Thursday Book Notes

26 07 2007

Last night I finished Our Inner Ape, and to be honest I didn’t find it especially impressive. It reminded me a bit of other pop-sci books dealing with animal intelligence like Inside the Animal Mind (the companion volume to the PBS special) where anecdotes were put forward without much else. While I think behavioral observations have a lot to tell us and point to more animals being merely a bundle of behaviors that must always be spoken of in the passive voice. Still, de Waal takes his observations of chimpanzees and bonobos in captivity and takes them to be the rule, extrapolating from them his main thesis; humans are a “Janus Head” that combines the aggressiveness (even at times bloodthirstiness) of chimpanzees and the more social/sexual habits of bonobos. de Waal does note that each species works on its won continuum and rightly notes that despite notions like American individualism we are a highly social species (one of the worst punishments is isolated confinement or banishment), but he seems to present a bit of a false dichotomy between chimpanzees and bonobos, clearly favoring the bonobos. Even though de Waal does temper his statements, he definitely presents chimpanzees as more vicious and bonobos as more peace-loving (something that is becoming contested as we observe bonobos in their own habitat), he clearly favors the bonobos as an ancestral model for our behavior. In any case, I could understand what de Waal was trying to get at in the book and it does have some good content, but I think that what’s good in it gets mired down by the false “Janus Head” dichotomy that is the main theme of the work. A Primate’s Memoir remains the best popular book on primates I’ve read yet.

I also got halfway through Survival of the Sickest before passing out, drooling on my pillow (it wasn’t so much an effect of the book as it being a late hour when I was reading it). It’s a short work, only about 200 actual pages before the glossary/notes/bibliography with larger spacing and font than I’ve seen in other books, so it was easy to get through the first 100 pages in a short amount of time. As for the content, there is some very interesting material in the book (like how inheriting a disease that keeps iron in the body locked up may have helped some people survive the bubonic plague), but I don’t care much for the style. As I opined to my wife, it’s the “Mountain Dew of pop-science books.” The overall strategy in the chapters is to present a reader with a particular medical dilemma, then spend a few pages going back to its roots, only then to return to the original topic and sum up the significance of everything. This isn’t a bad strategy, but it’s a bit overused in the book. The writer throws in plenty of pop references in an attempt to make the book more accessible to those not familiar with science, but overall I just felt that the rhetorical strategies were annoying and even showed a lack of respect for the reader. It’s written in something of a fast-paced MTV style, and while I get the impression that writers like Gould and Sagan respected the intelligence of their readers, I get the feeling from Survival of the Sickest that I’m only supposed to be dazzled and little else. The writer is also at their best when discussing genetics and medicine, forays into geology (and as I wrote about earlier, human evolution) are typically marked by misunderstandings or misrepresentation. I don’t have a problem with the actual content/premise of the book, but the style in which it is presented doesn’t appeal to me at all. Looking at the amazon.com reviews of the book, however, I guess I’m in the minority, and perhaps it could serve as a fair primer for people unfamiliar with evolution (just make sure they read some more accurate books, too!).

After I finish Survival of the Sickest tonight I’m not sure what I’ll be on to next. I have a stack of books next to the couch (and I still need to finish A Cold Look at Warm-Blooded Dinosaurs), but I do want to read Demonic Males and Forley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf in the near future as well. On top of that I still have to read my books by Cope, Mantell, and Darwin, so I definitely am not suffering for lack of options. Then again, I should probably start Quammen’s Song of the Dodo now that my wife has finished it, going through it chapter by chapter so I can pin down any mistakes as Bora had suggested so long ago. At least I’m petsitting this weekend so I’ll have all day Saturday to feed my mind.


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2 responses

27 07 2007
Anne-Marie

I have read a couple of De Waal’s books, but not “Our Inner Ape” yet. I did get to meet him about a year and a half ago when he was promoting the book, though, he came to Auburn and gave a seminar. He is a great public speaker, it was easily the most entertaining seminar I’ve been to. I recently read that he has never seen a bonobo in the wild, in spite of how prominently they feature in his theories. I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising, considering how rare/isolated they are, just thought it was an interesting piece of trivia.

27 07 2007
laelaps

de Waal certainly seems like an energetic and effective communicator, and I had heard that he hasn’t observed bonobos in the wild recently (but thanks for the reminder). I guess he seems to get tripped up by a problem parallel to the one I’m discovering as I’m reading Demonic Males; there’s too much of a dichotomy made between chimpanzees and bonobos, and depending on your outlook on human behavior will somewhat determine which you think is a better model (typically on optimist/pessimist lines). de Waal has definitely done much to try and bring discoveries and information about primates to the public so I don’t want to be too disparaging, but overall I just felt that Our Inner Ape was setting up a false vision of our behavioral relatedness. I’ll have to dig up some of de Waal’s papers though, as some of the studies he mentions do sound very interesting (I had heard about the capuchins and the grape study before)

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