Archives For Biology


Bernd Heinrich - Life EveralstingThe Death of One Organism Gives Life to Legions of Others

A Feature Review of

Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death

Bernd Heinrich

Hardback: HMH Books, 2012.
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Reviewed by Marilyn Matevia.

Once upon a time – or two – I may or may not have assisted in scattering the ashes of a dear, deceased friend in an area, or perhaps areas, where it may or may not have been illegal to do so.  And, hypothetically speaking, I may (or may not) have known we were in violation of said regulatory codes at the time.  But the fact of my alleged participation in this allegedly illegal activity is not the point.  More interesting is the law or code itself: why should it be against the law to scatter human cremains in certain remote public areas?  “Ashes” (which are not particularly ashy; cremains have the consistency of rough sand or very small bits of gravel) are the end result of incinerating a body at temperatures around 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, until all that remains are solid bone fragments, which are then pulverized.  They are essentially sterile, and they present neither a biohazard nor an environmental hazard (although the cremation process itself is not environmentally friendly).  Legal codes regulating the disposal of human bodies – particularly cremated ones – likely have a great deal more to do with honoring cultural traditions and observing taboos than with securing public safety.

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“Involved in Mankind

A Review of

The Price of Altruism:
George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness

By Oren Harman

Reviewed by David Anderson.

The Price of Altruism:
George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness

Oren Harman.

Hardback: W.W. Norton, 2010.
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THE PRICE OF ALTRUISMIn a world driven by evolution to its relentless, inevitable conclusions, “No good deed goes unpunished/no act of charity goes unresented,” as they say in Oz. How can we account for altruism, that foolish doing unto others as we hope they will do unto us in return? After all, in evolutionary terms, altruism decreases the fitness of the individual while increasing the fitness of the group. Evolution can explain why someone would jump into the ocean to pull their child or even a sibling’s child out of the grip of a rip tide, but why would anyone risk their life to save a neighbor’s child? Darwin saw altruism as a major problem with his theory and was profoundly troubled by it.

Geneticists and evolutionary biologists for 100 years after Darwin struggled to figure out how altruism fits into the evolutionary scheme of things. The evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton (much admired by Richard Dawkins, but don’t hold that against him) made the first major breakthrough in 1964 with what is now called Hamilton’s rule:

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