DARWINIAN REDUCTIONISM – Alex Rosenberg (2006)

Darwinian Reductionism

Darwinian Reductionism, Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology must be one of the toughest books I’ve read. Luckily, it’s fantastic.

Alex Rosenberg is a professor of both Philosophy and Biology at Duke University. He has written about the philosophy of science before, like a book about the non-validity of economics as a science. Rosenberg is a true intellectual powerhouse, and to watch his mind work over the course of this book’s 238 pages (+ about 30 pages of references and index) is one of the pleasures of reading this book.

Kim Sterenly sketches what it’s about on the back cover:

“Over the last twenty years and more, philosophers and theoretical biologists have built an antireductionist consensus about biology. We have thought that biology is autonomous without being spooky. While biological systems are built from chemical ones, biological facts are not just physical facts, and biological explanations cannot be replaced by physical and chemical ones. The most consistent, articulate, informed, and lucid skeptic about this view has been Alex Rosenberg, and Darwinian Reductionism is the mature synthesis of his alternative vision. He argues that we can show the paradigm facts of biology – evolution and development – are built from the chemical and physical, and reduce to them. Moreover, he argues, unpleasantly plausibly, that defenders of the consensus must slip one way or the other: into spookiness about the biological, or into a reduction program for the biological.”

But for many people, including scientists, there are problems with materialistic reductionism, as Elliot Sober explains on the back cover, before pointing out how Rosenberg tackles those problems.

“For most philosophers, reductionism is wrong because it denies the fact of multiple realizability. For most biologists, reductionism is wrong because it involves a commitment to genetic determinism. In this stimulating new book, Rosenberg reconfigures the problem. His Darwinian reductionism denies genetic determinism and it has no problem with multiple realizability. It captures what scientific materialism should have been after all along.”

I will not get into the nuts and bolts of every argument. Aside from a general appraisal of the book, I’ll elaborate a bit on two small – yet fundamental – elements of critique, and end with a list of nuggets of wisdom I found while reading – a list that is probably of interest to those readers not interested in the general content of this book, yet who do have a healthy interest in science.

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TRANSITION – Iain M. Banks (2009)

Transition (red)

This is it, the last speculative fiction book of Banks I had to read. Surprisingly, Transition was marketed as an Iain Banks book in Europe, adopting his ‘non-genre’ moniker. Yet this would be classified as science fiction by most: a many-worlds thriller in a contemporary setting, so the American publisher decided to use Iain M. Banks instead.

I have often wondered wether I have changed a lot as a reader – Banks meant so much to me when I first started reading scifi – or if it’s just a coincidence my final three Banksian reads were unsatisfactory. His final 2 Culture books were fine, but Inversions and The Algebraist were bore-outs. Transition isn’t as bad as those 2 – it’s generally entertaining – but it has a few huge problems, making it rather pulpy. This critical Guardian review calls it an airport book, and I would concur: fun beach reading, as I tend to say, but not much more.

Negatives first, including something about an eternal orgasm.

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SENLIN ASCENDS – Josiah Bancroft (2013, 2017)

Senlin Ascends

On the fence about this one. Praised/hyped widely, this debut was first self-published in 2013, and picked up by Orbit in 2017. You’ve probably read it elsewhere, but Senlin Ascends is the first in a four book series – The Books Of Babel – about a headmaster on a quest to find his wife, which he lost while on their honeymoon in the Tower of Babel. Not the biblical one, but a mammoth with an unknown number of ‘ringdoms’, in a steampunkish setting. Thomas Senlin transforms from a quiet armchair bibliophile to an air-balloon pirate in the process.

While lots of reviewers rave about the prose, to me, it felt different. It’s generally okay for sure – it does the job telling an escapist story which main goal is entertainment – but it didn’t ring truthful to me. I guess I should not expect natural speech in a fantasy story like this, but there’s an artificiality to Bancroft’s wordiness that made me aware of the fact I was reading a 21st century book trying to masquerade as something set in a secondary world at the dawn of electricity.

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PATTERN RECOGNITION – William Gibson (2003)

Pattern Recognition

In an interview a few days ago, Andrew Rosen – former CEO of Theory, a fashion brand – says that “the future leaders of fashion companies are going to be marketers, not merchants, merchants being “the guys that understand how to put everything together and tell the story.” Hubertus Bigend, the antihero of this novel, and CEO of advertising company Blue Ant, says something similar: “Far more creativity, today, goes into the marketing of products than into the products themselves, athletic shoes or feature films.

