Posts Tagged ‘review’

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans” by Mark Lynas.

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

This book will blow your mind.  And not necessarily in a “good” way.  At least if you’re like me: a hard-core rationalist who favors science over belief, but a skeptic when it comes to sniffing out belief-dependent realism, who nevertheless has more than a few “green” sympathies.  (If you’re a hard-core conservative your head may simply explode — though there is much in here to appeal to the thoughtful conservative).

But here it is at last: a book that takes as its starting point the global reality as laid out by the most current science: we are happily living our way into oblivion as we tinker with the biological and climatological balances that have sustained our existence for millennia.  But that’s not the hard part (unless you’re that “hard-core conservative” mentioned above).  The hard part is accepting how wrong many of us “greens” have got things over the last years, exhibiting our own version of a willingness to ignore science and fact.

In short, our future survival may depend much more on a spreading affluence throughout the developing world that will lead to increased urbanization and an increased use of nuclear power and genetically modified crops.  Gulp.  Of course, that’s not all that this book lays out.  But the gist of it is something I have long suspected: we are far too many now to “go back” to any notion of simpler times, living off the land, burning beeswax candles and weaving our own wool from our own sheep on our own little farm (at least not in large numbers).

There are so many of us, in fact, that any wider attempt to “return to the land” would push our environment into disaster from a destructive consumption of our little remaining bio-diverse habitats.  It turns out that humans are much, much more efficiently housed and employed in cities, and that the more that developing nations develop, the less pressure there is on land use and the environment in general (just one of the realities that goes against some “green” thinking).

The main point the author makes is that we are already tinkering with our climate and environment in profound ways, so the “whether or not to do it” question is moot.  What confronts us now is whether we should begin to see ourselves as “global” engineers, and begin to act consciously and with purpose in a way that utilizes the best science we have to keep the planet in balance so that we can continue as a species…the “God” species.

I remain skeptical of human over-confidence, as it often metastasizes into hubris.  So, in short, I don’t trust US to “manage” things on a planetary scale.  Yet the science (and hence the facts) are pretty much undeniable (except, of course, to those that are motivated to deny them).

I think we should all read this book.  Whether it holds the answers or not is not the issue.  It does, I think, point us in the direction of where the answers to our survival will be found, and that is a very important step indeed.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!


Saturday, December 24th, 2011

This two-hour program begins with the question of how such a wide diversity of life came to exist on our planet.  The answer, of course, is evolution.  Tracing first the beginnings of Darwin’s great idea, this NOVA special then begins to fill in the gaps in Darwin’s own understanding of just how natural selection actually created diversity in living organisms (there is a lot of great explanation of DNA research and discoveries).

This is the kind of quality science program I’ve come to expect from NOVA: bracing and informative, with interviews of important contemporary researchers in various fields of science.  (I was particularly pleased to see a segment devoted to Neil Shubin’s discovery of Tiktaalik, the most dramatic transitional fossil find of recent years.  Shubin is the author of the great book “Your Inner Fish” — reviewed this blog).

As an extra bonus, I heard new theories about the unexpected genes that may have had something to do with the dramatic increase in human brain size (as compared to our primate cousins).  Very exciting stuff.

The writing is fine, and the two-hour program carefully builds the case for evolution in a way that is really kind of exciting.  My only criticism would be of the style of the presentation — the overly-dramatic music, too many quick edits and a remarkably un-helpful (and often replayed) animation to represent the branching “tree of life” (as I watched it I kept wondering if it would make sense to someone new to the idea, especially since it was unclear to me what it was actually showing).

But other than the one graphic designer who should be sacked, this is an engaging and worthwhile overview of where we are in our understanding of just how we came to be the walking, talking humans that we are.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet” by Tim Flannery.

