Book Review: The Art of Reading, Damon Young

Book Review: The Art of Reading, Damon Young

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Nonfiction: The Art of Reading, Damon Young

At first glance, The Art of Reading, can be deceptive; this slim book looks like you can easily slip it in your to be read pile and finish it over the weekend. However, if it is your personal copy, you should attack the book armed with highlighters, post-its, and sticky flag bookmarks. The Art of Reading is a dense and deep book. The kind of book you should savor a few pages at a time, and then think about it for a day or two before reading the next section.

Writers will find interesting quotes as well as concepts to help shape their writing towards their readers. Educators will find illustrations that connect theory to popular media that they can use in their curriculum. Undergraduates can chase down literary theory references. Graduate students can discover ways to share academic prose with readers in an accessible way that does not isolate scholars in their ivory towers.

The Art of Reading will not appeal to everyone; it is not a light beach read.  Rather the eight essays/chapters in the book provide a meaningful dialog with the reader on the underlying concepts of reading in an almost metaphysical and lyric manner. If you enjoy reading it will make you think about the process of reading and why reading is indeed an art.

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Book Review: The Art of Reading, Damon Young

Book Review: Violent Outbursts, Thaddeus Rutkowski

Book Review: Violent OutburstsThaddeus Rutkowski

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Nonfiction Essay Collection: Violent OutburstsThaddeus Rutkowski

I love reading authors who live and write in the margins. Don’t get me wrong. I’m down for a Patterson or Baldacci or Grisham any day of the week. But the authors and books that excite me are those that open a new door, that reveal a new truth, that show me worlds I would not have seen on my own.

 

Thaddeus Rutkowski is one of those authors. He grew up in the margins. A mixed-race kid in Central Pennsylvania, he grew up before Asian faces were common here. Despite its proximity to State College and Penn State University, Rutkowski’s hometown of Hublersburg (near Bellefonte) is to this day a town with mostly white residents. I do not intend to presume. I love Bellefonte, and my own (Asian-American) wife has always been very warmly received by everyone there that we’ve met. But I can imagine that as a child who looked different, there might have been a sense of “otherness” growing up.

 

His 2015 book Violent Outbursts is a collection of short writings. Violent Outbursts is hard to characterize, mostly because it is a book written in the margins of categories. Rutkowski has a flair for language. He plays with words, morphing them and putting them together in new ways. One example is an entire essay in homage to McDonalds, stringing words together that start with the letter “M.” He may be the first to describe a fast food cook as a McMaestro. Although the writings are probably considered “prose,” the craft certainly is on the margins between poetry and prose. It is also in the margins of fiction and non-fiction. Some of the poetic essays seem to be autobiographical: one tells of he and his siblings running up and down staircases in a new family home. Another tells of his first experience smoking. Perhaps the most painful was one talking about cousins who boast of being 100%, compared to his 50% and his daughter’s 25%. As part of a biracial family, that one hit very close to home.

 

Others are clearly fictional. At least, I am assuming he was never personally a dung beetle, despite the first person narrative of the essay. But the beauty of poetry, even poetic essays, is that truth is greater than the facts. People living in the margins often have to make the best of what they have, and they often create beauty from those discarded remnants. A dung beetle may have every right to celebrate what he is able to do, to revel in that which others find disgusting, and to make it his own.

 

Rutkowski’s Violent Outbursts is at once defiant and celebratory, poignant and triumphant. The writings express a desire to belong–learning to smoke “the right way,” wanting to fit in, wishing for the right clothes and haircut and car. They recognize that otherness will never change, that the writer will never be 100%, the dung beetle will never be accepted by the other animals. They sometimes revel in their otherness, wanting to be the hick with the shotgun going after the rat in the apartment, enjoying and hating being the rural kid with the outhouse while being surrounded by rich city kids. And they acknowledge that fitting in will always come unnaturally, requiring a surrender of some desires and the recognition that there will always be a separateness.

 

Violent Outbursts is short, and none of the essays are more than two pages long. It can easily be read in one sitting, but it is worth taking longer and reading one or two, then coming back to it later. When you’re probing the margins of society, sometimes it’s best to push at them a little, then come back at them again later. Rutkowski’s Violent Outbursts does this very well, and that might be a good way for the reader to do it, too.

