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 then 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, 2021

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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Amend: The Fight for America

I can’t remember ever reviewing a television show before, let alone recommending one, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Amend: The Fight for America is a six-part Netflix documentary hosted by Will Smith. It’s about the on-going struggle for equal rights in America seen through the history and interpretation of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. Amend first aired in February of this year.

OK, I get it — six hours on American constitutional history and jurisprudence might not seem like gripping television. But Amend really is fabulous.

The cast of Amend; The Fight for America
Source: Netflix

Amend includes performances by Samuel L. Jackson, Laverne Cox and other actors playing historical figures, presenting excerpts from their speeches, letters, and debates.

There are interviews with legal experts and historians including Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and civil rights lawyer Al Gerhardstein who acted as lead counsel for James Obergefell in the Supreme Court’s same sex marriage decision Obergefell v. Hodges.

These are all interwoven with archival news footage and original graphic material.

Together they bring to life what might seem like dry academic or legal disputes. In reality, the 14th Amendment lies at the heart of some of the most important and heated debates in the American society today.

A bit of background: The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments are collectively known as the Reconstruction Amendments because they were ratified between 1865 and 1870 during the reconstruction period following the US Civil War. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th established equal protection under the law, and the 15th established voting rights regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”  These three amendments essentially re-founded the country at the end of the Civil War.

The 14th Amendment guarantees “equal protection of the laws” to everyone in the US, citizens and non-citizens alike. But what does “equal” really mean?

Amend follows the history of the 14th Amendment from before its ratification in 1868 right up to today. Along the way, it looks at important issues such as citizenship, civil rights, women’s rights, marriage equality and immigration, all of which are deeply entwined with the 14th. Each episode takes a deep dive into these questions, examining the what’s at stake, the people involved, and the important legal decisions. It’s both informative and dramatic.

One thing that struck me throughout the series was how often the Supreme Court got it wrong. Especially in the early years after ratification, the Court’s decisions consistently narrowed the interpretation of the 14th upholding racial segregation and Jim Crow laws for example. I suppose it’s not surprising for a court to be conservative – that’s kind of their job. But the downright regressiveness of the US Supreme Court over much of its history should leave no one under any illusions about the Court’s biases and inclinations.

In each generation, new debates about equality spark controversy, anger and sometimes bloodshed in the US. Amend does a wonderful job showing how the 14th Amendment has been and continues to be a focal point for our continuing struggle for equality. It proves that while the Constitution provides the framework for those struggles, progress relies on the active and persistent efforts of the people.

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Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

You’ve probably had the experience of being completely absorbed in an activity, totally focused, losing track of time, your body moving effortlessly, your mind clear of all distractions and worries. You were “in the zone.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state “flow.”

Cover of Flow: The Psuchology of Optimal Experience

Flow
By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Harper Perennial, New York, 1990

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I think it’s pronounced “cheeks-sent-me-highly”) is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. He is one of the world’s leading researchers on positive psychology.

In this groundbreaking 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he defines flow as,

“… the state in which people are so immersed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.’  [p. 4]

He says that while in the flow state we have optimal experiences in which our physical or mental abilities are stretched to their limits in an effort to achieve a challenging and worthwhile goal.

Why is this important?

Because when we are in flow, having optimal experiences, we find true happiness.

“But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery – or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life – that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.”  [p. 4]

To be clear, this is not the kind of happiness that comes from watching your favorite sports team win the championship or eating a delicious meal. These experiences, wonderful though they are, bring us only fleeting pleasure.

Flow, and the optimal experiences that occur within flow, lead to lasting enjoyment.

Yet we have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”  [p. 3].

Flow is based on about twenty-five years of Csikszentmihalyi’s research into happiness. It’s not a “how to” book in the usual sense. It’s an exploration of the principles or foundations on which happiness can be achieved. Because it turns out that happiness, contrary to the US Declaration of Independence, “cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” In other words, happiness isn’t found directly. Instead it’s a by-product of how we lead our lives.

OK, so what are the principles of flow?

