Summer reading


Who would have thought these words would ever be typed by me? I’m looking forward to Ann Coulter’s new book.

It’s called Godless(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Apparently, Ann Coulter has written a book about me, although I suspect that she’ll instead be pretending that people like me are representative of the Democratic Party as a whole. I wish.

I’m sure it will be insightful, nuanced, and meticulously researched. Maybe Al Franken and I should get together in a summer book club to discuss it.

We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.

Ann Coulter

P.S. Please don’t buy it. I’m not planning to, myself (although if the publisher wants to send me a review copy, I’ll gleefully read it and review it), but I just know my local library will be getting it.

P.P.S. I’m also amused at the image of Ann Coulter as an icon of Christian thought.


Some fields of science are so wide open, such virgin swamps of unexplored territory, that it takes some radically divergent approaches to make any headway. There will always be opinionated, strong-minded investigators who charge in deeply and narrowly, committed to their pet theories, and there will also be others who consolidate information and try to synthesize the variety of approaches taken. There are dead ends and areas of solid progress, and there is much flailing about until the promising leads are discovered.

Origins of life research is such an unsettled frontier. I wouldn’t want to work there, but the uncertainty and the confusion and the various small victories and the romance of the work do make for a very good story. And now you can read that story in Robert Hazen’s Gen•e•sis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll).

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A request!

Here’s a really good question from Katrina Refugee:

Due to the unforeseen events of Katrina, my family and I ended up staying with relatives in South Carolina, and my children (for the year) are going to a small Christian school with their cousins (the public schools in this area are quite horrendous and we were trying to ease the transition as best as possible). They will be back in public school next year, but in the meantime have been exposed to some really silly creationist crap in the science classroom.

Can you recommend some reading material for the summer to “wash away” all the stuff they have been exposed to this year? We have diligently discussed all the fallacies of what they are being taught, but I am not a scientist and I would feel much better if they had some appropriate books to read over the summer.

They are aged 15 and 14.

This is a serious request, and I would greatly appreciate any advice you may have.

I’ve put a few ideas below the fold.

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Give me creaturely over preacherly any day

You can tell when a dogmatic theist has to review a book by an unapologetic atheist: there’s a lot of indignant spluttering, and soon the poor fellow is looking for an excuse to dismiss the whole exercise, so that he doesn’t have to actually think about the issues. That’s the case with Leon Wieseltier’s review of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell—it’s kind of like watching a beached fish gasp and flounder, yet at the same time he apparently believes he’s the one with the gaff hook and club.

It’s full of self-important declarations that reduce to incoherence, such as this one:

You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason. In this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason. He will be outraged to hear this, since he regards himself as a giant of rationalism. But the reason he imputes to the human creatures depicted in his book is merely a creaturely reason. Dennett’s natural history does not deny reason, it animalizes reason.

One moment he’s telling us that just tracing the origins of an idea is insufficient to disprove it (sadly for Mr Wieseltier’s argument, there is no sign that Dennett disagrees), the next he’s telling us that the origin of Dennett’s reason is “creaturely” and “animalized”, and therefore of a lesser or invalid kind. I had no idea we could categorize reason by the nature of its source (I’d like to know what varieties of reason he proposes: “creaturely”, “human”, “divine”? Is there also a “vegetable reason”?), but even if we could, by his initial premise, it wouldn’t matter: he needs to address its content, not carp against it because it is the product of natural selection rather than revelation.

Then there’s this rather bewildering build-up. Wieseltier carefully builds a case that he has caught Dennett in an internal contradiction, an idea he pounces on with a kind of petty triumphal glee…but all it shows is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist. But the charge is proved as early as the fourth page of his book. Watch closely. “Like other animals,” the confused passage begins, “we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal.” No confusion there, and no offense. It is incontrovertible that we are animals. The sentence continues: “But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives.” A sterling observation, and the beginning of humanism. And then more, in the same fine antideterministic vein: “This fact does make us different.”

Then suddenly there is this: “But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science.” As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken? Dennett does not see that he has taken his humanism back. Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett’s telling, is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind—a doctrine that may quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.

To declare that we are not limited by our genetic imperatives does not in any way contradict the statement that we are material, biological beings with behaviors that can be explained scientifically, without recourse to the supernatural or any other kind of immaterial vitalism. Opposing simplistic genetic reductionism—which, by the way, is good to see from Dennett, because he has a bit of a reputation for being far too narrowly reductionist in his views—is not the same as denying a natural, biological basis for behavior. When Wieseltier tries to insist that genetic determinism is the same as biology, he’s just flaunting his own ignorance.

The whole review reads this poorly, and I suppose I could take it on paragraph by paragraph…but nah. Brian Leiter has already torpedoed it, so even this much seems like excess. The New York Times really needs to do a better job of finding qualified reviewers—it seems in this case they just found a guy anxious to posture against the ungodly, with no competence to actually judge the book.

