Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

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.


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.