Book Reviews

Book review: Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death, by Adrian Owen.

Too many books and talks have gratuitous displays of fMRIs and neuroscience. At last, here’s a book where fMRIs are used with fairly good reason, and neuroscience is explained only when that’s appropriate.

Owen provides evidence of near-normal brain activity in a modest fraction of people who had been classified as being in a persistent vegetative state. They are capable of answering yes or no to most questions, and show signs of understanding the plots of movies.

Owen believes this evidence is enough to say they’re conscious. I suspect he’s mostly right about that, and that they do experience much of the brain function that is typically associated with consciousness. Owen doesn’t have any special insights into what we mean by the word consciousness. He mostly just investigates how to distinguish between near-normal mental activity and seriously impaired mental activity.

So what were neurologists previously using to classify people as vegetative? As far as I can tell, they were diagnosing based on a lack of motor responses, even though they were aware of an alternate diagnosis, total locked-in syndrome, with identical symptoms. Locked-in syndrome and persistent vegetative state were both coined (in part) by the same person (but I’m unclear who coined the term total locked-in syndrome).

My guess is that the diagnoses have been influenced by a need for certainty. (whose need? family members? doctors? It’s not obvious).

The book has a bunch of mostly unremarkable comments about ethics. But I was impressed by Owen’s observation that people misjudge whether they’d want to die if they end up in a locked-in state. So how likely is it they’ll mispredict what they’d want in other similar conditions? I should have deduced this from the book stumbling on happiness, but I failed to think about it.

I’m a bit disturbed by Owen’s claim that late-stage Alzheimer’s patients have no sense of self. He doesn’t cite evidence for this conclusion, and his research should hint to him that it would be quite hard to get good evidence on this subject.

Most books written by scientists who made interesting discoveries attribute the author’s success to their competence. This book provides clear evidence for the accidental nature of at least some science. Owen could easily have gotten no signs of consciousness from the first few patients he scanned. Given the effort needed for the scans, I can imagine that that would have resulted in a mistaken consensus of experts that vegetative states were being diagnosed correctly.

Book review: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, by Kevin N. Laland.

This book is a mostly good complement to Henrich’s The Secret of our Success. The two books provide different, but strongly overlapping, perspectives on how cultural transmission of information played a key role in the evolution of human intelligence.

The first half of the book describes the importance of copying behavior in many animals.

I was a bit surprised that animals as simple as fruit flies are able to copy some behaviors of other fruit flies. Laland provides good evidence that a wide variety of species have evolved some ability to copy behavior, and that ability is strongly connected to the benefits of acquiring knowledge from others and the costs of alternative ways of acquiring that knowledge.

Yet I was also surprised that the value of copying is strongly limited by the low reliability with which behavior is copied, except with humans. Laland makes plausible claims that the need for high-fidelity copying of behavior was an important driving force behind the evolution of bigger and more sophisticated brains.

Laland claims that humans have a unique ability to teach, and that teaching is an important adaptation. He means teaching in a much broader sense than we see in schooling – he includes basic stuff that could have preceded language, such as a parent directing a child’s attention to things that the child ought to learn. This seems like a good extension to Henrich’s ideas.

The most interesting chapter theorizes about the origin of human language. Laland’s theory that language evolved for teaching provides maybe a bit stronger selection pressure than other theories, but he doesn’t provide much reason to reject competing theories.

Laland presents seven criteria for a good explanation of the evolution of language. But these criteria look somewhat biased toward his theory.

Laland’s first two criteria are that language should have been initially honest and cooperative. He implies that it must have been more honest and cooperative than modern language use is, but he isn’t as clear about that as I would like. Those two criteria seem designed as arguments against the theory that language evolved to impress potential mates. The mate-selection theory involves plenty of competition, and presumably a fair amount of deception. But better communicators do convey important evidence about the quality of their genes, even if they’re engaging in some deception. That seems sufficient to drive the evolution of language via mate-selection pressures.

