What the Hell Were Humans Doing in Prehistory?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/8/22

I’m still reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I’m a member of an online book club that will be discussing the book all during the month of March, so I’ll be discussing it here piece by piece, whenever a particular topic intrigues me.

Here’s the setup for the book. Humans have been around in their present form for about 200,000 years, but recorded history only covers around the last three thousand years — what were we doing for those other 197,000 years? Anthropology and archeology help answer that question to a degree. The Dawn of Everything works to say to what degree is possible. However, most of what anyone can say about those 197,000 years is speculation, and that can cause controversy.

For most people, prehistory is a mixture of the Garden of Eden imagery and fantasies about cave people. Anthropologists study the evidence provided by archaeologists then speculate about that evidence by comparing it to what we learned from ethnographic research on various indigenous societies from the last few hundred years. Unfortunately, what most Americans know about the pre-20th century indigenous people of North America comes from watching westerns. In other words, unless you read a lot of books on anthropology it’s doubtful you think about prehistory at all, and what you do think you know is pop culture deceptions.

David Graeber and David Wengrow, an anthropologist and an archeologist, have caused some political shit storms by angering some of their readers with their discussion of freedom and inequality while analyzing what we know about prehistory. These brouhahas are caused partly because Graeber was an anarchist and was a leader in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and, partly because they challenge the established Western views that speculate on humans in prehistory, and tie ideas about various forms of inequality and freedom to their speculation. They seem to imply humanity made a wrong turn, but I’m not so sure we did, but don’t care to argue it. Graeber and Wengrow do review a lot of speculation that claimed we made a wrong turn when we switched from hunting and gathering to farming, but I’m not sure they believe that idea either, but merely review it too.

First off, there is no introduction, so the first chapter works as an introduction, but I don’t think it’s a good one. So far, I’ve felt every chapter has been self-contained, so it’s hard to assess the book as a whole. They title their first chapter, “Farewell to Humanity’s Childhood: Or why this is not a book about the origins of inequality.” I don’t think some readers took that to heart and feel The Dawn of Everything is harping about inequality. I wonder if conservatives dislike the book for the same reason they don’t like Critical Race Theory, that it smells of liberal thinking, and it asks them to relearn a history they’ve already embraced and memorized.

Here’s the thing about speculating about prehistory — speculation is only speculation. We’ve found some human bones, lots of animal bones, we have some pots and graves, some old cave paintings, remnants of housing, stone monuments, figurines, lots of rock tools, but not much of anything else. Most speculation about prehistory rests on ethnographic studies of primitive cultures that have survived into historical times. What Graeber and Wengrow challenge are generalized ideas we’ve developed about those cultures over the last couple of centuries.

Most of The Dawn of Everything is about the limits of speculation. What we really want to know is what were the people like? What did they think? How did they relate to each other? What kind of societies did they form? How much did they know about nature and reality? It’s one thing to look at old bones and relics and guess what people did, it’s entirely another thing to extrapolate what they thought and believed.

Here’s what I want to ask: Can ideal concepts exist before they are defined? Take inequality? That’s a concept that’s been emerging for a few centuries and a concept that modern society is working on. Even something like freedom is a concept been around for a long time, but has it always existed? What about science? Graeber and Wengrow have a whole chapter dealing with the origin of scientific thinking. Our ancestors might have observed nature and put two and two together but was that really science? I believe a concept like fairness might be very ancient, but I don’t know about inequality. I believe inequality is an emerging concept. There might have been societies in history and prehistory that had more equality but I don’t think they thought about it as a concept.

I think it’s completely insane to suggest humanity took a wrong turn because we don’t like aspects of our present society. The old saying, “the only constant is change” applies here. The variety of ways humans can organize their societies is infinite, and that comes across in this book. I think Graeber and Wengrow are right to say we can’t generalize about the past like Rousseau or Hobbes.

The best we can do is study all the ethnographic studies, examine all the archeological evidence and review all the speculation, and then create our own inner map of what prehistory was like with the jigsaw pieces we have. We also must be willing to constantly update that map as we gather new puzzle pieces.

