About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Rationally Speaking's book suggestions

Several readers have asked us for our suggestions for readings, with the upcoming holidays being the obvious excuse. Well, below are some entries from each of our writers, for your reading and thinking pleasure.

Ian's suggestions

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has fig­ured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture. Bill Bryson has one of the liveliest, most inquisitive minds on the planet, and he is a master at turning the seemingly isolated or mundane fact into an occasion for the most diverting exposi­tion imaginable. His wit and sheer prose fluency make At Home one of the most entertaining books ever written about private life.

The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution, by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. Resistance to malaria. Blue eyes. Lactose tolerance. What do all of these traits have in common? Every one of them has emerged in the last 10,000 years. Scientists have long believed that the “great leap forward” that occurred some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago in Europe marked end of significant biological evolution in humans. In this stunningly original account of our evolutionary history, top scholars Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending reject this conventional wisdom and reveal that the human species has undergone a storm of genetic change much more recently. Human evolution in fact accelerated after civilization arose, they contend, and these ongoing changes have played a pivotal role in human history. They argue that biology explains the expansion of the Indo-Europeans, the European conquest of the Americas, and European Jews' rise to intellectual prominence. In each of these cases, the key was recent genetic change: adult milk tolerance in the early Indo-Europeans that allowed for a new way of life, increased disease resistance among the Europeans settling America, and new versions of neurological genes among European Jews. Ranging across subjects as diverse as human domestication, Neanderthal hybridization, and IQ tests, Cochran and Harpending's analysis demonstrates convincingly that human genetics have changed and can continue to change much more rapidly than scientists have previously believed. A provocative and fascinating new look at human evolution that turns conventional wisdom on its head, The 10,000 Year Explosion reveals the ongoing interplay between culture and biology in the making of the human race.

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and  Stephen Baxter. An unmissable milestone for fans of Sir Terry Pratchett: the first SF novel in over three decades in which the visionary inventor of Discworld has created a new universe of tantalizing possibilities—a series of parallel “Earths” with doorways leading to adventure, intrigue, excitement, and an escape into the furthest reaches of the imagination. The Long Earth, written with award-winning novelist Stephen Baxter, author of Stone Spring, Ark, and Floodwill, captivate science fiction fans of all stripes, readers of Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and Carl Hiaasen, and anyone who enjoyed the Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman collaboration Good Omens. The Long Earth is an adventure of the highest order—and an unforgettable read.

Leonard's suggestions

All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, by Darren Naish and others. All Yesterdays is a book about the way we see dinosaurs and other
prehistoric animals. Lavishly illustrated with over sixty original artworks, All Yesterdays aims to challenge our notions of how prehistoric animals looked and behaved. As an critical exploration of palaeontological art, All Yesterdays asks questions about what is probable, what is possible, and what is commonly ignored. Written by palaeozoologist Darren Naish, and palaeontological artists John Conway and C.M. Kosemen, All Yesterdays is scientifically rigorous and artistically imaginative in its approach to fossils of the past - and those of the future.

The Animal Man Omnibus, by Grant Morrison and others. From Grant Morrison, Eisner Award winning writer of ALL-STAR SUPERMAN and bestselling author of Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, this new hardcover collects Morrison's entire groundbreaking run on ANIMAL MAN altogether for the first time. Buddy Baker is more than just a second-rate super hero--He's also a devoted family man and animal rights activist. Now, as he tries to jump-start his crimefighting career, he experiences visions of aliens, people transforming into strange pencil-like drawings, and hints of a terrible crisis lurking around the edges of reality. And as his odyssey of self-discovery gives way to spiritual enlightenment as well as the depths of despair, Buddy meets his maker: a writer named Grant Morrison.

The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, by Henry Gee. The idea of a missing link between humanity and our animal ancestors predates evolution and popular science and actually has religious roots in the deist concept of the Great Chain of Being. Yet, the metaphor has lodged itself in the contemporary imagination, and new fossil discoveries are often hailed in headlines as revealing the elusive transitional step, the moment when we stopped being “animal” and started being “human.” In The Accidental Species, Henry Gee, longtime paleontology editor at Nature, takes aim at this misleading notion, arguing that it reflects a profound misunderstanding of how evolution works and, when applied to the evolution of our own species, supports mistaken ideas about our own place in the universe. Gee presents a robust and stark challenge to our tendency to see ourselves as the acme of creation. Far from being a quirk of religious fundamentalism, human exceptionalism, Gee argues, is an error that also infects scientific thought. Touring the many features of human beings that have recurrently been used to distinguish us from the rest of the animal world, Gee shows that our evolutionary outcome is one possibility among many, one that owes more to chance than to an organized progression to supremacy. He starts with bipedality, which he shows could have arisen entirely by accident, as a by-product of sexual selection, moves on to technology, large brain size, intelligence, language, and, finally, sentience. He reveals each of these attributes to be alive and well throughout the animal world—they are not, indeed, unique to our species. The Accidental Species combines Gee’s firsthand experience on the editorial side of many incredible paleontological findings with healthy skepticism and humor to create a book that aims to overturn popular thinking on human evolution—the key is not what’s missing, but how we’re linked.

