What I’m reading

I’m trying to read three books at once, and keep getting interrupted by the weekly arrival of The New Yorker, which takes an evening to read.  In the interest of all of us sharing our readings, I start the comments (please chime in) with this list of books:

1.)   A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: the Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by writer and science popularizer Adam Rutherford, who was trained as a geneticist under my friend Steve Jones (the book is dedicated to Steve). It’s a summary of what happened to the genus Homo over the last million years, concentrating on what happened after the genus made its multiple egresses from Africa. It’s of course going to be outdated soon, but for a comprehensive look at what we know now, I can’t think of a better book. One quibble: the book is written in a folksy, breezy style, and that makes it a bit bloated. There are also gratuitous footnotes similar to those in Robert Sapolsky’s Behave. When mentioning the genetic survey of Iceland (a fascinating project), Björk comes up with an asterisk, and you can read at the bottom Rutherford’s take: “*Who is of course a genius.”  I don’t share that view! Nevertheless, if you want to make sense of the confusing picture of human evolution, what with multiple Out-of-Africa trips, the Denisovans, the Neanderthals, their interbreeding with modern H. sapiens, and the enigmatic “hobbit” H. floresiensis, this is the book for you. I’m 125 pages into the 350-page book.

2.) Science Unimited?: The Challeges of Scientism. This collection of essays, edited by philosophers Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci, is published by the University of Chicago Press. The term “scientism”, of course, has diverse meanings, but is usually employed pejoratively. It can mean scientists overstepping their boundaries (as when science attempts to discern “objective” moral truths); science construed too broadly (Pigliucci, as he often does, criticizes my claim that “science construed broadly” is simply the use of science’s empirical techniques to find truth, so that a plumber “does science” by finding the source of a leak); scientists demanding that the humanities use more scientific methods; scientists criticizing the humanities for being a worthless endeavor, and so on. Different authors have different definitions, which makes the book a bit scattered, but still useful.

There are 15 chapters of diverse views and quality. Some are written poorly; others very well. The ones I found good reading so far are those of Philip Kitcher (with whom I disagree but whose arguments are clear and well written; you can see his chapter here, republished from The New Republic, as well as my disagreements—and Philip’s defense—here and here), Boudry, Stephen Law, and Russell Blackford. (I haven’t read the last five chapters). I’m less interested in the “demarcation problem” (what characterizes science as opposed to other endeavors?) than in the issue of whether anything other than science-like empirical study can give us truth about the universe. I’m not convinced that anybody makes a good case for “other ways of knowing.”

3.) The Qur’an. As I noted before, I’ve read the Qur’an once but wanted to read an English translation that both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars find accurate, or at least true to the original. I decided on Arberry’s translation, and started reading that one. But, like the Bible and the Book of Mormon (I’ve read all of the former and some of the latter), it’s deadly dull and even scary.  When I started reading Rutherford’s book, I put the Qur’an aside because it wasn’t nearly as interesting. I’ll get back to it and work my way through in a couple of weeks. But reading both the Old and New Testaments nearly did me in—despite Richard Dawkins’s claim and the effort of King James’s translators, it’s still mostly tedious stuff, with only occasional bits of “poetry”—and the Qur’an is even duller. But I have to have some knowledge when I discuss Islam, and the best way to do that is read its scriptures. Of course Muslims will claim that a. no translation can do the original justice, and b. I don’t understand what Allah meant when he dictated it through Gabriel to Muhammad. So it goes.

Your turn. What are you reading, and do you like it?


  1. Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Of course the Quran cannot be interpreted when translated. This same position was made by the Catholic Church when it forbade translations (and executed translators!). This stems from the potential loss of control over the message (such as it is).

    Often Christian statements of faith mention the inerrancy of the original scriptures … none of which exist, which makes the claim a bit strange … and also admits that the copies, et. al. are in error as they are not claimed to be inerrant.

    The Quran and the hadith, etc. are a jumbled up mess that Islamic scholars fight over incessantly as to how to untangle. At this point that prospect is very, very dim. This, of course does not hinder those who “know” what their scripture says. Kind of like Donald Trump’s latest memo that proves … whatever, but since it is four pages long, has not been read by Mr. Trump.

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Ironically, the Catholics were already reading translations (Hebrew->Latin and Greek->Latin).

  2. Mark Reaume
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I’ve finally gotten around to reading Steven Pinker’s Better Angles of our Nature. I’m a slow reader so it is taking some time to get through. I’m enjoying it though.

    I also recently finished reading Max Tegmark’s book on AI. Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. It is worth reading IMHO.

    • Mark Reaume
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      Oh, I also started to read Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, I’m not quite sure what to make of it yet.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        Ah yes

        I was completely taken by it. Chestnut-status.

        Then someone made fun of it.

        I think I was just fooling myself.

        It’s still got interesting things, and fun, but I mean – what the hell is his point?

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      I’ve finally gotten around to reading Steven Pinker’s Better Angles of our Nature.

      My favourite Angles are right, obtuse, and, of course, Sceafa. Pinker doesn’t mention them, oddly.

      • Posted February 5, 2018 at 5:46 am | Permalink

        The acute Angles penetrated the country, the obtuse remained on the coast.

    • Simon
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 3:35 am | Permalink

      What’s Pinker’s opinion? Obtuse, 60 degrees, closer to 180 degrees?

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 5:45 am | Permalink

      Non Angli, sed Angeli!!!

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Interesting picks.
    Relevant, In progress :

    Fantasyland – Kurt Andersen
    Wild Things – Bruce Handy

    Blather-ramble :

    I haven’t finished one complete GD book or anything in ages. Instead, an ongoing pile, replenished from the library, either in memory, cell phone, or in physical form on the table, or at a library that doesn’t lend it out, that sits while I am distracted by other things.

    Thus, I have I started books – now audiobooks too – these are great – and other books I read over and over, like poetry, or such a likes… also titles like “special functions”, or “Crockett’s Victory Garden”, “Connections-James Burke (un started)”..,

    Hard to explain without giving away personal info..,

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      “Astrophysics for people in a hurry – NDT”

      • Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        Ditto for NDT’s Astrophysics;
        Finished: The Once and Future Liberal (Mark Lilla); How Democracies Die (Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt); (I tried John Updike’s The Coup, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, really tried…but had to dump them). I am convinced that one cannot take others’ recommendations for fiction.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          NDT Hard copy plus audiobook

          Imagine NDT reading his book to you – only thing missing’d be the sound of a fire crackling… coyotes … owls….

          Public libraries FTW

          (FTW means “for the win”)

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted February 5, 2018 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

        I just discovered this book (AFPIAH by NDT) fits in my coat pocket better than the standard book size.

        Therefore I will read it more.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      Lemmee give the full titles – I guess its so they sound more interesting:

      Fantasyland – how America went haywire – a 500 year history – Kurt Andersen

      Wild Things- the joy of reading children’s literature as an adult – Bruce handy

      …. note: it is “how America went haywire”, not “How the United States of America went haywire”.

      • Conelrad
        Posted February 4, 2018 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        I enjoyed Fantasyland but there were places in the text which read as if they should have had a footnote or endnote, but none were provided. Maybe they were deleted from the final published product for reasons of cost control, or maybe it was just a quirk of the author.

