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Darwinian Evolution (Paladin Books)
Darwinian Evolution (Paladin Books)
by Antony G. N. Flew
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable and accurate account of Darwinism as a philosophy, 30 May 2012
Anthony Flew masters his subject, which is the philosophical meaning of Darwinian evolution, but he sometimes writes in such an annoying way that it is hard to maintain concentration. This short book (just 149 pages) is packed with information, ideas and as many delicious phrases as unfortunate circumlocutions, but is marred by Anthony Flew's affectation of stopping to amend his ideas as he goes. Were I to parody him (or, more accurately, were I to satirize him), I might say, or write, or even type, a sentence as halting, or as straining to read, or as confusing to follow, as this one. None the less, I commend Anthony Flew for using the words `eirenic' (page 59) and `prevenient' (page 62).

There must have been some agitation from academic Marxists relevant to Darwinism at the time Flew wrote (1984) because he spends ten or more pages criticising Marx, Engels, the Soviet Union and Maoist China. This is legitimate if Karl Marx is being falsely compared to Charles Darwin; otherwise, it only dates the book, even though Anthony Flew's criticisms of both the communist and the fascist forms of socialism are valid (besides his welcome contention that Darwin was far superior to Marx, both morally and intellectually).

Another contemporary upset in the academic world of biology was the fashion for claddistics and the `Popperian' approach taken by Colin Patterson in an exhibition on Darwinism at the British Museum, which said that evolution is only a theory. Anthony Flew has some wise things to say regarding this controversy, though his assessment of Karl Popper's judgment on the status of Darwinism as a scientific theory curiously omits Popper's theory of epistemological Darwinism, which was his major contribution to the philosophy of science. (Popper's opinions regarding biological Darwinism are not worth mentioning in comparison.)

Thus although Anthony Flew shines some light on the philosophical underpinnings of Darwinism, especially in regard to the similarity between biological evolution and economic development (a discussion that goes much further than Marx's glib observation that Darwin merely applied Adam Smith's principle of economic liberalism to nature), yet there is much more he could have said about Darwinism as a metaphysical theory of bottom-up design explaining the appearance of top-down design in many parts of nature and the human world. Cosmological Darwinism as a response to both William Paley (and the physical mechanism David Hume required) is an obvious example.

Other good things in this book are Flew's competent defence (with a small criticism) of Thomas Malthus and E.O. Wilson (`Sociobiology'). Its greatest mistake is Flew's criticism of Richard Dawkins as a `reductionist' or `gene atomist'. In general, however, this an enjoyable, accurate and therefore highly recommended account of Darwinism as a philosophy.


Who Really Killed Cock Robin?: Nursery Rhymes and Carols Restored
Who Really Killed Cock Robin?: Nursery Rhymes and Carols Restored
by Norman Iles
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good bawdy fun, 20 Jan 2012
In 'Who Really Killed Cock Robin? Nursery Rhymes and Carols Restored to their Original Meanings', Norman Iles has fun unpicking the Christian veneers on nursery rhymes, wassails (health-wishes) and Christmas carols, restoring their original pagan (that is, sexual) meanings.

Some reconstructions are very convincing but most are merely suggestible alternatives that make us dirty-minded moderns wonder. For example, does the cock on the top of a church steeple have an obvious phallic meaning or is it just a weather cock misinterpreted by Norman Isles' dirty mind?

Who Really Killed Cock Robin? argues that our pagan ancestors were earthy, fun-loving, realistic and obsessed with fertility, while the dour medieval Christian priests were obsessed with sin-and-suffering and opposed to sex. Priests therefore altered the pagan originals of the songs to render them meaningless, usually by hi-jacking them for unsubtle Christian propaganda. It is not clear, however, how pagan fertility hymns became children's rhymes.

Norman Iles requires us to believe that most pagan religious rituals (and, hence, our traditional folk-customs, like the May Pole) concerned fertility. I see no real objection to this theory or the reconstructed hymns: my only criticism is that the nursery rhymes become somewhat tedious when every Dick, Cock, Robin, bobbin, pike, staff, pole or Holly tree (because of its prickles) is a phallus.

Who Really Killed Cock Robin? makes as good a case as I have yet seen for the theory that North European paganism was concerned primarily with fertility; and the reconstructed carols make for good bawdy fun (though not, perhaps, for the over-sensitive).


