Reading history will make you aware of the wall you’re about to hit

I’ve been reading Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin in the evening, when my mushy brain allows me to focus for a bit. It’s good, but weirdly on-the-nose for someone living in America in the 2020s.

A quick summary: William Dodd, an ordinary history professor, gets selected to serve as the American ambassador to Germany in 1933, largely because the usual gang of civil servants all said “Holy shit, no, Hitler is coming to power and that dude is nuts.” He agrees to it because he thinks he’ll be freed up from his many university duties to write his magnum opus, a multi-volume history of the Old South, which, spoiler alert, he’s never going to finish. I sympathize a bit — escaping committee work and teaching for a few years, to host an occasional social whirl among the wealthy people of Europe? Sounds tempting. Except for the “Oh, right, Hitler” part.

So he gets there and steps right into the back-biting internal politics of the diplomatic corps. He’s a middle-class, fairly conservative but politically liberal fellow, plunged into a social scene ruled on the American side by an axis of privileged, filthy rich Harvard/Princeton/Yale alumni who love indolence and the perks of their offices; they’re all maneuvering behind his back to undercut his austerity initiatives, and seem to spend more time defending their right to send lengthy telegrams across the Atlantic while partying to all hours and getting up at 10am than in dealing with the crisis at hand. Dodd is being undermined, while at the same time he’s acquiring a reputation as the Cassandra of American diplomacy, because he’s horrified by the Nazis.

Many of his peers are busy with propping up policies of appeasement — they don’t want their gravy train tipped over. They know Hitler is a jumped-up nobody, and they keep predicting that the sensible German people and their well-established representatives will eventually set the lunatic aside, nobody could possibly let him run roughshod over such a civilized nation. He’s a flash in the pan. Cooler heads will prevail.

Unfortunately, for those who know a little history, in 1934 the Night of Long Knives happens. Dodd, as a diplomat, knew everyone involved — Röhm, the leader of the brown shirts, lived just around the corner from the embassy. Himmler and Göring were familiar social acquaintances; his daughter, Martha Dodd, was sleeping with Rudolf Diels, commander of the Gestapo (she seems to have jumped into bed with any prominent Nazi she could find, and also with Russian NKVD agents — she was a liberal modern woman. She initially admires the Nazis, eventually becoming disillusioned and transferring her adoration to Russian communists. She was also a naive woman.) It’s stunning how much horrible history was happening right there in this corner of Berlin, in these few years of history.

From there, it descends into a seemingly inevitable spiral of chaos, and we know how that ended up. Dodd is eventually squeezed out and returns home to wander the lecture circuit, telling everyone how evil the Nazi regime was.

What most struck me, though, was the ubiquitous anti-Semitism. The Americans opposed Nazi policies of imprisoning and murdering Jews, for sure…but behind the scenes all the American civil servants are nodding and agreeing that yes, there is a “Jewish problem” and gosh, Jews sure have crept deviously into positions of influence, like Jews always do. These were the people of power and influence, all assuming that yes, Jews are undesirable, but it just won’t do to kill them outright like the Nazis were doing. Even Dodd was making these kinds of arguments, accepting the Nazi premise but only rejecting their methods.

Dodd’s wikipedia page makes this same observation.

Edward M. House, a veteran in Democratic Party circles since the Wilson administration, told Dodd that he should do what he could “to ameliorate Jewish sufferings,” but cautioned, “the Jews should not be allowed to dominate economic or intellectual life in Berlin as they have done for a long time.” Dodd shared House’s views and wrote in his diary that “The Jews had held a great many more of the key positions in Germany than their numbers or talents entitled them to.” Based on this view of the proper role of Jews in society, he advised Hitler in March 1934 that Jewish influence should be restrained in Germany as it was in the United States. “I explained to him [Hitler],” wrote Dodd, “that where a question of over-activity of Jews in university or official life made trouble, we had managed to redistribute the offices in such a way as to not give great offense.” Hitler ignored Dodd’s advice and responded that “if they [the Jews] continue their activity we shall make a complete end of them in this country.”

