“Biology’s Many Unanswered Questions”

Unanswered questions in science provide grounds for thinking that future scientific advances may provide grist for the innovation mill. Some argue innovation has slowed because we have picked all the low-hanging fruit. I doubt it. But if so, the fruit can grow back.

(p. C9) The irresistible enthusiasm of “Great Adaptations” couldn’t come at a better time—science is under assault not merely by know-nothing deniers but in how it is taught and presented to the general public. It’s dispensed as a collection of facts, recitations of what past research has uncovered, findings to be understood, which all too often means just “memorized.” By contrast, as Mr. Catania clearly understands, and demonstrates beautifully in his book, science offers adventures in trying to decode the mysteries of the natural world.

This open-minded, openhearted attitude toward biology’s many unanswered questions is the organizing principle of “Great Adaptations”: how to recognize those mysteries, how to go about solving them, and most important, how to appreciate them. In science, working out the solutions to a puzzle inevitably raises new questions in a process not unlike nuclear fission, in which splitting one nucleus generates the energy to split more—except in this case, the energy released isn’t dangerous but illuminating.

For the full review, see:

David P. Barash. “Biology’s Unanswered Questions.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, September 5, 2020): C9.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sep. 4, 2020, and has the title “‘Great Adaptations’ Review: Survival of the Weirdest.”)

The book under review is:

Catania, Kenneth. Great Adaptations: Star-Nosed Moles, Electric Eels, and Other Tales of Evolution’s Mysteries Solved. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.

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