Monday, June 09, 2008

Joining the Nonfiction 5

My lovely and bibliophilic wife Debi has gotten me into another reading challenge, the Nonfiction 5. I love nonfiction books and am currently reading 3 of them. I vow to read the following:
Bonk by Mary Roach
Crickets and Katydids: concerts and solos by Vincent Dethier
Blue Blood by Edward Conlon
The Translator by Daoud Hari
and one of the following:
A brief tour of human consciousness by V.S. Ramachandran
Sense and Nonsense: evolutionary perspectives on human behavior

Can't wait to start reading...but I guess I need to finish those 3 books first.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Another decade and chunkster bites the dust

As my family and students are all too aware, Charles Darwin is one of my personal heroes. I think his theories are among the most important ever in the history of science. And yet, at my age, I have never before read his SECOND major book, the Descent of Man, until now. I'm glad I did.

The book is divided into two sections. The first is the Descent of Man which attempts to convince the skeptical reader of how humans really are animals, really are primates, and must be part of the tree of life he discussed in The Origin of Species. The second part is about sexual selection, or how female choice in mates and fighting among males for mates has affected evolution. Both parts are really "very long arguments" that provide much nauseating detail in order to convince a Victorian audience that Darwin felt was dubious. He lays on the evidence and he lays it on thick. All this evidence can make the modern reader a bit, well, bored. Interspersed with the boring parts, however, are moments of typical Darwinian brilliance. And again, looking back at all of the information we have today and now take for granted, all readers of this book must remain in awe of Darwin's prescience. He was a man well before his time and a master at argumentation.

Darwin himself sums up the book in the opening sentence to chapter 5 where he states, "The subjects to be discussed in this chapter are of the highest interest, but are treated by me in an imperfect and fragmentary manner". The entire book is rather like that. Very important indeed, but not as clearly and concisely written as his "The origin of species". I did find it interesting how hard he had to work to try to convince his Victorian readers that females could actually THINK about things such as who to mate with. Females were not given much credit in that era.

I'm damn glad I read this book. I'm a better evolutionary proponent and educator for it. But I'll probably never read it again, while I may very well read The Origin again and The Voyage of the Beagle again. Any of the two or perhaps three readers of this blog who want to read this book may want to go with Carl Zimmer's abridged version that is now available. Carl provides summaries and commentary on each chapter also, that is very helpful.

Two more for Annie's what's in a name

I've finished two more for Annie's wonderful What's in a Name Challenge.

The first was "The new world primates" by Martin Moynihan. It was published in 1976 and thus, was a bit out of date, but I had a hankering for more wisdom about the little new world monkeys, since I am an old world monkey. I almost read David Rains Wallace's "The monkey's bridge: mysteries of evolution in Central America" instead, and, now that it's over, I wish I had. Not that "The new world primates" is a bad book, it isn't. It is a broad overview that is simply so broad that one is left with an even stronger hankering for wisdom. I don't feel that I know much more about these guys than I did before. The other problem with the book is the antropocentric, Darwin-like attitude about "intelligence" and progress (i.e., smarter is better always). I just watched a video on you-tube about Stephen Jay Gould who hated the old-school idea of evolution as progress and I must agree with him on this one. Here's one example: " The smallness of most tree squirrels, whatever the cause, must have contributed to their continuing dullness" (p. 218). I've got several issues here... but I'll try to ignore the obvious body size issues of squirrels and keep to the fact that squirrels are NOT "dull". Squirrels are incredibly intelligent, if you measure intelligence by the ability to solve problems, reason, and learn. Of course, primates do have a great capacity for all of these, but I must object to anyone, especially a mammalogist, that considers tree squirrels dull. I'll leave this book with another quote from the author (p. 177). "Presumably wild individuals are seldom frustrated enough to go really queer". Enough said.

I have much kinder words for the other book I read for Annie's challenge, Brian Jacques' Mossflower. This was the third "tale from Redwall" that I have read and this one was wonderful, just like the others have been. It's another great good versus evil story, filled with amazing animals doing amazing things. The evil in this one is a truly evil cat, named Tsarmina. She is Macbethian in her ambitions and has her father killed to ascend to the throne of Kotir. She rules with an iron hand and takes food from the woodlanders as "tax" to fill the larders of Kotir castle. The woodlanders finally have enough of her crap and move away from the area to mount a revolt. Our hero, Martin the warrior, a mouse, is captured by Tsarmina, but escapes and leads the revolt. Overall, the book is extremely charming. The woodlanders have feasts with October ale and all sorts of wonderful sounding foods and pastries that make me want to go to Mossflower and join the revolution. I cannot recommend this book enough for anyone who wants to read some fine fantasy. I am so glad that there are plenty of more books in this series!