Richard Dawkins is an amazing scientist. I have always thought so and this first part in his autobiography trilogy do reinforce my favorable view on Dawkins. His greatness, in my opinion, primarily lies in his unequaled ability to convey science to the general public using a language which should make him eligible for the Nobel prize in literature (seriously!). His book, the selfish gene is probably the book that have meant the most to me personally, all categories, and reading excerpts from it in this book made me remember what a great book it was, and still is. In fact, reading “An appetite for wonder”, made me decide to re-read Dawkins original best-seller (which I am now doing).
Yes, Dawkins is a fantastic writer and scientist, but this book, on the whole, did not live up to my admittedly high expectations. Perhaps others will disagree with me but I am not personally very interested in great people’s childhood, unless it is truly extraordinary. Yes Dawkins grew up in Africa and that was probably interesting, however, I would personally have preferred if this section was significantly shorter or left out.
The book gets more interesting when Richard gets into Balliol college, Oxford. As a University teacher one of my favorite sections of the book was Dawkins description of the education system in Oxford. Their system in which students each week study a new topic by reading up on the scientific literature and try to form hypotheses, and then discuss what they have learnt with tutors who are also leading scientists made me, well… jealous. He claims that students at oxford never asked the question, “will this be on the exam?”, which is a question I get all too frequently…
Following his description of the education system in Oxford a semi-interesting description of his early years in academia follows. The book, in my opinion reaches its climax towards the end when Dawkins discusses and reads excerpts from the Selfish Gene. I realize it may sound nerdy but just hearing a few lines from that book can increase my pulse significantly, and it was interesting to get to understand how the book came about. I was also pleased to find out that, like myself, the great writer Richard Dawkins does not write his book in one go. Rather, every sentence that he writes have been written and re-written many times. Like the natural selection of biological organisms, this way of writing should lead to evolution of better sentences and in the end a better book. This is certainly the case with the Selfish Gene.
First of all, I agree with other reviewers who says that the ~first third of the book is not particularly interesting. Basically the reader learns that Harris early on desired a career on television, and eventually he ended up at abc. Readers who are not specifically interested in Dan Harris could skip this. However I was impressed by Harris frankness concerning own excessive egocentrism, which is a theme present throughout the book.
The best part of the book starts after Harris suffered his panic attack on television. (Out of curiosity I actually went online to check out this panic attack and it did not seem nearly as bad as described in this book). This panic attack, caused in part by Harris use of cocaine, triggers a crisis following which this middle aged man, like so many others, starts to search for meaning. First he has a short flirt the famous gay/anti-gay pastor Ted Haggard, who Harris thinks is crazy but is still kind of impressed by. Even if Dan Harris never seems to seriously contemplate becoming an evangelical, this story about Ted is actually quite entertaining. Harris quickly moves on to self-help Guru’s meetings with, among other, Deepak Chopra. Harris is intrigued by their claims that they never succumb to their own feelings. Yet Harris also observes that for a man who claims to be so immensely “spiritual”, Deepak Chopra seems to care an awful lot about PR and selling stuff. I liked how Harris asks self-help guru’s and spiritual leaders the kind of questions I would ask them like for example “so it doesn’t bother you if you really need to go to the toilet and you can’t?”. Deepak, unlike some more sane people that we meet later, maintains that it doesn’t bother him (yeah right)...
Harris eventually decides that self-help is terrible when it comes to practical advice and moves on. He then finds buddhism. To my surprise, Sam Harris, a renowned skeptic, is one of the people who encourages Dan Harris to learn mindfulness.
The remainder of the book basically describes how Dan Harris gradually buys into meditation, mindfulness and other Buddhists practises. However up until the end Harris maintain at least some distance, and his mantra that he had become 10 percent happier, is sobering and makes the whole story much more believable (unlike say self help gurus who claim to always be at peace). Indeed this title was one of the reasons I even gave this book a chance.
When I bought this book I expected an entertaining description of outlandish wall street traders "flashing" their wealth. While this is indeed one of the books ingredients I realized that I had completely misinterpreted the word "Flash". It refers not to flashing as in showing off, but to flash as in very fast.
The book describes how so called high frequency traders earn money by instantly responding to changes in demand of stocks. Those with sufficiently speedy computers and internet connections can make a profit by essentially jumping ahead in the que, buying a certain stock and then selling it again to the guy who actually wanted it, at a premium. I was surprised to learn that such trades actually accounted for a huge majority of the trades on US stock markets.
