Science and Culture

Thoughts on “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger

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I really enjoyed this book and wanted to share it. Wonderful discussions about gendered adaptations and approaches to threat and conflict. Mental illness, and societal as well as evolutionary adaptations we possess for dealing with trauma. And our human need for strong social bonds and meaningful opportunities to come together as one to contribute to, protect, and heal our communities. Thought-provoking, sincere, hopeful, and deeply moving writing (or, in the case of the audiobook version I “read,” listening). Also a decent commentary on the challenges we face in America and other developed Western societies, where we have incredible blessings of health, security, technological advances, and prosperity that also tend to stratify us into social or political classes and isolate us from one another.

There are so many cool things I could talk about with this short book, but I’ll leave the discussion here. I feel greatly enriched by this book, and I’m growing rather fond of Sebastian Junger’s well-researched and thoughtful perspectives of humanity. There’s a lot more potential for good in our natures and tendencies than we often consider, and we humans need one another more than we know.

Highly recommended read!

You can find Tribe here on Audible (read by the author himself): http://www.audible.com/pd/History/Tribe-Audiobook/B01D57FN3I

Or here on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Tribe-Homecoming-Belonging-Sebastian-Junger/dp/1455566381.

Recommended Read: “The Marshmallow Test” By Walter Mischel

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LDS general authority Dieter F. Uchtdorf referenced the self-control studies described in The Marshmallow Test in his talk on patience at a session of General Conference several years ago. When I found out the researcher, Walter Mischel, wrote a book, I was eager to add the audio version to my library and delve into more of the details.

The Marshmallow Test involves the debate of nature vs. nurture in shaping who we are and what we become. How much of our behavior and abilities is driven by pre-wired traits or environmentally imposed conditions, and how does self-control play into our success? Why do some who are wildly successful in the public sphere fail to carry that level of discipline and impulse regulation to other aspects of their lives? Further, how can we take a more active approach as a society to prevent delequency and help individuals who struggle with various impulse-control or mental illness related issues, and how do we raise children who thrive and give back to their communities in their chosen pursuits?

Children appear to develop some blend of two philosophies about their abilities at a young age. They believe that they are good at something because they were born that way, or because external factors converged in their favor (“I’m doing a good job coloring in the lines today because this is a good crayon”). Or they believe that they can become good at something if they work at it and learn how. This book takes into account that environment and genetic predisposition–which are largely outside an individual’s control–play a vital role in childhood development, as well as shaping our personal attitudes and outlook on life from an early age. What we believe about ourselves, our needs, and our abilities has a major impact on what we do.

As sophisticated, socially cooperative creatures, we evolved a primal hot system for survival, and a cognitive cool system for handling long-term social and environmental complexities. The impulsive hot system gives us the adrenaline rush we need to escape predators, rescue our kin, or defend ourselves from others who want to steal from us or cause us harm. We snag food that tastes good when calories might be scarce, we pursue sex when we’re lonely or eager (a mechanism for gratification and passing on our genes), and we seek immediate relief for symptoms of pain rather than treating root causes, and so forth. The cool system gives us the ability to self-distract and distance ourselves from these impulses, to frame them in a broader, strategic, rational context.

Mischel suggests that self-control skills are malleable. His observations bolster a school of thought in which most people can learn greater mastery and rewire their thinking in many areas, including relationships, overcoming addictions, focusing at school, and respecting the laws, rights, and dignities of others. This is given that they have a desire to learn or to change.

Balancing the hot and cool systems is also vital to our well being and success. Engaging the cool system too much can deprive us of zest and motivation, while an easily triggered hot system can lead to rash decision making and physical aliments such as elevated blood pressure. Either can engender anti-social and self-destructive behavior. Being able to put off immediate gratification for greater future rewards also involves trust. If we do not trust that someone is going to come through on future promises, or that a delay in what is immediately available to us is to our benefit, it becomes reasonably impractical to wait to take advantage of some opportunities.

