”. Eva might qualify. The future world depicted is overcrowded, polluted and gloomy.

If someone wants to critique the portrayal of chimps in Eva, I suggest they check the publication dates of the books mentioned above to see what information was available to Dickenson when he wrote Eva. I think, overall, that he did a good job. 

Jane Goodall wrote Reason for Hope in 1999. She is now 87 years old. You can check her out at www.news.janegoodall.org. She still has hope.  

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“The Signature of All Things: A Novel” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yes, this is the book that threatened me with “literary flu” (see December 17 blog post.) I bravely fought off my burning desire to read instead of going to work. I even managed to make this wonderful, absorbing book last six days!

This book is the story of a American life, from birth in 1800 to very old age.

Some pluses… It’s about a woman’s life. Much of it takes place near Philadelphia. Although none of the characters is actually a Quaker, Quakerism is given its due as an aspect of Philadelphia society. Abolitionism also plays a part.

But fundamentally, this is a book about the study of nature, especially plants. Alma Whittaker was the daughter of a man who grew plants, sold plants and supported the study of plants, with the emphasis on their medicinal qualities. He became fabulously rich in the process. Alma grew up surrounded by scientists (they called themselves natural philosophers) and businessmen of all sorts. Female role models were in short supply, but Alma, perhaps because she had no brothers, was encouraged to be intellectually bold.

Elizabeth Gilbert creates a memorable protagonist in Alma Whittaker and then surrounds her with intense, surprising characters. There’s Prudence, who turns up one dark night and is adopted as Alma’s sister. She sheds her background of poverty and ignorance and grows up to be a dedicated abolitionist. There’s a man named Tomorrow Morning, who loses his entire family, selects a new father and builds a new, rich life. Gilbert even manages to make a dog named Roger into a memorable character. (I don’t usually pay much attention to dogs, in life or in fiction.) Not every character is benign. The peripheral Mr. Yancey is mysterious and very dangerous.

Another “plus” from my point of view is that several characters in this book are Dutch and some of the story takes place in Netherlands, a country I for which I have a decided soft spot.

This book celebrates the beauty of nature and the JOY of studying nature. Neither is sufficiently appreciated here and now. Other types of intellectual activity are also lifted up – the study of languages, for example. Our heroine speaks four languages, plus Greek which she regards as a special treat. She undertakes to learn an Asian language under challenging circumstances.

One criterion of an excellent book is that it encourages you to read more, and not just work by the same author. This book led me to think about reading Darwin, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man in particular. I tend to think of myself as well informed on the subject of evolution. I hang around with biologists and experts in related sciences, but no, I have not read Darwin, though his books and many commentaries thereon are around the house. I envision reading Darwin as a project that might take years! I wonder if that’s true.

I have intentionally written this post without looking at the reviews of others, or even checking on Ms. Gilbert’s other published works. A few years ago, I read her two non-fiction books, Eat, Pray, Love and Committed. The first was good enough, the second (to use a culinary turn of phrase) disagreed with me. I never expected The Signature of All Things to be so very marvelous.

“The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins

I read this for a discussion group. Not the whole book, just chapter five, entitled “The Roots of Religion”. The framework here is evolution, both biological and cultural. I’m comfortable discussing biological evolution, since my life is full of biologists and the natural world is a major source of entertainment and enjoyment for all of us. I think evolutionary theory is sound. Cultural “evolution” is another story.

First of all, Dawkins tells us that all human cultures have religion. I’ve been under the impression that Confucianism and Taoism are better described as philosophies, since they don’t rely on the supernatural and don’t “guarantee” life after death. I’m sure Dawkins deals with this someplace.

Dawkins attitude towards religion is negative and condescending to an extreme. He thinks “believers” are totally irrational. Most of my friends in the discussion found this annoying and felt Dawkins damaged his case by being so unpleasant. One person found him “bracing”. Maybe we need some relief from having to treat ALL religious viewpoints with careful respect. Some ARE “better” than others.

Dawkins takes a big leap when he treats cultural “memes” as self replicating and therefore just like genes. I’ve barely grasped the concept of memes. There’s no way I can grant the idea of “cultural evolution” the same status as the contemporary, very well developed and useful theory of biological evolution.

A few days ago, I watched and participated in a “religious” event, a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. Can something so complex, enduring and moving be categorized as a “meme”? Not by me. No, I don’t believe every word of it. I don’t expect to be “raised incorruptible”. But there’s room in my life for mystery and for aesthetic appreciation, and in ways I can’t explain, for belief.