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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

It is very far off-topic for this blog for me to be writing reviews of fictional books, but my duties as a blog owner and as a blog owner representative on The Twitter entangled me (enthusiastically) in a group read of the novels short-listed for the Man Booker prize, and I am participating in a book review collaboration at Michelle Hannell’s “Mummy Rates It” blog here. So I’m sharing it with you all, too, lest I be accused later of keeping secrets about my blog owner activities from my blog subscribers. We do things on the up and up around here.

I read (avidly) and reviewed (positively) The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. The other novels shortlisted for the prize are Bringing Up The Bodies (Hilary Mantel), Narcopolis (Jeet Thayil), Swimming Home (Deborah Levy), The Lighthouse (Alison Moore), and Umbrella (Will Self). Enjoy!

Update: And the prize was awarded to Mantel for Bringing Up the Bodies, which I found out today is a sequel to Wolf Hall.

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By Sonia Shah

Long Story Short: I believe every word in this book about the ethical perils and injustices of medical testing, but I’m not sure at all what to do about it.

Why I Chose This Book: I’m not really tuned in to the new releases, and a lot of what I find to read crosses my path indirectly. This time, however, I crossed this book’s path directly: I was wandering through the library seeing if something would catch my fancy, and this book was one of the ones placed on a library shelf, propped on a bracket facing outward. It was about a topic I could read with a critical eye. It was about a topic that seemed rife with controversy and might teach me something. It was written by a woman, and then had this unexpected “Foreword by John Le Carre,” which was intriguing enough (by seeming completely out of the blue) to seal the deal.* And we were in a hurry to go, so I just grabbed it and checked it out and didn’t pick it up again until a few days after I’d brought it home (a detail that becomes important somewhere around the 950th word of this book review).

*I really scratched my head about this one, but some Internet searching revealed that he’d written a novel more or less about the same thing–The Constant Gardener–so there you have it. Also, it’s mentioned on the very first page of the preface, which I had forgotten about until I was flipping through the book today to write this review.

The Book’s Strengths: I thought this book really covered its material well. It analyzes the process whereby drug manufacturers identify and test drugs on human subjects, how it chooses which populations to test them on, the history of the drug-testing industry, the government regulations that enable and hamper (different regulations) the process, the ways pharmaceutical companies “spin” results, the cavalier attitudes towards “informed consent,” and international efforts to establish and protect test subjects’ rights. It covered all this information in an efficient, readable way, and each of ten chapters covered a distinct topic within the broader themes. There were lots of interviews, lots of documented research, and plenty of end notes and a long bibliography. I learned a lot and probably had the exact emotional reaction I was supposed to have; set against what I’ve picked up over recent years about marketing drugs right to patients and the revelations about how things like, say, statins are not really benefiting many people and may be harming more (and other things about Viagara, and all the different allergy medicines, et cetera), and the context of corporate greed and abuses that also make the news, Shah makes plenty of sense to me.

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Edited by S. T. Joshi

Long Story Short: This book is a good primer for someone who has never encountered the kinds of writings about how women were unfit for public life, but it lacks context and it does not stretch far enough into the present day.

Why I Chose This Book: I was browsing the Prometheus catalog (a good source for books about skepticism) and the cover art caught my eye. I’ve encountered a lot of people online who really have no idea just how formally and officially prejudice against women has been constructed in academic and cultural spheres or for how long, and thought it would fit in well with the purpose of this blog.

The Book’s Strengths: This book is all primary sources. The editor has collected essays about the place and purpose of women from basically American and British sources, across a good stretch of decades, from men and women authors, and presents a pretty thorough picture of how ideas about women’s supposed limitations informed public opinions and policies. People like to think they know how badly women have been maligned, and these selections are most likely worse than the average reader suspects. It definitely sets the stage for what feminists have been so angry about and have been fighting about, and taken as a group it can shed light on how such arbitrary and ideological notions about Why Women X can seem so much like nature and logical consequences.

