Tag Archives: Non-fiction

THE EVOLUTION OF MORAL PROGRESS – Allen Buchanan & Russell Powell (2018)

The Evolution of Moral Progress Buchanan Powell

While reading the brilliant Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind, a 2020 book by Russell Powell on what evolutionary science can tell us about the possible nature of consciousness emerging in bodies on other planets, I was in awe of Powell’s meticulous reasoning skills. The book was an intellectual feast because of the rigorous thinking on display.

What struck me most was the interdisciplinary prowess: Powell is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Boston University, and aside from a PhD in Philosophy also holds a Master in Evolutionary Biology and a professional doctorate in Law. It is rare to encounter a mind that can argue that well and commit complex thoughts to paper in a manner that is both logical & clear. Obviously the first thing that I did when I finished Contingency and Convergence was see if Powell had written other stuff, and that let me to this book, co-authored with Allen Buchanan, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Duke and professor of the Philosophy of International Law at King’s College.

For starters, let me quote the Oxford University Press‘ description of The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory:

“Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell resurrect the project of explaining moral progress. They avoid the errors of earlier attempts by drawing on a wide range of disciplines including moral and political philosophy, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, history, and sociology.

Their focus is on one especially important type of moral progress: gains in inclusivity. They develop a framework to explain progress in inclusivity to also illuminate moral regression—the return to exclusivist and “tribalistic” moral beliefs and attitudes. Buchanan and Powell argue those tribalistic moral responses are not hard-wired by evolution in human nature. Rather, human beings have an evolved “adaptively plastic” capacity for both inclusion and exclusion, depending on environmental conditions. Moral progress in the dimension of inclusivity is possible, but only to the extent that human beings can create environments conducive to extending moral standing to all human beings and even to some animals. Buchanan and Powell take biological evolution seriously, but with a critical eye, while simultaneously recognizing the crucial role of culture in creating environments in which moral progress can occur. The book avoids both biological and cultural determinism. Unlike earlier theories of moral progress, their theory provides a naturalistic account that is grounded in the best empirical work, and unlike earlier theories it does not present moral progress as inevitable or as occurring in definite stages; but rather it recognizes the highly contingent and fragile character of moral improvement.”

If you want a much more thorough summary of the book, I can vouch for the accuracy of this one by Jeroen Hopster from the University of Utrecht. (Buchanan & Powell’s book is liberal to a certain extent, definitely not Marxist, should it being reviewed on a Marxist site worry you. Readers hostile to Marxism should not be detered from reading Hopster’s review either, the summary is politically neutral.) There is also this review by Prof. Em. Allen Gibbard, and one by Michael Brownstein and Daniel Kelly here, the latter start with an outline, but also offer interesting caveats to some of the book’s theories. These authors are much more in the know as I am on the subject matter, and they call the 422-page book “marvelous” and “likely to become a landmark”.

In the rest of the review, some thoughts on the book, an intermezzo on the supposed power of literature, and, as usual in my non-fiction reviews, I’ll end with a collection of interesting information tidbits I want to keep an account of.

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I have to confess David Hockney always remained a bit under my radar – when I was younger and wilder, I probably thought him too conventional or so, and more importantly, it seems as if the museums I’ve visited the last 20 years in the various cities around the world didn’t have many of his paintings on display. I really cannot recall seeing a Hockney in real life – although I must have, I’m sure. But when I learned of the Van Gogh & Hockney exhibition in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2019 it was as if I was struck by lightning. Hockney’s landscape paintings of the last 15 years are among the best landscapes I know in the history of painting.

I’ve tried to remedy my ignorance by reading about him, and I have to say, I’m very much looking forward to the double exhibition in Bozar, Brussels, later this year.

DAVID HOCKNEY. A CHRONOLOGY. – Hans Werner Holzwarth, David Hockney, Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima & Lutz Eitel (2020)

This budget Taschen book – 20 euros, like the stellar Basquiat in the same 40th Anniversary Edition series – is a marvel. 511 pages, excellent reproductions and an authoritative, clear text by Lutz Eitel.

IT is a newly assembled edition from the SUMO size David Hockney: A Bigger Book and the chronology volume that accompanied that expensive limited edition mammoth. It is the only career spanning monograph in existence I know of. There’s 2007’s Hockney’s pictures by Thames & Hudson, but that is very, very low on text.

