Category Archives: 2.5/5

Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human by Paul Bloom

Descartes’ Baby starts off with an anecdote about, fittingly enough, Rene Descartes.  He reportedly had an automoton daughter that behaved as a real girl would, which disturbed those around him so much that one man tossed it into the sea.  It was an interesting story, and has something to do with behavior — but didn’t really have anything to do with what child development tells us about all human behavior.  The opening to the book is an indication of what the reader has ahead of him; while the book discusses human behavior and how children are the same as or different than adults, a lot of the material seems to be evidence in support of the genetic basis for behaviors that already are thought to have a genetic basis, rather than presenting new discoveries that only studying children could provide.

To be fair to Bloom, a lot of the information he gives the reader is really interesting.  I loved his explanation of studies done on normal people and people with autism to discover the differences in the behaviors and expectations of the two populations.  I also enjoyed his discussion on magical thinking.  Children of fundamentalist Christians and of atheists both have a propensity for thinking that there is some sort of God or supernatural power that shapes the universe.  This stuff is cool, because it points toward definite genetic or brain structure reasons for people’s behavior.

What was disappointing to me was how much time Bloom spent on adult behavior.  I expected a book about how children behave, then a little bit about how that ties in with how grown-up people do things.  Instead, Bloom spends a lot of time discussing how and why adults do things, how they classify words and behaviors, and how they feel.  For example, Bloom spends a good amount of time talking about how adults classify morality.  He then gives an instance where children appear to also use that definition when deciding whether actions or people are good or bad.  That’s super.  What that tells us, though, is not that the study of children exposed some hitherto unknown facet of human thinking and behavior.  It tells us that developmental psychology can provide us with support for theories we already have about how people act.

If Descartes’ Baby had been presented in this way — that it is about how developmental psychology adds to our knowledge base on what it means to be human — I would have enjoyed it a lot more.  Much like Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, which doesn’t really talk all that much about Nathaniel, I felt like I was always waiting for the second shoe to drop — I’d finally see how child development explains all!  Alas, that never happened.  This book was ruined for me by its marketing.  It oversold itself in its subtitle, and it didn’t recover from the disappointment that caused.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz’s book, On Aggression, wasn’t what I was expecting at all.  I thought it would be an in-depth look at human aggression, and how it affects humanity in general and small populations in particular.  Instead, what the book is about is Lorenz’s studies of the aggressive behavior of fish and bird species.  While these studies are interesting to read about, and may provide insight into some of the behavior of people, I found it ultimately unsatisfactory in meeting its goal of explaining human aggression.

Let me also say that, had I known about Lorenz’s history with the Nazi party during World War II, I would never have picked the book up.  I felt a little dirty while finishing it after I found out.  I wish I had known beforehand, so I could have avoided the entire thing.

I must say, though, that the sections Lorenz writes about animal behavior were very interesting.  I liked the discussions on how fish behave toward members of their own species depending on whether they have a mate, whether they’re defending a clutch of eggs, and how big they think their territory should be.

Especially interesting to me was the fact that some species depend on color markings to determine whether to attack another fish of their species.  Lorenz talks about coloring a drab female fish with crayons (I’m not sure this is true, or an artifact of imperfect translation) and then reintroducing her to her mate; he attacked her until he realized, most likely through chemical signals, that she was female.  Afterward, he would check invading males to ensure they weren’t female instead.  That’s interesting.

Also interesting was some of Lorenz’s examples of how geese behave toward members of their own families and those of other groups.  It was easy to see how, to a certain extent, those findings might help explain human aggressive behavior and triggers that are in place to protect those familiar to us from our own aggressive impulses.

I do, however, have some issues with Lorenz’s conclusions.  He bases human behavior on animal instincts.  Humans have the ability to reason.  Lorenz himself devotes the last chapter to uniquely human developments — art, humor, science, and medicine.  These are not extensions of some sort of inhibitory drive, in my opinion.  They are conscious, constantly developing attributes of a species that has the capability to make decisions based on more than just whether someone presents to us an aggressive or appeasing stance.

I also have an issue with how Lorenz considered the youth of his day — he complains several times throughout the book about how young adults of the time (which is 1966, in case you’re curious) are aimless, shiftless, and lazy in America.  Well, sure, maybe some of them were.  But others took the mood of the time and did good things, like helping push civil rights forward.  People can’t be painted with such a broad brush, no matter how annoying or frustrating one finds some members of the group.

