Guardian summer reading disses Darwin

July 18, 2010 • 6:58 am

With thousands of good books out there, and only a few decades of reading, it helps to have some guidance.  Any time a list of “recommended books” comes out, I peruse it ferociously, looking for something interesting while chastising myself for how little I’ve read (if you want to feel bad about yourself, have a look at this).

Yesterday the Guardian published its summer reading list, calling on a number of luminaries—Colm Tóibin, Tom Stoppard, Margaret Drabble and the like—to each recommend two books for your “holiday.”  British summer reading lists tend to be much better than American ones, which are almost invariably packed with fluff for “beach reading.”  The Guardian list doesn’t disappoint, and I’ve found at least two books for my must-read list (The Peregrine by J. A. Baker and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion).  And I may have a look at Perfect Rigor by Masha Gessen; it recounts how a strange Russian mathematician solved the Poincaré Conjecture.

The dearth of science books is unsurprising, I guess.  There are only two: one is Perfect Rigor (chosen, of course, by Tom Stoppard), and the other, I’m sad to say, could easily be called Imperfect Rigor. It was chosen by Richard Mabey, apparently described by The Times as “Britain’s greatest living nature writer.” Here’s his recommendation:

I’ll need a long summer break just to finish Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s dense but explosively exciting What Darwin Got Wrong (Profile). The celebration of the great scientist’s bicentenary last year courteously sidestepped the fact that most cutting-edge biologists now regard natural selection as little more than cosmetic tweaking in the process of evolution. What’s happening is far more philosophically thrilling: creatures are doing it for themselves. The authors show how ancient “managerial” genes, self-organising systems in cells and the inherent tendency towards symmetry in living structures all help to generate new organisms fully pre-adapted to their environments. Wings already pre-balanced for flight!

I’m not sure who these “cutting-edge biologists” are, but I haven’t met them.  Sad that Britain’s greatest living nature writer is so ignorant about biology’s greatest theory.

Perhaps readers can chime in with their own summer books.  Here’s what I’m reading at the moment:

Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (12 novels!)

A Very Short Introduction to Free Will by Thomas Pink

73 thoughts on “Guardian summer reading disses Darwin

  1. Age of Wonder – Richard Holmes

    In Pursuit of the Gene (from Darwin to DNA) – James Schwartz

    36 Arguments for the Existence of god (a work of fiction)- Rebecca Goldstein

    Hope you enjoy “Why Orwell Matters,” I just read it last summer and would highly recommend it.

      1. I found this comment a bit bizarre: “…how a strange Russian mathematician solved the Poincaré Conjecture..” strange Russian? probably quite a genius, strange though.

  2. What I recently finished:
    The Promise by Johnathan Alter (Obama’s first year)
    A Walk in the Woods by Bill Byrson
    Tales and Trails of Illinois (history snippets) by Stu Fliege

    The Third Chimpanzee
    Jared Diamond
    The Poincare Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe
    by Donal O’Shea
    (close to my research area)

  3. Alas, I’m reading mostly astronomy and business books for my university courses.

    But I’m squeezing in bits of Jim al-Khalili’s Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed. It’s really good.

    1. I have read that as well.

      At the time I was living in the same town as Jim and realised that whilst sitting in a cafe he was on a table the other side of the room.

      1. I actually bought my copy at a local charity shop because I noticed that he lectured at our local university — and only later realised that he was “famous”. He’s a good writer and TV presenter.

  4. I’ll be reading a bunch of papers I haven’t got round to reading yet. And I’ll probably try to finally finish Life of Pi. Why would being on holiday make a blighter read anything different from what they were going to read anyway? Are these lists made for people who don’t usually read stuff?

  5. Just got The Portable Atheist. Feeling the need to go back to basics and some old favourites, so maybe the collected works of Saki.

  6. I read 36 Arguments for the Existence of God and enjoyed it very much. Betraying Spinoza by Goldstein is also very good, but then I’ve read several of her books and found none of them disappointing. My big project for the next few months is rereading The History of the Decline and Fall by Gibbon. As my eyes get wonkier and wonkier (scientific term, sorry), I find myself more listening to books on CDs rather than reading. Neil Gaiman’s works are eminent for stunning performance. I also recommend Joyce’s Ulysses on Naxos. I made a contribution to the notes on this one so it is especially dear to me.

    1. Ah I just listened to the Naxos Ulysses too; despite several attempts I never managed to read the book, but it is terrific read to you, even the lists come alive.

