Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

Quantum by Manjit Kumar

One of the best scientific histories I’ve read for a long time, this book matches insight into the characters and lives of all the great players in the quantum mechanics debate with the theory itself. Too many authors get this balance wrong, but Manjit Kumar gets it just right. He’s especially good at leading the reader from the character of somebody (Niels Bohr springs to mind here, but he’s also good with Schrödinger and Heisenberg) to their scientific insight. I really enjoyed this book: well written, detailed, insightful, interesting.

The Prehistory Of The Mind by Steven Mithen

When I first read this book I really enjoyed it, but perhaps didn’t quite ‘get’ it. A second reading has persuaded me that it is a very significant piece of work.

Mithen’s objective is to piece together a viable evolution of our mental abilities from the archaeological (and some other) evidence available to him. This is quite an ambition, given that often it’s quite difficult to piece together archaeology from archaeological evidence… But you have to admire the man’s insight and courage.

This is in fact a remarkable book, whose central hypothesis is that three or four naturally occuring kinds of intelligence – visible in chimps, our nearest living relatives – evolved over about six million years. Using a clever analogy, that of chambers a cathedral, he shows that these separate intelligences could have evolved in social circumstances into something far more complex, which then, perhaps only in the last 40,000 years, but certainly not before 100,000 years ago, came together in ‘cognitive fluidity.’ Mithen follows Nicholas Humphrey’s social intelligence theory, using it with verve and skill to show how consciousness evolved only for the social intelligence of primates, not the technical or natural history intelligences, but then overlapped with the other kinds of intelligences so that all our insight and understanding flowed out into the non-social world.

Quite an achievement then. Certainly a significant and enduring contributing to our understanding of how we evolved.

Istanbul by Bettany Hughes

This is a very good large-scale history of the great city Byzantium / Constantinople / Istanbul.

Although it suffers in a few places from Francopan-Montefiore Syndrome (chapters listing men killing each other in wars, which in times past used to be how history was taught) there is much more by way of social and cultural history here, which is all to the good. Add to that Hughes’ engaging style of writing and you have an absorbing book.
I enjoyed it.


Language In Prehistory by Alan Barnard

Language In Prehistory is a tour through the academic world of proto-language and all things symbolic leading up to the acquisition by early human beings (quite which ones being a matter of guesswork) of full language. This is quite a scholarly book with not a huge amount for the general reader, but I did enjoy it, especially towards the end as the author got into matters mythical and storytelling. The conclusions are fascinating and the whole book thought-provoking. A bit advanced for me, but I’m glad I read it.

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The Origin Of Our Species by Chris Stringer

Chris Stringer is well known as a senior scientist at the Natural History Museum, his area of expertise human evolution. The Origin Of Our Species wittily riffs on Darwin’s classic work, providing an overview of the state of our knowledge about human evolution.

The book was published in 2011, and a few things have changed since then, mostly down to ancient DNA analysis. This however being a Chris Stringer book means it remains essential reading: wide-ranging, entertaining, packed with fact and theory. He is generous with the work of others, but not afraid to take on those, e.g. evangelists of the Multi-region Hypothesis, with whom he has struggled before. And as he points out, the Out Of Africa Theory which he helped develop is now widely supported and accepted.

The book covers palaeontology, the importance of scientific techniques, the limits of interpretation, then a brilliant few sections on deducing human behaviour and trying to determine how and when modern cognitive thinking developed.

Some reviewers have criticised this book for being too dry. I think that’s well off the mark. It’s not dry, it’s sophisticated, comprehensive and written from immense experience. A fascinating coda for instance explains how ideas that we’ve stopped evolving are nonsense.

Highly recommended.


The Wisdom Of Wolves by Elli Radinger

The Wisdom Of Wolves is a book about wolves.

The subtitle however is: How wolves can teach us to be more human. In fact, although there is a little section at the end of each chapter on this theme, the book isn’t really about anything other than wolves and wolf society. Most of the human equivalences are either trite or so over-generalised as to be meaningless. This sounds like heavy criticism, but it isn’t really, because the human end-chapter sections are very short.

And the author really knows her subject – this is the joy of the book. It’s science, based in meticulous, loving study over a period of decades. Mostly the book covers the extraordinary and fascinating wolf societies of Yellowstone, and here the reader is left in no doubt that the author is a voice of authority. Several chapters stand out as fascinating, especially the one of wolf/raven interaction, and the one on how wolf packs manage old wolves and ageing.

The book has been criticised in some quarters for New Age babble, and there is a tiny bit of that sprinkled throughout it. There are also a few errors, for instance the bizarre reason given for wolf domestication during the Palaeolithic. But the vast majority of it speaks of the author’s immense experience of observing wolves and understanding them.

