Severed, by Frances Larson

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, by Frances Larson, Narrated by Reay Kaplan
As soon as I heard about this book I just had to read it. I tried to convince my book club to read it for next month, but alas, the subject was too upsetting for them. So I chose to read it anyway. And I most certainly am glad that I did so. 

Severed is about Western culture’s fascination with severed heads throughout history. The book begins with Larson’s own fascination with the shrunken heads in Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, where she worked. Apparently, they are quite an attractive exhibit there, drawing lots of fascinated people – adults and children alike. 

The shrunken heads were made by Shuar and Achuar peoples from South America, ranging from Peru to Ecuador. The heads were considered to have the power of the souls of the former owners, and when the heads were shrunk, the Shuar and Achuar people were able to harvest that power. The shrunken heads were made by removing the brain and skull. The skin of the head was then put in hot water and filled with scalding sand. The sand treatment was repeated several times until the head shrunk down to the size of a fist. 
Interestingly, after the heads were shrunk, they no longer had any power. Therefore when Westerners became interested in the heads as novelty items, the Shuar and Achuar people were happy to sell them. Even Westerners wanted a piece of the shrunken head profit: they would fake the heads using heads of monkeys. 

Apparently, these shrunken heads are found quite fascinating by the Westerners even today. Many are in display in museums. I used to go to a museum when I was a child – it was called Woolaroc Ranch in Bartlesville, OK – and I was frightened and quite the opposite of fascinated by the shrunken heads. And even today, I searched “shrunken heads” in my stock photo source, and felt a little queasy at the results. Funny, I can read this book with fascination, but I can’t look at a picture of a fake shrunken head without feeling a little off. 🙂
Anyway, Larson’s story of severed heads did not stop there. She discussed trophy hunting during Pacific, Vietnam, and Korean Wars. It’s surprising what a soldier might do when he is in the foreign world of kill-or-be-killed. Again, the idea made me feel sad. 

She discussed the sloppy ax beheadings of convicted criminals in the days before the guillotine. How an executioner would be praised by his ability to cut a head clean off, and would be shouted down, beaten, and possibly killed because of a sloppy execution. Because higher society became more “refined,” they decided that the rowdy crowds that executions attracted were disturbing – so they invented the guillotine. The crowds were disappointed by how quick and effortless the executions were, but the executions certainly became more humane.

Larson finally discussed phrenology, plastination, and dissection of heads by medical students (modern and in the old days of stolen corpses). Until she got to the plastination part, I was feeling rather fascinated but disgusted – actually a little high-and-mighty that I certainly did not find dead heads fascinating. (Yes, I recognize the internal contradiction in that sentence.) But then I realized she had a point. I was fascinated. I was fascinated by her book. And when the Bodyworlds exhibit came to the Science Museum of Minnesota, I sure did rush out there to see it. And I didn’t find it disgusting. Of course, there’s a difference between Bodyworlds versus collecting the heads of unwilling donors – the people of Bodyworlds all donated their bodies to this “art” project. In fact, I find mummy exhibits to be a little wrong. 

Larson claims that our disgust at the collection of heads is rather a new concept – it isn’t inherent in humans. I find that a little hard to believe, but I recognize that some things that seem naturally right to me were not always “right.” For instance, homosexuality. Not more than a couple decades ago homosexuality was listed in the DSM as a psychological disorder. Now it’s mostly accepted as normal behavior for some people – and the idea that it was considered a mental illness is laughable (or insulting, depending on what personality type you have). So why can’t the same thing be said of my own uncomfortableness about severed human heads? But I’d like to point out my own argument against Larson’s point: if people of the past didn’t find the idea of severed human heads a bit off-putting, then why were they so fascinated by the idea? 

Larson’s book was a fantastic read for the Halloween season. It was creepy, fascinating, and creative. The research seemed quite diverse and the narrative was engaging. I really think there’s a lot to learn from this book – at the very least it will make you rethink your own views on the subject of dead heads. 

4.5 stars for creative subject, research, and engaging narrative.

The Blank Slate, by Stephen Pinker

The Blank Slate, by Stephen Pinker; narrated by Victor Bevine

In The Blank Slate, Pinker outlines three dogmas that he says are the prevailing views of human nature in modern philosophy: 

1) The blank slate, in which the mind has no innate (genetic) properties and, as John Watson boasted, through conditioning you could train a child to become anybody you want her to become. 

2) The noble savage, in which people are born good, and society forms them into deviants. Pinker suggested that Rousseau was a strong proponent of this theory, but according to Wikipedia (which is always accurate), Rousseau never used this term. 

3)  The ghost in the machine, in which people’s choices are solely dependent upon their soul. 

Personally, I’m a little skeptical that these are the dominant views of most scholars of human nature. I’m sure there are quite a few people who believe quite firmly in a genetic component to behavior, as Pinker does. But perhaps I’m biased because I’m a biologist and not a psychologist. 

