Tuesday, June 17, 2008

This Week at the Library (17/6)

Books this Update:

  • The History of Science in the 18th Century, Ray Spangenburg & Diane Moser
  • More Tales of the Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov
  • god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens
  • The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins

This week I continued my foray into the history of science by reading The History of Science In the 18th Century, second in this series (beginning with The History of Science From the Ancient Greeks to the Scientific Revolution). The authors, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Moser, continue to impress me. My local library carries a number of books by them, and I predict that I'm going to be reading them all. One of their books -- sadly not available at my local library -- is a Carl Sagan biography. Spangenburg and another of his co-authors, Kit Moser, have a website that you can view here.

The book begins with a prologue, briefly summarizing where "science" was at the beginning of the 1700s. The name of this series is "On the Shoulders of Giants", originating from Newton's statement that 'If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." This is fitting because Newton's various theories allow science to progress further and faster than it ever has before. His laws of motions and insights into optics make people realize that all of nature is governed by laws, and that these laws can be figured out by human beings if we are observant, clever, and imaginative enough. The idea of a "clockwork universe" emerges, and from it emerges Deism. Science in the latter half of the 18th century is influenced by political and technological revolutions -- namely, the French and American revolutions and the Industrial Revolution. This means, of course, that science and history are inescapably tied together -- which is a joy for me to realize in full given my interest in both.

The book is, if you will excuse the pun, enlightening. The connections to history have already been mentioned, but the authors put a lot of emphasis on Newton's importance. I knew he was considered important, but had not realized the full scope of his contributions' importance. I will certainly be continuing this series, and will as mentioned look for further books by these authors.

Next I read god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I said last week that I wasn't particularly interested in reading a book on atheism. As it turns out, though, this book isn't about atheism: it's about the damage that religion can cause. While the book's title resonated with me a year ago, I've softened a bit since then and I'm more concerned with actually communicating with people. I think the book's title will serve to alienate more people than its message will serve. This is not necessarily the fault of its author: the root cause is that people aren't as receptive to listening to ideas when they've just been insulted. It strikes me as vain for whatever reason, but then I'm one who will read something precisely because it's insulting.

Hitchens begins the book by describing his break from religion, which happened in childhood as a result of him observing four things, although I'm certain that Christopher Hitchens as a child articulated these things with fewer and simpler words:

"There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking."

That one sentence is more obnoxious in tone than the tone of the rest of the book: it's really not stuffy at all. Hitchens goes on to discuss various topics that elaborate on that original summation. The various topics Hitchens covers are too various to be comfortably summarized, so I'll simply provide you with a list of chapter subjects: : "Religion Kills", "A Short Digression on the Pig", "A Note on Health", "The Metaphysical claims of Religion are False", "Arguments from Design", the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament, the Koran, miracles, Hell, "Religion's Corrupt Beginnings", "How Religions End", "Does Religion Make People Behave Better", eastern religions, "The Last Ditch 'Case' Against Secularism", "A Finer Tradition: the Resistance of the Rational" and it concludes with "The Need for a New Enlightenment".

I think the listing of the chapter titles should tell you whether you want to read this book, regardless of your own personal beliefs. If you're religious and fair-minded, you should be interested. Despite the book's provocative title, I think its contents are fair. Its contents are also hilarious. Here's one passage I was particularly delighted with:

With a necessary part of its collective mind, religion looks forward to the destruction of the world. […] This has been a constant trope, ever since the first witch doctors and shamans learned to predict eclipses […] to the best-selling pulp-fiction Left Behind series, which, ostensibly "authored" by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, was apparently generated by the old expedient of letting two orangutans loose on a word processor."

You may not be able to appreciate the humor in that if you've not read the Left Behind books. I've read all sixteen and they're hilariously awful. On that note, I will promote once again Slacktivist's running commentary on the books. The Slacktivist blog is run by a Christian, by the way: that those books are bad is not just the contention of a religious cynic like myself.

Moving on to something less controversial, I next read Isaac Asimov's More Tales of the Black Widowers. This is a collection of short stories, although I had no idea what they were about until I began reading the book. Asimov introduces the book himself, and here is a portion of that:

"I don't think there's much more to say about the Black Widowers than I've already said in Tales of the Black Widowers. That was the first book in the series and the one you're now holding is the second.

In that first introduction, I explained that the Black Widowers was inspired by a real club, to which I belong, which is called the Trap Door Spiders. I won't tell you anymore about that here because if you've read Tales of the Black Widowers you'd just be bored by the repetition, and if you haven't read it I'd rather leave you in the agony of curiosity so that you will then be driven to buy the first book and repair the omission. […] That's all I have to say now, but lest you rejoice too quickly at being rid of me, I must warn you that I will appear again in a short afterward following each of the stories."

