The title of this book should have been 'What Makes Us Tick?' The proportion of articles on the Behavioural Sciences is excessive (12 of the 18 contributions) - quite a few pure scientists hardly regard the Behavioural Sciences as more than a series of statistical gymnastics marinated in a soup of a priori judgements.
The quality and level of the articles is very uneven and the claim of the editor to allow the contributors 'to speak for themselves' suggests editorial laziness rather than liberalism.
Many of the contributors though presenting us with fascinating facts fail to move from the specific to the general. That is what distinguishes the interesting article from the inspired, the prosaic from the `Cutting edge'. OK, the authors may, for perfectly legitimate reasons, hesitate to draw wide-ranging conclusions; that is perfectly understandable if the readers are your professional peers and you are publishing in a learned journal. But how much more interesting it would have been for the sort of person at which this book is presumably aimed if more wide-ranging conclusions could have been made . If the authors were reluctant or unable to do so, Brockman could have added a summary paragraph himself.
The properly-scientific articles - The Coming Age of Ocean Exploration, Molecular Cut and Paste for example, do at least the fulfill the title and sub title's description, and are fascinating. But they sit uncomfortably among all the social stuff.
Felix Warneken's article `Children's Helping Hands' can only reinforce most people's conception of scientists as coming from Planet Zog. Has he no children himself? Has he no friends with children? Any half perceptive Mum would be able to tell him what he laboriously, starry-eyed with amazement, lays before us: that the natural instinct of most babies from a certain age is to help, and that it is inherent human nature, not nurture, that is responsible. Well I suppose it needs to be `proved' when the likes of Richard Dawkins are telling us we are nothing more than seething pots of `Selfish Genes,' but it's hardly the stuff of `Cutting Edge' Science.
Mixed in with this bit of `homespun' is Antony Aguirre's cosmological `Next Step.' He feels obliged to restate Einstein's special theory of relativity at some length, which at 106 years old can hardly be called `Cutting edge' and for most of us has to be taken on absolute trust, as soon as one of those incomprehensible equations makes its appearance. Unfortunately the eyes have glazed over, the brain gone into computer 'sleep' mode, by the time you reach the cutting edge bit, and as so often with cosmology the old song `anything goes' springs to mind.
Jennifer Jacquet's `Is Shame Necessary' seems to be more of a platform for airing her strongly held beliefs on subjects that have been, and are, in the forefront of popular debate, and dealt with rather better by popular journalists. Some of her conclusion, for example that `Many of our interactions these days are similar to the fish cleanings in the Red Sea.' leave the reader gob smacked, and numb with incredulity.
There is fulsome praise in the Acknowledgements for Sara Lippincott's 'excellent editing' but it's more apparent what she has not done rather than what she has. Here's a brief list:
1 The page headers would have been better for repeating the name of the article rather than the name of the authors, who most of us have never heard of, and are unlikely to hear of again. For the general reader to be easily reminded of what of the article is about, repeat of the article name would have been much more helpful
2 A glossary of the terms that appear in the articles, useful both on first reading and as memory joggers for people wishing to remind themselves, and reconsider what the articles are about.
3 An Index of terms, ideas, lines of thought and conclusions etc, again to reinforce and refresh the non specialist's understanding.
4 A bibliography of further reading
5 An explanation of incomprehensible jargon, either as footnotes or in the glossary: for example the phonic symbols that make up what is the totally unreadable name of the people studied by Daniel Huhn. One feels he gets a puerile delight in using their name, but not explaining how to pronounce it. (Are they the `not-equal-Akhoe- Hai-parallel -universe-om' people? What do all those gobbledygook symbols mean? If the author won't tell us then it's the function of a proper editor to do it for him.)
The quality of the book reflects a kind of collective amnesia on the part of Brockman, Lippincott, the in-house editors (were there any?), and the publishers. A catchy title, if one that should be challenged under the Trade Descriptions act, is about their only contribution.
Apart from regretting buying the book at all I should have downloaded it from Kindle, rather than hard copy, then at least it could have been zapped without any environmental contamination.