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Book review: The Young Visiters, by Daisy Ashford

This novel was written in 1890 when the author was aged nine. She rediscovered it in a drawer in 1917 when she was 36 and it was published two years later, spelling mistakes and all; the only editorial concession made was to insert paragraphing to aid readability. (Incredibly, a reviewer on Amazon recently complained that the publishers should have corrected the spelling!) The book was an instant success, being reprinted 18 times in the first year alone; it is still in print today. Read more

Book review: How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker

This is a book about evolutionary psychology, which Pinker explains at the outset as follows.

The evolutionary psychology of this book is in one sense a straightforward extension of biology, focused on one organ, the mind, of one species,Homo sapiens. But in another sense it is a radical thesis that discards the way issues about the mind have been framed for almost a century.


The view outlined here includes a number of ideas: that the mind is a set of modules whose organisation is genetic, that it is an adaptation designed by natural selection, and that the goal of natural selection is to propagate genes. But Pinker cautions us that none of these ideas should be pushed too far. Each of them contributes part of the explanation but none gives us the whole story. Read more

Book review: A Life in Questions, by Jeremy Paxman

This is a memoir but not an autobiography because, as Paxman explains at the outset, he does not say anything about his family: 'what they choose to disclose about themselves is up to them.' The first three chapters describe his early upbringing and education. He went first to a preparatory school and then to a minor public school, Malvern College. He was not greatly impressed by either of these institutions, which he saw as designed to foster class prejudices in those who attended them, but in the end he got an Exhibition (minor scholarship) at St Catherine's College, Cambridge, where he read English and edited the student newspaper Varsity . Read more

Firefox: error_net_inadequate_security

I kept getting this error code when trying to connect to various sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia. The solution required a good deal of digging on line. In brief I did this:

(1) In a new tab, type or paste about:config in the address bar and press Enter/Return.

(2) In the search box above the list, type or paste http2 and pause while the list is filtered

(3) Double-click the network.http.spdy.enabled.http2 preference to switch it from true to false

Note added March 24 2017
Since updating Firefox to 52.0 the problem is fixed and I have restored the above entry to True.




Book review: Yoga Body, by Mark Singleton

Yoga is becoming ever more popular in countries outside India and it is claimed to have all kinds of mental and physical benefits. It is also widely believed to be an ancient practice and this is an important part of its appeal for some. But Singleton presents a wealth of evidence to show that modern yoga, with its emphasis on postures (asanas), is not rooted in ancient traditions (whatever these may have been) but instead owes a lot to Western gymnastics and other physical culture techniques. Yoga has also been cross-fertilised with Indian nationalism and New Age spirituality. Read more

Unanswerable question on Mastermind

In yesterday's "Mastermind" the competitor who eventually won the contest was asked: What Greek term is used in the gospels as a translation of Golgotha, meaning the place of the skull? She replied "Calvary", which was taken to be correct.

Although the gospels were written in Greek, "Calvary" is Latin not Greek. So the question was unanswerable. If I'd been in the contestant's place I wouldn't have known what to say.

Derek Parfit dies

I learnt this morning that the philosopher Derek Parfit died on 1 January. His book Reasons and Persons knocked me sideways when I first encountered it. It will take me the rest of my life to absorb the ideas it contains, or begin to. To do so fully would require a radical reconstruction in the whole way I think.

From my review:


It seems to be a basic human characteristic to speculate on the characters and motives of people we know (and, increasingly nowadays, people we don't know who are in the public eye). We also readily make judgements. To all this activity we bring a set of largely implicit assumptions about the nature of personality and the motives of our behaviour. In his long book, Parfit makes a detailed analysis of both of these things and comes to some surprising conclusions - conclusions which, he believes, can considerably alter the way we think of such important matters as the prospect of our own death. "I believe that most of us have false beliefs about our own nature, and our identity over time, and that, when we see the truth, we ought to change some of our beliefs about what we have reason to do."

Book review: Oxygen, by Nick Lane

Why does our planet have an atmosphere containing about 21 per cent oxygen and why do we depend critically on this fact to keep alive? It's not just that we breathe it; if there were no oxygen we would probably have no oceans and we would be bathed in lethal ultraviolet light. The fact that our nearest neighbours, Venus and Mars, have no oceans today may be because they never harboured oxygen-producing organisms. The Earth did, and this made all the difference.

