Archive for December, 2011

I frequently read a blog called Skepchick, which anyone who is reading this post probably already knows about. The blog covers a wide variety of topics, but two posts this week addressed the kind of thing I address in this blog: Why aren’t more women participating in the skeptical movement? The first, by Heina, pondered the question of the disparity between men and women at skeptical events; the second, by Rebecca Watson, linked to a thread at Reddit that showed an actual real woman being driven out of the actual atheist movement by actual participants in an atheists’ forum. Comments abound, both at Reddit and at each of the posts at Skepchick, and I’ve noticed some common themes among them, mostly from men, regarding the hostile environments women face and what women should do about it:

Theme #1: It’s just how things are because <reason here>.

Theme #2: I hope you realize not all men are like that and that men that are like that make up a very small minority of men.

Let’s tackle each theme in turn.

Theme #1
You know what? Women don’t care. They don’t care why men harass them–they just want them to stop doing it. Perhaps it’s a topic to explore at some point somewhere, but not with women, and certainly not when women are complaining about being harassed. Trying to explain why men behave badly to the women they have behaved badly to is a derailment, and an especially offensive one. What’s the point of bringing it up? Do you expect women to express sympathy for those poor men? Excuse them for their age? Analyze their problems and offer solutions for how the harassing men can be fixed? It’s not their problem to fix. It’s the harassers’ problem to fix. And if their behavior is unacceptable, it’s unacceptable. There’s no point to finding out why in a conversation about how it needs to stop.

If it’s so noteworthy and interesting to learn why the men who are creating hostile environments for women are being hostile–and it probably is, causes and symptoms and all that–then go talk to the men about it. Approach them about their behavior; engage the men in exploratory conversations about why they behave as they do and what their motivations are for harassing women. Work with the men on this problem; solve it with them. Don’t drag women into the morass. They have nothing to do with it. You’re trying to make it better for women to become active skeptics, remember–not give them more stressful and more complicated things to do before they can participate. If you have so much to say about why those raunchy teenagers or those “neckbeards” or those jokesters with a completely disgusting sense of humor make the remarks they do, say it to them.

If you can’t be bothered to confront the people who are actually causing the problem, then keep your mouth shut.

Theme #2
So there’s this concern that women are unable to tell the difference between the horrible men who are harassing them at skeptic and atheist environments and the regular guys who are made to look bad because of it. In fact, it’s such a concern that whenever a woman brings up the topic of abuse and harassment she’s experienced invariably a regular guy will express some worry that when a woman speaks about a group of men doing a horrible thing that she is including him, and that it’s important to criticize the woman for being sloppy with her language, or tarring everyone with the same brush, or making hasty generalizations, and basically being unfair and hurting the feelings of regular guys who would never, ever harass women. He’s sorry that she has been hurt, but he implores her to change her behavior so that she doesn’t make that mistake in the future, because it would hurt the movement if outsiders thought–because of her–that all the men were like this. And he’s not. No! He’s an ally, and he understands how women feel, but really, they better speak more carefully or they’ll ruin everything. And also you should apologize to him for being rude. Because there’s nothing ruder than speaking in general terms.

First of all, really? You think women really can’t tell the difference between a regular guy who is talking to them and a guy making rape jokes to a fifteen-year-old girl who had the nerve to post in an online space? Do you have so little faith in a woman’s ability to tell the difference between individuals and loosely bounded groups that you have to remind her that differences exist? Spare me. If all men in skepticism or atheism “look bad” because a few of them predictably commit grotesque harassment, it’s not because women have generally addressed bad behavior–it’s because a few men are grotesque harassers and the rest of the men let it slide. Not when they are talking with women about the harassment, no–they will roundly denounce all the bad parts and tell women they are on their side, and only slip in at the last moment that pesky bit about being sure to explicitly excuse those good regular guys from their analysis so they don’t look bad by mistake.

You know a better way to avoid looking bad because of the behavior of bad men? Confront the bad men. Tell the men who are harassing women in the skeptical and atheist movements and anywhere else that you are tired of crap like that and that all men get a bad rap when just a small minority behave reprehensibly. Tell the men who supposedly make all men look bad how unfair it is, and how their behavior affects the perception of skeptics and atheists in the larger community. Criticize them for their sloppy language, and their tendency to hurt the feelings of women, and implore them to change their habits and avoid sexist mistakes in the future. Demand apologies from them. They are the ones causing problems–why shouldn’t you call them out for it? Instead of telling women that not all men are harassers, tell men not to harass women. If they do it anyway, make a stink. If they still don’t change, find ways to exclude them.

If you can’t be bothered to confront the people who are actually causing the problem, then keep your mouth shut.

If such a small number of men can have such a negative effect on how women perceive the skeptical and atheist movements, why haven’t you contained them yet? If it’s just a few loudmouth jerks with psychological issues who harass women, why haven’t you taught them better yet? Solve problems by confronting the people who cause them, not by explaining to women why these problems exist and explaining why they have nothing to do with you.