Effectively organized as a chronology, it starts at the end of the 50ies up onto 2016, and has about 1.5 page text for each year, followed by about 8 to 10 pages of art. Hockney’s full oeuvre is on display: paintings, water colors, drawings, photographic assemblages, stage designs, iPad drawings, etc. Continue reading


Let me start with the blurb to give you some context:

“The untold story of the heretical thinkers who dared to question the nature of our quantum universe
Every physicist agrees quantum mechanics is among humanity’s finest scientific achievements. But ask what it means, and the result will be a brawl. For a century, most physicists have followed Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation and dismissed questions about the reality underlying quantum physics as meaningless. A mishmash of solipsism and poor reasoning, Copenhagen endured, as Bohr’s students vigorously protected his legacy, and the physics community favored practical experiments over philosophical arguments. As a result, questioning the status quo long meant professional ruin. And yet, from the 1920s to today, physicists like John Bell, David Bohm, and Hugh Everett persisted in seeking the true meaning of quantum mechanics. What Is Real? is the gripping story of this battle of ideas and of the courageous scientists who dared to stand up for truth.

While What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics is marketed as a popular science book, it should be mandatory reading for professional physicists, as it is a critical history of their field first and foremost, trying to explain why a problematic theory like the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics has endured for so long.

It works both as a solid overview of the science and possible interpretations of quantum theory, and as a sociological history of the workings of the field – both from a European and American perspective. There is much to learn here: about quantum science, about science as a practice, and about philosophy of science as well. Continue reading


I’m rereading The Book of the New Sun at the moment, and while I first thought to just read Shadow of the Torturer, it felt wrong to write a review of the first volume only, so I’m going to finish all 4 volumes and then write on the entire thing.

That means no new speculative book review for now, but two very different books on the brain. First a scientific account of rationality and neurobiologic algorithmic decision making, after that an art-science hybrid: a catalogue of historical pen and ink drawings by neuroanatomist Cajal, which includes a biography and some other text on the matter.


This is the English edition of the 2015 French publication Matière à décision, but updated with new data, some mistakes corrected and also partly rewritten structurally – with a new chapter added as the most striking change. As such, I’d very much call this a 2020 book indeed, and that’s of note in an ever evolving field.

The basic question this book tries to answer is whether neurobiological science supports the case for rational decision-making. It does so by using a bottom-up approach, “beginning with the neural matter and tracing the journey of how decision-making might have emerged from the physicochemical interactions between its components.”

This book is a strange hybrid. It both tries to give a short overview of the philosophical debate and the history of the science involved – including a bit of behavioral economy – and it tries to answer the question using an algorithmic model based on actual vertebrate brain science. Continue reading


First a general overview & appraisal of the book, and after that there’s a fairly lengthy section with quotes and paraphrases of nuggets of wisdom I want to keep on record, and those could be interesting for you too.

For starters, the summary on the back: “In this book, Russell Powell investigates whether we can use the patterns and processes of convergent evolution to make inferences about universal laws of life, on Earth and elsewhere. Weaving together disparate philosophical and empirical threads, Powell offers the first detailed analysis of the interplay between contingency and convergence in macroevolution, as it relates to both complex life in general and cognitively complex life in particular. If the evolution of mind is not a historical accident, the product of convergence rather than contingency, then, Powell asks, is mind likely to be an evolutionarily important feature of any living world?”

Or, as the MIT website states it in short: “Can we can use the patterns and processes of convergent evolution to make inferences about universal laws of life, on Earth and elsewhere?”

The book doesn’t presuppose a lot of working knowledge: Powell takes care to explain all the concepts and the history of science & philosophy one needs to understand his arguments. As such it is perfectly self-contained, BUT, mind you: this is hardcore stuff, it is not a popular science book at all. It has 280 pages of carefully and tightly argued text, there’s not a lot of redundancy, not even on the sentence level, and as such keeping a search engine at hand while reading this is no luxury. Continue reading

TWO BOOKS ON TURRELL (2013 & 2018)

For those that need an introduction to American light artist James Turrell (°1943), I’ve included two short YouTube documentaries at the very end – both worth viewing if you’re familiar with the man too. This post will be part book review, part essay.

