BOOK REVIEW: BrainComix by Jean-François Marmion

BraincomixBraincomix by Jean-François Marmion
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This nonfiction graphic novel surveys the brain and what it does, including: sensory processing, memory, attention, unconscious activities, learning, language, emotional experience, etc. It also reviews some of the more intriguing brain disorders (e.g. synesthesia, apraxias, phantom limb syndrome, etc.) and what they tell us about the nature of the mind.

If you’re looking for a soup-to-nuts overview of the brain that covers the gist without getting in too deep, and which is quick and easy, this book is hard to beat. If you have read much about neuroscience, you probably won’t be introduced to anything new. The book employs the usual suspects of pop-sci neuroscience and cognitive psychology: Phineas Gage (i.e. rebar through the brain guy,) H.M. (i.e. couldn’t form new memories after brain surgery guy,) the rubber hand experiment, the gorilla basketball experiment, etc. However, because it’s such a quick and light read, it’s not much of an investment to review these topics, and – who knows – maybe you’ll retain more due to the graphics.

The premise is a simple one, the brain is being interviewed for a Larry King-style talk show that at times becomes a Jerry Springer-style show as “characters” (e.g. a neuron, a homunculus, the conscious mind, etc.) charge the stage to get in their two cents. This might not be the most creative or clever approach that could’ve been taken, but it also doesn’t distract from the objective of teaching about the brain – as a more intense plot might have done. The art is crudely drawn, though I suspect this is on purpose to make clear this is not a textbook, but rather a pop-sci book.

If you are looking for an introduction to the brain, you should check this book out. (Also, if you’re looking to review, quickly and concisely, you might find it of value as well.)

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BOOK REVIEW: A Natural History of the Future by Rob Dunn

A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us about the Destiny of the Human SpeciesA Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us about the Destiny of the Human Species by Rob Dunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Out: November 9, 2021

Maybe you’ve seen “Save the Humans” bumper stickers. They came about due to twin realizations. First, the desire to save whales proved too remote to spur humanity into better behavior. Second, the sci-fi subtext that humans don’t need other species and that we can survive any form of cataclysm [including those that kill off everything else] is wrong on both counts.

Dunn’s book explores what changes Earth’s lifeforms can expect of the future. As one might expect, these changes are heavily influenced by climate change, but Dunn also looks at the effect of other factors – notably the growing resistances that results from heavy use of biocides (e.g. pesticides, antibiotics, etc.)

Dunn investigates the effect of islands on evolution and speciation, and goes on to show that not all islands are surrounded by water. (By geographic definition they may be, but in terms of constraints that restrict the movement, interactions, and well-being of lifeforms there are many besides water.) This is important because climate change will drive species to attempt migration to areas that present the conditions to which the species is evolutionarily adapted. Some will fail and may go extinct. Some will succeed, but will upset the ecological applecart of the location into which they’ve moved.

Chapter nine discusses a crucial principle: being able to break a thing doesn’t mean one can readily fix it. Dunn describes plans to use robotic drones to replace the extinct bee pollinators that play a crucial role in our ecosystem, as well as the ways the drones are likely to fail to live up to their predecessors.

I found this book to be immensely thought-provoking. One can argue whether the author is too gloomy about human future (“human future” because Dunn is clear that life on the planet will go on), but it’s impossible to ignore that challenges exist.

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BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha

Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short IntroductionPhilosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Excepting the final chapter, this wasn’t the book I expected, but it did raise some compelling questions. The book did devote more space to semantic and categorical questions than I found useful or interesting. These are the kinds of questions which philosophers may find joy in catching peers in paradoxes, but which are pure navel-gazing, offering no insights on how to achieve the well-lived life or to better understand the grand questions of the universe.

