Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 A Year In Books

Last year I posted a list of the books I read…and it was fun. So I am doing it again.

Madame Bovary (A)[1] - Flaubert

Definitely more “important” than “good.” MB is a heavy handed morality tale that lacks a single redemptive character. But apparently Flaubert innovated the modern novel…and I can see the template for all of the great ones in it. So there is that.

The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene

LOVED it! This is my new favorite novel not written by a dead Russian[2]. I wrote a post on it.

Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs - Klosterman (A)

This is my third time through SDACP[3]. By now it is a period piece. But it remains THE definitive statement of Xer culture. It led to one of my favorite posts ever. And Klosterman is a bit of a rhetorical mentor for me, so listening to him read his best prose is valuable in its own right. I suspect this will not be the last time SDACP ends up on one of my year end lists.

Robinson Caruso (A) - Daniel Defoe

This book is REALLY old. And, while I am always trying to be aware of “chronological snobbery”[4], my brother described it as “a book that passed for entertainment in a time when there wasn’t anything else to do.”

Jesus and the Victory of God - NT Wright

Over 1000 pages into Wright’s scholarly series I am beginning to feel diminishing returns.[5] I might be a one woman man, but I am a promiscuous reader. I am beginning to feel a little smothered in this relationship and really want to “start seeing other people”. Still, this text has been hugely valuable. My basic take on Wright is that about half the time I think his method leads him to a spurious interpretation and the other half of the time his reconstruction of first century Palestine makes complete sense of biblical passages that were previously obscure. His treatments of Mark 13, the cleansing of the temple, and that weird passage where Jesus talks about driving out a demon only to have it replaced with seven stronger ones were worth the price of admission. Oh, and he demolishes the Jesus seminar stuff without breaking a sweat (and without being a jerk).

Lilith – George McDonald (A)

George McDonald might be best known as a character rather than an author. He was the Virgil type guide in CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce. But he[6] was also one of the indirect[7] instigators of Lewis’ conversion. I liked Lilith. It started really slowly but there were a couple of sublime chapters near the end. Friends have suggested that McDonald’s children’s literature is really his best stuff…so expect some of that on next year’s list.

Drive – Daniel Pink (A)

Most of the valuable ideas from this book were summarized by his TED talk. This is the classic case of a book that could have been a pamphlet. Still, the big ideas are pretty compelling. They include 1) for creative problem solving type jobs, monetary incentives impede rather than augment innovation[8] 2) success is not correlated with intelligence but how one perceives intelligence.[9]

Pensees: Christianity for Modern Pagans - Pascal/Kreeft

Pensees was the first book I read for fun by someone who had been dead for several hundred years. I loved it. In many ways, Pascal became my intellectual mentor[10] and introduced me to the many many dead friends and mentors I have had over the years. In a couple weeks, I am giving a talk on his life and thought,[11] wanted to revisit the Pensees, and happened on this fantastic book. Peter Kreeft has selected and organized[12] the best of the Pensees and then wrote a sort of midrash.[13] Some of his reflections on Pascal are more valuable than others, but to have an excellent contemporary thinker articulate the current import of enduring[14] insights of one of the all time great thinkers makes for a fun read. Kreeft’s[15] tone (simultaneously serious and playful) is also a good match for Pascal, whose tone is similar.

Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians – NT Wright

As usual, Wright’s popular work is as useful as his scholarly work. I read this little text to orient myself to the scope of 2 Corinthians before I began a detailed study of the passages I was going to preach.

Ezra and Nehemiah – Derek Kidner

The post-exilic OT literature is surprisingly difficult. Haggai and Zachariah[16] only make sense on the backdrop of Ezra and Nehemiah, but the historical books are unhelpfully non-sequantial and kind of confusing. So, when I agreed to teach Nehemiah over the summer I knew I was going to have to do some preliminary heavy lifting. Kidner made it easy. This thin little text laid out the chronology and significance of both books in a readable and insightful way. I highly recommend it for anyone hoping to understand the post-exilic texts.[17]

Home – Marilynne Robinson (A)

I have a friend who met Robinson relayed an off the cuff quote where the author confessed, “I hate plot.” Let’s just say, I believe this story. But she writes beautifully. I knew these characters. I can still picture them better than characters from film. And the last page of this book made me cry. I can’t remember the last time that happened.

In the Beauty of the Lilies - Updike [18]

I just love Updike’s sentences. I was lukewarm on the plot, but plot is not why I read Updike. I read him for his lyrical use of our language and his unshakable Christ hauntedness.