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Book Review: Violent OutburstsThaddeus Rutkowski

Book Review: Border Crossings, Thaddeus Rutkowski

Book Review: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

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Poetry Collection: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

Border crossings are fraught with tension. Some, like India and Pakistan, or the Koreas, have standing armies. One stray move could start a war. Others are peaceful, but full of reminders that you are going from one country to another. Signs in multiple languages, customs inspectors checking your bags, sounds and smells of the exotic (to you) new stuff waiting once you get there. But the crossing itself has its own heartbeat, its own rhythm, its own combination of appeal and trepidation.

 

Thaddeus Rutkowski was raised in central, largely rural, Pennsylvania (Hublersburg, near Bellefonte). He now lives in Manhattan. His parents were Chinese and Polish Americans. His life has been filled with crossing borders: between rural and urban, between brown Americans and white Americans. And his poetry speaks beautifully to that tension between nations that expresses itself on the border, whether those nations are visible on a map or whether they are resident in the heart.

 

Rutkowski toys with language, playing with it, using metaphors and molding words masterfully. He has a fun, though sometimes dark, sense of humor. He invites the reader to play with him. Imagine skipping work and running amok through a restaurant, playing the bongos, and drawing a crowd together. Imagine going to the beach before a hurricane and riding the undertow. Look, as we paddle our canoe, it’s a pig…No, it’s a bear! He takes us on a trip to Hong Kong, choosing a bus, contemplating eating fried scorpions, surprising a vendor with his English. “‘English! I wondered what language,’ / and I wonder, what language was he guessing? / Korean, Japanese, Tagalog, French?” And suddenly, like that, we remember that he, the poet, is always crossing borders, with a face that is both Chinese and Polish and is neither one fully, an accent that is American, and a heritage that brings countries together into one person and yet still seems to feel a bit separated from them all.

 

Border Crossings is a delight. You always cross a border at your own risk, but this is a risk worth taking. Travel broadens you, and traveling with these poems is carrying a passport to a wide new world–or perhaps a passport to see home in a fresh way.

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Book Review: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

Book Review: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate Bowler

Book Review: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve LovedKate Bowler

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Nonfiction: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve LovedKate Bowler

 

You’ve heard someone say this to you, usually in a dark and difficult time. “Everything happens for a reason.” You may have said it to people. As someone who has lost parents, who has fought depression, who has a loved one with cancer, who has wrestled with questions of life and death for decades, let me say very plainly: that is a horrible thing to say to someone. Perhaps it brought you some measure of peace when someone said it to you. Good. For others, though, being told that a higher power wanted their child to die or their husband to get cancer or their rape to take place for a reason is disgusting.

 

Kate Bowler’s very personal book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved tells the story of her first year living with cancer. Bowler was a newly minted Ph.D. with a position at Duke Divinity School, and after years of trying she and her husband had just welcomed their first baby, Zac. A few months after giving birth, she received the news that she had stage 4 colon cancer. The prognosis was grim–few people live even a full year after that diagnosis.

 

Bowler discusses frankly her reactions of anger, sadness, and fear. It is a story full of love. She and her husband come from very supportive families. They were childhood sweethearts in Canada, and immediately parents and siblings rallied together to take care of her and her family. Her husband was there for her, and her “family” at Duke Divinity School also came through for her. Friends from high school and beyond came to be with her. Even with all that support, though, the emotions were overwhelming. Confronting death, especially one as painful and cruel as cancer, shatters a person. Facing that diagnosis with a newborn, thinking you will never see him walk or talk or go to school or any other milestone parents treasure…well, hopefully few of us will ever confront anything like that.