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By Bernd Heinrich

Long Story Short: I really meant to post more than once in February. I really did. But, you know, stuff. Made a totally awesome spreadsheet in Excel, though, with an amazing formula:

=IF(OR((AND((B15=0),(F15=MAX(($B$15:$B$586=0)*($F$15:$F$586))))),(AND((B15=1),(F15=MAX(($B$15:$B$586=1)*($F$15:$F$586))))),(AND((B15=2),(F15=MAX(($B$15:$B$586=2)*($F$15:$F$586))))),(AND((B15=3),(F15=MAX(($B$15:$B$586=3)*($F$15:$F$586))))),(AND((B15=4),(F15=MAX(($B$15:$B$586=4)*($F$15:$F$586))))),(AND((B15=5),(F15=MAX(($B$15:$B$586=5)*($F$15:$F$586)))))),$A$7,””)

It was also color-coded. Learned all about conditional formatting, too, I did. Good times.

Long Story Short about the Book: This is probably a wonderful book that was just not for me, at least not for me during this particular January, when I was expecting I’d have some cozy dark-early winter times and got instead 80-degree weather with trips to the jacuzzi. I didn’t finish it.

Why I Chose This Book: A biologist friend recommended this book to me, and had said he’d found it very inspiring. What with winter coming up, and me always looking for recommendations from real people, I thought it would be the perfect thing for the season.

The Book’s Strengths: This was a book with a strong voice, told with great detail about a fascinating subject. It was almost a memoir, I thought, and the author had great passion for the subject, as well as a careful and thorough approach to the various explorations of how tiny little animals (and bigger animals) survived during the harsh winters of northern climates. It was peppered with pencil drawings from the author’s own notes, and it was full of interesting observations about the world, and I liked many of the connections the author drew between seemingly disparate things. I mean, I know we use trees for fuel and animals eat other animals, but I never explicitly thought about trees as solar energy containers or rabbits harnessing the sun’s energy for the benefit of the foxes, that kind of thing. (The author said it better, but the book went back to the library weeks and weeks ago.) The author lymoved between loving the natural world and conducting actual experiments about the natural world (like measuring the temperature of bird corpses to see how long they’d hold heat with that shape and that size in frozen temperatures, or sticking his head into tree trunks to measure the amount of squirrel droppings in order to estimate the number of animals using a shelter), with highly readable and almost poetic prose.

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By Robert Wright

Long Story Short:
This book has a lot of interesting close-ish reading of the big three Abrahamic religious texts (Torah, Bible, Koran), interspersed with a lot of philosophy and splaining I wasn’t that crazy about.

Why I Chose This Book:
I was enthralled by the ideas in Wright’s book, Nonzero, when I read it and I was looking for a book that addressed a more traditional “skeptical” topic to write about between that one about online reputation and the next one about cuddly animals.

The Book’s Strengths: First of all, I like Wright’s writing style. He explains his points well, and he intersperses his texts with just enough humor that it’s a pleasant surprise every time. True, writing style is not a very important part of a book’s message, but it makes it easier to engage with the text, particularly during the slower parts of the book.

I thought the book did a pretty good job of covering the structural evolution of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It starts with exploring religion from pre-literate societies, and it’s very clear on where the limitations are on how much we can deduce about prehistoric religions, and how we know what we know now about the religions of hunter-gatherer communities. For example, we know what the members and/or descendants of these hunter-gatherer societies say, and we have some historical documents from literate people who encountered these groups during the age of exploration and onward, but we can’t say that this is the way prehistoric religions looked because every culture evolves, and Wright points out frequently what aspects he discusses comes from documented sources (and which ones) and what aspects are supposition or speculation.

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By Daniel J. Solove

Long Story Short:
This book discusses the boundaries–social and legal–between privacy and publicity, particularly at the point where the Internet has the potential to expose details to millions of people.

Why I Chose This Book:
I’d heard somewhere about the book The Offensive Internet but decided–based solely on the Amazon.com page–that it would be too scholarly for me to read and review for this Reading Club project. The Future of Gossip came up on that page as another suggestion, and it was easy to get at the library, so I went with that.

The Book’s Strengths: The book is pretty short (I’m not considering that a strength or weakness) mostly because it is so straightforward. The author identifies and explains many of the legal codes and mainstream media practices that cover the conflicts that arise between the individual and public reputation, and makes it easy to understand the perspectives behind why certain laws were established and why courts have made the decisions they did. It’s also peppered with anecdotes from the current Internet age as well as examples of defamation/privacy violation complaints/accusations that have occurred in previous decades. The writing style is very accessible, too, and it doesn’t overwhelm you with information or dense passages of texts.