Partial Reads

Letters to my Students – CH Spurgeon (50%)

This was easily the most nourishing volume I read this year. It got squeezed out of the rotation by more pressing books, but it will almost certainly end up on next year’s list as a completed book. The book served two purposes 1) It is the transcripts of his lectures on preaching. His insights were enormously helpful not only for my personal preaching but for the class we are teaching on it. I even assigned a few pages for our students. 2) He uses words so well. I try to work some authors into my rotation who have the gift to select and order words in such a way that the product is qualitatively different than most writing. This is why I read Updike and Robinson, and Spurgeon has the same gift.

The Princeton Guide to Ecology – ed. Levin (40%)

I LOVED this book. It is a compellation of 92 six to ten page reviews of the state of the art regarding the most important ecological principles. The papers are mercifully and maniacally brief literature reviews that oriented me to the watershed ideas and contemporary directions. For someone who is trying to get up to speed on a new discipline, I could not have designed a better text. About 15% of it was assigned as readings for my intro class. I found it way more valuable than that.

Foundations of Ecology: Classic Papers with Commentaries - ed. Real and Brown (50%)

Someday I will write a post on the culture differences between engineers and ecologists. As I am fundamentally a scientist (who likes the rigor and practicality of the engineering skill set for doing science) there are many ways in which I prefer the culture of Ecology. This is one of them. I have found that ecology has a ‘cannon.’ Initiates are told the story of the major Khunian paradigm shifts that is the heritage of our moment. Case in point, my text for the required introductory graduate course was this anthology of seminal papers. I read half of it, which was, again, far more than required.[19]

The Cross of Christ – John Stott (50%)

I used this for Lenten devotions this year. It was extremely valuable in that context. It is a little more technical than devotional, but was a great way to keep up a sustained and substantial meditation on the cross.

This post was written while listening to Deja Entendu by Brand New


[1] (A) means that I listened to this in an audio format. Most of my reading time goes into scientific journal papers. So I listen to most of my ‘fun’ reading. I did a post on this.
[2] My wife’s reading group also read and enjoyed this one, so it is not just for nerds.
[3] The second time generated one of my favorite posts of all time.
[4] Which is responsible for my attempt to balance my reading diet to include approximately equal parts books by the living and the dead.
[5] One of my principles of getting the most out of a modest reading program is diversity. Most non-fiction authors offer a maximal insight/time ratio early on and returns diminish pretty markedly.
[6] Like Chesterton
[7] There were direct instigators (his contemporaries) like Tolkein and indirect instigators, authors from the previous generation.
[8] Creatives are motivated by intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivators. I believe this. This is how I am motivated. I work harder on (and put more personal time into) the stuff I have less funds to do if I think it is compelling.
[9] I think I am going to do a whole post on this.
[10] Creating the desire to be a philosopher-scientist…which is not easy in the current era of hyper specialization.
[11] Look for it to show up on my MP3 page.
[12] Which is important because, Pascal died very young and not only never finished his book, but never really started it. the Penses are just fragmentary notes and have historically been published in almost arbitrary order. They are also redundant and some have more contemporary utility than others. So, simply selecting them, grouping them and putting them in a logical order was a great service. Incidentally, Kreeft’s take on Pascal’s major themes match mine pretty closely.
[13] A running commentary. It is almost like a Penses blog – in paperback.
[14] And often prophetic.
[15] Kreeft is Catholic – in a fun way. Reading him as a Protestant is like reading Chesterton. You forget that he is Catholic for dozens of pages at a time, until he drops a zinger against Protestants that leaves you saying ‘Ouch, where did that come from.’ Reading Kreeft has the effect of enlarging my affection and alliance with my Catholic friends…while, at the same time, affirming that I am, in fact, not Catholic.
[16] These guys were contemporaries and, presumably, even friends (Nehemiah lists them as both present during a couple big events)…but their writing styles could not be more different. Haggai is a straight forward moral prophet while Zachariah is a “if I didn’t know better I’d think he was high”/ “Predicted things he had no business knowing” apocalyptic type. I’d love to see a HBO quality dramady about the friendship of Haggai and Zachariah (um, minus the boobs – It really sucks that HBO is making some of the best art of our generation but feels compelled to cheapen it with totally unnecessary nudity).
[17] I did some teaching out of Nehemiah this summer. The venue was not amenable to recording, so there are no MP3s. But I did one blog post which revolves around an insight I owe to Kidner. Also, Mark Driscoll’s series on Nehemiah was extremely helpful.
[18] I mentioned in my Portland post that I read this book and home at the same time. They are both about the damaged children of a Presbyterian minister.
[19] No book like this exists for my field. I have contemplated putting one together. Also, engineers do not do meta-analysis like ecologists do…though we could very much benefit from it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On the 4th Day of Christmas the Internet Gave to Me...

...Four fun, Chistmas themed Youtube clips.