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Despite the reputation that scientists have for being materialistic, atheistic drudges, I find a handful of them showing a strong propensity for reserving for themselves a bit of the spell of belief.  Sam Harris — famous for attacking the dangers of irrational religious belief — waxes metaphysical way about the wonders of Transcendental Meditation.  And now Tim Flannery spends most of Here on Earth (which is subtitled “A Natural History of the Planet”) referring to the collective organism that is life by the name of Gaia — the ancient Greek “mother of all life” — in ways that stray a bit far afield from the scientific.

I suppose I wouldn’t be as bothered by this if the author of “Here on Earth” didn’t spent a good deal of his first chapter upbraiding Richard Dawkins for his rationalist sins (apparently because Dawkin’s views don’t leave enough room for mythologizing or personifying the planet).  Flannery also takes the view that Darwin erred on the non-belief side, and that his co-credited researcher Alfred Russell Wallace was nearer the mark when it came to allowing room for our natural predilection towards belief to have it’s say in the theory of evolution.  (Wallace famously later became a believer in Spiritualism).

But then the book turns out not to be a natural history of the earth at all (save for a few remarkable chapters), but a mishmash of science, natural studies, dire warning and polemic for some scientifically-informed semi-mystical view of earth, life, and our somehow historically ordained role in healing the very ecosystem that we have fouled nearly beyond repair.

But enough about that.  There are at least two chapters in this book that gave me new information, and are worthy of a read (were more of the book like these chapters, I would be dancing in the streets).  One discusses the role that life itself has had in creating landscape (I didn’t know that this was a potentially greater force than natural erosion as it carries chemicals into the earth via plant roots that help dissolve rock and create soils).  Another plus is the cogent description of just how it was possible for us to bring about the climate crisis already overtaking us.  But beyond these, though, the book is a jumble.

If you want a really (REALLY) good book on a natural history of everything, get Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (reviewed this blog) and skip this book.  If you’re of a more “casserole” type of temperament,  you may enjoy this blend of human-centric, new-agey views and hard science.  But even for that, I suspect there are more coherent books available.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev give is two and a half Dimetrodons!


Sunday, November 27th, 2011

I watched this program when it first aired, and it was everything I’ve come to expect from NOVA and more.  It ran in two parts, with an addendum made up of more personal stories from the survivors.

There were several things that struck me in this show.  One was amateur video of a phenomenon geologists have described, but that I’d never seen: liquified soils squirting up from fissures in pavement.  It is an amazing thing to see, and not a little disquieting.  The other was the animated timeline map showing the location of all of the earthquakes and aftershocks that made up the totality of this event.  They appear as red dots along a series of fault lines over a period of two months.  It is a stunning overview of an earthquake event the likes of which I had not seen before.  It is also a testament to the forces of geology that so many are willing to dismiss as “acts of God”.

The program can be viewed on-line.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!


REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Breaking up with God: A Love Story” by Sarah Sentilles.

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

“”People are in cages of their own making,” he said.  “I can stand on the outside of the cage and show them the gate is unlocked, that they are free to go, that they have always been free to go, but they need to decide to leave the cage.””

“…All we need to recognize is that the qualities we have ascribed to God actually belong to humanity.

In other words, Christianity has turned God into a kind of superhero capable of doing everything human beings can’t do, a move that renders humans helpless, small, in need of rescue.  We enrich God…but we impoverish the world.”  — from “Breaking up with God”

The provocative title of this book made me reach for it. I couldn’t wait to start reading it, even though I knew there was a chance that it was a ruse: a clever ploy to sell a book that appeared to be one thing but was actually another.  (My many years as an evangelical Christian have sensitized me to the reality that deception in the name of spreading the Gospel is not regarded as a crime.)

So I dove into this book.  Chapter by chapter my interest held, even as my wariness built: would this deeply religious young woman — who would eventually graduate from Harvard Divinity School in her quest for (Episcopal) priesthood — really “break up” with God, or would the book take a sudden twist at the end, explaining that what she was really doing was breaking up with an immature idea of God, and embracing the better, truer one?

Indeed, there were some tricky passage, such as the descriptions of a blossoming teenage eating disorder that put my sympathies with the writer on edge, like a train taking a corner too fast.   But I stuck with her tale, and boy, am I glad I did.

