Elon Musk’s list of must-read books

May 16, 2022 • 12:30 pm

I’m a sucker for lists of what people are reading, as it tells us something about them and also can be a source of good things to read. I suppose, though, that when a famous person is asked what books they’re reading, they may well pad the list with books that make them look more serious and intellectual.

But I don’t think that’s the case with this list from Blinkist Magazine of nine books that Elon Musk found extremely influential in his life.  Now Blinkist seems a bit slippery to me, since its mission appears to be to distill long books down into bite-size 15-minute audio bits that can help you succeed. And it’s all about what will help you get ahead in life, rather than books that could change your point of view.

Nevertheless, this is a genuine list of books that Musk reads, and it says he “reads a lot”:

Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX, Tesla, and other game-changing tech companies, somehow finds time to read a lot of books when he’s not sending rockets into space. From classic sci-fi works to complex studies on artificial intelligence, Musk credits books with helping him achieve his success. In fact, when asked how he learned to build rockets, he famously replied, “I read books.”

But to tout its Reader’s Digest-like format, Blinkist also adds at the beginning:

According to a study by the Bureau of Labour Statistics, most Americans find time to read just 17 minutes per day. At that rate, it could take you more than a month to read one of Musk’s recommended non-fiction titles.

OH NO! Well, why not try reading more than 17 minutes a day! And noting that Americans can’t “find the time” to read just 17 minutes a day” don’t impress me much. Think of the hours that the average person spends online or in front of the telly.

But I fulminate. Here’s the list of the books Musk recommends. The article gives a short paragraph on each, which I won’t reproduce (click screenshot to read). I’ve added the Amazon link to each book, and also note whether I’ve read it:

1.)  Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. A biography; I haven’t read it.

2.)  Human Compatible by Stuart Russel. It’s about AI, and I haven’t read it.

3.) Zero to One by Peter Thiel with Blake Master. It’s about how to build a business; I haven’t read it.

4.) Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway. It’s about disinformation and environmental issues, and I haven’t read it.

5.) Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark. Another book about AI, and one I haven’t read.

6.) The Big Picture by Sean M. Carroll. Now I’m impressed, as this has no business relevance but shows pure intellectual curiosity on Musk’s part. I have read it, and liked it.

7.) Lying by Sam Harris. Another impressive book; I have read it. While it’s not one of Sam’s best (I disagree with his view that it’s never  okay to lie), it’s nevertheless a thoughtful work.  But I would have preferred that if Musk recommended a short life-changing book by Harris, it would have been Free Will.

8.) Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. More about AI; I haven’t read it.

9.) The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read it, but it’s the one real “classic” on Musk’s list.

Now remember, these are books that Musk says could “change your life”, and I suspect he means that largely in a vocational sense. 

I could make a list of nine or ten books that changed my life, but could not ever guarantee that they’d change yours (one of mine would be Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis). But I will divulge the two books I’m reading now (I usually read one at a time):

1.) What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Mechanics by Adam Becker. This is an absorbing book that I picked up in my lifelong and desperate quest to understand something that I’ll never grasp. Yes, I know the phenomena, but this book is about whether quantum mechanics is simply a useful mathematical apparatus for predicting things, or actually describes a real, underlying world. So far I’m a third of the way through, and don’t know the answer.

2.) People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn. I’ve just begun this, and don’t have much to say about it yet. Horn is a prizewinning novelist, but here she tackles the striking fact that whenever she’s asked to write about Jews (she is Jewish), it’s always about dead Jews, as in the Holocaust. This seeming affection for ex-Jews contrasts with the rising anti-Semitism Horn sees in the present, and the fact that she’s not asked to write about living Jews.

I also just finished a book that a reader recommended: the 1400-page doorstopper A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (a good travel book). I thought it was very good, though could have used a bit of pruning, especially in the bit about politics. Also, the main character, Lata, never seems to come to life in a way that some of the other characters do. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hell out of it, finished it, and am grateful for the suggestion.