Pinker provides evidence that these three dogmas are false, and that there is a strong genetic drive in human behavior.  
The first section in The Blank Slate that really caught my attention was the one on racism. He brings up the controversial book The Bell Curve, by Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray. Much to the dismay of the politically correct (I’m sure), Pinker suggests that Herrnstein’s data are correct and that African Americans have a lower IQ than white people, and that this difference is at least partly genetic. He says that the reason people are so horrified by The Bell Curve is due to their fear of inequality. That it is not racist to report such data – what is racist is to judge someone solely upon that data and not upon the person’s demonstrated abilities. 

Pinker also suggests that we only fear inequality when bigotry on the subject already exists. For instance, there is another set of studies in which height and IQ are positively correlated. He points out that no one frets about those studies, because there isn’t an already existing negative bias about short people. 

I was originally offended by Pinker’s thoughts on racism, but then I realized that at some level, at least, he is correct. I don’t like the data because it implies something that I don’t want to believe. I still cringe at the data presented in The Bell Curve, and I like to think there was some bias in the studies which led to incorrect results. That Herrnstein and Murray were terrible racists who should be shunned from academia. But Pinker managed to sew a seed of doubt. 

More interesting sections were those on violence and rape. Pinker suggests that both violence and rape are part of human nature. He says that most people cringe at this concept because we believe that anything that is “human nature” must be good. But why do we believe that? Are we all proponents of “the noble savage” dogma? 

In the section on rape, Pinker references Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s book A Natural History of Rape. This book posits that rape is motivated by sexual and aggressive urges, not upon a male desire to dominate females (as many feminists claim). Personally, I have no problem believing that rape is motivated by sex and violence and not by male domination. In fact, it never occurred to me that men rape women for the purpose of oppressing them. Is this really a currently common belief? I guess I should follow the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter more. Perhaps that would educate me on this subject. If you follow that hastag, please let me know your thoughts.

This brings us into Pinker’s section on the genetic differences between women and men. Pinker points out that it is not sexist to suggest that there are genetic (and therefore emotional as well as physical) differences between women and men. There are two kinds of feminism: gender feminism and equity feminism. Gender feminists believe that the male and female “roles” are determined by society and not by genetics. Pinker argues that these roles are genetically driven – that girls naturally want to play with dolls and boys naturally want to roughhouse. He points out that although his beliefs are contrary to gender feminism, they are compatible with equity feminism, in which women and men deserve civil and legal equality. Pinker says that most modern women don’t consider themselves feminists because they equate “feminism” with gender feminism. That most women are equity feminists, they just don’t know it. 

In fact, that’s true of me. I always considered myself “not a feminist” because I believe that my feminine qualities are naturally derived and not societally derived. Now I know that I am a feminist. 🙂

Overall, I found this book fascinating. I didn’t think I was going to agree with Pinker…especially when I first started the book. But he presented some pretty good arguments. One problem I did have with the book, though, is how arrogant Pinker is. Instead of saying “I will now provide evidence that…” he says “I will now prove…” 

He also makes an off-putting comment that poked a pet peeve of mine. He says that any scientist that believes in the three prevailing dogmas of human nature should be as skeptical of evolution as the Pope. I guess I’ve never asked the Pope his personal opinions of evolution, but being a Roman Catholic, I know that evolution is quite acceptable in the Church. If you don’t know anything about what Catholics believe, then don’t write about them. 

This is a pet peeve of mine because I’ve had people tell me: “I know about Catholics because I’ve read about them. If you don’t believe [insert false belief here] then you aren’t a very good Catholic.” Someone literally said that to me (where the inserted false belief was that mother Mary is divine). It is ignorant statements by otherwise intelligent and educated people like Pinker that make well-read people think they know more about my religion than I do. 

That aside, I still recommend the book. 🙂

4.5 snowflakes for fascinating subject, good research, and writing style

Reason for reading: Interest, TBR pile
Format: Audiobook

Culture and Imperialism, by Edward W. Said

2012 Book 160: Culture and Imperialism

Written by Edward W. Said, Narrated by Peter Ganim

Reason for Reading: Got it on sale from Audible


Culture and Imperialism describes how the language used in literature can powerfully impact our stereotypes of other cultures. Using examples in classical literature (ranging from Jane Austen, to Joseph Conrad, to Albert Camus), Said shows us how imperialism was reinforced by the written word. Then, (using examples including V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie) he illuminates how today’s societies – who are so focused on multi-culturalism – read the right books for the wrong reasons. I found this book intriguing. I listened to it on audiobook – Ganim’s reading was smooth and engaging – but I’m now tempted to pick up a hard-copy of the book and use it as a reference in my perusal of literature. This book would be interesting to anyone interested in the culture of imperialism or in literary criticism of literature in the imperialist era.

Cro-Magnon, Brian Fagan

2012 Book 93: Cro-Magnon, by Brian Fagan (6/24/2012)

Categories: Science

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).

Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer

2012 Book 92: Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer (6/24/2012)

Categories: Other

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.

Guns Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond

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.

Vampires Burial and Death, by Paul Barber

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!

The Spiritual Brain, by Mario Beauregard

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.