On Freedom Book CoverIn this short book of 136 pages, titled On Freedom, Cass Sunstein makes the case that freedom is enhanced by the intentional restriction or gentle manipulation of free choice. Just as a GPS system guides you to the desired destination while preserving your freedom to take an alternate route, “nudges” can point you in the right behavioral direction while preserving your ability to choose otherwise.

A simple example is automatic enrollment in a 401K retirement savings program. This particular “nudge” is beneficial because it helps to overcome two common biases. The “present bias” makes it difficult for people to save for the future, and the “default option bias” makes it difficult for people to make changes to the status quo.

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This View of by Life David Sloan WilsonIn the final paragraph of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

From this poetic ending we get the title of David Sloan Wilson’s latest book, This View of Life, which seeks to expand the evolutionary worldview beyond the biological realm to the realm of human culture and policy.

Biology is one of the few disciplines that already has its grand unifying theory: evolution by natural selection. It’s what prompted the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky to declared in 1973 that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

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The Unihabitable EarthWhether or not you will find The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells valuable depends on what you’re looking for; if you’re interested in the science of, or evidence for, global warming, or in creative solutions to save the planet, then you are bound to be, like me, disappointed.

The book, rather, focuses almost exclusively on the potential consequences of living on a planet that will experience anywhere from 2 to 8 degrees celsius of warming between now and the year 2100.

First, to state the obvious, global warming is definitely happening, it’s mostly caused by human activity, and the consequences are and will be devastating. This is all beyond reasonable doubt; if you think otherwise, you stand in direct opposition to NASA and to an intergovernmental panel of 1,300 experts from around the world.

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If We Can Keep It by Michael TomaskyIf I told you that America today is deeply polarized, you could remind me that America has always been deeply polarized. You could point out that the current rural/urban divide is not so dissimilar from the Jeffersonian/Hamilton divide at the country’s founding. Or that the racial divide was never greater than during the Civil War, or that class division and conflict between labor and business was never greater than during the first Gilded Age and into the Great Depression. And you’d be right.

But what you’d be missing is the fact that polarization today is very different in a subtle way. As Michael Tomasky points out in his latest book, If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How it Might Be Saved, while we’ve always been a polarized country, our polarization has always consisted of both conflict between political parties and within parties. The fact that you used to have, for example, several liberal Republicans and several conservative Democrats meant that bipartisan coalitions could form to negotiate, compromise, and actually pass worthwhile legislation.

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The Ideas That Made AmericaIn The Ideas That Made America, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen provides a brief intellectual history of the United States from the first European contact to the present day, focusing on the movement of ideas across national and local borders and across time. Recognizing that new ideas are always dependent on the intellectual work of those who came before, Rosenhagen includes many of the European ideas that had a major impact on American intellectual life.

To summarize centuries of intellectual work in a short book of 180 pages is no easy task, but Rosenhagen does a reasonable job of presenting the major intellectual currents of each period. It’s well worth reading to get a high-level view of where our current ideas and conflicts originated.

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The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The human mind is plagued by a host of biases, and one of the most prominent is the “false dilemma” fallacy. This fallacy occurs whenever two choices are presented as the only options when a spectrum of possible choices exist, and is especially prevalent in debates regarding human nature.

Human nature is often presented as either innately good and corrupted by society (following Jean Jacques Rousseau) or as innately bad and civilized by society (following Thomas Hobbes). As you can imagine, the truth is much more complicated.

Continue reading “The Domesticated Ape: Explaining the Paradox of Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution”

These Truths by Jill Lepore book coverIn an age of political polarization, Jill Lepore reminds us, in her latest release These Truths: A History of the United States, that there has never been an age without political polarization. The faintest familiarity with United States history should convince you that political conflict has deep roots.

Some examples: the revolutionaries and loyalists fought vigorously over the issue of independence during the Revolutionary War; the Federalists and Anti-Federalists fought over federal versus state rights; the Mexican-American War was vigorously defended and opposed, as was the Indian removal policy, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson; proslavery and antislavery advocates fought intensely over whether new states should be admitted as free states or slave states; business has battled against labor since the 19th century; and the equality of races and sexes was vehemently defended and opposed for virtually all of US history.

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The Coddling of the American Mind book coverImagine that you want to start a fitness program to increase your strength and endurance and sign up at the local gym. Upon arrival, you notice that management has removed all of the weights, concerned that heavy weights can cause stress and injury. Instead, you are instructed to perform light body-weight exercises that you can already safely handle. As you go through the motions of exercise, progress is nonexistent and you’ll be entirely unprepared for any activities that might require greater strength and endurance.

Welcome to (some) modern universities, which engage in the intellectual equivalent of removing the weights from the gym by creating safe spaces, disinviting speakers, removing offensive material, and inhibiting free speech and inquiry that should be the staple of a college education. Attending a university with these policies to prepare for the challenges of the outside world is like training for a marathon in our weightless gym.

Continue reading “Review of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure”

Heavens on Earth by Michael ShermerHumans have long been incapable of accepting the finality of death. Even in ancient burial sites, some 100,000 years old, we find bodies buried with personal items and objects for “use” in the next life (there’s also some evidence that Neanderthals engaged in ritual burial 130,000 years ago).

Belief in the afterlife, or in the continuation of life in some capacity, has therefore been with us for a very long time. But since intuition and reality are very often not the same thing, what kind of evidence do we have in support of our actual ability to survive death? As Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the claim that we are in some sense immortal certainly qualifies as extraordinary. What then, is the evidence?

Continue reading “The Heaven Delusion: Debunking the Evidence for the Afterlife”