* 2013 *
(Reverse Chronological Order)
Preview: The modern city owes much of its current design to two major trends or ‘movements’ that have emerged since the time of the industrial revolution. The first trend traces back to the industrial revolution itself, when the appearance of smoke-billowing factories (and egregiously dirty slums) necessitated new solutions to the problem of how to organize city life. The answer—still reflected in cities all over the world—was to compartmentalize functions, such that industrial areas, shopping areas, office areas, and living areas were separated off from one another into distinct blocks of the city.
The second trend in urban design took full hold in the post-war era, with the rise of the suburbs. In a sense, the suburbs represent a continuation and intensification of the compartmentalization movement, as the living areas of the upper classes were separated-off still further from the other areas of the city—out into sprawling districts miles away (as automobiles made it possible for certain city dwellers to escape to an idealized haven away from the hustle and bustle).
While the suburban movement has had the bulk of its impact on the landscape outside of the city proper, the city itself has not been spared of its influence. For indeed, the city was gutted of many of the inhabitants that formerly occupied it; and, what’s more, it has been reshaped by the roads and freeways introduced to shuttle-in the suburbanites from their faraway destinations.
Now, it may well be the case that all this compartmentalization and suburbification was originally intended to benefit (most of) the city’s inhabitants. Unfortunately, however, the longer we live with these trends in urban design, the more it is becoming clear that this way of organizing the city leaves much to be desired. Read more…
Ever since the structure of DNA was deciphered by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, the field of biology has advanced at a lightning-quick pace. In this time, we have learned how DNA codes for the manufacture of proteins of which every living thing is made, and thus acts as the blueprint of life. We have also learned to read this blueprint; to splice it (to transfer genes, and hence features, from one organism to another—and even one species to another); to synthesize it from its component parts; and we have even learned to rewrite DNA to yield wholly new biological products, features and organisms. Thus recent advances have not only allowed us to gain a better understanding of what life is and how it works, but have also allowed us to take control of life and to manipulate it to help advance our ends—and in fields as wide-ranging as food production, medicine, energy, environmental protection etc. And this is just the beginning, for biologists still have much to learn about which genes code for what features, and how to manipulate DNA to achieve the best results—and thus we can expect that some of the greatest applications to come out of biology are yet to come.
The biologist J. Craig Venter has been at the forefront of biological research for the past 35 years, and has played a pivotal role in some of its most important advances (including everything from sequencing the human genome, to creating the first synthetic life form), and in his new book Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, Venter takes us through the major advances that have occurred since the time of Watson and Crick—and also touches on what is likely to come next. Read more…
Preview: In the developed world, the vast majority of us enjoy a standard of living unmatched in the history of humankind—and going hungry is the last thing on our minds. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that poverty and hunger have been eradicated in the developed world entirely (in the United States, for example, 1 in 6 are considered food insecure—including 16 million children). Still, the greatest problems with poverty and hunger continue to exist in the developing world. Indeed, despite substantial improvements over the past 30 years, poverty remains a significant issue, and nearly a billion of the world’s 7 billion people still face chronic hunger (while about twice that number are malnourished in some way)—and millions starve to death every year.
It is not that many well intentioned people and organizations have not spent a great deal of time and money trying to solve the world’s poverty and hunger issues. Indeed, over the past half century the amount of resources that have been poured into these problems is staggering. So, just why do the problems of poverty and hunger stubbornly persist?
Well, at least part of it has to do with the fact that there are several significant obstacles standing in the way—everything from armed conflict, to corrupt governments, to particular cultural practices etc. The humanitarian Howard G. Buffet has been involved in fighting poverty and hunger for upwards of 30 years, and knows these obstacles all too well. However, Buffet insists that there is yet another reason why all of the well-intentioned efforts have fallen short of reaching their ultimate goal. And that is that many of the approaches have proven to be inadequate (if not downright counter-productive). Read more…
Preview: Until quite recently, the field of economics was dominated mainly by theory-making. Specifically, economists applied their intellects to the human world, and developed abstract models to explain (and predict) the unfolding of economic events. At the heart of all this theory-making stood homo economicus—a narrowly self-interested individual who responded to incentives and disincentives in a perfectly rational way.
