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Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada)
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Tree: A Life Story
Tree: A Life Story
by David T. Suzuki
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You can't see the tree for the forest, 12 Jan 2008
This review is from: Tree: A Life Story (Hardcover)
It's a busy living, being a tree. With our puny life spans and lack of attention we tend to miss that fact. Suzuki and Grady have compiled an amazing amount of information into this brief, but thorough examination of a single tree's existence. The story fills in those details we miss and calls our attention to how important it is to learn them. The details are vital to us in countless ways, and being aware of them may hold some clues to our own survival as a species.

The one tree they've chosen, a Douglas-fir, started long ago, in the age of Edward I of England. The authors give an account of how a Douglas-fir is kick-started by a forest fire. That inferno we all dread is the Douglas-fir's cradle. To massive trees seeking the sun, along with many other species, the removal of the forest canopy grants fresh sunlight and nutrients in the ash that would be otherwise unobtainable. Once growth begins, the young tree sprouts roots into the soil and shoots into the air. Encountering a growing tree, we tend to see it as isolated. Grady and Suzuki quickly disabuse us of that mistake. Trees quickly enter relationships - some with others of their own kind, but also with different species. Fungi, in particular, play a vital role in a tree's life almost from the outset. The fungi bring water and nutrients to the tree, gaining sugars that are the product of photosynthesis. This relationship extends the tree's influence over a vast area. There is also chemical communication with other trees - even those of different species - calling for help or offering information about tree predators.

During the tree's mature years, the old associations are strengthened, and new ones established. As the authors impart what the tree is doing now, they also provide the evolutionary processes that make the tree what it is. Cell growth, water pumping [a process still not entirely understood], and the leafing process are all eloquently described. The science should seem compressed or distorted due to the brevity of this volume. Yet, it flows through the narrative with expressive and informative fluency. Both are experienced writers of science and this collaborative effort is a treasure for any reader.

The science described means those who performed it, whether in field observations or through laboratory effort. Another major element of success here is the relation of various researchers' lives. Many are relatively unknown, with Gregory Fedorovich Morozov likely the most significant of the people Grady and Suzuki bring to light. A Russian geographer, Morozov is described as "the founding spirit of modern ecology", a revelation that's likely to shock Sierra Club members. Morozov first pieced together the intricate relationship a forest tree has with the soil, its neighbours and its offspring. Born in 1867, Morozov had a checkered career, highlighted by a relationship with a revolutionary. Even the toppling of the czars didn't cast him in a favourable light, however, and he died in the Crimea at the young age of fifty-three. Had his work been better known in the West, the ecology movement might have enjoyed a significant boost long before it rose in the mid-Twentieth Century.

There isn't sufficient praise to describe this work. That these writers focus on a tree on Canada's Pacific mountain slope shouldn't deter readers in the UK. The scope of the book is far broader than that seemingly limited view. With two ranking science writers and Canada's leading wildlife artist embellishing the text, it's wealth of information, combined with a strong emotional sense of what a forest - and its trees - are all about, this book should be listed with other environmental classics. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss
The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss
by Claire Nouvian
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 29.96

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I need somebody to love!", 8 Jan 2008
Joe Cocker's lament at Woodstock might well be echoed by the horde of bizarre creatures inhabiting the world's ocean depths. Their forms are alien - in fact, at least one may be the Earthly version of the film's off-world predator. Their habitat is cold and dark, yet there is more opportunity to flourish, and perhaps more species reflecting that condition, than the surface we're familiar with now contains. Many live on the remains of life drifting down from the surface or shallow layers. Others seek out prey in a number of zones in the water column. For there are but two things inhabiting this stygian realm - animals and minerals. Life is spent "looking for something to eat or somebody to love". In this spectacular album of photographs, accompanied by informative essays by oceanic researchers, we are given a first clear view into an unknown zone of life's largest arena.

