July 2007

Crichton, Michael. Next. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. ISBN 0-06-087298-5.
Several of the essays in Freeman Dyson's The Scientist as Rebel (June 2007) predict that “the next Big Thing” and a central theme of the present century will be the discovery of the fine-grained details of biology and the emergence of technologies which can achieve essentially anything which is possible with the materials and processes of life. This, Dyson believes, will have an impact on the lives of humans and the destiny of humanity and the biosphere which dwarf those of any of the technological revolutions of the twentieth century.

In this gripping novel, page-turner past master (and medical doctor) Michael Crichton provides a glimpse of a near-term future in which these technologies are coming up to speed. It's going to be a wild and wooly world once genes start jumping around among metazoan species with all the promiscuity of prokaryotic party time, and Crichton weaves this into a story which is simultaneously entertaining, funny, and cautionary. His trademark short chapters (averaging just a little over four pages) are like potato chips to the reader—just one more, you think, when you know you ought to have gotten to sleep an hour ago.

For much of the book, the story seems like a collection of independent short stories interleaved with one another. As the pages dwindle, you begin to wonder, “How the heck is he going to pull all this together?” But that's what master story tellers do, and he succeeds delightfully. One episode in this book describes what is perhaps the worst backseat passenger on a road trip in all of English fiction; you'll know what I'm talking about when you get to it. The author has a great deal of well-deserved fun at the expense of the legacy media: it's payback time for all of those agenda-driven attack reviews of State of Fear (January 2005).

I came across two amusing typos: at the bottom of p. 184, I'm pretty sure “A transgender higher primate” is supposed to be “A transgenic higher primate”, and on p. 428 in the bibliography, I'm certain that the title of Sheldon Krimsky's book is Science in the Private Interest, not “Science in the Primate Interest”—what a difference a letter can make!

In an Author's Note at the end, Crichton presents one of the most succinct and clearly argued cases I've encountered why the patenting of genes is not just destructive of scientific inquiry and medical progress, but also something which even vehement supporters of intellectual property in inventions and artistic creations can oppose without being inconsistent.


Epstein, Robert. The Case Against Adolescence. Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books, 2007. ISBN 1-884956-70-X.
What's the matter with kids today? In this exhaustively documented breakthrough book, the author argues that adolescence, as it is presently understood in developed Western countries, is a social construct which was created between 1880 and 1920 by well-intentioned social reformers responding to excesses of the industrial revolution and mass immigration to the United States. Their remedies—compulsory education, child labour laws, the juvenile justice system, and the proliferation of age-specific restrictions on “adult” activities such as driving, drinking alcohol, and smoking—had the unintended consequence of almost completely segregating teenagers from adults, trapping them in a vacuous peer culture and prolonging childhood up to a decade beyond the age at which young people begin to assume the responsibilities of adulthood in traditional societies.

Examining anthropological research on other cultures and historical evidence from past centuries, the author concludes that the “storm and stress” which characterises modern adolescence is the consequence of the infantilisation of teens, and their confinement in a peer culture with little contact with adults. In societies and historical periods where the young became integrated into adult society shortly after puberty and began to shoulder adult responsibilities, there is no evidence whatsoever for anything like the dysfunctional adolescence so often observed in the modern West—in fact, a majority of preindustrial cultures have no word in their language for the concept of adolescence.

Epstein, a psychologist who did his Ph.D. under B. F. Skinner at Harvard, and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine, presents results of a comprehensive test of adultness he developed along with Diane Dumas which demonstrate that in most cases the competencies of people in the 13 to 17 year range do not differ from those of adults between twenty and seventy-one by a statistically significant margin. (I should note that the groups surveyed, as described on pp. 154–155, differed wildly in ethnic and geographic composition from the U.S. population as a whole; I'd love to see the cross-tabulations.) An abridged version of the test is included in the book; you can take the complete test online. (My score was 98%, with most of the demerits due to placing less trust in figures of authority than the author deems wise.)

