Tag Archives: Biology

REMBRANDT SELF-PORTRAITS (2019) – JELLYFISH (Williams, 2020) – BLACK SWAN GREEN (Mitchell, 2006)

This post is a collection of 3 shorter reviews of 3 very different books. For starters a new, lush Taschen collection of all known Rembrandt’s painted, etched & drawn self-portraits, in which I also offer a quick guide one what Rembrandt book you need to buy. Then there’s a recent, rare non-fiction book on jellyfish, and also here I’ll offer some pointers to other jellyfish books. To end, a short, but incomplete appraisal of Black Swan Green, David Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical account of his year as a 13-year-old, stammering teenager.

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HOW HISTORY GETS THINGS WRONG – Alex Rosenberg (2018)

How History Gets Things WrongDarwinian Reductionism, Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology – a book Alex Rosenberg published in 2006 – was one of the best books I read in 2019. It tries to marry physics & chemistry with biology, and successfully so. It’s a very dense text, and extremely interesting.

So when I learned Rosenberg had written a book about our addiction to stories, I couldn’t resist and bought it. These 291 pages are a very different read than Darwinian Reductionism: a whole lot more accessible, written for a somewhat larger audience – although this is still no pop science book. While not without problems, it is very much worth your time if you have a serious, academic interest in human behavior, theory of mind, and narrative – Rosenberg’s scope is both broad and deep.

How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories biggest shortcoming is its title. It’s great from a marketing point of view, but it is a bit misleading. Yes, history features, as do stories, but in the end, they are a sideshow. Rosenberg uses the fallacies of narrative history to frame his central argument, which is a refutation of the most commonly held (folk) ‘theory of mind‘. He does so mainly with recent findings from neuroscience. Let me quote Wikipedia to give you an idea of Rosenberg’s basic line of reasoning:

This work develops the eliminative materialism of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, applying it to the role ‘the theory of mind’ plays in history and other forms of story telling. Rosenberg argues that the work of Nobel Prize winners, Eric Kandel, John O’Keefe and May-Britt Moser along with Edvard Moser reveals that the “theory of mind” employed in every day life and narrative history has no basis in the organization of the brain. Evidence from evolutionary anthropology, child psychology, medical diagnosis and neural imaging reveals it is an innate or almost innate tool that arose in Hominini evolution to foster collaboration among small numbers of individuals in immediate contact over the near future, but whose predictive weakness beyond this domain reveals its explanatory emptiness.

It has been over a decade since I read something truly substantial on the neurological working of our brain, and I was surprised by the detail in the discoveries of Kandel, O’Keefe and the Mosers. Their findings about the nature of brains – ‘place cells’, ‘grid cells’ and especially the functioning of ‘sharp wave ripples‘ in how decisions happen – strengthen a materialistic, reductionist viewpoint of behavior. The chapter in which Rosenberg describes the research is truly fantastic, eye-opening and worth the prize of the book alone – but I’m sure there are other good texts about that if you only want to read about that subject. In 2000 and 2014 the research was awarded a Nobel Prize, so this is not some obscure theory – as such, it might be old news to some, but it was not to me.

It’s refreshing to read a whole lot more than the typical stuff on the experiments of Benjamin Libet and John-Dylan Haynes on the fact that our brains make decisions before our consciousness registers it – a staple in popular texts on free will and similar subjects. Mind you, this is not a book on the non-existence of free will. Rosenberg says that free will doesn’t require consciousness, indicating he sees the term a bit differently than most. Although the book doesn’t deal with it explicitly, there is a lot between the lines.

It’s also of note that the book deals extensively with representation, as a big part of Rosenberg’s argument hinges on the fact that there are no representations of desires or beliefs to be found in our brains. These play a crucial role in how we generally perceive how humans act: we do stuff because we desire something and we act on those desires based on certain beliefs about how to attain them. We think somehow representations of these beliefs and desires are found in our brains, and that our brains somehow process these desires and beliefs, and make decisions based on that. Not so, it turns out.

One more remark before the jump, a crucial one. Neural circuits in the brain do not have content or represent something indeed, but it is obvious that their material output (our speech, our writing, to a certain extent maybe our conscious thoughts as well, …) does. The brain lacks content, sure, but it forms content. I would think that you cannot treat the brain as a closed system, and that we need to take its extensions so to say into account as well.

I’m not sure what this means for Rosenberg’s overall theory. Maybe it is not much more than a matter of sharper definitions. Rosenberg talks about cell circuitry that does not ‘represent’ or ‘interpret’ etc. – but again, what about their output? Is that part of the brain as well? Or part of its representation/interpretation/aboutness?

Or maybe his main beef shouldn’t be with narrative history and the folk theory of mind that puts computation of representations in the brain, but narrative history and the folk theory of mind that presupposes rational, non-causally determined agency of human actors. The neuroscience and other points raises could easily support that. Or maybe it doesn’t have an effect on his logic at all.

In the rest of the review, I’ll talk a wee bit about the book’s most important formal problem, and end with a list of a few of the nuggets of wisdom I found.

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BECOMING HUMAN: A THEORY OF ONTOGENY – Michael Tomasello (2019)

Becoming Human TomaselloI’m always eager for the year-end list of David Auerbach at Waggish. The man is a voracious reader in all kinds of domains. 2019’s list was dauntingly long, but I found a few titles right up my ally, one being Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny by Michael Tomasello, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke. Tomasello is one of the few scientists bridging developmental research on both primates and children, and a leading figure in a branch of evolutionary psychology that was new to me: human ontogeny.

