Sunday, November 30, 2014

Book Review: Darwin's Pious Idea by Conor Cunningham

This book breaks down apparent divides: between organism and environment, between mind and matter, and (most obviously from the title) between Darwin and God. It's even published by a prominent evangelical publisher, although from the title itself you can see that it's intended to challenge evangelicals, so there's an attempt to break down a wall there as well.

The best two chapters are easily those on the concept of progress in evolution and how early church fathers like Irenaeus would have had no problem with evolution. For some reason that latter chapter is placed last, which makes for a nice climax but you have to wade through too much to get to it. Other long chapters include attacks on evolutionary psychology and eugenics, which seem out of place -- I can't imagine anyone is actually defending those and knocking them down doesn't do much to show that evolution is somehow "pious." I would prefer that those chapters be shunted to another book and this one focus on the positive parts of bringing evolution and faith together.

Cunningham gets big points in my book for referencing both Conway Morris and RJP Williams (if he had referenced Eric Chaisson, that'd be the trifecta). He touches on tricky topics like panpsychism and veers close to hand-waving, but sitting back now I think he struck a helpful tone overall. Still, the topic seems a little half-baked, although I can't help but think of Owen Barfield when I read it. I myself am lurching back and forth and don't want to go there now.

So this is a long, sprawling book with a very good aim, but with me, Cunningham's preaching to the choir. I'd like to know if this book could convince a hostile audience, whether one of the ultra-Darwinists or the creationists of the subtitle. I found lots of good ideas that go along with my in-progress manuscript ... and maybe my next one as well.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chemistry: The Motion Picture (Animated Version)

Todd Martinez and colleagues at Stanford have become directors on the smallest movie set of all time. The paper they published describes how they animate chemical reactions using computer models. The unique angle they take is to watch a simple chemical reaction zoomed in to a medium point. At this point they are focused neither on just one molecule nor on an incomprehensible flaskful of molecules. At this Goldlocks level of complexity, they can see atoms reacting and can catch fleeting side reactions that wouldn't be seen by other techniques -- yet are certainly important. Most of all, the motion of the atoms is as mesmerizing as a lava lamp. I spent decades learning how molecules move so I can have movies like this in my head when I read about a chemical reaction. You can skip to the back of the book and see what's in my head by watching the movie at this link. Try it and let me know what you see.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book Review: All You Need is Kill

This is the book that led to the movie Edge of Tomorrow (which is now retitled Live Die Repeat or Eat Pray Repeat or something). I haven't seen the movie, and I've heard that the ending is significantly different, which makes sense, because the book's ending is not terribly Hollywood, while it makes perfect sense in the universe of the book. Reading this book is like watching a foreign movie -- the translation and character moments are all just this side of awkward, but that's part of its charm as well. I don't find the combat or combat prep descriptions to be completely convincing, but it moves so quickly and takes so many twists and turns that it's best to just put your head down and go where it takes you. The good ideas outnumber the bad or unconvincing ones, and it's got a vivid comic-book sensibility that worked for me. If the movie lives up to the book, it'll be a good one, and there's room to improve on the book while retaining the twisty plot that makes the book good.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Review: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman

An excellent dark fairy tale by Neil Gaiman, illustrated, about two men on a journey to find some cursed gold. The story feels old in the best way. It is about greed, sin, prophecy, family, journey, and justice. For adults, not kids, in the same way that Ocean at the End of the Lane was. There are even elements of Tolkien glimmering in the mist, elements that run deeper and more true than many novels a hundred times longer. It only takes an hour to read, but I wanted to read it again immediately.

Book Review: Powers of Two by Joshua Wolf Shenk

Powers of Two has a fascinating premise and a wide, interdisciplinary reach -- but in the end, I'm not convinced that it's any more than a museum collection of good examples.

The fascinating premise is that the primary unit of human creativity is not the Great Man or the Great Society, but what I'll call the "Great Dyad" of a pair of people relating. One of the great joys of the book is seeing the huge range of examples that Shenk gives to support his hypothesis. The obvious ones include the ones double-billed from the beginning: Lennon and McCartney, Stone and Parker (South Park), Tolkien and Lewis, the Wright brothers, and the Coen brothers. Shenk extends his examples to not-so-obvious pairs: Van Gogh, Wordsworth, and even Tiger Woods had hidden partners that he argues makes them the more obvious members of what is really a creative pair.

