Movie Review: Galapagos: The Enchanted Voyage (1999)


Title: Galapagos: The Enchanted Voyage
Release Date: 1999
Director: David Clark, Al Giddings
Production Co: IMAX, Mandalay Media Arts, National Science Foundation
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Documentary | Nature | IMAX
Rating: *** 1/2

Another great IMAX film experience at the Boston Museum of Science.  The film immerses one in the lunar landscape of the Galapagos Islands with it’s many uniquely-evolved creatures and plants.  Then it takes you deep beneath the sea to explore newly-discovered aquatic creatures.  The star of the film is zoologist Carol Baldwin (and fellow William & Mary alum) who among other things takes a submersible into the deep ocean and sucks up specimens of sea life with a nifty vacuum tube.  My 7-year-old son gave the movie a thumbs up as well.

Book Review: The Making of the Fittest


Author: Sean B. Carroll
Title: The Making of the Fittest
Publication Info: Tantor Media (2007), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD
ISBN: 1400103150

Summary/Review:

This book is a primer on how natural selection works.  Carroll approaches this topic from a mathematical perspective through statistics and probability, but does so in layperson’s terms (which means I can just barely understand it – hah!).  The book uses examples such as Antarctic icefish for whom natural selection has chosen genes that give them enlarged hearts, blood without red blood cells, and a natural antifreeze.

Mutation is a key idea, with Carroll stressing that mutations despite their bad PR can be beneficial and points out that in fact we are all mutants.  While mutation is blind, natural selection is not.  Natural selection acts cumulatively.  Carroll also takes on the people who deny evolution by natural selection, refreshingly pointing out that it’s not just religious conservatives with examples of Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko who persecuted proponents of Medelian genetics and chiropractic practitioners who denied germ theory.

This is a good practical summary of the fascinating key ideas of biology.

Recommended books: On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
Rating: ***

Book Review: Where the Wild Things Were


Author: William Stolzenburg
Title: Where the wild things were : life, death, and ecological wreckage in a land of vanishing predators
Publication Info:  New York : Bloomsbury : Distributed to the trade by Macmillan, 2008.
ISBN: 9781596912991

Summary/Review:

This book explores the role of predatory carnivores in ecosystems.  Far from just being the top of the food chain, Stolzenburg shows the evidence of numerous researchers that predators are necessary for maintaining a healthy balance of prey and vegetation.  Without predators, ecosystems collapse completely.

Stolzenburg shows evidence of similar regions with and without their primary predator – whether it be sea otters, sharks, or wolves – and the differences are alarming.  The most dangerous predator of course is the human, and we have a long history of exterminating predators.  Stolzenburg believes this goes back to the Pleistocene when the first humans arriving in the Americas eliminated the megafauna of two continents.  Some of the most fascinating and controversial ideas are to “rewild”the Americas by introducing large mammals such as camels, lions, and elephants into the wild!  While discussing the objections to the plan, I am surprised that Stolzenburg made no mention of the unfortunate history of invasive species (cane toads anyone?).

This is a very illuminating, saddening, but ultimately important perspective on how to preserve and recreate damaged ecosystems.

Read this Conservation magazine article by Stolzenburg for more details.

Favorite Passage:

The most dangerous experiment is already underway.  The future most to be feared is the one now dictated by the status quo.  In vanquishing our  most fearsome beasts from the modern world, we have released worse monsters from the compound.  They come in disarmingly meek and insidious forms, in chewing plagues of hoofed beasts and sweeping hordes of rats and cats and second-order predators.  They come in the form of denuded seascapes and barren forests, ruled by jellyfish and urchins, killer deer and sociopathic monkeys.  They come as haunting demons of the human mind.  In conquering the fearsome beasts, the conquerors had unwittingly orpahned themselves. – p. 200

Recommended books: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
Rating: ****

Book Review: Trawler by Redmond O’Hanlon


Trawler (2003) by Redmond O’Hanlon is one of those books where a novice goes on board a commercial fishing boat to see how hard life is for the trawlermen and finds it hard in ways one never imagined.  No big surprise there, but what O’Hanlon does in this book is write almost entirely in dialogue rather than description.  This means that O’Hanlon either brought on board a recording device or has a photographic memory for conversation.  Either way it’s remarkable considering that O’Hanlon spends much of the journey seasick, sleep-deprived, and unable to stay on his feet as the trawler Norlantean heads into a Force 12 hurricane.

