Robert Sapolsky’s new book on determinism

September 25, 2023 • 1:20 pm

Robert Sapolsky, a biological polymath who’s written several best-selling books, pointed out in earlier ones (like Behave) that he was a hard determinist, a view he reinforced on a Sci. Am. podcast—one of their rare positive contributions. Now, as I mentioned in February, his new book, totally about determinism, is about to come out—on October 17. You can order it by clicking on the screenshot below. It ain’t cheap at $31.50 for the hardcover, but I may have to dig down deep to get it–or order it from the library.

Here’s the Amazon summary, which implies that Sapolsky isn’t buying any of the compatibilism bullpucky:

Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, his now classic account of why humans do good and why they do bad, pointed toward an unsettling conclusion: We may not grasp the precise marriage of nature and nurture that creates the physics and chemistry at the base of human behavior, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Now, in Determined, Sapolsky takes his argument all the way, mounting a brilliant (and in his inimitable way, delightful) full-frontal assault on the pleasant fantasy that there is some separate self telling our biology what to do.

Determined offers a marvelous synthesis of what we know about how consciousness works—the tight weave between reason and emotion and between stimulus and response in the moment and over a life. One by one, Sapolsky tackles all the major arguments for free will and takes them out, cutting a path through the thickets of chaos and complexity science and quantum physics, as well as touching ground on some of the wilder shores of philosophy. He shows us that the history of medicine is in no small part the history of learning that fewer and fewer things are somebody’s “fault”; for example, for centuries we thought seizures were a sign of demonic possession. Yet, as he acknowledges, it’s very hard, and at times impossible, to uncouple from our zeal to judge others and to judge ourselves. Sapolsky applies the new understanding of life beyond free will to some of our most essential questions around punishment, morality, and living well together.By the end, Sapolsky argues that while living our daily lives recognizing that we have no free will is going to be monumentally difficult, doing so is not going to result in anarchy, pointlessness, and existential malaise. Instead, it will make for a much more humane world.

As I wrote in February based on this summary:

It’s clear from the summary that the “free will” Sapolsky’s attacking is dualistic or libertarian free will (“some separate self telling our biology what to do”). And although some readers think that kind of free will is passé, that everyone already rejects it, that’s wrong. I suspect those who say such things are compatibilists who don’t get out much.  According to surveys in four countries, most people accept libertarian free will, i.e., if you repeated an episode with everything exactly the same, a person could have decided or behaved differently. They also think that a naturalistic universe (or “deterministic” one, if you will) robs people of their moral responsibility. As I’ve long argued, yes, the concept of “moral” responsibility loses meaning in a naturalistic universe, but the concept of responsibility  (i.e., X did action Y) still makes a lot of sense, and that alone gives us justification for punishment—although non-retributive punishment.

If you doubt the pervasiveness of belief in dualistic free will, just look at religion: the Abrahamic religions and many other faiths are absolutely grounded in free will. They are, after all, predicated on you choosing the right religion and/or savior. This means that you do have a free choice, and woe be unto you if you choose wrong. (Calvinists or any religion that believes in “the elect” are exceptions.)

. . . So it goes. Back to Sapolksky. He espoused his determinism in Behave, but this is a full-length treatment, and a book I would like to have written. My main fear about the book was that Sapolsky would take the Dennett-ian stand towards free will, saying that we really have the only kind worth wanting, and downplaying the naturalism that, Dan believes (with other compatibilists), leaves us only one course of thought and action open at any one time. As I’ve argued, while hard determinism leads immediately to a discussion of the consequences for our world, how we judge others, and the justice system, compatibilism seems to me the “cheap way out,” reassuring us that we have free will and not going far beyond that—certainly not into the consequences of naturalism, which are many. It is the hard determinists, not the compatibilists, who follow the naturalistic conclusion to its philosophical conclusions.

The good news is that now when someone wants to understand determinism, I can just shut up and say, “Read Sapolsky’s book,” for I see no divergence between his views and mine (I’d also add Free Will by Sam Harris.) In the end—and I’ll get in trouble for this—I think compatibilists are semantic grifters. They’re really all determinists who want to find some way to convince people that they have a form of free will, even though they couldn’t have behaved other than how they did. This is the “little people’s” argument, not for religion but for philosophy. But in the end it’s the same: “People need religion/the notion of free will because without it, society could not flourish.” That, of course, is bogus. As long as we feel we make choices, even if intellectually we know we couldn’t have chosen otherwise, society will go on.  After all, I’m a hard determinist and yet I’m still alive, getting out of bed each morning. I don’t know what I’ll pick when I go to a restaurant, even though I know it’s determined right before I look at the menu.

Reader Tom Clark wrote a positive review of Sapolsky’s book on the Naturalism site. Click below to read it.

I’ll give just two of Clark’s quotes:

If free will is widely conceived as being opposed to determinism[1], it isn’t surprising that the latter is seen as a threat to responsibility, meaning, creativity, rationality, and other desiderata tied to our core notion of agency. If we’re fully caused to be who we are and do what we do, then it seems we’re merely biological robots, acting out a pre-ordained script; we don’t make real choices for which we might be praised or blamed.

Could you have done otherwise?

This is why Robert Sapolsky’s book Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will(link is external), is likely to ruffle more than a few feathers (although it will do so very entertainingly, see below). Following up on his earlier work Behave(link is external), Sapolsky, a behavioral biologist, is intent on making it clear to anyone who will listen that there is no escaping determinism if we’re serious about understanding ourselves: understanding how we got to be the exact persons we are and why our intentions and choices arise as they do. Moreover, as he takes pains to point out, indeterminism or randomness doesn’t help the cause of agency. After all, as deciders we want to determine our choices, not have them be subject to factors we don’t control. Strangely enough, therefore, determinism, construed commonsensically as the existence of reliable causal, and more broadly, explanatory connections between our desires, decisions, actions, and their effects on the world, seems a necessary condition of genuine agenthood. We really make choices, just not undetermined or arbitrary ones.

Well, the last sentence is a bit grifty given that “make choices” means, to most people, “we could have made other choices.” But I won’t quibble too much. The best part is that, according to Clark, Sapolsky has no truck with compatibilism:

The fight with compatibilists isn’t about determinism; compatibilists agree that we and our choices are in principle explicable by various determinants, not the causa sui. It’s rather about the relative importance assigned to determinism and its implications for moral responsibility and other beliefs, attitudes, and social practices informed by our conception of agency. Sapolsky argues that compatibilists tend to ignore the causal story behind an individual in order to fix our attention on agents and their capacities for rationality and reasons-responsiveness, capacities that compatibilists argue justify holding each other morally responsible.[8] Most of us are capable in these respects to varying degrees, but by downplaying determinism and the causal story, what Sapolsky calls taking the ahistorical stance, compatibilists in effect block access to the psychological and practical benefits of putting determinism front and center: increased compassion and more attention paid to the conditions that thwart human flourishing. Due to factors beyond our control too many of us end up with the short end of the stick when it comes to health, education, social skills, and employability. Sapolsky is especially critical of compatibilist Daniel Dennett, who has claimed that “luck averages out in the long run”. He responds in characteristically plain-spoken style:

No it doesn’t. Suppose you’re born a crack baby. In order to counterbalance this bad luck, does society rush in to ensure that you’ll be raised in relative affluence and with various therapies to overcome your neurodevelopmental problems? No, you are overwhelmingly likely to be born into poverty and stay there. Well then, says society, at least let’s make sure your mother is loving, is stable, has lots of free time to nurture you with books and museum visits. Yeah, right; as we know your mother is likely to be drowning in the pathological consequences of her own miserable luck in life, with a good chance of leaving you neglected, abused, shuttled through foster homes. Well, does society at least mobilize then to counterbalance that additional bad luck, ensuring you live in a safe neighborhood with excellent schools? Nope, your neighborhood is likely to be gang-riddled and your school underfunded.

