Common Read 2014-15

Common Read Books

Inherit the WindEvolution for EveryoneBest Science and Nature Writing

Evolution for Everyone

David Sloan Wilson

Evolution for Everyone book Cover

Evolution for Everyone (David Sloan Wilson) speaks to non-scientists and scientists alike. Rather than dwell on the debates about creationism, this book shows how evolution provides a framework for investigation in many disciplines. Wilson proposes that evolutionary biology might help us better understand religion, culture, psychology, and morality. In accessible language, the book introduces readers to recent developments in evolutionary biology and explains the role of theory in the sciences, but instructors in the humanities and the social sciences will also find provocative essays for student discussions about the still disputed role of biology and genetics in the study of human behavior. Education instructors might be interested in several pieces revealing Wilson's approach to teaching and undergraduate research at SUNY Binghamton, where he is a professor of evolutionary biology and anthropology.

This collection of essays can be read in total, or individual pieces can be extracted for shorter assignments. Please take a look at the book yourself and think about how one or two short essays (often no longer than 5 pages) might be incorporated into your courses in 2014-2015. 

While most chapters might be appropriate for a science classroom, chapters with particular relevance to courses in the social sciences (SOC SCI), the humanities (HUM), education (EDU), and GE 12 (STVS) have been labeled accordingly.

Chapter Outline

Chapter One – The Future Can Differ From the Past 

Here, Wilson discusses the backlash against sociobiology and the application of evolutionary theory to human history. (HUM)

Chapter Two – Clearing the Deck

A discussion of scientific theory and discussions about evolution in science today. 

Chapter Three – A Third Way of Thinking

Natural Selection and its “amazing explanatory scope.”

 Chapter Four – Prove It!

A discussion of scientific method and the evidence of natural selection, while challenging the popular conceptions of what scientific theory means.

Chapter Five – Be Careful What You Wish For      

Wilson discusses how evolution and culture interact in shaping human behavior and history and how people use natural selection symbolically to explain social behavior in terms of social harmony or selfish competition. (SOC SCI)

Chapter Six – Monkey Madness

This chapter challenges the notion of evolution as progress toward perfection and explores the complexities of natural selection. 

Chapter Seven – How the Dog Got its Curly Tail

On artificial selection and the complexities and unpredictably of selection 

Chapter Eight – Dancing with Ghosts

The role of environment in natural selection. This chapter might be useful for thinking about the time scale involved for species to adapt to environmental changes, such as those being unleashed by global climate change. (STVS) 

Chapter Nine – What is the Function of a Can Opener?

A discussion of theory, hypothesis, and scientific method and what scientists mean by them. 

 Chapter 10 – Your Apprentice License

Takeaways from the first nine chapters, which Wilson sees as a basic introduction to scientific theory in general and evolutionary theory specifically.

Chapter 11 – Welcome Home, Prodigal Son

Discusses the relationship between biological evolution and social behavior – and how thinking about human culture in terms of biological evolution challenges traditional ways of thinking about social behavior. (SOC SCI)

Chapter 12 – Teaching the Experts

A discussion of how the scientific establishment and disciplinary divisions discourages the application of evolutionary theory. (SCI)

Chapter 13 – Murder City

How evolutionary science and the theory of kin selection can explain murder rates and contribute to criminology. And how such “sociobiology” creates incredible controversy in many cases. (SOC SCI)

Chapter 14 – How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Genetic Determinism

On the application of evolutionary theory to social problems in large cities, with a discussion of the widespread criticism of such “genetic determinism.” (SOC SCI)

Chapter 15 – They’ve Got Personality!

On evolutionary adaptation as an explanation of individual personality in animals and humans.

Chapter 16 – The Beauty of Abraham Lincoln 

On the intersections of psychology, social science, and evolutionary biology – focusing on aesthetics and notions of beauty. (HUM)

Chapter 17 – Love Thy Neighbor Microbe

Biological explanations of morality and neighborliness. (SOC SCI/HUM)

Chapter 18 – Groups All the Way Down

On theories of group selection in evolutionary biology and genetics, with a discussion of organisms as societies and societies as organisms.  (SOC SCI) 

Chapter 19 – Divided We Fall

On group selection, evolution, and cancer.  