Much of O’Hanlon’s conversation is with Luke the marine biologist conducting field studies on board the trawler.  But there is also the captain Jason, revered by his crew, and cast of tough fishermen, sometimes tight-lipped and sometimes revelatory in an almost hallucinatory way.  The discussion varies from oceanography to ichthyology, superstition and religion, masculinity to mortality, and sometimes just plain crudity.  O’Hanlon seems to make a pest of himself and gets a good bit of jibing in return.

This book not quite what I’d imagined it would be but it’s a good, solid book.

Here are some better reviews than mine:

Author O’Hanlon, Redmond, 1947-
Title Trawler / Redmond O’Hanlon.
Publication Info. New York : Vintage Books, 2006..
Edition 1st Vintage Departures ed.
Description 339 p., [8] p. of plates : ill., map ; 21 cm.

Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan


In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) is Michael Pollan‘s follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he answers the question the most readers of that earlier book have when finished “Ok, so what should I eat?”

Pollan’s simple answer is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  A simple phrase, but it requires this slim book to explicate, especially in this era where the prominence of processed food products make it difficult to determine what food is.  A good portion of the book is a set of rules for identifying foods and how to enjoy them.  I’ve listed the rules below for my own memory, but it is important to read the book for Pollan’s explication of each rule.

At it’s heart, In Defense of Food is an indictment of nutritionism.  This is the process where by scientific reductionism food is broken down into it’s basic nutrients.  In nutritionism, it is at the nutrient-level where “foods” are recommend for their healthful benefits or condemned for their ill-effects.  Pollan contends that a lot of these recommendations are made under pressure from food processing companies and government agencies without thorough research on how the food (or food products) acts at the macro-level.  This lack of understanding about how food works leads to the contradictory recommendations that a food is healthy one year and deadly the next (and vice versa). Furthermore, it ignores how whole foods act as a nutrient delivery system.  For example, a plant leaf may dissolve in the digestive system releasing nutrients in a healthful way, while the same nutrient as an additive to a food product can flood the body in unhealthful ways.  Additionally, Pollan states there is little research how nutrients act in balance with one another.

The processing of food often removes the nutrients needed, even when the cartons make claims to the healthfulness of what should be inside. As a result, we live in a country where people are eating and eating and eating in search of nutrients they cannot find.  Thus the oxymoron of a people who overeat but are still undernourished.

On the one hand this book is a vindication.  I always felt better eating real butter, sugar and other whole foods when everyone told me it’s healthier to consume margarine and aspartame and the like (ok, I could cut back on the sugar some more).  I  never trusted high fructose corn syrup.  The way people glom onto fad diets withouth much evidence that they’re healthful drives me crazy.  I would add to Pollan’s rules: “Never trust a diet with a name (ex. Adkins, South Beach, et al). On the other hand I live on a supposedly healthy vegetarian diet, but I don’t eat nearly enough leafy plants and I rely way too much on processed foods even if they’re supposedly healthy meals from Trader Joe’s.

Pollan often refers to the traditional nutritionist we should trust as “Mom.”  Unfortunately, he fails to acknowledge that Mom is now working 40+ hours out of the home. So is Dad and sometimes the kids are too. The time crunch many Americans face that put real pressures on the time available to select, prepare and eat food. This is not to be critical of Pollan, but I’d like to come up with extra rules that would help people incorporate healthy relationships with food into their busy lives. It seems it would need to be a cultural change as well as individual.  It could be as simple as teaching someone like me what to look for at a farmer’s market:  which type of produce should I look for, how should I judge it’s quality, how much do I bring home, and what do I do with it when I get home?  It sounds dumb, but I really need such remedial training, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

A good book to pair with In Defense of Food is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, in which author Barbara Kingsolver and her family spend a year eating locally, organically, and sustainably.  It come recommended by my sister and is central to this great episode of Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippet called The Ethics of Eating.

