The Overstory

A simple description of The Overstory by Richard Powers is that it’s a novel about nine people and their relationships with trees.

Sounds weird, right? Well, The Overstory is definitely an unusual novel. But it’s much more, and much stranger than any simple description can convey. It’s a multi-storied book in both senses of the word: multiple narratives and multiple levels.

Cover of The Overstory

The Overstory
By Richard Powers
W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2018

At one level, the book is about nine people, about how their life stories evolve, twist, and branch, about how some of them intersect and become entwined with each other both heroically and tragically. And it is about how each of them develop relationships with trees over the course of their lives.

At another level, it’s about the trees themselves: chestnut, mulberry, elm, gingko, Douglas fir, and especially California redwood. These trees are also central characters in the novel. It’s about their lives, their histories, and their relationships with each other and with us.

I think Powers is trying to do something really important and wonderful with this book. He’s trying to broaden our understanding of story to be about more than just humans in conflict. He’s trying to include the natural world – represented here by trees – as integral characters in the story.

“To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.” [p. 383]

Powers has written a compelling novel about the contest for the world. The outcome is by no means certain.

If there’s a unifying theme to the novel, an over-story if you will, it is about how we all – humans and trees – fit together. We exist within the natural world. We are part of it. We depend on it. The natural world is just as important a character in our stories and our lives as the other humans we interact with, struggle with, and fall in love with.

Why has he written this? Well, here I’m speculating, but I suspect that Powers, like many of us, has come to realize that we’ve pushed the environment to the brink of destruction, and we need to think and act differently if we are to save it and save ourselves.

Powers is saying that we must stop looking at the environment solely in terms of how it might be useful to humans. “Useful is the catastrophe,” one of the characters says to herself.

Instead of looking at a tree or a forest as just so many square feet of lumber to be cut down, we should see it as a complex ecosystem that we only dimly understand; one that supports millions of species of plants, animals, fungus, and bacteria, that produces oxygen, sequesters carbon, filters water, and could be a source of food and medicines.

As a novelist, a storyteller, Powers seems to understand that people won’t be convinced to change their ways by facts and figures or by reason alone because “… reason is what’s turning all the forests of the world into rectangles.” Something else is needed.

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” [p. 488]

That’s what Powers has written.

The Overstory was partly inspired by the work of Dr. Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia, whose pioneering research has uncovered how trees interact and communicate with each other. You will definitely learn a lot about trees and forest ecosystems from this book.

It certainly is a novel of environmentalism, of ecology, of dendrology – the study of trees – but it’s not preachy or didactic. The Overstory, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, is beautifully written: rich, dense, matted, interconnected.

Powers spreads the vocabulary of trees throughout the book like wind-blown pollen: burl, bole and bract, phloem, xylem and cambium, involucres, petiole, and hypha. You might want to keep a dictionary nearby.

Here’s his description of how a couple of the characters, driving west, first encounter the California redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, the ever-living Sequoia:

“The redwoods knock all words out of them. Nick drives in silence. Even the young trunks are like angels. And when, after a few miles, they pass a monster, sprouting a first upward-swooping branch forty feet in the air, as thick as most eastern trees, he knows: the word tree must grow up, get real. It’s not the size that throws him, or not just the size. It’s the grooved, Doric perfection of the red-brown columns, shooting upward from the shoulder-high ferns and moss-swarmed floor—straight up, with no taper, like a russet, leathery apotheosis. And when the columns do start to crown, it happens so high, so removed from the pillars’ base, that it might as well be a second world up there, up nearer eternity.”  [p. 211]

The idea of seeing ourselves as a part of the environment, rather than separate from it, is not new. I think indigenous peoples around the world have always understood this. But for us Westerners, we so-called moderns, it’s an idea we must re-learn, and quickly. 

The Overstory might be a new kind of novel, one fit for our time, a powerful story that helps us reintegrate ourselves into the world before it’s too late.

Several times in the book, characters ask,

“What wouldn’t a person do, to help the most wondrous products of four billion years of creation?” [p. 345]

It’s never entirely clear if those “most wondrous products” are trees or humans or both. Either way, I think Powers has helped us all by writing The Overstory.

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US Supreme Court continues its attack on voting rights

In this post I’m taking a break from book reviews and making one of my occasional forays into reviewing decisions by the US Supreme Court. (Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer and I don’t have any formal legal training. The opinions expressed here are my own.)

On July 1, 2021, the Supreme Court handed down its decisions in a case called Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee which could have a dramatic effect on US elections. The case is about whether a couple of provisions in Arizona’s voting laws violate Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). 

The first provision concerns how ballots are handled when they are cast in the wrong precinct. Arizona’s “out of precinct” regulation requires the entire ballot to be thrown out even if the voter was eligible to vote for president or governor – national or statewide offices – where precinct doesn’t matter.

The second provision makes it a crime for anyone other than a family member, caregiver, postal worker, or election official to collect and deliver another person’s ballot.

The DNC argued that both these provisions disproportionately impact minority voters in violation of Section 2 of the VRA.  Section 2 says, in part,

“No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision in a manner which results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color …”

African American, Native American, and Hispanic voters in Arizona were about twice as likely as white voters to have their ballots discarded by the out of precinct rule. And Native American and Hispanic voters are more likely to live far from post offices or election offices and often rely on others to deliver their ballots.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the 6-3 conservative majority, determined that Arizona’s laws do not violate the Voting Rights Act. You can read the Court’s full written decision here. If you’ve never read a Supreme Court decision before, they really aren’t that difficult to follow. A few years ago I wrote a guide to reading them which you can find here.