Turrell rose to general public fame as Drake stole his visual approach for the video of Hotline Bling in 2015, and when I visited a site-specific installation of Turrell in a burial chapel on the grounds of Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin in July 2016, the crowd was massive, and, surely, some teenagers took out their smartphone and filmed each other making gestures like Drake in his clip. Regardless of the crowd, the experience was spiritual and uplifting – about 40 minutes of carefully programmed shifting lights to be started at the onset of dusk. Luckily, most teenagers didn’t have the meditative stamina to sit it out fully, so we had the place to ourselves at the end. After the book reviews I’ve included some pictures I took, and one that a friend took featuring some other friends and yours truly in summer outfits.

For starters, a book from my favorite art book list I posted in 2017 – I included it back then on the strength of the visuals, but I hadn’t fully read it. The second book is a bit more recent, published in 2018, and has much less text.

“My work is about how we construct reality. The real illusion is that we aren’t aware of how we give reality to things. We have awarded them concreteness of reality and are unaware of how we’ve done that.”

JAMES TURRELL: A RETROSPECTIVE – Michael Govan & Christine Y. Kim (2013)

Turrell cover James Turrell: A Retrospective was published for a major retrospective exhibition in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Guggenheim in New York. The retrospective also traveled to Jerusalem and Canberra. It has 304 pages and 250 illustrations, in a lavishly published hardback.

I always wonder whether people that haven’t experienced Turrell firsthand can truly get the idea of how revelatory & moving his work actually is. I’ve been luckily to live nearby one of his Skyspaces in Antwerp, and catch the Turrell exhibition in De Pont in Tilburg in 2015, as well as his permanent installation in that Berlin cemetery.

Art books are rarely substitutes for the real deal, but it is doubly so for Turrell, as the spatial aspects of perceiving light are so hard to translate in a 2D medium. As such, my experience of these books obviously is colored by my real world experience with Turrell. Having said that, this book does a spectacular job, and it shines especially in the accompanying text – essays and an interview. It made me realize that I’ve only seen a glimpse of his oeuvre, and his work is much richer and more diverse than I thought. Continue reading

JELLYFISH – Lisa-Ann Gershwin (2016) & ICE – Anna Kavan (1967)

2 reviews in this post: first the best jellyfish monograph published to this day – I’ll treat you with a bunch of stunning facts at the end of the review. After that, a much lauded slipstream classic.

JELLYFISH: A NATURAL HISTORY – Lisa-Ann Gershiwn (2016)

Jellyfish A Natural History GershwinGood books on jellyfish are hard to find: there hardly exist any. I’ve had the German ‘Quallen’ by Thomas Heeger (2004) for years, and that used to be the only comprehensive scientific monograph on the subject: someone should translate that in English.

I’m fascinated by the subject, so when I saw this very book in the biography of the underwhelming little book on jellyfish that Peter Williams published in 2020 I bought it instantly.

This book isn’t really about 50 jellyfish as advertised on the back: it rather is a monograph on 5 subjects: jellyfish anatomy, life history, taxonomy and evolution, ecology and finally the impact of humanity on jellyfish. Each subject gets about 20 pages in text (and some graphics & pictures), and after that Gershwin each time presents 10 jellyfish that illustrate some of the stuff from that particular chapter’s subject. Each jellyfish gets a full page photograph, and one page with additional information.

This makes for a bit of a hybrid: this is both a coffee table book with great, clear illustrations & a fairly thorough introduction to jellyfish biology. I doubt experienced marine biologists with an interest in the subject will learn a lot of new things from Gershwin, but for the general public the book is detailed nonetheless.

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DÜRER & BASQUIAT (2019 & 2020)

Two very different art books this time. Next up will be a review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s massive new cli fi novel The Ministry of the Future – I’m halfway through and enjoying it a lot. It’s totally unapologetic KSR, interesting both for its form as well as its content, and a swansong of sorts.

Albrecht Dürer MetzgerALBRECHT DÜRER – Edited by Christof Metzger (2019)

This catalog was published to accompany a huge Dürer exhibition in the Albertina in Vienna from September 2019 to January 2020.

