There are lots of reasons why I’m not making a living blogging, and one of them is that I often insist on, and even enjoy, setting the expectations of my readers in brutally honest fashion. Therefore:
- This post is a lengthy (3,000 words; reading time 8-15 minutes, not including the links) review of three books.
- Two of them are obviously related and are the sort of thing that most ChicagoBoyz readers greatly enjoy, judging by what gets blogged and commented on here.
- The third book, however, may appear to have been dragged in from a not-so-parallel universe by The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.
- Anyone who finds another instance of these three being reviewed together gets the usual payment I offer for meeting a challenge (barbecue of your choice).
- If this entire post turns out to be value-added to a majority of its readership, I will have a miracle to my credit. Blessed Saint Leibowitz, pray for us.
- Just to discourage you further — as I have remarked elsewhere, when reviewing books, I pretty obviously don’t know what I’m doing, and as one authorial subject of an earlier effort remarked, my suggestions are of, shall we say, limited value in a market lacking a large segment of people with a mindset closely resembling mine.
- (Parlor game: if everyone shared your tastes, which sectors of the economy would collapse, and which would boom? Discuss.)
Well, then, to business: the first two books are Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn and Lee Silver’s Challenging Nature. The third is a surprise (OK, so I do occasionally pull a punch). Read on, if you dare …
Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors marshals an impressive array of genetic and linguistic evidence to create an outline of human prehistory, that is, the period of time during which behaviorally modern humans were colonizing most of the planet but lacked the ability to leave explicit written records. This era lasted ten times as long as the written historical period that has followed it, and until quite recently, most of its salient features were both unknown and unknowable.
As those features are uncovered, the semi-scientific narrative of human origins most of us have absorbed, with its vague images of cavemen widely scattered across continents learning to speak, then cultivate crops, and settle down — acquires several startling and counterintuitive elements:
- Anatomically modern humans existed for tens of thousands of years before behaviorally modern humans came along. An anatomically-modern-only type would seem quite feral, lacking, among other things, any substantial vocal language capability (the human tendency to gesticulate while speaking, which U of C researchers have found exists even in persons blind from birth, may be a holdover from the days when such communication as took place was by sign language).
- Behaviorally modern humans appeared abruptly, apparently as the result of acquiring the faculty of speech. Accordingly, everyone alive today is descended from a population of only a few thousand individuals occupying a small territory corresponding approximately to present-day Djibouti. (Indeed, everyone alive today shares a single common male ancestor and a single common female ancestor.) That population, small and collocated as it was, almost certainly spoke a common language, from which every language now existing is derived.
- In particular, everyone lacking relatively recent African ancestry is descended from a tiny band of perhaps 150 people who crossed the Bab el-Mandeb and began the colonization of Eurasia, Australia, and the Americas (similarly, all American Indians have ancestors among a low-three-digit number of persons who crossed Beringia).
- Further modification of the human genome, intertwined with behavioral changes, is associated with the ability to create permanent settlements. Settlement preceded agriculture by thousands of years. Agriculture was invented to support settlement, not the other way around.
One point which seems to have captured the imagination of other reviewers is the violent death rate among primitive peoples — not from wild animals, but from each other. Scaled up to the present world population, it would make the wars, purges, and genocides of the 20th century pale to insignificance. Living as we do in a society with robustly functioning institutions and surrounded by a great thicket of protective memes, it is easy to forget the literal importance of the Sixth Commandment. In which connection, Before the Dawn‘s suggestion that religion functions to, among other things, manage the risk of deceit which immediately appears with spoken communication, strikes me as both insightful and reminiscent of Genesis 3.
I cannot overpraise the quality of Nicholas Wade’s presentation. Presenting as it does a unitary tale of human geography, linguistics, and culture developing from an easily encompassed origin, Before the Dawn is both fascinating and emotionally satisfying. I picked it up for $25 at none other than 57th Street Books, and it was money well spent. As was the $27 I dropped during the same visit on …
Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life is, in my view, an attempt to manage the risks to American society caused by its dominant memes about nature, human and otherwise. Lee Silver foresees biotechnology departing these shores, not only because of opposition by the President’s Council on Bioethics, which he effectively portrays as (with a few exceptions) a collection of freaks plucked from the lunatic fringe of right-wing politics — but because of a far more widespread and insidious collection of irrational beliefs fostered by the academic Left.
