For We Are Many (Book Review)

This was part 2 in a 3 part series in the Bobiverse. See my short analysis of part 1 here. And I think I should skip this one and do the final analysis when part 3 is here (because again there are many storylines that are just wide open).

The Blank Slate (Book Review)

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker takes a critical look at our human brain and argues that it’s NOT a blank slate. Pinker (also known from The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now), combines his skills of storytelling and deep (and wide) knowledge to put down a convincing argument for how the brain/mind? interacts with our environment.

Here is a short summary from the book:

One of the world’s leading experts on language and the mind explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colourings. With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits-a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century-denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces objective analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of politics, violence, parenting, and the arts. Injecting calm and rationality into debates that are notorious for axe-grinding and mud-slinging, Pinker shows the importance of an honest acknowledgement of human nature based on science and common sense.

Here is the table of contents:

  • pt. 1. The blank slate, the noble savage, and the ghost in the machine
    • The official theory
    • Silly putty
    • The last wall to fall
    • Culture vultures
    • The slate’s last stand
  • pt. 2. Fear and loathing
    • Political scientists
    • The holy trinity
  • pt. 3. Human nature with a human face
    • The fear of inequality
    • The fear of imperfectibility
    • The fear of determinism
    • The fear of nihilism
  • pt 4. Know thyself
    • In touch with reality
    • Out of our depths
    • The many roots of our suffering
    • The sanctimonious animal
  • pt. 5. Hot buttons
    • Politics
    • Violence
    • Gender
    • Children
    • The arts
  • pt. 6. The voice of the species

The chapter I want to highlight/make some observations about is the one on children. It is this chapter where I was most surprised by the evidence.

In psychology (what I studied) you learn about the 50/50ish division between genes and environment (nature vs nurture) and of course that there are interactions between both.

An example would be your length. Your genetic make-up determines for the most part how tall you will become. But if you’re malnourished whilst growing up, you will come up a few centimetres short in the end.

Or think of your temperament. You may be a stoic, or a hot head. And during the years of your life you will learn to deal with how you’re wired. And some do better than others. They learn better techniques, or they might be unlucky in their childhood.

And this is where Pinker, armed with data, made me think about things a bit different than before. He argues that your family and all the experiences shaped by your parents (the ‘shared’ experiences you could have had with siblings) don’t matter at all. And they don’t matter for the variance of outcomes you will have.

I.e. if we’re looking at your expression of your temperament or the chance that you will end up in jail, then it’s explained for about 50% by your genes, and 50% by your unique experiences.

Unique experiences? The friends you have and smoked weed with when you were still 15. The tv shows you watched in your bedroom. The teacher who took you under his wing. All things that are (almost) completely outside of the control of your parents.

But, but… parents should have an influence, right? I also can’t shake the feeling that what a parent does should have an influence. But when looking at (identical) twins who grew up in different families, or looking at different families in similar circumstances, and many other configurations, Pinker concludes that the shared experiences really count for nothing.

Looking at this in another way, you can say that there may just be many more (influential) unique experiences. Say for instance that your experience of sex(uality) should be formed by different factors. There are of course the genes. But what would have more influence, parents telling you about the birds and the bees, versus your first good/bad/average very intimate evening. Or the stories your peer group tell you. And the expectation that may differ from class to class, from peer group to peer group.

What if you can still shape this environment? As a parent can’t you choose where your kid grows up and influence it in this way? I guess that may still be true. Still, you’re only marginally improving the environment (which accounts for 50%) with still so much variation of unique experiences.

Say you choose the best school, but because your kid is now surrounded by other kids who are smarter he becomes very insecure and gets bullied. Or you move to the countryside because you believe it’s safer and he gets hit by a car in the middle of nowhere.

Ok, enough rambling, Pinker does end the chapter in a good way. You can see your kids not as a blank slate you need to shape and fill. No, see your kids as your friends. As (little) people you want to hang out with. To enjoy your time together (they have half your genes, so you might get along great). And yes, don’t be a bad parent, why would you want to even consider that. Be a good parent just because (and not for their outcomes) it’s the moral thing to do.

God Is Not Great (Book Review)

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens takes reason to religion. It’s a deep dive into a terribly important topic. Not only because it has shaped (and for the foreseeable future will shape) our lives. Whilst some will argue that we’re already living in the next Enlightenment (or hope so, Steven Pinker), Christopher Hitchens is more militant and political, if we need an Enlightenment, he will be one of the horsemen of it.