In arguing against compatibilists, Sapolsky engages with the philosophical literature, citing skeptics about free will and moral responsibility such as Neil Levy, Gregg Caruso, Derk Pereboom, and Sam Harris (see references below). Such backup suggests he is not completely crazy to think that a robust appreciation of determinism, and therefore the sheer contingency of our formative circumstances, should force reconsideration of our conceptions of credit, blame, reward, and punishment.

Clark’s final sentence:

[Sapolsky’s] persistence in seeing Determined to completion – a prodigious undertaking – is much to be congratulated, although he would disavow deserving any such praise. Even if he’s right about that, we’re still lucky to have him.

YES!  But read the rest for yourself. This is a book we can all benefit from (even those miscreants who accept libertarian free will or compatibilism), and I’m glad I can point to a respected polymath who makes an argument I agree with, but written much better than I’d be able to.

What I’d love to see: a debate about compatibilism between Dennett and Sapolsky.

Richard Dawkins on the “simplicity” of God

August 31, 2023 • 11:10 am

If you’re able to read the post below on Richard Dawkins’s Substack site, you get three treats in one. First, he reproduces a scathing review he wrote for the 1996 Sunday Times of London about theologian Richard Swinburne‘s book Is There a God? (The answer was “yes,” of course, and Swinburne’s god was a “simple” one.) Second, Richard re-discusses the topic based on a debate he had with Swinburne and other religionists this June about whether God was indeed “simple.” Finally, both segments are written in Richard’s inimitable clear and humorous style, and so you get the third treat of enjoying his prose. (I’d love to be able to write like him; Richard and Steve Pinker are my models for clear and absorbing writing.)

If you haven’t looked at Richard’s site, the following might be free to access. Click on it to try. If not, either subscribe or just read the quotes I’ll give below.

The book review begins with a funny rebuke:

It is a virtue of clear writing that you can see what is wrong with a book as well as what is right.  Richard Swinburne is clear.  You can see where he is coming from.  You can also see where he is going to, and there is something almost endearing in the way he lovingly stakes out his own banana skin and rings it about with converging arrows boldly labelled ‘Step here’.

Yep, he stepped there.

Swinburne claimed that God has many powers. For example, as Richard notes, the esteemed theologian thinks that God has to keep every physical particle in line, for without God’s continual intercession, every electron would willy-nilly assume different and diverse properties.

[Swinburne’s] reasoning is very odd indeed.  Given that the number of particles of any one type, say electrons, is large, Swinburne thinks it too much of a coincidence for so many to have the same properties.  One electron, he could stomach.  But billions and billions of electrons, all with the same properties, that is what really excites his incredulity.  For him it would be simpler, more natural, less demanding of explanation, if all electrons were different from each other.  Worse, no one electron should naturally retain its properties for more than an instant at a time, but would be expected to change capriciously, haphazardly and fleetingly from moment to moment.  That is Swinburne’s view of the simple, native state of affairs.  Anything more uniform (what you or I would call more simple) requires a special explanation.

. . . it is only because electrons and bits of copper and all other material objects have the same powers in the twentieth century as they did in the nineteenth century that things are as they are now” (p 42).

Enter God.  God comes to the rescue by deliberately and continuously sustaining the properties of all those billions of electrons and bits of copper, and neutralising their otherwise ingrained inclination to wild and erratic fluctuation.  That is why when you’ve seen one electron you’ve seen them all, that is why bits of copper all behave like bits of copper, and that is why each electron and each bit of copper stays the same as itself from microsecond to microsecond.  It is because God is constantly hanging on to each and every particle, curbing its reckless excesses and whipping it into line with its colleagues to keep them all the same.

Oh, and in case you wondered how the hypothesis that God is simultaneously keeping a billion fingers on a billion electrons can be a simple hypothesis, the reason is this.  God is only a single substance.  What brilliant economy of explanatory causes compared with all those billions of independent electrons all just happening to be the same!

Not only that, but besides looking after the gazillions of electrons in the Universe (not just on Earth), God has to monitor the behavior and thoughts of every individual, human or nonhuman, and has complete knowledge of all of them. As it says in Matthew 10:29:

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

The review is delightful, especially if you like mockery of Sophisticated Theology™, and Richard ends it this way:

A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe is not going to be simple.  His existence is therefore going to need a modicum of explaining in its own right (it is often considered bad taste to bring that up, but Swinburne does rather ask for it by pinning his hopes on the virtues of simplicity).  Worse (from the point of view of simplicity) other corners of God’s giant consciousness are simultaneously preoccupied with the doings and emotions and prayers of every single human being.  He even, according to Swinburne, has to decide continuously not to intervene miraculously to save us when we get cancer.  That would never do, for, “If God answered most prayers for a relative to recover from cancer, then cancer would no longer be a problem for humans to solve.”  And then where would we be?

If this is theology, perhaps Professor Swinburne’s colleagues are wise to be less lucid.

I feel like applauding when I read stuff like that.

After this, Richard quotes how theologians and believers went after him for his claim in the debate that God must be complex (his definition of “complex” is below), and that if you really understood theology, you’d know that its practitioners mean “simple” in a way different from both scientists and laypeople.

In the debate, Swineburne stood by his claim that God was simple, so the existence of God isn’t really a problem. (The “complexity” of any god would demand an explanation of how such a vastly complicated deity came about, an explanation that theologians aren’t prepared to give, as they don’t have one—except perhaps to claim “it’s gods all the way down”.)

In a loud, confident, articulate voice, Swinburne expounded exactly the same astonishing line as before, and I criticized it in the same terms. How can you possibly say God is a “simple”, “unitary” explanation for the universe and the laws of physics, given that, in order to create it, he needed to know a whole lot of physics and mathematics.  Plus, 4.6 billion years later, he now has the bandwidth to read the intimate thoughts of seven billion of people simultaneously, and, for all we know, the thoughts and prayers of even more billions of extra-terrestrial aliens.

It didn’t surprise me that Swinburne still thinks God is a supremely simple entity. He evidently uses the word “simple” in a special theological sense. What does surprise me is the number of others incapable of seeing the absurdity of his position. Several Twitter responses to the debate proudly proclaim “Divine Simplicity” as a thing in theology. But you can’t demonstrate that something is right merely by shoving the word “Divine” in front of it, not even if you attribute it to Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. What is the justification for invoking “Divine Simplicity in this context? Does it even mean anything coherent?

And then Dawkins explains what he means by simplicity and complexity, which is the same way scientists (and everyone else, if they could articulate it) understands complexity. It’s a nonmathematical version of “Shannon information.”  Here I have to give a longish quote:

Here’s what I mean by simple. I suspect it captures what most biologists mean, if not most scientists. It can be quantified using an intuitive, verbal version of Shannon’s mathematical measure of information. Simple is the opposite of complex. The complexity or simplicity of an entity is the minimum number of words (more strictly bits – binary digits in the most economical re-coding) you need to describe it. A centipede and a lobster both consist of a train of segments running from front to rear. The centipede is simpler than the lobster, in the following sense. To describe the centipede, you admittedly need a special description of the front and rear segments, but the many segments in between are the same as each other. Just describe one segment, and then say “Repeat repeat repeat . . . some large number of times” (it might literally be 100 times in some species.) But you can’t do that with the lobster because most of the segments are different from each other. If you were to write a book called The Anatomy of the Centipede and another book called the Anatomy of the Lobster, the second book would come out a lot fatter. Assuming, of course, that the two books go into a similar level of detail, which is an easy assumption to police.

From this you can see that simplicity/complexity is measured not just by number of parts but also by what Julian Huxley called “heterogeneity of parts”. And we have to add that the heterogeneous parts themselves, and the way they are connected up, are necessary to the definition of the entity concerned. Any old heap of junk has a large number of heterogenous parts but neither they, nor their particular juxtaposition, are necessary to the general definition of “a heap of junk”. You can shuffle the parts of a  heap of junk a million times, and all million will answer to the definition of a heap of junk. The heterogenous parts of a lobster, and their mutual arrangement, are necessary to the definition of a lobster. So they are to the definition of a centipede, but fewer of them are different from each other, and you can shuffle (most of them) into any order.

