2023 Book Review
Another year, another book review. This year I set the intention to read an even wider selection of writings, focusing on environmental philosophy but including a whole lot of weird, fun stuff. The science of death and decomposition, the CIA’s involvement in the Manson murders, catching anacondas in the Amazon- buckle up and get ready for a literary whirlwind.
Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties
by Tom O'Neil & Dan Piepenbring
The single most well-researched book I have ever read, or likely will ever read. Chaos is a deep exploration of the Charles Manson murders told through the author’s sleuthing, a 20-year exploration of one of the most notorious crimes in American history. The story begins as a short 30th anniversary retrospective on the Manson murders for the now-defunct Premiere Magazine, meant to investigate how Hollywood has changed since and what legacy the event holds. Decades later, and the short magazine segment is now a 500 page book that the author still considers largely incomplete.
As the research began, more and more details popped up that called the official narrative into question. How did one of the victim’s photographers get notified of the murders a full hour before the police arrived on the scene? If law enforcement knew of The Family’s crimes and outstanding warrants weeks before the murders, why weren’t they arrested- or at least brought in for questioning immediately following the second set of murders? How come a repeat criminal was let out of jail dozens of times, with his parole officer assisting him in avoiding punishment?
These questions are legitimate and have never been answered in any compelling way. The further O’Neil dug into these questions, the more absurd his reporting became. “You’re not gonna like this,” O’Neill writes to his agent, “but I think the JFK assassination is involved. . . . And the CIA’s mind-control experiments.”
Throughout the book, O’Neil is careful to maintain his rationality and journalistic integrity- a hard task considering the sensationalist subject matter. Though there is never a smoking gun that provides for a full explanation of events, enough contradictory evidence is found to call the prevailing narrative into question and make for a gripping read.
As much as it is a story about the Manson murders, Chaos is a tale of unflappable commitment and personal sacrifice. The author risked everything to write something that would likely be regarded as conspiracy- two decades of scribbled notes, conversations with cognitively-questionable geriatrics, and loose end after loose end. Through missed deadlines, increasing levels of debt, and widespread speculation that he had gone crazy, O’Neil persevered. Though his reporting is still largely incomplete, it did manage to disprove the current narrative- what it failed to do, however, was offer up a likely alternative.
We are living through a period of increased political and cultural polarization, making the truth harder and harder to discern. It is refreshing to read accounts of something so sensational, yet approached in an overwhelmingly rational, level-headed manner. O’Neil sets the standard for journalistic integrity, both in his bravery to pursue what seems impossible and in his conviction to offer an unbiased view of his findings- even at the cost of a less compelling narrative.
And so, feeling the line between "researcher" and "conspiracy theorist" blurring before me, I hunkered down in the library to read about the many ways our government has deceived us.
The Sixth Extinction
by Elizabeth Kolbert
An interesting read, but not quite as compelling as Brannen’s The Ends of the World or O’Connor’s Resurrection Science. Still, for any that remain skeptical about the extent of our ongoing species loss or whether or not it’s even occurring, I can’t think of a more important book.
The Sixth Extinction explores the evidence for, and contributing factors behind, what has recently been regarded as the Holocene mass extinction or the Anthropocene mass extinction- the main-made annihilation of our planet’s species. Kolbert discusses the topic in accessible language, making the account digestible for readers without a thorough scientific background.
Though my impression of this book may have been dampened somewhat by reading it after others in the same category, it did help to reinforce and further explain previous lessons. Man’s hand in the extinction of large Holocene creatures was a major point in End of the Megafauna and was discussed by Kolbert as well, though in more definitive terms. Resurrection Science explores the ethical concerns surrounding the protection of species, reintroduction of species, and the reincarnation of extinct species- topics touched by Kolbert as well with a bit less nuance.
Creating an account of manmade extinction in about 275 pages was a mammoth undertaking. Given the size of the book and the breadth of topics covered, much was, understandably, left out. While it left a lot to be desired, I do believe that for a certain niche it serves a distinct purpose. For someone looking for a comprehensive account of our current moment in geologic time and the implications it may hold for millennia, this is likely not the book to read. On the other hand, The Sixth Extinction is great for the paleontological and geological layperson trying to better understand our moment and why they should care about creating positive environmental change.
