Book review

On Human Nature

by Edward O. Wilson

On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson

A really important and profound book on how we’re a social species, and that although our overall nature is significantly shaped by environment (mostly culture), the set of possible shapes that our nature might take is still profoundly constrained by our genetics. We are not a blank slate at all, despite what some sociologists might claim. Instead, we can:

“hope to decide more judiciously which of the elements of human nature to cultivate and which to subvert, which to take open pleasure with and which to handle with care. We will not, however, eliminate the hard biological substructure until such time, many years from now, when our descendants may learn to change the genes themselves.”

To investigate the limits of genetics, and the flexibility of the human responses to it, Wilson looks at four of the “elemental categories of behavior”: aggression, sex, altruism, and religion.

On aggression, for example, Wilson leaves no doubt that our genetics are those of an aggressive primate, while our culture has striven to remove most of it from our societies.

“Throughout history, warfare, representing only the most organized technique of aggression, has been endemic to every form of society, from hunter-gatherer bands to industrial states … Virtually all societies have invented elaborate sanctions against rape, extortion, and murder, while regulating their daily commerce through complex customs and laws designed to minimize the subtler but inevitable forms of conflict. Most significantly of all, the human forms of aggressive behavior are species-specific: although basically primate in form, they contain features that distinguish them from aggression in all other species.”

In response to those who point to the tiny minority of societies that appear to be pacific, Wilson asks us to look at even their history.

“Among contemporary !Kung San, violence in adults is almost unknown … But as recently as fifty years ago, when these Bushman populations were denser and less rigidly controlled by the central government, their homicide rate per capita equaled that of Detroit and Houston”

None of this is to deny our ability to overcome our genetic tendencies. But first we must recognize that they exist, and the patterns through which they show up in our societies.

“Our brains do appear to be programmed to the following extent: we are inclined to partition other people into friends and aliens … We tend to fear deeply the actions of strangers and to solve conflict by aggression …. (These) learning rules of violent aggression are largely obsolete. We are no longer hunter-gatherer who settle disputes with spears, arrows, and stone axes. But to acknowledge the obsolescence of the rules is not to banish them …. We must consciously undertake those difficult and rarely traveled pathways in psychological development that lead to master over and reduction of the profound human tendency to learn violence.”

This same style of treatment is given to the other topics. For sex, for example, we start with why there are genders at all – and why two of them, versus the thousands of genders in some fungi, or the haplodiploid arrangement of some bees, wasps and ants. From there, we look at what sexual differences seem to genetically exist in humans, and why they might have evolved. His treatment of homosexuality is very sympathetic for the time it was written (1978), and is generally directed towards potential kin-selection benefits of a predisposition to homosexuality, which is perhaps a little dated, but not too far away from my understanding of contemporary views.

Perhaps only in the final chapter, entitled Hope, do I find myself disappointed. Not with Wilson, but with humankind. Wilson’s view is that a correct application of evolutionary theory would uphold three core values: the nobility of the individual (benefiting humankind over their own individual genes), diversity in the gene pool (to allow enough room for human brilliance across any field to emerge), and universal human rights (because power is fluid in our societies in the long term, and any long-term inequity will be visibly dangerous to its temporary beneficiaries). Perhaps he is right, and we’re just not there yet!

Wilson writes all this in 1978; I read a copy of the 25th anniversary edition from the early 2000s, but the subject matter is still just as important today. And very little of it is dated. 4.75 stars, rounded up to 5 for brilliance of exposition.


Mind in Motion

How Action Shapes Thought

Mind in Motion by Barbara Tversky

This was a intriguing book in two ways: first, the subject matter was fascinating, which wasn’t a surprise as that’s why I was reading it, but secondly, I found the prose style delightful. I’ll come back to this later: let’s start with the contents.

It’s all about spatial thinking, and how the way space itself – via gestures, and the metaphors we derive from it – shape the very fundamentals of the way we think. Abstract thinking isn’t “abstract” at all – it’s based on spatial metaphors. We don’t think with words inside our head, we think in (abstract) space in there.

