Monthly Archives: June 2011

Eight Little Piggies by Stephen Jay Gould

I have to love Stephen Jay Gould. I like most popular science writers, like Carl Sagan, but how many title their books so that the library clerk comes back with a surprised look on his face? He said to me, “It’s a little thicker than I was expecting.” It was about the thickness I was expecting, and I enjoyed every page of it. Gould has a way of writing about evolutionary science that makes it approachable without dumbing it down.

Gould breaks the book down into several sections, so I’ll talk about each section in turn.

The Scale of Extinction

The book starts out with several essays on modern extinction. I thought he spoke particularly well about the dangers of human-introduced flora and fauna, giving the example of land snails on the south Pacific island of Moorea being killed off by African tree snails. I think it’s an important topic (what with living in Michigan with the fear of Asian carp coming into the Great Lakes), but I also like that he discussed the difference between the wiping out of a particular population as opposed to the extinction of a species. He discusses how unique populations don’t necessarily warrant protection against human encroachment, which I thought was interesting.

Odd Bits of Vertebrate Anatomy
This section contains the eponymous essay. It discusses the history of how vertebrate toes have been viewed — for a long time, it was thought that five was the original number … and then came along older fossils with animals with seven and eight toes. I love how this shows that “scientific certainty” has the potential to change on a dime because of new evidence and new thinkers.

Gould also uses this section to talk about errors Darwin made in his writings. He reminds us that judging Darwin by our own standards leads to knee-jerk reactions without taking into account the times, and he makes the argument that, while some of his thoughts on human behavior and development are racist by today’s standards, they were an attempt to make sense of the world through the nineteenth century’s lens. I liked that essay a lot; it reminded me that my grandchildren will think I have all sorts of old-fashioned and biased ideas, and not to judge too harshly until you see the entire picture.

Vox Populi

Gould breaks this up into two sections, but I’ll just treat it as one big group. Here he talks about the true spirit of scientific inquiry, giving the example of his father, who honestly tried to understand concepts that were blurred for him by the sniping back and forth of two authors of different books on the same topic. I thought it was provoking; I liked the fact that he made me think about whether I can respect and trust what someone says based on authority — indeed, it hammered home that logical fallacy for me.

I also loved his article on Bishop Ussher. This is the man who said that the world started in 4004 B.C. Gould explores how he got that date — and provides the reader with a genuine way to respect the man’s technique (though not the motivation or the end result).

Musings

This is also in a couple of sections. Gould talks about how fallible memory can be while exploring one of his own false memories, and he also discusses authenticity, which I found especially interesting. How odd it is when something is taken out of its proper context, or when a replica is put in its place. Gould gives the example of London Bridge, which was disassembled, shipped to America, and then reassembled for display. That’s not nearly as awesome as seeing it in its original setting, and I get what he’s saying. If we don’t have the right context for something, it won’t make sense, and, worse, it won’t invoke interest or curiosity. Artificiality deadens the imagination — and I think he’s right.

Human Nature

Gould here talks about the human brain and the nature of genius, with Mozart as the example. Mozart wrote amazing music at a tender age, but remained the same developmentally in every other category. I liked that he pointed this out; smart people (or talented people) are not supermen. They’re normal except in specific ways, and we all have our high points.

We also get to hear about the branching of primates. How sad it is to learn that we aren’t a successful part of that lineage — too few primates to view it any other way — but that does make us precious, I suppose.

Grand Patterns of Evolution

This was probably my favorite part of the book. There’s one section that talks about creatures that had hard parts that fossilized easily that were once thought to be individual species because of the lack of any connecting material. It took until someone found a rare fossil that preserved soft tissue that it was known to be one larger creature! I thought that was great, and also very much in the spirit of this book — science is fallible and science is changing. Neat!

Revising and Extending Darwin

Here, Gould discusses the changes evolutionary theory has gone through. I think this is important information — we all know about Darwin and his ideas, but how many of us know the amount of tweaking those ideas have gone through? Gould talks about his own idea of punctuated equilibrium (although I’m not sure he actually ever uses the term), which states that things change little during down times, and then explode during times of great catastrophe or environmental upheaval. He also discusses neoteny,which is one of the few things I remember from my psychology classes in college — mainly because I think it’s a clever little tool evolution developed.