I won’t go into a detailed analysis of the case. Many others have already done so including this report from CNN, this post from former SCOTUSBlog reporter Amy Howe, and this episode from the Strict Scrutiny podcast.

A Tarnished History

What I want to point out is that this decision is very much consistent with the Supreme Court’s long history of narrowing and undermining voting rights in the US.

Justice Elena Kagan in her dissent in Brnovich traces out much of this tarnished history. And author Adam Cohen has written about it in his book Supreme Inequality which I reviewed here.

I’ll give a brief summary.

Back in 1857, the Supreme Court decided in Dred Scott v. Sandford that the US Constitution did not apply to African Americas, whether slaves or free. Constitutional rights, including the right to vote, did not apply to them.

In 1870, after the Civil War, the US ratified the 15th Amendment to the Constitution which says,

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

But voting equality was short-lived. Many States, especially formerly Confederate States in the South, enacted a vast array of laws that while seemingly neutral had the effect of preventing Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans from voting. These laws and regulations included poll taxes, literacy tests, and property qualifications. This Washington Post article provides a good summary of these discriminatory tactics.

John Lewis leads marchers across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama on May7, 1965

Finally in 1965, after civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act which, in the words of President Johnson, was crafted to bring about “the end of discrimination in voting in America.”

For over forty years the VRA worked well.  In particular, Section 5 of the VRA provided the legal framework for rolling back discriminatory State-level voting regulations. It empowered the United States Department of Justice to review or “pre-clear” any new voting rules proposed by States with a history of voter suppression, and to block them if they would have discriminatory effects.  That all came to an end in 2013 in a case called Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, in which Chief Justice John Roberts, writing here for the majority, struck down Section 5 of the VRA. The immediate and entirely predictable result was a flood of new restrictions on voting rights in southern States and elsewhere, such as stricter voter ID laws and voter roll purges.  (Roberts has a well-known hostility to the VRA.)

Now in Brnovich the Court continues its assault on the VRA by dramatically weakening Section 2.

Essentially what the Court has done here is tilt the playing field dramatically in favor of State governments. It imposes a very high burden on plaintiffs – people suing the government – to prove that a voting regulation has a discriminatory impact, while at the same time making it trivially easy for governments to assert, without any proof or evidence at all, that such restrictions are justified in order to prevent voter fraud or intimidation. 

A majority of the Court effectively supports the false narrative started by Donald Trump that baseless claims about election fraud justify new voting restrictions to ensure “election integrity.”

Incidentally, the Court’s ambivalence to a properly functioning democracy in America isn’t limited to undermining racial equality in voting. In 2019, in a case called Rucho v. Common Cause, the Court decided 5-4 that it would not make any decisions in cases about partisan gerrymandering – the drawing of electoral boundaries to favor one party or another. The Court walked away from the problem ruling that partisan gerrymandering is “non-justiciable,” not a matter for the Court to decide. You can read that decision here.

For over 150 years, the US Supreme Court has taken a narrow view, I’d even say a dim view, of voting rights. It doesn’t have to. The Court could adopt an expansive view, one that sees the right to vote as foundational to every other constitutional right, a view that understands that our democracy is healthiest when as many citizens as possible participate in it. The Court’s narrow view undermines the very democratic system to which the Court owes its existence.  

Expect more voter suppression laws. Since the 2020 election, many Republican controlled states have rushed to enact new restrictions on voting, and new laws that limit the independence of election officials. After Brnovich there will be even more. And they will be difficult if not impossible to defeat in court.

America badly needs new legislation to shore up voting rights. But proposed laws such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act stand almost no chance of getting past a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

It’s a shame to say this on July 4th, but the goal of ending discrimination in voting in America is still very far off.

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Calling Bullshit

I knew I was going to like Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World right from the opening paragraph:

“The world is awash in bullshit, and we’re drowning in it. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Silicon Valley startups elevate bullshit to high art. Colleges and universities reward bullshit over analytic thought. The majority of administrative activity seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit … However modest, this book is our attempt to fight back.” [p. ix]

You had me at “the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.”

The authors, Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West, are both profs at the University of Washington in Seattle. Bergstrom is a professor in the Department of Biology where he studies the spread of both epidemics and information. West is an associate professor at UW’s Information School and is director of its Center for an Informed Public. The book is based on a course the two of them taught at UW from 2017 to 2019 titled Calling Bullshit. Apparently, you can use the word “bullshit” in the official title of a university course. You can find the course syllabus, recorded lectures and other course material at callingbullshit.org.

Cover of Calling Bullshit

Calling Bullshit
Carl T. Bergstrom & Jevin D. West
Random House, New York, 2020

The book is a toolkit for detecting and refuting bullshit. Because the authors are scientists, they focus mainly on quantitative bullshit. So you won’t find much on debunking conspiracy theories or dissecting politicians’ nonsensical sound bites.

But before we go any further, what exactly is bullshit?  Bergstrom and West give this definition:

“Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade or impress an audience by distracting, overwhelming, or intimidating them with a blatant disregard for truth, logical coherence, or what information is actually being conveyed.”  [p. 40]

How is that different from a lie? Well, for the authors it seems to come down to a difference in motives. A lie, they say, is intended to deliberately mislead, to draw us away from the truth, while the purpose of bullshit is to impress or persuade us. That’s why bullshit is often used to conceal or distract us from a lie.

In other words, a lie is the result of deliberate malice. Bullshit often comes from incompetence, carelessness, or even just mistakes.