An updated book list for evolutionists

A few disclaimers: I do get kickbacks from affiliate programs when you purchase books after clicking through those links. If you’d rather not fund a perfidious atheist’s book addiction, just look up the titles at your preferred source—I don’t mind. This list is not a thinly-veiled attempt to get readers to buy me presents, either; I’ve read all these, so please don’t try to order them for me. Get them for a creationist instead, they need them more.

A while back, I presented a book list for evolutionists. Now I’ve updated it, adding a few recommendations and adding links so you can choose your favorite book vendor. Celebrate the birth of your favorite deity, the astronomical alignment of your choice, or any other traditional historical excuse for a midwinter party by passing along the gift of knowledge.

For the kids:

The Evolution Book (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Sara Stein. A fine book, but not for the lightweight science kid: this one tries to cover just about everything encyclopedically, so give it to the truly dedicated bookworm.

Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Steve Jenkins. Another encyclopedic illustrated summary of evolutionary history for the younger set.

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). David Norman. Not really intended for kids, but packed with full-color illustrations and detailed descriptions of many dinosaur groups. My kids would spend hours leafing through this one; it’s the dinosaur book I wish I’d had as a 12 year old.

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Lisa Westburg Peters. Excellent, simple summary of evolutionary history, for the K-3rd grade set.

The Tree of Life : Charles Darwin(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Peter Sis. Nice picture book biography of Darwin for the kids.

From the Beginning: The Story of Human Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). David Peters. An older book that may be hard to get, but worth it for the wall-to-wall drawings of the organisms scattered along the human lineage, from single-celled prokaryote to modern humans.

For the grown-up layman:

Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Sean Carroll. A phenomenal book; if there’s one book you should pick up for an introduction to evo-devo, this is the one.

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Matt Ridley. Orac says, “It’s a downright poetic look at each of the 23 chromosomes and what sorts of biological and disease processes genes from each of them are involved in, along with a nice dollop of evolution of the genome.”

Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Kenneth Miller. Danny Boy says, “A Christian debunks creationism and shows how evolution can be compatible with Christianity.”

Charles Darwin: Voyaging(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) and Charles Darwin : The Power of Place(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Janet Browne. This is the best biography of Darwin out there.

Science As a Way of Knowing: The Foundations of Modern Biology(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). John A. Moore. This is part history book, part philosophy of science book; if you know someone who doesn’t understand the scientific method, this one will straighten him out.

The Darwin Wars(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Andrew Brown. Much as we aspire to the pure search for knowledge, scientists can be testy and political and vicious, too—this is a study of the sociology of evolutionary biology.

Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Carl Zimmer. If you want a general survey of the history and ideas of evolutionary biology that isn’t written like a textbook, this is the one you want.

At the Water’s Edge: Fish With Fingers, Whales With Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Carl Zimmer. The focus in this one is on macroevolution of tetrapods and cetaceans. Excellently written, with a very thorough overview of the evidence.

Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard Fortey. Everything you need to know about the basics of trilobytes, with a chatty and often amusing introduction to the world of paleontologists.

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Jonathan Weiner. A Pulitzer-winning account of the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant in documenting the evolutionary changes occurring in Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos right now.

Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the evolution of bird flight(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Pat Shipman. Chris Clarke says, “an excellent and readable treatment of current thinking at printing on bird evolution and the evolution of that instance of powered flight.”

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard Dawkins. Mrs Tilton says, “both as a general explanation of evolution and as a particular refutation of what has come to be known as intelligent design.”

The Ancestor’s Tale : A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard
Dawkins. A step-by-step account of human evolution, working backwards through time.

What Evolution Is(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Ernst Mayr. A survey of the theory by an opinionated master.

Evolutionary Biology(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Douglas J. Futuyma. If you don’t mind reading a textbook, this is one of the best and most popular texts on the subject.

An Introduction to Biological Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Kenneth Kardong. Another textbook, but less weighty and less expensive then Futuyma’s; a book I’d use in a freshman non-majors course.

For the more advanced/specialized reader:

From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin’s Four Great Books (Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals) (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Charles Darwin, Edward O. Wilson (Editor). I’ve read these books, but I don’t own this edition…so this is one I’ll be hinting to my wife might make a nice present. It collects the four in one volume, with introductions by Wilson, so if every you’ve wanted these seminal works for your bookshelf, here they are in an inexpensive edition.

On Growth and Form(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. I’m afraid no developmental biologist can list important books without mentioning this one.

From DNA to Diversity: Molecular Genetics and the Evolution of Animal Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Sean B. Carroll, Jennifer K. Grenier, Scott D. Weatherbee. Like it says…molecular genetics, evolution, developmental biology. A good textbook describing the new cutting edge of evolutionary biology.

Shaking the Tree : Readings from Nature in the History of Life(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Henry Gee. GirlScientist says, “This is a collection of scientific papers that were influential in the field for one reason or another.” (I don’t think she intended that her recommendation come out sounding so tepid.)

Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck?(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). David M. Raup. A little statistics, a lot of paleontology, a good introduction to how we try to puzzle out what the world was like from a sparse data set.

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Stephen J. Gould. Massive. Indulgently written. But full of interesting ideas.