The book looks at the metaphysical and epistemological ramifications of evolution, species classification, genetic and memetic transmission, and the degree to which humans are or aren’t constrained by our evolutionary history. Among the questions I found most interesting were: Is it useful to speak in terms of “function” (i.e. “what a thing is for”) when discussing biological entities, given that those words seem to imply an intended purpose inconsistent with evolution? Does selection occur at the level of the individual, the group, or both? How does one reconcile the Mendelian notion of a “gene” with that of molecular biology? Lest one think Mendel’s ideas were partially formed and are now supplanted, they do internally explain dominance and recessivity, a thing molecular biology can’t yet do. Is it reasonable to apply the logic of evolution and heritability to the cultural domain?

I got a lot out of this tiny guide. It may have spent more time on semantics and categorization than I would have liked (as well as more time reviewing basic biological science,) but it did raise some intriguing questions that I didn’t anticipate as well as illuminating new dimensions of those I did. Your patience with the insubstantial questions will be a major factor in how much you get out of this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cephalopography 2.0 by Rasiqra Revulva

Cephalopography 2.0Cephalopography 2.0 by Rasiqra Revulva
My rating: 4 of 5 stars page


This poetry collection is unique in a couple of ways. First, its running theme is based on the animal class Cephalopoda (i.e. octopi and squid) and how human life likens to that of those many-limbed creatures. It also features ancillary material such as artistic works and interactive exercises – e.g. build your own octi-poem, “squidoku,” etc. The collection consists of free-verse and prose poetry.

The book uses a unique blend of artistic and scientific language. That characteristic creates a niche for the work, but it’s also the source of its greatest weakness, a weakness that lies in the fact that a few of the poems send any reader who’s not a marine biologist running for their dictionaries. That’s a fine quality in a non-fiction book, but can make poetry difficult to absorb — given the importance of the sonic / musical quality of the medium and the need for emotional resonance.

I enjoyed the concept and found it to be clever. While most of the poems were not so laden with scientific jargon to make them incomprehensible for a general reader, a few were. That said, I don’t know how niche an audience the book is targeting. I suspect it will have trouble reaching a general audience of poetry readers, though it may resonate more with oceanographers and biologists.

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BOOK REVIEW: Fungi: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas P. Money

Fungi: A Very Short IntroductionFungi: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas P. Money
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Bear with me. Fungi might sound like the most brutally boring topic on the planet, but hopefully by the end of the review you’ll be convinced it’s worth learning at least 125 pages about the basics of these unexpectedly powerful organisms. Regardless of whether you agree with people like Paul Stamets who suggest that if the planet is to be saved, the solution will no doubt hinge on fungi, (FYI – Dr. Money, author of this book, explicitly urges caution about such grand hopes) there’s no denying that these musty denizens of the forest floor (and almost everywhere else) are profoundly important to humanity. From taking out the trash in their role as decomposers to serving as the key ingredient in medicines to helping us digest foods to allowing us to make beer and bread, fungi can be greatly beneficial. They can also be legendarily deadly.

This book gives an overview of fungi with special emphasis on their interaction with the world. The book consists of eight chapters. The first three of these chapters look at the members of the Kingdom more or less in isolation, and the rest of the chapters delve more into how fungi interact with ecosystems and other organisms. Chapter one discusses what fungi are exactly, and what defines members of this kingdom. Given that most people only think of the fruiting bodies of certain kinds of fungus (e.g. the button or shitake mushrooms they get at the supermarket), being explicit about what separates fungus from other organisms is useful. This leads into the second chapter, which explores the huge diversity of this kingdom. The third chapter explores the genetics and life-cycle of fungi. All of these chapters are limited by the fact that there are far too many varieties of fungi to dive into specifics, given how wildly divergent they can be.

The other five chapters explore how fungi interact, and these chapters also move from more general interaction to those specific to mammals in general and to humans, specifically. Chapter four is entitled “Fungal Mutualisms” and it introduces how fungi interact with other species. Specifically, the chapter focus on interactions that are mutually helpful or at least not harmful to either party. Parasitic relationships, in which one participant (specifically plants) is damaged by the relationship, are saved for their own chapter — five. Chapter six investigates the role that fungi are perhaps most known and beloved for, decomposition.

