Book review: The Great Divide

The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New by Peter Watson (2013-06-25)

I was quite eager to read this book. It’s about the roughly 16,000 years in which the world contained two entirely separate populations of humans, one in the Old World and one in the New; the author describes this time period as a huge natural experiment. Although these two groups were obviously very similar, this book focuses on the ways that differences arose between them as they responded to their natural environments and experiences. 

I love big-picture, big-history books like this that integrate information from a range of disciplines, and I’ve wondered in particular about how religious beliefs are shaped by the physical environment, which seems to be an important part of this book. In the beginning, I found the book fascinating and even exciting, but I quit reading after about 100 pages.

The trouble really started when I got to a bit about how variations in Earth’s orbit and rotation affect climate. I was bothered by the way the author described a particular orbital/climate cycle.1 You expect a certain amount of hand-waving and speculation in a book that spans so many areas of study and such a vast time frame, but this seemed to be a failure to grasp the material well enough to explain it clearly. That bothers me in a book that covers so many areas where I’m ignorant and hoping to learn. If I’m tripping over things in a subject I know something about, am I missing similar misunderstandings or errors on topics where I lack the expertise to evaluate the information?

Sometimes you can overlook flaws in a book like this because it serves as a good-enough introduction to unfamiliar areas, with pointers to where to learn more. I appreciated that Watson named many of the scientists whose work he described in the chapters I read, and he cited some scientific papers as well as books. However, I unfortunately discovered what I considered to be gaps in his supporting information.

One useful thing an author can do is give readers the name of an event or hypothesis or phenomenon so that they have a handy search phrase. I went to Google for more information about one of the most exciting things I read about in the book, a hypothesized cometary impact about 12,900 years ago that might have had something to do with the extinction of North America’s megafauna. I Googled something like “comet 12900 bp” and learned that the idea is referred to as the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis.2

What a name! Why hadn’t the author used it in his book, as a handy hook for readers who want to know more about this mysterious comet? Maybe he did and I forgot. But no, he doesn’t even name any of the authors on the paper he mentions. Worse, the footnote numbers in the chapter appear to be off by one, so the footnote to the sentence describing that paper refers to something else entirely, and the proper citation is in the next footnote.

It’s a small thing, and maybe it was just bad luck that the first footnote I checked was messed up. Still, in my work as an editor, I’ve spent a fair amount of time doing frustrating battle with incomplete, inaccurate, or incorrectly numbered citations so that readers won’t have to, and I’m irritated by the lack of courtesy implicit in sloppy citations. (To be fair to the author, I think HarperCollins probably could have exerted some effort to clean up various infelicities, and perhaps some of them have been fixed in the paperback.)

The beginning of the end for me came when the book went back to talking about the Earth’s orbit: “We have already seen how the orbits of the Earth in relation to the sun determines Ice Ages and interglacials … .” Leaving aside the “orbits … determines” gaffe, I wondered: Orbits? Does he mean “orbital and rotational motions“? Probably, but why say “in relation to the sun”? What else would we be orbiting in relation to?

I can only guess at the difficulties of synthesizing a huge amount of information across a broad range of fields, and I have to respect a writer for trying. Still, maybe hiring a research assistant would have been a good idea, or asking experts in various fields to review certain parts. I really get the feeling this author doesn’t understand some of what he’s talking about. And that means it’s hard to trust him.

I didn’t want to give up on this book. It had promised so much. I thought maybe it was worth sticking with because other areas are handled with greater mastery. I Googled around and found, among other things, a review in the Guardian by Tom Holland, who is knowledgeable about the ancient world. Despite his overall positive take, the reservations he mentioned about information in his field helped persuade me to walk away from the book.3

I’ve encountered a feeling among some academics that popularizers are something of a lesser breed. If they were real scholars (in particular, real scientists), they’d be publishing in scientific journals, not writing books. As a reader who relishes the big picture, I greatly appreciate popularizers who do their job well. However, books like Watson’s almost persuade me that maybe the experts are right when they complain about people who present their material sloppily, or oversimplify it, or don’t fully grasp the details. And that makes me sad, because well-written books that give nonspecialists a trustworthy cross-disciplinary introduction to interesting research can provide a valuable bridge between the scholarly literature and the average reader. Overall this book struck me as a missed opportunity.