Conversations with Rabbi Small
Conversations with Rabbi Small
by Kemelman
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Another good read from Harry Kemelman, 20 Jan 2012
This excellent introduction to some of the central concepts of Judaism most in conflict with Christianity and modern secularism has humour, wisdom and a pleasant little mystery for the Rabbi-detective to solve, though the story is exceedingly slight and the discussions overwhelm what little narrative there is.

The Rabbi and Mrs Small take a hotel break but Mrs Small is called away. The Rabbi is not left alone, however: a young Christian woman, who is interested in conversion, befriends him and he is pleased to explain Judaism to her and her secular Jewish boyfriend.

The argument is made from the Conservative Jewish point of view and is a good case for Judaism as a rational philosophy, both benevolent, this-world oriented and full of common sense wisdom.

Conversations with Rabbi Small is a companion-piece to the excellent Rabbi Small murder mysteries, though it is not a murder mystery itself. It is, however, another good read from Harry Kemelman.


The Problems of Philosophy (OPUS)
The Problems of Philosophy (OPUS)
by Bertrand Russell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.76

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not a good introduction to the problems of philosophy, 12 Jan 2012
For all Bertrand Russell's virtue in writing clearly, the arguments of The Problems of Philosophy are not always clear and, even worse, Russell seems to have picked up Immanuel Kant's habit of making precise and narrow distinctions (sometimes capped by definitions) only to discard them quickly or to use them in arguments that seem entirely irrelevant to the problem. An example is the distinction Russell makes between `sensations', `sense-data' and `physical reality' (which is the apparently unknowable cause of sense-data, itself an echo of Kant's noumenal world). This distinction is used only to make a vague argument about what we can really know, then it is dropped. Likewise, Russell's distinction between `knowledge by association' and `knowledge by description', and between `intuitive knowledge' and `derivative knowledge', never really goes anywhere nor solves a problem.

As I see it, the major error of The Problems of Philosophy is a confusion of ideas about apodictic certainty and the merely probable status (as Russell supposes) of empirical knowledge. This comes from Russell's faulty starting-point, which is the search for subjective certainty rather than for objective truth. "Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?" Russell asks; but it is no great mystery why a search for certainty makes no actual progress and adds to philosophy only by its failure, which clears a self-imposed problem out of the way. Instead, Russell creates new self-imposed problems to take the place of some traditional ones. No wonder Wittgenstein hated the book.

In no case does Russell actually solve a philosophical problem, though he proposes answers to standard problems which he cannot prove (such as the correspondence theory of truth) and criticises the theories of other philosophers, especially the idealists. In summary, The Problems of Philosophy is not a good introduction to philosophy, yet it is interesting and Russell's arguments against the philosophies of Berkeley, Kant, Hume and Hegel are worth reading.


Stargazers and Gravediggers: Memoirs to Worlds in Collision
Stargazers and Gravediggers: Memoirs to Worlds in Collision
by Immanuel Velikovsky
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A modern-day Giordano Bruno's fight for scientific honesty, 9 Jan 2012
Immanuel Velikovsky has written a wonderful and, under the circumstances, more than scrupulously fair account of one of the worst intellectual scandals in modern history: the attempted suppression of 'Worlds in Collision' by a cabal of prejudiced academics led by Harlow Shapley, who proudly boasted they had not read the book and would never do so. The first hatchet job, by Cynthia Payne-Gaposhkin, was issued even before 'Worlds in Collision' had been published.

The academic criticism was dishonest where it actually quoted the text and pure authoritarianism otherwise, issuing condemnations against Velikovsky for not agreeing with establishment science and not being a member of their elite group. Denials of an academic conspiracy (led by Shapley) to make the publisher (Macmillan) suppress the book were issued by its instigators even in the face of evidence from Shapley's own letters. Macmillan was ultimately forced to give up its rights to Doubleday to save its textbook department from the venom of the censorship campaign.

A popular theory, especially among humanists, is that science is an irrationalist movement driven by purely sociological factors (rather than by evidence and argument, as scientists claim) and is characterised by the dogmatic protection by institutional incumbents of their power and income, not by an open-minded search for truth. This theory is called the 'sociology of knowledge' and it is generally false; yet enough irrationalist episodes have occurred in science (though far less often than in other academic disciplines) to appear to support the theory. The academic reaction to Immanuel Velikovsky was perhaps the most virulent case recently to support the most cynical form of the sociology of knowledge.