From a personal point of view, this really struck a chord. I was a mathematician and then a computer programmer, and still play with both, and in these worlds I almost always find myself thinking spatially about problems, imagining I’m moving this variable or data structure from here to there, or twisting it in some way to change its form or use. Spatial thinking, Barbara Tversky contends, enables us to draw meaning from our bodies and their actions in the world.

One of the excellent things about this book is that it’s all based in experiment. Hundreds of different experiments underpin the picture that is painted herein, with practical applications everywhere from things that are obviously spatial – how to draw better assembly instructions or navigation instructions – through the physically laid out – comic strips – to the abstract – how to come up with a larger variety of original designs.

As I said, I also came to love the prose style of Barbara Tversky. It beautifully combines short sentences, long sentences, simple words, technical jargon, sentence fragments, lists, the whole gamut, in such an elegant and rhythmic way. Here’s a random example, where she’s talking about tree diagrams:

“The enormity of the influence of tree diagrams on the accumulation and dissemination f knowledge has not been fully recognized. Trees, knowledge, brain. By now their uses are uncountable and their visualizations myriad. The Big Bang, phylogenetic trees, corporate trees, occupational trees, decision trees, diagnostic trees, linguistic trees, knowledge trees, probability trees, family trees, the list goes on. And on.”

All in all, a great book. Four and a half stars.

Book review

The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

by Matt Ridley


Today, even more than when the book was written in the early 1990s, this subject area is extremely fraught. Many seek to deny that gender differences are anything other than cultural programming, and in this work the author goes to great lengths to explain the substantial evidence pointing to (a) their existence, and (b) their evolutionary origins, as opposed to cultural origins.

I was a little worried that the 25 years or so since this book had been published would have produced new evidence that contradicted this thesis. Coincidentally, within a couple of hours of finishing the book, I came across well-reasearched current papers supporting the core points of the book:

We can see through these arguments that women are driven by evolution to want different things in their partners than men: on the whole, women are genetically programmed to seek to mate with men of status, so their genes get a leg up the power hierarchy, as higher-status men generally have higher-status children, and generally more of them. Meanwhile, men are programmed to seek younger women, as they may father more children by them.

But as the book points out repeatedly, we have the significant capability to rise above our “programming”: murder is entirely natural, but it doesn’t mean we want it ruling our current society. So the question can still legitimately be asked as to whether we want to be like this: if so, how do we wish to set up our culture, and then, how might we judge those who fail to meet our new (culturally created) standards.

Book review

How Not to Be Wrong: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life

How Not to Be Wrong: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life
Read date: Feb 2019

How Not to Be Wrong: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life by Jordan Ellenberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four and a half stars, plus or minus half a star (to stay with the spirit of the book itself).

A delightful survey of a diverse array of subjects, showing how mathematics is important in our discussions in everyday life, from politics to podiatry. At the bottom, a lot of it comes down to logic and to numbers, and our ability to understand what’s going on is greatly aided by the wise words and examples that Jordan Ellenberg uses. Great discussions about p-values, about what use geometry is in our real lives, about how the Supreme Court makes its decisions, and more.

Loved it. Half a star off for the election rules discussion at the end – too much detail for even me to care about, and I really actually do care about it quite a lot.

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Book review

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
Read date: Jan 2019

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loved this book. This contained everything I could ask for in popular science: a very engaging prose style and a bunch of interesting new material about topics that I love, all woven into a compelling narrative across a very broad canvas illustrated in depth with characterful anecdotes and curious asides. Even topics where I thought I was already well-informed were brought into a new light.

Gleick starts with the earliest forms of non-verbal communication – how writing evolved, and how that may in itself have catalyzed changes in the way humans actually think. He discusses communication over distances by a great discussion of talking drums, and that alone was practically worth the price of admission. I had no idea how they actually worked, and the setup of how they mimic the rising and falling tones of the tonal tribal languages, but need much more florid phrases to disambiguate what they are saying because they have tone alone to work with, was brilliant.

Next, we are introduced to the very first dictionaries, and what an odd thing they are if you’ve never seen one. Alphabetical order, for example, is an alien concept that we just take for granted – just think how pictographic languages might (not) work with that. And which new words deserve to be included? Again, not obvious concepts.