This is too subtle a distinction for me. I find it hard enough to determine the validity of some piece of information let alone discern the motives of the person conveying it. Fortunately, I don’t think it really matters in terms of the usefulness of the rest of the book.   

Bergstrom and West point out that while technology has put the world’s information at our fingertips, it has actually made the bullshit problem worse. That’s because technology, from Gutenberg’s printing press to the internet, has democratized the publication of information, and of bullshit. Social media further exacerbates the problem, they say, because the economic incentives are more aligned with generating clicks than with verifying truth.

The bulk of the book is devoted to examining various forms of bullshit and giving us techniques for detecting them. One chapter looks at the difference between correlation and causation. They’re not the same. The authors urge us to be on the lookout for causal language. For example, if A happens before B, then B cannot cause A. But just because A happens before B, it does not mean that A causes B.  A temporal relationship is not necessarily causal. They also caution us to be on the lookout for “spurious correlations”, phenomena that appear to be related but really are not. This is especially problematic in today’s era of big data where if you have a big enough dataset you can find just about anything in it. Here’s one of my favorites:

Example of a spurious correlation between the per capita consumption of cheese in the US and the number of people who died by becoming tangled n their bedsheets.
Source: http://tylervigen.com/view_correlation?id=7

Another chapter looks at the appalling ways that newspapers, magazines and web sites publish misleading charts and diagrams. Some of the examples would be funny if they weren’t so deceptive.

I took away three main principles from the book.

  • If something is too good or bad to be true, it probably is. Look deeper, ask questions, triangulate with other sources that can confirm or disconfirm the claims.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If someone is making a claim about the fantastic curative powers of a particular herbal supplement, they need to provide strong evidence to back up such a claim. An extraordinary claim supported by weak or circumstantial evidence is highly suspect.
  • We don’t need to look inside the black box. A lot of bullshit originates from research studies or algorithms like machine learning that few of us deeply understand. Bergstrom and West call them “black boxes.” We don’t need to know what happens inside them in order to ask critical questions. They show how asking questions about the inputs and the outputs is still a very effective way to detect bullshit. Remember: garbage in, garbage out.

In the final chapter of Calling Bullshit, Bergstrom and West argue that we, as consumers and as citizens, have important responsibilities when it comes to dealing with bullshit.

First, we shouldn’t spread any of it ourselves.  They say, “think more, share less.” Most of us understand that we shouldn’t litter our roads and parks with trash. The same goes for our behavior online.

“Online, we need to stop throwing our garbage out the car window and driving away into the anonymous night.” [p. 263]

Secondly, we have an obligation to call bullshit when we see it. Many of us may not feel comfortable calling out friends or family members, especially in public. The authors have some useful suggestions for how to do this. But they insist it’s a moral imperative.

Unsolicited Feedback

Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West have done a great public service by writing this book. In that sense, Calling Bullshit forms a nice complement to Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, which I reviewed here.

I think the final two chapters that summarize the methods for spotting bullshit and for refuting it are probably the most important in the book.

I will say that I skimmed through parts of some of the middle chapters where they got into details about, for example, selection bias, or how academic publishing works. Some of this I already knew, and some of it I just didn’t find all that interesting.

The problem of bullshit seems daunting and overwhelming. There’s just so much of it! And as the authors point out, it’s way easier to create and spread bullshit than it is to refute it. Just look at the lasting damage caused by Andrew Wakefield’s much-debunked research on the supposed relationship between vaccines and autism.

How on Earth are we, members of the public, supposed to sort through all this? And who has the time?

We can’t fight all of it all the time. But the methods described in Calling Bullshit can help us develop the mental habits and critical thinking skills so we’re better equipped to detect it and to call it out.

As Bergstrom and West say in concluding their book,

“We all have to be a little more vigilant, a. little more thoughtful, a little more careful when sharing information – and every once in a while, we need to call bullshit when we see it.” [p. 386]

Thanks for reading.

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The Climate Diet

Climate change is such an overwhelming problem it’s hard to know what individuals can do about it. It’s hard to see how we can have any impact at all. But there are meaningful steps we can take to both modify our own choices and actions, and to advocate for change by businesses and governments.

The Climate Diet: 50 Simple Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint, by environmental writer Paul Greenberg, is a slim little book you can easily read in under two hours. It contains, yes, fifty suggestions for actions we can take to reduce the carbon footprint of various aspects of our lives including the food we eat and drink, how we heat and cool our homes, how we get around and how we act as citizens, investors, and voters. 

Cover of The Climate Diet

The Climate Diet
By Paul Greenberg
Penguin Books, New York, 2021

Many of the suggestions are well-known: eat less meat, buy an EV if you can afford one, install a heat pump in your home, fly less. They echo some of the recommendations Bill Gates makes in his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster which I reviewed here.

Greenberg backs up many of them with useful data. There’s a chart comparing the CO2 emissions per kilogram production of various kinds of foods. Not surprisingly, lamb and beef production cause the highest emissions per kilogram while production of yogurt, tomatoes and lentils emits very little CO2. You can find similar charts at Our World in Data. Another tidbit: carrots provide the most nutrients for the least amount of carbon emissions of any food.

Individual action is necessary but not sufficient. We need to make systemic changes too. The last section of the book provides suggestions for how to be a more effective advocate for the environment.

Greenberg also includes a useful list of resources and web sites at the end of the book.

My main criticism of The Climate Diet is that the physical book is not exactly a model of efficient resource utilization. The book is only 156 pages, cover to cover, but it could have been even thinner. Each of the 50 suggestions starts on an odd-numbered, right-hand page. But over half of them are only a paragraph or two long, so the next page is left blank. Twenty-five to thirty blank pages is really wasteful especially for a book about the environment. If you decide to buy it, please consider getting an electronic copy.