My favorite part of reading Asimov's short-story collections is his introductions and afterwords. They reflect so much of his humor and gentle charm that reading his personal comments is often more enjoyable than the stories themselves. As for the stories, they are puzzle stories; mysteries of a sort. Essentially, the Black Widowers always meet once a month for supper, and each month they are joined by a guest who invariably presents them with a puzzle to solve. Sometimes this is intentional, the guest having been invited just so he can enjoy the advice they offer. Sometimes the puzzle emerges accidentally, such as in "Nothing Like Murder". The guest is a Soviet scientist who expresses his amazement that in New York people openly plan murders. When he is asked what he means by this, the scientist responds that while he and a comrade were sitting on a bench near a university, he overheard two young men plotting a murder. The Widowers express their doubts that college students would plan a murder openly like that, and the story is about the Widowers trying to sort out what exactly transpired, using the Soviet's memory of what they said. Ultimately they figure it out, and it turns out to be harmless. The guests that join the Widowers range from Soviet scientists to puritanical Christians: they don't fit stereotypes. I found each story to engaging, and recommend the book. It's good stuff, especially if you like trying to figure things out. I actually managed to figure out one story's solution before the Widowers did, which was heartening.

Lastly I read Ricard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, published in 1976. This is the third time I have tried reading this book. Out of curiosity, I looked at the book's "Due Date" slip affixed to the back cover, which serve as an indicator of when the book has been checked out. This particular copy of The Selfish Gene has been checked out six times:
16 October 1996
13 December 2000
26 January 2002
15 August 2006
31 October 2006
24 June 2008

Now, naturally, the book wasn't checked out on those dates: in each instance, it was checked out two weeks prior. The last three due dates are my own. 2006 was a monumental year for me: it's the year everything changed. It was the year that I rediscovered a delight in simply learning things -- when the library opened up an immense world for me. This was the year I discovered authors like Carl Sagan. By late summer of 2006, I was growing more and more aggressive in my reading, trying to expand my knowledge. Around that time I heard of Richard Dawkins and checked out two of his books -- Unweaving the Rainbow and The Selfish Gene. I finished Unweaving the Rainbow, but only got half-way through The Selfish Gene. Evidently, I checked it out a couple of months later, hoping to finish it, but I don't remember making any progress in that second attempt. Since then, and until now, the book has remained in the back of my mind. Every time I see it on the library bookshelf, I am reminded that it and I have unfinished business.

I should say "had", as I finished the book. It was published in 1976 and introduced Richard Dawkins to the world of popular science. He has since then become a prolific science author, and I have read a number of his books -- The Ancestor's Tale, The River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, and so on. Dawkins is one of my favorite scientists, as I often hear him in interviews and see his lectures online. The Selfish Gene advocates a gene-centered view of evolution, which is why it took me so long to read it. My brain doesn't like genetics. To finish this book, I had to clear the major hurdle of the introductory chapters, where Dawkins explains how what genes and chromosomes are and how they work. Thanks in part to the biological knowledge I have accumulated through a lot of reading in the past two years and a lot of determination, I was able to clear that hurdle and the rest of the book was…easier. There were some chapters ("Aggression: Stability and the Selfish Machine", "Battle of the Sexes", "Memes: the New Replicators) that were easy for me to get, and there were some ("The Long Reach of the Gene", "Immortal Coils") that were harder.

The chapter on memes was particularly interesting. A meme is an idea that is transmitted from being to being -- from the songs of birds to the religions and philosophies of human beings. Dawkins says "When we die there are two things we can live behind us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. […] Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king's genes. […] But if you contribute to the world's culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G.C. Williams has remarked, but who cares? The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus, and Marconi are still going strong." (p. 199, 9th edition.)

I like this passage because it supports my own view of heritage. I do not count my heritage as being genetic, and for good reasons. My genetic heritage doesn't matter a bit. The paternal ancestor whose last name I carry hailed from Germany. While many people are proud to be German -- and there's no reason not to be, because Germany has contributed much to western culture -- it would be rather silly of me to be proud of this. As Dawkins so eloquently points out, even if I was a direct descendant of Frederick II, it is likely that he and I have no genes in common. What links he and I is that we may hold some of the same ideas -- we both value learning and religious tolerance, for instance. This is the same thing that links myself and Robert Ingersoll, or myself and Marcus Aurelius. This is easier for me to realize, being American, because I share that distinction with people who don't look a thing like me: we are alike because of the ideas we live by, namely the ideas of the Constitution.