The anthropologist Richard Leakey has warned that “Homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.” A sign in the Hall of Biodiversity offers a quote from the Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich: IN PUSHING OTHER SPECIES TO EXTINCTION, HUMANITY IS BUSY SAWING OFF THE LIMB ON WHICH IT PERCHES.
End of the Megafauna
by R. D. E. MacPhee
A controversial scientific topic explored fairly, with breathtaking illustrations throughout of some of the most incredible creatures to ever grace our earth. End of the Megafauna explores the extraordinary diversity and geologically-instantaneous doom of the larger-than-life creatures that cohabitated with humans. Throughout the book two extinction causes are examined- human driven extinction and environment driven extinction- with supporting and detracting evidence provided for each. Though it is becoming increasingly common for man’s role in the megafauna extinction to be presented as scientific fact (looking at you, the Sixth Extinction) MacPhee makes a point to explore all of the evidence in a completely impartial manner.
When it comes to mass extinctions, one size probably doesn’t fit all. While man may have done the megafauna in, it was likely a culmination of causes that spelled doom for the large beasts. The final word MacPhee had on the topic was the importance of not definitively claiming a cause before the requisite amount of scientific sleuthing was complete- to him, there is a lot of legwork needed before we come upon anything approaching scientific fact.
A rare book on the Late Pleistocene extinctions that claw some attention back from the sexier extinctions of the Cretaceous or Permian, End of the Megafauna is a fun, quick read for anyone interested in our current moment in geologic time. Though parts of it come off as dry and textbookish, this is a largely necessary byproduct of levelheaded scientific inquiry on a not-yet-settled debate.
by Bernd Heinrich
An enthralling read residing at the intersection of philosophy and biology. Prompted by a request for a “natural burial” by a friend, Heinrich explores the process of being returned to the earth after death and the host of organisms big and small that facilitate this change. Along the way you explore the roles played by maggots, beetles, crows, and coyotes, among others, from experiments set up outside of Heinrich’s cabin. Finally, the human element is explored- why are we the only organism that doesn’t give back to the food chain? What does this refusal say about our psychology and the meaning we give to death?
I’m a sucker for biophilosophy. Within the first 20 pages, I was completed entranced- I think I finished this book in 3 or 4 days. While the descriptions of biologic processes and how they differ depending on the size and location of the dead animal, the season and temperature, and the local fauna was interesting, the application for humans was my favorite part. Why do we feel the need to separate ourselves from the rest of nature, and is this separation somehow an attempt to separate ourselves from the reality and eventuality of death? What meaning can be found in coming to terms with this eventuality?
Riding the line between philosopher, biologist, psychologist, and anthropologist, Heinrich provides profound insights into our current interpretation of death and dying and why it must change. He presents death as “the primary context for living and for everything alive,” shining a favorable light on an otherwise bleak topic. Death is renewal- death is life.
I don’t rightly know the best audience for Life Everlasting. Biologists interested in underexplored topics within the field? The death-anxious looking for a sensible, positive approach to their role within the circle of life? Natural philosophy and philosophy of death connoisseurs? I suppose all of the above, along with anyone willing to slow down, read thoroughly without distraction, and deeply consider the meaning in what Heinrich teaches and in what the animals themselves teach.
Not one animal is allowed to consume us, even after we are dead. Not even the worms. We need a new creation story that connects us to nature and to others, one that can give us strength- that can make us real rather than rich.
Intersexion: A Story of Faith, Identity, and Authenticity
by Cynthia Vacca Davis
One of my favorite professors at CNU wrote a book! You know what, let me rephrase that- one of my favorite professors at CNU wrote an honest, raw, insightful, inspiring book! Before I go further, just go right ahead and buy Intersexion– only $4.99 on Kindle, or $9.99 for paperback. It is, I assure you, worth every penny.