        • sensorrhea
          Posted February 5, 2018 at 7:49 am | Permalink

          I think Fantasyland is an essential book for our time, but I also was annoyed by the total lack of endnotes.

  4. Jeff
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I’m excited to read A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived at some point – the list keeps growing. It seems like a really interesting approach to the topic.

    I’m currently working on Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking, as well as How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett (in which she does a pop science communication of her somewhat radical psychological constructivist theory of emotion). I recently finished Peter Godfrey Smith’s book Other Minds (on cephalopod consciousness). It was a bit disorganized in terms of flow from chapter to chapter, but filled to the brim with awesome stuff.

  5. DrBrydon
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I just started re-reading Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, which I first read about a dozen years ago. After that I am going back to Mises Human Action, which I only got about halfway through a few years back.

    • Bogi Trickovic
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      You will most definitely enjoy David Deutsch’s “The Beginning of Infinity” if you haven’t read it already. His thinking is heavily influenced by both Popper and Mises.

      • DrBrydon
        Posted February 4, 2018 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, I’ll check it out!

  6. Austin Johnson
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Currently reading “The War on Science” by Shawn Otto. I’m only about 50 pages in but I am enjoying it so far.

  7. Christopher
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock, by Evelyn Fox Keller and frankly I find it deadly dull. Perhaps I’m not educated enough to understand it, or perhaps it’s just written for geneticist, or perhaps it really is dull and has thus far (by page 137 of 207) left me with little insight into McClintock as a person. For instance, she apparently went to Germany to work in 1933, yet we get little more than “she doesn’t like to talk about that period.” Gee, thanks for the insight!

  8. anthonyherbert2014
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I am reading the Seabird’s Cry by Adam Nicolson.
    It details the astonishing lives of 10 species of Atlantic birds and how they survive in such a hostile (to we humans) environment. It is really distressing how they are declining in such numbers.

  9. Mark Joseph
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Non-fiction: Life, Sex and Ideas, a collection of short essays by A. C. Grayling.

    Fiction: Just yesterday I finished the fourth and last novel in the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons. This is now my all-time favorite science fiction; spectacularly wonderful beyond my feeble abilities to explain.

    I’m also reading the Koran, but as it is so excruciatingly boring, I must admit that I’m only picking it up every now and then. At least I’ve gotten through the longest sections (suras 2-4; most of you probably know that, except for #1, the 114 suras of the Koran are arranged in roughly decreasing order of length). Was amused to read how the Jews were turned into apes (2.78; almost as good as bats being classified as birds), and of course very interested to read the famous “beat your wives” verse (4.34) in its context (sura 4 is the one about women). I’ll be interested to hear from PCC(E) if Arberry’s translation adds the word “lightly” to try to soften the verse, as I understand most modern translations do.

    In fact, here, on a christian apologetics website, is a brief post about this verse, and then some comments in which christians and muslims basically argue about which one of their religions mistreats women less. To me, it sounds like three-year olds arguing about which kind of cheese the moon is made of. Neither one of them can “imagine no religion”.

  10. Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    I am in the middle of The Secret Agent by Conrad. It appears to be about a suicide bombing. It was conducted by anarchists aimed at “Science” in the form of Greenwich. The inspiration was an actual anarchist attack in London around 1894 when the definition of terror had transmuted from its association with the state’s action in the French revolution to its application by terrorist, but not insurgent, groups practising the propaganda of the deed.

    Written in the form of a crime novel, the book depicts the anarchists as a squabbling, incoherent group, back-biting pettily, unfocussed in their aims, physically grotesque and pitiful more than pitiless. The prose can be dense, yet it occasionally takes wing. I am told that Conrad thought in Polish, translated into French and set his words down in English: periodically, one can tell that this is a foreigner’s English and all the more playful to read for that. It is worth a weekend of your time. One can see the topicality of the book for its era, but I am not convinced that it provides lasting perspicacity on the mind of the individual terrorist.

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      You should try The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents by Alex Butterworth, which is a non-fiction book about the anarchist movement of the time. Conrad wasn’t too far out, particularly about the conflicts within anarchism and the role of agent provocateurs in many of the attacks.

      My favourite anacdote in the book was about the agent that penetrated Marx’s inner circle so thoroughly that Marx got him to examine his haemorrhoids.

      Also, Kropotkin’s escape from jail which involved a prize winning racehorse, a classical violinist and thousands of red balloons.

      • Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

        I think there was also a juggler involved.

      • Posted February 4, 2018 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        Speaker to Animals, I’m coming back to this topic after 35 years. My BA thesis was 20,000 words, I think, in French on Anarcho-Syndicalism, the Labour Movement and WWI, all of which I have forgotten, and probably none of which was worth reading anyway.

        I am half way through The Secret Agent and have not come across a conversation about terrorism which addresses anything beyond the always vague late-Victorian idea of the propaganda of the deed which was supposed in some ill-defined way to raise the consciousness of the masses to overthrow the capitalist order. Sure, you can analogize it with AQ and IS and spot partial success on their terms but that was not only due to the POTD. Any partial terrorist success will also involve the tactics of attrition (IRA), insurgency (IS), guerrilla warfare (FARC), spoiling of peace processes (Hamas) and lone wolves (rare and almost a myth), and Conrad’s book predates those developments.

        This leaves you with any psychological insights he might have on the individual terrorist and how he is formed. So far, all the men in the terrorist cell enter the story fully-formed rather than developing. I have not seen a discussion of the us vs. them thinking necessary for a terrorist’s world-view nor of the inhibitory mechanisms which collapse when a terrorist decides that he it is who should do the deed. It puts in mind the reports of the recent trial of Darren Osborne, the Finsbury Park mosque attacker. I saw no evidence put on his psychology, the stages through which he went before deciding to murder those worshipers. We found out what he did, what he watched online, but no testimony from a psychologist of terrorism as to the stages he went through. We are left with politically-charged conjecture pointing the finger at him being triggered by a TV drama, and by far-right bigotry against Muslims. Like in Conrad, we know of Osborne’s terrorist technique and his anger, but we could know more about how he got to become a terrorist. I do not buy the narrative that he went through the 5 stages of “radicalization” in a month: it takes much longer than that.

        Having only read half of Conrad’s novel, I may be doing him a disservice. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Well said. It’s an interesting book. The main character at one point says in effect that it’s a mistake to think that their terrorist acts are aimed at a political objective: they are perpetrated in order to disrupt and to provoke overreaction. That strikes me as a pretty contemporary attitude.

  11. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Reading a book from a few years back, Vindicating Lincoln by Thomas Krannawitter. The author attempts to answer some questions such as – Was Lincoln a Racist, Was the Kansas-Nebraska act Pro-Choice or Pro-Slavery and other questions of the time.

    In the earlier Kitten Bowl it was Little Longtails 28 and Lions 27. Very close game.

  12. Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    “Science Construed Broadly” is a great name for a blog!

  13. Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I tried to read the Arberry Qu’ran and gave up after a few chapters. I really do have more interesting things to do. If you left out all the bit about Allah’s being loving and forgiving, it would be half as long. Even more long-winded than the Old Testament.

    Recently read and much liked Austen’s “Emma” and Le Carré’s latest, “A legacy of spies”, which revisits the events of the spy who came in from the cold from other points of view. Better than his last few.

