BOOK REVIEW: How to Read Darwin by Mark Ridley

How to Read DarwinHow to Read Darwin by Mark Ridley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Few scientific ideas have succeeded so brilliantly and elegantly as Darwin’s theory of what he called “descent with modification” but which we know as evolution—least of all not in the wet and squishy sciences. Darwin realized that if a biologic system had three characteristics, one would end up seeing a wide variety of species, but with common characteristics such that one could discern how a species evolved from common ancestors. (BTW: this is invariably what we see in the world.) The three characteristics are: 1.) variation within the population (i.e. members aren’t carbon copies but have varying characteristics); 2.) inheritance (characteristics are passed from parent to child); and 3.) some individuals produce more offspring than others. Under such conditions, those with variations that allowed them to survive better in their particular environment would produce more children (i.e. natural selection.)

Ridley’s book offers readers an outline of the work of Charles Darwin that’s more extensive than Cliffs Notes but less daunting than the original works written in mid-19th century prose. (Darwin is generally credited as being quite readable for a scientist of that era, but it’s still a large lump of work.) Of course, the book is presented not as an alternative to reading the three major works of Darwin addressed herein (i.e. “On the Origin of Species…,” “The Descent of Man…,” and “The Expression of Emotion…,”) but rather as a preparatory guide.

The question arises as to why one should bother reading such a book if one intends to read Darwin anyway. One reason is to help put Darwin’s discoveries in the context of his time. For example, while Darwin knew of heredity, he didn’t have an understanding of genes and genetics. In other words, a neophyte looking back may not know where to put Darwin’s discoveries amid the important scientific ideas that came before and after. Another reason is to see how the critical claims that have arisen since Darwin’s time are dealt with. Darwin’s theory immediately came under attack (and has continued to) because it is inconsistent with the literal interpretations of most major religions’ creation myths, and, adding fuel to the fire, everything we learn has supported evolution to the detriment of creation myths.

The book consists of ten chapters. The bulk of these chapters (Ch. 1 through 6) lay out the argument made in Darwin’s most influential work, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” These chapters explore what Darwin described as “one long argument” for natural selection, but in doing so address vital concepts like hybridism, biodiversity, and geological succession. These chapters also discuss the case for Evolution, and the charges that have been leveled against it.

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 describe the ideas of Darwin’s “Descent of Man,” which examines both human evolution and sexual selection. The last chapter introduces the reader to the topic that Darwin took up in his 1872 book on “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.” This is an early look at what has continued to be an intriguing field of study, namely what is the evolutionary advantage of conveying emotion and why are we so good at reading other people—or, at least, capable of being good at it.

This book is one in a series of brief summaries of the ideas of important scientists, philosophers, and influential (sometimes infamous) thinkers. Other volumes cover the works of Freud, Hitler, Nietzsche, the Marquis de Sade, Wittgenstein, Foucault, Heidegger, Jung, Marx, Derrida, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare.

The book has no graphics and not much by way of ancillary matter. It does present a timeline of Darwin’s life and achievements, and has a “for further reading” section. Each of these features is just a couple of pages.

I found this book to be concise and readable. It’s only about 100 pages, and doesn’t get into supporting detail (that’s what reading the original work is for.) It does pull key paragraph length excerpts from the source material to discuss ideas in the modern context. I’d recommend this book for someone who intends to read Darwin, who has read Darwin but was left with a lack of clarity, or—even—someone who wants to understand the gist of the argument but doesn’t have time for hundreds of pages of 19th century prose.

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BOOK REVIEW: Inside Jokes by Matthew M. Hurley, et. al.

Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the MindInside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind by Matthew M. Hurley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines the science of why we find funny what we find funny. Most people probably feel about this as did E.B. White who said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Still, while analyzing humor may not be as fun as reveling in it, it’s fascinating to scientifically inquiring minds.

Humor is universal (not the humor of a specific joke, but the experience of somethings being humorous.) A skilled science fiction writer might conjure up an alien race that is credibly humorless. But it defies credulity that even the remotest of aboriginal Earthling wouldn’t giggle or guffaw at the sight of an off-course ball careening into an unsuspecting man’s crotch. Humor’s universality begs certain questions. First and foremost, one expects there to be some evolutionary advantage to a sense of humor. That evolutionary mechanism is precisely what Hurley, Dennett, and Adams attempt to demonstrate in this book. The authors suggest that the pleasure associated with humor is a reward for recognizing an incongruity, and they go into great deal to fill in the details needed to explain the panoply of things people find funny, while suggesting why alternate explanations are inferior.

