Book Review: Moral Minds

Moral Minds by Marc HauserMarc Hauser’s book Moral Minds purports to travel much the same territory for morality that books like Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct does for language — he argues that human beings are born with an innate moral capacity that is separate and distinct from other faculties (morality is not, for example, simply a byproduct of a general rational ability).

As Hauser sums it up in the prologue,

I argue that our moral faculty is equipped with a univeral moral grammar, a tookit for building specific moral systems. Once we have acquired our culture’s specific moral norms — a process that is more like growing a limb than sitting in Sunday school and learning about vices and virutes — we judge whether actions are permissible, obligatory, or forbidden, without conscious reasoning and without explicit access to the underlying principle.

Moreover, Hauser believes that we should go beyond merely describing such an innate moral faculty, but that in addition the existence of said moral faculty should be taken into account in policy making.

But does the book actually deliver? Briefly, no. The author complains in an afterword in the paperback version of the book about an early negative review from the late Richard Rorty in the New York Times (Hauser claims that the review was especially insulting because, Hauser claims, it was clear that Rorty hadn’t read the book). Having slogged through the book, I thought Rorty was pretty much spot on with his criticisms. Rorty wrote,

The exuberant triumphalism of the prologue to “Moral Minds” leads the reader to expect that Hauser will lay out criteria for distinguishing parochial moral codes from universal principles, and will offer at least a tentative list of those principles. These expectations are not fulfilled. The vast bulk of “Moral Minds” consists of reports of experimental results, but Hauser does very little to make clear how these results bear on his claim that there is a “moral voice of our species.”

. . .

Hauser thinks that Noam Chomsky has shown that in at least one area — learning how to produce grammatical sentences — the latter sort of circuitry will not do the job. We need, Hauser says, a “radical rethinking of our ideas on morality, which is based on the analogy to language.” But the analogy seems fragile. Chomsky has argued, powerfully if not conclusively, that simple trial-and-error imitation of adult speakers cannot explain the speed and confidence with which children learn to talk: some special, dedicated mechanism must be at work. But is a parallel argument available to Hauser? For one thing, moral codes are not assimilated with any special rapidity. For another, the grammaticality of a sentence is rarely a matter of doubt or controversy, whereas moral dilemmas pull us in opposite directions and leave us uncertain.

The book never comes close on delivering on the prologue’s claim about an innate moral faculty. Instead, much of the book is filled with a mind numbing discussion of Hauser’s particular framing of moral philosophy interspersed (which is Rawlsian, though he doesn’t make a convincing case even on that) with long catalogs of animal experiments that are somehow supposed to tie-in to the philosophy but never quite seem to (which isn’t to say that some of the experiments aren’t fascinating, they just don’t ever come close to demonstrating what Hauser sets out to convince the reader of).

All-in-all this book was bloody awful. Someday someone is going to write a classic book on the sociobiology of human morality. This, however, is not it.

Book Review – Who Can Save Us Now?

I tend to read about 50-60 books a year and I try to be selective about what I read so I rarely end up thinking “wow, what a piece of crap that book was.” Even rarer are the times when I start a book and abandon it halfway through. But superhero short story anthology Who Can Save Us Now? is one of those books.

One reviewer at Amazon described the book as having “nothing what so ever to do with the superhero genre. It is instead a book filled with pretentious angst laden emo stories.” After getting halfway through the book before chucking it across the room, I’d say that’s giving it far more credit than it deserves. With one or two exceptions, all of the stories in the 200+ pages I managed to slog through were poorly written and largely pointless.

I kept forcing myself to read through one awful story after another hoping there would be some gem or decent story in there at some point, but no. The book reads like some introductory creative writing class was assigned to write about superheroes, and their instructor decided to take their unedited first drafts and publish them straight away as this book.

It’s that bad.

Book Review: Our Gods Wear Spandex

Our Gods Wear SpandexI’d been anticipating Christopher Knowles’ book Our Gods Wear Spandex for months, ever since it was first solicited in Previews. As the publisher’s description put it, the book would “trace the rise of the comic superheroes and how they relate to several cultural trends in the late 19th century, specifically the occult explosion in Western Europe and America.” Certainly the religious iconography of superheroes would be an interesting topic for a book, but Knowles’ book is largely just one long monotonous, idiosyncratic list of 19th and 20th century occultists interspered without a coherent thesis or idea in sight.

One could overlook the factual errors (no, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” was not an ode to the Marvel character as Knowles claims). One could even overlook Knowles’ odd interpretation of comics history — Knowles take on the persecution of William Gaines and EC comics, for example, is extraordinarily disingenous. But the real problem running throughout the book is that Knowles appears to be a true believer when it comes to all things occult.

For example, consider this hilarious gem from Knowles describing early Sumerian texts,

Other Sumerian texts and tablets detail the exploits of a pantheon of suspiciously human-acting gods. These are told in such detail that some observers, like linguist Zechariah Sitchin, claim they are not myths at all, but garbled accounts of a race of extraterrestrials that colonized the Earth and created humanity as its slave race.

I paid $19.95 for this sort of nonsense? Sitchin isn’t a linguist, he’s a fracking quack along the lines of Immanuel Velikovsky and Eric von Daniken (the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on Sitchin pretty much covers his particular brand of idiocy).