So, this is your own cue to let us know what you are reading, and whether you recommend it.

A brief review of Andrew Sullivan’s new essay collection

October 12, 2021 • 10:15 am

I don’t want to write a full review of Andrew Sullivan’s new book, as I just finished a different review for a media outlet, but I want to urge you to read Out on a Limb: Selected Writing: 1989-2021, even if you don’t like Sullivan’s conservatism or religiosity (both are muted in this book). It contains dozens of essays over the 32-year period, arranged in chronological order.  Some are very long, others just a page or two, and I found myself reading all of them over the past several weeks.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site:

Sullivan is a lovely and thoughtful writer, and, although he puts himself on the rightish end of the political spectrum, many of the essays comport well with liberal thinking. He was, for instance, instrumental in helping gay marriage become accepted in America, and his early essays (e.g., “Here comes the groom” from The New Republic) are powerful arguments for that institution. He touted Obama as a possible and potentially good president long before others were doing so, and shows additional prescience in recognizing Trump not only as a possible winner of the Presidency, but later as a probable winner of the Presidency. (He despises Trump.) He also predicted that Joe Biden would be the best Democratic candidate to beat Trump. (Perhaps he’s picking his essays to look prescient, but I doubt it.)

What I like about Sullivan’s writing is that, unlike many other writers, he’s willing to admit when he’s wrong and remains open to correcting his opinions. Ergo his self-flagellating essay, “How did I get Iraq wrong?” (he was an early booster of the war). His case against torture is ironclad (“The abolition of torture”), and many essays will appeal to readers on the grounds of simple humanity (e.g., his memoriam on the death of one of his beagles, “Surprised by Grief”, a title cribbed and modified from C. S. Lewis; or “Still here, so sorry”, his musings on still being alive years after an AIDS diagnosis).

There is a lot, of course, on AIDS and homosexuality, and it’s good to read this stuff from the viewpoint of a gay writer. The bulk of the essays are on politics, which he knows a lot about. I usually find such essays dry but Sullivan is such a good writer that you get the sense of discussing politics with a friend, not being preached to. Like a good scientist, he’s always considering counterarguments to his positions, another thing that makes him likable.

As I said, he’s surprisingly light on religion—it comes up rarely, except for one long and tedious essay on “What is the meaning of Pope Francis?” But after reading that and his other stuff on faith, I’m no closer than ever to understanding why a smart guy like Sullivan believes in things like the literal resurrection of Christ. So it goes.

Here are a few of my favorite essays, which give an idea of his range:

“Here comes the groom”, an epochal essay that really did help move American opinion.

“Quilt”, a touching piece on the AIDS Quilt.

“When plagues end: Notes on the twilight of an epidemic”. About the tapering off of the AIDS epidemic and Sullivan’s remembrance of its worst days.

“What’s so bad about hate?”  A long and absorbing essay on the uses, abuses, and varieties of hatred.

“Gay cowboys embraced by redneck country”: Sullivan’s thoughts on the movie Brokeback Mountain.

“The abolition of torture”: an eloquent argument that any torture is the sign of a totalitarianism and is to be totally rejected as a tool of Americans.

“Why I blog”: a very thoughtful piece that especially resonated with me, as it draws a distinction that those of us understand who write both for publication in the media as well as on a website. They’re very different forms of writing, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

“I used to be a human being”: A tale of Sullivan’s week at a meditation center completely disconnected from the Internet, combined with an acute and scathing analysis of what absorption in our “devices” has done to us.

“We all live on campus now”. A favorite of mine, which dispels the idea that insane leftist extremism found on colleges campus will not spread to the greater culture because the kids will grow up. (It already has spread, as you know, and is not going away.)

And the two final pieces:

“The unbearable whiteness of the classics”: An anti-Woke critique of the anti-classics classicists, defending the classics and showing that they can be taught alongside the history of racism.

