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 Indeed, although Morris’ book is vastly outdated (my paperback copy is from 1964) it does resonate with many modern writings, and although I would have to be a bit more research, it would seem that Morris’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.