Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Books Pt. 1: Non-Fiction

Posted by Simon Halliday | Tuesday, July 21, 2009 | Category: |

I've separated my books post this time into two posts.  The first for non-fiction and the second for fiction.  I will post the fiction one later today or tomorrow.

Non-fiction Hitchings - Dr Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World 
Though interesting, I did not finish this book quickly.  Every so often I bit off parts of it, in between other books, or when I felt like a change from the book I was reading. I did not read it dedicatedly.  I have read a fair amount of popular biography and history, but I found that Hitchings did not make enough of a tale of it, did not weave a narrative of a life lived oddly, opinionatedly, and moralistically.  But, his focus was the dictionary itself and not just its author, so he's excused. 

The structure is good, the historical content excellent, and the tactic of titling the chapters with specific words in the dictionary apposite.  Hitchings provides a substantial amount of historical content without getting stuck in History's dross.  For someone interested in the evolution of the English language Dr Johnson's Dictionary provides remarkable insight into the project, contrasted well with the strange and belaboured efforts by the Italians and French, while also showing the uniquely Johnsonian flavours of this landmark vocabulary. 

The books weaknesses are dramatically fewer than its strengths, and noting this The Modern Language Association in the US gave Hitchings their prize for best work by an independent scholar in 2005 for the US version of the book.  I didn't find the book prizeworthy, but rather worth a morsel of my leisure time here and there, a morsel I could enjoy the immediate taste of, then leave and return for more a bit later. Dawkins  - The Ancestors' Tale [Audiobook]
Abridged and Read by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward, the audiobook constitutes a good addition to the literature on popular biology, genetics, and 'big history' streams of anthropology and archaeology that have become prevalent. To some extent the book contains more accessible and briefer considerations of work in The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable.  The crucial point though is that the narrative form that Dawkins uses is imminently accessible and, consequently, the book should reach a broader audience than those books have reached.

Dawkins considers many problems in the book and his discussions clarified my understanding of many issues.  He grapples with the problem of classification, one of the first hints at which is the 'whale-hippo' problem, i.e. the problem that whales are the closest relatives of hippos, closer than other four-legged ruminants or ungulates.  How then does classification occur? How do we separate species? Dawkins argues that we need to consider evolutionary paths, and the distribution of animals along these paths to consider adequately what a species means.  Another compelling argument he poses in favour of 'distribution' is supported by the existence of 'ring species' like the Herring Gull and the Black-backed gull or Ensatina Salamanders in California - read the book for a wonderful discussion of this topic.  

Another problem Dawkins address is the problem of the phrase 'more evolved'.  People mistakenly say that humans are 'more evolved' than other creatures, or that some creatures are more 'primitive' than others. First, humans are not 'more' evolved, homo sapiens sapiens have evolved to suit their environment amidst competition with other humans and other animals, with internal competition amongst genes.  Primitiveness means, really, the degree of resemblance to an ancestor.  We need to ask, then, which ancestor? What do we mean by resemble? Do we mean one bone? An entire physiognomy? Dawkins deals with this incisively by meditating on the anatomy and evolution of duck-billed platypuses and echidnas.

He considers, further, the problem of 'what comes first' with behaviour and evolution, and in so doing quotes a book I thoroughly enjoyed, Matt Ridley's Nature via Nurture.  He proposes that evolution, and co-evolution, can go in either direction: a specific physical variation may occur, which facilitates a specific behaviour, or a specific behaviour may become prevalent, which then facilitates later physical evolution.  His entertaining exemplar is the tale of the brine shrimp: here he proposes that vertebrates may have evolved from worms that turned upside down; their behaviour altered, then physical characteristics of vertebracy followed. 

Dawkins dedicates the book's penultimate section to two important problems.  First, the oft-posed problem by Intelligent Designers of 'irreducible complexity', which Dawkins dismisses (as he does in The God Delusion) by using an argument explicated by Kenneth Miller in Finding Darwin's God. Miller breaks down the argument by IDers of the problem of the flaggellar motor, showing the 'gaps' by assessing TTSS and dismissing the argument of irreducible complexity. Another interesting point is that Miller is religious, and argues that a god would not be so capricious as to break its own divine laws.   The second problem is that of another, to Dawkins, ill-posed question - 'What is the origin of life?' Dawkins argues instead that we should try to understand 'What is the origin of heredity?'  I agree with this re-posing, mainly as 'life' is a difficult thing to define, whereas heredity is not. For heredity, we require a replicator, such as DNA or RNA.  Life seems less amenable to so concise a definition.

