Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Inspirational Books

Thinking Big: Gamble, Gowlett & Dunbar

This is one of the best surveys of the evolution of the human mind that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few…

Presented by Robin Dunbar (very well known in the field, and originator of the Dunbar Number), Clive Gamble and John Gowlett, Thinking Big: How The Evolution Of Social Life Shaped The Human Mind is the written culmination of a major, well-funded anthropology project called Lucy, whose intention was to investigate the social brain theory of human evolution. In a nutshell, this theory as presented in the book uses archaeological evidence, evidence from the great apes and from remaining hunter-gatherer societies to show how the need to grasp increasingly complex social interactions – represented by the Dunbar Number of the species in question – led to the evolution of the brain, of the human mind, and, although the authors almost never refer to it, of consciousness.

The Dunbar Number is the number of individuals that an individual can keep in mind in genuine social interactions, and for human beings it is around 150. This number comes up in all sorts of circumstances, showing how we, though technologically advanced, are true to our ancient roots. 150 comes up in social media, in military organisation, in English village life, and in a myriad other places. Apes have smaller numbers, chimps smaller still, reflecting the fact that their social networks are smaller.

Beginning with a survey of the anthropological field, the authors then move through our ancestors of 2.6 million years ago, through later hominids, and then through homo heidelbergensis, homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens to show how all the evidence links together in support of the social brain theory. Human ancestors living in increasingly complex societies faced immense selection pressures from themselves, as only those able to keep in mind complex relationships were able to thrive. Interestingly, the evolutionary pressure from environmental factors (eg climate change) is comparatively played down.

There is also an explanation for one of the more puzzling events in our past, the “cultural revolution” of 40,000 years ago, when music, sculpture and art all appear in the archaeological record. This mystifying and very sudden explosion of culture is more easily explained by the preceding slow and steady emotional and psychological development of homo sapiens, which the authors point out leaves no trace, but which is clear from their evidence. Here they cite laughter, music and chanting, and family life, with only the latter leaving faint “real” marks in our environment.

This really is an exceptional book, confirming Thames & Hudson’s place in providing outstanding work in the field of archaeology, anthropology and human evolution. The authors should be proud of their achievement.


Quiet by Susan Cain

There is a difference between extrovert and introvert, but it’s not the difference most people think of when they hear those descriptions. The standard view is of party animals versus non-party animals. Dorothy Rowe explained that extroverts feel a more real outer world, and are uncomfortable with being on their own since their inner world is more insubstantial, whereas introverts feel a more real inner world, and are often uncomfortable in the hurly burly of social life. Introverts can be happy in times of solitude: extroverts alone feel a void inside themselves, and seek company.

This is one useful explanation, given by a master of the field. Susan Cain’s equivalent in her remarkable book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking is based around the concept of sensitivity, which is in the main a biologically determined quality. We all have different types of brains. Our brains, linked to our many senses, operate at various levels of sensitivity – introverts tend towards maximal sensitivity, extroverts towards the norm, or less.

“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic… They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive… They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments – both physical and emotional – unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss – another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”

When I was younger I wondered for a long time why I was so different to most of my friends and colleagues in this regard, and it all comes down to my high level of introversion. In fact I got a triple dose – one dose from each parent, plus being right-brained. That’s a hell of a lot of introversion to have to cope with.

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Is this starting to ring some bells with you…? Then you’re an introvert, and you should stop trying to fit in with the extrovert world that we have in the West. (One of the most interesting chapters in Quiet is the one contrasting the Western ideal of extroversion with the Eastern ideal of introversion – although there is more to it than that dichotomy.) Susan Cain is strong and determined in her critique of Western extrovert standards:

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

Many people in the literary world will grasp all this; we literate types are quiet thinkers. If you feel likewise, then Quiet is for you.

The book is split into four sections. The first deals with what Susan Cain calls the extrovert ideal, and this is done mostly from an American perspective. Part two deals with the tricky subject of nature versus nurture – biology versus self, but also the role of free will in changing behaviour, and the roles of risk and reward. Examples given include the Roosevelts and Warren Buffett. Part three is a single chapter on Asian-Americans and how they deal with the American cultural standard of high sociability and constant conversation. Part four deals with strategies for the introvert, and for the extroverts who live with them.

