Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan


(Same problem as Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem).

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Globe: Life In Shakespeare’s London by Catharine Arnold

Super book about the history of the original Globe Theatre, opening with the state of theatre and drama when Shakespeare was young (almost non-existent), through plans for various theatres in London (mostly controversial, if not actively opposed), and closing with the great period of drama in London that ended with the demise of James I and the approaching Civil War/Commonwealth period.

I liked this a lot. Great on character and period detail, it’s superbly written and very readable. The sights and sounds of the period are well evoked and the narrative, given in chronological order, is excellent. Highly recommended for pretty much anyone!

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How To Make A Human Being by Christopher Potter

This book describes itself as “a body of evidence,” which is a very good description, but it is also intended as a way to “escape the net of scientific reductionism.” I must admit, I bought this book because it was about the human condition, but I was as much attracted to it because of the above tag-lines.

The book is divided into three sections, the first concerning the physics of the universe, the second on the nature of life and consciousness, and the third on various aspects of human life. The first section deals with quantum mechanics and many other theories, but it is presented in an easy-to-read way. In fact the entire book is composed of short reflections on a topic – some just one line – intertwined with quotes from various luminaries. This technique works brilliantly, because one of the author’s wishes is to make his book a platform for mental jumping. This is a work intended to provoke as much thought as possible. The second section deals with the nature of bodies and of minds, detouring into perception, free will and human behaviour; and this a particularly fascinating section, as is the third, which looks at such topics as nature, deities, love, faith, eternity, death, and – in a particularly telling conclusion – humility.

I really enjoyed this book: thought provoking, superbly put together, sometimes amusing. As befits an author who wishes us to escape the net of scientific reductionism, there are plenty of digs at Richard Dawkins, all of which I was glad to see. But the overall range of quotes and sources is huge, making the book much more significant than it would otherwise have been. Highly recommended to all who want to think about the questions of life.


The Planet In A Pebble by Jan Zalasiewicz

Having read two of Jan Zalasiewicz’s book before, I had high hopes for this one. The content of Planet In A Pebble is excellent, as before, but the writing style leaves a lot to be desired.

Zalasiewicz is a geologist who has done brilliant work popularising esoteric concepts in geology and palaeontology like mass spectrometry, isotope decay and strata identification. This book takes a single pebble from a Welsh beach and in thirteen chapters describes not only every process leading to its creation but every iota of information that can be extracted from it. In terms of the content, it is fascinating.

But the book is a bit of a struggle to read. At every opportunity Zalasiewicz adds comments in parenthesis or between dashes, 99% of which are either unnecessary, whimsical, or which could be incorporated into a better sentence structure. Usually I’m not bothered by writing style, but this book is in desperate need of an editor to cut out all Zalasiewicz’s clutter. To be fair, some sections are worse than others, but I really noticed it and it really irritated me. Which is a shame, as this is exactly the sort of book I’d like to see doing well.

For content, I would definitely give a 4* rating though.


The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough

Written by an author with a lot of experience of psychology and related disciplines, this fascinating book covers pretty much everything currently known about voices in our inner mental worlds – which, it turns out, is not very much. The final section of the book in fact is a survey of the considerable amount of work that still needs doing.

Two main theories characterise the book. The first theory is that inner voice is something children acquire as they internalise their normal speaking voice. This, the author suggests, leads to our inner monologue… or, more accurately, our inner dialogues. But as Fernyhough begins to unpick what we think we know about our inner voices he shifts towards a second theory, which is that the phenomenon is far more complex than we realise, involving more than just words and sound. By the end of the book he leans towards the notion that our inner voices (and there are always more than one) are one aspect of more which is internalised: other types of sensory and cognitive perception for instance. Inner voices come with much more baggage than just words.

You would think that a book with this title would focus on schizophrenia and other illnesses, but actually such conditions are a relatively small part of the deal here. That’s not so say the author doesn’t have much insight into the area – he does, and the insights are well worth reading. But so little is known and agreed about how our inner dialogue works there is clearly much more to come.

Fernyhough also touches on how creative people hear, perceive and use inner voices in their work – particularly authors. These sections are short, but fascinating.

A couple of niggles. Even one mention in one sentence of the fact that all human beings have a model of the world inside their head would have greatly helped. The latter chapters of the book, where “whole people” are mentioned as existing in our inner worlds (as indeed they do), would have benefitted from such a statement. It would have helped to put the whole argument of the book into a better perspective. I also think a few mentions of the considerable difference in how introverts and extroverts perceive their inner worlds would have helped. But these are small points, and likely will be addressed as psychologists begin to work with what this excellent author has put forward.