1 The book describes a 100,000-year cycle as arising “from the Earth’s orbit around the sun, which is elliptical and means that the distance from Earth to sun varies by as much as 18.26 million miles, producing marked variations in the force of gravity” (p. 30 in the hardback). This doesn’t really explain how the cycle works (not to mention being a rather sloppily written sentence), and the important part about this cycle has nothing to do with the force of gravity. What’s going on is that the Earth’s orbit slowly changes from more circular to more elliptical, and then back again. When it’s at its most elliptical, the difference in Earth’s distance from the sun at different times of year, and thus the difference in how much energy from the sun we receive at different times of year, is much greater. The 18.26 million mile variation that he mentions would mean a lot more, I think, if he noted that the current variation is about 3.1 million miles (we’re about 3.1 million miles closer to the sun in January than in July). NASA has a nice page explaining how recurring changes in Earth’s orbit and rotation affect climate.

2 It appears to be a troubled hypothesis, unfortunately. Drat. I was so thrilled by the idea of nanodiamonds and helium-3 at Clovis sites.

3 On the plus side, I discovered Tom Holland, who wrote some books that look interesting.

Book review: Teach Yourself to Meditate

Teach Yourself to Meditate in 10 Simple Lessons: Discover Relaxation and Clarity of Mind in Just Minutes a Day, by Eric Harrison

This is far and away the most approachable book on meditation that I’ve ever read, as demonstrated by the fact that I’m actually meditating as a result of reading it. Relaxation and focus are things that your mind and body naturally do, Eric Harrison tells us, and here’s how you can clear the space for these things to happen.

Harrison founded the Perth Meditation Centre nearly 30 years ago and has lots of experience with teaching people to meditate. I found the centre’s web site a few months ago when I was feeling very tense and achy and stymied by every method I’ve ever used to try to relax. I did one of those frustrated, foolish Google searches, something like “relaxation for people who get tense when they try to relax.” Improbably enough, that search ultimately led me to this book.

Meditation was not really what I was looking for; I just wanted my muscles to unwind. I didn’t want to force my mind to think or feel something (as in loving kindness meditation, for example) or to make strenuous efforts to clear my mind and quiet its monkey chatter. To me, and I suspect to many others, meditation has become encumbered with a lot of unhelpful ideas, and that’s part of why I had never really taken to it.

But Harrison’s approach doesn’t involve any of those things. He says the two skills needed to meditate are focus and watchful attention; he gives you clear steps to follow, enough background to help but not enough to bog you down, and ways to check whether you’re achieving the goals of meditation. I’ve read the entire book, but I haven’t come anywhere close to practicing with all of the exercises yet. However, I was very taken with the clear, no-nonsense descriptions of various mental states that meditation can bring you to, and with how beautiful the author found them.

One of the key things about meditation is that it’s not the same thing as thinking. In fact, you want to turn thinking off as much as you can. Focusing on your breath (not controlling it, not breathing X counts in and Y counts out, just watching it) is a good way to start. The book gives lots of other exercises for focusing on bodily sensations (scanning your body head to toe, for example) or some other sensual input, perhaps music or something you’re looking at. What this means for me is that instead of treating my body, and my sensory perceptions, only as imperfect tools or maybe even as burdens, I can slow down and look at them, in lieu of thinking. It’s startling how much is there to see when you stop and look.

Cichorium intybus, ©Patrick Alexander under a Creative Commons license
Cichorium intybus, ©Patrick Alexander under a Creative Commons license

Because I’m so tense right now, I’ve been focusing mostly on relaxation, and I was startled to find that on nights I can’t sleep, if I focus on my breathing for a minute or two, I often drift off before I get more than a few breaths into it. It won’t work if I’m in a lot of pain or emotional distress, but on an average tense night, it’s striking how well it works. (The point of meditation, of course, is usually not to fall asleep; you generally want the alertness and focus as well as the relaxation.) The really interesting thing, though, is that even if I can’t get to sleep, I find that physical pain has more texture and variation than I expected. I’d choose well-being over pain any day, but pain is what I’ve had lately, and it’s teaching me something.