Although quite possibly the zone where life began billions of years ago, the deep sea has long been hidden. Sunlight fades quickly, and perceptible colours shift from blue to red, then disappear. In the deeps, red is the dominant biological colour because nothing can see it. Reflecting this, the photographs are dominated by scarlet-hued creatures who only wish to be seen by potential mates. Others are almost perfectly transparent, a survival trait in a locale where having too much brain, heart or eyes can be fatally visible. Shapes vary across species with infinite ingenuity, but no few of these creatures can modify their profile either on demand or as part of their normal life cycle. With survival always a challenge, both predators and prey must be able to adapt effectively. From our viewpoint, seeing these animals in fully-illuminated conditions, they seem to stand out vividly. Nouvian and the researchers point out why we need to reconsider the images to what life is like in the chilling depths. Depths where the pressure is the equivalent of a cow standing on your thumbnail. And Joe Cocker's plaint might need revising in the face of mating habits of the black seadevil. The male attaches himself to his mate's body and is slowly absorbed into her flesh when she's utilised all his sperm to fertilise her eggs.

In her Preface, Nouvian opens by relating her astonishment at seeing a film of creatures found deep in the Monterey Canyon off the California coast. "These animals aren't real!" she exclaimed - probably in chorus with the other viewers. As you turn the pages, you can hardly blame her: an octopus with "rabbit" ears, a sponge resembling the Brussels "Atomium", and a host of species that have never seen the sun - a condition we were all assured in school wasn't possible. There were hints - the 19th Century exploration ship HMS Challenger brought up evidence of deep life, as had many a fishing net. Relocating deep-sea creatures to the surface is a hazardous undertaking - for them. Those transparent bodies are fragile, shattering or dissolving shape when they emerge. William Beebe descended into the Western Atlantic in a steel ball, but it's the introduction of the Remote Observing Vehicles that have brought information from the deep for us to see. Look quickly, because the bottom of the sea isn't immune to the effect of shifts in climate we're generating.

It is the greatest area on the planet where life exists. We would do well to begin to understand it. This book is an outstanding introduction to this unknown part of our world. Take it up and learn about forms of life seen only in dreams and visions - until now. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


HOMO BRITANNICUS: The Incredible Story of Human Life in Britain
HOMO BRITANNICUS: The Incredible Story of Human Life in Britain
by Chris Stringer
Edition: Hardcover

27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars AHOB advances an alert, 4 Jan 2008
For a good many schoolchildren [too many, IMV], the history of Britain begins with Julius Caesar crossing the Channel. Confronted by resistance by the "blue people", he forcefully pushed the Island Kingdom into the historical arena. This outlook is regrettably shortsighted, as Chris Stringer makes vividly clear in this stunning account of pre-historic Britain. Although the first early human finds didn't occur there, the concept of "Stone Age" was vigorously debated in Britain as the artefacts and fossils emerged in view, particularly in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Moreover, it was British scholars like John Hutton and Charles Lyell who took the lead in extending the age of the Earth. That extension led to speculation and investigation of who and what had come before, demolishing the view of yet another Englishman, James Ussher who had postulated an Earth "created" in October of 4004 BCE. In short, stratigraphy began replacing Scripture.

Stringer explains how Britain was subjected to several "invasions" long before the Roman political martyr was glorified, then assassinated. These invasions weren't for booty or slaves, but for dinner. Changes in climate resulted in changes in sea level, with Britain forming a peninsula of Europe many times over the millennia. Another result of climate led to large parts of that peninsula being sheathed in ice, rendering it uninhabitable ' to human or other invaders. They made it, finally, with the first human artefacts being dated at 700 000 years ago. They weren't dining on mutton, however. It was deer, rabbits, and astonishingly, hippopotamus. The image Stringer offers of hippos crossing the Mediterranean and swimming along the Atlantic littoral to reach what is now Suffolk, isn't one easily dismissed from memory. They thrived in "Britain", along with wolves, lions and other tropical animals. And they were hunted by the humans who had followed them from Africa - albeit by a different route. Until the cold returned. Then it was reindeer, woolly mammoth and fur-bearing rhinos. As the ice advanced, such species, along with their hunters, vanished from the landscape.

These cycles of habitability over the British Peninsula have occurred several times just in the period of human occupation. The worst ice age there was 450 000 years ago, and it was severe enough to keep the peninsula free of humans for 50 thousand years after its retreat. After a temperate period allowing new settlement, humans were again pushed into Europe only twenty thousand years later. Other shifts led to inexplicable vacating by humans for a lengthy period, even though life abounded in Europe. Neanderthal arrived about 60 thousand years ago. A large-brained species, they worked out how to keep warm by burning bones in their hearths. The accumulation of fossil evidence, subject to close analysis and dating techniques, is providing an entirely new story of early human habitation in Northwest Europe. Mobility was a major factor - it's almost presumptuous to title this book "Homo Britannicus".

