Two books worth a look

July 10, 2010 • 5:35 pm

Tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review highlights two intriguing books, one on religion and the other on science.

The first is Philip Pullman’s latest, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, reviewed by none other than Christopher Hitchens.  The novel’s conceit is that Jesus had a twin brother, Christ, and while Jesus was the charismatic one, Christ was the smart one, determined to create a myth around his brother.  Hitchens’s review gives more of the plot, omitting the surprise ending.  Predictably, Pullman’s book has been denounced as profane, and he proffered this response, which I’ve highlighted before.

Hitchens’s review is surprisingly low-key, lacking the zip I’ve come to expect from his pieces.  This may reflect his health problems—or perhaps he’s assumed more gravitas for a NYT review.

The second is The Price of Altruism, Oren Harman’s long awaited biography of population geneticist George R. Price. Price (1922-1975) is famous for developing the “Price equation”, a succinct mathematical formula expressing the conditions under which natural selection would cause a trait to evolve.  The equation gave important insights into the likelihood of evolution via group selection, kin selection, and altruism.  Price was also a bizarre character—an atheist who later became a stalwart Christian, giving his possessions to the poor and helping—and personally housing—the homeless.  He finally committed suicide, slashing his throat with nail scissors.

Harman’s book is reviewed by renowed primatologist Frans de Waal, who likes it.  de Waal explains Price’s accomplishments well, recounting some tales of perfidy in the field, including an account of how John Maynard Smith unethically appropriated other people’s work (I can’t vouch for this claim).

Two plaints about the review. I think de Waal’s explanation of the problem with group selection is a bit unclear, and he skirts the issue of whether altruistic behavior is a direct adaptation or only a byproduct of other adaptations like maternal behavior.  But otherwise it’s a fine review, and I’ll be reading the book.

George R. Price

13 thoughts on “Two books worth a look

  1. Eh…but religion is supposed to protect you against hopelessness and suicide. That is supposed to be the main function of religion, right? To give you “hope”. Yet he committed suicide AFTER his conversion? That is impossible. Religionist propagandists cannot possibly be wrong.

    1. I have been perpetually puzzled as to why it is not, in fact, the reverse.
      Why on Earth would one not wish to see the putative ‘after-life’ as soon as possible? (And don’t give me the manufactured canard about suicide.

      Their fictional 3-in-1 superhero Jesus committed voluntary suicide (John 10:17-18); Judges 9:52-53 claims that suicide is superior to being killed by a female; Judges 16:29-30 advocates suicide if one’s enemies happen to snuff-it too! Suicide-bombers *do* have biblical support)

      1. committed voluntary suicide

        I take it “suicide by cop” or “suicide by justice” doesn’t count.

  2. One day Christ is approached by a mysterious Greek stranger who seems to know everything about him and his ­brother. The crux of the book occurs during the Sermon on the Mount, where Pullman has Jesus delivering a very toned-down and almost secular version of the Beatitudes. The stranger tells Christ to keep up his work as a reporter: “Sometimes there is a danger that people might misinterpret the words of a popular speaker. The statements need to be edited, the meanings clarified, the complexities unraveled for the simple-of-understanding. . . . Keep a record of what your brother says, and I shall collect your reports from time to time, so that we can begin the work of ­interpretation.”

    I wonder how much this owes to Life of Brian’s “Blessed are the cheesemakers”?

    And how much does the ending (which I have not read, but can hazard a few guesses) owe to Gore Vidal’s “Live from Golgotha”?

  3. Pullman’s book is good if a little disappointing – by no means one of his best. If you’re looking for influence, I suggest that one important influence might have been the great and terrifying ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ by the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’, James Hogg. If you want a brilliant account of what Christianity, particularly in its Calvinist guise, can do to your brain, personality, soul – what you will,there is none better.

  4. I was a bit disappointed with the Price book, too. It’s OK in bits and pieces, but it lacks a coherent structure — hard to do in a biography, you would think — and it left me exasperated. The science was familiar, but I wanted to know more about the man…and it never quite gelled.

  5. I don’t want to hijack the topic but the book I’m excited about coming out this month is Race & Reality by Guy Harrison. He was interviewed on skepticality (#126) and sounded fascinating.


  6. “He finally committed suicide, slashing his throat with nail scissors.”

    That made me wince. I’m still holding my throat. I think it’d take more than depression to make somebody take their life in such a grotesque manner. That and the changes in character suggest a deeper mental illness.

  7. The novel’s conceit is that Jesus had a twin brother, Christ…, omitting the surprise ending.

    Resurrection scene – twin brothers – I haven’t read the book yet, but I think I already know the “surprise” ending.

  8. He finally committed suicide, slashing his throat with nail scissors.

    Not to be crass, but that is effing hardcore.

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