Books in brief

A Natural History of Human Thinking

Harvard University Press (2014)

In this prequel to his 1999 Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Harvard University Press), developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello argues that human thinking is unique because it is cooperative. He posits that environmental upheavals forced early humans to channel their thinking towards collective aims through two evolutionary innovations: collaboration while foraging, and the rise of culture as population and competition burgeoned. Tomasello convincingly sets out how “shared intentionality”, in which social complexity spawned conceptual complexities, sets us apart.

How Numbers Rule the World: The Use and Abuse of Statistics in Global Politics

Zed Books (2014)

Globally, we love statistics. Indexes and indicators produced by social-science bodies alone number in their hundreds, providing grist for policy mills around the world. In this intelligent study of pervasive quantification, Lorenzo Fioramonti questions its grip on society. Numerical reasoning in overdrive, he argues, can create distorted pictures of real life, amplify the power of markets and sap debate. Packed with cogent analyses of everything from credit-rating agencies to the manipulation of statistics by climate sceptics.

Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History

Princeton University Press (2014)

Ecologist Donald Canfield delivers an engaging and authoritative primer on oxygen, that vital element comprising more than one-fifth of our atmosphere. In tracing its 4-billion-year history, Canfield proffers cutting-edge findings on geological and biological questions from deep time. He explores Earth's 'Goldilocks' status; squeezes into the Alvin deep-diving submersible to muse on life before oxygen; and probes photosynthesis, the rise of oxygenating cyanobacteria, stabilization of atmospheric oxygen, the 'great oxidation event' 2.4 billion years ago, and the ancient links between organisms and O2.

Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know

P. W. Singer and Allan Friedman. Oxford University Press (2014)

The pace of global digitization, and the widespread lack of understanding of related security risks, is a ticking time bomb. Thus argue P. W. Singer and Allan Friedman in this broad-ranging overview of cybersecurity. They start with basics such as software vulnerabilities, then delve into the implications of and solutions to security breaches, touching on hot issues such as resilience and the controversial use of overlay systems that endow online anonymity, such as Tor. If you don't know your asymmetric cryptography from your spear phishing, this is a thoughtful introduction.

Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans

Basic Books (2014)

'Computer business systems' (CBS) are increasingly embraced in finance, business and health care to monitor the performance of employees digitally — to pernicious effect, argues Simon Head. At a time of deepening inequalities in wealth, he writes, such complex digital control of workplace behaviour disempowers those who can ill afford it. Head presents compelling examples of the impacts of CBS at Goldman Sachs, Amazon and Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, among others.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 506, 31 (2014).

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