Archives for category: science

The+Greatest+Show+on+EarthRichard Dawkins is one of the world’s most famous atheists. These days he is arguably more widely known for his book The God Delusion than for his science writing. Given the topic of The Greatest Show on Earth (the undeniable evidence supporting evolution) there is some mention of religion. But of the religious people in the world, those that deny evolutionary theory are a very particular subset – creationists. Here, they are the target of Dawkins’ frustration and incredulity. He points out that the likes of the Pope are not creationists, they incorporate their belief in God, in a creator, with evolution; God didn’t create the world all at once, with dinosaurs living amongst humans, he set everything up and then let evolution do its work. It’s not hard for anyone (religious and atheist) to see that creationists are ridiculous, so Dawkins is on fairly uncontroversial ground.

Who is Dawkins’ audience here? He writes as if he’s hoping he turns some creationists, if you’re already on board with evolution why do you need an overview of the evidence in its favour? But The Greatest Show on Earth isn’t for creationists really; he’s far too rude to get any of them on side in the extremely unlikely event any of them actually read his book. And it’s probably not for people with vast scientific knowledge. I read it because I have a decent grasp of evolution from high school science but thought a Dawkins-guided overview would be entertaining and fill any gaps, which it did. So, I guess there’s his audience – non-creationists who are interested in evolution but don’t know much about it.

Dawkins explains everything step by step, sparing no detail. The Greatest Show on Earth is designed to be able to be read by anyone with a curious mind no matter how lacking their background knowledge – he explains the structure of atoms in order to explain exactly how carbon dating works. Dawkins briefly writes about regression analysis so his reader will better understand an evolution experiment involving bacteria. I’ve studied both those topics in the past so it wasn’t new. I didn’t mind the refresher, but for someone well versed in things like that it might get a bit tedious.

Dawkins’ personality leaps off the page, making The Greatest Show on Earth a nice hybrid of entertaining reading and reasoned, analytical thought. I listened to his interview with creationist Wendy Wright (of which he includes extracts of in this book) and Dawkins writes exactly like he talks. It’s a kind of conversational erudition, with a propensity for reusing favourite words like ‘beautiful’ (‘a beautiful example of…’) that I found quite endearing. And his explanations are so elegant. Dawkins’ hairpin thought experiment has stayed with me. It perfectly explains, using the visual of a hairpin bend, why while a series of intermediate animals do connect a rabbit to a leopard it does not follow that there need be (indeed there should not be) a ‘rabbipard’. I won’t try to sum up Dawkins’ explanation, I couldn’t do it justice, but suffice it to say it created the perfect visual.

There’s an awful lot of stopping along the way to spend time on extracurricular pieces of trivia, so I wouldn’t recommend The Greatest Show on Earth to those readers irritated by completely irrelevant asides. I quite enjoyed it but it gives the book a slightly scatterbrained structure that might offend the sensibilities of those more scientifically minded than myself. Dawkins may not hit his targets with laser-like accuracy but his writing has an effortless quality that I can’t help but find engaging.

Dawkins’ enthusiasm for his subject is palpable. Yes, he’s trying to point out how idiotic creationists are for disbelieving evolution (part of his enthusiasm can’t help but come from delighting in making them look bad) but Dawkins is clearly a huge fan of evolution. Evolution is an elegant and wondrous answer to the mystery of life on Earth, and it frustrates him deeply that not everyone can see that.

Guns, Germs and SteelListen, I’m not going to get in too deep discussing Jared Diamond’s facts and figures. Guns, Germs and Steel is a hefty, detailed book and I’m no expert. If you want to know more I highly recommend you just read it, which is actually a lot easier than I thought it would be.

Guns, Germs and Steel attempts to answer a question I’ve often pondered over myself – why did history unfold so differently on different continents? Why, for instance, did Europeans invade the Americas and not the other way around? It’s an incredibly complex question, encompassing all of human history. Using a synthesis of biology, geography, history, anthropology and botany Jared Diamond concentrates on the history of cultures, such as Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, and New Guineans, that were conquered by those more technologically advanced. It’s a scientific approach to human history.

A few basic ideas underpin the whole book. Some cultures or geographic entities ended up with the guns, germs and steel that allowed them to conquer others with relative ease. They ended up with that trinity of dominance because of two key developments – agriculture and animal domestication. And why did they move away from subsistence hunting and gathering earlier? Essentially, their region of the world had better plants and animals to work with. For instance, only a small number of animals are actually suitable for domestication. So, while it might seem that Africa had many large mammal species ready to be domesticated by some enterprising early humans, it turns out that lions aren’t as happy casually grazing in paddocks as sheep. Then the role of geography (the positioning of impenetrable mountains, deserts and oceans) in the transmission of human culture and technology comes into play. Very few parts of the world independently started food production or invented writing. After that, it comes down to how well these new practices can spread across landmasses, it comes down to geography.

Diamond’s central idea that environment (and following on from that, the ability to develop the guns, germs and steel) determined the development of the peoples of each continent makes perfect sense. The British took Australia and turned at least some of it into viable agricultural land, where Aborigines had remained hunter gatherers until British arrival – exactly the same continent but different people. But only incredibly lazy thinking would lead to the supposition that Europeans must be superior. If you think about it for even a second it’s obvious that the British didn’t simply bring themselves to Australia, they brought technology and domesticated plants and animals that Aborigines didn’t have because of the particular natural resources (un)available to them.