We must resist philosophers and psychologists who try to characterize humans now or in the past in broad general terms. I believe what Graeber and Wengrow are telling us is not to lump together various stages of human development or societies into convenient pigeonholes. For example, there was no one shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Nor was there one type of nomads or hunting and gatherers. For example, North America had hundreds of different types of Native American cultures, so there is no way to generalize about what they thought about gender or money, or politics.

The trouble is there are places in the first chapter of this book (and I’m only on chapter six) that seem to imply that Graeber and Wengrow are advocating that we should be working towards all the various forms of equality. We can judge modern societies on inequality and even ethnographic studies of primitive societies we have studied, but I believe speculation on inequality in prehistory societies will be based only on our biases, and I think Graeber and Wengrow make that clear even though they keep trying.

Personally, I wonder if Graeber and Wengrow haven’t spoiled the rest of their book with chapter one. Most of the reviews I’ve seen focus on that first chapter. That might be due to the reviewers only reading that chapter, or it might be because it’s the one that pushes buttons. The other chapters I’ve read deal more with what we know, and I’m finding them quite fascinating. It makes me want to read more ethnographic studies — although, as Graeber and Wengrow show, those studies are often colored by their observer’s speculations. If anything, this book shows us time and again how we distort the evidence.

For me, the key to enjoying learning about prehistory is to avoid speculation and focus just on the evidence. The trouble is a certain amount of speculation is good. Nowadays generalizations are considered evil. But we make useful generalizations all the time — it’s called pattern recognition. We just can’t go overboard. Every archeological dig is like a crime scene. You only find so much evidence. Science never knows anything for sure, but works with statistics, looking for a preponderance of convincing evidence.

Most people don’t spend time studying history, much less prehistory. And it’s hard to make a case to get people to care about history and prehistory. For most people, it’s about as useful as studying geometry, cosmology, or particle physics. But consider this. All of us are deluded. We constantly fool ourselves in countless ways that make us see reality distorted by our cultural upbringing. Studying other societies that adapted to our shared external reality in different ways can break us out of the brainwashing of that upbringing. If the book is doing its job it should be stirring things up.

It’s not about whether or not we made a wrong turn, but knowing about all the possible turns we took and could have taken. I think this is scary for some people. If you want to believe the Bible is literally true, then learning about all the societies that existed at the same time as the Bible was being written could be disturbing. If you’re a scholar of Western culture that backed a particular view of history and prehistory, considering what Graeber and Wengrow are saying could also be disturbing. But aren’t all paradigm shifts uncomfortable?

Humans think we’re the crown of creation. And people raised in western culture believe we’re the pinnacle of human intellectual development. Maybe Graeber and Wengrow believe we took a wrong turn because our global society is sailing into an iceberg and they want us to change course. Personally, I don’t think our species has any control over its evolution. It’s not a matter of choice, but playing out all the anti-entropic possibilities. I believe studying history and prehistory shows us some of the many things we’ve already tried.

Knowing where we’ve been might help us know how we can adapt to climate change. Here’s one example. Graeber and Wengrow consider that prehistory societies made the choice between being hunting and gatherers and settling down and that they often chose to stay on the move because it offered more advantages. This video, it shows one modern reason why nomadic people choose to settle down and pursue year-round agriculture. It allows them to build wealth and stability in their lives. This is a very inspiring video.

JWH

Why It’s So Important to Remember What I Read in 2021

by James Wallace Harris, 12/30/21

Reading is my sixth sense, how I explore the larger reality I can’t observe with my classic five senses. Every year I can only read so many books, making it important to wisely select the novels, nonfiction books, short stories, and articles I do read. Reading changes me. I shape myself by what I read. Each year I work to become more conscious by what I select to read. However, this self-improvement effort is very much like my efforts to eat healthily and avoid junk food. I’m never a saint.

At seventy, my mind is becoming like an old suit with moth holes. Words and thoughts leak out of my consciousness through little missing places eaten away by the moths of time. Remembering is something that’s become very important to me, as much as sex was on my adolescent mind.

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams is the 52nd and last book I read in 2021. It’s an accomplishment to read so many books in one year. And 52 is a good number. It means I averaged one book a week, and that’s a nice reading pace.

I’ve always wanted to be one of those superbookworms who could read 100 or 200 books a year, but my mind and memory can’t handle that much new content. I like to think one book a week is what my mind can handle, but I’m probably fooling myself.

