The big Cosmos holiday reading guide!


The Cosmos office is closed for an Easter break until Tuesday, April 3. In the meantime, please enjoy this bumper selection of science book reviews.


Which book to choose next? Our holiday reading guide may assist.
Which book to choose next? Our holiday reading guide may assist.
Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images

On Purpose
by Michael Ruse

Princeton University Press (2017)

I once attended a seminar on the philosophy of laughter, which turned out to be a very grim affair indeed. The event left me with a nagging sense that philosophers might be doing the pursuit of wisdom a disservice by training their intellectual sights on things the townsfolk just know in their bones.

In his new book On Purpose, Michael Ruse, a highly regarded philosopher of science and professor at the University of Florida, could at first glance appear guilty of a similar misdemeanour.

Most people, after all, seem pretty content with the notion of purpose, its place in their lives and the existential disquiet that pervades in its absence.

Ruse is not one of those people. His crusade is to elevate purpose to its proper status in the world of ideas. His opening gambit is to note a distinction that rarely troubles the layperson but has preoccupied metaphysicians for a good couple of millennia. Why does my thumb hurt? Because I hit it with a hammer. This, explains Ruse, is an example of a cause that exists in the past, something Aristotle called an “efficient cause”.

But what causes me to study journalism, invest in a stock or invite friends to dinner? These causes – Aristotle termed them “final causes” – lie in the future. They are mysterious to Ruse because they can motivate action even when their object never comes to exist. The aspiring journalist might study for a career that becomes obsolete before they even graduate.

The commonsense reader will, no doubt, respond that our purpose-driven, “teleological” behaviour simply stems from the fact we’re conscious beings. We can hold rewards in mind and strive towards them.

What then, to use Ruse’s example, of the lion that hides behind a thicket to launch a surprise attack on a buck? Antelope meat is surely good for the lion, so does it attack with purpose? Or consider the Venus flytrap. Catching a fly would also seem good for the plant, so could there be purpose in its entrapment?

If purpose slides along some kind of spectrum, might it permeate the non-living world too? Ruse thinks the Stellenbosch region in South Africa is about as pretty as it gets and, if some mining company wanted to lop the top off its mountains, he “would be ahead even of the ecofeminists in crying ‘rape’”.

“If that is not a value cry, one made for the sake of the mountain and not for me, I don’t know what is,” he writes.

Could intactness really be good for the mountain? If so, is there some kind of mountain-centred purpose in preserving it? Ruse ranges wide seeking answers.

His bedrock is three of the greats of philosophy. Plato was for a designing God, or ‘demiurge’, that stage-directed all things to goals ultimately bound to the ‘Form of the Good’. Aristotle plumped for ‘unmoved movers’, forces suffusing the cosmos with objective purpose. Kant saw purpose as a ‘heuristic’ or guide, imposed by humankind on the biological world as a means to understand it.

So far, so obscure, you might say.

Ruse aims to illuminate these theories by weaving them through a dizzying array of more modern, if equally contentious, views. The Platonic demiurge re-emerges in a discussion of intelligent design. How, argue people such as US biochemist Michael Behe, could the flagella-driven propulsion system of certain bacteria arise merely by Darwinian selection?

Its very complexity seems to rule out any preceding, intermediate form, opening a door to the existence of an all-guiding hand.

If you think unmoved movers are improbable, there is increasing support, including from Australian philosopher David Chalmers, for the idea of panpsychism, the notion that even non-living forms could have consciousness.

If thinking needs molecules, Ruse explains, maybe it scales up and down depending on how many you have, “like red paint getting redder and redder as you add more pigment, so consciousness becomes more and more aware as it is added to”. If purpose hinges on conscious-ness, perhaps it soaks the cosmos more thoroughly than we have thought.

Ruse seems most sympathetic, however, to a Kantian view in which we ascribe purpose to the world for our own pragmatic ends. With this view, Ruse says, the plates on the back of a stegosaurus have the purpose of regulating temperature because, well, we say they do, and that aids the goal of biological inquiry. But purpose borne of humankind is, the professor notes, prone to hijack. Psychologist Justin Barrett has called humans “hyperactive agency detectors”, driven to see faces in just about everything as a “better safe than sorry” strategy to detect foes. If we can find faces in the Moon, car fronts and even burnt toast, it is hardly surprising we see purpose in all kinds of places where there is none.

One quibble is that purpose and function seem often conflated. On stegosaurus plates, why not say temperature control is just their evolved function rather than purpose?