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Livewired

Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain left me feeling both awed and comforted by the astonishing capabilities of the human brain.

Consider this: Your brain can listen to music, learn to play the violin, read sheet music, translate abstract symbols into properly coordinated arm and finger movements, write a symphony, conduct eighty other musicians to play a symphony together, and years later talk about the emotional impact of the music with your family and friends.

Yet at birth, we humans can barely feed ourselves.

How do we get from helpless infant to accomplished maestro?

Or this: The human brain has about 86 billion neurons and 200 trillion connections between them. Yet there are only 20 thousand genes in the human genome. How could all those neurons and all that complexity be coded in so few genes?  More important, what exactly do our genes code for?

Livewired is a book about neuroplasticity, the capacity of the human brain to modify its structure and function in response to events and experiences. Except that the author, David Eagleman doesn’t like the term. He thinks it doesn’t adequately describe what our brains are capable of, what they actually do throughout our lives.

Eagleman says,

“The brain chronically adjusts itself to reflect its challenges and goals. It molds its resources to match the requirements of its circumstance. When it doesn’t possess what it needs, it sculpts it.”  [p. 12]

Our brains are livewired.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Stanford University and a best-selling author. He studies brain plasticity, sensory substitution, time perception and synesthesia.  Livewired is his eighth book.

Livewired_US
Livewired
By David Eagleman
Vantage, New York, 2020

Livewired looks at how the brain develops from infancy and adapts to changing circumstances.

Eagleman takes us through case studies and scientific research about how the brain deals with changes in sensory perception. For example, if we lose our sight or hearing, the brain will reallocate its “real estate” to the remaining senses.  Scientists are learning how to connect devices like cochlear implants to the brain to help blind and deaf people. Through sensory substitution the brain learns how to process the imperfect signals of our devices restoring, at least partially, the lost senses.

We are starting to be able to enhance our senses, for example, enabling people to see into the ultraviolet or infrared. And we can even create new senses. Eagleman describes the case of a man who implanted small magnets into his fingertips. He can now “feel” the magnetic fields around electric circuits.

But it’s not just inputs. The brain adapts its output to changing circumstances too. Eagleman describes how the brain learns to control bionic limb replacements. We can even learn to control additional limbs like a third arm, or connect tailor-made devices for specific industries or tasks to the brain.  The idea of additional or custom limbs sounds like something out of science fiction, but we do this all the time even today.

For example, when I put on my rollerblades, which I plan to do after I finish writing this review, I am, in effect, putting on new, artificial feet.  My center of gravity is a few centimeters higher. These new rolling feet have way less friction with the ground than my regular feet. I have to move in a completely different way. But with practice, I’ve learned – or rather my brain has learned – to do this effortlessly. And when I take off my skates my brain immediately switches back to controlling my feet and legs in the usual way.

I loved how Eagleman describes the brain as “locked in a crypt of silence and darkness inside your skull” connected to the outside world by electrochemical signals. And how the brain is “infotropic” constantly trying to maximize the amount of useful information it gets, filtering out static or irrelevant signals while staying on the alert for new and dynamic inputs, like a jaguar suddenly appearing out of the shadows.

Livewired left me in awe of the brain. We often compare the brain to a machine, but no human made machine, not even the most powerful computer, is worthy of being compared to the brain. Eagleman says it’s the wrong analogy anyway. The brain isn’t a machine. It’s more like a city, constantly adapting, growing new capabilities, occasionally tearing down old structures and replacing them with new, more useful ones.

Adaptability is what the brain is built for, that’s what our genes code for. To develop our brains, to learn to walk, talk, and think, to become a fully functioning person, we must interact with the world.

The book gave me hope and comfort too. The brain is so adaptable that it seems to be able to recover, at least partially, from serious injuries. And we’re learning how to help the brain along with new devices that can bypass or even replace damaged senses and limbs.

Who knows, we might even be able to adapt to some of the global challenges we face as a species.

Thanks for reading.

Related Links

Can we create new senses for humans?
TED Talk by David Eagleman, March 2015

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The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy

This is the first book in a long time that I DNF – did not finish.

I was attracted to the book by its title: The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens – and Ourselves. It seemed a little whimsical. After all, how can we talk scientifically about animals on other planets when we haven’t even proved conclusively that there is, or ever was, life on Mars, let alone on any of the exoplanets we’ve discovered? I was intrigued that someone would be brave enough to give it a try. Plus, I’m a big Star Trek fan and so is the author, Arik Kershenbaum.

Kershenbaum is a zoologist at the University of Cambridge. He’s studied wolves in Yellowstone and dolphins in the Red Sea trying to learn more about how they communicate with each other.

Cover of The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy

The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy
By Arik Kershenbaum
Penguin Press, New York, 2021

The book starts off well enough. Kershenbaum’s basic idea is that by thinking carefully we can make some general statements about life that are most likely true anywhere, not just on Earth. For example, all animals anywhere will be constrained by the laws of physics. All life forms require energy. They either have to absorb it or consume it. Animals, in particular, need to find food, avoid becoming someone else’s food, and reproduce.

Evolution plays a central role here. Kershenbaum claims, rightly I think, that evolution through natural selection guides the development of all life everywhere from simple forms to more complex ones. (We’re ruling out the idea that complex life forms like us just popped into existence or were created by some even more complex being.)

As David Christian points out in Origin Story, which I reviewed here, the common thread running through the history of the Universe is the development of increasing complexity. And that occurs through evolution.

