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16 July 2018

Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer

Religion Explained is an interesting book. It examines the phenomenon of religion in human beings from the perspective of our best understanding (as of 2001) of neurology, psychology, anthropology, and evolution. It takes the modern scientific understanding of how brains evolved, and looks there for the origins of religious thought and its tenacity despite countervailing forces. Pascal Boyer’s contention is that we can come to understand religion better by thinking …

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13 May 2018

A Most Improbable Journey, by Walter Alvarez

As mentioned the week before last, Walter Alvarez has a new book out. I’ve read it. It’s good. It’s Alvarez’s take on what he calls “Big History” – the story that spans the cosmos, the Earth, life, and humanity. It’s pretty great for the reasons that Alvarez’s other books are excellent – his voice is calm, appreciative, and patient. His language is accessible and appropriate (though I will grouse that …

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10 May 2018

Last Stand, by Michael Punke

A reader of this blog recently recommended Michael Punke’s Last Stand. I thoroughly enjoyed his novel The Revenant, and so last week I started the audiobook version of the nonfictional Last Stand (2007). Last Stand is subtitled “George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West.” Prior to reading it, I knew little of Grinnell, save that he was a conservationist, and that he …

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24 April 2018

T. rex and the Crater of Doom, by Walter Alvarez

Walter Alvarez has a new book out, and its publication reminded me that though I read and appreciated The Mountains of St. Francis, I had never read his most famous work — the account of how he and his father and a team of other researchers zeroed in on an extraterrestrial impact explanation for the end-Cretaceous extinction. So last week I read T. rex and the Crater of Doom (1997). …

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2 April 2018

101 American fossil sites you’ve gotta see, by Albert B. Dickas

Mountain Press has released a new volume by frequent author Bert Dickas: it’s a compilation of 101 places in the United States where fossils can be viewed. Some sites are collection sites on public land; others are museums or protected areas. The book is a useful collection of information in a concise, well-illustrated form. Each of the sites gets a name, a latitude/longitude (but not directions), a short tag line, …

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28 March 2018

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

After reading Mika McKinnon‘s endorsement of this series on Twitter (example), I downloaded an audiobook copy of N.K. Jemisin’s first book in her “Broken Earth” trilogy, The Fifth Season. It is a fantasy novel with a healthy seasoning (ha! no pun intended) of science fiction. The story is set in a world called “Earth,” but it’s not clear if it’s the same world as our own, in the distant past …

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13 March 2018

The Evolution of Beauty, by Richard Prum

This fascinating new work by ornithologist Richard Prum re-examines sexual selection (mate choice) as a driving force of evolutionary change independent of (and sometimes in contradiction to) the mechanism of natural selection (environmental adaptation). Prum positions himself as a modern advocate for the ideas Charles Darwin expressed in The Descent of Man, and that Alfred Russel Wallace argued against in the years following Darwin’s death. In The Evolution of Beauty, …

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26 February 2018

How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

The authors of this essential study are both scholars at Harvard University. They specialize in studying the decay of democratic governments and societies, one in century-ago Europe, and the other in half-century-ago years ago Latin America. They spell out the structure of authoritarian takeover across these different contexts, and then turn to our situation in 21st century America. This book could not be more timely, more relevant, or more essential. …

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21 February 2018

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah is a South African stand-up comedian who rocketed into American awareness when he was selected as the successor to Jon Stewart as the host of Comedy Central’s news program The Daily Show. This book is Noah’s autobiography of growing up in South Africa, at first under apartheid, and then in the new post-apartheid era. It is the best account I’ve read of the institutional and cultural structure of …

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15 February 2018

Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness is the subtitle of this fascinating, extremely approachable book. Paraphrasing Thomas Nagle, it asks “What is it like to be an octopus?” The author is a philosopher by training, but he does a fantastic job as a science writer, too. Anecdotes about encounters with cephalopods while diving are mixed with careful, deliberate, dejargonized descriptions of the scientific studies that have …

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