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IMPORTANT! Vote for next book club selections
Hi all, below are the summaries of the books that have been proposed for the next Skeptic Book Club selections. We got a total of 16 intriguing suggestions. Please, read the short summaries and vote (by email, directly to: pigliucci@yahoo.com) as soon as possible.

Oh, please pay attention to the size of some books before jumping at voting for them... ;-)

Finally, for the record, I did not suggest my own book... ;-)


Atwood, M., A Handmaid’s Tale (1998, 320pp): In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies? Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now.... Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.

Banner, S., The Death Penalty: an American History (2003, 408pp): Stuart Banner's The Death Penalty is a richly detailed overview of American attitudes toward and implementation of capital punishment throughout its past. Banner decries what he sees as today's prevailing "smug condescension" to history, and states that executing a fellow human in the 17th and 18th centuries, though exponentially more common than today, was "just as momentous" an act. He traces changing technology and venues as well as the relatively constant arguments--legal, philosophical, and religious--of proponents and opponents. The book is rich with fascinating sidelights, among them the chilling practice of "symbolic" executions, the idea that dissections, viewed as a sort of punishment beyond death, were thought to act as deterrents to capital crime, and how the rise of newspapers as a mass medium hastened, in part, the demise of public hangings. The Death Penalty is free of polemic and cant, admirably disinterested, and at once rigorous yet thoroughly accessible.

Blaker, K., The Fundamentals of Extremism (2003, 288pp): The politics, educational policies, and social values perpetuated by Christian fundamentalists are exposed in this critical perspective on the religious right's role in American society. Statistics and studies of the movement are offered that provide insight into the causes and characteristics of fundamentalism and its effects on minority groups including women, children, African Americans, gays, and lesbians. Essays from a variety of authors consider the path to theocracy, the effect of the theology of inerrancy on politics, and the state of fundamentalism in the United States after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Casti, J., The One Platonic Heaven: a Scientific Fiction on the Limits of Knowledge (2003, 160pp.): THE SETTING: It's 1948, the dawn of the computer age. Our drama unfolds at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, an intellectual haven, a place where the most brilliant minds on the planet, sheltered from the outside world's cares and calamities, could study and collaborate and devote their time to the pure and exclusive pursuit of knowledge. For many, it was indeed the "one, true, platonic heaven." In this fascinating new book, John L. Casti, author of The Cambridge Quintet, continues the tradition of combining science fact with just the right dose of fiction, combining scenes of documented fact with creatively imagined fiction -- so that the two are expertly knitted together to tell an intriguing tale of science, history, and ideas. Imaginatively conceived and artfully executed, The One True Platonic Heaven is an accessible and intriguing presentation of some of the deepest scientific and philosophical ideas of the 20th century.

Elliott, C., Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream (2003, 320pp.): Elliott, a professor of bioethics and philosophy at the University of Minnesota, has discovered one of the biggest American maladies and fears-social phobia-and knows that Americans are on the hunt for the cure. His book reads like a travelogue that takes readers through the many forms of remedy, from Viagra, Paxil, and Botox, to the other American disease, "boredom" and our various responses to it. In the 19th century, "personalities were not just facades but outward indicators," he writes, that revealed you "as you really were." Adding to our self-consciousness, are "mirrors, photographs, films, television, home video, and the World Wide Web." We watch celebrities who are aware that they are being watched, and compounding the problem is "the strange loneliness and alienation that comes from watching." Arguing that "now we are excessively self-conscious about being self-conscious," Elliott, packing the book with intriguing examples of manifestations as well as cultural references, examines our self-consciousness and the roots of it. The writing is intelligent and thought provoking, but readers looking for a self-help book or any easy answer will not find it here.

Gleick, J., Faster: the Acceleration of Just About Everything (2000, 352pp): Never in the history of the human race have so many had so much to do in so little time. That, anyway, is the impression most of us have of civilized life at the end of the millennium, and Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything only sharpens it. Elegantly composed and insightfully researched, Faster delivers a brisk volley of observations on how microchips, media, and economics, among other things, have accelerated the pace of everyday experience over the course of the manic 20th century.