There’s more, but I’ll just give some funny bits in the form of social media rebukes Richard got (in italics) and his answers (in plain text):

“Richard, stop embarrassing yourself. Stick to science.

With all due respect – and I have a lot of respect for you – watching you switch lanes from science to philosophy is like watching Michael Jordan switch to baseball.”

I’ve become ever so slightly irritated by the suggestion that you need some sort of special training to think clearly. Philosophy is just thinking clearly. Does one not need to think clearly to do science? Or history? Or any subject worth studying. Perhaps not theology, where thinking clearly might even be a handicap.

and this:

For evolution’s sake stop trying to do theology.”

I am not trying to do theology, not least because I have grave doubts as to whether theology is a subject at all (I don’t in any way impugn the fascinating work done in university Departments of Theology on the Dead Sea scrolls, comparing ancient Hebrew texts, and similar honest scholarship). I’m talking about theology in the (I suspect but could be wrong) obscurantist sense epitomised by “Transubstantiation” and the “Mystery” of  the Eucharist, the “Mystery” of the Trinity, the “Mystery” of the Incarnation, and “Divine Simplicity”.

I am not trying and failing to do theology, Swinburne is trying and failing to do science. The question of why all electrons and all copper atoms behave as others of their kind do is a purely scientific question.  And the question of why we exist, which was the topic of the London debate, is fairly and squarely a scientific question. It is possible that science will never ultimately solve it, though I think it will, and the possibility of failure is no reason to give up without making the effort. But if science doesn’t solve it, no other discipline will.

And, finally, this:

“Stick to biology.”

Thank you, I intend to. Biology uses language honestly and solves real problems. In 2,000 years, what problem has ever been solved by theology?

In that short last sentence, Richard sums up what I try to say in my lecture on the incompatibility of religion and science. There I talk about all the scientific advances in just the last century, and then ask this: “How much more do we know about the nature and will of God since the writings of Augustine or Aquinas?”  The answer, of course is “nothing”, for theology is not a discipline in which one can investigate and test various propositions.  We still know nothing about God—least of all whether He/She/It even exists.

h/t: Daniel

On Helen Joyce’s “Trans”

August 27, 2023 • 9:45 am

I’ve now finished Helen Joyce‘s 2021 book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, and I recommend it to everyone as a perceptive analysis of the growing transactivism in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.  Of course Joyce has been deemed “transphobic” for defending reserving some spaces for biological women only (sports, rape crisis centers, prisons, etc.), but she doesn’t hate trans people at all: she’s sympathetic to the plight of those with gender dysphoria or who have suffered after transition, and wants to curtail trans “rights” only insofar as they impinge on women-only spaces (see above).

Wikipedia summarizes the book’s reviews, and the majority are positive (a surprising admissing by Wikipedia), although of course you can expect some criticism from the woke, from trans activists, and from those who, while positive, have found some issues with the book.  Here are some excerpts from Jesse Singal’s review in the NYT in 2021, just to give a flavor of the last category:

There is a difference between believing in “trans rights” and believing in “gender-identity ideology.” That’s the subtly important distinction that fuels Helen Joyce’s “Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality,” a book that offers an intelligent, thorough rejoinder to an idea that has swept across much of the liberal world seemingly overnight.

Singal then summarizes the book (see the video interview mentioned below that can also serve as a summary), and is favorable, but I’d be remiss not to mention his criticismsas well:

. . . So Joyce’s arguments are convincing. But here and there, I found myself wishing for a bit more nuance. For example, she leans heavily on the so-called desistance literature showing that childhood gender dysphoria often abates in time, but she doesn’t explain that some activists and academics have challenged its validity. These challenges happen to be overblown — my position is much closer to Joyce’s — but they warrant mention. It isn’t that some trans activists “forget that the majority of children will desist” if they don’t socially transition, as Joyce puts it — it’s that they deny that this is the case altogether. It’s important to render one’s opponents’ arguments as accurately as possible.

Similarly, in a section about the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s guidelines for treating gender dysphoria, Joyce writes: “New standards of care are being drawn up as I write. But I see no reason to expect any turn back from ideology and towards evidence.” My own reporting suggests things are more complicated than that, at least when it comes to the child and adolescent guidelines: The subcommittees responsible for writing those sections include a number of clinicians who openly share some of Joyce’s concerns and who think the climate surrounding youth transition is trending toward recklessness. Joyce’s narrative of radical activists having nearly routed sober-minded scientists is a bit too tidy, in this case.

“Trans” is also very thin on citations — this might seem like nit-picking, but in a book so focused on in-the-weeds political and scientific controversies of a morally supercharged nature, it isn’t. And it’s a small point, but Joyce repeatedly calls Martine Rothblatt, a famous transgender woman and entrepreneur, a “billionaire,” even though she doesn’t appear to be quite so wealthy.

Yes, references are thin (and there are no footnotes or citations), and there’s no index, which I found annoying. Nevertheless, I recommend the book highly as an introduction to the “unwoke but sympathetic” side of the debate, and Singal finishes his review this way:

In context, though, these are fairly minor shortcomings. “Trans” is a compelling, overdue argument for viewing self-ID more critically. Even those outraged by Joyce’s positions would benefit from understanding them, given that, as she notes, self-ID polls quite poorly when its actual tenets are fully described to Americans and to the British. The present situation, in which liberal institutions not only embrace these ideas unquestioningly but also, increasingly, punish dissidents, is unsustainable. Open conversation about such fraught issues is the only realistic path forward, and Joyce’s book offers a good, impassioned start.

As I always say, even if you’re opposed to an ideological position, you’re remiss if you don’t read the best arguments for that position. And though I agree with most of what Joyce says, those who don’t should still read her book.

I want to give one long quote from the book that struck me as I read it this weekend.  In the excerpt below, Joyce discusses why three other movements for minority rights—gay liberation and same-sex marriage, women’s rights, and civil rights for American blacks in the South—were slow in coming, and had to be built from the ground up, while the push for trans rights (Joyce argues that “transactivism is not a civil-rights movement at all”) is proceeding much more rapidly and becoming successful. Joyce claims that this is because well-meaning people simply don’t understand transactivism. Here’s a quote from page 224:

What same-sex marriage, women’s franchise and the end of segregation all have in common is that they extend the rights of a privileged group to everyone. And when people hear the phrase ‘trans rights’, they assume something similar is being demanded – that trans people be enabled to live without discrimination, harassment and violence, and to express themselves as they wish. Such goals are worthy ones, but they are not what mainstream transactivism is about. What campaigners mean by ‘trans rights’ is gender self-identification: that trans people be treated in every circumstance as members of the sex they identify with, rather than the sex they actually are.

This is not a human right at all. It is a demand that everyone else lose their rights to single-sex spaces, services and activities. And in its requirement that everyone else accept trans peoples’ subjective beliefs as objective reality, it is akin to a new state religion, complete with blasphemy laws. All this explains the speed. When you want new laws, you can focus on lobbying, rather than the painstaking business of building broad-based coalitions. And when those laws will take away other people’s rights, it is not only unnecessary to build public awareness – it is imperative to keep the public in the dark.

This stealthy approach has been central to transactivism for quite some time. In a speech in 2013, Masen Davis, then the executive director of the American Transgender Law Center, told supporters that “we have largely achieved our successes by flying under the radar. . . we do a lot really quietly. We have made some of our biggest gains that nobody has noticed. We are very quiet and thoughtful about what we do, because we want to make sure we have the win more than we want to have the publicity.”

The result is predictable. Even as one country after another introduces gender self-ID, very few voters know this is happening, let alone support it.

You can find more quotes from the book on GoodReads, or, if an entire book is too much for you, you can hear Joyce summarize many of her arguments in a video discussion with Richard Dawkins that I discussed a few days ago.

It is the demand for self-identification, which undergirds the insistence that trans people really do become complete members of the sex to which they transition (“trans women are women; trans men are men”), that has kept left-centrists like me from embracing the entire transactivist agenda. (Another stumbling block is the movement’s insistence that biological sex is arbitrary and not binary.)