Intersexion is a dual narrative, chronicling the author, Cynthia Davis, as she develops personally, professionally, and within her religion. Dani’s story- and later Danny’s story- makes up the other half of the book. Puberty, periods, breasts… a testicle, a penis, and a devoutly religious mind trying to make sense of it all while fitting into their parent’s idea of what they should be. These stories cross paths later in life, with Cynthia forced to choose between her principles or a lucrative career, and Danny forced to choose between the conditional acceptance of her evangelical family, or life as his true self.
I’m not going to give too much away- you’ll just have to read the book. What I enjoyed most about Intersexion was the honesty during the crisis moments. All too often in narrative non-fiction the protagonist makes some Marvel-esque quip and refuses the deal that goes against their values, but with their interest. Intersexion takes a more realistic approach. Though knowing that it goes against her morals, Cynthia continues entertaining the job offer because, for all she knew, that opportunity was not going to present itself again- and it was an opportunity she worked so hard to get in the first place. Life is tricky, morality is tricky, and going against our best interests is difficult- Cynthia captured this range of emotions expertly.
Dani’s story captured the personal and religious tensions well- a picture was painted of a conflicted child that wanted to make her parents proud, wanted to fit in with her community, and wanted to be comfortable in her own skin. Her story was told honestly and bravely, warts and all.
by Earl Swift
I spent time on Tangier Island while I was in college. A strange tip about underage drinking from a school librarian led me and 3 friends on an overnight camping trip to the sandy southern shore. We went expecting it to be strange, but were not prepared for the depth of strangeness- a place lost to time, lost to culture, and just about lost to the sea. They had their own way of doing things that they vehemently defended, which my rural upbringing allowed me to understand- many others, I’m sure, aren’t as charitable.
I came into this book with assumptions that took a while to dispel. Journalistic circles are often grossly unfair to those that are “rural” different, and the Tangiermen fit that to a fault- I expected a caricature of the motivations and beliefs that drove the Tangier rationale. Instead what I received was a deeply honest examination of the Tangier culture, going back to it’s founding, and the tendrils of that time that still permeate the island to this day. Swift understands better than most of where these deep-seeded beliefs come from, why they matter, and why they must be respected- especially if you aim to change a mind. The citizens of Tangier are given an overwhelmingly fair portrayal- the good and the bad.
So, Tangier Island is sinking. Other islands dotting the Chesapeake have already succumbed to an array of forces outside the control of any of their inhabitants, being dragged under the surf and becoming respites for blue crabs. Solitary homes left standing on shrinking plots once dozens of acres, now half a football field with signs of erosion visible from every corner. While Tangier was lucky to be among the largest islands in the Chesapeake Bay, with a bit of luxurious elevation and plenty of tree cover to bat, it now stands as the last bastion of civilization along the Virginian Chesapeake.
What factors led to this? How have the locals reacted, and what do they do from here? Why don’t the locals just close up shop and move to the mainland? Over the course of a 400 page book that admittedly seems a bit long-winded at times, Swift answers all of these questions in an honest, dignified way. He truly takes the time to understand the people of Tangier, their traditions and their customs, and chronicles a heartwrenching death throe for life on the Chesapeake. While Tangier will soon be gone, the story of the Tangiermen that trace their lineage back hundreds of years on the same island will live on, and a slice of wonderfully singular Americana will not be lost to the rising tides.
The Rise and Reign of the Mammals
by Stephen Brusatte
Another Brusatte classic. Like The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, this was a thrill from start to finish and an absolute treat to read- statements that sound strange for a 500 page paleontology book. Brusatte explores the incredible evolution that began with small shrew-like creatures 325 million years ago and led to the megafauna, whales, bats, and us. Along the way he introduces us to the scientists that made the most important discoveries in the field, emerging scientists are helping to connect the dots of our geologic history, and bitter personal and geopolitical rivalries.
