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Excellent! Reverse engineering for the mind.

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-08-12

With Stephen Pinker, you always get a lot of book for your bucks! This one is no exception.

I expected a book about CBT and neuroanatomy. However, I found the first sections of this book unusual - a detailed reverse engineering of our misperceptions to uncover the tricks the brain uses in giving us meaningful information about the world in the form of 3D colour vision, stereo hearing, tactile sensations, heat, cold, pain etc. It is almost a book of AI about how you might go about building a brain from scratch.

Yes, I liked his advocacy of the "computational theory of mind" - combined with the "selfish" gene centred model of evolution. This has rich explanatory power, and he is at pains to show how it differs from the prevalent "academic" view of the SSSM (Standard Social Sciences Model), based on the mind as a blank slate.

My only gripe with him here is that many of his evolutionary examples were a bit cliched - I wish he had tackled some of the more problematic areas of the theory such as the adaptive value of homosexuality, suicide, empathy etc. To be fair, he did do a whole section on altruism.

Perhaps the best bits for me were his detailed analyses of humour and music, not as adaptations, but as biproducts of other adaptive modules like language and status - ways we found to tweak our brain physiology in pleasurable directions, and which we thus developed. He also looks at free will, religion, "the hard problem" of consciousness, and every aspect of what it is to be human.

If you like Pinker's down to earth scientific approach, as I do, this book gives a very interesting perspective on the sometimes odd way our minds work, to envisage the world. Some parts are very detailed, and your interest may sag at times, but the pace and interest soon pick up.

12 people found this helpful

A Magnum Opus in every sense!

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 14-05-12

For such a long book, it never gets boring. I was fascinated from start to finish. Pinker has certainly done his research, and the book is packed with references to current research. His analysis of human violence is comprehensive, covering history, philosophy, neuropsychology, evolutionary biology, genetics, social theory, religious beliefs, child rearing practices, theories on the origins of war, demographic correlates of violence and much more on the demons and angels of our nature.

Contrary to what we might think, he argues convincingly that we are getting more humane. No more do we burn cats (or heretics) alive for entertainment. No more do we torture people to death, or subject children to cruel and unusual punishments and even though our weapons of war are deadlier than ever, every life lost - even our enemies, becomes a source of regret.

The book holds several surprises: that literature may be a cause of our greater tolerance of others, that empathy has a dark side in favouritism, that "mirror neurones" do not necessarily make us more humane, that the Flynn effect (increasing IQ) may also be contributing to our capacity for compassion, that the era of "Flower Power" bucked the downward trend with a sharp increase in crime and violence.

We will never be without violence, but for anyone who despairs at the modern world, there is much hope to be found here. It would seem that the angels of empathy, reason, self-control, prudence, fairness, ethical norms, and human rights are slowly winning out against the demons of instrumental violence, sadism, revenge, rage and ideology.

This is such a great book!

24 people found this helpful

Clever, poignant, puerile and very very funny!

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 11-05-12

This is the funniest book I have read in a very long while! No one is safe from MBs withering (if sometimes very puerile) ridicule. I loved the picture of Richard Dawkins in front of the mirror saying "what an extremely clever looking chap! Not as clever as me of course, but still very bright and intelligent. I must have a word with him!"

Mostly of course the target is God, or rather the bizarre forms humans have cast Him into, and the curious rules (like snipping off the end of your penis, or an aversion to pork or condoms) He apparently insists on. If you enjoyed Brigstockes other comedy roles e.g. In The Museum of Everything, Think the Unthinkable, Giles Wemmbley Hogg, and of course the Now Show, you will laugh your socks off with The God Collar. IMHO it is his best work to date, born, as it is, of the grief at the loss of his best friend - James.

And that is what I liked - he is no strident Neo Atheist, but as confused, as the rest of us. At times, MB shows himself as sad, grieving, confused, angry vulnerable and needy - even a complete tosser, just like the rest of us.