Pick of the Week: Undoubtedly, The History of Science in the 18th Century.
Quotation of the Week: "Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience." (god is not Great, Christopher Hitchens, p. 56)

That concludes this week's reading. What's next? Well, my library carries Tales of the Black Widowers, which I've never read in spite of reading its sequel. I will have to "remedy the omission", in Asimov's words. I'll be continuing the history of science series by Spangenburg. Jeff Shaara recently released The Steel Wave, which is a sequel to his The Rising Tide, which I read last year and commented on here*. I also have a couple of recommendations to look into: No Ordinary Time, which appears to a joint biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.

*Amusingly enough, in the same post that I commented on The Rising Tide, I said that I wouldn't read history of the Roosevelts. It appears that I'm about to.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

This Week at the Library

Books in this Update:
  • The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
  • The History of Science from the Ancient Greeks to the Scientific Revolution, Ray Spangenburg
  • Charles Darwin: the Naturalist Who Started a Scientific Revolution, Cyril Aydon

I began this week with The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. I read this book for historical, rather than scientific, reasons. I imagine that it is of little use as a scientific text today as it was published in 1859 -- before heredity and DNA were discovered. I decided to read it to see what the book was like, since it caused such a sensation in its day. I would do the same for other historically important texts -- The Wealth of Nations, The Communist Manifesto, The Jungle, etc. As a student of history, and a fledging student of the history of science in particular, I'm quite interested in this book. It also helps to be armed with facts for those chance encounters with fundamentalists who are prone to saying "Darwin said…". I figure if I read The Origin of Species, I could call them on their BS promptly. (Some people hunt. I call BS. We all have our sports.)

The Origin of Species, despite being written in the Victorian era, is actually rather readable. The edition of the book I'm reading features commentary (sometimes corrective) to help put things into perspective. While Darwin's book introduced the idea of descent with modification to a larger audience than the Royal Society, his chapter on "The Struggle for Existence" bespeaks of ecology to me. I do not know enough about the history of ecology to say if many naturalists had observed it, Darwin certainly did. Take, for instance, this passage:

I am tempted to give one more instance showing how plants and animals are bound together by a web of complex relations. I find from experience that [b]umblebees are almost indispensable to the fertilisation of the heartsease and some kinds of clover. [B]umblebees alone visit red clover, as other bees cannot reach the nectar. Hence we may infer that, if the whole genus of [b]umble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. The number of [b]umblebees in any district depends in a great measure on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests. Now the number of mice is largely dependent on the number of field mice, which destroy their combs and nests. Now the number of mice is largely dependent […] on the number of cats; and as Col. Newman says, 'Near villages and small towns I have found the nest of [b]umblebees more numerous than elsewhere, which I attribute to the number of cats that destroy the mice.' Hence it is quite credible that the presence of feline animals in large numbers might determine, through the intervention from mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district. "

How else to describe ecology rather than 'plants and animals bound together by a web of complex relations'? Wikipedia says that "ecology" was coined in 1866, and that its founder was Eugenius Warming. I may read more on ecology later on; it's an interesting topic. Most of the chapters are fairly interesting. I thought "Instinct" was a little dull, but other chapters, like "Geographical Distribution", made up for it. That chapter was particular interesting, as Darwin describes his experiences in probing to see how seeds could be transferred from one island to the next. Three methods he came up with were (1) seeds carried by seawater, (2) seeds in dirt clumps attached to natural debris that is shuffled from island to island through the currents, and (3) through animal scat, since birds can often be blown hundreds of miles from their natural routes by prevailing winds. Darwin actually tests these ideas -- submerging seeds in seawater to see if they would germinate, liberating seeds from animal feces and successfully planting them, etc. The man was meticulous.