Kershenbaum says it’s impossible to predict the exact forms that animals on other planets may take – will they have fur or feathers?  — but they will likely behave in fairly predictable ways. They will move. They will eat. They will reproduce. If they band together to cooperate, they will probably develop language. If we ever encounter technologically advanced aliens, they could be remarkably similar to us because they have to accomplish the same things we do.

The problem is that after nearly a hundred pages I just lost interest. Yes we can make some abstract statements about life on Earth and elsewhere, but so what? It just didn’t seem that important. And sure, it might reveal interesting patterns about life here too, but it wasn’t enough to keep me engaged.

If you’re really interested in zoology or biology, you might enjoy The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy. But I’m setting this one aside unfinished.

Thanks for reading.

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The Code Breaker

If you think the digital revolution is having profound effects on human society, buckle up because the biotech revolution is just getting underway and it will redefine, even redesign, our species.

Ever since the early 1950’s when James Watson and Francis Crick first mapped out the structure of DNA, the famous double helix that makes up the genes of every living organism, scientists have begun to understand the deep biochemistry at the heart of life. Progress has been incredibly swift. Mapping of the human genome was completed by 2003. And in 2012 scientists developed the first technique for editing genes. 

Walter Isaacson captures the personalities, the science, the drama, and the moral dilemmas of these developments in his latest book The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.

Cover of the Code Breaker

The Code Breaker
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2021

Isaacson is a professor of history at Tulane University in New Orleans. He’s a former editor of Time magazine and a former CEO of the Aspen Institute, a think tank. I’ve read a couple of Isaacson’s previous books including his biographies of Steve Jobs, and Leonardo da Vinci which I reviewed here.

The Code Breaker is centered on the life and work of Jennifer Doudna who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry along with Emmanuelle Charpentier for developing a method of genome editing. But the book isn’t a biography in the conventional sense. It’s more like, well, a double helix.

One strand of the book concerns people, starting with Doudna and including dozens of other scientists who inspired, contributed to, competed with, or built upon her work. The other strand is about CRISPR which are fragments of DNA found in most forms of bacteria. Doudna and Charpentier developed a way to use CRISPR in combination with an enzyme called Cas9 to edit genes including human genes. These two strands twist around each other throughout the book. 

Jennifer Doudna grew up in Hilo, Hawaii. One day her father left a copy of James Watson’s book The Double Helix on her bed. It inspired her to study biology and become a scientist. As a graduate student she studied RNA and later began her pioneering work on CRISPR.

CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” Clear as mud, right?  Well, scientists discovered repeating occurrences of short sequences of DNA in the genes of various bacteria and gave them the cute acronym CRISPR. Their purpose was a mystery. Spaced between these repeating CRISPR sequences were other bits of seemingly random DNA that also had no discernable purpose. 

Eventually, scientist learned that the seemingly random spacer DNA segments were actually snippets of the DNA of viruses which at some point in history had attacked the bacteria. Surviving bacteria stashed chunks of viral DNA within their own DNA, surrounded by CRISPR sequences. In effect, bacteria are keeping a catalog of mug shots of viruses. Whenever one of them is recognized, CRISPR springs into action, causing RNA – DNA’s cousin – to seek and destroy the invading virus. It’s a bacterial immune system.

I know I’m doing a terrible job explaining this. There’s a lot of complexity and detail here that I don’t understand. Isaacson tries to give a high level view of how it all works, but frankly, if you’re looking for a crash course in DNA, genetics, or gene editing, you’ll be disappointed by this book. Isaacson provides just enough scientific scaffolding for the story he’s telling about the people and the discoveries, but it left me with many, many questions.  (If anyone can recommend a good introductory book on genetics, please leave a comment.)

He does much better exploring the moral dilemmas surrounding gene editing. 

There are basically two types of gene editing: somatic and germline. Somatic gene editing involves making changes to the body’s non-reproductive or somatic cells. For example, doctors are working on ways to treat sickle cell anemia, a hereditary blood disease, by using CRISPR-based drugs to edit the DNA of a patient’s blood cells. Germline gene editing, on the other hand, is used to edit reproductive cells – sperm, egg, and embryo cells – to make permanent and inheritable changes to an organism’s DNA. Using germline editing to treat sickle cell anemia would cure not just the patient but their descendants too.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? We could rid the world of sickle cell and other terrible genetic diseases much like we’ve used vaccines to eliminate smallpox. In fact, how could we not do this?

But.

Using germline gene editing on humans is highly controversial.  (There’s less argument about somatic gene editing). That’s because it will change the human genome forever. You might remember the story of “CRISPR babies” from China a couple of years ago. A Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, edited the embryonic genes of twin Chinese girls going against standard safety and ethical guidelines. 

Isaacson covers this case and other moral questions in detail, and it’s well worth the attention.

You see it’s one thing to cure genetic diseases like sickle cell, Huntington’s, or Tay-Sachs disease. But what if you want your children to be six inches taller than you? Or twenty IQ points smarter? What if you want them to be blond-haired and blue-eyed? 

And who will have access to this kind of procedure? It’s going to be expensive, so does this mean only the rich will be able to afford it?  Is it OK to give the children of wealthy people not just financial advantages but genetic ones too? And not just advantages for them, but for their offspring?

We don’t yet have strict rules for this. And as usual the technology is advancing much faster than the ethics and policies around using it.  Isaacson notes one possibility: restricting germline editing to medically necessary treatments, as opposed to elective enhancements. But the line between treatment and enhancement is grey and fuzzy.

I think Isaacson’s focus on these ethical questions is the most important part of the book.