  7. I’m reading Sean B. Carroll’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” right now and Richard Mabey’s description of what cutting edge biologists think about evolution sounds like a stupid misreading or misrepresentation of Carroll’s points.

    “Managerial genes” could be tool-kit genes but Carroll doesn’t come close to saying that natural selection merely results in “cosmetic tweaking”, though many of his examples have to do with the evolution of colouration and of specializations of serial homologues (pp. 29-34).

    “inherent tendency towards symmetry in living structures” brings to mind Carroll’s exposition of cyclopia caused by inhibition of the Sonic hedgehog signalling pathway during embryonic development (pp. 75-78). Nowhere does Carroll explain this using phrases like “inherent tendency” or anything else that so reeks of vitalism and nowhere does he say natural selection hasn’t play a role in the evolution of symmetrical forms or that genes don’t play a role in it’s development. It’s even clear from the example of cyclopia that genes do play a role!

    Fuck this. Richard Mabey is clearly unfit to write about science.

  8. Evolution by Stephen Baxter (fiction, set throughout deep time. Also try Manifold series: Time, Space, Origin.)

    The Hippopotamus, by Stephen Fry

    Transformers: War for Cybertron instruction booklet and strategy guides. Now that’s summer reading, amiright?

  9. I approached Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking with, well, not precisely high hopes, considering what it is about, but with the feeling that I would learn something about how another person has dealt with the more difficult vicissitudes of life, but ended by disliking the book, because of what seemed to me a coldness at its heart that derived from Joan Didion’s peculiar concern with success – with describing the successful lives of two successful writers, their routines and restaurants; it struck me as a shallow and oddly unfeeling book that certainly did not deepen my understanding of the human heart. It is nothing beside Henry King’s Exequy or Ben Jonson’s On My First Sonne, or beside David’s laments for Jonathan and for Absalom.

  10. Based on the appearance of that stupid deceptive graph in the other thread, I’d have to recommend Darrell Huff’s classic “How To Lie With Statistics”.

    (Seriously, anyone who has not read this book needs to do so immediately. It’s very readable, short, doesn’t require mathematical knowledge, and doesn’t suffer much from being half a century old.)

  11. Currently reading the very exciting ‘Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World’ by Guy Deutscher “Jaw-droppingly wonderful… A marvellous and surprising book which left me breathless and dizzy with delight” – S. Fry.
    And just finished listening to (I walk the dog 3 hours a day) ‘At Home: A Short History of Private Life’ by Bill Bryson

  12. I’m expecting a copy of “The Inner Bird”, by Gary Kaiser in the mail this week, so that’s what I’ll be reading for the next while. Currently wending my way through “Foundations of Systematics and Biogeography”, by Williams and Ebach. Hey, it’s summer! No time for heavier reading.

  13. I have to say, my own summer reading recommendation would undoubtedly be Richard Mabey’s ‘A Brush With Nature’. He really is Britain’s greatest living nature writer – although he seems to have lost the plot somewhere re. Natural Selection.

  14. (if you want to feel bad about yourself, have a look at this).

    Er, what? If I click through that, I come across a list with Ayn Rand at 1, and at 2 – incredibly – “DIANETICS:THE MODERN SCIENCE OF MENTAL HEALTH” by L. RON HUBBARD (their capitals). Any list that includes that book in the top million doesn’t need to be taken seriously, let alone the top 100.

    1. You’re looking at the wrong lists! Don’t look at the “readers list” but at the “Board’s list”.

  15. A Very Short Introduction to Free Will by Thomas Pink

    An even shorter introduction to free will by Reginald Selkirk:

    Free will does not exist. The concept does not even make sense for a naturalist/rationalist. Get over it. The end.

  16. On his wikipedia page it says Richard Mabey sat for a sculptor as part of a display that included the heads of Mary Midgley and James Lovelock. Might explain his odd views.

    My “winter” readings are:
    A Quantitative Tour of the Social Sciences – Andrew Gelman

    I Will Bear Witness: Diary of the Nazi Years – Victor Klemperer

  17. I haven’t switched to summer reading yet, but free time next week will be a good incentive.

    Currently reading Sean Carroll’s “From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time”, and re-reading Peter Hamilton’s “Night’s Dawn” trilogy.

    The former because even if I don’t agree with Carroll’s suggestions for solutions of inflationary cosmology, I would like to see the full problem as understood by a current theoretical physicist. The later because the capturing but fast-paced 1000+ pages books made for skimping on or skipping fully some slowing down milieus the first time around.

    Fuck this. Richard Mabey is clearly unfit to write about science.

