This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is a Halloween freebie. Horror and such isn’t my genre, so instead my list is focused on things that really scare me — and they should probably scare you too.
- The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo. If the Stanford prison experiment doesn’t scare the pants off you, I don’t know what will. Stanley Milgram’s experiments are honestly less shocking to me, having read about the actual experimental design and the way it was reported. But the participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment knew exactly what was happening at all times, and yet they were still manipulated by the situation into acting like monsters, or enabling monsters. Even the guy nominally in charge of the experiment, Zimbardo himself, did not realise what was going on until an outsider asked him what the hell he was playing at.
- Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan. The idea that inflammation in your brain can reproduce the symptoms of mental disorders and make your case seem entirely baffling and hopeless… Our brains are so ridiculously fragile, as Cahalan’s case proves.
- Panic Attacks, by Christine Ingham. This is actually a book about learning to cope with panic attacks, which I found somewhat helpful. But the fact remains that panic is terrifying, and hard to get a handle on, and just the idea of being as anxious as I was when I needed this book scares me rather a lot.
- The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. First, on the superficial level, it’s Dawkins and I’m both terrified of his smug sense of superiority and that I might ever be like him. But also let this book stand for the fear of not knowing — of things, perhaps, being unknowable. And then worse, that people say, claim, believe that this could mean condemnation after death? Erk. Scary thought. I don’t even know where I stand on that.
- Spillover, by David Quammen. If you’re not terrified of the idea of a pandemic, you’re kidding yourself. We’re destroying habitats and bringing ourselves into closer and closer contact with reservoirs of disease like Ebola, AIDs, SARS, Hendra… We may be lucky. We’ve been lucky. Will that continue?
- A Mind of its Own, by Cordelia Fine. Or a number of other books on similar topics — the way our brains lie to us, as a result of the way they function. It’s actually alarming the things you can ignore, given the right combination of factors.
- Why Evolution is True, by Jerry A. Coyne. I find it a little frightening that the general public is often ignorant of evolution and the fact that it is completely proven, and in fact a mathematically necessary conclusion. So the fact that this book exists is half reassuring — because you can learn about evolution — and half terrifying, because oh, how we need it.
- The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris. This is slightly tongue in cheek, but Harris’ views of morality are definitely not mine, and I find his way of thinking alien.
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. The book is amazing. It also terrified me because, guys, there are immortal lines of cancer cells just propagating in labs right now. Right now. And also probably cells undergoing deleterious mutations in our own bodies. And also, the medical establishment is not infallibly moral. Everything about this is scary (though the latter part is, I admit, obvious — if you need this book to tell you that humans are fallible, well).
- Missing Microbes, by Martin J. Blaser. We are screwing up millennia of co-evolution by killing off microbes that have existed within the human body and adapted to us, and we don’t even really know what the consequences will be. And you know, that whole problem with antibiotic resistance. (Which in itself proves what I said in #7 about evolution, by the way. If evolution isn’t happening right now, why are microbes developing antibiotic resistance?)
So yeah, hope you’re all good and terrified now! I am. Just a little. Mostly healthy fear.
The Technological Singularity, Murray Shanahan
It seems odd to me that Shanahan says that science fiction doesn’t examine the issues of the singularity deeply, and yet I feel that several spec-fic books have done so much more than this non-fiction book. He does as much work in imagining, glancing at the possibilities for general AI and what they might mean, and though he tries to discuss them intellectually, I feel that other authors writing fiction have made me engage much more with the issues.
It’s informative enough, but I found it relatively simplistic: it stuck as closely as possible to what can be imagined using our modern technology, which I think is kind of not the point of the whole singularity idea, which should be an advance that leaves behind humans as we currently are. I think it might better be explored in fiction; at least then, it can give us an illusion of otherness, which is undermined by the matter of fact discussions of how something could come about.
If you’re interested in AI, but know basically nothing, this is a decent primer. If you’re a science fiction fan, stick to novels: they’re more imaginative and more interesting, and I say that as someone who does enjoy non-fiction a lot. If you’re curious based on the title, why not? But if you’re looking for something in depth and philosophical, no, this holds nothing new.
Epigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance, Richard C. Francis, read by Kurt Elftmann
Epigenetics is one area of science that just delights me — even the fact that it really irritates people because of potentially Lamarckian interpretations kind of amuses me. It’s based on solid research about the large scale effect observed from the ‘Dutch Hunger Winter’, and the impact it had on the gene expression of not only children of those who went through it, but grandchildren as well. Given the solidity of that research, it always weirds me out when people want to claim epigenetics is just the latest fad, like it’s not valid. It explains a lot, and we know its mechanisms and can predict its effects: isn’t that enough?