“Two sexes, infinite genders”: A distinction between gender and sex (one that seems to be disappearing) and a touching remembrance of Sullivan’s father.

It’s good to have a book of essays on hand, like Sullivan’s or Orwell’s, to fill in the gaps when you don’t have time to absorb a chunk of a novel. And of course there’s a long-standing literary niche for short non-fictional pieces. Sullivan is a master of them, and although none of us are fans of all his ideas (the religion still bothers me), you come away from this book feeling as if you really know the guy—and like him.

Photograph of Sullivan by Joshua Cogan.

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 12, 2020 • 7:45 am

John Avise, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of California, Irvine (and an avid birder) sent me a group of lovely bird pictures that he took on an Antarctic trip similar to mine. His notes and IDs are indented.

This time I’m sending some bird photos that I took on my own cruise adventure to the Falklands, South Georgia Island, and the Antarctic Peninsula in 2018 (exactly one year before your similar trip).  The pictures I’ve attached are mostly of birds other than those (such as penguins) that you already posted from your excursion.  Readers should thus be made aware that there are many bird species to be seen in the region in addition to the wonderful penguins.
John’s right, of course, but I had trouble identifying non-penguins, plus the other birds didn’t hold still for me (and I had only a point-and-shoot camera)!

Antarctic prion (Pachyptila desolata):


Black-browed Albatross (Diomeda melanophis):

Cape Petrel (Daption capense):

Cobb’s Wren (Troglodytes cobbi), Falklands:

Crested Duck (Lephonetta specularioides), Falklands:
Grass Wren (Cistothurus platensis), Falklands:

Gray-headed Albatross (Diomedea chrysostoma):

Imperial Cormorant (Phalacrocorax atriceps):
Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus):
Long-tailed Meadowlark (Sturnella loyca), Falklands:
Magellanic Oystercatcher (Haematopus leucopodus), Falklands:
Northern Giant Petrel (Macronectes halli):
Snow Petrel (Pagodroma nivea):
Snowy Sheathbill (Chionis albus):
Southern Fulmar (Fulmaris glaciaoides):

Wandering Albatross (Diomedia exulans):

Yellow-billed Teal (Anas flavirostris), South Georgia Island:

Nicholas Christakis has a new book

March 20, 2019 • 11:00 am

You’ll surely remember Nicholas Christakis of Yale University, a good man who, along with his wife, got ensnared in a net thrown by The Woke.  If you don’t remember that tale, read the New York Times article below or my post on Christakisgate (the NYT piece is largely about his new book; more on that in a second. The NYT:

. . .  to many Americans, he is best known not for what he has accomplished but for what he absorbed: taunts and insults from furious Yale students who swarmed him in a campus courtyard one day. “You should not sleep at night!” one of them screeched, as he miraculously kept his cool, a mute punching bag. “You are disgusting!”

Perhaps you saw the video. It became a viral sensation in the fall of 2015, Exhibit A in the tension, on so many campuses, between free expression and many minority students’ pleas for an atmosphere in which they feel fully respected and safe. Christakis’s wife, Erika, who also taught at Yale back then, had circulated a memo in which she questioned a university edict against culturally insensitive Halloween costumes, suggesting that students could police themselves and should have both the freedom to err and the strength to cope with offense. She wrote that her husband concurred.

And all hell broke loose. Hundreds of students signed an open letter denouncing her and hundreds demanded that the couple be punished. There were protests. And when, in that courtyard, Christakis apologized for any pain that the memo had caused but refused to disavow its content, he was pilloried.

Eventually, both Nicholas and Erika resigned their positions as resident heads of Silliman College at Yale, and Erika Christakis gave up teaching at Yale entirely. The crybully students at that school drove away two accomplished and caring professors.  I summarized the situation as follows, which includes a link to Erika’s memo:

So we have a campus where people are publicly afraid to speak their minds, terrified of student reaction. Yale has indeed allowed a climate of intolerance to grow: a culture of hatred and public shaming.

