Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Complete World of Human Evolution by Chris Stringer and Peter Andrews.

Paleoanthropology is a relatively new science in historical terms. It has been only 51 years since Louis and Mary Leakey discovered the biped Homo Habilis, supporting Darwin’s theory of human origins in Africa. By comparison, physics and anatomy have been studied for over 2000 years. So we occupy a privileged position to witness the formation, development and interplay of theories, in a pioneering science. It is valuable to periodically pick-up a recent book on paleoanthropology and discover what new pieces in the puzzle of human evolution have been unearthed.

For this purpose, The Complete World of Human Evolution is a helpful addition to the general public’s knowledge. It is factual, rational and clear; providing a picture of human evolution based strictly on the empirical evidence available. The book was written in 2005, and updated in 2011 to include recent finds, so is fairly contemporary. Conveniently, the back of the revised paperback edition highlights new information between 2005 and 2011:

* New descriptions of [A. ramidus] shed light on the earliest known human ancestor candidates.
*The Newly discovered [A. sediba could prove] australopithecines were ancestral to humans.
*Recent work [confirms that H. floresiensis] was a separate human species.
*New DNA research shows [modern humans outside Africa have traces of Neanderthal genes].
*New discoveries from a Siberian cave suggest another as yet unnamed human species lived alongside Neanderthals and modern humans.

This is a highly user-friendly book. It does not assume that the reader is an expert in the field, so defines new and difficult scientific terms in parentheses. Also, the first section “In Search of Our Ancestors,” provides an excellent introduction to the field’s techniques and history for the beginner, and a helpful refresher for the intermediate. An advanced student would be bored to tears.  For them, I suggest skimming to the next section, but don‘t miss the newer means of analyzing remains.

Since I am a confessionally-oriented american, I would like to reveal a guilty pleasure: I love graphs, timelines and glossy photos of hominin bones. It’s the kind of brain candy that reminds me of the Time/Life books like Early Man in the school libraries where I grew-up. This book will not disappoint the visual learner.

Section Two presents the fossil evidence. Section Three interprets that evidence. Very organized. I must caution the reader that these guys love their bones. You will be getting detailed descriptions of form and function. Uniquely, they spend a great deal of time on species that are not considered ancestors to modern humans, but are either predecessors to various living apes or evolutionary dead ends. It’s not a breeze for the casual reader, but it will provide excellent, impartial evidence.

A note on impartiality: Stringer and Andrews have an advantage over pioneering paleoanthropologists who have made important discoveries in the field. The discoverers have undergone frustrations and hardships associated with archeology: years of painstaking sifting through dirt in unforgiving climates, sometimes victimized by armed robbers, always bargaining with local authorities for digging rights. When such a scientist finds something, they want it to be important. They want all the years and hardship to have been worth it. In addition, they understand that grant money for future research is big business and depends upon important finds. These pioneers are the first to analyze their discoveries. The tendency to ascribe greater importance to the find is understandably strong. But a dispassionate, plodding researcher, with access to the evidence, in a climate-controlled office, is better suited to determine the value of the find for the field of paleoanthropology. A good example is an artifact from Slovenia where archeologists claimed to have discovered a Neanderthal flute. Scientists unconnected with the site later refuted this evidence with information suggesting that “the bone in question had been punctured by bears chewing on it” (Stringer and Andrews, p. 210). The authors have a better sense of overview from various sources. Their colleagues in the field are often overly focused on their own find. Also, both writers have spent time on digs, so have that experience as well. Since Stringer and Andrews are not in the middle of the drama, and do not have a personal stake in the conclusions drawn, their information is more reliable.