If I have a beef, it is that he has swallowed The God Delusion, hook, line and sinker. I very much admire Dawkins, especially as a biologist, but his God is a human creation, and his theology crude. I think of God as more like the Jungian Unconscious, or the Ground of our being, of which the Bible is a very imperfect record. Our wiser, unconscious mind speaks to us in story, metaphor and dreams. So, listen to your wife more Marcus! (That only makes sense if you read the book).

In summary, this is a very funny, poignant and often puerile poke at the absurdity of our strangest beliefs. There's a lot of stuff about God and penises in it and it made me laugh out loud - a lot.

2 people found this helpful

Quirky about Psychopaths (mostly)

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-04-12

Quirky is the best word I can find for this book. It opens with a mystery book, sent to various neurologists, by an anonymous sender, who Ronsen tracks down. After that, it's an enjoyable ride through psycho-land to meet Bob Hare, the leading world expert on the test for psychopathy - the Hare test, and then to meet and interview a series of gangsters, hatchet-CEOs, and other possible psychopaths to see if they fit the pattern.

However, Ronsen admits after a while that he starts seeing psychopaths everywhere... And it might be sending him a bit odd.

This is fun, with a serious message, and I liked Jon Ronsen as the self effacing narrator and author. The book contains many facts and references to other reading on this subject, while never getting boorish. I winced several times with embarrassment at his interview style, openly asking his subjects intimate details to gauge their psychopathy. The opening chapters are unusual, and have little to do with psychopathy, with references to the nerd classic "Esher, Goedel, Bach".

Overall however, i learned a lot about Psychopathy, DSM-4 and psychiatry, without seeming to. Best of all I liked Jon's self conscious admission that looking for psychopaths might just be creating non-human aliens in his own mind.

13 people found this helpful

Brilliant but Harrowing!

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-04-12

I found this audiobook a profoundly disturbing experience. It is brilliantly written and beautifully narrated, but it could put you off having kids.

What do you do if your child is a psychopath? This book charts the dread, shame and heartache of being just such a parent. A mothers place is in the wrong it seems.

I found this book unremittingly dark. If you have the stomach for it, it is a brilliant book, but it did nothing for my faith in human nature. The final "bonus" chapter is an excellent interview with the Lionel Shriver - she has no kids!

2 people found this helpful

Clever, entertaining and well narrated!

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-04-12

What an interesting and unusual book, and read in a clear, straightforward style. I have to disagree with the previous reviewer about incorrect inflection. Judge for yourself, but I found the no-nonsense narration easy and enjoyable to listen to.

"Adapt" is a practical application of complexity theory to modern life. As such it challenges many common sense assumptions. Failure is often the prelude to success, because it involves experiment, which allows us to learn, if we can recognise, admit and understand our mistakes.

The case examples are interesting, from the "toaster project" to the overturning of Rumsfeldt's disasterous central planning of the Iraq war, to the building of the first Spitfire through the persistence of a maverick civil servant and the generosity of an eccentric female philanthropist. Perhaps there are a few too many military examples. However, I really enjoyed this audiobook.

3 people found this helpful

If you only read one book on evolution - read TSG!

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-02-12

I first read this book back in 1981, and I loved it then. Such a clear, concise and closely argued exegesis of the "genes eye view" of evolution, it is a delight hearing it read by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward.

He has a gift for bringing evolution alive, and all his evolutionary biology books sparkle like gems with clarity and brilliance. TSG is no exception. Please do more! I would love to hear "The Extended Phenotype", "Unweaving the Rainbow", "River Out of Eden" and "The Devils Chaplain" and all his others as audiobooks.

One thing I should say is "The Selfish Gene" is probably one of the most misunderstood books in history (second only to "The Origin of Species"). It is about altruism as much as selfishness, cooperation as much as competition, mutualism and reciprocity as much as parasitism and predation. In short, it is a thorough working out, using Game Theory and the Hamilton Equation, the best Evolutionary Stable Strategy for a gene to thrive in the gene pool. In short, the consequences of evolution for us as vehicles built by genes for their survival. It explains basic questions, like why there are two sexes, why males take greater risks, why there is sex at all, and why we all start life from a single cell.