Here are some observations I had on the chapters:

  1. Putting it Mildly
    • “There still remains four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.”
    • Religion has been seen as attractive because we’re only partly rational
    • “… those who offer false consolation are false friends”
    • “Religion is man-made” (emphasis is on the man part)
    • “Religion poisons everything”
  2. Religion Kills
    • “It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one”
    • Since 2001 Hitchens sees religion (again) taking a larger role in public life (crazy Americans)
    • Religious wars/attacks between the West and Middle-East are two sides of the same coin (and feed/strengthen each other)
    • “In this respect, religion is not unlike racism. One version of it inspires and provokes the other”
  3. Why Heaven Hates Ham
    • Religion, Jews/Muslims, hate pigs, but why. (The even banned Animal Farm by George Orwell)
    • Pigs are intelligent, share lots of our DNA, you can use almost every part
    • The ban is not rationally (even way back when), archaeology shows that other people ate them without problems (trichinosis)
    • It’s just superstition that should have ended when it started
  4. A Note on Health
    • Smallpox eradication was harmed by false rumours spread by Muslims (see the same happening now in New York with measles, again wtf)
    • The damage from this is incalculable
    • Religions believe that the holy text should be enough to prevent people from doing the bad things (/protect them in a way?), of course, that is not how life works and in many cases, the victims even didn’t do anything morally wrong
    • “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile”
    • Two major religions in Africa, “believe that the cure is much worse than the disease”
    • Child rape and torture is suspected to be so bad that there are maybe more kids than not (in religious schools) that we molested
    • Three conclusions up to this point:
      1. Religion and the churches are manufactured
      2. Ethics and morality are quite independent of faith, and cannot be derived from it
      3. religion is – because it claims a special divine exemption for its practices and beliefs – not just amoral but immoral
    • Religion actually looks forward to the day that it all ends. This is captured in a guilty joy (schadenfreude). They hope of course that they personally will be spared
  5. The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False
    • “Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on”
    • Ockham’s razor is one of the thinking tools to show that religion/God is not a good explanation for science
  6. Arguments from Design
    • The paradox at the centre of the large religions concerns both feeling submissive and being rigorous and superior to others
    • The arguments from design concern the small and large. And they are centred not around inquiry but on faith alone (e.g. finding bones of dinosaurs is there to test your faith)
    • The often used example of the eye is very mistaken. It has been developed/’made’ by evolution over 40 times and in us human is quite inefficient (backwards and upside down)
    • Our DNA has lots of ‘junk’ left behind from everything between us and the bacteria we came from
    • A theory (also a word that is mislabelled) becomes accepted when it can make accurate predictions about things or events that have not yet been discovered or have not yet occurred
    • “…98 per cent of all the species that have ever appeared on earth have lapsed into extinction”
    • Evolution is not guided and that we’re here is the result of a lot of luck/bottlenecks
    • Fun fact: “… a cow is closer in family to a whale than to a horse”
    • Hitchens mentions The End of Faith by Sam Harris
  7. Revelation (Old Testament) –
  8. The New Testament –
  9. The Koran –
  10. The Tawdriness of the Miraculous –
  11. Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings –
  12. How Religion Ends –
  13. Does Religion Make People Behave Better –
  14. There Is No “Eastern” Solution –
  15. Religion as an Original Sin –
  16. Is Religion Child Abuse? –
  17. An Objection Anticipated –
  18. A Finer Tradition –
  19. In Conclusion (The Need for a New Enlightenment) –


How to Get People to Do Stuff (Book Review)

How to Get People to Do Stuff by Susan Weinschenk can be seen as a guide to actionable psychology/behavioural economics. The book is full of tips and trick on how to get people to take action. It’s quite high-level but does reference good sources (e.g. research by Daniel Kahneman). Here are the sections:

  1. The Need to Belong
  2. Habits
  3. The Power of Stories
  4. Carrots and Sticks
  5. Instincs
  6. The Desire for Mastery
  7. Tricks of the Mind

I skimmed through quite some parts (and did look at the strategies) and now have 9 actionables to do for Queal.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob)

“Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it’s a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he’ll be switched off, and they’ll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty. 

The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad – very mad.”

This was a fun story and makes me wonder about the second and third book in the ‘bobiverse‘. I do however think that the story structure was different from what I expected so let’s take a look:

Hmm I do realise that there is a short storyloop at the beginning:

You: Bob, sold his company, etc

Need: to live, and well, you’ve been hit by a bus

Go: you are an AI and you need to figure out how this works

Search: learn to work with the tools you have. Learn more about the world

Find (with the help of a guide): learns how to protect himself, use his new abilities

Take: has to leave the world, and leave all his connections to the world behind

Return: finds his humanity again in VR etc (and returns to Earth to save it later)

Change: he is the new Bob (and Bill, Homer, etc)

You: Bob, AI, cruising through space

Need: to survive from other AIs humans made (but a lot of new goals and subplots are introduced later, and there I think the story might be less good, but also interesting, hmm)

Go: on the way to new resources in other solar systems

Search: energy, place to be safe, make copies, learn skills

Find (with the help of a guide): arrives in other solar system(s), has new skills, improves, finds way to save humanity (after a while at least) (hmm, not really a guide here except from some old knowledge of tv series etc, and some quotes from The Art of War)

Take: not all Bobs survive, humanity? (but not really, because you don’t really care about that too much) (I guess there could/should have been more sacrifice?)

Return: populates the universe, goes back to Earth

Change: he is the new Bob (and Bill, Homer, etc)

I guess another problem I had with the story structure was the lack of closed loops. The threat of the Brazilian probe is still there, there is another type of intelligent civilisation out there (that took the metal out of one system and left some bots there), the humanoids on another planet (and the gorilla’s etc they have to survive from), etc.