One of the first meditations I did according to Harrison’s instructions was in a doctor’s office. I was waiting for the doctor to see me, feeling chilly and apprehensive in one of those open-up-the-back gowns. Instead of reading the same paragraph in a book over and over as my mind seethed with worries, I focused on my breathing and the sensations in my body for the 5 minutes or so that I waited. Instead of turning the key that wound me tighter, I unwound myself by a few turns. Not all the way to total relaxation, of course, but I was in better shape after than I was before. Success!

I really appreciated seeing meditation approached as a straightforward skill you can learn and practice when you like. I had always thought of it as a binary sort of thing: you’re relaxed or you’re not. If you’re not, you somehow make an effort to flip the switch that will make you relaxed. Harrison instead talks about shedding tension a little at a time, in short sessions. You can sit down specifically to meditate, or you can choose to take a moment to relax and focus at odd moments during the day. Meditate at a red light, or on the toilet, or while you’re waiting in line.

I was curious about the lesson on affirmations and mantras. I’ve found positive affirmations (about self-acceptance, for example, or calmness) to be counterproductive. They backfire because deep down I don’t believe them, and the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the positive affirmation and my real self is a terrible thing to contemplate (not to mention the unpleasantness of lying to myself).

Harrison recommends keeping affirmations or mantras very short and simple and not focusing a great deal on the meaning as you repeat them. Maybe use the name of someone you love, or of a place where you’ve been happy, or a single word with good connotations for you. Remember that you’re not supposed to be thinking. Mantras in particular are meant to be more of a soothing pattern than an intellectual exercise. He says that chanting a mantra can be a “sensual, hypnotic, and absorbing practice.” (Oh! Maybe that’s what the rosary, which my family recited daily when I was a child, was meant to be about!)

Toward the end of the book, Harrison talks about theta brain waves, about going to a place very close to sleep but staying awake and aware, watching what your mind does in that state: “You could stay awake as your body goes to sleep.” My mind chewed on that for a minute and said, “But isn’t that what happens in hypnagogia and hypnapompia?” On the verge of either falling asleep or waking, people can have very vivid dreams or nightmares and hallucinations. The body is still asleep, often experiencing sleep paralysis in fact, and the dreams and hallucinations can be terrifying. I’ve had some pretty unpleasant experiences in these states, so I was shocked to hear Harrison describing the theta state as lovely and desirable.

I trust him by now, though; I’m nowhere near being able or willing to play with theta wave meditation yet, but I’m keeping an open mind. I wonder what happens if you learn to approach that state from the awake side rather than from the asleep side, vulnerable and clueless. I wonder if doing that changes what happens when you approach it from the asleep side.

In the introduction, Harrison described his experience with  meditation. This line, about what he learned on a lengthy meditation retreat, was maybe the best lesson I got out of the entire book:

I found the mind is incredibly beautiful and smart if you stop trying to manipulate it.

That was so poignant to me. For many years I’ve tried to manipulate my mind, my feelings, my thoughts, to make them match some ideal. I despaired sometimes because it seemed impossible, and then beat myself up over failing (surely it’s not really impossible; there’s something wrong with me!). The most valuable thing about this book is that it’s helping me to trust my own mind more and to make friends with it. This was far more than I hoped for when I made that ridiculous Google search. Thank you, Mr. Harrison, and thank you, Internet.

Note: Shortly after publishing this, I corrected the fourth paragraph above to correctly indicate the two skills needed for meditation.

A season in the dark

One of the most fascinating manifestations of human creativity is the way we embellish our experience of events in the natural world. Who could have predicted the Yule log, the Nativity scene, and all the other complex structures of custom, cuisine, meaning, and imagination that we built in response to the winter solstice and the ways our bodies adapted to it?