Massimo's suggestions

Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, by Jim Baggott. In this stunning new volume, Jim Baggott argues that there is no observational or experimental evidence for many of the ideas of modern theoretical physics: super-symmetric particles, super strings, the multiverse, the holographic principle, or the anthropic cosmological principle. These theories are not only untrue; they are not even science. They are fairy-tale physics: fantastical, bizarre and often outrageous, perhaps even confidence-trickery. This book provides a much-needed antidote. Informed, comprehensive, and balanced, it offers lay readers the latest ideas about the nature of physical reality while clearly distinguishing between fact and fantasy. With its engaging portraits of many central figures of modern physics, including Paul Davies, John Barrow, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, and Leonard Susskind, it promises to be essential reading for all readers interested in what we know and don’t know about the nature of the universe and reality itself.

Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld. In recent years, the advent of MRI technology seems to have unlocked the secrets of the human mind, revealing the sources of our deepest desires, intentions, and fears. As renowned psychiatrist and scholar Sally Satel and psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld demonstrate in Brainwashed, however, the explanatory power of brain scans in particular and neuroscience more generally has been vastly overestimated. Although acknowledging its tremendous potential, the authors argue that the overzealous application of the burgeoning field of brain science has put innocent people in jail, prevented addicts from healing themselves, and undermined notions of free will and responsibility. A provocative challenge to the use and abuse of a seductive science, Brainwashed offers an essential corrective to determinist explanations of human behavior.

Hitler's Philosophers, by Yvonne Sherratt. Hitler had a dream to rule the world, not only with the gun but also with his mind. He saw himself as a "philosopher-leader" and astonishingly gained the support of many intellectuals of his time. In this compelling book, Yvonne Sherratt explores Hitler's relationship with philosophers and uncovers cruelty, ambition, violence, and betrayal where least expected—at the heart of Germany's ivory tower. Sherratt investigates international archives, discovering evidence back to the 1920s of Hitler's vulgarization of noble thinkers of the past, including Kant, Nietzsche, and Darwin. She reveals how philosophers of the 1930s eagerly collaborated to lend the Nazi regime a cloak of respectability: Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and a host of others. And while these eminent men sanctioned slaughter, Semitic thinkers like Walter Benjamin and opponents like Kurt Huber were hunted down or murdered. Many others, such as Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt, were forced to flee as refugees. The book portrays their fates, to be dispersed across the world as the historic edifice of Jewish-German culture was destroyed by Hitler. Sherratt not only confronts the past; she also tracks down chilling evidence of continuing Nazi sympathy in Western Universities today.

Steve's suggestions

Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction in Life and Markets, by John Brockman. From the bestselling authors of Thinking, Fast and Slow; The Black Swan; and Stumbling on Happiness comes a cutting-edge exploration of the mysteries of rational thought, decision-making, intuition, morality, willpower, problem-solving, prediction, forecasting, unconscious behavior, and beyond. Edited by John Brockman, publisher of Edge.org ("The world's smartest website"—The Guardian), Thinking presents original ideas by today's leading psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers who are radically expanding our understanding of human thought. Daniel Kahneman on the power (and pitfalls) of human intuition and "unconscious" thinking • Daniel Gilbert on desire, prediction, and why getting what we want doesn't always make us happy • Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the limitations of statistics in guiding decision-making • Vilayanur Ramachandran on the scientific underpinnings of human nature • Simon Baron-Cohen on the startling effects of testosterone on the brain • Daniel C. Dennett on decoding the architecture of the "normal" human mind • Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on mental disorders and the crucial developmental phase of adolescence • Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, and Roy Baumeister on the science of morality, ethics, and the emerging synthesis of evolutionary and biological thinking • Gerd Gigerenzer on rationality and what informs our choices.

The Ego Trick, by Julian Baggini. Are you still the person who lived fifteen, ten or five years ago? Fifteen, ten or five minutes ago? Can you plan for your retirement if the you of thirty years hence is in some sense a different person? What and who is the real you? Does it remain constant over time and place, or is it something much more fragmented and fluid? Is it known to you, or are you as much a mystery to yourself as others are to you?With his usual wit, infectious curiosity and bracing scepticism, Julian Baggini sets out to answer these fundamental and unsettling questions. His fascinating quest draws on the history of philosophy, but also anthropology, sociology, psychology and neurology; he talks to theologians, priests, allegedly reincarnated Lamas, and delves into real-life cases of lost memory, personality disorders and personal transformation; and, candidly and engagingly, he describes his own experiences. After reading The Ego Trick, you will never see yourself in the same way again.

Zen and the Art of Consciousness, by Susan Blackmore. Who are you? When are you? What were you conscious of a moment ago? This groundbreaking book sees acclaimed psychologist Susan Blackmore combining the latest scientific theories about mind, self, and consciousness with a lifetime’s practice of Zen. Framed by ten critical questions derived from Zen teachings and designed to expand your understanding and experience of consciousness, Ten Zen Questions doesn’t offer final - or easy - answers, but instead provides an inspiring exploration of how intellectual enquiry and meditation can tackle some of today’s greatest scientific mysteries.

