Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler

21/12/2012

The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler

By André Pichot

Verso, 360pp, £19.99

ISBN 9781844672448

Published 20 April 2009

Review originally published in the Times Higher 25th August 2009

Of all the names that echo across the twentieth century it is interesting that perhaps the two loudest should both belong to men born in the nineteenth; Darwin and Hitler.  They occupy the diametric positions of what evolution has allowed human intelligence to achieve, sublime beauty and sublime evil.  Chuck in a shared penchant for facial topiary and that is where the similarities end.  Darwin had arguably the greatest idea to ever occur to a human being, which has a simple elegance comparable to any great work of art and Hitler, well, he had a moustache.  The theory of evolution by natural selection has only ever been a scientific idea and has never been a guide for how society should organise and conduct itself.  André Pichot in his book ‘The Pure Society From Darwin to Hitler’ somehow misses this important point and tries to make the case that Darwin’s idea is somehow responsible for all manner of dangerous policies from Nazism to racial apartheid.  This fundamental error means that an impressively researched and passionately argued book, and a readable example of history of science covering a remarkable breadth and depth of material, ultimately falls down.

The book begins with a long introduction entitled ‘A Hard Subject to Tackle’ which lays out the framework for Pichot’s argument before being divided into three sections of increasing intensity: Sociology & Biology, Genetics & Eugenics, and Taxonomy, Evolution & Racism.  Pichot starts to construct his argument with a clever, if debating society type comparison, between the work of Bernard, Pasteur and Darwin.  All three made a major contribution to the development of science but he argues only Bernard and Pasteur’s work had practical beneficial applications to society while Darwin’s idea only had deleterious societal results.  In this lies the foundation of the many flawed and confused assertions that turn a fascinating history of the misapplication of science into a jumble of ill-thought out conclusions and strange statements – not least the frankly laughable assertion that the writings of Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson have parallels with that of Nazi scientists.

Pichot includes a revealing caveat in his rationale for the book – the statement that it is outside the area of his own expertise.  This warning is no false modesty since here is a book that leaves the reader wondering time and time again if the author is serious.  While no credible scientist would deny that in the past scientific ideas relating to evolution and humans have been misunderstood with sometimes appalling results (eugenics and the pseudo-science of racism being the two most obvious examples), the author labours under the misapprehension that there is a grand conspiracy of silence within biology that seeks to keep this dark history buried.   He cites examples of scientists whose writings, when elements of them are scrutinised under the bright light of twenty-first century knowledge and values, are problematic and unpalatable, and claims these uncomfortable aspects of their predecessors’ work are ignored by modern scientists. It is certainly true that men like Fisher made assertions that are not acceptable today because we have a better understanding of our own species’ biology, but this does not render their contribution to science null and void.  Consider the recent comments made about race by James Watson.  His work on DNA is no less valid because of ludicrous statements made in the twilight of his career.

Pichot also appears to be irritated by modern biology’s attitude to race.  His vitriol is aimed at the modern concept that separate biological human races do not exist – rather that we are merely one species that displays variation related to historical population distribution.  He sees this as an attempt to negate racial problems and atone for a dark past through semantic games, but once more he misses the point in spectacular fashion.  That there are no separate human races is a statement of biological fact, demonstrable through genetic analysis, and not a belated attempt to reshape society.  This is essentially the fundamental flaw in Pichot’s argument.  Science itself is ultimately a ‘pure’ pursuit.  Sometimes it has direct applications that can be helpful to society in a Baconian fashion (such as the work of Pasteur), on other occasions it has a more tangential application and this skews how science and society interact.  One can certainly make a very strong case for science not always considering how once outside of the scientific ‘box’ its ideas can be appropriated, contorted and abused.  Yet it would not be fair to lay the blame totally at the door of the lab.  If one returns to the concept of Nazis crimes sprouting from Darwinian seeds then the central fallacy of Pichot’s argument is clear.  The Nazis were criminals: totalitarian, industrialised and with the apparatus of a modern European state behind them, but essentially, criminals.  They occasionally used pseudo-Darwinian ideas to lend a veneer of respectability and rationality to their actions, picking them up and tossing them in to the melting pot of Nazi ideology along with mutated forms of philosophy, history and archaeology as well as science.  Pichot would persuade us that the Holocaust was the inevitable result of Darwin unleashing his ideas on the world.  Nonsense: one could no more blame Prometheus for arson than Darwin for Hitler.