There is a profound irony here, which is that Immanuel Velikovsky (far more than his dishonest critics) believed in the objectivity of science, its open-minded search for truth and the absolutism of the truth that science manifestly finds.

So here is a personal account by the most maligned scientist of the twentieth century, detailing (in the finest English) his struggle against prejudice and jobbery to get his world-shaking ideas honestly tested. Contrast the humane, tolerant and dignified Velikovsky, politely requesting his theories be put to the test and honestly answering every germane criticism, with his underhand, dogmatic and authoritarian accusers, who dared not meet him in open debate. (Carl Sagan was particularly at fault.) Immanuel Velikovsky need not be right about the facts to be right about the proper method of science and the proper conduct of intellectual discourse.
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Faster Than The Speed Of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation
Faster Than The Speed Of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation
by Joao Magueijo
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Variable Speed of Light - with jokes and ranting, 12 Jun 2011
This is a coarse, bitter and often hilarious story of how a scientific theory (Variable Speed of Light) was invented and how it was received by the scientific establishment. Joao Mageuijo writes well, with a few creative abuses of English linguistic norms and a few clichés.

The postulate that the speed of light is variable solves many cosmological problems for which inflation is the currently-favoured theory. Mageuijo makes a good case for saying that VSL is the superior theory. My main criticism, however, is that Mageuijo does not give us enough details: although the expositions of relativity theory and inflation were good, VSL was too briefly and lightly explained to be useful.

The best parts of this book are the many laugh-out-loud moments, especially the intemperate and biting criticisms of the academic establishment. Joao Mageuijo admires and criticises England in equal measure, praising our toleration and (biting the hand that feeds him) condemning our insularity and snobbery.

Posing as an anarchist and a leftist, Mageuijo in fact makes a luminous case for the free market as a corrective for British science, which is bureaucratic, administratively top-heavy, low-paying and subsidy-dependent. We clearly need the winds of free enterprise to blow through the academy, not anarchy to topple it. Likewise, British science bosses and journal editors (in fact, the whole world-wide system of refereed journals) are insular, narrow-minded and unadventurous; which seem like the abuses of a trades union rather than snobbish traditionalism. I like Mageuijo's solution of web-journals without referees.

In summary, Joao Mageuijo's lively treatment of social problems and personalities in science is very enjoyable but his truly original physical theory needs more exposure.


The Life of the Cosmos
The Life of the Cosmos
by Lee Smolin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Original and profound theory of cosmological Darwinism, 12 Jun 2011
This review is from: The Life of the Cosmos (Paperback)
'The Life of the Cosmos' is an argument for a new way of looking at fundamental physics and cosmology. Its highlight is cosmological natural selection (CNS) but the underlying principle is 'relationalism', an idea derived from Leibniz (and basic to relativity theory), in which physical properties are relational rather than intrinsic. Space and time are principles relating physical things to each other, not absolute backgrounds within which physical things interact but do not themselves take part in interactions.

Lee Smolin argues that the universe is self-organised, a bit like an organism or an ecosystem (though nothing is gained by saying that the universe is actually 'alive'). The universe has evolved and possesses homoeostatic properties that keep many of its components in states far from thermal equilibrium. Another relational principle learnt from Leibniz is that a view of the whole universe as a far-from-equilibrium system does not imply a view-point from outside the universe.

CNS is a Darwinian solution to the 'special-tuning problem', which is the vast improbability that the universe should be set up precisely to suit life (as it seems to be). The answer is that a mechanism of natural selection can produce design without a designer or blueprint. In the case of cosmology, the key is the production of black holes. Assuming each universe is born as a black hole within another universe, then universes take part in a copying competition and the most typical universe (which we may assume ours to be) ought to belong to the lineage with the most fecund universes.

This prediction is testable: by changing any of the parameters of physics in our universe, one will produce a different universe with fewer black holes. It so happens that carbon chemistry (and, hence, carbon-based life-forms) is a natural by-product of maximising the number of black holes in a universe. Thus CNS is a rational alternative to the anthropic cosmological principle.

This is altogether a sensible and well-made argument and brilliantly original. Highly recommended.


The Descent of the Child: Human Evolution from a New Perspective
The Descent of the Child: Human Evolution from a New Perspective
by Elaine Morgan
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The evolution of the child from the child's point of view, 22 May 2011
In 'The Descent of the Child: Human Evolution from a New Perspective', Elaine Morgan discusses the evolution, development and growth of children from the perspective of the child.

