Barbara Ehrenreich, two of whose previous books I have already reviewed here, has many talents. She trained as a scientist and obtained a Ph.D in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University. But she then changed course and has been active in numerous other areas, especially feminism and left-wing politics. Throughout her career she has been a freelance writer, producing a wide variety of books and journalism, for which she has won many awards.
The present book is quite different from anything she has written previously. It is based on a journal which she started at the age of fourteen in 1956 and continued intermittently until 1966. The main reason for returning to it now is that it included the account of an ecstatic or mystical experience that happened to her when she was seventeen. As a rationalist and atheist she had not been able to come to terms with this and kept it to herself for many years, but now she feels it is time to try to understand it. [Read more]
An important controversy in evolutionary biology concerns the inevitability or otherwise of the appearance of humans. According to Steven J. Gould, if the tape of life could be rerun from the beginning it is very unlikely that anything resembling humans would appear. But Simon Conway Morris disagrees. He and those who think like him hold that something very similar to us was pretty well bound to arise, and similar organisms would evolve on any other planets that support complex life (though these are likely to be rare). So who is right? This is the question that Losos tackles in his new book. [Read more]
This is a complex book. It could be described as science fiction or fantasy, but also as a philosophical or metaphysical novel—perhaps a fictional extension of the kind of thought experiments that Derek Parfit makes use of in Reasons and Persons
; a meditation on the nature of human personality and its uniqueness or otherwise. And, finally, it is a thriller. [Read more]
Nina Teicholz's book The Big Fat Surprise
(2014) challenged the conventional view that you should reduce your intake of fat, and especially saturated fat, to reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke. A similar conclusion was reached by Gary Taubes a few years earlier in The Diet Delusion
. Both these writers are science journalists, not clinicians, but their books were based on an impressive amount of literature research and, in Teicholz's case, interviews with leading experts in the field.
In spite of these and other heretics, the conventional doctrine that Fat is Bad continues to be widely taught and believed. But the result of the new PURE observational study seems to show pretty convincingly that the heretics are right.
This intercontinental study examined the role of diet in relation to cardiovascular disease in nearly 150,000 people in five regions. The report appears in The Lancet
and is reviewed by Richard Lehman in his blog
, an extract from which appears in the current BMJ
(9 September 2017) in its From the Journals
Lehman thinks that observational studies are generally "bunk", but that PURE is an exception and probably takes us "the closest we are likely to get to the 'truth' about diet and cardiovascular disease." He quotes the conclusion of the paper as follows.
High carbohydrate intake was associated with higher risk of total mortality, whereas total fat and individual types of fat were related to lower mortality. Total fat and types of fat were not associated with cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction, or cardiovascular disease mortality, whereas saturated fat had an inverse association with stroke.
So "we can abandon the saturated fat-cardiovascular disease hypothesis with some certainty."
I first tried to read this book many years ago but gave up baffled, probably expecting it to be science fiction of the kind I was used to. Yet it continued to stick in my mind, and recently I decided it was time to give it another go.
Science fiction it certainly isn't, at least as that genre is generally understood. It could be described as fantasy, but that isn't really right either. It has elements of both of these but could also be classed as philosophical allegory (it has been compared to Pilgrim's Progress
). It evidently was written out of its author's deep religious and metaphysical preoccupations, not to say obsessions. In other words, it is a very unusual book that defies conventional categorisation. Read more
We are by now familiar with the idea that East Africa had a central role in human evolution, but probably few non-specialists realise how complex the story really is. This is what Professor Maslin writes about in his new book.
He identifies five stages in human evolution based on the fossil record, marked by the successive appearance of (1) the earliest hominins; (2) the australopithecines; (3) Homo
; (4) Homo erectus
; (5) the journey towards Homo sapiens
. This scheme can be simplified into three phases. First there was the evolution of bipedalism, which led to the spread of Australopithecus species across Africa. Next came the evolution of Homo erectus
, and finally we get the evolution of Homo sapiens
. [Read more]
Crystal finds that there are two main ways of telling the story of English. The usual approach is to present a historical overview, starting with Old English and tracing the development of the language through Middle English, Early Modern English, to Modern English. This provides relatively little information about vocabulary. The alternative is to concentrate on words—their origins and uses.
In this book he combines these approaches, to give a series of snapshots of the development of English. History is central to the discussion, but Crystal is flexible and doesn't hesitate to digress from the principal word that is being discussed to include other material related to it. The tone throughout is chatty and informal. [Read more]
As readers of Francis Crick's book The Astonishing Hypothesis
will know, Koch collaborated with Crick in the research on consciousness that occupied the latter years of Crick's life. In this book Koch talks about this work and what it tells him about consciousness, and he also considers the philosophical and religious implications of his research. The book is a mixture of science, philosophy, and autobiography. These are not always clearly demarcated from one another and this makes it difficult to discern a sustained line of argument in the book.
Koch was brought up a Roman Catholic and although he has lost his formal religious faith he is not free of the need to search for transcendence that his upbringing inculcated. He tells us that he started studying consciousness to justify his "instinctual belief that life is meaningful". This explains his choice of subtitle.