52 is probably too many but I’d hate to read less. I feel I did a pretty good job of picking worthwhile reads, ones I still remember reading at the end of the year, but I have to admit, some of them were not necessarily the best books I could have picked. I will try harder next year. The problem is the conflict between reading books that expand my awareness, and books that soothe my soul.

One way to remember the books I read in 2021 is to remember my favorites, the ones I’d recommend. Links are to essays I wrote during the year.

New Fiction

New Nonfiction

  • The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson
  • Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause – Ty Seidule
  • Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal – George Packer
  • The Premonition: A Pandemic Story – Michael Lewis
  • Under a White Sky – Elizabeth Kolbert

Old Fiction

Old Nonfiction

  • The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf
  • Evil Geniuses – Kurt Andersen
  • The Art of Dying Well – Katy Butler
  • Hackers – Steven Levy
  • The Sisters – Mary S. Lovell
  • LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer

Another way to remember is to recall why I read certain books. I’m in a two-person book club with my friend Linda, I’m also a member of an online nonfiction book club, I’m in a Facebook group that reads science fiction anthologies, I have a personal reading goal to read all 25 volumes of The Great SF Stories edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, I like to read science fiction novels, I love to read popular science books, and I enjoy reading some contemporary and classic fiction.

Two-Person Book Club With Linda

  • Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America – Kurt Andersen
  • Horseman, Pass By – Larry McMurtry
  • 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari
  • Leaving Cheyenne – Larry McMurtry
  • The Art of Dying Well – Katy Butler
  • Robert E. Lee and Me – Ty Seidule
  • The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson
  • Elderhood – Louise Aronson
  • Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal – George Packer
  • Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Premonition: A Pandemic Story – Michael Lewis

Linda went on to read several more Larry McMurtry books, but I just couldn’t keep up with her.

Online Nonfiction Book Club

  • Underland: A Deep Time Journey – Robert MacFarlane
  • The Sisters – Mary S. Lovell
  • Robert E. Lee and Me – Ty Seidule
  • The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf
  • Noise (didn’t finish) –
  • Uncanny Valley (read in 2020) – Anna Weiner
  • Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World –  Fareed Zakariia (didn’t finish)
  • Fermat’s Enigma – Simon Singh (didn’t finish)

I had read The Sisters, Uncanny Valley, and The Invention of Nature on my own and nominated those books. I skipped four books this year: Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, Forgetting by Scott A. Small, Kindred by Rebecca Waggs Sykes, A Promised Land by Barack Obama.

Nonfiction I Picked

  • Hackers – Steven Levy (reread)
  • Yesterday’s Tomorrows – Mike Ashley
  • LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media – P. W. Singer
  • A People’s History of Computing in the United States – Joy Lis Rankin
  • Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. – Sam Wasson

I love reading about the history of computers, and the history of science fiction. Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. is about the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I also love reading about pop culture history.

Facebook Group – Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction

  • Year’s Best SF 1 – ed. David Hartwell
  • Orbit 1 – ed. Damon Knight
  • The Very Best of the Best ed. Gardner Dozois
  • The Year’s Best S-F, 5th Annual Edition – Judith Merril
  • The Dark Side – ed. Damon Knight
  • World’s Best Science Fiction 1968 – ed. Donald Wollheim
  • The New Space Opera ed. Gardner Dozois
  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction 3rd Annual – ed. Gardner Dozois
  • The Big Book of Science Fiction – ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (58% finished)

This group gets me to read a great deal of science fiction short stories. We discuss one short story a day, but I don’t read every day’s story. Still, probably over 200 stories. I really enjoy this group, and I’m learning a tremendous lot about the history of short science fiction. I’ve probably read over 400 short stories this year because of other SF anthologies and magazines I read on my own.

The Great SF Stories

  • The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) – ed. Asimov/Greenberg
  • The Great SF Stories 17 (1955) – ed. Asimov/Greenberg
  • The Great SF Stories 18 (1965) – ed. Asimov/Greenberg

I’ve been working through this 25-volume series since 2018. I’ve become immensely fond of this series. It’s a shame they are out of print. I own all twenty-five in paperback, but I read them on my iPad from pdf copies found on the internet. I keep hoping the Facebook group to vote to read the entire run. We do start volume 25 on the 29th of this month. I’d love to finish off the series in 2022, but that would be reading 7 more volumes in 2022 and that probably won’t happen.

