Garrett (garote) wrote,

December reading (finally getting around to describing it)

Enter Jeeves: 15 Early Stories, by P.G. Wodehouse

Quaint. It's hard to tell just how hard the author is laughing at his own characters. Are we supposed to feel like Jeeves' employer is a doddering but endearing moron, or should we hiss him like a villain - a punching-bag example of high-bred ignorance and weakness? Is it okay that Jeeves puts him into embarrassing situations, or are we supposed to be troubled by such apparent insubordination?

Mind you, this is apparently early in the written legacy of Jeeves, so perhaps I've been exposed to half-formed characters. Unfortunately, the comic-book feel of these adventures has not whet my appetite for more. I'll probably be ignoring Jeeves in the future and reading more Bryant and May instead.

A mere four out of ten magnifying glasses up.

The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, by Matt Ridley

Fascinating. I didn't realize it before reading this book, but there was a gap in my exploration of genetics; a hazy unexplored cloud around two simple questions that actually require hugely complicated answers: "Why does sex exist", and "why are there (only) two genders?"

In this book I found a thorough discussion of all the modern theories that have been proposed to answer these questions, and it was truly eye-opening. Two chapters in particular impressed me more than the others:

First, the chapter discussing how there was darwinistic competition not just at the gene level, but below the genes, at the level of genetic code itself - an information warfare with startlingly apt parallels in the world of modern computer programming - an arena with its own computer-virus-like infections, code patches, system exploitations, and so on. It seemed such a natural fit that I was a bit embarrassed I hadn't thought about it before.

And second, the chapter that discusses the game-theory implications of genetic competition amongst females, across a spectrum of species, and how the sexual behavior of each species in its environment can be understood as a balance between genetic stability and innovation. In other words, long-term environmental pressures on a species can alter the level of sexual competition, the amount of cheating, the amount of male involvement, the level of infanticide, the number of offspring in a litter, the number of partners a female seeks and for how long, et cetera. Basically, every way the sexual system can be gamed, is subject to tinkering through environmental pressures.

The author sometimes delicately overreaches to extrapolate into human behavior, but always frames each attempt with a disclaimer. Even if it's terribly unscientific, it's still absolutely fascinating to search for parallels in the human world, even in my own life.

For example, why should I be flooded with hormones as a teenager, saddled with a burning desire to have indiscriminate sex that is at odds with modern enlightened society, ... only to have those hormones submit increasingly to my control as I mature emotionally and intellectually? If I work from the premise that my natural instincts are generally successful - they produced me and all my ancestors after all - then this hormonal transition must serve some purpose in furthering my genes (though not necessarily my personal happiness).

I can think of an armchair answer to that question: As a young man, I am surrounded by older, more powerful men, and may not live terribly long. Better to be highly motivated to get someone pregnant despite the consequences. As an older man, I have power of my own, and can make more discerning choices about the quality of my mate and my offspring. A cooler head is more likely to prevail.

It's not a perfect hypothesis, obviously, and I have no idea what kind of experiment could be designed to test it. But it's just the tiniest example of the enormous number of ideas that The Red Queen conjured in my mind as I was reading. It spurred me to look at every single social behavior I engage in - and the ones that I don't - and consider them all from a strategic perspective, as the steward and the vehicle for a bundle of furiously competing genes.

I've returned to this book four or five times to re-read some of the most interesting chapters, and each visit reawakens a tangled bank of thoughts. Love it!

Eight out of ten codons up!

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, by Nicholas Wade

This book is a awkwardly assembled. The content is absolutely fascinating, and I do recommend it, but the author tends to charge from one anecdote or setting straight into another without enough connecting narrative. I've heard it said that to write clearly, you need to announce what you're going to explain, then explain why it is necessary to explain it, then finally make the explanation. This book tends to skip the second step, and sometimes even the first.

I confess, I put it down about a quarter of the way in, and have not yet returned to it, even though I know I'll be fascinated again when I do.

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