Skip to main content

Born to be Good – Dacher Keltner ***

There has been a spate of books over recent years on the science of morals, happiness and more. In this book, joining the crowd, Dacher Keltner examines the science of a meaningful life.
He starts off in a way that immediately raises suspicions. I’m sure what he’s trying to do is be more approachable – and perhaps that works for some audiences – but for me, the way he brings in Eastern philosophies and is always relating things to the Confucian concept of ‘jen’ which apparently ‘refers to kindness, humanity and reverence’ is worrying. In many aspects of science, the tendency to bring in Eastern philosophies is a red flag that this the rest of the contents are pseudo-science, based on vague similarities between, for example, Daoist ideas and quantum theory. So we then get a fusion of misplaced quantum physics terminology and woo. That isn’t really what’s happening here – Keltner just wants to emphasize the importance of what was represented by jen in real, scientific observations on human nature – but the use, which continues throughout the book with a pseudo-scientific ‘jen ratio’ inevitably taints the content and makes it difficult to take it entirely seriously.
This worry is reinforced when occasionally the author seems to force the point to match his Eastern philosophy = good stuff mantra. He tells us that using emotion as a guide, as emphasized by Eastern religions, is a good thing – but uses illustrations where the feelings tell us to hate someone, but instilled behaviour says we should tolerate them. Is this really a good thing? He seems to be arguing for the lynch mob over the civilized trial. The reasoning to support his argument seems fatally flawed here. Equally, he shows a ludicrously over-the-top reverence for the Dalai Lama, devoting several pages to being thrilled at being touched by him. He should, perhaps, take the advice of Zaphod Beeblebrox’s analyst in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘He’s just this guy, you know?’
It’s not all like that by any means. There is a lot of material in here. Under this ‘meaningful life’ banner, Keltner covers kindness, embarrassment, smiling, laughter, teasing, touching, love, compassion and awe. The approach is very observational. In a lot of sections he describes how videos of people’s reactions are broken down frame by frame to detect facial responses, while there are also reports of brain scans providing a clue to what’s going on in a particular activity. There’s plenty of content – but it’s not always easy to see how a particular conclusion is drawn. It all seems strung together rather haphazardly. I was particularly doubtful about the teasing section, which played down the negative side of teasing – despite what Keltner says, there is a very fine line between teasing and bullying, and much teasing is unpleasant for the victim. On the plus side, apart from the Dalai Lama worship, the touching section was particularly interesting, though the numbers used to analyze people’s guess at the intention of touch were hard to interpret. I was also a bit worried that Freud is spoken of in several places in a fairly positive way, as if he hadn’t been discredited as being totally unscientific.
The conclusion of the book is ‘we are wired for good’ – and though elements of this do come through in the results, there is feeling that this is a search for a conclusion that the author had before he began, with selective interpretation of results along the way. Not entirely satisfactory.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Enjoy Our Universe - Alvaro de Rújula ***

I’m going to start this review with a longish quote from the author’s preface, for several reasons. It explains De Rújula’s purpose in writing the book, as well as the audience he’s trying to reach, while giving a taste of his idiosyncratic writing style (which he keeps up throughout the book). It’s also a good starting point for discussing the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Here’s the quote:

'This book is not intended for (very) young kids nor for physicists. It is intended for anyone – independently of the education (s)he suffered – who is interested in our basic current scientific understanding of the universe. By "universe" I mean everything observable from the largest object, the universe itself, to the smallest ones, the elementary particles that "function" as if they had no smaller parts. This is one more of many books on the subject. Why write yet another one? Because the attempts to understand our universe are indeed fun and I cannot resist the tempta…