This book is also great because it features some brilliant and pithy quotes:

“Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe”

“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

Another crucial aspect of this book is Susan Cain’s separation of shyness and introversion, which many people use as interchangeable concepts. But they’re not:

“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”

In a nutshell, for anybody who has gone through social hell or even just anxiety, and who wonders why they feel exhausted at the end of a whirl of socialising – even if that’s spending time with friends or family in the most relaxed of circumstances – this is the book for you. It made a big difference in my own life, as I was finally able to explain a few of my own puzzling character traits. Understanding introversion is the first step on the road to coping with it. I spent a long time not coping, but, luckily, now I do.

“Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much”, a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral. Or maybe there’s another word for such people: thinkers.”

This was for me one of the most inspirational of books. It was given to me completely out of the blue by a friend of mine. I still thank him for that kindness when occasionally I see him.


The Earth After Us by Jan Zalasiewicz

In The Earth After Us, the noted field geologist and palaeontologist Jan Zalasiewicz imagines a time one hundred million years in the future when alien beings arrive at the Earth, find nobody home, and decide to investigate the rocks to determine what has happened to the planet over its lifetime. This brilliant set-up allows the author to describe how the aliens might do such a thing.

An experienced geologist who also teaches, the author is in his element here, describing the various types of geology, the scientific principles behind them, how fossils form, and how fossils appear and disappear in surface rocks. His ultimate aim is to show what a minuscule, almost invisibly small proportion of the sediments of planet Earth would contain any record of our presence, and this he brilliantly achieves – the book is beautifully written. For those, like me, who love works spanning huge time scales, this is an engaging read.

Towards the end of the book Zalasiewicz begins to home in on his goal – the nature of what might be found of our existence, and where that evidence might be. He concludes that if you wanted to have the best chance of existing in some way after your demise, you should let yourself or your artefacts drop into coastal sediments, where, over millions of years, they would be covered, compressed, and turned into sedimentary rock. That rock might be found millions more years later by the hypothetical aliens.

This is no dry text book, it’s a fascinating account of geological processes on Earth. I loved it.


Barefoot Economics by Manfred Max-Neef

One of the early influences in my adult life was E.F. Schumacher, and the Schumacher Society, the latter based in Devon where I used to live. E.F. Schumacher was a visionary ‘green economist’ way ahead of his time when it came to the environmental consequences of capitalism. Another man way ahead of his time was the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef, who in 1981, at the request of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, wrote From The Outside Looking In: Experiences In Barefoot Economics.

In the telling and personal introduction to this book (which I bought via the Schumacher Society) Max-Neef describes his increasing disillusion with economics, which he could see was losing what small amount of humane philosophy it had begun with. He withdrew from the field to begin work on what E.F. Schumacher called “economics as if people mattered.”

In the small theoretical section of the book Max-Neef identifies four major problems: our obsession with giantism and ‘big solutions’; our mechanistic approach to solving economic problems, which anyway never relate to people but to issues of production and efficiency; our obsession with abstract, measurable quantities; and a tendency to oversimplify, and thus ignore the real complexities of human life.

The book is roughly split into two, with the first main section dealing with the lives of poor or deprived people in coastal Ecuador, and the second concerning artisans in Brazil. In both cases though the intention is to display the dependency of these people on big government, big social care and big organisations. Max-Neef’s ultimate goal was to make the people “invisible,” to use his term, by which he meant independent – invisible to the huge, uncaring, computational machines of capitalism. This could only be done on the community scale – the humane scale.

Alongside Schumacher’s classic Small Is Beautiful this book was my first introduction to the damage capitalism and ‘big society’ was doing both to the planet and to communities. Max-Neef is alas not so well known as Schumacher, but he had just as much to say; and every word of it is relevant today.


Symbiotic Planet by Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis’ Symbiotic Planet is another of those ‘pre Cambrian Explosion’ books which so inspire me. One of these days I really will get around to writing the Green Trilogy, which explores the very far future of life on Earth… but probably not for a while.