From here we move to the core concepts of numbers, via Charles Babbage and his engines of computation. This was familiar territory to me, but still I found new insights and interest, not insignificantly down to just the sheer depth of the material being presented. Once we have numbers, we get to codes, and from there to how you might code a language – Samuel Morse makes a great appearance here.

Now comes the more mathematical chapters, as Claude Shannon tries to work out what information actually is, driven by the desire of his employers (Bell corporation) to cram more information, in the form of morse, or other, coded language down a noisy channel. This expands into a much broader section that’s effectively about mathematics as a language, which touches on Godel’s incompleteness theorem and builds up towards Maxwell’s demon and how information and energy are in some intriguing mathematical ways directly interchangeable.

I’ve seen all of this before, and what worries me still is that Shannon’s definition of information doesn’t correspond very well to our natural, every-day understanding of information. This means that the mapping back from conclusions drawn from information theory back to our every-day world may give us some warped conclusions. The concept of logical depth, from Charles Bennett, fits this more closely, and gets a brief mention at the end of these chapters, but could have done with more coverage for me.

No modern book about information can avoid touching on Dawkins’ concept of the meme, and Gleick covers this in the concluding chapters. He builds from DNA as a code up to this, and here I might criticise his lack of any discussion of epigenetic effects: we now know that DNA isn’t simply the code for life, but that there are a whole number of other things that affect for example what parts of the genome are expressed, and these often come from outside of the chromosomes themselves. Examples abound, but include the way in which many reptiles will grow out of an egg as one gender or another depending on the temperature of incubation, or how a regular bee will become a queen bee if fed the right chemicals (in the form of royal jelly). None of this was discussed, but it could have been incorporated – the person that reads a text gets different meanings depending on what it understands about the world already, after all.

Overall my criticisms are minor in the face of a great book – five stars for sure, and one to keep for a re-read another day!

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Book review

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Mysteries of Our Times

13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time
Read date: July 2018

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time by Michael Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a fascinating book! Michael Brooks surveys thirteen areas of enquiry – some narrow and deeply embedded in science, such as the search for dark matter and dark energy, others already discarded by mainstream science but still refusing to completely lie down and die, such as cold fusion and homeopathy, and a few that are broader and don’t naturally fit into a single narrow field of study, like sex, death and free will.

He looks at where we are in investigating them, and then pokes and prods at the challenging questions, and the possible explanations. Why do most complex living things die, for example? Not all do, and it’s possible to significantly extend lifespans, in some cases apparently indefinitely, via mechanisms such as gene editing. So why would it be there in the first place? If genes just wanted to propagate themselves, then surely best to do it from the existing host, rather than risk killing the existing host and chancing that there are enough progeny out there to pass on the genes themselves?

Other questions explore areas that just appear to have been made up by science to create convenient explanations for things. Dark matter and dark energy are like this. From the way stars rotate around the centres of a galaxy, we can use the laws of gravity as we understand them to estimate the total mass in the galaxy. And, based on what we see, there isn’t nearly enough visible mass there. Hence the need for additional dark matter. But we can’t detect it in any wavelength. Which means it must have very specific properties, in order to remain hidden. And we don’t have any explanation for the existence of such matter. So maybe it’s our understanding of the laws of gravity that’s wrong? Right now, we simply don’t know!

And so on, across thirteen fields of such broad range that it’s hard not to be captured by many of them. Underlying them all is the theme that science as a field finds it hard to change its mind. In part, this is a very good thing: any new explanation can’t discard all the data accumulated so far, it must explain all that we already know, plus these additional observations that are currently unexplained. And that’s a very hard test. But this is also about how scientists are people, and people don’t like to have their world models turned upside down. So it’s a book about how we practice science itself, as much as about these particular mysteries.

I enjoyed it very much. Well written, with some mind-spinning thoughts in it. Many paper books that I read get released back into the wild after their first read, as perhaps interesting but not worthy of a re-visit. This one, I shall be keeping, and opening up on a winter’s evening for a quick browse, and a follow-up online to see where we are on some of these mysteries.

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