A rewarding read.


The Smart Neanderthal by Clive Finlayson

The Smart Neanderthal is an important work which aims to reappraise Neanderthal hunting abilities, their grasp of the natural world, and their cognition and ability for symbolic thought. In the majority of cases the author is not only convincing but should be congratulated for knocking down some of the crude mistakes and generalisations made by earlier anthropologists and archaeologists. I do have some reservations, however.

The misleading strapline is: bird catching, cave art and the cognitive revolution. There is plenty on bird catching, almost nothing on cave art, and little on the cognitive revolution. However, unlike other reviewers, I don’t have a problem with the emphasis this author places on the natural world. Such emphasis is vital.

Essentially, this is a book which does not knock over prevailing views of the cognitive revolution, but which does almost as valuable a service in clearing away absurd black-and-white generalisations about the Neanderthals (especially their hunting skills) in favour of something much more nuanced and accurate, which the author provides by way of his decades of bird watching experience.

His main thesis is that we have to understand the Neanderthals via natural history. Across Europe, Neanderthals lived in very different environments and had very different diets, so they must be understood on this basis. The book spends a lot of time detailing bird species, their distribution, their distribution in confirmed Neanderthal sites (notably caves in Gibraltar, which Finlayson has spent decades excavating), and their habits. All of this is vital, albeit a tad long-winded. The main point of this book is to open our eyes to the variety of food sources many Neanderthals had access to, which the author does superbly.

Linked to this is Finlayson’s other main point, that the Neanderthals were the same as us cognitively. He rightly opposes earlier, cruder interpretations, and gives his own speculation, all of which is welcome. But here I think there is not enough supporting evidence. The material on feather colour and raptor talons is absolutely fascinating and will surely stand as a testament to Finlayson’s work, but the evidence for symbolic thought like ours seems slight. Of course, as is noted, lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.

My main worry with this second strand of the book is that speech and anatomy evidence suggests a qualitative difference in cognitive ability, not a quantitative one. As Lieberman & Crelin showed in their ground-breaking work, Neanderthals would have had great difficulty or been unable to pronounce the [i], [u] and [a] vowels, in addition to being unable to pronounce g and k consonants. The inability to pronounce [i] is particularly significant, since it is used in all human language as the main intelligibility marker. In addition, Neanderthal speech would have sounded nasal compared with ours. All these factors limit the ability (unconscious in all modern humans) to recognise the formant frequency of heard speech, which reduces speech capacity. Neanderthals undoubtedly had complex speech, but they would not in my opinion have been so exceptional as homo sapiens. This, to me, seems a qualitative difference not a quantitative one, acting against Finlayson’s hypothesis that there was effectively no cognitive difference between the two species.

Having said that, this book is significant, valuable and well worth reading. The author’s skill and experience in understanding birds translates well into his archaeological work, bringing a deep new insight into Neanderthal life. This emphasis on placing the Neanderthals into their environment is particularly brilliant – a welcome new aspect to our understanding of human origins.


21 Lessons For The 21st Century

21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

I loved Sapiens.

I did not love Homo Deus.

I love 21 Lessons For The 21st Century.

This is a massive return to form for Yuval Noah Harari. All the clarity and wisdom of Sapiens is here, with almost none of the partisan moralising that spoiled Homo Deus. Essentially, the book is about the challenges humanity faces now and during the century to come. It’s pretty depressing in places, though there are sections of optimism. But in general, especially with regard to AI and algorithms, the author is pessimistic.

The book has a few main sections: the technological challenge, the political challenge and, distributed in other sections, the ecological challenge. Other main areas covered are the nature of truth, not despairing (for instance because of terrorism), and, in conclusion, the importance of human resilience. Elsewhere there are fascinating chapters on nationalism and religion, liberty, and humility.

The last two chapters are particularly significant. The penultimate chapter deals with the fundamental importance of meaning, pointing out that humanity has rather lost its way here. In a telling analogy which is used elsewhere in the work, Harari points out that in the 20th century humanity told itself three stories: the fascist story, the communist story, and the liberal story. After WW2 the liberal story was the only show in town. But in the 21st century the problem is that we have no story. I think this is a particularly telling analogy, which should give concerned people much to think about.

What follows is a personal conclusion relating the author’s early life and his discovery of meditation. As he points out a few times, most people hardly know themselves and pay very little attention to their own minds and bodies. Change here would be good – perhaps vital.

A terrific book by a remarkable man.

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Eve Spoke by Philip Lieberman

In Eve Spoke, the noted linguist and cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman charts the evolution of human beings with respect to our ability to speak.

