Respectful Genetic Archeology

Origin book cover

I read multiple books at a time–at least one fiction and one non-fiction. At the same time that I started reading The Peacekeeper, I also started reading Origin by Jennifer Raff. The Peacekeeper is a novel that takes place in an alternative present where North America was never colonized. Origin is about the peopling of North America. It is written by a biological anthropologist–she uses genetics to study our ancient human past. It turned out to be a good pairing.

In this book the author presents both the archeological and genetic evidence for how and when humans first arrived in the Americas. I found the addition of the genetic evidence fascinating. While I might have thought that genetics would have unambiguously narrowed the possibilities, this does not seem to be the case. It brings some clarity but also some questions and therefore some dispute. Raff is open and transparent about this dispute, doing her best to simply present what the evidence could mean as well as pointing to what most archeologists believe.

What I most appreciated about this book is that it is sensitive to what the genetic research means to indigenous peoples. Tribes consider the DNA and bodies of their ancestors to be sacred. Scientists and archeologists have not always respected this. Raff discusses at length in the latter part of the book how this has hampered research and the trust needed between indigenous peoples and the scientific community that are required to perform it. All in all this book is a wonderful introduction and foundation for understanding the current state of genetic archeology in the Americas as it continues to develop.

Finding the Right Book

The Card Catalog book cover

After reading The Library, I was hoping for something a little more interesting in the realm of the history of books. I found this gem in my read pile and dug right in. The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by The Library of Congress is the type of narrative history I was looking for.

Granted, it is more a history of how books are found in a library than a history of the library itself. It also has the flaw of being mostly about Europe and the United States, though due to the fact that the author is listed as The Library of Congress that is hardly surprising. Most importantly, the prose is both informative and engaging.

The added bonus in this book is all the photos. Yes, of cards from card catalogs but also of books, libraries, and individuals that are the core of the story. This book really brought back memories of time spent with a card catalog drawer pulled out, looking for just the right book. A fascinating look at book history.

A Dry History

The Library book cover

I learned about The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen from a Jeff Jarvis tweet. I was intrigued by his comments and the subject matter of the book and added it to my read pile. I recently finished reading it and have to say that I was very disappointed.

The book is quite dry and very slow. In fact, it reads a bit like a graduate dissertation that was edited for the general public. The feel is that lots of facts were gathered together and linked with spare prose. The prose and the facts are interesting and informative but a long way from entertaining, at least for me.

Another drawback is that the book is almost entirely focused on Europe and the United States. There is no exploration of libraries or their history anywhere else except for the very brief discussion of the Library of Alexandria in Africa. Surely the Muslim world had libraries during the Dark Ages when Europe was basically struggling to simply survive.

As I said, this book wasn’t my favorite. Maybe I came to it expecting too much. I certainly expected more than it gave.

Our Digital Present and Biological Future

The Code Breaker book cover

Today we live in world that is largely dominated by computers and the internet. The history of how we got here is well told by Walter Isaacson in his book The Innovators. If we’ve learned anything in the last two years, our future seems likely to be influenced by biology and epidemiology. Walter Isaacson’s latest book explores this recent history and potential future in his latest book The Code Breaker.

In The Code Breaker he tells the history of CRISPR-Cas9 and gene editing, centering it around the Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna. The first part of the book is partly a biography of her and her race with other scientists to unlock the key to editing human genes. The story is one of both scientific competition and collaboration.

The book raises ethical questions about editing human DNA. Will it create a privileged group of super humans, leaving the poor behind? At the same time, don’t we have an obligation to help those with genetic diseases like sickle cell and Huntington’s disease?

Finally, the author covers the role these same scientists played in the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when it comes to testing. The discoveries made there may lead to better and faster detection of many diseases beyond COVID-19.

If you are interested in how we got to the digital age we find ourselves in, read The Innovators. And when you finish that one, read The Code Breaker to get up to speed on our present and future in the biological sciences.

Unusual Writing Style Choices

Matrix book cover

I can’t remember how I first learned about Lauren Groff’s novel MatrixWhat I do remember is being attracted to the subject matter. A story about a reluctant nun who uses her newfound role as abbess to build her abbey and protect the women in it. It deals with feminist themes during a time (England in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries) when women’s roles were limited, to say the least. After reading the novel, I can’t say that I’d recommend it to everyone.