And so, two great resources for Yale students, and two dedicated teachers, give up a lot of their duties in light of the bullying they faced by students. Shame on the Yale students for their immaturity and Authoritarian Leftist ideology, and shame on the Yale administration for not supporting the Christakises. I urge you to go back and read Erika’s letter to the “Sillimanders”, and see if you find anything in it that would justify such a student response, or anything that would brand the couple as racists. As author [Conor] Friedersdorf says at the end of his [Atlantic] piece, “. . . the couple’s ultimate resignation does nothing to improve campus climate. What a waste.”

And so Christakis has just published a new book (already underway when the Yale fracas occurred) about evolution and society: Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society (click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site).

The table of contents:

From the summaries given on Amazon and by Frank Bruni in his piece above, the book appears almost Pinkerian in its optimistic view that humans are inherently virtuous, and that this morality was largely vouchsafed by our evolutionary heritage. As Bruni notes:

The book is a hefty, dazzlingly erudite synthesis of history, philosophy, anthropology, genetics, sociology, economics, epidemiology, statistics and more. It uses everything from shipwrecks to the primatologist Jane Goodall to make its pro-kindness case, and it inadvertently shames you into realizing that while most of us, standing at the buffet of knowledge, content ourselves with a pork chop and rice pudding, Christakis pillages the carving station and the omelet station and the soup array and the make-your-own-sundae bar.

. . .His reasoning, oversimplified, is this: Complex societies are possible and durable only when people are emotionally invested in, and help, one another; we’d be living in smaller units and more solitary fashions if we weren’t equipped for such collaboration; and human thriving within these societies guarantees future generations suited to them.

Yes, there are hideous wars and horrid leaders. But if that were the sum of us, how to explain all the peace and progress? Christakis urges a wide angle and the long view.

“To accept this belief that human beings are evil or violent or selfish or overly tribal is a kind of moral and intellectual laziness,” he told me. It also excuses that destructiveness. “The way to repair our torn social fabric is to say: Wait a minute, that’s not quite right.”

The Amazon summary includes this:

For too long, scientists have focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for aggression, cruelty, prejudice, and self-interest. But natural selection has given us a suite of beneficial social features, including our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and learning. Beneath all our inventions — our tools, farms, machines, cities, nations — we carry with us innate proclivities to make a good society.
In Blueprint, Nicholas A. Christakis introduces the compelling idea that our genes affect not only our bodies and behaviors, but also the ways in which we make societies, ones that are surprisingly similar worldwide. With many vivid examples — including diverse historical and contemporary cultures, communities formed in the wake of shipwrecks, commune dwellers seeking utopia, online groups thrown together by design or involving artificially intelligent bots, and even the tender and complex social arrangements of elephants and dolphins that so resemble our own — Christakis shows that, despite a human history replete with violence, we cannot escape our social blueprint for goodness.

It’s no surprise that genes affect our social behavior, as we evolved in small social groups and it would be odd if our millions of years of social evolution didn’t affect our behavior. Reciprocal altruism and prosocial behavior would have been part of that mix, but of course so would xenophobia and aggression. I haven’t yet  gotten my copy of the book (the good professor offered to send me one), so I’ll be curious to see how the darker side of human nature is treated.

I was pleased to see that Christakis’s book, out in six days, has already reached the #25 spot on Amazon, and equally pleased (I can’t deny it) that Michael Behe’s book on ID creationism languishes at position 2,648, which must really anger the Discovery Institute. Blame it on my evolved nature.

Stephen Law recommends five books on pseudoscience

March 18, 2015 • 2:34 pm

Most of you have probably heard of Stephen Law, a philosopher at the University of London and provost of the Center for Inquiry UK (he’s also an atheist).  At the Five Books site, which I keep recommending as a great way to find what to read in an area you’re curious about, Nigel Warburton has just done an interview with Law , who recommends five books for learning about (and debunking) pseudoscience.  I’ll leave you to read what he says, but I’ll list the books here (and their US Amazon links) for your convenience. And I’ll append or or two statements from the interview.

