Books Archive

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Book Review - Future Humans

Scott Solomon, a friend of mine who happens to be an evolutionary biologist, has just released his first book, Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution. If that name sounds familiar, it's because I mentioned the book a few months ago in the entry, New Book - Future Humans. Now, as I wrote then, I did read and comment on one of the draft manuscripts for Scott, so I may not be the most impartial of reviewers. But I still liked the book very much and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in ongoing human evolution.

I can't sum it up much better than the description from the publisher's site:

In this intriguing book, evolutionary biologist Scott Solomon draws on the explosion of discoveries in recent years to examine the future evolution of our species. Combining knowledge of our past with current trends, Solomon offers convincing evidence that evolutionary forces still affect us today. But how will modernization--including longer lifespans, changing diets, global travel, and widespread use of medicine and contraceptives--affect our evolutionary future?

Solomon presents an entertaining and accessible review of the latest research on human evolution in modern times, drawing on fields from genomics to medicine and the study of our microbiome. Surprising insights, on topics ranging from the rise of online dating and Cesarean sections to the spread of diseases such as HIV and Ebola, suggest that we are entering a new phase in human evolutionary history--one that makes the future less predictable and more interesting than ever before.

The book is well grounded in evidence. In fact, most of it is about actually observed human evolution, both in our very recent past just prior to the industrial revolution, as well as what can be gleaned in modern industrial societies. Of course, that makes the speculation far less sensationalistic than doe-eyed anime characters or web-footed aqua-people, but you probably won't lose any bets going along with Scott's reasonable inferences.

There were many good passages I could quote from the book, but here's one that I especially liked.

At it's core, evolution is about babies. Forget survival of the fittest - the only reason survival is important in evolution is because you cannot reproduce when you're dead. Ultimately, selection favors whatever traits result in making the most babies, grandbabies, and so on.

Scott went on to explain how natural selection has shifted in modern societies. When the vast, vast majority of people survive into adulthood, it becomes changes to fertility that will have the greatest effect on evolution. And that's exactly what many researchers have found - women having children earlier and entering menopause later, increasing their reproductive years and hence their number of offspring. Of course, the researchers have to use statistical methods to try to tease out cultural and environmental influences from genetic ones, but it really does seem as if these are hereditable, genetic changes. And that's just one of the many lessons I learned from the book.

There's a review in New Scientist some might find useful, Future Humans: Just how far can our evolution go?. You can also read an early version of one of the chapters as an article in Nautilus magazine, The Rhythm of the Tide, describing his trip to Ile aux Coudres, an isolated island in Quebec, to discuss what researchers there had discovered of recent evolution in the island's population.

On a personal note, I can say that it's a very different experience reading a draft as a reviewer vs. reading the completed book for pleasure. There's a bit of stress in reviewing the book, intentionally being critical, and trying to find flaws that could be improved. It was much more relaxing reading the book once it was done, and just enjoying it. (I should add that I reviewed it as a member of his target audience, not an expert in the field. I may like to write a bit about evolution on this blog, but I'm no biologist.)

The book was very interesting. It may be a little advanced for an evolutionary naïf, but if you paid attention in your high school biology class and remember the lessons, you'll probably find this book pretty informative. I definitely recommend it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

New Book - Future Humans

A friend of mine, Scott Solomon, has just finished writing his first book, Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution.

Future Humans book cover
Publisher's Page
Buy from Amazon

Here's the description from the publisher's website:

In this intriguing book, evolutionary biologist Scott Solomon draws on the explosion of discoveries in recent years to examine the future evolution of our species. Combining knowledge of our past with current trends, Solomon offers convincing evidence that evolutionary forces still affect us today. But how will modernization--including longer lifespans, changing diets, global travel, and widespread use of medicine and contraceptives--affect our evolutionary future?

Solomon presents an entertaining and accessible review of the latest research on human evolution in modern times, drawing on fields from genomics to medicine and the study of our microbiome. Surprising insights, ranging from the rise of online dating and Cesarean sections to the spread of diseases such as HIV and Ebola, suggest that we are entering a new phase in human evolutionary history--one that makes the future less predictable and more interesting than ever before.