This book is a haven for rational minds that accept the scientific method. Given the authors’ country of origin, it is difficult to avoid demographic comparisons. Here in the United States, we are surrounded by religious superstition. According to a 2012 Gallup Poll,
"Forty six percent of Americans believed in creationism, 32 percent believed in theistic evolution and 15 percent believed in evolution without any divine intervention” (Barooah, p. 1). Large, well-funded religious organizations are attempting to interject their beliefs into public school curricula on evolution. In eastern England, where the authors work, “80% disagree with creationism and intelligent design” (Sample, p. 1). In our US environment, books like The Complete World of Human Evolution are a citadel of reason surrounded by a landscape of Dark Ages superstition. Fortunately for the authors, their homeland has a significantly smaller problem in this regard. Enjoy the solace and intellectual fortification that they provide.

Stringer, Chris & Andrews, Peter. The Complete World of Human Evolution. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2011

Barooah, Jahnabi. "46% Americans Believe In Creationism According To Latest Gallup Poll." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 05 June 2012. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.

Sample, Ian. "Four out of Five Britons Repudiate Creationism." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 Mar. 2009. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.

For a book on the history of science, see http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-scientists-by-john-gribbin.html

Monday, February 18, 2013

In the Wake of the Plague by Norman F. Cantor

Norman Cantor was an excellent writer. He explained his topic in a lucid, organized, fashion, using an economy of words. He would set the stage, present the facts, then provide memorable stories and details. His style was like the best of fluid, casual and interesting, after dinner conversations. He was made for the writing of popular histories.

In the Wake of the Plague is no exception. He begins by relating the plague of the 14th century to our current lack of preparation for an infectious disease disaster. The comparison is a bit of an awkward fit, but it insures that the popular reader will see current relevance to this historical phenomena. Importantly, Cantor describes some of the medical facts of plague pathology. He then launches into the world of Bordeaux in the 1300s, and introduces us to Princess Joan. This is the kind of detail that Cantor loves. He gets to both decorate his text with luxurious detail concerning her possessions (though how he knows that she carried with her 150 meters of rakematiz silk is never explained), and he gets to show the importance of her ignominious death. Though a minor occurrence in history, the death of Princess Joan from plague has international political consequences. She was an English daughter of King Edward III, and betrothed to Prince Pedro of Castile. The goal of the union, to cement dynastic relations between the two kingdoms, was unfulfilled. Her death also illustrates how the Black Death affected rich as well as poor.

While this historical vignette is seductive to casual readers, it is a bit irksome that Cantor provides no citations or notes for this episode. Throughout the work, this is my greatest criticism. Like a conversation, the story moves along smoothly, but one cannot vet the facts presented. This is true for controversial and opinionated portions of the reading where one would want references, like Cantor’s presentation of St Anselm who “did poorly as archbishop, getting into needless quarrels with kings, exasperating the Pope, and turning the monks of Canterbury into an ingroup of young gays” (Cantor, p.111). It is also true for purely factual, non-controversial sections like his description of Thomas Bradwardine’s treatise on astrophysics (Cantor, p.110). Cantor’s bibliography contains a book by Gordon Leff called Bradwardine and the Pelagians, which is probably the source of this information. Names of articles and books do appear sporadically in the text, but they are explained and paraphrased with few quotations and no footnotes. Cantor’s picture is reasonable, as are his conclusions, but we have only his word for it.

Like many good conversations, the book has a stream of consciousness element and frequently runs off-topic. Cantor begins with a discussion of Archbishop Bradwardine, moves on to the cleric’s Oxford roots and his debt to William of Occam, discusses the Oxford Franciscans and dead-ends with a summation of the Franciscan vs. Dominican Thomists disagreement over the relationship of faith and reason. Throughout, I am captivated by both his choice of subjects and his entertaining writing. I can, however, understand how a student who is reading to find out about the Plague might become exasperated by these digressions.

Cantor’s writing is like cotton candy. It is sweet, naturally woven together, and digests easily. But without properly cited scholarship, how do you know that he isn’t just pulling the cotton candy out of his ass? Good history writing without references, like cotton candy, is insubstantial and dissolves easily under scrutiny.

Cantor, Norman F. In the Wake of the Plague. New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, Inc., 2002.

