Selected work


longer features & essays

Die, Selfish Gene, Die, Aeon, December 2013. For decades, Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene’ metaphor let us see evolution more clearly. Has it begun to blind us?

Genetics: The Rite Of Passage. Slate, 27 October 2013On the humbling of genetics, and how the field is like Michelangelo’s David.

The Social Life of Genes, Pacific Standard, Sept 2013. Our genomes, it appears, react with particular sensitivity to social experience, and for good reason. Winner of the 2014 AAAS/Kavli Award in Magazine Writing. Selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2015.

Restless Genes, National Geographic (cover story), January 2013. How genes, culture, and time made us explorers. Selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2014.

The Beauty of the Teenage Brain, National Geographic (cover story), September 2012.  Believe it or not, adolescence is adaptive. Selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2013.

A Depression Switch?, New York Times Magazine – An experimental brain surgery works remarkably well, raising questions about the nature of depression. Selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2007.

Buried Answers  New York Times Magazine. The autopsy’s death is killing us. Selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing. 2006.

The Gregarious Brain, New York Times Magazine.  A simple genetic deletion reveals much about the nature of human sociability.


shorter reports & essays

Terrible Twos Who Stay Terrible, New York Times, 16 Dec 2013.  “Dangerous criminals don’t turn violent. They just stay that way.”

The F.D.A. vs. Personal Genetic Testing. The New Yorker online, 27 Nov 2013. How 23andMe came a cropper.

Genes Aren’t Just Architects; They’re Actors, Neuron Culture, 27 August 2013. On expanding our view of what genes are up to.

Clues in the Cycle of Suicide, New York Times, 24 June 2013. It may seem perverse that the period of spring and early summer should contain what Kay Redfield Jamison calls “a capacity for self-murder that winter less often has.” Yet it does.

Why Autopsy Gandolfini? Death Is Certain; Its Cause Is Not, Nautilus, 21 June 2013. Why would you autopsy someone when you know how they died? Because there’s a good chance you don’t.

David Dobbs on science writing: ‘hunt down jargon and kill it’, The Guardian, 19 April 2013. On writing.

Elsevier and Mendeley: Why the Science-Journal Giant Bought the Rebel Start-Up, The New Yorker online, 12 April 2013. When scholarly publishing behemoth Elsevier gobbled up London software start-up Mendeley earlier, many Mendeley users felt as if the Galactic Empire had coöpted the Rebel Alliance. Can the Rebel Alliance change the Empire from inside?

If Intelligence Is the Norm, Stupidity Gets More Interesting, New York Times.  Maybe we should stop thinking about the genetics of intelligence, and think about the genetics of stupidity instead.

 How Play Made Us Great, New York Times, 22 April 2013. How play makes us great.

Social Environment Steers the Effects of Trauma, New York Times. Maybe the ‘trauma’ in ‘traumatic event’ is not the event, but the social response to it.

Kill Whitey. It’s the Right Thing to Do, WIRED, 15 Sept 2010. What’s the least evil choice: To kill a guy named Tyrone Payton to save the lives of the New York Philharmonic, or to kill a guy named Chip Ellsworth III to save the lives of the Harlem Jazz Orchestra?

A Musician Who Performs With a Scalpel, New York Times. A musical surgeon tries soothing post-surgical pain with Mozart. It works.

Trial and Error: On the Fallibility of Science, New York Times Magazine.  Most new scientific findings are wrong. What this means.

Exquisite Wisdom Can Be Hard to Follow, Medium. A Q&A on how I write.

Play That F**king Little Sixteenth NoteNeuron Culture. The best thing I ever learned from a teacher.



Christine Kenneally’s “Invisible History of the Human Race”,  Cover review, New York Times Sunday Book Review, 16 Oct 2014.

Of Christine Kenneally’s father’s father — a man neither Kenneally nor her father ever knew, a man who did the deed requisite to reproduction and promptly vanished — she asks, “Did he leave anything more significant than the loud bang of a door shut down the generations?” Of course he did. He left his DNA and a granddaughter determined to draw from modern genetics and hard-won family history a coherent account of her roots.

The Fault in Our DNA, The New York Times Book Review, 10 July 2014.  My review of Nicholas Wade’s “deeply flawed, deceptive and dangerous book,” A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, and Sharon Moalem’s much more constructive look at rare genetic conditions, Inheritance: How Our Genes Changes Our Lives and Our Lives Change Our Genes.

A Trudge to the Roots of Autism, New York Times, 13 May 2013. On Temple Grandin’s The Autistic Brain.

Psychiatry: A very sad story, Nature, 2 May, 2013. On Greenberg’s raucous account of the making of the DSM-5. Nature version is paywalled. Archive at Neuron Culture is free.

Madness, Genius, and Sherman’s Ruthless March, WIRED, 13 Feb 2012. Can madness generate a sort of genius? Nassir Ghaemi’s A First-Rate Madness — or more to the point, William Tucumseh Sherman — has me almost convinced.

Smile: The Astonishing Destructive Power of Positive Thinking, Download the Universe, 28 Feb 2012.

I don’t mean to be cruel. I’m actually fairly smiley myself. But this book, which as a TED book is supposed to be about “a powerful idea,” is a fatty concoction of neuropop, adventure travel, self-help, California woo, and Palo Alto entrepreneurial gush. It pushes positive thinking across some mathematical warp zone that renders it negative. I suspect it would make even the father of positive thinking, Norman Vincent Peale, just fwow wight up.

2 responses

  1. In My Mother’s Lover you state that over 20,000 marines died taking Iwo Jima. No doubt others have written to inform you that the total US dead were around 6,800 and that dead and wounded were over 20,000. I really enjoyed this story. Thank you for sharing it with the world.

    • Ben,

      Thanks for this correction. The Atavist forwarded me your email as well, and we are posting a correction soon. Near as I can make out, somewhere in the path from research to publication I transformed 20,000 casualties to 20,000 fatalities. We’re correcting the story to reflect that the Battle of Iwo Jima killed almost 7,000 U.S. soldiers and some 19,000 Japanese defenders. A huge loss, a small part, alas, of the savage war in the Pacific.

      Thanks very much for the correction, and I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

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