While there’s a lot of frog-killing academic analytics and needlessly messy scholarly language, this book does offer a vast collection of examples of humor to support and clarify the authors’ points. So, unlike many books on evolutionary and cognitive science, this book does have a built-in light side. WARNING: there’s also a discussion of why some attempts at humor fail. This means one is also subjected to a number of puns, elementary school jokes, and comedic misfires that show the reader why sometimes humor implodes.

The book starts by building a common understanding of what humor is. It turns out that this isn’t simple because people find many different kinds of things funny–from caricatures to wordplay. (And, whatever the initial evolutionary purpose of humor, our species has run with that reward system to places that couldn’t have been readily anticipated.) Next, the authors discuss the many varieties of theories of humor that have been raised. This subject has been studied for some time, and thinkers have suggested that humor’s pleasure derives from a number of different causes from feeling superior to recognizing surprise–just to name a couple. After considering the competition, Hurley et. al. start laying out the basis of a cognitive / evolutionary explanation. In chapter five they describe 20 questions they think must be dealt with, and–in the last chapter (13)–they give their responses as a summation of the book’s main points. Along the way, the authors take on important related questions such as why humor sometimes fails, what others will see as the weakness of their argument, whether a robot could be humorous, and why we laugh. The last point opens another can of worms. Even if one concludes–as the authors have–that humor is a reward system for recognizing incongruities, the question of why there is an advantage to spontaneously announcing that recognition still arises.

There’re are a few graphics in the book, mostly these are cartoons and humorous photos that serve as examples. The book is published by MIT Press, so all the usual scholarly features of notes and citations apply.

I found this book to be thought-provoking, and the plentiful examples of jokes made it enjoyable to read as well. I’d recommend it for those interested in the science of the mind. It’s a bit dry in places for readers looking for light reading about humor.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Story of the Human Body by Daniel Lieberman

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and DiseaseThe Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease by Daniel E. Lieberman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The story that this book tells is of a human body adapted and optimized for hunting and gathering that has been thrust by agricultural and industrial revolutions into conditions for which it is ill-suited. The central idea is that of the “mismatch disease.” The mismatch in question is a mismatch between the lives humans were evolved to lead and the ones that we have developed through cultural and technological progress. The human body is governed by what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “anti-fragility” or what biologists call “phenotypic plasticity.” Both terms say that our bodies get stronger when exposed to physical stressors and weaker in the absence of such stressors. We’ve now used culture and technology to reduce exposure to such stressors, while—at the same time—food is more available than ever and is in calorically dense / nutritionally sparse forms. This mismatch accounts for many problems. Of course, technology has also allowed us to reduce our exposure to dirt and germs, and this, after being once a boon, has begun to swing us into dangerous territory.

The 13 chapters (including the introduction) are divided into three parts in a logical manner to address the book’s objective. After an introduction that lays groundwork for understanding human evolution in a broad sense, the first part describes human evolution up to the point where culture became dominant force for our species. It clarifies how we became bipedal, how our diets developed, how we got smart, and the ways in which the aforementioned characteristics are interconnected. The second part shifts from Darwinian evolution to cultural evolution, and—in particular—elucidates the effects that the agricultural and industrial revolutions had on the human body. These cultural forces act much faster than evolution. While some argue that humans aren’t really subject to evolutionary forces anymore, owing to cultural and technological advances, Lieberman points out that Darwinian evolution does still effect humanity, but its effect is muted by comparison to fast-acting cultural developments. The final part looks at humanity in the present and projects out into the future. It considers what effect an over-abundance of energy and a declining need for physical activity have had on our species, and what can be done about it.

This book is thought-provoking, well-organized, and uses narrative evidence and humor to enhance readability. (A discussion of the absurdity of products in the Skymall catalog—e.g. luxury items for pet—is a case in point.) It certainly gives on a good education about human evolution. Furthermore, while there are many books out there that deal with mismatch as a cause of diseases like obesity and diabetes, Lieberman also addresses under-explored issues like postural problems from chairs, the influence of shoes on running gait, and the development of nearsightedness because of our close-focusing ways.