The Book’s Weaknesses: It’s a bland book, with too many anecdotes and explanations and no real insight about the coming conflicts between our personal and public selves. It read like a report on what is happening <em>now</em>, except that “now” has a 2007 publication date and Facebook makes the book’s pages as just having introduced the News Feed. An interesting report, I guess, but with the exception of listing the various statutes and legal codes by name for the reader, I could have found as many anecdotes online to share, too, and the anecdotes weren’t that shocking or exciting or revelatory. It’s not that it’s a dated book–that is, it is a dated book but only in a trivial way, because the anecdotes and Exciting Internet Events that Solove includes are pretty universal examples of what can go wrong, even if nobody uses Friendster anymore. It’s that it doesn’t really make you think very hard about the implications of oversharing online. And it’s not like these past four years have made us so much more knowledgeable/cynical/crafty about the construction of our online personas; more people probably have given more thought to how the information they post online can haunt us, but the book leaves me with a sense of so now what? The recommendations he makes for how to alter specific laws and/or application of current laws to accommodate privacy without stifling free speech are tossed in at the end with no philosophical expounding upon, and the social recommendations that he makes–we’ll all just have to be more respectful but that’s going to be hard–I could have made, and I have no philosophy or law experience at all.

Perhaps I am the wrong audience for the book, and people versed in privacy law and Internet topics would take away from it a much richer experience, but–and I am going to risk making myself look foolish here–I don’t see how. If it’s just a quick reference for people to turn to when they are tackling bigger issues, that’s one thing, but in the Preface of the hardcover copy, he writes that “The purpose of the book is to explore in depth a set of fascinating yet very difficult questions and to propose some moderate compromises in the clash between privacy and free speech.” I found no in-depth discussion of anything. In the Conclusion he writes, “The questions are immensely complex, and there are no easy answers.” I agree with him; privacy versus freedom is complex, but I didn’t see any of this complexity or nuance in the book itself. It’s just an overview. It identifies conflicts without really fully exploring them.

What Should Have Happened:
I think the book should have ditched most of the anecdotes in favor of wanton pontificating and assertion-making. I’d much rather have heard more of his opinions than facts, although I understand that the author’s goal may have been to keep it basic and not go off on tangents. I also think that there should have been conversation about global attitudes and foreign laws about free speech, copyright, and privacy, instead of sticking with the U.S. court history, especially because one of the Big Dangers Solove kept warning the audience of was that what unsavory details once stayed within a small group of people can be broadcast worldwide and recorded permanently. If the Internet is making all of us interconnected, then we need to think about what happens when conflicting laws and customs about privacy and freedom get into the mix.

Short Story Shorter: I wish I’d read the other book. I might still. I’ll keep you posted.

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By Susan Faludi

I first wrote about this book on July 19, 2008 on Goodreads. A subsequent edition of the book has been released in since then, with a new subtitle: “Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America.” I have not read that newer edition.

As always, I really enjoy reading a Susan Faludi book. It’s a marvel to behold the breadth and diversity of sources that she finds to support her assertions. It’s always a scholarly rather than an outraged approach to the topic at hand (although still biased–but I can handle biased), and however relentlessly the author pushes examples into your face she never tells you what to think about the situation. You come to your own conclusions.

1. I thought the first half was excellent, from the representations of male and female roles in the popular and serious press, immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center in NYC. I thought the bit about the female firefighters was TEH BEST EVR until I read the chapter on Jessica Lynch, a female soldier who had been injured and then brought to an Iraqi hospital, and then taken out of it in an organized rescue event. If what Jessica Lynch as reported by Susan Faludi is saying is true, then I can’t even imagine how the spin and lies got as far as they did. If you read only one chapter from the book, read that one. It’s even better than the one that discusses the hunter and mountain man imagery that shrouded the presidential race of 2004.

2. I thought the second part of the book was even more interesting, although I am still not convinced that it exactly fits. It tackled the subject of the captivity narrative, a literary genre that originated in the United States way back when, starting with tales from women who had been abducted by native Americans and returned to tell the tale (or, in many cases, had to be dragged back kicking and screaming). Faludi presents this tradition as the foundation for the current portrayals of women needing rescuing and men being judged on their failure to and success for protecting and saving them. It really is interesting to see how culture affects politics, even across the course of centuries. Or how politics struggle to find legitimacy in cultural representations, even if reality does not reflect the stories a nation tells about its people.