For example, the countless and diverse holiday specialties we bake or cook and the holiday parties we give are rooted in celebrations of the abundance of food. We cherish our traditions, which are surrounded by a complicated web of emotions and rituals, in part because this abundance used to be much more cyclical, and our feasting goes back to an animal urge to bulk ourselves up like bears preparing to head for the den to endure the lean times of winter. Although we realize we won’t need to live off our fat until the land starts to provide food for us again, we still indulge if we can, and the ancient habits of our bodies may still push us toward slumber and torpor at this time of year.

Our feasts are usually part of larger traditions that I believe we created long before the beginnings of Christianity in order to surround ourselves with goodness and light and love and cheer even when the world outside is cold and dark. Perhaps because I have spent so much of my life dealing with depression, the concept of light existing in the depths of darkness and the knowledge that light and new life will return are powerful metaphors for me. By extension, these concepts remind me that life is seasonal, and that the pattern of light and dark is ever shifting.

For Christmas 1995, my younger son gave me a pendant with a rune on it, a dag, which looks like two triangles lying point to point, or an angular infinity symbol. The dag symbolizes daylight or sunlight, but it also has connotations of light after darkness and joy after sorrow. The meaning of this symbol was not lost on me, and I still wear the dag almost every day, reminding myself that time is still turning, and one state of mind and being will inevitably give way to another sooner or later.

I enjoy some sacred Christmas music, although I don’t believe in the literal truth of the Christmas story it tells. Much of my favorite carols from this season deal with yearning for the light or the emergence of light and hope in the long cold winter night, although I conceive of light and hope as being given by nature and by other people. When I listen to Handel’s Messiah, I still thrill to the idea of a long-awaited joy finally arriving, and the hope that those who have walked in darkness will see a great light. Who hasn’t walked in darkness and hoped to someday reach the light? For similar reasons, I like the somber yearning in the song “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The version of “O Christmas Tree” that I was taught contains the line “You bloom with lights when cold winds blow,” and when I was a child this line enchanted me with its poetry and the image it brought to mind of Christmas lights as glowing flowers.

I also cherish the carols that portray the dark not as joyless or gloomy but as rich with mystery and promise. It’s hard to look favorably on the short gray days of December and January, and I certainly don’t want to romanticize depression, which is for many people, much of the time, an affliction to be healed. Sometimes, however, I can see my darker emotions of grief or sorrow or melancholy as containing their own type of meaning and even beauty. And the physical darkness of winter represents a season of quiet in nature and can be quite lovely. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” has always moved me with its images of the silent stars passing over the deeply sleeping town, and some of the words in “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella” describe what sounds to me like an astronomer’s dream: “Skies are glowing, the heavens are cloudless… .” (For those who love the night sky, there is considerable solace in the presence of stars and planets in the darkness.) Carol lyrics are full of darkness and light and the meaning each gives to the other.

Whatever meaning you give to this time of year, whatever traditions you have for cherishing the light and surviving or even appreciating the darkness, I wish you a happy solstice.

This piece is based on an extract from an earlier post, Thinking meat and the long dark night, which I posted 10 years ago today.

Book review: Thinking in Systems

Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella H. Meadows, seemed to me to be something of a missing manual for human thinking. Even though we live in a world of complex interconnected systems, our common assumptions and habits of thought don’t necessarily serve us well when it comes to understanding their nonlinear, self-organizing behavior.

The book begins by describing how systems work, using several examples that are quite relevant (e.g., economies based on non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels or on a renewable resource such as a fishery).

The middle section builds on these examples to describe how humans get along with systems: what makes them work well, why they surprise us, and how to deal with common traps that systems can get stuck in. This section revealed so many useful but easy-to-disregard truths that it rose, in my opinion, toward the level of providing a secular moral philosophy. For example, the three features that make systems function well are resilience, self-organization, and hierarchy, but resilience and self-organization are often sacrificed to gain (temporary) productivity and stability. I wish more of us (including me) had a firmer grasp on this fact.

The traps considered include escalation, addiction, competitive exclusion (“success to the successful,” a serious problem in the U.S.), and seeking the wrong goal. That last one may seem easy to avoid, but Meadows points out some ways that our goals don’t reflect what we would really like to have, for example, our focus on the gross national product, a metric that is disconnected from (or perversely anticorrelated with) much that we actually value.