Laland’s theory seems to provide a somewhat better explanation of when language evolved than most other theories do, so I’m inclined to treat it as one of the top theories. But I don’t expect any consensus on this topic anytime soon.

The book’s final four chapters seemed much less interesting. I recommend skipping them.

Henrich’s book emphasized evidence that humans are pretty similar to other apes. Laland emphasizes ways in which humans are unique (language and teaching ability). I didn’t notice any cases where they directly contradicted each other, but it’s a bit disturbing that they left quite different impressions while saying mostly appropriate things.

Henrich claimed that increasing climate variability created increased rewards for the fast adaptation that culture enabled. Laland disagrees, saying that cultural change itself is a more plausible explanation for the kind of environmental change that incentivized faster adaptation. My intuition says that Laland’s conclusion is correct, but he seems a bit overconfident about it.

Overall, Laland’s book is less comprehensive and less impressive than Henrich’s book, but is still good enough to be in my top ten list of books on the evolution of intelligence.

Update on 2017-08-18: I just read another theory about the evolution of language which directly contradicts Laland’s claim that early language needed to be honest and cooperative. Wild Voices: Mimicry, Reversal, Metaphor, and the Emergence of Language claims that an important role of initial human vocal flexibility was to deceive other species.

Book review: The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat, by Stephan Guyenet.

Researchers who studied obesity in rats used to have trouble coaxing their rats to overeat. The obvious approaches (a high fat diet, or a high sugar diet) were annoyingly slow. Then they stumbled on the approach of feeding human junk food to the rats, and made much faster progress.

What makes something “junk food”? The best parts of this book help to answer this, although some ambiguity remains. It mostly boils down to palatability (is it yummier than what our ancestors evolved to expect? If so, it’s somewhat addictive) and caloric density.

Presumably designers of popular snack foods have more sophisticated explanations of what makes people obese, since that’s apparently identical to what they’re paid to optimize (with maybe a few exceptions, such as snacks that are marketed as healthy or ethical). Yet researchers who officially study obesity seem reluctant to learn from snack food experts. (Because they’re the enemy? Because they’re low status? Because they work for evil corporations? Your guess is likely as good as mine.)

Guyenet provides fairly convincing evidence that it’s simple to achieve a healthy weight while feeling full. (E.g. the 20 potatoes a day diet). To the extent that we need willpower, it’s to avoid buying convenient/addictive food, and to avoid restaurants.

My experience is that I need a moderate amount of willpower to follow Guyenet’s diet ideas, and that it would require large amount of willpower if I attended many social events involving food. But for full control over my weight, it seemed like I needed to supplement a decent diet with some form of intermittent fasting (e.g. alternate day calorie restriction); Guyenet says little about that.

Guyenet’s practical advice boils down to a few simple rules: eat whole foods that resemble what our ancestors ate; don’t have other “food” anywhere that you can quickly grab it; sleep well; exercise; avoid stress. That’s sufficiently similar to advice I’ve heard before that I’m confident The Hungry Brain won’t revolutionize many people’s understanding of obesity. But it’s got a pretty good ratio of wisdom to questionable advice, and I’m unaware of reasons to expect much more than that.

Guyenet talks a lot about neuroscience. That would make sense if readers wanted to learn how to fix obesity via brain surgery. The book suggests that, in the absence of ethical constraints, it might be relatively easy to cure obesity by brain surgery. Yet I doubt such a solution would become popular, even given optimistic assumptions about safety.

An alternate explanation is that Guyenet is showing off his knowledge of brains, in order to show that he’s smart enough to have trustworthy beliefs about diets. But that effect is likely small, due to competition among diet-mongers for comparable displays of smartness.

Or maybe he’s trying to combat dualism, in order to ridicule the “just use willpower” approach to diet? Whatever the reason is, the focus on neuroscience implies something unimpressive about the target audience.