Psychoanalysis & Zen Buddhism by Erich Fromm

The beauty of this book is exactly the opposite of what a reader might expect. It would seem from the title to be esoteric, even part unintelligible to the average reader, but in fact it’s a beautifully concise exposition of Erich Fromm’s core understanding of the human condition. He opens with a survey of psychoanalysis, relates it to Freud’s work and to his own, describes his core understanding of what he calls ‘social man’ and ‘universal man,’ delves into the three types of social filter which act upon our conscious minds, then compares and contrasts his version of psychoanalysis with Zen Buddhism. It’s a triumph of lucid exposition.

I remember buying this many years ago with another of his works, thinking that this would be the less interesting of the two. In fact, that position was soon reversed. This deserves to be a classic text.


Freedom Regained by Julian Baggini

Free will is one of the most contentious – if not the most contentious – subjects for philosophical enquiry, but Baggini in his excellent book makes his arguments, examples and conversations a delight to read. He takes on reductionists such as Sam Harris (who denies human beings have free will) and neuroscientists in particular in this no-holds-barred, but very readable survey.

Baggini’s conclusion is that we do have free will, that philosophers using reductionist or individualist templates (i.e. ignoring the fact that human beings live in societies) are blind to what’s in front of them, and that free will is not a thing in itself of which we have all or none but rather a gradient of possibilities. He also links these conclusions to the nature of human responsibility, in a superb argument against those who think modern neuroscience means we are all slaves either to our genes or to our biochemistry.

At the end of the book the ‘ten myths of free will’ are stated then argued against, with a qualifying coda about the place of government in this debate.

Always a clear thinker, Baggini has the rare gift of conveying exactly what he thinks to the general reader. This is the second book by him that I’ve read, and I’m sure I’ll be reading more.

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Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

I read Sapiens by this author and thought it a brilliant book. I’m not so sure about this one.


The sequel to Sapiens takes the reader through history into a speculative future, based on ideas of what the 21st century might be like. Sapiens showed the gift Harari has for summarising and describing with marvellous clarity how people have changed according to a number of revolutions – the cognitive revolution of (in Harari’s estimation) 70,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution. This book begins with a similar survey, before going into four chapters showing how human beings invest their world with meaning. Harari observes, as others have, that our modern world is conspicuously lacking the sense of meaning and order which existed in earlier times. But he does show how what he calls humanism took over from religious notions some time around the Enlightenment, to give us a situation where, instead of an external, usually religious source for meaning, it came instead from inside. “Listen to your feelings,” as he puts it. The third section of the book looks at how the recent modern world is changing, through genetics, AI and Big Data. These are the speculative chapters.

First, I’ll say what I think is good about this book. Harari exhibits the same sort of brilliance as, say, Karen Armstrong when it comes to extracting profound meaning from history. In the same way that Sapiens was brilliant, so is much of Homo Deus. Harari also has a laudable agenda of empathy with the animal world. Interestingly, he is a vegan – of which, more later. The speculative chapters are good, with the one on the decoupling of consciousness and intelligence – i.e. our headlong rush to create algorithms that do specialised tasks far, far better than we do – a particularly fine piece of work. There is much here for the SF author to be inspired by.

But this book has in my opinion quite a few flaws.

The first is Harari’s concepts of consciousness, of our understanding of consciousness, and of the nature of individualism, liberalism and humanism in modern society. The most significant lines in the whole book for me are these: “However, nobody has any idea how a congeries of biochemical reactions and electrical currents in the brain creates the subjective experience of pain, anger, love. Perhaps we will have a solid explanation in ten or fifty years. But as of 2016, we have no such explanation, and we had better be clear about that [my emphasis].” Throughout this book, Harari uses his gifts to persuade. The above line is the only place in the book where he bullies the reader into accepting his view.

This happens because the chapter on the human mind and consciousness is the weakest point of the whole work. Although there is one mention of Daniel Dennett and one (uncredited in the text) mention of 150, the Dunbar Number, there is no mention of any of the other pioneers of consciousness studies – no Hofstadter, no Humphrey, nobody else. Harari’s whole stance requires him to claim that the human mind and consciousness are still a mystery. But that is not the case.

The rest of the enterprise fails as a consequence. Harari is notably harsh on the concept of humanism, which he rightly propels into the foreground as the guiding light of post-Enlightenment centuries: listen to yourself, look within, listen to your feelings… In fact, there is a rather odd mocking of such notions in this book, which I suspect speaks of a deeper malaise. For the first time reading this author I noticed a certain misanthropy about him. I suspect Harari is a very sensitive man, who, like me, has been appalled, shocked and disgusted by what he has seen in his lifetime. This is a gay man who lives in Israel, it should be pointed out – he must have been through some exceptionally difficult circumstances. Whether this misanthropy is conscious or unconscious I don’t know, but I sensed it throughout much of the book.

The problem with Harari’s thesis is (a) we know far more about the nature of consciousness than he admits and (b) a mystery is not necessarily a mystery forever. To be fair, the author does say something along these lines in the case of (b), but his inability to see the value and likelihood of a scientific description of the human condition is a peculiar and notable lack.