Science Fiction

  • The Ministry of the Future – Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth – Walter Tevis
  • Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Children of Ruin – Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • The Clockwork Man – E. V. Odle
  • Past Master – R. A. Lafferty
  • Of Men and Monsters – William Tenn
  • Lords of the Psychon – Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Dying Earth – Jack Vance
  • The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
  • Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint – Abrashkin & Williams
  • A Gift of Time – Jerry Merritt
  • The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis

That’s a total of 26 science fiction books. Far more science fiction than I believe I should be reading. Each year I tell myself I should read less science fiction and more other kinds of books, but I can’t seem to break my life-long science fiction addiction.

General Fiction

  • Horseman, Pass By – Larry McMurtry
  • Leaving Cheyenne – Larry McMurtry
  • The Girl on the Boat – P. G. Wodehouse
  • The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford
  • Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
  • Don’t Tell Alfred – Nancy Mitford
  • Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Reading List – Sara Nisha Adams

I’m disappointed that I didn’t read a new 19th-century classic. Last year I read War and Peace. I did read The War of the Worlds, but I’ve read it a couple of times before. I had planned to read Madame Bovery.

2021 Books

  • Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Yesterday’s Tomorrows – Mike Ashley
  • Robert E. Lee and Me – Ty Seidule
  • The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson
  • Last Best Hope – George Packer
  • Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Premonition – Michael Lewis
  • Under a White Sky – Elizabeth Kolbert
  • The Reading List – Sara Nisha Adams

Each year I aim to read a certain number of books that come out during the year. Nine is pretty good for 2021, but I’m going to aim for 12 in 2022.

JWH

Identifying the Best Books from 2021 to Read in 2022

by James Wallace Harris, 12/18/21

December is the time when we get loads of best-books-of-the-year lists. I enjoy looking at all those lists because I love finding the books that are the most recommended. I can’t read everything. I can’t even read everything that’s great.

I’m lucky to read 4-6 new books as they come out during the year, and sometimes they are among the ones critics have loved. That’s satisfying. For any given year I probably read 10-12 of its best books, that’s including fiction and nonfiction. That’s out of thousands of books published each year, so I get a microscopic sampling of books published. That’s why I work to find the best books, and by best, I mean the most talked about, the most recommended, the most newsworthy books.

I read on average one book a week, or 52 books a year. Most of them are older books, usually from the 20th century, sometimes from the 19th, and on rare occasions even older. I don’t want my head stuck completely in the past, so I try to read 10-12 books each year from the most recent two years. I usually discover a handful of books as they appear during the year, and then identify several more to read in the following year from the end-of-the-year lists.

Over time I’m discovering the most useful best-of-the-year lists. Here are the lists I’m using this year:

Books We Love – NPR. NPR lists over 2,800 books, but they provide a filtering system to help you zero in on the ones you might prefer. Their site has yearly lists back through 2013. Just the button for Staff Picks lists 179 books, that’s way too many. What I do is study the covers. And then go on to other best-of-the-year lists. It’s like the old TV quiz show Concentration, I try to spot covers again from memory. But instead of finding the pair, I try to find covers that are shown on the most lists.

Of their Staff Picks I’ve already discovered the following during 2021:

New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2021. This is another very long list. But they also offer another shorter list, The 10 Best Books of 2021. Sadly, the long list doesn’t include cover photos, so it’s harder to play my Concentration cover game, so reading the short paragraphs about them is important. And The New York Times even offers an even longer list, 100 Notable Books of 2021, this time with covers. The critics at the Times picked many of the books the NPR critics picked, and many books I’ve already heard some word of mouth. These are the ones I want to try so far:

Vogue, Vulture, and Time have recommendations that are often similar to NPR and The New York Times. Time also recommends another book I’ve already read: The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson. That makes me feel I did pretty good finding books coming out during 2021. And they recommend Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe that’s been on most of these lists. I’m just not interested in that subject, but with so many recommendations I feel maybe I should try it. These lists also reinforce the books I list above that I already want to read.