The Rise and Reign of the Mammals answers many questions you didn’t even know you had. How the hell did a whale become a thing, and did it ever have legs? How did a bat evolve to fly, and has that happened before besides avian dinosaurs (birds)? How did mammals survive the end-Cretaceous mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, and how then did they diversify so quickly? As you read, more questions pop up, engrossing you further and further into this tale supereons in the making.
While a bit hard to follow all of the latin-named, long-extinct species that are mentioned throughout, Brusatte weaves a surprisingly intelligible account for the uninitiated. I would recommend starting off with End of the Megafauna first as a bit of an intellectual appetizer, then read this over the course of a week or two as the main meal.
by Albert Camus
Albert Camus has become my favorite philosopher, though to me this novella plays second fiddle to The Myth of Sisyphus and The Fall. Like both of those, absurdity lies at the heart of The Stranger and is explored internally through the protagonist, Meursault, and through the society he interacts with and affects.
As Camus’ first exploration of the absurd, The Stranger introduces the concept through a tale of a man, Meursault, as he experiences his mom’s death, his marriage, murdering a man, and being subsequently sentenced to death. Over the course of these events it does not seem as if Meursault is the driving force behind the choices that he makes or the events that happen to him, and he claims neither innocence nor guilt for the murder and fails to be sufficiently grieving for his mom’s funeral.
After being sentenced to death and having little luck with his defense, largely due to his inability to explain his irrational circumstances in rational terms, Meursault makes peace with his circumstances and embraces the absurdity of his life for what it is. This realization is sparked during a meeting with a Chaplain in his cell, prior to his execution. This refusal of religion and embracing of the absurd is a critical change for him as he accepts his life as utterly meaningless, starting and ending at no choice of his own.
Camus believed that we live in an irrational, unpredictable universe that we are constantly trying- in vain- to make sense of and create paradigms to explain. Fundamentally, however, it is a fool’s errand and our efforts are for nothing. While we can enjoy life for what it is, there is no hope and there is no bargaining with an absurd, indifferent universe. This gets explored further, along with the concept of philosophical suicide, in the later Myth of Sisyphus.
He then asked if a "change of life," as he called it, didn't appeal to me, and I answered that one never changed his way of life; one life was as good as another, and my present one suited me quite well.
Greek philosophy, like religious texts, must be read and re-read to be fully understood. For that reason I’ll keep each of these next few descriptions relatively short and sweet. When I get around to re-reading them, I’ll update with additional insights and how the perspective changed.
Crito takes place shortly after Apology, with Socrates condemned to death and his friend Crito trying to convince him to escape with him. Like many of Plato’s writings, Socrates takes center stage as a conduit for Plato’s philosophy. Throughout this short dialogue only Socrates and Crito talk, discussing the nature of justice.
To Plato, justice is an objective truth that must be reconciled internally. A judge has the power to condemn; only we can determine what justice looks like, and who’s opinions we consider while doing so. To this end, not all voices are equal. Socrates believed that the popularity of an opinion did not translate to it’s truth. Similarly, an individual’s opinion should only be considered as far as their expertise and demonstrated experience imply.
Despite being a dialogue with Socrates arguing with someone, Crito does not feature Socratic questioning. Instead, Crito provides his reasoning for why Socrates should escape followed by Socrates’ rebuttal. The focus was on individual values and how our decisions must remain constant with those- to Socrates, death was preferable to defying his principles. Even in the face of injustice he was beholden to the state- if it was the state’s will that he be put to death, he must submit. Though unjust on the part of the state, the just choice for Socrates was to go through with it, as he would be unjust for escaping. As a philosopher, maintaining his principles was paramount.
Crito was a short read, and like many of the dialogues, surprisingly easy to understand- at least at surface level. In an increasingly intellectually confused time with more and more niche ideological factions popping up weekly, Crito provides a much-needed reminder to focus on your own principles as your judicial north star. Take other’s views into consideration when they are philosophically consistent enough to do so, but above all continue considering and challenging your own value set.
Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is, - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know.