As far as I can tell, this book doubles as the new go-to publication on Dürer as a draftsman and print maker – with the following caveat: Dürer has a legacy of nearly 1000 drawings, about 90 paintings and hundreds of woodcuts, and 3 theoretical books, so do not expect a full overview in these 488 pages. This is no catalogue raisonné. Continue reading

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 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 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


Nico Dockx Talks With Dennis Tyfus

An outright fantastic book on artist Dennis Tyfus, a monograph really, and a bulky one: 880 pages. It’s lavishly illustrated: every other page is a full colour illustration, drawing, painting, photograph or collage, and the pages with text generally also feature smaller illustrations. This massive tome is the best publication yet to get a feel for the scope and nature of Tyfus’s work.

It is structured around a year-long daily email interview, printed in English. Dockx’s questions at times seem designed to showcase his own reading & his own network – there’s a lot of name dropping. As a result, the questions sometimes veer a bit too much into the hot air territory art critics infatuated with their own theoretical framework like. In other instances the questions are simply a bit daft, like this one: ‘Have you ever worked with notions of camouflage in your work (as sometimes it can be interesting to stay under the radar)?’. But I guess I’m too harsh on Dockx: coming up with 366 questions is no mean feat, and it is to his credit he provides a fertile platform for Tyfus’s thoughts.

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First a list of all my non-fiction reviews, after that a list of my art book reviews.


David Adger – Language Unlimited (2019)

Adam Becker – What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics (2018)

Thomas Boraud – How The Brain Makes Decisions (2020)

Allen Buchanan & Russell Powell – The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory (2018)

Noam Chomsky – What Kind Of Creatures Are We? (2016)

Lisa-Ann Gershwin – Jellyfish: A Natural History (2016)

Kenneth L. Davis & Jaak PankseppThe Emotional Foundations Of Personality: A Neurobiological And Evolutionary Approach (2018)

David F. Lancy – The Anthropology Of Childhood (2014)

Brian Olewnick – Keith Rowe: The Room Extended (2018)

Russell Powell – Contingency And Convergence: Toward A Cosmic Biology Of Body And Mind (2020) (The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology)

Alex Rosenberg – Darwinian Reductionism, Or, How To Stop Worrying And Love Molecular Biology (2006)

Alex Rosenberg – How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories (2018)

Larry W. Swanson (ed.) – The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal (2017)

Michael Tomasello – Becoming Human: A Theory Of Ontogeny (2019)

Pierre L. Van den Berghe – The Ethnic Phenomenon (1981)

Peter Williams – Jellyfish (2020)


Some shorter non-fiction reviews can be found in my list of favorite non-fiction.



Hans Werner Holzwarth Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Art of Storytelling (2020)


Leen HuetPieter Bruegel: De Biografie (2016)

Manfred SellinkBreugel In Detail (2014)


Christof MetzgerAlbrecht Dürer (2019)


Hans Werner Holzwarth, David Hockney & Lutz Eitel – David Hockney. A Chronology. (2020)

Martin Gayford & David Hockney – Spring Cannot Be Cancelled: David Hockney in Normandy (2021)


Christopher LloydPicasso And The Art Of Drawing (2018)


Jonathan Bikker & Gregor J.M. WeberRembrandt: The Late Works (2014)

Volker ManuthRembrandt. The Self-Portraits (2019)

Jan Six Rembrandt’s Portrait Of A Young Gentleman (2018)

Ernst van de WeteringRembrandt: The Painter Thinking (2016)


Michael Govan & Christine Y. Kim James Turrell: A Retrospective (2013)

James Turrell: Extraordinary Ideas – Realized (2018)


Nico DockxNico Dockx Talks With Dennis Tyfus – I Know This Sounds Quite Ridiculous, But I Just Follow The Line (2018)


Rainer MetzgerVincent Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings (1989)


Some shorter art book reviews can be found in my list of favorite art books – a list that is tilted much more towards contemporary art.


Consult the author index for all my reviews, or my other lists.


Short write-ups of three very different books: a new linguistics book intended for a general audience, a splendid book on Picasso’s drawings & an epistolary classic of some sorts…

There’s even one I can recommend 100%!

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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”. 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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