I love this book because Mischel’s research and conclusions ring true to me, and to my own world views on life, biology, and psychology. I highly recommend it. While we don’t get to pick many of our challenges in life, and we can’t control everything we feel, everything the world tell us about ourselves, or the way others respond to us, we can control what we think and do about it. We have the power to make our own choices and to change our minds, and we have a huge impact on how others perceive their own abilities and self-worth through our words and actions. We will grow the more we reach out to each other in constructive ways and strive to exercise our inherent capacity to learn.

You can listen to The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control here on Audible: http://www.audible.com/pd/Science-Technology/The-Marshmallow-Test-Audiobook/B00N9E4YWY

Or buy it here on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Marshmallow-Test-Mastering-Self-Control/dp/0316230871.

Thoughts on “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often thought to be a cautionary tale about taking science too far. Yet, there are practically no details of how the monster was created like I might expect to find in a modern work of science fiction. We see Frankenstein collecting body parts (described pretty much just that vaguely), and his emotional reactions to that task. What Frankenstein creates and how he creates it aren’t the main shock value of the story at all. No dead bodies are stuffed with bolts and manually cranked up on a platform by a hunchbacked assistant during a lightning storm. Instead, the cautionary tale seems to have a much more human, rather than technical, implication.

While H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Crichton, and more recent authors and movie producers tend to emphasize a theme of “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should,” that lesson never made sense to me when applied to real science or other things in life. Particularly when I live in a culture that praises concepts like “you can do anything you put your mind to,” “knowledge is power,” and “the sky’s the limit.”

In Shelley’s novel, knowledge is a vice. Or, rather, knowing enough to mess around with something but failing to plan or take responsibility for the unexpected consequences is a vice. It seems that Frankenstein’s utter lack of understanding as to what exactly he had created and how he might deal justly with his creation are what made the story so tragic. If he had known more, if he had explored further and come to understand more fully his creation from the beginning instead of letting it wander away and hoping it would go extinct, it might never have become a monster at all. Nor appeared as one to its creator, whatever “deformities” it possessed. Frankenstein turned away from his thirst for knowledge and understanding too soon. Or, perhaps, he had already turned away from a true and honest pursuit of understanding in favor of his own glory or “ambition” long before his creation came to be.

That probably isn’t what Shelley meant. She lived closer to a time when it was thought some things were not meant to be explored or explained by human minds, though this usually held supernatural connotations as well. And that brings me to the broader and rather powerful lesson that I believe Frankenstein actually presents. It’s about taking anything too far. Frankenstein’s ambition or self-glorification in trying to bring back the dead wasn’t so much “playing God” in the sense of trying to unlock the mysteries of Creation, or explore something interesting that no one has explored before, or gaining mortal power over death. It was, rather, a sort of self-idolatry.

Frankenstein’s thirst for knowledge was not his fatal flaw, then, I would argue. The fatal mistake was elevating his ambitions above and at the expense of things that really, primally mattered: his integrity, his health, his joy, his family, and all loving relationships with other human beings. The monster’s appearance in this story is nebulously described in value-based terms: “hideous,” “uncouth,” “miserable wretch,” etc. That creature is therefore a symbol of human negligence. The consequence, without any sort of intervening Christ figure in the story to restore Frankenstein and all who would be afflicted forever by this one mistake the man could not recompense on his own, whatever his efforts to do so, is that this particular monster born of self-glorification would rob that man of all he held dear. It would leave him miserable, alone, and psychologically damned like unto the monster itself. (Frankenstein’s monster did compare himself to Satan numerous times, so this seems a fitting metaphor).

I loved the milieu descriptions, the characters; and the fact that the character Frankenstein came from a warm, loving, functional family rather than a broken home life (another part of what made the story tragic). Some of the descriptions, particularly of people’s life stories, have that old-fashioned pacing that I find a bit cumbersome (I’m not cut out to enjoy Classics, apparently). But the relationship tension is riveting. The mounting twists of horror are heart-wrenching. Super depressing book, but it’s definitely worthwhile.

