Friday, September 21, 2007

This Week at the Library (21/9)

Current Music: "Rock and Roll All Night", KISS

The first book I read last week was River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins. The river is a "river of information" -- genetic information. The book doesn't have the focus of The Ancestor's Tale; it strikes me as almost being a collection of essays dealing with questions of biology. From the book's dust cover:

Filled with absorbing, at times alarming, stories about the world of bees and orchids, "designed" eyes and human ancestors, River Out of Eden answers tantalizing questions: Why are forest trees tall -- wouldn't each survive more economically if all were short? Why is the sex ration fifty-fifty when relatively few males are needed to impregnate many females? Why do we inherit genes for fatal illnesses?


The book answers those questions and adequately. The only chapter where my attention began to drift was the chapter on Mitochondrial Eve -- the ancestor of the human race. That was completely about how genes are transferred through sexual reproduction, so I was a little bored. I did find Dawkins' suggestion that our true universal ancestor was an Adam to be intriguing, though. He bases his argument based partially on the fact that male animals often rule over harems of females -- one animal sharing his genes with a larger number of females, and thus increasing his contribution to the gene pool exponentially. Female contribution in humans is still limited to one pregnancy every year, and so an individual female's contribution is negligible compared to the male who rules over the harem -- even considering pregnancies that produce multiple offspring. My favorite chapter was "God's Utility Function" where Dawkins explains why there are so many inefficiencies in living systems -- problems that make no sense if everything was designed by an all-knowing Creator, but that make perfect sense when seen through the eye of gene-driven evolution. "Do Good By Stealth" was also quite interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

The second book I read was Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s by F.L. Allen. The book's title is spot-on; the book is very informal. It's not written with the historical objectivity that I would like; the author assumes that his reader is an American, and so speaks of "us" and "we". The book was written in 1931, and the language of the book -- the usage of 'Negro", for instance -- dates it. Despite the informality, I did enjoy the book. The 20s and 30s are of particular interest to me; I've been reading about that era for almost four years now. Before, my main area of historical interest shifted year to year; in ninth grade, for instance, I was stuck on the Great War. In tenth grade, I moved on to the Second World War. In eleventh and twelfth grades, I was engrossed in Civil War history. Then in 2004 I began to research the Mafia and here I am years later still reading books about the 1920s and 1930s -- the Prohibition Era. The book increased my appreciation for living in the here and now; I wouldn't want to live in the time of the Red Riots the KKK, and the birth of Christian fundamentalism.

The last book I read was Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali was born in Somalia and raised as a Muslim. Her family moved around a bit because of her father's political activities (resisting the communists), and so she experiences life in different parts of the "Islamic" world. Ali writes of the clan blood feuds and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. She tells of how she threw herself into the religion even while questioning it. The systemic flaws of Islam do not go away with time, and eventually she finds herself in western Europe, having fled there to avoid an arranged marriage. In Germany and Holland, Ali discoverers what humanity is capable of when freed from the fetters of dogma -- civilization. The values of Europe were completely against the values Ali had been handed by her upbringing. Ali writes of her puzzling over the fact that Europe paid no attention to Allah or the Quran, yet was still prosperous and civilized. She enrolled in a university to better understand how such a society could have formed, and was immediately challenged by the western ideas being presented at her through her classes.

"Sometimes I could almost sense a little shutter clicking shut in my brain, so that I could keep reading my textbooks without struggling to align their content with my belief in Islam. Sometimes it seemed as if almost every page I read challenged me as a Muslim. Drinking wine and wearing trousers were nothing compared to reading the history of ideas."


Ali moves further and further away from the values of her upbringing and begins to become "secularized". She becomes a Dutch citizen, and Dutch values become her values. After 9/11, she decides to examine her faith. It falls apart the minute it is exposed to scrutiny. The last chapters of the book deal with the controversy she involved herself in when she wrote about the instability fundamentalist Muslims were bringing to Holland. The same problems are being caused in the United Kingdom and Canada. Ali summed the conflict up in a brilliant way, but I can't remember the exact wording and can't seemed to find it now. The gist of her statement was that the western European nations were overly tolerant of their Muslim populations in the hope that understanding and reconciliation would be reached --- but there would be no such toleration or understanding from the Muslims toward the unbelievers who were giving them a safe harbor.

I found similarities in the author's departure from religion and my own, although of course her situation is a lot more difficult than mine. I enjoyed the book, and that ends the week's reading.

Pick of the Week: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

This week, I'm going to be reading Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science by Carl Sagan. I discovered this one a week or so ago in a card catalouge and realized that here was a book by Sagan that I hadn't read. Well, I have to rectify that. After that, I'll be reading The Assault on Reason by Al Gore. I'm not sure what it's about, but I'm going to guess that Gore will be mentioning a "Republican war on science". Lastly, I'll read The End of Faith by Sam Harris. I've read Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation and enjoyed it. The summaries of the book that I've read say that it is a book aimed at fundamentalist Islam and Christianity. I'm looking forward to it. Next week my reading will probably drift into history and stay there for a bit as I ready myself for a couple of term papers.

  • Broca's Brain by Carl Sagan
  • The Assault on Reason by Al Gore
  • The End of Faith by Sam Harris

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