You should read this book if you eat a fairly healthy diet but are still overweight. Otherwise, read Guyenet’s blog instead, for a wider variety of health advice.

Book review: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brene Brown.

I almost didn’t read this because I was unimpressed by the TEDx video version of it, but parts of the book were pretty good (mainly chapters 3 and 4).

The book helped clarify my understanding of shame: how it differs from guilt, how it often constrains us without accomplishing anything useful, and how to reduce it.

She emphasizes that we can reduce shame by writing down or talking about shameful thoughts. She doesn’t give a strong explanation of what would cause that effect, but she prompted me to generate one: parts of my subconscious mind initially want to hide the shameful thoughts, and that causes them to fight the parts of my mind that want to generate interesting ideas. The act of communicating those ideas to the outside world convinces those censor-like parts of my mind to worry less about the ideas (because it’s too late? or because the social response is evidence that the censor was mistakenly worried? I don’t know).

I was a bit confused by her use of the phrase “scarcity culture”. I was initially tempted to imagine she wanted us to take a Panglossian view in which we ignore the resource constraints that keep us from eliminating poverty. But the context suggests she’s thinking more along the lines of “a culture of envy”. Or maybe a combination of perfectionism plus status seeking? Her related phrase “never enough” makes sense if I interpret it as “never impressive enough”.

I find it hard to distinguish those “bad” attitudes from the attitudes that seem important for me to strive for self-improvement.

She attempts to explain that distinction in a section on perfectionism. She compares perfectionism to healthy striving by noting that perfectionism focuses on what other people will think of us, whereas healthy striving is self-focused. Yet I’m pretty sure I’ve managed to hurt myself with perfectionism while focusing mostly on worries about how I’ll judge myself.

I suspect that healthy striving requires more focus on the benefits of success, and less attention to fear of failure, than is typical of perfectionism. The book hints at this, but doesn’t say it clearly when talking about perfectionism. Maybe she describes perfectionism better in her book The Gifts of Imperfection. Should I read that?

Her claim “When we stop caring about what people think, we lose our capacity for connection” feels important, and an area where I have trouble.

The book devotes too much attention to gender-stereotypical problems with shame. Those stereotypes are starting to look outdated. And it shouldn’t require two whole chapters to say that advice on how to have healthy interactions with people should also apply to relations at work, and to relations between parents and children.

The book was fairly easy to read, and parts of it are worth rereading.

[Another underwhelming book; I promise to get out of the habit of posting only book reviews Real Soon Now.]

Book review: Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott.

Scott begins with a history of the tension between the desire for legibility versus the desire for local control. E.g. central governments wanted to know how much they could tax peasants without causing famine or revolt. Yet even in the optimistic case where they got an honest tax collector to report how many bushels of grain John produced, they had problems due to John’s village having an idiosyncratic meaning of “bushel” that the tax collector couldn’t easily translate to something the central government knew. And it was hard to keep track of whether John had paid the tax, since the central government didn’t understand how the villagers distinguished that John from the John who lived a mile away.

So governments that wanted to grow imposed lots of standards on people. That sometimes helped peasants by making their taxes fairer and more predictable, but often trampled over local arrangements that had worked well (especially complex land use agreements).

I found that part of the book to be a fairly nice explanation of why an important set of conflicts was nearly inevitable. Scott gives a relatively balanced view of how increased legibility had both good and bad effects (more efficient taxation, diseases tracked better, Nazis found more Jews, etc.).

Then Scott becomes more repetitive and one-sided when describing high modernism, which carried the desire for legibility to a revolutionary, authoritarian extreme (especially between 1920 and 1960). I didn’t want 250 pages of evidence that Soviet style central planning was often destructive. Maybe that conclusion wasn’t obvious to enough people when Scott started writing the book, but it was painfully obvious by the time the book was published.

Scott’s complaints resemble the Hayekian side of the socialist calculation debate, except that Scott frames in terms that minimize associations with socialism and capitalism. E.g. he manages to include Taylorist factory management in his cluster of bad ideas.

