Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal

In some regards, I found this a frustrating book. On the one hand, it’s important, clear, well written, well argued and timely. On the other hand, I found (as I did with this author’s Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?) that the book failed in some of its goals.

Subtitled Animal Emotions And What They Teach Us About Ourselves, the book is a brilliant survey of the blurred, perhaps nonexistent, boundary between animal emotions – or more accurately what people have traditionally thought of such emotions – and human emotions. The author, a highly experienced primatologist, knows his subject and has a huge amount of scientific, personal and anecdotal evidence to support his argument, which in a nutshell is that animals do have emotions, from which our own are derived. He sticks the boot in to all those who try to separate human beings from other animals, and in most cases does this with skill and judgement.

Yet, to me, his own assessment of what an emotion might be is incomplete. I agree with his emphasis on the body, on the idiocy of the notion that we have a separable “spirit,” and on his emphasis on the cognitive aspect of emotion. He also notes that physical symptoms are essential, which I agree with. Yet, despite all that, he considers love, and even revenge to be an emotion. Now, even as a child I don’t recall myself ever feeling revengy. Angry, yes. But not revengy.

The other downside to this otherwise excellent book is the final chapter on sentience. As I mentioned in my review of Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?, I think this author has a bit of a blind spot caused by over-asserting the similarities between human beings and animals. I myself do think there is a qualitative difference between animals and us; a moot point, of course. As for consciousness, de Waal is quite happy to tell the reader that the question is aeons away from being answered. Obviously he’s never read the work of that other brilliant primatologist, Nicholas Humphrey.

A final criticism. These sentences stood out for me: Our ancestors deviated from the apes by hunting animals larger than themselves, which required the sort of camaraderie and mutual dependence that is the root of complex societies. We owe our cooperative nature, our food-sharing tendencies, our sense of fairness, and even our morality to the subsistence hunting of our ancestors. What is the author saying here? That pre-Agricultural Revolution societies hunted meat? He might as well tell us what bears do in the woods. Or is he saying that hunting was in fact the root of human society? Such absurd theories were touted by male anthropologists in the early part of the 20th century, but they are mocked now for their sheer ridiculousness. And yet this is the same author who earlier in the book namechecks Sarah Hrdy and who clearly has sympathy for feminism and the dire situation of women in science.

Alas, I have spent a lot of time on criticisms and not much on positives. This is a terrific, insightful book, packed full of evidence of many kinds. The sections on animal cognition and grasp of social milieu are outstanding. So I enjoyed most of the book, albeit feeling a little frustrated and disappointed by what, to me, is incompleteness. Still – it is well worth a read.


Novacene by James Lovelock

James Lovelock was one of my earliest influences when it came to writing fiction. I intuitively grasped the scope and profundity of his Gaia concept, and, although Gaia made no appearance in my debut Memory Seed, themes of environmental destruction and human narcissism implicit in the early reaction to Gaia emerged in my novel. Lovelock’s later work confirmed the man’s exceptional brilliance, in the public eye via his books, elsewhere (and perhaps more importantly) through a continuous supply of extraordinary inventions, not least the Electron Capture Detector, which led to the detection of CFCs throughout Earth’s atmosphere. Lovelock now calls himself an engineer rather than a scientist because he sees the real world as his prime source. (In earlier work he has been scathing about the primacy given to computer models.)

Novacene was written and published to mark his 100th birthday on 26th July 2019. Unlike his previous couple of works, which I found rather lacking in insight (especially the poor A Rough Ride To The Future, in which he speculated about things apparently at random), Novacene is a concise, profound and brilliantly incisive summary of his current thought. I was reminded of the work of Karen Armstrong (A Brief History Of Myth) and Yuval Noah Harari when reading it.

Lovelock covers three main areas: the nature of Gaia and the Solar System, the operation of Gaia, especially its ability to radiate heat and so keep the planet cool, and the arrival of hyperintelligent machines, which he believes we humans will have to work with in order to continue keeping the planet cool. He thinks the Anthropocene is almost over already, and will lead to the AI-managed Novacene. Particular emphasis is given to the Anthropic Principle and the notion that the evolution of the universe is a process of information, with a possible denouement as the universe comes to understand itself in some unimaginable future epoch. He believes we are alone, for reasons related to the Anthropic Principle, though personally I suspect this may be wrong, or at least premature.

In this book, unlike A Rough Guide To The Future, I feel the speculation is informed by Lovelock’s unique insight, which comes not only from his exceptional mind but also from a century of experience in science, engineering and invention. It’s an exhilarating, thought-provoking look at huge themes from the perspective of somebody who has given an enormous amount to humanity.

Highly recommended.


The Hare With The Amber Eyes

The Hare With The Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

In 2010 the British ceramicist Edmund de Waal told the story of his family, the Ephrussi, once a wealthy and well-connected banking dynasty. His memoir is based in Odessa, Vienna and in Paris, three cities providing the landscape for this fascinating and lyrically written work. But the Ephrussi family are Jewish, and they lost almost everything in 1938 when the Nazis arrived; and these are the most tragic parts of the memoir.

But not everything was lost in those times. The titular hare is a Japanese netsuke, tiny and hidden with 263 other similar objects inside a mattress by Anna, one of the maids at Palais Ephrussi. That collection was passed down through five generations of the Ephrussi family, ending with Edmund de Waal and providing a thread for the memoir.

It’s a fantastic read: compulsive, poetic, sad, with a sense of location that would be hard to beat. The sense of history and of place is palpable, partly through the use of detail, partly through the lyrical prose, which seems to me as if it was spoken before it was set down.

A marvellous, entrancing read.


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.

lang pre

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.