For more on Medieval History see http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-distant-mirror-calamitous-14th.html

Friday, February 15, 2013

A People's History of London by Lindsey German & John Rees

A People's History of London is a complex book to review.  Complex both because of its authors and their slant on the history they cover. Lindsey German is a former Central Committee Member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and former editor of the periodical “Socialist Review.” John Rees also served on the SWP Central Committee, and edited the quarterly “International Socialism.” Their approach to the subject is polemical, but how could it be otherwise. Even a less politically motivated historian would agree that Britain’s history of relations between “the people,” (who are, in this book, the poor and working class), and the ruling class of Britain has been contentious. Still, one finds one’s self constantly questioning, during the reading, “is this just an opinion, or is it empirically researched history?” One thing is certain: you can expect that a history, written by unabashedly leftist writers formerly associated with the SWP, will staunchly advocate for those they define as “the people,” and their definition will not include the wealthy. 

This is a book that provides a much ignored history: the history of how poor people and workers gained a modicum of democratic rights in the face of a repressive ruling class and monarchy. It begins unfortunately, with a paean to political correctness. It exhibits one Joshua Virasami, and ticks-off a checklist of his acceptability to the fashion-conscious on the Left: 21 years old, black, working class job at Costa Coffee, college student, paying his way through college. Had he been middle-aged, white and wearing a suit to work, I don’t think he would have made the first page. The book gets worse before it gets better (and it does get better). You see, Mr. Virasami is part of the tragically leftist-chic and ineffectual Occupy Movement (LSX incarnation). In the USA, our racist, homophobic crazies of the Tea Party have transformed their protest movement into a somewhat successful set of campaigns to elect representatives to Congress. At the same time, the Occupy Movement has no cohesive message, and their one political achievement has been their remarkable ability to pitch tents.

Had the book continued in this vein, I would now be using it to prop-up my bookshelves. Happily, I can report that A People’s History of London improves dramatically over the next two hundred pages and now resides on my bookshelf, rather than under it. Chapters one through nine do an excellent job of locating the poor and working class in history, and representing the popular movements for their advancement. Throughout the majority of the chapters, it is a well-researched and footnoted study.

There is, however, a pronounced focus on rioting and the use of force to obtain changes. There is no discussion of citizens campaigning for politicians who favor democratic change. No examples of reformist citizen groups that pressured or worked along side MPs around progressive issues. The authors consistently represent violence committed by the rulers in a negative light. There is no criticism of violence when it is used by “the people” during rioting. In representing the Spitalfields Riots, violence is justified by the authors: “Weavers fought their masters to protect their livelihoods” (German and Rees, p. 71). When exhibiting The Gordon Riots, which were in part motivated by anti-Catholic prejudice, the authors show extraordinary patience and sensitivity towards the perpetrators of harm: “The idea of the riots as a series of mindless acts of crime and destruction does not do justice to the issues, or to the sensibilities and consciousness of the poor in eighteenth-century London.” (German and Rees, p. 90). If we’re being all sensitive here, allow me to weigh in with my own touchy-feely perspective. Can one create a society of peace by using violence? Can one build a society when destruction is an initial tactic? If intimidation is used to silence one’s opposition, can all voices be heard and respected?  Mob action may be an outlet for pent-up frustration, but it is not a program for a society’s creation or renewal. Many movements have employed non-violent tactics with success. Abortion Rights, Gay Marriage in Massachusetts and the defeat of Jim Crow Laws, were all won without even one house getting burned to advance the cause. There is a common revolutionist idea that violence is a necessary part of class struggle, which leads to the overthrow of those who own the means of production and their government. I do not know if the authors subscribe to this idea; they never explicitly state it. But if they do support violent overthrow, that would explain their criticism of violence by the ruling class and their silence around violence by peasants or workers.

A People's History of London purports to be just that: “a people’s history.” It borrows its title from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn’s book is a lengthy and comprehensive work that attempts to give equal time to as many of the unique cultures and movements in the United States as possible. Conversely, German and Rees, in their well-chronicled first nine chapters on the advancement of peasants and workers , describe other cultures and movements almost exclusively as they pertain to class struggle. To be fair, there is a fine independent section on “Jews in Medieval London” (German and Rees, p. 26-7), but no other culture or oppressed group is presented independently of poor/labor concerns.