    Agreed. How can someone be taken in by b-s and then laud it publicly?

    [Disclaimer: I do the former all the time, we are all human. I’ve been up the quantum gravity goofy creak when trying to sort out the latest decades of physics – but when you get to the actual physics it is easily seen there is no ‘there’ there, just muddled ideals of “math” as base for physics. Later, I seriously thought philosophy had something to say on anything and especially nature – again, absolutely nothing of relevance there for much the same reason but with “logics” as base substituted instead.

    But the difference is that I only blog comment on my ‘discoveries’ and perceptions at any time. I don’t review or push non-consensus or _anti-consensus_ ideas as consensus! That is a completely different dimension of delusion and in the end self-delusion.]

  18. Taking another pass (read it years ago) at:

    Abusing Science by Philip Kitcher

    Casually reading:

    The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

    and listening to:

    The Annals by Tacitus

  19. I have eclectic tastes and at the moment am reading Bill Bryson’s At Home. Wonderfully entertaining and eclectic in itself – suits me down to the ground. Bryson always does!

    I also have open on the table Frank Ryan’s Virolution. This is a fascinating thesis of co-evolution of virus and host (well not all viruses and hosts!).

    And I know this is an old one but David Ewing Duncan’s The Calendar is an amazing history book in its own right. It delivers a terrific tale around the focus of Calendars and their development and discarding over the centuries.

    Oh! and I still read everything I can find on viruses and other microbial life because I am bent that way. Sigh!

  20. Collapse by Jared Diamond.

    The book looks at a number of societies — e.g. ancient Anasazi Indians, Easter Islanders, the Maya, the Norse in Greenland — whose societies collapsed (they were eating each other at the end, in some cases); and others — e.g. Tokugawa Japan, Tikopia, New Guinea highlanders — whose societies thrived, and tries to figure out why.

    Then he applies the lessons to the modern world. Four billion people in the third world are right now anticipating first world lifestyles in a generation. As Diamond points out, it ain’t gonna to happen. And when that realization sinks in we will encounter interesting times.

    Very scary, extremely sobering reading.

    1. It is an extremely compact book.
      It also has a chapter on Haiti and the Dominica Republic, tellin you the real reasons of why they are so different, as opposed to Pat Robertson’s fantasies.

  21. I just finished Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo By Vanessa Woods.

    It is a wonderful combo of memoir, cracking storytelling, politics and science education, plus humor.

    Previously, I read Hitch-22: A Memoir By Christopher Hitchens

    I was disappointed. The first two chapters and last few were interesting. Too much name dropping to trudge through for the other 8 chapters.

    Recently read:

    Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe By Simon Singh

    Excellent writing makes this understandable for laymen. Singh has a PhD in physics. Epilogue was so-so.

    The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves By Matt Ridley

    Wondefully written, thought provoking. Specialization and trade are key to human progress.

  22. Last week I read … John Dean’s “Conservatives Without Conscience”

    Four years old but perfectly relevant.

  23. Currently reading:

    The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

    On Deck:

    Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer

    In the Dugout: something neato from this list.

  24. Jerry,

    Glad you’ve started tagging your posts with keywords. Any chance you can go back to your book and movie contests so the interested reader could simply click on “Book recommendations” or “Movie recommendations” or something and dig up those lists. They were pretty damned good as I recall. (Of course there is Teh Google, as well, but, hey use whatever resources are afforded you…)

  25. Hey, I don’t feel bad about the Modern Library top 100 novels list: 7 of top ten; 13 of top 20 (but only 31 of the next 80). I didn’t pay much attention to their non-fiction list because a person’s choice in best non-fiction is pretty biased by their interests. Excellent fiction should be accessible to all.

    Just finishing How the Scots invented the modern world: the true story of how Western Europe’s poorest nation created our world & everything in it by Arthur Herman. The subtitle is only slightly hyperbolic, and I recommend for anyone who has any Scottish ancestry as well as anyone who has an interest in world history.

  26. More’s the pity that we have our own Fodor fans in the U.S. Richard Lewontin, SJ Gould’s old wingman, writes in praise of this kerfluffle in the NYRB. Excerpt:

    “The trouble with [Darwin’s natural selection] is that it does not explain the actual forms of life that have evolved. There is an immense amount of biology that is missing. It says nothing about why organisms with the evolved characteristic were more likely to survive or reproduce than those with the original one.”

    To Lewontin, the Grants’ research merely amounts to another Just-So Story.

    For an excellent evo book out of Harvard, I recommend Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire.