Nowadays, there are many variants on evolutionary theory, such as "Multi Level Selection", "Punctuated Equilibrium" and (my personal favourite) "Dual Inheritance Theory". However, in this competitive environment TSG hold up well, with surprisingly little that needed changing from 1973. Perhaps a chapter on epigenetic inheritance, inducible mutation and gene networks might be added if written today...

However, if you want a clear, rational, enlightening explanation of evolution, the strategies used by genes, and the consequences for us as gene vehicles, get this audiobook.

26 people found this helpful

Joly Holidays in Hell

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 22-01-12

Actually, as Dom admits in the epilogue, these are not the worlds darkest places, (apart perhaps from the Killing Fields in Cambodia). Some places like Iran, where he goes skiing, are even fun, and the locals give him a good time on "Pizza" (the local home made Vodka). Other places include Kiev (Chernobyl), oppresssive North Korea, assassination sites in the USA, and post war torn Lebanon, where he grew up.

Full of amusing and often self-effacing and irreverand anecdotes, this is an interesting tour in good company. Sometimes his flippancy made me slightly embarrassed for his hosts, but overall the narration provides good company, and an interesting perspective on alien political and cultural systems.

His humour is ironic, rather than belly laugh stuff, but none the less enjoyable for that. It's a fun audiobook, enjoyably read by the author.

The end of the World?

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 22-01-12

Lovelock is a genius, and a maverick. However, I found this a strange mixture of Science, apocalyptic revelation, and quaisi-religious anthropomorphism. At times Prof. Lovelock berates us for anthropomorphising Giaia, yet falls into his own trap by constantly speaking as though Giaia was a person (or even a Goddess) with intentions, feelings and awareness.

However, I was left feeling convinced by his arguments that the computer models of global warming seriously underestimate the rate of heating, and we should start planning for our future on a hotter planet, with many cities flooded and many areas made uninhabitable. For the UK, this means having to be self sufficient in food and energy, and should be building nuclear power stations now, rather than our current short term, "business as usual" delusion that a few renewable energy wind farms will supply all our needs, and life will continue as usual.

This is well read, and thought provoking audiobook, slightly fanciful in places, and almost indulgently apocalyptic, but with a stern message for us to act now to plan seriously for the dramatic climate changes we will undoubtedly witness within the next 50 years.

3 people found this helpful

Brilliantly evidenced reasons to doubt yourself!

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 20-12-11

Brilliantly researched, and argued, the message of the book is "the easiest person to fool is yourself"! None of us are immune from the various confirmation biases that mean we adopt many of our beliefs first, and then gather supporting evidence to prove ourselves right. This is just part of our evolutionary baggage of biases and of patternicity and agenticity it seems.

This is no neo-atheist rant, Michael Shermer gives a very fair account by two believers who found God through unusual experiences. I enjoyed his own account of losing his own faith, when for the first time, he sees himself as others saw him in his tiresome obsession about God as a fundamentalist Christian.

Most of all I found the neuroscience and numerous research experiments fascinating. We are all wired to take on trust it seems, and also to seek out patterns. It is individual differences in the activity of areas like the ACC, that enables us to discern useful from imaginary patterns, with many non-skeptics showing higher levels of patternicity.

Finally, in part 2, there are some excellent chapters on specific beliefs such as God, conspiracy theories, alien abduction etc. one of the most interesting is on our political biases (which seem to be 40-50% genetic), the strong confirmation biases and the 5 moral dimensions that lead to predictable clustering as liberal or conservative.

There is just loads in this book, and I liked that Prof. Shermer reads it himself in a strong clear delivery. I had to listen through twice, so much research is quoted as supporting evidence. In the end, it is whether you believe the naturalistic explanation is not just necessary, but also a sufficient cause. Above all however, I was left with a wariness in believing my own opinions, and a new awareness of the miriad ways we can deceive ourselves, let alone others!

8 people found this helpful