(This is an aside, but the Salem Witch Trials were also presented against the background of the captivity narrative. The author refers to a book (?) by Carol Karlsen called “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman,” which examines the role gender played. Perhaps obvious now [20 years after Karlsen wrote] is that the bulk of the accused and the executed were successful, important, or independent women who lived outside strict social control. What I didn’t realize was that the bulk of the accusers were young girls who had been orphaned and traumatized during Indian raids, forced to witness dreadful things perpetrated against people they knew and loved.)

3. I’m not sure how the two parts hold together, at least not beneath the title “The Terror Dream.” The title comes from the 18th and 19th century examples of capture and rescue, specifically of a male from a novel–The Searcher? I can’t remember–waking up from the terror dream that has numbed him throughout his life so that he can act to save a girl. You can see how Faludi tried to insert this phrase into other parts of the books, but it is awkward at the beginning and only really makes sense when you see it in context almost at the end. I don’t disagree that the events following 9/11 are absolutely pertinent to the captivity/rescue tradition established in the second part of the book, but they don’t connect well as presented. I have a feeling she set out to write a book about Post-9/11 America (note the subtitle) and it morphed, but after her proposal had been accepted by the publisher and she had cashed the advance check.

So the two parts of the book are individually cohesive and very interesting, and they do relate significantly to each other, but my complaint is that they seem like they were forced to fit a title. That is my complaint about the book.

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By Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

I first wrote about this book on May 25, 2011 at Goodreads.

Why I Chose This Book: So long ago now I have moved from sadness to nostalgia, I was part of a podcast/book club that never quite launched. We took turns suggesting books, and I’d always keep a lookout for new titles that might be worth discussing, even long after the podcast project was stalled. When author Naomi Oreskes was interviewed on a March 2010 episode of the SETI podcast, Are We Alone? (now Big Picture Science), I was intrigued enough to note the title.

Nutshell Review of the Book: A significant portion of this book is footnotes and citations, and you can’t say that the authors have not backed up their claims. Orekse and Conway make the case that a very few number of scientists have gone out of their way to undermine and disparage research (by casting doubt upon it) calls into question the safety of certain business practices or political programs. These are the same few scientists again and again, and by the third example of this you’ve got your long list of targets for hate mail. By the sixth example, though, you’re just worn out and tired of being so angry. It was very difficult for me to finish the book, although I would not disrecommend it to anyone. Is that a word?

Detailed Review of the Book: This is a book I really wish I’d read with friends. I’m pretty good at figuring out when someone is blowing smoke, well, at me when I’m listening to them, but when I see things in print they just seem so plausible. Particularly when they are in a book by an author from a podcast I generally trust from a monthly skeptical episode with lots and lots of footnotes. I found absolutely everything the authors claimed completely believable and I am ready to repeat the information from the book to anyone who will listen. They paint a very disturbing picture of what is basically a conspiracy against science that exposes the dangers of an unregulated free market, or science that is performed just to support a political agenda (such as the science behind Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative). They follow one or two scientists from the nuclear research programs of World War II through the tobacco industry’s suppression of data about smoking and second hand smoke, though arguments against the hole in the ozone layer, acid rain and global warming, and then to a purported smear campaign against Rachel Carson and her book, Silent Spring, about DDT.

There are also about four pages just ranting about “free market capitalism” at the end of the book, which I enjoyed immensely for personal reasons, but which were so ranty and so enjoyable that I feel like I ought to go looking for the other side of the story out of principle. I mean, it’s a screed. It’s the kind of thing I want someone else to read so I can run my predispositions and biases past another brain just to keep my own enthusiasm in check. I don’t think that Oreske and Conway are making a sloppy case or letting the (manipulated) emotional responses of the readers do the hard work for them. I don’t think that’s what’s going on. I think they really are onto something reasonable and rational and well-documented, but if they are right and this is how people are behaving and the media outlets are just letting these behaviors slide (for a variety of reasons, and I didn’t come out here to slam journalists because I know what they’re all trying to do in the environment they’re in), well… it’s kind of awful to think about. If someone who I generally trust to read critically could tell me that they’ve come to the same conclusions or the opposite of that, I’d feel a lot more comfortable. And no, the reviewers on Amazon don’t count. For all I know half of them are performance artists.