 

Woven through the book is her faith. Bowler is a Christian, teaches in a divinity school, and has a Ph.D. in church history. Her expertise is on the prosperity gospel in America. She spends a lot of time in prosperity gospel churches, churches where a tenet of faith is that God only blesses. Need money? Ask and He will give. Wealth and health and all good things are a natural result of faith. The opposite is true as well: if you are lacking in health or wealth or any good thing, that is a clear sign that your faith is lacking. Somehow, you are to blame. Get rid of your sin, increase your faith, turn to God, and presto! Although this is not Bowler’s own faith tradition, she realized while going through this that she had been at least somewhat affected by this doctrine. Suddenly, though, the easy answers and the trite responses were no longer adequate. “Everything happens for a reason” sounds reassuring, until you are the one facing death, you are the one facing cancer, you are the one facing a future without you in it. What “reason” makes sense in those circumstances? What “reason” gives hope or restores your spirit or nourishes your soul? Most of the reasons people offer in those circumstances make God sound capricious and cruel. They make no sense when you consider evil people who get to live full lives and play with their grandchildren and die in their sleep.

 

Bowler teaches at a divinity school, but she does not consider herself a theologian or a pastor. Rather, she is a person of faith, a student of faith traditions, but most of all she is a person with cancer, a mother and wife trying to prepare her family for a future without her in it, a Christian clinging as tightly as possible to the Christ who suffered on the cross and who promised to be with those who are suffering. She is open with her struggles, her anger, her disappointment, her resentment. She prays. She swears. (She gives up “not swearing” for Lent one year.) Her honesty is raw and courageous and painful. And at the end of the year…well, she’s alive. She beat the odds. There are no guarantees, but she has gotten more time than she was told to expect. And we have gotten a book that affirms life in the face of death as powerfully as anything I have read in years.

 

Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved does not try to explain why Kate Bowler or anyone else suffers. But it does remind us that we are not alone. Whether we look to a higher power or whether we rely on a more earthly community, suffering is not unique to any person. That is not a reason “why,” but it may be the reason why we keep going despite our suffering.

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Book Review: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve LovedKate Bowler

Book Review: The Future of Humanity, Michio Kaku

Book Review: The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond EarthMichio Kaku

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Nonfiction Science: The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond EarthMichio Kaku

You cannot avoid physicist Michio Kaku if you watch science shows on TV. Nor would you want to. He has hosted or guest starred on programs for Discovery Channel, Science Channel, BBC, PBS, and other networks, sharing his expertise on physics, string theory, and other scientific disciplines. Well known for popularizing these challenging subjects, Kaku is also a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York. (Probably unrelated to his brilliance or his fame, I would argue he also sports one of the most distinctive heads of hair in science since Einstein, but that may just be follicular envy on my part.)

 

His 2018 book The Future of Humanity explores the possibilities of humans leaving earth to colonize other planets. Clearly written for an audience with one foot in science and one foot in science fiction, Kaku has a breezy style that is easy to read and carries you along. He quotes from theoretical physicists and NASA astronomers, then switches effortlessly to recaps of Star Trek episodes and references to visionary works by Jules Verne and Olaf Stapledon, among others. He looks at both the possibilities and the pitfalls of living beyond our comfortable planet. Could we survive long-term in an environment we were not evolved for? Could we “terraform” another planet? What would it take to make Mars (or any other planet) livable? What are the possibilities and potentials beyond our solar system? How could we get there? Is there intelligent life beyond our solar system? If so, could we coexist? Could we even communicate?

 

Kaku’s The Future of Humanity also looks at colonizing space through unexpected means. If we find that the speed of light is indeed insurmountable (which is a depressing implication of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), can we send multi-generational ships? If so, how could we guarantee that those great-grandchildren of the pioneers were willing and able to colonize a new planet when they arrived? What are the ethics of sending, say, 200 people from earth who would give birth to children that would live and die on board a ship, and expect that some 250 years later their descendants would be expected to colonize a world they likely knew little to nothing about? What kind of governance would be required to assure the ship-dwellers neither had too many, nor too few, children? Kaku may be a physicist, but his questions and explorations are deeply rooted in a very humanistic ethic. What if we were able to extend life indefinitely–would a 250-year journey be worth making if we lived 1000 years? Or, what if we could upload our consciousness to a machine which would make the journey? Or genetically modify our descendants to live in inhospitable environments? What would it mean to humanity if our galactic descendants no longer looked like us physically–or were no longer even made of the same organic stuff that we consider essential to life?