I’d say the book’s greatest flaw comes in its discussions of solutions at the end. The author puts all his eggs in the basket of wholesale solutions aimed to make society as a whole improve, while he could do more to share the details of what individuals can do to solve their own problems. Lieberman considers why natural selection won’t solve problems of mismatch and dysevolution. Then he considers how research and development and educational campaigns can only provide partial solutions. His ultimate solution is suggesting regulatory paternalism—e.g. what economists call Pigovian taxes–taxes designed to change behavior by making bad behavior (in this case sedentary lifestyles and over-eating / malnutrition) more expensive. Perhaps such solutions (which will remain political untenable for the foreseeable future in the US, at least) may be necessary, but one shouldn’t conclude that readers with better information and ways of approaching the problem can’t make a difference. I say this based upon the fact that a substantial (if minority) portion of the population is already doing the right thing—eating right, exercising, and not succumbing to modernity’s creature comforts. I, furthermore, say it as a one trained as an economist who has seen easier attempts at paternalism fail over and over again.

I’d recommend this book. I think it gives the reader insight into the problems caused by being evolved to be one thing while being groomed by culture to be another.

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You’re So Evolved: Love Poem to a Hominid

Baby, I dig your bipedal ways
You could chase down wounded game for days
And walking around on just two feet
You can forage in the mid-day heat
When it’s too hot for those big ole cats
Who bully their way through our habitat

 

My dearest, it simply makes me drool
When I see you working with a tool
Thumbs opposable, and shoulders free
I’m awed when you throw stones at me
Just imagine how I shed a tear
When I see you chuck a pointy spear

 

And that prefrontal cortex, oh my lord
You could plan the move of a nomadic horde
One day you’ll be able to add, and subtract
You’ll think–and paint–in the abstract
You just need vocal cords of greater dexterity
To express yourself with heightened clarity
[not in grunts and stone throwing]

 

True, you’re not the strongest of the apes
And while tigers race you barely traipse
Monkeys climb, swinging tree to tree
You lack arm strength and dexterity
Still, there’s something about you that I just can’t deny
Though you share sixty percent DNA with a fruit fly
You’re so evolved

BOOK REVIEW: What is Life? by Addy Pross

What Is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes BiologyWhat Is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Dr. Pross’s book shares a title (but not a subtitle) with the seminal work by the renowned physicist Erwin Schrödinger from 1944. While Schrödinger addresses a wide range of topics on how life might be explained in terms of physics and chemistry, Pross’s focus is narrower. Pross asks—and proposes an answer for—the straightforward (but thorny) question of how abiogenesis could occur. Abiogenesis is life from the non-living. Darwin did an excellent job of explaining how we could get from single-celled organisms to the great complexity we see in our own bodies, but Darwin didn’t touch the question of how that very first ancestor became animated.

The subtitle of this work, “How Chemistry Becomes Biology,” gives one insight into how Pross proceeds. There’ve been many ideas about how life came to be on planet Earth over the years. For a time, the idea of panspermia—life arriving from an extraterrestrial source—was popular. Of course, the most popular belief has been that there was a force of life (i.e. an “élan vital”) breathed into non-living matter by a, presumably, supernatural force / entity. While the awe-inspiring nature of life made this idea appealing / believable, it took a hit from the Urey-Miller experiments. Said experiment exposed the four materials believed to have been the most common in our pre-biologic atmosphere (hydrogen, ammonia, methane, and water vapor) to lightning, and the result included a range of organic materials—including amino acids–the building blocks of… well, us, among the other life forms of the planet. Of course, Urey-Miller didn’t make abiogenesis a foregone conclusion, but the production of ever more complex self-replicating molecules under laboratory conditions has made it easier to digest the notion that life developed without any intelligent or supernatural push.