By the time I reached the end of this book, I saw that (by either plan or sheer brilliance) the style of the writing had advanced in step with the maturation of the writer on her personal journey.  The awkward, but passionate girl I had sat down with became a troubled teenager, then the spiritual sister to the medieval mystic women she quotes, before at last blossoming into a women of poetic and powerful calm, who did, when it came to it, have the courage to “break up with God”.

“But then Charlie died, and the devil’s third temptation in the desert suddenly made sense to me.  On the pinnacle of a temple he says to Jesus, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.  The devil talks about the promise of angels, of protection, of not dashing his foot against a stone, but Jesus says, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

I think Jesus knew that if he jumped, he would fall.  His God couldn’t catch him.  There was just too much suffering in the world — too many people drowning in floods and buried by earthquakes, too many people starving, too many people sick and dying for Jesus to believe in a God who’d catch someone who jumped off a building to prove a point to a bully.

I had believed in a God who loved me, and because he loved me, and because I was good, he would protect me.  My faith was a kind of magic trick.  My prayers were not much different from incantations.  I might as well have been saying abracadabra.  I might as well have been standing on the top of a temple, arms spread wide, leaping into the air.”

That is poetry to my ears, the poetry of an earned wisdom.

I regularly muse that it is probably not reasonable to expect individuals who have invested so much of their identity in their religious beliefs to be willing to give them up, no matter how irrational or indefensible they may be.  Priests and pastors would risk their livelihoods, others would risk the shunning of friends, wives, husbands and parents.  For we don’t believe in a vacuum, but through our beliefs form intimate communities.  So it was especially good for me to read this account of one woman’s journey to the point where the loss of her faith did, indeed, represent a great cost and a reconfiguring of her sense of self.  The good news is that the story has a happy ending.

This is a writer who has my sympathy and intellectual allegiance.  As one who once believed, I found it good to have this look into another’s journey along a similar path.  Of course no two spiritual divorces are the same, but neither are they ever completely different.  I recognized much of my own journey in this book.

I highly recommend it.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.” by Michael Shermer

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

The Believing Brain started off strong for me, and included an unexpected narrative of author Michael Shermer’s own journey from belief to skepticism.  But in that narrative the seeds of the books later flaws were sown.

For though this book is a thorough guide to what we know about how the brain works in regard to belief, the skepticism of the author seems to stop at his own door, and the reader is “treated” to several lengthy passages that essentially make the case for why Democrats and Republicans believe silly stuff, but that the author’s own Rayndian-influenced Libertarianism is above the belief-dependent fray.

In this I was reminded of Sam Harris book “The End of Faith” where, after elegantly critiquing the irrational belief that is the basis of all human religion, takes a side-tour into the wonders of Transcendental Meditation!

Make no mistake: there is good, solid information in The Believing Brain, and it contains a useful catalog of the many biases we humans are given to.  But I think there are better sources for this information, and I would send a curious reader to two other books I’ve reviewed on this site (that are both free from the intellectual side-trips on offer here).  The books I’d recommend are:

“Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality” by Hannah Holmes.


“Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus

Although I have to credit this book with bringing to my awareness the useful concept of “Belief-dependant-realism”, I found the book, overall, to be an odd amalgam of subjects where, in addition to the aforementioned foray into Libertarianism, the final two chapters are devoted to cosmology, and the various “multiverse” theories.  Interesting, sure, but…

One thing I did derive from this book was an enlarged awareness that none of us is truly capable of living outside of the biases of our own brains.  That is sobering and a bit discouraging.  But, then again, it might free up a bit of our analytical energy to use in more fruitful pursuits.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev give is two and a half Dimetrodons!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Coal: a human history” by Barbara Freese.

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

What a neat book from a woman who was working in government in Minnesota, and wanted to know where her electricity was coming from.  The result is a concise and illuminating history of how coal came to be the fuel that powered our industrial revolution.

