16 June 2021

Book report

Posted by Callan Bentley

A few more books I’ve read recently….

Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller

An interesting volume by NPR’s Lulu Miller – a philosophical biography of the first president of Stanford University, the fish biologist David Starr Jordan, mainly, but also an autobiography of key moments in Miller’s own life. At first, she looks to Jordan for inspiration – how does this man keep going after a series of awful setbacks to his work? Deaths in his family, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake shattering his jars of preserved holotype fish specimens, etc. Somehow, he takes a lickin’ but keeps on tickin’… What’s the man’s secret to his success? But then it gets darker – Miller lays out the case that Jordan may have engaged in the murder of a key person who might have otherwise undermined his meteoric success. She also shows him to be a virulent proponent of eugenics, promoting the “improvement” of the human gene pool by forced sterilization of individuals he deemed “unfit,” presaging the Nazi’s genocidal campaign by decades. Miller’s journey of exploring Jordan’s legacy takes her from DC to Chicago, and Charlottesville and Lynchburg here in Virginia. Her personal story takes twists and turns but ultimately she finds peace, joining the two narratives with an assessment of what is real in life.

Owls of the Eastern Ice, by Jonathan C. Slaght

An account of a multiyear field research project to document the biology of Blakiston’s fish owl, the world’s largest owl, which lives in eastern Siberia and eats fish from radon-warmed rivers all winter long. There are plenty of mishaps, adventures, and weirdos in the story, which blends a classic travelogue with detailed ecology that will be of interest to birders and biophiles. One of the themes that emerged is the essential value of international collaborations between that very, very small subset of the population who cares passionately about preserving rare and obscure species. Slaght has a collaborator in Siberia who helps make great things happen and smooths over logistical snafus. Another theme that emerges is how incredibly difficult it is to gain basic biological information about species living in such tangled, buggy, wild terrain. This volume documents years and years of difficult work, with precious insights lost when bold ventures fail. A look at the bleeding edge of conservation ornithology, in other words. Very interesting and fun.

Metazoa, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Where did consciousness come from? In this follow-up to his awesome volume Other Minds, Godfrey-Smith explores key innovations within the animal branch of the great Tree of Life. The author is a philosopher who is an avid scuba diver, and many of the explorations of experimental work are prefaced by anecdotes about creatures he has encountered in the waters around Australia. It’s an exceptionally well-written volume, where complicated and nebulous ideas are presented firmly and tangibly. In fact, if you’re looking for an almost-perfect exemplar of science nonfiction, I’d offer this volume up as “Exhibit A.” Godfrey-Smith makes a strong case that consciousness is widespread though gradational throughout the animal kingdom, and that mind is inherently a function of body. A fascinating pair of tangents toward the end of the book explore the implications of this perspective for artificial intelligence and for the question of what is ethical when it comes to our treatment of other species. Top notch: fascinating & highly recommended.

American Manifesto, by Bob Garfield

Written during the third and final years of the Trump administration (before COVID), this is On The Media’s co-host’s perspective on the American political situation – the degradation of discourse, the polarization of media, the growing lack of willingness to accept experts’ expertise. It’s a dismaying read – the previous four years were a sincerely rough time for my country, and we’re not out of the woods yet. In fact, recent events in Congress suggest the worst may be yet to come, with Trump merely a harbinger of a fatal erosion of our foundational democratic institutions. Bob Garfield is a clever person, and his wit is mostly a joy to behold, striking incisively at a horrible situation with humor and intellect. Occasionally he goes too far, and his analogies make me cringe, but 95% of the time, the writing in American Manifesto made me feel he is a kindred spirit, deeply distressed at the way we’ve come to run our society. Thought-provoking, and perhaps a bit more depressing than Garfield intended it to be.