The last two chapters deal with fungal interactions with animals, with specific emphasis on how they benefit or hinder humans. Chapter seven considers how fungi contribute to health or illness in animals. The reader learns about the good (e.g. contributions to digestion), the bad (e.g. infections) and the trippy (psychedelic mushrooms and derivatives – e.g. LSD comes from ergot fungus.) The final chapter explores edible mushrooms and the fungal role in biotechnology, including: pharmacology, fermentation, and bio-fuel production.

The book has many graphics that consist mostly of line drawings but include a few frames microscope photography. There is also a brief “Further Reading” section that suggests other books as well as websites.

I’d recommend this book as a first step to learning more about fungi. It won’t help with things like identification, but it’s a nice overview of a surprisingly broad topic for a neophyte. As is common with this series from the Oxford University Press, there’s not a lot of room for long stories that might make the reading more entertaining, and so it’s probably not the most engrossing book one can find on the topic, but it’s likely one of the most concise and accurate.

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BOOK REVIEW: Behave by Robert Sapolsky

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and WorstBehave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines the role of biology in the best and worst of human behaviors – as well as presenting factors that compete with or complement biological explanations, as the author finds relevant. Sapolsky is neuroscientist (specifically, a neuroendocrinologist) with a unique perspective as his research cuts across species – involving not only human beings but also baboons. Sapolsky investigates why humans fight, cooperate, rape and forgive by comparing and contrasting human behavior with what is seen in the animal kingdom.

The first thing a potential reader must realize is that Sapolsky dives into the weeds more so than most scientists writing for a popular audience. This will be a plus if one’s grasp of science (biology, in particular) is strong. However, if the reader hasn’t read anything on biology since high school or freshman year of college, one is likely to find the names and descriptions of hormones and neurochemicals, brain sectors, and protein processes a bit daunting. The book has three appendices that offer primers on neuroscience, endocrinology, and proteins, respectively, to get readers up to speed on the basic science. Furthermore, Sapolsky is quick to point out what can be skipped by readers who don’t want so much detail. I don’t want to give the impression the book is boring. Sapolsky uses humor and story to good effect. It’s just that he gets into Latin names and physiological minutiae at a level that most of his counterparts don’t, and that some readers will find challenging.

While not formally divided so, the seventeen chapters of the book can readily be split in two parts. The first ten chapters discuss the types of behavior that Sapolsky is taking on, and then work back from what happens immediately before a behavior (i.e. one second before) through neuronal, hormonal, and other proximal causes to the far distant causes rooted in human evolution. The first half of these chapters take one to a point in the individual’s life at most months out from the behavior under consideration. Chapters six through eight go back to the individual’s youth, exploring the role of adolescence, infancy, and fetal development. Chapters nine and ten peer back before the birth of the individual to those who contributed indirectly to the individual’s vice or virtue, including the role of the broad run of human evolution. It should be pointed out that this first part is where the aforementioned technical depth is mostly observed.

The second part of the book changes the approach by taking a more topical approach. Said topics include: us/them discrimination, hierarchy (and the acceptance / rejection thereof), morality, empathy, metaphors and symbols that become integral to good and bad behavior, the biology of free will (or the lack thereof,) and consideration of the question of whether humanity is getting more peaceful (as Steven Pinker argues in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” [which is arguably one of the main competitors to Sapolsky’s book, though the focus is a little different.]) This second part gets much more into the social science perspective, and isn’t as scientifically dense as the first portion of the book.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the good, the bad, and the ugly of human behavior. With the exception of getting a little technical in spots, it’s quite readable and interestingly organized and presented. As one can’t help get into political and cultural norms in a book on human behavior, Sapolsky betrays his personal biases here and there, but is quick to admit when there is evidence against them (or no evidence at all, either way.) I felt he maintained a reasonable scientific objectiveness, but others may feel differently.

