Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins - Book Review

"The Selfish Gene" is a popular science book by Richard Dawkins, written more than 35 years back. The 30th anniversary edition has more updates and there is a last chapter motivating the reader towards another book called "The Extended Phenotype" by the same author. This book is very famous over past four decades for its support of evolution theory and how the fundamental replicator called gene supports it. Reading this book is a great experience only to those readers who are supportive of Darwin's evolution theory. Others might disagree and pose more questions on the validity of few tall claims made in the book. As a person who generally supports evolution, I was able to relate most of the contents in this book.

There is always a conflict among people regarding the natural tendency of living organisms - selfishness Vs altruism. Though most people believe that altruism is the inherent nature of living beings, the evolution theory by Darwin suggests otherwise. The altruism nature of living beings is supported and propagated by scientists having faith on group selection. Starting from the origin of life, Dawkins argues that every activity of living beings is towards selfishness. The selfish nature of living beings is essential for their survival and replication of their genes according to Dawkins. He illustrates them using examples such as how cuckoo kids destroy other unhatched eggs to get more share of food from their mothers.

Dawkins exposes the readers to a primeval soup consisting of replicators to start with. These replicators are selfish by nature as they would want to make identical copies of themselves. Dawkins extends the theory of  replicators to more general concept of gene/DNA present in the every living cell of a plant or an animal. Through various illustrations, Dawkins proves that the selfish nature of the gene is inherited even by the body (vehicle) of the living being which is built using them. Most of the examples given in the book are at the behavioral level of organisms and the group selection strategies are vehemently opposed by sufficient counter examples.

Dawkins considers why the propagation of their own genes is the primary motivation behind the reproduction. The living beings who fail to do this will go extinct over time as natural selection only favors selfish genes. Basically, Dawkins strives to answer the following questions. How does selfish gene theory account for individual behaviors like aggression, sex, and spreading? How does even symbiotic relationship between two species is still in agreement with selfish gene theory? Why is the balance of sex ratio (male-female) almost the same even though the females put more effort in spreading of selfish genes? What are the ways in which a female selects her male partners for efficient propagation of genes? How come tit-for-tat the best strategy among a group of competing species?

To explain the difference between human beings and other living entities, Dawkins introduces a new term called meme as the basic replicator of culture. Memes are responsible for carrying the cultural aspects from one human to his/her followers and successors. Memes are the very means used by spiritual gurus to train their disciples into believing in certain ideologies about God. Memes can also exploited as a means to inculcate altruism among a group of humans and thereby reduce the effects of selfish genes. However, people generally use memes to impose their own beliefs on others without ever caring about the altruistic benefits that can be achieved by the spread of benign memes. In short, Dawkins claims meme may bring altruism into the genes depending on how that meme evolved from a culture.

The summary of the book is that as the genes are selfish, the nature all living entities of the world is inherently selfish. One has to teach altruism in humans by other means called memes for efficient functioning of the world. I found this book very knowledgeable and well illustrated. However, I felt Dawkins spends most of the time poking fun at other theories such as group selection which seems a bit digressing and annoying. Dawkins seems to be not that open minded as a popular science writer which may be due to his own selfish gene not having evolved that altruistic because of his memes.

The first person ('I') narration in this book does not help in his cause either in inspiring the reader. Dawkins may be a great researcher and supporter of evolution theory. But as a writer of popular science, his arrogant tone makes him fall way behind other eminent writers such as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, George Gamow, and Simon Singh. Very daring statements made by writers such as Dawkins, though their spread of rational scientific cause is unquestionable, stand the risk of turning off layman's interest towards science. In spite of all these ethical issues regarding the tone of the book, I recommend this book with some reservation as it contains a treasure of novel perspectives on evolution theory. The reader is fed with a lot of interesting insights about his own existence in this world.

P.S.: I am not planning to read any of the other books of Richard Dawkins. There are better popular science and math writers such as Carl Sagan, Bill Bryson, Simon Singh, George Gamow, Richard Feynman, John Derbyshire, James Gleick, ET Bell, etc. These writers indeed inspire you on every page of their books instead of being too rude and preachy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan - Book Review

"The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark" by Carl Sagan is considered to be one of his master piece works. I just had the chance to complete reading of this classic book where Sagan talks about science, witchcraft, pseudoscience, anti-science and more. Sagan tries to question the ignorance of general public towards science. Though this book is primarily focused on the US citizens, his arguments seem to apply to the entire world. Sagan also cautions the misuse of science for destruction of world peace apart from discussing its merits in detail. This book is primarily to motivate readers towards scientific skeptical thinking process in order to prevent others from fooling them.