In the past half century, though, various economists have added new wrinkles to the field’s repertoire. To begin with, pioneering economists such as Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman introduced controlled lab experiments (among other things) into the fold. And these experiments succeeded in adding nuance to our understanding of economic-man (he’s not quite as one dimensional and rational as he was once taken to be), as well as texture and complexity to our understanding of economic phenomenon.
More recently, economists such as Uri Gneezy and John A. List have stepped in and showed that controlled field experiments also have a place in economics. For Gneezy and List, the world is their laboratory: the two go about slyly manipulating the natural environment in a controlled way (often fiddling with incentives and disincentives of all types) to see how we humans respond to the tweaks. Gneezy and List have been practicing this approach for upwards of 20 years now, and in this time they have helped shed light on everything from how to decrease crime rates; to how to improve school success; to how to encourage more charitable giving; to how to promote healthy living and decrease obesity; to how to set prices on products (so as to maximize profits); to how to understand (and limit) discrimination (to name but a few lines of research of theirs). And in their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life the two catch us up on their experiments and their results (while also touching on the experiments of other like-minded practitioners). Read more…
Preview: This book is not about underdogs and giants in any conventional sense of these terms. Rather, the book is about the curious nature of advantages and disadvantages, and how each can (under certain circumstances) become its opposite.
The first lesson to be learned is that the things we take to be advantages are often no such thing. Our greatest mistake here comes from the fact that we identify a certain quality or characteristic as being a benefit or advantage, and then assume that the more of it there is the better—when this is often not the case. Put another way, most of us recognize that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and yet we fail to appreciate just how often and where this principle applies. For instance, we recognize that having a certain amount of money greatly facilitates raising children (it being very difficult to raise a family in a state of poverty), and yet we fail to recognize that beyond a certain point wealth also makes parenting increasingly difficult (for it becomes harder and harder to instill qualities of hard work and self-control). Or we recognize that small class sizes are a good thing, and yet we fail to recognize that classes can actually begin to suffer once they become too small (since diversity and energy begin to disappear). Read more…
Preview: Prior to the 19th century, public goods and social goals such as sanitation, health, affordable housing, education, and environmental protection were largely left up to individuals to sort out for themselves. Beginning in the 19th century, though, more and more governments—particularly in the industrialized, democratized world—began taking these responsibilities on themselves. In the latter half of the 20th century, the promotion of public goods and social goals expanded as governments in the developed world intensified their efforts at home and began spreading their attention to the developing parts of the planet, and large non-profits and NGOs started cropping up to help with the issues both domestically and abroad.
Recently, we have seen a new trend develop, as in the past two decades businesses and corporations have themselves increasingly entered the fray. Now, this may seem odd, given that business is often seen as indifferent—if not downright hostile—to public goods and social goals. However, several developments have occurred in recent years that have flipped this logic on its head. Read more…
Preview: When the early states came together to discuss the possibility of establishing a confederacy, they did so with a great deal of hope, but also a great deal of trepidation. The hope was that a federal government might be formed that could handle the few issues that were common to all the states but which could not be dealt with by the states individually. The fears, on the other hand, were that this government might come to gain an enormous amount of power; that this power might come to be concentrated in the hands of very few; and that the federal government as a whole might end up overreaching its purview and meddling in affairs that ought rightly to be left to the states and the various local governments (if not individuals themselves).
Thus the constitution was framed in such a way that the power of the federal government would be split between 3 separate branches—each acting as a check-and-balance on the power of the others. And the power of the federal government as a whole was limited to certain specific areas—all other areas being left expressly to the power of the states and local governments (and individuals).