This book is a reasonable introduction to the subject, simple enough for a complete layman to understand. In fact, at times it almost detours away from science into literary criticism, discussing the portrayal of PTSD in different characters in a particular movie. It’s relevant as an example, but there’s so much space spent on it, it was a bit irritating — especially if you know nothing of the movie. It also covers pretty basic science, explaining not only how epigenetics works (in a very basic sense), but also how genetics works.
I actually listened to this as an audiobook, while crocheting, and though I have no specific complaints to make of the narrator, neither did he fill me with any kind of enthusiasm. I’m not sure if that’s how I’ll universally feel about non-fiction audiobooks, since of course, the reader doesn’t need to act. Still, he’s saying these awesome things about how our bodies work, and he sounds like he’s reading out a recipe for bread. It feels weird!
The Surgeon of Crowthorne, Simon Winchester
It sounds pretty sensational: a known murderer worked on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary — a murder who was known to be insane and who was kept at Broadmoor for the entire time he was assisting. The book isn’t quite so sensational in outlook; it does describe the murder, but it also treats the man who did it — Dr Minor — with sympathy and respect. It’s surprisingly far-ranging, touching on Minor’s involvement in the American Civil War as well as the work of Dr Murray on the Oxford English Dictionary, and the whole context of both endeavours.
In the end, in fact, it seems to deal so sympathetically with Dr Minor — who without a doubt was suffering from some serious delusions for most of his life — that I didn’t find it sensational at all. It seemed to be as much about the dictionary and about the friendship between Dr Minor and Dr Murray as about the sensationalism of it, which I quite liked. Ultimately, it’s rather ambivalent about the actual subject: is it Minor, or is it the dictionary? But nonetheless, I found it pretty interesting.
Owain Glyndŵr: The Story of the Last Prince of Wales, Terry Breverton
For a Welsh person, I used to know sadly little about Owain Glyndŵr. I knew he was a national hero, and I knew a tiny little bit about the history surrounding his revolts. He was mentioned, briefly, in one of my high school history textbooks, as a violent and dangerous criminal; the rest I sort of absorbed by osmosis, or from brief appearances in fiction like Silver on the Tree (Susan Cooper).
Well, now I ‘know’ a lot more facts and figures, though I’m not sure how well they’re going to stick. While the style itself is readable, it felt like a long list of facts from the beginning, with the lightning-quick tour of English-Welsh history prior to Glyndŵr’s time. It didn’t really get much better once talking about Owain himself. And the bias is — well, I’m not against pointing out all the things the English (speaking abstractly, not of any one person, government, time period, etc) have done to the Welsh over time; there’s been a lot of really terrible behaviour. But there was something blinkered about this — calling Henry Tudor’s ascent to the throne a victory for Wales seems a little off, and I highly doubt that it was ever just the English being savage when it came to war and contested borders.
I don’t know how you can manage to make your facts dry and unmemorable, without much commentary, yet also give such a strong impression of only considering one side of the story. I’m not sure I’d recommend this as a biography of Glyndŵr, though unfortunately I don’t know of a better one.
Off The Map, Alastair Bonnett
This was something of an impulsive purchase, and it turned out to be lighter reading than I expected. Each section is very short, sometimes just three pages long, and it leaves you wondering why he included such-and-such a place if there was so little to say about it. After all, the point of this book is to highlight interesting stuff about places that don’t exist (that either never have, or no longer do, or can’t officially, or…), so surely it’s worth spending some time on each one. Instead, a lot of the sections come across as perfunctory, included more out of a sense that they fit the theme than because they’re interesting.
There are some interesting facts in here, and I do enjoy the way Bonnett cross-references with fiction — when he talks about St Petersburg/Leningrad, he mentions China Miéville’s The City & The City, for example. But it was too much of a grab bag of not-always-interesting facts, and sometimes it also came across as rather preachy. Not that I disagree with Bonnett on many of these things, but still, the tone is offputting.
A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid, John Romer
I don’t know much about modern Egyptology; it’s been a long time since I read exhaustively about the subject, and the books I referred to then were either for children or very out of date, albeit fascinating in their own way. (Christine Desroches-Noblecourt’s description of the treasures and items found in King Tutakhamen’s tomb held me spellbound for days at a time, and I frequently returned to it, fascinated by what we could glean of the boy king, and of Ankhasamen, his sister-bride.) This book kept some of the fascination of those books for me, though it deals with early Egypt, the very first pharaohs. That does mean it covers up to the construction of Khufu’s Great Pyramid, so it does include some of the very classic Egyptian things people think of, though not the gold-encrusted tombs of later pharaohs.