Scott Solomon is an evolutionary biologist and science writer. He teaches ecology, evolutionary biology, and scientific communication at Rice University, where he is a Professor in the Practice in the Department of BioSciences. He lives in Houston, TX.

I read one of the draft manuscripts, and so can say that it really was an interesting, engaging read. And while you might worry that a book about future human evolution might be hokey or too speculative, you can rest assured that this book is well grounded and sticks to reasonable inferences.

You can pre-order the book from Amazon right now. It will be shipped in October.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Update - New Third Edition!

Book Cover to God? Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff Lewis
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

I've published* a new update to my book, God? Leaving Christianity - only $4.99 from LuLu (also available for free online - but that doesn't make nearly as nice of a gift...) The book is a collection of some of my best essays on religion, both chronicling my thought process in abandoning belief and explaining some of my more recent thoughts on the subject. I've kept the book relatively short, just over 100 pages, to keep it as a reasonable introduction to non-belief that won't be overwhelming to readers.

I know it's hard to be impartial about a book I've written myself, but from the reactions of friends who have read the book, I feel comfortable recommending it. One of my friends, after reading the book, went and bought ten copies so that he could give them away to other people to read. The most recent friend I gave a copy to sent multiple text messages while reading the book to say how much he liked certain passages.

I usually order a small batch of books at a time to have some on hand to give to people who want a copy (I never push it on people, and only give it to people who actually ask for it). However, that most recent friend also received the last copy from the most recent batch, so I figured I'd read through and make a few revisions before ordering another batch, creating a new third edition.

If you're one of the select few who already owns the first edition, there are two new essays in this book. You can either read those essays online, or download a pdf copy with the link below. The pdf is formatted to print out as a booklet on 8 1/2" x 11" paper. Even if your printer doesn't have auto duplexing, Adobe Reader has options to print out a booklet.
Religious Essays.Supplement - Two More Essays.2015-06-23.pdf Religious Essays.Supplement - Two More Essays.2015-06-23.pdf

For that matter, if you want to download a pdf of the entire book, you can do that, too, with this link:
Religious Essays.booklet.2015-06-23.pdf Religious Essays.booklet.2015-06-23.pdf

However, I really do recommend the LuLu paperback version for people who want a hard copy. With the glossy cover and perfect binding, it's a much nicer form factor than anything most people can print out on home equipment. And at only $4.99, it's not that expensive.

If you just want to read the essays, you can do that online for free. But if you want a nice physical copy that you can hold in your hands or give to someone as a present, then go buy the book from LuLu**. Just in case you missed the multiple links in this post or the ad in the sidebar, here's the link to buy the book one last time:

Buy the book: God? Leaving Christianity


* I'm using 'published' in a loose sense, as it's really self-published from a print on demand company. As I've written before, this is the modern version of a vanity press, but without the expense of paying for a print run.

** Another option if you want the book is to befriend me and just ask for a copy, but then you'd have to know me in person.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Breaking the Law - Stealing 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

I just read* the classic book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and I read it on my Kindle, but technically I had to break the law in order to do so. The author, Harper Lee, has refused to allow the book to be published in electronic format.

Now, I know I have a paperback version of the book stashed away somewhere in my house, but I was having a hard time finding it, and to be honest, I often times prefer reading on the Kindle, anyway. There are some aspects of old dead tree books that I like - the smell of the ink and the paper, the sound the pages make as you turn them, the way you can flip through the pages to re-read a section in light of something new you just read. But most of my reasons for liking print books are really just nostalgia. In general, the Kindle is a nicer form factor - easier to hold in bed, with one hand, or to lay on the table next to my plate while I'm eating.

But Harper Lee doesn't particularly like the idea of ebooks. In a letter to Oprah's magazine she wrote (among other things):

can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up -- some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece, so I won't complain too much about an old woman's eccentricities. But the magic of a book is in the content, not the medium. When I read, I get so caught up in the story that I'm no longer consciously aware that I'm reading. The story is in my mind, not on the page or screen in front of me.