As an example of how things can work and how things did work, especially with the Beatles, this book is worth a read (it may contain the best account that I have read of why they broke up ). I'm not so convinced that it's how things MUST work. Shenk dilutes his hypothesis by mentioning how talking with yourself constitutes a dyad, and that each dyad is surrounded by a network of dyads at higher levels, where, for example, Stone and Parker act as one half of a pair with their lawyer, etc. All true, but not easily summable as a book title.

I think that this points to a deeper truth, that reality is relational, and Martin Buber's I and Thou came to mind. But Buber was only referenced briefly in the final section and very few of the vast resources that theology provides for this kind of deep thinking make an appearance in this book. The concept of the Trinity is unmentioned. In the end, it's too practical and too specific, where theology would make it more practical.

I don't want to nitpick on whether the dyad is the basic unit of creativity, which seems a moot point. Rather, I want to know if reality is ultimately relational and subjective rather than rational and objective. But this gets into the area of philosophy and theology, and a how-things-work book like this is not interested in getting into the deep end of things. It may be a failure of the genre.

So I find this stimulating enough, but more like a sugar rush from chewing gum than like a deeply satisfying intellectual meal. Still, it's clever enough, expansive enough, and in the end, it's onto something. This would form a good basis for further discussion. Wonder if my book group would be interested?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Well, that turned out much better than the last book I read on the strength of a superlative-laced Stephen King review (The Accursed). The Goldfinch deserves most of the praise heaped onto it from many quarters. The themes it weaves together -- art, guilt, work, lies, growing up unrooted, family, modern life, and above all prose so lush it counts as a theme in itself -- are driven forward by a narrative almost so strong it belongs in the thriller section. I say almost because the second quarter of the book wallows in teenage aimlessness so much that the reader is likewise confounded. But in the end, some of the aimlessness turns out to be very important, and the book wraps up with an incandescent philosophical meditation on Platonism, meaning, and, of course, art. It's easier to read than I thought it would be, and it's more meaningful than I thought it would be, yet it really could have used a stronger editorial hand. Almost every scene could have been cut by 25%, which would have made this book a much more normal length. I'm hovering between three and four stars and will probably opt for three (because of the lack of editorial focus) but it's a tough decision.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by Will Storr

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a modern journalist walks into a Creationist seminar in Australia, notebook in hand, ready to observe and ridicule. Nothing he sees there convinces him. But something stops the joke before the punchline. He can't follow the script because his own eyes tell him that there is a log in his own eye. It's not that the creationists are right. It's that they aren't stupid and that they are sincere. They are wrong, but the journalist isn't equipped to really engage with how they are wrong. He recognizes that his take on what is true, despite its rootedness in science, is nearly as tribal as the creationists he is trying to mock.

This bothers the journalist (Storr) so much that he visits a dozen or more of different categories of intellectual warriors, including the usual targets (homeopathy, ESP, alien abductions, repressed memories) but turning the same methods and spotlight on his own beliefs and those of the militant materialists (a skeptics convention and James Randi himself). This is not so much about these sundry paranormal beliefs as it is about the nature of knowledge, of certainty, and of doubt itself.

Storr's cosmic scope, his true fairmindedness, and his dogged insistance on interviewing the personalities behind bizarre ideas is what sets this book apart. It's also what sets it back in a few places. He's a bit shaky on the science (brain science especially) but I don't think it's on the substance of matters, and mostly, I'm impressed by how he is clearly willing to step out and learn. He also doesn't really acknowledge the silent majority, both today and yesterday, who have struggled with these same questions and come away with a much more nuanced view than the militants on either side. He briefly alludes to Plato and Aristotle but I think some more reading in the classics and philosophy could be fascinating as he continues on his journey. In particular, many of his questions are theological, but due to his history as described in this book, he doesn't really know how to break into that literature. I think he'd love Owen Barfield for example.

For all its breadth, this book is just a beginning. But as an honest and searching beginning, I recommend it as an example of what it's like to try all these diverse paths. In the end, I think orthodoxy has some surprisingly satisfying answers to Storr's questions -- and I'm also confident that if he continues to ask them the truth will out. May he keep at it.