What I’m Reading These Days

26 May

Of course, these mini-reviews are incomplete since I have not yet finished the books described. The titles link to the page for each book.

How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker

An exploration of what the last twenty years or so of science has to teach us about how the human mind is constructed and functions. In particular, Pinker examines the debate between nature and nurture, genes versus environment, and explains how mythologies about the human mind like Tabula Rasa (the Blank Slate), the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine lead to incorrect assumptions about how human beings motivate themselves and counter-productive policies. As Pinker explains it, it seems clear that the structure and nature of the mind is due to the interaction of nature and nuture, genes and environment, with neither being completely dominant. He also points out how organisms must optimize and the price of a mind that could help us survive may be the ability to comprehend that very mind.

Pinker doesn’t say this in so many words, but the picture that is coming into focus for me is that our brains evolved on the African savanna in a tribal social structure and they are optimized for recognizing threats and enjoying life in that kind of environment. Part of the cost of those optimizations is that the brain so optimized is subject to delusions like the supernatural, the ghost in the machine (the doctrine of a soul independent of physical reality), free will, and so forth.

The World Peace Diet, Will Tuttle

A thorough analysis of the unsustainable nature of the modern food production and distribution system, how it and the culture that developed it will have to change if humanity is to have a future, and how each person can facilitate and participate in that change.

The Poison King, Adrienne Mayor

Mithridates Eupator the Great, King of Pontus, was one of the Roman Republic’s most implacable and successful enemies. His birth was seen as the fulfillment of prophecy. Auspicious omens surrounded his childhood and adolesence. Despite his father’s murder and attempts on his own life, he survived to adulthood, defeated his enemies, and established himself as king of one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the Asia known to Rome. As Rome extended her influence to the east, Mithridates fought back, engineering the massacre of all the Romans in Asia Minor is 88 B.C.E., then spending the next forty years fighting wars against Roman aggression. There is some suggestion that Mithridates’ resistance may have contributed to transforming Rome from the Republic he confronted into the Empire it became a few decades after his death. He is called the “Poison King” because Mithridates studied toxicology and was reputed to have developed a universal antidote that protected him from all poisons.

Contested Will, James Shapiro

An account of the history of the idea that the Shakespearean oeuvre was written by someone else: Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford), Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Rutland, or someone else, anyone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America, Nortin M. Hadler

Dr. Hadler argues that the scientific evidence many medical treatments are based upon indicates that many of those treated would do as well or better without treatment. When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When our only tool for pursuing health is medicine, eventually, every minor abnormality comes to look like sickness deserving of treatment. Dr. Hadler documents, for example, how cardiologists “are so convinced that what they do advantages patients, they are hell-bent to do it better. Furthermore, they are so handsomely rewarded, in acclaim if not monetarily, that it would seem counter-intuitive if not absurd to question what they do.” He explains how the financial incentives for hospitals, equipment and drug manufacturers and suppliers, and insurance companies are structured to reinforce and sustain this self-feeding loop.

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Posted by on 2011/05/26 in reading


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