Monday, March 27, 2006

Two pop science books

Among the several popular science books that have been coming out during the last few decades, two of the easiest to read are Bill Bryson’s “A short history of everything” and Robin Dunbar’s ‘The human story”. Bryson is a journalist-writer of several popular books who suddenly realized one day that he did not know much about the physical (and biological world) and spent 3-4 years reading and talking to experts and produced a very readable book about earth, cosmos, evolution etc. It is one of those books that cannot be put down and gives a quick view of our world. It has won Aventis prize and is a best seller. Robin Dunbar is a scientist who has written a few popular books and is probably best known for Dunbar number which gives a limit to the number of individuals with whom any person (in a species) can maintain stable relationships. His theory is that this is limited by the mental capacity which in turn measured by the neocortex size. For humans this number (the mean) is supposed to be 150. For a discussion of this number with respect to online communities, see:
Dunbar develops similar ideas about mind, music and culture which are somewhat speculative but insightful. In the early part of the book, there is a quick review of human origins(out of Africa theory) and human aggression. Some of it is hard science from several disciplines and some speculative but overall a very readable book giving glimpses of our origins and instincts and a taste of some of the recent research. Similar ideas backed by more quantitative research seems necessary to understand economic matters described in Paul Seabright’s “The Company of Strangers: a ntural history of economic life”.
I will be away on a trip until May 15. I hope to return to these topics when I come back.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Matt Ridley

Jo has been complaining that I have not written anything for a couple of months. I was planning to write a bit more about Heilbronner’s book on capitalism and Jeffrey Sachs’ book on the end of poverty. Slowly itseemed that big solutions like Sachs’ may suffer fromcorruption and bureaucracy and perhaps such solutions are temporary if there are no cultural changes. Thereare such criticisms by Easterley and others:\lations/109/bat063005.pdf+William+Easterley&hl=en&gl=au&ct=clnk&cd=27&ie=UTF-8\1f66d1fb058&ei=5070
Heilbronner’s book might have been topical when it was written but now it is agreed that most of us are living in some kind of capitalist states. Since capitalism is supposed to be driven by greed and status which somehow are magically adjusted by some invisible hand, it seemed a good idea to read a bit about human nature. And I got stuck in sociobiology etc for a while. Then I found Matt Ridley’s book “Nature via nurture” in a sale and this seems to give a start on some of these topics. It is difficult to agree with some of Ridley’s extrapolations and conclusions but there is no doubt that he is a wonderful science writer. There are anumber of facts and discussions in both “Nature via nurture” and “The origins of virtue” which might have made a difference to me if I had known them earlier.Every chapter is thought provoking and can be used for further discussion and study in either a class room or a group. I think that the purpose of this kind of semi-popular books is not always to give definitive answers. If the authors can present interesting topics which people can understand and enjoy and leads to them to think further on those topics, it is worthwhile. I think that Matt Ridley succeeds in this if my example is any guide. There are good critical reviews of both the books of Ridley by H. Allen Orr. Some links are in : for reviews of “The origins of virtue”:“The softer side of sociobiology”and the exchange with Herbert Gintis. Allen Orr discusses variants of Prisoner' dilemma in some detail and Herbert Gintis discusses the Public-goods experiments. These go some way in hinting the origins of empathy, reciprocity which are problematic in theories of capitalism and rational choices. A more enthusiastic review of “The origins of virtue” by Solloway is in the New York Review ofBooks. A critical review of “Nature via nurture: byAllen Orr is in the same journal. I am sold on Ridley and will probably read his "Red Queen" and "Genome".
It seems that studyof reciprocity has been a big research topic in the recent years. There are about 200 references to books and papers on related topics in the article “Unifying Behavioral Sciences” by Herbert Gintis ( available at There is also a discussion in a different context of Public-goods experiments in Chapter 5 of “War and peace and war” by Peter Turchin. With this weak response to Jo, I go back to struggle with the Herbert Glintis ‘ article.