    Best fiction I’ve read lately, tho. was Margaret Kennedy’s “The constant nymph” — funny and moving and oonstantly getting into the heads of almost _all_ the characters.

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Glad to hear there’s a good Le Carré book out. I have reread his cold war novels several times, but the recent ones have left me cold.

  14. Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I won’t be buying any books by Rutherford as he supports the deplatforming of James Watson.

    He may have unravelled DNA, but James Watson deserves to be shunned


    • Frank Bath
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      In which case I won’t be reading James Watson’s book because he is a racist.

      • Craw
        Posted February 4, 2018 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

        Oh that’s not nearly enough. You must reject his discoveries too.

        • Posted February 5, 2018 at 4:15 am | Permalink

          He’s also probably a child molester because his surname ends with “n”. Just like Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen who ought to be removed from history.

    • bric
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see any mention of ‘deplatforming’ in this piece; and Rutherford (who is half Indo-Guyanese)is surely entitled to express his opinion on Watson’s published remarks.

      • Garry VanGelderen
        Posted February 4, 2018 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

        Why even mention his country back-ground. what does that have to do with any argument??

        • Jonathan Wallace
          Posted February 5, 2018 at 3:57 am | Permalink

          Irrespective of the relevance or not of Rutherford’s racial backgound, bric is correct to point out that Rutherford’s article makes no mention of deplatforming Watson or shunning him (and the headline was almost certainly written by a sub-editor, not Rutherford).

          If you read the article it states quite clearly that Watson deserves his reputation as a scientific great and describes ‘The Double Helix’ as being ‘deservedly’ considered a classic of non-fiction writing. But he also makes the uncontroversial point that ‘scientists are just people’ and ‘Some Nobel laureates say stupid ignorant things’. In Watson’s case this entailed expressing views that many people consider unpleasantly racist.

          Rutherford’s conclusion is that we should: “celebrate science when it is great, and scientists when they deserve it. And when they turn out to be awful bigots, let’s be honest about that too. It turns out that just like DNA, people are messy, complex and sometimes full of hideous errors”. That seems to be a pretty reasonable conclusion to draw and does not seem to me to argue for shunning anyone or discounting their achievements on the basis of other character flaws.

          To shun Rutherford’s work on the basis of this article would seem to me to be an act that is more guilty of the crime it is seeking to punish than Rutherford’s article ever was.

          • Posted February 5, 2018 at 4:25 am | Permalink

            Exactly. I wish people would read the articles they refer to.

    • Christopher
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      That’s a shame but I’m not surprised. It seems we are well and truly invested in the throwing out babies out with the bath water mentality these days. I’ve only known of Rutherford from his BBC 4 program Inside Science. I hadn’t planned on reading anything by him but I also won’t be setting my stack of books by Watson alight any time soon. I sure hope for Rutherford’s sake that he has a long life and NEVER says anything based on his own generational mores that in the far away future might get him labeled an undesirable!

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      Oh dear. Watson is a racist, I think, but he wasn’t going to talk about race at any rate, and he was disinvited after he’d been invited. I didn’t know Rutherford supported that action.

      • Craw
        Posted February 5, 2018 at 7:28 am | Permalink

        This seems like a good example to raise a point I think too neglected. We seem to have conflated prejudice, bigotry, and racism. Watson’s remark about black employees sounds to me like he has prejudices. I have no doubt he believed the conclusion independently of his experience with any employees, and it probably goes with other prejudices he hasn’t revealed. I think even a lot of people of good will who supported civil rights held such prejudices when I was younger. I can recall discussions with some.
        Is it really right to call that racist? It certainly won’t help change changeable minds (which Watson might not be of course).

  15. Erik
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I just finished (and wrote a review of) Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith. The author’s main area is Philosophy of Science, with an emphasis on Biology, but he has also co-authored several papers on Octopus behavior. His approach has an evolutionary emphasis throughout and he avoids even a hint of anthropocentrism. The philosophical discussions, when they occur, are lucid and free of jargon. The main theme of the book is the complex behavior of cephalopods and the potential spectrum of consciousness.

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      +1 An excellent book that should interest people on this site.

      • Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        I should add to Erik’s comment, that Godfrey-Smith is a diver who swims with the octopuses and much of the book is about those experiences. What makes cephalopods so interesting is that they provide an example of the evolution of intelligence in a line that evolved so differently than ours. The Mollusca and Chordata lines separated over half a billion years ago. You’ll also learn interesting facts, such as that the majority of an octopus’s neurons are in its arms.

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      That sounds good.
      Octopus intrigued me after reading about a researcher studying them.
      He had a live octopus in his lab and it would quirt a jet of water at him when he arrived,
      presumably to get some attention, very amusing and cheeky.
      It seemed to indicate a certain level of “me”
      or “i” which surprised me, got a whole new appreciation of this remarkable creature.
      I will put this book on my list. Thanks.

    • bric
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      “In Our Time” last week was on Cephalopods, as always well worth hearing


    • Christopher
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      That’s the kind of book that the late Oliver Sacks would have loved and been perfect for writing the forward. It’s a shame he missed it. I cannot help but think of him whenever cephalopods are mentioned.

      I’ll keep an eye out for that book. Thanks for the suggestion.

  16. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Is there ANY book that has so much expectation of thorough, excruciating, Talmudic, multi-language understanding and interpretive elaboration as .. well, the Talmud, the Koran, the Bible…?

    • tinwoman
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      You’d think they would have exhausted the source material by now……..

  17. Larry Smith
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m currently reading “Le Ton beau de Marot” by Douglas Hofstadter (he of GEB fame). Fascinating and entertaining examination of translation and its implications re: information, understanding, language, AI, etc.

    Also reading “The City and the City,” by China Mieville, a surreal sci-fi/detective novel about two cities that coexist in the same time and space and yet, for slowly revealed reasons, must utterly ignore each other.

    Finally, down to the last dregs of “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” which was quite worthwhile most of the way through, but by now I’m mostly saying “OK, I get it…”

  18. Jake Sevins
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m reading “The Bell Curve.”

    But I hide it whenever friends come over.

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      The benefit of a Kindle is no one knows what you are reading.

      I’m reading Six Not-So-Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman and a novelisation of Doctor Who – The Pirate Planet based on Douglas Adams’s original script (which is very different than the TV version).

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        “Six Not-So-Easy Pieces”

        Another book i’m Halfway through but a favorite – still a chestnut!

        • KD33
          Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          Agreed, a great Feynman book. The General Relativity chapters are beautiful.

          • ThyroidPlanet
            Posted February 4, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

            A favorite quote – but don’t quote me :

            … actually a quote of a quote, attributed to Poincare :

            A complete conspiracy is itself a law of nature

            … but this is off the top of my head.. OTTOMH…

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      That book got a bad rap, mostly by people who hadn’t read it. The key insight: if “groups” differ even modestly in either mean or variance of some trait (for whatever reason), there will be a large differences in representation at the tails of the distribution, either the elites or the left behind.

      • Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

        Above reply referred to “The Bell Curve”. I haven’t read “Six Not So Easy Pieces”.

      • Martin X
        Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        I read it when it came out, but I think a lot of the controversy was the implication IQ was causal for all sorts of societal problems. e.g., people go to prison because they’re inherently stupid.