It’s interesting to compare Fukuyama’s description of Tanzania with Scott’s description. They both agree that villagization (Scott’s focus) was a disaster. Scott leaves readers with the impression that villagization was the most important policy, whereas Fukuyama only devotes one paragraph to it, and gives the impression that the overall effects of Tanzania’s legibility-increasing moves were beneficial (mainly via a common language causing more cooperation). Neither author provides a balanced view (but then they were both drawing attention to neglected aspects of history, not trying to provide a complete picture).

My advice: read the SlateStarCodex review, don’t read the whole book.

[An unimportant book that I read for ARC; feel free to skip this.]

Book review: Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken: Transform Your Life with the Power of Authenticity, by Mike Robbins.

This book’s advice mostly feels half-right, and mostly directed at people who have somewhat different problems than I have.

The book’s exercises range from things I’ve already done enough of, to things I ought to practice more but which feel hard (such as the self-love exercise).
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Book review: State, Economy, and the Great Divergence: Great Britain and China, 1680s – 1850s, by Peer Vries.

Yet another book on why Britain and China diverged dramatically starting around 1800. This one focuses on documenting the differences between the regions, with relatively little theorizing.

Some interesting differences of possible relevance to the divergence:

  • British per capita tax collections were 15 times China’s [1]; Vries emphasizes the underlying British bureaucratic competence.
  • Britain changed its tax rules often; China treated tax rules as if set in stone.
  • British tax policy caused it to promote standardization of a wide variety of weights and measures, which helped long-distance trades; China had nothing similar.
  • Britain’s taxation was more egalitarian than China’s (but still much less egalitarian than today).
  • British government debt looked recklessly high; China consistently had a surplus.
  • British elites wanted to keep the masses poor (to make them industrious); China’s elites seemed neutral or had slight preferences for the poor to prosper.
  • Most British workers were nearly slaves – laws restricted their mobility due to the expectation that most who left their area of work were beggars/thieves; China was less restrictive.
  • Britain condoned or supported powerful monopolies; China broke up concentrations of merchant power / capital under the assumption that they came at the expense of ordinary people.
  • Britain had three times as much farm land per capita as China.
  • Britain was more urban, so it had more commercial / monetary activity.
  • China denied that anything outside its borders mattered. Britain had a fairly global worldview.

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Book review: The Measure of All Minds: Evaluating Natural and Artificial Intelligence, by José Hernández-Orallo.

Much of this book consists of surveys of the psychometric literature. But the best parts of the book involve original results that bring more rigor and generality to the field. The best parts of the book approach the quality that I saw in Judea Pearl’s Causality, and E.T. Jaynes’ Probability Theory, but Measure of All Minds achieves a smaller fraction of its author’s ambitions, and is sometimes poorly focused.

Hernández-Orallo has an impressive ambition: measure intelligence for any agent. The book mentions a wide variety of agents, such as normal humans, infants, deaf-blind humans, human teams, dogs, bacteria, Q-learning algorithms, etc.

The book is aimed at a narrow and fairly unusual target audience. Much of it reads like it’s directed at psychology researchers, but the more original parts of the book require thinking like a mathematician.

The survey part seems pretty comprehensive, but I wasn’t satisfied with his ability to distinguish the valuable parts (although he did a good job of ignoring the politicized rants that plague many discussions of this subject).

For nearly the first 200 pages of the book, I was mostly wondering whether the book would address anything important enough for me to want to read to the end. Then I reached an impressive part: a description of an objective IQ-like measure. Hernández-Orallo offers a test (called the C-test) which:

  • measures a well-defined concept: sequential inductive inference,
  • defines the correct responses using an objective rule (based on Kolmogorov complexity),
  • with essentially no arbitrary cultural bias (the main feature that looks like an arbitrary cultural bias is the choice of alphabet and its order)[1],
  • and gives results in objective units (based on Levin’s Kt).