Symbiotic Planet is a wide-ranging, comprehensive, beautifully written and opinionated book about the way microscopic life evolved in the years between around 4 billion years ago and 541 million years ago. Central to Margulis’ case is the idea (radical and mocked when she suggested it) that small organisms entered into symbiotic relationships with one another over the course of immense periods of time. The mitochondria of eukaryotic cells for instance – which have their own DNA – were once free-floating organisms; but there is much more to her work than such observations.

This book covers the academic life of scientists, the nature of the classification of the kingdoms of life, the processes of incorporation, the possible origins of life, the nature and history of sexual reproduction, and a final chapter on Gaia.

Margulis has faced a few obstacles in her scientific life, partly because of being a woman, partly because of being married to Carl Sagan (at a very young age), and partly through her association with James Lovelock. None of this should make any difference to the reader. Her case is thorough, researched and compelling. Readers of Nick Lane’s work would particularly like this book I think, as the two authors have much in common. Short, but sweet.


The Buried Soul by Timothy Taylor

The origin of the human idea of the soul or spirit has always intrigued me. As an atheist I have no belief whatsoever in such an idea, and in fact think it’s ultimately a dangerous (though inevitable) notion. In recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that it is our most ancient ‘religious’ concept. Although some past evidence of Neanderthal burial rites (eg the Shanidar cave) have been reassessed and dismissed, there remains a strong body of evidence to show that Neanderthal people made special ritual at the graves of their dead, which means they had a concept of individuality, of self, and of the uniqueness of self. They would have been aware that everyone is a unique person, seemingly alive behind the eyes. An obvious, yet unanswerable question followed: what happens to that self when the person dies?

Timothy Taylor’s The Buried Soul offers many answers to this question, while tracing the history of the main idea from prehistoric to modern times. While strong on archaeological evidence and theory, Taylor to his great credit also imagines the thoughts and emotions of ancient people in these circumstances, for instance the Iceman of the Alps, Ötzi. Though alive only 5,300 years ago Ötzi still lived in a world numinous with supernatural forces, and these would have made his experience of death very different from ours.

The book passes through many cultural vistas: cannibalism in New Guinea, the ritual deaths of slaves in the Near East, embalming, and the European bog bodies. It’s in this latter chapter that one of the book’s main ideas begins to appear, that of death in liminal zones. A liminal zone is an area between two different geographical zones, for instance plains and woods. The peat bogs of Ireland, Denmark and elsewhere are in fact quite dangerous environments, and would have attracted prehistoric speculation and ritual via their status as liminal zones. That ritual includes the phenomenon of ‘multiple death,’ i.e. killing a person in two or three ways when such a process is apparently unnecessary.

Taylor also covers the famous Shanidar burial. Though the flower pollen ‘evidence’ is now discarded, there is no doubt that the individual was disabled, and therefore alive for social, cultural or humane reasons; and that means consciousness at the very least, if not compassion. In fact Taylor skotches any such ‘flower-people’ theories, as he calls them, and evokes a more ‘ruthlessly cohesive’ theory. But either way, the aeons of mere animal existence were hundreds of thousands of years in the past by the time of Shanidar.

This fascinating book covers much that we don’t wish to talk about in modern Western societies. Although I first read it as part of my own reading around the topic of the origin of ideas of the soul or spirit, it proved to be a more wide-ranging book than I expected – and certainly inspirational. This and other books were the subconscious foundation for the Factory Girl trilogy and some earlier works.


The Informed Heart by Bruno Bettelheim

In 1938, Bruno Bettelheim, along with a number of other Jewish-born Austrians, was sent by the Nazi regime to Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps. There he began a process of analysing his own reactions to the camps, along with those of other victims, anti-Nazi German prisoners, and also the various types of officer. The result was two decades later written as The Informed Heart, which sought to explain and understand the meaning of such extreme situations.

Bettelheim is a controversial figure. Since his death in 1990 a number of controversies have developed – his explosive rages which sometimes fell upon his students, possible plagiarism in his excellent study of the deeper meanings of fairy stories The Uses Of Enchantment, misrepresentation of his own credentials when escaping to America in 1939, and more. He was greatly interested in autism, but became enamoured of a theory which blamed the mothers of such children, a theory now entirely discredited. But despite these major defects he did produce remarkable work, of which The Informed Heart is one of the best.

