Archive for the 'popular science' Category

David Graeber & David Wengrow: The Dawn of Everything

April 3, 2023

     This is a complex and pretty challenging read which I struggled with at times, although in the end I’m glad I persevered; there’s a message for me here about venturing too far outside familiar territory, and I’m no anthropologist. The writers set out to survey why different civilisations have developed the way they have, and ultimately to reject both the Hobbesian and Rousseauist pictures of humans in societies as either brutes or noble savages. In particular they take issue with the Western-centric approaches prevalent in the field so far, and this was quite an eye-opening idea, at least to this reader. Basically, was the invention/development of agriculture the start of everything going wrong, in terms of permitting the growth of cities and centralised power?

The writers rely quite heavily on evidence from the past of the native peoples of the American continent, and this in itself is quite revealing. They can be seen as deliberately refusing many of our ideas – Christianity, money, rule from above, for instance – and taking a minimalist approach to work, labour, keeping themselves alive, which of course flies in the face of both capitalism and the Christian work ethic, and yet which is nevertheless a perfectly reasonable approach to living, if freely chosen. Many societies were reluctant agriculturalists, or played at it from time to time, quite deliberately.

The writers do attempt to put everything under the microscope and to challenge every accepted idea, demonstrating just how much that is ‘accepted’ and repeated is actually based on little evidence, is pure speculation, or is an argument in support of the status quo; there is an enormous amount we do not know and yet we behave as if we do. We are shown many examples of non-stratified and egalitarian societies in different parts of the world. It become clear that property rights are pretty much a Western obsession, and also that, wittingly and unwittingly, the past has often been misinterpreted, in the support of an ideology

There is an enormous amount of material here, complete with copious notes, and in the end it’s possibly far too much for the general reader to take on board properly, as I suggested earlier. I was left with as many questions as answers.

While I wouldn’t call myself a Marxist, I do often find the class-based approach useful as a touchstone, as I find that leaving class out of the equation of the development of inequalities tends to depoliticise, and therefore to imply that change is impossible. I was again faced with something I’ve been reflecting a lot on lately, which is the differences between how we humans behave towards each other in smallish groups compared with our behaviours in larger societies and nation states.

In the end I felt the writers avoided the hegemony of the systems which obtain currently in our world. All the examples they provide are from pre-globalisation days, pre- capitalist times, from times when the world was far less populated than it now is; they do sometimes allude to how few people actually inhabited the North American continent. It is now so much harder to look outside the box the human species has packed itself into; it is harder to imagine how things might be different and how we might get there. Understanding more about the different pasts is useful, but what do we do next?

Josef Sadil: The Moon and the Planets

January 7, 2021

     I have been interested in astronomy for most of my life, going back to my childhood days in the primary school playground where my best friend and I devised adventures involving travel through space; we both hoped that we might one day be the first men on the moon… today I’m a retired teacher and when I last had news of my friend he was a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church. I can remember the early probes to the Moon, Mars and Venus mentioned in this book, and the excitement with which we looked forward to the grainy monochrome photos in the newspapers.

I must have been ten or so when this book turned up as a Christmas present from my father. It’s a production from Czechoslovakia, translated into English. I was fascinated by the pictures, which in those remote days were painted artists’ impressions – in colour! – of scenes of what the planets might look like, and they set my childish imagination on fire. Now, more than half a century later we know so much more about the solar system, and of course astronauts have been to the moon; in this book the trip is merely ‘projected’ – as are flights to Mars in the 1980s! It really is a reflection of the excitement and intensity of space exploration in the 1960s, in the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969.