Yet just when I got my hopes up for a major improvement in real-world IQ testing, he points out that what the C-test measures is too narrow to be called intelligence: there’s a 960 line Perl program that exhibits human-level performance on this kind of test, without resembling a breakthrough in AI.
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Book review: Political Order and Political Decay, by Francis Fukuyama.

This book describes the rise of modern nation-states, from the French revolution to the present.

Fukuyama focuses on three features that influence national success: state (effective bureaucracy), rule of law, and autonomy (democratic accountability).

Much of the book argues against libertarian ideas from a fairly centrist perspective, although he mostly avoids directly discussing libertarian beliefs. Instead, he implies that we should de-emphasize debates over big government versus small government, and look more at effectiveness versus corruption (i.e. we should pull sideways).

Many of these ideas build on what Fukuyama wrote in Trust – I suggest reading that book first.


War! What Is It Good For?. Fukuyama believes that war sometimes causes states to make their bureaucracy more efficient. Fukuyama is more credible here than Morris because Fukuyama is more cautious about the effects he claims to see.

The book suggests that young nations have some key stage where threat of conquest can create the right incentives for developing an efficient bureaucracy (i.e. without efficient support for the military, including effective taxation, they get absorbed into a state that does better at those tasks). Without such a threat, states can get stuck in an equilibrium where the bureaucracy simply serves a small number of powerful people. But with such a threat, politicians need to delegate enough authority that the bureaucracy develops some independence, which enables it to care about broader notions of national welfare. (Fukuyama talks as if the bureaucracies are somewhat altruistic. I think of it more as the bureaucracies caring about their long-term revenue source, when individual politicians don’t hold power long enough to care about the long term).

It seems plausible that China would have helped to lead the industrial revolution if it had faced a serious risk of being conquered in the 17th and 18th centuries. China’s relative safety back then seems to have left it complacent and stagnant.


Fukuyama hints that the three pillars of modern nation-states (state, law, autonomy) have roughly equal importance.

Yet I don’t buy that. I expect that whatever virtues are responsible for the rule of law are a good deal more important than effective bureaucracies or democratic accountability.

Fukuyama doesn’t make a strong case for the value of democracy for national success, presumably in part because he expects most readers to already agree with him about that. I’ll conjecture that democracy is mostly a byproduct of success at the other features that Fukuyama considers important.

It’s likely that democracy is somewhat valuable for generating fairness, but that has limited relevance to what Fukuyama tries to explain (i.e. mainly power and wealth).


Full-fledged rule of law might be needed to get all the benefits of the best modern societies. But the differences between good and bad nations seems to have originated well before those nations had more than a rudimentary version of rule of law.

That suggests some underlying factor that matters – maybe just the basic notion of law as something separate from individual leaders or ethnic groups (Fukuyama’s previous book says Christianity played an important role here); or maybe the kind of cultural advance suggested by Greg Clark.

Fukuyama argues that it’s risky to adopt democracy before creating effective states and the rule of law. He’s probably right to expect that such democracies will be dominated by people who fight to get the spoils of politics for their family / clan / ethnic group, with little thought to national wellbeing.


National identity is important for producing the kind of government that Fukuyama likes. It’s hard for government employees to focus on the welfare of the nation if they identify mainly as members of a non-majority ethnic group.

He mentions that the printing press helped create national identities out of more fragmented cultures. This seems important enough to Europe’s success that it deserves more emphasis than the two paragraphs he devotes to it.

He describes several countries that started out as a patchwork of ethnic groups, and had differing degrees of success at developing a unified national identity: Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Indonesia. I was a bit disappointed that the differences there seemed to be mostly accidents of the personalities of leading politicians.

He talks as if the only two options for such regions were to develop a clear national identity or be crippled by ethnic conflict. Why not also consider the option of splitting into smaller political units that can aim to become city-states such as Singapore and Dubai?


