John Parrington

We're not blank slates

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Kevin Devine and Susan Rosenthal make some valid points about the importance of social environment in the genesis of mental disorder, in their defence of Oliver James’s book Not In Your Genes (Feedback, September SR).

But this doesn’t prevent their “blank slate” view of the mind being not just scientifically flawed, but also potentially reactionary in a political sense.

Hag-Seed

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Margaret Atwood’s new novel is based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The main protagonist is Felix Phillips, former artistic director of the acclaimed Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, a kind of Canadian Stratford-upon-Avon.

Nature, nurture: mind the trap

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Is it the DNA we are born with or our environment that determines how we act? John Parrington, author of The Deeper Genome, looks beyond this false dichotomy to a dialectical approach.

Imagine if someone invented a portable supercomputer that required only the wattage of a light bulb to run, but had the literary imagination of a William Shakespeare or Emily Brontë, the scientific genius of an Albert Einstein or Marie Curie, and the musical talent of an Amadeus Mozart or Billie Holliday. In fact such a computer already exists — it’s called the human brain.

Genes, Cells and Brains

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As the 20th century ended, there were many predictions about what we might expect from the next century but one particularly resonated with policy-makers across the world. It was the claim that whereas the past century had been characterised by advances in physics - the fridge, washing machine, television, computer, but also the atom bomb - the 21st century would be dominated by developments in biology.

Naming Nature

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Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Norton, £12.99

Taxonomy, the classification of living things, does not sound like the most stimulating topic for a popular science book. The term conjures up rows of pickled specimens in musty museum cases, their identities reduced to two words in fading Latin. It is to her credit that Carol Kaesuk Yoon has written about the subject in a way that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Uranium Wars

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Amir D Aczel, Palgrave Macmillan, £18.99

This book is about a substance that languished in obscurity for centuries, yet today is far more sought after than gold. Uranium is the heaviest natural element, heaviness in this case being associated with another property: radioactive instability. This instability makes uranium a potential source of energy for peaceful uses but has also led to it being used to make the most devastating weapons ever created by humanity.

The Last Englishman

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Roland Chambers, Faber & Faber; £20

I was interested in this new biography of Arthur Ransome because of revelations about him that first surfaced in 2005. Ransome is, of course, best known for his Swallows and Amazons children's books that made him as famous in the 1930s as J K Rowling is today. Yet Ransome was also in Russia in 1917, where he wrote one of the best defences of the revolution I have ever read. Indeed, many in the British establishment denounced him as a Bolshevik and enemy of the state. So far so good, except that four years ago MI6 released files purporting to show that Ransome had been on their payroll.

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