[I am] reductionist because I seek quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses; romantic because of my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky above us and deep within us. Read more
The long-running BBC radio programme 'Desert Island Discs' provides its castaways with two books by default, the Bible and Shakespeare, to which they can add one further book of their choice. They are allowed to substitute a different book for the Bible, but hardly anyone ever does. This is evidence for the continuing importance of this book in modern life, even if fewer people actually read it than previously.
For Friedman, 'Bible' refers to the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), which corresponds to what Christians call the Old Testament, although there are some differences. The question of who wrote the text is probably not one that has occurred to many secularists or Christians, and one might think it would be of interest only to biblical scholars. But Friedman has managed to produce a book that reads like a detective story and will hold the interest of anyone who recognises the central importance of this book in the history of Western culture. Read more
As readers of his previous book, Do No Harm
, will know, Marsh is a neurosurgeon who has written with profound insight about his work. At the end of that book he was at the point of retiring from his post as a NHS surgeon. The present book is mostly about his life after retirement, although he was still teaching and carrying out surgery in Ukraine and Nepal.
Like the previous book, this one is cast as a memoir, with some descriptions of surgery but much else besides: travelogue, reminiscence, philosophical reflections. Although Marsh was only in his sixties when he wrote — he was born in 1950 — he is very conscious of age, mortality and the possibility of a descent into physical or mental incapacity. Read more
This a detailed scholarly account of spiritualism and psychical research in England in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Oppenheim chose to restrict her study geographically to keep it in manageable bounds and she ended it at the outbreak of World War I because the context of spiritualism changed after that time.
The Victorian era was marked by sometimes agonised questioning of traditional religious beliefs, caused partly but not wholly by science. This is the broad framework in which Oppenheim examines her subject. The book has three parts. Part I, "The setting", looks at mediumship and the growth of spiritualism since 1850. Part II, "A surrogate faith", covers a lot of territory, including spiritualism and Christianity, psychical research in relation to agnosticism, and the influence of the Theosophical movement. Part III, "A pseudoscience", describes attempts to evaluate spiritualism scientifically, most notably by the founding of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR); there are also chapters on evolution in relation to spiritualism and the ideas of physicists concerning psychic phenomena. Read more
The ideas in this book originated in large part from a collaboration lasting many years between Kahnemann and his colleague and friend, Amos Tversky. The central insight on which the book is based is that our minds can function in two ways, which Kahnemann refers to as System 1 and System 2. System 1 gives a quick appraisal of things that is often biased emotionally or in other ways. System 2 is slower and analytical; its operation is effortful, so the default approach to a problem is usually System 1. This is not always wrong, but it often is. Read more
Martin Rees is one of the world's leading astronomers and cosmologists and former President of the Royal Society. In 2003 he published Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century?
. Rees's answer seemed to be "perhaps".
Now he has returned to the same theme in a 'Conversation' published on Edge
, with the title Curtains For Us All?
, which isn't much more optimistic about our prospects.
Rees envisages various possible global catastrophes, particularly those associated with biological scenarios. The increasing availability of gene-editing techniques is potentially enormously dangerous. It is already possible to produce super-lethal strains of flu that could be used as a weapon. Perhaps governments would not want to do that because it would, in effect, be suicidal (although what about North Korea if it felt itself to be on the verge of defeat?). But Rees's worst nightmare is "an ecology fanatic with the mindset of some of the extreme animal rights people we have in this country, someone who thinks that the world—Gaia—is being polluted or destroyed by too many human beings".
There are many people who think that, but if there's one person who thought that and had this kind of mindset, then they might think it a good idea to try to kill off as many human beings as they can. They wouldn't care who it was. Obviously, this is unlikely. You'd need to have someone with this extreme psychology, but the point is that one such person is too many because the downside could be so colossal. That is number one on my list of not entirely unrealistic scares.
Actually, the Edge
piece is not all as gloomy as that. It ranges widely and takes in cosmology (Rees finds the many-universes idea to be becoming scientifically respectable now and more probable than not) and the likelihood of finding intelligent extra-terrestrial life. Here he makes the important point that even if intelligent life does exist out there, the chances that we can find it at just the right moment - when it is neither not advanced enough technoligically to communicate nor too advanced for our comprehension - are pretty small.
If it is advanced it will probably not be biological. The future, if any, for advanced technologies, including ours, is almost certainly mechanical.
Even though the rate of progress is uncertain, the direction of travel is pretty well agreed. It's almost certainly going to be towards a posthuman world, where our intelligences would be surpassed by something genetically engineered from us or, more likely, it will be some sort of artificial electronic device that has robotic abilities and intelligence.
Welcome to the future.
Start the Week this morning was chaired by Andrew Marr. It was about the increasing importance of India. Marr, after announcing the speakers, introduced the subject by saying: "This rise of India is jolly good news for we Brits [sic]." I've come to expect this kind of thing from reporters on the BBC, but not from a journalist of Marr's eminence.