Bonus suggestion (c'mon, surely we can get away with suggesting one of our own books, yes?)

Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life, by Yours Truly. How should we live? According to philosopher and biologist Massimo Pigliucci, the greatest guidance to this essential question lies in combining the wisdom of 24 centuries of philosophy with the latest research from 21st century science. In Answers for Aristotle, Pigliucci argues that the combination of science and philosophy first pioneered by Aristotle offers us the best possible tool for understanding the world and ourselves. As Aristotle knew, each mode of thought has the power to clarify the other: science provides facts, and philosophy helps us reflect on the values with which to assess them. But over the centuries, the two have become uncoupled, leaving us with questions—about morality, love, friendship, justice, and politics—that neither field could fully answer on its own. Pigliucci argues that only by rejoining each other can modern science and philosophy reach their full potential, while we harness them to help us reach ours. Pigliucci discusses such essential issues as how to tell right from wrong, the nature of love and friendship, and whether we can really ever know ourselves—all in service of helping us find our path to the best possible life. Combining the two most powerful intellectual traditions in history, Answers for Aristotle is a remarkable guide to discovering what really matters and why.


  1. Unfortunately, I have not the time to read much coming weeks. However, "Farewell to Reality" sounds the most interesting of the books discussed above.

  2. @ Massimo

    This in regards to "Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth" by Jim Baggott.

    The synopsis says; "These theories [super-symmetric particles, super strings, the multiverse, the holographic principle, and the anthropic cosmological principle] are not only untrue; they are not even science. They are fairy-tale physics:"

    Questions: Do these 'theories' qualify as "metaphysically informed scientific speculation" or "scientifically informed metaphysical speculation?" Also, if they are not science and "fairy-tale" physics (as the author apparently has argued), then do they qualified as pseudoscience? If not, why not?

    1. Alastair,

      forgive me, but your repetitiveness is becoming boring, if not downright irritating.

    2. @ Massimo

      > forgive me, but your repetitiveness is becoming boring, if not downright irritating. <

      You're recommending a book ("Farewell to Reality") in which the author (Jim Baggott) claims that theoretical physicists are putting forth " theories [super-symmetric particles, super strings, the multiverse, the holographic principle, and the anthropic cosmological principle] [that] are not only untrue; they are NOT even science. They are fairy-tale physics:" (And I'm fairly confident that we can place Tegmark's "mathematical universe hypothesis" into Baggott's list.)

      The online "Skeptic's Dictionary" defines "pseudoscience" as "a set of ideas put forth as scientific when they are NOT scientific. "

      So, why don't you stop playing these evasive games and answer the question[s]?

  3. Baggott writes with a clarity and humor the layperson truly appreciates. I've been working my way through "Farewell . . . ." His "A Beginner's Guide to Reality" from a few years back is another the layperson will appreciate.

  4. Per Blackmore's book, she has, from a previous book, 10 fascinating yet simple questions for reflection, meditation, etc. on her website:

    Question 1: Am I conscious now?
    Question 2: What was I conscious of a moment ago?
    Question 3: Who is asking the question?
    Question 4: Where is this?
    Question 5: How does thought arise?
    Question 6: THere is no time. What is memory?
    Question 7: When are you?
    Question 8: Are you here now?
    Question 9: What am I doing?
    Question 10: What next?

    1. @ Gadfly

      The hallmark of Buddhism is the doctrine of "anatta" ("no self").

      "Each illusory self is a construct of the memetic world in which it successfully competes. Each selfplex gives rise to ordinary human consciousness based on the false idea that there is someone inside who is in charge." (source: pg. 236, "The Meme Machine" by Susan Blackmore)

      The lights may be on, but no one's home.

    2. I believe one can come to similar ideas as Blackmore's, dwelling on the same questions, without a Zen Buddhist mindset. Witness Hume's observations about the self, for example.

      And Blackmore has backed off somewhat from her earlier enthusiastic embrace of memes.

    3. @ Gadfly

      > I believe one can come to similar ideas as Blackmore's, dwelling on the same questions, without a Zen Buddhist mindset. Witness Hume's observations about the self, for example. <

      I agree. Hume's "bundle theory of self" shares some similarities with the Buddhist doctrine of anatta (no self).

    4. Philosophy Bites did a podcast on Hume and Buddhism: http://philosophybites.com/2013/09/alison-gopnik-on-hume-and-buddhism.html.


  5. You used the photo of the 10k year explosion again for the Accidental Species entry.

  6. Massimo, I'm surprised that neither you nor other regulars here listed "Just Babies," which I am reading right now, given how much the book is about the developmental and evolutionary origins of morals, with thoughts on moral psychology and moral philosophy.

  7. Massimo,

    Darwin was seen with suspicion in the kind of continental culture I was raised in, because of his connection with Nazism. If you have any doubts about Darwin as a “precursor” of Nazi ideology, chew on this delightful passage from “The Descent of Man”:

    “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked (18. ‘Antrhopological Review,’ April 1867, p. 236.), will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”


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