The influential book meme

Tyler Cowen has started a meme among bloggers by encouraging us to list the ten books that have most influenced our view of the world. I’m happy to play along.

The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek — As close as any book gets to defining my own political views: Classically liberal, non-dogmatic, skeptical of government power, somewhat deferent to evolved institutions, nurturing of spontaneous order, and always cognizant of the limits of knowledge.

The Economic Way of Thinking, Paul Heyne — The title explains it all. Heyne explained economic principles by grounding them in human action, making the subject enlightening and approachable. I’m grateful that my high school economics teacher chose this particular textbook for our class. In contrast, my college peers were expected to start their study with macroeconomics and no background in micro; they were understandably perplexed. I wish that more students were introduced to economics via this book.

On Liberty, John Stuart Mill — “The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

The Fountainhead/Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand — I count these as one because I read them in quick succession, in fact for a few months in high school nearly every book I read was penned by Rand. Thankfully I avoided the ideological lure of becoming a pure Objectivist but it was these books that transformed me from a moderately conservative teenager into the kind of college student who plans spring break around a visit to the Cato Institute. As I wrote in an earlier book meme post, “It’s safe to say that without Atlas… no Torch, no IHS seminars, no Cato internship. And no eventual burn out that led to becoming a barista? Perhaps. The alternate life in which I didn’t read this book while young is hard to picture.” Conor Friedersdorf includes Atlas in his list as well, in part for its depiction of the rewards of work. For that inspiration I’d cite instead…

A River Runs Through It, Norman MacLean — “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” Previous blogging about this here.

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins — A stand-in for any number of books about evolution, selected for the starkness with which it depicts evolution as a process not directed to any particular end. What survives is what replicates.

The Gay Science/Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche — “The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

The Art of the Bar, Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz — It’s odd to put a bartending book in the same list with Nietzsche and Hayek, but mixology has become my primary non-writing creative outlet. It’s not from this book that I learned to tend bar but it was the one that inspired me to start inventing my own drinks.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov — My introduction to science fiction, a genre that paints the universe as vastly wonderful and inspired my optimistic views of science and technology. Ironically, the premise of Foundation — that a social scientist could predict humanity’s future for centuries and guide the government needed to shape it — is as anti-Hayekian as it gets.

A decade-plus of Superman and Batman comics — A boy could have worse influences than these iconic heroes.

Darwin Day

Today was Darwin Day, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years after his On the Origin of Species. Remarkably, even now only about a quarter of Americans accept the theory of natural selection. 63% believe that life has always existed in its current form or was created through a process of guided evolution. So in Darwin’s honor, a recommended reading list of books investigating and extending his ideas, some of which I haven’t read in years but that remain among my favorites:

The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) — This is one of the most stunning books of non-fiction I’ve ever read, the sort that made me see the world in a whole new light. Dawkins describes natural selection from the gene’s perspective, offering a new and unique way of understanding evolution. This is also where the fertile concept of memes is first presented.

Unto Others (Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson) — Dawkins’ perspective is illuminating. It’s also limiting, in the sense that selection only at the gene level limits the kinds of altruism that can evolve. In this book the authors argue that selection for groups of organisms is also possible and can lead to more robust forms of altruism. The first half is a fascinating inquiry into that idea. The second is about the psychology of altruism and is in my view less interesting, but still worth reading.

The Song of the Dodo (David Quammen) — Quammen is an amazingly talented nature writer. In this book he discusses how the study of life on isolated islands reveals insights into evolution, extinction, and the effects of carving up natural habitat. Along the way it delves into the work of Alfred Wallace, whose independent work on evolution finally jolted Darwin into publishing his ideas.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Daniel Dennett) — An introduction to Darwinian ideas, with provocative extensions to culture, morality, and technology.

Bones of Contention (Paul Chambers) — As scientists, intellectuals, and theologians debated the merits of Darwin’s theory, the fossils of Archaeopteryx, a dinosaur with feathers, burst onto the scene. Whereas most pop science books take a grand view of evolution, this one looks in detail at one particular incident to illuminate warring perspectives. Unique, esoteric, and informative.

