Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

Dilly by Mavis Batey

Dilly: The Man Who Broke Enigmas is an account by Mavis Batey not only of the great code-breaker Alfred Dillwyn Knox, but of the whole wartime code-breaking effort centred in Bletchley Park. Mavis Batey was one of “Dilly’s girls,” in fact she was one of two particular women whose brilliance helped the mercurial and eccentric Dilly. This biography spends a little time on his upbringing and education, before heading off into his WW1 work, but it is really WW2, Bletchley Park and Enigma which it focuses on.

Written with sensitivity and charm, and with many personal anecdotes, it’s a great account of a man whose work made an enormous difference to our lives.


How Compassion Made Us Human

How Compassion Made Us Human:
The Evolutionary Origins Of Tenderness, Trust & Morality by Penny Spikins

This is a terrific book – and one welcome in a field dominated both by men and by male versions of prehistory, which (as the author glumly notes) are usually violent and full of conflict.

That male version of prehistory though is not supported by evidence. In this remarkable book, Spikins – a highly experienced archaeologist and academic based in the north of England – makes the case for a different interpretation, both of the evidence and of supporting evidence, for instance ethnographic work done with modern-day hunter gatherer peoples. The book is also a really good read: well written, clear, taking the reader through the argument with skill and panache.

The chapters cover the basis of archaeology, how men have interpreted evidence in the past (not least Raymond Dart and his ludicrous “killer ape” hypothesis), re-interpreting archaeological evidence with common sense, zoological and anthropological evidence, and then a brilliant section on how small objects represent big emotions. It’s this chapter in particular that reveals the scope and depth of the author’s vision. Subsequent chapters cover the dark side of humanity, and then a detailed survey of how Spikins thinks human evolution went, focusing on compassion, trust and morality. All in all, an amazing vision of evolutionary history: vivid, engaging, scientifically sound.

I highly recommend this to all those interested in human evolution, ethics and morals, and the current state of archaeology.

The Evolution Of Imagination

The Evolution Of Imagination by Stephen T. Asma

This is a particularly good book for artists of all types to read. The author is a jazz musician, and themes of improvisation – which jazz thrives on – run through the work. But this book is in the main a deep and often well thought out exploration of imagination and creativity, with much to say about the evolution of the modern human mind.

The book is split into six chapters dealing with: the mental models we carry in our minds, how our bodies may be the source of creativity especially in music, visual improvisation and creativity, tale-telling, the self, and finally a section on imagination in the political world. Lots of fascinating ideas are put forward, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of them – for instance the role of the body in kick-starting imagination via music and rhythm, which some experts think may have preceded language. The author is particularly good at presenting ideas of how the emotions serve as a foundation for most of what we think and do.

I do have some reservations. The author separates “hot cognition” (emotion or feelings based cognition rooted in the limbic brain) with “cold cognition” (rational or logical thought rooted in the neocortex). While the description of the triune brain is useful, Asma leans too much upon it to separate two modes of cognition that really are merged into one, with emphasis vaying according to situation. I also think his guess that full language emerged only 40,000 years ago is way off the mark – 150,000 to 200,000 years ago is much more likely.

All in all, a very thought-provoking read from somebody in an interesting position and with lots to say. The first four chapters are superb, but the chapter on self is a bit of a mess, and the final chapter, while interesting, seems to me to be an afterthought. So I’ll be giving this 4* on goodreads, but 3½* is nearer the mark.

Hidden Depths by Robin Waterfield

This is a detailed study of the history of hypnosis, the debate around whether or not it exists as a defined phenomenon, and much else besides. Written by novelist, biographer and translator of Greek texts Robin Waterfield, its author’s wide-ranging interests and skill in telling a tale is evident.

The book begins with an in-depth and sophisticated discussion of the history of hypnosis, notably the contribution of Anton Mesmer (from whom we get the word mesmerism), moves on to sociological considerations, arrives at Freud and the modern world, then concludes with a few chapters on hypnotherapy and ‘modern forms,’ such as the psychedelic experience, political and advertising ‘mind control’ and various New Age considerations.

All in all, a fascinating, detailed and intriguing work. The author’s plea at the end is for hypnotism to lose its tarnished reputation (much of which he considers rooted in so-called stage hypnotists) and become an important part of therapy in our various cultures. As he points out, the evidence that hypnotism works is vast and incontrovertible. Let’s use it.

hid depths

Coal by Barbara Freese

Subtitled A Human History, this book surveys coal and its relationship with us and with our various cultures. Opening with a history of its finding and use in medieval Britain, it shows how for centuries coal was a misunderstood, disliked and even feared thing, until Newcomen made his steam engine and the Industrial Revolution came into view. Then, reluctantly, people began using it, though they continued to suffer from the sulphurous smoke. Further chapters look at the industry in America and China.