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Isaacson is a great story-teller. Although his scientific explanations are less detailed than I would have liked, he conveys the drama and the excitement really well. The book is on the longish side – 481 pages, but for the most part it moves quickly. One exception: I thought there was way too much attention given to the patent wars between Doudna’s lab and another group of scientists in Boston. 

As with Leonardo da Vinci, Isaacson is very much present in The Code Breaker.  This time his subjects are alive, he’s interviewed them, many times in some cases. He’s attended their conferences, even edited DNA in a lab (under close supervision). He was a volunteer participant in clinical trials of the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. You can feel his enthusiasm for curiosity-driven research and his excitement at the possibilities it opens up.

Another important theme in the book is the role of women in science. Isaacson deliberately chose Doudna as the focal point of his book, and throughout The Code Breaker he tells the stories of many women who played a part and how they got inspired to become scientists. This culminates in the awarding of the 2020 Nobel Prize to two women, Doudna and Charpentier. I hope the book inspires more women to make a career in science.

One thing that struck me about the story Isaacson tells is the naiveté of the scientific community. Doudna and her contemporaries professed to be “shocked” by He Jiankui’s CRISPR babies, yet the genie was well out of the bottle. Few of them want a moratorium, much less a permanent ban, on germline gene editing. Even a Nobel laureate does not have much influence over the pace of technological adoption, let alone the fractious political process of policy making.

In my view, it’s a virtual certainty that germline gene editing of human embryos is happening secretly in labs around the world, most likely in places with fewer scruples or fewer laws than the US or Europe. I bet there are more children alive today, somewhere, who have had their embryonic cells edited using CRISPR-Cas9 technology.  

Historian Noah Yuval Harari wrote in his fabulous 2015 book Sapiens, which I reviewed here, that the days of Homo sapiens are rapidly coming to an end. He said that unless a nuclear or environmental disaster destroys us first, technological advancements will lead to the replacement of Homo sapiens with a new and dramatically different species. The Code Breaker shows how that day is already upon us.

Thanks for reading.

Related Links

A Programmable Dual-RNA-Guided DNA Endonuclease in Adaptive Bacterial Immunity
By Martin Jinek, Krzysztof Chylinski, Ines Fonfara, Michael Hauer, Jennifer A. Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier

This is the paper which describes the CRISPR-Cas9 mechanism for gene editing. Published online June 28, 2012, in Science.

A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification
A paper co-authored by Jennifer Doudna proposing a framework for discussing the moral issues and guidelines around germline gene editing. Published June 3, 2015, in Science.

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Whereabouts

Whereabouts is Jhunpa Lahiri’s first novel in ten years.

I don’t know what to make of it.

I’ve read a couple of Lahiri’s earlier books: Interpreter of Maladies, her debut collection of short stories for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, and The Namesake. They’re both beautifully written and richly detailed. You won’t find a lot of action in Lahiri’s stories, at least I didn’t. They unfold slowly, subtly.

Whereabouts takes this style of writing to an extreme.

Cover of Whereabouts

Whereabouts
By Jhumpa Lahiri
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2021

It’s about an unnamed woman in an unnamed city. I presume it takes place somewhere in Italy because there are Italian words like piazza and trattoria throughout the book, but Italy is never explicitly named. In fact, there are no names at all in Whereabouts.

The book is divided 46 very short chapters. They’re like journal entries. Each one gives a glimpse into a moment, a day or a weekend of the woman’s life. Together, they span a full year. But except for the last few chapters, the sequence isn’t very important. You could shuffle most of the book like a deck of cards and read the chapters in any order without detracting from the story. About the only thing you’d miss would be the progression of the seasons. 

Gradually we learn about her. The woman is unmarried and childless. She teaches at a small local university. She seems to have quite a few friends and a lover or two, but she is not especially close to anyone.

She is alone and melancholy, unable, it seems, to form attachments. She struggles like many of us, I suppose, to understand her parents’ marriage and her place in it.

The most significant “event” of the book is that she decides she will not have an affair with her friend’s husband with whom she has been chastely flirting for years.

At the end of the book she accepts a fellowship at a university in a neighboring country. She packs up her things and heads off to a new city where she knows no one and will almost certainly be even lonelier than she is now.

Maybe it’s best not to think of Whereabouts as a story. It’s more like a portrait.

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, the daughter of Indian immigrants from Kolkata. The family moved to the US when she was three and she and grew up in Rhode Island. She now lives in Rome with her husband and two children.

I certainly admire Lahiri’s writing. It’s simple, elegant, and evocative. And I’m impressed that she wrote Whereabouts in Italian and then translated it into English herself. 

It’s an excellent piece of craft, but I still don’t understand what this book is trying to say.

Maybe I should just stick to non-fiction.

Have you read Whereabouts? Were you as puzzled as I am? Comments welcome.

Thanks for reading.

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Think Again

I’m a big fan of Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast. I even blogged about one of his episodes last year.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know is his latest book and the first one I’ve read. It’s written in the same exuberant yet conversational style as his podcast. 

For anyone who’s not familiar with him, Adam Grant is a professor of organizational psychology at the Wharton School and the author of five books. He studies “how to make work not suck.” 

Cover of Think Again

Think Again
By Adam Grant
Viking, New York, 2021

Think Again is about how to become a more flexible thinker.

Too often, Grant says, when we have strong opinions or beliefs we behave like preachers, prosecutors or politicians. In preacher mode, we try to convince others of the rightness, and sometime the righteousness, of our ideas. As prosecutors we gather up arguments to prove other people’s ideas are wrong. And as politicians we try to sell our ideas and win the approval of others.