Among the most famous Dialogues of Plato, Apology chronicles Socrates’ famous trial where he would be sentenced to death for corrupting the youth. The whole dialogue plays out in the courtroom, with Socrates facing his accusers and rebutting their two charges using Socratic questioning. In doing so, he also provides insight into wisdom, authority, and sophistry. Of course, he is sentenced to death
My first exposure to Apology was through the fantastic Philosophize This! podcast, which I would highly recommend giving a listen. I hesitate to write too much here as I don’t believe my understanding was deep enough to offer many insights; I’ll need to re-read it a few times to fully do the piece justice. Instead, I’ll provide a basic summary of the events- the trial, the verdict, and the final remarks.
The trial of Socrates was an exercise in Socratic questioning, with the main arguments of the accused being destroyed through scrutiny with their contradictions exposed. For the claim of Socrates as a corrupter of the youth, wasn’t that interpretation merely a consequence of the corruption that occurred with Aristophanes’ play that satirized him? Introduced early and reiterated throughout, Socrates points out that he is not particularly wise- his wisdom comes in the form of accepting his unwise state.
Both within this fictionalized narrative but also in the historical record, Socrates had many opportunities to escape a death sentence. Throughout the case he would cross-examine and generally mock his accusers and even the jury, painting the popular picture of someone making little effort to save himself (he wasn’t). When offered a plea deal that would remove the death sentence, Socrates refused, opting instead to remain consistent to his principles.
To Socrates, death was not a consideration in his decision making during the court case, or even afterwards in the dialogue of Crito when he had another possibility of escaping death. The maintenance of his principles was critical, regardless of the outcome. As he claims in his final line of argumentation, “the hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways- I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.”
A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong- acting the part of a good man or of a bad.
The Allegory of the Cave
A perfect allegory for Plato’s theory of forms, offering many insights into the subjects that comprise a proper education and how education can be approached to best benefit the student. The Allegory of the Cave is a dialogue between Socrates (seeing a theme here?) and Plato’s brother, Glaucon. Instead of recounting the allegory, I’ll jump into some of the takeaways as the setup is common knowledge by this point- the lessons, though, remain uninspected to most.
A mentor is needed to bridge the gap between introduction and understanding. While you are free to explore a new subject, real understanding can be limited- you are essentially reading an unknown language, able to make sense of some but ignorant to the deeper meaning. In the same way, education relies on one willing to learn and one capable of teaching; a mentor attempting to lead someone unwilling to change does not affect the mentor nor the pupil.
To Plato, the forms- ideal abstractions, ideas- are more meaningful than the objects we experience through our senses. Our physical experiences of sight, touch, and smell are lesser to the idealized forms that exist on a higher plane. A good life requires an exploration of the true nature of reality, and a rejection of the simplified forms that we have access to. Real education and deep meaning require one to look further- beyond the shadows being cast on the wall- bypassing the distractions in exchange for a closer approximation to the nature of reality.
Because a freeman ought not to be a slave in the acquisition of knowledge of any kind. Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.
My final, and unfortunately least liked, foray into the world of Platonian philosophy. Once again Socrates makes an appearance, this time in the form of a philosophical fan fiction bringing together brilliant minds of history and mythology. The cast of characters- Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, Alcibiades, and Socrates- are gathered to drink wine and be merry, having a bit of a party. Each take turns giving speeches in praise of Eros, the god of love.
Of most significance, Symposium provided us with the notion of platonic love that separates sexual desire from a deep personal, emotional, or intellectual affinity for another person. Essentially it is a return to Plato’s theory of forms, with a hierarchical structure for love, touching the physical and sensual and culminating in the truest form, love for beauty itself.
The modern usage and evolution of platonic love/friendship is very interesting in it’s own right, deserving of further reading. Like Crito, I believe I’ll get much more out of this on my second and third read throughs, especially if I make a point to write my thoughts shortly after reading instead of giving it a few months.