My last big issue with Lorenz was actually a very small part of the book overall, but was something that bothered me greatly.  He talks in great detail about male homosexual relationships between male geese with considerable insight and compassion.  He then turns around and states that the behavior of the geese is “far less ‘animal’ than that of most human homosexuals, for they seldom if ever copulate or perform substitute actions”.  Ignoring the fact that I’m not sure what he’s referring to as a “substitute action”, my first thought about homosexual geese is that there’s proof of a genetic inclination for some of us to be attracted to individuals of the same sex.  It disgusts me that he could have such a compassionate understanding of geese while considering other humans to be no more than debauched men and women.

Overall, I found Lorenz’s description of animal behavior insightful and informative.  His attempts to connect that behavior to the ways humans act, however, I found lacking in the extreme.  He should have stuck to a simple exploration of aggression and aggression-inhibiting behavior and attributes.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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Exuberance: The Passion for Life by Kay Redfield Jamison

Having read both An Unquiet Mind and Night Falls Fast, I looked forward to reading Exuberance.  After all, I think Kay Redfield Jamison writes with amazing insight into mental behavior, and the topics she writes about are interesting to me, both in an academic way and for personal reasons — I have loved ones with bipolar disorder.  Unfortunately, Exuberance, rather than being a mostly-scholarly work on positive psychology, is more of a rambling collection of historical anecdotes with some study information tossed in.

Jamison is definitely not an impartial author.  She herself has bipolar disorder.  From her account, her experience of mania was, while uncomfortable, was also thrilling and addicting, to a certain extent.  She acknowledges the fact that exuberance can blend with mania, and describes situations where people whom could be described as “exuberant” can also be considered to be experiencing mania.  She makes the attempt to give the warning that some of this behavior can be detrimental to the person and draining on those around them.  Her personal experience makes her at least somewhat sensitive to how mania works, and she does do lip service to the idea that, sometimes, being up is not great, especially not if it’s all the time.

She then spends the rest of the book talking about how great the people who experience an overabundance of exuberance are.  Scientists and naturalists are described as experiencing overwhelming awe and joy about their chosen topics and life in general.  She implies that others, who do not experience the same level of overt wonder, are not as good as others.  We aren’t as creative, we aren’t as vital to the perpetuation of the species, and we aren’t as able to see things in innovative ways and do innovative things.

That’s shortsighted and callous.  There are several people whom I would not consider to be exuberant — Steve Wozniak, for one — but are still creative and innovative.  As someone who lives more on the bottom register of open enthusiasm, it bothers me that Jamison finds it easy to dismiss the majority of humanity as not contributing much if they aren’t extroverted and jubilant.  I personally consider some people she would find “exuberant” to be, rather, draining and tiresome without real insight.

I think this is my main problem with Exuberance.  Jamison sees normalcy in people most of us would consider to be going through manic episodes.  She idealizes those states because she had some good experiences with hers, so it must be good when people experience them without a depressive backlash.  Not necessarily; people are just as irrational in manic states as they are in depressive ones, and are just as likely to have bizarre ideas and be harmful to themselves and others.  Plus, they’re just uncomfortable to be around.  No matter how valuable their work may be, few people want to be around those who are “up” all the time.  It takes a lot of personal energy.

One good thing about Exuberance is that Jamison does put forth research that discusses how playfulness and exploratory behavior can be beneficial for the individual and for the species as a whole.  A moderate amount of playfulness helps cement social cohesiveness and create interpersonal relationships; exploration can lead to new discoveries that benefits the species as a whole.  I don’t dispute these findings, and, in fact, thought that this is what the entire book was going to be composed of.  I am disappointed to find that it’s mainly made up of her own conjectures with a little bit of science tossed in.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

I guess I should have learned my lesson by now — don’t judge a book by its movie.  Girl, Interrupted came out when I was in high school.  Winona Ryder played Susanna Kaysen.  She portrayed Susanna as a relatively normal woman who managed to be railroaded into a stay in McLean Hospital for mental health treatment, while Angelina Jolie played Lisa, another girl in the institution, as a complete nut.  The true story Kaysen tells about her own life is more nuanced than that, which I am thankful for.  It doesn’t, however, make her story more interesting to me.