The main idea in Think Again is that it’s better to think like a scientist. As scientists we constantly search for the truth. We form hypotheses based on the best information we have right now, but we recognize the limits of our knowledge. We embrace doubt, ask questions, refuse to blindly accept received wisdom. We know that new information might force us to revise our beliefs but we take satisfaction from knowing this makes us less wrong in future. Grant says this scientific mindset is not just applicable to people in lab coats peeing into microscopes. It can help us in our personal lives, our relationships, and our organizations.

Rethinking requires us to question our beliefs and opinions, something we’re not usually comfortable doing. To strike a balance between arrogant over-confidence, also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, and debilitating self-doubt, Grant recommends we strive for “confident humility” which he defines as,

“… having faith in our capability while appreciating that we may not have the right solution or even be addressing the right problem.” [p. 47]

Most of us don’t like realizing we’re wrong, much less being proven wrong by someone else. Often that’s because we’ve wrapped up our identities in our beliefs. Grant says that if instead we tie our identities to our values, put “truth above tribe”, then being wrong won’t be so painful and we might even come to experienced it as a chance to learn and grow. He quotes Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman who says,

“Being wrong is the only way I feel sure I’ve learned anything.” [p. 62]

Think Again is also about how we can lead others in our personal and work lives to think again. Grant has some suggestions, particularly fitting in these divided and contentious times. For example, he says challenging people’s prejudices and stereotypes directly doesn’t usually work and might even be counterproductive. But if we can lead people to see the arbitrariness of their beliefs then perhaps they will be more open to rethinking them. It’s not a panacea but,

“I do think it’s a step, though, toward something more fundamental than merely rethinking our stereotypes. We might question the underlying belief that it makes sense to hold opinions about groups at all.”  [p. 139]

Think Again has some useful ideas for how to develop learning cultures within organizations. For one thing, focusing more on process accountability – how we do things and how we make decisions – in addition to the more typical outcome accountability.

Finally, Grant suggests ways to periodically rethink our lives to ensure we’re not committing to goals such as a career path due to family pressure or social expectations, but that instead we’re pursuing lifelong fulfillment.

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There’s an essential humility running through Think Again that I really like. It includes recognizing that our own dearly held beliefs and opinions could be wrong. It implies that, like scientists, we should be open to new ideas, that we should continually learn and grow. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in Sapiens (review), it’s only when we admit our ignorance that we make progress.

But Grant goes way beyond that to warn against preaching, prosecuting, and politicking. I loved his idea that debating with others isn’t a war but a dance. You have to bring the other person or the other groups along with you, sometimes just a few steps at a time. That means trying to find some sort of connection, some sort of rhythm with them. Hotly debated issues are rarely binary. Most things lie in the messy middle. To have productive conversations we need to seek out complexity and nuance. I like how Grant echoes the late Hans Rosling whose book Factfulness (review) advises us to “mind the gap” between extremes because the majority, and the truth, usually occupy the ground between them.

There are a couple of area where I thought the book fell short.

There’s an inherent tension between humility and perseverance. Entrepreneurs and so-called “great” leaders are often celebrated for their determination and grit. But sometimes they can lead their companies or nations into disaster. How do we know when to stick to our ideas and press on versus recognizing that a change is needed? What are some useful signals to help us make a decision like that?  I think Grant’s notions of confident humility and process accountability are helpful, but they don’t fully resolve this paradox.

I think the book’s biggest omission is that Grant does not address the extraordinary burdens that women and people of color face when trying to get their ideas accepted, especially within organizations. For example, this Harvard Business Review article suggests that “imposter syndrome” experienced by many women is often the result of sexism, racism and microaggression in the workplace. Think Again doesn’t provide any suggestions or advice to help remedy this problem. It’s a gap that I hope he’ll address in future.

Still in a time of poisonous division and hardened opinions, Think Again is packed with research, case studies, interviews plus some amusing graphs and flowcharts that make it an interesting, worthwhile and even entertaining antidote.

Thanks for reading.

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Sapiens

Last year, I read 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari, which I reviewed here. Several friends recommended I read Harari’s earlier book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Now I know why. It’s an excellent book.

As the subtitle says, Sapiens is a history of our species from about 70,000 years ago to today. Brief, yes, but sweeping. It contains so many fascinating ideas and themes. I’ll only be able to scratch the surface in this review.

Harari is an author, historian and philosopher who lectures on world history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He earned a PhD in history from the University of Oxford. 

Sapiens is an international bestseller and it’s still on New York Times bestsellers list six years after publication.

Cover of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens
By Yuval Noah Harari
Harper Perennial, New York, 2015

Harari’s main idea is that the history of Homo sapiens has been shaped by three revolutions: a Cognitive Revolution, an Agricultural Revolution and a Scientific Revolution. The book is structured around these three revolutions

The Cognitive Revolution

About 70,000 years ago, we humans were a fairly insignificant species living in a corner of East Africa. Somehow – no one seems to know exactly how or why – something changed in the way our brains work, in the way we think and communicate. The Cognitive Revolution gave Homo sapiens language. Perhaps more importantly, it gave us the ability to talk and think about things that do not exist: it enabled us to tell stories. We tell stories – myths, actually – about our tribes, our nations, our gods, and recently our corporations and local sports franchises. Myths help bind large numbers of us together, even strangers, to coexist and cooperate on common goals. 

These new cognitive abilities enabled Homo sapiens to emerge from Africa and to spread all over Europe, Asia, Australia (around 45,000 years ago) and the Americas (around 15,000 years ago). They enabled us to out-compete other human species like the Neanderthals, and possibly drive them to extinction.