Chapter 20 – Winged Minds

On group selection, collective behavior, social organisms, and bee colonies and what this might imply for group intelligence among primates. (SOC SCI)

Chapter 21 – The Egalitarian Ape

How the study of bee colonies and cellular organisms leads to new thinking about the evolution of egalitarianism among humans, especially at the moment they diverged from other primates. (SOC SCI)

Chapter 22 – Across the Cooperation Divide

On cooperation as an evolutionary adaptation, with a particular focus on dogs as skilled cooperators 

Chapter 23 – The First Laugh

On laughter’s importance to understanding the evolution of group cooperation and brain chemistry. This chapter also includes an extensive discussion of interdisciplinary undergraduate education and research. (EDU)

Chapter 24 – The Vital Arts

On the humanities and biological evolution through a discussion of dance and art, with extensive commentary on the resistance within the humanities to biological explanations. (HUM)

Chapter 25 – Dr. Doolittle Was Right

On symbolic thought and animals, with a discussion of how traits previously believed to be unique to humans may actually be found among some animal species.  (SOC SCI)

Chapter 26 – How Many Inventors Does it Take to Make a Light bulb?

On the history of technological innovation and the advantages of thinking in groups, with a discussion of the relationship of human psychology and evolutionary biology. (SOC SCI)

Chapter 27 – I Don’t Know How It Works!

On genetic evolution, eusociality, and cultural history, using African history and American history as case studies. (HUM)

Chapter 28 – Darwin’s Cathedral

On how biological evolution helps explain the history of religion. (HUM)

Chapter 29 – Is There Anyone Out There? Is There Anyone Up There?

On How biological evolution helps explain the history of religion. (HUM)

Chapter 30 – Ayn Rand: Religious Zealot

On the relationship of evolution of the human species, history, and political ideologies.  (HUM/SOC SCI) 

Chapter 31 – The Social Intelligence of Nations, or Evil Aliens Need Not Apply

Using evolutionary biology to consider the history of nationalism, laissez faire economics, and social Darwinism.  (HUM/SOC SCI)

Chapter 32 – Mr. Beeper

How evolution can help us think about love and individual attachments to community. (SOC SCI)

Chapter 33 – The Ecology of Good and Evil

On altruism and its origins, with a discussion of human behavioral diversity as it relates to biological diversity.  (SOC SCI)

Chapter 34 – Mosquitoes Under the Bed

On the relationship of science, ethics, and evolution. (STVS)

Chapter 35 – The Return of the Amateur Scientist

Through an autobiography of his scientific career, Wilson reflects on science, amateurism, and disciplinary specialization. (EDU)

Chapter 36 – Bon Voyage

A critique of a history profession focused on recent history and a plea for “deep history” that embraces interdisciplinary methods and draws on evolutionary biology. (HUM)

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The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2013

Editor: Siddhartha Mukherjee

Best Science and Nature Writing book cover


This collection includes twenty seven essays representing the best of American science writing for a general audience from 2013.  The editor, Siddhartha Mukherjee says of the collection:

“Most of the selected essays share a common thread: they describe how science happens.  They don’t present facts alone (although facts are abundant in them).  They describe the extraordinary process by which scientists extract those facts from the grim soil, roots and tendrils intact, to glean knowledge about the inner workings of nature.”

Chapter Outline

J.B. MacKinnon. “False Idyll” from Orion

“You can only romanticize nature for so long before something gets bludgeoned or eaten.” (Orion)

Benjamin Hale. “The Last Distinction?” from Harper’s Magazine

Hale’s article explores the importance of language as a distinctive difference between humans and other primates through the history of language experiments on apes.

Tim Zimmermann. “Talk to Me” from Outside

“Dolphins communicate with each other, but can they communicate with us? Marine biologist Denise Herzing is drawing on decades of research, a vast digital library of whistles and clicks, and new computer wizardry designed to bridge the species gap. Tim Zimmermann goes deep with one of history's grandest experiments.” (Outside)

David Deutsch and Artur Ekert. “Beyond the Quantum Horizon” from Scientific American

