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Books 49-56 - Chronicles of a Hereditary Geek [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Darth Paradox

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Books 49-56 [Oct. 7th, 2010|11:50 am]
Darth Paradox
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49. Belle de Jour: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl
50-52. The Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks
53. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
54-55. Turn Coat and Changes (Dresden Files 11 and 12) by Jim Butcher
56. The Selfish Gene

And now, some discussion and a little bit of soapboxing!

The Night Angel Trilogy pleasantly surprised me. I wasn't expecting it to be bad as such, but the series' depth astounded me - setting, characters and plot as well. The author has a gift for making the subtlest details of the early story become relevant in the climax, and making it look completely natural the whole time.

One of Richard Dawkins' explicit purposes in writing The God Delusion was raising the reader's consciousness of the degree to which religion - and specifically, organized, dogmatic religion - has ruined lives and crippled minds across the world and throughout history. I wasn't likely to be disagreeing with much of this book in the first place, but the well-reasoned arguments throughout the book have certainly clarified and solidified my thoughts and opinions on issues like the religious indoctrination of children. It's clear that even "moderate" organized religion, both in the way it weakens people's ability to think rationally and the way it makes more radical religion - and the terrorism and intolerance that invariably surrounds it - possible and even to some people acceptable1.

The Selfish Gene brings similar clarity to a less philosophical but no less contentious area: the theory of evolution. The thesis of the book is mind-bogglingly simple: successful genes are those that increase the likelihood of creating additional copies of themselves (within the context of their environment), and all of evolutionary theory (seriously: all of it arises from that principle. Note that this thesis says nothing about the survival or fitness of the species or even the individual holding those genes. The rest of the book is devoted to demonstrating this fact over and over again, using it to explain everything in evolutionary biology: sex differences, altruism of all stripes (including familial behaviors), parasitism and symbiosis, and so on. His masterful application of game theory - clearly explaining the salient points without diving into any mathematics more complicated than fractions - should be held up as an exemplar of popular science writing.

Towards the end of the book, he expands this selfish-gene concept to any replicator with the necessary qualities: the ability to copy itself with reasonably high fidelity, and to influence its own likelihood of being copied. As an example, he posits the existence of a cultural replicator - actually inventing the word "meme" - and convincingly makes a case for memes replicating and mutating in accordance with a Darwinian theory. This concept may seem old-hat to us now, but I was rather impressed regardless, given that this was written in 1976.

Finally, the Dresden Files books. The series keeps topping itself, book after book - and Changes is also very aptly named, even in a series with a reputation for shifting the status quo frequently. (It also ends with one hell of a cliffhanger, and of course volume 13 comes out in March.) If anyone else is fully caught up on the series and wants to chat and speculate, let me know and I'll set up a separate post for that; any discussion of the current state of things necessitates massive spoilers. Otherwise, I'll just say "holy shit" and leave it at that.

So, yeah. Current book is Jay Lake's The Trial of Flowers, on loan from aprivatefox and mufi. Not very far into it yet; it's slow reading, since the pages are so crunchy (though not quite in the Baroque Cycle way). But I'm enjoying what I've seen.

[1] If you're familiar with the political concept of the Overton Window, think of a spectrum of religious belief, ranging from skeptical atheism (on the left) to the kind of fanatic, unquestioning belief that makes people decide it's okay to murder innocents (on the right). Even moderate religious institutions tug that window to the right bit by bit by promoting and reinforcing the idea that people's beliefs are sacred and ought to be respected, regardless of how unreasonable they are or what their impact is on the rest of the world.

[User Picture]From: xaandria
2010-10-07 06:59 pm (UTC)
"Holy Shit" is about right for Changes. I texted Andrew right after I finished it because I knew he'd been sitting on that cliffhanger since the damn book came out.
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From: nevyn522
2010-10-07 11:10 pm (UTC)
I knew I was the only one who had read it; I couldn't spoil it for all the rest of you, but... AAAAAH! I was glad when you got to that point; Chris, now you can join our little "Write Faster Damnit" club.
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[User Picture]From: nightsinger
2010-10-07 07:11 pm (UTC)
successful genes are those that increase the likelihood of creating additional copies of themselves (within the context of their environment)

Or, as Heinlein put it:
A zygote is a gamete's way of producing more gametes. This may be the purpose of the universe.


