Tag Archives: evolutionary biology

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

Published 2015. 861 pages.

SPECULATIVE FICTION is a wonderful thing! I loved this book! I liked it even better than the author’s Anathem, which I wrote about just after I began this blog (see June 27, 2013).

Science fiction is one way to describe this book, but it could also be called “social science” fiction. In particular, “anthropology fiction”. Emergence of new cultures! The clash of world views and values! And the anthropologist’s dream, contact with long isolated human groups.

Plot wise, this is fiction about disaster and survival. The plot astonished me several times. Stephenson plays around with all manner of archetypes and myths, including the Fall of Eve.

I love to read a book that makes me feel the author really enjoyed writing it. Stephenson has a goofy sense of humor. How else do you explain a character named Sonar Taxlaw? (It does make sense in the context.) He goes ahead and parodies contemporary public figures. POTUS Julia Bliss Flaherty = Hilary Clinton. Probably many other characters would be recognizable to readers more sophisticated than I.

In some ways, two thirds of the book is the set-up. If so inclined, Stephenson could have stretched this out longer than Game of Thrones.

There’s lots of biology in Seveneves, some of it fairly improbable. For example, some humans are capable of “epigenetic shifts”, that is, a change in which of their genes are expressed. Breeding humans that can swim long distances undersea and humans with intentionally “neanderthal” characteristics also seem unlikely. But it’s fiction, so why not go wild.

Stephenson invented (but did not develop) an entirely new social science called “Amistics”. It’s the study of how societies decide whether or not to adopt available new technology – honoring our plain living neighbors in Pennsylvania.

When an author creates so many characters, I have to wonder if there’s one with which he identifies. I’m betting on Tyuratum Lake, the canny bartender who sees and knows ALL.

A friend raised the issue of whether this type of literature is socially unhealthy because it leads people to believe we can irresponsibly trash the earth and then leave for space. This argument has been around for decades – nothing new. We all need to be responsible about how we choose to live. And we all need some escape literature! So why dump this guilt trip on Neal Stephenson in particular?

I enjoyed this book so much I burned through it in a week. I recommend it to anyone with a taste for Sci Fi or fantasy.


“The Hard Problem” by Tom Stoppard, at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia

Tom Stoppard never caught my attention before. Everyone but me has read or seen “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”.

I went to see “The Hard Problem” because a friend was performing. Not acting, but providing musical accompaniment on the saxophone, mostly improvised. Good enough reason for a Sunday afternoon venture to Philadelphia.

I watched the play with no expectations whatsoever. That’s how I like theater. I’m ready to buy into whatever the playwright and producer offer. I love to see the curtain rise on the unknown and unexpected.

Part of the plot framework for this play is an Institute for Brain Science, a think tank that employs the heroine, a young woman named Hilary. At the beginning, I was afraid the whole play would be about evolutionary neurobiology, which could have been pedantic. But Hilary has a habit that surprises some of her acquaintances. She PRAYS. This makes no sense to those who believe that “consciousness” is physically determined.

That’s the “hard problem” of the title. What is consciousness? If it is as predetermined as quantum physics, how does one explain love, or sorrow?

The music that accompanies parts of the play is intended to reflect Hilary’s inner life, which includes emotions that can’t be explained by any theory of consciousness and which are revealed to the audience only slowly. Apparently, the musical accompaniment was an addition by the Artistic Director of this particular production of “The Hard Problem”, a relatively new work. I’m curious how the playwright feels about it, and whether it will be included in future productions. I vote “yes”.

I liked the music, but don’t feel I got the maximum from it. The dialogue was dense and required all my attention, so I think I tuned out the music some of the time. If I were to see the play again, I might react differently, and I do assume I might see it again. After all, I watch Shakespeare over and over.

At the end of the play, Hilary is giving up neurobiology for the study of philosophy. Does this tell us what Stoppard thinks about consciousness?

“On the Move: A Life” by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is 82 years old, and near death. He announced in February of this year that the ocular cancer for which he was treated nine years ago has metastasized to his liver. This hasn’t slowed him down! His Facebook page is active, with five posts in the past week, including a supportive message to Jimmie Carter, ten years older than Sacks and similarly stricken with metastatic cancer.

When you read Sacks, you encounter dozen of long names for complex neurological disorders, like achromatopsia and postencephalitic syndrome, but most of us would probably “diagnose” him as suffering from “attention deficit disorder”. He was beyond scatterbrained, and unfortunately lost or destroyed as much written work as he eventually published. He was unable to work in neurological research because he was absent minded and “too dangerous” in the laboratory. With the help of extremely dedicated assistants and editors, he published a dozen books and innumerable articles. I can’t figure out what “genre” he should be assigned to, aside from “non-fiction”. (One critic actually accused him of making up the case histories he recounts.)

Sacks approached each of his patients as the bearer of a unique story, and tried to read the whole life, not just to identify the disease that caused the person to seek medical care. His writings consist mostly of case histories. This has left him somewhat at odds with the academic medical establishment.

Sacks was a non-linear thinker. His mind ran off in so many directions that he would continually add footnotes to his drafts, until the footnotes exceeded the volume of the book.

Sacks was related to or acquainted with an astonishing number of public figures, especially scientists, like Francis Crick (of double helix fame) and Stephen Jay Gould, and poet W H Auden. In many cases, they exchanged manuscripts and ideas extensively.

The best part of this book is the next-to-last chapter, entitled “A New Vision of the Mind”. Sacks is wildly excited about the prospect that modern neurophysiology will, in the next few decades, generate a comprehensive scientific understanding of conscious. CONSCIOUSNESS! It’s like saying that science is ready to explain God. When Sacks began his studies in neurology, the brain was deeply mysterious and “mind” could not be “studied” at all. Suitable tools were not available. Now, fifty+ plus years later, the brain can be imaged in incredible detail. Sacks believes that the theory known as “neural Darwinism” will yield a revolutionary change in our understanding of what it means to be “aware”. Relevant authors and books are cited. This chapter is a great springboard for anyone who wants to understand contemporary neuroscience.

Oliver Sacks is an unusual intellectual and I wholeheartedly recommend his books, especially if you occasionally wonder if your mind is playing tricks on you.