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BOOK REVIEW: Biocentrism by Robert Lanza

Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the UniverseBiocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe by Robert Lanza
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This book argues for an understanding of the universe in which consciousness is key – the sine qua non of reality, i.e. without which there’s nothing. While Lanza emphasizes biocentrism is a scientifically-based conception, his argument will likely find more immediate traction with people of faith than with the scientific community. Skepticism is likely to arise among the scientific community because the history of science from the Copernican Revolution onward has indicated that we are a bi-product of the universe in action, and not the reason for its existence. Humanity, with our brilliant brains that are the most complex systems we know of in the universe, is neither the geographic center of the universe nor are we its center of meaning or purpose either. Looking at it another way, our annihilation wouldn’t even register as a blip to the universe. Lanza (along with his co-author Bob Berman), fairly uniquely among men of science, argues otherwise.

Lanza and Berman present seven principles of biocentrism over the course of the book. I won’t list these, but they essentially say that in the absence of an observer the world exists only as an unresolved probability function, and that time and space are meaningless in the absence of consciousness. Not to oversimplify the authors’ case, but the heart of their biocentric argument is that it’s consistent with, and could arguably solve, two of the biggest mysteries in science.

The first mystery is the nature of quantum weirdness that has been shown true repeatedly through experiments such as the double slit experiment (which the authors discuss in some detail, but I will not.) I will mention a thought experiment designed make this subatomic strangeness clear in the world at our scale. It’s called Schrödinger’s cat. The idea is that a cat is in a box with a vile of poison that is released by a radioactive trigger. One can’t know when the radioactive decay will release the poison. (This is a bit of subatomic strangeness that can only be reconciled in the face of an observer.) It’s said that the cat would have to be thought of as being in a superposition, simultaneously both alive and dead, until the observer enters the picture. The reader also may have heard of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, which states one can’t know both of a pair of measurements (e.g. position and momentum) with perfect accuracy. All of this says that at the infinitesimally tiny scale of the quantum, particle behavior seems erratic, baffling, and is influenced by observation. While it’s hard to relate to through the lens of our macroscopic experience of the world, it’s a notion that is completely accepted by physicists because it’s been validated by countless experimental observations.

The second truth that science struggles to make sense of that biocentrism presumes to eradicate is the conundrum of the “Goldilock’s universe.” Taken from the fable of finding the porridge that was “just right.” We live in a universe whose actions comply with a series of equations and constants that – were they slightly different – would make life in all the forms we can fathom completely impossible. Starting from the fact that our universe is so mathematically consistent (a feature that it’s commonly argued needn’t be) to the fact that turning the dials a little would make intelligent life impossible, it’s easy to start wondering whether the creationists aren’t on to something. Religion doesn’t have a problem with the Goldilock’s Universe because it presumes the universe was made this way purposefully. Biocentrism doesn’t have a problem because the universe can only exist where there are conscious beings. Of course, science hypothesizes its own solutions to the conundrum. These varied solutions generally revolve around the anthropic principle (we exist in a universe capable of supporting life because if we didn’t we couldn’t) and a multiverse of parallel universes (because the anthropic principle applied to a single universe isn’t intuitively superior to assuming a god, goddess, or gods magically “poofed” us into existence.) Under this idea, which appeals to the Copernican Revolutionary mindset, there will be many more universes where life doesn’t exist, and perhaps even ephemeral bubble universes that can’t even exist as a universe – let alone as a life supporting universe.

There’s a major challenge to biocentrism that results from the fact that we are fairly certain that the universe is 13+ billion years old and our planet didn’t come into existence until about 9 billion years after that (i.e. Earth is about 4.5 billion-years-old.) Even if one assumes the conscious life grew up elsewhere before us, it’s hard to imagine it having happened instantaneously with the beginning of the universe. Lanza’s end run around this can be found in his sixth and seventh principles of biocentrism which state that time and space are illusory in the absence of an observer. Of course, this raises questions of how this could be so and why we might believe it is so — because “it’s essential to my case” isn’t a good reason to believe anything. To be fair, there are all sorts of theories out there – many more mainstream than Lanza’s – that propose time and space aren’t what they seem – starting with Einstein’s well-proven idea that time and space are relative.

