The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells

The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells
Narrated by Greg Wagland

This review contains spoilers

Using a time machine of his own making, a man travels to the year 802,701 to discover a world where humans have diverged into two separate species. The first species he meets are the Eloi. They are an indulgent people living in what the time traveler calls a communist society. It appears to be a utopian society in which everyone shares living spaces and food. But our time traveler soon discovers that this society isn’t as perfect as it seems. The Eloi are an uncaring race. When one of their own is drowning, they glance uncaringly in her direction and then move on with their own entertainments as if such an event were normal and uninteresting. There is a complete decline of intellect. 

Soon enough, our time traveler meets a second brutish and cunning race that live underground. They are called the Morlocks. (How he discovers this is unclear, since the Morlocks don’t talk to him and the Eloi refuse to talk about them as if it is extremely rude even to bring them up.) He has very little contact with them, but he believes that the Morlocks eat the Eloi. 

At a loss for what exactly H. G. Wells was getting at when he wrote this book, I read a couple of critical essays. Critics say that H. G Wells 1) was suggesting that there would be an inevitable decline in intellect of the human race, 2) was parodying the indulgent and uncaring aristocracy and the brutishness of the working class – a common parody of his time, and 3) was parodying communism despite the fact that he, himself, was a socialist. My father suggested that H. G. Wells had the Nazis (Morlocks) and the Jews (Eloi) in mind when he wrote The Time Traveler – though I find it hard to believe that the Wells believed that the Jews were a self-indulgent and unintellectual race. 

What I noticed about both The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds is that both mentioned a subclass of humans who, in the future, would prey upon other humans. (In War of the Worlds it was suggested that humans might, in the future, be used as slaves to hunt humans so the alien race could eat them.) Thus I am inclined to believe that H. G. Wells is suggesting that some humans have a brutish quality in which they inevitably take advantage of and prey upon an untintellectual and uncaring group of people. 

I am also interested in this communist aspect. What was he saying? If you have any ideas, please let me know. I am curious what other people think of this story. 


Among the Creationists, by Jason Rosenhouse

Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionists Front Line
by Jason Rosenhouse, Narrated by George Orlando

This is the story of Rosenhouse’s exploration of Creationism. Rosenhouse is an intelligent, rational mathematician and declared atheist (though the way he describes his beliefs I’d put him in the agnostic category myself). He decided in college to explore the seemingly irrational views of ultra-conservative Christians to try to understand how they can possibly deny evolution. This book describes his journey through conferences, museums, and personal conversations. It also has a light smattering of history of the creationist-evolutionist debate.


This was a surprisingly considerate and fair book considering the fact that it was coming from an atheist talking about Creationists. From the beginning, Rosenhouse insisted that although he was well-known as “that atheist guy who goes to Creationist conferences,” he was almost always treated with respect and kindness. This is possibly because his main goal was to educate himself rather than to change anyone’s mind. He did, of course, make public comments/questions to the speakers at the conferences, but they always were polite and seemed to be answered politely as well. 

Despite this even-handedness, there were a few times that I cringed while reading this book. For instance, he lumped Intelligent Design, Theistic Evolution, Christian Science and and other lesser known ideologies all in with Creationism. He even said that they were pretty much the same thing. They’re really not, though. Denying the possibility of evolution is not the same as saying that God directed evolution. Yes, I can see where an atheist might think the second option wasn’t sensible either. But the basic difference remains – one set denies evolution altogether the other does not. To me, and I would imagine to many atheists as well, an all-out denial of the evidence for evolution is less sensible than saying God directed the evolution. Another lapse in his even-handedness was when he criticized the Creationists as being name-callers – as if that doesn’t go both ways. Trust me, I’ve been disappointed in interviews and essays by prominent evolutionary theorists like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. Scientists can disparage and name-call too.

From what I could tell of his book, the conferences were all about getting together with people who totally agree with you to say “Here’s what we agree on, now how can we get others to see the light?” Then they’d have the requisite book signings and other gatherings. So Rosenhouse had plenty of time to hobnob. In his book, he related several interesting conversations between himself and Creationist individuals. Most of these conversations seemed to include teenagers. He’d give information about which authors to read if they wanted to learn more about evolution, or just have an interesting discussion about the points of each argument. I imagine he had a lot of conversations with teenagers because they’re less jaded about trying to convince people of their points of view.

This was an interesting book, and I’m glad I read it. It had some shortcomings (noted above), but listening to this book actually educated me on certain things. For instance, years ago I was turned off by Richard Dawkins when I heard an NPR interview in which he disregarded a question from a Creationist. This question could have been easily answered: it was the old “how could evolution be scientifically possible when entropy (chaos) is always increasing?” (This is the second law of thermodynamics.) 

The answer is: entropy always increases in a “closed system.” A closed system is one that doesn’t have any exchange of energy with the outside. Like the entire universe. There’s only one universe. There’s nothing that it can exchange energy with. On the other hand, Earth is not a closed system. It’s always losing atmosphere to the space surrounding it. It’s always getting light and heat from the sun. That’s called an open system. Animals are open systems too. We breathe, we eat, we poop. That’s energy exchange. Evolution took place in an open system, therefore the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t apply and there is no contradiction. 

Ok, maybe that wasn’t easy to explain…Point is, Dawkins could have answered the question politely instead of rudely disregarding it. Although I still think Dawkins was in the wrong, after reading this book I now understand how frustrating it might be to be constantly answering exactly the same question over and over and people ignoring my answer. 