As a founder of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain [AHOB] research project, Chris Stringer is at once one of the driving forces and spokesmen of studies of the distant human past. For a time, it seemed this span reached back half a million years, but a recent underwater find at Pakefield pushed the earliest date back another 200 millennia. Stringer handles such challenges with ease. He's able to convey to the reader immense time leaps, yet apparently not leaving any gaps in the narrative. The information about palaeoclimates, changes in the British - European shoreline are well explained and supported by excellent maps depicting the era under discussion. How long have we known that the Thames was once a tributary of the Rhine? There are photographs - some portentous - about the conditions in Britain over time. One of the photos shows the edge of a village which will soon drop into the sea as a new climatic event - this one human enhanced - brings the sea ever further inland. The message is clear - climate has cleared humans from Britain or encouraged their settlement more than once. What does today's climate change portend for the British Isles - and for the rest of us? [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One's Land
Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One's Land
by Sven Lindqvist
Edition: Paperback

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tour of force, 3 Jan 2008
Literary historian Sven Linqvist was introduced to Australia at a young age. An 1896 book described how white European invaders viewed and treated the Aborigines. The story depicted a trio of young European boys encountering a group of Aborigines at a meal. Tucked away in a deep cavern, which to the boys meant the Aborigines couldn't have hunted the meal, the boys immediately concluded the group was engaging in cannibalism. The result was inevitable, the boys opened fire with their carbines, wiping out the "natives". For Lindqvist, it launched a train of thought he pursued years later. Journeying around and through Australia, he brought in his swag a background of European literature dealing with "primitive" peoples. In this vivid account, he takes us on both a geographic and a sociological tour of Australia's historical dealings with its indigenous population. At each stopping point, he relates what occurred to the Aboriginal occupiers there. It's not a pretty story.

The Aborigines were the focus of a good many early ethnographic scholars, almost none of whom set foot on the southern continent. Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Bronislaw Malinovski, among others, read a few accounts of missionary or other observers to draw novel, if still Euro-centric, ideas of what Aborigine social structure was like and what it meant for human history. The common theme was that primitive societies represented a step on the way to "civilisation". According to Lindqvist, these scholars were uniformly incorrect. Instead of family, clan or even religion binding Aborigine society, it was the land they occupied. Europeans, who considered nomadic peoples as "landless", failed to observe the way land featured in family relationships, religion and the way a people who seemed to be constantly on the move, viewed the land. Aborigines may not have farmed the soil or used it to pasture animals, but that was because they understood how fragile that resource truly is. Europeans, under the influence of Christian dogma about "heathens" and academic dogmas about "primitive people", occupied Aborigine land with the view to "assimilating" or eradicating them. Assimilation was achieved by elimination of all ties to their own culture and a brief education leading to demeaning jobs as domestics or labourers.

The colony of New South Wales considered the issue of "terra nullius" ["land not occupied"] in the 1820s, but the author mercifully skips over the issue of whether displacing or killing Aborigines was "legal" or not. Instead, he views it as the attitude and the practice of Christian European settlers and miners as they crossed the continent. Until recently, only a few accounts made any effort to bring the Aborigines into historical narratives. Lindqvist makes the most of what he can find to depict the atrocities perpetrated against them. Beyond merely shooting them, Europeans also turned to the seizure of children to be trained in "mission" stations to be domestic servants or road and farm labourers. In addition to simply breaking up families with this tactic, the removal of children dismantled the entire social structure of the culture. With firm ties to particular areas of the countryside and ancient traditions regarding who could marry among the various "moieties", Europeans demolished millennia of finely-tuned cultural foundations.