Reversals — Fragments of a Book Not Written

One of my favorite concepts is in this section. At one point, a species of clam was thought extinct because there were no fossils found of it after a certain point in the strata. Then they were found in the 1800s, alive, in Australian waters. Here Gould drives home the point that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. How could it be? You can’t prove a negative — you just have to hope that you’re going in the right direction, and if there are exceptions, that you can accept them.

Overall, I love Gould’s writing. It shines with a humor and feels researched without being tedious. I think anyone interested in natural history or the history of science would love Eight Little Piggies.

Rating: 5/5.

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Bearing an Hourglass by Piers Anthony

Bearing an Hourglass, the second in the Incarnations of Immortality series, follows the pattern of the first book pretty closely. I liked On a Pale Horse fairly well, so it was nice to return to a set way of writing. I would say that, even though I enjoy Piers Anthony’s stories, I found a bit of the language and attitude a little dated, and, with this one, the time travel a tad confusing.

One of the best things about this series is that you know it’s setting up for something good. As opposed to the last book, where we meet the new Thanatos (death), we this time get to see the story of the origin of Chronos (time). It establishes a pattern of the reader meeting the Incarnations at the beginning of their service time, which will be nice if that’s how the rest of them go.

Norton, our hero, manages to stumble into his new line of work by meeting up with Gawain, a ghost, and serving as a surrogate father for him. This leads to some discomfort on Norton’s part, and, to make up for it, the ghost arranges for Norton to become Chronos, able to go forwards and backwards in time as he pleases.

There’s some love interest for Norton with a couple of women, but he seems to understand that his new life (and, really, his old one, too) doesn’t allow for relationships. His fondness for being on the move, both through time and space, don’t allow for it. Satan takes advantage of these aspects of Norton’s personality to confuse him and to get him out of the way of his plot. This is where having read On a Pale Horse becomes important.

Luna, the beloved of Thanatos, is fated to become a powerful politician who will thwart, once and for all, Satan’s takeover of the world. By playing games with Norton, Satan manages to make Luna’s rise to power disappear. The rest of the book involves Norton setting things right and realizing that the power of manipulating time comes with huge costs.

I liked this book, but I think it’s mainly for the fact that it’s part of a larger story that I’m really interested in. I liked Norton, but he wasn’t the most compelling of characters to me — he’s a drifter, and I’ve always been more interested in those who at least have a goal of settling. And his reaction toward situations in any way sexual were a little embarrassing, although maybe the books were intended for young adults and Anthony didn’t feel it appropriate to make things more explicit.

The one other main problem I had with the book is I got confused with a lot of the time movements. I forgot what some of the more exotic sand colors meant in the hourglass (I had red, blue, and green down, though), and I had a hard time remembering which way was forward and which way was backward.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book. Bearing an Hourglass has a lot of entertaining moments, and I’m looking forward to seeing the full story when I read the rest of the books in the series.

Rating: 4/5.

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Threshold by Caitlín Kiernan

Threshold

I have a feeling I’m going to have a lot of people disagree with my opinion of Threshold. From what I’ve seen, it, and the author, Caitlín Kiernan, are well-respected by a lot of other authors, and she has a devoted fan base. I have to say, though, that Threshold is, at best, a poor attempt at a Lovecraftian novel that manages to read more like a pretentious Christopher Pike manuscript.

The story starts out with a good introduction to Kiernan’s writing style. That was my first clue that I wouldn’t enjoy the book, and I honestly considered returning the book to the library. I hate to give up on a book, though, and the plot appeared to have some promise — we’ve got a young woman whose had most of the people she cared for die, one way or another, who appears to be in the grips of depression. Add to that Kiernan’s choice of nonlinear storytelling, and there’s a little bit of interest generated for me. So I stuck with it.

What a bad choice that was. As I got further and further into the novel, it dissolved into a messy mix of geology, nonsensical horror, and story lines that don’t appear to serve any good purpose. Add to that Kiernan’s affectation of forming her own compound words (for example, scorncold to describe looks Dancy, an albino character, gets in the library), and you’ve got one frustrating piece of fiction.