That much is true, but the story is more complicated than this. Until recently the prevailing wisdom was that when oxygen appeared, thanks to photosynthesis by certain bacteria (cyanobacteria), it was toxic to most forms of life and this caused a mass extinction, an 'oxygen holocaust'. But some bacteria were able to adapt to oxygen and eventually to use it to produce energy, and the evolution of complex life was the result. Read more

Evolutionary aspects of cancer - Mel Greaves

On my book reviews page there is a review of Cancer: The Evolutionary Legacy by Mel Greaves. Anyone who is interested in this important topic should see Greaves's lecture to an audience of biologists published in 2013.

Greaves is Professor of Cell Biology at the Institute of Cell Biology in London. Two important messages emerge from his lecture. One is that the fundamental importance of Darwninian evolution for our understanding of disease in general and cancer in particular is still not fully recognised, and the other - which is a consequence of the first - is that much of the research in cancer treaement at present is missing the real point and is unlikely to provide a lot of benefit. The research effort needs to be directed differently. We also need to do more to achieve early treatment and improve prevention, both of which are achievable right now. The treatment of more advanced cancers is likely always to be difficult.

Book review: The Closing of the Western Mind, by Charles Freeman

This book covers much the same ground historically as the author's later book A New History of Christianity, although its time span is wider, starting with Plato and Aristotle and ending with Thomas Aquinas. And rather than being purely descriptive, Freeman wants to advance a thesis,which he summarises at the outset like this.

We begin by returning to ancient Greece and exploring in particular how reason became established as an intellectual force in western culture. Then we can see how Christianity, under the influence of Paul's denunciation of Greek philosophy, began to create the barrier between science - and rational thought in general - and religion that appears to be unique to Christianity. Far from the rise of science challenging the concept of God (as is often assumed by protagonists in the debate) it was Christianity that actively challenged a well-established and sophisticated tradition of scientific thinking.


The first seven chapters present a survey of events and ideas in the ancient world before the advent of Christianity. The classical period in Greece was followed by Hellenism after the conquests of Alexander; then came the establishment of the Roman empire with its absorption of many Greek ideas. All these periods were characterised by plenty of intellectual activity. Christianity was to bring about a major change, although not immediately. Freeman's book is intended to explain how this came about. Read more

Book review: A New History of Early Christianity, by Charles Freeman

This book provides an account of Christianity from the death of Jesus in approximately 30 AD to the founding of the mediaeval papacy by Pope Gregory (the Great) at the end of the sixth century. The story is told three parts. Part 1 describes how the followers of Jesus developed their understanding of him in the decades after his death, Part 2 is about how Christianity arose from this background and expanded as a religion in the Roman empire, sometimes in the face of persecution, and Part 3 describes the radical changes that followed the Emperor Constantine's patronage after 313. Read more

Book review: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, by Adam Rutherford

Rutherford is a journalist and a BBC Radio 4 presenter as well as a geneticist, and I think this background shows in the way this book is written. It could almost be the script for a broadcast. The style is informal in the extreme, sometimes slangy and with plenty of often good jokes. Contractions such as "would've", "could've" abound.

And this informality is more than skin deep; it extends to the way the book is conceived. Its basic aim is to educate the reader. I don't mean that the tone is patronising, but Rutherford wants to convey certain messages and to counteract some erroneous ideas about genetics that are widespread today. [Read more]

Book review: The Pursued, by C.S. Forester

Marjorie Grainger comes home after spending the day with a friend to find that her sister Dot, who is baby-sitting Marjorie's two children, has committed suicide by gassing herself in the oven. (That wouldn't work today but this novel was set between the two world wars, when coal gas was in use in Britain.)

At the inquest it emerges that Dot was three months pregnant. The verdict is suicide but Marjorie and her mother, Mrs Clair, realise that Dot was having an affair with Marjorie's husband, Ted, and that he has murdered her. They don't acknowledge this explicitly to each other and neither of them wants to involve the police, which would make the children the object of notoriety and scandal. Marjorie tries to put the knowledge of Ted's crime to the back of her mind, but her mother has a different response. Read more