Tag Archives: Book Review

The Most Interesting [Non-Fiction] Books I Read This Year – 2020

Another year, another round of “best of” book lists. Each year, I strive to branch out in the topics I read about and diversify my knowledge. This year was filled with a particular emphasis on higher education books (comprising about 23% of my books) given that I began my post-PhD career in higher education research. I also, predictably, spent most of my time in the sciences and behavioral (social) sciences. This year was also big for memoirs, which have been a newfound favorite since 2019.

Below are my top five most interesting books I read this year. (Check out my 2019 list here). Each of these was certainly a favorite, but my primary criteria for inclusion was that they were interesting – that they caused me to learn something fundamentally new or look at something common from a fresh perspective. Everyone’s “to read” list is too long, but hopefully at least one of these will snag a spot on your 2021 reading list. Happy reading.

1. The Adventurer’s Son, by Roman Dial

The Adventurer’s Son was hands down my favorite book that I read this year, and a constant recommendation to literally anyone who will listen. This was one of those rare finds at the bookstore (which, incidentally, is how I found my 2019 favorite book, too!) shortly after the spring lockdown was lifted. I was browsing through the nature and wildlife section when my eye caught the cover of this book. I initially picked it up because I couldn’t believe that a paragraph of text was put on the cover of a book! But someone in marketing knew what they were doing because I didn’t hesitate to buy it after reading.

This memoir is one for your heartstrings. An Alaskan adventurer to some of the most remote and challenging environments on the planet, Professor Roman Dial reared his son to be an adventurer, too. A truly envious childhood yielded an independent and adventurous son, who eventually embarked on a solo South American wilderness trip with no predetermined end date. When communication with his son suddenly stopped, Roman hoped for the best, but was prepared for the worst. Documenting his search for his son over the ensuing years will keep you turning the pages. It’s the perfect weekend read.

Buy it here.

2. The College Dropout Scandal, by David Kirp

I am quixotic about the potential of higher education and its role in society. This year I have been pouring over books and research in an effort to develop actionable solutions to some of higher education’s most pressing problems as I embark in my new career. The College Dropout Scandal was the perfect mix of blunt reality combined with the encouraging documentation of universities that have truly witnessed profound improvements in their institutions to drastically improve student academic outcomes.

(Too) Many professors I know are cynical about higher education and their role as educators to help their students reach their potential. And, honestly, it’s hard to blame them. Too many young adults are pushed into higher education with no clear plan, too many of them fail upon arrival, it costs way too much, and most of our universities have morphed into behemoth businesses where the customer is always right. Even so, I truly believe that we educators have an obligation to do our very best work in the classroom, and strive to re-focus our universities on providing the very best education we possibly can to each of our students. Kirp’s book will give you a boost of optimism and motivation that are desperately needed right now in higher education.

Buy it here.

3. Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, by Thomas Chatterton Williams

2020 has been a significant year for so many reasons, but the resurgence of race relations at the center of cultural discussions has perhaps been the most profound. I read Self Portrait in Black and White in February as I was gathering various perspectives on race to help formulate my own thoughts pertaining to the academic debate of whether race is a social construct or biological following the publication of Human Diversity by Charles Murray.

The most enduring part of his story that has stuck with me is his experience of being “Black” in America, yet simply “American” when in France (where he currently lives). His perspective shows how central Black-white (and other) race categories are in the US, especially in our current hyper-racialized culture; but, when he travels elsewhere he is first regarded as “American” rather than “Black.” Reading Chatterton Williams’ book was refreshing, and a key book that should be included in this year’s concerted effort to amplify (diverse) Black voices in current cultural discussions.

Buy it here.

4. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our World, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life is absolutely a book that can be judged by its beautiful cover! It’s as intellectually warping as it is beautiful, and Sheldrake will certainly teach you something new. Sheldrake takes you on a fantastically fungally journey through the myriad ways that fungi form the foundation of our world.

I was truly astonished to learn how complex – and, dare I say – intelligent fungi are. Without anything that would remotely resemble what human and animal scientists would consider a functional “brain”, fungi behave in ways that cannot be easily understood in current conceptual frameworks of “intelligence”. A true intellectual trip (pun obviously intended), Entangled Life will blow you away at each new insight.

Buy it here.