On the positive side, it is extraordinarily well-written. The reader is absolutely immersed in the convent and the life of the sisters there — the cycle of church services, the prayer, the work. And you are immersed in the emotions of the characters as well. And while the novel is very feminist in its philosophy, it emerges gently from the experience of the main character Marie. I never felt like I was hit over the head with it. On the contrary, I often found myself trying to navigate what exactly the main character was aiming at ultimately.

Unfortunately, while the writing is excellent, it is also very laden with terms of the world in which it takes place. Many of these are understandable from the context, but many are left unclear. This pulled me from the story to try to figure out what was being said. And there were absolutely no quotation marks in the whole book. Dialog takes place in this odd sort of reported way without the use of direct quotation. And the text almost reads like it was written in first person, though it is not. I found this combination of style choices jarring, repeatedly taking me out of the story.

In the end, I have to say that I am happy to have read the book and I enjoyed it somewhat while reading it. However, I would not recommend it to the casual reader. This feels like a book that is best read in a college English class exploring feminist themes and/or medieval monasticism. So if those themes are your happy place and you enjoy exploring an unusual writing style, this book may be for you. Everyone else, I suggest giving it a pass.

Why Humans (and Machines) Play Games

Seven Games book cover

Author Oliver Roeder in his book Seven Games uses those seven games (checkers, chess, go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble, and bridge) to explore both the human history of games in general as well as how the approach to creating artificial intelligence (AI) has changed as it has been applied to games. At first those developing AI tried to develop machines that think like humans do. But that direction was unfruitful due to the depth of the games. There was simply too much to these games to simply use brute force calculations. New approaches were attempted and the results were a completely different way to think about games, a machine way.

The book also highlights the best players of each of these games and how AI has affected them and game play in general. The author does an excellent job of showing the human side of playing games and their importance to human development. And he takes what could be a very dry topic (AI) and makes it extremely relatable. For anyone interested in games in general or the development of AI, I highly recommend this book.

A Complicated Man

Cover of the book American Lion by John Meacham

History is full of turning points. One such turning point in US history is the presidency of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States. Before him, the office was seen largely as administrative and inferior in role to the Congress. The government was largely elected and run by elites elected by a very small electorate largely made up of white male land owners. This left much of the population unrepresented. The slow change to larger enfranchisement started during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The presidential biography American Lion by John Meacham covers these years and Jackson’s role in them.

The book leans largely toward hagiography in the vain of much Lincoln biography. Jackson saw himself as a father figure to the nation, a champion and savior of the people, and the author shares this view with little exposition on the darker moments in his presidency. Regardless, this is a largely well-written overview of Jackson’s life as a US president.

Jackson saw the role of president differently than his predecessors. He saw a strong role for the president as the only federal office directly elected by all citizens. While this was not strictly true (and still isn’t) due to the electoral college, it is not entirely inaccurate either. At that time Senators were still elected by state legislatures. The election for president was the closest thing the country had to a national mandate. Our modern view of the role of president started with Andrew Jackson, and this book is an excellent introduction to this history.

The book is heavy on the Eaton affair and its affects on the first years of the Jackson administration. It also covers the main events of Jackson’s presidency in fair detail including the Bank War and the nullification crisis. It is regrettably short on coverage of the treatment of native Americans in general and the Seminoles and Cherokees in particular as well as the growing controversy over slavery. This last is an especially grievous oversight as Jackson himself was a slaveholder. I was left with the feeling that the author so admires the strengths of Jackson that he couldn’t bring himself to equally cover the flaws in his character and behavior.

Despite this shortcoming, the book is a good overview of the presidency of Andrew Jackson and illustrates how it was a turning point in US history. It does show Jackson as a complicated man with both strengths and flaws, though I feel it overemphasizes his strengths and too easily forgives his flaws. It rightly treats the subject as a man like anyone else but doesn’t go into enough depth on the darker more controversial aspects of the man and his presidency.

Reading a Banned Book

Cover of the book The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

With all the controversy over the graphic novel Maus after a school board in Tennessee removed it from its eighth-grade curriculum, I decided to read it for myself. I’d heard of the book and that it is the only graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, but I had never read it myself.

The book is the story of the author’s father in Poland during the Nazi rise to power in Germany, including his experience of the war in Poland and in Auschwitz. The Jews in the comic are mice, the Germans cats, and the Poles pigs. As you might expect, it is not a story with a happy ending.