This is, nonetheless, a deeply intelligent book that treats key thinkers in philosophy, religion and the sciences fairly, humorously and with a virtuosity reflecting more than half a century in the field. Towards the close he ponders his own quest for purpose approaching the business end of life. His evident love for the teaching and practice of philosophy would appear to fill the void. As moral philosopher Susan Wolf notes in the book: “A life is meaningful insofar as it contributes to something larger than itself.”

Paul Biegler


A Different Kind of Animal: How Culture Transformed Our Species
by Robert Boyd

Princeton University Press (2018)

Traditionally the purview of the humanities, “culture” is taken increasingly seriously by the natural sciences. There are three major schools of thought: behavioural ecology, evolutionary psychology and the lesser-known “cultural evolution” perspective. The first has been quietly working away, with some interesting progress, while evolutionary psychology, the best-known of the three, has been making grand claims, none of which bear up terribly well to scrutiny.

In the third camp one finds Robert Boyd, of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. At the heart of his new book – based on his presentations at Princeton University in 2016 as part of the annual Tanner Lectures on Human Values – is the claim that culture makes humans unique. Humans are outliers: we have, unlike any other animal, adapted to every available environment because of the accumulated culture of our societies, not the evolved contents of our minds.

Large complex brains alone, Boyd suggests, are not enough for human societies to thrive in different habitats because it is beyond the ability of any individual to know, let alone devise, all necessary survival techniques. Instead, he argues a theory of cultural evolution in which societies survive because humans imitate and learn from the behaviour, techniques and beliefs of others, often despite not understanding exactly why. He calls the process of transmitting cultural norms, enforced via sanctions, ‘cultural group selection’. When such selection produces successful results, societies build up a store of useful behaviours, a process he calls ‘cumulative cultural adaptation’. “Norms causing a group to survive,” he says, “will become more common compared to those that lead to extinction.” This will cause some groups to thrive and some to wither in an extra-genetic analogue of Darwinian evolution.

Boyd’s book is thoughtful and compelling, filled with interdisciplinary insight, methodology derived from population biology and ample evidence; but there are, of course, nits to be picked. The last part is taken up with criticism and commentary from four thinkers from other disciplines, including the august Australian philosopher Kim Sterelny, followed by Boyd’s responses. The back and forth is as entertaining as is it insightful, and reveals a research program rich with promise.

A Different Kind of Animal is a fascinating introduction to a fertile field of cultural research that should be better-known. Approachable and clearly argued, it is a brave revival of the autonomy of culture and a breath of fresh air for those tired of the narrow claims of evolutionary psychology.

Stephen Fleischfresser


The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire
by Kyle Harper

Princeton University Press (2017)

“Explanations for the fall of Rome have never been lacking,” writes Kyle Harper early on in this magisterial investigation into the end of the most powerful civilisation in the pre-industrial world. “There is a traffic jam of contending theories. A German classicist catalogued 210 hypotheses on offer.”

Now there are 211 – although this one is going to take some beating.

Harper is professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma. His previous books have covered slavery and sexual morality in the Roman world. In this one, however, he joins his extensive knowledge of Roman-era texts, and the more recent scholarship that builds upon them, with equally impressive forays into climate and epidemiology.

Bugs and changing weather patterns, he asserts, were major influences on the early success and later failure of Rome. On the matter of climate change, he is on pretty firm ground, able to deploy evidence to posit a fortuitous period known as the Roman Climate Optimum that underpinned what Edward Gibbon termed “Rome’s happiest age” (Gibbon, naturally, is a frequent reference), followed by less stable conditions around the time of the sacking of Rome itself and, later, the decline of the empire in the east.

On the matter of the influence of pathogens, he is sometimes on more speculative ground – DNA evidence of plagues notwithstanding – and relies on perhaps contentious interpretations of passages from Roman writers. The totality of his argument, however, is persuasive, and his approach elegant and eloquent. “Biological change was even more forceful than the physical climate in deciding the fate of Rome,” he writes. “Of course, the two were not, and are not, unconnected.”

In the course of the book – heavily armed with maps, graphs, endnotes, appendices and a bibliography – Harper uses climate and disease data to finesse the two leading theories of Rome’s demise: “inherently unsustainable mechanics of the imperial system and the gathering external pressures along the frontiers of empire”.

Both have much merit – and acquire more with climate and pathogens added. In so doing, Harper resets other favoured causes for the end of empire, diminishing some in the process. “The coming of the Huns,” he notes, “did not, by itself, spell the doom of the western empire.” The Huns did not conquer much; the entire Asian steppe “shifted its weight”.