As a literary historian with a broad outlook in philosophy, the author carefully examines the options facing the white population of Australia. How much guilt is to be recognized when you're living in a place so blatantly wrested from an indigenous population? How much responsibility is there for an individual in those circumstances to consider or bear? It's interesting that Australians have had sufficient sense of conscience to implement a "Sorry Day" in recognition of the injustices done to original peoples. Court cases finally introduced [almost] full citizenship, some justice for recent murders and, most significantly, recognition of what "land rights" implied. Regrettably, the federal government of the time [recently overturned after an over-long tenure] immediately attempted to impose new restrictions on access to sacred places. Even so, some halting first steps have been taken. It will be interesting to watch whether Lindqvist's account provokes Australia into more constructive steps into the future. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


Urban Meltdown: Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual
Urban Meltdown: Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual
by Clive Doucet
Edition: Paperback
Price: 14.40

5.0 out of 5 stars Traffic sewers, carnivorous capitalism and political poetry, 1 Jan 2008
How many times have we all heard it? "You can't fight City Hall!" That little aphorism derives from a time when City officials were often bribed. "Buying" urban politicians seemed a commonplace. City politicians aren't often "on the take" these days, but rigidity of their thinking keeps City Hall at a remote, yet still powerful, distance. Now we're coping with a mind-set, something that doesn't come under the attention of a prosecutor. For Clive Doucet, a Canadian poet, fighting City Hall isn't the answer. What we need is to either change the outlook, or else change the people occupying City Hall. In this stimulating and invigorating book, he sets out how the mind-set came to be, what it promises for our future and why we need to change it.

The cities we live in today, he notes, are drastically different from those of even our recent past. Once cities were places of close interaction - houses, shops, markets, and local governance. In old empires, such as Rome, cities didn't adapt to changing environments. Yet, there was the appeal of the city that brought those who wished to enjoy their benefits. Pressures led to conflict and fixed thinking in the cities led to their demise - although new ones arose in other places. Today, our cities are extended masses of humanity, linked tenuously by that amazing phenomenon, the automobile. Cars, and their offspring trucks, created an entirely new form of urban structure. The urban economy - including food - has come to rely on "Just-in-time" transport where products are delivered for use and inventory is minimal. This practice, plus the individual commuter and the amalgamation of small farms into "agribiz", has flooded the countryside with vehicles. Cities, as a result, contribute 80% of North America's aerial pollution.

Doucet uses Toronto and Ottawa's Glebe as examples of how North American cities have been transformed. When he moved to the Glebe, it was quiet, hardly wealthy, and an intimate community. His poetic skills come to the fore in describing his life there and in what a well-run city can offer a concerned resident. How did a relatively run-down neighbourhood become transformed into an affluent community, beset by intense traffic, and suffering costly changes? He argues that the "privatization" of roads - removing quiet streetcar lines to allow increased auto traffic was the primary cause. Inner city residents fled to suburbs creating the "mall mentality", depleting the inner city of resources and making "traffic sewers" filled with automobiles. The result is that, instead of improving social services such as schools, hospitals and child-care, cities now spend 25% - 50% of their budgets in road construction or maintenance. That's your tax dollars.

"The wretched thing about urban expressways", he notes, "is that they create a landscape that never heals". The demand for more pavement for automobiles even led to a serious proposal to pave Ottawa's Rideau Canal - the world's "longest skating rink" in winter. The expressway locale is a doomed neighbourhood, noise and pollution driving residents elsewhere. Business drops off, schools go without amenities or even repairs and static sets in. One result is that North America leads in atmospheric pollution, with vehicles being the major source of climate change gases. Where Nature once decreed the chemical changes taking place in the atmosphere, now humanity is firing the world's largest volcano.

Is this shift from contented neighbourhoods to cities stretching across the horizon "just happening"? Clive Doucet argues that it's the result of "carnivorous capitalism" fabricating a consumer society. Housing developers, auto manufacturers and others co-opted local politicians into supporting the growth of suburbia and the demise of city centres. Resistance, while in a few instances has been victorious, was generally defeated. He acknowledges his debt to urban rebel Jane Jacobs, but it's clear that her ideas need bolstering and expansion. Doucet's learned her lessons well, but in most North American cities, it's no longer one expressway to contend with. It's the entire society and those making decisions in City Hall. Those decisions are no longer only local issues, but contribute to issues of planetary significance.