This kind of mealy-mouthed defense is ubiquitous in the book. There are no heroes, only a few people who had glimmerings of the consequences of the bigotry that they also shared.

The author makes the point that maybe the Nazi catastrophe wasn’t inevitable at all, that what it required were people of integrity to point out that it was all built on lies and hatred, but when the people you depend on to stand for what is right are all Ivy League dickheads who don’t even recognize the humanity of the Jewish people, all responses will be ineffectual and actually enabling. I felt like the diplomatic corps prior to WWII was made of an army of Tucker Carlsons. No wonder Hitler got away with so much criminality early in his career!

The book did not fill me with confidence about the future. I see the same phenomenon going on around me right now: we have media that are constantly making the case that Jews, or Palestinians, or black people, or trans people, or <name your hated minority here> are less than fully human, that we can abridge their rights because they are lesser beings, and we are becoming inured to this kind of language. Nick Fuentes is not some amusing comedian, the Proud Boys are not a fraternal organization, Fox News is not just echoing the perspective of a simple demographic. These are all kinds of monstrous haters who are building a foundation for an unimaginably evil future.

You can try to pretend it can’t happen here…but it’s happening here.

Textbook Giveaway #3!

I’ve told you the way this works a few times now. Just leave a comment telling me which book you want and why, and I’ll choose someone to receive a free book. These are generally not easy to read popular books — these are reference texts, kind of on the dense and heavy side, but full of information.
Your choices this time are:
Fundamentals of Human Physiology, by Stuart Ira Fox. Yeah, I’m not ashamed to admit it, I’ve taught A&P. I hope I never have to again, so I can bear to part with this one. I’ve still got several others.
An Introduction to Biological Evolution, by Kenneth Kardong. This is a fairly slender paperbound text, a little on the light side for what I want when teaching evolution. It’s not bad, though.
Neuroscience, by Purves and others. Also pretty good, if not the massive magisterial monster text of Kandel. This one I think is already earmarked for someone who asked for a neuro text in Giveaway #2. (Trust me, you don’t want Kandel unless you need to press a witch to death.)
There are many more on my shelves. If you don’t get it this time, check again next month for a different selection.

This is as announced on my Patreon page, but you don’t need to sign up to win a book.

Do you hate dinosaurs?

Do you like thinking about their last days, when they were set on fire and hurled about by terrible storms, and the survivors then starved to death in a transformed world? Well, you’re in luck! Smithsonian has published an excerpt from Riley Black’s new book, The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World, and you can read about an Edmontosaurus in the last moments before it got the surprise of its life!

If you’re not a brutal sadist, there’s also lots of good information for dinosaur-lovers, too, as most of us are.

Book Giveaway #2!

It’s the end of my semester, just one optional final to give and then I’m off to live with the spiders for a few months. Look at the photo! The UMM BioClub gave me a little succulent as a present!
Last week, I gave away a few old textbooks, and this is going to be a weekly tradition for a while. Today what I’m giving away* are:

  • Neurobiology, 3rd ed., by Shepherd. Another good text I’ve used in classes in the past. I’ve got a few of these general neuro texts that I can part with, since I’ve also got the monster tomes by Zigmond et al. and by Kandel et al., which have me covered for reference works.
  • Principles of Development, 4th ed., by Wolpert & Tickle. This has been my go-to text for developmental biology for years, but I’ve got the 6th edition, so this one is redundant.
  • Introduction to Cancer Biology, by Hesketh. I’ve used this in undergrad cancer biology courses because it is a lot more digestible than that dense volume of Weinberg’s standard biology of cancer text.

Last time, I also gave away evil, bad books, but this week I decided to be kind. If you want stupid books to laugh at, let me know and maybe I’ll include some in future giveaways.
So how do you get your hands on one of these? Easy, just ask, either here or on Patreon. You don’t need to be a patron to get one, I’ll just read the requests and pick those that seem worthy to me. If you don’t get what you want this time, I’ll be posting a selection every week. I’ve got to get these bookshelves cleaned up a bit!
*Evolving Darwin playset, Darwin bobblehead, box of Eppendorf pipette tips, or any of the miscellaneous other clutter on my desk not included.