Publishers Weekly has a website system like NPR that recommends way too many books to consider but has a filter system to narrow things down by genre and interest. Their database goes back to 2010, and their lists have links to the original reviews. Once again I’m seeing the same covers of books I’ve been wanting to read, but I’ve spotted two additional books to add to my list from their Top Ten List: All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles and The War For Gloria by Atticus Lish. I’ve been remembering those two covers from the lists I’ve been seeing, and their descriptions are enticing.

I believe I’ve found a total of 23 books from 2021 that interested me most, and I’ve already read 7 of them. That leaves 16. I doubt I’ll get all 23 books read in the coming year. It depends on how many 2022 books attract my attention first, or how mired in the past I become. If I read all 23 that will double my normal current book consumption habit.

There is one last list to mention, Goodreads Choice Awards 2021. These are voted by members of Goodreads. Sometimes the bookworms pick the same books as the critics, and sometimes not. However, this list at Goodreads uncovers a lot more fun genre titles.

Lastly, I’ve discovered that if I keep these recommended novels in mind, sometimes they appear in sales at Bookbub, or in the Kindle Daily Deal, or on Audible. Also, many of them come to Scribd, a book subscription library. I think of Scridb as Netflix for books. Five of the sixteen books I want to read are already available at Scribd. It’s a bargain at $9.99 a month.

JWH

Once Upon a Time the Future was So Bright We Had to Wear Shades

by James Wallace Harris

Between Camelot and Reaganomics existed the counterculture. For a very short while we thought we were entering the Age of Aquarius. Of course, it was a childish utopian dream, but a very positive hope. What happened to that dream? Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America by Don Lattin reminded me of those hopes and dreams. Lattin explains what happened to four of the people who sold us some of that hope. Of course, those four weren’t the only ones. Back then, there was an entire army of John the Baptists promising heaven on Earth if we only believed.

In the sixties many of us thought by the 21st-century we’d have conquered war, disease, poverty, injustice, prejudice, inequality, and be living in a society where everyone had equal opportunity to achieve both spiritual and material wealth. We expected to create a world civilization that would make Jesus, Buddha, and all the past prophets and philosophers proud. We expected science to answer all our questions, and for technology to build ecological sustainable lifeboat Earth before we launched our spiritually-wise selves across the galaxy. Some of us called this anticipated transformation the Age of Aquarius, then The New Age, while hoping for the age of The Final Frontier.

Space travel never went beyond low Earth orbit after 1972. After three days of love, peace, and happiness it’s been Altamont every day since. And the doors of perception only led to tragedy and heartache. All our planned communities failed.

Just look at us now. You’d think the second coming had happened and no one was chosen, and we’re begun a thousand year streak of doom. There are damn few Pollyannas left on Earth that can see rays of hope for the future. Unlike Christians who have waited two thousand years without giving up their faith, the counterculture gave up theirs rather quickly. I read where psychedelic drugs are trying to make a comeback. And there are embers of spirituality still trying to rekindle the world but never do. What made us dream such big dreams in the sixties?

Before the dawning of the Age of Aquarius I was a straight-lace kid. I was gullible and believed what I was told. The U.S. Air Force guided my father and the Southern Baptist Church guided my mother. They had expectations for what I should believe, and I had no objections to those expectations. Well, not until 1963 or 1964. During my 12th and 13th year I changed. Looking back I could say it was merely puberty, but the whole country began changing at the same time.

Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club got me to thinking about those years and changes. Changes that had began much sooner than 1969 or 1970 when I first tried psilocybin and LSD. The making of my counterculture had begun before the drugs, with rock and roll and science fiction. Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club referenced many books I had read back then that shaped my thoughts. I began wondering about all the influences that had reprogrammed me during the sixties and seventies that gave me utopian ideals.

I remember in 11th grade sometime after the 1967 protest at the Pentagon, when a group of us kids waiting for the school bus discussed the coming revolution as if it was a certainty. Even as a dumbass high school kid I thought it weird that we expected such a huge social transformation. But those hopes kept building. Then in 1968 and 1969 Hair and its music was all the rage and people began talking about The Age of Aquarius. The hope became more than a political transformation, the counterculture began to expect a whole new age, which became the focus of the 1970s. I think all our foolish fantasies ended when Reagan was elected in 1980. By then I was married and working at the job I’d stay at until I retired.