I liked this book a lot. It’s insightful, well written, fair minded and ends with a warning about global warming. Though written in the early 2000s, its history and message still resonate, and will do for some time, as America and China continue to use this dirtiest and most polluting of fossil fuels.


The Glass Bathyscaphe by Macfarlane & Martin

Alan Macfarlane & Gerry Martin’s The Glass Bathyscaphe: How Glass Changed The World has to be one of the most fascinating history books I’ve read for a long time.

Starting off with an overview of the origins of glassmaking, the book passes through various periods of history. But this is not just a summary of what is known. These two authors have a hypothesis, which they develop marvellously as the book progresses. Their contention is that glass was a necessary (though not sufficient) precondition for the Scientific Revolution which occurred in Europe following the Renaissance; and they make a convincing case for counting the Renaissance and the arrival of what they call reliable knowledge as aspects of the same thing. They compare and contrast the situation in east and west, and find many reasons for the difference in the use of glass. They also look at how social and religious conditions changed the perception of what glass could do for a society.

It’s all well written, interesting and engaging – the perfect example of a history book with a ‘bit more.’ Too many history books I’ve read in the last few years have been little more than lists. This one is considerably more.

I got this for a couple of quid at my local Oxfam, so I’m doubly pleased!


Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman

This is a really fascinating book. I picked it up because I wanted to compare what it said with what other authors have written about social media, but, to my delight, it gave me far more.

Kahneman is a psychologist with an interest in decision making, thought processes, and how such things relate to the economic world in particular. Working with Amos Tversky he won a Nobel award for his ground-breaking, often counter-intuitive discoveries.

This book posits two thinking modes, that Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is quick, “intuitive” (although see later), easily fooled, and quite often wrong. System 2 is our reflective, slow, rational mode. But, it turns out, System 2 is lazy and only comes into play when System 1 is stuck.

The first two thirds of the book especially are a revelation. We all know we’re not entirely rational or reasonable – we all have quirks and foibles, biases and predilections – but this book shows just how irrational we can be, and how easily we’re fooled by such things as verbal framing, halo effects, cognitive illusions and much, much more. This part in particular has great relevance to our online life, since that – social media especially – has been moulded by the international technology companies in order to put us in their thrall. They know what System 1 buttons to push and they do it mercilessly, exploiting people at will and with almost no regulation. (I used this theme in my novel The Autist.)

A later section on decision making is a bit mathematical and detailed, but overall this is an amazing and very thought-provoking book. Everyone who’s concerned about how social media especially is changing our modes of thought, and therefore our behaviour, should read it. Educators in particular should read it! And although it seems at the outset that Kahneman is worried about how easily we are fooled by our intuitive irrationality, he does point out the evolutionary merits of that system and that, if it is fed with truth and reality, it is right at least as often as it’s wrong. But of course, in the digital world, truth and reality is what is being eroded.

Highly recommended.


Over The Edge Of The World

Over The Edge Of The World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation Of The Globe by Laurence Bergreen

I really enjoyed this. It’s a no-holds-barred account of the world’s first circumnavigation, written by an excellent author who clearly loves his material.

In the early 1500s Ferdinand Magellan, an arrogant, self-promoting Portuguese out of favour with his own monarch, managed to get himself made commander of a five ship expedition to find a westerly route to the Spice Islands – now known as the Moluccas – on behalf of the king of Spain. What followed is narrated by Bergreen with fantastic relish – a tale of mutiny, daring, violence, survival against the odds, the discovery of the true size of the planet, cloves, nutmeg and much, much more…

The book uses various testimonies, but, given that only 18 men made it back of the original 260, that in itself it quite a feat. But the main testimony is that of Italian Antonio Pigafetta, a Magellan loyalist who made it back to Seville despite the demise of his master. In the meantime, the author spares us nothing of the voyage’s horrors: scurvy, mutual incomprehension between indigenous Pacific peoples and Westerners, madness and fighting… it’s got the lot. The prose is excellent, the background well researched, and the book overall is very readable.

Highly recommended to those who like tales from the so-called Age of Discovery.


Discoveries by Nicholas Thomas

Discoveries: the Voyages of Captain Cook.

I really enjoyed this one. Relating the events of James Cook’s three voyages of discovery, the book takes a gratifyingly sociological view of events, focusing largely on the interaction between Cook and his British officers, crew, and scientists and artists, and the various indigenous people they met: Maori, Tahitians, Hawaiians etc. This is neither a hagiography nor a bleeding-heart liberal tome. It’s fair minded, well written, and never less than enjoyable. The complex rites and social niceties of, for instance, the Hawaiians – who in the end killed Cook in the surf of their own beach – are explained, but not with such complexity as to reduce the impact of the event. Fair time is given to other officers’ interpretations of events, while much use is made of first hand accounts and other historical sources. With maps, paintings and a simple chronological narrative, this is a terrific read. Highly recommended.


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.