Over the past century, though, this original arrangement has largely been undone. Indeed, after numerous constitutional amendments—and loose interpretations of the constitution itself—each of the branches of the federal government has, by turns, usurped (or been left with) more power than it was ever meant to have, and the federal government as a whole routinely involves itself in matters far from federal in nature—to the extent that it now insinuates itself into virtually every aspect of life, political, economic, and social.
For author and commentator Mark R. Levin it’s time we reversed this situation. For while those who made for the changes may have thought they were strengthening the nation, the fact is that the changes have contravened the very wise principles upon which the nation was built, and the practical results have been nothing but negative. Specifically, the changes have left the nation with nothing but ever-increasing taxes, ever-mounting debt, and ever-more soft tyranny for some with ever-reduced freedom for everyone else.
And the reform we need, according to the author, runs more than legislation-deep. It is reform that needs to happen at the very source: it is the constitution itself that must be reformed. For only radical constitutional reform can undo the radical and misguided reform that has come before. Read more…
Preview: In the recent past the K-12 public education system in the United States has been lackluster at best (some might say deplorable). Not that the various levels of government have not put in a great deal of effort (and money) to try and fix the problem; indeed, numerous attempts at education reform have been tried over the past 20 years or so, and the US currently spends more on public education per student than any other nation. Still, all of these good intentions (and boatloads of money) have achieved relatively little in terms of results. When compared with other developed nations, for example, American high school students currently rank 12th in reading, 17th in science, and a paltry 26th in math. These numbers would be concerning even at the best of times, but with the nation currently struggling through a seemingly endless economic slow-down, and with the global economy becoming increasingly competitive (and modern jobs requiring more and more advanced cognitive skills all the time), these numbers are very troubling indeed.
All is not lost, though. Other nations have shown that they are able to achieve far better academic results using far less money, and thus we may deem it high time that we investigate just what the leading nations are doing different that has allowed them to be so successful. It is this very project that journalist Amanda Ripley sets for herself in her new book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. Read more…
Preview: What does it take to become an elite athlete? The intuitive answer for most of us is that it probably takes some lucky genes on the one hand, and a whole heck of a lot of hard work on the other. Specifically, that we may need to be blessed with a particular body type to excel at a particular sport or discipline (after all, elite marathon runners tend to look far different than elite NFL running backs, who in turn tend to look far different than elite swimmers), but that beyond this it is practice and diligence that paves the way to success. When we look at the science, though—as sports writer David Epstein does in his new book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance—we find that the story is much more complicated than this. In general terms we find that nature and nurture interact at every step of the way in the development of an elite athlete, and that biology plays far more of a role (and in far more ways) than we may have expected. Read more…
Preview: This is not a book about the end of the internet, as the controversial title may seem to suggest. Rather, it’s a book about networks (meaning a group of interconnected people or things) and how networks evolve; and its main focus is on internet-related networks and the internet itself (which is one enormous network). The author, Jeff Stibel, argues that there are certain natural laws that govern the unfolding of networks, and that understanding these laws can help us understand how the internet (and other internet-related networks) are likely to evolve over time, and also how we should approach these networks in order to get the most out of them (including make money off of them). Read more…
Sophisticated, humanoid robots as featured in such movies as RoboCop and Terminator may not be with us just yet—but we shouldn’t let this fool us into thinking that we are not already in the incipient stages of the robot age. The fact is that rudimentary robots and other automated technologies have already been with us for several years, and advances in computing power, artificial intelligence and materials are even now quickly scaling up the range and functionality that our robots are capable of.
RoboCop and Terminator notwithstanding, robots already have a significant impact on our lives, and this impact will only increase as the technology advances. And one of the biggest impacts here has to do with the world of work, and the economy more generally. Specifically, robots have already shown themselves to be capable of numerous jobs traditionally carried out by people, and as the technology advances the range and sophistication of the jobs subsumed by robots will only grow.
Now, the story of technology taking over human jobs is nothing new. Indeed, the loss of jobs has occurred every time a major new technology has been introduced, from the plow, to the power loom, to the steam engine, to the computer. In the past, though, the technologies that have usurped human jobs have also led to the growth of new jobs (normally requiring more advanced skills) that have ultimately offset, and even outstripped, the jobs that were lost originally.