The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Narrated by Anne Twomey
I read this book a couple of months ago with Doing Dewey‘s nonfiction book club, but luckily I took notes. 

This book documents the mass extinction that Kolbert (along with quite a few scientists) believes is due to humans. It’s not only about hunting animals out of existence. It’s about carrying invasive species (including animals, plants and fungus) into new environments. These species are destructive to foreign ecological systems because each system did not develop in parallel with the new species – thus the system did not develop immunity and protection against the invasive species. For instance, our travels around the world transport fungus that have caused plague among bats world-wide, and frogs in the Southern Americas. This book is mainly a scientific endeavor written by a journalist, but we also get to follow Kolbert as she shadows scientists around the world in their quests to study and prevent extinction. 


At first, this book made me feel guilty for the extinctions that humans have caused. But then I realized that we are a kind of invasive species too. Is it really our fault that we developed minds and then tools capable of carrying us around the world? Had we any idea of the destruction that we would cause? No. We were just doing what any species does – procreate, expand, and diversify. I also feel that Kolbert was catastrophizing a bit in her book. Although humans have certainly caused a lot of damage to our planet, I don’t think we are capable of destroying a world that has survived so many other massively destructive events. We are just another blip in the planet’s development. 




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

The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O. Wilson

2012 Book 154: The Social Conquest of Earth

Written by Edward O. Wilson, Narrated by Jonathan Hogan

Reason for Reading: Group read in our LibraryThing “Science, Religion, History” group



Review 

In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson expounds upon the theories that were set forth in his classic work Sociobiology. His main thesis is that group selection, not kin selection, drove evolution and helped us to develop societies. He compares the way human society developed to the way ant “society” developed (ants are his specialty). He suggests reasons why religion and xenophobia would have originally developed as protective characteristics of groups. This book covers a large swath of material…from ants to human prehistory, to history, to today. I think he did a pretty good job organizing the book considering what a wide topic he was covering. His theories were clear and for the most part convincing. I think Wilson is an atheist, but he did a pretty good job of stating his opinions in an agnostic sort of way to avoid insulting the faithful. The only statement that rather jarred me was when he suggested that there surely exist better ways to find spiritual fulfillment than total submission to God. This statement jarred me because it seemed he was saying that this religious process developed for a reason, but that reason is now obsolete. However, in an earlier chapter, he pointed out that homosexuality developed for a reason, so homophobia is not helpful to society. I wholeheartedly agree with him that homophobia is hateful and ignorant. But it is not particularly scientific to say homosexuality developed for a reason, therefore it’s good…religion developed for a reason, but it’s obsolete now. What are his reasons for deciding one is good and the other is obsolete? His reasons are emotional rather than scientific. But I’m just being nitpicky here. I think the book was well-written, interesting, and approachable by a non-scientific audience. I had no issues with Hogan’s narration–he read the book well, but it wasn’t anything worth raving about.

Creationism: A Worldwide Phenomenon?

I was rather shocked today to see this in my Scientific American newsfeed: Science and Archaeopteryx Overcome Creationism in South Korea, by Soo Bin Park (reprinted from a Nature publication). I had no clue classroom rejection of evolution in favor of creationism is a world-wide phenomenon! I figured it was something that stubborn ultra-Christians clung to only in the US. I suppose that’s just my Americentric mind at work again. I wonder how wide-spread this problem is?

This issue reminds me of a forum conversation that’s been going on at my favorite book-social-network LibraryThing. We’ve been discussing the movement of some parents to decline immunization for their children–for fear of unproven (and unlikely) threats like the autism-due-to-vaccination scare. These parents fail to appreciate the pain and suffering and endless fear of their parents’ parents during epidemics such as for polio in the early 20th century. Out of sight, out of mind, as it were! By not vaccinating their children, these people are not only risking the health of their own children, they’re risking the health of others’ children AND the health of our already-fragile medical system here in the US. 

Furthermore, there is a discouraging trend in the US for ultra-conservatives to take an anti-science stance. They want our kids to be world leaders in the classroom, but they also want them to be taught that evolution and global warming are “just theories” for which there is scanty evidence. Furthermore, they often approve of huge funding cuts for scientific research. Although I’ve posted a couple of times about studies where I asked “really? my tax dollars paid for that?!” I think funding for scientific research is an investment that the US needs to make if we want to continue as a world power. If we don’t stoke the fire, it’s going to die. I have personally witnessed the changes that have occurred in academia due to the funding lapses during the Bush administration, and the temporary relief that the Obama administration provided. Unfortunately, this relief came too late and academic (rather than for-profit) scientific research is on the decline. It’s harder and harder for professors to get tenure, so more and more of them enter “industry,” where the “evil” drug companies take over their souls. 😉 

I don’t know what the right solution is, but we mustn’t let academic science research go on a decline. We must nip the anti-science movement in the bud before it impacts our global position (and the quality of our health system) irrevocably. 

I am also reminded of this article in the Scientific American newsfeed: Obama and Romney Tackle 14 Top Science Questions. Romney isn’t as supportive of science as I’d wish, but at least he’s not leaning too far in the anti-science direction. There’s a (very small) blessing. I DID get a chuckle about how Romney made almost all of his answers about how Obama is a failure, whereas Obama actually focused on the questions at hand. 

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).