I recommend the audio version narrated by Dan Stevens, which you can find here on Audible: http://www.audible.com/pd/Classics/Frankenstein-Audiobook/B00FQRCM9O.

Reading Recommendation: The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

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The movie this book is based on came out when I was twelve years old. I didn’t have a chance to see it (and still haven’t…yet), but I loved documentaries and I remember being intrigued about this dramatization of true-life events regarding fishermen caught in a 1991 Atlantic storm. That storm, which raged through Halloween into the first few calendar days of November, is often referred to as the Perfect Storm, after the title of this very book by journalist Sebastian Junger. (The storm apparently wasn’t officially named because it evolved from a northeastern storm colliding with another hurricane, Hurricane Grace, and the National Hurricane Center didn’t want to cause confusion). When I came across the title on Audible, I was eager to finally read it–or take a listen.

In an audio interview at the end of the Recorded Books edition, the journalist-author mentions that he’d been looking to write about dangerous jobs and why people do them, including logging and fighting forest fires among the topics. This book takes an exclusive look at the lives of commercial fishermen, the development of the 1991 storm, the logistics and perils of rescue missions at sea, and the individual stories of crew members aboard a specific fishing boat called the Andrea Gail.

The Andrea Gail was lost at sea during this storm. To this day, very little has been found to explain what happened, and we simply don’t have much information about the crew’s final moments. The haunting drama of this book, therefore, revolves around the big picture of commercial fishing, the toll of the fishing lifestyle on individuals and their relationships, the Perfect Storm’s devastation as it pummeled the eastern coast of the United States, and the impact of one crew’s disappearance on the family and friends–and nations–they left behind. (Canada was involved in rescue efforts as well).

I love the way this book blends technical and scientific details about how equipment and industry work with the raw humanity of real people who actually live and work at sea. It discusses everything from righting a boat out of a wave, to search-and-rescue technology and storm tracking (GPS was a new thing 20 years ago–and now virtual map apps come standard on our smartphones!), to what it feels like to drown. It talks about what it takes to be a fisherman or to become a military rescue diver. It shows how socioeconomics influenced the crew of the Andrea Gail, as well as the fishermen that decided not to embark on that fatal trip, who constantly weighed their individual financial needs with the risks of the job and gut feelings about unseen hazards. Lastly, it shares the experiences of men and women caught in the storm and how they survived.

While the true-life story of the Andrea Gail is a heart-wrenching tragedy, this book unfolds with beautiful insights into what drives us both to do what we have to do to make a living, and to do what we feel compelled to do to save the lives of people we don’t know who are in danger. For many who either couldn’t get close enough to pull people off their boats because the risk to their own safety was too great, or who could only wait on land for the storm to pass and hope for the best, they tracked the storm. They tried to maintain contact, to keep people both at sea and back home informed, to give them encouragement. And they prayed. They did everything they could to ensure and communicate to those still out in the storm struggling for their lives that they were neither alone nor forgotten in their terrifying situation.

Within the narrative’s tone, there is no underlying demonization of either the commercial fishing industry or the sometimes unpleasant socioeconomic pressures that keep fishermen fishing. It doesn’t look for things or people to blame, I suppose, for the hazards or the losses. Some people were sued, yes. But the absence of conspiratory cynicism makes for a refreshingly frank and uplifting perspective that keeps the focus on how much we depend on each other to survive and overcome obstacles. The Perfect Storm isn’t a cautionary tale, but a testament to what makes the human spirit astoundingly great.

This is a wonderful, fascinating non-fiction piece that reads almost like a novel, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning about extreme occupations or survival and rescue on the high seas.

You can check out the Recorded Books edition on Audible here: http://www.audible.com/pd/Bios-Memoirs/The-Perfect-Storm-Audiobook/B00JZPVY8S

Or the print and digital editions on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Perfect-Storm-True-Story-Against/dp/0393337014.

Sarah E. Seeley is a fantasy and horror author, and an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association. She has a bachelor’s degree in geology and loves exploring the science of human origins.

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