Georges, T., Digital Soul (2003, 288pp): Can computers think? What does that question mean? What might the answer portend for human values? The first half of the book examines the idea of machine intelligence, then moves on to consciousness, emotions, neurosis and moral awareness. The conversation draws heavily on popular accounts by computer pioneers Marvin Minsky and Alan Turing, mathematician Roger Penrose and cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. The second half of the book explores the social implications of computer intelligence, including whether machines will take over the world. Georges, a former research scientist at the National Bureau of Standards and the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences, bases this part on popular works by astronomer Carl Sagan and biologist Richard Dawkins, and several magazine articles. Essentially a summary of generally believed notions regarding the power of machines, illustrated with pop culture references, the book's strength lies in its blend of comprehensive coverage with straightforward prose.

Johnson, S., Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (2003, 288pp): An individual ant, like an individual neuron, is just about as dumb as can be. Connect enough of them together properly, though, and you get spontaneous intelligence. Web pundit Steven Johnson explains what we know about this phenomenon with a rare lucidity in Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. Starting with the weird behavior of the semi-colonial organisms we call slime molds, Johnson details the development of increasingly complex and familiar behavior among simple components: cells, insects, and software developers all find their place in greater schemes. Johnson has a knack for explaining complicated and counterintuitive ideas cleverly without stealing the scene. Though we're far from fully understanding how complex behavior manifests from simple units and rules, our awareness that such emergence is possible is guiding research across disciplines. Readers unfamiliar with the sciences of complexity will find Emergence an excellent starting point, while those who were chaotic before it was cool will appreciate its updates and wider scope.

Kimbrell, A., Fatal Harvest: the Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (2003, 396pp): "We ... find ourselves in the midst of a historic battle over two very different visions of the future of food in the 21st century. A grassroots public movement for organic, ecological, and humane food is now challenging the decades-long hegemony of the corporate, industrial model." With 58 essays and more than 250 photographs, Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety, aims to provide "a timely treasure trove of ammunition" for that movement. The ammunition includes a litany of environmental harms caused by industrial agriculture and a strategy for bringing about "the end of agribusiness."

Landes, D., The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1999, 658pp): Professor David S. Landes takes a historic approach to the analysis of the distribution of wealth in this landmark study of world economics. Landes argues that the key to today's disparity between the rich and poor nations of the world stems directly from the industrial revolution, in which some countries made the leap to industrialization and became fabulously rich, while other countries failed to adapt and remained poor. Why some countries were able to industrialize and others weren't has been the subject of much heated debate over the decades; climate, natural resources, and geography have all been put forward as explanations--and are all brushed aside by Landes in favor of his own controversial theory: that the ability to effect an industrial revolution is dependent on certain cultural traits, without which industrialization is impossible to sustain. Landes contrasts the characteristics of successfully industrialized nations--work, thrift, honesty, patience, and tenacity--with those of nonindustrial countries, arguing that until these values are internalized by all nations, the gulf between the rich and poor will continue to grow.

Marx, A.W., Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism (2003, 258pp): In a departure from the unquestioning liberal consensus that has governed discussions of nationalism for the last quarter of the 20th century, Anthony Marx exposes the hidden underside of Western nationalism. Arguing that the true history of the nation began 200 years earlier, in the early modern era, he shows how state builders set about deliberately constructing a sense of national solidarity to support their burgeoning authority. Key to this process was the transfer of power from local to central rulers; the most suitable vehicle for effecting this transfer was religion. Religious intolerance, specifically the exclusion of religious minorities from the nascent state, provided the glue that bound together the remaining populations. Exposing the West's idealization of its exclusionary past, Marx forcefully undermines the distinction between a Western nationalism that is civic and tolerant by definition and an oriental nationalism founded on ethnicity and intolerance.