Doucet found hope for the future in the World Social Forum conventions in Porto Alegre, Brazil. There, devoid of the hordes of soldiers and police typifying the G8 and World Trade meetings, he found or formulated proposals. He offers a four point description of what we, as electors, should be demanding and implementing. They are worth your close attention - and support. During his last campaign, local media claimed that "Ottawa's City Council could only hold one Doucet". Not so. What your local Council needs is many Clive Doucets - enough to guide some change. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia
Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia
by John Gray
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 17.40

40 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Un-realising a "perfect" world, 29 Dec 2007
It's not easy categorising John Gray. He's generally listed as a "philosopher", but he rarely delves into the roots of human behaviour. His philosophy is founded on recorded history. Like most modern "philosophers", his arena is the canon of Western European tradition and practice. That approach, at least in Gray's hands, makes him more political commentator than philosopher. The shift of emphasis doesn't erode his thinking prowess nor his ability in expressing what he has derived from it. His prose is clean and unpretentious, almost hiding the power of the thinking behind it. In this exciting little work, Gray examines the history of modern "utopian" ideas - their misconceptions and their persistence.

The idea of utopias has long diverted us from confronting realities, Gray suggests. This self-generated departure tends to hide consequences of our acts until it's too late to deal with them successfully. Naturally, one of his glaring examples of this situation is the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Gray demonstrates how it was planned intentionally long before the causes were manufactured for it. The planning was clearly utopian in that the intentions were delusionary and inappropriate. Both governments declared their intention - based on false pretenses - to "extend democracy into the Middle East". This ambition was expressed without any perception of whether it would be welcomed. It's an underlying principle of utopian thinking, Gray observes, that a society can be re-created from within or imposed from the outside. The failure of such thinking is readily apparent in Iraq - a war that has lasted longer for the US than WWII. Utopian ideas have been seeded on infertile soil.

In explaining how the utopian idea arrived in the Middle East by way of the US-UK "special relationship", Gray skips lightly over Thomas More's original idea to the Enlightenment era. There is a link, however, in that while we are generally taught that the Enlightenment thinkers were building a secular world, they were relying on Christian precepts to expound their ideas. "Improvement" was the means of overcoming disparities in the human condition, and the State could replace the Church in making beneficial change. Among other virtues of this thinking was that it seemed realisable within human timespans. In the 20th Century, a wide variety of such proposals were tried, and Gray brings Marxism, the hippie communes of the 1960s and the Fascist-Nazi movements into the same paddock. Once thought as a "Leftist" ideal, Gray is unsurprised that it is now the policy of choice of the "neo-cons" and their supporters on the "Christian Right". Yet, it seems that no matter where on the political spectrum utopians arise, they continue to commit similar blunders. The goal blinds them to the perils of trying to achieve it and utopia becomes tragedy.

It's easy to peg Gray as grim or dismal. That's a common label pinned on those who seek to have us confront reality and think more deeply about our decisions. In this sense, Gray takes a long view of the role of Christianity in Western thinking. The shift of utopia from heaven to Earth, while seeming to provide improvement, was just as likely to introduce anarchy. He compares two contemporary thinkers, Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza, in their approach to this problem. Modern liberals declare the unrestrained State as the greatest threat to freedom. Hobbes understood that anarchy was an even greater threat and government was needed to quell it. Spinoza, on the other hand, while unwilling to grant the state power to stomp on emerging anarchy, had a different proposal. Humans are part of the natural world, and turning to the state for salvation of any kind was erroneous. His realistic view was that disorder and peace are natural cycles of the human condition. We must approach this situation realistically, without any fixed or unattainable goals to repress the one to gain the other. Such simplistic thinking can never succeed. Gray has offered an exceptionally rational set of pointers on avoiding such single-mindedness. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 10, 2012 10:00 AM GMT


Bones, Rocks and Stars: The Science of When Things Happened
Bones, Rocks and Stars: The Science of When Things Happened
by Dr Chris Turney
Edition: Paperback
Price: 13.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The mysteries of time revealed, 29 Dec 2007
In this series of evocative essays, Turney explains how our continually changing concept and use of time affects how we view the world and ourselves. Using a sprightly prose style, he opens with a description of various calendar systems developed by the ancients. It was difficult for them to reconcile the irregularities of lunar month, solar year and constantly changing heavens. Egypt, Babylon and Rome all struggled to maintain some control over the calendar. Many forms of adjustment were implemented but precision was difficult, if not impossible. The device of the "Leap Year" to adjust for the lack of precision was the best humans could do until the invention of the atomic clock.