  19. Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Just finished reading Liu Cixin’s “The Three-Body Problem” and its two sequels. It’s a Hugo award-winning sci-fi about what happens to Earth and its people over centuries after it comes into contact with an alien race. Truly mind boggling.

    I’ve just started “The Algebraic Mind” by Gary Marcus. It’s non-fiction on cognitive science and AGI, artificial general intelligence, as opposed to AI which is a term now hijacked to refer to neural networks and technologies derived from them (eg, self-driving cars, chess and go playing software). This is a field I’m doing real work in.

    I’m halfway through “This Idea is Brilliant”, edited by John Brockman of Edge.org. A compendium of one or two-page essays from famous scientists, captains of industry, thinkers, including Jerry Coyne!

    On the shelf waiting to be read:

    – “What Your Cat Knows” by Sally Morgan, on feline cognition (obviously).

    – “The Berlin Project” by Gregory Benford. Another sci-fi.

    “Reappraisals” by the late Tony Judt, an amazing essayist an student of European cultural history.

    Also constant reader of The Economist and New York Review of Books.

    • bric
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      I’m a big fan of the Liu Cixin trilogy, there’s a good introduction here:


      and I’m just reading “The Berlin Project”, yet another WWII alternative history, a race to build an atomic bomb at the beginning of the war before Germany gets there. Incidentally, The central protagonist, Karl Cohen is Benford’s father-in-law.

      Tony Judt’s Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945 is also very good.

  20. Rita
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Thomas Shapiro’s “Toxic Inequality”, aand Helen Hoover Santmeyer’s “And the Ladies of the Club”. I’ve been meaning to read that for years, and now trying to stay away from other reading until I finish all 1,176 pages. I recently ordered “Fire and Fury”, not because I wanted to read it so much as wanting to do my part to push up the book sales to piss off DT. I did skim through the book, and I found this gem I had forgotten about: After the 2017 Inaugural address was finished, GWB is picked up on a mic saying “That was some weird shit.” That made me smile!

  21. Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Siddhartha Mukherjee: The Gene. An intimate history

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      PCC had some choice words about that book a little while ago.

      • Posted February 4, 2018 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the hint; I will try to find it on WEIT.

    • Les Faby
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      The book “The Gene” is worth reading. It is the book’s excerpt in the New Yorker that was misleading in its use of epigenetics.

  22. John Crisp
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Like Mark Reaume, Tegmarks’ Life 3.0., also Sapolsky’s “Behave”, and re-reading lat night a Jack Reacher thriller by Lee Child. Like Raymond Chandler, Lee Child is a Brit who writes thrillers set in America – perhaps because of the foreign eye, they capture aspects of the US that American authors don’t always see, maybe because they take them for granted. Just as Henry James captured pre-WWI England.

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Haven’t read Tegmark’s book yet but I snapped it up on Kindle when it came down to £1.99 one day.

    • Craw
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

      Chandler was not a Brit. Not even a Canadian. He was American.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted February 4, 2018 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

        Chandler [at age seven I think] & mum moved to Ireland & then England. At around eighteen years old he was naturalized as a Brit so he could take the civil service exam.

        • Craw
          Posted February 5, 2018 at 7:05 am | Permalink

          Ah, indeed. I stand corrected.

      • Posted February 5, 2018 at 4:30 am | Permalink

        Chandler went to school in Dulwich, near London. After his wife’s death he moved back to Britain. He was both, always. With an Irish family background, actually.

        • bric
          Posted February 6, 2018 at 9:04 am | Permalink

          He was at Dulwich College at the same time as P G Wodehouse (we think it really is in London around here :))

          • Posted February 6, 2018 at 10:21 am | Permalink

            Southwark, yeah. Funny thing is Wodehouse also lived half his life in America.

  23. bonetired
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Grant by Ron Chernow. A superb study of one of the most important Americans who ever lived. Vital in the defeat of the Confederacy and who became a two term president. Chernow attempts to restore Grant’s presidential reputation after years of criticism as being corrupt and inept. Grant’s enforcement of the rule of law against the KKK is one of his greatest achievements. Highly recommended.


    Catching up on one of the Sharp books … lots of deering-do in the Peninsular war – this time in Sharp’s Honour. Always great fun.

    • mfdempsey1946
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Grant by Ron Chernow has been on my radar because of its subject and because Chernow’s biography of George Washington, a fascinating read, introduced me to e-books, banishing my feeling that a book has to be made of paper.

  24. Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I usually alternate between fiction and non-fiction I just finished the Rise and Fall of DODO by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. A fun Science Fiction novel involving time travel and magic. I started reading Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe by Henri Pirenne, a dry but interesting look at the beginnings and causes of Capitalism.

  25. Ken Pidcock
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I’m reading Richard Wright’s The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (Oxford History of the United States). It’s fascinating and too damned long!

    • bonetired
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Just finished it and, with one caveat, an excellent read. The caveat is that no foreign policy is mentioned at all which I find extraordinary in a book that purports to be a comprehensive history of the period.

    • Historian
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      The author is Richard White, not Richard Wright.

  26. Posted February 4, 2018 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m finally reading – after a long and inexcusable delay – Faith vs. Fact. Yes, I am enoying it.

    • Jake Sevins
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      So you’re saying there’s a difference?!


  27. Eli Siegel
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I strongly recommend ‘The Blood of Emmet Till’ about the 1955 lynching of the 14 year old, the climate in Mississippi that made it possible, and the subsequent effect on the struggle for civil rights.

  28. David Jorling
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Since I live in a two story house, I am (almost) always reading two books at a time. When I find time to read, I don’t have to spend the time moving from one part of the house to the other to find a book.

    Currently reading Chernov’s “Washington”, which I purchased several years ago, but never got around to reading in part because it is an intimidating 817 pages long. Am 140 pages into it, and it is fascinating. Grant will be my next “upstairs” book.

    The other is “twilight of american sanity” by Allen Francis, MD, a psychiatrist. It provides some useful insights into our current political predicament that I had not thought of before.

    I tried reading the Qur’an and found it very difficult to get through for all the reasons described in the posts above. I want to finish it, but it will take an extraordinary amount of time. When I volunteered for Mercy Corps in Sri Lanka, I was dismayed to learn that in the Muslim schools, after children are taught to read, they spend much of their educational time memorizing the Qur’an. What a waste of time. (Of course I suffered through similar indoctrination in a Catholic grade school, memorizing much of the Catechism, a similar waste of time.)

    I rarely read novels. I favor history and politics. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
    Last novel I read (years ago) was “For Whom the Bell Tolls” as it was my father’s favorite book. I found it excruciatingly boring. I mean, get to the bridge, already.

    • Les Faby
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      Author:Ron Chernow

  29. Steve Pollard
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Re-reading Ulysses for the nth time. Nearly finished: halfway through Molly’s final soliloquy.

    On my Kindle, I have been slowly ploughing through Zola. I have at last finished the Rougon-Macquart novels and am trying his trilogy on the late 19th century RCC. They are not very good novels (too much “telling” and not enough “showing”: also they often read more like polemical articles than novels); but they are wonderfully scornful about the greed and corruption in the church, first in “Lourdes” and then in “Rome”. I cannot honestly recommend them to anyone but Zola fans; but I am enjoying them anyway!

