Category: Book Review

Book Review: Stiff

I have a long list of “to read” books that I had hoped to get through this summer. I’ve read far fewer of them than I had hoped, but Mary Roach’s books were on my list and I recently read her first one, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. She says that she got a lot of weird looks while she was working on the book when she told people she was researching cadavers. Since I read on the train, I received a few similarly questioning looks when people would glimpse the cover with its picture of toe-tagged cadaver feet.

The book is absolutely fascinating, and I probably shared far too many of the facts and interesting bits that I learned with my friends and family. Nothing says light beer drinking conversation like discussing how when someone is in a plane crash, they usually die from the organ damage. This is because the organs are moving faster than the body so when the body smacks into the surface of water and stops, the organs keep going and get damaged when they hit the inside wall of the body. I know my friends really appreciated that tidbit, and by appreciate I mean I was met with “can we stop talking about dead bodies now?” I know that I have good taste in books when my friends automatically cringe when I start a sentence with “So I was reading a book about…”
roach_stiffBut anyway, for a book about cadavers Stiff is charmingly funny. It is written as if the reader is right there alongside the author as she does things like visit a face dissection, explore a body farm, test different ways to get rid of remains, and travel to China in search of a crematorium involved in a human dumpling scandal. Yes, human dumplings. Roach certainly found the most juicy tidbits in the business of dead bodies, but they make for an incredibly interesting book. What happens to cadavers is one of those things that no one wants to talk about, so almost everything in the book came as a new piece of information for me. I appreciated her candid, straightforward approach and the way it mixed with her own commentary and tangents.
Roach is completely comfortable with her own feelings of how awkward and strange some of the things that happen to dead bodies are, and the fact that she is an out of place witness to them. Her inner dialogue about these things is entertaining and approachable and that is what makes being told a story about dead bodies so palatable.
One of the best things about Roach’s book is that there is a sense of balance between awkward/funny and total reverence for the dead and what science (and really all of society) have to gain from bodies donated to research. The dead are treated with respect, and I find that to be an equally important part of the book. It does make a plug for donating your body to science, which might bother some, but I didn’t find it inappropriate. Roach makes it clear what she would want done with her own remains, and also makes a very good case for why people should donate their bodies to science (in spite of some of the experiments that seem undignified). I think suggesting that body donation might be a good way to go is coming from a good place.

Overall, if you can stomach television shows like Bones or CSI, you can stomach Stiff. The subject matter is gross, but the writing is divine and definitely worth your time. I can almost promise that you will learn some things you never knew about, and really might want to know considering we all eventually end up as cadavers.

(Thank you to Marianne over at PrimateProse for recommending Mary Roach!)

Book Review: Guns, Germs and Steel

Explaining All Of Human History Shouldn’t Be Hard, Right? So I’m about 15 years late hopping on the band wagon for this one, but I recently read Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. The book was originally published in 1997 but at that time I was only 9 years old, and most certainly wasn’t ready to ponder the question of why some societies were able to dominate others in the course of human history. But, for my birthday this year my good friend Cassi gave me a copy of Diamond’s book because she’d heard good things about it from her Dad and she thought it was something I would like. For the most part, she was right.

jared-diamondOverall I liked the book a lot, it brought up some really interesting ideas about human history that I had never considered before. But I struggled a little to get through the whole book, reading with the amount of concentration it deserved. Most of my difficulty stemmed from the way I read, which is particularly disjointed and distracted on the train. There are some parts of Diamond’s book that are just really dry, but I don’t think the book would work without these dry patches because explanations are necessary. There are also plenty of anecdotes and more narrative portions to keep the book moving forward.

Guns, Germs, and Steel seeks to answer Yali’s question, and comes back to this concept repeatedly throughout the book. Yali is a member of a native tribe in New Guinea where Diamond did field work. He asks Diamond, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had so little cargo of our own?” There is no single easy answer to this question. It takes Diamond 19 chapters and 465 pages to explain it and even then as he says that only gives him an average of one page per continent per 150 years to compress 13,000 years of history.

So then how do you go about answering a question like Yali’s? When a lot of the context, detail, and narrative is stripped away the main reason Diamond gives is that there are biogeographical differences between the areas of the world where societies developed and where they didn’t. These biogeographical differences include things like the availability of domesticable plants and animals, variations in climate, and differences in the navigability of different continents. Additionally, Diamond talks a lot about intellectual growth through the spread of information, in addition to the spread of more dangerous components of human interaction like weapons and disease.

