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Books, books, books! From Null!

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Ten books from Null, while I was in Southern Cal. Here are brief reviews of the first five I am reading/have read:

The first of the book stash that I read was Philosophy of Biology, a compendium of essays edited by Michael Ruse. Predictably, given the editor, who likes "balance," it's a bit of a mixed bag, with great excerpts from Aristotle and Darwin among others, but other stuff that was not so great, at least not to me.

The final section of the book, God and Biology, was a train wreck IMO. It had only three pieces, the first being The Book of Genesis. :faint: Er, that's not God and biology, it's God and abiogenesis, and of course it's also mythology. Nothing wrong with that, but if you're going to stick Genesis in there, how about giving it its own section along with four or five other creations myths?

The next piece was by someone named Joe Cain whose credentials are never listed (apparently the books has no "about the authors" section) At first it was quite good, a detailed account of the Scopes trial that included facts I never knew. But from this retelling of the trial the author goes on to draw conclusions about the drawn-out culture wars, suggesting among others that "Nietzsche the militarist" :wtf: is to blame for these wars, and concluding the essay by asserting that many scientists don't want to mend the cultural rift between their evolutionary science and cultural Christianity. This presupposes of course that the rift can be mended, short of abdicating science.

The final essay is by the Christian theologian John Haught, who not only accepts evolutionary theory but positively revels in it; evolution is not just acceptable under Christianity, he asserts, but is actually entailed by it. Why? It's an example of God's never-ending creativity. Unfortunately, Haught, while he alludes to the pain and suffering among living things, the daily bloodbath that takes place as living things eat other living things, and the fact that 99 percent of species that have ever existed have gone extinct, he never returns to these sad facts to explain how they are consistent with a morally perfect God.

Perhaps Haught is to be commended for trying to reconcile Christianity with evolution, but I think all he really demonstrates is that Christianity, by prodigious contortions and rationalizations, can be made to "fit," at least somewhat, with any version of reality; yet it remains true that the depredations of the natural world are fully consistent with the assumption of metaphysical naturalism, yet need to be rationalized and explained away, accounted for, under the assumption of Christian mythology. That's one of many reasons that one should go with naturalism.

The second book is a collection of stories by the Soviet-era renegade writer Mikhail Zoshchenko, and they are all very funny (the Soviet authorities were not amused, however; although at least unlike the unfortunate Daniil Kharms, Zoshchenko did not starve to death in an insane asylum in Leningrad during the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis.) One of the best stories lampoons Soviet-era housing shortages. A man newly arrives in Moscow and finds the only place to rent is somebody's bathroom. So he does. "Now I'm living," he says, and gets married and raises a family in the bathroom. Finally, though, his wive's relatives insist on visiting, and presumably perhaps even moving in with them, and that's when the protagonist flees his bathroom apartment and Moscow altogether, though later he wires his family money. :-D

The next book from the cache that I read was the 1957 David Wright translation of Beowulf. The author deliberately removes all the poetry from the book, making the poem entirely prose, even at times flat journalistic prose, and in a translator's note tries to justify this strategy, but I don't think his justifications have merit. You need the poetry in there. You can't simply translate the lovely "the whale's road" as "the sea." It isn't' right, damn it. But Null has mentioned a better translation that can be found online, which retains both the sense of the story and a good poetical translation, so I plan to look that up.

The next book up in the cache is Star of India, about the history of an iron-rigged sailing ship built and set to sea in 1863. I haven't quite finished it, but the point of interest is that this ship, wholly intact, is moored in San Diego's maritime museum, and Null, I and the others toured it.

Now I'm reading, from the Null cache, Memory of Fire: Genesis, by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, and it's a revelation. The first book in a trilogy, it is an attempt to "rescue the kidnapped memory of all America." It begins with the creation myths of the indigenous Americans, before the arrival of Columbus et al, and they are splendid. The myths involve not just the creation of the world as a whole, but of everything in it: people, animals, the sun, the moon, the wind, laughter, fear, power, love, even potatoes. Here is how the potato came to be:

A chief of Chiloe Island, a place populated by sea gulls, wanted to make love like the gods.

When pairs of gods embraced, the earth shook and tidal waves were set moving. That much was known, but no one had seen them.

Anxious to surprise them, the chief swam out to the forbidden isle. All he got to see was a giant lizard, with its mouth wide open and full of foam and an outsized tongue that gave off fire at the tip.

The gods buried the indiscreet chief in the ground and condemned him to be eaten by the others. As punishment for his curiosity, they covered his body with blind eyes.


All the other myths are just as crazily inventive as this one -- they make the Hebrew and Greek myths look pretty lame by comparison. As to be expected, there are some myths that overlap with Judeo/Christian/Greek mythology -- there is a flood story, and a world-creation story stretching 11 days rather than the seven of the bible -- but there are others that have no analogue that I know of in ancient European/Mideast mythology.

One is an unresurrection story. On this account, long ago, every person who died was resurrected on the fifth day after death, and greeted with a huge party. This was a problem, though, because the resurrected dead were competing with the living for food.

Then one guy who was kind of a slacker died, and five days later the community prepared a huge feast, awaiting his return. But he didn't return until the sixth day, and all the food had grown cold. His wife yelled at him: "You good-for-nothing! Always the same good-for-nothing! All the dead are punctual, except you!"

Then his wife threw a corncob at his head and he died again, and his soul fled his body, a buzzing insect. And ever since that time, the dead have never again been resurrected. :)

The opening chapter on the indigenous myths closes with a grim premonition of the arrival of the White Man, those who wear clothes: Men wearing clothes shall come, dominate, and kill. (Italics in the myth)

Waterdrinker, priest of the Sioux, predicts that "the men who wear clothes" will weave a huge spiderweb around the world: When this happens, you shall live in square gray houses, in a barren land, and beside those square gray houses you shall starve.

Indeed that all came to pass, and now the White Man is finishing his job of weaving a spiderweb of heat-trapping greenhouse gases all around the world, and the whole world shall become a barren and starved thing, dead under the sun. Nice work, White Man!

The next section, which I've just begun, opens with Columbus arriving in America. The first thing he wants to know is where the indigenous people wearing gold in their noses got the gold. The author writes of the indigenous people's first encounter with Columbus and his men:

From today, everything belongs to those remote monarchs: the coral sea, the beaches, the rocks all green with moss, the woods, the parrots and these laurel-skinned people who don't yet know about clothes, sin, or money and gaze dazedly at the scene.

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