As for what’s in the book, it’s not difficult to understand. There is science presented to some degree of technicality, but it was very easy to follow. I liked the tone of the book, and appreciated the sarcastic asides and running commentary that peppered it. It was not so conversational that it distracted from the message, and it was not the kind of Look at Me! I’m the Author! sort of interruption I’ve encountered in other books. Nonetheless, reading did become exhausting. I blew through the first two-thirds like there was no tomorrow, and then right before the global warming stuff–-the reason Oreske was making the interview rounds and the most timely subject in the book–-I maxed out. The same people were employing the same strategies for the same reason over and over and over again, and I just didn’t want to read anymore. A week after it was due back at the library (couldn’t renew it because there were holds) I finally just sat down and busted through the thing. My outraged flared up a little, but I’d gotten the point already and was just turning the pages to see what was left.

The Conclusion and Epilogue chapters were very important to read to get the full effect of the book, so I’m glad I pushed myself through it (and the screed was a fair reward), but I don’t know if starting at page 1 and reading through to page 270ish is a very good way to approach the book. It might be a good strategy to start at the epilogue and conclusion, and then read the tobacco stuff at the beginning, and then skip around according to what topics interest you. Information does build by chapter, but it’s not really confusing to fill in the blanks if you had to. It might keep you from also burning out on the book.

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By Nicholas Wade

I first wrote about this book on May 15, 2009 at the International League of Skeptics discussion forum here.

Long Story Short:
This book relies heavily on scientific findings from genetic research into the human genome (and the genomes of other species) to offer insight about how the human species Homo sapiens (us) beat out its Homo cousins and took over the world.

Why I Chose This Book:
I learned about this book on the “Are We Alone?” podcast put out by SETI; the author had been a guest on a show called “Driving Evolution.” The story of the body lice I think is what really caught my attention, and it seemed like a topic that would interest most of us but likely make some claims worth analyzing.

The Book’s Strengths: First of all, I thought the book read really well. There was quite a bit of science to get through, but it was presented in a straightforward way without any dumbing down. The lists of genetic sequences were hard to keep straight, but they’d be confined to one paragraph and did not bog down the rest of the text. I particularly enjoyed the multidisciplinary approach of the book, tackling the question of how human beings arrived at their evolutionary and geographical positions when there are no explicit answers. It was interesting, too, to see the time span of the book’s event, starting with what information can be gleaned about the common primate ancestor to why Jews these days are so smart. A main argument of the book was that biological and cultural evolution influence each other (like a macroversion of the contents of the book Nature Via Nurture by Matt Ridley, who examined an individual person’s genes), and the author pretty much hit all the main topics of culture, from language to cooperation to agriculture to the next big thing.

I practically read this book straight through, it was that entertaining. The chapters at the beginning, from “Metamorphosis” to “Exodus” brought together information that people mostly sorta already know with discoveries specific to those fields and discoveries from other fields that add depth to the knowledge of how our species evolved, how it left Africa, and why it spread across the continents on the time schedule that it did. I also thought the sociological chapters, like “Settlement” through “Language,” were equally well-composed. It was easy to identify the point of each chapter, it was easy to see what evidence the author provided to support his points, and it was easy to see how they tied into the book. Personally, my favorite parts were the stuff about language and the domestication of animals, and how this seemingly ancillary information could inform biologists and anthropologists on human development and movement.

The Book’s Weaknesses: What Wade did not seem so good at was transitions. Not transitions between chapters or topics—I thought the book held together well and read smoothly—but between evolutionary states. “Stasis” was a particularly problematic chapter for me. It is undoubtedly difficult to determine how humans went from their stone-age selves all over the world to profound artists in Europe only, but the guessing was too blatant for my liking. It’s a subject that needs to be addressed, of course, but an entire chapter almost on pure conjecture was annoying. Maybe it’s just annoying to have this problem in our understanding of humankind. Maybe I was shocked and impressed that he was actually taking on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel thesis about how Europe and Asia got so far ahead of the rest of the world because of natural resources (an argument that Wade explains later in the book)—that Wade ACTUALLY SAID that perhaps the European crowd was just smarter and then so disappointed that he backpedaled from it. It was natural aptitude that put the smarter Europeans into civilization and cave painting and metallurgy at first, but then everyone convergent evolutioned so that we’re all equally smart now. (Except for the Jews, who will one day rule us all.) The backpedalling annoyed the crap out of me… especially when so much is made of the extravagant possibilities of genetic drift elsewhere in the book. It was a very bold move to pose the idea that some people as a group just were smarter. You know everyone has thought it, and it is possible that genetic drift made this crowd a little savvier (and then culture took on its own development), or even just a few bright individuals (there are geniuses in every generation), but it seemed a little silly to invoke convergent evolution afterward, to insist later in the chapter that of course all people are equally smart now (except for the Jews) and no one should be offended. It’s wishy washy.

