Lots of good history in this, but the author connects everything Stalin has done to his ideology as a Marxist. At the end, he says that there is discussion as to whether Stalin was a sociopath, but he basically argues that every bad thing that happened was due to Socialism and Communism and that otherwise, Stalin would have been, say, a particularly stern economics professor or something.
This is inadequate to say the least. Compare this to a cult leader who follows a narrative to the T and then implodes as the falsity of the narrative emerges in varied ways. He ends up killing his own people or himself or both and it all collapses. Ideology alone does not create the sort of lasting power monger and military force that Stalin was. There's much more to it than that - a reason why ideology speaks to a person. Compare this to "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," which has a thorough understanding of Hitler, his childhood, his personal relationships and his early megalomaniacal ambitions, as opposed to just saying "well, he's an anti-Semite and that explains it all."
The author also tries to marry all dictators in WWII to the Communist worldview, while later acknowledging that Hitler and Mussolini persecuted Socialists and Communists. The ideological bias and agenda is clear throughout the book, interrupting the flow of the narrative to reiterate that Marxism caused everything bad that happened.
So compared to other historical biographies, the author seems to accept "he's a communist so he was evil" as the primary understanding of Stalin in a way that does not address the psychological ego and will it takes to starve millions of your own people. I would think that a different biography would provide a more specific view of the man, rather than a critique of all Marxism disguised as a biography of one person. (The straw man "Marxism" at that).
The book provides a fascinating discussion of science and the way that evolution informs belief. It almost becomes vital reading... until Part 2. An audible review does not allow for a full rebuttal of the 2nd half of the book. But Shermer almost wholeheartedly undermines his project by spending one chapter mistaking political science, a soft science, for geology or physics, or hard sciences, and then extending those arguments throughout the rest of the book.
The fallacious basis of the chapter is his argument that "liberal" and "conservative" are labels that evolved organically and can be identified as existing throughout the world, based upon evolutionary concepts about the way we understand society, thereby giving the labels the same weight as a scientific formula. From that, he argues that liberal bias has been proven in news media (but pays no attention to prominent arguments refuting this - Noam Chomsky's work on this issue comes to mind). And towards the end of the chapter, he presents the case for libertarianism.
But he never reconciles the problems with his own categories. For example, he identifies "liberalism" with socialism, but he does not deal with the connection of libertarianism to conspiracy theory about banking, with which it is so closely aligned (and which he attacks earlier in the text). He also creates a straw man understanding of what a "socialist" is so he can argue against welfare. But he does not acknowledge how government help for its citizens is welfare to some and free market incentive to others, depending upon their social class (another concept that he does not identify at all in his discussion of evolution and politics, reflecting an American bias). He makes no mention of how the understandings we have of political narratives are conditioned by partisan think tanks and political parties, nor by his own American-ness. He argues that the evolution of a two party system in the US reflects the way that humans understand political organizations, but he does not deal with how other Western countries allow for more diversity or how many differences (and degrees of "liberal" and "conservative") exist within those countries, thereby negating the rigidity of his own labels. He does acknowledge that "of course exceptions exist" to the categories that roughly define those two labels, but he deals neither with how those exceptions might betray his argument nor with the pervasiveness of those exceptions within society.
I'll stop here (there's much more to critique!). But to sum up, he entwines unfortunate talk-radio style rhetoric with otherwise solid scientific exploration. His arguments become deontological, rather than evidence-based (which he ironically argues is necessary later in the book). What evidence he does present in this chapter seems cherry picked. Furthermore, he offers no masterful understanding of the opposing political views in his book, such as the anti-colonial critics of Western liberalism in economics that might challenge his libertarian views, before dismissing them. (see "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism" by Naomi Klein for one strong rebuttal that might address his epilogue about Hispanola). Doing so might give this chapter the same kind of weight that the rest of his arguments against aliens and religious narratives carry. Instead, the method used to argue in this chapter, as well as its substantive content, both weaken his greater arguments and employ the fallacies and methods that he critiques elsewhere. This performative contradiction was so alarming that I almost did not finish my listening. (For a much clearer understanding of connections between evolution, human culture and the development of social dynamics in human society, see "Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality" by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha [also on audible]. This book also negates Shermer's dismissal of Hillary Clinton's argument from "It Takes a Village.")
Finally, you can hear him shuffling his papers and turning pages into the microphone throughout the his performance of the audiobook. This was very distracting.
It takes lots of actual practice to master something. It also takes opportunities that are not in our control. So basically, Gladwell is trying to prove Calvinism (hard work + predestination). Pinpointing the web of circumstances that leads to success is something that we obsess over as a culture and Gladwell provides a very interesting analysis of how this works. But I do not feel like I heard any revelations here that I did not learn from my father when he encouraged me to get internships as an undergraduate.
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