Trans women, for instance, are not identical to biological women, who can get pregnant, have periods, and are usually fertile. (Trans women often become sterile when they transition medically.) Nor, if they’ve gone through male puberty before transitioning, are trans women equivalent to biological women in athletic ability, which is why in most sports they shouldn’t be allowed to compete with biological women.  And trans women tend to retain not only the strength of biological men, but also their aggressive and often their sexual proclivities, which make it dicey at best to put them into women’s prisons or rape-crisis shelters.

But I hasten to add that these curbs on “trans rights” are few and intended only to ensure the right of biological women to be safe and unthreatened. (This includes the right of women in changing rooms to not have to be confronted by transwomen with penises.) In all other ways trans rights should be guaranteed, and, in my view, trans people should be addressed in the manner they wish.

As far as “stealthy approaches” go, how many people know that the Biden administration has enacted policies that prohibit some bans on transgender athletes (including trans women) from competing against biological women in public school athletics, though the policy (which, I believe, defines “transgender” on the basis of pure self-identification) has a provision for bans to ensure fairness?

Under the Education Department’s proposed rule, no school or college that receives federal funding would be allowed to impose a “one-size-fits-all” policy that categorically bans trans students from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity. Such policies would be considered a violation of Title IX.

Still, the proposal leaves room for schools to develop team eligibility rules that could ultimately result in restrictions around trans athletes’ participation.

That would be allowed only if it serves “important educational objectives,” such as fairness in competition and reduction of injury risks.

Any limits would have to consider the sport, the level of competition and the age of students. Elementary school students would generally be allowed to participate on any teams consistent with their gender identity, for example. More competitive teams at high schools and colleges could add limits, but those would be discouraged in teams that don’t have tryouts or cuts.

That’s better than nothing, but in my view the ban should, on the ground of fairness, be total for people who have gone through puberty. And it’s not clear whether schools, under strong pressure from transactivists and organizations like the ACLU, would really enact such bans. Given the sciencitifc data, these bans, especially for post-puberty transwomen competing against biological women, should be absolute. Even for trans people who go beyond pure self-identification and have had medical treatment, data show that they retain most of the athletic advantages accrued during male puberty, and thus shouldn’t compete against biological women.  The public largely agrees with this, but, as noted above, a lot of transactivism occurs below the radar, or in the face of public ignorance.

What about “self identification”? Should a trans woman who simply says they’re a woman without medical intervention immediately accrue all the rights of biological women, including the right to change clothes in a locker room?  Joyce discusses this issue and what kind of interventions, if any, might allow a trans person to be recognized as a “woman”. These are issues that we all need to be thinking about, especially given the recent explosion of youngsters and adolescents identifying as members of their non-natal sex (gender dysphoria is now far more common among females than males).

Finally, I have to call out the ACLU, once my favorite civil-rights organization, for consistently being on the side of self-identification of trans people in cases that involve spaces that should be reserved for biological women. This includes the ACLU’s attacks on laws in both Idaho and Connecticut that allow self-identified trans women—biological men who have had no medical treatment—to compete against biological women in secondary-school sports. What has gotten into the mind of the ACLU that makes them argue that a biological male can accrue the rights of women simply by declaring a change of gender? Surely they must recognize that by defending such males, they are impinging on the rights of biological women?

Click on the image to go to the Amazon site for the book, where it gets 4½ stars. Frankly, that high review surprised me, as I would have thought that trans activists would have damned the book:

Book recommendation and brief review: “Inside Story” by Martin Amis

August 21, 2023 • 12:30 pm

UPDATE: The first reader’s comment below tells me what I didn’t know: that Amis himself died in May of this year. I had no idea. But of course it was esophageal cancer, a common result of excess drinking and smoking.


Before I went on my Galápagos trip, a friend sent me this book, knowing of my love of Christopher Hitchens. It turned out to be an excellent read, and one that I want to recommend to readers.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site:

Although the book is called a “novel,” I doubt there’s much in it that’s fiction. Perhaps a name or two have been changed, but everything else rings true, and corresponds to what I know.

I’ve never read anything by Martin Amis before (now “Sir Martin,” he’s the son of the famous writer Kingsley Amis), but I do have an autographed novel of his given to me by another friend. It’s also well known that he was the best mate of Christopher Hitchens. They were born within a few months of each other in 1949, also my own birth year. Hitch, of course, died at the ungodly early age of 62; booze and smokes had taken their toll.

The book is about many things: the nature of prose and poetry, advice on how to write, a memoir (heavy on sex and girlfriends) and, above all, a recounting of the life and death of three of Amis’s literary friends: Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, and, of course, Christopher Hitchens. It thus has an episodic structure: after you read a chapter on, say Phoebe Phelps (a pseudonym for one of Amis’s greatest loves, and a striking character), you immediately transition to a chapter on what words and phrases you shouldn’t use while writing, even as a layperson.  This structure is not jarring, for it’s a summing up of what Amis sees was important in his life (he avers that, given his age, this will likely be his last novel).

Above all, the book is about death, and the waning of literary power as one grows older. We see Larkin dying of throat cancer, his esophagus removed, Bellow slowly losing it in a battle with Alzheimer’s that he cannot win, and Hitchens, who also died of throat cancer after repeated bouts of radiation, chemotherapy, and proton therapy.  The dying/death scenarios are long, occupying multiple chapters, and are somewhat depressing, but that’s the theme of the book. (Well, the real theme is what writers can leave behind when they die.)

There’s a final chapter on the death of each of the three principals, called “The Poet” (Larkin), “The Novelist” (Saul Bellow) and “The Essayist” (Hitchens). Readers will be most interested in Hitch, whose medical travails are described in gruesome detail.  But you have to hand it to the man—he never kvetched or complained about dying, even though he knew (especially near the end) that he was on the way out.  Amis and six others kept watch for eight hours over Hitchens in the hospital as, comatose with pneumonia, his blood pressure dropped and then his heart stopped.

This is the most complete description of Hitchens’s death, and it also gives his two last whispered words, which you won’t find anywhere else. They were these: “Capitalism. . . . downfall.”

The sad atmosphere of the book is leavened by Amis’s conclusion (there are two postludes after it), which is that great writers are great because they are infused with the love of life—the ability to see in everyday things the wonder that most of us miss. That may sound trite, but Amis tells it with panache. Some final excerpts:

Writers take nothing for granted. See the world with ‘your original eyes”, “your first heart”, but don’t play the child, don’t play the innocent—don’t examine an orange like a caveman toying with an iPhone. You know more than that, you know better than that. The world you see out there is ulterior: it is other than what is obvious or admitted.

He then goes on to show how Nabokov (another writer much discussed by Amis), Bellow, Larkin, and Hitchens saw the world like this because they were in love with life, which makes their deaths even sadder. One more excerpt:

Saul Bellow was a phenomenon of love; he loved the world in such a way that his readers reciprocated and loved him in return. The same goes for Philip Larkin, but more lopsidedly; the world loved him and he loved the world in his way (he certainly didn’t want to leave it), but so far as I can tell he didn’t love a single one of its inhabitants (except, conceivably, my wholly unfrightening mother: “without being in the least pretty” she was, he wrote in his last letter “the most beautiful woman I have ever seen”). Anyway, the love transaction has always operated, to various degrees, with each and every repeatedly published novelist and poet. With essayists, the love transaction was more or less unknown until Christopher Hitchens came along—until he came along, and then went away again.

This is literature’s dewy little secret. Its energy is the energy of love. All evocations of people, places, animals, objects, feelings, concepts, landscapes, seascapes, and cloudscapes: all such evocations are in spirit amorous and celebratory. Love gets put into the writing, and love gets taken out. . . .

Take that for what you will, as it may reflect Amis’s own amatory propensities.  There’s no doubt, though, that Hitch had a great gusto for life. But what’s certain is that writers, like painters, see the world in ways that we peons don’t, and so, when they’re apparently doing nothing—just thinking or observing—they’re actually doing the hard work that gets transformed into art.