 

The Future of Humanity definitely walks the line between science fact and science fiction. It does clearly show where science is right now. If we were to try to colonize Mars tomorrow, we would likely fail. Fifty years from now? It is quite likely the tools will be available. Whether the will and the money will be available is a much dicier proposition, and Kaku acknowledges that. But insert enough time, enough scientific progress, and enough environmental pressure on earth from climate change and overpopulation, and the equation may change. Mars may look very attractive in 200 years when compared to a polluted, crowded, hotter earth. Kaku is not necessarily a pessimist, though, when it comes to earth. He acknowledges that birth rates are slowing, that there are reasons to hope for a cleaner tomorrow, and that climate change has uncertain consequences. Earth itself may not be such a bad place in 200 years. And his vision of an inhabitable solar system relies heavily on technologies that are little more than dreams in visionaries’ minds. For a book of scientific fact, there is a significant amount of hopeful speculation. Someday we might look back at this book in amazement at the technological breakthroughs it foresaw. Or, as we did in 2015, we may be asking ourselves why “Back to the Future” hoverboards aren’t parked in our garages.

 

Science can be both hopeful and hopeless. Kaku’s book envisions a very hopeful future, one where we colonize first the solar system and then the galaxy, one where humanity has a future in the stars for even millions of years. Eventually, though, it will all end. Science is divided on whether it all ends with the galaxy collapsing upon itself in a spectacular reversal of the “big bang,” or whether it ends with the second law of thermodynamics winning and everything just running out of energy and freezing, but either way we may only have several billion years left to prepare ourselves for our eventual end. Somehow, though, even though our earth may burn up in an expanding sun sometime around 5 billion years from now, and even though the universe as a whole will end some unknown billion years after that, Kaku seems to find reasons to hope that humanity has a bright future among the stars.

 

Leave it to a theoretical physicist to remind us that the universe will eventually end. At least, though, we have still some time to prepare for that.

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Book Review: The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond EarthMichio Kaku

Book Review: This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, Edited by John Brockman

Book Review: This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, Edited by John Brockman

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Nonfiction Essay Collection: This Explains Everything, John Brockman, Editor

John Brockman is the founder of the Reality Club, a gathering of thinkers and intellectuals that met in restaurants and other locations from 1981-1996. In 1997, the Reality Club went online and became Edge.org. Each year, a question is posed to the contributors, a question intended to provoke discussion, debate, and most of all, thought. The Edge question for 2012 was, “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” The responses to that question were culled, edited, and became the book, “This Explains Everything.”

 

The list of contributors to this book is amazing. Several are Nobel Prize winners. Others are famous intellectuals, including Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, and Richard Dawkins. Many are professors in top universities around the world. Musicians, filmmakers, philosophers, psychologists, artists, scientists, writers…it is a truly astounding collection of brilliant persons who spent time on this question. And the approaches they took to the question are as varied as the disciplines they represent. Most of the essays are two-three pages long. A few are longer (I didn’t specifically count, but I don’t think any reached eight pages). Many are shorter. The very shortest is “Occam’s Razor,” by Katinka Matson: “Keep it simple.” (The strikethrough is in the original.) She succeeded.

 

Some theories had several fans among the authors. Perspectives on evolution, natural selection, and other Darwinian themes were addressed by a number of authors. The double helix (DNA) takes its place, as do some odes to quantum theory, Einstein, and “the big bang.” Others are perhaps less well known, but the authors are enthusiastic in their advocacy. The “Law of Unintended Consequences” explores how almost any action in a complex system will have unintended results: some positive, some negative, but always unintended. “The Importance of Individuals” posits that every change in human history is the result of single individuals making decisions which influence others. Sometimes those individuals stir up a grass-roots movement and sometimes those individuals are in positions of great power but it is still one person making one decision and taking one action that leads to change. That person may be unknown to history, but the power to change the world is housed within every individual.

 

Most of the essays looked for theories that tied other things together. Natural selection, for example, explains so much of how the world works. Before Darwin, we had no coherent scientific explanation for why some animals and plants thrive while others go extinct. It seems obvious to us today, but it is hard to look back and realize how our understanding of the world transformed with the publication of Origin of the Species. The depth, elegance, and beauty of the theory is how it draws together so many disparate facts and gives them context and meaning. No other theory had as many essayists in the book, but most of the theories explored shared that “Aha!” factor, that feeling of, “Now this helps other things make sense.”