Csikszentmihalyi says there are eight characteristics that typify optimal experiences:

  1. They are challenging physical or mental activities that require skills to complete.
  2. They require attention or psychic energy. We must focus on them completely.
  3. The goals are clear.
  4. Feedback is immediate.
  5. They bring order to consciousness; the intense focus blocks out the chaotic thoughts, worries and distractions that usually flash across our minds.
  6. We feel a sense of control over our actions.
  7. We become less self-conscious.
  8. They alter our perception of time.

Looking at this list, it’s not surprising that people often experience flow playing sports or games.

Inline speed skaters
Photo by Indira Tjokorda on Unsplash

For many years, I’ve enjoyed inline skating or rollerblading. Each weekend, weather permitting, I go for a long skate along our local cycling trails. I start at one suburban park not far from my home and skate north about 7 miles (11 km) to another park in the next suburb. I rest for about fifteen minutes and then skate back. It’s a great workout. I hadn’t realized until now that the exhilaration I sometimes feel is an example of flow.

When I first started doing this, my goal was just to cover the distance between the two parks without having a heart attack. The challenge was simply to build up stamina.  Next I started timing myself: could I get faster?  I’ve set a goal; to cover the distance in under 30 minutes. This means I have to develop better skating technique. I need to pay attention to form – keeping my knees bent, back rounded, weight shifted back over my heels.  And I have to stride properly, leading with my hips so that my falling body weight contributes to the push of the opposite leg. These days, I’m trying to learn a skill called “double push.”  I haven’t reached my goal yet, but I know my technique is getting better.

Csikszentmihalyi is clear that flow isn’t just limited to physical activity. We can experience it at work, with friends and family, or during cultural activities like listening to music or reading books.

These optimal experiences lie within a narrow range where skills and difficulty are roughly in balance. If our skills are too advanced or the challenge too easy, we become bored and distracted. On the other hand, a challenge that is way too difficult for our skills will make us feel frustrated or anxious.  But when our skills are matched with the level of difficulty, then not only can we become fully immersed and experience deep enjoyment, we also grow.

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Flow is a profound book. There’s a lot here about how to live our lives to build lasting enjoyment and satisfaction.

The last chapter of the book is about tying it all together to make meaning in our lives, about stitching all those optimal experiences into a coherent optimal life. It echoes some of the themes from Clayton Chirstensen’s book How Will You Measure Your Life? which I reviewed here.

There are also elements of stoicism in Flow, which has come up in a couple of books I’ve recently read.  Csikszentmihalyi advises not being overly concerned about what others think of us, for example. He says we need to break free of the constraints of social conventions because they sap our psychic energy and create chaos in our minds – the exact opposite of flow.

I have to say I did not experience flow reading Flow. This is mainly because Csikszentmihalyi’s style is formal and leans to the academic. I skimmed through several of the middle chapters that look at flow in specific facets of our lives like work and family.

That said, he explains his ideas clearly. He puts a name to something most of us have experienced from time to time, and he shows how important those experiences are to our lives.

Flow is well worth the effort.

Thanks for reading.

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The Sum of Us

In the 1920’s and 30’s, towns and cities across the United States built large, beautiful public swimming pools for their communities. Montgomery, Alabama was one such town. Its Oak Park pool was one of the largest in the region.

It was open to whites only.

Civil rights lawsuits in the 1950’s eventually led federal courts to order the desegregation of public pools. In Montgomery, the town council reacted decisively: they closed down the pool rather than integrate with their Black neighbors. In fact, they closed the entire Parks Department, including a community center and a zoo. For ten years. 

Even when the parks reopened the pool did not. The town filled it with concrete and planted grass on top of it.

This is batshit crazy, right? Everyone lost, Blacks and whites.

But it wasn’t an isolated incident. Public pools were drained or filled in all over the country. 

I first learned about white communities shutting pools rather than sharing them with Blacks when I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (review) last year. But I had no idea the practice was so widespread. And I certainly didn’t understand it as a template for how racism has harmed and impoverished so much of American society, whites included.

Heather McGhee understands. McGhee is the former president of Demos, a think tank focused on advancing a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy in America. She now chairs the board of Color of Change, the largest online social justice organization in the US. McGhee holds degrees from Yale University and UC Berkeley. 

Her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together looks at how the self-harming racist behavior of white “drained pool politics” has been repeated over and over again in areas such as health care, education, housing, voting rights and even the environment. The book also illustrates how communities working together across racial divides can improve their lives and win substantial “Solidarity Dividends.”