Others, like the Guardian reviewer above, may not like the book, but it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, gets many stars on Amazon, and got starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist.  So I’m not alone in recommending it.

By the way, Hitchens should have won a Pulitzer Prize for his essays, but he never did.

Here’s a picture of Amis and Hitch (note “Mr. Walker’s amber restorative” and the cigarettes) from a tepid review of the book in The Guardian.

(Caption from The Guardian). Remembered table talk, in particular with Hitchens, is routinely granted Socratic weight’: Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens in Cape Cod, 1975. Photograph: Christopher Hitchens

UPDATE: I just found this review in the NYT, which is mixed but largely positive. A long excerpt:

Don’t be baffling, don’t be indigestible, he warns the young writer. Exercise moderation when writing about dreams, sex and religion. Be a good host to your readers.

It’s sound advice. Why doesn’t he take it?

“Inside Story” is rife with dreams, sex fantasies and maundering meditations on Jewishness, a longstanding obsession. The book feels built to baffle. It is an orgy of inconsistencies and inexplicable technical choices. Why are some characters referred to by their real names (Amis’s friends, for example) and others given pseudonyms (his wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, is referred to by her middle name, Elena)? What is the logic behind the sudden shifts into the “loincloth” of the third person? Why does a writer who, on one page, excoriates Joseph Conrad for cliché, for the sin of “in the twinkling of an eye,” so blandly deploy “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” — and worse? What … is … the point … of the … insane … amount … of ellipses?

[The ellipses are explained by Amis as mimicking the pauses in most people’s conversations, and this book, if anything, is a conversation between Amis and the reader, beginning with an invitation to come inside, sit down, and have a drink. I quite like the conversational style. This is NOT your conventional novel!]

The review continues, and this part should make you want to read the book:

Most maddening of all, “Inside Story” also includes some of Amis’s best writing to date.

The sections on Bellow and Larkin, about whom he’s written exhaustively, are warm and familiar. There are scenes of the disorientation of their last days, of Bellow compulsively watching “Pirates of the Caribbean.” He’s a very brave boy, he’d say of Jack Sparrow, with genuine emotion.

It’s on Hitchens that Amis moves into a fresh register. A writer so praised for his style (but also derided for being all style), Amis accesses a depth of feeling and a plainness of language entirely new to his work. He marvels at his friend’s ability to face death with courage. He puzzles over what he still doesn’t understand — chiefly Hitchens’s support of the Iraq War, which he claims Hitchens deeply regretted.

In one scene, Amis assists Hitchens as he takes a swim. “Do you mind?” Hitchens asked, now ailing. Swimming alongside him, Amis was seized by the memory of helping his son learn to walk in proper shoes. “No,” he responded. “I love it.”

Nothing in Amis prepared me for such scenes, for their quiet, their simplicity. Martin Amis, like Phoebe Phelps, has retained the power to surprise. An unexpected boon of aging? He’ll never admit it. But we might say of him, as he says of Phoebe: “She’s like a character in a novel where you want to skip ahead and see how they turned out. Anyway. I can’t give up now.”

Brief review: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

June 18, 2023 • 9:15 am

This weekend I finally polished off Walter Isaacson’s big book (570 pp. of text) Steve Jobs, a 2011 biography of the tech entrepreneur, design genius, and prickly human being. I’m not sure why I took it from the library—I have a feeling a reader suggested it—but I’m glad I did, as I found it an excellent description of the man and his short life (he died at 56 of pancreatic cancer in 2011, two weeks before Isaacson published the book).

It’s the first biography I’ve read that seems to be cast in an interview format:  that is, much of the text involves quotes from people who interacted with Jobs, which, woven together, bring the book to life (Isaacson had more than 40 interviews with Jobs alone, up to right before he died).  Two aspects of Jobs stick out:

a.) The man was a technical genius, devoted to producing products that people didn’t know they needed, integrating those products into a seamless whole (including proprietary software), and controlling the entire supply chain from idea to device, including the factories making the materials for his products as well as the casings of his computers and iPods, to the notion (and design) of the Apple stores themselves. No detail was too small: he worried for weeks, for instance, about the nature and color of the plastic encasing the first Macintosh.  His explicit aim was to meld art and technology, creating a beautiful product that was not only sui generis, but one that was easy to use and gave pleasure to the user.   Here is a list of the products that, according to Isaacson, “transformed whole industries” (pp. 565-566):

  1. The Apple II
  2. The Macintosh
  3. Toy Story and other Pixar blockbutsters
  4. Apple stores
  5. The iPod
  6. The iPhone
  7. The App Store
  8. The iPad
  9. iCloud
  10. Apple itself, “which Jobs considered his greatest creation, a place where imagination was nurtured, applied, and executed in ways so creative that it became the most valuable company on earth.”

b.)  The man was largely a jerk, at least as portrayed in the book.  At once mercurial, charismatic, tyrannical, and hateful, he was fully capable of telling a waitress that the food she served was shit, firing somebody on the spot, and telling his employees that their work was “crap”.  He knew this, and said, according to Isaacson, “This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not.” But Isaacson adds, “I think he actually could have controlled himself, if he had wanted.” Well, as a determinist I don’t buy it; not unless “he wanted” means changing his style based on environmental influences on him—like other people telling him to shape up. But one can also argue that his personality—the combination of charisma and Manichean authoritarianism—is what allowed him to accomplish what he did.  Under “reception” on the Wikpedia article, his colleagues and friends say this about the biography:

A number of Steve Jobs’s family and close colleagues expressed disapproval, including Laurene Powell JobsTim Cook and Jony Ive.  Cook remarked that the biography did Jobs “a tremendous disservice”, and that “it didn’t capture the person. The person I read about there is somebody I would never have wanted to work with over all this time.” Ive said of the book that “my contempt couldn’t be lower.” [JAC: he probably meant “higher.”]

Still, even if Isaacson overemphasized the odious side of Jobs—and Jobs told Isaacson to write what he wanted, never vetting anything as Jobs “had no skeletons in his closet that couldn’t come out”—the biography is well worth reading. I came away with the sense that I’d encountered a once-in-a-lifetime character, and would dearly have liked to have met him. He certainly has changed my life, as I’ve never used any computers or music devices that weren’t made by Apple. And you’ll never use your Apple computer or iPad again without thinking of the man behind it.

The book was #1 on Amazon in the year it was published, and sold 3 million copies in the U.S. in the first four years alone. I’d recommend it highly; the paperback is selling for only $11.60 (the hardback is $18.69) on Amazon.

Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after a routine kidney scan in late 2003. It was one of those rare forms of the disease that isn’t invariably fatal, and had he undergone surgery at the time, he might have lived. But he didn’t want his body “opened up,” and for nine months he sought alternative therapies involving diet, acupuncture, and other forms of useless treatment.  He was finally operated on, but the cancer had spread. Nevertheless, he lived another eight years, dying at 56 on October 5, 2011. (Isaacson’s book came out on October 24th.) Who knows what he could have come up with had he undergone that first operation in time (which, of course, stillmight not have worked)?

Below I’ve put his commencement address at Stanford in 2005, which tells three stories about his life that helped make him what he was. It was the only commencement address he ever gave, and he wrote it himself. (The last story is about his cancer, which he’d already had for two years.)  This is what Isaacson said about the talk (p. 457):

The artful minimalism of the speech gave it simplicity, purity, and charm. Search where you will, from anthologies to YouTube, and you won’t find a better commencement address. Others may have been more important, such as George Marshall’s at Harvard in 1947 announcing a plan to rebuild Europe, but none has had more grace.

Judge for yourself; it’s only 15 minutes long;

Below is the first half of Jobs’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007 (this is part 1; part 2 is here). He always introduced these products on a darkened stage with one screen, directly demonstrating his devices to the cheers of a worshipful crowd. And he always wore jeans, New Balance sneakers, and a black Issy Miyake turtleneck.  There is no script to read from, though of course he’d practiced the presentation.

His cancer recurred the next year, invading his liver and mandating a liver transplant in Tennessee.

