Posted by Sari
While Jukka has been turning his brain to mush with barbarian rubbish, I have been reading popular science which actually mentions Conan the Barbarian. Maybe there is a pattern there.
Remember my project of listing my favourite books? I'll get back to it at some point, now I am going to talk about one of Clinton's favourites. Robert Wright's Nonzero. Bill think it is a work of genius. It says so on the cover. And it is an extremely interesting book with some really cool ideas. Wright's argument is that there is a direction in human cultural evolution and that there is direction in biological evolution: from simple societies/organisms towards more complex ones. And the way societies and organisms evolve towards greater complexity is by playing nonzero-sum games, games where both parties benefit. Which does sound appealing both because a) Human beings find meaning in patterns, and this is a very cool pattern. b) it gives a direction if not meaning to human existence and c) seeing cooperation as something basic is much more appealing than seing competition as something basic.
There are some points where he looses me, though. First is in the first third of the book which is outline of human history in light of nonzero-sum interaction and striving for greater complexity. Wright stresses the linearity of his view of history so that I think he glosses over the discontinuities, especially fall of Rome and the Middle Ages. Just saying it was a local eddy in the great river of progress does not IMO really cut it. There are ways to explain the more static periods in human history and still come up with reasonable theories of growing complexity. That seems to be a problem more genrally. Wright is more interested in presenting the cases that support his thesis than trying to explain those that seem to argue against it.
The second iffy moment is in the end where he brings the idea of God and purpose into the book. Even if you buy the directionality of evolution, does that imply a maker? Here Wright boldly goes into pure speculation and my eyes glazed. There also seems to be some tendency to drop the cross-disciplinary buzzwords into the text: Genes and Memes, Second Law of Thermodynamics and entropy, some of it is necessary for the argument, some, it seems to me, is not.
There are also some eerie moments when he talks about globalisation and the dangers to it using the first WTC bombers as a throwavay refrence. He has a website where he among other things ponders on the impact of 9/11 on globalisation and the future of humankind.
The bits I enjoyed most were predictably those I knew least about. Anthropolgy, game theory, biological evolution. I enjoyed less the bits about history, the one discipline I know more about. It was not so much that there was something really wrong, it was just that I wanted to continously say "yes, but..." I would imagine any anthropologist, economist or biologist would feel the same about their area of expertise. But that is how it is always with popular science. So, it was interesting and appealing, but not quite a work of genius. No matter what Bill Clinton says.
My other finished book is Louis Auchincloss's Portrait in Brownstone. His books are sort of Edith Wharton lite and later: the life of the priviledged in early to mid 20th century New York. He is a competent writer and creates the characters of his family dramas with care and has a great eye for the milieu he is writing about. Portrait in Brownstone tells a fragmentary family saga about a wealthy family in New York, especially of how the quiet and mousey main character comes to her own after her cousin's suicide rocks her world. This, like Auchincloss's other books hovers on the faultline between Literature and Entertaiment, but does it quite comfortably and competently. If novel of manners is your thing, give him a go. Auchincloss's books are pretty difficult to find nowdays, most of them are out of print, so if you see any in the second hand bookshops, tell me :-)