With robotic technology, though, there is something new under the sun. Specifically, many of the new jobs that robotics will create will themselves be capable of being carried out by robots—largely due to the sophistication of the technology. What’s more, as robotics advances, the range of new jobs that are capable of being carried out by robots will only grow. I think we can see where this is going: fewer and fewer jobs for people.
In his new book Jobocalypse: The End of Human Jobs and How Robots Will Replace Them entrepreneur and writer Ben Way takes a look at how robots have already come to replace many human jobs, and how coming advances promise to intensify this trend and extend it to virtually every industry we can think of from custodial and maintenance services; to the supply chain; to transportation; to security services; to manufacturing; to construction; to farming and fishing; to mining; to retail and hospitality; to health care; to education; to the military and policing; and even the shadow economy. Read more…
* Free Articles #38. A Summary of Creation: How Science Is Reinventing Life Itself by Adam Rutherford
Preview: As the blueprint of all that lives, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) may be said to be the key to understanding life itself. It is incredible to think, then, that the structure of DNA was only discovered some 60 years ago (thanks especially to the work of James Watson and Francis Crick). Since that time, many significant advances in genetics have been made—including the deciphering of the genomes of numerous species (including our own); and, even more impressively, the successful manipulation of the genetic code to introduce the features of one species to another (for example, having a goat produce spider’s silk out of its milk).
As impressive as these feats are, though, they are but the beginning of what promises to come from the study of genetics. Indeed, compared with other sciences, such as physics and chemistry, genetics is still in its infancy, and we can be assured that the most significant discoveries and applications are yet to come. Even now, geneticists are making substantial progress in uncovering the origin of life—meaning answering the question of just how life may have sprung out of lifeless chemistry—and are also making advancements in turning genetic manipulation into a standardized engineering science that is capable of churning out technological solutions in everything from food production to energy to medicine (a field that has been dubbed ‘synthetic biology’). It is these recent advances in genetics that are the main topic of Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself by science writer Adam Rutherford. Read more…
Preview: Over the past half-millennium the West has built up a substantial lead over other parts of the world when it comes to both economic power and material standard of living. Now, however, this lead is slipping away. Indeed, developing nations led by such powers as China and India are quickly closing the gap, as they are experiencing impressive economic growth, while the West is stagnating. Many argue that this is the natural result of globalization (and the fact that major corporations are taking advantage of cheaper labor in developing nations). For Harvard historian and writer Niall Ferguson, however, there is something deeper going on here. For Ferguson, the closing of the gap between the West and the Rest has less to do with the rise of the Rest, as the decline of the West.
Specifically, Ferguson argues that it is the West’s political, economic, legal and social institutions that have allowed it to gain the upper hand over the past 500 years or so, and that now these institutions are beginning to deteriorate (just as other nations increasingly copy what made the West successful in the first place). The result: Western stagnation, and the catching up of everyone else.
Ferguson identifies 4 primary institutions that account for the West’s success over the past half-millennium: 1. Democracy; 2. Capitalism; 3. The Rule of Law; and 4. Civil Society. Each of these, the author argues, has eroded in the recent past. Read more…
Preview: Not so long ago the Internet was seen as the next great economic engine. The optimism was never higher than at the peak of the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, of course; but even after the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, many believed that this was but the growing pains of an emerging industry, and that in the long run the Internet would yet provide the foundation for a new and improved information economy.
Since that time, it is certainly the case that the Internet has spawned a few major successes (such as Google, Amazon, eBay and now Facebook), as well as a host of hopefuls (such as Twitter, Kickstarter, Pinterest and Instagram). However, it cannot be said that the economy has enjoyed a great boost since the Internet exploded. On the contrary, the economy has, at best, stagnated—and it currently shows no signs of escaping its slump. So what went wrong?