Bettelheim opens with a couple of introductory chapters before heading off into a discussion of freedom, in which he observes: It is not so much that modern man is so much quicker to surrender his freedom to society, nor that man was so much more autonomous in the good old days. It is rather that scientific and technological progress has relieved him of having to solve so many problems that he once had to solve by himself if he meant to survive…

Bettelheim saw a specific situation developing through the 20th century where: … [there is] less need to develop autonomy… and more need for it if he prefers not to have others making decisions for him.

This double whammy is one of Bettelheim’s central concerns. The rest of the book deals with the experiences themselves: methods of coercion in the camps, the defences used by victims, and what he called ‘the fluctuating price of life,’ in which a few of the more extraordinary and horrific situations are observed.

The book concludes by remarking that ‘men are not ants.’ The success or failure of any mass society, Bettelheim thinks, is dependent upon whether or not a humane society can be created by people who have ‘reshaped their personality.’ In this regard Bettelheim was close to Erich Fromm’s view that a humane society cannot possibly be created by inhumane individuals; he wanted to understand, as Fromm did. And Bettelheim states the dangers of people being coerced by technology, seeing that tyranny has its own momentum. I don’t think the various Bettelheim controversies reduce the impact and relevance of this book.

Perhaps our 21st century problem is that tyranny has become almost invisible.

i heart

A History Of The Mind by Nicholas Humphrey

In 1992 Nicholas Humphrey followed his ground-breaking book The Inner Eye with an equally brilliant work, A History Of The Mind. The thesis behind this work was that the link between our experience of the mind and its physical place in our bodies can be explained: there is a solution to the mind-body problem. Humphrey in this book tells a tale of evolution, of sensations being related to two distinct experiences – the outside world and the body itself – and of the development of his evolutionary theory of the appearance of mind.

The book is set in twenty nine sections. Humphrey deals with the problem he faces; with the vital importance of physical boundaries to living creatures – me and not-me; with the evolution of the eye as an example of sensory perception, but with the proviso that perception and sensation may not be mutually exclusive; with blindness and blindsight; sensation as “copying” and perception as “storytelling”; five senses; sensory loops; thoughts on how our external surfaces (eg skin) may not be involved in sensations; inner models as substitutes for the real body… and then a new theory of consciousness based on what has gone before.

Many other philosophers have walked this path. In an ironic introduction, Humphrey acknowledges the importance of Daniel Dennett to his work, remarking that, since the two don’t agree on certain points of the theory, “he may sometimes have thought he had introduced a cuckoo to his nest.” Humphrey would later write more about his ideas in the somewhat challenging Seeing Red.

What’s great about this book though is how Humphrey proceeds from the evolutionary perspective (consciousness matters to human beings – it must therefore have a fundamental purpose), using biology, philosophy and the backbone of the ideas presented in The Inner Eye as jumping off points. The book does have a nuts-and-bolts feel to it, in contrast to The Inner Eye, which has more of a sweeping grandeur – not that the final chapters of A History Of The Mind don’t have their own grand rewards. Another wonderful work.


Extraordinary People by Darold Treffert

I came across Darold Treffert’s book Extraordinary People in a second-hand bookshop decades ago. It was a lucky find, and has been an inspirational book for me all the time since (including for my own SF novels).

Treffert is an American psychiatrist with an interest in Savant Syndrome, sometimes called Autistic Savant Syndrome or similar terms. Over many years he has come to an understanding of why otherwise severely disabled people can show such extraordinary “islands of genius,” which in even a non-disabled person would be considered remarkable.

The book begins with an overview of the symptoms of the syndrome and of its historical background. There have been some savants noted in the past, with Blind Tom the one Treffert mentions most often. Usually what is seen is a radically reduced IQ (typically around the 50 mark), with considerable difficulty in such tasks as eating and drinking, dressing, and so on. Savants typically have few or no social skills, and when young are often considered beyond help.

Treffert then describes a few savants, with one, Leslie Lemke, being a personal acquaintance of his. Leslie Lemke is described by Treffert as the most extraordinary savant he has ever met or heard of. Soon after birth Lemke was given up as beyond reach by medicine, but he was fostered by a truly remarkable woman, May Lemke, who despite Leslie being blind, retarded and unable to perform even the most basic of personal tasks, took him and fostered him with devotion. In fact (as Treffert observes, and later discusses) May Lemke was the making of her extraordinary foster-son.