Not in every soul without exception, for where there is hardness he departs, where there is softness there he dwells; and nestling always with his feet and in all manner of ways in the softest of soft places, how can he be other than the softest of all things?
by Henry David Thoreau
This book sucks and I refuse to pretend as if it doesn’t. There is one great chapter- the first, Economy- followed by enough racist rants interspersed through the remainder to negate any additional insights it could offer. It is the La Croix of natural philosophy, an essay of a man LARPing in the woods with the comically elitist tone of Mallory Archer. It is no surprise that basically every quote I’ve ever heard from this book was taken from the first 20 pages- the concept and explanation is great, the execution contrived and forgettable.
It is no secret that Thoreau was not a true woodsman, nor that he frequently left the cabin during his supposed tenure there. Having read so many other great nature novels that climb the mountain Thoreau failed to summit- Mother of God immediately comes to mind, as does the entire catalog of Bernd Heinrich – the observations between a true naturalist and one doing it for show are painfully stark. Perhaps my take is a somewhat unfair assessment spoiled by modern writers and modern sensibilities, but after the pseudo-racism of Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger my tolerance for elitist rhetoric is at an all time low.
Yet, some redeeming qualities remain. Economy is a fantastic, moving read, and would have stood well on it’s own merits. Natural observations were calming and immersive, especially during the winter. Biophilosophy requires little ego, and that was truly the fall of Walden. Some elements of brilliance were not able to make up for a story where Thoreau’s brilliance took center stage, with nature as a backdrop.
The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
by David Foster Wallace
My second David Foster Wallace book after the introductory Consider the Lobster last year, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again provided all of the insight, laughs, and social commentary I’ve come to expect from such a brilliant author. Though I stumbled somewhat during my first attempt to read his masterpiece Infinite Jest (I’ll circle back to it, I promise) DFW has solidified his position as one of my favorite authors.
Another series of essays covering a broad range of topics from the Illinois State Fair to luxury cruise ships, along with more cerebral topics such as the role of the author for a work’s meaning versus how a work is interpreted, A Supposedly Fun Thing was a fun break from my usual pile of geology and paleontology books (as a marketer, I’m still unsure how that happened). Wallace has a way of breaking down the absurdity that exists within the mundane, presenting it in comedic yet deeply provoking fashion. His essay on the luxury cruise ship echoed Camus, wondering how his interpretation of the ship changed so drastically as the luxuries shifted from being novel to expected. Life was the same, the veil of the fabricated reality could only be made so thick- through it all, the buzz permeates.
Of the two, Consider the Lobster was my favorite. That doesn’t quite do A Supposedly Fun Thing justice, the literary equivalent of a Foreman vs. Ali bout. Really they felt like extensions of one another, a continued exploration of the human condition through the absurd ways we pass the time and distract ourselves from the deeper meaning of our experiences. A mark is left upon completion, altering the way you see and interpret the previously mundane elements of the world around you.
For 360 minutes per diem, we receive unconscious reinforcement of the deep thesis that the most significant quality of truly alive persons is watchableness, and that genuine human worth is not just identical with but rooted in the phenomenon of watching.
Mother of God
by Paul Rosolie
An incredibly important book that is hard to pin down. It is a story of adventure and exploration, often reading as a biography of a young American that left at a young age to live an unfathomably unique life. Other sections read as critical commentary on the state of our environment and it’s ever-increasing fragility. Other parts are more historical narrative, detailing forgotten periods of our history that deserve to be told- most importantly the Rubber Wars, which seem to be among the worst atrocities of the previous century.
Whatever the story is, it is endlessly compelling. Paul Rosolie’s mastery of prose- despite having no real training as a writer, and struggling through school with dyslexia- is engrossing, bringing the reader face to face with anacondas, caiman, and capybaras. The natural world and human world merge into one, making the unknown a bit less scary and a bit less exciting. Any apprehension that existed previously when encounters occur with certain animals- snakes, spiders, bears- disappears.
Mother of God explores the intensity and dedication required to living a fulfilled life- and the necessary sacrifices that come along with it. The more you want, the more you have to be willing to lose- and the more you love something, the more you have to be willing to defend it. Paul’s work defending the Amazon is second in importance to the international attention he has brought to his slice of heaven, the Madre de Dios, that has helped to protect even more wild lands. For environmentalists, philosophers, adventurers- this is a book for you.