He makes many minor claims that sound suspicious enough for me to have moderate doubts about trusting his scholarship.

For example, he tries to refute claims that “industrial policy never works”, mainly by using the example of the government developing the internet. (His use of the word “never” suggests that he’s not exactly attacking the most sophisticated version of the belief in question). How familiar is he with the history of the internet? The entities in charge of internet tried to restrict commercial use until 1995. Actual commercial use of the internet started before the government made a clear decision to tolerate such use, much less endorse it. So Fukuyama either has a faulty understanding of internet history, or is using the phrase industrial policy in a way that puzzles me.

Then there’s the claim that the Spanish conquered important parts of the New World before the native nations had declined due to European diseases. Fukuyama seems unfamiliar with the contrary evidence reported by Charles C. Mann in 1491 and 1493. Mann may not be an ideal source, but he appears at least as reliable as the sources that Fukuyama cites.


That leads into more general doubts about history books, especially ambitiously broad books aimed at popular audiences.

Tetlock’s research into the accuracy of political pundits has led me to assume that a broad range of “expert” commentary is roughly equivalent to random guessing. Much of what historians do [1] seems quite similar to the opinions of the experts that Tetlock studies. Neither historians nor political pundits get adequate feedback about mistaken beliefs, or get significant rewards for insights that are later confirmed by new evidence. That leads me to worry that the study of history is little better than voodoo.


In sum, I can’t quite decide whether to recommend that you read this book.

[1] – I.e. drawing inferences from aggregations of data. That’s not to say that historians don’t devote lots of time to reporting observed facts. But most of those facts don’t have value to me unless I can generalize from them in ways that help me understand the future. Historian’s choices of what facts to emphasize will unavoidably influence any generalizations I draw.

Book review: Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

This book describes some interesting mysteries, but provides little help at solving them.

It provides some pieces of a long-term perspective on the evolution of intelligence.

Cephalopods’ most recent common ancestor with vertebrates lived way back before the Cambrian explosion. Nervous systems back then were primitive enough that minds didn’t need to react to other minds, and predation was a rare accident, not something animals prepared carefully to cause and avoid.

So cephalopod intelligence evolved rather independently from most of the minds we observe. We could learn something about alien minds by understanding them.

Intelligence may even have evolved more than once in cephalopods – nobody seems to know whether octopuses evolved intelligence separately from squids/cuttlefish.

An octopus has a much less centralized mind than vertebrates do. Does an octopus have a concept of self? The book presents evidence that octopuses sometimes seem to think of their arms as parts of their self, yet hints that their concept of self is a good deal weaker than in humans, and maybe the octopus treats its arms as semi-autonomous entities.


Does an octopus have color vision? Not via its photoreceptors the way many vertebrates do. Simple tests of octopuses’ ability to discriminate color also say no.

Yet octopuses clearly change color to camouflage themselves. They also change color in ways that suggest they’re communicating via a visual language. But to whom?

One speculative guess is that the color-producing parts act as color filters, with monochrome photoreceptors in the skin evaluating the color of the incoming light by how much the light is attenuated by the filters. So they “see” color with their skin, but not their eyes.

That would still leave plenty of mystery about what they’re communicating.


The author’s understanding of aging implies that few organisms die of aging in the wild. He sees evidence in Octopuses that conflicts with this prediction, yet that doesn’t alert him to the growing evidence of problems with the standard theories of aging.

He says octopuses are subject to much predation. Why doesn’t this cause them to be scared of humans? He has surprising anecdotes of octopuses treating humans as friends, e.g. grabbing one and leading him on a ten-minute “tour”.

He mentions possible REM sleep in cuttlefish. That would almost certainly have evolved independently from vertebrate REM sleep, which must indicate something important.

I found the book moderately entertaining, but I was underwhelmed by the author’s expertise. The subtitle’s reference to “the Deep Origins of Consciousness” led me to expect more than I got.