Next I read The History of Science from the Greeks to the Scientific Revolution. I am enjoying a growing interest in the history of scientific thought. It combines my lifelong interest in history and a newly awakened and burgeoning affection for science rather nicely. This book was quite excellent, I thought, in presenting its information. The book is divided into three parts. The first starts the development of natural philosophy in the Greek world and its progression and moves through the death of the classical world to the rebirth of knowledge in the medieval era with Copernicus. As I read about Copernicus and Galileo (who promoted Copernicus' idea of heliocentrism), it struck me that all Copernicus had to substantiate his claim that the Earth and planets moved around the Sun rather than the reverse was simple math. All either Copernicus or Galileo could do was observe the movement of the planets and other celestial happenings and say "This is what we think is happening. It seems to fit the facts at hand." There was no hard, undeniable evidence outside of the math, and there wouldn't be until the space age. Imagine that! For hundreds of years, people were taught that the Earth moved around the sun not through undeniable evidence but through simple rational and math. As I read about this, I realized that the same was true for both Darwin and Mendel. Darwin spent years observing the natural world, just as Copernicus and Galileo observed the heavens, and then made an observation. As I found out in a later reading, Darwin's initial title for The Origin of Species began with "An Abstract of an Essay On…". Darwin's idea was just that, an idea: a mental abstraction, just like Copernicus'. Here's where it gets interesting: Darwin saw natural selection as the basis for evolution, but had no idea what made that work. How did parents pass on traits to their children -- faster limbs, bigger brains, etc? Mendel figured that out when he realized what we now call genetics, but he lacked the tools to find the actual genes that were doing what he described. Later on, DNA was discovered, meshing Darwin, Mendel, and Watson's discoveries together. I find this sequence of events uncommonly fascinating. Anyway, after finishing the introduction, the book is split into two more sections: the physical sciences and the life sciences. Both are interesting in themselves. The history of medicine isn't something I know a lot about other than what I learned in Theories for Everything, but this book's section contained a wealth of information. Speaking of Theories for Everything, I wonder if the thrilling narrative presented by that book is what prompted my interest in the history of science?

Next, I read Charles Darwin: the Naturalist Who Started a Scientific Revolution. I found this book and the one preceding it by searching for "scientific revolution" at my local library in the interests of expanding my knowledge of the history of science. It's a biography of Charles Darwin. I recently watched a video that piqued my curiosity about the life of Charles Darwin, and specifically the voyage of the Beagle. As far as narratives go, I have to say this one is excellent. Biographies can be dull despite being about an interesting personality, but this book is anything but dull. The author presents a lively telling of Darwin's life, drawing conclusions about why he was able to do what he did based on his surroundings. The book concludes by saying that Darwin was marvelously fortunate. He was born into the landed gentry, which made his life as a naturalist much easier. His father supported him financially, allowing him to spend his time doing research and writing. He married a woman who gave him immense emotional support, and he was able to surround himself with some of the leading minds of the day, who inspired and encouraged him. This book gave me new insight into Darwin and his book. I got a good laugh when perusing the "Suggested Reading". The author mentions Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, and says that Dawkins has taken Alfred Huxely's role as "Darwin's bulldog". The author says that 'like Huxeley, he is a tremendous popularizer [of science], and like Huxeley he takes no prisoners.' That's one way to characterize Richard Dawkins: a bit like saying FDR had a way with speeches.

I have other books -- namely, The History of the Ancient World, Modern Germany: Its History and Civilization, and Biology: Demystified. However, each presents problems: the first two are large, while the last is a self-teaching book, and as such I cannot read it straight through. I have to re-read sections to make sure I remember everything. I checked out Biology: Demystified in the interests of helping me better understand biology (as you might imagine) and thus far it is -- although I do have problems with the book, which I will elaborate on should I finish it and include it here.
Instead of trying to make more progress with those larger books, I decided to visit the library today (I had the day off of work because we had no work to do) and fetch some other books. I began with The History of Science in the 18th Century, which is the second book in the series that The History of Science […] to the Scientific Revolution began. Next I checked out Christopher Hitchens' god is not Great: How Religion Ruins Everything. I should note that I have read Hitchens before (his biography of Thomas Jefferson) and didn't really like his tone, which seemed to be…overly academic. I've seen the guy in interviews and enjoy him there, but not in that book. You can probably guess the book's theme from its title. I'm only reading it to say I have: I'm actually not interested in books about atheism. It does get old.

Next I'm reading -- or attempting to read -- Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. I have tried to read this book twice before, only to be stymied by the fact that my brain yelps and hides under the couch when it encounters genetics. I know a smidge more about genetics now than I do the last time I read this book two years ago, but as evidenced by the slow progress I am making in Biology: Demystified, this subject does not come easily to me. I've heard that the third time's the charm, but even if I can't get through it, I will try again. I will continue trying to read the book until (1) I die or (2) Athena tells me not to. I don't know how long I have before case one is reached, but I doubt case 2 will be realized any time soon. Why am I so determined to read this book? Because I tried once, and failed. I won't have it said of me at my funeral that a book got the better of me -- even if it was written by an Oxford professor.

Next I checked out a book on Greek mythology and I finished my round with a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov. I think that's everything. I was thrilled to find the Asimov collection: I was concerned that I had read all of his short-story collections at the library.