The book contains a collection of Sagan's writings on science with few chapters co-authored with his wife and colleague, Ann Druyan. The initial chapters focus mainly on the Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO) claims by many US citizens and how there are false accounts of people about the aliens troubling them. He also explores the evidence supporting the landing of the space crafts classified as UFOs. He proves through proper insight and arguments how we are yet to encounter a single UFO in this world. He proves how the UFO claims are just hallucinations of the people and their landings are created by some miscreants among us.

Sagan explains the mental aspect of perceiving non-existent objects and how faith healers exploit them to treat people. He also maps how the hallucinations of people are responsible for reports for UFO and alien sightings. Sagan also explains how such mental frailties of humans are often exploited by mystics and religious gurus. Sagan spends most of this book on instructing how to classify science from other fake things. He even develops a baloney kit which can be used to authenticate scientific claims on the media. The most important thing is that Sagan never claims science is 100% perfect but shows how science has a self-correcting machinery built into the process itself to account for any errors.

The only scientific equations which appear in this book are those of James Maxwell. Maxwell's equations serve as the basic building blocks of electromagnetic fields and how they are related to light. Maxwell was a nerdy guy and when he invented those equations by chance, he did not know those equations would later inspire all the modern technologies such as TV, radio, search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), etc. Sagan illustrates Maxwell's life and his inventions to show why basic scientific research should always be supported even though no practical application is possible in near future. According to Sagan, as science underlies every technology, one should never neglect scientific research.

Sagan also explains the demerits of scientific research when the power shifts to those whose intentions are not that noble. To illustrate this aspect of destructive nature of science, Sagan uses the life of theoretical physicist Edward Teller, known as the "father of hydrogen bomb". Teller is supposedly the inventor of nuclear fusion weapon called hydrogen bomb. Teller was close to the US government and cajoled them into funding his research for this mass destruction weapon. Though faced with criticism by leading researchers such as Oppenheimer, Teller using his political contacts succeeded in developing hydrogen bomb. This scientific research was performed by Teller just to satisfy himself without any regard for the human welfare.

Edward Teller's life is in stark contrast to that of Linus Pauling who received Nobel prize in chemistry for his work on chemical bonds in molecules and another Nobel prize for peace later. The more interesting fact is that both the Nobel prizes were unshared with anyone else. Sagan explains how Teller and Pauling stand at the opposite spectrum of the exploitation of scientific research - the former advocating scientific research for mass destruction while the latter for human welfare. Sagan argues why we should follow some one like Pauling in order to use scientific research for constructive purposes and welfare of the people who fund the research.

Sagan also talks about the destructive effects of media especially TV. Young students around the world are misled by what is exposed as science in popular media. Most of the TV channels show pseudoscience, witchcraft, astrology and mysticism in the name of science which develops a disinterest in the audience towards pure science. Sagan provides illustrations as to how the present education system provides students with a false belief that investing time in scientific research is a waste. Sagan provides solutions through more scientific expositions like experiments and demonstrations in schools and universities. Sagan even talks about the politics in last few chapters which are a bit hard to understand for the readers who are not that aware of US history.

This book is a real treasure for those who want to explore what scientific research is all about and who do not want to be fooled by arbitrary claims by pseudo-scientists and mystics. I felt that this book is a bit incoherent in parts which is acceptable as Sagan aims to cover a plethora of topics in a single book. Some chapters may be a bit tough to comprehend for persons with limited scientific knowledge. However, I found this book as a indispensable resource for any person who wants to develop rational and skeptical thinking in life based on science. Except Sagan, I feel no other person could have inspired the significance of skeptical thinking and its advantages this well. Everyone must read this book at least once to avoid false media propaganda and fake spiritual mystic gurus. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 18, 2012

IPL - Indian Pensioners' League

Indian Premier League (IPL) 5 is currently on. It is clouded by as many controversies as one can imagine. Some five IPL players were booked for match fixing, Shah Rukh Khan was banned from Wankhede stadium for five years and Luke Pomersbach is under trial for assaulting some foreigners last night. Such incidents are only going to be more frequent due to the low quality of IPL. Due to increasing number of cricket matches these days, I did not have the urge to watch any of the matches so far in this IPL 5. As such, the winner of IPL can not prove anything technically superior to the other teams involved. Winning IPL simply does not make any sense. Due to my strong past connections with cricket, I still can not resist myself from checking the scorecards and points table few times a day at Cricinfo.

