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Book review: How Language Began, by Daniel Everett

Everett is an anthropological linguist who has lived for extended periods with the Pirahãs, a small group of Amazonian natives (see Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes). His new book presents his view of how language has developed in the course of human evolution.

There is a wide range of opinions about the antiquity of language. Some, notably those influenced by the theories of Noam Chomsky, think that it is quite recent, perhaps only 50,000 years old, and is due to a new brain adaptation to construct and understand grammar. Language is therefore confined to Homo sapiens, and recent Homo sapiens at that. Everett is at the other end of the scale; he finds that language is more than one million years old and arose in Homo erectus. No sudden mutation was required for this; it resulted from a progressive increase in brain power linked to more complex culture. Language is a cultural invention, not primarily a biological phenomenon. Continue reading.

Book review: The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery, by Richard Elliott Friedman

In a sense this is a sequel to Friedman's earlier book, Who Wrote the Bible?, but its focus is different and more personal, particularly in the later chapters. Like the first book, it has a detective story element, which is signalled by its being framed in the form of three Mysteries. The first of these, which takes up the first half of the book, is about the progressive hiding of God's face in the course of the Bible: the second and third mysteries concern what this implies for the modern world and its future.

Many people probably think of the Bible as a collection of stories and other texts of varying kinds but not as having a unifying plot. But Friedman says that if we read it as a whole, instead of, as usual, in small extracts, we see that it is really a coherent drama which traces the history of the Jewish people and their relation to God as it developed over a long period. What gives it dramatic unity is precisely the theme of God's progressive withdrawal. This is certainly a surprising idea—Friedman himself finds it "astounding". But he demonstrates it with ample citations. [Read more]

Book review: The Meaning of Belief, by Tim Crane

In 2007 Tim Crane was invited to give the Bentham Lecture at University College London. The lecture is sponsored by the Philosophy Department at UCL and the British Humanist Association. His lecture was badly received. The reason, Crane thinks, is that the audience members were expecting an attack on religion of the kind they were used to, whereas what they got was a call for understanding and toleration.

Crane identifies himself as an atheist, but he disagrees with those he describes as the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, A.C. Grayling, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The combative attitude of these writers and others who think like them has, he believes, been counter-productive; they want to eliminate religion but they are unlikely to succeed. [Read more]

Book review: The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell

This is the first book in a trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles, telling the story of Arthur. As Cornwell concedes in a pThis is the first book in a trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles, telling the story of Arthur. As Cornwell concedes in a postscript, we know very little about Arthur—his very historical existence is in doubt—so this is largely a work of imagination.

It is set in the Dark Ages, in the early years of the sixth century. The Romans left Britain a hundred years previously and now the Britons are fighting the invading Saxons. Unfortunately they are also fighting one another.This is the first book in a trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles, telling the story of Arthur. As Cornwell concedes in a postscript, we know very little about Arthur—his very historical existence is in doubt—so this is largely a work of imagination. [Read more]

Book review: Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich

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]

Book review: Improbable Destinies, by Jonathan B. Losos

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]

Book review: Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux

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]

Book review: A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay

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

Book review: The Cradle of Humanity, by Mark Maslin

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 and Paranthropus; (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]

Book review: The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal

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]

Book review: Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

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.
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Book review: Who Wrote the Bible?, by Richard Elliott Friedman

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

Book review: Admissions, by Henry Marsh

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

Book review: The Other World, by Janet Oppenheim

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