The book suffered further once we took on eras covered by recorded history. The book strays from its central premise to make gee-whiz observations and play more what-if games. The Genghis Khan story was definitely food for thought, but it doesn’t really add anything to our understanding of human ancestry. I mean, OK… it’s a nice example of how quickly one man’s genes can spread through a population. It would have been a great anecdote for the parts about Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosome Adam. The Thomas Jefferson stuff was completely unnecessary. The examination of how evolution is still in action would have been a better epilogue than a chapter, and the stuff about the Jews was just comical. I was seriously laughing. I know that intellect is to a great degree inherited, and that culture can influence heredity (like the lactose tolerance stuff) but IQ tests do not great evolutionary arguments make. I don’t care how many Jewish doctors and rabbis there are in a population… or how many Chinese people are willing to go along with Asian Culture Conformity… or how little is known about how genes influence behavior… it’s one thing to talk about how stumbling onto language as a communication tool that enhances survival might direct what kinds of aptitudes/people survive to the next generation, and another to say that because medieval anti-Semitism squeezed Jewish people into financial occupations that genetics is why they are so smart today. Or that a few thousand years of Chinese insularity made Chinese people suited for conformity. Perhaps it’s the arrogance of my ignorance showing, but I cannot believe that nature and nurture are working so closely together at the population. In the Ridley book Nature Via Nurture he refers to how you can be born with the “schizophrenia gene” but never experience an environmental even that “turns it on.” I buy that. It’s a gene, it’s a person, it’s a specific ailment. What happens to you externally affects what that gene is going to do. But all these little baby Chinese girls being adopted by Americans aren’t genetically inclined toward conformity. They grow up to be the same headstrong individuals that their abrasive American native peers turn out to be. I suppose this is where someone else takes the idea of cultural memes on its logical tangent.

What Should Have Happened:
My biggest complaint about the book is its lack of diagrams. For example, it wasn’t that helpful to read some paragraphs about the subtle differences between the skull shapes of different Homo ancestors. It was difficult to keep track of the long trains of DNA mutations and sequences, and there could have been a few more maps. Considering that nearly two pages were given over to Thomas Jefferson’s lineage, these omissions are almost inexcusable.

Short Story Shorter: I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in human origins—even to people with limited scientific knowledge.

Note: I very recently read the book After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5,000 BC by Steve Mithen. It’s a long book organized by continent, and it’s very dense with a framing device (time traveling, non-participating anthropologist) that I can’t make up my mind about, and I enjoyed learning everything I learned from the book, but it would be very difficult to review in the format I like to review things, I think, so I’ll just sort of throw it out there as a companion piece to Before the Dawn, which at least is worth a skim-through and has lots of neat pictures. Also, you could read the footnotes and you would be educated and entertained. But it’s not a fast read.

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By Michael Shermer

I first wrote about this book on April 15, 2009 at the International League of Skeptics discussion forum here.

Long Story Short: This is a book about, variously, the free market, evolutionary psychology, and economic decision-making that has only one chapter devoted to the main premise of the book.

Why I Chose This Book: I liked the idea of kicking off the Book Club for the International League of Skeptical Readers with a book written by a famous skeptical author that branched out from the traditional science or religious fare.

The Book’s Strengths: Shermer has written a book about economics and trade that explores many different aspects of the producer to consumer process. He fills it with interesting anecdotes about how some products make it to market, how government can affect what gets produced, and how people behave with their money. As a non-economist (and not even a market aficionado) I appreciate the accessibility of his examples and explanations. He makes the nuances of economics—to the extent that nuances can be presented in such a short book for general readers on an offshoot topic—very understandable. I particularly appreciate his explanation of “folk economics,” or how thinking on a short-term, personal level about money can be exactly the wrong thing to do. I am guilty of not thinking about money sufficiently, and I am glad now to have some insight why. At the very least, he has made me interpret conversations I have or hear about money with more knowledge of where my ignorance is, which is stage one of fiscal empowerment (I guess).

