Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Book Review: The Evolution of Beauty

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World--And Us
Richard O. Prum
Natural history

[WARNING: long]

The Evolution of Beauty is a very good book. It's well-written. It has an interesting idea at its core and a leavening of entertaining personal content. It may even change the way you look at the world. It's also overstated, and in parts quite probably wrong--but intriguingly so.

Very briefly summarized, the theory that Prum is championing--originating in Charles Darwin's second great book, The Descent of Man--is that species can evolve features that don't help them survive at all, if those features help them attract mates. The peacock's tail is an example: it doesn't help the peacock fly, fight, or feed, but it surely attracts the chicks (rim shot). Prum's own field of study provides numerous fascinating examples of birds that have evolved some astonishing ornaments and behaviors, none of which seem to be "adaptive" in the survival-of-the-fittest sense. These features persist not because they have any use, but because mates prefer them--and mates prefer them not for any adaptive reason, but just ... because.

To take an well-known example, consider the sneetch (Seussius sneetchis).
Image hosted at Wikimedia
Quite at random, a few male sneetches have stars on their bellies. The stars have no function; they're just a random mutation. Nonetheless, some female sneetches think the stars are sexy--again, not for any particular reason, but just because sneetches make value judgments about stuff. Generation after generation . . . 
  1. Male star-bellied sneetches attract more mates than plain-bellied sneetches, because some sneetch-ettes just prefer them. 
  2. These couples have more children than plain-bellied sneetches.
  3. The children inherit stars.
  4. The females inherit a preference for stars.
Over time, then, the both the stars and the preference will tend to spread through the population, displacing the plain-bellied sneetches. Within broad limits, it doesn't matter whether the stars are adaptive, maladaptive, or neutral. If females preferentially chose males with stars, the star-bellied gene will win out.

For a slightly more subtle point, imagine that what the sneetch-ettes inherit is not just "a star is better than no star," but "more stars are better". In this case, the even-rarer two-star sneetches have an advantage over their one-star brethren. Once the one-star trait becomes common, the female preference for more stars preferentially benefits the two-star sneetches. And similarly, once two stars are common, the sneetch-ettes start flocking to the three-star sneetches . . . and so on, and so on . . . In this way, even a trait that does begin as a positive adaptation can turn negative, by being exaggerated into uselessness.

Returning to Richard Prum, his point is that a purely aesthetic preference is perfectly capable of driving evolution, survival value be damned. This is (according to him) something of a heresy within the evolutionary-biology world. Apparently there are those--Stephen Jay Gould called them "hyperadaptationists"--who insist that no trait can be inherited unless it contributes to genetic fitness, i.e. competitive advantage. This view explains the peacock's tail as a signal, advertising the genetic health of the bearer. An extreme version holds that the very uselessness of the tail is part of the signal--look at me, it's saying, I'm so genetically overendowed that I can carry this useless ornament around and still prosper.

Prum takes vigorous issue with these views. I think he's right to do so. The evidence for them seems weak, and their internal logic is less than compelling. Under the extreme view, for instance, shouldn't organisms with extreme deformities attract more mates? If surviving with a long useless tail signals fitness, then surely surviving with a long useless tail and intestinal parasites and only one wing signals more fitness. Ask for it by name!

Another of Prum's targets is the idea that animals simply can't form arbitrary, aesthetic preferences. Evidently there are a good many scientists who believe this; these scientists have never owned cats. (Consider, for example, the laser pointer. One of ours ignores it, one evinces occasional interest, and one will chase it endlessly. Nor is it just a matter of different neurological wiring, because all three were equally excited when they first encountered the Red Dot.) The idea that humans are just so very special in this regard is nothing more than a warmed-over search for the soul. Humans' ability to form aesthetic preferences came from somewhere; simple scientific parsimony suggests that it came from our animal ancestors.

At the same time, I wonder a little bit whether the prevailing wisdom is quite as prevalent as Prum makes out. Certainly his theory is one that I--a complete outsider--had heard before, including the fact that a trait need not be adaptive if it's sufficiently preferred. It's clear, however, that Prum is heavily emotionally invested in his theory. It may be that he's a bit hyper-focused on the opposition. It's almost certain that he's overstating his case.