Professional reviews:

Favorite Passages

How a people eats is one of the most powerful ways they have to express, and preserve, their cultural identity, which is exactly what you don’t want in a society dedicated to the ideal of “Americanization.”  To make food choices more  scientific is to empty them of their ethnic content and history; in theory, at least, nutrionism proposes a neutral, modernist, forward-looking and potentially unifying answer to the  question of what it might mean to eat like an American.  It is also a way to moralize about other people’s choices without seeming to.  In this, nutrionism is a  little like the institution of the American front lawn, an unobjectionable, if bland way to pave over our differences and Americanize the landscape.  Of course in both cases unity comes at the price of aesthetic diversity and sensory pleasure.  Which may be precisely the point.  – pp. 57-58

When most of us think about food and health, we think in fairly narrow nutritionist terms — about our personal physical health and how ingestion of this particular nutrient or rejection of that affects it.  But I no longer think it’s possible to seperate our bodily health from the health of the environment from which we eat or, for that matter, from the healt of our general outlook about food (and health).  If my explorations of the food chain have taught me anything, it’s that it is a food chain, and all the links in it are in fact linked: the health of the soil to the health of the plants and animals we eat to the health of the food culture in which we eat them to the health of the eater, in body as well as mind.  So you will find rules here concerning not only what to eat but also how to eat it as well as how that food is produced.  Food consists not just in piles of chemicals; it also comprises a set of social and ecological relationships, reach back to the land and outward to other people. – p. 144

But meat, which humans have been going to heroic lengths to obtain and have been relishing for a very long time, is nutritious  food, supplying all the essential amino acids as well as many vitamins and minerals, and I haven’t found a compelling health reason to exclude it from the diet (That’s not to say there aren’t good ethical or enviromental reasons to do so).

That said, eating meat in the tremendous quantaties we do (each American now consumes and average of two hundred pounds of meat a year) is probably not a good idea, especially when that meat comes from a highly industrialized food chain.  Several studies point to the conclusion that the more meat there is in your diet — read meat especially — the greater your risk of heart disease and cancer.  Yet studies of flexitarians suggest that small amounts of meat — less than one serving a day — don’t appear to increase one’s risk.  Thomas Jefferson probably had the right idea when he reccomended using meat more as a flavoring princinple than as a main course, treating it as a “condiment for vegetables.” — p. 165-6

EAT FOOD

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  • Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are:
    • Unfamiliar
    • Unpronouncable
    • More than five in number
    • Or, include High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Avoid food products that make health claims
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible

MOSTLY PLANTS

  • Eat mostly plants. Especially leaves
  • You are what what you eat eats too
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer (to preserve cuts of meat)
  • Eat like an omnivore
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils
  • Eat wild foods when you can
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements (but don’t waste your money unless you’re over 50)
  • Eat more like the French.  Or the Italians. Or the Japanese.  Or the Indians.  Or the Greeks.
  • Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism
  • Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner

NOT TOO MUCH

  • Pay more, eat less
  • Eat meals
  • Do all you’re eating at a table (a desk doesn’t count)
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Consult your gut
  • Eat slowly
  • Cook, and if you can, plant a garden

Pollan, Michael.
In defense of food : an eater’s manifesto / Michael Pollan.
New York : Penguin Press, 2008.
244 p. ; 23 cm

Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan


When I was a kid, my grandfather grew string beans and tomatoes in a planting box on his balcony 23-stories above a major elevated highway interchange in Brooklyn.  My sister and I would smirk as my grandmother proudly stated “Your grandfather grew these himself,” as she ladled the limp, brownish-green string beans on our plates.  My mother had better luck growing bumper crops of green beans in the Connecticut soil of our backyards as well as all the vegetables necessary to make a delicious spaghetti sauce.

Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) by Michael Pollan it occurs to me that these may be the only meals I’ve eaten that don’t come from the chain of industrial monoculture.  And even then both my grandfather and mother relied on the seeds and fertilizers sold by big agribusiness.  Pollan’s conceit in this very important book is to trace the chain of events leading to four very different meals:

  • a fast food meal from McDonald’s
  • an “organic” meal from the industrial suppliers of Whole Foods
  • a meal from a “beyond organic” symbiotic farm in Virginia
  • a meal made entirely of food gardened, foraged and hunted by Pollan himself

For the fast food meal, the central crop is corn grown in sturdy rows and harvested with industrial efficiency.  While corn may not obvious in many meals it is a key ingredient in feed for cattle (even though by nature they eat grass) and corn-derived additives and foodstuffs are the integral to many foodstuffs (especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup).  Pollan demonstrates how this industrial form of agriculture is destroying the earth through overuse of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides.  The corn products and corn-fed beef are less nutritious than they would be otherwise, not to mention the incalculable suffering of the feed lot.  Plus industrial agriculture’s reliance on government subsidies and fossil fuels adds a great cost to this supposedly cheap crop.