Shermer has also filled the book with references to economists and psychologists, people who have theorized and analyzed market movements since the Enlightenment Era and people who are studying human behavior within controlled scientific experiments and with modern, technological tools. You understand everything as you read it, which is great, and you come away with some urban myths debunking and some cool soundbytes of data, such as the QWERTY keyboard wars and the invention of the gel-filled bicycle seat. Shermer’s writing style is interesting and well-paced, the prose is clear and optimistic, and it is a good voice to hang out with.

The Book’s Weaknesses: This is a volume that does not hang together well. I am sad about this. It is also a book that is not really about what it purports to be about, which is very disappointing. We don’t really get an analysis—scientific or otherwise—of why “the market” behaves as it does, and the few glimpses we get of why consumers do what they do are not big picture stuff. I don’t want to blame Shermer for things that maybe the marketing department at his publishing company did, and I don’t want to speculate (not with specifics, anyway) on how much of the book was actually written before he contracted with Holt, but it is absolutely not what I thought the book would be about. Let’s start with the publisher’s book description. Yeah, yeah, I know that the author does not creating marketing copy, but looking at it goes a long way towards explaining my mild annoyance at falling victim to a bait and switch:

Michael Shermer…shows how we made the leap from ancient hunter-gatherers to modern consumers and traders and how the capitalist marketplace thrives as a sort of Darwinian organism, evolving through natural selection as the fittest way to satisfy our needs.

It’s flashy and engaging, but it’s not that different from the purpose of the book that Shermer establishes in the prologue:

Markets that traffic in rankings, ratings, and bestseller lists seem to operate on their own volition, almost like a collective organism. In fact, this is only one of many effects we shall see in this book that demonstrate just how much the mind influences the market, and in a broader sense how markets seem to have a mind of their own.

These two paragraphs are broad enough that you could say I was being too picky, that I misinterpreted the whole thing, and the book does meet these established goals, but I remember Michael Shermer’s podcast/interview rounds. I heard him in a couple different venues, and he talked up a different book than I read. This is not a book that explains the kind of large population trends that shift the balance between consumers and producers, and the gains in status and desirability that explain how some perfectly good (nay, superior) products fail against lesser competitors. I expected more on advertising, and communication, and the globalization of culture, and how people behave, and I guess book a lot more like Robert Wright’s Non-Zero in economics form than this one. I honestly don’t know if a book like the one I envisioned could be written, but I had high hopes. (Did I already say that? Believe you me, they were high.)

There was one chapter that met all my expectations. It was a great chapter. Right smack in the middle of the book, Chapter 6: “The Extinction of Homo Economicus” was exactly what I wanted. It gets into the brain scans, and the primates, and the psychology experiments, and the analysis, and the commentary, and the bigger picture things that I really was looking forward to. I know exactly why he was pimping this chapter in the interviews, though—it contained all the good parts. It actually addresses 1) the mind, 2) market interactions, 3) monkeys, and 4) real world examples. Who doesn’t love monkeys? And fancy fMRI machines? And brain science?

The eleven chapters do not follow this template. The first few chapters—a good quarter of the book—are reasonable, persuasive arguments for how the free market will save the world. It’s a Libertarian plug. It’s not even an obnoxious Libertarian plug, but it doesn’t really address the stated purpose of the book, except in the most incidental ways with a couple references here and there obviously tacked on to remind people they are reading a book about psychology and evolution, too. There are chapters about virtue, and happiness, and trust, and other non-market things that only at the last minute tie into the topic of the book. I was patient with the beginning, and was rewarded with Chapter 6, but when the subsequent chapters left the plan again I really started getting antsy. I had a hard time focusing on anything after the first half of Chapter 9: “Trust with Credit Verification.” Then the book wrapped up with more arguments for unencumbered free markets. Like I said, they were good arguments, but that’s not what the book set out to cover. It’s really just one big tangent.

What Should Have Happened: If Michael Shermer really wanted to write a series of short articles addressing the psychology of humans, he should have. The book already has the words “Tales from” in the title, and if people knew in advance they were getting a loosely related collection of tales about evolutionary behavior, they would probably like it. It would have saved him from reaching as far as he did to make an economic point just to prove he’s writing a long text and assembling an anthology. I mean, come on. The About Schmidt and the Ndugu Effect conclusion to Chapter 7: “The Value of Virtue” was a reeaaall stretch. I think, however, that publishing a book about “Evolutionary Economics” sounded new and fresh, whereas a book about evolutionary psychology or sociobiology or whatever you would call these chapters would not stand out.

Short Story Shorter: I would not recommend this book. It is too muddled.

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