The discussion of black civil rights begins well enough with a section called “London and the Slave Trade.” But following representations within the first nine chapters illustrate the lives of black Londoners only as they relate to the main topic of peasant and worker movements. The lives of Ottabah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano (both in German and Rees, pp. 95-97), William Cuffay (German and Rees, pp. 109-113) and John Archer (German and Rees, p. 191), are well represented. But each man is then linked to the various working class organizations of his time. The advancement of black peoples rights is not covered for its own sake; it is placed in service to worker’s rights.

Women are not treated independently either. The first mention of women states “women have become an increasingly visible part of left-wing, working-class politics in London” (German and Rees, p. 71). A following section entitled “Love, Marriage and Mother’s Ruin” focuses entirely on the economic effects of class inequity on poor women (German and Rees, p. 73). Mary Wollstonecraft is logically linked to the anti-ruling class movement of her time (German and Rees, pp. 78-9). The Match Girls Strike is covered (German and Rees, p. 139). A short section on “Sexual Politics” begins with “the central role of women in building the socialist movement,“ and never escapes the orbit of worker’s rights (German and Rees, pp. 158-161). Finally, even Suffrage is seen through the lens of worker’s rights. After two paragraphs introducing the issue, the authors link it to worker’s struggles, and there it remains until the end of the section. That section ends with a discussion of how Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst push Sylvia Pankhurst out of the organization for socialist sympathies, and concludes with the incredible statement “the suffragette movement was effectively over,” as if women never subsequently obtained the vote (German and Rees, p. 173). Any women’s issues not dependent upon class are ignored: the pro-choice movement, the women’s shelter movement and the eventual success of the women’s suffrage movement, are unrecorded since these issues do not serve as handmaids to working class concerns.

Finally, in chapter 10 the authors discuss the histories of the city’s various minority cultures. “Migrant City” is a 20 page chapter that fairly represents various immigrant populations without subsuming them under the worker’s banner. A 20 page chapter in a 300 page book does not make this work “a people’s history,“ but this does not detract from the chapter’s fairness.

It would be more accurate to call this book “a history of class struggle,” which is a necessary topic all by itself. By calling this book “a people’s history, ” and devoting only a few pages to minorities and women, and then mostly to serve arguments about class struggle, is somewhat sexist and racist. It’s saying “we’ll tack you onto our book, but you aren’t the real subject; you are supporting characters.”

German and Rees occasionally uncritically accept the propaganda of their subjects. Are we actually supposed to believe that General Booth, founder of The Salvation Army, “originally set out to disprove the claims of the Social Democratic Federation that a quarter of Londoners lived in extreme poverty, but his studies showed that the situation was actually worse"? (German and Rees, p. 130)  Why would a philanthropic individual waste his time disproving a claim by fellow advocates for the poor? Under what conditions would The Salvation Army founder proclaim everyone in London is prosperous; there’s no need for us here? We must not forget that organizations like The Salvation Army require propaganda to recruit both volunteers and financial supporters.

It becomes difficult to review A People’s History of London as a history from chapter 11 “Welcome to the Modern World” to the end of the book. Difficult because we begin exploring events occurring within the political lives of the authors. There are some excellent sections. Pages 260-269 cover international and peace movements without using their issues as a labor or poor movement springboard. But throughout this chapter, the book is transforming from a researched history to a record of personal memories and political opinions. Footnotes are very telling. The footnotes for this chapter include: “L. German, personal recollection,” writings of socialist colleagues in the authors’ generation, and frequent references to “Socialist Worker” a newspaper of the party personally organized by German. So we have exited the realm of historical research. One reaches a section entitled “The Thatcher Nightmare” and it’s opinion to the end of the book. History students reading chapters 11 and 12, are advised to regard them as primary historical material from one side of a struggle. To draw rational conclusions and gain a full picture of London from 1970 through 2011, would involve further research and a wider scope of primary sources.