These ideas are repeated with examples from different continents and different historical periods allowing the central tenets to really be absorbed. Diamond has created an incredibly lucid rendering of an intricate subject. And he even manages to make the evolution of wild plants into crops fascinating and readable. The in-depth case studies at the end (including Australia and New Guinea) apply everything Diamond has written in previous chapters to the evolution of particular continents’ culture and technology, further solidifying everything you’ve learned.

There’s a case to be made that Guns, Germs and Steel is an over-simplification. If so, it’s not a case I would attempt to make. Like I said, I’m far from an expert, I’m just a person fascinated by the world. I will say it’s probably impossible not to oversimplify the whole of human history when trying to capture it in a single book. Diamond can’t possibly go through every act of warfare and conquering and trace back its origins to quirks of geography, so inevitably he focuses on examples that suit his thesis. I can’t say with any certainty that there aren’t interactions between civilisations that dispute his theory (likely there are) but I do think Diamond has written a thoroughly convincing argument. And I kept wanting to talk to people about Guns, Germs and Steel, while I was reading it, and well after I’d finished. Any time a conversation was remotely connected to Diamond’s book I felt compelled to share what I had read. And that’s what I want from a book.

Psychopath TestJon Ronson is a gonzo-style journalist known for his funny take on the bizarre. In Them Ronson details his experiences with extremists – an Islamic activist, a Ku Klux Klan leader. The Men Who Stare at Goats deals with the New Age unit of the United States Army that attempts to train soldiers to walk through walls and kill goats with their minds. The Psychopath Test is, strangely enough, about psychopaths.

After becoming fascinated with the idea that perhaps psychopaths, not rational thinkers, really do ‘make the world go round’, Jon Ronson’s psychopath investigation kicks off with an encounter with Scientologists. Scientologists don’t believe in psychiatry, there’s even an entire branch of the organisation dedicated to discrediting psychiatrists – Tom Cruise’s tirade against antidepressants has made their stance quite infamous.

The Scientologists lead Ronson to Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital and a man named Tony. Tony faked mental illness to get out of a prison sentence for grievous bodily harm, and landed himself in Broadmoor instead. Now they won’t let him out. After realising that Tony did indeed fake his way in, his psychiatrists believe he suffers from psychopathy. Tony ends up in a weird Catch-22 scenario – if he acts sane they say the treatment is working and he needs to stay, if Tony says he faked insanity then that kind of manipulative behaviour is a classic indicator of psychopathy, thereby making him insane. And how do you prove sanity anyway? Is Tony actually a psychopath?

The absurdly frightening ambiguity of Tony’s case leads Ronson to the Bob Hare psychopath checklist. The Hare Checklist is a list of traits that are indicative of psychopathy, like ‘glibness/superficial charm’ and ‘cunning/manipulative’. Score highly on the checklist and you’re a psychopath. After attending Hare’s seminar Jon Ronson decides to do some of his own psychopath-spotting using his new found skills.

Ronson interviews suspected psychopaths from various walks of life – war criminals, executives, conspiracy theorists. Each interview is a link in the chain, one clue leading to the next, creating a relatively cohesive structure. Kind of like a deranged treasure hunt.

Are corporate CEOs all psychopaths? The Psychopath Test isn’t the first place I’d heard that idea. So interviewing a ruthless corporate bigwig to test for psychopathy is an obvious choice. But if at least some are, then do they have the capacity to be dangerous? What’s the difference between a psychopathic serial killer and a psychopathic business executive? Ronson doesn’t really find any answers but his interview with ex-Sunbeam executive Al Dunlap is entertaining and makes you wonder…

Ronson takes a look at the conspiracy theorist as psychopath. Deniers of the London tube bombings in 2005 believe the accident was the result of a power surge and the terrorist story was a vast government cover up, despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary. The victim bullying that occurred in order to get witnesses to agree with the conspiracy theorists’ take on events showed a complete lack of empathy for the people who were actually there, in order to satisfy their own unfounded beliefs. Classic psychopath.

The Psychopath Test is not generally laugh out loud funny but it’s never dull. Ronson is wry and incisive. He hunts down the ridiculous and presents it in all its glory. Sometimes the humour simply comes from what he uncovers or from the responses his interviewees give, but Ronson’s straightforward interview and writing style is perfect for teasing out the gems. Asking Al Dunlap if he is a psychopath, he goes through the checklist with him:

‘Grandiose sense of self-worth?’ I asked.

This would have been a hard one for him to deny, standing as he was below a giant oil painting of himself.

No one is safe from Ronson’s eye for the ludicrous. He digs at psychiatry (using the DSM-IV – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – to diagnose himself with psychiatric conditions he doesn’t actually have) and at its arch-nemesis Scientology in equal measure.

Ronson has a self-deprecating charm (he complains of anxiety and worries that he might be a psychopath himself) that makes The Psychopath Test effortlessly informative, fun and smart. I always like a book that tangles with the weird and bizarre – my kind of choice for a great holiday book.