I first read this about ten years ago, and I count this as one of the books that transformed my thinking. It's the story of a Catholic priest of the L...moreI first read this about ten years ago, and I count this as one of the books that transformed my thinking. It's the story of a Catholic priest of the Laurentian order who is tasked with tracking down someone named B, who is suspected to be the Antichrist. As the tale progresses, you learn much of the teachings of B. Trust me, it will make you think. It's a very different perspective on our culture than you'll find anywhere else. If you've read Quinn's first book, Ishmael, you'll know this perspective. This book expands on it.
A lot of people misunderstood Daniel Quinn, thinking he was arguing we go back to hunting-and-gathering. No amount of clarification seemed to dispel that myth. The point, which this book spells out more clearly than any of his other books, is that if we think something isn't working, maybe we should study what DOES work. That's what this book does. We know tribalism worked for a very long time. So long, in fact, that our current culture is only a brief experiment by comparison. If that experiment has failed, maybe we should understand what worked so well for so long, and why it worked, if we expect to fix what's wrong with our experiment, or construct a new experiment. When he says tribalism "worked" he doesn't mean it was perfect. He only means it worked, like flocks work for geese and hibernation works for bears: it's evolutionarily stable. It doesn't bring the planet to the brink of disaster after only a few thousand years.
This book only gives a starting point, by exploring that part of our history we know very little about: the transition from tribalism to what we think of as modern history. Quinn proposes this transition was a kind of cultural assimilation, which is only possible if people started living with a conviction that we now take on faith, that there is one right way to live. So the most important thing is to stop living by that conviction. There is no one right way to live. The biggest feature, and the biggest disaster, of this assimilation is the lack of diversity. So we might want to re-think the massive scale of our culture. He also proposes what he knows will not work: "the world will not be saved by old minds with new programs. If the world is saved, it will be saved by new minds, with no programs."
Like most of his books, this is almost more non-fiction than fiction, but it has a much better plot and characters than Ishmael. I found myself wanting to know what happened next. But looking back, I wonder if Quinn had a bit of a heretic complex, thinking people would come after him with pitchforks for making such dangerous arguments. A couple books later (After Dachau) he had a completely different worry: "Nobody cares."(less)
Ew, economics! Don't get bored by the subject before you give this book a chance. This book is not only engaging, it's practically riveting. It's not...moreEw, economics! Don't get bored by the subject before you give this book a chance. This book is not only engaging, it's practically riveting. It's not really economics as most people think of it, but probably economics as it should be. See, economics isn't really about money. It's more about the psychology of human motivation. What causes people to do the strange things they do? Isn't that something we always ask? Imagine, here we have an entire academic subject devoted to that exact question, and the experts of the field mostly just use those tools to bicker over rising and falling prices and the value of the dollar.
This economics professor is bored with that, and admits he's not actually very good at it. He's a lot more like a social psychologist. He uses economics to address some fascinating questions. What caused the sudden drop in crime in the 90's? Answer: Roe v. Wade. Seriously. Read the book for the persuasive though controversial explanation. Another interesting question: if drug dealing is such a lucrative business, why do most drug dealers live with their moms, and if it's not so lucrative, why do they persist in such a risky profession? This chapter is fascinating because he was actually able to get his hands on the books of a king pin of a crack gang, who had surprisingly detailed accounting.
There are more interesting things this book discusses, but those were two that stood out for me. This book wasn't deeply profound, but the writing is extremely engaging, fun, and fascinating. Definitely worth reading.(less)
Just when I started lamenting how seldom I read a book anymore that forces me to re-think my assumptions, The Blank Slate comes along! This is an ambi...moreJust when I started lamenting how seldom I read a book anymore that forces me to re-think my assumptions, The Blank Slate comes along! This is an ambitious book, 528 pages cutting across our entire culture, leaving nothing untouched--politics, morality, philosophy, economics, psychology, history, gender, anthropology, violence, children, the arts, and language.
The premise is that a philosophical invention of the 20th century has created confusion and destroyed common sense, justified by a misunderstanding that it could eliminate racism and inequality. That invention Pinker calls the "blank slate," the idea that we're all born into the world as malleable pieces of clay, completely shaped by society. This philosophy has two corollaries that tend to run alongside it: the "noble savage" and the "ghost in the machine." The "noble savage" philosophy is the belief that our nature, if isolated from our wicked modern culture, is pure and peaceful. The "ghost in the machine" is the idea that each of us has a self that drives the body, existing separately from it.
Sounds harmless enough, right? This stuff is at the heart of many of our political and philosophical debates, with far-reaching implications. Misunderstandings about human nature have been used to justify damaging social policies, disasterous economic experiments, and horrific violence. The blank slate is at the heart of Marxism, for example.
This book meticulously sets up a persuasive argument against the blank slate, in favor of a scientific understanding of human nature, informed by Darwinism, particularly the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology. It counters misunderstandings about human nature, and dispels fears about what this line of thinking could lead to, most notably the Holocaust. This man's poignant logic is practically flawless. He has a knack for raising excellent points that made me think hard, and question my beliefs, since I too harbored many of the misunderstandings and fears this book addresses. He won me over, big time.
I do wish he'd better addressed the subject of moral relativism and ethical dilemmas. He's arguing for human nature, which is objective and universal. Some thinkers like Ayn Rand take this to its logical conclusion and argue that there are black-and-white definitions of Right and Wrong written in human nature. That leads to the questions of how we can discover these rules, and which authority we should trust to interpret them. Rand says it's self-evident to anyone thinking rationally, and of course she counts herself as such a person, so this is a clever way of electing herself the authority on Right and Wrong. Those who don't obey her edicts are outlaws and should be forced to obey. This ended up creating a cult of personality that still exists among many Republicans and Libertarians, and it creeps me out.
So I still have a fear that the philosophy of human nature can be used to justify such intolerance. Of course, this book also made a strong case that the opposite can be just as terrible, allowing horrific violence to persist in the guise of tolerance.(less)
This is a travel memoir about hiking through the Borneo rain forest. Camping overnight in a state park is my idea of roughing it. This book makes that...moreThis is a travel memoir about hiking through the Borneo rain forest. Camping overnight in a state park is my idea of roughing it. This book makes that look like a five-star luxury hotel by comparison. The rain forest is teeming with life. He said he felt like he was inside an organism that could easily consume him. There were a few times his life was at risk.
He couldn't have done it without the help of native guides, and most of this book is stories about his interactions with various natives he encountered. They were real characters. Most of them were very silly and fun-loving, and some were a bit nutty. Probably the most poignant scene was when he was captured and accused of being a demon. He kept his cool, and eventually figured out how to escape, by playing along with their superstition. I was impressed, and sometimes amazed, by his integrity, his preparedness, and his ingenuity.
It's easy to think of the natives as a simple people, but in that environment, it was he that was simple. Sometimes he felt like he was going native himself as he adapted to living with these people in this environment. The title of this book refers to himself and how he felt when he first entered the forest. By the end, he was no longer a stranger to the forest, and even impressed some of the natives with some of the parts of Borneo he'd tackled.
This is not normally my kind of book. It felt like a chore to get through it, or else I'd give it a higher rating. But if you like travel memoirs like this, it would probably be a page-turner for you.(less)