The atom, with many versions and intricacies, has proven an effective tool in time-keeping. From measuring split seconds to granting us some insight on circumstances billions of years ago, "atomic clocks" in their various forms have provided many solutions to long unresolved problems. Turney's chapter on the Shroud of Turin is but one example of a practical application. Its status as a forgery went undetected for centuries until radiometric measurements revealed its true age.

A grander sweep of time, yet one with significant implications for today's world are the chapters on the eruption of Santorini in the Mediterranean and what led to the Ice Ages. Thera has been described as the cause of the elimination of the Minoan Empire. Based on Crete four thousand years ago, the Minoans operated an intricate network of trade routes in the region and were a highly sophisticated and successful people. Yet, they disappeared almost instantly around thirty-five hundred years ago. The author examines the evidence that Santorini might have been responsible. Further back in time, he reviews another threat to society in the form of invasive glaciers. Atoms play a role even in ice as accumulations of oxygen isotopes tell the story of climate change events. Even though some of those shifts rely on Earth's orbit and tilt relative to the sun, their signature rests with those oxygen atoms.

Human societies have their own fluctuations, as Turney notes in other chapters. The dating of hominid fossils has contributed a great deal in deriving both the time and place of our origins. Rocks surrounding bones tell us when the fossils lived, and tiny grains of pollen indicate the type of environment they lived in. One of the enigmas of science is why there is but one species of upright-walking ape remaining - us. There have been competitors for living space, most notably the Neanderthals. But at least one other species co-habited the planet with us. The "Hobbit" fossil found on an Indonesian island resided there only 18 thousand years ago, as Turney's own dating research revealed. The possibility that there may be remnant populations yet to be found raises compelling questions.

Turney's book may seem light-hearted at first glance, but it rests on serious work by dedicated workers. Dating the rocks was a difficult science in the 18th and 19th Centuries, but technology has provided astonishing new insights on our world. There's much to be learned and the author's effective presentation makes this book a stimulating introduction to this field. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


The Assault on Reason: How the Politics of Fear, Secrecy and Blind Faith Subvert Wise Decision-making and Democracy
The Assault on Reason: How the Politics of Fear, Secrecy and Blind Faith Subvert Wise Decision-making and Democracy
by Al Gore
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 18.91

4.0 out of 5 stars Stemming the erosive tide, 29 Dec 2007
Erosion is a subtle force. Quiet and persistent, the force wears away an object until it fades away or suffers catastrophic collapse. Al Gore sees an erosive force chipping away the foundation of his nation. Reason and informed decision-making, he argues, have been replaced by the politics of fear. With unprecedented threats raised - even successfully launched against his country - he accepts that fear has become a significant part of the social and political scene. However, he contends, fear must not blind people nor divert them from seeking truthful answers to pertinent questions. Among those queries is the highly pertinent one of whether the US was led into a war by lies and deceptions. The invasion of Iraq was sanctioned by fear rather than reasoned examination of its causes.

Gore's opening chapter discusses the politics of fear and why the brain sustains it. The presentation can only be described as "clinical". One can only wonder why Gore thought it useful to open the book with this examination of brain mechanisms, instead of offering the information in an appendix. It is accurate, and certainly pertinent, but those who sympathise with the author's concerns don't truly need the cognitive science. Those who fail to see the threat of the politics of fear will either ignore the science or reject its meaning. How the brain reasons is of no concern to them. They only wish to apply ways of controlling the process. This type of start is not a good method of recruiting readers to a cause - it will only confuse them at the outset.

The remainder of the book is essential reading for anybody concerned with today's political environment. Gore argues that communication in today's world has undergone a severe departure from past practices. Once, communication between politicians, in or contending for office, was based on two-way communication. Electronic methods shifted the mechanism to broadcaster and listener/viewer. As radio permitted European dictators to rise and control the flow of information, television has made one-way communication stronger than ever. The politics of fear relies on gaining control of what people think about, and TV has been a major force in that process, Gore argues. The politics of fear extend their reach far beyond a war instigated by deception. He shows how the Bush administration has used that power to promote some policies while diverting attention from others. Illegal surveillance tactics, intrusion into personal life and favouritism toward special interests have become endemic.