By comparison, the “big organic” meal from Whole Foods is tastier and more nutritious by comparison.  Organic farmers proudly proclaim that they’re protecting the earth by not using fertilizers and pesticides.  Yet by following the agribusiness industrial model, these farmers are still creating unsustainable food networks whether they’re unaware of it or simply greenwashing.  Pollan points out the energy required to import out-of-season goods from distant regions plus the additives used to preserve them.  Free range animals rarely live the pastoral live imagined by organic food lables and instead are not all that different from the non-organic factory farms.

Pollan spends a week on a farm of a farmer whose philosophy goes beyond organic and into the symbiotic relationships of plants and animals.  While he calls himself a grass farmer, he’s raising cattle and chickens as well in innovative ways where each being supports the cause of the others in a cruelty-free way.  The farm also serves only local customer, the importance of food networks where buyers know their suppliers are stressed.  While this philosophy is critiqued as inefficient and elitist, Pollan illustrates how it is in fact more efficient in food production as well as cost when the hidden costs of agribusiness are added in.  The benefits to plants, animals, and humans are high as well.

Finally, Pollan creates a meal himself from his garden, finding mushrooms with some of Northern California’s most obsessive foragers, and hunting for wild pigs.  At one point in this section Pollan experiments with vegetarianism using as a way to debunk animal liberationist theologies.  This is the one section of the book I had trouble with since as a vegetarian myself I feel Pollan tied together all vegetarian philosphies with the most extreme adherants and the benefits of vegetarian lifestyles weren’t given a fair shake.

I looked forward to reading this book because I previously enjoyed reading Pollan’s Botany of Desire. Like that previous work, this book is written in Pollan’s engaging style that is both alarming and compelling without being preachy.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma is worthy of the hype it has received and I recommend reading it.  Anna Clark of Isak sums it up best: “This is an astonishing, engaging, hilarious and revelatory book that should be required reading for every American. At least every American that eats.”

Online resources mentioned in the text:

Favorite Passages

It’s difficult to control the means of production when the product you’re selling can reproduce itself endlessly.  This one of the ways in which the imperatives of biology are difficult to mesh with the imperatives of business. — p. 31

I’ve oversimplified the story a bit; corn’s rapid rise is not quite as self-propelled as I’ve made it sound.  As in many other “self-made” American successes, the closer you look the more you find the federal government lending a hand — a patent, a monopoly, a tax break — to our hero at a critical juncture. In the case of corn, the botanical hero I’ve depicted as pluck and ambitious was in fact subsidized in crucial ways, both economically and biologically.  There’s a good reason I met farmers in Iowa who don’t respect corn, who will tell you in disgust that the plant has become “a welfare queen.” — p. 41

For corn has been exempted from the usual rules of nature and economics, both of which have rough mechanisms to check any such wild, uncontrolled proliferation.  In nature, the population of a species explodes until it exhausts its supply of food; then it crashes.  In the market, an oversupply of a commodity depresses prices until the surplus is either consumed or it no longer makes sense to produce any more of it.  In corn’s case, humans have labored mightily to free it from either constraint, even if that means going broke growing it, and consuming it just as fast as we possibly can. — p. 56

So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow: industrialize the miracle of nature that is the ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass-powered organism and turning it into the last thing we need: another fossil fuel machine.  This one, however, is able to suffer. — p. 84

I’d always thought of trees and grasses as antagonists — another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other.  To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass.  But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands.  So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as indeed, with all the species sharing this most complicated farm.  Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. — p. 225

A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which historically have served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market.  This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism — the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society.  Mercy toward the animals in our care is one such casualty. — p. 318

Author : Pollan, Michael.
Title : The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals / Michael Pollan.
Published : New York : Penguin Press, 2006.

