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Book review: Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

There is an abundance of ideas in this novel but the central concept is an evolutionary one: a population of spiders acquires a technological civilisation capable of space exploration. There is no question of aliens here; the spiders belong to a species named Portia labiata, which exists on Earth today.

The world on which the spiders live has been created by terraforming carried out by humans from Earth, and is one of a number of similar projects undertaken in the remote past by the 'Old Empire'. But civil war led to the destruction of that civilisation, and Dr Avrana Kern, the scientist in charge of the spiders' world, had been left on her own for millennia. (Individuals can live for centuries in a form of artificial hibernation, although by this time she has largely uploaded herself into a computer to ensure the survival of her monitoring capacity.) [Continue reading]

Book review: The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England, by Keith Thomas

'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' So wrote L.P. Hartley in his novel The Go-Between, and that would be a good epigraph for Keith Thomas's scholarly but very readable study, in which he examines what the men and women of early modern England sought to make of themselves, what goals they pursued, and what were the objectives which, they believed, gave their lives meaning. Thomas uses the same metaphor as Hartley to describe his purpose in writing. [Cpntinue reading]

Book review: Religion and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas

Keith Thomas tells us that this book began as an attempt to make sense of why some now outmoded belief systems, which he terms collectively magical, were current in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. As he wrote he found that there was a close relationship between these beliefs and the religious ideas of the period; sometimes the two seemed to be closely connected, at others they were in conflict. He therefore enlarged the scope of his study to include an examination of these interactions. Inevitably the result was a very long book, even though he deliberately confined the discussion to England, with only brief glances at Wales; he made no attempt to include Scotland or Ireland, let alone continental Europe.

This is probably the most comprehensive and widely cited study of these subjects to have appeared in the last half-century. Although it is a scholarly work, it scores highly for readability. [Continue reading]

Book review: The Mind Is Flat, by Nick Chater

Sigmund Freud did not invent the notion of the unconscious—in one form or another it goes back to antiquity—but he undoubtedly popularised it. Thanks largely to him, many people today think of their minds in terms of the iceberg metaphor, which implies that much of what goes on in our minds is largely or completely unknown to us. The idea of the unconscious is deeply infused in art, literature, and many other aspects of our life; in fact, it is so widespread that it is practically impossible to escape.

But why has it remained so popular? Probably because it corresponds with how we think of ourselves intuitively. (At least, this is true for Westerners; whether the idea is so deeply ingrained in other cultures I'm not sure.) And yet some psychologists and philosophers have rejected the notion of an unconscious mind. This where Chater stands, although, as he tells us, he came to this view only after a long struggle. [Continue reading]

Book review: Casting Off, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

At the end of the third volume of the Cazalet Chronicles, Confusion, a lot of threads were left dangling. Here they are all tidied up pretty completely, against the background of life in post-war Britain, which still has plenty of hardships to be endured more or less stoically. Rationing of food, clothing, and fuel is still there or is even increasing under the Labour government, and there are the famous London smogs, one of which Howard describes vividly. [Continue reading]

Book review: The Stories of English, by David Crystal

There have been many histories of English but nearly all of them focus on what Crystal terms Standard English. His book, he claims, is different. Its title is "The Stories of English" and not "The Story of English", because it sets Standard English in the context of the numerous other varieties of the language that have existed and still exist today. All of these, Crystal believes, are equally valid and deserving of respect.

The book covers the whole history of English, starting with Old English and continuing up to the twenty-first century. At all stages on the way we meet a great number of variations, which are illustrated with often lengthy quotations (this is a long book). Continue reading

Book review: Christian Beginnings, by Geza Vermes

Geza Vermes, who died in 2014, was an advocate for the view that Jesus can only be properly understood in a Jewish context, something he argued in more than twelve books; see, for example, The Changing Faces of Jesus. He portrays Jesus as a rural Galilean prophet, exorcist and healer who preached the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God but made no claim to divine status.

Christian Beginnings, as Vermes explains in his introduction, takes the story further. It is "an attempt to sketch the historical continuity between Jesus portrayed in his Galilean charismatic setting and the first ecumenical council held at Nicaea in AD 325, which solemnly proclaimed his divinity as a dogma of Christianity". [Continue reading]

Book review: This is Going to Hurt, by Adam Kay

Adam Kay is now a comedian and writer for television and film. Before that he was a junior doctor in the NHS for six years and this book contains the diaries he kept at that time. We follow him as he embarks on his career after qualifying, and quickly finds that his medical training has not prepared him for what awaits him: not just responsibility for the lives of his patients but frequent relocations, substandard accommodation, and above all lack of sleep. The experiences he describes will no doubt surprise anyone whose idea of hospital medicine has been formed by a diet of medical soaps but will be entirely familiar to readers who have been there themselves. [Continue reading]

Book review: Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill

This book was written in old age, when Athill was about to turn 90 (she is now 100). But although the experience of growing old and facing death is one of her themes, it is far from the only one. She writes perceptively about people she has known and objectively and frankly about herself and her earlier life, including her many love affairs. Hers has been a pretty full life, one would think, but she wishes it could have been even fuller—one regret is that she would have liked to learn modern Greek and to have lived and worked in Greece.