No, I don't do this on purpose; the world does it for me. XD
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[User Picture]From: darthparadox
2010-10-07 10:43 pm (UTC)
That quote certainly came to mind when I was reading! The difference is that Dawkins' thesis doesn't apply at the gamete/zygote/organism level, but at the level of each individual gene. This is why we get genes for behavior that may actively hinder an individual's ability to reproduce; as long as that behavior increases the overall expected number of copies of that gene, it will still be "selected for" (in the natural-selection vocabulary).

Dawkins would probably rephrase it something like: "An organism is a gene's way of making more of itself. This may be the meaning of life." After all, he thinks that improving genes' abilities to make more of themselves is actually the only reason living organisms as we know them exist!
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[User Picture]From: harlenna
2010-10-07 09:40 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure if you are saying that religion that is passed down to children in any circumstance is not acceptable. Please clarify.

As someone who was raised to believe that God existed and whose love permeated through the world in a tangible way and could be personally experienced by me in terms of relationship (with God), I can only say I have reaped the benefits of the faith of my family and my community. I do hope to pass that kind of loving experience down to my children.

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[User Picture]From: darthparadox
2010-10-07 10:36 pm (UTC)
I'm intentionally and specifically using the term "indoctrination" as opposed to a more general term for religious education. Wikipedia's comment on the distinction between the two pretty well sums up my intent in using the term:
[Indoctrination] is often distinguished from education by the fact that the indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine they have learned.
My wife and I intend to teach our children about a multitude of belief systems - atheism and agnosticism included - and guide them in making their own choices of faith or lack thereof. What I find unacceptable is presenting one's faith as unqualified truth to a child too young to know how to critically assess the propositions being offered, ask questions about it, and accept or reject them as part of their worldview.

Some people recover from that kind of indoctrination - including those that learn reassess their own faith with a critical eye and still find that it fits them. Many others remain crippled by an inability to think critically about any subject that might possibly pertain to any tenet of the dogma they were raised with, or even to interact reasonably with others that might believe differently.
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[User Picture]From: harlenna
2010-10-08 02:05 am (UTC)
If I didn't believe my religion was true, then I'd fall into a pluralist or Unitarian Universalist camp, not the Christian camp. So yes, there's a certain amount of, "this is true" that goes on.

But I believe in questions because I believe in honesty, specifically in the fact that if something is true, it will hold up to questioning, and hold up to scrutiny. Does that mean all questions about the divine can be answered? I think that would make religious pursuit boring probably if that were true. I think there's room for a healthy sense of mystery. Maybe some may think that is a cop out, I think it's an acknowledgment of how little I can concretely know about the universe.

Lastly, I cannot stress enough that if many (including Christians) were to look at the tenets of the Christian faith in the new testament, Christians are admonished repeatedly to a.) be known as Christians by the love they show people b.)speak what they believe to be true with gentleness and respect c.) understand that the only relationship with God that is your responsibility is your own, not someone else's. The requirement is to share what you believe and the benefits thereof; the possible additional discourse that may result is between God and that person.

Respect is a huge part of this equation, and largely a lot of it is achieved by being most comfortable with ones own beliefs and discussion thereof. Something I think we both agree on.
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[User Picture]From: darthparadox
2010-10-08 05:09 am (UTC)
Respect is a huge part of the equation, and that's a big reason why I worry so much about people treating children as empty vessels into which to pour their own beliefs, rather than as persons that deserve the chance to develop their ability to reason about the world without the interference of dogma and indoctrination.

Again, not all religious education is indoctrination. But I think most of it tends to be, because most people see it as a matter of "passing on what I believe to my children" rather than "giving my children the opportunity to determine beliefs that work for them".
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