The process has been so effective that the proportion of the US population believing Iraq possessed WMDs at the time of the invasion has only dropped to almost half from three-quarters. That, in view of total lack of evidence to support the belief. Yet, favoured businesses and other special interests have continued to benefit. A staunch patriot, the author sees the loss of reasoned discourse in viewing these matters as a serious threat to the future of his country. How far can the politics of fear take a modern nation, and what can be done about it?

It's a pity that the author's focus is so tight. He describes the rise of 20th Century European dictators, but fails to note commonality in anything but method. The Prime Minister of Britain led his nation along the same path to an unjustified war using the same tactics, while Canada escaped involvement by a hair's breadth. Where Gore's sight is limited in one area, it's a bit overextended in another. It's nice to have a background to work from, and the author's political capabilities contain a genetic base. Still, the number of personal asides in this book are mostly unwarranted and contribute little. A "campaign-style" statement of methods to improve reasoned dialogue in his nation wouldn't have gone amiss. While he sees a combination of TV and the Internet as a useful means, both remain in the pockets of the very special interests he disparages. A book very worthy of reading, but hardly the final word on a subject with such broad implications. The diminishment of reason is another "inconvenient truth" we must all restrain as it floods our society, but this book is only the first sandbag. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea
Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea
by Richard Kluger
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An appetite for acreage, 19 Dec 2007
The swift spread of the United States across the continent - and beyond - seems almost inevitable from today's perspective. In an incredibly short period, even if measured only from the conclusion of the War for Independence, that nation's borders reached from the Atlantic shores to the Pacific Ocean. Was this continent so empty or the resistance so minimal that only one end would result? Richard Kluger explains how land hunger, glory-seeking Presidents and various international events led to the formation of a great empire. If nothing else is clear from this intense study of expansion, the mantra of "Manifest Destiny" drummed into school children in that nation is clearly misplaced. The massive stretches of US borders were as much due to fortuitous circumstances as to any other cause. But the widespread popular desire to expand was clearly the foundation to encourage taking advantage of those circumstances.

Kluger notes that from the earliest European expansion into North America, land hunger was a strong social and political force. The charters granted aristocrats, "companies" of colonists and others were vague, conflicting and often unrealistically ambitious. When charter provisions declared the western border was "the Southern Sea" [the Pacific Ocean], it set a pattern. Western expansion was considered inevitable by royal decree. Displacing the monarchy only set the authority for western settlement a notch higher. Kluger is selective, if unsubtle, in weaving racist attitudes underlying US continental imperialism. He ignores the indigenous peoples, making almost as little note of them as does the US Constitution - "cited only once in passing". He clearly acknowledges, however, the hypocrisy of whites in making settlements with the Indians, then breaking those when convenient. Slavery was tolerated not only because the "slavocrats" from the South were politically dominant, but also because it was believed blacks "benefitted" from this unsavoury institution. Unlike the Indians, slaves were part of the economy. That role buttressed the political power of the South and national expansion was to be riven by a North versus South dichotomy of far more importance than whether westward expansion needed justification. Reaching the Western Ocean seemed a given. Only how the continent was to be segmented remained to be settled.

Structured around the acquisition of each segment of North America the US had interest in, the chapters explain how the territory was viewed and what transpired to gain it. It's not often pleasant reading as Kluger highlights how devious politicians could be over land. Land was the issue and all other considerations followed. The aim might have been agriculture, transportation or even diplomatic confrontation, but the goal was always territory. So pervasive was that desire, that we must give Kluger an extra touch of credit for not repeating that oft-quoted gibe from a frontier farmer that "I don't want all the land. Just what joins mine!" which succinctly sums a sub-theme of the book. The main theme is that whoever sat in the White House, irrespective of ideology or party affiliation, gaining land was a constant. If any President is given rougher treatment by Kluger than John Tyler best assumes the hairshirt the author drapes. After a careful and complete depiction of the development of Texas as a province of Mexico, including vivid accounts of that nation's domestic politics, Kluger follows the devious manoeuvring Tyler engaged in. Like a later President, provoking a war to gain an end was not beyond Tyler's range of choices.