One issue is that Prum mingles factual truth and normative truth. He points out, correctly, that--in the common case where females chose the mates--mate choice is consistent with female sexual agency, choice, and empowerment (which I'll call FSACE, for short). It's also true that we, societally, consider FSACE ethically desirable--indeed, mandatory. Those two things, however, are not connected. FSACE is not ethically mandatory because it's consistent with mate choice, and mate choice isn't necessarily true because it's consistent with FSACE. Put another way, FSACE is an ethical must even if someone proves that Prum's ideas are false.

In this regard, Prum also doesn't see that the evidence he cites against competing theories can also be used against his own. For example: in many societies women's sexual pleasure has always been marginalized, denigrated, or just ignored. This is evidence against the idea that female sexual pleasure is adaptive, true enough. But it's also evidence against the idea that female sexual pleasure is a consequence of women selecting sexually-compatible mates.

Another overreach comes when Prum tries to explain some behavioral differences between humans and our closest evolutionary relatives. Among apes, females generally can't select mates; the dominant male controls mating. So why do human relationships (cross-culturally, even in small tribal groups) tend towards pair-bonding?

Prum's proposal is that female mate choice explains this. Women, he suggests, prefer males who allow them to exercise their preferences. That is, proto-women preferred to hook up with proto-men who were inclined towards pair-bonding, rather than dominance/polygyny, which in turn spread the pair-bonding genes through the population--not because they provide any particular survival advantage, but because they offer more mating opportunities.

Well, sure, that might be true. There's no evidence of it. Furthermore, it suffers from a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: women promote free mate choice by exercising their free mate choice to select males who will permit them free mate choice, which raises the question of where the free mate choice came from in the first place.

There are plenty of other equally-credible explanations. Here's one alternative, in dialogue form:

#1 MALE: I hereby invoke my maleness to take away your Female Sexual Agency, Choice, and Empowerment!

FEMALES: Let's kill him.

#2 MALE: Yeah!

#3 MALE: I'm in.

#1 MALE: Wait, what? Argh, gurgle.

FEMALES: Good riddance.

FORMER #2 MALE: Aha! Now I am #1 Male, and I--


FORMER #2 MALE: . . . that is . . . ah . . . things will be a bit different . . . mistakes were made.

Richard Prum doesn't present any more evidence for his idea than I have for mine. If anything, I think mine is more plausible, because it explains one thing that's unique to humans (our sexual arrangements) with another thing that's unique to humans (our ability to communicate, plan, and cooperate).

On the other hand, Prum's description of his own work with birds is tremendous. He goes into deep detail (which could have gotten dull, but doesn't) about, for example, bower birds' elaborate constructions and manakins' elaborate dances. Here I think his evidence is very strong and his arguments sound. It's no coincidence that the bird-oriented chapters are a lot lighter on the "it is possible"s and the "it could well be"s and the "might have"s.

That's not to say that I discount Prum's ideas entirely when it comes to humans. I do mistrust the single-cause fallacy, particularly when it comes to something as multifarious as human behavior--but that applies to Prum's opponents as well as to Prum himself. If you're at all interested in this sort of thing, do read The Evolution of Beauty. It'll keep you thinking for quite some time.

There are a number of good books on evolution, adaptation, and related topics. High among them, though also speculative, is Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire. Daniel Lieberman's The Story of the Human Body is extremely convincing, if not quite as daring. A good deal older, but still very much worth reading, is Melvin Konner's The Tangled Wing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Book Review: Cave of Bones

Cave of Bones: A Leaphorn, Chee, and Manuelito Novel
Anne Hillerman

[WARNING: minor spoilers.]

Cave of Bones nicely illustrates the difference between writing and storytelling. Anne Hillerman is a professional reporter. She can write perfectly good English, and does. It doesn't add up to a story, though.

Without going into exhaustive detail, here are some things that could have been fixed:
  • Too much "X felt Y," instead of using dialog and description to show how X felt.
  • Some leaden dialogue. Real people do not say things like "I'll make sure that's undisturbed. We want to find a living man, not the ancient dead" unless there's video rolling.
  • Several plot threads that don't really reinforce one another.
  • An idiot plot, wherein two professional police offers fail to thoroughly search the single most obvious place where they should have searched--or even ask anyone else to do so.
Most importantly, Cave of Bones contains a total lack of pacing. In chapter 2, a man disappears. For the next half of the book, nothing happens that sheds any light on his disappearance. Instead, we get Variations on a Theme of We Still Don't Know Anything. This is one of the worst sins a mystery writer can commit, because mysteries tend to be long on talking and short on action. 