The book focuses on the question what makes humans unique. It does this by focusing on how children become adult humans, and as such part of human culture – how the development of human abilities in children differ from the development of these abilities in great apes.

Tomasello’s scope is large. He ties the development of human cognition and human sociality together, resulting in synthesizing insights about social norms & moral identity. This in not only a comparative psychology book, but an important work on ethics too. Truly a tour de force, and the first theory I’ve come across that convincingly brings cognition, evolution and ethics together – not in a normative way, but by describing the pathways of how these things arise, starting with newborn babies.

Tomasello builds on the seminal insight of Lev Vygotsky, who in the beginning of the 20th century was one of the first to articulate the fact that children need a social context to develop fully. A child that would be put onto a desert island without any social interaction would not become ‘human’ as we generally define it.

To further sketch the content, let me first quote the blurb from the publisher – Harvard.

Tomasello assembles nearly three decades of experimental work with chimpanzees, bonobos, and human children to propose a new framework for psychological growth between birth and seven years of age. He identifies eight pathways that starkly differentiate humans from their closest primate relatives: social cognition, communication, cultural learning, cooperative thinking, collaboration, prosociality, social norms, and moral identity. In each of these, great apes possess rudimentary abilities. But then, Tomasello argues, the maturation of humans’ evolved capacities for shared intentionality transform these abilities—through the new forms of sociocultural interaction they enable—into uniquely human cognition and sociality. The first step occurs around nine months, with the emergence of joint intentionality, exercised mostly with caregiving adults. The second step occurs around three years, with the emergence of collective intentionality involving both authoritative adults, who convey cultural knowledge, and coequal peers, who elicit collaboration and communication. Finally, by age six or seven, children become responsible for self-regulating their beliefs and actions so that they comport with cultural norms.

At first, I was a bit suspicious of Tomasello’s claims: I have read quite a lot of Frans de Waal and the likes, and my intellectual stance the last decade or so had been to not overestimate human uniqueness – not in language skills, not in cognition, etc. I considered differences between humans and other animals basically a matter of degree.

To a certain extent this obviously still holds, but one of the merits of Tomasello is that he uses large sets of experimental data that clearly show there are two things that are unique in humans: “shared intentionality” and “collective intentionality”. Basically, the fact that we humans do things together, know that we do things together and have elaborate insights in other humans’ mental states that influence our own mental states. So it’s not only cooperation itself that is important, but the fact that it is a form of recursive cooperation.

Language obviously is important for all of this, and so this is not only an ethics book, but one that should interest linguists too. The same goes for the cultural transmission of knowledge: instructed learning basically doesn’t exist in the rest of the animal kingdom, so yes, pedagogy too. Continue reading

THE ETHNIC PHENOMENON – Pierre L. Van den Berghe (1981)

The Ethnic Phenomenon

This is a tricky book to review, as it has such a thorny subject: race and ethnicity. It’s also a fairly old text, first published in 1981. Social sciences certainly gained more data since, yet dismissing this book as outdated would be a huge fallacy.

On top of its subject & age, Pierre L. Van den Berghe takes a sociobiological approach – possibly prompting fears of social Darwinism and the likes. That fear is unwarranted, as The Ethnic Phenomenon is a clear and loud refutation of any attempt at instigating hierarchies or other forms of power based on race and ethnicity.

To make it even more messy, Van den Berghe admittedly writes in a Marxist tradition, but not without offering critique on orthodox Marxism. More importantly – this needs to be stressed – Marxist thought is not the core of this book at all, and is hardly used to support his main arguments – if at all.

Still, The Ethnic Phenomenon is – given the nature of the overall subject – clearly a political book too, and it could not have been otherwise. It speaks for Van den Berghe that he is upfront about his ideological framework. His arguments & reasoning is always clearly spelled out to the reader, who can judge the merit of his thinking case by case. It would be outright stupid to dismiss the entire book just because it is writing by a leftist social scientist – I can imagine people of any political leaning agreeing to lots of what he says, as he generally makes a strong, nuanced case.

Just to get it out of the way: Van den Berghe is unambiguous about the fact that ‘race’ as a workable biological category, or a category to use for social attributions, simply does not exist. Nevertheless, there “is no denying the reality of genetic differences in frequencies (not absolutes) of alleles between human groups.” If you get worked up because of facts like that, this book is not for you.

Before I get to the actual discussion of its 301 pages, let me first say this: The Ethnic Phenomenon is a truly first-rate piece of scholarship, setting the paradigm for the thinking about this topic. It is thorough, honest and courageous, attempting to bring some clarity in a highly emotional debate. This is not an ethics treatise, but a scientific study, including 24 pages of bibliography and a 10-page index.

At the same time, the book wants “to exorcise ethnicity by trying to understand it”. I wonder if it could have been written today, in the age of #woke and keyboard outrage. Be that as it may, this is an important book, a landmark, absolutely mandatory for everybody that seriously studies the history and the contemporary effects of colonialism, racism, nationalism and ethnicity.

First I’ll try to give the gist of Van den Berghe’s thinking. Afterwards I’ll zoom in on some tidbits I found interesting, and I’ll end with a few critical notes.

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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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