The key performers of IPL 5 seem to be Chris Gayle and Rahul Dravid, both either not playing or going to play any more international cricket. Gilchrist also joined the fun last night making merry with his bat and almost kicking out Chennai from the play-offs. In contrast, the men in form such as Virat Kohli have made least impact in this version of IPL. Still, I am surprised by the enormous amount of viewers for IPL in spite of the substandard cricket played all around. The main concern for me is the injury of key international players which might restrict them from future national duties. This was evident last year when many players including Sehwag had to be in hospital for many months after the IPL season. Injuries are often hidden by the players in the lust for money.

In Tennis, doubles games are often played by only those who are aged and whose bodies do not yield to the rigors of singles games. Hence the quality is highly inferior to that of the singles and very few bother to watch doubles matches on TV/court even in Grand slams. Doubles games are rather played just to enable the doubles players tamper with the courts (especially grass courts) making it more difficult for the singles players later on. I would rate the quality of IPL compare with that of the test cricket analogous to how doubles tennis matches compare with that of the singles tennis matches. The surprising fact is that IPL attracts more viewers than international matches on TV. Is it because people do not bother about the quality of the game played? Are the viewers of cricket not that well informed as the viewers of tennis about the quality of matches? Are just arbitrary sixes and fours coupled with cheer girls enough to entertain viewers instead of technical elegance?

My perception is that the cricket audience want just to be anxious all the time, no matter how low the quality of the game played is. But tennis audience get bored with doubles games where points are decided in rallies which last not more than ten shots. The singles tennis games provides them with much longer rallies and much better strategic approach and the physical fitness of the players involved is also superior. Over the years, I feel that the tennis audience have evolved to understand the rigors of singles game and are able to appreciate its complications and entertainment. Only alert audience can disapprove of IPL and bring back sanity in cricket. To make cricket audience realize this fact, it is high time acronym IPL is made to stand for Indian Pensioners' League. It might well be the first right step towards alerting the viewers about the quality of cricket involved in IPL.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond - Book Review

Popular science books are the ones I am very fond of these days. How could I then miss reading this Pulitzer prize winning best seller on a controversial theme of human history. "Guns, Germs and Steel" is the main title of the book by UCLA Professor Jared Diamond. This book strangely has two different subtitles for the editions from US (The Fates of Human Societies) and UK (A short history of everybody for the last 13000 years). In hindsight, I feel that the subtitle associated with the UK edition suits the contents of this book much better. Jared Diamond is the author of other famous books - "The Third Chimpanzee" and "Collapse".

This book is unique in the sense that it tries to disprove the racial theory behind the disparity in the development of different parts of the world. Yali, a local politician, in New Guinea asks the reason for the superiority of Europeans over the other people (especially New Guineans) in the world. This question was raised by him to Diamond in the 1970s. The whole book is structured in such a way as to answer this Yali's question. Diamond through his experience of research he had performed on New Guinea for 30 years attempts to answer Yali's question. As he answers, the reader is taken through a roller coaster of a ride of the entire world history over the past 13,000 years.

The book primarily focuses on the onset of food production to explain this difference. Diamond explains why food production which first originated in the fertile crescent region spread quickly into entire Eurasia. He ponders on the ability to domesticate available wild animals and the suitability of crops available for farming in particular. Further, he brings out the advantages of farming over the primitive hunter gatherer lifestyle prevalent in other places of the world. He also argues how this head start in domestication of animals and farming allowed Europeans to improve on their resistance to germs and helped them in technological innovation. He also provides archaeological evidences to support his claims. 

The other primary factor considered by Diamond is the geographical stretch of the different landmasses of earth. While Eurasia is stretched in the east-west direction, Africa and the Americas are stretched in the north-south direction. Diamond through appropriate evidences describes how the east-west latitudinal stretch allowed Eurasia to spread farming and domestication much faster to far off places than the other continents. Thus availability of crops and animals which can be domesticated and the geographical stretch in east-west direction are supposedly primary reasons for the domination of Europe over the rest of the world. This made them resistant to germs originating from different animals compared to the other people.