 

Some of the essays I enjoyed the most addressed the question itself rather than trying to answer it. “Kepler et al. and the Nonexistent Problem” celebrates Kepler’s theory about the orbits of planets around the sun. The author delights in this theory that was deep, elegant, beautiful–and totally wrong. Some question the question, asking “what is deep, elegant, or beautiful”? Is it deep because it is correct? Is it elegant because it is simple…or is it elegant because it is complex? What makes a theory beautiful? Many of the essays which probe the question are, in my opinion, just as deep, elegant, and beautiful as the essays which actually try to answer the question.

 

This Explains Everything can look intimidating, from its list of powerhouse contributors to its imposing 400+ page length to its intellectual subject matter. However, this book should not scare you away! First, most of the essays are short, many of them less than a page long. It is a great book to snack on. Read a few pages, put it down and let them digest, then pick it up again and read a few more. If one essay is not to your liking, move on! Second, the editor and writers have worked incredibly hard to make this accessible to people with curiosity and interest. I won’t pretend that it is meant for children. Adults with an interest in science, both physical sciences and social sciences, will find the book speaks to them. It may not actually explain everything. But it does open a window to the minds of those who are trying to find and grapple with the explanations for the world we live in.

 

The “question of the year” has been turned into a book for several years now. I plan to check out others in the series at a later date. Also, visit www.edge.org to sneak a peak on the conversation for this year! Provocatively, it is titled, “The Last Question.”

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Book Review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Book Review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of PredictionPhilip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

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Nonfiction Social Science: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of PredictionPhilip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Several years ago I worked for a cellphone company. One day it was announced that we would be carrying a new product. It was larger than a cellphone but smaller than a computer. It was flat and was mostly a glass screen. You could not make calls with it. It did not have a physical keyboard. Instead it was entirely controlled by touch. I thought at the time, “This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. We’ll never sell these things.” I might have underestimated the appeal of the tablet.

 

Recognizing my own weaknesses in telling the future, I read Superforecasting with great interest. I was not disappointed! Tetlock and Gardner share insights from years of research with people who have proven themselves to be extraordinary predictors. Not perfect, but much better than average. These are not your news/talk pundits who predict with great certainty what will happen tomorrow, then tomorrow explain with equal certainty why they knew it was not going to happen after all. These are people who volunteered at www.goodjudgment.com to take a series of tests, then participate in a long running study of what goes into making good predictions. This project is ongoing, and new volunteers are welcome.

 

What sets great forecasters–”superforecasters”–apart from others may be surprising. These are not people who are necessarily possessed of a genius IQ. They are smart, but not always in ways measured by standardized tests. They are not always people with the highest education levels, though most of them did go to college and many completed graduate and doctoral programs. They are not people whose jobs or education prepared them for this. They include housewives and artists, scientists and bureaucrats, and many more walks of life. But they do have certain things in common.

 

Tetlock and Gardner identify several aspects that comprise the “composite portrait” of a superforecaster. They are cautious, humble, and non-deterministic in outlook. They are actively open-minded, intelligent and knowledgeable, reflective, and numerate (comfortable with numbers). They tend to be pragmatic, analytical, “dragonfly-eyed” (valuing diverse views and synthesizing them into their own), probabilistic (judge using degrees of “maybe”), thoughtful updaters, and good intuitive psychologists. And in their work ethic they have a growth mindset (believing it’s possible to get better) and grit. Not all of these characteristics are weighted equally, but all of them bear on a person’s ability to accurately predict outcomes to challenging questions about the future.

 

Superforecasting also offers helpful advice to improve the reader’s ability to improve her forecasting talents. Triage is important: weeding out questions that are either too easy to answer or impossible to answer. Choose questions that provide a challenge but are indeed answerable within an appropriate time. Break large problems into smaller, easier to answer questions. Strike a balance between inside and outside views. Avoid under- or overreacting to new information. Look for clashing causal forces at work. There are others, but the concluding advice sums up much of the book: Don’t treat commandments as commandments. Each case is different, and no set of guidelines will work for every situation. Including these guidelines!