I went back to it, wondering whether the time had finally come to part with a relic. Clearly it’s a museum-piece: far more is known now, far more planetary satellites have been discovered, and the dearth of information about the outer gas giants Uranus and Neptune, or the (non)planet Pluto is rather a shock. What I got was a clear picture of how science progresses by advancing hypotheses and checking them out against increasing amounts of information and evidence as these are gathered. And even more, a renewal of my sense of awe and wonder at this aspect of our human search for knowledge about our universe, a search which is inevitably politically neutral, and which benefits and enriches us all. It’s this idea that, because it’s there we want to know about it, that renews my shrinking faith in the worth of our species…

Jung: Man and his Symbols

April 15, 2020

51APmw-dAwL._AC_UY218_ML3_     I came back to this, one of the oldest books in my library, which I bought and read as a student. At various points I’ve read some psychology texts, done a very useful and interesting training course in counselling, and read quite a bit about astrology, too – I think the overlap between some ideas between astrology and Jungian psychoanalysis was probably where this book came into my life originally.

At the very end of his life Jung, aided by a few followers, attempted to convey the outlines of his ideas to the intelligent lay reader, hence this book. Jung’s particular focus is on the unconscious, and particularly the way it intrudes into our lives and reminds us of its existence though dreams, which may often be messages about our life which it behoves us to ponder and perhaps act upon. For Jung, civilisation has separated us from a very important part of ourselves, and the unconscious is an integral part of our being, not just a ragbag of assorted leftovers from some primordial past.

Jung intended to lead people to understand and explore for themselves (rather than have an analyst do this for them and tell them everything). He puts together a very powerful case for what we have lost through our overly scientific and rational approach; we haven’t eradicated the unconscious part of ourselves but pushed it away, hidden it or ignored it, and so it affects us in different and initially less comprehensible ways.

Subsequent chapters deepen and broaden Jung’s ideas and flesh them out with examples and more detail. The section on symbolism in the visual arts was the most interesting one for me, and I must admit that overall I found the emphasis on dreams and their (over-)interpretation rather too mechanistic in the end. I ended up thinking that psychoanalysis and psychotherapy has moved on enormously since Jung’s time, not in the sense that it invalidates or negates his discoveries, but in that it has changed how it works with people and the issues they have. There’s an imbalance in too much focus on the dreamworld, and too much room for ‘expert’ input and leading interpretation, rather than allowing a person to discover for themselves. It was interesting to come back to the book, but if you want to explore your own inner life, there are others which will serve you a lot better.

Bill Bryson: The Body

February 16, 2020

817GAJ7nY1L._AC_UY218_ML3_    Bill Bryson writes well, which is one of the reasons I have enjoyed most of his books. There is a fluent style to his prose, which manages to be highly informative, entertaining and occasionally humorous as well as highly readable. He knocks spots off the dull, mid-Atlantic ramblings of many contemporary peers.

This book is popular science: let’s not pretend anything else. But what works so well for me is his infectious sense of wonder as he makes the incredibly dry and scientific details – I’m no scientist – accessible and comprehensible to the non-expert. All this is fascinating and eminently forgettable, too, and I suppose this is an aspect of the popular science format. But the formula is good enough to make the reader pause and reflect many times.

Along with the sense of wonder comes a feeling of humility too: it had me going back to the creationists’ explanation for such marvellous complexity – God – briefly, until I jolted myself back to reality and acknowledged that time and evolution did the job… he had me laughing out loud when he commented that he didn’t imagine any fundamentalist woman in labour praising God for the absolutely marvellous job he’d done in making the birth canal the perfect size.

Bryson makes his way round all the components of the average human being, presenting us with a selective mixture of facts and how we came to learn them. He surveys current research and knowledge, as well as outlining the huge number of things which we still don’t know or understand about how the body functions, and can’t manage to do artificially in a laboratory.

I learned (and forgot) lots, but what struck me most was the importance of the discovery of cooking in the remote past of our early ancestors, allowing far more efficient use of calories, less time eating, and helping lead eventually to the larger brain which has allowed us to get where we are today – even if that isn’t a particularly wonderful place.

Bryson is quite shocking, too, when he considers modern medicine in terms of over-treatment of ailments, the profiteering of drug companies, and the awful record of our beloved NHS in terms of cancer treatments. There is a reminder for us all that medicine may have worked wonders in so many ways, but it is still very much not an exact science: it doesn’t have all the answers, even though so many of us think it does…

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