Consilience (Edward O. Wilson) — The opposite of esoteric. Here the father of sociology argues for a unified view of knowledge grounded in physics and evolution.

Animal House

Getting to the aforementioned serious content…

Among the many topics I wanted to write about this week, four involved animals. Let’s make things easy and cover them all in one entry.
[Read more...]

Antony Flew update

Exactly what Antony Flew has converted to remains unclear, but he has distanced himself a bit from his recent news-making statements. He now concedes that he foolishly dismissed theories for how life could have arisen from inanimate matter, blaming Gerald Schroeder and (oddly) Richard Dawkins. He hasn’t denied becoming a deist, yet he also notes that his current line of thinking could lead to a new refutation of the concept of God. We may never know, though, becase Flew says, “I am just too old at the age of nearly 82 to initiate and conduct a major and super radical controversy about the conceivability of the putative concept of God as a spirit.” Not surprisingly, there doesn’t appear to be anything new or significant arising from this story.

Further quotes and pointed commentary are available on The Secular Web from Richard Carrier, who has been in correspondence with Professor Flew (scroll down to the Jan. 2005 update). Hat tip to The Panda’s Thumb for the link.

Faking the plunge

The myth of lemmings engaging in mass suicidal cliff dives dies hard, having entered our language as a metaphor for senseless crowd behavior. From an evolutionary perspective, of course, it makes no sense whatsoever. Not even kin selection could justify such genetic line-ending behavior as pack suicide.

This article from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation debunks the myth and explains how a staged plunge debuted in a Disney documentary and spread into our cultural heritage. It also lists a few other lemming tales that explain the rodents’ populations swings by their arrival from the sky.

Link via BoingBoing and the Disney Blog, which notes, “Disney’s True Life Adventures film series did great things for the advancement of understanding the world around us. However, the lemming suicide plunge debacle was not one of them.”

The Mystery of the Five-Inch Bull Balls

Earlier last week, Radley linked to an article I sent him about a man who wanted to be implanted with Neuticles. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these amazing devices, Neuticles are prosthetic testicles that dog owners can have implanted in their emasculated pooches to help give them a spring in their steps, a smile on their faces, and a song in their hearts. As the motto on the official t-shirt says, “It’s like nothing ever changed.”

A short time later I came across another article that talked about Neuticles and their inventor, Gregg Miller, founder of the Canine Testicular Implant Corporation (Gregg’s official motto: “I’m not only the president, I’m also a client.”). The article includes this intriguing fact:

The company reached a milestone in February, when a man bought Neuticles for his bull. If inquiring minds want to know: Each lifelike bull orb is 5 inches high and 2 1/2 inches wide.

“The guy didn’t want to say much about the purchase… He didn’t let us use his name in a press release,” says Miller. “But at $695, it’s a great direction for us.”

Most readers are probably wondering what the story is behind this mysterious guy buying the bull Neuticles. Indeed, that is a very good question. But what really shocked me is the size of the things. To be frank, I was surprised that the typical bull would have me at such a disadvantage.

I realize that may sound a bit immodest, not to mention inappropriate, so please allow me to clarify. It’s a principle of biology that you can tell a lot about a species’ mating habits by the size of its testes. If they are large relative to body mass, it’s a good bet that females of the species are promiscuous. Since they’re mating with multiple males, the evolutionary arms race favors males who can, if you’ll pardon the expression, make a larger deposit. Thus, they need larger testes. The opposite is true for the lesser-endowed animals. If males are assured of having monopoly access to their mates, then there’s no reason for them to waste resources on large testicles.

This explains the surprising fact that human men are significantly better endowed than their gorilla counterparts. A successful gorilla male wins exclusive access to a harem of females, resulting in practically zero need for seminal competition. Of course, the imbalance that this creates leads to considerable physical competition among the males, which is why gorillas exhibit such sexual dimorphism: males are much, much larger than females.

Before the guys in the audience get inflated egos from this discussion, I should mention that the smaller chimpanzee has us completely outclassed. Since chimps live in highly promiscuous social groups, sperm competition is quite intense. What does this tell us that we can bring up the next time we’re stuck at a boring cocktail party? That humans are by nature much more monogamous than our nearest living evolutionary cousins, but not completely monogamous. [Note: With this blog entry I will probably get myself deleted from about a dozen cocktail party invitations.]