Leslie Lemke can remember and play back on the piano any tune, song or piece of music that he hears, with no mistakes and after just one listen. This concrete, perfect, recapitulating type of memory is considered by Treffert to be the foundation of most, if not all instances of Savant Syndrome, and later in the book he gives his opinion on what that implies. But Leslie Lemke can do more than just recall perfectly and replay on a piano. Nourished and loved by May, he grew and flourished, and now is able to walk, to eat, and dress himself. But most remarkable of all given the typical route of such savants, he can improvise musical themes on the piano that work with the music he hears; and that truly is extraordinary, since the vast majority of savants are unable to generalise from concrete mental information.

The final sections of the book deal with Treffert’s view of what Savant Syndrome is. He thinks it is a response to a number of birth accidents, including premature birth, excessive use of oxygen at birth, and other issues. The relatively common triad of blindness, Savant Syndrome and phenomenal musical ability is in his view significant. He thinks one variety of memory is hypertrophied by the brain in response to a particular type of left-hemisphere damage, which most if not all savants suffer from. Human beings have three types of memory: short-term, medium-term prior to the setting down of long-term, and long-term itself. This recapitulating medium-term memory, hypertrophied far beyond its normal use because of brain damage, is the key to the syndrome. It is not that savants remember well – it is that they cannot forget. Inability to forget sets their brains off on an irreversible path.

I would highly recommend this book to all those interested in brain function and beyond. But it is not just fascinating in its own right, it is a vindication of such extraordinary people as May Lemke, devoting themselves to individuals who seem at the outset of their lives to have no hope. Inspirational indeed.

Treffert Extraordinary people

The Life & Death Of Planet Earth

… by Peter Ward & Donald Brownlee.

Books which deal with immense time scales have always fascinated me. As a teenager I spent many happy days collecting fossils at the nearby site of Wenlock Edge, and after I moved away from Shropshire I continued my interest in Earth’s history through a wide range of books. So when a few years ago I spotted The Life & Death Of Planet Earth I knew it was a book for me. It turned out to be one of the most influential books I’d ever read.

A few of my regular readers have noted that I very rarely do “normal SF,” i.e. head out into space, to other planetary systems etc. The vast majority of my work is based on Earth. That’s because the deep past and deep future of our planet is a never-ending source of inspiration to me. I’m not particularly interested in writing about other planets if the truth be told. What interests me is Earth: how it began, how life began, how human life began, how consciousness began.

But I’m also interested in the future, especially the far future. The Life & Death Of Planet Earth was unique as far as I knew in that it speculated about the distant future of life, right up to times a billion years hence. Yes, it was speculation, but that speculation was rooted in what we know about the evolution of stars and about the planet’s use of the carbon cycle. As James Lovelock observed decades ago, the sun is slowly heating up, yet the average temperature of Earth has stayed constant over four billion years. An explanation was required for this remarkable fact: Gaia Theory. But on Earth carbon dioxide is the core of the main temperature regulation system, and over billions of years its average amount in the atmosphere has reduced. Thus, the early Earth needed a greenhouse effect because less solar heat was arriving, but the present Earth needs less of one – and, around one billion years hence, it will need no greenhouse effect. At that point complex life as we know it will face its greatest challenge, since carbon dioxide will vanish from the atmosphere. The germ of this idea goes right back to the original article in Nature written by Lovelock and his co-author Mike Whitfield.

The Life & Death Of Planet Earth deals with many other less distant periods, however: glaciation, continents and supercontinents (including their role in mass extinctions), then the end of plant and animal life, and the evaporation of the oceans as the carbon cycle ends and increasing temperatures turn the atmosphere into a cauldron.

This is quite the most fascinating book I’ve read about planetary evolution. It inspired me to put together two novel scenarios, one of which was written but which is very similar to another published work of mine (and which therefore will likely never appear), and one of which is prepared but as yet unwritten. The Life & Death Of Planet Earth is a highly recommended resource for authors of the deep future.

Life & death Earth