Les livres:

God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church by Caroline Fraser (about the failure of Christian Science healing). I’ve read this book and it’s terrific.

UFOs: The Public Deceived by Philip J. Klass.

Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. I want to read this book.

Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. I’ve read this book, and also recommend it. It’s a great takedown of postmodern nonsense.

How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a Critical Age by Theodore Schick. I haven’t read this book.

Weigh in below with your thoughts on any of these you’ve read. I’ll finish with a definition and an opinion by Law.

We’re going to be looking at your choice of books about pseudoscience, but before we go into the books themselves, could you explain what pseudoscience is?

Pseudoscience is a practice in which people convince themselves that what they’re doing is science – that it meets scientific standards – but, on closer examination, it turns out that they’re merely aping the methods of science. It’s a kind of fake science. I’m particularly interested in pseudoscience and other dodgy systems of belief. Our cultural landscape contains many belief systems which are intellectual black holes: as you approach them you find yourself getting drawn in. Eventually you pass the event horizon, and there is no escape, or at least it can be extremely difficult to think your way out again. The people that are trapped inside these belief systems are often intelligent, well-educated people. They really believe that what they believe is rational and reasonable and perhaps even scientifically credible. But the truth is that they are duping themselves. I’ve selected some books which illustrate this tendency of human beings to get sucked into these intellectual prisons, often never to escape.

And Law apparently lumps religion in which pseudoscience, which is fine so long as we’re talking about truth claims of religion that could, in principle, be tested empirically:

What I object to is the way in which some appeal to mystery in order to try and get themselves out of trouble, in order to deflect attention away from the fact that there’s no real evidence to suggest that what they’re saying is true (and perhaps even evidence contradicts what they claim). It’s important to me that if somebody claims that they have some kind of medicine that works for a particular illness, for example, that they can show that the medicine really works. I don’t think that anyone should be making those kind of claims, and in particular making money from those kind of claims, unless they can demonstrate that what they claim is, or is very probably, true. It’s particularly important that we all have some immunity to the kind of bullshit that surrounds us in our everyday lives. When I walk down the high street where I live, I find people promoting all sorts of strange and peculiar beliefs, religious beliefs, alternative medicines, and so on. Many of these people are fairly harmless, but not all of them. Some of them want to lure me and my children into belief systems that are potentially exploitative, and perhaps even dangerous. We all need some immunity to bullshit. We need to make sure that our critical faculties are engaged. We need to be sure that a little red light will come on in our heads as we begin to approach one of these intellectual black holes, so that we don’t fall victim.

Jane Goodall apparently guilty of plagiarism and sloppy science writing

March 27, 2013 • 6:17 am

Jane Goodall’s observations of the chimps at Gombe is perhaps the most famous work in primatology in the 20th century, and she’s rightly famous for her meticulous observations, her absolute dedication to her fieldwork, her discovery of many traits in our closest relatives that were thought unique to humans, and her tireless work on biological conservation (now 78, she still travels 300 days a year raising money and consciousness). My admiration was only slightly tempered when I found out recently that she was a goddie, and has spoken many times about her faith and the lack of conflict between science and religion.

But nobody, no matter how loved or revered, is immune from criticism; and in the case of Goodall, an iconic figure in primatology, the criticism has become particularly serious. She’s now accused of not only plagiarizing from other sources in her new book, Seeds of Hope (a book about the importance of plants, co-authored with Gail Hudson), but also of conveying inaccurate information about GMO food—serious accusations for a professional scientist.

