Category Archives: Books

Book Review: Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body

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In The Story of the Human Body Daniel Lieberman builds a strong case that making fully informed decisions about diet and lifestyle is only possible through the lens of evolutionary history. If you want to know where your body comes from, you need to understand its evolutionary history. Why do humans stand and walk on two legs? Why are we weak compared to other primates of comparable size? Why are our legs and feet shaped the way they are, with springy tendons and arched feet? Why does our spine have a special S-curve? The answer to these questions lies in the the evolutionary history of our species.

Now ask, why do people in modern societies suffer from “diseases of affluence” like obesity, type-2 diabetes, tooth decay, metabolic syndrome, flat feet, nearsightedness, lower back pain, and sleep disorders? Daniel Lieberman argues that these questions can only be fully answered by understanding the evolutionary history of our species. Lieberman argues these diseases are examples of “mismatch diseases” i.e. a disease that is primarily caused by our bodies not being sufficiently adapted to novel gene-environment contexts. We know they’re mismatch diseases primarily because they used to be rare, are largely preventable, and are almost unheard of in hunter-gatherer populations.

Lieberman argues that all of these diseases are in some sense a result of cultural evolution speeding ahead of natural evolution with the result that have humans manufactured a psychologically comfy and satisfying environment that is paradoxically unhealthy without fundamentally affecting our reproductive fitness. Lieberman calls this this paradoxical unhealthiness “dysevolution”. It turns out that surrounding ourselves with unlimited sources of cheap junk food is a bad idea because humans are genetically wired to crave food with dense amounts of fat, sugar, starch, and salt.

Lieberman is no luddite, and certainly doesn’t advocate a return to the caves and giving up on modern science and technology. His position is more nuanced than many of the extreme black and white positions out there, as befitting the complexity of gene-environment interaction. In many senses, the agricultural and industrial revolutions have propelled humans to new heights of health and longevity, with modern science curing diseases and fixing people better than ever before. At the same time, we are living longer but spending many of those years suffering from chronic, preventable diseases. The paradox of the modern world is reduced mortality but greater morbidity i.e. living longer, but spending more of those extra years with an illness of some sort. Lieberman argues that too often the incentives of modern medicine aim at fixing symptoms but not the underlying structural causes: the toxically comfortable environments we built for ourselves.

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Quote for the Day – Philosophers Are Weird but Not Insane

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that that’s a tree”, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell them: “This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.”

~Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations,  §467

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Quote for the Day – The Empty Habit of Prayer: Tolstoy on Religious Deconversion

S., a frank and intelligent man, told me as follows how he ceased to believe:-

He was twenty-six years old when one day on a hunting expedition, the time for sleep having come, he set himself to pray according to the custom he had held from childhood.

His brother, who was hunting with him, lay upon the hay and looked at him. When S. had finished his prayer and was turning to sleep, the brother said, ‘Do you still keep up that thing?’ Nothing more was said. But since that day, now more than thirty years ago, S. has never prayed again; he never takes communion, and does not go to church. All this, not because he became acquainted with convictions of his brother which he then and there adopted; not because he made any new resolution in his soul, but merely because the words spoken by his brother were like the light push of a finger against a leaning wall already about to tumble by its own weight. These words but showed him that the place wherein he supposed religion dwelt in him had long been empty, and that the sentences he uttered, the crosses and bows which he made during his prayer, were actions with no inner sense. Having once seized their absurdity, he could no longer keep them up.

~Tolstoy, quoted in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

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Quote for the Day – Theology and Idealism as Rhetorical Devices in Academic Philosophy

In old times, whenever a philosopher was assailed for some particularly tough absurdity in his system, he was wont to parry the attack by the argument from the divine omnipotence. ‘Do you mean to limit God’s power?’ he would reply: ‘do you mean to say that God could not, if he would, do this or that?’ This retort was supposed to close the mouths of all objectors of properly decorous mind. The functions of the bradleian absolute are in this particular identical with those of the theistic God. Suppositions treated as too absurd to pass muster in the finite world which we inhabit, the absolute must be able to make good ‘somehow’ in his ineffable way. First we hear Mr. Bradley convicting things of absurdity; next, calling on the absolute to vouch for them quand même. Invoked for no other duty, that duty it must and shall perform.

~William James, The Pluralistic Universe

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Book Report 2013 – What I’ve Read This Year

The following is a list of all the books I’ve read from front to cover in 2013, starting from the most recently finished. The books in bold are ones that were most influential to my thinking, or particularly fascinating.