And the winners are…

The first textbook giveaway is settled. I’ll be sending a few books away as soon as I have addresses to send them to.

Set A, Essential Cell Biology and the wretched Behe book, goes to logicalcat, the EMT with aspirations.

Set B, Essentials of Genetics with the atrocious Jeanson garbage, goes to Eric on Patreon, who wants to be more up to date on plant hybridization.

Set C, Neuroscience plus Meyer’s narcissistic tome, goes to Crip Dyke, who wants to supplement their knowledge of psychology.

Those will go in the mail as soon as they email me an address.

There are more books to go! I’ll post the next set tomorrow, so if you lost out, you’ve got another shot.

Textbook give-away!

As I announced yesterday, I’m clearing out the accumulated bookage of my office shelves and giving away free books on Patreon. Patreon has a few rules I have to follow, though:

  • I can’t bribe people to sign up for Patreon, which is fair enough, so it has to be open to anyone and everyone.
  • I can’t use chance to decide who gets the books, because then it would be a raffle. No gambling allowed!

So here’s my plan. I’m going to show you three pairs of books, each pair consisting of one lovely, useful, science-filled textbook, and one horrid, wretched, lying piece of garbage. You have to accept them as a set, although they’re yours at that point, and I can’t tell you what to do to them. I only ask that you don’t give away creationist trash to libraries or whatever; let’s keep those away from impressionable minds, OK? The good texts are still useful, they’re older editions or redundant copies, and not white elephants at all. The others? Just trash I want to get rid of.

The way this will work is that I’ll list 3 pairs, Set A, B, and C, and you can comment on Patreon and let me know which set you want. Say why! I’ll use your comment to judge who gets them this time. If you don’t get it, don’t panic! I have lots and lots of books, and plan to do this weekly.

I have to add one other pragmatic criterion: I’ll favor North American recipients, and will be sparing in sending them overseas, just to save myself some extravagant shipping costs. I won’t totally exclude you furriners, though — if you give me a really good reason, I’ll find a way.

Here are this week’s choices:

Set A: Essential Cell Biology, 4th edition, by Alberts and others. It’s a good basic cell & molecular textbook. I’ve got a couple of copies of the most recent edition, so I can spare this one. I’ve paired it with one of Michael Behe’s, The Edge of Evolution. I’ll never read that book again, it was a waste of time the first time, but maybe you can a use for it.

Set B: Essentials of Genetics, ninth edition, by Klug and others (this one is paper bound). It’s a solid introduction to transmission genetics. Again, I’ve got multiple editions and copies, and I teach out of Concepts of Genetics, so this is another quality text I don’t need. I’m throwing in Jeanson’s Replacing Darwin, since if you understand genetics at an undergrad level you’ll be able to see why it’s crap.

Set C: Neuroscience, 3rd edition, by Purves and others. Most of the neurobiology texts I’ve gone are great thick monsters, but this one is comparatively slender and digestible. It’s still a good reference text, though. I’m flinging Meyer’s ungodly bad Signature in the Cell at it, since he seems to be under the delusion that he understands intelligence and the mind. He doesn’t.

Let’s give this a try! If you’re interested, leave a comment that says which set interests you, why you would find the books interesting, and mention if you live overseas (which won’t disqualify you, it just means I’ll be limiting my expenses a bit). I’ll make a decision by next weekend and get another set ready.

Help me clear 20cm off my bookshelf!

Nick Lane is a cruel master

He’s trying to destroy me, I think. Look what showed up today, the day after Spring Break, just when I’m getting geared up for my classes: Transformer: The Deep Chemistry of Life and Death.