The accusations were first leveled in an article by Steven Levingston in the March 19 “Book” section of The Washington Post, after a prospective reviewer (a botanist) noticed the problems and declined to review the book.  Levingston highlights the following instances of plagiarism (i.e., unattributed copying):

  • In the book, Goodall extols the benefits of sustainable farming. She expresses her shock at learning of dangerous conditions for workers who harvest tea.“According to Oxfam,” she writes, “a British nonprofit agency working to put an end to poverty worldwide, the spraying of pesticides on tea estates is often done by untrained casual daily-wage workers, sometimes even by children and adolescents.”That paragraph appears word for word on the Web site of Choice Organic Teas, a company dedicated to ethical labor practices. Choice Organic Teas was selected in 2010 to carry the Jane Goodall “Good for All” brand on a new line of products, and it donates a slice of its profits to the Jane Goodall Institute.
  • Goodall explains the toxic dangers in some detail, writing: “Most of these chemicals — such as Aldrin 20E, Carbofuran 30, Endosulfan 35 EC, Malathion 50 EC, Tetradifon 8 EC, Calixin 80 EC — are listed as hazardous and toxic, and a number of them are banned in Western countries. Despite dangers of exposure to these poisons, the workers are frequently barefoot and in shorts rather than protected by recommended aprons.”
    This material is replicated nearly verbatim from the same Web site page. Both passages also appear in nearly identical language on other organic tea Web sites and in the 2008 bookBig Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World” by Diane MacEachern. The language can be traced to a 2002 draft report, “The Tea Market — A Background Study,” which lacks an authorship credit.

The following is especially bizarre. Wikipedia? Really?

  • “Seeds of Hope” contains language from Wikipedia in its discussion of 18th-century Philadelphia botanist John Bartram, who shipped boxes of seeds to Europeans. Goodall writes: “ ‘Bartram’s Boxes,’ as they came to be known, were regularly sent to Peter Collinson for distribution to a wide list of European clients.”The Wikipedia entry reads: “Bartram’s Boxes as they then became known, were regularly sent to Peter Collinson every fall for distribution in England to a wide list of clients.”
  • Goodall marvels at the majesty of trees. “In ancient Egypt,” she notes, “the sycamore was especially revered — twin sycamores were believed to stand at the eastern gate of heaven through which Ra, the sun god[,] came each day.”

    Nearly identical words are found on a Web site called “Find Your Fate,” which covers astrology, numerology, palm reading and matters relating to love and life.

  • The phrasing Goodall uses to describe the tobacco habits of Indians in South and Central America is very similar to what is found on a Web site of tobacco history. The boldfaced words in this passage from the book echo language on the Web site: “In South and Central America the Indians smoked tobacco in pipes of many shapes and sizes, often elaborately decorated. It was sometimes chewed or used as snuff to ‘clear the head.’ Tobacco was also used as a remedy for such varied conditions as asthma, bites and stings, urinary and bowel complaints, fevers, convulsions, nervous ailments, sore eyes, and skin diseases. Some tribes cultivate tobacco as an insecticide to protect themselves against parasites.”

There’s also the possibility that Goodall, like Jonah Lehrer, made up quotations. As the Post reports:

“Seeds of Hope” tells the tale of botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London germinating 200-year-old seeds preserved in the Millennium Seed Bank. The seeds were shipped from Cape Town, were seized by the British and spent time in the Tower of London before winding up at the bank. Goodall concludes the story with a comment she says botanist Matt Daws made to her: “If seeds can survive that long in such poor conditions, then that’s good news for the ones that are stored under ideal conditions in the Millennium Seed Bank,’ Matt Daws said to me.”

Virtually the same quote from Daws appears on the Gardens Web site in a 2009 article with the headline “Plant story — 200 year old seeds spring to life”: “If seed can survive that long in poor conditions, then that’s good news for those in the Millennium Seed Bank stored under ideal conditions.” Asked in an e-mail whether he ever had a conversation with Goodall, Daws replied: “To be perfectly honest I have no recollection of speaking to her.”