  1. The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals – Thomas Suddendorf
  2. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  3. A Manual for Creating Atheists –  Boghossian, Peter 
  4. Simulation and Similarity: Using Models to Understand the World – Weisberg, Michael
  5. The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History – Gould, Stephen Jay
  6. Brain Imaging: What It Can (and Cannot) Tell Us about Consciousness – Shulman, R G
  7. Consciousness and the Social Brain – Graziano, Michael S A
  8. Wired for God?: The Biology of Spiritual Experience – Foster, Charles
  9. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman – Gleick, James
  10. The Unpredictable Species – Lieberman, Philip
  11. The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism – Grayling, A.C.
  12. Stumbling on Happiness – Gilbert, Daniel
  13. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why – Nisbett, Richard E.
  14. Civilization and Its Discontents – Freud, Sigmund
  15. The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature – Miller, Geoffrey
  16. Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds Without Content – Hutto, Daniel D.
  17. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength – Baumeister, Roy F.
  18. Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche, Friedrich
  19. Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules – Haag, Pamela
  20. Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking – Hofstadter, Douglas R.
  21. The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home – Ariely, Dan
  22. The Future of an Illusion – Freud, Sigmund
  23. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets – Taleb, Nassim Nicholas 
  24. How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed – Kurzweil, Ray
  25. On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic – Nietzsche, Friedrich
  26. The Mind-Body Problem – Goldstein, Rebecca Newberger
  27. The Marvelous Learning Animal: What Makes Human Behavior Unique – Staats, Arthur W.
  28. Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order – Strogatz, Steven H.
  29. The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life – Baumeister, Roy F.
  30. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False – Nagel, Thomas
  31. The Social Construction of What? – Hacking, Ian
  32. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction – Goldstein, Rebecca Newberger
  33. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers – Roach, Mary
  34. Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety – Smith, Daniel B.
  35. The Minds of the Bible: Speculations on the Cultural Evolution of Human Consciousness – Cohn, James
  36. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness – Cahalan, Susannah
  37. What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses – Chamovitz, Daniel
  38. Reconstruction in Philosophy – Dewey, John
  39. Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness – Grayling, A.C.
  40. The Logic Of Modern Physics – Bridgman, Percy W.
  41. The End of Christianity – Loftus, John W.
  42. Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress – Chang, Hasok
  43. The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World – Goldberg, Elkhonon
  44. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America – Hitchens, Christopher
  45. Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief – Barrett, Justin L.
  46. Brains: How They Seem to Work – Purves, Dale
  47. A Man Without Words – Schaller, Susan
  48. Beyond Morality – Garner, Richard
  49. Hallucinations – Sacks, Oliver
  50. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t – Silver, Nate
  51. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder – Taleb, Nassim Nicholas 
  52. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood – Gleick, James
  53. Ubik – Dick, Philip K.
  54. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution – Dutton, Denis

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Quote for the Day – The Overwhelming Automaticity of Being

“Habit is thus a second nature, or rather, as the Duke of Wellington said, it is ‘ten times nature,’–at any rate as regards its importance in adult life; for the acquired habits of our training have by that time inhibited or strangled most of the natural impulsive tendencies which were originally there. Ninety-nine hundredths or, possibly, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of our activity is purely automatic and habitual, from our rising in the morning to our lying down each night. Our dressing and undressing, our eating and drinking, our greetings and partings, our hat-raisings and giving way for ladies to precede, nay, even most of the forms of our common speech, are things of a type so fixed by repetition as almost to be classed as reflex actions. To each sort of impression we have an automatic, ready-made response. My very words to you now are an example of what I mean; for having already lectured upon habit and printed a chapter about it in a book, and read the latter when in print, I find my tongue inevitably falling into its old phrases and repeating almost literally what I said before.”

~William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals

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Quote for the Day – Academia: Grinding Out Little Peppercorns of Truth

If we reflect upon the various ideals of education that are prevalent in the different countries, we see that what they all aim at is to organize capacities for conduct. This is most immediately obvious in Germany, where the explicitly avowed aim of the higher education is to turn the student into an instrument for advancing scientific discovery. The German universities are proud of the number of young whom they out every year, –not necessarily men of any original force of intellect,  but men so trained to research that when their professor gives them an historical or philological thesis to prepare, or a bit of laboratory work to do, with a general indication as to the best method, they can go off by themselves and use apparatus and consult sources in such a way as to grind out the requisite number of months some little pepper-corn of new truth worthy of being added to the store of extant human information on that subject. Little else is recognized in Germany as a man’s title to academic advancement than his ability to show himself an efficient instrument of research.

~ William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals 

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