Book Review: Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman 


Author: Rutger Bregman
Title: Humankind: A Hopeful History
Narrator: Thomas Judd
Publication Info: Little, Brown & Company (2020)
Summary/Review:

The thesis of Rutger Bregman’s book is that the vast majority of human beings the vast majority of the time have good intentions.  Not only that, but scientific research backs up this optimistic perception of human goodness.  Furthermore, trusting in the goodness of others is key to the health and success of individuals and societies.  It is the belief that humankind is inherently corrupt that is often manipulated to have people carry out evil. Accepting the “veneer theory” that human society is only a thin layer over the cruel and selfish human psyche is akin to the placebo effect, or in this case what Bregman calls the “nocebo” for its negative psychological effects.

Bregman breaks down what we “know” about human behavior by debunking a number of famed studies such as Stanley Milgram’s obedience tests and the Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as histories of the collapse of indigenous society on Easter Island and the popular story of neighbors indifference to the murder of Kitty Genovese.  After reading the truth behind these stories and how they were manipulated to make the worst possible reading, you might find yourself thinking humans are good but psychologists and journalists are evil.Bregman also contrasts the fictional Lord of the Flies with the real-life experience of Tongan boys who survived being stranded on a desert island for a year through cooperation.

After showing that many cases of humans descending to “savagery” actually had many instances of people wanting to help out, Bregman also explores experimental camps, schools and workplaces where children and adults are trusted to do the right thing with positive results.  Bregman builds on existing philosophy, often contrasting the views of humanity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes.  He also draws on evolutionary biology that shows that cooperation was necessary for human survival and the desire to help is hardwired into humanity.

This is just the kind of book I needed to read right now and it’s something I think everyone ought to read.

Favorite Passages:

Tine De Moor calls for”institutional diversity” – “while markets work best in some cases and state control is better in others, underpinning it all there has to be a strong communal foundation of citizens who decide to work together.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 13


Sidedoor :: Reservation Math: Navigating Love in Native America

The story of “blood quantum,” a concept used to define Native American identity from it’s colonialist origins to the personal impact is has on indigenous peoples today.

Throughline :: ‘Black Moses’ Lives On: How Marcus Garvey’s Vision Still Resonates

The history of Marcus Garvey and his vision of pan-Africanism and the Black Star Line.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Sound 101

The science of sound with Bill Nye.

 

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Book Review: Gulp by Mary Roach


Author: Mary Roach
Title: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal 
Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2013)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Mary Roach, the popular science writer with the sense of humor of a 12-year-old, is in her element in this book that asks the questions we don’t dare to ask about the alimentary canal. After all the human body is nothing more than a tube from mouth to anus with limbs attached, is it not? So it is natural to want to learn about smelling, tasting, chewing, swallowing, digesting, and excreting … as well as a quite a few things that humans do with their alimentary canals that they weren’t intended for.

Here’s a list of some of the topics Roach examines from reading the scientific literature and with interviews with researchers:

  • Olive oil tasting
  • Pet food flavoring (and the humans who taste them)
  • Organ meat consumption
  • Fletcherizing
  • Saliva
  • Why we like chewing crunchy food
  • Stomach expansion
  • Competitive eating
  • “Hooping” or smuggling items in the rectum
  • Methane & hydrogen in flattus
  • Rectal feeding
  • Coprophagia
  • Ritual enemas
  • Megacolon and the death of Elvis
  • Fecal transplants

After reading that list, you are either fascinated or disgusted. Go with that feeling when determining whether this book is right for you.


Favorite Passages:

“You will occasionally not believe me, but my aim is not to disgust….I don’t want you to say ‘This is gross.’ I want you to say, ‘I thought this might be gross, but it’s really interesting.’ Okay, and maybe a little gross.”

The moral of the story is this: It takes an ill-advised mix of ignorance, arrogance, and profit motive to dismiss the wisdom of the human body in favor of some random notion you’ve hatched or heard and branded as true. By wisdom I mean the collective improvements of millions of years of evolution. The mind objects strongly to shit, but the body has no idea what we’re on about.

Recommended books:


Rating: ***1/2

Podcast of the Week Ending August 22


60 Second Science :: Cows With Eye Images Keep Predators in Arrears

Painting eye spots on the rear ends of cows apparently acts as a deterrent to predators.

Throughline :: Reframing History: The Commentator

A medieval Islamic philosopher named Averroes had a great influence on Western thought and the modern world that has been overlooked by history.


RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Book Review: Bonk by Mary Roach


Author: Mary Roach
Title: Bonk : the curious coupling of science and sex
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton, c2008.
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Mary Roach, the popular science writer who has the sense of humor of a 12-year-old, investigates medical research of human sexual intercourse.  There are some guffaws, and Roach even volunteers for some experiments with her husband, but this book is surprisingly a straight-forward account of historical research and current studies of sex. Roach draws on the writings of famous sex experts such as Alfred Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, and interviewing and observing today’s researchers. Along the way she details with sex machines and penis cameras, erectile dysfunction treatments, artificial insemination, and the mysteries of the female orgasm.  It’s an interesting account but it doesn’t feel like vital read.

Rating: ***

Podcast of the Week Ending May 16


Decoder Ring :: Gotta Get Down on Friday

Breaking down the cultural phenomenon of the viral YouTube video “Friday” by Rebecca Black, a song that is so bad because it’s almost good.

Planet Money :: Episode 1,000

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been listening to this NPR economics podcast since the LAST global crisis of the Great Recession.  The 1000th episode breaks down how a podcast episode is made.

Radiolab :: Octomom

A fascinating study of a deep-water octopus species where the mother sits to brood her eggs for several years, starving to death in the process.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Pew Pew

The secrets of sound design in making Star Wars films.

What Next :: Decoding the Flood of COVID Data

Tips on how to evaluate what you’re hearing about COVID-19 and how it applies to you and your family.  Visit the COVID Explained website for more.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Podcasts of the Week Ending May 9


What Next

How Extremists Capitalized on the Pandemic – White nationalists are strategically using this crisis to advance their hateful goals.

A Biden Accuser on the Latest Biden Allegation – Despite the Democratic Party’s claim to be pro-women, their presumptive nominee has a long history of sexual harassment allegations.  This is a big problem.

99% Invisible :: The Natural Experiment

Isolating during the pandemic sucks, but it’s provided scientists the conditions for scientific research not possible during normal levels of activity, such as: air pollution, boredom, vaccination, and redesigning cities for people not cars.

This Day in Esoteric Public History :: Coya Come Home

An historical event I’ve never heard of before involves Coya Knutson, the first woman elected to Congress from Minnesota (in 1955), and the letter allegedly written by her estranged husband telling her to come home.  Her election opponent used this scandal to win the next election.

Code Switch :: What Does ‘Hood Feminism’ Mean For A Pandemic?

Author Mikki Kendall talks about race, feminism and COVID-19 and the divide between mainstream, white feminism and the greater goals of women of color.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben


Author: Peter Wohlleben Cover of The Hidden Life of Trees
Title: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries From A Secret World
Translator: Jane Billinghurst
Publication Info: Greystone Books, 2015
Summary/Review:

Peter Wohlleben, a forester from Germany, writes a series of essays about trees – how they communicate, how they feel, how they handle the stress.  If you’ve never thought that trees can do these things, you’re in for a treat.  Fungal networks in the roots allow individual trees to communicate with other trees in the forests.  In fact, trees can even scream.  They have to deal with the strains of storms breaking their limbs, animals chipping away their bark, and fungi invading their interior. If you like trees, or even just enjoy a nice walk in the wood, this book is a great guide to the hidden world of what is going on around you.

Favorite Passages:

“most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems. It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.”

“They love nutrient-rich, loose, crumbly soil that is well aerated to a depth of many feet. The ground should be nice and moist, especially in summer. But it shouldn’t get too hot, and in winter, it shouldn’t freeze too much. Snowfall should be moderate but sufficient that when the snow melts, it gives the soil a good soaking. Fall storms should be moderated by sheltering hills or mountain ridges, and the forest shouldn’t harbor too many fungi or insects that attack bark or wood. If trees could dream of an earthly paradise, this is what it would look like. But apart from a few small pockets, these ideal conditions are nowhere to be found. And that is a good thing for species diversity.”

“Today’s deposits of these fossil fuels come from trees that died about 300 million years ago. They looked a bit different—more like 100-foot-tall ferns or horsetail—but with trunk diameters of about 6 feet, they rivaled today’s species in size. Most trees grew in swamps, and when they died of old age, their trunks splashed down into stagnant water, where they hardly rotted at all. Over the course of thousands of years, they turned into thick layers of peat that were then overlain with rocky debris, and pressure gradually turned the peat to coal. Thus, large conventional power plants today are burning fossil forests. Wouldn’t it be beautiful and meaningful if we allowed our trees to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors by giving them the opportunity to recapture at least some of the carbon dioxide released by power plants and store it in the ground once again?”