 

Superforecasting was interesting and informative. It kept my attention throughout and I learned a lot. I can’t say I will predict the next “tablet” invention to sweep the world. But I do know a bit more about analyzing my own predictions with humility and information, so maybe I won’t be quite so quick to dismiss the next tablet, either.

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Book Review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of PredictionPhilip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, Jonathan B. Losos

Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan B. Losos

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Nonfiction: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan B. Losos

 

Improbable Destinies is a delightful book. It is hard science with a very personal and human touch. Jonathan Losos is an expert in the field: professor of biology, director of the Losos Laboratory, and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (all three positions with Harvard University). His scientific credentials are apparent throughout the book. It is thoroughly researched and referenced, with 10 pages of notes at the end (prefaced with the comment that they are “not exhaustive.”). What is also apparent throughout Improbable Destinies is his love and passion for both the subject and for the people who are involved in evolution research.

 

 

In 1989, Stephen Jay Gould wrote an amazing book about evolution. Wonderful Life explored the findings at the Burgess Shale fossil depository. Marvelous creatures abound there, creatures unlike anything we see today. Relics of an explosion of life millennia ago, they tell the story of creatures that inhabited the earth long before the dinosaurs–creatures that for some mysterious reason disappeared in a mass extinction. Gould uses the creatures of the Burgess Shale to make the point that evolution is random. Drawing his metaphor from the iconic Frank Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Gould posits that changing one thing in evolution–removing one “George Bailey” life form or one DNA change or one climate event–from the timeline would result in an entirely different evolutionary outcome.

 

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Gould suggested that testing this hypothesis was essentially impossible. It would require rewinding the clock and allowing millions of years of evolution to unfold again and again to see what the outcome was. But Gould’s conclusions have been challenged in recent years, most notably by Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University (Gould actually is quite effusive in praise of Morris in Wonderful Life, but their professional differences are significant). Morris believes that natural selection has much more predictable outcomes: The Runes of Evolution and The Crucible of Creation. Evolutionary adaptations are responses to natural stimuli, and given the same stimuli we often see very similar life forms evolve. Nose horns work well for rhinos and presumably did so for triceratops. Wings lift bats and birds just as they did pterosaurs. Sharks and whales and tuna all power through seas once patrolled by ichthyosaurs. The outcomes may not be identical, but convergent evolution is clearly powerful.

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Historically, from Darwin forward, evolution has been thought to require millennia to observe. This was still true in 1989 when Gould wrote Wonderful Life. However, we are finding that sometimes evolution can be seen in a matter of just a few generations. And in short-lived animals, that may mean a period of just a few years. What happens in a few generations of ground-based lizards if they are stranded on an island full of bushes? Or tree lizards on an island without trees? These are questions that can be answered, at least partially, within the span of a single research grant

 

Enter Improbable Destinies. Losos is a fan of both Gould and Morris, and his book acknowledges the profound contributions both men have made. He introduces us to new heroes in the field of evolutionary research. His book takes us to research sites in England and the Bahamas and Trinidad and exotic East Lansing. He looks at field studies of plants and lizards and fish and at laboratory experiments with yeast and e coli. Some of these experiments have lasted for decades. In some cases, scientists have even “rewound the clock,” reviving bacteria literally frozen years before in order to see whether the same adaptation occurs in their descendants as was observed in descendants of bacteria from the same source that was not frozen.

 

Not to give the plot away, but the results are….complex. Science is. And the conclusions Losos draws are essentially that both Gould and Morris are right, and both Gould and Morris are wrong. Convergent evolution is an observable phenomenon. Unique species of anole lizards live on different Caribbean islands, but on each island there are species that share many similar characteristics filling different ecological niches. Cuban anoles that live in trees are different species from Puerto Rican anoles that live in trees, even though they look very similar. Their ecological niche has favored selection of babies that are well adapted to living in trees. Those adaptations make for similarly sized and shaped lizards from island to island, but they are still different species. Equally observable is the one-off life form: there are no real equivalents to platypus or kiwi or any number of other unique animals…including humans. Hairless, bipedal, tool-using apes with large brains may now live all over the earth, but amid the catalog of species they are unique in their adaptations to their environment.

