Ridley’s new book is a great synthesis of a lot of the ways that evolutionary processes are at the heart of everything. Using Lucretius and his De RerRidley’s new book is a great synthesis of a lot of the ways that evolutionary processes are at the heart of everything. Using Lucretius and his De Rerum Natura as his guide, he runs through human history and development. He covers religion, the internet, money, government, and much more. He illuminates the fundamental connections and underlying principles at work across such disparate domains.
Ridley argues that there is a general theory of evolution—biological evolution being the special theory—that explains how all things evolve. This general theory of evolution is, in essence, the view that everything is, too some significant degree, the result of emergent, unplanned, undesigned, and inexorable processes. Things develop gradually through modification and selection. He presents example after example of how bottom-up processes play the essential role in human progress and development and top-down structures are so-often ineffectual or damaging.
He uses the metaphor of creationists and evolutionists to identity whether top-down or bottom-up animates one’s view of the world. A creationist is one who thinks that top-down structures and processes are the way things work and progress. Whether in biology, economics, or the internet, if one things there has to be a designer to bring order to the system, then one is a creationist. On the other side, an evolutionist recognizes that order and design are not identical. These systems are, for the most part, self-organizing and without a design or designer.
If I had one criticism, it was that he tended to underplay the role of individuals. I think he is overreacting to the “Great Man of History” view. While there is – at least in retrospective – an inexorable march of history, I think that certain figures made choices that where not inexorable and would have, counterfactually, changed history if the choice was different or they had not existed. Yes in the 1900s, there were lots of people circling around something like the Theory of Relativity—but I don’t think anyone in the first part of 20th century would have come up with Relativity other than Einstein. There was something about his personality, his skill set, his life that put him a position to identity when he did. And if Relativity isn’t discovered until the 1940s—the 20th century is much, much different. Similarly with someone like Steve Jobs. He had a unique vision of technology and the personality and drive to implement it. I am not sure anyone else had that vision and/or the skill set to make it happen.
I liked the book, but I am in the choir here and Ridley is largely preaching to those like me. I don’t think many “creationists” would find the book convincing – at least across the board. They might acknowledge emergent systems in biology but not economics and politics (or vice versa). Ridley isn’t so much engaging in sustained persuasive argument against creationists. He is, in my view, more setting out to synthesize and bring together into one space the various ways evolutionary processes are at work across human experience. This is not a ground-breaking, path-blazing book. It’s a step back and integrate what we know book. ...more
Between the way Isaacson puts together the story of the life and Edward Hermann's reading of it, this was a wonderful listen. I do think it might haveBetween the way Isaacson puts together the story of the life and Edward Hermann's reading of it, this was a wonderful listen. I do think it might have been better to read--the science was hard to follow on the audio at times. Reading those sections would have helped. That said Hermann is so fantastic at bringing the words alive, that I felt like I got to know Einstein. I even shed tears when he died. Isaacson does a great job with balancing the human being with the icon: I feel like I got a good picture of who Einstein was and how he approached life. I have always respected and admired him (who doesn't?) but I do so even more -- warts and all. Einstein's independence and individuality shine through; his love of and willingness to fight for individual freedom is sincere and deep (I wish he would he have seen that such freedom is just as important in the economic as the scientific sphere, but no one is perfect and given the time period I don't fault him to much there).
I was fascinated by his early interest in Judaism and then how that faded but then returned in a fashion later in life. His battles with antisemitism both in Europe and the US were intriguing. The FBI under Hoover was disgrace in the way they treated Einstein.
All in all, I recommend this highly, though I think reading it rather than listening might be better. ...more
This is a fun book about language. McWhorter does a great job of highlighting all the completely normal bizarre weirdness that is language. He uses anThis is a fun book about language. McWhorter does a great job of highlighting all the completely normal bizarre weirdness that is language. He uses an acronym, IDIOM, to structure his discussion. IDIOM means that language is Ingrown, Disheveled, Intricate, Oral, and Mixed. By Ingrown he means that the languages, left to themselves without external influence of other languages, develop more and more features that indicate all kinds of things that other languages leave unmarked without a problem. For example, there are languages that have 10 genders (noun classifications)! Disheveled refers to the way languages have lots of illogical, redundant, and irregular features (e.g. flammable and inflammable). Intricate is about how all languages—even stripped down disheveled mixed up ones—have complex systems of rules. In the Oral chapter, McWhorter argues that writing is not the whole of a language and that we ought to pay more attention to the spoken aspect of language to really understand language. Lastly, Mixed is about how languages interact, coexist, borrow, and mix together. Along the way, you learn about Navajo, Black English, and lots of tiny language communities in Southeast Asia.
