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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 23.4 > The Inevitability of Intelligent Life?

The Inevitability of Intelligent Life?

Reviews of The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution by Charles S. Cockell, and The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will by Kenneth R. Miller
Simon & Schuster. 2018. 304 pp. $26. ISBN-13: 978-1476790268
Basic Books. June 2018. 352 pp. $32. ISBN-13: 978-1541617599

THUS FAR, 2018 HAS BEEN A TERRIFIC year for popular science books. Two stand out in particular for confronting head-on some of the biggest and most difficult questions scientists face. In his new masterpiece, The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution, biophysicist Charles S. Cockell wades with admirable fortitude into the waters of how the laws of physics and mathematics place constraints—and find solutions— to the great challenges of survival. How inevitable was it that life would land on DNA as the repository of genetic information? Why have the vast majority of species settled on two biological sexes? What’s so special about phospholipids that all living cells use them for their membranes? How do ladybugs regulate their temperature? These are just a few of the incredibly complicated biological questions that actually have quite simple mathematical answers, as Cockell demonstrates.

Biologist Kenneth R. Miller tackles questions no smaller than the human intellect itself in his fourth book, The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will. In it, Miller gives a brief but comprehensive summary of the most important scientific and philosophical work aimed at explaining if and how humans have a true and autonomous inner self. As Miller astutely acknowledges, even the language we use to address this question—words like autonomy, individual, thought, perception, intention, awareness, and conscience— cannot be taken for granted. If these words are to have any meaning whatsoever, that meaning must be created in the very instrument they are meant to describe, the human mind. It is not difficult to tie oneself into rhetorical knots while attempting to discuss the nature of consciousness, yet Miller nimbly walks us through the minefield.

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About Skeptic

WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING? COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Health Freedom, Right to Try, and Informed Consent, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: Do You Have Traits or Are You a Type? by Carol Tavris • SPECIAL SECTION ON TACTICS FOR DISCUSSING CONTENTIOUS ISSUES Personhood and Abortion Rights: How Science Might Inform this Contentious Issue, by Gary Whittenberger • How to Teach Evolution to Religious Students, by Surat Parvatam • The Arguments for Creationism and the Arguments for Evolution: A Study in Contrasts, by Ralph M. Barnes • Meeting Our “Enemies” Where They Are: The Advantage of Understanding Your Adversary’s Arguments, by Andrew Cooper-Sansone ARTICLES The Grandest of Questions Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? by Michael Shermer • Reports of Mysterious Attacks on U.S. Diplomats Continue: Separating Fact from Fiction by Robert E. Bartholomew • The God Damners: The Now Not-so-New Atheism by Michael Cohen • Quackery in America: An Inglorious and Ongoing History, by Morton Tavel, M.D. • What Is It like to Be a Human? by Colin McGinn REVIEWS Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress • The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution • The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will • SCAM: So-Called Alternative Medicine • Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life • The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are JUNIOR SKEPTIC Secrets of the Ouija Board, by Daniel Loxton