McMillen, M., Paris 1919, Six Months that Changed the World (2002, 608pp): A joke circulating in Paris early in 1919 held that the peacemaking Council of Four, representing Britain, France, the U.S. and Italy, was busy preparing a "just and lasting war." Six months of parleying concluded on June 28 with Germany's coerced agreement to a treaty no Allied statesman had fully read, according to MacMillan, a history professor at the University of Toronto, in this vivid account. Although President Wilson had insisted on a League of Nations, even his own Senate would vote the league down and refuse the treaty. As a rush to make expedient settlements replaced initial negotiating inertia, appeals by many nationalities for Wilsonian self-determination would be overwhelmed by rhetoric justifying national avarice. There was, Wilson declared, "disgust with the old order of things," but in most decisions the old order in fact prevailed, and corrosive problems, like Bolshevism, were shelved. Hitler would blame Versailles for more ills than it created, but the signatories often could not enforce their writ. MacMillan's lucid prose brings her participants to colorful and quotable life, and the grand sweep of her narrative encompasses all the continents the peacemakers vainly carved up.

Moore, D., The Dependent Gene (2003, 320pp): Western assessment of humankind has long involved genetics and Darwinian theory: "good" genes yield beauty and charm; "bad" genes are blamed for depression and violence. Drawing on recent work by many developmentalists, Moore, a professor of psychology at Pitzer College and Claremont Graduate University, proposes the Developmental Systems Perspective, a comprehensive theory maintaining that genes alone cannot determine our traits. Instead, our traits are highly influenced by a hierarchical series of interactions involving information from sperm, egg, cytoplasm, mother's health and the world at large. External environmental factors such as habits, nutrition, access to healthcare, parents' income can affect birth weight and countless other factors. Traits, says Moore, are determined by the interaction of genetic and nongenetic factors, none of which is "more important than any other; instead, they are all merely collaborators." Moore ably demonstrates the danger of genetically based judgments, citing such ill-fated examples of genetic determinism as George Bush Sr.'s Alcohol and Drug Initiative in the early 1990s to target and treat potentially violent criminals and, of course, the Nazis' gruesome projects.

Pigliucci, M., Denying Evolution (2002, 275pp): While denying that creationism can be seen as a scientific theory, Pigliucci (evolutionary biology, U. of Tennessee) blames much of the failure of a resolution of the evolution-creation debate on the inability of evolutionary scientists to promote an understanding of evolution. He explains the fallacies of creationist thinking, while explaining how those fallacies are able to take hold because scientists have not bothered thinking seriously about how to present scientific theory to unscientific students.

Ridley, M., Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human (2003, 336pp.): In the follow-up to his bestseller, Genome, Matt Ridley takes on a centuries-old question: is it nature or nurture that makes us who we are? Ridley asserts that the question itself is a "false dichotomy." Using copious examples from human and animal behavior, he presents the notion that our environment affects the way our genes express themselves. Ridley's proof is in the pudding for such touchy subjects as monogamy, aggression, and parenting, which we now understand have some genetic controls. Nevertheless, "the more we understand both our genes and our instincts, the less inevitable they seem." A consummate popularizer of science, Ridley once again provides a perfect mix of history, genetics, and sociology for readers hungry to understand the implications of the human genome sequence.

Zakaria, F., The Future of Freedom (2003, 256pp): Democracy is not inherently good, Zakaria (From Wealth to Power) tells us in his thought-provoking and timely second book. It works in some situations and not others, and needs strong limits to function properly. The editor of Newsweek International and former managing editor of Foreign Affairs takes us on a tour of democracy's deficiencies, beginning with the reminder that in 1933 Germans elected the Nazis. While most Western governments are both democratic and liberal-i.e., characterized by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic rights-the two don't necessarily go hand in hand. Zakaria contends that something has also gone wrong with democracy in America, which has descended into "a simple-minded populism that values popularity and openness." The solution, Zakaria says, is more appointed bodies, like the World Trade Organization and the U.S. Supreme Court, which are effective precisely because they are insulated from political pressures.

Related Link: Vote Now!

Posted by mpigliucci
June 27, 2003