While Pross’s ideas are at the stage of hypothesis, he develops a compelling explanation that revolves around the idea of dynamic kinetic stability. “Dynamic Kinetic Stability” is a mouthful, and so it’s necessary to break it down. The best place to start is with the “stability” part. This is because the biggest problem for an abiogenetical theory of life is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law tells us that entropy increases. There are many ways of restating this, such as that chemical reactions move to states that are of lower free energy. However, the most intuitive way is to say that a beer mugs break but do not spontaneously pop into existence. So if everything is getting simpler by deteriorating, breaking, and decomposing, how does one get / maintain a stable state of complexity? First and foremost, the answer involves adding a lot of energy and resources, but there’s more to it than that–as the author explains. “Dynamic” can also be explained in complex terms, but it’s most easily thought of as being like a river in that the river’s existence is stable, but it’s always a different river—ever changing water molecules arranged differently. (Critically, our bodies are the same way. Except for neurons, our cells are constantly being replaced.) The term “kinetic” speaks to how said replacement takes place; replication must be fast and decay slow.

The appeal of the ideas put forth by Pross is that they’re conceptually consistent with Darwinian Evolution. That is, an entirely new set of principles isn’t necessary to make sense of the origins of life. Pross argues that the self-replicating molecules that can most effectively put resources to use succeed in doing so, and—in the process–they drive others into extinction.

I found this book interesting and readable. The author uses good analogies to make his points (which often deal in complex matter) as clearly as possible. I can’t disagree with the other reviewers who’ve pointed out that the book is a bit repetitive and drags out a relatively simple statement of the argument. It’s not so egregious that I could say that it’s necessarily the result of a desire to pad the book out to a length necessary to sell in hard-copy form. (But it might have been.) The understanding of this topic is in its infancy, but that doesn’t mean this book isn’t a valuable contribution to popular understanding of abiogenesis.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in reflecting on from whence we came in a fashion that is open-minded to explanations that eschew the supernatural.

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BOOK REVIEWS: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human BodyYour Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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University of Chicago paleontologist / anatomist, Neil Shubin, charts the progression of life that ultimately leads to the human body. Professor Shubin’s discovery of one of the earliest fish (the Tiktaalik) to survive at the fringes of land makes him well placed to delve into this topic. The book does tell the paleontological detective story involved in tracking down the Tiktaalik. Shubin also uses his experiences in cadaver dissection to elucidate some of his points. However, the book goes beyond these stories to unshroud the development of the arms, hands, heads, and sense organs that lead to our own structure.

Along the way, the author does an excellent job of clearly presenting the overwhelming evidence in support of Darwinian evolution. A fine example of this can be seen in the quote, “If digging in 600 year-old rocks, we found the earliest jellyfish lying next to the skeleton of a woodchuck, then we would have to rewrite our texts.” Needless to say, no such discovery has been made, and the layers of rock remain an orderly record of the progress of life from simple to increasingly complex. Shubin spends more of his time talking about the evidence in terms of specific anatomical detail. For example, “All creatures with limbs, whether those limbs are wings, flippers, or hands, have a common design. One bone,… two bones,… a series of small blobs…”

The book is arranged in eleven chapters. The first chapter provides an overview and tells the story of the search for and discovery of the Tiktaalik. Then the book goes on to explain the development of limbs, genes, teeth, heads, anatomical plans, and the various sense organs. A final chapter looks at what our evolutionary history means for our present-day lives (particularly what systematic problems the process has left us, from hernias to heart disease.) The book covers many of the structures that define us as human, but notably excludes the ultimate defining factor: our relatively gigantic brains. That’s alright; the evolution of the brain is surely a book or more unto itself. There are line drawings throughout to help clarify the subject, many of these show analogous structures between various creatures.

I found this book to be readable and informative. It’s both concise and clear. It’s approachable to readers without scientific backgrounds. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in learning how the human body got to its present shape.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Wild Life of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn

The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are TodayThe Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today by Rob Dunn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Dunn’s book addresses a host of intriguing questions such as:

-Why are there diseases that disproportionately attack those in the richest parts of the world while being almost non-existent in poor countries?
-Why is obesity at epidemic proportions among modern humans?
-Why—while people have diverse tastes overall—do there seem to be universal preferences for sweet, salty, and fatty foods?
-Why are so many people’s lives wrecked by constant stress and worry?
-Is the Appendix really a vestigial organ with no apparent purpose?

As the subtitle suggests, this book is about the role that other species have played in human evolution and the way we look, behave, and think today. The message of The Wild Life of Our Bodies is that humanity’s proclivity to see itself as an island–uninfluenced by other species–has its cost.