Anyway, if you haven't yet read To Kill a Mockingbird, you really must do so. It's one of the best stories I've read. And if you prefer to read on an eReader like the Kindle, it's easy enough to find on Google. I'd recommend searching for a .mobi or .epub version rather than a .pdf so that the text can be resized. (As of right now, this link works and doesn't do anything crazy like install a download manager.) But don't just outright steal it. If I didn't already have the paperback somewhere in the house, I don't think I'd have downloaded the bootleg copy. So see if you can find a legit copy somewhere so that you at least own the content.

*To be honest, I didn't just read To Kill a Mockingbird. I finished it a few months ago and wrote this entry back then, but somehow forgot about it and left it languishing in my drafts folder for a little while. Oh well, it's not like this is breaking news. Better late than never, I guess.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Rant - Divergent Series

I just finished reading the Divergent trilogy. This entry isn't so much a review of the series as a rant. This is one of the only series I've ever read where I'm going to actively discourage others from reading it, and I've read Dan Brown and parts of the Left Behind series (LB 1, LB 2, and TF) , so that's saying something. In fact, the only reason I'm including the Amazon link to the right is so that readers here can go see reviews on Amazon, not to encourage anyone to buy the book.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Of course, if you've read the books yourself, or read any articles about the books, you'll probably know that the ending was not very popular with fans. And I'll admit, I wasn't particularly happy with it myself (there's enough sad news in reality, I don't need it in the book equivalent of an action movie). But it's not just the final few chapters that made the series a disappointment. The entire last book seemed out of character with the first two. My daughter had to struggle to get through the final book, and my wife just eventually gave up and let my daughter and me tell her how it ended. The big reveal on why people were living in the faction systems was a bit of a let down, and not very plausible scientifically. Tobias ceased to be the badass he'd been all along. The resolution of the war between the Allegiant and factionless was anticlimatic. And then the controversial ending itself seemed contrived and forced, without really seeming to add much to the story. I could go on with the shortcomings, but instead I'll just recommend a review on Amazon by someone named Penny, Why Allegiant is one of the worst books I've ever read (I just found a link to a longer review by Penny on Blogger, Breaking down the ending to Allegiant).

After doing a little looking around online, I came across an interview with Roth herself, on the site SugarScape, Author Veronica Roth on the Allegiant shock twist: 'It was always part of the plan, but it was hard to do'. Despite the headline of the article, the ending wasn't always part of Roth's plan. Just read this portion of the interview.

Well, I wrote Divergent totally blind without any planning so I didn't plan it from the very first page that it would even be a trilogy because I didn't know what the book would be. But after I wrote the first draft of Divergent and when the book sold I do remember talking to my editor about how I wanted the rest of them to go because the publisher said, 'You know, do you have other books planned?" I said, 'This is how I'm thinking of ending it," and she said 'Don't tell anyone about that!'

That was her reaction. So it was definitely a part of the plan although I wasn't sure if I would stick to it because I try not to stick so closely to my outlines that I have sacrifice the story. But then I was inching closer and closer to the end I was like this is the right option, this is the only option.

And a bit later in the interview, regarding a question on the meaning of 'divergent', she again revealed her lack of planning.

I just fell on it really. I was writing the Outside World and it just kind of appeared out of nowhere. What I really found appealing was throughout the whole series I was trying to figure out what Divergence really is, just like everybody else. By the time I got to the 3rd book I didn't really like that I had elevated Tris as being like this special one so I was like, 'Wouldn't it be cool if Divergence really isn't anything?' Like, if it was just what people believe it is and people put this importance into this thing that doesn't really exist, because I think people would do that.

Two books in, and she still didn't know what one of the central themes of the books was about!

This lack of planning is very apparent in hindsight. So much of the third book just doesn't seem to fit with the first two, but that now makes sense. Roth never knew where she wanted to take the stories, and had to fit an ending into a trilogy format, even if it meant abandoning the earlier plot and instituting a multitude of 'retcons'.

I know different authors have different levels of planning when it comes to writing stories. J.R.R. Tolkien created new languages and an entire mythology. J.K. Rowling had backstories and the entire plot planned out enough to guide moviemakers for Harry Potter. At the very least, you expect authors to have an idea of the overall plot and major themes of their books. To find out that Roth had been winging it the entire time leaves me feeling cheated. It certainly doesn't seem like a very professional way of writing.

Oh well, at least I learned one lesson - don't read any more series written by Veronica Roth.

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