The book is not technical or ‘academic,’ so it is highly readable. That also means that it pretty much skims the surface of things. This is really a kind primer or appetizer for linguistics. (I’d recommend McWhorter’s Teaching Co. courses if you want some more detail: http://www.thegreatcourses.com/professors/john-mcwhorter/.) He has some views about language that will certainly piss some people off—in particularly the relationship between oral and written language and the implications of this for grammar. He is, though, good at noting disagreements and controversies within linguistics. ...more
Is elite athletic performance the result of nature (our genes) or nurture (environment and training)? Yes, according to David Epstein’s The Sports GenIs elite athletic performance the result of nature (our genes) or nurture (environment and training)? Yes, according to David Epstein’s The Sports Gene. This engaging and illuminating work is a pleasure to read. The anecdotes are amazing and humanize the scientific questions and issues raised by the role of genes in sport. Epstein does a great job of reporting the science without getting too technical, but without dumbing it down or sensationalizing it. He clears away the misunderstandings and misuse of the effect of genes. We often, he shows, misascribe the influence of genes: over-attributing them in some cases while failing to see their role where there is a significant influence.
Part of the story here is that genes play significant and important roles in athletic performance, but Epstein is careful not to overplay this. First, the target of his work here is extraordinary and elite performances. These are athletes that are already well off the curve. What he finds here isn’t going to necessarily translate back to the rest of us who live in the heart of the bell curve. Second, Epstein doesn’t want to disrespect or downplay the importance of the effort and hard work of these elite athletes. Yes, they often have amazing genetic gifts, but without the effort and practice, these gifts won’t amount to anything. (At the same time, the book looks at the genetic contributions for effort-taking and practicing.)
Another important theme of the book is that a better understanding of the genetic roots of performance can help us improve performance. The differences in our genetic propensities (our genotype) require, in many cases, different kinds of training and practice. Our bodies react to training and practice differently and so, to understand better how to improve our skills and outcomes, we have to understand better how we respond to the environment and training. One person’s strenuous cardio workout might be overkill (tragically quite literally in rare cases) for another.
Epstein doesn’t tackle the issue of genetic manipulation (or gene-doping) head on, but it certainly lurks throughout the book. Over the last century, the scientific and technological influence on training for athletic performance has increased immensely. As our knowledge of the human genome and genetic technology increases, will we see this influence extend beyond training into the athlete’s genetic makeup? Epstein’s tentative response is that, given the state of the science, there is just too much unknown at this point to do this in any extensive or effective way.
But that knowledge is coming; it is more of a when than an if. I am fairly certain that as the knowledge increases, so will the use of this knowledge to improve performance. Epstein is agnostic, ultimately, on the wisdom or morality of doing this. That wasn’t the point of the book, so it is no fault. But his work suggests much about this possible future. Personally, I think that, as with most scientific and technological advances, this will generally be a boon for human civilization and for sport. I am not utopian, though, and recognize that it will come with some harms and dangers. This is in part why it is important to get a better understanding of the science and learn more about how nature and nurture interact.
Another moral question not raised by Epstein, but suggested by his book, is how our understanding of the influence of our genes on performance affects our evaluation of doping. If some people have natural advantages conferred by their genotype, then is it really unfair for someone without those genetic advantages to use a drug to produce a similar effect? For example, Finnish athlete Eero Mantyranta has a genetic variation that makes his red blood count as much as 65 percent higher than that of an average man (274). His body is able to move oxygen to muscles much better than most and this (all other things being equal) gives him an advantage in endurance sport. This is quite similar to the effect of taking EPO as a performance-enhancer. If one of the goals in athletic competitions is a level starting point for athletes, then maybe we ought not ban EPO. That is, maybe, allowing EPO would level the field for athletes that do not have the benefit of genetic advantages. Is there a moral difference (putting aside for the moment the wrongness of the rule-violation) between someone who has a performance advantage from their genotype and someone who has a performance advantage from taking a substance? In more fundamentally, it begins to challenge the traditional concepts and evaluations of doping and performance enhancing.