Because I don’t know much about modern archaeology in Egypt, I can’t really speak to the accuracy of Romer’s interpretations. There is an extensive bibliography, of course, and he steers away from some of the romanticised, imperialist assumptions of earlier theories. Still, at times I had no idea how solid a base his theories stood on: he seemed to spend a lot of time telling the reader what can’t be gleaned from the remains, and then building up some kind of story — a court organised around early pharaohs, controlling the flow of goods along the Nile — anyway.
On a purely stylistic level, it has some of the grandeur and wonder of the books I used to read, and finds wonder in the simplest carvings and burials as well as the feats of engineering, but the sentence structure… needs work. I don’t usually nitpick grammar, but there were far too many long sentences where the subject wasn’t clear, or which lost focus halfway through, or were fragments. Quite offputting.
I’m definitely interested in reading the follow-up volume, once it’s out!
Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
This book is a well-respected one which has at its heart one main theory: that we have a certain amount of automatic routines in our brain which we rely on, as well as a more analytical way of thinking. The automatic routines are “fast” thinking, and they’ve served us well evolutionarily, allowing us to come to immediate conclusions in dangerous and ambiguous situations. The analytical way of thinking is “slow”, and correspondingly resource intensive, and we tend to only engage it when we have to.
So far, so good, and I don’t disagree with his findings and examples as generalisations. There’ll always be exceptions, for example being primed with the words “banana” and “vomit” does not make me associate bananas and vomit. Instead, I think about my lack of a gallbladder, because I know that a lot of the time when I’m sick, it’s nothing to do with the food I’ve eaten as such and just to do with the proportion of fat in it, thus meaning that I have learnt to de-associate food as a specific cause-and-effect for nausea. Tl;dr: exception that proves the rule. My routines have been rewritten to reflect my reality, and now that is the assumption I make when I’m thinking lazily.
The problem is that he goes into such excruciating detail of statistics, despite the fact that he knows from his own work that his readers have no intuitive grasp thereof — and me even less so, since numbers are a weak spot for me. And he uses examples based on the American educational system, which is also Greek (or Arabic) to me. And sometimes he’ll digress into discussing some theory from economics, leaving me frankly bored.
It’s worth reading, I think, but I might almost recommend you pick up one of the ‘thirty second’ or ‘simplified’ versions other people have written. The central thesis is fine, but the book drags on.
Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils, Lydia Pyne
Received to review via Netgalley
Seven Skeletons is a very readable survey of some of the most famous hominid skeletons ever discovered. The choice of skeletons to discuss is interesting: it includes the known hoax, Piltdown Man, because like or not, that alleged find had a massive effect on the field for far too long. It’s not solely a discussion of each skeleton’s merits as part of the hominid ancestry, but also of their part in our culture and history. Indeed, the most important aspect is that it places each skeleton in context, viewing them as a part of a larger picture as well.
If you’re very familiar with the stories of hominid finds around the world, you may not find much new here. What I enjoyed was the contextualising, even to the extent of discussing speculative fiction based on the finds. That context is far too often ignored, considering speculative fiction is often right on the cutting edge. For a detailed analysis of each skeleton’s importance on an anatomical level, I’d look elsewhere, and it’d be a heavier read. This is more cultural and thus, for me, easier (though not necessarily more fun!).
Some of the formatting was awkward, but I put that down to reading an advance copy on my Kindle. I imagine those issues will be smoothed out for the published version, especially the print edition.
Home: A Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory, Francis Pryor
Unlike the more focused Seahenge, Francis Pryor’s Home tries to cover a lot of ground — no less than looking at the roots of family life in the Neolithic world, and its development through to recorded history. There’s a lot of evidence to look at, but a lot of it doesn’t deal directly with the home: in fact, Pryor discusses Seahenge and Stonehenge at reasonable length, as well as other potentially sacred places and practices that we don’t now fully understand (or in some cases, understand at all). It somewhat ties in with what I’ve been reading recently about Celtic culture, and the development of infrastructure in Britain, though it covers a lot more centuries, so it was interesting to see where it dovetailed.
Unfortunately, I think the fact that there’s sections about burial practices and the like detracts from the central theme, even though it does relate to how a home life might have been seen and how individuals were treated. Pryor’s willingness to speculate about all these things makes the book seem a little overstuffed at times — reiterating ideas from Seahenge and from Mike Parker Pearson’s Stonehenge, then discussing Pryor’s own digging experiences, and then talking about a hoard found somewhere else… It lacks focus, I think, which is a shame.
It’s still a fascinating book, and Pryor writes well and interestingly, but it feels like the material could equally constitute most of Britain BC, which I haven’t yet read but intend to. It isn’t just about the home; we don’t have enough evidence for that, as much as we would wish it. Instead, questions about ritual and beliefs about death intrude at all times, partly because these are things we are more fascinated to know, and only partly for the way it reflects on the living of life.