Tara Safavi data mining researcher

Midsummer book roundup: Life, death, and everything in between

11 July 2018
Tags: book-review  fiction  nonfiction  race  ethnicity  culture  science-writing  memoir 

I’ve read three books so far this summer. Although their genres differ (memoir, collection of essays, and science nonfiction), all three books weave together threads of personal narrative to convey a certain intimacy to the reader. And all three are human-centric, covering everything from the mysteries of life to the inevitability of death to the defining joys and struggles in between.

Cory Taylor’s short memoir Dying, motivated by her late-stage melanoma diagnosis, was written and published just a few weeks before her death. Although Dying is somewhat scattered in subject, its three parts roughly follow a reverse-chronological arc:

I really liked the latter parts of Dying, which are poetic but not sappy. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the first part as much. While informative and well-argued, I didn’t find it a particularly compelling read. In fact, I felt that Taylor was almost too dry in her quest to destigmatize the topic of death. For these reasons I would rate Dying three stars out of five.

Next, I picked up The Good Immigrant, a collection of 21 essays edited by Nikesh Shukla, on a whim in one of London’s Daunt Books stores. Beyond its being a product of an interesting crowdfunded publishing model, the book’s subject—the BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) experience in the UK—struck me as both familiar and unfamiliar. While I think often about my ambiguous ethnic and cultural identity as an American, I knew little about the experiences of similar people outside the USA before reading The Good Immigrant. The book is a valuable primer on the British experience. As an example, one English-Zimbabwean author recalls her childhood self searching for identity through media portrayals of blackness, which were and still are dominated by African-Americans. Because she knew nothing of America, she says, she felt a deep sense of inauthenticity trying to emulate these figures. It seems obvious now, but I hadn’t considered the privilege of the “American minority” in worldwide portrayals of minorities.

A few of the 21 essays in The Good Immigrant are outstanding:

I’d rate The Good Immigrant two and half stars out of five. While the good essays are really good, too many others are vacuous, cliché, and/or poorly edited. I was especially looking forward to, and was especially disappointed by, the essays about being East Asian in the UK, which I found overly repetitive and angry. It’s not that the anger is unjustified, but laundry lists of “everyone who’s wronged me and people of my kind” get tiring. In these essays I would have preferred a more creative narrative; a more nuanced argument; anything.

Most recently, I read Behave, the œuvre of Stanford neurology and biology professor Robert Sapolsky. Behave is an ambitious mammoth of a book that—put as succinctly as I can—surveys what we know (and don’t know) about neurobiology as it relates to human behavior, psychology, genetics, evolution, culture, history, philosophy, politics, etc. It’s written in a familiar, conversational style, rife with anecdotes from the author’s personal life and research career, to balance its technicality and density. I have a lot of respect for the amount of organization (I assume) it took to write this book. I also wonder how many of the cited papers Sapolsky actually read thoroughly. I’d like to know how he organizes his knowledge about those papers in his mind and/or filing cabinet and/or computer. Maybe I’ll send him an email to ask.

The first half of Behave covers neuroscience, endocrinology, and genetics, and the evolution thereof, as they relate to human behavior. This half answers questions like: To which behaviors do various regions and networks of the brain correspond? How deterministic are genes in human behavior? What kinds of behaviors were common in our ancestors, and how did those behaviors evolve into modern cultural differences? Some background knowledge is assumed, although appendices for natural-science novices like me are included. The second half moves into the social sciences, covering aspects of individual and group behavior like attitudes toward in-groups (“Us”) and out-groups (“Them”), hierarchy, symbolism, morality, empathy, and peace- and war-making. While this seems like a lot, Sapolsky consistently emphasizes a few themes:

I think Behave deserves four out of five stars. The book is unquestionably enlightening, but it’s not a smooth read. Like the behaviors that it describes, it fluctuates wildly, going from technical and dry to tangential or sappy within a few pages. The ending gets weird, like Sapolsky is trying to force a moral to the story of human behavior, similar to one of his TED talks. Also, although Sapolsky is an excellent science communicator, I felt he often tries too hard to be casual and hip, adding more length than value in such instances. My final stylistic complaint is about the book’s poor use of figures, which is especially irksome to me because a properly labeled, well-timed figure is everything in academic writing. Some pictures and figures have no caption at all, meaning that you, the reader, have to infer why they’re there and which part of the text refers to them. Others are too small.

My last qualm is that Sapolsky doesn’t address the dubious and/or unstable nature of conclusions from small-sample experimental research. Ascribing significance to a p-value, which is how most researchers find differences between groups of subjects, has been shown time and time again to be unreliable and easily manipulable (i.e., p-hacking for false positives). Although Sapolsky acknowledges that many referenced studies directly contradict each other, and includes counterarguments to most major arguments, I still find the ease with which he throws around the word “significant” unsettling. A brief discussion of things like significance claims, scientific rigor, and the effects of sample size would have benefited his many readers (Behave was an NYT bestseller). All this aside, though, this book is important. It contains an enormous amount of knowledge, established results and open questions alike.

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