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.
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.
I was, I must admit, relieved when I came to the end of this rather long book. Hillary Clinton is a powerful politician and she is in many ways a role model, given her accomplishments and given that she is a woman in a world where female politicians are rarely taken seriously. Still, it was noticeable that this book was written by a diplomat, a diplomat who is still an active politician and who may try to become president in the next election (she said she did not know whether she would run).
A central tenet she tries to bring forth is that nations should be able to cooperate on some issues even if they disagree on other issues. Of course to suggest otherwise would be radical. Image that the US cut all ties with China because they do not like their handling of human rights issues. Still, as a reader you want something a bit more juicy (or is it just me). I don’t want to hear that they are slightly about Russia and that they wish communication will improve in the future. I also could not tell you what Hillary really thinks about the conflict in Gaza, even though she spends many pages on this conflict. She certainly thinks it is a bad idea that Israel launches military offensives into Gaza, but at the same time she thinks that every nation have a right to defend themselves when attacked… What would Hillary do about this conflict if she became president? This book will not provide you with an answer (except that she wants a two-state solution).
What I want from an ex-secretary of state is details about “personal” communications with foreign leaders, and stronger stances on issues. Indeed there is such content in this book, just not enough considering that the book is more than 600 pages long. Still, what did I expect from an active politician who will not want to burn any bridges in case she becomes president?
This book is about pleasure, but equally it is about essentialism. I would even argue that this book is more about essentialism than pleasure (guess the title would not have been as catchy). Essentialism refers to our tendency to look beyond appearances and try and see the essence of things. Is that really the cigar that Freud smoked or is it just an “ordinary” cigar? (It really makes a big difference to us). The central tenet of this book is that we derive pleasure from our beliefs about the essence of things. While this is no doubt true I think it confines the book that pleasure is discussed only within this framework. For instance, I cannot see how essentialism can explain why we feel pleasure when taking cocaine (I think).
To introduce the concept of essentialism, and in extension, pleasure, Paul Bloom sets out with one of the most hilarious anecdotes I’ve heard. Hermann Göring, the commander of Nazi Germany’s air force was not a particularly kind man. One of his better known quotes was “My measures will not be crippled by any bureaucracy. Here I don't have to worry about Justice; my mission is only to destroy and to exterminate; nothing more”. However, apart from destroying and exterminating things Göring was also a passionate arts collector and at one point he bought an expensive Vermeer painting from a dutch painter called Van Megren. After the war Van Megren was accused of selling art to Nazis, but to everyone’s surprise Van Megren showed that the painting was a fake (by drawing another copy). How did Göring react to these news? According to one contemporary account "[Göring] looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.
What is the point of this story? The point is that though it really should not matter to anyone whether a painting is fake if one cannot tell that it is fake, it does. It matter to us a great deal. How we experience something depends on our beliefs. This holds true not only of art but also of music, water, food, wine, t-shirts etc. fMRI scans show that the brain activity of people when they are eating a certain item, differs depending on what they believe they are eating. This suggest that our beliefs about something really do influence our experience at a basic perceptual level. Our brains can process the same sensory input in different ways depending on beliefs. Indeed when tested in a blind test people are unable to distinguish pate from dog food and white wine from red wine.
Paul Bloom goes through many different areas in life from where we drive pleasure. These subjects include but are not limited to sex, alcohol, cannibalism, imagination, watching TV, reading etc. Bloom is a master when it comes to finding illustrative and entertaining examples and anecdotes to drive home his point which consistently seem to be that we get pleasure from what we believe is the essence of things.
As I have already mentioned I would have liked a broader discussion of pleasure. I would also have liked a longer discussion about the concept of pleasure and how it is different from say happiness. This should have been no problem for Bloom because he gives excellent lectures on the topic of happiness at Yale. As I have already hinted at I would also have liked a deeper discussion about the more philosophical aspects surrounding pleasure. Too often Bloom gets lost in admittedly entertaining anecdotes and then forgets to sum up the lessons that can be learned from these anecdotes.