The final section lists, in order of increasing effectiveness, ways in which we can change systems and describes some insights gained from thinking in systems. The last chapter in particular is an excellent outline of some features of a secular morality or maybe a mental hygiene—good habits of thought to cultivate, such as using language with care, honoring, respecting, and distributing information, staying humble and continuing to learn, revealing and comparing mental models, and expanding time horizons. I was particularly impressed by these two passages:

Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than our ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity—our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality.

Getting models out into the light of day, making them as rigorous as possible, testing them against the evidence, and being willing to scuttle them if they are no longer supported is no more than practicing the scientific method—something that is done too seldom even in science and is done hardly at all in social science or management or government or everyday life.

These passages, in a nutshell, describe much of what I think it takes to be a good human. However, you don’t need to settle for the nutshell. I’d highly recommend reading the whole book.

Four kinds of introversion?

One of the most interesting things about personality to me is the range of expression of different traits. My introverted behavior and preferences are similar to but not identical to those of introverted friends, for example, and the reasons have to do with other personality characteristics as well as different personal histories. So I was interested in this article from Science of Us about an attempt to identify various kinds of introversion.

The research described in that article was motivated by the fact that the term introversion has a somewhat elusive meaning, and the scientific definition doesn’t exactly line up with some of the ways that non-scientists tend to think of introverts. Jonathan Cheek at Wellesley College has been working on a finer-grained understanding of different kinds of introversion. He and two grad students recently reported a method of identifying four variants: social, thinking, anxious, and restrained. Social introverts simply prefer to hang out in smaller groups or spend time alone. The other three types are more motivated by something in themselves: strong enjoyment of an inner mental world, extreme self-consciousness around others, or a need for time to process things before reacting.

The article above includes a test you can take to see where you fall in this scheme of things. I scored exactly the same on each type: no surprise, because I recognized myself in the description of each one. And these facets of introversion seem deeply intertwined to me. It’s easy to feel self-conscious around others if you see that your inner mental world, or the strength of your immersion in it, seem weird to those around you. If your thoughts and solitary work absorb a lot of your energy, you might need time to shift your attention from the familiar confines of your own mind to the demands of the outside world.

A friend whose introversion sometimes seems to manifest itself most differently from mine had pretty much the same scores as I did, so this particular measure didn’t do much to illuminate the differences in our behavior or preferences. We agreed that some of the questions were also difficult to answer, which is not surprising for this type of test.

You’re asked, for example, how typical of you it is to want to vacation in places with a lot of people, or how much you want to get away when you’ve been surrounded by people. Sometimes I like having lots of people around who are going about their own business; I enjoy reading or writing in a coffee shop where strangers come and go, for example, which gives me a sort of bubble of solitude all the more pleasurable for lying among the hubbub of other lives. I’d probably be more eager to escape to a private space if I were vacationing in a small town where everyone knew everyone else than if I were someplace like Paris or Manhattan, where you have the energy and interest of other lives around you but you don’t need to interact directly with anyone most of the time except in the most predictable of social rituals.

In fact, I’d say that my preference for the number of people around is U-shaped: a high preference for solitude or very small groups, moderate enjoyment of anonymous benign crowds, and deep discomfort with, say, a room full of 10 or 20 strangers that I’m expected to socialize with. But you’re not likely to learn that about me unless you know me or I tell you in so many words; it’s hard to imagine a test that would reveal all the nuances.

Years ago I read a book that reviewed various theories of personality, and in the end the author concluded that personality may be a mystery, in the sense that you understand it not so much by analysis as by experience. The older I get, the more this rings true. I’m still interested in analysis like the work Cheek does, but mostly as another filter for examining experience.