This book is oddly composed. It describes the principles of biocentrism largely in the first half to two-thirds of the book, with a few random digressions, and then it really goes off the rails. Most of the digressions are little biographical stories about Robert Lanza, many of which are interesting but completely irrelevant to the book’s proposed topic. I’m unsure which of three competing explanations account for these erratic digressions: a.) the publisher said, “this manuscript must be 200 pages or we aren’t publishing it.” b.) the author is getting up there in age, realizes there is no market for his memoirs, and thinks he can sneak the highlights into this book which is sure to have a following if a controversial one. c.) the author was concerned about being taken for a kook and wanted to establish his bona fides (note: many of the biographical digressions consist of name-dropping.) I should point out that these digressions are the main reason for my mediocre rating of this book, and not disenchantment with the case for biocentrism. (I think we know too little about consciousness and about it’s odd interactions at the quantum level to draw any firm conclusions in that regard.)

I found this book to be fascinating – even some of the digressions were interesting, though not helpful to discussion of the topic at hand. It’s a thought-provoking work. I have no idea whether it will prove to have merit as a description of how the world works. I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether they think it is a sound interpretation of observed reality or a physics-envy based attack on the stronghold of physics as the heart of science or an attempt to reduce the fear of death in a way consistent with science (i.e. time as we perceive it being an illusion makes us all immortal.) If you are interested in the big questions of why the universe exists and what is the nature of reality, you may want to give this book a read – not that it’ll answer all your questions, but it will provide an alternative to mainstream views that you may find useful.

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BOOK REVIEW: Superhuman by Rowan Hooper

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our CapacitySuperhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There are mounds of books out on the science of maximum human performance, be they on mind-hacking, sports & exercise science, or some combination thereof as applied to a particular pursuit. Hooper creates his niche by way of a broad and varied selection of topics, including: language learning, singing, running, achieving longevity, and sleeping. For the reader who is interested in the topic of how top performers in a given domain achieve that supernormal performance, it makes for an interesting read. However, it may leave some readers scratching their heads as to who the book is aimed at. It should be noted that several of the topics addressed are of much more broad-ranging appeal than those I mentioned (e.g. focus / attentiveness, bravery / courage, and resilience.)

The book is divided into three parts on “thinking,” “doing,” and “being,” respectively. The four chapters in the first part investigate the heights of intelligence, memory, language, and focus. The chapter on language deals with how some people are masterful polyglots, speaking many languages, as opposed to the harder to investigate question of how someone becomes William Shakespeare. Throughout the book, there is a mix of stories and interview insights from those who are peak performers as well as discussion of what scientific studies have found. The former makes up the lion’s share of the discussion, and the central question with of science is how much of peak performance is genetic and how much is built.

Part II, on doing, has three chapters, exploring the topics of bravery, singing, and running. This is where one really sees the book’s diversity. Books like Amanda Ripley’s “Unthinkable” address the question, among related questions, of why some act heroically, and there are a huge number of books on how to be the best runner or singer one can be, but not a lot of books take on all three questions in one section. The book on singing focuses on opera singers who belt out their tunes largely sans technology – i.e. there’s no Milli-Vanilli-ing L’Orfeo. The chapter on running gives particular scrutiny to endurance running.

Part III investigates why some people live longer, are more resilient, sleep better (or do well with less sleep,) or are happier. Since Buettner’s “National Geographic” article on “blue zones” (i.e. places where a disproportionate percentage of the population live well beyond the average human lifespan,) there’s been a renewal of interest in what science has to say about longevity. As mentioned, the chapter on sleep covers the topic from multiple vantage points. Everyone needs sleep, but some perform best with ten or more hours of sleep while others are extremely productive on four hours a day, and some can cat-nap periodically through the day while others need a single extended and uninterrupted period of sleeps. Wisely, Hooper doesn’t simply take on the question of why some people are happier than others in the book’s last chapter, but rather he asks the more interesting question of why some people who have every reason to be morose (e.g. paralyzed individuals) manage to be ecstatically happy.