The Fate of Rome should probably sit on shelves next to Gibbon’s masterwork. In time, one feels, it will be seen every bit as much an essential text.

Andrew Masterson


The Cyberiad: Stories
by Stanislaw Lem

Penguin (2014)

First published in Polish in 1965, The Cyberiad is a series of short stories about two ‘constructor’ robots named Trurl and Klapaucius.

Author Stanisław Lem plays fast and loose with physics, creating a world that revels in technological mayhem and still feels fresh, yet strangely grounded, today. He has lots of fun with eastern European literary traditions; there are echoes of Kafka and Gogol here, and perhaps a nod to Czech writer Karel Capek, who first coined the word ‘robot’ in 1920.

The modern appeal of The Cyberiad might lie in the quiet influence it has had on other science-fiction authors – Asimov was a huge fan, for instance. But Lem’s literary boldness shares much with contemporary writers in different fields.

There are similarities in tone and style to absurdist dramatists, such as Beckett and Ionesco. One story, Trurl’s Machine, revolves around an “eight-storey thinking machine”, trimmed in lavender but lacking a “mentation muffler”. When asked to calculate two multiplied by two, it answers, after a long wait, “seven”. Correctly or not, it seems a distant ancestor of Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought.

The Cyberiad is no historical curiosity, however. It is arresting and bizarre and brilliant. A treasure.

Andrew Masterson


Ten Great Ideas about Chance
by Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms

Princeton University Press (2017)

What are the odds you knew the idea of chance was, until the 16th and 17th centuries, more mystery and magic than mathematics?

I had thought the Greeks would have been all over mathematical probability, but they put it all down to Tyche, the goddess of luck.

The real foundation work was done by an Italian gambler and mathematician. Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576) thought chance could be measured. His book Liber de ludo aleae (“Book on Games of Chance”) was the first systematic treatment of probability. It also included a section on cheating.

Cardano’s work was followed by Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal, Pierre de Fermat, Jacob Bernoulli and others, all seemingly fixated on better understanding the roll of dice or the toss of coins. Slowly the study of chance moved away from the gaming tables towards the fields of law, politics and medicine. That work was done by philosophers and economists including David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Karl Popper. Thus this book is, as the authors put it, part history, part probability and part philosophy.

The book gets even more interesting when it looks at the work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who studied how we commonly make mistakes in reasoning about chance and probability, using mental shortcuts, biases and framing to overstate or underrate the likelihood of things occurring. That the physiology and logic of chance are different subjects is one of the 10 great ideas to which the book’s title refers.

Much of the text involves quite complex mathematics, but the authors generally find practical examples to explain the concepts – such as the chapter on inverse inference, which explains the reason so many published research papers are non-replicable is an overemphasis on p-values.

This book will not increase your odds of winning at games of chance, but it will give you some greater understanding of why you lose.

Craig Cormick


Guinness World Records: Science & Stuff
by Guinness World Records

Pan Macmillan Australia (2018)

Packed with big photos and capsule texts, this book jumps around and jabbers like a hyperactive child – and is perfect for every young geek.

Propelled by the same relentless humour and energy of the Guinness team’s popular Officially Amazing television series, the topics range far and wide, from extreme sports to extremophiles, robots to roller-coasters, mole rats to mutant vegetables.

Along the way, it raises wonderful topics for curious minds, such as what happens when you burp in space and how to start a dinosaur poo collection. There is also a collection of DIY experiments guaranteed to wreck the kitchen.

The collection is introduced by Robin Ince, a comedian who is Brian Cox’s co-host on the popular BBC radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage.

Andrew Masterson


The Phantom Sense & Other Stories
by Richard A Lovett and Mark Niemann-Ross

Strange Wolf Press (2012)

The sci-fi short story is a less common form these days. This collection, first published in 2012, makes a compelling case for it to be revived.

One of the authors, Rick Lovett, has since become a valued contributor to Cosmos, both in print and online. This book highlights his abilities as a fiction author.

Lovett cut his teeth as a writer by contributing to US science fiction magazine Analog, a venerable publication going (with the odd name change) since 1930. In its glory days it ran works by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. It is still a robust and popular magazine, and Lovett’s many contributions have scored him (so far) eight readers’ choice awards. Niemann-Ross has two.

The four co-written stories in this volume were all first published in Analog, and provide the sort of engrossing short-form exploratory speculative entertainment that the magazine’s readers love.

The first yarn – by far the longest – is a dark first-person exploration that opens on a former soldier’s efforts to cope with life after active service ends. In this case, however, demobbing is much more complex than simply handing back a service firearm.

