Desk-bound Nature Lover

My Blog: Occasional postings about the joys of birding, hiking, camping, and sightseeing.

My life: I spend most of my days in offices, looking at a computer screen, and waiting for those few weekends when I can get out and enjoy some remnant of our precious natural heritage. But, boy, do I live on those weekends!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Some Books I have Enjoyed Recently

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond. People who think of environmental issues as just fuzzy feel-good issues should read this book. As Dr Diamond demonstrates, environmental are in fact deadly serious, life-or-death issues. In this book, Diamond describes cases both ancient and modern where environmental problems lead to a societal collapse. In some cases, this collapse was complete and sudden. Easter Island society, for example, went from the height of its artistic and social accomplishment to cannibalism and near extinction within a couple generations due largely to overpopulation and deforestation. The chapter on the role of environmental problems in the tragedy of Rwanda is particularly interesting, since this part of the story was entirely overlooked by the media in the US.

Guns, Germs, and Steele: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. The book and the previous one have established Jared Diamond firmly on the list of my favorite authors. The subject of this book is the role of geography on human history. Why is it that some societies have been able to conquer other societies, and rob them of their lands and livelihoods, as my ancestors did to the Native Americans? Usually in such cases the conquerors invent explanations involving the alleged mental, moral, or spiritual inferiority of the victims (e.g., “God willed that this land should not remain the domain of degenerate savages”). Diamond provides us with better explanations. This book should be enjoyable to anyone who is interested in history, anthropology, or biology.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan. When people remember the late author and TV personality Carl Sagan, they tend to remember his entertaining personal quirks, like the distinctive way he would say “bill-i-ons and bill-i-ons”. What they unfortunately fail to remember is what an immense and wide-ranging intellect he had. This book is a great way to reacquaint yourself with the brilliant mind of Dr Sagan. The chapters of this book were originally published as separate essays, but most of them have a unifying them: the importance of skepticism and critical enquiry. The best and most heart-felt writing in this book are the chapters on the witch hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (The sub-title of the book is a reference to a seventeenth century book “A Candle in the Dark” which was written, a great risk to the author, to refute the “evidence” used to condemn so-called witches during this tragic episode of history.) He not only shows how flawed and uncritical thinking lead to tragedy in past centuries, but applies the lessons of story to modern day “witch hunts” and shows how modern day thinking can be just as flawed. I experienced this book as a book on tape as I was driving from California to Illinois. It sure made the miles go faster.

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen Ambrose. This was another book on tape which made the miles go faster on my California to Illinois trip. The book is an autobiography of Meriwether Lewis, who is famous for the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803 to 1806. The subject was intrinsically interesting for me and the presentation was entirely competent. In short, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney. The title of this book is a little overstated. Republicans are not bombing scientific institutions, or shooting at scientist. However, the point the author has to make is worth getting. The current leaders of the Republican Party, especially Bush and his administration, have politicized science to an unprecedented degree. The have brazenly pandered to anti-science elements of the religious right. They have suppressed important scientific evidence on major environmental issues, and have bullied and threatened government scientists who have not toed the Republican party line. This is not one of the best-written or best-argued books I have read, but it is still worth reading.


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