An analysis of Goodall’s book by Michael Moynihan in The Daily Beast suggests there are many other plagiarized passages not uncovered by the Post, as well as another partially fabricated quote:

  • In my quick look through Seeds of Hope, I found what appears to be a similar example of plagiarism. Dave Aplin, a British botanist, is quoted telling Goodall of his discovery of seeds belonging to a long-extinct plant: “‘During my research,’ he told me, ‘I discovered a handful of preserved seeds hidden deep in the vaults of our seed bank.’ He felt a sense of awe.’ It was clear that I was probably looking at the last few seeds of this species in existence,’ he said.”

    But here is Dave Aplin quoted in a 2005 article from BBC News: “It was clear that I was probably looking at the last few seeds of this species in existence, and so some of the seeds were also dispatched to Britain so that both institutes could try to germinate them.” An added sentence—possibly from an actual interview Goodall conducted with Aplin—followed by a pilfered (and truncated) one.

Remember that Jonah Lehrer was fired from The New Yorker and disgraced for similarly fabricating quotes.

  • A quick check of other passages, randomly selected, suggest that there are many more instances of plagiarism that went undiscovered by the Post. Describing a study of genetically modified corn, Goodall writes: “A Cornell University study showed adverse effects of transgenic pollen (from Bt corn) on monarch butterflies: their caterpillars reared on milkweed leaves dusted with Bt corn pollen ate less, grew more slowly, and suffered higher mortality.”

A report from Navdaya.org puts it this way: “A 1999 Nature study showed adverse effects of transgenic pollen (from Bt corn) on monarch butterflies: butterflies reared on milkweed leaves dusted with bt corn pollen ate less, grew more slowly, and suffered higher mortality.”

The list of “unintentional borrowings” goes on, but you get the idea. Also disturbing are the many errors that Moynihan found, including attributing Confessions of an English Opium Eater to Samuel Taylor Coleridge instead of Thomas de Quincey.

That’s a small one, but there are several others. More serious is Goodall’s apparent dislike of GMO crops—which appear to be perfectly safe—and her citing of several dubious studies that appear to show their dangers (she cites, for instance, a CDC study as apparently showing that GM corn causes allergic reactions, but the CDC itself concluded that there was no effect).

As Moynihan notes, perhaps some of these errors and scientific distortions can be attributed to Goodall’s co-author, but that hardly applies to quotes from interviews supposedly conducted by Goodall—quotes that either were not uttered (since Goodall may not have spoken to the person indicated) or were partially fabricated. At any rate, Goodall is the book’s first author, and is responsible for the contents.

How bad is all this? Given the combination of distorted presentation of scientific studies, fabricated quotes, and plagiarism—and yes, by any standards it’s plagiarism—it looks pretty bad. In fact, if the book had been by a less revered person I suspect it would have been withdrawn from publication, as were two of Jonah Lehrer’s books that contained fabricated quotes or other unattributed material. Seeds of Hope was scheduled for release on April 2, but this has apparently been postponed indefinitely while the publisher, Hachette, allows Goodall to “correct any unintentional errors.”

“Unintentional errors” is the same excuse I’ve gotten in the past from students who copied material, but those students were still disciplined for plagiarism.

This is all very sad, and the scandal will surely dog Goodall as she treks around the world giving talks. It’s almost surely sloppiness and not cheating, but if we can’t trust Jane Goodall to report things accurately, who can we trust?

Evolution: Making Sense of Life

October 5, 2012 • 9:29 am

by Greg Mayer

Another book that was just published in August is a new textbook of evolution intended for biology majors, Evolution: Making Sense of Life, by Carl Zimmer and Douglas Emlen; the title evokes Theodosius Dobzhansky‘s famous 1973 paper “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” (pdf). Carl Zimmer, a science writer and journalist, should be well familiar to WEIT readers, while Douglas Emlen, a biology professor at the University of Montana who works on sexual selection, has also drawn attention here at WEIT for his marvelous photographs of beetle weapons (and I wonder if he’s related to the famous Emlen family of biologists). Many illustrations have been provided by Carl Buell, the noted scientific illustrator. (I reviewed a couple of chapters in manuscript.)