However, overall “How pleasure works” is a good book that is almost certain to give the reader food for thought as well as a good laugh. Bloom is an entertaining writer and speaker (I do recommend his lectures which can be found on Yale’s homepage), and even though I have a BSc in Psychology I learned many things and I got a thorough introduction to essentialism.
This book begins with a collection of 100 reasons why religion, generally speaking, stinks. Almost all reasons given fall into one of the three following categories: 1) Religious people behaving badly (ex systematic child molesting) 2) Religious people receiving special treatment (ex people excused because they've dice something for religious reasons and 3) non religious people being discriminated against (ex can't get elected president). These 100 reasons are presented in a rather haphazard unstructured way. Moreover, because 100 reasons are presented in a short amount of space, don’t expect any depth of analysis. Most reasons are just 1-4 sentences. To take a few examples:
Atheists are angry because…
- 53 percent of Americans don’t want an atheist president
- Because the catholic church protected child rapists from being prosecuted
- 40% of Utah homeless people are outcast gays
- That polite atheists are deemed intolerant
- Writing about your atheist opinion can [in some countries] result in death
To be fair to G.Christina, she does acknowledge that her list is unstructured and that there is a lot more to all of the arguments. The list I suppose could be seen more as a starting point for further discussions. It also provides many reminders for atheist readers such as myself about all the things that are wrong with religion.
Beyond the list, the book provides answers to some frequently asked questions that are typically directed at atheists, such as “isn’t atheism just another religion?”, or “why do you not make a clear distinction between moderate religious practitioners and fundamentalists?”. As such this book can provide interested readers with a somewhat shallow overview explaining why atheists don't like religion. However, compared to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (which is probably trumped by other books), this is an inferior book in almost every respect. The God Delusion does everything that this book does, only better, and it is also more well written. The one advantage that this book have is that it is shorter. So, if you have a tight schedule this book might be an alternative. However, even in the short introduction to atheism category, a better alternative is Sam Harris book, letter to a christian nation which drives home the same points in a more powerful and coherent way.
This book describes what happened in western Mexico (later the United States) between approximately 1845 and 1865. The United States sought to expand their territory so that it would stretch from the Atlantic ocean to the Pacific ocean, but Mexico stood in the way. In the resulting conflict Kit Carson, the protagonist in this book, rose to prominence.
The title and the setting made me think that this book would be full of exhilarating action. Sure enough there was some action but there was a lot of drawn out stories in between, some of which were superfluous. While Kit Carson is the protagonist the reader will also learn about Narbona, the famous leader of the Navajo, general Kearny who lead the american army against the mexicans, as well as a number of other surrounding characters. The fact that the book is temporally organized means that the books jumps around a lot between the different characters.
Still despite the hap-hazard feel sometimes associated with this book, there are also some buried gold-grains. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the history of California. It is an astonishing fact that only a 150 years ago it was a sparsely inhabited and dangerous desert. I was also fascinated by the description of the Indians and how they thought and felt when they encountered the modern american military.
For the reader that seeks an in depth description of the main characters in the Mexican war, including their pre war biographies, this book is a good option. For me, it was too long.
Having taken a university course in astronomy and astrophysics I did not expect to learn much from this book. Instead I thought that this would be a good rehearsal of the things I had learned previously. I was therefore surprised, in a good way, that this book taught me many things that I did not know. Even though it only deal with relatively basic concepts in astronomy (the book can really be read by everyone), it goes into a lot of detail and Phil Plait really tries to help the reader grasp the basic concepts.
For instance while I know that there are tides and that they have something to do with the moon, I did not know that there are two tides per day, and why it is so. I also knew that seasons are linked to the angle with which sunlight hits a particular part of earth, but the full story is, as you will learn if you read this book, more complex than that.