This year, my two favorite Christmas songs are not really Christmas songs. First, vloger Charlie McDonnell put out an album, that is very clever and entirely unique. It includes a fantastic song called The Absence of Christmas.[1]

Second, I have yet to write about mewithoutYou’s new album and concert a year later…primarily because I have surprisingly complicated feelings about the album. But A Carrot and A String may be the best Christmas song that isn’t a Christmas song written since Joy to the World. With all the pabulum that gets played on the airwaves this time of year, it would seem like an occasional descent new song would squeak in.

Amanda and I have struggled with Christmas traditions for years, and more so since we have had kids. We have decided that the American winter festival (which is extremely fun and most people participate in, in some form or another) can coexist in strained peace with the celebration of the incarnation without the former swallowing the latter up. But no one gets at the tension of all this better than Gaffigan:[2]

Finally, I can’t tell you why I like this clip. On one level, it casts the characters of the Christmas story as annoying Christian facebook stereotypes. But I do like it…unironically…so there that is.

I hope you and the people you care about have a great holiday, and if you are into the Jesus thing, I hope the mystery of the incarnation strikes you with new wonder in the coming weeks.

This post was posted while listening to Charlie McDonnall’s This is Me
[1] The album is mostly goofy but has a couple really poignant moments….my favorite track is “Bread”. I have “In the Absence of Christmas” stuck in my head for a day…but it is a thankful reprieve from “Haley G Hoover” which was just creepy…but unfortunately really catchy.
[2] I have been taking Charis running (in the jogging stroller) through Davis neighborhoods at night to look at lights. It has been a fun daddy-daughter time and a good example of why living in California is cool. Amanda and I have been silent on the whole Santa thing hoping we could go one more year without her noticing – giving us 12 more months to decide how we want to negotiate this strange cultural artifact. I thought I had dodged it when we ran by a house with a blow up Homer Simpson in Santa gear and she said “that doggie has a hat…that’s so silly.” But during one of the runs she asked me “why do so many houses have elmo?” (apparently any cartoonish character clad in red is elmo). So we broke out the story of St Nicholas, a guy we have enormous affection, who saved girls from the sex trade - without the graphic details (one of our Christmas traditions is to donate to organizations that do the same in his honor). Now I just need to come up with a good reason that he would use a reindeer with a glowing nose to rescue girls from a life of forced prostitution.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Altruism Paradox: The Surprising Confluence of Christian Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology

Altruism is one of the most interesting evolutionary puzzles. Mild forms of “altruistic” behavior have been observed in several distantly related taxa. Some of this has been cleverly and definitively explained on purely Darwinian principles[1] but some of it still seems a little ‘hand waving-ish’[2]…particularly when the theories are applied to humans acting altruistically towards non-relatives.[3] The problem is that pure altruism is not an “evolutionary stable strategy” (ESS).[4] But one of the solutions that evolutionary biologists and behavioral ecologists have floated sounds shockingly familiar to those of us who have spent much time in the ancient texts that compose the normative documents of Christianity.

The story goes like this. Altruism is better than pure competition on the species scale, but selection does not happen on that scale. Advantageous alleles are selected based on the survival and reproductive benefits to the individual. Therefore, in order for altruism to be selected, the bearers of altruist genes have to benefit, on the whole, more than it costs them.[5] This is evolutionarily unstable because cheaters would accept benefits of the altruists, not take the risks, and eventually ‘win’ pushing the altruistic genes from the population. Therefore, altruism requires some sort of ‘enforcement’ on the ‘population’[6] scale. There are some interesting examples of enforcement in non-human altruists, but the really interesting hypothesis is that humans use ‘guilt’ to enforce the terms of altruism on the tribal scale.

But, even with guilt enforcing altruism, it is not an ESS. Therefore, the successful altruistic strategy is that of the ‘subtle cheater.’ In each generation altruistic systems disproportionately propagate individuals that cheat just enough to have a survival or reproductive advantage but not so much that they incur the penalties of the enforcement mechanism.

This is all pretty plausible (especially for non-human species). But the really interesting insight is how ‘subtle cheating’ works out in human populations. If our enforcement mechanism is built into our psychological and sociological hardware and software (guilt[7]) what does it mean to be a subtle cheater? Who do I need to deceive?


And that is the shocking and thrilling detail. If human altruism is self enforced through genetic and environmental imprints on our operating systems, getting away with subtle cheating REQUIRES “self deception.”[8] Human success is largely due to our altruistic tendencies…but only if those tendencies include “subtle cheating” which, given our enforcement mechanisms, require “self deception.”

Um, Really? So, let me get this straight. Humans work best in cooperative community. But there is something fundamental in each one of us that will always try to get more than we give. And in order to live with ourselves and our seemingly universal need to perceive ourselves as “a good person”[9] we all engage in self deception to convince ourselves that the real cheater is ‘the other.’ It seems like I have heard that somewhere before. Allow me to introduce: Christian anthropology.