Developmental Plasticity and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Mary Jane West-Eberhard. Also massive. If you’re already comfortable with the conventional perspective on evolutionary theory, though, this one twists it around and comes at it from the point of view of a developmental biologist.

Biased Embryos and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Wallace Arthur. A slim and readable book about evo-devo.

The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard Lewontin. A slender book that lucidly summarizes the non-reductionist position on modern biology; it’s a call for greater breadth in science.

The Shape of Life : Genes, Development, and the Evolution of Animal Form(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Rudy Raff. Hardcore evo-devo. A little out of date, but very influential.

For the anti-creationist:

Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Barbara Carroll Forrest, Paul R. Gross. The best summary of the sneaky political strategy of the creationists of the Discovery Institute.

Unintelligent Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Mark Perakh. Nice, blunt dissection of the pseudo-science of creationism.

Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Matt Young, Taner Edis, eds. A team-takedown of Intelligent Design’s bad science.

Republican War on Science(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Chris Mooney. Here’s my review; all you need to know about the current political attack on science.

The Counter-Creationism Handbook(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Mark Isaak. Here’s a brief review, but it’s enough to say that this is an indispensable tool for dismissing creationist arguments.

The Triumph of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Niles Eldredge. Chris Clarke says, “useful and inspiring, both as a survey of evolutionary thought and a clarion call against creationism.”

Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Massimo Pigliucci. Michael Feldgarden says, “It definitely falls into the category of “anti-creationist” and “specialized reader.” I don’t know if it’s a little too complex for the lay reader (I don’t think so). It’s an excellent and well-written rebuttal of creationism and definition of science and the scientific method as it relates to evolutionary biology.”

The Creationists(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Ronald Numbers. Sean Foley says, “For an overview of the growth and role of the creationist movement in America.”

Defending Evolution : A guide to the creation/evolution controversy (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Brian J. Alters, Sandra Alters. An excellent guidebook on how to handle creationism in the classroom, specifically for biology teachers.

I’ll also add that Coturnix has a book list, too, and if you want a more specialized list, Mike has a list of books just for birders.

Just in case your favorite evolutionist has already read everything in the list, here’s another possibility: bones! Here are a couple of sources of bones, fossils, and casts:

These kinds of lists can go on forever. Please do mention any other possibilities in the comments, and maybe they’ll make it into the next edition.

It hurts so good

So scribblingwoman finally reads some recent China Miéville, long after Crooked Timber covered it (nothing wrong with that…if you saw my stack of books waiting for me to finish them…). She brings up a few interesting points, though, and one in particular poked me right in my reading biases. In Perdido Street Station(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), one of the central characters, Lin, meets a particularly unpleasant fate, and this after we’d been reading about her for a long time, gotten to know and like her and find her engaging. Then, wham:

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Anything but the obscurity!

I’ve already mentioned this interesting set of ideas Cory Doctorow brought up. In particular, this part of the introduction made me think:

Cory is an author of science fiction (SF) and is published in the US by Tor books (which happens to share a parent company with Nature). He also gives away books on the web. As Tim O’Reilly says, the main danger for most authors is not piracy but obscurity. The number of people who don’t buy a book because they can copy the electronic version is trivial compared to the number who buy it as a result of finding it online. Now the biggest factor determining success for an author is having a relationship with their audience.

Then read this essay on The life expectancies of books (by TNH, so of course it’s worth reading). It’s about the ephemeral nature of literary popularity and copyright, inevitable obscurity, and the self-defeating nature of legalistic attempts to define ownership of ideas.

Consider, then, the duration of copyrights. They’ve gone from 28 years renewable to 56, then 28 renewable to 95, to life of the author plus 70. Given the range of human lifespans and the extreme rarity of prepubescent authors, you can pretty much figure that by the time a 95-year copyright runs out, the author will be dead and gone, and any offspring will have reached their majority. You can’t exactly draw a line, but somewhere in there, copyright stops being about directly rewarding an author for his work. What’s left is an intangible time-travelling value: the hope of being read.

This is why it pains me to hear respectable minor authors going on about how the extension of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years is a victory for the little guy. It isn’t, unless by “little guy” you mean the heirs of the author’s ex-spouse’s step-grandchildren by her third marriage. The real push behind the last round of copyright extensions came from the big entertainment combines. They’re bitterly opposed to the idea that cash-cow properties like Winnie the Pooh might ever go out of copyright.

There are also some insights in the addendum to the whole mostly unappreciated machinery of advertising and presentation and availability that are important for bringing books to our attention. Piracy is a real problem, but it seems that it’s being fought with misplaced strategies that promote long-term uniformity and corporate interests and the same ol’ thing over and over again, rather than diversity and imagination.

Spell already broken, and I haven’t even read the book

Daniel Dennett has this new book out, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and I don’t know that I want to read it. It was just reviewed by Michael Shermer in Science, and my general feeling was an uncomfortable vibration, liking some of what they said, but feeling at the same time that it was a tossup whether Shermer or Dennett is more annoying. Shermer has a tendency to be conciliatory towards religious babble, while Dennett has this overwhelming adaptationist bias that makes me cranky.

I’ve put a chunk of the review below the fold, let me know what you think.

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