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      If you’re “rereading Ulysses for the nth time”, I hope you saw the comment on Virginia Wolf’s assessment of it, posted by JonLynnHarvey in Hilli dialogues 2/2/18, which I reproduce here

      “Since Joyce is being mentioned today, and Virginia Wolff’s (initial) very negative assessment of “Ulysses” was mentioned here at WEIT 8 days ago, I should mention that I have in the intervening days learned the VW eventually warmed up to Ulysses and reversed her earlier negative opinion.

      Some interesting info on this may be found here.

      I’m not keen on Woolf, but I clicked on the link and the discussion is indeed enlightening, not only for Woolf aficionados.

      • Steve Pollard
        Posted February 4, 2018 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, Jenny, your link says ‘Oops! That page can’t be found!”

        I would be pleased if Woolf did resile from her earlier, knee-jerk and very ungenerous judgement. I’m afraid I’ve never got on with her: still less with the precious aesthetics and lifestyles of the other Bloomsberries. I prefer JJ’s “silence, exile and cunning”: not that he turned down many offers of patronage or support.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted February 4, 2018 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

          just remove the “.z” typing error
          The link is this: https://modernism.coursepress.yale.edu/woolfs-reading-of-james-joyces-ulysses-1918-1920/

          • Jenny Haniver
            Posted February 4, 2018 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

            Thank you.

          • Steve Pollard
            Posted February 5, 2018 at 9:57 am | Permalink

            Thanks Michael.

            Yes, it’s an interesting essay, and shows that the usual view of Woolf’s view of Joyce is far from the complete picture. But I wonder how much further Woolf got in “Ulysses” than the “Hades” chapter. Given her repeated reservations about what she calls “indecency”, there’s enough in the later chapters to give her the vapours.

  30. Paul Dymnicki
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    ‘Victoria a life’by A N Wilson.
    I know I know I’m not a big fan of him either but my wife and I have been watching the tv series Victoria and I expressed an interest in knowing more about Queen Victoria so she got me the book for a Xmas prezzie.
    It’s obvious that Wilson studies his subject well but I don’t think he’s good at relating that information.

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      You know that PCC(E) eviscerated Wilson’s recent “biography” (for which, read character assassination) of Darwin, right?

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      If the book doesn’t include a discussion of QV’s use of cannabis and cocaine wine, it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      Do read Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria. Great read, and famous for its final stream-of-consciousness bit.

  31. Carl Powers
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I just finished “What It’s Like to Be a Dog”
    and “The Soul of an Octopus”. Both excellent.

    “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived” looks interesting, I’m going to add it to my shortlist. Thanks

  32. Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always loved Mark Twain’s evaluation of the Book of Mormon: “It is chloroform in print. If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle — keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate.”

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      I wanted to source the quote, so Googled. I found it comes from “Roughing It,” which I must now read. However, an interesting exploration of how he came to write about The LDS Church, comes from a Mormon website, of all places. http://www.ldsliving.com/What-Mark-Twain-Really-Thought-About-Mormons/s/78635 It’s not what I’d anticipated — quite interesting.

      • DrBrydon
        Posted February 4, 2018 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

        I read Roughing It in college or shortly afterwards. All I remember from it is the pasting he gives the Mormons.

  33. Rosmarie Maran
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to recommend very much what I finished reading recently:
    “Algorithms to live by. The computer science of human decisions” by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. Extraordinarily interesting and useful, and also great fun to read.

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      Good to be remembered of this book; a while ago I heard for the first time of this title, sounded very interesting to me.

  34. Martin X
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    “Democracy for Realists”. Gotten quite a lot of pundit references in the past year or so; it explains the research about why people vote the way that they do.

  35. mfdempsey1946
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Re-reading “Middlemarch” (1871-72) by George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) after 40 years or more. Dense with intelligence, minute analyses of people and the facets of their thought processes and emotions, as well as their settings, and the pressing but now largely forgotten political issues of the shared world in which they live and frequently clash.

    I seem to recall that this novel was easier for me to read when I was much younger. Perhaps the passing decades and my own waning powers of attention are responsible for my sometimes getting clumsily entangled in its complicated but for the most part expertly constructed sentences.

    I am 60% percent of the way through the text now, and each time I return to it, there is what can be called a slow boot-up period as I work my way back into it.

    But the novel soon achieves lift-off each time and becomes unfailingly absorbing — much the same experience that I had a while ago with another long, weighty re-read from the distant past, Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo.”

    • allison
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

      I started Nostromo twice, each time getting bored after about 50 pages and giving up. On the third try I got all the way through it, and was impressed with it. Last of the Mohicans was a similar book for me – boring first 50 pages, then much better.

  36. Posted February 4, 2018 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Koonin’s Logic of Chance. It’s a slow read, right at the edge of what I can read with comprehension. I am enjoying it. Learning a lot about the role of chance in evolution, and the routes of early evolution (chemicals to eukaryotes).

    Usually, my answer to “What are you reading,” would be a mystery novel. I read lots and lots of them.

  37. Greg Geisler
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I just finished Sapolsky’s Behave and I was heartened to hear that someone as brilliant as yourself struggled with it too! But I labored through the more technical and clinical early part of the book and I am glad I did as I now know a lot more about the biology of the brain. His lectures are a bit easier to digest but the book is still a great read. I have Pinker’s Enlightenment Now on pre-order for my Kindle (to be released in a couple weeks). I think he’s going to sell a lot of books based on the amount of publicity he has been getting lately (including Bill Gates’ mention of it as his “new favorite book of all time”).

    Halfway through Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough (not near as good as her other books) and a more off-the-radar book by R.G. Price titled Jesus-A Very Jewish Myth.

  38. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Audio books

    Sorry to rave, but
    These things are great – if you want to check off your list, consider audio books – put ‘em on the CD player, on your phone, wherever…

    I dismissed them for many, many years, if I even considered them… perhaps it is because my list grows and grows….. but any commute time? Try an audio book! They have ‘em at public libraries!

    • Martin X
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      I go through about 10 per month, pretty much the only way I “read” fiction these days. I listen to them working out, cooking, and cleaning the house.

  39. Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Recently: Ursula Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness”, upon realising on reading her obituary that I’d never read any of her work.

    Currently: “The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World” by Catherine Nixey. The more I read, the more I think that the early Christians were no different to today’s Taliban and ISIS.

  40. Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I’m currently reading “The Rights of Nature” by David Boyd, a really great book about environmental law and its future. It’s particularly interesting to read the legal arguments that have been and are being made for the rights of ecosystems and “land” to exist and be healthy. I would highly recommend it so far.

    I’m also rereading the Complete Calvin and Hobbes. Always time well spent.

    • Garry VanGelderen
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      Love the Calvin & Hobbes books. Big fan.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted February 4, 2018 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        There’s many strips I almost emailed to PCC(E) – WEIT readers ought to look at some of the collections they have out there.

  41. gscott
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Just finished Liza Mundy’s “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II”. Now I know (more or less) what my mother was doing from 1941 to 1945 – she would never talk about it.

  42. Garry VanGelderen
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Was reading ‘The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time’ (Roberto Mangabeira Unger/Lee Smolin). Got half way through the first part. Too convoluted for my taste. Switched to the second part by Lee Smolin. Very interesting and a good follow up to Smolin’s earlier book ‘Time Reborn’. Looking forward to more cosmology books to read.