And here is a good 60 Minutes interview of Isaacson by Steve Kroft, discussing the book and Isaacson’s view of Jobs. The final anecdote (at 27:20) is also the ending of the book, and is enough to bring you to tears.

If you want a decent one-hour video biography of Jobs, go here.

After pushback from readers, Elizabeth Gilbert withdraws her unreleased novel because. . . . it was set in 1930s Russia

June 15, 2023 • 9:15 am

He we have a dramatic example of literary suicide by writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who, after being demonized on social media, withdrew from future publication her latest novel, The Snow Forest. Why? Solely because it was set in Russia—1930s Siberia, to be exact. Apparently writing about Russia when Putin’s Russia is attacking Ukraine—a century after the novel was set—simply cannot be done. Besides the pushback, which may have come from an organized campaign, Gilbert claims that she withdrew the book because its topic elicited an outpouring of anger and pain from Ukrainian readers, and she didn’t want to add “any harm to a group of readers who experienced and continue to experience extreme harm.”  Note that none of those who objected had read the book, for it wasn’t due out until next February. All they knew was its topic. But of course that hasn’t stopped literary Pecksniffs before.

And that’s apparently the only reason for the self-cancellation, as recounted in the following Free Press piece by novelist Kat Rosenfield (click screenshot to read):

I don’t know much about Gilbert except what everyone else does: she wrote the wildly successful autobiographical novel Eat Pray Love, aimed at giving hope to all women whose love life wasn’t successful. I neither read the book nor saw the movie, but I did pick up the book in a bookstore and paged through it. What I saw was the worst writing of any novel I’ve seen since The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller, which was a good movie but an absolutely dreadful book—perhaps the most abysmal modern novel I’ve read. (Note: I haven’t read any other of Gilbert’s half dozen books.)

Gilbert’s withdrawal was accompanied by the usual act of public contrition, so look at that first: click on the confession below to hear it on Instagram, and be sure to turn the sound on:

Now everyone knows I’m firmly on the side of Ukraine in this conflict, but this novel had nothing to do with the current conflict; the only “problematic” thing about it was that it was set in Russia. Not only that, but it depicted the lives of a group of anti-Soviet people, people who, says Gilbert, “removed themselves from society. . . resisted the Soviet government and defended nature against industrialization.”  What on earth does that have to do with the current conflict?

Yes, I’m with the Ukrainians in the war, but I’m not with them on this one, for they’re exhibiting the kind of cancellation-without-reading madness that we’ve become familiar with.  Here’s what Rosenfield says about the episode:

Until this week, Elizabeth Gilbert was best known as the author of Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir about finding her bliss (and her appetite) in a post-divorce odyssey through Italy, India, and Bali. Now, she’s the unwitting harbinger of what appears to be a seismic change within the literary community, and perhaps in the culture at large.

Gilbert’s upcoming novel, The Snow Forest, was set in 1930s Siberia—which, as we all know, is part of Russia, which, as we all know, is the headquarters of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing and execrable war against Ukraine. As is so often the case when it comes to publishing controversies, this fourth-degree connection between American author and Russian imperialist wasn’t a big deal until, suddenly, it was: over the weekend, The Snow Forest was trashed on the book review site Goodreads in an organized campaign by people who took exception to Gilbert’s choice of setting.

As of this writing, the book has 174 reviews and 533 ratings, every single one of them one star, and most employing eerily similar language that suggests the existence of a form letter lurking behind the scenes. (Chief among the claims on the page, which has now been removed, is that Gilbert’s book, which was not slated for release until February 2024 and absolutely none of its critics have read, is guilty of “romanticizing” Russia.)

This from a New York Times piece on the cancelation:

[Gilbert] continued: “It is not the time for this book to be published. And I do not want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced and who are continuing to experience grievous and extreme harm.”

The publication of the book, “The Snow Forest,” was announced last week and had been scheduled for Feb. 13, 2024, shortly before the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The novel follows a Russian family that has removed themselves from society in the 1930s to try to resist the Soviet government.

. . .Since the start of the war in Ukraine, arts institutions have sought to distance themselves from Russian artists and writers — in some cases, even from dissidents. In May, during PEN America’s World Voices Festival, participating Ukrainian writers objected to a panel featuring Russian writers, leading to a disagreement about how to proceed and the cancellation of the panel. (Both of the Russian writers on the canceled panel, the journalist Ilia Veniavkin and the novelist Anna Nemzer, had left Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine.)

Last year, the Metropolitan Opera in New York cut ties with the superstar Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who had previously expressed support for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev, who denounced the invasion, had his concert tour in Canada canceled last year. The Bolshoi Ballet lost touring engagements in Madrid and London.

It’s one thing to impose sanctions on the Russian government that, incidentally, may cause harm to regular Russians. But it’s a different thing entirely to cancel all things Russian because Russia invaded Ukraine. Many Russian people don’t agree with their government, but are afraid to oppose it publicly.  Just as I don’t favor academic boycotts of “demonized” countries like Israel, I don’t favor cultural boycotts of countries like Russia, which seem to me to have no positive impact at all. It’s a form of enraged virtue signaling.

Rosenfield makes two more points. First, this cancelation is nothing new, as you’ll know if you read this site. Sometimes the publisher does it (not in this case, though), and sometimes the author does it. But the cancelations are invariably accompanied by cringeworthy statements of contrition by the author, like Gilbert’s above. As Rosenfield notes:

 Within the past five years, authors withdrawing their books over allegations of nebulous harm have become a familiar spectacle.

In 2019, fantasy author Amélie Wen Zhao cancelled her novel Blood Heir over allegations the book was racist. That same year, Kosoko Jackson withdrew his debut novel from publication after critics complained that its Kosovo-set gay love story “centered” Americans and trivialized genocide. In 2020, Ember Days author Alexandra Duncan withdrew her book from publication after another author, who had not read it, took exception to its cover tagline (yes, really).

More interesting to me is that, for the first time, the literary world is showing a backlash to the backlash: authors, literary organizations, and free speech groups are upset and worried about the ability of the public to control literature in this way, and are not that supportive of Gilbert’s decision:

[Because previous acts of contrition had been applauded], there was no reason to think that Gilbert’s announcement would not be similarly celebrated. Yet, right away, this one just hit differently. Commentators immediately compared it to the histrionic moment in 2003 when the Congressional cafeteria renamed French fries “freedom fries” after France declined to support the American invasion of Iraq. PEN America’s Suzanne Nossel released a statement calling Gilbert’s decision “regrettable,” saying, “literature and creativity must not become a casualty of war.” And fellow writers were no less dismayed: as acts of moral grandstanding go, this one had disturbing repercussions. Elizabeth Gilbert, whose net worth is estimated upward of $20 million, might not have thought much about the financial hit she would take by cancelling her book, but for most writers, this sets a precedent that is not just economically ruinous but completely untenable in the glacially paced world of publishing. As author Rebecca Makkai tweeted, “So apparently: Wherever you set your novel, you’d better hope to hell that by publication date (usually about a year after you turned it in) that place isn’t up to bad things, or you are personally complicit in them.”

Perhaps most tellingly, this was a bridge too far even for some of the most diligent defenders of similar, previous incidents. “The Russian people are human beings,” wrote Osita Nwanevu on Twitter. “Stories can and should be told about them. They are not reducible to the actions of their present government. This stuff over the last year has been pretty unsettling, honestly.”

. . . That someone, someday, would take the anti-Russian cultural crusade too far was probably inevitable; the only question was where the line would be drawn. As it turns out, declaring Russia off-limits even as a fictional setting—a place you dare not go even in your own imagination—was too much, even for the scolds among us.

Even the staid but woke New York Times couldn’t help point out the difference from previous cancelation campaigns:

By the early afternoon on Monday, a backlash to the backlash had escalated on social media, with many slamming Gilbert’s critics, and others chiding Gilbert herself for succumbing to pressure.

The episode also sparked renewed criticism of Goodreads, which allows users to leave reviews of books long before their publication date, without having read the book, and has sometimes served as a springboard for online campaigns against authors.