For all the image of a "land hungry" people Kluger tries to paint for the US, his attention to domestic affairs is granted little ink. He addresses the slave-holding "plantocracy" in scathing terms throughout the pre-Confederacy years, and notes how depressions cut back on land investment. He cannot, of course, discuss the expanding frontier without noting the work of Frederike Jackson Turner. However, he accepts Turner's "land hunger" thesis without reference to the debate over who constituted the frontier population. Expanding the topics covered would have generated a second volume in this study. Other works have addressed them well, and might be considered in conjunction with this one. Given his intention, to show how land hunger was implemented through government action, domestic diplomatic and military, the coverage is greatly satisfying. Add Kluger's vivid style in presenting the wealth of information he conveys, this is a highly readable and useful volume. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives
Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives
by David Sloan Wilson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 14.27

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's not only the bugs that are buried, 12 Dec 2007
One has to give David Sloan Wilson full marks for perserverence. He has spent a good part of his career in a struggle to bolster an untenable idea. Evolution, he says, works on "groups". Not on "species" as once was thought, or down a lineage of individuals as Charles Darwin long ago contended, but on something in between. Having failed to convince the scientific community, in this most recent of his books he turns to a new ally, the general public. In this work, he wants people, in particular his fellow countrymen, to understand that anything to do with life has evolutionary roots. While that's an admirable quest, and offered in a style more scientists should emulate, his reason for that ambition remains fixed on his long-standing crusade.

Wilson starts humbly with a study of a simple creature - the burying beetle. He uses the beetle's reproductive habits to demonstrate the vagaries of nature's selection process. The beetle is a form of scavenger - hunting small mammal corpses which it returns to its burrow. Instead of laying eggs on the remains, however, the female - who remains in residence, unlike most insects - deposits them on the burrow walls. As they hatch, the parents assess the amount of food available and do a head count of the hatchlings. If there are more young than food to sustain them, the parents simply pare down the population. Wilson's purpose in relating this bizarre behaviour is to demonstrate that anyone can find how Darwin's idea works in their own back yard. It's not necessary to be a specialist nor even have a university degree to study the evolutionary process. Just be prepared to be observant and perhaps get your knees soiled.

As a scientist of wide interests, Wilson bemoans the lack of knowledge of evolution in the US population. Not only do more than half its number dismiss the idea, nearly all of them fail to integrate its tenets in their everyday lives. Even the "educated" fail to meet his standard. A prime example is the medical profession whose members treat "morning sickness" in ways that wholly ignore the evolutionary roots and processes of the human immune system. The result, he argues, leads to enigmatic problems among newborns, including undersized or easily infected babies. The immune system in the embryo was impaired by anti-nausea drugs. While unpleasant for the gravid mother, pregnancy sickness is a sign of the foetus' developing fully functioning immunity mechanisms.

Jumping from beetles to humans is the author's method for bringing in his theme of group selection. Although he rather blithely arranges many facets of life, from gene assemblages through "superorganisms" like ants and bees, his real goal becomes clear when he gets to humans. Cultures, he argues, are clear symbols of how group selection works. The binding force of cultures, he contends, is religion. Any religion. To reinforce this concept, he relates the research leading to his earlier work, "Darwin's Cathedral" [posted on by this reviewer 2 December 2002]. Fostered by a grant from the Templeton Foundation, which supports research in "religion and science", Wilson and a colleague engaged in a project studying "forgiveness" among students and reports on studies of hunter-gatherer tribes. Later, he took up "altruism" with a similar aim. For Wilson, evolution works on "in-group" selection rather than "between-group" selection. The latter, of course, smacks of the criticism laid on Darwin's thesis which was portrayed as "nature red in tooth and claw". "Group selection" on such a basis is hardly biology, and wholly ignores the commitment usually made by members of the "in group". Part of their cohesion rests on who remains outside.

Wilson wants to elevate humans, with their supportive capacity, above such brutal appellations. Humans, using their reasoning power, can learn how evolution works. From that understanding, he argues that we can guide our own future in a more secure manner. He denies the charge that humans are fated by our genes to engage in violent conflict [although after years of searching, i've yet to learn who made that accusation], and contends that natural senses of empathy, cooperation and generosity can be harnessed to outpace competition and narrow views of human society. The aim is well-stated and entirely within the bounds of reason. It's unfortunate that much of his target audience is unlikely to comprehend his message or will simply dismiss it as based on a "false idea" - that of natural selection. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


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