When you put the context, detail and narrative back in, there are a few points that Diamond makes that hit me pretty hard. One point is the way that contact between developing societies was critical to helping them succeed. For me when I think about societies that are just starting, I assume that the longer they have to develop on their own the better off they would be. But the exact opposite is true. Societies need to develop alongside each other.

Areas like Eurasia that were way better suited for an exchange of information and ideas are the areas that advanced fastest. On the other side, areas like southern Africa and Mesoamerica struggled because their climates (desert and jungles) weren’t suitable for traveling. People weren’t able to connect and because of this not only could they not learn from each other (agriculture, language, etc.) they also didn’t develop important immunities to disease. I feel like I’ve always assumed that a disproportionate amount of resources like food and animals was the reason why some cultures flourished over others. In part the lack of resources in some areas was certainly a factor, but I was really surprised by the idea that the continent itself could have a huge impact.

I think my favorite chapters by far dealt with the Aztec, Inca, and Maya societies and how they were able to be conquered. I think I’ve always been quick to write their fall off as being caused by disease and the superior weapons of the Spanish. I had never really thought about how the isolation of each of these societies also led them to be more trusting – and that this more than anything else is what led to their downfall.

Another point Diamond makes that I found really interesting is that there are so many factors that need to align properly for a society to succeed, and it often comes down to which societies have the best balance. I always think of competition between countries as a bad thing, but Diamond shows that competition is exactly what gave Europe an edge over China when it came to dominating the colonial world. A unified China struggled with implementing new technology because if the rulers didn’t approve then changes didn’t happen. Whereas in Europe with so many small societies competing with each other if one group rejected an idea, another was sure to adopt it and help it spread. But competition also has obvious drawbacks like fighting and wars that cause widespread casualties. It really comes down to having the right amount of competition and conflict, that magical balance that allows a nation to surge ahead.

These are just a few of the ideas that Diamond discusses. I found this book to be very informative, so much so that it was almost difficult to digest sometimes. There is also a ton of background and set up so that the reader will be able to understand his analysis. One place where for me this was tedious was animal domestication. I already knew a lot about animal domestication from my class with animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell last semester, but if I didn’t I am certainly well informed for having read Diamond’s book.

There is a lot of information to be had here, and if you have the stamina and the attention span you could learn a significant amount from Diamond’s book. I do recommend it because it definitely got me thinking about history in a new way. I also think its important to point out that the book stands the test of time. My version has a 2003 update with a new afterward and an additional chapter about Japan, but even so the original text has held up well. I never felt like I was reading something out of date.

So to sum it up, its a good read, but you have to really want to read it. This isn’t a beach book or something to read on the train (like I did) it deserves your full attention, and if you can’t give it I’m not sure you’ll make it through.

Book Review: Ghost Hunters

When I was six my parents, brother and I moved to a cute brick house just the rights size for us. It hadn’t been lived in for a few years because the elderly couple that had owned it passed away in hospice, while a caretaker maintained the house. When my parents bought it, the house was a blast from the past. Pale yellow bathroom fixtures, peeling linoleum floors, blue eagle kitchen wallpaper, mustard yellow velour couch, seafoam green paint in the living room. Because the home’s previous owners had passed away, some strange/awesome/old features (like that couch) got tossed in with the sale.

Moving meant that for the first time in our lives my brother (slightly older) and I would each get our own room. My room was going to be pink, and it was going to be Aladdin and Jasmine themed and I was thrilled. That is – I was thrilled until the kids down the street told me the “truth” my parents were hiding. The house, specifically MY room, was haunted.

Obviously, the house was haunted. Old people lived there, and they DIED. Of course they came back to haunt the house. Specifically, I was told, they haunted my closet. The proof of this haunting was the fact that sticks and leaves stuffed in the mail slot of the house while it was unoccupied waiting for sale MYSTERIOUSLY disappeared. No one lived there, so then who moved them, right? Clearly the answer was ghosts, and what ghost wouldn’t like being trapped in a closet?

At the wise old age of six I was skeptical, but didn’t understand enough about real estate to know that prior to showing a house any real estate agent would remove random detritus shoved through the mail slot by pesky neighborhood kids. When I reported my news of the haunting to my Mom she informed me that there was no such thing as ghosts. But then why did I always check to make sure the closet was shut firmly before going to bed? Why did I RUN up the basement stairs every time I had to go down there? Why did the old furniture and fixtures seem like the perfect backdrop for a ghost story?

I’ve now lived in that house for over 15 years, and I’ve never had a close encounter of the ghostly kind. But the ghost story told to me back then about my haunted closet is to my memory my first real encounter with the supernatural. Flash forward to my college years, and my interest in ghost stories was again peaked by the Discovery Channel show A Haunting. My roommate and I started watching A Haunting every weekday because it was on at 3pm, when we didn’t have class. We quickly became enthralled, coming to such conclusions as “it always happens to the Catholics” and “blessing your new home is asking for it.”

I’ve never felt any otherwordly connection to spirits or the like, but I find it hard to dismiss the possibility of life after death all together. Just because there is no proof, or at least no definitive proof, doesn’t mean hinky things don’t happen, right? So with this background and frame of mind, I was all too excited to read “Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death” by Deborah Blum.

Wm_jamesThose who read my blog regularly know that I’m studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I have Deb Blum as a professor. No, she doesn’t require or even ask us to read her books. Yes, I’ve already gotten my grades for the semester, and no, I’m not sucking up by reading through her books. I’m curious about the work of the person I’m learning from. I’ve given my thoughts on Poisoner’s Handbook, and Love At Goon Park & The Monkey Wars in previous posts – and just want to share a few reflections from Ghost Hunters.

The book chronicles the rise of the American and British Societies for Psychical Research, through several characters, most dominantly Edmund Gurney, Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Myers, Richard Hodgson, and William James (brother of the writer Henry James – The Aspern Papers, the Turn of the Screw, etc.) and of course the famous medium Leonora Piper. These people set out in the 1880’s to try to prove the existence of life after death. Obviously, since this is something that has yet to be determined 130 years later, they did not succeed. But what they did do was devote their lives to trying to make psychical research a legitimate science.

The researchers studied phenomenon like slate writing, floating furniture, the appearance of specters (white floating blobs, etc.) strange lights, blowing curtains, and the claims by mediums that they could speak to the dearly departed. The majority of what the researchers did was expose fraud. But there was one medium, that the majority of psychical researchers believed in – Mrs. Piper. This medium stood out for the fact that she didn’t charge for sittings, and wasn’t making money off of her “abilities.” One of the most interesting experiments with the medium described in Blum’s book is the “cross-correspondence” study.

The term telepathy was developed by the first psychical researchers to describe the ability to communicate thoughts mentally. They set up an experiment to see if the spirits of people who had died would be able to take a thought conveyed by a medium, and transmit it to a different medium. Mrs. Piper was sent to London, the medium Margaret Verrall was in Cambridge, and Alice Kipling Fleming (sister of Rudyard Kipling) was in India. Myers, Gurney, and Hodgson were by this time deceased, so the remaining psychical researchers set out to communicate with their old colleagues.

Lines of poems and words in Greek and Latin (languages unknown to the mediums) were reportedly conveyed between the mediums in their different locations. But is that evidence of life after death, or telepathy, or spiritual communication? I don’t know. At the time (in the early 1900’s) it wasn’t enough proof. The argument was that the psychical researchers wanted so badly to prove that they could communicate with their departed colleagues and show that the mediums were real, that their desires colored the study and skewed results. Perhaps making something out of nothing. Perhaps so dedicated and well-intentioned that they did summon up spiritual communication.

What I like most about Ghost Hunters is that Blum never decides whether any of the experiments did or did not prove the existence of life after death. I don’t see how she could. I think that even today, while there are so many “events” that can’t be explained away as tricks, smoke and mirrors, or active imaginations, there is still nothing definitive to show that spirits exist. I don’t think there ever will be. I think that this is a case where, “for those who believe no proof is necessary, for those who don’t believe no proof is possible” (Stuart Chase.)

While I am a firm believer that nothing haunts my closet, I can’t explain “the unexplained” and I won’t try. But thats not what Ghost Hunters is about anyway. It is a fascinating history of the work of several researchers (and friends) trying to make sense of the things that go bump in the night using the scientific experimental standards they believed in most. Ultimately I think it comes down to the belief that eventually science can explain everything – and having to accept that it hasn’t, and maybe never will.

For me, the drama in the book is not will the psychical experiments be successful but rather, will they ever be accepted? Ghost Hunters tackles the issue of exclusivity in the scientific community and examines where scientists draw their line in the sand as far as what should and should not count as science. The definition of science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world. Do ghost hunters count? Should they count? Who gets to decide what is science and what is a waste of time?

Of the books that I have read by Blum, I enjoyed Ghost Hunters the most. I love science, but sometimes even the best science books can get confusing and having to work to maintain clarity, I lose interest. The sign of a great writer is to be able to take a subject and weave together the stories of all the different people involved in developing that subject, without getting the reader lost. I was never confused while reading Ghost Hunters about who was who or what was going on. I was enthralled from start to finish – not because I love a good ghost story, but because I love the richness of science history, and the real stories of these rogue researchers.

Wisconsin’s Place in the History of Animal Research

I decided to apply to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the recommendation of my undergraduate advisor. I honestly wasn’t thrilled with the idea of coming to the midwest. I had never really considered what the cheese state was like before I applied – as a strictly east coast girl it was so far removed from everything in my life I couldn’t even imagine living here. But, when the college admission chips fell where they did, it was obvious to me that UW Madison was the clear first choice for grad school.

That being said, when I arrived in Wisconsin nearly nine months ago, I knew very little about the history of the University I was attending. I knew that UW-Madison was home to an amazing amount of scientific research, but I had no idea how rich the tradition of scientific inquiry really was. I quickly became aware of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WNPRC) and notorious, and immensely important, psychology researcher Harry Harlow.

Those who follow this blog regularly know that I have written a lot of posts this semester inspired by my zoology class on human and animal behavior. It is this class that really got me motivated to learn more about animal research, and in particular UW-Madison’s role in animal research. That brought me to two books, both written by Deborah Blum a professor in the journalism school here at UW.

272686-LIn 1992 Blum won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles on the ethical dilemmas posed by primate research. She turned this into the 1994 book The Monkey Wars. I was enthralled by the history of primate research in the United States, and am ashamed to admit how little I knew prior to reading the book. The story of Edward Taub, the Silver Spring Monkeys (named after the site of the lab in Maryland,) and the rise of PETA in 1981 had me riveted. The condensed version of that story is that PETA founder Alex Pacheco volunteered undercover in the lab of Taub, who was conducting neurological experiments on monkeys (severing the nerves to control a limb and then coaxing nerve regeneration.) The monkeys were held in filthy conditions – but there was no legal standard for research animal care at the time. Pacheco took photographs (some admittedly staged) and went to the police to have Taub arrested (which he was – for animal cruelty.)

The majority of events described in the book take place long before I was even born, and I suppose thats why I felt so removed from them. I didn’t realize I was taking the idea that animals have rights for granted until I learned about the history of animal research in this country. I knew that people are cruel to animals, but I was blissfully oblivious to the cruelty that was standard in research labs in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. After finishing Monkey Wars, my blissful respect for science felt somewhat dingy – and I needed more information.

The book I picked up next, to explore the history of animal research and in particular its role in Wisconsin, was Blum’s 2002 biography of Harry Harlow, Love at Goon Park. I don’t think I had ever heard the name Harry Harlow before moving to Wisconsin – yet his work is something that I reap the benefits of in my daily life. Harlow is both famous and infamous for his “mother love” and “pit of despair” (a catchy term for depression) studies. His research used rhesus macaque babies to show that children need love and social interaction – particularly touch – to function and develop normally, and that being isolated can be the cause of a complete psychological breakdown.

The reason Harlow is so controversial is that the way he studied depression and isolation from one’s mother was to psychologically “break” baby monkeys. These were horrible studies. The monkeys were taken away from their mothers and given a variety of fake substitutes to see which the babies would cling to most (warm, cloth, animated mother was the winning surrogate but cold metal mother caused psychological damage to her babies.) For the depression studies the babies were put in isolation cages for 3-6 months at a time, with no interaction at all. The monkeys suffered tremendously. The concept of love as a necessity needed to be proven, to move parental nurturing into the mainstream. But the question remains if it needed to be proven in that way.

Considering that I was surprised by just how awful the United States history of animal research is, you can imagine how shocking I found it that studies were needed to prove that mothers should hug their children. But then again, as Blum so poignantly points out, the scientific standard at the time was to isolate children for health reasons (limit the spread of bacteria & disease.) What seems so obvious to me – that animals should be well taken care of, that children should be hugged – were really revolutions within the scientific community. Looking back we can say how ridiculous it is that such assertions needed to be scientifically proven, but then again think about where we might be if these ideas had never been generally accepted.

This semester has really driven home for me just how much I owe to animals. The idea that my mom would have been condemned as a bad mother for hugging me when I cried were it not for Harry Harlow and his baby rhesus macaques makes me very appreciative of the role of animals in research. I remember so vividly crying on my Mom’s shoulder at maybe 4 or 5 years old. I remember the silky salmon colored blouse she was wearing. I remember staining it mercilessly with my tears, but I don’t know why I was crying. I do know that all I wanted was to be held, and have my hair stroked and be comforted. I can’t imagine my parents keeping me at arm’s length.

We owe a lot to the animals who started the social movement that changed the way people parented, and the researcher who brought it all to light for making society take notice; and I had no idea about either before coming to Wisconsin. While I do my fair share of whining about being in the cheese state, my experiences here have opened my mind to a lot of new concepts – particularly with regard to the role animals play in society and how we as humans should regard them.

Hal Herzog, Animal Ethics & the Alien Problem

Last semester I read many more books (thus I did a lot more book reviews) than this semester which has mostly been devoted to academic research papers. But I do have two books that need reading for my zoology class on human and animal behavior with Patricia McConnell.

Some-We-Love-Some-We-Hate-Some-We-Eat-Herzog-Hal-9780061730863I finally finished the first of the two assigned books, Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat – Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. I’ve been reading Herzog’s book all semester, so my evaluation of it draws on a slightly disjointed memory but I think I can summarize his main point with two statements:

1. Most people choose not to (or don’t know enough to) think about their personal moral philosophy. Not thinking about how we feel about animals is what allows us to love puppies so much while we happily chow down on a Big Mac.
2. Those people who have spent a tremendous amount of time trying to discern their personal moral philosophy about animals either A. remain horribly conflicted or B. Choose a philosophy with regards to the treatment of animals that societal pressures make very difficult to implement (for example, all creatures are equal – if you save an iguana from a burning building instead of a human baby, society is not going to look kindly upon you regardless of your belief that the iguana and the baby are equals)

Herzog’s answer to his main question “why is it so hard to think straight about animals?” largely comes down to because you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

The book tries hard to cover a variety of topics that impact the way we feel about animals, some obvious (factory farming, animals in research, hunting) and some less so (cockfights, dog shows, gender roles.) I don’t intend to go into his arguments for and against certain behaviors, but to give an example of the kind of analysis he provides I will share the anecdote from his chapter “The moral status of mice,” on the use of animals for biological research.

Herzog frames animal research this way: Think of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic film ET. Remember how close Elliott and ET became, and how heart wrenching it was to see ET go back to his home planet? Well, what if there was a disease destroying the alien’s on ET’s home planet, and the reason he really came to earth was to scout out organisms of lesser intelligence to test possible remedies on. Elliott’s intelligence was far less than ET’s. So how would you feel if at the end of the movie, ET kidnapped Elliott and took him back to his home planet to live the rest of his life as the subject of research. It would save millions of aliens. But ET still essentially destroys Elliott’s life. Not really a satisfactory ending, I’d say.

So if we don’t want ET to kidnap Elliot just because he is of lesser intelligence, then what do we do when humans are like ET and mice are like Elliot? Should we experiment on mice just because they are of lesser intelligence? Previous logic would lead us to say no, we should not experiment on the mice. But yet, I’m still in favor of animal research. Philosophically, I shouldn’t be. But there is something about experimenting on a member of my own species that I find morally reprehensible. It is the reason we don’t conduct experiments on people in coma’s or with mental retardation. But if you are always putting humans first, how can you still treat animals with respect and moral standing?

I’m not here to answer the questions thinking critically about animals pose. Herzog has 280 pages of highly intelligent, moving, and entertaining explanation, and he still doesn’t answer most of them. But he will get you thinking about your own behavior, why some animals matter to us more than others, and why humans think the way we do.

It is important for everyone: meat eaters, vegetarians, pet lovers, people who avoid animals, etc. to think about why they feel the way they do about animals. I was surprised by the conflicts in my own way of thinking, and sadly I now fall into column A – thinking critically, but still horribly confused. At least I’m thinking right?