Cover of The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us
By Heather McGhee
One World, New York, 2021

After reading about the Oak Park pool, the first question that popped into my head was why? Why would whites do this to themselves?

McGhee argues that most whites see racism as a zero-sum game. Any gains by Blacks must come at the expense of whites, whether it’s a monetary gain or a gain in status. I’ll try to explain this briefly.

It starts, like most things in US history, with slavery.   

Even before the country’s founding, whites justified the atrocities of slavery and Native American genocide with racial and religious prejudices: natives and slaves were “heathens”, “savages”, and “uncivilized.” As the Colonies grew with their economies built on slave labor, a race-based hierarchy became firmly entrenched in American society: whites on top, Blacks and Natives at the bottom. In a slave economy, any gains by Blacks would have meant direct financial losses for whites. 

Waves of European immigrants to the US were slotted into this hierarchy too. Even though they were mostly too poor to own property, let alone slaves, they were still white and still ranked above Blacks in the racial hierarchy. Gains by Blacks might not have imposed a direct economic cost on them, but it threatened their status, threatened to place them on the same footing as Blacks – at the bottom of the hierarchy.

In this light, Black access to public swimming pools represented the loss of a privilege held exclusively by whites. Rather than incur a loss of status, whites chose to drain their pools. 

Yeah, it’s still crazy.

McGhee’s main idea in The Sum of Us is that this zero-sum calculus within a racial hierarchy explains and perpetuates many of the disparities in American society, even though whites are often harmed too.

Take health care.  Why can’t we fix the US health care system? 

“Healthcare works best as a collective endeavor, and that’s at the heart of why America’s system performs so poorly.  We’ve resisted universal solutions because, when it comes to healthcare, … racism has stopped us from ever filling the pool in the first place.”  [p. 49]

McGhee notes that most states of the former Confederacy have so far refused Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). You can see it on this map. Why would states turn down federal funding? She cites research showing that as the percentage of a state’s Black population increases, the likelihood of that state adopting Medicaid expansion decreases. 

This zero-sum calculus prevails even though, in some states, whites outnumber Blacks who would be eligible for Medicaid if their states adopted it. And it prevails even though lack of funding in these states is forcing the closure of rural hospitals that serve primarily conservative white residents. 

In detailed chapters on public education, minimum wage laws, voting rights, mortgage lending and environmental protection, The Sum of Us shines a glaring light on how disparities in key areas of American society – driven by racist policies – primarily harm Blacks and other people of color, but also harm whites.

The book would be unrelentingly depressing, but McGhee remains hopeful. She describes some uplifting examples of people coming together across racial divides to work for their common benefit, a benefit McGhee calls the “Solidarity Dividend.”  For example, in Maine a multi-racial grassroots coalition won a 2017 ballot initiative that required the state to adopt Medicaid expansion over the vetoes of its Republican governor.

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The Sum of Us is impressively well-researched; there are about a hundred pages of notes at the end of the book. While you could argue that there are other factors contributing to inequality in America – like globalization and technological change – McGhee makes a compelling case that racism lies at the heart of it. 

In the last couple of years I’ve read a few books about racism but I know I’ve only just scratched the surface. (You can find my reviews here.) The Sum of Us reinforced some ideas that I’d read elsewhere, in particular that racism has been designed, even engineered. The concept of “race” did not exist until the seventeenth century when it was created and refined to justify slavery and genocide. Since then it’s been exploited by the powerful (people, corporations and governments) to maintain power through division and intimidation.

While slavery has been abolished in the US, deliberately racist government policies have carried on, and their lasting impact continues to this day. McGhee dives deeply into the history and consequences of many of these policies. Large parts of this were new to me. Even seemingly benign policies like the GI Bill have unequally benefited whites because of the way they were administered.

To dismantle the racial hierarchy, we need to dismantle racist policies. We will all benefit, but it will require a long coordinated effort across racial lines.

As McGhee says, the sum of us is stronger than just some of us.  

Related Links

Drained Pool Politics
An interview with Heather McGhee on the Strict Scrutiny podcast, May 10, 2021

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How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

Around the world we humans are adding an average of fifty-one billion (51,000,000,000) tons of greenhouse gasses to Earth’s atmosphere every year.