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The World from Beginnings to 4000BCE

21/12/2012

The World from Beginnings to 4000BCE (The New Oxford World History)

By Ian Tattersall

Oxford University Press, 160pp, £35.99 and £10.99

ISBN 978-0-19-516712-2 and 978-0-19-533315-2

Published 14 February 2008

Review originally published in the Times Higher 22nd May 2008

Human evolution and astrophysics share more than might be obvious at first glance – both address the ‘big’ questions about existence, both fascinate the non-specialist while appearing bewilderingly complex and self-contradictory.  Bill Bryson in his excellent “Short History of Nearly Everything” says that he was ready to be befuddled by astrophysics but the area of science that took him by surprise by its difficulty was human evolution.  The plethora of popular-science titles available on the subject shows the enduring appeal of human evolution, but of course quantity does not equal quality.  Many books suffer from an over tendency to deal with the human evolutionary process as a simple story – which suggests an inevitability about ‘us’ which is unwarranted given our understanding of Darwinian evolution.  To do otherwise requires a deft touch and the confidence to tackle such a complex area head on – on his past record Ian Tattersall has both in abundance.  Tattersall is one of the grandees of the human evolutionary world and any new book by him demands attention.  The stated aim of this new series of books published by the OUP is to provide an informed, lively and up-to date view of the world that differs from ‘old’ world histories.  How then does this title match up to the stated aims of the series?

Tattersall’s “The World from Beginnings to 4000BCE” is a big book that covers a mere 143 pages.  Starting with the appearance of our most distant ancestors around 7 million years ago it takes the reader through the major evolutionary developments, always pausing to explain how we know what we know and why it’s important.  Ultimately our understanding of human evolution is rather like a patchwork blanket, small pieces of information, taken from fossils, genetics, geology, archaeology etc., are stitched together to produce something greater than the sum of its parts.  It would be easy to fail to convey how and why this is central to the subject but Tattersall deftly avoids this pitfall.  The end product is a comprehensive, yet accessible, review of the current state of human evolution.

This book is not flawless and a major failing is the attempt to take this new history up to 4000 BCE, when in reality the last 6000 years are given a mere 16 pages – an entire volume covering this period would have made more logical sense and better laid the foundations for the rest of the series – this is of course an editorial misjudgement rather than a slight on the treatment Tattersall gives to this period which is as ever balanced and well thought out.  The section containing websites is as something of a Curate’s egg – while they remain active all is good, but the dynamism of the web means that broken links occur with incredible speed.  Likewise the further reading section is comprehensive but the omission of Roger Lewin and Robert Foley’s excellent “Principles of Human Evolution”, unequivocally the next step for the interested reader, is a curious oversight.

Ultimately how good is this book?  Pleasingly, the answer is very.  It takes a complex subject and produces a gripping read while covering the major themes of human evolution with a confidence that is refreshing and will allow the reader to put down the book safe in the knowledge that they have been treated to a master-class in the current understanding of human evolution.

Charles Darwin’s Notebooks From The Voyage Of The Beagle

21/12/2012

Charles Darwin’s Notebooks From The Voyage Of The Beagle

Edited by Gordon Chancellor and John Van Wyhe

CUP, 650pp, £85.00

ISBN 13 9780521517577

Published July 2009

Review originally published in the Times Higher 22nd October 2009

Whisper it quietly: 2009 has been something of a bad year for Darwin.  The Bicentennial celebrations surrounding his birth and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species has lead to an explosion of all manner of Darwin-related books with increasingly tangential and surreal connections to the man and his work.  Darwin himself would have been profoundly embarrassed and amazed by all the excitement.  That said it does provide a ready excuse to revisit the great man’s work in its original form and that is what lies at the heart of the CUPs continuing effort to publish the definitive works of Darwin in their original form.

‘Charles Darwin’s Notebooks From The Voyage of the Beagle’ edited by Gordon Chancellor & John Van Wyhe and handsomely published by Cambridge University Press allow the reader to see a pre-Origin Darwin at work on the expedition that would not only make his scientific name but stimulate many of the ideas that fed in to his later thinking.  What emerges from the notebooks is the reassuring normalness of Darwin.  They are the notes of a young man with a burning curiosity about the natural world and provide glimpses of a profound clarity of thought and supreme powers of observation.  This is the first time that Darwin’s day-to-day notebooks from the Beagle voyage have ever been published in their entirety and the result is quite simply stunning.  While the journals were ostensibly intended to record his geological, and more general, observations the range and breadth of material that he covers is nothing short of breathtaking, showing a scientific freedom that many can now only dream about.