“Wood fibers conduct sound particularly well, which is why they are used to make musical instruments such as violins and guitars. You can do a simple experiment to test for yourself how well these acoustics work. Put your ear up against the narrow end of a long trunk lying on the forest floor and ask another person at the thicker end to carefully make a small knocking or scratching sound with a pebble. On a still day, you can hear the sound through the trunk incredibly clearly, even if you lift your head. Birds use this property of wood as an alarm system for their nesting cavities.”

“Every trunk is different. Each has its own pattern of woody fibers, a testament to its unique history. This means that, after the first gust—which bends all the trees in the same direction at the same time—each tree springs back at a different speed. And usually it is the subsequent gusts that do a tree in, because they catch the tree while it’s still severely bowed and bend it over again, even farther this time. But in an intact forest, every tree gets help. As the crowns swing back up, they hit each other, because each of them is straightening up at its own pace. While some are still moving backwards, others are already swinging forward again. The result is a gentle impact, which slows both trees down. By the time the next gust of wind comes along, the trees have almost stopped moving altogether and the struggle begins all over again.”

“Chlorophyll helps leaves process light. If trees processed light super-efficiently, there would be hardly any left over—and the forest would then look as dark during the day as it does at night. Chlorophyll, however, has one disadvantage. It has a so-called green gap, and because it cannot use this part of the color spectrum, it has to reflect it back unused. This weak spot means that we can see this photosynthetic leftover, and that’s why almost all plants look deep green to us. What we are really seeing is waste light, the rejected part that trees cannot use. Beautiful for us; useless for the trees. Nature that we find pleasing because it reflects trash?”

“I, for one, welcome breaking down the moral barriers between animals and plants. When the capabilities of vegetative beings become known, and their emotional lives and needs are recognized, then the way we treat plants will gradually change, as well. Forests are not first and foremost lumber factories and warehouses for raw material, and only secondarily complex habitats for thousands of species, which is the way modern forestry currently treats them. Completely the opposite, in fact.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Woolly by Ben Mezrich


Author: Ben Mezrich
Title: Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures 
Narrator: Ben Mezrich with epilogue read by George Church and afterward by Stewart Brand
Publication Info: New York : Atria Books, 2017.
Summary/Review:

This book at heart is a biography of George M. Church, a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, who was a key part of the Human Genome Project.  The every curious and somewhat eccentric Church is currently working on a project to clone and de-extinct the wooly mammoth.  Besides being awesome, there’s good reason to do this as the effect megafauna have on their habit can actually combat climate change by helping to lock in the permafrost.

Mezrich details Church’s childhood and rise to prominence in scientific research.  A long section of the book details his romance with molecular biologist Ting Wu and how their marriage caused a Harvard administrator to discriminate against her getting a tenured position (its odd after this story that Ting doesn’t play much of a role in the rest of the book).

The bulk of the book focuses on the effort to create a mammoth, which seems oddly possible and unlikely at the same time. There arehumorous stories like the one where one of Church’s team attempting to get an elephant placenta in order to find elephant stem cells. Unrelated to Church’s story there’s a Russian scientist seeking mammoth remains in the Siberian tundra and a Korean scientist seeking redemption who are also interested in cloning a mammoth.

All in all, this book is incomplete, because mammoths have not been successfully cloned and it may be decades, if ever, before it happens.  The science of genetics and the biology of mammoths – and there surviving relatives, the elephants – are all very interesting.  Did you know that elephants don’t get cancer?  But it feels like Mezrich is adding lots of details to the narrative to fill it out and give it some drama that’s just not there.
:
Recommended books: Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators by William Stolzenburg
Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending January 26


More Perfect (via RadioLab) :: Sex Appeal

How Ruth Bader Ginsburg convinced the Supreme Court to take on discrimination against women, by taking a case involving discrimination against men.

On the Media :: Rethinking MLK Day

The downside of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy in the African-American is how his idea of masculinity is used against women and anyone who doesn’t fit into the perception of respectability.

Hidden Brain :: How Science Spreads: Smallpox, Stomach Ulcers, And ‘The Vegetable Lamb Of Tartary’

This episode focuses on the way in which scientific ideas spread and how they are accepted within communities.  It focuses on the dissemination of misinformation, but also how it is a necessity that we accept scientific ideas without having individually tested them.  I was particularly intrigued to learn about Mary Wortley Montagu, who spread the idea of smallpox inoculation in 18th century England, around the same time Cotton Mather was doing so in Boston.  Rather unfairly, I hadn’t heard her story before.


Running tally of Podcast of the Week appearances: