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.

The Medium is the Challenge

The Shallows book cover

After reading Amusing Ourselves to Death, I was looking for something a little more recent in the same vein. I found The Shallows by Nicholas Carr published in 2010. The theme in this newer volume is based on scientific research that shows that our brains change based on how we use them. Using the internet is changing the way our brains are wired and not for the better.

Perhaps the most interesting idea explored is attributed to Marshall McLuhan. “What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.” So much of our discussion today focuses on content as the problem. What if the problem is the medium rather than the content?

I really appreciate the fact that Carr neither demonizes the internet nor treats it as an unalloyed good. Rather he points out, supported by scientific research, how the shallow, quick hit nature of the internet is changing how we work and think and how this is causing all sorts of problems. This book was published twelve years ago and the problems it lays out have only gotten worse.

The one thing I wish Carr had included in his book was a path out of this wilderness. He acknowledges that much good has come with the internet but how can we get the good while avoiding (or counteracting) the bad? Maybe that’s the next book I need to look for.

Can Clean Be Taken Too Far?

Clean book cover

A few years ago I read a magazine article that talked about how we in the West all shower too much. By lathering up our entire bodies daily, in addition to scrubbing away dirt we are washing away and/or killing microbes that evolved with us and are beneficial to our health and longevity. I think that article was in The Atlantic but I have been unable to relocate it since. When I heard an interview with James Hamblin, a science writer for The Atlantic, discussing his 2020 book Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less I knew I needed to read it.

The book takes many approaches. It looks deeply into the science of skin dwelling microbes as well as the history of cleanliness and its relation to health. The main theme throughout is that while our long term attention to cleanliness has led to the elimination of diseases like typhus, we may have gone too far. It also covers the transition from the marketing that brought us soap operas to the newer trends in marketing natural products that actually do less.

I came to this book looking for direction. I was hoping that it would provide recommendations for how best to get clean without going overboard. It doesn’t do that. But if you are interested in the science, history, and marketing around what it means to be clean and how they evolved, this book is for you.

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.

Optimizing Regret

Cover of the book The Power of Regret

Bestselling author Daniel Pink’s latest book is The Power of Regret. It is based on scientific research that he commissioned as well as numerous previous studies. What is unique about this book is how the information is presented. It is both highly accessible and incredibly informative and practical.

The main argument is that regret is actually a positive emotion. It focuses us on how we can do better. Of course, focusing too much can incapacitate, and the book shows how to tap into this power of regret while avoiding its downsides.

Most studies group regrets by life categories–work, family, friends, romance, etc. But Pink sees similarities in regrets across these categories discovering four core regrets that he classifies as foundation regrets, boldness regrets, moral regrets, and connection regrets. He details each of these regret types and shares examples from regret surveys.

In the final part of the book, Pink shows how to “optimize” regret in a way that makes life better. In some cases this simply means taking the lessons from our regrets and moving on. In others, it involves undoing regrets.

I have had many regrets in my life. I spent the latter half of my forties working through a lot of them–learning from them and frankly growing up a bit. I feel like I learned so much of what is in this book the hard way. I sure would have appreciated learning sooner with the help of this book.

A Remedy for Loneliness

I continue to read The Power of Fun by Catherine Price. The book is about how to have fun more in our lives, showing how to do this. Before doing so, the author starts a little dark discussing in part how we all need to face our own mortality. Then she goes on to review the science behind how True Fun is actually a health benefit. One of the study results that she reviews is the devastating health consequences of loneliness. Some scientists compare the effects of loneliness to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day! And since True Fun is defined by the author as the confluence of playfulness, connection, and flow, having more True Fun is an effective remedy for loneliness.

I’ve now finished the first part (Fun, Seriously) and am moving on to part two (How to Have Fun). I am looking forward to learning that. And since the book came out this year, I am hoping it will take into account the greater restrictions we have all felt to connecting brought on by the pandemic.

Teaching the Skills of Science

kids around a table full of robotics looking at a tablet computer

Sometime in 2020, I decided to seek out news from both the left and right of the American political spectrum. I wasn’t interested in breaking news. I was looking for real journalism. I found one monthly magazine from the left and one from the right and have subscribed and read both of them since. As the pandemic raged on that year, I also started to look for a source of scientific news that was independent of politics and dedicated to the scientific method. I found The Skeptical Inquirer which describes itself as “the magazine for science and reason”. I subscribe to and read it as well.

In the January/February 2022 of The Skeptical Inquirer there is a fantastic article by a teacher who struggled with teaching science to non-science students. She was passionate about the scientific method as a tool for critical thinking. She saw her class as the best way to reach non-science majors with these tools. But she found that these students just weren’t interested in the “baby bio” class she taught. Rather than blame her students, she decided to examine her curriculum.

She came upon a study that showed the positive effects of teaching the skills of science rather than the discoveries and historical findings of science. So she changed how she taught. That made all the difference. Now not only do her students rave about her class, they leave it equipped to deal with fake news, pseudoscience, and conspiracies based on their own critical thinking and research skills.

Evaluating Science

Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and on Us by George Zaidan

Before I read it, I thought this book was about specific foods or personal care items, what is in them, and whether they are good or bad for you. It isn’t. It is about a much bigger topic. How to tell when science is legitimate, especially when reported on in the news.

It is an entertaining, informative, and accessible look at how to evaluate the science behind all those headlines that tell you what is good to eat and what will kill you sooner. The section on the “potholes” to look out for in the scientific studies you read about is alone worth the time to read the book.

His last chapter is his advice after having gone through all the science in the rest of the book. His final four “bits of advice” are:

  1. Don’t worry so much.
  2. Don’t smoke.
  3. Be physically active.
  4. Try to eat a healthy diet; any doctor-approved diet will do.

Oh, and if you are religious, you might want to skip the appendix. It will likely offend you.