What I’ve been reading

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell.  A Christmas present from Andy, this is a collection of articles written by Gladwell over the years covering a wide range of subjects.  Gladwell has a gift for diving into a subject and providing interesting details that make you go “huh” and look at the world a little differently.   A few examples from the articles collected in this book:

  • The inventor of the birth control pill was a staunch Catholic who thought he was helping to make the rhythm method more practical.
  • It would be save money to lavish expensive apartments and support services to the worst of the chronically homeless even though that would be fundamentally unfair.
  • FBI criminal profiling is largely smoke and mirrors, having more in common with carnival fortune telling than with scientific crime fighting.

I greatly enjoyed this book.  I love learning something new about a part of the world that I did not suspect existed, and I enjoy having my preconceptions challenged.  Gladwell is excellent at providing those things, and I heartily recommend this one.

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold.  This was my beach-read for the week in Puerto Rico.  A thriller set largely in the 1920’s centering on Carter the Great, a stage magician, and featuring appearances by a number of historical characters ranging from the young Marx Brothers to Warren G. Harding.  Nothing really profound about this one, but I enjoyed it.

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins.  Dawkins is one of the leading evolutionary biologists, though in some circles he’s better known as a member of the new radical atheist movement.  This is his argument for why evolution is true and why the appallingly large number of young-earth creationists are wrong.

I find biology to be fascinating, for me the most interesting of the sciences.  And I find evolution by natural selection to be an elegant and often beautiful process.  Put that together and I greatly enjoyed this book.  And although it covered a lot of ground that I already knew well, I learned several new things in it.

I do have two criticisms, however.  First, I was hoping that this would be a book that I could recommend to creationist friends laying out the arguments for why evolution is true.  But Dawkins, who clearly has a lot of anger for the creationists, often launches some pretty nasty attacks at them, referring to them, for example, as “history deniers.”  While I don’t really disagree with his underlying point, he’s hardly going to persuade people by insulting them.  (Believe me, I’ve tried it over the years – it doesn’t work.)

Second, he often quotes long passages from various works about evolution and the biological sciences.  That’s fine, so far as it goes, but in several cases those works are his own books.  There’s something unseemly about an author who quotes himself (didn’t Oscar Wilde have something to say on that subject?), and it hardly seems necessary here.

But Dawkins lays out several solid arguments for evolution, many of which I hadn’t considered before.  And he describes several related matters that I found interesting, most notably the chapter on how embryos develop and how critical that is in evolution.  So with the two caveats above, I recommend this one.

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