Wisely, Silver takes on the Right first, and circles around to smack them a few more times later in the book, too (in an evident attempt to soften up his fellow academics for the devastating assault on their own superstitions that follows). Consider the controversy that would attend the introduction of “another high-risk reproductive technology … from 2 percent to 10 percent of women who avail themselves of this technology are seriously harmed by it. The risk of death to embryos is about 50 percent; and of the embryos that survive, 20 percent die during the fetal stage of development. Finally, for babies born alive, the risk of a serious birth defect is 4 percent.” But “this technology is the primary one used by our species since we first came into existence — sexual intercourse, fertilization in a woman’s reproductive tract, and development of the embryo and fetus in her uterus.” (p 342)
Opposition to new reproductive and other biotechnologies is maintained only by deliberately ignoring such realities. I regret to report that in my home state of Missouri, there is at this moment a rather mild initiative on the November ballot that will, if passed, protect scientists at places like the Stowers Institute from being thrown in prison for ten years for performing somatic-cell nuclear transfer — an initiative whose opponents are spewing hysterical nonsense from every billboard and broadcast commercial slot they can buy.
Not everybody out there is nuts, thank God, and Francis Collins is in the front rank of the sort of people I wish we had a lot more of (can we, uh, clone him?). On page 327, Silver quotes Collins:
To say that genetic engineering is unacceptable across the board because of its potential for creating some ethical dilemmas is the most unethical stance of all. It’s to basically say, here is a powerful approach which could alleviate human suffering, but we’re not going to do it because we’re worried about the misuses that might occur. I find that completely unacceptable from every possible point of view, most profoundly, the theological one.
But even optimistically assuming Collins prevails and the great mass of what I have elsewhere called Set A relaxes its opposition to biotech, there remains the moonbat Left, which believes things like this:
- most species in an ecosystem are in mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationships
- ecosystems are stable unless disturbed by humans, with the rare dinosaur-killing asteroid as the only possible exception
- climates cycle through a small number of predictable and benign states, again until human activity throws things out of balance
- indeed, the entire biosphere may be said to function as a unit and personified as “Gaia”
- in general, four legs good, two legs bad
Since (in my view) leftists have better people skills than those of other political persuasions, and are disproportionately likely to enter educational occupations, these ideas have been massively and successfully vectored throughout American society, to the point where they are the plurality if not majority view among better-educated people. They are all, nonetheless, arrant nonsense.
To dismantle, for example, the third point above: on pages 198-204, Silver explains how the Milankovitch cycle, driven by the gravitational effect of Jupiter on both Earth’s axial tilt and the shape of Earth’s orbit, wiped out a forest the size of the United States, replacing it with the Sahara Desert (and displacing a substantial human population). This catastrophe, as bad as the worst scenarios associated with global warming, occurred in a geologic eyeblink, possibly in less than 150 years, five and a half millennia ago. And it was completely “natural.”
The implications for our own time are sobering, to say the least. Eventual climate change is inevitable in any case, and it will have a far greater human impact in a world of 6-8 billion people, many of whom enjoy the highest standards of living ever experienced, than in a world of a few million people eking out a living through foraging and primitive agriculture. A principled refusal to intervene in Earth’s climate, and a concomitant view that all problems are caused by human technologies, is no response. If fundamentalist Christians are often wrongheaded, the “conventional post-Christian wisdom” now prevailing in Europe and some American subcultures (p 204) is a recipe for unparalleled calamity.
Silver thereby raises the specter of biotech, among other things, being regulated out of American (and Western) technological endeavor by an inadvertent coalition of obscurantist parasites. I am just jingoistic enough to believe that humanity’s well-being has become contingent on certain types of American preeminence. So while I regard his critique of spirituality as having distinctly limited value — while crediting him for the attempt; the tour of home-grown American religions on display early in the book would be enough to make most secularists throw up their hands in despair — I am broadly sympathetic to his overall approach, which seems admirably realistic:
“… it seems that spiritual beliefs are fundamentally ineradicable from humankind, now or in the future. But although spirituality is innate, the focus of its attention is much more flexible and amenable to cultural influence. The challenge for humanistic humanitarians and environmentalists is to determine how to channel societal spiritual beliefs in directions that are most beneficial to humankind as well as to the preservation of wilderness and vibrant plant and animal life within it.” (p 79)
I will assume at this point that I just lost about sixty percent of my readers.
Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul is a, well, wildly successful book, at least amongst Set A, which as noted above is nearly half the entire population of the US (and a majority in the Red States). Readers familiar with the subculture in question will be altogether unsurprised that Wild at Heart has spawned: numerous additional printings, such that it now has over 2 million copies in print (the typical copy, I strongly suspect, has been passed around and read by several people, for a total readership on the order of 10 million, which is to say a couple of orders of magnitude greater than either of the other books reviewed here); a Wild at Heart Field Manual (billed as “A Personal Guide to Discover the Secret of Your Masculine Soul,” from which I will also quote below); a Wild at Heart audiobook; a Wild at Heart Multimedia
LeaderFacilitator’s Kit; various boxed sets of the author’s other books; seminars and weekend wilderness campouts (just graze over here and click on “Events”); and tangentially related sequels. Probably plenty of less successful imitators, too. Certainly lots of retreats among men’s church groups (believe me, I know). In other words, an entire industry.