 

Improbable Destinies is a fascinating book. Part history, part mystery, all science and all amazing. It is written for an adult audience, though scientifically minded tweens and teens would love it as well. And if, like me, you read and loved Gould’s Wonderful Life, this is a fantastic book to bring you up to date on the current state of evolutionary science. I enthusiastically recommend it.

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Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan B. Losos

Book Review: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

Book Review: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

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Nonfiction: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You ThinkHans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

 

I once thought I was smarter than a chimpanzee. I am, after all, human. I can read a book. I can work with a computer. I can type a review of a book I read on a computer. Those are all things a chimpanzee cannot do.

 

Then I read Factfulness by Hans Rosling, et al, and I am no longer so certain of my superiority to chimpanzees. In fact, the book unfavorably compares my answers to its opening chapter quiz to the answers given by chimpanzees picking at random. And the reality is that I did not know as much about the world as I thought I did.

 

Perhaps you don’t either. The quiz asks thirteen multiple-choice questions about the world. The correct answers come directly from UN statistics on disease, wealth and poverty, education, birthrates, life expectancy, and other information that most of us would deem important. Questions include: “In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?” [a) 20%, b) 40%, c) 60%] and “How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?” [a) 20%, b) 50%, c) 80%], and “How many people in the world have some access to electricity? [a) 20%, b) 50%, c) 80%]. If you picked answers at random, the way a chimpanzee might do, you would expect to average 1 out of 3 correct answers. Most of us do much worse. By the way, in each of those questions, the correct answer is the largest number. Sixty percent of girls worldwide finish primary school (additionally, the average number of school years completed by 30-year-old women is 9, only one behind the 10 years completed by 30-year-old men on average). Eighty percent of the world’s babies have had at least one vaccination. And eighty percent of the world has access to at least some electricity.

 

This book is full of positive information. Although population is increasing worldwide, birthrates are down. The reason population is increasing is that fewer people are dying in childhood. Incomes around the world are increasing, and they are increasing the fastest in some of the areas we might least expect. Deaths from natural disasters and infectious diseases and wars are also at historic lows.

 

This is not to say that everything is great or that there are no challenges. Rosling uses the analogy of an infant in an incubator. A premature infant may be put in an incubator and after a week go from 2 to 3 pounds in weight. That does not mean we should remove the baby from the incubator. Things are not yet good. But they are improving. They are on a positive track. We have reasons to be hopeful.

 

Rosling uses examples from his long career in public health and his own life growing up in Sweden to make his points. As a child, he fell into an open sewage ditch and almost drowned. In Sweden. It was a time when modern sanitation facilities were uncommon and there were no laws requiring open ditches be fenced off to prevent toddlers from wandering into them. Those days are long gone in Sweden–but not so long gone that he could not remember them. He equated the Sweden of his childhood to Egypt of today. His grandparents were born into a Sweden that had more similarities to present-day Lesotho, Africa, (one of the poorest countries in the world) than it does to the current modern wealthy country in Europe. Other countries around the world have made an even faster transition from poverty to wealth: Malaysia and Singapore and South Korea among them.

 

In fact, most people in the world live in “middle income” countries. That is not to say they are “middle class” in the American or European sense, but neither are they crushed by the total poverty that may have been their lot a generation ago. They have enough money for regular meals. They have access to enough electricity to cook their food. They can afford decent shoes. Their children don’t have to work and are instead in school, offering hope for a still better future. They may even be able to take their families to the occasional movie, or afford a small television. They have indoor plumbing. These basics may not be the stuff of dreams for Americans, but they are life-changing for many around the world, and they are now commonplace where just a few decades ago they were unattainable.

 

So why are we so ignorant about the world? Rosling posits several reasons. One is simply that we haven’t been told. Educators often work from outdated textbooks which still show data from years ago. Journalists cover “news,” and small, incremental, steady improvements don’t qualify as newsworthy. A plane crash is news–it is dramatic, it is unusual, and it catches our attention. But the takeaway should be that it is rare. 2016 was the safest year for air travel in history. There were only 10 commercial airline crashes worldwide, despite there being more flights than ever before. That is good news, but the safe arrival of a plane is not going to get much attention from headline writers.