According to Silicon Valley luminary Jaron Lanier, the problem is not so much with the Internet per se, but with how it has been set up, and how the major Internet companies themselves are organized. Read more…
Preview: Many of us living in the developed world have come to rely very heavily on digital technology (including the internet and our mobile/smart devices)—indeed, for many of us, our relationship with our various screens is nothing short of addiction. And we are not the only ones who are plugging in. We are also increasingly hooking up our various man-made systems (such as our infrastructural systems and financial systems) to the internet as well. Given how radically digital technology has transformed our lives, it is incredible to think how recently all of this change has occurred; for, indeed, all of this technology has come upon us entirely in the past 15 to 20 years. This is significant because it reminds us that the age of connectivity is but in its infancy, and that most of the changes are yet to come.
This is true for us here in the developed world, but is even more so the case for those living in the developing world, where almost 5 billion people are expected to go from no connectivity to full connectivity within the next 20 years. While it may well be the case that the overall impact of the connectivity revolution will be enormously beneficial, we would be fool to think that the impact will be none but positive. With forces such as criminals, rebel groups, terrorists and rogue states prepared to take advantage of the new technology, the connectivity revolution poses some very serious challenges as well. Google executive Eric Schmidt and U.S. policy and media expert Jared Cohen are particularly well-placed to assess how all of the upcoming changes will play out, and in their new book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business the two let us in on their ruminations and prognostications. Read more…
Preview: Ever since the industrial revolution the developed world (and increasingly the developing world) has enjoyed remarkable economic growth. This economic growth has yielded wealth to a degree previously unimaginable. Indeed, many of us today enjoy conveniences, comforts and opportunities of a kind that have traditionally been unattainable by even the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people.
However, we may question just how sustainable all of this economic growth (and the resulting wealth) really is. For the economic growth has been accompanied by environmental depletion and degradation of a kind as unprecedented as the growth itself. And while some of the environmental crises that have come up along the way have been solved by new technologies, others yet remain, and are as daunting as any we have seen. Climate change in particular stands out as one of the greatest challenges we now face. What’s worse, many of the earth’s resources that we have used to generate the economic growth are dwindling, and face extinction. Indeed, the very resource that has powered the industrial era (and that has also caused many of our deepest environmental woes), fossil fuels, has now nearly peaked.
Looking to the past, we find that we would not be the first civilization to perish at the hands of a resource shortage brought on by overzealous extraction. Indeed, such an event has occurred on several occasions (including amongst the Mayan civilization, and that of the Easter Islanders).
So we find ourselves at a crossroads, unsure of whether our impressive economic growth can continue, and equally unsure of whether our lavish lifestyle lives but on borrowed time (and resources).
For writer Ramez Naam, though, we do have reason to be optimistic, and in his new book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet Naam lays out the reasons for his optimism. Read more…
Preview: You open a bag of chips intending to eat only a few handfuls. You find the chips tasting quite good, and a few handfuls turns into a few more. Just one more… o.k., last one… definitely the last one. A few minutes later you find yourself staring down at an empty bag. Then your stomach starts to hurt—then your heart. The guilt isn’t far behind. Who among us hasn’t experienced this at one time or another? This is junk food in a nutshell: it tastes great (practically irresistible) and is very convenient, but if you indulge too much (which sometimes seems all too easy), it’s not very good for you. All of this has an easy explanation, it’s right there on the label: impressive portions of salt, sugar and fat, the junk food trifecta. Each has its own appeal, and each is very inexpensive (which explains why it’s in our food), but over the years each has also been implicated in some of our most common and serious conditions and diseases, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Unfortunately, the junk food trifecta is not only popping up in our junk food, it is increasingly being featured in virtually all of the processed foods that we eat—from chips and soda, to canned food and prepared meals, to cake and ice-cream. And as salt, sugar and fat have become more common in the foods that we eat, the conditions and illnesses associated with their abuse have reached epidemic proportions. In his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us journalist Michael Moss takes us behind the labels and explores the history and practices of the processed food industry–a story that features the rise of salt, sugar and fat, and the deterioration of our health. Ream more…
Preview: It is only recently, with the rise of the internet, that the term ‘viral’ has gone, well, viral. But the phenomenon of social pandemics—ideas, products and behaviors, that catch on and spread quickly and widely—has been around presumably as long as sociality itself. The phenomenon is interesting in its own right, for it says something meaningful about our psychology and how we interact. However, understanding how social pandemics work also holds great practical value, for when public service messages, charity campaigns or products and services go viral, the effect has a big impact on behavior and the bottom line.