The fundamental premise of Christian anthropology is that we are valuable beyond measure and designed to reflect the altruistic character of our maker but deeply broken and have an insurmountable entropy towards self interested behavior. We describe this causally with the narrative of the fall. Regardless of whether or not you hypothesize a historical Adam and Eve[10] the fall is the process by which we not only tarnish our immense capacity for beauty and generosity with the fundamental entropy of self interest, such that the former merely punctuates than the latter…but then we lie to ourselves about it.

All of this could lead us to argue (with a smile, and hopefully in a cheeky rather than a douchey way) that Christians are more in touch with reality, as specified by behavioral ecology. The Christian operating system which is self aware of our tendency of self deception and our tendency towards subtle cheating, makes it an evolutionary unstable strategy…but also gives it a huge epistemic advantage.[11] But, if Jesus was to talk in the language of behavioral ecology, I think the sermon on the mount might have included something like:

"Blessed are those who are aware of their self deception, it is the first step in actual self forgetfulness.”

Which is actually just my paraphrase of:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[12]

This post was prepared while listening to The Sufferer and the Witness by Rise Against

[1] The classic example is eusocial insects who turned out to be haplodiploid, which makes sisters more closely related than they would be to their own daughters, making celibate cooperative labor the most effective way to get genetic material into future generations.
[2] My personal favorite is the argument that we have the impulse to save a drowning unrelated child because the act of heroism may be observed by one of the victim’s hot relatives who would then have sex with the rescuer providing a mechanism where the risk is overweighed by the genetic payoff in the long term, selecting for risk taking altruists. If you think about the kind of selective pressure it would take to preference that genotype as broadly as it exists in our species…that would take a lot of extremely grateful sisters.
[3] Adoption of unrelated children cannot be seen as anything other than an ‘evolutionary trap.’
[4] An ESS is a strategy that is resistant to ‘invaders’ or ‘cheaters’. For example, it was hypothesized that the huge, seasonal gatherings of birds, like those that soil our cars at the U-mall or the Arc parking lot – were a type of self-regulating behavior. The birds were taking a ‘census’ of sorts and then would regulate the number of eggs they laid accordingly in order self-regulate and keep the population size proportional to the resources (under the carrying capacity). This has been widely discredited, however, as evolutionarily unstable…because cheaters would eventually take over. If everyone else is self regulating, a few birds that do not would compose a disproportionate portion of each successive cohort, until they quickly took over. Dawkins calls this “subversion from within.” Therefore, most ‘self regulation’ hypotheses have been jettisoned for resource or predator regulation.
[5] i.e. Alturism must be fundamentally self interested.
[6] Tribal.
[7] Note: Police do not count as enforcing altruism. They reduce the ferocity of our competition but do not require cooperation. You could make a case that liberal fiscal policy enforces altruism…but I will argue in a couple of posts that this is simply an outworking of guilt.
[8] All of the phrases I am using in quotes are not my own reading of this…they are the actual language of the theory from my coursework on behavioral ecology at UC Davis…from phenomenal Prof Sih who is one of the rare professors who is uncommonly brilliant AND a thrilling lecturer.
[9] I totally buy the idea as guilt as an altruism enforcing mechanism. There is nothing as ubiquitous as the idea that ‘I am a good person.’ After Imus was publically called out about his comments on the Rutgers woman’s basket ball team he said “I am a good person who did a bad thing.” After Jim Belushi died, someone said “He was a good man and a bad boy.” We all have this compelling need to self perceive as ‘basically a good person.’ And may be no idea that people will fight harder for despite mounting evidence to the contrary…regardless how much violence we have to do to the word ‘good’ or even ‘person.’ Before I was a Christian, there was nothing about the Christian worldview I found more repulsive than the assertion that I was not a good person. Now there is no insight I find more pragmatically helpful.
[10] I do (as the Homo Sapien ancestors that were contemporary with Australopithecine), but I don’t think you have to. And it is mostly a non-issue because it is non-falsifiable. But what is clear about the first three chapters of Genesis is that it is not the whole story. It has a fundamental pedagogical agenda. So I am more than happy to allow the scientific process to fill in the estimable gaps. Regardless of whether the fall happened in a cosmic moment (which I tend to believe) or over evolutionary time, it is the process by which humans, a special creation in the image of God, traded that image for an evolutionarily stable strategy. (Footnote to the footnote: I am working on a post about the Battle Star Galactica finale…if that seems like a non sequiter – you didn’t see it).
[11]Please note: I am not now, nor have I ever argued that Christians are, therefore, ‘better’ than those who do not go in for the Christian narrative. In fact I have argued often (here and here) that the logic of the Christian story gives the counter-intuitive result that Christians are, on the whole, less moral than their non-Christian neighbors…and that this is exactly what you would expect if it was true.
[12] Matthew 5:3