Monday, March 16, 2009

Books III

I do book reviews once in a while, but I've been naughty and haven't done one in months... To make up for it, here are no less that 8 mini-reviews.

Somewhat strangely, I was introduced to the theory of evolution by natural selection (while I was in high school) through evolutionary psychology, specifically, through Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works. And, following Pinker’s references, I read Dawkins, Dennett, Cosmides, Tooby and that crowd. To put it mildly, Stephen Jay Gould was never popular with these writers so I found myself being suspicious of and vaguely hostile to Gould, despite having read only bits of his work. When I came across a collection of Gould’s writings, The Richness of Life, in a bookshop last year it struck me how unreasonable this attitude was: partisans never paint a flattering picture of their opponents. I would have to read Gould himself to come to a fair assessment. So I bought the book and read all 600+ pages and I am extremely glad I did. Gould was without doubt a masterful essayist, a stupendously gifted writer, enormously erudite and capable of making charming connections between seemingly disparate topics. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Gould was one of the greatest 20th century essayists, up there with Medawar and Berlin.
That is not to say that I agree with Gould about everything or that I think his work was uniformly excellent. On the contrary, I think “The Spandrels of San Marco” was a travesty (and unoriginal to boot), and “More Things in Heaven and Earth” (his infamous New York Review of Books piece) was just horrendous. Gould's views about evolutionary psychology (“ultra-Darwinism” he called it) and the evolution of the human mind generally were silly. And, the actions of Science For the People – with which Gould was centrally involved – were inexcusable. Moreover, Gould misled the public because he failed to be clear about when he was explaining or illustrating settled science and when he was engaging in partisan debate.
All that said, I don’t think we should condemn him too much: it’s human (‘all too human’) to be led astray by one’s passionate political and moral convictions. Besides, there is no doubt that nearly anyone has much to learn from Gould and that his essays are, on the whole, delightful, cogent and enlightening. Read Gould (but with eyes open and pinches of salt at the ready).

Unfortunately, South Africa does not have very many science journalists who know their stuff (see George Claassen on this point), so we better support and treasure the ones we do have. Leonie Joubert (who blogs and has a Mail & Guardian column) is certainly on the side of science and reason and, yes, she knows her stuff. Scorched, her first book, is a riveting and beautiful account of the science of climate change and the projected effect this will have on South Africa. While not perfect (there are a few stylistic solecisms, there are missing references and Joubert sometimes bombards her readers with facts) Scorched ought to be widely read. The South African reality-based community, at a minimum, should all go out and buy this book and policy-makers would do well to pay attention.

The Tipping Point, published in 2000, is Malcolm Gladwell’s first book and though it is considerably less serious than his subsequent offerings, it is still worth a read. (It helps that it is short and very easy to read – I finished it in a couple of hours). The book, says Gladwell, is a biography of an idea: that products, messages and behaviors spread like epidemics. Broadly speaking, then, Gladwell is popularizing a kind of memetics, with the addition that ‘little causes can have big effects’ and that there can thus be dramatic and rapid changes when the Tipping Point is crossed. Gladwell illustrates these ideas with his trademark case studies and anecdotes, in this case, the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies in the 1990s, the dramatic fall in crime in New York, the success of Sesame Street, suicide in Micronesia, and others. Along the way, he outlines three ‘rules’ of the Tipping Point: the Law of the Few (“a tiny percentage of people do the majority of the work” [p. 19] and these people can be divided into Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen), the Stickiness Factor (“there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable” [p. 25], often by tinkering at the margins [p. 131]), and the Power of Context (“human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they might seem” [p. 29]).
Gladwell has often been criticized for being unoriginal and not particularly rigorous and, frankly, I mostly agree. Indeed, Gladwell has admitted to the former (he’s a popularizer of science, not a scientist). The latter charge is more damning and is in evidence throughout the book. The ‘rules’ of the Tipping Point, for instance, are extremely vague, even when fleshed out considerably more than above, and there are no doubt many exceptions. Moreover, several of Gladwell’s examples are rather pat – he seems to simplify complicated phenomena for the sake of narrative clarity. For example, the story Gladwell tells about how HIV spread in North America – through so-called Patient Zero, Gaetan Dugas – crudely simplifies the real situation, and has been disputed.
Nevertheless, Gladwell remains my favorite science journalist, despite his flaws. I read his articles and his books because they introduce me to interesting research, which I can (and do) then follow up for myself. This may be condescending, but I don’t really expect scholarly rigor from Gladwell: he writes popular science for a wide-audience, not academic tomes for specialists. Just like you don’t watch the latest shoot-‘em-up for intellectual stimulation, or read trashy romance novels for their literary merit, or, indeed, read Science for its humor, so you shouldn’t read journalists for unimpeachable rigor or entirely justified true beliefs. In short, read journals, not journalists, for rigor. A well-written and entertaining but simplified account of solid research, worked into an interesting narrative, certainly has its place. And that is exactly what Gladwell provides.