Some literary and free speech organizations saw the controversy over the novel — the latest example of how a social media pile-on can derail a book’s publication — as a cautionary tale.

Mary Rasenberger, the chief executive of the Authors Guild, said the organization supports Gilbert’s right to make decisions about her book’s publication date, but also expressed alarm about how authors increasingly feel vulnerable to online pressure campaigns.

“We don’t think authors should ever be pressured not to publish their books,” said Rasenberger. “The more complicated issue of the era is that authors are being told they can’t write about certain subjects.”

Other organizations warned that the criticism of the novel, and Gilbert’s response, set an unnerving precedent, and urged her to release her novel as originally planned.

“The publication of a novel set in Russia should not be cast as an act exacerbating oppression,” Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s chief executive, said in a statement. “The choice of whether to read Gilbert’s book lies with readers themselves, and those who are troubled by it must be free to voice their views.”

When PEN America, which hasn’t had a particularly strong backbone about these issues (besides its canceling its Russian literary panel in May, in 2015 many of its members criticized an award given to Charlie Hebdo for literary courage), then you know that the literary establishment isn’t with you.  The Ukrainians who complained about this novel being set in Russia are understandably peeved at that country, but that’s overwhelmed their judgment to the extent that an author who simply writes about Russia is piled on (I suspect many of those one-star ratings came from Ukrainians or their sympathizers). Are we to have no more literature about Russia until the war is over? Will they start pulling Tolstoy and Dostoevsky off the shelves? Not this time: the literary world is fed up with cancelations, at least for a while.  Gilbert is not a hero, and her actions aren’t admirable: she is a sniveling, whining, coward who refuses to recognize the obvious: her book has nothing to do with the current war, and thus causes no harm to Ukrainians. 

The book that dares not be on shelves

Short review: “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” (and a request for recommendations)

June 6, 2023 • 12:00 pm

Thanks to people’s recommendations, I’ve read a lot of terrific recent fiction this year, including HamnetAll the Light We Cannot Seeand The Book Thief.  Those, I think, are world-class novels, and I’ve recommended the first two here. (I haven’t written about the last one yet, but it shouldn’t be missed.)

Last night, I finished this one, also recommended by a friend, and I finished it in tears. It’s ineffably absorbing, sad, joyful, and beautiful all at once.  It was released in 2006 and became an international bestseller. It’s a somewhat brainy (but never boring!) novel about life, philosophy, and character, so readers here should enjoy it. The plot is also imaginative; I’ll never figure out how novelists can conjure up such an ingenious story out of thin air.

(Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon page—it’s only nine bucks in paperback.)

I won’t give away the ending, which ties the whole book together, but it should leave you in tears as well.  It’s the story of two erudite people: a 12-year-old girl named Paloma who lives in a fancy apartment in Paris with her wealthy family, and the building’s impecunious concierge, the 54-year-old Renée.  Ignored by all the residents because of her lowly job, Renée is nevertheless a thoughtful autodidact and knows a great deal about philosophy, literature, and music. Paloma is also fiercely smart and thoughtful—way advanced for her age. Like Renée, Paloma, who doesn’t much care for her family, lives in isolation, preferring to be alone with her thoughts.

The chapters alternate between the narration of Renée, whose husband has died and who has but one friend, and the writings of the cynical Paloma, who is preparing to kill herself on her 13th birthday and is summarizing her thoughts and philosophy in two works, “Journal of the Movement of the World” and “Profound Thoughts”. The language used by both characters is gorgeous, and the thoughts are indeed often profound.

The quotidian life of these women and the other apartment-dwellers is shaken up when a wealthy and retired Japanese man, Kakuro Ozu, moves into the building and immediately recognizes the perceptiveness of both women. He makes friends with them and leads them to befriend each other, opening up new perspectives for all three.

That’s all I’ll say, as the plot comes together in the last chapter in a way that will break your heart. A novel doesn’t often bring me to tears, but this one not only did that, but also kept me up half the night thinking about it. I recommend it very highly.

So that’s one for you (and read The Book Thief, too).  What books—fiction or nonfiction—have you enjoyed lately?

Book recommendation: “G-Man”

May 31, 2023 • 12:45 pm

Assuming you’re not put off by long books (this one has about 750 pages of text) and that you a well-written biography of a fascinating American character, I can highly recommend G-Man, which won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. It also nabbed a bunch of other awards, including the 2023 Bancroft Prize, the 2023 Barbara and David Zalaznick Book Prize in American History, the 2023 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography, and the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.  I found out about the book via a recommendation fr0m my editor at Viking Penguin, the terrific Wendy Wolf, who happened to be the editor of this book—her second editing job to win a Pulitzer for nonfiction.

I presume that you know a little about J. Edgar Hoover: how he was FBI director from 1935-1972—from the days of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd right up through the Watergate burglary.  He refused to step down (and so died in office), served under eight Presidents, and grew the Bureau from a small investigative office into the behemoth institution it is today.

You’ve probably also heard that he illegally bugged Martin Luther King (among many other people), catching the Reverend in acts of infidelity and sending the tapes to Coretta King. After that, he had an anonymous note sent to King urging him to “do the right thing”, i.e.,  kill himself. (Hoover, an arch-conservative, disliked the civil rights movement, all Communists, and, at the end of his life, the left-wing antiwar movement.) You may have also heard that he was gay and dressed in women’s clothes. The latter isn’t true, while the former probably is, though Gage was unable to produce convincing proof that Hoover, who never married, had a homosexual relationship with his deputy Clyde Tolson.  They were surely partners of some sort, and nearly all of Hoover’s money (and the flag on his coffin) went to Tolson after his death. Hoover also bugged John and Bobby Kennedy, catching them in multiple infidelities, though he didn’t use that information against them.

Beverly Gage spent 16 years writing this book, and it shows: it’s loaded with facts that only a dogged researcher could pry out of archives, and yet the prose is superb. This is a long book that’s also a page-turner.

I don’t think that anyone who reads this book and has a moral neuron could think anything other than that Hoover was an odious human being, even though he ran the Bureau efficiently (although autocratically). He regularly violated the law by wiretapping, intimidating people, and engaging in quasi-legal manipulations to get his way, and I could find no sense of humor in the man, or, indeed, anything to like. Acts of empathy on his part were almost nonexistent. People befriended him simply because he was powerful.  But that’s what makes the story fascinating: how he cowed seven Presidents, including several who couldn’t stand him, into getting his way. (He got along best with Nixon and Johnson).

Gage sums up his life in a couple of pages at the end, and, like me, sees him as a pretty awful human being, but one who had the facility to wield power to his own advantage. He played a huge role in American history, though not always a good one, and if you’re a history buff or simply like biographies, this is one to read.  It’s a good book to take on a long trip, but too heavy to schlep to the beach!

I give it two hearty thumbs up.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon page:

Click below to see a 16-minute NPR interview of Beverly Gage by Michel Martin:

Book review: “Left is Not Woke”

May 18, 2023 • 11:30 am

The title of this new and short book (160 pages; click screenshot to go to the Amazon site) lured me to ask our library to buy it, for I thought it should be available to University folk.  And of course being a Leftist and generally “antiwoke,” I wanted to see what arguments were on offer about why being on the Left is incompatible with being woke.

I hadn’t heard of the author, but Wikipedia has an entry for Susan Neiman and this is part of it:

Susan Neiman (/ˈnmən/; born March 27, 1955) is an American moral philosopher, cultural commentator, and essayist. She has written extensively on the juncture between Enlightenment moral philosophy, metaphysics, and politics, both for scholarly audiences and the general public. She currently lives in Germany, where she is the Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam.

Sadly, I was disappointed in her book.  The first problem is that she doesn’t deal much with what “wokeness” really is, nor give examples of it to buttress her thesis. And Neiman’s thesis is this: she’s a big fan of the Enlightenment, and thinks that Leftism (unlike Liberalism, which is wedded to capitalism) is the political instantiation of her admired Enlightenment values.

