Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Book Review: The Big Question by Alister McGrath

This is the kind of book one should expect from Alister McGrath: pellucid, distilled, organized, somewhat reserved, and focused on, as the title would indicate, big questions. McGrath maintains his knack for finding a perfect quote -- one by CS Lewis summarizes a 600-page book I just read in a sentence -- and for pointing all aspects of big questions I haven't thought of. For example, I've been thinking a lot about how Christianity paved the way for science, but hadn't realized how the doctrine of Original Sin specifically led to an empirical, experiment-based natural philosophy. I appreciate this book but it isn't McGrath's best, because (as he acknowledges directly) he's not good at conveying his own inner sense of wonder and fitness. He's telling, not showing, because that's the kind of writer he is. I also wish his critique of Sam Harris's moral philosophy in a late chapter was a little more pointed. The fact of the matter is that McGrath focuses on explaining, not entertaining, and I appreciate how he does that once again here. I personally prefer his books written to Christians to ones like this written to a more general audience is all.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

A World from Dust (Update): Should the White Rot Story Change?

One of the hazards and joys of science writing is that what you write will change in some way after publication. The first one of these just happened. A paper just came out that may change one of the sections in A World from Dust Chapter 9, from what was explained as a biochemical cause to what is more a geological/climate cause. In the book, I put forward the explanation that so many plants grew so big in the Carboniferous Era because they invented lignin, and it took millions of years for fungi to evolve an efficient system for degrading that lignin, so it eventually turned into coal deposits till the fungi evolved. This is what most people thought, and it was backed up by a recent phylogenetic analysis.

But wait! M.P. Nelson et al. just published "Delayed fungal evolution did not cause the Paleozoic peak in coal production" in PNAS. The title speaks for itself -- Nelson et al. have produced an impressively integrated array of sciences to argue that most of the biomass wasn't lignin anyway and also that many lignin-degrading activities did evolve quickly. Rather, they propose that wet climate related to geological activity resulted in the unprecedented burial of carbon as coal. As a scientist outside the field, their argument seems compelling because it depends on bringing together so many lines of evidence.

My only hesitation comes from another paper I saw during the same reading session: Nagy et al. in Mol Biol Evol titled "Comparative Genomics of Early-Diverging Mushroom-Forming Fungi Provides Insights into the Origins of Lignocellulose Decay Capabilities." This paper suggests that white rot evolved later than previously stated, although I don't find many dates to pin down just how much later they propose it evolved. If this activity is significantly better on crystalline lignin or some extra-sturdy form, the story might end up aligning in part with the book's explanation.

I'll have to see how the scientists in the field sort this one out. If, as I suspect, Nelson et al. end up with the winning story, then there is a take-home lesson that takes a story away from Chapter 9 but will reinforce part of Chapter 10: evolution tends to surprise us with how quickly it can solve problems. If Nelson et al. are right, then it didn't take many millions of years to crack the tough nut that is lignin, and fungi were able to respond much faster than I or others presumed.

I'll try to update this part as more info comes out. The book is in print, but the blog can change as science does.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Book Review: Minding the Modern by Thomas Pfau

If you want to ask the big questions, you're going to have to read the big books. At least, that's what I kept telling myself as I measured my progress through this book after a week of reading only to find that I was 10% done. Pfau is a professor of English, but I think that were this written a century ago, it would have been classified as philology. The focus is indeed on words (or, more precisely, the concepts behind the words): will, person, teleology, and purpose are traced through Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Occam, Hobbes, Locke, Smith, etc. up through the time of the Romantics (with appropriate flash-forwards to the debates about these terms in the modern day). Considering the ground that Pfau covers, this huge book actually seems quite short, and I actually found its level of detail to be just about perfect to cover the evolution of the concept of what is a person.

For all that, much of the book seems to come down to what thinkers thought of as the strength and utility of one of the biggest of little words: the "logos." What is the nature of the structure "outside" us, and how does it relate to the structure "inside" us? Is the universe ultimately about material or about relationship? It is something to dominate or something to receive as a gift?

I found it fascinating and well worth the effort to read something this far outside of my discipline. I've found that I come down on the side that we can participate in the logos by telling stories, and that those stories aren't just constructed and contingent, but are in fact true.

The last fourth of the book turns its focus to Coleridge as a thinker whose ideas may offer a way out of the materialist cul-de-sac we seem to be trapped in as the default philosophy of the century. I've run into Coleridge before and, I agree, his philosophy of starting with the "responsible will" inside rather than the material outside does seem to be a way forward. My only complaint is that I would have liked more about Coleridge's thinking, because as it stands I have to do a lot more reading on my own to figure out how to go forward in my field following Coleridge's example. The good news is I'm colleagues with a Coleridge expert, so the fact that I work at a liberal arts university and have friends like that is a big help moving forward. But if I had my wishes, this book would have split off and expanded the third part (the one about Coleridge), because I want to know so much more. Even the third part didn't have quite enough about Coleridge, because it frequently talked about other thinkers like Schopenhauer for pages on end, when I more wanted to get away from the negative examples and toward the positive ones.

This fits with Barfield (and less obviously with Deacon), and provides a valuable intellectual scaffold for moving forward with Coleridge's thinking as we head into the 21st century. Well, well worth the read, even for a scientist like myself.

Book Review: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

First off, this was a good book to read aloud. Chesterton's sometimes convoluted syntax can be straightened out nicely for pre-teens by shaping the phrases and emphasizing the right words, with a few tweaks to the diction here and there. In that sense, reading it to my kids was a bit like singing, an analogy I don't think GKC would mind. Even so, they were left a little foggy and confused by the end, but I think that may be appropriate.

The broad strokes that GKC paints with come off better when read aloud, I think. There's always something unrealistic about his stories, but this one works very well because it is deliberately framed as a nightmare of sorts.

I keep dithering on whether this would have been better at half its length or not. Reading through it a second time, I think the evenly paced nature of the successive "reveals" as the plot goes on feels unnecessary. But still, if the underlying point is to help the reader think differently about creation -- both as a noun and as a verb -- I think the book accomplished this admirably, while daring to assail the fortress of the biggest of the big questions, asking why bad things happen.

As always, it's difficult to know how to rate a classic, but I'll rate my reading experience more than the book itself. I was even gobsmacked a bit by a plaintive, simple question near the end and had to collect myself, so you can definitely say this book dug deep.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Book Review: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

This was in my queue a long time before I listened to it, because I knew it would be hard to hear. O'Brien's book must be one of the classic texts about the Vietnam War, and hearing it read aloud by Brian Cranston is the right way to experience it. Not only does this narrative (if I can call it that) transfer the chaos and maddening threat of that conflict into your experience, but it also jumps around in time and diverges into meditations on the nature of writing, experience, life, and death. Despite the harrowing, unfinished, nakedly evil depiction of war, there is life, which makes the evil more painful, if anything. The way the book ends surprised me with what I can only call its dark innocence or winter light. So it was a hard book to read but also, clearly, a necessary book to understand the war that warped our country.