Tuesday book notes

21 08 2007

I usually read one book at a time, straight through, but this past week I’ve been in a sort of funk about my current reading material. I’m compelled to finish it all, although I haven’t exactly been impressed with my recent spate of books. Here’s the rather lack-luster summation so far.

A Field Guide to Evangelicals and Their Habitat by Joel Kilpatrick

I read this satirical “field guide” in the course of a few hours on the day I got it, and I probably read it too-close to The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right. Many of the jokes are the same, and Kilpatrick’s book takes itself a bit more seriously than Lanham’s, and so it didn’t get many laughs. Some bits are funny (especially the last few chapters about evangelical sex, parties, and decorating), but if you’re familiar with such satire on the topic of evangelicals you’ve probably heard it all before and it doesn’t get especially funnier. This isn’t a bad book, it just isn’t a terribly funny one.

The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris

If you’re looking for somewhat antiquated notions about human evolution, Morris’ book is the one to buy. Much like many modern books on human evolution and our relationship to extant apes, the focus is on behavior/psychology, with the fossil record summed up in a few pages and given little further thought. Indeed, although Morris’ book is vastly outdated (my paperback copy is from 1964) it does resonate with many modern writings, and although I would have to be a bit more research, it would seem that Morris’ book was one of the first to put forth notions that now fall into the categories of evolutionary psychology/sociobiology. What is most irritating about the book, however, is Morris’ insistence on ignoring Western society. Rather than looking at humanity as a whole, Morris insists that contemporary Western men are the pinnacle of human achievement, other world cultures (especially tribal ones) being aberrant and giving us no insight into our evolution as they are degenerates. How this book ever became a bestseller, I couldn’t imagine. Still, it appears that as wrong as Morris was his ideas were highly influential, especially in inspiring Elaine Morgan to put further ponder the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, and it is for this reason that it was important for me to read.

The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond

I’m not a little less than halfway through Diamond’s book and I can’t really say I’m enjoying it. Maybe it’s because I’ve loaded up on anthropology books as of late, but I usually find more to contest with what he’s saying than anything else. Especially bothersome is when he would put forth a list of various hypotheses, praising some for being more feminist and denouncing others for being too male-centered. Don’t get me wrong, the focus on “Man the Hunter” crippled evolutionary thought in terms of our own species for some time, but replacing that with equally extreme views based solely on the role of women doesn’t give us a complete picture either. This sociological back-and-forth in anthropology seems to be an important factor in which hypotheses are regarded as good or bad, and while both sides are right about some things, in the end I think focusing too much on the male or the female is a mistake. Again, the fossil record seems to be largely ignored in the book, most of what Diamond puts forward being based upon birds and a few living apes, which is another weak point of the book.

The Gorilla Hunters by R.M. Ballantyne

It was hard to find information about this late-19th century novel, and so when I received it I wasn’t sure whether I would be reading a true account or fiction. The prose quickly indicated that it was indeed fiction, but still it provides some insights into how gorillas (and Africa in general) was viewed at the time. From what I can understand, gorillas were very important when discovered as they seemed to be our closest relatives, even though their reputations were rather monstrous. Understanding how they were introduced to the public (and how that perception changed) is going to be important to my review paper. I should finish this rather racist and pompous novel this evening.

Where Darwin Meets the Bible by Larry Whitham

I generally avoid books about the evolution/creationism debate (being that I’m fairly familiar with it), but I decided to give Whitham’s book a try in case it contained information I had not heard before. In fact it does, spending much time on those who have tried to reconcile the Bible and evolution in America during the first part of the 20th century within the first 40 pages, but it largely reads like a list. The writing isn’t bad, but the first chapters of the book read like a chronological list of events and persons involved with the intersection between evolution and creation, the author never digging deeper into the issues during the time. This may be appropriate given that the book is supposed to be about more modern conflicts (i.e. after the 1960’s), but I do wish that authors writing on this subject would give the past a more thorough treatment, especially to show that the debate (and creationist arguments) are anything but new. While Toumey’s God’s Own Scientists was tedious at times, overall it gave the reader some insight into why some of the faithful find evolution so threatening (and why they have been able to co-opt the mantle of science without mastering it to further their cause). Whitham’s book, by contrast, is more of a summation of the history thus far, and I suspect, in the end, he’s going to advocate a NOMA-approach to the current debate, even though such an approach doesn’t work in real life. I’ll probably read another chapter or two of this tonight.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been reading over the past few days, although I’m sure my enjoyment of some of the books is diminished by the horrible weather (it’s been grey and rainy for the past few days, temperatures stuck in the high 50’s to mid-60’s). Still, even though many of these books aren’t “fun” I am at least learning the opinions of the authors, and understanding the different standpoints will help in drawing up my review paper.


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6 responses

22 08 2007
Julia

I’ve just finished reading Tim Berra’s “Evolution and the Myth of Creationism“, which has a delightful rainbow-coloured Good News Bible-type cover. Sadly it’s 17 years out of date, so is only really a useful source when dealing with YEC, and not intelligent design. It’s good for a summary of all the basic arguments, but I reckon it’s nothing more than is available on the internet now (must have been sought-after 17 years ago though). I thought “Where Darwin Meets the Bible” looked good, but your review suggests I would find it disappointing too.

22 08 2007
Oldfart

Where on earth do you live? Australia? It’s been in the 90’s and 100’s here in Kansas.

22 08 2007
laelaps

OF; Yesterday was the coldest day on record for August in New York City, ever, and I’m about 8 miles as the crow flies from the city. Hopefully things will get back to normal today.

Julia; I actually just added Berra’s book to my wish list the other day. I may get it eventually, but like I said most of the creationist stuff is old hat for me by now. I’ll write more about Witham’s book as I get through it, although I don’t think it’s going to improve much (once again, if you really want a good book about creationists, go with Toumey’s God’s Own Scientists [link is in the post]). His approach reminds me of that of Mitchell’s The Last Dinosaur Book, in that he praises himself on being an “outsider” a bit, but this is precisely the problem. While objectivity can be good, he seems to lack a deeper understanding of science, which should be expected given that he’s a religion reporter.

22 08 2007
popscience

Wow you can manage reading five books at the same time… I’d come out of that thinking Jared Diamond hunted naked gorillas while making evangelical sex jokes.
Have you read his “Why sex is fun”? It sounds a lot more entertaining than the rest of his books.

22 08 2007
Julia

Popscience has a point – I can only ever read one book at a time (although I managed to get Earthcore and Tyrannosaur Canyon mightily confused only a month apart). I am full of admiration – you will go far in science if you can follow five lines of study at the same time. 🙂

I’ll check out that book, Brian.

22 08 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the compliments! In all truth I usually read one book at a time straight through (maybe with a novel on the side before bed). In this case, I read the satire aloud straight through in a day, the next day I read The Naked Ape from cover to cover, I started Diamond’s book but just couldn’t get into it so I after spending most of Sunday on it I put it down, I picked up The Gorilla Hunters the day before yesterday and got a good way through it but needed a break so I picked up Whitham’s book, but it wasn’t too exciting so I only got about 40 pages in. Oh, did I mention I read half of Bowler’s Theories of Human Evolution: A century of debate 1844-1944 when it arrived yesterday? My current book-hopping is more due to dissatisfaction with my chosen reading material than smarts, I’m afraid, and the only reason I can keep track of it is because I’ve heard most of it before here or there. Still, thanks for thinking that I actually know what I’m doing (it’s good to know that I can create that illusion when need be!)

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