Dark Continent My Black Arse by Sihle Khumalo is an engrossing, entertaining, funny and wonderfully politically-incorrect account of the author’s trip, entirely overland and by public transport, from Cape to Cairo. While not quite up there with Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson’s travel writing, the book is nevertheless very good indeed and worth the price of admission. A single complaint (the skeptic in me couldn’t let this go…): Khumalo on a number of occasions endorses bollocks, most notably, saying that rhino horn is ‘the best medicine for sexual vigour’. Six words: magical thinking + placebo effect + lamentable superstition.

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is an absolute tour de force, a modern masterpiece. [Mild spoilers follow]. The central character is the eight-year-old American Jew Philip Roth, who inhabits an alternative history where Charles A. Lindbergh, the notoriously anti-Semitic aviator who was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, wins the 1940 presidential election. True to form, Lindbergh then tacitly supports the Axis powers in World War II (under the guise of isolationism) and enacts successively more repressive anti-Jewish laws (under the guise of assimilation). The rest of the novel follows Philip and the rest of the Roth clan as they come to terms with, and accommodate to, the new dispensation. [Spoilers end].
I don’t pretend to be a competent literati, so I won’t do much of a review except to note that the prose is sublime and that Roth has a preternatural ability to render the psychology of people buffeted by events beyond their control and understanding. I said the same about McCarthy, but I think it’s equally true of Roth: he deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life is, in my view, Richard Dawkins’s best book since the excellent Blind Watchmaker. The device around which the book is built, modeled on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is a pilgrimage starting at the present with Homo sapiens, and working backwards in time to meet our common ancestors with the rest of life. The first rendezvous, for example, is with chimpanzees and bonobos (our common ancestor lived 5-7 million years ago), the 6th with the New World Monkeys (40 million years ago), the 17th with amphibians (about 340 million years ago), the 23rd with lancelets (very approximately 560 million years ago), and so on. Along the way, various creatures tell tales, among other things, about the history of life, the principles and quirks of evolution, and the methods and techniques biologists use to figure all this out. The book, then, is simultaneously a history of life, a primer on evolution, an account of human ancestry, and a survey of the diversity of life.
While it’s quite an investment of time – 629 pages in paperback – The Ancestor’s Tale richly repays that investment: I haven’t learned so much from a single book in a very long time. Not only that, but it’s as beautifully written as we’ve come to expect from Dawkins, and, perhaps more importantly, it illustrates the wonders of life, and sparks one’s curiosity and enthusiasm for such under appreciated critters as sponges, lungfish and fungi.
The dust jacket quotes the Financial Times thusly: “One of the richest accounts of evolution ever written”. It’s not hyperbole.

John Allen Paulos is a rare specimen indeed: an effective popularizer of and unflinching advocate for mathematics who is himself an academic mathematician. Not only are his mathematical credentials excellent, more importantly for his role as popularizer, Paulos writes exceedingly well. In his third book, Innumeracy, Paulos argues mathematical and, more particularly, statistical ‘illiteracy’ (the eponymous innumeracy) leads to the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of reality. He shows persuasively that the innumerate are vulnerable to personalizing the random, and thence to charlatanism, magical thinking and pseudoscience. The book is not, however, an abstract treatise on the importance of mathematics, it’s a vade mecum for the educated but innumerate. As such a guide, the book succeeds admirably: it gently introduces the basics of number and probability with a series of well-chosen examples. Overall, it is a superb little book which, I daresay, might benefit the numerate as well.
I can’t resist quoting Paulos at length:
The discrepancies between our pretensions and reality are usually quite extensive, and since number and chance are among our ultimate reality principles, those who possess a keen grasp of these notions may see these discrepancies and incongruities with greater clarity and thus more easily become subjects to feelings of absurdity. I think there’s something of the divine in these feelings of our absurdity, and they should be cherished, not avoided. They provide perspective on our puny yet exalted position in the world, and are what distinguish us from rats. Anything which permanently dulls us to them is to be opposed, innumeracy included. The desire to arouse a sense of numerical proportion and an appreciation for the irreducibly probabilistic nature of life – this, rather than anger, was the primary motivation for the book.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you enjoyed the Roth. I am intending to do a brief review of some recent books soon. Need to get back to my blog (having recently finished exams, sigh).