Three New Books I Haven’t Read But Hope ToPublished 10 April, 2012
My airplane reading recently has been Steve Pinker’s, The Better Angel’s of Our Nature. I have made it about two thirds of the way through, in part because I’ve had a few lengthy flights recently. It is, in my opinion, very good. One reason I like it is that it makes (even) me feel optimistic; if the murder rate keeps declining at the rate it has been, in 2035 it will actually be negative, meaning, I think, that previously dead people will come back to life, a possibility that seems appropriate for this time of year.
But this post is actually not about Pinker’s book, but instead about three books that I haven’t even started reading, but might be of interest to people who follow this blog.
The first is by E. O. Wilson, regarded by many as the grandfather of evolutionary psychology. The Social Conquest of Earth came out yesterday, accompanied by reviews in various outlets, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal (by Mike Gazzaniga, no less). According to the sources I’ve read online – and, again, the rest of this post is about books I haven’t actually read, and so I won’t try to review or evaluate –Wilson argues that group selection explains why humans are both so social and so successful. I can independently verify this by using Amazon’s feature which allows peeking in the book. At the beginning of Chapter 3, he writes,
Our bloody nature, it can now be argued in the context of modern biology, in ingrained because group-versus-group was a principal driving force that made us what we are. In prehistory, group selection lifted the hominids that became territorial carnivores to heights of solidarity, to genius, to enterprise (p. 62).
I suspect reviews and blog posts will be appearing with some frequency, with people chiming in on the book, pro and con, over the next few weeks. Indeed, Jerry Coyne has already written about it, including a remark about evolutionary psychology, with his not uncharacteristic remark that “[d]espite its occasional overreaching, the evolutionary study of human behavior has brought deep insights. We are, after all, evolved mammals—it’s just that the fact we have culture, and that we can’t be experimentally manipulated, makes us hard to study.”
Speaking of group selection, the second book I thought I would mention is Jon Haidt’s, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. (I should probably admit that Jon was generous enough to ask me for some feedback on a draft of one of the chapters, and is giving me a free copy; full disclosure and all that.)
Still, I want to be clear that I haven’t read all of the book. From what I have read, and from having watched his TED talk, I feel comfortable saying that he, likeWilson, endorses group selection as an important force in human evolution. This isn’t necessarily his main project, as indicated by the title, which is trying to understand human political behavior. For this he relies in no small part on his Five Foundations model of morality (harm, fairness, ingroup, authority, purity), and the suggestion that people of different political persuasions lean more heavily on some foundations than others. (Liberals are big on harm and fairness, less excited about authority, ingroup, and purity. This extends even to their preferences for traits in dogs; watch at about the ten minute mark in the TED talk for what I think is a real highlight.)
Returning to the issue of group selection, which connects his book toWilson’s, he (Haidt) proposes (again, relying on Amazon; his italics):
…that human beings are conditional hive creatures. We have the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves… (p. 223).
And, finally, out today is Jonathan Gottschall’s new book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Again, I haven’t read it, but my sense from what I’ve seen about the book is that Gottschall’s thesis is that fiction is for simulating, allowing us to learn about the world, physical and social; fiction, according to this view, allows us to practice safely, an idea which seems perfectly plausible. I’m more generally pleased to see that some of our colleagues in the humanities – Lisa Zunshine, Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, and so forth – continue to take evolutionary approaches seriously, and it seems to me that Darwinian Literature is doing well.
For my part, on this front, I continue to be interested in the observation that so many stories are moral, focusing on who has violated which rule, and what happens to them, coupled with the fact – is it a fact? – that young children seem to like to hear/read/watch the same story told over and over again, as if they’re learning the layout of the rules in the local moral landscape.
In any case, a few books you might want to check out to keep you occupied for those awkward times when the airplane door is closed but you’re still below 10,000 feet.