The book is popular science–approachable to a layman but with the usual disdain for gratuitous assertions and shoddy reasoning that define the scientific though process. That being said, Dunn does put some editorial opinion out there in ways that might appear as fact in a slipshod reading. The most prominent example being Dunn’s suggesting that what best defines humanity is not our intelligence or ability for abstract representation (or even our physical appearance), but that we are the only (first?) species that has killed other species off not purely of self-defense or for food, but to exercise control over our ecosystem. I doubt this would strike a majority of impartial scientists as a fair and unbiased way to define humanity. Granted, this point not what The Wild Life of Our Bodies is about, and whether one thinks this it is fair or not is not critical to whether one will find the book to be of value. However, the idea (and the fact) that humans have zealously killed off other creatures is certainly relevant to the discussion at hand.

If “terraforming” is the term for how an alien race might environmentally engineer Earth to make it suitable for them to live here, perhaps we could call humanity’s assault on other species “bio-forming” of the planet—choosing a roster of species that strikes our fancy. All the time humans were trying to make ourselves more comfortable by getting rid of inconvenient species, we remained ignorant to the downside.

Dunn covers a broad range of mismatches between who we are evolutionarily and how we live in the modern world. The Wild Life of Our Bodies suggests that, like the pronghorn antelope, humans are in many cases over-designed because of the loss of species (parasites, predators, symbiotes, etc.) that helped to make us who we are today. (One question that once puzzled biologists was why pronghorns were so much faster than every species they faced.)

While it sounds good to be over-designed (at least relative to the alternative), it’s not without cost. In our case, we had guts that were supremely adapted to having parasites, but the lightning fast (on an evolutionary timescale) elimination of those parasites has left us with bodies that attack a non-existent enemy and this has resulted in a number of new diseases. We are used to diseases that succeed in the poorest—and, hence, least hygienic areas– but disease that mostly attacked in the cleanest places on Earth have puzzled us for some time. Crohn’s disease is a prime example. “Rewilding” (i.e. putting parasites back into) the guts of Crohn’s patients has shown positive results.

Dunn lays out a couple of the theories as to how the loss of our intestinal bacteria may result in a number of first-world ailments. Interestingly, some of these diseases aren’t even digestive in nature, and might seem to have no logical connection to gut bacteria. However, our body’s systems are a system-of-systems—i.e. they are integrally linked. One issue is that some parasites have been able to mask their presence, and our bodies have learned to present a heightened response to account for this veiled threat. Today our systems can’t tell the difference between our squeaky clean guts and a gut full of these sneaking parasites so it drops the immune system version of an A-bomb.

This is one example of why some diseases don’t exist in the third-world where the body knows what parasites it’s up against. One might say, “Yes, but these ailments of over-reactive systems can’t be as bad as the effects of the parasites.” That’s often not true. Most people with internal bugs (we all have them to some degree), don’t even realize it. The fact that people with Crohns’ are willing to have predators implanted in them speaks to this issue.

There has been concern for years about downside of the rampant use of anti-bacterials, antibiotics, and antiseptics, and this is a topic Dunn addresses as well. For example, there seems to be little evidence that such agents in soap do any particular good, but they decidedly do bad (encouraging drug resistant species.)

Perhaps the single greatest change in the nature of homo sapiens life resulted from the agricultural revolution, and Dunn delves into how this seminal event changed our bodies. With paleo-dieting all the rage, it will come as no surprise that there have been some major changes to the human diet since our hunter-gatherer ancestors roamed the Earth. Once again, we have bodies built on an evolutionary timescale, and they don’t necessarily cope well with our new diets.

One problem is that we have strong hardwired drives for foods that were a rarity in our species’ past, but which we now produce in abundance. For example, we eat far too much refined sugar because our bodies are wired to love sweet, but that kind of food was rare to our pre-agricultural ancestors. Hence we have the existence of diabetes, and its greater prevalence where high-sugar diets are common. Many people are also saddled with an evolutionary advantage to store fat because their ancestors come from a clime where food was not abundant year round. The problem is that now there’s a grocery store on every corner and this once great advantage is contributing to burgeoning waistlines.

I gave this book a high rating on the grounds that it presented a lot of food for thought, and that’s what I most value in non-fiction. Some of the theories may turn out to be incorrect, but this book offers one a lot to think about and clear explanations of the bases for what can otherwise seem a little outlandish. There is also some wit in places that contributes to heightened readability.

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