The short moral of this story is that we would not be where we are today without coal.  Burning wood and charcoal got us only so far, and was running out.  Coal was a vast storehouse of ancient solar energy buried beneath the ground that we humans, once we got it figured out, learned to exploit in pretty amazing ways.

Of course, as Bill McKibben points out, a properly functioning coal-fired electricity-generating coal-fired plant is an operation that is killing us and our environment even as it operates exactly as it was designed to do.

But this book is not a polemic.  It’s a clear-eyed appreciation of the realities of burning that much coal and releasing that much stored carbon.  The power coal has given us is astounding, but so were the impacts on the lives of those who lived in the smoky cities of London or Pittsburgh at the turn of the century.  The problem is, we are still dependent on this fuel source.  And the more interesting revelation of this book is how our use of coal is actually increasing, even as the reality of this increase becomes ever more hidden from our view.  Because we don’t live in smoke-choked cities, it can be easy to think that the sulfur dioxide being churned out by the ton isn’t really out there.  Thanks to this book, I now know that it is.

I highly recommend this book.  It is a charming — yet sober — blend of historical anecdote, geologic history, human inventiveness and popular science.  You’ll be a better human for having read it!

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!





t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “How Old is the Universe?” by David A. Weintraub

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

“How old is the universe?” is one of those questions that separates the creationists from everybody else.  It also turns out to be a question that we have only recently answered (and by recent I mean during my lifetime).  But between Cardinal Usher’s attempt to use all of the “begats” of the Bible to come up with an age for the earth of about 6,000 years  and the decoding of the Cosmic Microwave Background that  showed the actual age of the universe to be some 13.6 billion years, there is a tale of science, astronomy, discovery, mistakes, corrections and dogged determination that makes the closing statement of this book a reasonable one:

Click image to go to the publisher's webpage.

“The trials and errors, painstaking observations and  brilliant insights that have led to this answer amount to one of mankind’s most impressive intellectual achievements.”

And impressive it is.   Impressive and complicated.  Reading about it turned out to be, at times, challenging for my primate brain to process.

This book is written for a popular audience, and I can find no fault with the writing.  The problem of a book like this is that the author (who is clearly in command of the information) is attempting to describe some very complex and mind-bending concepts to a big-brained animal that was grunting in a cave somewhere not that long ago  (that would be us humans).  I simply had to allow myself a pass to not completely grasp every mathematical formula (the one for determining the mass of planets, for example).  (Since i was not studying for an exam, I could afford to let the occasional formula or calculation pass, and trust that I was getting the bigger picture.  And boy, is there a bigger picture here)!

If you are like me (not an astronomer) the description of the life cycle of a star will blow your ever-loving mind.  Or sections like the following, that, in an attempt to describe how it is that all of the photons left over from the “big bang” came to be pretty much the same temperature due to the conditions of the “Inflationary epoch” of our young universe, explains that:

“…the diameter of the universe expanded from a size roughly a billion times smaller than the diameter of a proton to about the size of a softball.  This increase in volume by a factor of about ten to the fiftieth power (1050) occurred when the universe was only ten to the minus thirty-five seconds old (ten billionths of one billionth of one billionth of one billionth of a second) and lasted until the universe was about ten to the minus thirty-four seconds old (one hundred billionth of billionth of one billionth of one billionth of one billionth of a second).”

So THAT’S why all those photons are the same temperature: they were all formed during a time when the universe was really, really, really small!

(And we’re not even past the first second of our universe’s life, with over 13 billion more years to describe!)

The selection quoted above should give you an idea of what you’re in for with this book.  Expect to spend some time with it (it’s not a fast read).  Having said that, however, it’s a good read: as well and clearly written as any book on this subject could be, I expect.  It’s an enjoyable journey, and worth the effort for the moments of brain-twisting, jaw-dropping awe at the realities of the formation of everything from the carbon that is the basis for life to the origins of the stars, planets and galaxies that populate our expanding universe.