The book is an interesting collaboration between a science writer and a biologist. There have been other such collaborations, usually for large multi-author introductory textbooks, where a writer is brought on to meld together and bring unity of voice to the disparate writing styles of the many scientific authors. In this case however, Zimmer is already a noted author on evolutionary topics, having written such books as At the Water’s Edge (my favorite) and Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea (a companion to the PBS series), and had previously written The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution, intended as a non-majors text. The new majors’ text grew in part out of this earlier book.

The book is published by Roberts and Company of Greenwood Village, Colorado, a relatively new publisher that is quickly making a name for itself in academic biology publishing. In addition to textbooks, they publish important monographic works (e.g. Trevor Price’s Speciation in Birds, the perfect complement to Jerry and Allen Orr’s Speciation). We’ve noted one of their books, edited by Jonathan Losos, here at WEIT before.

Roots of Ecology

September 30, 2012 • 6:21 pm

by Greg Mayer

My friend and colleague Frank Egerton, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, is the author of a new book, Roots of Ecology: Antiquity to Haeckel, published last month by the University of California Press.  With two sections on Darwin, and two others featuring Alfred Russel Wallace, the book will be of great interest to evolutionists as well as ecologists. Frank is an award winning historian of science, perhaps our greatest student of the history of ecology, and very appreciative of the intertwining of ecology and evolutionary biology. WEIT readers may recall when we announced his talk on “Ecological Aspects of Darwin’s Voyage on the Beagle“ during the Darwin bicentennial. Frank is also the author of  A History of the Ecological Sciences, appearing serially in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, which formed part of the basis for the book. At Frank’s website, there are additional illustrations and maps to accompany the book.

I think that one reason Frank’s work is especially appreciated by scientists is that he has a clear understanding of the science involved, and this informs his historical interests and analysis. As he wrote in a book review in 1976:

[T]he history of error is uninteresting unless some interesting lessons can be learned from it.

The well-equipped Victorian naturalist: Nikolai Miklucho-Maklai and Ernst Haeckel.

The Academy of Natural Sciences at 200

March 27, 2012 • 7:52 am

by Greg Mayer

This year is the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the oldest natural history museum in the United States. Although now surpassed in size by some later-founded institutions, it is still one of the most important natural history museums in America, rich in types and other historically important specimens, and home to such luminaries as the paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope  in the 19th century and Ted Daeschler today. The Academy is celebrating its bicentennial with special exhibitions and web features, and the publication of a book, A Glorious Enterprise, by R.M. Peck and M.T. Stroud, with photographs by Rosamund Purcell. The New York Times has an article by Cornelia Dean, with a selection of images by Purcell and from the Academy’s archives and library, and further images can be seen at the University of Pennsylvania Press website (publishers of the book).

Two species of musk parrot from Fiji, painted by Titian Peale of the United States Exploring Expedition. Peale was a Philadelphia naturalist whose family had it's own museum, the Peale Museum; some of his collections, however, went to the Academy.

We’ve done museum reviews and discussed the merits of varying approaches to exhibition, notably the ‘interactive’ vs. ‘cabinet’ styles, here at WEIT a number times (see, for example here, here, here, here and here). Natural history museums grew out of the older “cabinets of curiosities”, and the original Academy exhibits were in this style (which is not quite the same as the newer style I’ve taken to calling the ‘cabinet’ style, which is influenced by the older tradition). Although I’ve been to the Academy several times, it has always been for research in the collections (which, at most natural history museums, vastly outnumber the specimens on display, and form the basis of the museum’s scientific mission), and unfortunately, I’ve never gotten to take more than a cursory walk through the exhibits. So, I should go to see the exhibits– and so should you!