The novel published 16 years ago, one might think Gibson visionary, but Rosen in the same interview says his father identified change already in the mid-70ies, “because that was when designers, and designer-identified products, became the most important things in the business, not manufacturing companies”. In the early 90ies, grim comedian Bill Hicks took on the pernicious power of advertising and marketing too, in a famous stand-up routine.

All this not to say Gibson wrote an irrelevant novel, on the contrary, Gibson wrote a novel that is very much of these times, dealing with topics – branding, globalization, originality, monoculture – that define big parts of our contemporary lives. It then doesn’t surprise that the Wikipedia page on Pattern Recognition is quite long, and even has quotes from postmodern theorist Frederic Jameson on the novel. Yes: Gibson is that kind of powerhouse, the kind that attracts the attention of a powerhouse like Jameson.

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VINCENT VAN GOGH: THE COMPLETE PAINTINGS – Rainer Metzger (1989)

Van Gogh cover

Just to be clear: generally speaking, this book is amazing: it collects all his surviving paintings (871!), in overall good quality reproductions. It also has an extensive biographical text, zooming in on all of Van Gogh’s life phases. While the first edition is already 30 years old, powerhouse Taschen has put out a new, shiny edition that’s easily available, and under 30 euros… Really! Best bargain ever!!

If you are interested in Van Gogh, you might be interested in the things that struck me most while reading – I list those at the end of this review.
First, I want to address some minor issues for those that might be interested in buying this book, although I have to say, given the price, none of those should even stop you to consider getting out your wallet.

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THE FARTHEST SHORE – Le Guin & THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA – Hemingway

These books are related somewhat, I realized when I finished The Farthest Shore. Both deal with old men in boats, old men trying to overcome negativity through perseverance. Both books explicitly offer supposedly deep insights on human nature, and humanity’s place in Nature. One could easily write a 50-page essay on similarities and differences, but the farther I’m removed from the literary sciences that dominated my early twenties, all I can think is: why would I?

Assuming Hemingway and Le Guin are authors positioned differently on the ideological spectrum, it could be a fun exercise to point out they share a lot of common ground, but in the end, doing that would also point out the relativity of such verbal heuristics – which ultimately most theorizing about culture is.

In this case, my heart goes out to Hemingway: his old man returns home, accepting the futility of his efforts, to a world that keeps spinning just as it did before. Interestingly, for a leftist author as Le Guin, her old man also returns home, accepting his mortality, to a world that is fundamentally changed for the better because it needed a Young New Leader. Peace, in Le Guin’s fictional world, is not reached by painstaking processes, but simply by the prophetic arrival of a King.

But I digress – I’m not going to write that essay. Instead, two reviews after the jump.

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THE BONE CLOCKS – David Mitchell (2014)

The Bone Clocks

What a fantastic book this is. Or rather 6 books. David Mitchell’s sixth novel is a tour de force. Mitchell is no small name: Cloud Atlas gathered widespread praise and attention – and also in The Bone Clocks he serves a grand narrative via 6 connected stories across 6 points in time – from 1984 to 2043, seasoned with a few shorter asides going back to earlier centuries. And similarly, The Bone Clocks is genre defying in a manner that’s pretty singular: the bulk of the book being straight forward literary fiction, but nonetheless with a backbone that’s firmly supernatural fantasy, and a final part that is straightforward, hard hitting dystopian near-future science fiction. This should appeal to nearly any type of reader, and I think it’s a masterpiece – not a term I whip out lightly.

I will return to the significance and impact of the final 6th in the second half of this review, and that part might be of interest for those of you who’ve read this book 3 or 4 years ago. It might be time to reconsider a few things. But first let me get a few other, more general remarks out of the way.


I haven’t read Cloud Atlas, or any of his other books, so I can’t comment on whether this title is better or not – and part of the answer to that question will be taste – but I can’t shake the feeling this is Mitchell’s magnus opus – for now. Written in a seemingly effortless and tasty prose, filled with real characters, genuine emotions, strong & urgent themes relevant to us all – this isn’t only escapist reading. Add to that a broad, kaleidoscopic feel, and an intricately constructed plot that’s obviously visible to a degree, yet so confident that you do not mind seeing the construction – as one does not mind seeing the brushstrokes when examining a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh up close, on the contrary even: seeing the actual brushstrokes and how they work in the composition is part of the joy.

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