by Michael M. Abrams
The Human Brain Marcus Barbor. Running Press, 1999, $19.95.The Human Body Nick Graham, M.D. Running Press, 1995, $19.95.Dinosaur! David Lambert. Running Press, 1998, $19.95.
If you've ever wanted to show your kids a brain or a gallbladder but couldn't get your hands on a cadaver, you should check out the Science Action Books. These educational kits for children include titles such as The Human Brain, The Human Body, and Dinosaur! Each contains a booklet and a 3-D model for hands-on learning.
The pop-together brain comes in seven durable plastic parts. Judging by the smell, they're probably made of the same stuff as Resusci-Annie, that delectable dummy familiar to anyone who's completed a CPR class. Step-by-step instructions show where to stick the hemispheres of the cerebrum (home of conscious thought), the cerebellum (the muscle command center), the thalamus and the brain stem (in charge of breathing, heartbeat, and other vital functions), the pea-size pituitary gland (director of hormones), and the optic nerves. After the final joy of popping on the blank white eyeballs and decorating them with iris stickers supplied in the book's front pouch, you can display your new brain on the included stand. Now you'll know where to look when you read about how poor Henry M. lost his hippocampus, the seat of short-term memory. Surgeons trying to cure his epilepsy ended up destroying his life: after the surgery, Henry couldn't remember any new event for more than two minutes.
The Human Brain includes a grab bag of devices to demonstrate brain phenomena: 3-D glasses with a 3-D maze, a stereogram, and cards to test for color blindness or find the blind spot where the optic nerve meets the retina. The booklet covers brain basics, with up-to-date MRI and CT scans and tons of facts and pictures. It also offers entertaining suggestions about how to play tricks on the body. For example, put two pins in a cork, blindfold your little sister, push the pinheads against various parts her body, and ask her how many pins she feels. When you poke her on the tip of her finger, where nerve endings abound, she'll identify both pins; in less nerve-rich areas, such as the elbow, she'll swear it's a single point.
Two other recent kits in the series, The Human Body and Dinosaur!, come with fragile skeletons--fun to play with but a pain to put back together. Putty-colored organs and paper muscles fit into a brittle tray meant to be the guy's skin (he seems to be male, judging by the pelvic bones). The top of the skull pops off to reveal a removable brain.
The triceratops of Dinosaur! also has an assortment of organs (which are probably less accurate than the bones, since soft tissue rarely fossilized), including a brain the size of a BB. If you owned both kits, you could toss the dino's brain into the human head, rattle it around, and make him act like a lumbering Mesozoic plant eater.
The Human Body gives an overview of the skeletal, muscular, and cardiovascular systems, with descriptions of the major organs, including the sorts of statistics that eight-year-olds like to impress each other with. Readers will learn, for instance, that "there are 47 miles of nerves in the human body, carrying about 3 million messages a second," and that the heart beats about 40 million times a year. In Dinosaur!, the chapters "Excretion and Reproduction" and "Skin, Scales, and Feathers" make good starting places for any child with a budding interest in ancient earthshakers. But chances are the booklets will be put aside and the brain, human figure, and dinosaur will end up attacking each other in a violent battle under the dining room table.
Woman: An Intimate Geography.Natalie Angier. Houghton Mifflin, 1999, $25.
Do women really have a lackadaisical sex drive compared with men? Are we unambitious, monogamous daughters of the moon, with an inadequate sense of direction? "I am frankly getting sick of how 'science' is pinned to our she-butts like donkey tails and then glued into place with talk of hardheaded realism," writes Angier, a Pulitzer Prize- winning science reporter for the New York Times. She argues that such "fetid cliches" sprout from hidden sexist assumptions in the work of many evolutionary psychologists and gender biologists.
Angier displays her own biases with pride. Her new book, which she calls a "scientific fantasia of womanhood," is frankly, lovingly feminist. It combines lyrical descriptions of the female body with a spirited defense of science done right. Many feminists, unsettled by sexist pronouncements made in the name of science, are tempted to reject the whole discipline. Not Angier--a passionate rationalist, she shows how such misogyny is unscientific and suggests more reasonable interpretations for the evidence.
Her treatment of evolutionary psychology (or "evo psycho," as she calls it) is particularly illuminating. This discipline attempts to use Darwinian evolutionary principles to explain human nature. That's a fine scientific ambition, argues Angier, but she objects to the supposed principles of human nature that its proponents pick. Men, naturally promiscuous, are attracted to youth and beauty, claim some theorists, while women favor stable relationships with rich, high-status men. However self-evident these claims might sound, the evidence for them doesn't hold up when Angier examines it. For example, evolutionary psychologists often cite homosexual mating preferences--gay men, they say, like to have lots of sex with lots of partners, while lesbians tend to form long-lasting monogamous relationships. But as Angier points out, the same theorists sometimes consider gay men extra-masculine and sometimes womanish, depending on which fits their theories better. And surveys in which women report that they want a mate with a good salary could show an innate desire for a sugar daddy. But more likely, they just prove what we know already--that men earn more than women. Someone having trouble making ends meet would naturally value earning power in a mate.
In a chapter called "The Well-Tempered Clavier," Angier rejects several unappealing theories about how the clitoris evolved, such as Stephen Jay Gould's favorite: that it's nothing but a vestigial penis. Instead, she argues, the finicky organ of ecstasy offers women an important evolutionary advantage. By providing orgasms, but only under circumstances in which the woman feels comfortable, the clitoris encourages its owner to seek out sex on her own terms, giving her more control of her offspring's quality and social environment.
Angier devotes several chapters to hormonal systems and body structures like ovaries and breasts. She explores the roles of estrogen and testosterone in the bodies of men, women, and people whose gender lies somewhere in between. She follows a gynecologist harvesting eggs from a donor: under a microscope, they're "as round and as magisterial as the sun." She peers over the shoulder of a surgeon removing the uterus of a woman afflicted with "a huge, purple, ropy fibroid." She visits an expert on vaginal ecology, who explains that a healthy vagina, home to helpful bacteria, is "as clean and pure as a carton of yogurt." She even has affectionate words about the rival sex: "And men, I will set aside my zygotic bias here to say that your sperm are indeed magnificent when magnified, vigorous, slaphappy, whip-tailed tears, darting, whirling, waggling, heading nowhere and everywhere at once, living proof of our primordial flagellar past." Linguistic puritans who believe that the only scientifically valid description is a dry one will find plenty of lush, metaphoric language to cringe at. But they will have a harder time finding flaws in the reasoning. Order from Amazon.com.