  43. Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I’m picking my way through my read books on my book shelf, such as i is, chapter here, paragraph here while i wait for
    Steven Pinker’s
    Enlightenment Now and
    The Gene Machine
    Bonnie Rochman
    I’ve ordered via the library:
    A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: the Human Story Retold Through Our Genes
    Adam Rutherford
    I haven’t touched this subject in any depth since reading Jonathan Kingdons 2004 book,
    Lowly Origins.
    which is more about bipedalism and it’s role in hominid evolution in Africa.

  44. Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed “A Brief History of Everyone…”, but had some of the same quibbles I mentioned a week or two ago. Why talk about “migration” rather than gene flow or expansion? Why talk about “extinction” rather than loss of some genetic lineages by drift or selection within a population? Why talk about “hybridization” rather than a widespread and diverse single species (with assorted later losses as above)? I really would like to hear persuasive arguments for the former in each case.

  45. Richard
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I am reading Robert Kurzban’s Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind.
    This is a superb book supporting the idea that our mind is made up of numerous modules that come into play under different circumstances (hence our ability to have conflicting or counterfactual opinions, to be hypocrites). Kurzban references many experiments in psychology supporting the existence of modules. Importantly, the modules do not necessarily communicate with one another. A strong point, of course made by many others, such as Daniel Dennett, is that there is no “me.” The last section on morality is particularly interesting. One thing that I like about Kurzban is that he looks for reasons that natural selection might have favored the different modules. Kurzban sees that there is a growing convergence of opinion among psychologists and even economists towards accepting view of the mind as modular.

  46. Richard Portman
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    That “brief history…” sounds interesting..
    Mr Coyne don’t waste your time reading the Koran.
    If it is anything like King James bible or book of Mormon or even “Pearl of Great Price ” I can tell you from hard experience , those books are full of lies.
    Let’s go get some nuts! Because soon the squirrels will be waking up.

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      You don’t think I know that the Qur’an is fiction? I’m just trying to ensure that I am up to speed on Islam’s one final perfect book of faith.

  47. Richard
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I should have mentioned that Kurzban in Why Everyone (Else) is a hypocrite, really gets after Stephen Jay Gould for writings attacking people for views they didn’t actually hold. Gould and Lewontin’s Spandrels paper is specifically mentioned.

  48. David Coxill
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    I am currently reading “Explosives History With A Bang “.
    Before that ,”For All The Tea In China “.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      So next a book about noodles? 😉

      • David Coxill
        Posted February 5, 2018 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        HAHA ,I have read two books by Mark Kurlansky .One is Salt ,about salt ,the other is Cod ,about cod .

      • David Coxill
        Posted February 5, 2018 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        For All The Tea In China is about a Victorian Botanist and his quest to gather seeds and small plants of Camellia sinensis and find out how the Chinese made the leaves in to Tea,spiffing boy’s own stuff .

  49. kelskye
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I’m really looking forward to reading Science Unlimited? The debate over scientism is really interesting to me because of the practical implications of it. I’ve often been accused of scientism – especially by believers – even when making philosophical arguments. On the other hand, you have crap like Harris’ dismissal of the IS-OUGHT problem in The Moral Landscape by appealing to how the brain works. So there’s a range of interesting topics it will cover.

    What I’m currently reading:
    Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics by Richard Thaler: I am enjoying this as it has built on the psychology I’ve read about in various books on the irrationality of people, and shows how those insights shaped a new field of study. Economics is one of those topics that puts me to sleep every time I try to learn, but this book being riddled with examples of the relationship between the psychology of behaviour and how that plays out in various areas of economics has really helped me understand a few concepts that I’ve previously struggled to get; such as the efficient market hypothesis and how to invest.

    The Big Picture by Sean Carroll: What I admire about Carroll’s writing style is how easily he’s able to take complex topics and write about them in an accessible way. In some ways, the book is screaming out for a more in-depth analysis, and when a chapter ends I want more. But in terms of an overview of a naturalist world (I like the term poetic naturalism, but I wonder how different it is from the pragmatic naturalism of John Dewey), so far it’s been a concise and informative walk through basic questions of the way the universe works.

    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      ” What I admire about Carroll’s writing style is how easily he’s able to take complex topics and write about them in an accessible way.”

      I fully agree. And your description of his ability to explain things in a very understandable way fits the same for his extraordinary rhetoric talent to speak in public.

  50. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Readin’ a Michael Lewis book from a couple years ago, The Flash Boys, about the high-frequency traders who were front-running the stock and commodity markets a while back. Nobody’s better than Lewis at explaining complex subjects clearly.

  51. Jim batterson
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Thanks jerry. Just got home from spending a rainy virginia afternoon at our local barnes and noble reading the beginning of rutherfords book. I had been snubbing it simply because i found the title to be too cutesy and not being a biology guy, i had no idea who rutherford was. Your reviews of biology books are very important to those of us who live outside of the academy. I used your list of your top five (or was it six?) books on evolution to guide my reading several years ago. I am enjoying rutherfords book, having developed some unserstanding of the 4.5 billion years overall and now try to focus on smaller, more specific pieces of time. The recent proliferation of human type discoveries has been very confusing to me. This book really helps! I look foreard to purchasing it in the next week or so if it continues to be solid. Btw i agree with your remarks on his footnotes and am ignoring most of them at this point. Thanks again and please continue to keep us informed from time to time with your reading recommendations.

  52. Posted February 4, 2018 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m just finishing Marcus du Sautoy’s “What We Cannot Know”. It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time and, of course, it’s mostly about the things we do know.

    I read Rutherford’s excellent book when it first came out. His earlier volume “Creation” was equally good, especially in the British format.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      I couldn’t get that through the library for some reason


      Looks like a 2016 title of his, that I learned about just now, is is “the great unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science”

      • Posted February 5, 2018 at 4:08 am | Permalink

        For some reason, British books are often published under a different ( worse :)) name in America.

  53. revelator60
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Currently making my way through three books:

    “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World” — The catalog of a recent Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition. I visited the stunning ruins of Pergamon (in Western Turkey) a few years ago and want to know more about it.

    “Sejanus: His Fall” by Ben Jonson. — Having visited the ruins of the Emperor Tiberius’s palace on Capri, I was intrigued by this play from 1603 (AD) about the Emperor’s notorious henchman. A literature professor at college once told me Ben Jonson was just as good as Shakespeare, and I’m enjoying this first encounter with his work.

    “Shadow to Light: The Life and Art of Mort Meskin” — The artist was one of the great illustrators from the Golden Age of comic books, but isn’t very famous since he worked on now-obscure comics like Vigilante, The Black Terror, and The Fighting Yank. But he was an excellent draftsman with a superb command of shadow and negative space.

  54. James Walker
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    I started reading David Sedaris’s latest book, Theft by Finding, which is a(n edited) collection of his diary from 1977 to 2002, but I found that the first few pages were not that engaging or funny, so I’ve put that aside.

    I’ve been on a bit of a scifi bend lately, so I’d asked for Philip José Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go for Christmas. My niece gave it to me, in a volume with two of his other novels, Maker of Universes and The Unreasoning Mask.

    Scattered Bodies centres on the explorer Richard Burton, who wakes up after his death in an endless river valley where every human being who ever lived has been ‘resurrected’. It was an interesting read.

    Maker started out promising but devolved into a rather boring fantasy-type story.