The book takes us step by step from the beginning to the end of the story (literally: the answer to the titular question comes on the very last pages!).  The book does not dawdle, or mess around.  It simply has a lot of ground (space?) to cover.

I recommend this book.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Discovery Dinosaur Central”

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Discovery Dinosaur Central is a fun site with lots of animations, slide shows and recent news about paleontology and archeology.  I could spend hours here.

Of course all of the articles are short and sweet, in that Discovery magazine style.  Which makes it perfect for some web-grazing.

In a few minutes I read about the latest discovery of an articulated Dimetrodon fossil in northern Texas that had its “fangs” still intact, watched a slide show of computer models made of our current line-up of potential human ancestors, saw a life-like reconstruction of what “Otzi” the “Iceman” looked like, and got side-tracked into a recently un-earthed Greek temple.  You get the idea.

Have fun!

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory” By J.M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page.

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

From the publisher’s website:

“J. M. Adovasio, Ph.D., is the founder and director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is the author of The First Americans (with Jake Page).

Olga Soffer, formerly a fashion industry insider, is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Jake Page was the founding editor of Doubleday’s Natural History Press and subsequently its publisher, as well as editorial director of Natural History magazine and science editor of Smithsonian magazine. He has written or coauthored 43 books on the natural sciences, zoological topics, and Native American affairs, most recently Do Dogs Laugh? and Do Cats Hear with Their Feet? He and his wife live in northern Colorado.”

In the late 80’s, I read a book called “The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth” by (Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor).  It was very, very, very thick book.  But I was deeply interested in what these women had to say (I had just entered my post-Christian years, and was becoming aware of voices like Joseph Campbell as I attempted to connect with my own pre-Christian tribal mythology).  After I finished the book, I had the distinct feeling that it could have been about one-quarter the length it was.  I also had this thought: “Man, in another twenty years, the research in this field is going to be really good, and a much better book on this subject will be written”.  Turns out, I was right.

“The Invisible Sex” is basically the story of the evolution of modern humans based on the best evidence we now have.  But it is also a re-examination of not only the role of “women” in prehistoric human society, but also of the assumptions scholars have made about those roles over the last couple hundred years.  At long last, the thin scholarship of a book such as “The Great Cosmic Mother” has matured into the thoughtful prose of “The Invisible Sex”.

This book surveys all of the evidence we have about the varied roles of men and women, including both archeological material and ethnographic studies of modern hunter-gatherer societies.  But the authors take this a step further, offering a critique of the prevalent attitudes of different researchers and cultures through time, and follow the genesis of popular and pervasive myths such as that of “man the hunter”.

The picture that emerges is a nuanced and, ultimately, believable one.  For the fact of the matter is that we don’t know a lot about our early prehistoric ancestors (they were, after all, living their lives before any written evidence).  There are some things we can infer from the artefactual evidence and the behaviors of modern tribal people, but there are also a lot of other things that we cannot.  This book lays them all out.

Written by a trio of scholars, the writing breezes along with a sense of bold clarity that I really enjoyed.  There is even one enjoyable passage where one of the trio expresses his dissenting opinion on a subtle (but clearly important to him) distinction.  Plus (in stark contrast to several books I have read over the last year), I noted a complete lack of typographic errors in this book (being a Smithsonian publication perhaps has something to do with this).  One wrong word (maybe two) snuck in there, but that’s it.

You may be struck as you read (as I was) that this book is, in a way, mistitled.  For it is much more about prehistoric human development in general than the gender roles of women per se.  But, then, that may be part of the point of this book: the roles of men and women are not easy to discern in prehistory, but then neither are they so easy to define on a global scale even in our modern world.  Men and women have been negotiating their roles from the beginning of time, clearly, even after the point in history in which we developed a conscious concept of gender.

So although this book will do equal damage to the myth of “man the hunter” as it does to the Goddess notions of a book such as “The Great Cosmic Mother”, in doing so it offers us all a much more realistic and believable picture of the no-longer “invisible” women of human prehistory.

This is a quality book that I wholeheartedly recommend.

t.n.s.r. bob