As Phil Plait writes in this book, many people seem to know things that aren’t true, and astronomy is no exception to this. Journalists and movie directors should take some blame for this given that they promote astrology ahead of astronomy and given that movies all too frequently get the science all wrong. The reader of this book will enhance their bullshit detector when it comes to sci-fi movies, and who doesn’t love the person who points out all the errors in a movie :). Just to take one example, space ships cannot make sounds in space because there is no molecules that sound can propagate through...
This book is for people who know nothing about astronomy and for those who think they know everything about astronomy.
I thought long about whether I should give this book 4 or 5 stars because there were certain aspect of the book that I did not like. Some central assertions were based almost entirely on anecdotes. I realize that it is a powerful way to drive home your message, but it can also be disingenuous - appealing to people’s emotion. I was also not very pleased with Cain’s description of the neuroscience. She made it seem as though the almond sized amygdala was all there was in the brain and that whether or not this part of the brain lit up under certain circumstances was all important. Yes, yes, I am a cerebellar scientist and am therefore probably overreacting here, but I would have preferred that the neuroscience was left out instead of receiving this very biased account.
Ok, enough of the bad stuff. I did after all give this book 5 stars (which is rare for me). The reason for this is that this book is one of few books I have read in my life that really made me see things, especially myself, in a new light. While I consider myself to be a rather social person who gets along with others I also have many introvert traits. During my time at University I really did not like the weekends because I felt that I had to go out and drink and dance not to be considered strange. I have also always been a little bit ashamed that I can be a “coward”. At least that is how I would have described it to myself before reading this book. Now I prefer to use the terms cautious. I am also a highly adaptable person and I can to some extent transform my behavior based on the circumstances. Again, before reading this book I saw this as being a disingenuous person. After all, you should be who you are and stand up for your ideals no matter what the circumstances, right? While I used to think this I do not anymore. It would be absolutely terrible if everyone spoke their mind all the time. The world needs people who can work in different circumstances, people like me. I guess what I am trying to say in this paragraph is that before I read this book I had consciously and unconsciously bought the extrovert ideal that is so prevalent in our society. I had seen all my introvert traits as weaknesses that I had to combat and conceal. This book made me see that these traits can work to my advantage and it helped me find the proper middle ground where I can better assess my own personality, my strengths and my weaknesses. If you are also an introvert or have introvert kids I really really think you should read this book!
Overall the book is well structures, easy to read and of a good length. Cain starts out by describing the extrovert ideal. To drive this message home (though I think it is a fairly obvious point) she describes a day at a Tony Robbins event where everyone is dancing, speaking with deep confident voices, doing high fives and walking on coal etc. Cain, who is an introvert feels awkward under these circumstances (as would I), and she is not ashamed of it. She states what should be obvious but strangely isn’t, that the world needs people with different qualities. Indeed, under certain circumstances it is better to be more quiet and less assertive. According to studies Cain describes bosses with highly skilled employees are better of if they are introverts, probably because being more quiet allows them to better harvest the qualities and ideas of the employees. Cain also talks about the power of working alone. As one illustrative example, take brainstorming which is normally done in small groups. Actually studies show that you get a better brainstorm if people are allowed to come up with ideas on their own which are later pooled. In certain situations, a group of people can be a constraint rather than a benefit. She also brings up several examples which have been founded by introverts such as Apple, Microsoft, and Google. Though these are huge companies it is hard to tell whether these examples are representative of the overall picture. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that qualities such as cautiousness, empathy and conscientiousness can be very good qualities to have in some companies. Cain suggests that in some cases introverts can even hold aggressive stances in negotiations because they are less likely to antagonize the other part the way an extrovert outspoken person might.