    The Unreasoning Mask is much better, about the captain of a spaceship who’s faced with an object that pops in from other dimensions to destroy all life on different planets – almost like an episode of the original Star Trek.

  55. Neil Wolfe
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m just finishing two consecutive readings of The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner). What a frustratingly wonderful book. A third reading will undoubtedly reveal more of the story. I’ve never read a book where the author goes through so much trouble to screw with the reader.

    • allison
      Posted February 4, 2018 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

      The Sound and the Fury drove me nuts the first time I read it – particularly the first quarter of the book (narrated by the Benji character, if I remember correctly). I re-read that section before moving on to the rest of the book.

      Once I finally figured out what was going on, I realized the book’s greatness, and I would put it near the very top of my all-time fiction list, possibly even in the #1 spot. But it is a challenging work upon first encounter.

      • Neil Wolfe
        Posted February 4, 2018 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

        I had more trouble with the second part (Quentin). For some reason, benjy made sense to me.

        The first reading was tough but the second reading had me hunting every sentence for clues made visible by my improved understanding. It’s amazing how Faulkner was able to craft such a great puzzle.

        Ironically, I had chosen the book at random from a list of the greatest novels of the 20th century. I had just finished two challenging books and wanted a page-turner. The greatest novel of the 20th century has to be an easy read….right? I’m glad I knew nothing about the book when I started. It made it feel like an adventure.

        • Posted February 7, 2018 at 2:40 am | Permalink

          Thanks for mentioning Faulkner. Reminds me to re-read “Absalom, Absalom”, my favorite by him. It’s amazing how many modern books have been inspired by Old-Testament stories. This and Joseph Heller’s “God knows” — hilarious, but not just that — are two of my favorites.

  56. Brian salkas
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    The next one on my reading list is your book “Speciation”. I have heard from many people that it is very challenging. I am currently reading the aptly titled “Behavioral Genetics” from Robert Plomin. His book is great.

  57. Posted February 4, 2018 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    Trying to understand more clearly the roots of postmodernism-stumbled across the writer
    Sarah Bakewell ‘ At the Existentialist Cafe’.
    She is a terrific writer with one main theme and many, many, many side stories. Highly recommended.
    I have also read by her ‘How to live’ a biography of Montaigne. A delightful and informative read.
    Has led into an attempt to further explore the roots of buddhism and various of the Greek philosophers who seem to have certain alignments.All of these in many ways contain overlapping ideas.
    Another is Stephen Greenblatt’s retelling of the search for old manuscripts in European libraries at the beginnning of the renaissance-‘Swerve’ and the writings of Lucretius again with related ideas.
    A rich reading winter season. All in some way interconnected.

    • kelskye
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 4:03 am | Permalink

      “Sarah Bakewell ‘ At the Existentialist Cafe’.”
      I recently read this, and thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it. It really made existentialism come alive, and somewhat chipped away at my indifference to existentialist philosophy. I loved how the book painted the bleak war-torn environment existentialism grew up in that is incomprehensible to someone who has never lived in anything like it. The more absurd claims of the existentialists become a lot more sympathetic when placed in the narratives Bakewell used.

  58. Posted February 4, 2018 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Wonder by Palacio/Jaramillo, with our fourth grade grandson. Lessons for adults as well as the young ones.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 5:57 am | Permalink

      That book, with its wild popularity, irritates me to no end, but I haven’t identified why. “Oooo everyone is wonderful, nobody has flaws, we are all so pure “

      Banal? Anodyne?

      • Posted February 5, 2018 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        Given the pomposity of many of the responses, and the fact that is a children’s book, I was expecting a response such as yours. However, I very much doubt that any 10 year old shares your perspective.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted February 5, 2018 at 9:49 am | Permalink

          How are the responses pompous?

          • ThyroidPlanet
            Posted February 5, 2018 at 9:52 am | Permalink

            Google says

            “Pompous : affectedly and irritatingly grand, solemn, or self-important.”

            • Posted February 5, 2018 at 10:56 am | Permalink

              Did you imply you had not read the book or the review?

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted February 5, 2018 at 10:48 am | Permalink

          OK look, I promise you, I will, today, because of you, get the YA entry of Palacio’s franchise and read from it.

          I give anyone else paying attention here the last word in this Wonder thread here.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 6:26 am | Permalink

      … like a book from a religious shop – without any of the religious iconography or biblical references in it?

      … and I only read the picture book – now I have to – goodness, there’s a movie, a book series…

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 7:11 am | Permalink


      By this review, I might give it a cursory read – one of them anyway.

      The author says : “I was angry at myself …” and “what I should have done was…”

      Classic ingredients for religious stories, I think. Neo-Puritanical?

      Apologies for the comment dump on you! Nothing personal!

  59. Craw
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning, Pólya

    The House Of Government, a very interesting history/impressionist portrait of the Old Bolsheviks and Soviet ruling class heading into the Yezhovschina. (I use that term because you need a decent knowledge of the relevant history to read the book.) Excellent.

    The Memory Illusion, Shaw. The science of false memory. Interesting stuff, but I’d prefer a less chatty style.

    A Very English Agent, Rathbone. A satire of the British Empire in the early 19th century. Flashman with a harsher edge. Just started, so we will see how it goes.

    Advanced Backgammon, Robertie. Third time. Excellent if you have a serious interest in Backgammon, pointless if you don’t.

  60. mrclaw69
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    Just finished John Milton’s Areopagetiga
    And Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism
    Just about to finish A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch

    Just started: John Dickie’s history of the Sicilian Mafia, Cosa Nostra
    And Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

    Just about to start: The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass
    Nick Clegg’s How to Stop Brexit
    Nick Lane’s The Vital Question

    And, seeing as I’m off to see Steven Pinker on 22 Feb, I’ll be starting Enlightenment Now asap (which I’m very excited about)

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 4:40 am | Permalink

      The Nick Lane book is destined to become a classic.

  61. Stephen Caldwell
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 2:22 am | Permalink

    Your first one (A Brief History…) is on my Never Ending Booklist. Right now, I’m reading:
    Darwin’s Backyard by James Costa
    Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
    Darwin’s Sacred Cause by Adrian Desmond and James Moore
    Trying to clear the deck for the new Steven Pinker book.

  62. Posted February 5, 2018 at 3:52 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  63. boggy
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    Darwin’s Descent of Man,second edition, pub 1888.
    A Crack in Creation by Jennifer Doudna, & Samuel Sternberg. An account of the CRISPR gene editing technique. Surely these two deserve a Nobel?
    Guide du Travail Manuel du Bois , Bernard Bertrand. Book on old techniques for working wood.

  64. Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I just finished both of _Behave_ and _Becoming Animal_. The latter is a plea for better recognition of our animal nature. Unfortunately it veers into panpsychism and a bunch of other gullible bits. I’m working on a detailed answer to it and its (phenomenological) methodology as the book was a gift from a dear friend. On that note I am rereading a few sources of that movement, including Sartre’s _Being and Nothingness_ (alas I have no French edition) for the first time in over 20 years. I had completely forgotten that he says that in science we are all instrumentalists, etc. now. I now wonder if there is a common ancestor to both the phenomenological movements (at least in France) and the logical positivists – Comte, perhaps filtered through Poincare.

    Anyone know a good edition (in French, preferably) of Comte’s works?