Troublesome terms in psychology

A group of authors has put together an article that gives an excellent primer on problematic terminology used in psychology and psychiatry. Although it’s aimed at students and teachers in the psychological sciences, I think it’s also very useful for anyone who reads (or writes) about the brain and mind, because it addresses common misconceptions that are perpetuated by frequently used words or phrases and points out areas where terminology hasn’t kept up with what we’ve learned. The discussion of terms having to do with statistics can be somewhat technical, but many of the terms are the kind of thing you see all the time in the news (e.g., “a gene for X,” “hard-wired,” “antidepressant medication”), and for each term there’s an explanation of what the problem is (whether it’s inaccurate, often misused, ambiguous, or an outright oxymoron). The article can be read online or downloaded for free. Highly recommended.

Book spine poem: Man and Time

What finer way to spend a Saturday morning in summer than browsing the bookshelves for good lines for a poem? Here’s the result:

Man and Time

The immense journey (the fool’s progress).
A sense of the future: the eternal frontier,
Untrodden peaks and unfrequented valleys
Beyond the blue horizon.
Always coming home.

book spine poem 3

With gratitude to the authors: J.B. Priestley, Loren Eiseley, Edward Abbey, J. Bronowski, Tim Flannery, Amelia Edwards, E.C. Krupp, Ursula Le Guin

Fiction and real life

I ran across this in Umberto Eco’s Confessions of a Young Novelist (The Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature):

The compelling nature of the great tragedies stems from the fact that their heroes, instead of escaping an atrocious fate, plunge into the abyss—which they have dug with their own hands—because they have no idea what awaits them; and we, who clearly see where they are headed so blindly, cannot stop them. We have cognitive access to the world of Oedipus, and we know everything about him and Jocasta—but they, even though they live in a world that depends parasitically on our own, do not know anything about us.  Fictional characters cannot communicate with people in the real world.

Such a problem is not as whimsical as it seems. Please try to take it seriously. Oedipus cannot conceive of the world of Sophocles—otherwise, he would not wind up marrying his mother. Fictional characters live in an incomplete—or, to be ruder and politically incorrect—handicapped world.

But when we truly understand their fate, we begin to suspect that we too, as citizens of the here-and-now, frequently encounter our destiny simply because we think of our world in the same way that fictional characters think of theirs. Fiction suggests that perhaps our view of the actual world is as imperfect as the view that fictional characters have of their world. This is why successful fictional characters become supreme examples of the “real” human condition.

This struck me for several reasons. The thing I’m still chewing over is the realization that I often act as if I assume that the world, like a book, has a reader, someone who is outside the story and sees the thing whole, someone who sees the pits that I am digging for myself and knows when I’m about to fall into one of them. Sometimes I want to see my own story whole; sometimes I want to ask an omniscient viewer, “What will happen if I do this?” I realize consciously that these things are impossible, but sometimes, especially when I’m making a difficult decision, I have a subtle but persistent sense that if I could just climb above my day-to-day circumstances for a moment, there’s a definite answer, a complete world, that I, like this mythical reader of the world, could see.

Maybe I believe in this reader because I’m a lifelong avid fiction reader, and I extrapolate too freely from fiction to life. Or maybe it’s because I was taught as a child that there is an omniscient god who knows and sees all (even though I left that deity behind long ago). Maybe it’s a common human bias because, when we’re children, we depend on these beings who know so much more than we do that they may as well be omniscient. As we grow up, we continue to consult experts, and indeed parents and experts do have a lot of useful things to tell us about what will hurt and what will help.

Of course, the tragedy of Oedipus, and many other fictional characters and real people, is that although someone in their own world might have been able to answer the question that could have saved their lives, kingdoms, marriages, jobs, reputations, and so on, it never even occurred to them to ask it. Eco’s point is that we, like fictional characters, often think that what we know of the world is what there is to know of the world. Even so, most meaningful questions are too complicated for simple answers, and if we think to ask for information, the best question we can come up with is often a broad, less answerable one, like “Should I go to Thebes?”

I think I’m fairly comfortable with the answer “It depends,” but lurking in my heart is a foolish belief that on the big, consequential questions, there are much more definite answers available, and there is some entity that can see them and perhaps share them. Maybe I should put these thoughts in the mind of a fictional character and see how his or her author (that would be me) responds. Or have I just disappeared down a rabbit hole?