An attempt at a helpful sidebar at this point: I imagine that readers heretofore unaware of the whole Wild at Heart phenomenon are asking — among other perhaps less polite questions — how in the world do these things happen? There’s a surprisingly specific answer to that question in A simple model of fads and cascading failures (124 kB *.pdf); for what it’s worth, an older post on Arcturus, Cascading Failures and Politics, explains where I got it and what I thought was important about it. Three years ago I was interested in failures. Now I’m interested in fads, and this one’s a whopper.
A significant theoretical challenge is to extend the results of this paper to include networks that exhibit local structure, such as clustering, which in general violates the assumption that vertices initially can have at most one neighbor in the on state. One possible extension is to assume that individuals are assigned to small groups, within which interactions are dense, and that the groups in turn interact randomly. This approximation has the effect of replacing z in the above analysis, with the density zg of group interactions, leaving the model qualitatively unchanged, but making cascades generally more likely; a conclusion supported by simulations.
In Set A, individuals literally are assigned to small groups (assigned by themselves rather than being ordered into one by someone else, I hasten to add). Group size varies from two up to whatever point c = n(n-1)/2 makes “dense” interaction among all group members impossible — eight is often regarded as optimal, twelve is a popular maximum cutoff, and I’ve seen groups as large as fifteen function reasonably well as long as nearly all participants are polite and mature. Groups may be gender- or marriage-status segregated (or not) and be devoted to Bible (or other popular Christian book) study; prayer; individual moral accountability (these are gender-segregated, for obvious reasons); service projects; or any combination.
Whatever they are, they’re phenomenal enablers of infrequent but intense fads — to again quote Watts: “… fads … will occur only rarely and thus unpredictably, but when they do occur they will be extremely large.” End of attempted-helpful sidebar.
Some quotes will give the tone of Wild at Heart, and perhaps even some sense of what I’m driving at:
- “Man was born in the outback, from the untamed part of creation. Only afterward is he brought to Eden.”
- “… in the heart of every man is a desperate desire for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.”
- “… what if a terrorist broke into your house tonight and threatened the lives of your wife and children — would you simply let it happen? If you were armed, would you use your weapon? Do you sense something fierce in your own heart now? Have you ever been told that such fierceness is a good thing?”
- “What if those deep desires in our hearts are telling us the truth, revealing to us the life we were meant to live?”
- “Grizzly sign was everywhere — salmon strewn about the trail, their heads bitten off. Piles of droppings the size of small dogs. Huge claw marks on the trees, about head-level. We’re dead, I thought. What are we doing out here? …. The whole creation is unapologetically wild.”
All this represents a gigantic departure from how this subculture has seen early human history — and human nature. Young-Earth creationism, after all, leaves no room for millennia of foragers colonizing the continents and subduing, not to say exterminating, “charismatic megafauna” along the way. For that matter, it leaves no room for the charismatic megafauna themselves, or the history of life on Earth, or indeed the historical sciences at all.
As I have written elsewhere: “Since there is some risk (perhaps slight, but perhaps not) that negative public attitudes may someday seriously affect the pursuit of historical sciences in the US, my agenda is to encourage the mitigation of that risk through understanding people’s struggles with these kinds of ideas.”
I suggest that the Wild at Heart fad is a key episode in a huge collective struggle with the great sweep of unwritten human history on a planet that has seen one mass extinction after another; a bridge from the sort of wretchedness critiqued here to the realities expressed in Before the Dawn and Challenging Nature, of dangerous men in a dangerous world, embracing the primitive even as they enjoy the greatest blessings of civilization and preserve (or enhance?) the best aspects of their “innate spirituality.”
The invaluable John J. Reilly once wrote, in reaction to something by the (if possible) even more invaluable James C. Bennett (of “Anglosphere” fame, and regular visitor to this forum):
I would state Bennett’s observation about the conservative effect of new technology much more strongly. It was, I believe, Marvin Harris who remarked in Cannibals and Kings that the result of his being a full professor at a major university was that he was able to take long vacations at the beach. There he could collect mussels and otherwise do what his hunter-gatherer ancestors had done all their lives. At low levels of technology, civilized people have to live in regimented herds and do uncongenial, repetitive work. They are exposed all the while to uncontrollable epidemic disease. As society becomes more advanced, more and more people can lead a sanitized version of the neolithic life. They enjoy some degree of physical isolation in detached dwellings; they deal regularly with a small “pack” of just 20 family and friends; and they can eat all the meat they want. Yum.
My reaction to the Reilly posting was that “a sanitized version of the neolithic life” sounds like what a surprisingly large number of people may enjoy — if all goes well! — after the Singularity. It seems that we’re wired for it. Even Red State guys in Bible studies.