  65. Posted February 5, 2018 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    I recently read _The Big Picture_ by Sean Carroll, and I liked it, though I did have to struggle through some of the chapters on philosophy. The appendix on Core Theory blew my mind.

    I’m trying to select ONE book to settle down with for the coming weeks, and I keep bouncing among _Middlemarch_ by George Eliot, _Absalom, Absalom!_ by William Faulkner, _Women In Love_ by D.H. Lawrence, and _Island_ by Aldous Huxley. Recommendations, anyone?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

      If you haven’t tried Anthony Trollope then try Anthony Trollope – a very fine writer in every way. There’s a lot of material to choose from so I’d work chronologically or start with his complete short stories.

      Island: Vehicle for ideas disguised as a novel – like most SciFi in fact. I managed 1/3 & decided not worth the time investment.

      Women In Love: Tripe. Juvenile. Lawrence doesn’t draw people well nor does he illustrate how real people really talk to each other, but maybe that’s how he interacted with people – I dunno. Maybe it’s just ‘of it’s time’. I managed 1/4 I think & left it in a railway station cafe.

      Absalom, Absalom!: Not read, but I’m told it’s difficult until you get into it. I plan to read it!

      Middlemarch: Feckin brilliant & a nice, long, surprising read – its own universe. Get the hardback for ease of reading [around 800 pages so paperback not ideal the way they’re made these days] – only around £0.80 ‘used’** hardback or get the Kindle version – only £0.49. I’ve read twice & will read again! Your prices will vary of course.

      ** The ‘used’ I’ve bought in the past have been untouched mostly – you can usually tell from the Amazon seller description which I’ve found to be 100% honest

      • Posted February 5, 2018 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for your helpful recommendation, Michael! These are books just lying around in my own library (purchases and donations). My copy of Middlemarch is a paperback and I need a frikkin’ magnifying glass to read it. So far I find the prose brilliant and elegant. I shall stick with this one and the Faulkner.

        Btw, some people including the author consider Women in Love to be his best work.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted February 5, 2018 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

        I am glad I helped! I recommend dumping the paperback & get a larger font. Kindle is great for that

        I try to dive into a book AT FIRST as an innocent without knowledge of the author or her era. Does it stand up today without the scaffolding provided by literary critics? Critics who are interested not just in the text, but also the writing process, the milieu, the effect on generations of writers that followed?

        DHL is preachy on sexual politics & yet he coyly uses allegory quite a bit to get his message across [rabbits & such] – maybe that was necessary in his day, but it feels manipulative & false. His plots are heavily contrived. His characters are vessels through which he speaks from his pulpit. His biggest sins are self-importance [it comes through], no sense of humour, mostly stilted prose & dated incorrect ideas about what a woman is & what a woman wants – he awards them much less autonomy then men. To my eyes he’s crass & ill-informed. I accept he is a creature of his day, but it is my decision to not waste my time on ‘classics’ that require critical analysis to be worthwhile. They have to walk on their own without me laughing for the wrong reasons.

        It may be my failing. but when I think of DHL I think “bore” & “pulpit”


        In my early teens, my young, mini-skirted, adorable, sexy English literature teacher worshipped Lawrence – I tried very, very hard to tune into DHL because young lad wants to attract the bombshell teacher…

        Her allure wasn’t strong enough to brainwash me. She came out of a ’60s education where just about every critical authority put DHL up at the top of the highest pedestal for Brit writers – essential to love the titillation of Lawrence. At a turning point where free sex was somehow the same thing as sexual liberation, sexual equality & feminism. Nobody that I remember discussed enough the difference in cost & commitment between women & men in relation to the experimental & mostly debunked sexual politics of the day, the convo was about The Pill a lot.

        We had that silly Aussie feminist [still talks bollocks today] exposing her genitals & anus on the cover of Oz Magazine, Lady Chatterleys Lover & other necessary shocks to the system – I’m glad they occurred, but a lot of terrible prose was admired back then. e.g. every column, that I read avidly, in the New Musical Express & Melody Maker 🙂

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted February 5, 2018 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

          “Aussie feminist” I just remembered, is Germaine Greer. I agree with a lot of her views & I think she’s a net benefit, but quite silly in a promotional way. The pic I described might have been on the cover of OZ Mag [heavily artified] and/or it was in/on “suck” – a Dutch mag of the era. I heard about it from the poet [terrible, but he tried!] & publisher Felix Dennis [RIP] during one of his marathon weekend house parties – he got his start with OZ. Lived six or so times normal speed. Bless him.

          • Posted February 6, 2018 at 1:38 am | Permalink

            During the last ten years or so, Germaine Greer has definitely been one of the sanest people on the planet.

      • Posted February 10, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Forgot to add Matthew Cobb’s Life’s Greatest Secret – The Race to Crack the Genetic Code. Started it quite a while back but had to set it aside because of family emergencies. I’m back to tackling the books in my library. That’s my big retirement plan – select from and read the many books I have on hand. I purchase the odd new book now and then, if it peaks my interest. Steven Pinker’s latest will be in my plan too.

  66. SusanD
    Posted February 7, 2018 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    I’m reading “Too Big To Fail” by Andrew Ross Sorkin, about the GFC. I’m a third of the way through, and already I want to get all of these men, put them in a building, lock all the doors, and blow it up.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 7, 2018 at 1:53 am | Permalink

      It will have to be a big building, but it’s too merciful a punishment – maroon those derivatives rats on a desert island so they’d be forced to eat each other.

  67. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 9, 2018 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    I just got to pp.69-70 in Marcus Du Sautoy’s The Great Unknown (2016, published in GB as What We Cannot Know – took me forever to figure this out) where John Polkinghorne “has proposed that a supernatural intelligence can still act without violating the laws of physics via the indeterminacies implicit in chaos theory”. The gap between determinism (chaos is deterministic, not random) and influence is rationalized by using “the gap between epistemology and ontology” – “since we cannot know with complete certainty the state of the universe at this moment in time, from our perspective there is no determinancy.” This gives “God the chance to intervene and shift the system between any of these scenarios without our being aware of the shift.” “… there is only change in information, not energy.”

    Du Sautoy views this as “rather fanciful”.

  68. David Fuqua
    Posted February 11, 2018 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    War and Peace. Tolstoy was a determinist before his time.

  69. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 24, 2018 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    [ begin evolution-relevant excerpt]

    When the Supreme Court finally decided in 1968 that states couldn’t outlaw the teaching of evolution, they figured they were just doing the judicial cleanup following the de facto die-off of primitive Christianity. “Only Arkansas and Mississippi have such ‘anti-evolution’ or ‘monkey’ laws on their books,” the sniffy majority opinion noted, and nobody had been prosecuted under Arkansas’s law, so these creationism laws were “more of a curiosity than a vital fact of life in these States.”
    To the confident, complacent mid century Establishment, this didn’t look like the tip of an iceberg, let alone what it actually was : the astounding peak of one mountain in a range rising from the American depths, part of the emerging continent of Fantasyland.

    Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland, pp.204-205 (2017)

  70. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Glad to report I just finished Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen (2017), the smoking hard-copy still resting on the table.

    I now reach directly for Pinker’s Enlightenment Now from the pile on the floor.

    … and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for interstitial examination as s free download on my pocket computer.

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