Some European people might want to contradict the facts as provided by Diamond regarding the holocaust they launched on the aborigines of Americas and Australia. But Diamond brings out such facts through evidences such as the battle of Cajamarca in South America when a little more than hundred Spanish invaders killed thousands of unarmed aborigines of Inca empire mercilessly. He also explains how apart from the superior weapons Spanish had, the smallpox germs they spread helped them eventually colonize the whole of Americas. Similar fate awaited the aborigine population in Australia. However, New Guineans were more advanced and could resist the colonists.

This book is a wonderful exposition of facts which are often not taught in school books where explorers such as Columbus and Vasco da Gama are treated as demigods. The main conclusion of the book is that Europeans did not dominate the world because they were people of superior race. It so happened through evolution that their area was more suitable for food production and thereby contributing to their superior technology. Further, Europeans were able to land in the right place at right time and thereby, at this point in the history of world they are able to dominate the other continents. It is nothing to do with the whites being superior to blacks or any other race in the world, for that matter. Diamond puts all the prevalent racial theories in trial and exposes their pitfalls through out this extra ordinary book.

Though this book is a bit repetitive in analyzing the same facts and insisting upon them from different perspectives, I was able to appreciate the evidences provided by Diamond to support his claims. I could not find much detail about the societies in the Indian subcontinent in this book, which disappointed me as I have always felt this region had a rich history. Also, Diamond seems to concern more about the area around New Guinea and tries to propagate the findings there to support his claims on other parts of the world. This may not be applicable for all his claims. These drawbacks aside, this book is a very good read for anyone who is interested in a scientific viewpoint of human evolution over the past 13,000 years. I strongly recommend this book for those who are interested in popular science and evolutionary aspects of the world history.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl - Book Review

Viktor E. Frankl is a famous Austrian psychiatrist well known for the invention of a new way of treating psychiatric ailments called logotherapy. Logotherapy strives to make the patient understand the purpose and meaning of his/her life. The meaning may differ from one person to another. It differs from the previous popular psychiatric theories based on the pleasure of sex by Freud and the urge for power by Adler. "Man's search for meaning" is a book which explains how Frankl survived concentration camps which lead to the eventual development of logotherapy.

I read this book a few weeks back. This book is effectively divided into three parts. First part explains the tough conditions faced by Frankl in the Nazi concentration camps in Auschwitz and Dachau. Second part provides the realizations of Frankl through his experiences in extreme conditions of concentration camps. It provides in a nutshell the treatment of basic psychic ailments through logotherapy. Frankl and his students have treated millions of people using logotherapy and some of the instants are narrated in this part. Third part of the book includes a lecture given by Frankl which got appended to the book later as an overview of logotherapy.

This book though a bit too hectic read to start with, poses some of the vital questions. How to find meaning of one's life even in highly improbable extreme situations? How to keep faith on oneself that the suffering would soon end, even if the conditions do not seem so? Why did not all the members of the concentration camp commit suicide? What impulse drove them to survive unrecoverable tortures imposed on them by the Nazis? How could the inmates of concentration camp cope up with the fear of being put in a gas chamber any moment? All these questions are elegantly answered in this wonderful book through search for meaning.

Frankl gives instances how he helped the inmates of the camp even when he was suffering himself. Frankl also provides glimpses of the later treatments he provided to some of his patients which directed them to realize the real meaning of their life. Frankl makes it very clear that there is no such thing called universal meaning for every one's life. The meaning of life differs from one individual to another. The meaning can be anything like one's love for parents, affinity towards some God, completion of professional duty, etc. While in the camp, Frankl was driven by his love for wife and the psychotherapy book which was incomplete. Logotherapy can just direct one towards identifying that meaning of his/her life. It is for the individual to take the lead and live to fulfill that meaning.

Though I have heard about the theories of Freud and Adler, I have not read their works. But after reading this book, I felt Frankl's logotherapy to be much more effective in facing life's challenges. The very fact that Frankl lived for more than 90 years even after going through the tortures of Nazi concentration camp, supports his theory quite well. The book is lucidly written though not much coherent. However, this book is highly recommended as it provides a detailed account of one of the foremost technique in psychotherapy and makes it accessible to any common man. I am sure every reader will get some different insight on life after completing this book.