Monday, August 1, 2011

The Reading List (Part Two)

(Part One here)

Tucker Max – Assholes Finish First

This is basically the sequel to I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, which I reviewed on Facebook ages ago. Like the first one, it’s full of (purportedly) true stories about his various drunken escapades. I didn’t like it as much as the first, though – more than half the stories were from when he was already moderately famous (from his website and first book) so the things that happen to him are generally less relatable. Also, I was a big fan of his law school friends in the first book; they were always very funny and a lot less douchey than Tucker himself, but they appeared relatively little in AFF. But like I said last time – he is a very funny writer, and a very smart person, and this shows through every now and then.

Verdict? Don’t bother buying it, but if you know me personally and want to borrow my copy, it’s worth a look, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species

I picked this up in a second-hand bookstore in New Zealand, just before I left. It’s something I’ve always wanted to read, if for no other reason than to check it off the list. Well, it might have been hugely influential and everything but I can say with some certainty that I’ll never want to read it again. The science isn’t particularly complicated, but the prose is very dense and he goes into a lot of detail when describing the various morphological differences and similarities, and has a tendency to repeat himself to reinforce key concepts. And I suppose this was probably necessary at the time, but to someone who already knows 99% of it, it does get tiring.

There were a few cool moments – for example, he tries to explain the mechanism by which natural selection works, the unit of change involved. He explains the features it would have and so on – basically, he broadly describes genes, one hell of a long time before they were actually discovered. But he also makes a few statements that we now know to be false – mostly of the category “If you train an animal, this training will be reflected in a small way in its offspring”. So if you’re looking for a book on evolution, pick up something modern instead – it’ll be easier to read and much more accurate. Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale is a good one.

Joseph Campbell – The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Some of my fellow PWE students will remember doing Myth & Mythmaking, which was basically about how the various mythologies from around the world tend to have a lot of similarities, because they are all based on underlying Jungian archetypes that are hardwired into the brain. Kind of an odd subject – equal parts ancient mythology and modern psychology – but an interesting one. Well, guys, I suspected so at the time – having heard of the book but never read it – but now I can be sure. If we’d just read this book and done no other work, we’d have passed that class with flying colours.

Pretty much every movie you’ve ever seen has the same basic structure – three acts, with certain events typically taking place at specific times in those acts – and those three acts reflect the three stages of the Hero’s Journey, which Campbell illustrates in the book. It’s amazing how he has boiled down the huge canon of creative works over the centuries – from ancient myths to modern blockbusters – to the same, common elements, that so bewitch our psyche. If you’re into ancient mythology, modern religion, or human psychology in general, this book will fascinate you. I can’t sing its praises loudly enough.

Sam Harris – The Moral Landscape

Something you often see when people argue about ethics, particularly around the ethics of scientific research – the use of stem cells, the use of animals, the implications of genetic manipulation, etc – is the idea that while science can inform us about the facts of the universe, it cannot and does not comment on ethical issues. The basic premise of The Moral Landscape is that this notion is false, and that it allows a lot of insidious and poorly-reasoned ethical systems to gain credence they otherwise would not.

Harris builds on a foundation of philosophy but most of the structure comes from neuroscience (parts of the book are adapted from papers he wrote as part of his PhD thesis). This sort of frustrates me, because the philosophical grounding is there, he just doesn’t explain it in enough detail. When he explains the neuroscientific parts, you can tell that he does understand the philosophical underpinning necessary but in a situation like this, when you’re so violently bucking the trend, you really do need to spell it out. Because the big objection to this book has been that Harris’ argument rests on certain assumptions, and in philosophy you really can’t have assumptions that aren’t well thought-out. I know Harris is formally trained as a neuroscientist and not as a philosopher, but he has the skills to argue the philosophy, and it frustrates me that he didn’t use them.

So, overall: a brilliant idea, somewhat poorly explained. Like Assholes Finish First, worth a borrow but not a purchase.

(Part Three here)

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