I first heard of Paul through his appearance on the Lex Fridman Podcast, which easily ranks as one of the top 10 podcast episodes I’ve ever listened to. For anyone interested in reading Mother of God, I highly recommend starting with the here. While the book is more event-focused- what he did, what those consequences were- he is more candid in the podcast about the emotional aspect of living a solitary life in the Amazon, almost dying from MRSA, and experiencing extreme hardship in inhospitable terrain while on solo trips. He recounts the thoughts that provided him strength that we all could use in our own lives- “am I a fraction as strong, a fraction as resilient, as my heroes I’ve read about?”
Day to day we bask in the shameless narcissism of our own species, viewing and reading superficial accounts of sports, politics, celebrities, economics, wars. Even in the context of religion the view is remarkably anthropocentric. Our religions seem devoid of any real focus on protecting what gives us life.
by Rachel Carson
Easily the most important book of the 1960’s and will possibly be considered one of the most important books ever written- yet, in 2023, it fell flat. While I read I tried to put myself in the shoes of someone receiving this information for the first time- but alas, it is part of the common core curriculum and I simply cannot disassociate enough to fully appreciate Silent Spring for what it was.
What was endlessly interesting- and downright terrifying- was how much of the message of Silent Spring has been lost in translation. While we all now know that liberal application of untested pesticides is bad for our health, the long-term downstream effects of forever chemicals is rarely mentioned. This seems incredibly convenient, and reminiscent of broader environmental issues we currently face. When forced to confront an issue of such grave importance, ambiguous origin, and impossibility of correcting, we default to the creation of strawmen arguments around it rather than addressing the actual problem. These hyperobjects– entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place- will inevitably kill us if we don’t find a way to rationally address them.
Silent Spring was a message of what is happening, and what the effects will be. Most of those effects we have witnessed firsthand, including many that we fail to correctly attribute to previous use of pesticides. Most importantly, Carson provided a framework that future environmentalists and scientists can and have used to fight for change. By focusing in on the hellscape we are creating, a narrative can be formed showing what is in store for us if we don’t change our ways. Perhaps people are more pessimistic and skeptical than they were when Silent Spring was first published, but I believe this line of argumentation is still a compelling one for those willing to hear the message.
Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?
The Seashell on the Mountaintop
by Alan Cutler
A $2 library book sale find that was worth so much more. The Seashell on the Mountaintop chronicles the life and drive behind Nicolas Steno, the largely forgotten Danish father of Geology. Deeply religious yet devout to the scientific method, Steno refused to accept contemporary scientific theory where it didn’t make sense. As a skilled anatomist, he declared nothing was known about the brain because all current popularly held beliefs were wrong. Seeing seashells in the mountains surrounding Florence, he reached the same conclusion. While modern science told him that seashells just emerged from the earth (a phenomenon attributed to the “plastic spirit” of our world) he rejected this hypothesis and sought creating his own.
Steno’s story is so powerful because it occurs a few short years after the persecution of Galileo. The Renaissance and the Reformation had just ran their course, and the scientific revolution was in it’s infancy. A young up and coming scientist, Isaac Newton, was starting to make waves. The Medici family was sponsoring all sorts of scientists, sometimes to the anger of the church, trying to find a closer approximation of how our world works. With so many competing forces and powerful minds intermingling, the late 1600’s was an endlessly interesting period in human history that transformed the way we view science and religion.
Nicolas Steno existed as a microcosm of the ongoing struggle between science and religion. He had no intention of questioning church doctrine or disproving bible verses that were, to an extreme degree, vehemently defended as scientific fact- to the contrary, he largely tried to reconcile (as any self-preserving scientist of the time would) his findings with biblical passages as a way to further prove his claims. Though one of the greatest inquiring minds of his time, Steno would eventually give up all scientific pursuits to live a life of quiet asceticism as a Catholic bishop. It was this change that likely led to his early death, an emaciated man in his late 40s with no worldly possessions besides books and religious paraphernalia.