Book Review: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman


The World Without Us ( 2007) by Alan Weisman is a book length exploration of what the earth would be like without human beings. Long story short, a whole lot better off. Weisman investigates the question by recreating what the world was like without humans, what has happened since our evolution and spread, vignettes of places that humans have abandoned for one reason or another, and theorizing what would happen to the world should we vanish. Weisman puts forward unlikely scenarios of how our species could vanish: a human-only virus, alien abduction, or the rapture. In all likelihood there is nothing that could wipe out the human race will leaving the rest of the world untouched. And since some of Weisman’s world without us scenarios demonstrate the unholy terror that will be unleashed by the things we’ve created without us there to manage them, perhaps it will be better if we stick around and try to figure out how to fix things up.

Here’s a quick summary of scenarios of Earth without her most invasive species:

  • Białowieża Puszcza forest in Poland and Belarus, the only old-growth forest remainig of what once stretched across Europe. Here animals like bison may still thrive if the border fence that prevents their breeding is removed.
  • Destroying a home is easy. Just cut an eighteen inch hole in the roof and then stand back.
  • A vision of New York City without us begins with the subway tunnels flooding. The freeze/thaw cycle breaks up roads and concrete and makes foundations crumble. Ailanthus trees take root everywhere. Fires break out and spread unchallenged. Expansion joints on bridges get clogged and the bridges collapse. Central Park will revert to marshland. Bronze statues and stone buildings will last the longest of human artifacts.
  • The western hemisphere once had a great number of megafauna such as the giant sloth. Weisman believes that overhunting by prehistoric peoples brought their end. As evidence he points out that only on Africa where animals and humans evolved together are there still large mammals afoot.
  • In Africa today, grazing animals are unable to migrate freely and thus overgraze land which turns it to desert. Parks surrounded by agriculture create two competing environments that don’t work together well. The plague of AIDS is starting to erase the human population and changing age-old settlement patterns.
  • Seaside hotels on Cyprus remain abandoned, overgrown, and crumbling since the war in 1974 between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The Green Line, a no man’s zone between the two warring sides preserves remains of once-human habitats.
  • The sturdy remains of the underground city in Cappadocia, Turkey may be a long-lasting remnant of past (and future?) human habitation in a world without us.
  • Plastics do not biodegrade and may end up outlasting our species by millennia. They break down into smaller particles where they will continue to be a hazard to creatures and plants of the sea. Worse, today in the North Pacific Gyre is today a floating trash dump of plastics run off from land and carried to these doldroms where the trash accumulates.
  • The expansive “city” of petroleum refineries and chemical plants covering hundreds of square miles between Houston and Gavelston in Texas. This is one of those places that without human intervention is something of a time bomb that would explode and may never be cleaned up by natural process.
  • The world without farms. Rothamsted in England is a place where research in agriculture has been conducted since the mid-1800’s. This includes the Broadbalk and Geescroft Wildernesses where land has been allowed to simply revert to nature. Another place where the woods are regenerating is New England!
    • “Unlike almost anywhere else on Earth, New England’s temperate forest is increasing, and now far exceeds what it was when the United States was founded in 1776. Within 50 years of U.S. independence, the Erie Canal was dug across New York State and the Ohio Territory opened — an area whose shorter winters and loamier soils lured away struggling Yankee farmers. Thousands more didn’t bother to return to the soil after the Civil War, but headed instead into factories and mills powered by New England’s rivers — or headed west. As the forests of the Midwest began to come down, the forests of New England began coming back.” – p. 147
  • The fate of ancient and modern wonders of the world. 6 of the 7 ancient wonders are already gone with the pyramid at Khufu rapidly eroding. The Chunnel and the Panama Canal are equally doomed with human care, but Mount Rushmore will prevail.
  • The Korean demilitarized zone, like the Cypriot Green Line, is a place devoid of human presence where nature has rushed in to fill the void. Unfortunately, human encroachment on each side of the DMZ has prevented it from becoming the protected space some hope it to become.
  • Birds coexist with humans although many species have been wiped out by us as well (the dodo, the passenger pigeon, et al). Without us they would still collide with radio-transmission towers and power lines which kill millions of birds each year, at least until those things collapsed from inattention. The common housecat also slaughters songbirds for sport and without human care would continue to do so in places where cats would never have existed naturally.
  • Nuclear power plants and nuclear waste dumps. You don’t really need to read this book to imagine what would happen to them in a world absent humans. Oddly, Chernobyl shows an example of wildlife returning to the land abandoned by people after the disaster there. Still, it’s hard to believe the world would recover so easily if all 400+ nuclear power plants melted down simultaneously and contaminated the earth.
  • The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement are people who’ve sworn to not reproduce and simply wish to convince everyone to voluntarily let our species die out. Reading their arguments they actually seem to have a point and are at least convincingly not crackpots.