That’s my most eagerly anticipated book of the summer — it’s release date is in July. But see, it’s an “Advance Reading Copy”. I had it in my head that I’d finish finals week, then check my mailbox daily for it, and get it at sometime when I could sit out on the deck and read it in a leisurely fashion. But no! It’s already here! Beckoning, luring, tempting me constantly. I know I’m going to succumb and at some point I’m going to set grading and lecture prep aside and read it instead, greedily, surreptitiously, lustfully, sinfully indulging in biochemistry and evolution.

Maybe I can put on a down jacket and clear off a spot on the snow-covered deck and read it there anyway.

Don’t any of you dare order an advanced copy, or the publishers will take that as permission to disrupt my professional responsibilities with the temptations of their houses of wicked knowledge!

Genetics can reach way, way back

A few years ago — in 2016? Yikes, time passes quickly when you’re miserable — Jennifer Raff gave a talk at Skepticon on The Misuse of Genetics in Pseudoscience. It was good stuff, right in my battery of interests. She debunked popular nonsense, like ancient astronauts, abuses of archaeology, ‘scientific’ racism, garbage notions about IQ, etc. It was recorded, so you can watch it now!

Dr Raff is even more famous today, and I’m sure it would be difficult to book her for a small convention anywhere, if we had them anymore, because she has just published a book, Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas, to a phenomenal reception. It’s deserved, too. The book touches lightly on the subjects in her talk — you can tell that the blatant foolishness of popular ideas about prehistory rankles — but mainly the book is about her work in the anthropology of the Americas, viewing the history of this part of the world through a genetic lens…but also from a humanist perspective. She respects indigenous culture, and it shows.

There’s a fair bit of technical information here, but it’s a pleasant read. I tore through it in two evenings of bedtime reading, and probably would have finished it in one if that obnoxious habit of sleeping when tired hadn’t interrupted me. Here I am teaching at a university with a mission to serve the American Indian community, and it ought to be required reading in these parts. In your parts, I don’t know, but I think you’d enjoy it and learn a lot.

Hey! I read a book, for fun!

Whilst unwinding the past few days, I picked up some light reading, a horror story, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. Recommended!

I was concerned when I started because the protagonists weren’t people I immediately empathized with: it’s a group of Southern ladies, somewhat upscale, getting together to discuss Great Novels in a monthly book club while sipping tea from the good china. But then it splinters, and a subgroup decides they’d rather discuss grisly true crime books, and then a vampire moves in down the street. You’d think they’d be primed to recognize the behavior of a serial killer, even a supernatural one, but it instead triggers some intense internal conflicts. A good Southern matron is always polite, even to blood-sucking fiends. When the stress gets too intense, one of them suggests her strategy: vacuum the drapes. Work twice as hard to keep the house clean and proper, because that’s the women’s job. Their husbands are all useless, even joining in money-making deals with the vampire, who has quite a bit of capital, all cash, stuffed into gym bags.

Also, at first, the vampire focuses on eating young black children in the poor part of town, so it’s easy to close their eyes to the horror…until he starts eyeing their children. Then, finally, they wake up to the sexism and racism in their traditional lives, and band together to fight the evil.

Over half the novel is about social consciousness and how blind they were to their own failings, which evil exploited and flourished upon, so my fellow social justice warriors will appreciate it even as you get pissed off at the characters screwing up because getting their kids into a good school was a higher priority than dealing with the blood-sucker in their midst. But there is also stuff for horror fans in there: the vampire is the slimy repulsive kind who summons rats, not sparkly at all (although he seems to blend in well with Southern bidnessmen), and there is a fair bit of gore and death and even undead rape, so it does get somewhat squicky, especially near the climax. There is also a scene where they explore the vampire’s attic in which the author dwells a bit too much on how awful all the spiders are, so it’s not quite perfect.

If you’re on a beach or on a plane, though, it’s a fast entertaining read, but only if you like the horror genre. It doesn’t compromise on the vampire nightmare stuff, and also doesn’t condescend to the Southern ladies in the story. They’re tough, and they do what needs to be done in the end.