Much of this book tells the story of the evolution of speech, not least with regard to our unusual biology, but underlying it all is the standpoint of a man who recognises the fundamental importance of society and social learning in our evolution. The science here is impeccable, the story fascinating, the writing excellent.

Lieberman is particularly good when it comes to revealing the sleights of hand and other tricks employed by such people as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, both of whom take genetics as their starting point. Although Chomsky has contributed a huge amount to linguistics, his genetically reductionist star is fading, and hopefully Pinker’s will fade with it.

The book was published in 1998, and as a consequence is behind the times when it comes to the Neanderthals. Lieberman goes for the ‘genetically isolated’ theory when it comes to matters of evolutionary competition, whereas today we know that some interbreeding did take place between homo sapiens and the Neanderthals. This is a minor matter however which doesn’t alter Lieberman’s main thesis in the slightest.

A terrific book!

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Soul Dust by Nicholas Humphrey

Soul Dust is Nicholas Humphrey’s fourth and perhaps final major popular work about consciousness. Subtitled the magic of consciousness, it takes the reader through some of his earlier concepts, especially those in Seeing Red, before providing a conclusion to decades of groundbreaking work.

This book emphasises the role of natural selection in the evolution of consciousness, first mentioned in the trailblazing The Inner Eye. Natural selection, Humphrey reasons, must have had something to work upon in order to select so strongly for  consciousness. That something, he suggests, is the joy of living – the fact that we are important, both to ourselves and to others, and that we delight in the experience of living, which makes survival in social groups all the more likely. It’s a brilliant notion, which he examines from the perspective of an Andromedan ‘psychological zombie,’ but also through wondering whether or not other species are conscious – Humphrey did research with monkeys and apes for many years, and even worked for a few months alongside Dian Fossey.

Once the main thesis is put forward and argued, there comes a third section, more philosophically speculative than the rest of the book, and indeed of his earlier work, in which he ponders the role of death in the evolution of consciousness. We, after all, are the only species who can fear death.

Here I have to admit I part company with Humphrey. In this book Humphrey deliberately uses the word soul – he posits a ‘soul niche,’ which emerges in parallel with the evolution of consciousness, and of course the word in plain for all to see in the book’s title. But Humphrey, an avowed atheist who has written extensively on atheism, is aware that the word soul has baggage. “Too much baggage?” he asks, coming to the answer no. My answer however is yes. Humphrey wisely points out that religion is parasitic upon spirituality, which, like me, he sees as a far earlier concept (my guess would be 80,000 – 100,00 years old: Humphrey wonders if spirituality arrived at the time of the Cultural Revolution 40,000 years ago, or is perhaps 200,000 years old, when homo sapiens first appeared in Africa). Spirituality he sees as a concept – the immortal spirit or soul – emerging from the experience of consciousness itself. It is, he suggests, an aspect of our deepest psychology. I see the concept as based in the experience of consciousness but having its roots in culture, not psychology. It is, I think, a human answer within the greater framework of meaning.

I also think that Humphrey, like other authors (Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking spring to mind), is unwise in using the vocabulary of religion to describe purely human concepts. The notion of spirit or soul, which Humphrey sees as an inevitable result of consciousness, he describes as something which allows human beings to survive better as individuals. I see the concept as one devised in cultural settings to explain a human experience. I agree with Humphrey that the concept of spirit was inevitable, but I think its roots lie in the prehistoric imagination, not in some deeper psychology which we can never escape. As a consequence, I think talk of spirits and souls in a book of this significance is flawed, if not imprudent.

Of course, that rather begs the question, “what would you use instead?” It’s not an easy one to answer, but I think when referring to human individuality, character or identity in discussions such as these we would be better off using a neutral word like self or being. Many years ago, when I was working for Waterstones, members of staff were asked to put questions to Philip Pullman (another noted atheist) for publication alongside his answers in the company magazine. My question was something along the lines of, “Do you think your use of religious terminology in His Dark Materials has somehow diminished your atheist stance?” Pullman acknowledged this to be a very interesting and pertinent question, but sided with Humphrey, suggesting that the amount of conceptual baggage was acceptable. So, I disagree with him too on this matter!

Soul Dust ends with a meditation on coping with death. As Humphrey observes, there are three main ways of coping: avoiding the concept entirely by living hedonistically for the moment; allowing yourself to merge with the greater human culture as you age; and positing an immortal soul, i.e. denying the obvious. This latter section of the book feels slightly out of place when set against the rest of the work, but only a little. And while I don’t agree with Humphrey here, his thoughts are, as ever, superbly argued and very well written.

This is another exceptional work, as thought provoking as all his previous books.

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