So, if there is little difference in the basic competences of teens and adults, why are so many adolescents such vapid, messed-up, apathetic losers? Well, consider this: primates learn by observing (monkey see) and by emulating (monkey do). For millions of years our ancestors have lived in bands in which the young had most of their contact with adults, and began to do the work of adults as soon as they were physically and mentally capable of doing so. This was the near-universal model of human societies until the late 19th century and remains so in many non-Western cultures. But in the West, this pattern has been replaced by warehousing teenagers in government schools which effectively confine them with others of their age. Their only adult contacts apart from (increasingly absent) parents are teachers, who are inevitably seen as jailors. How are young people to be expected to turn their inherent competencies into adult behaviour if they spend almost all of their time only with their peers?

Now, the author doesn't claim that everybody between the ages of 13 and 17 has the ability to function as an adult. Just as with physical development, different individuals mature at different rates, and one may have superb competence in one area and remain childish in another. But, on the other hand, simply turning 18 or 21 or whatever doesn't magically endow someone with those competencies either—many adults (defined by age) perform poorly as well.

In two breathtaking final chapters, the author argues for the replacement of virtually all age-based discrimination in the law with competence testing in the specific area involved. For example, a 13 year old could entirely skip high school by passing the equivalency examination available to those 18 or older. There's already a precedent for this—we don't automatically allow somebody to drive, fly an airplane, or operate an amateur radio station when they reach a certain age: they have to pass a comprehensive examination on theory, practice, and law. Why couldn't this basic concept be extended to most of the rights and responsibilities we currently grant based purely upon age? Think of the incentive such a system would create for teens to acquire adult knowledge and behaviour as early as possible, knowing that it would be rewarded with adult rights and respect, instead of being treated like children for what could be some of the most productive years of their lives.

Boxes throughout the text highlight the real-world achievements of young people in history and the present day. (Did you know that Sergey Karjakin became a chess grandmaster at the age of 12 years and 7 months? He is among seven who achieved grandmaster ranking at an age younger than Bobby Fischer's 15 years and 6 months.) There are more than 75 pages of end notes and bibliography. (I wonder if the author is aware that note 68 to chapter 5 [p. 424] cites a publication of the Lyndon LaRouche organisation.)

It isn't often you pick up a book with laudatory blurbs by a collection of people including Albert Ellis, Deepak Chopra, Joyce Brothers, Alvin Toffler, George Will, John Taylor Gatto, Suzanne Somers, and Buzz Aldrin. I concur with them that the author has put his finger precisely on the cause of a major problem in modern society, and laid out a challenging yet plausible course for remedying it. I discovered this book via an excellent podcast interview with the author on “The Glenn and Helen Show”.

About halfway through this book, I had one of the most chilling visions of the future I've experienced in many years. One of the things I've puzzled over for ages is what, precisely, is the end state of the vision of those who call themselves “progressives”—progress toward what, anyway? What would society look like if they had their way across the board? And then suddenly it hit me like a brick. If you want to see what the “progressive” utopia looks like, just take a glance at the lives of teenagers today, who are deprived of a broad spectrum of rights and denied responsibilities “for their own good”. Do-gooders always justify their do-badding “for the children”, and their paternalistic policies, by eviscerating individualism and autonomous judgement, continually create ever more “children”. The nineteenth century reformers, responding to genuine excesses of the industrial revolution, extended childhood from puberty to years later, inventing what we call adolescence. The agenda of today's “progressives” is inexorably extending adolescence to create a society of eternal adolescents, unworthy of the responsibilities of adults, and hence forever the childlike wards of an all-intrusive state and the elites which govern it. If you want a vision of the “progressive” future, imagine being back in high school—forever.


Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-691-12294-6.
This tiny book (just 67 9½×15 cm pages—I'd estimate about 7300 words) illustrates that there is no topic, however mundane or vulgar, which a first-rate philosopher cannot make so complicated and abstruse that it appears profound. The author, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, first published this essay in 1986 in the Raritan Review. In it, he tackles the momentous conundrum of what distinguishes bullshit from lies. Citing authorities including Wittgenstein and Saint Augustine, he concludes that while the liar is ultimately grounded in the truth (being aware that what he is saying is counterfactual and crafting a lie to make the person to whom he tells it believe that), the bullshitter is entirely decoupled (or, perhaps in his own estimation, liberated) from truth and falsehood, and is simply saying whatever it takes to have the desired effect upon the audience.

Throughout, it's obvious that we're in the presence of a phil-oss-o-pher doing phil-oss-o-phy right out in the open. For example, on p. 33 we have:

It is in this sense that Pascal's (Fania Pascal, an acquaintance of Wittgenstein in the 1930s, not Blaise—JW) statement is unconnected to a concern with the truth; she is not concerned with the truth-value of what she says. That is why she cannot be regarded as lying; for she does not presume that she knows the truth, and therefore she cannot be deliberately promulgating a proposition that she presumes to be false: Her statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true.
(The Punctuator applauds the use of colons and semicolons in the passage quoted above!)

All of this is fine, but it seems to me that the author misses an important aspect of bullshit: the fact that in many cases—perhaps the overwhelming majority—the bulshittee is perfectly aware of being bullshitted by the bullshitter, and the bullshitter is conversely aware that the figurative bovid excrement emitted is being dismissed as such by those whose ears it befouls. Now, this isn't always the case: sometimes you find yourself in a tight situation faced with a difficult question and manage to bullshit your way through, but in the context of a “bull session”, only the most naïve would assume that what was said was sincere and indicative of the participants' true beliefs: the author cites bull sessions as a venue in which people can try on beliefs other than their own in a non-threatening environment.


Pyle, Ernie. Brave Men. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, [1944] 2001. ISBN 0-8032-8768-2.
Ernie Pyle is perhaps the most celebrated war correspondent of all time, and this volume amply illustrates why. A collection of his columns for the Scripps-Howard newspapers edited into book form, it covers World War II from the invasion of Sicily in 1943 through the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris in 1944. This is the first volume of three collections of his wartime reportage: the second and third, Here is Your War and Ernie Pyle in England, are out of print, but used copies are readily available at a reasonable price.

While most readers today know Pyle only from his battle dispatches, he was, in fact, a renowned columnist even before the United States entered the war—in the 1930s he roamed the nation, filing columns about Americana and Americans which became as beloved as the very similar television reportage decades later by Charles Kuralt who, in fact, won an Ernie Pyle Award for his reporting.

Pyle's first love and enduring sympathy was with the infantry, and few writers have expressed so eloquently the experience of being “in the line” beyond what most would consider the human limits of exhaustion, exertion, and fear. But in this book he also shows the breadth of the Allied effort, profiling Navy troop transport and landing craft, field hospitals, engineering troops, air corps dive and light bombers, artillery, ordnance depots, quartermaster corps, and anti-aircraft guns (describing the “scientific magic” of radar guidance without disclosing how it worked).

Apart from the prose, which is simultaneously unaffected and elegant, the thing that strikes a reader today is that in this entire book, written by a superstar columnist for the mainstream media of his day, there is not a single suggestion that the war effort, whatever the horrible costs he so candidly documents, is misguided, or that there is any alternative or plausible outcome other than victory. How much things have changed…. If you're looking for this kind of with the troops on the ground reporting today, you won't find it in the legacy dead tree or narrowband one-to-many media, but rather in reader-supported front-line journalists such as Michael Yon—if you like what he's writing, hit the tip jar and keep him at the front; think of it like buying the paper with Ernie Pyle's column.

Above, I've linked to a contemporary reprint edition of this work. Actually, I read a hardbound sixth printing of the 1944 first edition which I found in a used bookstore in Marquette, Michigan (USA) for less than half the price of the paperback reprint; visit your local bookshop—there are wonderful things there to be discovered.