“Quantum mechanics used to be described as a theory of limits, implying that our observations are unavoidably uncertain, that randomness rules the world, and that the theory itself is too weird to master and forces us to abandon the very idea that there is a world out there that science could describe. Those misconceptions are rooted in philosophical doctrines, such as logical positivism, that were popular during the period when physicists developed and honed the theory. In truth, quantum mechanics imposes no significant limits. The quantum world has a richness and intricacy that allows new practical technologies and kinds of knowledge.” (Scientific American)

Michael Moyer. “Is Space Digital?” from Scientific American

“An experiment going up outside of Chicago will attempt to measure the intimate connections among information, matter and spacetime. If it works, it could rewrite the rules for 21st-century physics.” (Scientific American)
Sylvia A. Earle.  “The Sweet Spot in Time” from Virginia Quarterly Review
“Fifty years ago, we could not see limits to what we could put into the ocean, or what we could take out. Fifty years into the future, it will be too late to do what is possible right now. We are in a “sweet spot” in time.” (
John Pavlus.Machines of the Infinite” from Scientific American

“The “P versus NP” question asks whether tough problems whose solutions can be quickly checked (like a jigsaw puzzle) are, at heart, easily solvable as well. Despite decades of investigation, no one has been able to prove that the two categories are different. If they were not, machines would acquire enormous power. The problem does not just affect code breakers and Web searches. It suggests a fundamental limitation for biological evolution, physical laws and the nature of knowledge.” (Scientific American)

Michelle Nijhuis. “Which Species will Live? from Scientific American

“Conservation groups can no longer afford to try to protect as many animals and plants as they have in the past, so they are increasingly turning to new systems of triage to explicitly determine which species to save and which to leave to die.  Function-first forms of triage favor species that perform a unique job in nature, such as whitebark pines, which provide vital food for grizzly bears.  Evolution-first approaches seek to preserve genetic diversity—from the two-humped Bactrian camel to the Chinese giant salamander—which can help all the world's species survive and adapt in fast-changing environmental conditions.  Other methods refine the popular hotspots approach, which focuses on saving whole ecosystems but may give short shrift to human needs.” (Scientific American)

Rick Bass. “The Larch” from Orion

An essay about the life and death of Larch trees: winner of the 2013 John Burroughs Award.  See Orion Magazine for pictures.

Brett Forrest. “Shattered Genius” from Playboy

“Grigori Perelman is one of the greatest mathematicians of our time, a Russian genius who solved the Poincaré Conjecture, which plagued the brightest minds for a century. At the height of his fame, he refused a million-dollar award for his work. Then he disappeared. Our writer hunts him down on the streets of St. Petersburg.” (Playboy)

Jerome Groopman. “The T-Cell Army” from The New Yorker

“About the once-moribund discipline of cancer immunology coming to life in the laboratory and clinic.” (Mukherjee)
David Owen. “The Artificial Leaf” from The New Yorker
“Daniel Nocera's vision for sustainable energy.” (

Michael Specter. “The Deadliest Virus” from The New Yorker

“Did a scientist put millions of lives at risk—and was he right to do it?” (The New Yorker)

Alan Lightman. “Our Place in the Universe” from Harper’s Magazine

“Theoretical physicist and novelist Alan Lightman asks: What exactly is humanity's place in the universe? His essay takes the reader on a journey through humanity's rapid acceleration of scientific discovery.…We’ve always strived to discover the innate truths of the physical world, Lightman says. However, only now are we beginning to understand the true vastness of the universe. And as our scientific knowledge increases, so too do our feelings of insignificance.” (

David Quammen. “Out of the Wild” from Popular Science

Quammen asks where the next pandemic will come from and reminds us: “there is not “natural world”; it’s a bad and artificial phrase.  There is only the world.  Humankind is part of that world, as are the Ebola viruses, as are the influenzas and the HIVs, as are Marburg and Nipah and SARS, as are chimpanzees and palm civets and Egyptian fruit bats, as is the next murderous virus—the one we haven’t yet detected.” (Quammen)

Oliver Sacks. “Altered States” from The New Yorker

“Neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks has an article titled “Altered States.” Subtitled “Self-experiments in chemistry,” it covers, to be blunter, what Sacks experienced and learned — or failed to learn, substance depending — when he began doing drugs.” (Colin Marshall, Open Culture)  

Elizabeth Korbert. “Recall of the Wild” from The New Yorker

A look at “rewilding” efforts in Europe and elsewhere.