I was fascinated by the notion, proposed by Stuart Kauffman, of re-runs of evolutionary history.  I first discovered Kauffman when reading about complexity - he cameos in both Complexity:The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos and in The Origins of Wealth - and I found his ideas quite intriguing.  What would happen if evolution, 'happened again'? If earth began again? What would we observe?  The best we can do these days is computer simulations, and that is one area in which Kauffman is involved - the simulation of alternative patterns of evolution with genetic algorithms.  Dawkins, in the final section, complements his discussion of Kuaffman re-runs with notes about his ideas of the evolution of evolvability, bottlenecking, and the origins of sexual reproduction, all of which enchanted me, but which he has discussed in previous books. The introduction he provides in The Ancestor's Tale allows the novice to engage with it from scratch, or for the reader who has read much of Dawkins to engage anew. 

Overall, I would say that this book is one of Dawkins better book, better certainly than The God Delusion.  The book fits into a good pedagogical niche because it covers such a wide array of topics, while supplying the reader with sufficient cues for additional texts to which they can refer if they so choose.  Moreover, the narrative structure of 'tales' makes the work even more accessible and, even though it may seem odd at first to peregrinate backwards in time, the outcome is sensible and rewarding.  I felt though that I had missed something in the abridged audio book and that I should try to dedicate the time to the (next?) text edition at some point in the near future to capture fully the benefits and beauty of each tale. 

American CreationJoseph J. Ellis - American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Found of the Republic [Audiobook]
I first heard of this book on an EconTalk podcast where Russ Roberts interviewed Joseph Ellis and they discussed the premises of the book.  I would recommend listening to the podcast (it's free) before looking to purchase the book. 

Ellis's previous book - Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation - accounts the origins of the revolution. I have yet to read it, but I now intend to.  American Creation, concerning the same era, focuses, however, on a different set of topics; particularly those triumphs that made the founding and the period immediately following it, a confluence of phenomenal statescraft and political ingenuity while simultaneously maintaining and reinforcing some of the most tragic errors in judgment and morality contrary to the sentiments published in the declaration of independence. 

Ellis writes and argues carefully.  He locates the decisions of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison (the starring roles) in their cultural milieu, and he recognises that judging their conduct on contemporary cultural and normative values may be problematic.  He claims, however, that certain outcomes were lamentably tragic.  Jefferson, for instance, thought that slavery was an abominable and morally objectionable practice.  But, Jefferson owned slaves and was unable to emancipate them because of his debts.  Jefferson was also evidently a racist, believing that whites were biologically superior to blacks and that when slavery ended (as it surely would) that there should be a plan for expatriation of the black slaves.  His consideration of the constitution for Louisiana following the Lousiana purchase evidences his racism further, when he changed the initial clause that 'all residents of Lousiana' would become citizens of the United States to 'all white citizens'.  Jefferson did not like the idea of creoles, blacks, and mulattos becoming members of his White, English-speaking United States.

Ellis reports on several other tragedies, the most notable of which was the failure to come to a feasible accommodation with the Native Americans, or Indians. I learned a lot here.  For example, the high chief of the Creek Indians, Alexander McGillivray, thought that the United States was destined to fail and the treating with them was ultimately pointless.  McGillivray did so purely to improve his bargaining position with the Spanish in New Orleans.  Consequently, though Washington and John Jay tried to come to an agreement that would provide a moral and respectable outcome for the Native Americans several  factors confounded their efforts. First, McGillivray did not, seemingly, intend to hold to his side of the bargain they made in New York, merely using it as a bargaining chip with the Spanish. Second, Washington and the Federal government even had they wanted to uphold their end were entirely incapable of doing so - the settlers swarming into Indian land was uncontrollable. To adequately regulate the borders would have required a standing army along the borders with commensurate manning of watch towers and border patrols.  The United States did not have the resources to man such a border permanently.  Third, public opinion was against limitations on American borders and on limiting the activities of settlers. A solution would thus have required a grass roots effort to campaign against occupying Native American land.  This reminded me of a prisoners' dilemma - a basic public goods game in which it was in all the US citizens (moral) interests to come to a solution, but in no individual's interests to do it, they should rather emigrate westwards, claim lands, and prosper regardless of the (moral) cost to future generations.

