Having recently finished a creative nonfiction class with a healthy reading list populated with memoirs, I can say that Sapolsky’s “A Primate’s Memoir...moreHaving recently finished a creative nonfiction class with a healthy reading list populated with memoirs, I can say that Sapolsky’s “A Primate’s Memoir” is the best one of that genre that I have had the chance to read.
In it we are treated to the author’s adventures in Africa studying baboons over the course of about two decades. But the focus retains a healthy balance between two types of primates – the troop of baboons and that other most complex primate – homo sapiens. Sapolsky has to deal with the obvious cultural dissimilarities as a Westerner living in impoverished Kenya and on his numerous trips to other parts of Africa including Sudan and Uganda. We meet the Masai with their spears and crimson attire, we meet Northern Sudanese Muslims, we meet hunter-gatherers living on forest plateaus above the scorching Sahara, and of course we intimately peer into the lives of Benjamin, Rachael, Joshua, Devorah, and Saul (among many others) in the baboon troop.
Hilariously funny at times and thoughtfully serious at others, the book is a moving and absorbing read that imparts knowledge as it entertains.
Of the books out there on the cognitive science of religion, this is probably the best compromise if you were to read only one. It doesn't have the de...moreOf the books out there on the cognitive science of religion, this is probably the best compromise if you were to read only one. It doesn't have the depth of Scott Atran's "In Gods We Trust" or Pascal Boyer's "Religion Explained" but it also is lacking in what some would call nearly impenetrable prose. It has depth and substance and is carefully argued.(less)
What’s wrong with our thinking has much to do with what’s right
Hank Davis, in this overview of all the foibles, fallacies, and biases that infect the...moreWhat’s wrong with our thinking has much to do with what’s right
Hank Davis, in this overview of all the foibles, fallacies, and biases that infect the reasoning abilities of our species, lays out a strong argument that although we have imperfect cognitive equipment given to us by evolution, we can overcome them with judicious use of critical thinking, science, and intellectual honesty. While Davis specifically dwells on the supernatural phantoms that people accept as part of their lives from ghosts and spirits to deities and angels, he also delves into the purely secular arenas of fallacious thinking from gambling to the incomplete way we often evaluate data in everyday situations. Several books on this topic have been written of late such as Bruce Hood’s Supersense, but Davis’s seems to have a welcome clarity and plain-spoken characteristic.
The primary thesis of Caveman Logic comes back to the fact that for all of the pre-disposed ways of human thought that work well, the areas in which we are particularly bad at stem from the misapplication of the strengths. One of the ways that this occurs is through the over-extension of one way of thinking into another domain that it was not designed by natural selection for, and more importantly, is demonstrably bad at.
This comes to bear in Davis’s critique of supernatural beliefs where such mental tools as agent detection (which is a very good skill to have) is applied to reasoning about natural occurrences. We see this happen all the time when our low-brow religious mouthpieces such as Pat Robertson blame natural disasters on the agency of God (as with hurricane Katrina). In Davis’s estimation, which seems right on target, such a superstition is developed and utilized (and is successfully convincing to a large number of people) since it offers a social understanding of events and avoids that dreaded thing that humans have little tolerance for—ambiguity and meaninglessness. By adding an agent into the equation of explaining a natural disaster, an illusory form of meaning can be gained. Not only that, but it places the event into a social context—something humans are already very good at understanding and interpreting events within.
For all the strengths of the book, I did have a few objections. The book doesn’t seem to have a clear audience in mind. At one moment it seems to be a clear exposition of our “caveman logic” and therefore aimed at readers like me looking for a nice refresher and synthesis of the subject. But at others (particularly the last chapter) it can seem almost preachy. While I understand and completely agree with the author that this is an issue of vital importance, the rhetoric seemed to not match the intended goal. If his goal was to provide a good synthesis to readers like me, he didn’t need the last chapter (at least in its current form—it did broach new information that would certainly want to be included in any edition). But if his goal was to persuade readers who might hold beliefs he considers irrational, then the sometimes blunt rhetoric may just serve to alienate them.
That minor objection aside, the substance of the book is rewarding and certainly needful. I know it’s cliché to say, but this book does deserve a very wide audience.
When reading a non-fiction book, especially one on a topic that interests me s deeply such as this one, I almost always have a highlighter and noteboo...moreWhen reading a non-fiction book, especially one on a topic that interests me s deeply such as this one, I almost always have a highlighter and notebook at hand. The highlighter is to mark passages that strike me as especially insightful and the notebook is to jot down ideas that the book might inspire.
When reading Robert Wright’s “The Moral Animal” there were times I had to curb my desire to highlight or else there would be consecutive pages wholly riddled with yellow mark. There are so many things, so many little everyday social interactions, that Wright and the discipline of evolutionary psychology throws light upon in such a way to make you want to step back and wonder at the grandiose illusion of it all at the folk-psychological level. The book propels the reader through many of the facets of human life – from familial and romantic relationships to social status and moral reasoning – and all throughout applying Darwinian theory to get at the root of it all.
The organization of the book is exceedingly intriguing, creative, and entertaining. Wright explicates the life of Charles Darwin in light of evolutionary psychology. From his childhood insecurities to his wrestling with status as a scientific genius, (as well as his misgivings about the religious implications for a Victorian society and his beloved and pious wife), all can be explained, (even if loosely and incompletely) with evolutionary psychology.
All in all, this book was one of the more powerful and deeply unsettling reads that I have had in quite a while.
Overly simplistic attempt at a theory of religion yet good for the questions it asks. Even if you suspect (as I did) that the answers offered here are...moreOverly simplistic attempt at a theory of religion yet good for the questions it asks. Even if you suspect (as I did) that the answers offered here aren't exactly the right answers (even if they are on the right track), this is a good book for those interested in the psychological aspects of religion. A short and painless read.(less)