|4.5 stars for creative subject, research, and engaging narrative.|
In The Blank Slate, Pinker outlines three dogmas that he says are the prevailing views of human nature in modern philosophy:
2012 Book 93: Cro-Magnon, by Brian Fagan (6/24/2012)
Reason for Reading: Interest in the evolution of humans
My Review 4/5 stars
Cro-Magnon, by Brian Fagan introduces what is currently known (and speculated) about Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. Fagan spices up his narrative with imaginative vignettes of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons as they may have lived. I imagine such vignettes would appeal to most everyone in the general public, including teens, though they may be a little irritating to a hard-core scientist who isn’t interested in imaginative speculation (just a guess…I loved them!). Another excellent feature of this book is that it has incorporated historic scientific discoveries about prehistoric peoples with modern science like mitochondrial DNA tracing. Again, this feature would be of interest to most of the general public, but isn’t meant for experts–there are a lot of simplifications for the sake of clarity. I think this book is an excellent introduction to prehistoric peoples that could be enjoyed by both adults and teens (even precocious pre-teens).
2012 Book 92: Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer (6/24/2012)
Reason for Reading: Science, Religion, and History group read with the 75ers
My Review 2/5 stars
The intent of this book is to use anthropology and cognitive science to “explain” why religious beliefs developed (and are still common) in humans. I started reading this book with the expectation that it was intended as popular science; but it assumed that the reader already had a background in anthropology and cognitive science. Boyer made his explanations using terminology that was unnecessarily complex; and although the meaning could be discerned from the context, it made the narrative into very heavy reading. Furthermore, he made many bold statements without providing evidence, possibly because he figured his readers had a background in this area and knew where he was coming from. The examples he did provide often fell short for me as a scientist–I felt there were too many obvious loopholes to the experiments described, and it was unclear whether these loopholes were addressed. Overall, I think this book may be interesting to someone who has already read a lot of literature in this field, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone with a casual interest, nor as introductory material.
2012 Book 74: Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond (5/11/2012)
Reason for Reading: This has been on my reading list for years—since before I watched the documentary.
My Review 4/5stars
In this Pulitzer Prize winning book, Diamond attempts to answer the question of why the Western Civilization rose to power instead of other civilizations. His answer is that they lucked out on geography and ecology. Western civilizations were better able to domesticate animals and plants due to the varieties that they had available, and were therefore able to develop larger farming societies, allowing for development of crafts and “scientific exploration.” Also, because they were in larger groups, they were exposed at low levels to many germs, and developed immunity. Because of these factors, they were able to harness the power of guns, germs, and steel in their pursuit of world power. This was a fascinating book, and definitely worth reading even after watching the documentary (reviewed here). It’s just packed full of information, the writing is smooth and articulate, and the research is extensive.
2012 Book 49: Vampires, Burial, and Death by Paul Barber (3/16/2012)
Reason for Reading: Interest in folklore and popular culture about vampires
My Review 3.5/5 stars
In Vampires, Burial, and Death, Barber differentiates between vampires of folklore and those of popular fiction (with a very strong emphasis on those of folklore). He proposes that the folklore of vampires arose due to people’s fear of dead bodies. He rigorously notes the common traits of folklore vampires (blood at the mouth, bloating, groaning when staked, red face, etc.) and points out that all of these things could occur naturally in a decaying body. The content of this book is very interesting, and Barber’s thesis is quite logical. However, the narrative was a little drier than necessary. I enjoyed learning, but wished it could have been a little more engaging!
2012 Book 37: The Spiritual Brain, by Mario Beauregard (2/24/2012)
Reason for Reading: I’m interested in science vs. medicine debates
My Review: 3/5 stars
Beauregard’s thesis is that mystical/spiritual experiences have effects on the brain that are too complex to be generalized down to a “God Gene,” a “God Switch,” or a section of the brain dedicated to religiosity. His evidence for this thesis is pretty strong—specifically, he summarizes his own neuroscience research with Carmelite nuns. This thesis does not take an entire book to prove, however, so he spends the rest of the book discussing other aspects of spirituality and neuroscience. Problem is, he’s not an exciting writer, so I really can’t remember any of his other points. I don’t recall any objectionable arguments he made…it’s just that the book is rather forgettable. Maybe worth a read if you have a specific interest in the area—but there are better books out there for casual popular reading.