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 Tide, by Anthony J. Melchiorri

The Tide, by Anthony J Melchiorri, narrated by Ryan Kennard Burke
Captain Dominic Holland (Dom) is head of a covert operations team which investigates bioterrorism. As he and his team check out some suspicious activity on what was believed to be an abandoned oil rig, bone-armored mutant men begin to wash up on shores of countries around the world. Soon, citizens become crazed – brutally attacking and devouring people. Dom’s team rushes to find a cure to the bioweapon, as civilization crashes around them. 


I found this book in the new releases in Audible and thought I’d try it out. The genre is basically bioweapon zombie apocalypse, but the “zombies” aren’t actually zombies. They are living humans who develop bony armor around their bodies and get brain activation of unthinking violence. It was a fast-paced, high-action book. The science was very reasonable – clearly Melchiorri did his research – which I like to see in biotech books (otherwise I tend to roll my eyes and criticize every little mistake). Yes, the race for a cure moved along much too fast to be realistic, but that’s the nature of the genre, not a problem with Melchiorri’s writing. Nobody wants to read a book with the pacing of real life, after all. 🙂 

I think this book will be quite enjoyable to anyone who likes biotech apocalypse thrillers, especially those who enjoyed Jonathan Maberry’s Patient Zero. But beware, it is the first in a series, and the story just cuts off at the end – there’s not a satisfying conclusion. Luckily, Melchiorri is releasing the second one hot on the heels of the first, so this may not be an issue for many readers. 

I decided to give this book four stars despite the fact that there wasn’t a satisfying ending. The science was excellent and it was just what a biotech thriller should be. 

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 Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map

Written by Steven Johnson, Narrated by Alan Sklar

Reason for Reading: Science, Religion, and History group read

Genre: Non-fiction – Medicine and History


Review
The Ghost Map follows Dr. John Snow on his quest to discover the cause of a terrible cholera outbreak in Victorian England. Johnson makes investigative epidemiology so interesting that I could almost see it dramatized (and fictionalized) into a TV show – people DO love their investigative TV! 🙂 But that’s beside the point, I guess. At the time of this outbreak in 1854, the popular theory for the spread of cholera was miasma – deathly air that carried disease. After a LOT of investigative footwork, Snow drew a map of the cholera outbreak, demonstrating that the pattern followed streets that led to a particular well (the Broad Street pump) rather than following a circular pattern you’d expect with the spread of bad air. This map, and the investigation leading up to its creation, revolutionized epidemiology. In fact, many consider Snow the “first epidemiologist.” 

I really enjoyed this book. The writing was engaging (it had a few boring parts in the end when Johnson was describing the map in great detail – I think that may be a problem with listening to the audio book rather than actually reading it, though). The subject was fascinating. Sklar did a good job of narrating the book, and except for the very end with the description of the map, I was quite pleased with the book’s audio version. If you have any interest in epidemiology, or the history of medicine, I highly recommend this book.

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.

The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum

2012 Book 149: The Poisoner’s Handbook 

written by Deborah Blum, narrated by Coleen Marlo

Reason for Reading: October Halloween theme

My Review

This fascinating book outlines the development of forensic science in the 1920’s. It begins by describing the poor state of forensics the late nineteen-teens, and pointing out WHY it was so necessary to develop a proper procedure for determining cause of death. I’ve always taken such things for granted and never even thought about the effort it would take to develop the science–not only scientifically, but also as a social movement. Although the Prohibition theme resonates throughout the book, each chapter focuses on a different poison–including the background/development of the poison, the effects it has on the victim, and the measures taken by forensic scientists to discover cause of death. This book was fascinating on so many different levels. It’s interesting as a Prohibition-era history, but it would also be interesting to lovers of popular science. Highly recommended for a little light reading.


The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer

2012 Book 133: The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer (9/13/2012)

Reason for Reading This book is longlisted for the Wellcome Trust Prize which “aims to stimulate interest, excitement and debate about medicine and literature, reaching audiences not normally engaged with medical science.”

My Review: 
 
In The Believing Brain Michael Shermer, the founder and editor of Skeptic Magazine, shows the reader how and why we believe. He begins the book with a discussion of religious beliefs, providing a few examples of life-altering religious (or irreligious) experiences, including his own. I found these stories engaging and enjoyed Shermer’s philosophical discussion. Then Shermer defines “agenticity”–the tendency to assume patterns have meaning and intention (an outside agent) instead of seeing them as non-intentional or even random events. He describes the cellular mechanics of our brains and why we would have evolved “agenticity,” and then provides many examples of how we see patterns even when they don’t exist. This part was pretty funny. I enjoyed his examples. Shermer describes how we can become convinced that our own beliefs are accurate and unbiased, how confirmation bias leads to unconsciously ignoring data that contradict our ideas while noticing in minute detail all the examples in which the data confirm our ideas. This leads to a political discussion of liberals versus conservatives versus libertarianism (because, after all, we simply MUST hear about Shermer’s libertarian beliefs!). The final third of the book describes the progress of scientific beliefs from world-is-flat to the multi-verse (again, Shermer inserts a commentary about what HE believes, which seemed a small digression from his main point). This third of the book also describes how the scientific method works. I found the final third of the book less interesting than the first two thirds. It seemed a little less organized than the first two parts, but that may have been because my mind was wandering since I was already familiar with the material he covered. In the end, this was a fun and interesting read, but nothing I’m going to read again. 

This is the first book I’ve read on the Wellcome Trust Prize longlist, so I can’t say how it compares to the other books. I think it made medicine fun and interesting and would make medicine more accessible to fresh audiences. However, I think this book might not be the BEST choice because many people in the general public (at least in the US) are offended by skepticism. And Shermer expresses no qualms about his skepticism. Therefore, I think his message about medicine won’t reach much of the general public because they will be too stuck on his “offensive” skepticism. Mind you, I’m not saying he WAS offensive, IMO. But I am only offended with skepticism when it is mixed with judgmental comments about those who believe. Shermer was very respectful of those who believe, he just poo-pooed their beliefs. 😉