I found the broad sweeps approach of this book to be a useful supplement to the kinds of history to which one is introduced in textbooks on the subject of the American Revolution, the notion of great men 'designing' great outcomes.  Though conceding the greatness of those involved, Ellis shows situations in which the characters could not overcome the forces of institutions, of public opinion, of demography. I would have liked more specific details here and there, but then again I can turn to David McCullough for those.  American Creation is thoroughly readable and worthwhile book. 

1776David McCullough - 1776: America and Britain at War [Unabridged Audiobook]
Continuing my interest in the American Revolution, I got hold of McCullough's acclaimed book 1776. 

Starting in 1775 and ending in early 1777 McCullough narrates the journey of the Continental (and later the United States) army, the initial tragedy of Bunker Hill, the regaining of Boston after the British retreat, the loss of New York, then Fort Washington, and then Fort Lee, followed by the recapturing of Trenton and a final victory in Princeton by Washington.

Strikingly different from Ellis's American Creation, 1776 offers deep insight into the actions that led to the final successes of the war.  McCullough concentrates almost entirely on the particulars of the war, with brief discussions of the politics in the colonies that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and dallying briefly with the personality of King George (not yet mad, still a British patriot, dedicated, and hard-working).  McCullough differs greatly from Ellis in style and selection of content: McCullough uses the base sources far more than Ellis does, and McCullough weaves together differing sources with much less of his own arguments or opinions on the topic trying to allow the main sources speak for themselves (though the selection of which sources to use will evidently support some view, which, in 1776 seems to be a forgiving view of George Washington, while also lauding his greatness later on).  Conversely, though Ellis also uses the original sources, he makes a much greater effort to voice his own thoughts and arguments about the founding fathers. I find that their styles complement each other well, and allow me to form an opinion of my own.  I think that reading Ellis only would be insufficient, whereas reading McCullough gives you a detailed portrait of a specific time, a specific place, and the potent men who participated: George Washington, Nathaniel Greene, Israel Putnam, Charles Lee, and Henry Knox.

The more I read about the American Revolutionary War the more I believe the position was how fragile, how the outcome was so uncertain, and how lucky we all are that General Howe, Cornwallis and others did not press the attack on the United States army when they had the chance.  Also, it makes me realise, yet again, how intriguing the lives are of these 'founding fathers'. I don't intend to idolise them and I recognise that they were flawed, that they owned slaves, and that they did not do enough to champion the empowerment of women, but they were still towering intellects, they persevered through calamity after calamity, and they came to form the longest-lasting and largest republic in the world.  What marvellous history it makes.

Currently have 2 comments:

  1. Epic post. Reading all these books, you are becoming quite the scholar :)

    Very glad to read a review of Dawkins excelling as usual in his natural habitat of biology (rather than behaving like a poorly read thug in the 'non-field' of theology).

    I was thinking this week of writing a brief post arguing for the very careful exposition of evolutionary theory. I recognise that I am fortunate to be a 'believer' in evolution, because (by fluke or karma) I read Lyall Watson's "Dark Nature" and did a speech on that and The Selfish Gene -- so I know that evolution is the business, and I also know the subtlety, simplicity and grand time-scale of its mechanisms. But to others, it really does sound pretty fucking weird that something as complex as the eye could evolve 'by chance' (which I know is a misnomer, but a forgiveable one!). When that incredulity combines with the apparent threat that evolutionary theory presents to cherished notions of life and human value, a great resistance arises to the theory of evolution. So we need to explain very carefully and precisely whey evolutionary theory is epic, otherwise large numbers of intelligent people will receive little but the scorn that's currently heaped on evolutionary nonbelievers -- and they'll remain unenlightened.

    Interested to see that 'heredity' is preferred to 'life'! (Though not, as yet, replacing it.) No doubt they are different concepts. Perhaps life is considered theoretically reducible to heredity (perhaps plus mutation and the other thing) similarly to the way emotions are considered theoretically reducible to firing neurons. Probably, as you say, 'life' is too wild and woolly a concept for scientists to place neatly into a conceptual scaffold. Probably more a subject for philosophy.

  2. Hey Pad,

    I agree that evolution should be taught carefully and steadily to ensure that people understand both the immensity of the idea and its applicability. I think there are numerous ways to do this, from watching David Attenborough documentaries to get a sense of the diversity of evolution's paths, to reading Dawkins, Pinker, Ridley, and many others.

    One of the things that makes me sad is that numerous people who might have benefited from reading Dawkins' books on evolution will now not read them because he published The God Delusion. This could be offset by more people interrogating their religious positions, but I am not convinced that's the case. Sometimes I think he should have been more of an Evolutionary evangelist than an atheistic one. Not sure.