This is this week’s group of books going to the library. As always, lots of fond memories. I’m surprised I’ve had the Vonnegut book this long. I believe I read it sometime around 1990. The sad part of donating all these books is as fast as I clear off the shelves, they fill up again with books I have lying around in other places in the house. The only book I’ve had longer is Tuchman’s.
As always, if there is a book anyone would like, let me know and I’ll get it to you. I generally don’t take the books to the library for a week after I post about them.
The Stuff: The author describes a novel mechanical origin for the onset of the Ice Age. This Ice Age changed the climate in the savannah of Africa where human ancestors lived, helping to bring about the evolutionary changes—large brains and bipedalism—that led to the rise of homo sapiens, that is, us humans. The writing is easy to follow, and the concepts are laid out convincingly without technical jargon.
Bio: Steven M. Stanley (b. 1941) is an American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, currently a research professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. For most of his professional life, he taught geology at Johns Hopkins. He is best known for perhaps his work using the fossil record to make a case for punctuated equilibrium. Most of his publications are professional works and textbooks.
Title: Children of the Ice Age: How a Global Catastrophe Allowed Humans to Evolve
Author: Steven M. Stanley (b. 1941)
First published: 1996
The Stuff: The book begins with a description of a visit to cave paintings of Combrelles in France, leading the author to ask about human uniqueness and what sets us apart from even our closest relatives, who seem incapable of the symbolic logic we homo sapiens use almost as a birthright. Not even the Neanderthal were capable of speech. Some disagree on this point, and I am hardly one to weigh in with an opinion. Tattersall also strongly advocates for punctuated equilibrium, that is, the idea that populations generally undergo long periods of stability until there is some evolutionary pressure. At this point, a speciation event may occur. All this happens over extremely long periods of time from a human perspective. I enjoyed this book.
Bio: According to his website, Ian Tattersall (b. 1945) is curator emeritus in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He was educated at both Cambridge and Yale and has carried out fieldwork in Madagascar, Vietnam, Surinam, Yemen, and Mauritius. His three main areas of research are the analysis of the human fossil record and its integration with evolutionary theory, the origin of human cognition, and the study of the ecology and systematics of the lemurs of Madagascar. His books include (with Rob DeSalle) Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth (2011), The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack: and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution (2015), and (with Peter Névraumont) Hoax: A History of Deception: 5,000 Years of Fakes, Forgeries, and Fallacies (2018).
Title: Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness
Author: Ian Tattersall (b. 1945)
First published: 1998
The Stuff: “Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests?” the author asks at the beginning of the book. “Why, to begin at the beginning, did the Trojan rulers drag that suspicious-looking wooden horse inside their walls to suspect a Greek trick?” Tuchman examines three monumental losses in history that might have turned out better had the leaders acted differently: The Protestant Reformation (“The Renaissance Popes Provoke the Protestant Secession”), The American Revolution (“The British Lose North America”), and the Vietnam War (“America Betrays Herself”). These leaders did not act blindly. To meet her definition of folly, the leaders had to receive warnings. The prototype is Laocoön, who tried to warn his fellow Trojans about the horse the Greeks left. Athena sent two sea serpents to shut him up. They took his sons, too.
I read this book when it first came out, and I was a lot younger. I loved it and thought it had an important message. After a more recent reread, I found it preachy.
Bio: Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989) was an American historian and writer. Her father was the owner of Maurice Wertheim, the owner of The Nation. Her mother was Alma Morgenthau, the daughter of Henry Morgenthau, Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Her first book of note The Guns of August (1962), about the onset of WWI, won a Pulitzer Prize. She also won a Pulitzer for Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 (1971), a biography of Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell.
Title: The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam
Author: Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989)
First published: 1984
The Stuff: This book deals with prehistoric climate, climatic changes, and human response to those changes, as well as the effects humans have had on the environment. For example, many of the larger land species have disappeared wherever humans have gone.
Contrary to traditional views, he sees the adoption of farming as something done only under pressure. In his chapter “End of Eden,” he writes that what is called “The Agricultural Revolution” was not quick, nor were people enthusiastic about becoming settled agriculturists. It was hard work, with results always uncertain: “Farming, in its early days,” he writes, “seemed to offer very little advantage indeed. In fact, more and more evidence suggests that it was ghastly.”
His words portray the earth’s processes forever in a dance. Nevertheless, the overall outlook is dark. Humankind is a bit player on the great stage of the world. Tudge speaks forcefully for conserving the earth’s bountiful if limited, resources.
This is an interesting, if sad, book.
Bio: Colin Tudge (b. 1943) refers to himself as “a biologist by education and a writer by trade.” He read zoology and worked on the staff of Farmers’ Weekly, New Scientist, and BBC Radio 3. Beginning in the early 2000s, Tudge and his wife, along with Graham Harvey, have advocated for what they call “Enlightened Agriculture” or “Real Farming” with the stated goal of “Agriculture that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest standard, nutritionally and gastronomically, without wrecking the rest of the world.” His books include Consider the Birds: Who they are and what they do (2008), Good Food for Everyone Forever: A people’s takeover of the world’s food supply (2011), and Why Genes Are Not Selfish and People Are Nice (2012).
Title: The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact
Author: Colin Tudge (b. 1943)
First published: 1996
The Stuff: This is a little hard to read. It begins after (Mark) Vonnegut graduates from college and sets up a hippie commune in British Columbia with some friends. He starts showing symptoms of mental illness, but hippies take care of their own. One of the standout quotes is, “Knowing that you’re crazy doesn’t make the crazy things stop happening.” The narrative dances on the edge of what is real and what maybe isn’t. Vonnegut’s father eventually commits him to a mental hospital. Vonnegut writes frankly, giving the reader an inside-looking-out at experiencing a breakdown. This is chilling and frightening but not despairing.
Bio: Mark Vonnegut (b. 1947) is the son of the late Kurt Vonnegut. He is a pediatrician and memoirist. Among his books are Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So (2010) and The Heart of Caring: A Life in Pediatrics (2022).
Title: The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity
Author: Mark Vonnegut (b. 1947)
First published: 1975