Sergeant Kip McCorbin is a former member of a high-tech intel squad, in which operatives control swarms of insects, achieving almost god-like surveillance abilities in the process. Adjusting to life without the assistance of one’s own personal swarm turns out to be a hellish journey that echoes with the tropes of addiction recovery.

Eventually, the protagonist is offered the opportunity to reconnect with a bug cloud in civilian life – a move that might underpin his sanity but also cost him the people he loves.

The remaining three yarns – “A Deadly Intent”, “New Wineskins” and “NetPuppets” – explore different aspects of human-tech interaction with a calm detachment that emphasises dystopian concerns.

“NetPuppets” is intriguing, positing unauthorised use of an apparently abandoned online psychological test that is eventually revealed to have real-life implications for complete strangers. It speaks to the skill of the authors that the narrative does not turn on something appalling happening to these strangers but on the realisation that anything, good or bad, is rendered disturbing when imposed by others.

The Phantom Sense and Other Stories is available across a range of on-demand print platforms.

Andrew Masterson


Plant Minds: A Philosophical Defense
by Chauncey Maher

Routledge (2017)

Do plants have minds? Obviously not, you’ve possibly already thought, it is crazy to even ask the question. In this little book – just 127 pages – Chauncey Maher shows the notion isn’t bizarre. He doesn’t end up concluding plants do have minds but does say it is plausible.

The question hinges on what plants do that could qualify them as having minds, and what having a mind entails.

In terms of what they do, Maher covers things well-known, such as growing towards light, and other facts less familiar, such as releasing chemicals when attacked by pests to alert surrounding plants. We take plants for granted, so it is good to have these things explained at a level of detail that enables us to appreciate how sophisticated they really are. But if you’re looking for a book about the amazing abilities of plants, this isn’t it. Instead Maher concentrates on ideas about what the mind is, testing these against the evidence from plants.

It makes the book a concise overview of the philosophy of mind, from Aristotle through to the present. That’s a lot to cover. Maher writes clearly, though at a pace where much gets left behind. These are weighty ideas, so if you’re new to this topic you might want to take it more slowly.

What is particularly nice is that Maher brings us up to date with a very recent theory of mind. Most of what you will find on this subject settles on an explanation in terms of representations and computation. This approach is pretty much assumed by cognitive scientists and most philosophers too. Under it the case for plant minds is weak. But a quite different approach – enactivism – is getting some attention.

Enactivism starts by thinking about living things, which encompasses everything we are sure has a mind. Living things create themselves – they maintain their own bodies and produce more of the same. In doing this they engage with environments containing some things they need and others they must avoid. They change things in their environments to their advantage. In these interactions lies a latent idea of mind. If this idea is right, plants could have minds – proto-minds, anyway. It is a nice challenge to consider.

Jim Rountree


What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses
by Daniel Chamovitz

Scribe Publications (2017)

Sometimes science is about being wrong, and sometimes honesty is about admitting it.

The first condition is an unavoidable consequence of inquiry: you make findings and build theories on the available evidence. Later, if more evidence becomes available that doesn’t fit, the theory must change.

US-born biologist Daniel Chamovitz, now dean of the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University, is an honest scientist.

His pop-science book What A Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses was first published in 2012. A detailed and witty examination of plant genetics and physiology, it became a global hit, arguably the best-selling botany book since The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird in 1973.

Given the book’s success, it is not surprising Chamovitz and his publishers opted for a revised edition. However, what does raise eyebrows – and elicits respect – is the statement by the author in the prologue “that the new edition contains groundbreaking information that completely contradicts conclusions made in the first”.

The details of these contradictions need not concern us here, but something more general should be underlined. Despite altering his analysis from time to time, Chamovitz does not alter his approach, which is that of a rigorously disciplined geneticist. There is much enthusiasm in his writing, but it is always bolstered by research, broadly conducted and meticulously referenced.

As with the original edition, Chamovitz explores plants ranging from algae to Douglas firs, characterising their responses to environmental stimuli and genetic mechanics in terms of five human senses, as well as memory and sense of place. It is a device that works very well.

What A Plant Knows is a fascinating read. “My book is not The Secret Life of Plants,” Chamovitz writes. “If you’re looking for an argument that plants are just like us, you won’t find it here.”

Andrew Masterson


These reviews are part of the exciting material to be found in the latest print edition of Cosmos, which will be available in good bookshops and newsagents across Australia in April. To order a copy, please contact us here.

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