In the remainder of the book Cain writes about the nature nurture debate (it bothered me that she seems to presume that free will exists, but I forgive her), and about different examples where temperament mattered (ex Wall street crash). The last three chapters serve as a type of guide to introverts and to parents of introverts. What types of conflicts tend to happen between introverts and extroverts and how should these be solved? What strategies can introverts use to avoid falling off the earth altogether? To what extent do you push your introvert child to do extrovert things such as hold presentations? Cain suggest sensible answers to all of these questions and I think that many people would benefit from reading this, and they are genuinely encouraging to introverts and parents of introvert children. I found it encouraging for instance that introvert children are influenced by their parents more than extrovert children. Thus introvert children will benefit more from good parenting than extrovert children (which is nice to know if you are indeed a good parent).
‘Genghis Khan is generally considered to be one of the most blood thirsty conquerors to ever have lived. According to many sources, including The better angels of our nature by Steven Pinker, the Mongol wars resulted in about 40 million deaths which, if accurate, would make it the bloodiest conflict in history, per capita. Yet the author of this books points out that if this statistic is accurate, each member of the relatively small mongol army would have had to kill 100 persons each (on average), which seems unlikely. Rather, the author argues, the reputation that the mongols have received is in large part a testimony of historians biased against the mongols. Make no mistake, the Mongols were formidable and sometimes ruthless conquerors, however they were also in many ways efficient and sometimes fair rulers.
Take for example the fact that the Genghis and the mongol tribes, unlike so many other armies, were kind to those who surrendered to them without a fight. They usually offered everyone the chance to leave their army and join theirs instead. This was almost certainly a contributing factor to their success. I was also genuinely surprised by the claim that Genghis Khan was the first leader to announce that he as a ruler did not stand above the constitution that he put in place. It is not made clear whether this was actually fulfilled but just the announcement is pretty radical at the time.
Although Genghis Khan is indeed the protagonist, this book span a much wider piece of history. In the first part of the book we get to follow the fate of young Temujin, which was Genghis birth name. Unfortunately, one must doubt the honesty of the documents that this part of the story relies on. Information about Temujin’s childhood is mainly obtained from a book known as the secret history which did not appear to have the ambition to be historically accurate. It is as much a history book as it is a work of propaganda. In any case no one seems to dispute that after years of conflict with other mongol leaders Temujin became the leader of all the mongol tribes. Having attained this power, Temujin, now Genghis, stopped kidnappings and wars within Mongolia. This was of course bad news for the rest of the continent because when the mongols were no longer fighting each other but rather looked at their neighbours...
In the second part of the book we get to follow Genghis campaigns into what is now northern China, and into the muslim empire. He was of course a master general, and even though he was often outnumbered he prevailed in battle after battle. One of his strengths was that he did not abide by any type of honor system. To break a siege he occasionally pretended to withdraw his forces, leaving valuable goods outside the wall of the previously besieged city. When the enemy forces opened their gates to collect the bounty, he came in with a surprise attack together with his swift horsemen.
Because I always imagined Genghis to be a genocidal maniac I was also surprised when the book stated that towards the end of his life Genghis admitted that he had not been as succesfull in peace as in war. He told his sons that a leader could only be happy if their people was happy. His sons however would not listen because they were obsessed with the approaching power struggle.
In the remainder of the book we get to follow how Genghis sons and grandson make new war campaigns invading a huge landmass spanning all the way into western Europe (where the Jews were blamed for their invasion). In the end however, the Mongols returned from these campaigns with very little.
One thing I liked with this book was that after having described the story of Genghis and his successors the author explains how the Mongols got their reputation which is still with us today. Influential people, such as Voltaire, created Mongol stereotypes that were not particularly flattering.
All in all I think that this is a good book if you are interested in getting an overview of the Mongol empire and what it meant to the world at the time as well as today. Be prepared to learn that Genghis was a human being (not a monster), and as a human being he had flaws as well as good traits. I think that after having read this book I no longer bundle him with ruthless dictators such as Hitler or Stalin. Perhaps the Mongols were more like the Romans, but with poorer technology….
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