We take a wrong perspective when we assume that an infant has this or that physical or mental attribute because the adult he grows into will need it. Evolution does not work this way: if there is a cost to producing a large and slow-growing but conscious infant, then adaptationist natural selection requires that the benefit is primarily to the infant and only secondarily to the adult he will become.

Why are babies born with such large brains and so much intelligence? Why is a baby's intelligence switched on so early? The reason is that infants need such attributes, not because adults will later benefit from them.

The writing is lively and fact-filled, showing Elaine Morgan's characteristic genius for finding original common sense interpretations of the facts of biology, anthropology and sociology. 'The Descent of the Child' also adds another facet to Elaine Morgan's major contribution to science, the aquatic ape theory. I highly recommend it.


The Art of Nonfiction: Its Theory and Practice
The Art of Nonfiction: Its Theory and Practice
by Ayn Rand
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.63

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wise and profound guide to clear writing, 24 Oct 2010
This is a remarkably brilliant discussion of the art of writing, concentrating on what Ayn Rand calls 'middle-range' articles: factual pieces that take fundamental philosophical principles for granted, which therefore belong mid-way between theoretical articles (academic papers dealing with abstract ideas and proofs) and journalism (reports of concrete events without theorizing).

I call Ayn Rand's discussion 'remarkably brilliant' because it is an edited recording of talks she gave to an Objectivist audience (followers of her personal philosophy), speaking from only a few notes. The coherence and clarity of what she said is therefore as remarkable as the wisdom and novelty of what she said.

Ayn Rand makes the case for writing as clearly as one can, with a good grasp of English grammar, and letting prose style emerge naturally. The key lesson is the idea of the subconscious mind being an automatic computer that is programmed by the conscious mind. We write with the subconscious and just as there are various techniques to help the subconscious work unimpeded, so there are techniques to order and clarify conscious ideas before they are automated in the subconscious. Practical advice follows, such as to leave a day to forget the actual sentences used before editing, not to correct as one writes, to stick to the outline and to ignore problems that will slow one down.

Altogether, a wise and profound guide to clear writing.


The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene (Popular Science)
The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene (Popular Science)
by Richard Dawkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The long reach of the metaphor, 10 Jun 2010
In addition to the other positive reviews:

The 'extended phenotype' is an elaboration of the selfish gene principle, in which the target of selection is the gene (the replicator), of which the phenotype (the individual organism) is merely a vehicle. Not only this, the vehicle (the phenotype) need not be identical to the individual organism's body but can extend beyond, so that webs, dams and nests are as much the phenotypes of spider genes, beaver genes and bird genes as the individual organisms themselves. Moreover, the human chemical addiction to nicotine is an extended phenotype of tobacco genes and some behaviour of host organisms are extended phenotypes of their parasites. For example, a parasitic fluke modifies the behaviour of its snail host, so that the snail's body is as much the phenotype of the fluke's genes as the fluke body is itself.

A good question is how far the phenotype can extend. Dawkins thinks that lakes (which may be miles long) caused by beaver dams are the largest extended phenotype, but how can we exclude any effect of the genes that benefits them in a way they can control or plan for? In which case, perhaps temperate forests are the extended phenotype of moles (as has been conjectured because they push out horses, which would crop young trees) and is the weather an extended phenotype of bacteria (which create bio-precipitation by forming ice-nuclei in clouds)? This way lies the holistic nonsense of Gaia.

These questions aside, this excellent book is my favourite of Dawkins' works because it is full of clearly exposed ideas and brilliant examples. Dawkins is a master of scientific explanation. A slight criticism, therefore, is that many examples concerned fictional animals or fictional genetic processes, giving the impression that there are no real-life examples to cite; though the reason, clearly, is that a fiction illuminates the principle without getting us bogged down in the exceptions and complications that natural examples inevitably entail.

Besides all other of Richard Dawkins' works (compared to which, this is the most technical), a useful book to read before reading 'The Extended Phenotype' is 'Mendel's Demon: Gene Justice and the Complexity of Life' by Mark Ridley, which explains in layman's terms the gene's-eye view of evolution with regard to parasite DNA, outlaw genes, meiotic drive, segregation distorters, arms wars between mother and embryo and other examples of genes promoting themselves at the expense of other genes in the same organism.

Read and enjoy!


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