For further discussion of these matters, check out Jared Diamond’s book The Third Chimpanzee. Alternatively, take a look at this post about another form of sperm competition on the excellent evolution blog The Panda’s Thumb.

But we were talking about bulls. My impression of bulls’ mating behavior was that it was closer to that of the gorilla than that of the chimpanzee: one dominant bull pushing and shoving his way to nearly exclusive access to the most fetching of cows. If this were the case, even allowing for body size I wouldn’t have expected the whopping five inches reported in the Neuticles article. My presumption was backed up by the fact that I’ve actually partaken of the Rocky Mountain oyster, and my memory is of something more golf ball sized. So what gives? My curiosity piqued, I spent some time this afternoon searching the Internet for answers. [Note: If this isn't a sign that I really need a girlfriend, I don't know what is.]

The first thing I learned is that one should be very careful about what links one clicks when searching for online information about “cattle” and “mating.” I’ll spare you the details.

The second thing I learned was that my impression of bull’s mating behavior wasn’t too far off the mark. A page on the gaur, a wild ox found in Asia, reports that the dominant male will mate with about ten different females in a given mating season, but that the dominance hierarchy changes frequently.

A more thorough and interesting report comes from a study [.ppt] performed by scientists at the University of Saskatchewan. In that study, riders on horseback observed a herd of bulls and cows from a distance to record their mating behavior. The results shed some light on the Mystery of the Five-Inch Bull Balls.

One of the observations reported in the study is that though there is a hierarchy among the bulls, the dominant ones have to constantly chase off their younger challengers. Young bulls often initiate copulation with females only to be disturbed by the bigger elders, who follow a forceful strategy of, shall we say, cow-itus interruptus.

A second observation is that the dominant bulls often rely upon the lower ranking males to act as “heat detectors,” allowing the young bulls to identify receptive females before moving in themselves. This time saving strategy has its human parallel in the hiring process of Capitol Hill interns.

The net result of all of this jockeying for position is that there is no difference in the frequency of copulation between the dominant and low ranking males, even though there is a definite hierarchy when it comes to mating privileges. So, contrary to my initial impression, it might be the case that bulls have to deal with significant sperm competition.

What of the Rocky Mountain oysters? Checking the restaurant menu, it turns out that what I had assumed to be a “whole ball” appetizer may have actually been precut. The description is “small bites battered and fried to a golden brown and served with a tangy ‘cocktail’ sauce.” On the other hand, the “Fear Factor” website, of all places, reports that the things do tend to shrink when cooked. Either way, their size was misleadingly small.

It’s also possible that humans have artificially selected for large testicals in domesticated cattle since breeders sensibly take size into consideration when purchasing sires. Of course, it’s also possible that their size isn’t at all out of line for such massive animals; I’ve got no way of knowing. Perhaps further research from the University of Saskatchewan could decide the issue.

For now it’s time to put this mystery to rest and return this weblog to less testicular topics. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little foray into the biological side of things. As for me, it’s like I said after eating my first Rocky Mountain oyster: “I’ve had a ball.”

Robert Wright vs. Daniel Dennett: There’s more than one way to make a pocketwatch

Justin Logan brought to my attention a recent debate thats been going on between Robert Wright and Daniel Dennett, two of the more prominent writers on evolutionary theory. This weekend I spent a little time looking into it. Long story short: Wright is misleadingly making a big deal out of nothing and his argument for his claims doesnt hold up to scrutiny.

The controversy became prominent when Andrew Sullivan linked to an article by Robert Wright with a post that reads: AN ATHEIST RECANTS: Philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of the influential 1995 book, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” now says he sees a higher purpose in the universe. Bob Wright breaks the news.

Thats a rather misleading headline, and if Sullivan had been a little bit careful he would have known that Dennett said no such thing. Given the tone of Wrights article, though, Sullivan can be forgiven. Wright dramatically overstates Dennetts supposed concession, which isnt really a concession at all. Heres how Wright describes what Dennett said:
[Read more...]