On the mechanical side of things, understanding why something goes viral is straightforward enough: it must be something that has an impact, and that people are eager to talk about or imitate. But this just forces us to ask: what is it that makes something impactful, and ripe for sharing or imitating? We may think that our intuitions can carry us some way toward answering this. Nevertheless, getting something to go viral is certainly no easy task (as many a would-be influencer has come to find); and therefore, we may benefit from a more methodical, scientifically-minded attempt to understand the phenomenon. It is just such a project that Wharton marketing professor and writer Jonah Berger has been engaged in for much of his career, and in his new book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger reports on his findings. Read more…
Preview: Statistical information, or data, has long been recognized to be a potentially rich and valuable source of knowledge. Until recently, however, our ability to render phenomena and events in a quantified format, store this information, and analyze it has been severely limited. With the rise of the digital age, though, these limitations are quickly being eroded. To begin with, digital devices that record our movements and communications, and digital sensors that record the behavior of inanimate objects and systems have become widespread and are proliferating wildly. What’s more, the cost of storing this information on computer servers is getting cheaper and cheaper, thus allowing us to keep much more of it than ever before. Finally, increasingly sophisticated computer algorithms are allowing us to analyze this information more deeply than ever, and are revealing interesting (and often counter-intuitive) relationships that would never have been possible previously. The increasing datification of the world, and the insights that this is bringing us, may be thought of as one grand phenomenon, and it has a name: Big Data.
The insights that are emerging out of big data are spread out over many areas, and are already impacting several aspects of society. Read more…
Preview: It is a deep part of human nature to want to understand our origins. Indeed, creation stories are ubiquitous among the world’s cultures. Somewhat fittingly, the vast majority of these creation stories have the human race emerging quickly, if not instantaneously—a revolutionary moment befitting a revolutionary species. When it comes to the story from science, on the other hand, while it may be no less spectacular, it is far less abrupt, for it has our species emerging much slower. Indeed, the latest findings indicate that we began branching away from the species to which we are most closely related—the chimpanzee—some 7 million years ago, and that only a series of small modifications spread out over this time has led us to our current state.
However long the process may have taken, though, in the end it was nevertheless revolutionary, for it has changed us from head to toe. Or rather, from toe to head, for the evidence indicates the process began with a modification in our big toe (which made upright walking easier) and ended with self-awareness (which ultimately made us interested in the story of our origin). While the rough edges of this story have been known for decades, recent fossil finds and new techniques in DNA analysis in the past 5 years have allowed the story to come into much clearer focus. Armed with these new discoveries, science writer Chip Walter takes on the story of human origins and evolution in his new book Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived. Read more…
Preview: Our world is becoming increasingly integrated and complex, and changing faster and faster. Out of the morass of elements involved here, Al Gore identifies 6 themes or factors that are emerging as the major drive
rs of change. The factors are 1) Work: the movement of labor from West to East (outsourcing); and, at the same time, a shift towards much more automation (robosourcing); 2) Power: the shifting of power from West to East; and, at the same time, the shifting of power from national governments to smaller players, such as businesses and corporations, but also rogue players, such as guerrilla and terror organizations; 3) Communications: the rise of the internet that has led to a wild proliferation of information, and the ability of the world’s population to instantly connect with one another for a host of purposes–and the increasing reach of the internet from the developed to the developing world; 4) Biotechnology: the manipulation of DNA to produce not only new organisms with novel features, but new materials and fuels as well; 5) Demographics: the enormous increase in the world’s population, and the movement of peoples both within and across national borders (as the result of numerous factors); and 6) Climate Change: the increase in world temperatures caused by the continuing build-up of CO2, as well as the numerous other climate effects that this entails.
