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Books in brief

Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind

Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. Twelve 384 pp. $27 (2013)

Do you skydive? Deep-fry? Chain-smoke? Denial of mortality is a strange trait that is also key to human nature, argues medic Ajit Varki. His argument stems from the ideas of late geneticist Danny Brower, who asked why species such as chimpanzees have not evolved to be aware of both self and the minds of others. Varki speculates that such intersubjectivity could only arise in tandem with 'death blindness', as fear would otherwise hamstring a species' fitness. A thoughtful foray into “mind over reality”.

The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced

Oxford University Press 304 pp. £25 (2013)

The puzzling dearth of research on Babylon's Hanging Garden, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, prompted Assyriologist Stephanie Dalley to methodically sift the evidence. Her perusal of cuneiform tablets, rock reliefs and Latin texts yielded research gold, overturning long-held ideas about the creator and location of this vertiginous marvel. From its fantastical landscaping to its advanced irrigation system, the garden emerges as a wonder indeed — of engineering, aesthetics and metaphoric richness.

The Longevity Seekers: Science, Business, and the Fountain of Youth

University of Chicago Press 240 pp. $26 (2013)

A “silver tsunami” is upon us, writes Ted Anton: by 2050, one-third of people in the developed world will be over 60. The time has come to tease out the “molecular tipping points” involved in maintaining geriatric health, Anton avers. Kicking off with molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon — who in 1993 pinpointed a single-gene mutation that doubles the lifespan of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans — Anton reveals a young field already rife with larger-than-life personalities and lab drama aplenty.

Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape

Hamish Hamilton 432 pp. £20 (2013)

Sojourning on several continents to research her bestselling Wild, Jay Griffiths noted big differences between children from indigenous and Western cultures. She now grapples with that riddle, arguing that “human nature is nested in nature which co-creates the child”. Her probings of the meeting point of developing psyche and environment interweave history, anthropology and memoir. But does an urban existence enfeeble the young? What is abundantly clear, yet sidelined in this often brilliant, poetically nuanced work, is the ferocious adaptability of our species and our children.

Billion-Dollar Fish: The Untold Story of Alaska Pollock

University of Chicago Press 288 pp. $25 (2013)

The last time you ate something labelled just 'fish', it might well have been pollock. The flesh of this Alaskan species turns up in fish fingers, sushi and seafood salad. Kevin Bailey, a former senior scientist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, presents the first natural history of this ubiquitous fish and an analysis of its population. Although the market for pollock — worth more than a billion dollars a year in the United States alone — seems buoyant compared with some others, Bailey unveils a familiar tale of steep decline.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 497, 563 (2013).

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