In fact, the story doesn’t have much of an ending at all. And it is more than just the story of the author’s father. It is the story of how the author interviewed his father and came to learn about his experiences. Through the story we learn that in large part this was an effort of the author to learn about and understand his father in light of his own childhood with his father. And the telling is unflinching and real.

Perhaps this is why the book has been both used as a tool for teaching the holocaust in schools as well as made it the target of banning. It shows the brutality and cruelty of what really happened and how it affected not only those who went through it but the rest of their families as well, including their children born after the war. It is a story that still needs telling, and reading.

History Rhyming

Painting of the Webster-Hayne Debate

Many have reported on the fears of approaching civil war in the United States due to the conflict between the left and the right in politics. Talk of liberty and rights abounds with extremists vowing to take to arms to defend their freedom. As I continue to read about Andrew Jackson’s presidency, this sounds more like 1830 than 1860.

In 1830 there was a great debate in the Senate that started over a bill proposed to limit sale of lands in the West. This stirred up old sectional rivalries in the country and led to the Webster-Hayne debate. The West was opposed to the limit proposed as it would slow their increasing power which came from the population moving westward. The bill was proposed by a New England Senator whose interests were in industry and manufacturing, hoping to slow the migration of its population westward. A Senator from the South (Hayne) saw an opportunity to bring up his views on states’ right and nullification. The debates lasted from January to May 1830 and were very heated. Ultimately, the debate came down to liberty and the value of preserving the Union and whether they were compatible. Webster gave one of the most famous speeches in American history that ended with the line “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

The main division between North and South at the time was that the North was industrial while the South was agricultural. The North favored a high tariff to protect their manufacturing. The South opposed this as it made their goods more expensive to sell overseas. Of course, the evil of slavery made this division even harder to unravel. But what seems to have been overlooked in all the debate was the fact that these interests were made stronger by one another. The North needed the South and vice versa. The South grew the food and textiles that the industrial North needed to feed and clothe their workers. The North provided the goods and the transportation that the South needed to grow and sell their food and goods. Both sides let their rancor and partisanship drive a wedge between them.

We see the same happening today, though the divide is different. Today the division is largely between urban liberal politics and the more conservative politics of rural areas. Once again, both sides need each other and for similar reasons. Urban areas get their food from the rural areas. Rural areas rely on the urban centers to distribute their food and goods and to get them to market. Politically, we need to value both individual liberty (conservatives’ big issue) and community responsibility (the hear of the liberal view). But as in the 1830s, we are letting our party politics and partisanship blind us to our mutual dependency. This was perhaps summed up best by Edward Livingston, a Senator from Louisiana during the debates when he said, “The spirit of which I speak… creates imaginary and magnifies real causes of complaint; arrogates to itself every virtue—denies every merit to its opponents; secretly entertains the worst designs … mounts the pulpit, and, in the name of a God of mercy and peace, preaches discord and vengeance; invokes the worst scourges of Heaven, war, pestilence, and famine, as preferable alternatives to party defeat; blind, vindictive, cruel, remorseless, unprincipled, and at last frantic, it communicates its madness to friends as well as foes; respects nothing, fears nothing.”

Unfortunately, Livingstson’s plea for cooler heads ultimately went ignored. The flames of discord continued to grow and led to the conflagration of the American Civil War thirty years later. I only hope that in this century, common sense and cooler heads will prevail.

Biographical Mixed Bag

Cover of the book American Lion by John Meacham

At the beginning of the year I started reading American Lion by John Meacham. I never really learned much in detail about Andrew Jackson or his presidency. I chose this biography after hearing the author interviewed by Brené Brown and listening to season one of his podcast Hope, Through History. I liked his approach to history, the way he made history approachable and relevant.

I have read the first five chapters and for me it is a mixed bag. I love what I am learning and how he uncovers the humanity in all the people involved. What I struggle with his the presentation. Rather than taking a strictly chronological approach in writing, the author goes back and forth using aspects and stories from the past to illustrate what is happening in the narrative. This is an excellent approach that I have appreciated in my other books. It creates a sense history as a living thing through story. But the writing is not very precise. I find myself confused at times between what is past in the story and what is the story being told. It leaves the narrative feeling disjointed and mixed up.

As a result, I considered giving up on it and finding another biography. I did some research and didn’t find much. This particular book actually won the Pulitzer Prize for history. And it is routinely praised as the best one-volume history of Jackson. So I think I will stick with it. Despite my struggles with the writing, I am finding myself enlightened both about Jackson and this time in my country’s history.