While several of these drivers of change have the potential to bring great benefits to the world’s people, all are fraught with potential dangers, and it is this that is Gore’s focus in his new book The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change. In addition to the dangers, Gore also reveals his own advice regarding how best to deal with the potential dangers. Read more…
Preview: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes is as popular today as when he was created back in the late 19th century. This comes as no surprise, of course, since there is just something about Holmes’ peculiar qualities—his keen observation, clever imagination, and incisive reasoning capabilities—that is both awe-inspiring and inspirational. We admire Holmes for cutting through the errors of thought that are so common to us in our daily lives (and that are reflected in Holmes’ sidekick, Watson). And yet we recognize that there is nothing in Holmes’ thought that is entirely out of reach for us. Indeed, his qualities are not so much superhuman as human plus: human qualities taken to their extreme. Still, human qualities taken to their extreme are intimidating enough, and we may find ourselves doubting whether we could ever really think like Sherlock—even if we put our minds to it. But for cognitive psychologist Maria Konnikova, we should think again.
Holmes’ prowess, Konnikova argues, rests no so much in his mental powers as in his mental approach. Specifically, Holmes has succeeded in making his thought methodical and systematic—essentially bringing the scientific method and scientific thinking to his detective work. This is an approach to thinking which, Konnikova argues, we can all learn. More importantly, it is an approach to thinking that can extend well beyond sleuthing. Indeed, it is a general approach that can help us get at the truth in virtually any matter, as well as help us solve virtually any problem. It is simply a matter of bringing a little science to the art of thinking—and it is this very thing that Konnikova aims to help us achieve in her new book Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes. Read more…
Preview: The onset of agriculture and farming some 11,000 years ago (termed the Neolithic Revolution), is arguably the most significant turning point in the history of our species. Agriculture induced a major population explosion, which then led to urbanization; labor specialization; social stratification; and formalized governance—thus ultimately bringing us to civilization as we know it today. Prior to the Neolithic Revolution—and extending back time out of mind—human beings lived in a far different way. Specifically, our ancestors lived in small, largely egalitarian tribes of no more than 50 to 100 individuals, and hunted and foraged for their food.
The transition from our traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle, to early farming (and herding), to civilization as we know it now (which, on an evolutionary time-scale, occurred but yesterday) has certainly brought with it some very impressive benefits. Indeed, many of us today enjoy comforts and opportunities the likes of which our more traditional ancestors would never have dreamed of. However, it cannot be said that the transition from traditional to modern has left us without any difficulties. Indeed, some would go so far as to say that the problems that civilization has introduced outweigh the benefits that it has brought; and even the most unromantic among us are likely to agree that our experiment in civilization has not been an unmitigated success.
This then brings us to the problem of solving the difficulties that civilization has left us with. Now, when it comes to solving our problems, it is without a doubt the spirit of our age to look ever forward for solutions—by which I mean we tend to look for new technologies and hitherto untested arrangements to help us out of our current predicaments. However, when we consider that our traditional lifestyle served us well for millennia on end, and that it was under this lifestyle wherein we underwent much of the biological and psychological evolution that lives with us to this day, we can begin to see how it may be fruitful to look back at this traditional lifestyle for possible solutions to the problems we now face. (This idea is not new; indeed, the ‘state of nature’ has traditionally been of great interest to philosophers—for it has been thought that understanding how we lived by nature may serve as a guide to help us design the most fitting political communities given our present circumstances).
Also of interest here—and deeply connected to the more practical goal mentioned above—is that investigating our traditional way of life promises to shed light on our underlying human nature in a way that is not possible when we look at ourselves through the obscuring artifice of civilization. It is these things that we stand to gain by learning about traditional societies, and it is this very project that geographer Jared Diamond takes up in his new book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Read more…