The book also have a hero called Brad Katsuyama, founder of the IEX stock exchange. Brad who appears to be a normal and humble, yet smart Canadian fellow noticed how the price of stocks increased whenever he placed an order. Following some detective work, Brad figured out how the high frequency traders profited by abusing the system and he set out to stop this by creating a new stock exchange, immune to the typical tricks employed by the high frequency traders.
The book was thus more limited in scope than I had originally thought. Yet it was both interesting and funny, just as I have come to expect from Michael Lewis. The extent of the measures taken by Wall Street people to improve the speed of their internet by even a few nanoseconds (like paying to have a computer moved within a server facility), was particularly entertaining. The reader will encounter a number of colorful characters and despite the rather technical nature of its subject, the book rarely gets boring or dry
In this book the Swedish professor, Svante Päbo, who is currently running a lab at the Max Planck institute in Leipzig, tells his tale about how he ended up sequencing the Neanderthal genome. It is a well balanced tale which contains just the right mixture of personal details (including that he is bisexual and that he had a long affair with a woman married to a colleague), and science.
To my relief Päbo skips over his early childhood and jumps straight to the time when he studied medicine in Uppsala. Having worked with DNA sequencing Päbo wondered whether DNA could be extracted from old samples. First he tried a cow liver that he had stored in the lab for some time. When he realised that this was no problem obtained tissue from an egyptian mummy (which he had been interested in for some time). Though it involved some difficulties (describes in much detail in the book), Päbo managed to extract DNA from the mummy as well. When he sent his manuscript to a professor at Berkeley, the professor, who did not realize that Päbo had not even earned his PhD, asked if he could not come and spend his sabbatical at Päbo’s laboratory. Since Päbo did not have a laboratory, he ended up going to Berkeley instead.
What impressed me most about Päbo, is how he has managed to pursue one important goal (sequence the Neanderthal genome), for more than two decades. He has approached this goal in a methodical, stepwise manner, so that in retrospect, everything makes sense. Päbo also makes an effort to describe the often advanced methods used to attain his goal. For me (I have a PhD in neuroscience but only superficial knowledge about DNA), the level was just right, however, I think that even readers who have very little prior knowledge can learn a lot.
In parallel with this scientific tale, Päbo describes the Neanderthals and the world they lived in before they went extinct 30.000 years ago. Indeed one of this book's thrills is learning what the discoveries in the laboratory says about the life of our ancestors. Fire example, it was long thought (and still believed by many), that Neanderthals were an inferior race who went entirely extinct. However Päbo's discoveries indicate that Neanderthals were dominant to us and that because of interbreeding between our race and Neanderthals, modern humans actually have some Neanderthal DNA in them (some more than others).This interplay between scientific theory and its implications, methodological developments and what it tells us about our ancestors also makes this one of the best books I have read when it comes to illustrating the scientific process. Despite his success, Päbo at least appears to maintain an all important skeptical attitude towards his own work and he is careful not to make categorical claims when they are not warranted.
All in all the Neanderthal man is an impressive scientific story told by an impressive scientist. I would not be surprised if, in a few years, Päbo receives a well earned Nobel prize.
In Boomerang Michael Lewis tells a number of stories illustrating the folly that was all too common in and around 2008, when the financial crisis hit the world economy. The first scene is Texas, US, where the author meets Kyle Bass, who became famous when he got rich from betting that sub-prime mortgages would go bust, which of course they did in the most spectacular manner. Since then, Bass has moved on to other types of bets, namely bets that nations will go bust. Bas thinks it is an inevitability given the amount of debt nations have accumulated. Indeed, when private businesses such as AIG, and large banks needed bailouts worth hundreds of billions of dollars, nations basically took over the debt. In some countries these bailouts means that the nations, which in the end means the citizens of those nations, have enormous debts. It appears unrealistic that they will ever be able to pay it off, and Kyle Bas bet that they will not.
Following this first encounter which sets the scene, Lewis travels to Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany, before heading back to the state in the US which according to this book is in the most trouble… California. Lewis is a master when it comes to telling stories that are informal and amusing, and yet at the same time illustrates the economic events that lead to the 2008 meltdown of some economies. In Iceland for instance, Lewis meets with a fisherman who, before 2008, realized that he could make more money if they borrowed japanese yen at a 3% interest and used them to buy Icelandic kroner which rose by 16% a year. The resulting wealth of Iceland was insane considering that they only have 300.000 inhabitants. Iceland, via money trickery, became so rich that they were able to buy several of the UKs biggest banks meaning that Iceland had to pay when the bank was in trouble, which of course they could not…
In the last chapter we meet (to my surprise), no other than Mr. Governator i.e., Arnold Schwarzenegger. In describing this encounter, Lewis manages to simultaneously write about Schwarzenegger's maniac style bike rides through intersections with heavy traffic, and California's fiscal policy and potential collapse. After having read this book I see both California and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a new light
While I did learn new things this book did not fundamentally change me or the way I see the world. Still, it is not often you find a book which is as educational and at the same time entertaining, as Boomerang.