  27. Currently reading:

    Quantum, Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality by Manjit Kumar.

    Brilliant compelling and unputdownable.

    I am reading it in conjunction with:

    The First War of Physics, the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1938-1949 by Jim Baggott

    Some of the same characters make important appearances in this book too. Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg.

  28. It’s winter down here, but that just means there’s plenty of time to read curled up in bed. To take a break from learning science, I seem to be reading a lot about the history of science. Currently I’m reading:

    DNA: The secret of life by James Watson. Fascinating history of genetics from the discovery of DNA to now. Pitched fairly high, but explains the concepts well for people not familiar with them.

    Lords of the fly by Robert Kohler. An early history of the use of Drosophila in the lab. Wide range of topics, from experimental breakthroughs to the moral culture that developed in fly labs.

  29. Seeing Further – The Story of Science and the Royal Society, edited by Bill Bryson, is actually a great collection of science writing around the titular theme by an eclectic mix of scientist/writers.

    In terms of fiction – I’ve just finished The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman, and concluded that it’s interesting, but most of the publicity comes from the subject matter rather than any inherent excellence in the story and writing. Good, but not that good. I look forward to his next Dark Materials novel.

    Science fiction: I’d recommend any of the Culture series by Iain (M) Banks, especially enjoyable for the interaction between humans and their socially-equal machines, which maintain an amusing air of bemused exasperation with their human colleagues. His other SF is rather patchy (though Feersum Endjinn is good), as is his non-SF stuff (with a few excellent exceptions like Whit and Complicity).

    Finally, for the biologically/genetically/evolutionarily inclined (though maybe not professional biologists/geneticists/evolutionists, as I’m not sure of their scientific veracity), Darwin’s Radio and its sequel Darwin’s Children, both by Greg Bear, about the next stage of human evolution and how junk DNA turns out not to be junk after all.

      1. Thanks for the Greg Bear recommendations. It sounds like he’s mining a vein similar to the one which produced his mesmerizing novelette Blood Music, the 1983 Nebula and 1984 Hugo winner.

        It’s been many years since I’ve read a complete science-fiction novel, but I just may have to check these out…

  30. Currently I’m going through the pain of trying to find books written by japanese scientists. I’ve read in Frans de Waal’s books that people like Tetsuro Matsuzawa, Toshisada Nishida, Mariko Hasegawa or even Motoo Kimura have written popular science best-sellers in their country. Mind you, best-sellers, not little books noone has heard about, yet they’re impossible to find! I don’t even know if they’ve been translated into English 🙁

    BTW, reading Not in our genes by Lewontin, Rose and Kamin.

  31. Reading “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives,” by Leonard Mlodinow, 2008. It’s somewhat entertaining even for my 18 year-old neice, and if (like me) you teach undergrad Biostats, it’s a godsend.

  32. The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins, which in retrospect probably shouldn’t have been combined with a ferocious summer cold.

    And if anybody wants a light beach reading combined with serious science, I can’t recommend Phil Plait’s Death From the Skies! highly enough. It entertains so well you barely realize just how much about astrophysics you just learned.

  33. I’m supposed to feel BAD because I haven’t read MORE of Ayn Rand’s garbage?

    The rich and powerful don’t need advice on how to be self-righteous assholes. Wow.

  34. I am reading ‘Robinson Crusoe’, which is something that I have had on my bookshelves for a long time and am only now getting around to reading – recently purchased a book called ‘Selkirk’s Island’ and so am interested to compare the two. It is very sad about Richard Maby’s comments in regards to his choice of reading, he really is a very good nature writer….

  35. I read a couple of plays by Euripides and Aristophanes. Very entertaining.

    Then “Hitch-22”, of course. Not quite what I expected.

    Two Booker winners followed:

    “True History of the Kelly Gang” by Peter Carey. An excellent account of Ned Kelly’s tribulations.

    “Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee, a story from the Cape to accompany the World Cup.

    Now I feel mature enough to delve in the Old Testament.

  36. But do read David Lewis-Williams’s Conceiving God. It is a wonderful book and a wonderfully telling attack on religion, all the more so because L-W, un;ike many scientists, actually understands how religion functions in societies, both traditional and modern, and he does not make the mistake of supposing that religiously-minded people are necessarily deluded or suffering from hallucinations and somehow wilfully refusing not to believe.

    1. You know, you can’t base a review on strawmen and at the same time try persuade people that a book is worth reading.

      But thanks for the summer light reading ROTFL in making the mistake of supposing that science-minded people necessarily think that “religiously-minded people are necessarily deluded or suffering from hallucinations and somehow wilfully [sic] refusing not to believe”! I needed that.