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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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A favorite way to avoid facing up to sexism (or racism, or other institutionalized bias) is to explain its biological origins, often with a little bonus of how such behavior helped the human race evolve. Who can argue, right, with a scientific explanation that has “evolution” in it? And biology? That’s a real science, plus chromosomes that you can see with a microscope. And animals? There’s animals, too–even primates! Plus hunting and gathering, and babies, and it explains so handily all that troublesome business about how so few women really hold any power (political or corporate), and end up in the fields that don’t pay so much (nurses and teachers vs. technology), or why they spend so much money on diets and clothing and makeup, and that strange thing about movie and television roles for actresses who turn forty, and porn and prostitution, and pregnancy makes you less fit to do your desk job than a man, and all that. You know–stuff like this:

Black Women Are Less Attractive than Whites and Asians

Taking Sex Differences Seriously and Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus

Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance (the study is available for download from the linked article, “It Doesn’t Add Up..”)

Is It Cold in Here?

Long story short: Black women aren’t considered less attractive because of biology. Men and women are raised–not born–to behave differently. Girls are discouraged from science and math education, and women are pushed out of those fields once they start careers. It has nothing to do with evolution, and everything to do with how society values women and what activities it considers appropriate for women to engage in. There is a construct of “womanhood” that has been carefully tended for years and years and years that makes it easy for men to justify, well, hogging all the money and power. It’s all made up. There is nothing inherently different about men and women that explains why men and women MUST behave in these ways. People just like it more when they do that. And using science to defend why you just like stuff in an attempt to give your preferences authority is using science irresponsibly.

If you still don’t believe that there’s a construct of womanhood (and manhood, for that matter, and for any sort of cultural identity), think on this: What is considered attractive varies by time and place, from the titillation possibilities of ankles to breast size to the amount and placement of body hair. Humans just aren’t evolving fast enough to explain scientifically why certain looks go in and out of fashion, but if you can throw in some scienciness to go along with your explanation for why you think that actress needs a body double for that close-up of her hands, then you can pretend that it’s not your fault you are holding her to a ridiculous, unattainable standard–it’s just natural! Not arrogant and obnoxious at all! There aren’t that many women on your coding team, or in your lab, or in upper management, not because men are being unfair but because, oh yeah, babies and women just don’t like to worry about the hard, hard jobs and stress like men have to do and don’t have the right hormones to handle it anyway. You might even convince yourself women are lucky that they don’t have to control the whole company or worry about deciding things in government or take home big paychecks and get to stay home all day where it’s peaceful and there are fresh vegetables to can and cats to pet. And also babies.

You might convince yourself of that instead of acknowledging that you are benefiting from women being shut out of power and that at the very best you are enabling systemic, perpetual inequality. It’s hard to admit that, and even worse when you realize that you have an obligation as a decent human being to work to change it. Because then you have to expend extra effort in your life or else feel a little worse every day for doing nothing in the face of obvious injustice.

But let me play Devil’s Advocate for a moment–let’s say that it’s all true. That men and women have evolved certain biological differences which means that the average woman is worse than the average man at some things. Let’s say that’s true, and that it’s true for every other primate in the world, too. So what? That doesn’t excuse bad behavior, or unfairness, or discrimination, or sexism, even if the first and most natural impulse in a given situation is to implement it. Humans have learned to override their natural instincts all over the place, despite sometimes adding extra steps that make an act less efficient and more cumbersome than we evolved to do it. You can unlearn sexism, and put a stop to even natural behaviors that all of evolutionary theory backs you up on.

I’m pretty sure our pre-human ancestors brought food right from the kill to their mouths with their hands. We don’t do that now, however, for no particular reason (although that varies by culture and place, too). In fact, we spend a lot of time teaching children to use forks and spoons despite the fact they could feed themselves faster without it. It’s because of health and sanitation; we don’t have to worry about contaminating food because there’s plenty of clean water around for most of the people who use forks and spoons. We can just wash our hands before and after. It’s a behavior we learn with with great effort for no other reason than manners and etiquette–even though it denies our natural survival instinct to eat food as fast as possible before a rival takes it. We value this non-natural behavior so much that some people go out of their way to learn to use chopsticks in certain restaurants that always have forks available! But there are no scientificky rationalizations to explain this. It’s just what you do if you’ve been “raised right,” and there are social consequences for people who vary from this norm. People may note that it’s arbitrary and maybe pointless, but they don’t come up with reasons why we must engage in this behavior or else species! Doom! They don’t have to, because there is nothing really at stake if the culture changes and forks become obsolete.

If we wanted to, we could easily as a group decide to override any purported evolutionary holdover instincts that lead to the suppression of women’s abilities in certain arbitrarily designated areas (like math and science, or governance, or executive leadership) and make sure that women are given full opportunities from infancy through adulthood to participate in public life and create social consequences for people who weren’t “raised right” enough to understand this. Easily. But we don’t, for very particular reasons, and they have nothing to do with science or evolution and everything to do with power and sharing it.