This is one of the worst books I have ever read. I bought it hoping that it would provide me with some good reasons for eating meat (which do exist, see for instance the intelligence squared debate called “Don’t eat anything with a face). However, this hope was brutally slayed, something that I realized quite early in the book. The basic argument that the authors try to convey, without any ambition whatsoever to be objective or factual, is that large global, industries in general, and the meat industry in particular, only care about making money and have no interest whatsoever in animal welfare or producing good meat. Small meat industries on the other hand respect their customers, and make sure that their animals live harmonious fulfilling lives meaning among other things that the animals are allowed to have sex before they are slaughtered. Coincidentally the authors are running a “small” old fashioned meat business, and therefore, according to their own logic, are God's gift to us meat consumers. No bias there... (irony). Seriously, it seems that the authors in this book have not progressed from the developmental stage where people are either good or evil.
My hopes were temporarily raised when the authors raised the question why everyone cannot just be vegetarians. Finally, I thought, now they will provide me with the cannon fodder I need to thrash the next vegan that comes along proclaiming meat abstinence (although in the back of my head I knew that this was a very naive hope indeed). I cannot say that I was surprised that their only argument for eating meat is that we have evolved to do so... In other words, it is in our genes to eat meat and therefore it is silly to try and stop people from eating it. This is a silly argument because there are many things we have evolved inclinations towards such as violence, domination over others etc, but who would say that there is no point in trying to stop people from killing each other because we have evolved to do so. The percentage of people who are killed by other people has gone down drastically since humans first evolved and I have no doubt that we could make a society where meat consumption is reduced as well. That is, we do not have to, and often should not, follow our evolutionary instincts. The book says nothing about the nutritional value in meat (which is hard to replace) or maintaining ecological systems or any other rational argument for eating at least some meat. In other words, there are good arguments for eating meat, but you will not find them in this book.
To be completely fair, some of the underlying points the authors are trying to make I think are basically sound. I agree that the meat industry at large have too little respect for animal welfare, and I also think that it is probably good to aim for more quality instead of quantity (though I realize that everyone might not so privileged that they can make this argument). However, the negatives associated with this book by far outweighs the positives. I would not recommend this book to anyone... not even at gunpoint
There are a ton of books out there exploring left/right brain dichotomy. Among them one finds decent science based books, as well as books filled with pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo. With this book I get the sense that the authors have observed that people like to be able to categorize people according to which part of the brain they appear to use the most, and then tried to come up with a novel divide. To their credit the authors do provide arguments for why the top/bottom brain perspective is better than the left/right brain perspective, but I am not convinced. Indeed I was a bit disappointed because when I bought the book I thought that the bottom brain referred to sub-cortical brain regions, such as the limbic system, brain stem, cerebellum etc, but no. One could read this book and not even realize that the brain consists of more than the cerebral cortex (full disclosure: I am a scientist studying the cerebellum).
The story that Stephen Kosslyn is trying to sell is that the dorsal (top) and ventral (bottom) part of the cerebral cortex (the top brain), are to some extent discrete systems performing different tasks, although he is also quick to point out that they constantly work together. There is definitely some truth to the top brain, bottom brain dichotomy. For instance, when we see something we typically use the dorsal stream to analyze movement whereas the ventral stream is used for identification. Still, this book goes way way beyond the evidence.
For example, the authors claim that people rely more heavily on one or both of these systems and depending on which parts of the brain someone uses, he or she is categorized as a mover (top+bottom), stimulator (top), perceiver (bottom), or adapter (context dependent use). It is said that movers are good, both at making plans and observing and adapting to the consequences. Stimulators meanwhile make plans and execute them but are insensitive to the consequences of their plans. Perceivers don’t make much happen but are good at observing what happens around them. To be logically consistent I guess that adapters should be terrible at making plans and terrible at observing what happens around them, but instead it is argued that their top and bottom brain activity is contextually dependent, as if that is not true for all people. I do not know of any evidence to support this idea except that people are different which is hardly a revolutionary observation.