Oddly it seems that humanity’s greatest achievements (skyscrapers, etc.) are the least permanent, while trash, plastic, and oil — the detritus of civilization — are the most permanent.
There’s a lot more in this book which makes for a thoughtful, sometimes depressing, but always fascinating read.

Friday Sillies: Simulacraceae


Simulacraceae

I heard about this project on the Scientific American podcast “Science Talk“.  It is no less than exhaustive, six-year project in the taxonomy of artificial plants.  Be warned, the Ethnobotany Journal article (pdf) contains requires knowledge of Pig Latin.  The publication date is interesting as well.

Book Review: The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn


Another book about babies. This one is thankfully free of gory details. Instead The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn by Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, & Patricia K. Kuhl examines developmental psychology in children. It turns out that babies are a lot like scientists in the ways they interact with their new world and test assumptions. Or maybe scientists are like babies because it is in our earliest years that we first develop our capacity for learning.

The authors examine how babies recognize other people and themselves, differentiate objects, and develop language. They also have instinctive means to train adults and older children to help in their development. This book is a lot of fun and a fascinating read.

Favorite Passages:

It may be some comfort to know that these toddlers don’t really want to drive us crazy, they just want to understand how we work. The tears that follow the blowup at the end of a terrible-twos confrontation are genuine. The terrible twos reflects a genuine clash between children’s need to understand other people and their need to live happily with them. Experimenting with conflict may be necessary if you want to understand what people will do, but it’s also dangerous. The terrible twos show how powerful and deep-seated the learning drive is in these young children. With these two-year olds, as with scientists, finding the truth is more than a profession — it’s a passion. And, as with scientists, that passion may sometimes make them sacrifice domestic happiness. – p. 38.

The two most successful examples of human learning turn out to be quite similar. Children and scientists are the best learners in the world, and they both operate in very similar, even identical ways, ways that are unlike even our best computers. They never start from scratch; instead, they modify and change what they already know to gain new knowledge. But they are also never permanently dogmatic — the things they know (or think they know) are always open to further revision.

While the idea that scientists are like children might seem surprising at first, it helps make sense of some otherwise puzzling facts. Scientists, after all, have the same brains as the rest of us. And science is convincing because, at some level, all of us can recognize the value of explaining what goes on around us and predicting what will happen in the future. … Why would we have such powerful learning abilities if we never even used them back in the Pleistocene? …

Our answer is that these abilities evolved for the use of babies and young children. – p. 156-7

Reviews:
BrainConnection by Anne Pycha

NEA by
Marcia D’Arcangelo and Andrew Meltzoff.
Science Blog

Book Review: Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born by Tina Cassidy


The main lesson I got from Tina Cassidy’s Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born (2006) is that in the history of people being born, attempts to make it easier and/or more “scientific” have in many cases exacerbated the mortality rates for both mother and child. At different times in history it was thought a good idea to rip children out with forceps, to drug up mothers to a point of insensibility and today’s fashion, cesarean births even when not necessary for medical reasons. The last one bothers me most because Cassidy describes in detail how women are sliced up, cutting important tissues for reasons that often have more to do with convenience than necessity.

Interesting too that until recent years men did not attend births not only because they were too macho to show up, but they were actually forbidden from the delivery room.

Okay, so it’s not easy to read this book without getting all squirmy and squeamish, but on the other hand it’s important to learn that there’s a history of experts stating what are the best ways to be born only to be contradicted and “proven wrong” by the next generation. I don’t think our times are exempt from this pattern.

Tina Cassidy is a blogger too and I’m expecting a lot of ongoing discussion of these issues at The Birth Book Blog.

New York Times opinion pieces by Tina Cassidy “Birth, Controlled” (March 26, 2006) and “Cut and Run” (January 28, 2007).

Reviews:

“Hard Labor,” Washington Post, (October 26, 2006)

Dadlabs.com

Chris’s blog