To avoid a climate disaster, we need to get to zero. 51 billion to zero.

That’s how Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates opens his new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is the clearest and most straightforward explanation of the climate crisis I’ve ever read. Gates lays out the enormous and unparalleled challenges we face. Yet he’s optimistic about our chances of success and he presents ambitious yet plausible proposals for how to solve the problem.

Cover of How to Avoid a Climate DisasterHow to Avoid a Climate Disaster
By Bill Gates
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2021

Before I go any further, a disclosure: I used to work at Microsoft.

I think the most important idea in this book is the “Green Premium.”  The Green Premium represents how much more you have to pay if you switch from today’s conventional carbon-emitting products to a zero-carbon alternative. For example, today electric vehicles (EVs) cost several thousand dollars more than comparable fossil fuel powered cars. That’s the Green Premium. The good news is that the Green Premium for cars is coming down fast. Gates predicts that within a few years it will actually be negative – EV’s will be cheaper than gasoline powered cars.

For other products the Green Premium is extremely high because we don’t yet have practical climate friendly alternatives. Take cement. Today there’s just no way to eliminate the carbon that’s produced when we make it. There’s no such thing as “green cement.” The best we can do is try to capture and store the carbon that’s released when cement is made. But as Gates points out, carbon capture is expensive. Adding the cost of carbon capture to the price of cement results in a very large Green Premium; cement so expensive no one will buy it.

To get from 51 billion to zero, Gates says we need to drive Green Premiums down below zero for basically everything so that people and organizations have available and affordable green alternatives.

OK, how?

Like a good software engineer, Gates breaks the problem down into smaller chunks and then attacks each chunk one at a time. He divides the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions into five slices shown in this pie chart.

Pie chart showing how much greenhouse gas is emitted by the things we do

Source: How to Avoid A Climate Disaster, p. 55

He devotes a chapter to each slice, looking at what we’re doing today, what zero-carbon alternatives already exist, and what innovations we need to deliver solutions that don’t yet exist, like green cement.

From reading the book, I’d say the most important slice of the 51 billion comes from “how we plug in,” how we generate electricity. Partly that’s because it’s one of the largest slices. But it’s also because many of the methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the other slices rely on electrification. For example, instead of using heating oil or natural gas to heat and cool our homes and heat our water, Gates recommends switching to heat pumps. Heat pumps run on electricity. But if that electricity is generated from natural gas, or worse yet, coal, then there’s not much benefit from switching.

Generating clean energy not only reduces carbon emissions from “how we plug in,” it’s part of the solution to most of the other slices too. Generating clean energy cheaply will help reduce the Green Premium of everything that uses electricity.

Innovation is the primary way to reduce the Green Premium, but Gates suggests we can also make traditional products more expensive by putting a price on carbon emissions (either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system) and by stricter regulations. He has plenty of suggestions for both approaches throughout the book.

Gates acknowledges he’s an “imperfect messenger” on climate change. He doesn’t deny being a “rich guy with an opinion” who owns big houses and flies around in private jets. But, as he points out, his opinions are well informed, and he keeps learning more. He also says he’s taking steps to reducing his family’s carbon footprint.

Gates is a technophile, and the main focus of the book is unapologetically about technological approaches to climate change. Yet he doesn’t ignore the social and political aspects of the problem. The last couple of chapters suggest actions that governments can take and that we as individuals can take. His philanthropic work on global health has made him keenly aware of the impacts of climate change on some of the world’s poorest countries. He’s very clear about the responsibility that rich countries have in helping poorer ones adapt to climate change,

That said, if you’re looking for an in depth analysis of how economic, racial and other social justice issues intersect with climate change — an important topic for sure — be aware that’s not what Gates is writing about in this book.

Gates also does not discuss ecosystem restoration approaches such as rewilding that could repair the Earth’s capacity to absorb and retain carbon.

Nonetheless, I think everyone should read How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Literally everyone: you, your partner, your kids, your in-laws, your city council, and most definitely your provincial, state and national legislators.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster describes the daunting challenges we face in clear and simple terms. It also presents a hopeful roadmap that shows how we can preserve our planet for future generations.

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