Book reviews

Several interesting book reviews arrived in my feed this morning, of books I have not read.

Jerry Coyne reviews FAPP’s What Darwin Got Wrong alongside Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth. I cannot help but think that he is on the one hand very easy on Dawkins and fails to engage with FAPP’s argument all that well (which may be because he comes out of a distinct tradition to FAPP; for a start, the decisive point about recent philosophy of biology here is that Elliot Sober made the relevant distinction in 1984 of selection “for” and selection “of”, which Coyne fails to mention but is crucial). I think that when scientists critique philosophers, even those who are as he notes arrogantly ignorant of the science they address, they often miss the crucial point being made. Likewise, there is a tendency among scientists to laud those they agree with on philosophical points, as Coyne does Dawkins.

Popmatters has an excellent review of a point that comes out of a recent book on Stephen Jay Gould’s politics: did it influence his science or not, and if so should it have? Incidentally, I found this by the increasingly indispensable 80beats, to which you should all subscribe.

Also from 80beats, this essay review in The Statesman, by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, on the other famous book by Adam Smith, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments is worth reading. He points out that Smith thought that inequalities were more often socially made than natural. This theme is continued in this review by Vivian Gornick on the Golden Rule (of Hillel, not that other Jewish rabbi) and justice, in the book Right by Others by Michael Sandel.

Like I said, I haven’t read any of these, although I will eventually read Dawkins and FAPP, but it is nice to see ideas being discussed in the public sphere.

4 thoughts on “Book reviews

  1. I agree that Jerry (and many other reviewers) miss the “crucial” distinction. However, I can’t evaluate whether this is justified or not until I actually read the book. In any event, it is a reviewer’s job to review the book as it actually is, not as the author wish it were. If one of the crucial points was garbled in the book, then the authors have only themselves to blame. A responsible reviewer shouldn’t forget his job and review the thought of the person. He should instead review the content of the book.

    The most cogent dissection of just what point was being missed was in the Sober/Fodor BHTv. And in that exchange, I seem to recall Fodor apologetically clarifying and emphasizing his point because he feels that the book did a poor job of conveying it. Even if the book reviews miss the “real point”, it is conceivable that this too is the authors’ fault.

    One thing I think is a very sad (from my personal point of view) is how little any discussion of genetics and genomics makes it into the debate. Evolution (by whatever mechanism) results from sampling processes at a genetic level. And different sampling processes leave different patterns of genetic variation in the genome. It is in fact possible to determine that an allele is under natural selection without even knowing how bearers of the selected allele differ from bearers of the unselected allele. Viewing natural selection from a genetic level seems to obviate F&P’s intentionality objection. Primarily this is because it reveals that their objection is a strawman, at least in the population genetics community.

    Anyway, I may check it out in the library, but I ain’t gonna read it.

    FWIW, Dawkins’ TGSOE was lackluster in my opnion. The topics were interesting and the anecdotes amusing. However, the writing was merely adequate. Dawkins seems to have either aimed at a lower common denominator or to have lost patience to craft really engaging prose. The book came off as rather conversational to me, and only rarely inspired me with its craftsmanship. Don’t get me wrong, Dawkins does a great job of organizing diverse ideas and conveying difficult subjects. However, this offering is most definitely not his personal high-water mark.


  2. 1) “I agree that Jerry*”: Jerry COYNE

    2) “but I ain’t gonna read* it.”: Erm. I mean I ain’t read it if I have to buy it.


    1. Yes, I read it the way you intended it. I am going to have to read it. I guess I’ll do that while travelling next month.


      1. I’m feeling chatty this afternoon for some reason.

        My local bookstore definitely doesn’t have F&P’s book. I’ll have to wait until I move back to the U.S. to expect to find it in the corner library. Paying a premium to get a copy shipped here isn’t happening.

        Re: TGSOE, one thing some reviewers may have neglected are the wonderful 32 pages of color. Very nice photographs and illustrations, especially for a book of this sort. It is almost worth having on your shelf just for that. And of course, I’m grading Dawkins on a scale that Dawkins helped define. Even if The Selfish Gene were only of median quality by Dawkins’ standard, half of his other work would be of lower quality by pure chance. Well, TGSOE falls into that bottom half. 😛


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