Furthermore, when we do get some movement, it's just random thrashing-around. A previously-minor character contacts the cops, passionately tells them nothing in particular, for no rational reason suddenly runs out and gets lost in the snow. Subsequently, for even less rational reason, he tries to shoot someone. Finally, for absolutely no reason whatsoever rational or otherwise, he manufactures a fake hostage situation. All of this adds up to a certain around of churn, but plot and pacing require directed action.

Perhaps the most vexing, if minor, point in Cave of Bones comes at the end--in the Acknowledgements section. Hillerman thanks "my writer friends, the Literary Ladies," which is gracious and appropriate. And yet . . . the problems here are very obvious, and very few of them are subjective judgments. Anyone could have pointed them out. Why didn't they?

Anne Hillerman is, of course, the daughter of Tony Hillerman, who famously created the Navajo detectives Leaphorn and Chee and their world. Tony Hillerman isn't my all-time favorite author, in substantial part because most of his books are police procedurals and my first love is the whodunnit. He was a gifted writer, though, with enormous powers of description and an intimate knowledge of the Southwest's native cultures. Among his better books are Thief of Time and The Wailing Wind. Don't watch the PBS adaptations unless you want your intelligence insulted, though.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Book Review: Berlin 1936

Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August
Oliver Hilmes
History, biography, sports

Berlin 1936 is a rather unusual book. I can imagine it might not be to everyone's taste. I liked it a lot, though.

"The Nazi Olympics" are famous as the occasion of Jesse Owens's on-field heroics, which are (and were) widely understood as having giving Hitler the metaphorical finger. The rest of the scene is treated as background--or reported in the newspaper-like tones used for any sporting event. Berlin 1936 flips all of this around. The book is a series of vignettes, told in the present tense and taken from a broad swath of lives both famous and obscure. Some of the actors appear once and vanish. Others weave into and out of the story: the American author Thomas Wolfe, Joseph Goebbels, the club owner Leon Henri Dajou. Owens is there, but he's one among many.

The theme of the book is not athletics, but contrast. Hilmes does a rather fine job in showing Berlin as the visitors saw it, as the Nazis wanted it to be seen--and then showing the ugly, underlying truth. The spectacle--not only of the games, but of Berlin itself--was deliberate: bait for the gaze of the world. Dangled in front of the visitors and the newsreel cameras, it pulled their eyes away from such nasty facts as Hitler's recent treaty violations, the race laws, and the burgeoning concentration camps. It worked, too.*

I can't say that Berlin 1936 is a book for everyone. It's novelistic (and should appeal to lovers of historical fiction). The present-tense prose makes the book more immediate--there's a sense of not knowing how it all comes out--but it's obviously a stylistic device. Substantively, while the book is well-researched and end-noted, it makes no pretense of completeness; it's no substitute, for example, for a straight, rigorous history book. There are no hard numbers and not much in the way of historical context. Ordinary Berliners are present, but they're at the margins, and they fade away entirely as the book continues.

. . . which, I think, is part of Hilmes's point. In Hitler's Germany, ordinary individual German didn't count for much. They were just grist for the mill--obscured by Olympic razzle-dazzle--and ultimately mere fodder for armies. In much same way, the virulently anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer was kept off the streets for sixteen days, the rhetoric was muted, the press coverage was orchestrated in fine detail, the swing bands were given plenty of leeway, the nightlife was permitted to roar. Hilmes does a nice job in showing the frothy surface, while periodically puncturing it. To complain that this book reads like a guide to Berlin glitz (as one or two reviewers have done) completely misses the point.

*Comparisons with the current World Cup in Moscow are left as an exercise for the reader.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Book Review: The Matter of the Heart

The Matter of the Heart: A History of Heart Surgery in Eleven Operations
Thomas Morris

What's astounding about heart surgery is how quickly it became routine. Thomas Morris opens with a scene in World War II in which a bevy of top-flight surgeons are absolutely agog to watch Dr. Dwight Harken remove some shrapnel from a living heart. At the time, my uncle would have been about twelve. Last year he had a pacemaker implanted, then went out for lunch.