 

More challenging is overcoming our own biases. If you were to ask most people from wealthy countries, they would reflexively say that highly religious people have more children than more secular people. That is not entirely wrong, but it is hardly cut and dried. Iran, home of the Ayatollah and ruled by theocracy, has a lower birthrate than the United States. A much greater predictor of birthrate than religion is income. Extremely poor people tend to have more babies for two reasons: 1) the need for child labor, and 2) the need to replace children who die young. As Iran and other countries have moved from low to middle income, child labor has become less necessary and infant and child mortality has decreased significantly. Rather than assuming that someone’s religion (or ethnicity or skin color or any other artificial distinction) means that they are destined to a particular kind of life, we should look at the facts and let them speak to our expectations. Reality can be very different than we think.

I wholeheartedly recommend Factfulness! It will make you think. It will give you hope. It will help you see the world differently. I also recommend visiting the authors’ website https://www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/matrix to see comparisons between people of similar incomes around the world. If you think people around the world are very different, this website will challenge your assumptions. You can also follow up by watching the authors’ TED Talks (one is at https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world). If you are curious about the world, if you are depressed about the current state of affairs and thinking things are just going from bad to worse, or if you begin to think you know more than a chimpanzee, this book is for you.

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Book Review: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You ThinkHans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

 

 

 

Book Review: Attached, Levine and Heller

Book Review: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, Levine & Heller

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Nonfiction: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Loveby Amir Levine and Rachel Heller

 

Despite its subtitle, Attached is in many ways a book about the “old art” of love rather than the “new science” of adult attachment. It is an easy to read self-help book, but that is not to make light of nor diminish its value. On the contrary, its approachable style and encouraging message should make it very useful for people looking for a relationship and for people who want to improve their relationships.

 

Attached divides people into three broad categories based on their “attachment styles.” “Secure” people comprise roughly one-half the population. They are people who generally enjoy intimacy and are not afraid of it. They communicate their needs effectively and care deeply about meeting the needs of those they love. “Anxious” people crave intimacy but struggle to effectively communicate or advocate for their own needs. They tend to blame themselves for any problems in their relationships. “Avoidant” people are just the opposite: they fear intimacy. They may also struggle to effectively communicate or advocate for their own needs, but unlike anxious people they will blame the other party for any problems in the relationship. One very helpful (if sobering) point the book repeatedly makes is that anxious and avoidant people are often drawn to each other, usually in ways that are mutually unhealthy. The avoidant person tends to give mixed messages about their desires, which anxious people will misinterpret as an invitation to try a little harder–something they are hardwired to do. This is a challenging pattern that is hard for both sides to break.

 

Throughout the book are quizzes designed to help you determine which attachment style describes you. The book is non-judgmental. All three attachment styles are evolutionary responses to environmental stimuli. In regions of great danger, where life is short and violent, an avoidant attachment style is invaluable. If one cannot emotionally move on from a relationship that ends prematurely, the species is threatened. That gift in those troubling circumstances can be a burden in a less traumatic civilization. Other dangers are perhaps less life-threatening, but require a tightly connected family unit in order to successfully navigate them. The anxious style forges that tight unit and promotes looking out for unseen dangers facing our loved ones. That, too, can be a burden in safer environments. Most human societies are more stable and interdependent, where a secure attachment style reinforces that stability. But we all carry the DNA that can express itself in any of the three styles.

 

Attached makes the point that successful relationships can occur no matter what your attachment style is. A major contributor to success is effective communication. This can be a challenge for anyone, but the book’s examples and tips are designed to encourage even the most timid to take this essential step.

 

I think that many authors have addressed similar relationship issues over the years. Several have written about the “Five Love Languages,” which at its heart is Attached but with additional subdivisions. Attached, though, does bring some fresh scientific (and non-religious) perspective to the conversation. It may not be quite as personal as “Dear Abby” or “Dear Anne,” but it does give specific tools and goals for improving your current relationship or for improving your chance at long-term love.

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Book Review: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, Levine & Heller