One has to wonder what the catalyst was for this abrupt change to asceticism. For a man that was deeply religious and deeply scientific throughout his whole life, it seems odd for him to have completely disavowed one of the fields that made him whole. Though he seemingly never questioned the contradiction inherent in his history of the earth against that of the biblical creation narrative, it’s hard to imagine this didn’t weigh into his decision. His only writing on earth history- De Solido– provided an unfinished treatise on rock strata and how they come to be formed. His promised follow-up which would explore the subject comprehensively was never published, and the unfinished manuscript was lost to history after his death.
Despite a short scientific career and an unfinished theory, Steno’s writings ultimately created the field of Geology. Steno’s Laws, as they came to be known, are still taught today, forming the foundation of a geology education.
He startled the assembled savants by declaring at the outset: "Instead of promising to satisfy your inquiring minds about the anatomy of the brain, I confess to you here, honestly and frankly, that I know nothing about it." ... He had come to the conclusion that everything previously written about the brain was so inaccurate and contradictory that it was better to admit ignorance and start from scratch.
The End of Faith
by Sam Harris
A rousing call to action against organized religion by one of the so-called “four horsemen” of the new atheism movement, Sam Harris. My introduction to Harris was through the Making Sense podcast which I would highly recommend. After a year or two of listening, I thought it practical to give his books a shot to better understand the topics often brought up during his episodes. I did not always agree with the logic behind his talking points, and my take on The End of Faith was no different; eloquently reasoned, not always bulletproof.
The heart of Harris’ argument posits that religion is, at its core, inherently unreasonable- one cannot reason their way into believing in the resurrection, or the providential origins of the Quran. Allowing such poor reasoning to form the bedrock of ones belief system is dangerous on an individual level, and potentially apocalyptic on a societal scale. In an age of nuclear launch codes where entire civilizations can be erased from the map with a button, scientific reason must be the ballast stabilizing our world. With religious beliefs still framing the world view for the majority of the world, such shared beliefs are impossible and increasing violent conflict inevitable.
This argument does not assume religions are inherently bad, simply that they lead to bad ends, and at a time of increasingly high stakes for global conflict, maintaining religious institutions is not worth the risk. Harris makes a point to include examples of inherently religious thought from apolitical organizations as well, most notably the Third Reich. As Rudolf Hess argued, “We believe that the Fuhrer is obeying a higher call to fashion German history. There can be no criticism of this belief.”
In his attempt to include religious rhetoric from nonreligious institutions as part of his argument, Harris exposes the easiest criticism of his work. Why would a godless society be any more ethical, or any more prepared to rationally tackle challenges? In modern American politics the rhetoric of the right is rooted in religion- and yet, on the left, the rhetoric is equally if not more so religious. Acceptance into certain circles demands adherence to a strict belief system that cannot be questioned. Even the concept of original sin has found a home on the left.
Clearly the psychological roots of religious belief extend far deeper than we currently understand. While it could be argued that this unknown territory is still a safer option compared to a world discourse ruled by religion, I find that a bit of a stretch. A deeper understanding of human morality and decision making is needed before such a judgment could be made. I can’t help but think of Jonathan Haidt’s assertion that reason and emotion are intertwined; most people have an emotional response that is then justified by reason to support it.
One very compelling argument Harris posited was the complicity of religious moderates in empowering religious fundamentalism. This is true across religions, but most important- and dangerous- in Christianity and Islam. While a literalist interpretation of holy books would lead one to the conclusion that horrible crimes against nonbelievers are justifiable- and thus hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, currently hold this belief- there are enough religious moderates that interpret their texts loosely to defend the dangerous minority. A smaller scale example of this would be Mormon fundamentalism in rural Texarkana. Despite having a cultural norm of horrific sexual abuse against children, authorities were lambasted every time they tried to intervene. Public outcry, intensified by media coverage of “loving families” being broken up by a cruel, unfeeling government, allowed horrible crimes against children to continue unpunished for decades. Jon Krakauer covers this in his incredible book Under the Banner of Heaven, which is very much worth a read.