Stretching things like that is bad enough, but in some cases Knowles simply misinforms to the reader. Take, for example, his entry on Edgar Cayce whom, among other things, was convinced that the Egyptian pyramids were built by the Atlantean civilization and that an Atlantean Hall of Records is located underneath the Great Sphinx. Both claims are sheer nonsense, but Knowles works in a subtle distortion to make it appear more convincing,

The ARE [Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment] is more than a playground for spiritual tourists, however. Two of the world’s two most important and influential Egyptologists, American Mark Lehner and Egyptian Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass, are closely associated with it. Given the eccentric views Cayce held on Ancient Egypt, these associations seem curious until seen in the context of all the esoteric intrigue that, even today, centers in and around Egypt.

The only thing curious here is Knowles’ disinformation. Lehner freely admits that he was originally attracted to Egyptology by an infatuation with Cayce’s claims in the early 1970s. But Lehner’s reputation as a top notch Egyptologist came precisely because he quickly abandoned his Cayce-influenced views when it was clear they were unsupportable by the actual facts. As Lehner told Nova,

And it’s no secret that when I went [to Egypt as a student in 1973] I myself was imbued with the ideas of lost civilizations and inspired by a man named Edgar Cayce. So I was in fact, myself, looking for the lost civilization and something called the Hall of Records.

Or at least those ideas were on my mind. To make a long story short, those ideas didn’t stand up against bedrock reality. And so then I was still fascinated by these pyramids and the Sphinx. Then I asked the question, well, what is the real story? What is the story that the site itself has to tell. And so that’s what sustained me and kept me out there in a kind of exploratory mode.

Whether Knowles is disingenous or just credulous, it doesn’t speak well for his research abilities. The rest of Knowles’ book is about as accurate and about as interesting. It reads like some fanboy with a credulous interest in mysticism let loose to tie in comic books — however tangentially — with predictable results.

Someday, someone may just write an interesting look at comic books and religion. Our Gods Wear Spandex, however, is not it.

The DC Comics Action Figure Archive

The DC Comics Action Figure ArchiveThis is one book that I’ve been waiting for almost a year to come out. Scott Beatty is a former editor at Toyfare magazine and a sometimes comic book writer. He talked Chronicle Books into letting him do a coffee table size book chronicling every DC action figure — 1,400 in all with 600 full color photographs.

The book is arranged alphabetically, with each action figure entry containing details on the name of the company that produced it, the name of the series it was part of, the releae date, scale, articulation, accessories and occasional additional notes. If you’re an action figure fanboy, this is like a drug. Please, oh please, can I get a Marvel version too?

Not that the book isn’t without problems — in fact it is getting slagged on Amazon at the moment. The book’s critics have two complaints.

First, the book is about action figures — as it says on the title — and so doesn’t include any DC-related toys prior to Ideal’s Captain Action which was released in 1966. This upsets folks who apparently wanted a more comprehensive look at DC collectible toys, but the scope of the book is made fairly clear in its title.

Second, and more serious, there are mistakes in the book. In at least one instance, the Captain Action series is ascribed to Mego. Some of the photographs, especially of the earlier action figure, are not accurate (they appear to show modified/damaged action figures). And despite the book’s claim to completeness, there are omissions. The ’52’ Isis figure is include, for example, but the Mego Isis is nowhere to be found.

Even with its faults, however, this is still an incredible volume, and well worth the $26 asking price at Amazon.

Review of Robert Gellately’s ‘Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler’

Robert Gellately’s ‘Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler’ Robert Gellately’s 700 page distillation of the convergence of three horrendous dictators on the world scene in the first half of the 20th century is what you would expect from a well-written book bringing together the different threads that ultimately converge in World War II. Gellately aptly subtitles his book “The Age of Social Catastrophe” which it certainly was.

The book incorporates a lot of new insights gleaned from secret documents released since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but really if you’re already more than passingly familiar with the Soviet and Nazi regimes, this is essentially a single volume retread of the many books out there on both regimes. If you don’t want to obsessively read dozens of books on the Nazis and USSR, however, this is definitely the book to start out with.

The odd thing about the book, however, are the lengths to which Gellately feels he has to go in order to justify including Lenin in that list.  The claim that Lenin’s pure ideas were corrupted by the evil Stalin has a long history and, of course, was made famous in Kruschev’s secret speech. It is also an idea that has always been patently absurd by anyone willing to look honestly at the Lenin’s writings and actions up until his death.

That the idea persists enough to force Gellately to justify his decision to include Lenin in Stalin and Hitler’s company is a testament to the human capacity for self-deception. Which, of course, was one of the essential ingredients in allowing all three of these regimes to survive and thrive.

Beasts!

After seeing a positive review in Boing! Boing!, I picked up a copy of Fantagraphics’ Beasts!. The book features illustrations of creatures that were once thought to be real but are now almost universally believed to have never existed, such as Minotaurs. The artwork is just plain awesome.

What I didn’t realize was that there is an accompanying Beasts! Blog that, among other things, features other beast-related artwork by the artists featured in beasts, like Meg Hunt’s rendering of the mythological Erinyes,

The only drawback to the book is that there is no entry for the Chupacabra. Fantagraphics should correct this oversite by devoting a single book just to various imaginings of the Chupacabra.