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A call to infuse scientific knowledge into the human experience

COLD SPRING HARBOR, N.Y. In a provocative new book, distinguished geneticist and historian Elof Axel Carlson argues for a more scientific view of human nature, one that is based on our biologyour cellular organization, genetics, life cycle, and evolution.

[M]ost of humanity has an outmoded and inadequate perception of human life that is better suited for living in the first or second millennium, writes Carlson in the Preface to the book, which is entitled Neither Gods Nor Beasts: How Science is Changing Who We Think We Are and is published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

Traditional views of human nature focus on the supernatural, defining us as creatures with souls and spirits that transcend our physical attributes. As Carlson points out, little scientific knowledge has been accumulated about the physical worldliving or nonlivinguntil very recently in human history.

Today, we are engulfed in new scientific knowledge that, I believe, is changing who we think we are, Carlson writes. Armed with this knowledge, he challenges individual readers to re-think how they perceive themselves. He also asks educators, the media, and public policy makers to enrich our human experience by integrating science more fully into our lives.

The book is divided into three sections. In Part 1, Humanity in a Prescientific Universe, Carlson summarizes historical views of human nature and explores what he calls our biological illiteracy. Part 2, Confronting and Recognizing Our Biology, describes the current science of how our brains work, how the genes encoded by our DNA as well as our environment dictate much of who we are, and how the cell functions as the fundamental unit of life. He points out, however, that this scientific interpretation of ourselves does not negate our capacity for imagination, spiritual and emotional yearnings, or aesthetic appreciation for art, music, and literature.

The question of How Should We Perceive Humanity in the Third Millennium is the focus for Part 3. Here, Carlson describes how we should integrate science more fully into our understanding of human nature and how, this in a practical way, this approach will enable us to celebrate our humanity and to lead more enriching and fulfilling lives on both the personal and global levels. According to Carlson, the biological contribution to our understanding of the human condition gives us the knowledge we need to engage in civilization without wrecking our environments or imperiling opportunities to use our talents.

Carlson has a strong commitment to undergraduate teaching, and in the book, emphasizes the importance of how science is taught from grades K through 12 and during the first four years of college. Here, he advocates a closer relation of the world views of the liberal arts and the sciences so we can have better informed legislative representatives, better informed citizens, and a shift in priorities to give us a view of our humanity that is healthier, safer, more enlightened, and more thrilling to contemplate.

Neither Gods Nor Beasts will be of interest to professional scientists, philosophers, psychologists, and other academics, as well as lay persons who are interested in human nature, ethics, our perceptions of ourselves, and the distinction between science and the supernatural.


Contact: Ingrid Benirschke
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

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