And in the end, although there is a sarcastic paragraph on Hollywood’s portrayal of love, there is nothing else here about why human beings matter to one another. The sense of misanthropy I felt was revealed also by this strong emphasis on everything unlovely. But, as Harari knows, our many millennia of evolution have made us in a particular way. His jaundiced view has nothing to offer on compassion, love or even on social solidarity. And yet, with ultimate irony, the author is well aware of what the solution might be to some of the disasters human beings are looking at. It’s all about types of co-operation, styles of organisation.

Quite a few reviewers of this book have noted Harari’s veganism and made something of it. I’m a vegetarian and passionate about ethical farming etc, but I didn’t find this book’s pro-animal stance too overt. Harari is scathing about how animals have been treated since the agricultural revolution, and I think his explanations are good and accurate. There are only a few mentions of the issue, all are in context, and none bash the reader over the head.

Where Harari is undoubtedly right is in warning about the future. Blithely we are all giving the Big Data corporations all the food they need to get fat and to control our lives. For Harari it is all about algorithms – the virtual mechanisms we are making (or in many cases allowing to expand all by themselves) for what is supposed to be our convenience. We are making our own demise, I think – and this author agrees.

This is a book that, like Sapiens, all should read. It gives a lot despite being fundamentally flawed. But where Sapiens was a work of history and relatively neutral, Homo Deus is a much more partisan account. In tone it is often dismissive of human goodness. I find that rather a shame.

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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.


Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?

… by Frans De Waal.

In this, his most recent book of many on the subject of animal intelligence and primate intelligence in particular, the noted researcher and author Frans De Waal pens a passionate defence of animal cognition and sends many well-deserved rockets at those who try to find defining lines between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom.

I liked this book a lot, but I do have reservations about it. The author is a psychology professor and a director of the Yerkes Primate Research Centre, with a long back catalogue of works discussing animal intelligence… or, rather, cognition.

The difference between intelligence and cognition is one of the main foundations of this excellent book. De Waal uses a lot of evidence from his own wide-ranging research, the work of other researchers and some anecdotal evidence in making the case for animals as cognitive creatures. He makes a number of essential points in the earlier parts of the book, in particular pointing out the extraordinary pro-human bias (both deliberate and accidental) followed by too many past and present researchers. His plea is for animal cognition to be understood in an evolutionary perspective. Thus, for instance, it is pointless testing elephant self-awareness with mirrors too small for them to use – just one of a host of points he makes to show how human researchers have a strong bias towards themselves.

Other points hit home just as hard. De Waal is of the opinion that there is no sudden dividing line between human cognition and animal cognition – it’s all a matter of degree. I don’t entirely agree with him there, but the point is perfectly valid. Why should cognition, and ultimately consciousness suddenly appear in evolution when nothing else has? This “keep your hands off the mind” attitude is in fact a result of the assumption that human beings are special in some way, and De Waal is in no doubt that such attitudes are the result of a couple of thousand years of cultural indoctrination.

De Waal is particularly good in this book on how human researchers are constantly baffled by how animals don’t “get” their trials and experiments, putting down the results to animal stupidity. But this is most cases is because the experiments have been designed from a human point of view, not that of the animal in question. De Waal gives many excellent examples here.

I do have a few reservations about this otherwise superb book. De Waal is notably reluctant to discuss the issue of consciousness, except as a small part of one chapter. It could be that the book was not the right place for such a discussion, but I think it is a major lack. Also, De Waal is hazy in some of his evidence and conclusions. In the chapter on time, he discusses various possible instances of animals perceiving a flow of time, the vast majority of which could just as easily be explained as abstract links made without a sense of time. But the one piece of evidence which does show it – that chimps start off earlier in the morning to reach special fig trees if they have camped overnight further away – is hardly remarked upon. Our sense of time is the conscious perception of the order of real-world events, and so a troupe of chimps grasping that there is more space and therefore time to take account of the further away they are from the fig trees is a clear indicator. I don’t think De Waal understood this.

I was also struck by the almost total lack of discussion in the book of death and death rituals in animal behaviour. Given that in human evolution the perception of death and subsequent cultural death rituals came before the cultural explosion of 40,000 years ago, this is a striking omission. I suspect De Waal is personally skewed away from any concept of human specialness, towards a kind of cognitive continuum. This, I think, means he did not want to present too much evidence against his case.

Overall though, this is a fascinating, welcome and very thought-provoking book. I think its author has positioned himself as a champion of animal cognition, and this also is welcome and laudable, but I think he is reluctant to admit that human cognition is most likely of a different order to animal cognition. However, in saying that, I have committed the same error as thousands of others in lumping together “animals” as if they were one great bland entity. They are not. So let’s say this. Human beings are different in some way to those animals – chimps, bonobo, elephants, corvids, dolphins and whales – who are closest to us on the cognitive scale. Whether that difference is qualitative or quantitative is a moot point – and one which urgently needs investigation.

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