The book has a references section, but there isn’t a lot of ancillary matter (i.e. graphics, appendices, etc.) It’s a text-centric book that relies heavily on stories about Formula-1 racers, opera stars, ultra-marathoners, and other extraordinary individuals while investigating the subject matter.

I enjoyed this book. I am intensely interested in optimal human performance across a range of skills and characteristics. So, I guess when people inevitably ask who the book is directed at, it’s directed at me and others with this strange fascination. If you have that interest, it’s for you as well.

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5 Fun Facts about Breathing

Annapurna, Nepal; Taken in May of 2018

5.) The Death Zone may be a myth, or — probably more accurately — everyone may have their own personal death zone:

It’s widely stated as fact that above 8,000 meters (26,000 feet) every human being is dying, no human can acclimatize, and the race is on to get back below that altitude before the body is damaged beyond its ability to repair itself. This hard-limit is widely publicized in reputable, mainstream publications such as National Geographic. There’s a certain logic to such a limit. In response to the diminished pressure of oxygen, the body produces more hemoglobin (that’s acclimatization), but the bloodstream can only take up so much hemoglobin.

Mark Horrell, in his mountaineering blog, challenges the idea of a one-size-fits-all hard limit, and provides anecdotal examples that contradict the 8,000 meter cap.

4.) Sticking one’s face in water allows one to hold one’s breath longer:

Sensory cells in the face and nostrils sense wetness and this sensation triggers a slowed heartbeat (bradycardia) and constriction of blood vessels (vasoconstriction) so as to reduce blood flow to the extremities.

A more detailed explanation can be read here.

3.) Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation works because our lungs only capture about 20% of the oxygen in each inhalation:

If we had super-efficient lungs, our exhalations wouldn’t contain enough oxygen to sustain the patient receiving cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR.)

This and many other fascinating respiratory facts can be found on the Crash Course videos on the subject.

2.) In two weeks time the breath you’re exhaling right now will have spread out around the globe.

Sam Kean’s book, Caesar’s Last Breath, discusses this subject in great depth. In fact, the title is a reference to the fact that in each breath it’s likely that one inhales a molecule of Caesar’s dying breath.

1.) When you lose weight, most of it (84%) is lost in exhaled carbon-dioxide:

This may not be a question that ever occurred to you, but I bet you find it fascinating once it’s brought to your attention. It’s not like when you cut 5 kg, there’s a fat pile sitting somewhere. More about this subject can be learned here.

Nadi Shodhana; Alternate Nostril Breathing

5 Essential [and Sometimes Hilarious] TED Talks About the Human Body

5.) 3 Clues to Understanding your Brain by VS Ramachandran: Ramachandran discusses three afflictions that offer insight into the working of the brain. Capgras Syndrome occurs when individuals think loved ones have been replaced by impostors. Phantom limbs occur when there is an amputated limb which the brain continues to feel the presence of. Synesthesia is a muddling of sensory inputs /experiences.

4.) Charming Bowels by Giulia Enders: How we poop. How our gut nervous system influences our central nervous system. Why there is such a thing as “too clean for your own good.”

3.) Can We Create New Senses for Humans by David Eagleman: Our senses are narrowly attuned to taking in that information that offered evolutionary advantage to our ancestors. How might technology help us transcend those bounds?

2.) 10 Things You Don’t Know about Orgasm by Mary Roach: Eyebrow orgasm, thought-induced orgasm, orgasm among the deceased, and how orgasm may cure your hiccups.

1.) The Biology of Our Best and Worst Selves by Robert Sapolsky: Sapolsky explains that one can’t look at one biological system to understand violence or cooperation. Instead, genetics, environment, our nervous system, our endocrine system, and even the digestive system come into play. He also considers how we change.