Wokeness, Neiman argues, violates three Enlightenment values in ways I describe below:

a. Wokeism is tribalistic.  The overweening aspect of the Enlightenment, argues Neiman (and here I agree), is its emphasis on UNIVERSALISM.  Moral stands should not be taken based on nationality, ethnicity, or any other generalizable trait of a person.  It is this universalist attitude that led to the fight against slavery, child labor, and segregation. All that’s required is the ability to put yourself into the shoes of another person, conferring a moral stand that effaces nationalism, racism, sexism, and so on.  Wokeism, as Neiman argues, and as we all know, is tribalistic. It is based on identity politics and sees one’s race, gender, or similar traits as the most important aspect of a person, and something that can validate or invalidate their views. Identity politics is the antithesis of the Enlightenment. It’s not that Neiman has no sympathy for the oppressed. She has plenty, and in fact goes overboard praising some aspects of identitarianism (she’s a huge fan of Black Lives Matter, for instance). But yes, true Leftism sees humanity as a community with common interests, and, as the saying goes, “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere”. So I’m on board with her here.

b. Wokeism places power over justice.  Drawing from postmodernism, argues Neiman, Wokeism sees the conflict between groups as a battle for power, not a fight for justice. Her argument, based on the philosophy of Michel Foucault et al., is that the Woke aren’t really looking for justice, but seeking power. And a fight for power never ends, while a fight for justice can.  I think this is also true, and is in conflict with Enlightenment values, which were far more concerned with justice than power. In fact, the two “values”, as we know, are inimical to each other. One example is the fight by gender activists to allow biological males to compete in women’s sports. Justice would say no, they shouldn’t, but many gender activists favor this, and that is a drive for power. (This is my example; one of Neiman’s flaws is, as I said, her lack of examples of Wokeism to buttress her thesis.)

c.) Wokeism doesn’t really believe in progress.  Again, I agree with Neiman. The Enlightenment, as we know from Steve Pinker’s two big books (Better Angels and Enlightenment Now), always rested on beliefs that progress was possible, even if not always achieved.  One example I can adduce is civil rights.  The U.S., for example, has made huge strides in racial equality and racial justice since 1940, but to listen to some Wokesters you’d think that racism now is as bad as—or even worse than—the days of Jim Crow.  Wokesters claim that it’s just gone underground and has a different form. This, to me, is a ludicrous belief, refuted by tons of evidence.

One issue that strongly mars Neiman’s book is that she sees evolutionary psychology as deeply inimical to Leftism and to progress. She argues that evolutionary psychology, in the end, attributes selfish motivations to everything that people do, and that not only hinders moral progress (for everyone’s out for themselves), but gets rid of progress made possible by appealing to the interests of humanity as a whole instead of just your personal well being.

But Neiman’s not a biologist, and her view of evolutionary psychology is shallow and misguided. Evolutionary psychology does not predict that people will act in their own self-interest in every case: the “selfish” gene is “selfish” simply because natural selection can be seen metaphorically as genes trying to be “selfish” by outreproducing other genes.  Dawkins, frustrated by this misunderstanding (much of it coming from Mary Midgley, whom Neiman cites often), says that if he wrote The Selfish Gene now, he may have called it The Cooperative Gene.  There is far too much ignorant dissing of evolutionary psychology in this book, and it’s a serious flaw. Social rogress has clearly been made despite the fact that we’re products of natural selection, and no evolutionary psychologist I know holds the naive view that Neiman presents as characteristic of the field. We all know, for example, that culture can override evolution, and we also understand ways that natural selection itself can favor cooperation.

So if I agree with Neiman’s thesis, why am I not a big fan of her book? As I said, one reason is her lack of examples of Wokeism, which would not only support her thesis but also liven up what is a pretty scholarly and unexciting tome. Further, she dwells far too much on the Enlightenment (her academic speciality) at the expense of Wokeism, so you learn a lot more about the Englightenment (and there’s some good stuff there) but not so much about Wokeism. In other words, the book doesn’t fulfill the promise of its title.

Finally, there’s the annoying and—there’s no other word to use—ignorant attacks on evolutionary psychology presented as setting almost complete limits on our behavior and on human progress.

In the end, you might want to read this book to learn about the Enlightenment, and if you do you will. If you’ve heard the criticisms that the Enlightenment was a “Western” project, Neiman shows you how Enlightenment thinkers deliberately adopted the viewpoint of people from other cultures as a way of criticizing the problems with their own cultures without getting into trouble. But you won’t get a lot of buttressing if, like me,  you’re a Leftist seeking to understand why Wokeism is incompatible with your politics.

My WaPo review of Jon Losos’s new book on cats

May 3, 2023 • 9:00 am

My colleague Jon Losos, an evolutionary ecologist at Washington University who works on lizards but also has three cats, has written the kind of book I’d always wanted to write: an exploration of the evolutionary roots of the housecat and an evolution-based analysis of its behaviors.  Given Losos’s line of work, it’s also imbued with ecology. The book came out today, and you can order it on Amazon by clicking on the screenshot below:


Knowing of the book’s existence since it is published by Viking/Penguin (my own publisher), I asked the Washington Post if they wanted me to review it. They said “yes” and the link to my review below is taken from today’s newspaper. Click on the screenshot to see it, and, if it’s paywalled, perhaps judicious inquiry will yield a copy.

I’ll just give a short excerpt since you should read it on the site. (It will be in the paper edition of the Post on Sunday.)

The review is positive, so if you want to learn about cats, you should read the book. I couldn’t resist a dig at d*gs at the outset, just to liven things up:

My view, and that of many other die-hard cat lovers, is that the internet exists primarily to circulate pictures and videos of cats. Dogs, you may be surprised to learn, can also be found on the internet but curiously tend to remain stuck in remote corners of cyberspace. Cats fuel wildly viral memes; dogs seldom get beyond that family vacation picture on Facebook (with just three likes, all from elderly relatives). Both cats and dogs — especially the younger versions of both — have fuzzy, big-eyed appeal, but dogs apparently lack what it takes to snare a global audience. As the New York Times contended, cat pictures are “that essential building block of the Internet.”

One prominent theory to explain this cat/dog disparity suggests that it’s the residual wildness of cats that makes them so special. This accounts for their infinite capacity for aloofness. Cats were domesticated rather recently — about 10,000 years ago when humans were busy inventing agriculture. And DNA tells us that the ancestor of all house cats is the African wildcat Felis silvestris lybica, which looks much like a domestic tabby.

. . . It’s appropriate, then, that an evolutionary biologist should write the definitive book on the biology, ecology and evolution of the house cat. That would be Jonathan Losos, who, although best known for his studies of lizards, also owns three cats. Those cats, he found, were every bit as interesting as his lizards but had a marked advantage over the reptiles: Losos didn’t have to leave his home to carry out field work. The result, “The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa,” is a readable and informed exploration of the wildcat that lurks within Fluffy.

. . . Many mysteries remain. Did meows (emitted only by domestic cats) really evolve, as has been seriously suggested, to resemble the cries of a distressed infant, to convert a hardwired human response — “I must take care of an unhappy baby” — into an ingenious ploy to get tuna? What is the real difference in the average life span between a cat allowed to roam outdoors and one kept inside? The traditional answer is five vs. 17 years respectively, but as Losos notes, “I have not been able to find the basis for this claim, and the discrepancy seems extreme to me.”

And we remain abysmally ignorant about my two most pressing cat questions: why they wiggle their butts right before they pounce on prey, and why they “chatter” when they see birds. All they seem to be doing in each case is alerting their potential meal to its hazardous situation, surely not a good idea. One of the lessons of the book, in fact, is that mysteries abound in cat science. One of the largest is how many times cats were domesticated in the Middle East. Did house cats evolve in a single location, or in several places around the same time? We don’t know, and the genetic data is ambiguous.

Like all good scientists, Losos admits that are many questions that will keep cat research active for years to come. Writing as a confirmed, and long-standing, cat lover, I look forward to an ever-expanding understanding of catness and to luxuriating, in quiet moments, in the joys of an infinite supply of online images, memes and videos of that most charismatic and beguiling of all domestic animals.