First, the good part:  Kaysen writes a lot about what she thought about — and still thinks about.  It’s amazing to see what goes through her mind.  It’s also surprising that we’re allowed in there, since the movie led me to believe she was in McLean simply because of a series of misunderstandings.  From reading her exposition, however, it’s obvious that’s not the case.  Kaysen has some seriously abnormal mental processes.  Her thoughts are scattered and, at some points, downright frightening to read.

The upside of this, though, is that she has wonderful insight into the nature of what is considered sane and insane.  She makes the point that homosexuality was once considered a mental illness, listed in the DSM, and implies that she hopes borderline personality disorder (her diagnosis) will at some point be removed, as well.  I think this is doubtful.

Another part of the book that drove me nuts was the claim she was railroaded into institutionalized treatment.  I found this hard to believe after learning how she, along with the rest of the patients, spent time manipulating and lying to the staff of the hospital.  My experience is that, if a person is good at manipulating others, they are also good at spotting when they themselves are being manipulated.  I find it hard to believe that she didn’t know where she was going or why she was going.  I find it even harder to believe that she couldn’t figure a way out of it had she not, somewhere inside her, wanted to go.

The one other thing that drove me nuts was Kaysen’s story structure.  She tells her tale in a mostly-linear fashion, but some stories occur that feature someone as a background character after we have read the story about their death or their release.  I didn’t care for that.  I suspect she might have experienced these stories, or remembers them, in the same order she presents them.  It’s part of her reality that I don’t care to share.

With that said, I did really like most of the substance of her book.  I enjoyed greatly her character studies of the other patients and of staff members.  I thought the recounted tales of their exploits, both large (Lisa’s escapes) and small (lying about sexual behavior to the psychiatrist) were both entertaining and telling about what life in a mental institution can do to someone.  Her insight into so many different aspects of mental illness, relationships, and the society of the 1960s is so good.  I wish she were able to do a better job with how much control she gives her mental illness and a more consistent stance on whether it does or does not impair her behavior.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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Fatherland by Robert Harris

I have to admit, I was a little excited to read Fatherland.  It was recommended to me on the basis that it takes place in an alternate history.  I am a sucker for alternate histories, so I bit.  The premise sounded interesting:  what if Nazi Germany had won and survived World War II?  What type of society would that be?  Just such a nation is set as the backdrop for the story of a detective charged with solving the puzzle of the death of a high-ranking retired Nazi official.

It is unfortunate that the premise doesn’t lead to a truly unique story.  Our hero, Xavier March, is a detective in Berlin.  Called in to oversee the investigation of a body found in a river, March soon realizes that the death is more than a simple drowning.  He makes some quick discoveries as to who the dead man is, learning that he was one of the first high-ranking Nazi officers.

Then he is thrown off the case.  This is the first in the cliches embedded in Fatherland.  It makes liberal use of the tropes of how mysteries and thrillers work.  Despite the cleverness of the setting, Robert Harris merely took his story out of a real-life setting, like Russia, and plugged it into a slightly more interesting place and time.  He also has the woman who, at first, hated our hero, but came along and became the only person he can trust.  And we have the betrayals by people close to March — all of which were pretty predictable.

Even Xavier March’s feelings toward his own country are relatively predictable.  He’s always spurned the nationalistic activities and groups.  This makes it easier for him to accept the horrible secrets he later discovers, but it also makes it fairly unrealistic.  What person, raised and grown almost entirely in a land full of national and ethnic pride, is likely to be a malcontent?  He should, at least, be involved to an average degree.  I can’t help but think that, if he were miserable in Germany, he would have found a way to leave in a way acceptable to his government.  After all, his son isn’t a pull enough for him to stay once he realizes he needs to leave; he merely was going to give him some money.

I do think, however, that Harris’ setting is remarkable.  The way the society is structured is pretty believable.  The actions of people — the reporting of others, the shunning of those who don’t make the cut, the sterilization of people thought to have Jewish heritage, the fear of anyone in a uniform, the growth of an underground opposition — these are all clearly divined from what happened in the real (and failed) German Nazi state.  There, Harris has found something remarkably terrifying in its potential reality.

In whole, Fatherland‘s setting and society is wonderful.  The plot and characters are not.  For someone who enjoys the typical mystery thriller, this can, at least, provide for some entertaining and predictable reading.  But it almost certainly will disappointing those wanting more out of a book with such amazing promise.

Rating: 2.5/5

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