It's not just the technical difficulties. In Morris's eyes, at least, the heart had a uniquely long-lingering mystique. Even into the twentieth century, many surgeons seem to have regarded tampering with it as faintly sacrilegious. The Matter of the Heart is a more-or-less sequential overview of how the transformation.

It's mostly a smooth journey, well worth the read if you're not too squeamish. Morris doesn't entirely solve the conundrum of how to manage a large and overlapping cast of characters: the eleven operations he picks out are all children of many parents, and it's sometimes hard to remember whether Dr. Soandso appeared in a previous chapter or not. Also, while Morris's explanations are outstanding, the book suffers from a dreadful lack of illustrations. There are exactly two, in the opening pages--one of the heart's exterior, one of its interior. Would it have killed the publisher to have put in a couple of diagrams showing exactly what each operation entailed?

That said, this is inherently dramatic stuff, and Morris does a good job with it. He doesn't go overboard, thankfully--this isn't a TV drama--but then he doesn't have to. He also does a good job with exploring the many false starts, blind alleys, partial successes, and setbacks that have led us to where we are today. Finally, he's got some fascinating peeks at where we might be going tomorrow.

There's one thing I should stipulate, though. Everything that the surgeons have accomplished, they've accomplished through extensive animal experiments, mostly on dogs. If that thought makes you squirm, don't read this book. For my part, I understand why it had to be done that way; I can't argue with the results; I have every intention of benefiting from the results if necessary. Nonetheless, if that aspect of the book doesn't make you at least a little heartsick, there's something wrong with you.

Book Review: Graphene

Graphene: The Superstrong, Superthin, and Superversatile Material That Will Revolutionize the World
Les Johnson, Joseph E. Meany
Science, engineering

Graphene is crazy stuff. It's incredibly simple--a repeating plane of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal latice. It's one atom thick. It's phenomenally strong: if plastic cling-wrap were made of graphene, you could support a car on it. It's a near-supercoductor. It's basically weightless. Plus I'm a sucker for the single-word-title biography-of-a-substance book. What could possibly go wrong?

Answer: the writing. Johnson and Meany have good intentions, but their writing skills show more enthusiasm than discipline. Graphene is written in a golly-gee-Mister-Wizard tone that set my teeth on edge from the first chapter. It also contains random anecdotes stuck in unhelpful places, repeated bits, a digressive and disorganized structure, and not nearly enough critical thinking. There's only a limited amount of graphene hagiography that I can stomach before I start feeling contrarian, and Graphene exceeds it early on. The worst part is a section imagining our glowing graphene-enhanced future which reads like somebody watched "Zinc Oxide and You" without realizing that it was funny.

The authors do manage to slip in many fascinating facts. There are also some remarkable graphs showing, for example, the growth in graphene-related patents. None of this, however, adds up to anything more than wishful thinking. Our Friend Graphene is the scientific miracle of the next decade? So is fusion, and it has been for fifty years. So were high-temperature superconductors. So were fuel-cell cars, a bit more than a decade ago. Who knows? Graphene is too long on passion and too short on analysis to let me make any kind of reasoned judgment on its eponymous material. And that's a missed opportunity.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Book Review: The Year of Lear

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606
James Shapiro
Literature, biography, history

A more recent book by the author of this excellent 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, and similarly thought-provoking. Shapiro combines conventional literary criticism with a deep knowledge of what was happening around Shakespeare when he was writing. The result is really illuminating: however "timeless" the Shakespeare plays may seem, in reality he was writing for a contemporary audience who would see reflections of contemporary events.

Some of the information seems obvious--in retrospect. In 1606, James I--newly-installed on the throne of England, but already king of Scotland--was trying to effect a union between his two kingdoms. Lear deals with the disastrous division of a kingdom; Macbeth deals with an ambitious Scottish king. It's inconceivable that people at the time wouldn't have noticed the parallels.

Other pieces are new, at least to me. I hadn't registered, for example, that Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon and its surrounds were heavily involved in the aftermath of the Guy Fawkes plot. As to how that may have worked its way onto the stage . . . read the book! We can never know what Shakespeare was thinking. But we can know what was on his mind, which is perhaps the next best thing.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Book Review: The Knowledge

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm
Lewis Dartnell
Science, engineering

In the absence of an actual cataclysm, it's not clear what function this book serves. It's mildly interesting, if you're interested in this sort of thing.