My transformation was really an intersection of countless ideas that came from books, magazines, newspapers, television, movies, songs. We think everything comes from the internet today, but before the world wide web we had plenty of informational input. Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club reminded me of those books and other information sources, and all the prophets behind those words. For example, I don’t know if people today have any idea of the impact The Beatles and Bob Dylan had on their fans. Rock music was our gospel.

In 1962, when I was eleven, I got hooked rock and roll and science fiction. In 1963 I began rejecting religion when I started noticing that the people at church did not follow what was preached. A Joycean year of doubt ended in 1964 when I realized I was an atheist. I was just 13. My mother still tried to make me go to church but I felt like I was a spy, a pretender, a fraud. I didn’t have a new philosophy yet, but I was open, and about to try many.

Then in 1965 I read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein and got into Bob Dylan because of “Like a Rolling Stone.” I was still very straight-laced. I remember watching anti-drug and anti-smoking films at school and I was positive I’d never be stupid enough to do drugs or smoke cigarettes.

But only two years later, in early 1967, I read an article in Popular Science about LSD. Instead of sensationalizing the drug with fear and loathing like the news did on TV, the article described LSD as a tool for medical research and exploring the mind. That sounded science fiction. That sounded like something for me.

I can’t remember when I first heard about Timothy Leary. I’m pretty sure I heard about LSD well before I heard about Leary and his famous “Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out” saying. In late 1968, or maybe early 1969, I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. That book didn’t turn me onto Timothy Leary either, but The Beats. I knew about Leary in the sixties, but he always seemed like some kind of media clown. Around this same time I began reading The Rolling Stone magazine. It became my main source of counterculture propaganda.

But remember, I was also mass consuming science fiction, which was changing too with its own New Wave revolution. I remember Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner had a huge impact on me, as did Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions.

I wish I knew when I first bought Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. It was probably the early 1970s, but it might have been sooner. The 1970s brought a flood of influential books and magazines. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke had made me aware of overpopulation in the mid-1960s, but by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the environmental movement was giving us plenty of reasons to change our ways.

By the mid-1970s I became open to trying religion again, but mainly Eastern religions. Be Here Now by Ram Das (Richard Albert), books by Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Herman Hesse, and New Age Magazine made me think that spiritualism and mysticism had some answers.

I wasn’t stupid, I knew the dreams were doomed. Books like The Population Bomb, The Limits of Growth, and Future Shock, among many others like them, kept me grounded. Plus, the science fiction books I was reading became more realistic and pessimistic about the future.

Still, we had a great deal of hope about the future. We thought we could solve all our problems. We had the knowledge, we had the technology, we knew the solutions, it was only a matter of getting everyone to work together. That’s when the dream ended. We never could work together. We all separated into our own personal trips. No matter how much visionaries preached, we never could agree.

Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club also covered the decades of falling apart. Alpert, Weil, and Smith were able to rebuild their lives and become constructive, but not Leary. Their lives parallelled my life and I’m sure all other counterculture true believers. We found ways to be here now. To make do with reality. To give up on our utopian fantasies.

Looking back I also remember what life was like when we were chasing those dreams in the 1960s and 1970s. Things were bleak. The war, the riots, the prejudices, the inequalities, the crime, the bombings, the protests, the generation gap, the oil crisis, the burning rivers, the pollution, the urban decay.

Drug taking and believing in utopian futures were symptoms of the disease, not cures. Much like similar symptoms today. The right-wing countercultures of today have their parallels with the left-wing countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s. But there’s one big difference. We no longer need to wear shades when looking towards the future. That’s rather sad. No, that’s depressingly tragic.

JWH

CRISPR: Book v. Documentary

by James Wallace Harris, 8/18/21

I’ve been learning about the gene editing tool CRISPR for years in bits and pieces. From reading news and magazines articles I had a vague idea that science had made a tremendous breakthrough, one akin to science fiction imagined in GATTACA and Brave New World. CRISPR/Cas9 will allow us to heal people with inheritable genetic diseases or cure people with conditions caused by defective genes, but more than that, it will allow us to program our own evolutionary developments, and change our reproductive germlines.