      1. Not altogether strawmen, I’m afraid. Some knowledge of the work of people like Guthrie, Atran, Boyer, Pyysainen and others involved in enquiring into the cognitive foundations of religious thinking and behaviour makes one more aware of what one is up against. Anyway, strawmen or no, Lewis-Williams’s book is a devastating attack on religion and well-worth reading.

      2. And ‘wilfully’ is as correct a spelling as ‘willfully’. Look it up in Websters, if you don’t believe me.

  37. Thank you for including the Wikipedia link to Richard Mabey – I’d somehow confused him with the wonderful palaeontology writer Richard Fortey, and was dismayed. Richard Fortey’s book Life: an Unauthorised Biography was an excellent summer read for me a few years back.

  38. I just started (last night):
    Why Evolution is True but I don’t remember the author’s name…

    I also have a book about the Hitchhiker’s Guide somewhere in my house. I am in the process of moving so most of my books are packed away. These are two of the 6 or so that are not.

    A really enjoyable summer read for me last year was Barbarians by Terry Jones based on his documentary. I read it on the beach in Cuba. Any book that uses the word “codswallop” on it’s first page can’t help but be good.

    1. Speaking of codswallop. That is a perfect word to apply to both of the Readers Lists at the Guardian. The contributors might have tried to cover their meddling with some subtlety. On no, sorry, I forgot I was talking about Libertarians and Scientologists. Subtlety just isn’t their forté.

    2. Great though Terry Jones is, makes the mistake of including the Greeks in his Barbarians. This was criticised by Adrian Goldsworthy. See the intro or first chapter (I forget which) of “The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower”, aka “How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower”. Try also Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 by Guy Halsall – in a pile of stuff I am waiting to get through. Those blooming Romans eh?

      1. Meant to say what I am reading – it would not work yesterday! The recent book by palaeontologist Peter Ward, The Medea Hypothesis – a sort of negative Gaia theory.

        Just finished Chris Stringer’s Homo Britannicus & now on Fairweather Eden by palaeoarcheologists Michael Pitts & Mark Roberts, about the discovery of Homo heidelburgensis remains in Sussex in 1993 at Boxgrove. A decade older than Stringer’s book but still good.

        And on the basis that I think it may never rain in London again -we have had only 232.6mm so far this year, while the annual London average is about 560mm – The Drought by J.G. Ballard – for whom the word dystopian was surely invented. Probably says that on the blurb!

        1. I don’t consider Terry Jones book to be serious scholarship but I did find it nice light reading. I will check out Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568.

          If you want, I can send you some rain, Saskatoon has received 411 mm this year and 1 mm came in the first three months of the year! Our average is 254 mm.

    3. Oh yeah, my other summer reading is “The Secret History of the World: And How to get out alive” by Laura Knight-Jadcyk. It is irrational conspiracy nonsense but I love those.

  39. I’m sorry to hear you are reading A Very Short Introduction to Free Will by Thomas Pink. It is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. The style is execrable–he’ll go on and on about something as if it were established fact, when it actually is just one concept of free will. Then instead of just providing an overview of concepts of free will, he veers into espousing his own wrong-headed ideas about it. My copy is filled with annotations I made pointing out logic errors. A highly aggravating book.

    1. I finished it, and I completely agree. Not at all a comprehensive survey, and very self-serving. There is not a bit of discussion about the problem of free will in light of molecular determinism (i.e., science) and quantum indeterminacy, which I would have thought essential these days. I hardly learned anything. Sadly, the book was recommended to me by a philosopher.

    2. On a more positive note, I’m currently reading the very entertaining ebook The Man With Two Left Feet, by P G Wodehouse, a collection of short stories which includes the first story to feature Wooster and Jeeves. Also just started reading Descent of Man. I hope it is as good as Origin of Species, which was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read. Darwin was a fabulous writer.

  40. War by Sebastian Junger (excellent)

    The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. The only Matt Ridley book that’s been heavy going. Here he gives you his perfect faith in libertarianism and the free market and trade to solve all human issues. He flies rather lightly over the issues of the limits on fossil fuels and living space and topsoil and water.

    Nomad by Aayan Hirsi Ali, excellent but not really quite as good as Infidel

    Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. An excellent crime/courtroom/politics novel. Never read it before.

    The Myth of Sisyphus from my Everyman’s Library collection of Camus. I liked La Peste very much. The Myth … is a bit heavier going.

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