In summation, I can recommend this book from chapters one through ten, as long as one is reading it as a history of class struggle in London, not as a people’s history. Despite its flaws, the history of peasants and workers is well-researched. It is a subject that has been under-reported in standard history books, and it is time that someone told this story.

German, Lindsey & Rees, John. A People’s History of London. London: Verso, 2012.

For an essay on "Marxist History vs Marxist Politics," see:

For more reviews of books on British History, 

on the Empire of Great Britain.
for a book of Victorian Biographies.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Tom Paine. A Political Life by John Keane.


By good fortune, I happened to read Tom Paine. A Political Life for my first blog review. The book was such a well-written and unbiased popular history about this revolutionist, that I will not appear as the bitter curmudgeon I am, right out of the gate. In terms of readability, the book was enjoyable, and flowed easily. The story of Paine’s life is eventful throughout, so an author doesn’t need to struggle to keep our attention or embellish the facts to make a popular history exciting.

John Keane further helps the progress of the book by keeping the details of Paine’s youth mercifully short. A curious reader will want to know the formative events of a subject’s life, but nattering details like how an individual felt when his uncle broke his toy are only of interest to the obsessively psychologically disposed reader. Keane avoids this, recognizing that most readers have picked-up the book because of Paine’s accomplishments and reputation in his maturity. He gives us the important childhood demographics and events, then moves on to the activity of Paine’s adult life.

A pitfall common to biographers is the tendency to fall in love with one’s subject and write a hagiography. Keane does an excellent job of presenting Paine as a real and flawed human being. Arrogance appears to be Paine’s chief personal flaw. Keane cites numerous observations of Paine by contemporaries: “Most who recorded their encounters were appalled by his habit of angling conversations in directions where he hoped to shine (Keane, p. 311). A more dramatic example of Paine’s arrogance is reported by a friend and political ally, Irish republican Theobald Wolfe Tone. Speaking about the death of Edmund Burke’s only son, Tone discusses “the shattered state of [Burke’s] mind.” 

“Paine immediately said that it was the Rights of Man which had broken his heart, and that the death of his son gave him occasion to develop the chagrin which had preyed upon him ever since the appearance of that work.” (Keane, p. 437). 
Of course, there are slow points in the book. Even the most exciting life has periods of calm that are unremarkable, and a good biographer is not writing simply to entertain the reader, but to chronicle their subject's life. You'll probably want to staple your thumb to relieve the tedium of pages 240-282. During this time Paine is whining to Congress to be reimbursed financially for his part in the Revolution, and attempting unsuccessfully to sell his idea for an iron bridge. There is little a writer can do to jazz-up this period, but ignoring it would leave the record of Paine's life incomplete.

Because Keane is attempting to present an unbiased account of Paine’s life, he occasionally allows his subject’s biased perspectives and historical inaccuracies to go unchallenged. For example, Paine refers to the “dechristianization program” of Robespierre’s government as “atheism,” (Keane, p.394). But Robespierre, like the French Catholic monarchs before him, was attempting to establish a state religion to justify his rule. Robespierre’s religious weapon was Deism. Since Paine was himself a Deist, he cannot see that his religion and the state rituals created by Robespierre, not atheism, are the driving force for persecution in this case. But this is a much disputed area in historical biography: Is it helpful to apply an outsider interpretation to evaluate a subject’s views and actions, or should a writer simply depict the story of one’s life unvarnished by a later perspective? Keane is frequently critical of Paine’s beliefs and behaviors, and is struggling with a balance between presentation and critique. On the whole, Keane writes an admirable work on the life and ideas of Thomas Paine. He does a truly exceptional job of placing Paine’s main writings in their historical context and presenting what was occurring in the life of the author when he was writing these works. Tom Paine. A Political Life is a commendable contribution to the study of history.

Keane, John. Tom Paine. A Political Life. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995.

For a review of Thomas Paine's biblical criticism, see: http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-age-of-reason-by-thomas-paine.html