The plot, as it were, involves Chance, a young woman studying geology. She’s following in the footsteps of her grandparents, who raised her since the death of her parents. The book takes place after both of her grandparents have died. She has also had the recent suicide death of a friend. Her ex-boyfriend, Deacon, and his current girlfriend Sadie, come into contact with Chance when Dancy finds them in order to contact Chance. Fast forward a little bit, and we’ve got mysterious fossils that never get explained, malevolent creatures that are given no reason for existing, and some weird attempt at a tie-in with Beowulf. Let me tell you: Threshold is no Beowulf. The thought of it being referenced several times even kind-of made me angry.

The book doesn’t manage to end in a way that leads to any sort of satisfaction, in my opinion. I don’t know if reading the rest of the series would provide that sense of completion, but I’m not really interested in spending any more of my time reading any more of Kiernan’s work. I’ll give her a point for writing about geology, and that’s about as high as I can go.

Rating: 1/5.

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The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

I am a devoted Michael Shermer fan. I’ve read most of his other books — and enjoyed them a lot. Imagine my excitement when The Believing Brain came up as a possible advanced review book. I applied only for this one book, and I’m so glad I did. The Believing Brain is a wonderful introduction to how our minds make themselves up, then look for support for their conclusions.

Shermer breaks the book down into four parts. I feel it’s appropriate to explore the book based on the parts he’s decided to present.

Part 1: Journeys of Belief

Providing us with real-life case studies first, Shermer gives us a blue-collar gentleman whose experience one late night in the 1960s made him look for the otherworldly being he thinks visited him and gave him a message of love. This gentleman then took up philosophy and science, hoping to prove there is such a being.

The next gentleman Shermer discusses is a scientist who believes in God. He tells Shermer that he used to not have belief, and then, one day, he made the leap and became a believer. He sees evidence of a creator in the fact that he has a choice whether to believe. He thinks doubt is a chance to grow in one’s faith.

Then Shermer tells his story. Once a born-again Christian (by his own choice — his family was mostly secular), Shermer grew to see in college that his beliefs didn’t jibe with what he was learning.

I thought this part was somewhat interesting. I already knew Shermer’s story, but it was refreshing to read the stories of the other two gentlemen to see how they ended up on the other side of the belief table.

Part 2: The Biology of Belief

This was a really fascinating part of the book for me. Shermer discusses how the human brain is wired to find patterns — if we make a mistake on whether there is a pattern to a random occurrence, we don’t really suffer a consequence, but if we think things are unrelated when they actually are, then there’s a problem. We also tend to think there’s a cause behind things, which has aided our species to survive. I like the fact that Shermer provides us with these tendencies, because they’re helpful to keep in mind both when reading the book and when exploring one’s own beliefs.

Part 3: Belief in Things Unseen

This is the part that felt most familiar to me in the entire book. Shermer goes through several types of beliefs (e.g., belief in UFOs) and discusses the research on them. He explores the experiences of those who think they have had contact with or some other experience involving these “things unseen”, and then talks about the science behind those beliefs. I’ve read books, both by Shermer and others, that talk about similar things, but it’s always nice to be up on the latest science in the field.

Part 4: Belief in Things Seen

I loved this section of the book. Here, Shermer talks about facets of our everyday lives, like politics, and why we dig our heels in when confronted with a contrary tenet. He also talks about the history of astronomy to illustrate how even science can be affected by our set beliefs. I thought this was great. To show that science is, ultimately, something done by humans and is prone to human mistakes and tendencies is fantastic. How else are we to try to eliminate bias if we don’t acknowledge its existence?

Overall, I really liked the book. My only quibble with it (and for shame on me, after having read it) is that Shermer reveals he’s a libertarian. My cliché sirens went off! I really don’t think it’s something he necessarily had to share. The Believing Brain is a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at how people decide on what they’re going to think, and then seek the evidence. I think we all need to be aware of that tendency, and also be wary of it.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Filed under 4.5/5, Advance Reader's Copy, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction