Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional life among the Baboons by Robert Sapolsky - A Book Review

Exploits of a ‘hippie scientist’ in Africa

This book is supposed to be a study of the baboons in Africa by a neuroscientist. The author ‘joins’ a troop of baboons  in Kenya, gives them various names from the old testament and monitors them closely. Joining is obviously an exaggeration as the author is armed with his jeep and other accessories but more or less camps closely to the troop and tracks the activities of the troop members. The main objective of the study seems to be tracking the stress level of the male members as they pass through the various hierarchical positions in the troop. This is achieved by anesthetizing them occasionally using a blow dart gun and then taking their blood samples. He also observes the social behavior of the members including tracking ‘who is making out with who’.

Only less than 20% of the book cover the baboons while the rest is spent on various adventures of the author in different African countries, in the national parks as well as interactions with the ‘black’ natives. A typical western person’s view of African life is depicted in those descriptions if one can suffer to read through all of it. How much of these are ‘hallucinations’ and what are real is difficult to make out.

I don’t think this book merits as a science book by any standards – since very little of science (forget neuroscience) is covered. Couple of chapters (one in the beginning and one towards the end) are interesting from a view of understanding baboon group behavior. However the author hardly seems to take into account the trauma he must have been imparting on the group by walking around and darting them! He acknowledges that they would run away from him and it was an uphill task for him to get close to them, as time went along. It is a basic rule in science that the process of measuring does affect the metric that you are trying to measure – but in this case the stress level induced by the scientist would dramatically influence whatever he was trying to measure.

Maybe my criticism is unduly harsh considering that the study was done many years back and the book itself was published in 2001. Reading it in 2015, I would be looking at it from a much later perspective. But  still, it will be hard to deny the basic facts that I have highlighted and I would not recommend anyone wasting time with this book.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Tongwan City by Gao Jianqun - a book review

The Hun King and the Buddhist Monk in ancient China

The mention of a Hun King would bring the name of Attila to most people’s minds. However in Tongwan City, Gao Jianqun tells us the story of another Hun King ‘Helian Bobo’  in the same time period as Attila, who established a large empire and created a magnificent new capital city in record time in present day Mongolia. While Attila was challenging the Western civilization, Helian Bobo was rocking the foundations of the Eastern one. From a penniless orphan, Helian became an emperor in a couple of decades. And within 6 years of time and the labor of over 100,000 people, his capital - the Tongwan city was brought to life in 419 AD. Thousands of people died during its construction and they were buried in its walls.

During this time period, China and Mongolia was heavily influenced by Buddhism from India. So enamored had the Chinese Kings become with Buddhism that they sent an army to India to bring by force one of the most well known Buddhist monks of that time – Kumarajiva. It is said that over 30,000 of his followers also accompanied him to China.. Kumarajiva spent the rest of his life in China translating all the Buddhist teachings to Chinese. Though Helian Bobo and Kumarajiva do not cross paths much (except for a brief meeting once) their stories are intertwined in this tumultuous period of China and Mongolia.

The Hun lifestyle was a migratory one with the horse as their main support. Their culture and philosophies are brought to life in this book. There are not too many historical fiction books on the ancient Chinese period and hence readers will find this book provides a window to that past. The writing style is brief and crisp and different from the normal English prose that we are familiar with. However as you get into the novel, it becomes more familiar and you will enjoy the gripping story and unforgettable characters.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Rookie Smarts" by Liz Wiseman - Book Review

How to develop a 'perpetual rookie' mindset

I have never been very fond of rookies – upstart behavior and ignorance puts me off. But the tag line ‘Why Learning Beats Knowing’ attracted me to the book. Being in the knowledge industry that is something that resonated with me.

Reading the book was a good decision – Liz Wiseman shows how an unencumbered mind can gather expertise quickly, and with no baggage to weigh them down how a rookie can perform well in the new world of uncertainty. Further she shows how all of us can keep a rookie mindset even as we grow older.

However a couple of areas are not addressed adequately – (a) you have to be pretty smart in the first place (b) the stories are based on the western culture where an open educational system encourages questioning; I am not sure if rookies will fare so well in the eastern world – where ‘experience’ and ‘rote learning’ are given more weightage than independent thinking.

In many situations experience can be a liability. And most often the experienced person does not see the baggage he or she is carrying. “Rookie Smarts” gives many examples of how one can overcome this and develop a perpetual rookie mindset

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Denial: Self Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki - Book Review

A Great question but an unconvincing answer!

In this book Ajit Varki addresses a very critical and important question that would strike any one looking at human evolution - how come our species is the only one that attained self consciousness? Why didn't any other species cross the barrier? The dinosaurs did get plenty of time - even by cosmological standards, 200 million years is a decent time period.

Most probably I would not have read this book, except that I happened to meet Ajit Varki at a conference recently. (Btw, the conference was 'From Bones to Genomes' at Sitges close to Barcelona - a fantastic conference with speakers like Matt Ridley, Svante Paabo, Chris Stringer etc - making it a veritable heaven for those interested in Evolution, Genetics and Population history). His book was also mentioned in some side discussions and that prompted me to download the kindle version (talk about the benefits of technology!) and take a stab at it.

However the approach of the book was rather surprising. Ajit had decided on the answer upfront - that humans were able to cross the 'intelligence barrier' by being able to deny the inevitability of death. To make it clearer, according to Ajit the barrier that prevents any species from attaining self consciousness is that it will not have the neuronal connections or capabilities to handle the fact that death is inevitable. Only the human brain developed in such a way that both self consciousness and death denial ability developed together at some time (only once) in our past and that was the turning point. The book is then one long argument (in the author's words) to try to convince himself and the reader that the argument is correct. (lot of cherry picking!) Ajit acknowledges that there is no clear evidence to prove his thesis and also acknowledges that it is not falsifiable but does try to be as fair as possible in outlining that. He still gets carried away with his theory and even attempts to compare the situation with that of Darwin's Evolution theory in the late 19th century. But he ignores that Darwin did not start with a conclusion - he had discovered a large number of facts that led him to a conclusion which is not the case here.

The book is an interesting read and the author is a very knowledgable person that makes the narrative fun. But I have to say that his answer to an all-important question is possible but not probable.