I do not know of any evidence to support this idea except that people are different which is hardly a revolutionary observation. Readers of this book will almost certainly read about the different categories and think that they resemble one category more than the others, but this does not mean that the theory is accurate. People are experts when it comes to confirmation bias. Give people a general astrological description (e.g. in general you like being with people but sometimes you feel shy), and a high percentage will think that it is a good description of their personality. People generally do not seek to falsify such statements.
In sum then, I think that there is a possibility that this book has hit upon an interesting brain dichotomy which we may want to explore further. However, the claims made in this book are very far distanced from the scientific foundation. For the reader who wants a good introduction to the brain I recommend going for Incognito instead.
Even though I have been an atheist for as long as I can remember, I always assumed that a guy named Jesus existed around 0-30 AD in Judea. Of course I never believed that he was resurrected three days after his crucifixion or that he could perform miracles that contradicted the laws of nature. These are clearly just stories made up by those who wished to glorify Jesus. Still, I assumed that there was an actual person to begin with.
David Fitzgerald, through this this relatively short book, changed my mind. It covers an awful lot of material showing the reader that none of the arguments that Christians use to convince others that Jesus was a real person holds up to scrutiny. For example, not a single alleged eyewitness testimony of Jesus was written by an actual confirmed eyewitness. The, gospels were written long after Jesus died, perhaps by as much as a 100 years. Moreover, the writings about Jesus contradict each other, not just on minor details such as what day Jesus died or whether there was or was not a rock in front of his tomb after his resurrection, but also what type of character he was. Was he a humble drawn back son of a carpenter who tried to stay out of the limelight or did he walk around proclaiming to all that he was the son of God?
In addition, Fitzgerald gives many examples of things in the new testament that directly contradicts other more reliable and unbiased sources from the same time. For instance there were several trusted historians writing about events in Judea at the time of Jesus but none of them even mentions him even though according to the new testament he caused quite an uproar. Indeed, of the four gospels only Luke actually claims to be writing history. Astronomers also strangely failed to notice the three days of darkness that texts in the new testament claim happened.
For being such a short book, it is very forceful. I doubt that any readers who believe in Jesus will walk away from this book unaffected.
If, before I actually read this book, someone said to me that I was going to read a collection of novels about the afterlife, and that I would like it, I would have laughed. I don’t believe God exists and I don’t believe in an afterlife (at least not the afterlife people usually have in mind). Moreover, I generally don’t read novels. I read books because I want to learn something about the universe, not merely for pleasure.
So why did I read this book? Well, it was short, and more importantly, it was written by David Eagleman, the neuroscientist who wrote Incognito, which, in my opinion is one of the best popular neuroscience books I have read. Because I had read Incognito I also knew that Eagleman does not have a tendency to express strange beliefs. Rather, like myself, Eagleman at least appears to subscribe to philosophical materialism, i.e. he is not a dualist. In addition, Sum, has received rave reviews, so in the end I thought what the heck, I’ll give it a try… and I am very happy that I did.
The ambition of this book is not to provide an accurate scientific account of the likely scenarios that will take place when we eventually die, rather it is a collection of entirely hypothetical stories about what could happen in the afterlife. Some of them appear more likely than others, but almost all of them are in some way entertaining and above all, they are very thought provoking. Indeed I might even go as far as to say that it has made me consider the thought of an afterlife. Again I don’t mean the kind of afterlife where the soul escapes the body and travels to a bright peaceful heaven (and I guess that I would more likely end up in hell anyway), but some other form of afterlife. For example, in one novel in this book, you live on in the sense that a computer terminal continues to produce letters from you, answer emails, send happy birthday wishes, to your kin and to others, long after you actually died. This type of afterlife is entirely possible and even with my limited skills I could probably make my own computer act as if I was alive when I am dead (whether one would want this is a different question).
Another novel that is perhaps less plausible, but not as implausible as the biblical option, is that we actually live twice. The life that everyone live now is the first life which occurs when the universe is expanding. The second life comes when (or if), the universe contracts, causing time to go in the opposite direction. In your second life you are born out of the ground like an old man or woman and everyone will be crying and speaking about everything you are going to do in your life. The relationships in which you engage will often start with a fight and then gradually become more emotional and intense until it ends in an ecstatic sexual encounter, after which you will simply forget your partner and move on… I kind of doubt whether this will happen although according to some models of the universe a contraction phase is a possibility and since time is just a dimension of space it is not inconceivable that time will move in the opposite direction. In any case, just picturing your life in reverse is an interesting thought experiment.