The editors have provided the complete text of the fifteen notebooks that Darwin filled during the five years of the Beagle voyage along with all maps and drawings.  Each notebook is provided with a comprehensive introduction and has been given a unique name by the editors to supersede the ad-hoc numbers that had been assigned to the field notebooks in the past.  The result is to render what is often considered to be the least readable of all Darwin’s material instantly accessible and engaging for all.  The reader is given the key to unlock the work of the young Darwin and hardly a page goes by without some gem jumping out and hinting the scientific giant he would become.  The beauty of the notebooks is that they are unpolished and raw: Darwin was writing for himself rather than the reader, bringing greater vitality and spontaneity to the text than can be found in his carefully polished masterpiece On the Origins of Species.  In between the detailed scientific notes are shopping lists, parts of essays, diary entries and sketches (although the editors have sadly omitted what they deemed to be random doodles).  Read in conjunction with Darwin’s Beagle Diary  (also published buy CUP) the reader can follow Darwin in the most visceral and stimulating fashion using the notebooks to conjure up his day-to-day life over five years of scientific discovery.

The huge amount of Darwin-related material that has been produced for the bicentenary (books, television documentaries and even a film) does risk portraying Darwin as something he wasn’t.  He would have hated the celebrity style treatment that 2009 has hit him with.  Let’s ignore such gloss and to keep things simple: why view Darwin ‘through a glass darkly’ when the great man’s original work is so accessible, and his genius still so enlightening?

The Social Anthropology of Human Origins

21/12/2012

Social Anthropology and Human Origins By Alan Barnard Cambridge University Press, 182pp, £48.00 ISBN: 9780521765312 Published March 2011

Review originally published in the Times Higher, 14th April 2011

The study of human origins has, apparently, a big problem. A massive unspoken problem, lurking like a veritable herd of elephants in the room. Or to use a metaphor more appropriate to Alan Barnard’s ‘Social Anthropology and Human Origins’, a cowering social anthropologist under the bed. Except when the problem is analysed the only issue with human origins is that a social anthropologist thinks that it should have more social anthropology in it (find me a subject area that doesn’t apply to!). Barnard’s aim is to start a discussion about the role that social anthropology should play in human origins. He suggests that as the largest sub-group of the discipline it should be a relatively simple task to shine the light of social anthropology on our evolution to correct the errors made by all those cold, clinical scientists. As a final coup de gråce, after a very selective review of some of the more recent human evolutionary literature, he concludes that we need to reclassify human origins as a sub-field of social anthropology. Please excuse me if I don’t jump up and shout hooray this suggestion, but at the same time don’t think I have an axe to grind with social anthropology – as part of the RAI team I’ve worked on designing an anthropology A-level which combines both social and biological themes to celebrate what we share as a subject while enjoying the differences of opinion and approach. Barnard argues that the traditional methods employed by biological anthropologists are not good enough to explain our evolution, as they do not take in to account the social or cultural aspects of our evolutionary journey. I find myself at loss to reconcile this statement and others like it with the subject I am part of. The study of human origins is no longer the preserve of ‘us’ biological anthropologists: we collaborate with geneticists, climate scientists, primatologists and archaeologists and ecologists to do just that.

Barnard’s approach is to suggest that the application of lessons learned from social anthropology could improve the depth of human origins as a field. A laudable intention, but with a fatally limited scope which Barnard inadvertently points out at the end of chapter three when he states that social anthropology can not really offer anything for the study of species other than Homo sapiens – and of course we only form only a small part of the evolutionary story of hominins.

This book and the thesis it presents unwittingly portrays social anthropology as a subject that is crying out from the wilderness in search of modern day relevance – yet nothing could be further from the truth. Anthropology is a vibrant subject that has multiple applications across a wide spectrum. The lack, or perceived lack, of social anthropological ideas in human origins is the product of the nature of social anthropological study, based as it is on the often solo participant observation method of study. While this is a point that Barnard concedes it really only makes the conclusion of his book all the more galling for the huge range of scientists working in the field of human origins