I don’t want to try and summarize CRISPR/Cas9 to you in detail because I’m recommending your read The Code Breakers by Walter Isaacson or watching Human Nature. But if you want a quick overview, here’s the Wikipedia entry.

My focus is to compare learning from a book versus a documentary. I’ve already acquired what I would consider rumors about CRISPR via Flipboard and The New York Times. Those are casual, everyday ways to absorb tidbits of information. But what’s the next level up? That depends on the time you’re willing to spend, and the amount of details you wish to digest.

Human Nature (2019) is a 1 hour and 35 minute documentary that’s currently available to Netflix or PBS Documentaries on Amazon subscribers, or to rent or buy from Amazon and other video sources. It’s a superior documentary that quickly covers the background of CRISPR with impressive infographic and animations, while interviewing the major scientists, then moving into the thorny ethical issues of gene editing, before finally wrapping things up by speculating about the future. After watching Human Nature you’ll have a good sense of what CRISPR can do and its science fictional impact on society. The documentary claims CRISPR will change the world more than the internet.

On the other hand, if you want go beyond the Gosh-Wow level, you could read Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Code Breakers. It’s 16 hours and 4 minutes on audio, or 552 pages of reading. The book tells the same story as the documentary but with far more detail. The framing of the book is a semi-biography of Jennifer Doudna, who shared the Nobel Prize with Emmanuelle Charpentier in 2020. Walter Isaacson is noted for his biographies (Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin), and The Code Breakers is sort of a biography of Doudna, at least when it comes to her scientific career.

But The Code Breakers is much more. It’s a history of a technology that has emerged in our lifetime, and a chronicle how scientists work to discover and apply that new technology. We learn about publishing papers, going to conferences, building labs, forming startup companies, and competing for the Nobel Prize. If you loved books like The Double Helix by James Watson, The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg, or The Inflationary Universe by Alan Guth, then you should love this one too. I especially admired how Isaacson’s interviewed the various scientists competing for fame and glory, because he knew that they knew he was giving Doudna the scientific fame over them. Recognizing who came first in a discovery is a challenging piece of detective work that Isaacson pulls off with the skill of a master lawyer working the jury.

What also impressed me was how Isaacson told this complex story. I can’t imagine amassing so much information and then weaving it together into a compelling narrative. I’d love to see a documentary about how Isaacson researches and writes his books.

The Code Breakers will take you much further than the Human Nature regarding how genetic editing history unfolded, but the documentary has its own virtues, especially in compelling visuals. However, I wanted to go even further into learning how CRISPR works. Neither the book nor the documentary gave me the step-by-step concepts of what the lab work was like. Because CRISPR is so damn interesting, I went searching for even more information on YouTube. Both the book and film claims using CRISPR is easy, and that anyone can order educational kits to use the technology. I just couldn’t visualize that.

This short clip gave me more of what I wanted, but it’s still not enough, but I’m going to continue looking for more videos like this one. However, I also found this video about one of the CRISPR kits.

The trouble with wanting to understand even more is I run into the limits of my understanding. I found the 2012 article from Science that’s at the heart of the book. I can read it, and even spot ideas covered in the book and documentary, but 95% lies behind an event horizon of jargon I can’t penetrate. Just look at this one paragraph:

I love popular science books and magazines, but I have to take the working of real science on faith. I don’t like that. I’m hoping to find other books and documentaries that will help me in my quest to visualize how scientists do their work in a step-by-step process. Throughout the book Isaacson wrote about the experiments involved in discovering CRISPR, but I have no mental picture of what they were like.

For example, x-ray crystallography was often mentioned as a vital skill in this lab work. Seeing this video helps me visualize more of the narrative. What I would love is a Ken Burns type documentary, a 10-part series that visually illustrated The Code Breakers.

CRISPR is another example of the positive potential for our future, and another example that validates science. Sure, CRISPR offers all the potential evils of H-Bombs, but it also proves we have great abilities to solve incredibly complex problems.

I feel lucky to have experienced digital revolution, and I’d love to live long enough watch the gene editing revolution unfold. By the time the 2040s and 2050s roll around, society will be transformed again. But then, there will be other transformation happening in the same time frame. Our efforts to slow climate or our failure to do so will reveal another massive transformation. Talk about Future Shock…

JWH

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