Different groups of humans created their own stories and those stories evolved and developed over time. Different stories in turn led to different behavior patterns, different ways of being within each group. Here we have the beginnings of culture and of history too. Harari argues that starting from the Cognitive Revolution history emerges from biology, meaning that the explanations for human development come primarily from historical narrative rather than from our biological needs or make-up.

The Agricultural Revolution

About 12,000 years ago, Sapiens started to transition from foraging to farming. Key species of plants and animals were domesticated and humans traded their nomadic existence for permanent settlements. The Agricultural Revolution brought about a huge increase in human population fed, literally, by the vastly increased quantity of food that became available.

Harari argues that in fact the Agricultural Revolution was history’s greatest fraud. The lives of individuals probably got worse – they worked harder but enjoyed a less varied and less nutritious diet than their forager ancestors, and they were more vulnerable to disease, crop failure and violent conflict too. But for the species as a whole, agriculture could support exponentially more people than hunting and gathering on the same amount of land.

It also marked a critical turning point in our relationship with the natural world. For the first time, humans began to control their environment and began to see themselves as separate from it.

Yet just as important as changing our source of food, the Agricultural Revolution also changed the way we live with each other. As foragers, Sapiens created myths to bind tribes together, but once we settled into villages and cities we needed more sophisticated stories to organize and regulate our lives. How do we settle disputes about property boundaries? How much tax should be paid to provide for common defense? Who gets to decide?

The Agricultural Revolution led to the creation of social hierarchies, governments, laws, justice and religion. Later on, we created nation states and joint stock corporations. Harari calls them all “imagined orders.” They don’t exist in the physical world. They are entirely creations of our imaginations. They are myths, but because these myths are shared beliefs, they have incredible power. People will work their whole lives, even sacrifice their lives, for these imagined orders.

The Scientific Revolution

The third revolution, the Scientific Revolution, got underway around 500 years ago. Harari argues that the key to igniting the Scientific Revolution was admitting ignorance. When we admit ignorance, we recognize that all our present knowledge is insufficient and we start to figure out ways to acquire new knowledge.

Science, imperialism and capitalism have been closely intertwined, Harari says. All of them start by admitting ignorance: we don’t know the answer to an important question about the world; we don’t know what lands might be found across that ocean.

“The discovery of America was the foundational event of the Scientific Revolution. It not only taught Europeans to favour present observations over past traditions, but the desire to conquer America also obliged Europeans to search for new knowledge at breakneck speed. If they really wanted to control the vast new territories, they had to gather enormous amounts of new data about the geography, climate, flora, fauna, languages, cultures and history of the new continent. Christian Scriptures, old geography books and ancient oral traditions were of little help.” [p. 288]

While the Agricultural Revolution enabled humans to control the environment, Harari emphasizes that the Scientific Revolution enabled us to destroy it, first with atomic bombs, and more recently with climate change and environmental degradation.

A Fourth Revolution?

Will there be a fourth revolution? Harari argues that advancements in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and cyborg technology have effectively ended evolution. Humans are now the “intelligent designers” of our species and whatever may follow. In fact, he predicts that the last days of Homo sapiens are fast approaching.

“Unless some nuclear or ecological catastrophe destroys us first, the pace of technological development will soon lead to the replacement of Homo sapiens by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also very different cognitive and emotional worlds.”  [p. 412]

The question is what do we want to become? And what do we want to want?

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Sapiens is a remarkable book. I think the three revolutions form a really effective framework for explaining human development. Harari deftly weaves important strands of our history through that framework. It’s amazing how much he’s able to cover in just over 400 pages. 

Only one other book I’ve read surpasses Sapiens in terms of how much history it spans. That’s Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian, which traces the entire 13.8 billion year history of the universe. (You can read my review here.) The two books overlap somewhat but I think they’re terrific companions. I highly recommend both of them. 

They share the idea that history progresses through stages of increasing complexity. Complexity is the central theme of Origin Story, but Harari touches on it too. He says that over the course human history smaller cultures have gradually merged into larger, more complex civilizations, until today everyone in the world belongs to just a handful of highly complex “mega-cultures.” Along the way we’ve developed more complex stories and “imagined orders.”

I love this idea of imagined orders. It’s such a powerful concept. So many of the things we consider “natural” and “permanent” are just inventions of our minds, from money to nations to gods. And let’s not forget race, class and gender. And if they are human inventions then they can be modified or replaced. Don’t believe anyone who tells you this or that thing has always been the way it is now and cannot be changed.

Harari writes really well too. This isn’t a dull history text. It’s lively and engaging with occasional flashes of sardonic humor, for example when describing how human language sets us apart from other species:

“A parrot can say anything Albert Einstein could say, as well as mimicking the sounds of phones ringing, doors slamming and sirens wailing. Whatever advantage Einstein had over a parrot, it wasn’t vocal.” [p. 22]

He also suggests that wheat domesticated humans and not the other way around!

He asks compelling questions. Like, has it all been worth it? Until fairly recently, human development through all three revolutions has done little to alleviate human suffering. True, there are a lot more of us now than there used to be, but at what cost to individual well-being?

Certainly the cost to the environment and especially to other species has been devastating. We are “ecological serial killers” he says.

“Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.” [p. 74]

Based on the history he presents so brilliantly, Harari is not overly optimistic about our future prospects. He thinks we have developed too much power without enough responsibility to use it wisely.

I’m personally more optimistic than Harari, but we would be foolish to ignore his warning.

Thanks for reading.

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