While Epstein doesn’t deal with these issues, the book is good place to learn (in a non-technical way) about the scientific foundation for answering these kinds of moral and philosophical questions. For that reason alone it worth a read. But it is also quite interesting on its own terms. ...more
Lillard sets out to present the empirical evidence for the Montessori Method. Using research of Montessori directly and psychological research more geLillard sets out to present the empirical evidence for the Montessori Method. Using research of Montessori directly and psychological research more generally, she explains both the Montessori theory and how the evidence supports much of what goes on in a Montessori classroom. The breadth of evidence that supports many of the key claims of Montessori is impressive and worth a serious look by anyone interested in Montessori or educational philosophy in general.
Another important aspect of the book is where Lillard points out the need for more research to support various aspects of Montessori. She is also careful to note the qualifications or limiting conditions on many of the studies. These are important both because it points out paths for future researchers, but also demonstrating Lillard’s intellectual honesty. She is clearly a Montessori supporter, but she is not dogmatic about it.
A downside here is that Lillard is often critical of traditional, mainstream education, but too often in an overly general way. She paints it with too broad of a brush and so might be seen as unfairly dismissing traditional schools and teachers. This is a point reinforced by some of my students’ responses to the book. I assigned this for my graduate class in Philosophy of Education. For the most part, they liked it and found much of it valuable and eye-opening; but a few noted her easy dismissal of traditional education and felt it unfairly characterized their own experiences. If the book was: “Why Montessori is better than traditional schools” then this would be a significant failing. But Lillard is not writing this book to criticize mainstream education but to show how research supports Montessori. So the fact that she falls short in fairly dealing with traditional education is not damning for the overall quality and importance of this book....more
I liked this book, but I am not sure what to make of it in the end. At times, Taleb can be arrogant and dismissive--though often this was what I likeI liked this book, but I am not sure what to make of it in the end. At times, Taleb can be arrogant and dismissive--though often this was what I like about him! There was a lot that I didn't quite get--either too technical or too mathematical for me. But I think I get the main idea. Life (and the world) is much more complex that we imagine (paraphrasing a different quote: more complex than we can even imagine). Important parts of our lives are beyond our control and predicatablity. We cannot predict the events nor their effects (these are the black swans). The proper response is to make oneself robust enough to absorb shocks (instead of ignoring them, pretending they don't exist, or fruitlessly trying to predict them with false metrics). The practical elements of how to do this are more challenging (aren't they always!). Nevertheless, the ideas have applications from personal, practical, living to economic and social policy. It is a worthwhile read, though at times frustrating and meandering (which the autobiographical elements of the book show come directly from Taleb himself). One might check out the interviews with Taleb on Econtalk to get the main idea and some of its applications....more
Harriman presents his application of Rand's theory of concepts to an elaboration and defense of a theory of induction, particularly in physics. He draHarriman presents his application of Rand's theory of concepts to an elaboration and defense of a theory of induction, particularly in physics. He draws interesting and novel connections between concept-formation, abstraction, and induction. He makes some strong and controversial claims about induction and certainty, some of which I am still mulling over. The basic format is to present the theory in outline and then, using the history of science, to show how induction in physics has worked. His presentation is clear and concise. His narrative is clean, without much of the distracting polemics sometimes seen in some followers of Rand and Peikoff. There is some controversy about some of the details of the history he presents. Having little expertise or experience in this area, I am not competent to judge this. If the criticisms are accurate, this would surely be a fault of the book. It would demonstrate carelessness or sloppiness. Nevertheless, I do not think these alleged faults, on their own, undermine Harriman's central claims about induction. He is not after all engaged in the history of science as such, but using that history as a way of illustrating the theory of induction. I say this not to excuse such possible errors, but only to put them into context. Even with these possible faults, I'd recommend the book to those interested in Rand, epistemology, or the history of science....more
First few chapters and the last chapter are great. The middle chapters, where Darwin meticulously lays out the evidence for his view, get a bit tediouFirst few chapters and the last chapter are great. The middle chapters, where Darwin meticulously lays out the evidence for his view, get a bit tedious after awhile, especially for the modern reader. Darwin has done such a good job of the argument that there's little doubt by the middle chapters but Darwin still has more to say....more