These are just two examples out of a total of 40 short novels describing different scenarios that play out when we die. Because they were short and thought provoking I rarely lost interest. One of my favorite novels, in this collection, describes a future where you will be able to upload an exact replica of your brain onto a computer. This computer can then run any simulation you choose. Want to live like James Bond, with fast cars, and beautiful women, and frequent near death experiences? Not a problem. You will be able to live in this matrix for as long as the computer will run. Although in this particular scenario, the scientists were wrong about the soul (they just assumed that it would tag along, but it didn’t).
In short, this is a collection of fantastic, imaginative novels, that will make you giggle and make you think.
I can't remember how but when I was 16 I came across this book and it changed my life. The title of Dawkins biography is "An appetite for wonder", and this appetite is no where more apparent than in this book (I have read most of his books). It is a wonderful introduction to the theory of evolution by natural (and sexual) selection, behavioral ecology, and the wonders of nature. At the same time it serves as a terrific example of first rate scientific reasoning. The writing is clear and fluid and extremely elegant. In his autobiography Dawkins admits that every sentence has been rewritten multiple times. Those that have survived this selection process really deliver. Every sentence seem to fill a purpose and yet, rarely does one feel that information is in some way lacking. This book, when it came out in the late seventies, influenced the general public and academics alike. It changed how academics thought about genes and evolution, and it introduced the meme, which has subsequently entered our dictionaries.
As I have said elsewhere, this book really is a literary masterpiece. The fact that it also teaches science to the reader is an added benefit that makes this book one of the best and most important ever written.
The book has a very good structure. At no point does it feel as if new concepts are introduced inappropriately. Dawkins begins by slowly and carefully introducing the replicator concept. In the widest sense a replicator is, as the name implies, something that replicates itself. This can be a mineral shape, a computer virus or a molecule such as RNA or DNA. It is inevitable that a replicator that produce more copies or copies that are more durable will become more prominent in the population. And so it is with our genes. The genes that exist in humans that are alive today are descendents of a very long series of genes that outperformed other genes. To achieve this success the genes have used many different tricks. Primary among these is cooperation with other genes to construct vehicles such as a plant or an animal that can both protect the genes and pass them on. Humans are thus "merely" vehicles created by genes for the benefit of genes (though in another sense we are of course much more than that).
Dawkins carefully builds from this starting point and reaches startling conclusions about many different aspects of nature and evolution. Why did sex evolve and why do the different sexes differ to a greater or a lesser extent in different species? Why are males in general more aggressive? Why do we cooperate? Does altruism exist? How did sterile ants evolve? Whatever he is discussing, Dawkins always provides illustrative examples from nature and when he use metaphors he is (unlike many others) always careful to translate those metaphors back into the language of replicators. The Selfish Gene also derives some of its fame from the fact that it introduced the meme concept. A meme, Dawkins suggested is like a gene in that it can replicate itself, typically via language or imitation. Successful memes (think viral youtube clips) will spread throughout population of less successful memes in the same way that successful genes spread, however, for memes the sexual reproduction of its host matters little. Rather, the success of a meme is determined by its ability to make its host share the idea with others. The meme concept is now in most dictionaries.
Throughout the book Dawkins is careful to point out that even though we are products of evolution and as a result have many instincts that are not always very noble, that does not mean that it is in anyway good or moral to follow ones evolutionary inclinations. Indeed if we understand human instincts we may be better able to construct societies that combat our caveman instincts.
Letter to a Christian nation, as the title suggests, is written as a letter to a Christian nation i.e. the United States. The reader should not expect to find any original critique. What makes this book special is Sam Harris ability to deliver arguments in an extremely forceful and clear way.
He begins the book with some important premises which many religious people simply do not think about or have repressed. For instance, either God exists or he doesn't. If the Christian God exists (as he is described in the bible) then the Muslims are wrong and the other way around. Indeed if the Christians and the bible is correct then all Muslims (and Hindu, Buddhists, pagans etc) will go to hell.
If you believe that the bible is the word of God then you must believe the above and you must also advocate the stoning of people who work on Sundays etc. Ok, you say, but we shouldn't take it literally, fine, but then how do we interpret it, and how do we know which interpretation is the right one? Also if a divine being wrote the Bible is it too much to expect him to reveal a few secrets about the universe, like how to cure cancer or how electricity work or whatever. It seems that whoever wrote the bible did not know more than the average person at the time the bible was written. It would also have been nice if God or Jesus had said that slavery was wrong instead of letting us reach that interpretation two millennia (and many many slaves) later.
This was just one example out of a dozen or so arguments that Harris brings up suggesting that God does not exist or that if he does he is not a very nice creature. Because it is short, clear and very accessible this ranks among the best books I have read in this category. Highly recommended.
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