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I’m about to confirm everything you’ve suspected all along: Yes, there is a feminist agenda–in fact, more than one. Feminists rally around the idea of overturning social and cultural institutions and mores to establish a new kind of political hierarchy and redistribute power and it’s theoretical and there are college departments and journals dedicated to it, and people write books and manifestos trying wake women up to their oppression and they employ the language of philosophy and call for power and fight the system and they are very, very angry at how humans have been going about their business for the past several millennia and they are as mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it anymore, and some of them would riot in the streets and take prisoners if they thought that was the only way to achieve their goals. And those are just the people with a regular feminist agenda. There is a radical feminist agenda, too, and they are even angrier and willing to make even fewer compromises and it is scary to think about what would happen if they got their way because society would function in a completely different way with a totally open future and we’d all feel pretty aimless and insecure for a while, and nobody likes that, especially when the billions of people around you are feeling the same way.

So it’s perfectly reasonable to get riled up a bit if you suspect that someone is trying to push a feminist agenda, because they are trying to rile people up; that is the goal. I mean, they are promoting a course of action that would result in civil unrest, and if you are getting defense about that person pushing the feminist agenda and feel like you should fight back it’s probably because the feminist agenda is just one fightin’ word after another. They are picking a fight. Your instincts are correct.

But you know what? The chances of you accidentally encountering someone actually pushing a real feminist agenda, much less a radical feminist agenda, are pretty small. Most people aren’t revolutionaries, even at the philosophical or theoretical level. Sure, feminists and radical feminists are easy enough to find online and in public spaces, but you have to seek them out, and they aren’t usually trying to lead you on until they find an opening and then suddenly infodump all over you. You’re not going to be having a conversation about dairy products or a television show and suddenly end up defending your way of life against a feminist agenda. It’s mostly the kind of topic that comes up formally, like at a lecture or in an article or at some conference or in some class.

Despite the infrequency, when women point out how the skeptical movement is structured–deliberately or out of inertia–to marginalize them, or how they are not treated with the same respect as men are (and we can go over all the ways that women are not treated with the same respect another time), it’s not long before someone accuses them of pushing their feminist agenda. This is unfair in two ways: 1) So what if they are pushing an agenda? They have ideas and plans for change. That’s what it’s called. 2) The accusation shows an ignorance about what a feminist agenda is. It’s a good word to phrase to use, though, linked as it is with extremism and emotionalism, and can efficiently deflect the conversation from what the women are actually talking about. Which is not a feminist agenda.

Noanodyne at the blog, No Anodyne, addresses the confusion about what constitutes a feminist agenda and what does not. (And all that business upstream in this post about rioting in the streets and taking prisoners is from me–it’s not something I picked up from that blog, at least not from the parts that I have read. Just an FYI.) The article, “Taking Back Feminism–A Manifesto,” addresses the difference between working towards equality and being a feminist. Consider this:

Noticing and calling attention to the fact that some men treat some women badly does not make you a feminist. That’s a mere baseline for being considered a decent human being. Living free of every type of abuse is a human right and all humans should have that right and support that right.

Understanding that the continuum from sex discrimination all the way through sexual harassment harms women’s access to economic equality does not make you a feminist. That’s a mere baseline for bring considered a decent human being. Economic fairness and justice are human rights and all humans should have them and support those rights.

Noticing instances of sexism, even calling them out, doesn’t make you a feminist. That’s a mere baseline for being considered a decent human being. Being free of being singled out for maltreatment, debasement, or dismissal because of a recognizable trait is a human right and all humans should have that right and support that right.

Sound like something you’ve heard skeptical women complain about? Like those numbers for women in science and technology fields? Or being hit on in elevators? Or enduring “chilly climates”? When women point them out, and demand outreach programs to balance representation between men and women? And insist that it’s a problem that needs fixing? That’s not pushing a feminist agenda. That’s claiming the right for full human treatment. They want the mere baseline of consideration as a decent human being. If it bothers you that women are demanding full status, you would probably benefit from spending some time with that reaction (as they like to say in the self-help books) instead of blaming the women for pushing a feminist agenda at you. It’s a point to ponder, not to protest.

If you are getting uncomfortable, it’s probably because you are embarrassed that things are as bad as they are, or maybe feeling a little ashamed for having contributed (or benefited)–even just as an enabler–to the inequity, or maybe you’re just angry because woman aren’t behaving the way you prefer them to behave (and that’s your call to make!), or you’re irritated by being confused and need some time to sort your thoughts out. It’s never fun to expose a seedy underbelly, and there’s enough anxiety already about how the general public views skepticism and which is multiplied when you think of the bad PR that the movement could garner if enough women make a stink about these things. There are a lot of reasons to not like it when women talk about their problems with the skeptical movement, but you’ve got to know why you don’t like it. Dismissing it as a feminist agenda and moving onto other topics is just sticking your head into the sand. It’s also just wrong.

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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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