Although she had previously published a collection of short stories and a novel, she didn't think of herself as a writer, and discovering in old age that she could produce memoirs that people wanted to read came as a delightful surprise. It shouldn't have done. She is moro of a 'writer' than are many of those who ostentatiously describe themselves as such. [Continue reading]

Book review: Candide, by Voltaire

Voltaire's satirical novel Candide is probably known by reputation to more people, at least in the English-speaking world, than have actually read it. This is a pity, because it scores very highly for readability as well as importance. It is quite short and the narrative moves along at a cracking pace; there is no time to be bored. Read more

Book review: Ultimate Questions, by Bryan Magee

In Confessions of a Philosopher, published twenty years ago, Magee described his thoughts about the possibility of survival after physical death and said that this was a question that troubled him deeply. In his new book he returns to this theme, whose importance for him is now even greater than it was when he last wrote because of its greater immediacy (he is now in his late eighties). The book could be described as an extended meditation on the nature of the self and what this means for our future prospects, if any. Continue reading

Book review: Confusion, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This book continues the story of the Cazalets from the point it reached at the end of Marking Time. It covers the period from March 1942 to the end of the war in Europe in 1945. The main characters are the same as in the previous volume except that Sybil, who had terminal cancer, has died. Read more

Book review: Science and Nonbelief, by Taner Edis

I wrote a review of Science and Nonbelief, by Taner Edis, when it appeared in 2006. A revised paperback version was published by Prometheus Books in 2008, and I've recently read this in the Kindle version which I downloaded from amazon.co.uk.

I don't think there is any need to revise my earlier review of the book (something I don't normally do anyway) but I think it may be worth making few comments in the light of recent developments in the ongoing 'war' between science and religion.

Those authors who are sometimes referred to as the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, A.C. Grayling and others) continue to take an uncompromisingly hard line on religion, which they regard as incompatible with the world view that science gives us. Religion is for them a collection of irrational beliefs which in some cases are positively harmful, and it should therefore be resisted and if possible eliminated.

Other nonbelievers, such as Tim Crane and David Sloan Wilson, are less extreme, while the late Stephen J. Gould regarded science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria", meaning they were talking about different things so were not in conflict. A non-confrontational attitude seems to be popular among scientists in the USA, many of whom are unwilling to identify themselves as frank nonbelievers, at least in public.

This is not exactly Edis's case. He does state that he is a nonbeliever (a term he prefers to atheist, nontheist, Bright and others that are current today) but he does not expect that scientific thinking will displace religion. As he wrote in The Ghost in the Universe, "It is scientific thinking, not religion, which is profoundly unnatural for us; no matter how science progresses, most of us will be most comfortable explaining the world through the actions of personal agents ... For most people, learning to go without a God is a costly undertaking for no clear benefit."

Edis's books don't seem to have attracted as much attention as those of the New Atheists. This isn't surprising; the media love confrontation and aren't much interested in balance, but I think it's a pity. I enjoy reading books by Dawkins and Dennett, who are brlliant controversialists, while Dawkins seems to me to be one of the best prose writers around today. But I'm not sure how successful they are at keeping alive the values of the Enlightenment, which I think is something we need to do at all costs. It's too easy for critics to accuse them of being atheist dogmatists.

Dogmatism of all kinds—not just in religion—is in vogue today and its effects are bad. Tolerance of differing views is what the Enlightenment gave us. We cannot assume unquestioningly that it will always be there. To quote Barbara Ehrenreich: " What we call the Enlightenment and hold on to only by our fingernails, is the slow-dawning understanding that the world is unfolding according to its own internal algorithms of cause and effect, probability and change, without any regard for human feelings." [Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World]

Book review: How Language Began, by Daniel Everett

Everett is an anthropological linguist who has lived for extended periods with the Pirahãs, a small group of Amazonian natives (see Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes). His new book presents his view of how language has developed in the course of human evolution.

There is a wide range of opinions about the antiquity of language. Some, notably those influenced by the theories of Noam Chomsky, think that it is quite recent, perhaps only 50,000 years old, and is due to a new brain adaptation to construct and understand grammar. Language is therefore confined to Homo sapiens, and recent Homo sapiens at that. Everett is at the other end of the scale; he finds that language is more than one million years old and arose in Homo erectus. No sudden mutation was required for this; it resulted from a progressive increase in brain power linked to more complex culture. Language is a cultural invention, not primarily a biological phenomenon. Continue reading.