The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson

The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson

It is rare that I finish a book and upon closing it think, I am so glad that I read this book. Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth is one of those books.

This book seeks to answer the big questions: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Humans have grappled with these questions for as long as we have existed. Wilson contends that the true nature of the human condition can only be revealed through rigorous scientific scholarship. To get to the core of what he believes to be the human condition, Wilson relies on his long, distinguished career  – which includes two Pulitzer Prizes – studying ants and social behavior. Ants, like Homo sapiens, are one of the few eusocial (“true social condition”) species. Wilson states that members of eusocial species “belong to multiple generations. They divide labor in what outwardly at least appears to be an altruistic manner. Some take labor roles that shorten their life spans or reduce the number of personal offspring, or both. Their sacrifice allows others who fill reproductive roles to live longer and produce proportionately more offspring.”

Wilson argues strongly that altruism, acting selflessly in defense of others, is the key to understanding humanity’s rapid evolution and explosive growth in numbers. Existing theories of the evolution of altruism focus on the role of competition between members of groups and between groups themselves. Richard Dawkins, well known for The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, is a strong supporter of this explanation, known as kin selection and inclusive fitness. Wilson, however, finds these explanations to be unsatisfactory. Kin selection and its close cousin, inclusive fitness, may explain why a parent would die for his/her child or why a girl might save her drowning younger brother. However, Wilson contends that kin selection does not explain why a colony of bees sacrifice so much for the collective good or why someone might save an unrelated stranger from a burning building.

Wilson asserts that group selection, rather than individual selection, is responsible for humanity’s astoundingly fast evolution, our tribal nature, and the development of culture. He draws upon a figure no less well respected in the field of evolution than Charles Darwin, who said that tribes where members give of themselves for the greater good “would be victorious over most other tribes.” In other words, selfish individuals may beat altruistic ones, but altruistic groups are genetically destined to be more successful than selfish ones. The human condition, Wilson contends, arises from our struggle between selfishness and altruism. “The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual, but largely in opposition to each other,” he writes.

After laying out this new “eusocial” theory of human evolution, Wilson applies it to the question, “What are we?”. He offers (perhaps too) speedy explanations for the origins of language, the creative arts, morality, and religion. Wilson asserts the religion does not facilitate submission to God but “to no more than a tribe united by a creation myth.” He concludes his view of religion by stating that “A good first step for the liberation of humanity from the oppressive forms of tribalism would be to repudiate, respectfully, the claims of those in power who claim they speak for God, are a special representative of God, or have exclusive knowledge of God’s divine will.” For those familiar with Dawkins’ work this will not be an entirely unfamiliar take on religion. However, Wilson handles the subject with greater respect for the religious than Dawkins does.

On the whole this is an incredibly well written book. Wilson wrote with a general (educated)  audience in mind. I was able to follow along quite well with my International Baccalaureate biology from high school and microbiology from college. The Social Conquest of Earth is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the origins of humanity, evolution, or the development of culture.


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The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son

Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, takes place primarily in North Korea, one of the most secretive and intensely isolated states in the world. A major theme of the novel is identity. Under Kim Jong-Il, often referred to as the Dear Leader, and the oppressive state apparatus he sits at the helm of, one must be flexible to the extreme in order to survive. In one memorable instance Dr. Song, a high level official, says to the novel’s protagonist Jun Do, “Where we are from stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

Jun Do, whose name is reminiscent of the English expression for any unknown man, John Doe, is a perfect embodiment of this piece of advice. The novel’s first section is a biography of his youth and young adulthood. From the orphanage where he is raised, Jun Do is selected to learn to fight in the dark subterranean tunnels the DPRK regime has dug under the DMZ into South Korea, the North’s “soiled little sister.” Subsequently, Jun Do is trained to kidnap citizens of foreign countries and to listen to radio transmissions at night on a fishing boat, where he becomes enthralled by the nightly broadcasts of two American girls who are attempting to row around the world. This biographical portion of the novel ends with Jun Do being taken on a trip to Abilene, Texas. Americans are described to him as being “very sentimental,” particularly towards dogs, and that having Jun Do on the diplomatic mission to tell a concocted story about being abused by the US Navy will win him favor among American political wives. Upon returning to North Korea, Jun Do is taken away to a prison mine camp for unclear reasons.

The second section of the novel tells the story of the Dear Leader’s archrival Commander Ga, whose name and family have been given to Jun Do, and the elaborate scheme he concocts to save Ga’s wife, the “national actress” Sun Moon, and her children. Unlike the first section of the novel, the second has three unique narrators. The first, which provides a measure of comic relief for a plot that descends continuously into the vagaries of life in North Korea, is the loudspeaker found in every home, workplace, and public space in the country. The voice from the speaker tells the propaganda version of the relationship between Commander Ga and Sun Moon. The second narrator is Commander Ga, who gives the most reliable account of what is truly happening. And the third narrator is an unnamed government interrogator who is attempting to write Commander Ga’s true biography.

The end of the novel will not come as a surprise to most leaders and the book is too long. However, even with those two qualifications, this is still a very good novel. Johnson gives life and agency to characters in a country that is frequently the subject of media attention but about whose citizens about whom we know next to nothing. Jun Do’s transformation from perfect compliance in carrying out orders handed down from people in power to driving forward a scheme that will disprove the invincibility of the Kim Jong-Il’s absolute power is a thrill to experience.

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45 Great American Indie Bookstores to Support This Holiday Season

Are any of these in your town? I’ve been to a couple of these myself and can think of a few more to add. Brookline Booksmith and Portsmouth Book & Bar, I’m lookin’ at you guys.


No matter how bleak the news about publishing gets, independently owned bookstores are surviving, and in some cases thriving, in an Amazon-ruled, post-bookstore chain environment that shouldn’t necessarily be hospitable to shops that handsell books to locals. Enough has been written about why you should support your local indie that you shouldn’t need us to tell you about that. So as we approach the season when you’ll be spending money on gifts, as well as looking for engrossing reads to get you through the cold winter, we’re instead supplying you with a list of 45 great American indie bookstores (in no particular order) that sell new or used novels, art books, zines, coffee, that biography you really need to read, and/or delicious vegan treats — all of which are as important to their community as any business you can think of, and deserve your support.

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The bear went over the mountain, eh?

Click the title of this blog post for a link to the short story.

When Canadian author Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this fall I was eager to read some of her work. I had seen quite a lot of literary buzz about her most recent (and, supposedly, final) short story collection Dear Life. Last spring I exchanged my unused frequent flier points – it seems one never has enough of these to buy an actual, you know, ticket – for more magazine subscriptions than I care to admit. The New Yorker was among them but it has since, sadly, expired. Much to my delight, while browsing the New Yorker website this morning looking for those rare freebie articles, I had the good fortune to stumble across this sucker punch of a short story, first published in the December 27, 1999 issue of the magazine. That year I was 11 years old and hated the fifth grade, but that’s a story for a separate post on a different blog altogether.

All that I knew about Munro’s writing before reading “TBWOTM” was that her stories focus almost exclusively on the lives of ordinary people living in small-town Ontario and that her characters and settings are deceptively simple to the inattentive reader. “TBWOTM” opens with Grant and Fiona as college students who get married almost on a whim. Fiona proposed to Grant asking, “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?” Fast forward around forty years and Fiona, whose memory has deteriorated, is now committed to a care facility called Meadowlake. During her first thirty days at Meadowlake Fiona is not allowed outside visitors. When Grant returns to visit her, Fiona has forgotten who he is but has become close to a man named Aubrey with whom she often plays cards. Aubrey is at Meadowlake on a short-term stay while is wife goes on vacation in Florida with her sister. Fiona tells Grant, she “knew him years and years ago. He worked in the store. The hardware store where my grandpa used to shop.” Munro is not clear whether their relationship is sexual or whether the two patients have simply become close.

Grant, a retired professor of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic literature, spends some of his now copious alone time thinking about the many affairs he has had with former students. A good number of his lovers were “Married women who had started going back to school. Not with the idea of qualifying for a better job, or for any job, but simply to give themselves something more interesting to think about than their usual housework and hobbies.” In an ironic twist of events (I am beginning to see why Munro’s stories are said to be deceptively ordinary) Fiona is devastated when Aubrey’s wife Marian takes him back home and she still does not remember who Grant is. Eager to help his inconsolable wife any way that he can, Grant tracks down Marian and visits her at her well cared for home on an otherwise distressed suburban street.

Marian is initially hostile to Grant, thinking that he has come because he is jealous of the potential romantic relationship between their mentally frail spouses. Grant assures Marian that this is not the case, but that his only concern is getting Fiona’s spirits up so that she will not be moved to the dreaded “second floor.” Over coffee and gingerbread cookies, which Marian somewhat aggressively states are homemade, as if Grant would be foolish to have assumed otherwise, have a discussion about reuniting their spouses for Fiona’s benefit. Marian is at first hesitant to take Aubrey and visits to Meadowlake and says that she cannot afford to place him there permanently. “TBWOTM” concludes with Grant bringing Aubrey, whom Fiona no longer remembers, to visit. However, she indicates that she may remember Grant, saying, “You could have just driven away,” she said. “Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.” Grant and Marian’s relationship, a continuation of Grant’s philandering habits, has saved Fiona. How’s that for irony?

This is were the story’s title, taken from the popular children’s song, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” comes into play. In the song, the bear goes over the mountain to “see what he could see.” But, of course, all he sees is the other side of the mountain. By introducing the reader to Grant and Fiona as young college students and then somersaulting rapidly into their old age, the reader has essentially gone “over the hill” or “over the mountain” with them. Additionally, Munro changes the verb in the children’s rhyme from “went” to “came.” What is the significance of this shift in direction? By using “came,” Munro implies that the reader of this story that alternates between the present and various points in the past, is not on the safe, youthful side of the mountain, but the old age side. The reader comes away with the unsettling conclusion that he or she has already come over the mountain and seen all that there was to see.

Alice Munro, consider me a fan.

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November 8, 2013 · 5:32 PM

What’s up next?

Thanks to everyone who read my first book review on Necessary Errors. My next project is Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son, set in “the impossible state,” North Korea. Keep an eye on the site over the next week or so!


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Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain


Established literary critic Caleb Crain published his masterful first novel, Necessary Errors (Penguin), this August. The novel takes place in 1990, one year after the Velvet Revolution that ended Communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia. Jacob Putnam, the novel’s protagonist, is a newly out Harvard graduate and aspiring writer, who has come to Prague to teach English and write his first novel. Jacob and his colleagues at the still state sponsored language institute attempt to navigate the trials and tribulations of young adulthood amidst and alongside the denizens of Prague, the elegant city that will, soon after the novel’s conclusion and the Velvet Divorce of the Czech and Slovak regions of the country, be the capital city of the new Czech Republic.

Necessary Errors is in many ways a classic Americans abroad novel, in the vein of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Jacob and his fellow expats – among them Melinda, a confident, well-educated English woman, her politically astute American lover Rafe, as well as Thom and Michael, two garrulous Scots, and Carl, Jacob’s straight friend and unrequited love from college who makes a long-term visit to Prague – like Hemingway’s characters, don’t seem to do much of anything of great value with their time. Sure they work at the language institute, teach private lessons for extra cash (in order to cope with the rising cost of living ahead of capitalism’s imminent arrival), and have occasional success in love, but the bulk of the novel, and many of it richest passages, takes place in the city’s largely state-owned bars, cafés, and restaurants. The real action unfolds in the characters’ seemingly endless supply of idle time as they debate the merits of dying communism versus ascendant capitalism and what they want to do with their lives. All of this happening under the influence of cheap harsh Czech cigarettes and what must amount to lakes of beer and liquor by the novel’s end.

Necessary Errors is also a coming of age novel. Jacob, who is openly gay at home in the States, is at first reluctant to come out in Prague. This hesitancy is partly due to Jacob’s introverted nature; books are the one place where he feels truly free. However, upon first meeting Melinda and being invited to a party, Jacob admits that he was considering going to a bar, “A gay bar,” to be exact. The gay bar in question, T-Club, was listed in a gay travel guide that Jacob went to lengths to keep surreptitiously hidden away when anyone from the language institute visited his apartment, which he rented from the cantankerous Mr. Stelikh whose daughter, Beta, is a student where Jacob teaches. In his early months in Prague, Jacob spends many evenings at T-Club where he meets Lubos and a posse of young gay Czech men led by the flamboyant Ota, who has already learned to dress in preppy American style. Jacob has a brief affair with Lubos, which is ultimately unsuccessful due to a series of misunderstandings and divergent expectations. Before they have sex for the first time, Lubos tells Jacob that he has AIDS. Upon this revelation, Jacob “leaned over Lubos and embraced him – awkwardly … in tears.” Lubos, “who had hardened a little at Jacob’s tears, said the news was recent.” A conversation ensued about the prevalence of AIDS in Eastern Europe, where the disease was still relatively rare, and America, then at the height of the AIDS crisis, Lubos tells Jacob that he made a kecám, a joke.  In the final section of the novel Jacob’s luck turns around and he has the good fortune to have a much happier affair with Milo, an amateur photographer and frequent patron of T-Club.

If at times Necessary Errors seems to drag, the reader remains engaged due to Cain’s skilled prose. Almost every page of the novel is peppered with beautiful descriptions, like this one of an anti-communist Dane turned lamenter of Communism’s passage: “Golden hair on marble skin – Hans was like a sugar cookie, Jacob thought.” Or this one that describes Jacob and Milo’s nascent relationship: “They sat talking naked so often and so long perhaps because they liked to be able to read the whole opalescent page of each other at once.”

The novel ends as Jacob’s year in Prague comes to an end and he returns to America to attend graduate school, having written only one short story that he rather dislikes. Like Jacob, other characters too leave Prague, while more plan to do so, and the remainder are unsure of what lays ahead of them. Crain and this novel truly excel when discussing the travails of young adulthood: Where do I go? What do I become? Who Am I? The novel’s conclusion leaves Jacob’s answers to these questions ambiguous, yet simultaneously gratifying. One could say of Necessary Errors what Jacob’s friend Annie says of the German writer Thomas Mann, “Nothing whatever happens for pages and pages, and one doesn’t mind somehow.”

Buy this novel

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Intro to My Shelf Space

After a full summer (and now part of the fall!) of my partner poking and prodding me, insisting that I should start a blog because I read so much, I finally did it!

If you’re a Millennial like me, you can probably relate to the numbing ennui that comes along with our generation’s defining buzzword, “funemployment.” In an attempt to keep my mind from turning to mush and spilling its student loan funded content out of every orifice in my head, I’ve been devouring books at a furious pace. For the first time in, well, I can’t remember how long, I have a library card. The Free Library of Philadelphia has kept me supplied with a steady stream of reading material. And, importantly, it’s all FREE!

Since I read so much and have copious amounts of free time (aka time that I should be spending applying to jobs) I will use My Shelf Space to write reviews and blurbs about the books that I enjoy the post. This blog will 1) ensure that I  (hopefully) don’t forget what I’ve read and 2) provide you, the reader, with book recommendations and/or a space to comment on my reviews of books that you yourself have read, are reading, or have on your to-read list.

Aside from books, I will also post thought provoking current events pieces that I find. You can thank my MA of International Relations for that!

I look forward to creating a space for smart, but not too serious, discussion of books, current events, and anything else that works its way into My Shelf Space!


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