Keith Gessen. “Polar Express” from The New Yorker

“A journey through the melting Arctic, with sixty-odd thousand tons of iron ore.”  The journal of the authors travels through the arctic aboard a Russian cargo ship.

Steven Weinberg. “The Crisis of Big Science” from The New York Review of Books

“a cry form the heart that is meant to provoke political action.  Sometime in the next decade, Weinberg writes, physicists are going to ask their governments to fund the building of the most powerful linear accelerator ever built.  This accelerator—not the Large Hadron Collider but the Even Larger Hadron Collider—will supposedly smash its way through an experimental impasse that particle physicists apparently find themselves stuck in.” (Mukherjee)

Gareth Cook. “Autism Inc.” from The New York Time Magazine

“about the parent of an autistic child who starts a company called Specialisterne, Danish for “the specialists”—‘on the theory that given the right environment, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job but also be the best person for it.’” (Mukherjee)

Natalie Angier. “The Life of Pi, and Other Infinites” from The New York Times

“The piece nicely illustrates that there are many different types of infinities, and these infinities arise in diverse fields of research such as mathematics, cosmology and even theology. The most common infinity is exemplified by the number pi, which has a never-ending tail of non-repeating digits to the right of the decimal point. A little more mind boggling is that recent cosmology studies suggest that our known universe is just a tiny fraction of an infinite universal fabric, which has some strange consequences. “If you take a finite physical system and a finite set of states, and you have an infinite universe in which to sample them, to randomly explore all the possibilities, you will get duplicates,” said Anthony Aguirre, an associate professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. ‘If I ask, will there be a planet like Earth with a person in Santa Cruz sitting at this colored desk, with every atom, every wave function exactly the same, if the universe is infinite the answer has to be yes.’ There could even be a universe, Dr. Aguirre said, ‘where the Nazis won the war.’” (Math Digest)

Robert M. Sapolsky. “Super Humanity” from Scientific American

“Many of the challenges we humans face today are the result of a mismatch between the environment our ancestors adapted to over millions of years and the world we now live in.  But this incongruity is itself the result of a uniquely human characteristic: our impulse to extend ourselves beyond the limits evolution set for us.  Science is one of the tools humans use to achieve this goal of stretching our physical and mental capabilities.” (Scientific American)

Katherine Harmon. “the Patient Scientist” from Scientific American

About Ralph Steinman, an immunologist in New York who contracts pancreatic cancer and becomes a subject of his own research.

Nathaniel Rich. “Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?” from The New York Times Magazine

“The premise of the story, written by the novelist Nathaniel Rich, is that the unusual life cycle of a tiny sea creature called a hydrozoan could hold the key to human immortality. The organism, a species of Turritopsis, begins as a small polyp that grows to an adult about the size of a fingernail, when it resembles a jellyfish. In that form, it's referred to as a medusa. The process is analogous to what occurs when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. But in this case, the process can also run backward: the adult can turn back into a polyp, from which form it can develop into an adult once again. That's where the idea of immortality comes from.” – (Paul Raeburn) 

Stephen Marche. “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?” from The Atlantic

“Social media—from Facebook to Twitter—have made us more densely networked than ever. Yet for all this connectivity, new research suggests that we have never been lonelier (or more narcissistic)—and that this loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill. A report on what the epidemic of loneliness is doing to our souls and our society.” (The Atlantic)

Mark Bowden. “The Measured Man” from The Atlantic

“Larry Smarr, an astrophysicist turned computer scientist, has a new project: charting his every bodily function in minute detail. What he’s discovering may be the future of health care.” (The Atlantic)

Kevin Dutton. “The Wisdom of Psychopaths” from Scientific American

“this story of a psychologist who seeks to understand the workings of a psychopath’s mind.  In talking to dozens of patients confined to a high-security psychiatric prison in England, Dutton emerges with a strangely complex understanding of what psychopathy is and how it defines its obverse: empathy.” (Mukherjee)

Inherit the Wind 

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

Inherit the Wind book cover

Inherit the Wind  is a dramatic rendering of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial, which saw a teacher convicted for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution, a violation of Tennessee state law at the time. At root, the play stands as a defense of intellectual freedom; as playwright Jerome Lawrence told The New York Times in 1996, “it is about the right to think.” 

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