5. The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, by Jonathan Zimmerman

College teaching: the thing so obviously central to our universities, yet underpaid and undervalued. I have a lot to say about college teaching, but it can be mostly summed up to: (1) it matters, and (2) it needs to be taken far more seriously than it currently is at our nations leading universities. The Amateur Hour demonstrates just how not seriously teaching has been taken since the 18th century in American Universities. As Zimmerman states, “college teaching has probably seen less change than almost any other American institutional practice” and “has languished for too long under the dead hand of tradition.”

Tradition. That word that is so prohibitive to systematic change in teaching practices, most notoriously at our research-intensive universities. Why do we bore students to death with lectures? Why not lecture! It’s how teaching has always been done, critics of reform will retort. And although those critics would not be fully wrong, they would also be ignoring mountains of research on how people learn and what constitutes effective pedagogy. The Amateur Hour is a true classic in the making showing, without uncertainty, how poor the incentive structure for teaching is at our major universities — doing not only a disservice to our students, but also to scholars that put in the work to ensure their courses are evidence-based. A required reading for anyone who is allowed in our university classrooms.

Buy it here.

Keep up with what I’m reading throughout the year by following me on Goodreads.

Using the Four Pillars of Learning to Drive the Impact of EdTech

Many edtech products begin as startups, and a foundational approach to think of a startup idea is the problem-solution model: identify a problem and create a product that solves that problem. This process has produced many EdTech products used in education today—e-books, flashcard apps, learning management systems, just to name a few—that focus on solving the broader problem of efficiency, or “digitizing” education.

Because of these types of products, technology-enabled and online education are expanding access to underserved and nontraditional populations—improving the lives of countless students. These early innovations are the foundation on which modern EdTech can flourish, but the EdTech of today should seek to do more than solve problems—it must continuously improve education with products that make learning more effective and enhance core learning processes.

Core learning processes are fundamental features of how our brains evolved to learn over millions of years. Contrary to the perpetual myth of individual learning styles—that some people learn better with visual information and others with verbal information, for instance—all brains learn information the same way. (What is actually variable is individual students’ interest and motivation to learn a topic). A recently published book, How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine. . . For Now by Stanislas Dehaene, articulates with great detail exactly how it is that humans learn. Dehaene explains that core learning processes are foundational to how all humans learn—powerful information for EdTech developers.

This post originally appeared on WGU Labs’ blog. Click here to continue reading.

Five (Very Different) Books on American Higher Education

Higher education is facing many problems: the cost is way too high, students are underserved, dropping out at alarming rates, and have skyrocketing mental health issues. Why are these things happening? How do we fix it? I don’t have the answers, but I certainly have reading recommendations. As I’ve moved professionally in to education research, particularly focused on improving academic outcomes for diverse students, I’ve taken a great interest in reading as much as I can and engaging with varied perspectives on the state of higher education. Below are five very different books on higher education and why you should read them. Enjoy.

The College Dropout Scandal by David Kirp

The take: Higher education’s dirty little secret is that an enormous number of students are not graduating. How many? On average, around 40% at public 4-year state universities – key word being average. Graduation rates are much lower at some universities, and bad at community colleges. (Of course, the highly selective public universities and the Ivy’s don’t have this problem with over 90% of their students graduating.) Why is this happening? Lots of reasons, but mostly because public universities are serving incredibly diverse student populations. Diverse in life experience, diverse in educational background, and diverse in goals. The short answer: our institutions are not ready to serve the diverse student populations they now have as a result of expanding access to higher education.

Why you should read it: The hemorrhaging of college students at our nations public universities may be problem most university administrations fail to tackle with actionable, effective solutions, but there are a few shinning stars that have solved this problem. Yes, it’s possible to actually serve and educate diverse students at a single institution. Georgia State, CUNY, Rutgers University-Newark, University of Texas, Long Beach State, and University of Central Florida are living proof. The College Dropout Scandal shows how administration can make a difference in student outcomes, and serves as an invaluable resource for those working in higher education that are trying to make their institutions better.

The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

The take: What is happening on our college campuses? It’s now normal to hear of students de-platforming politically incorrect, conservative, or controversial speakers. Adult students need emotional safe spaces and coloring books. The use of mental health services is skyrocketing. These social trends are alarming for many reasons, but their cause is unknown. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that what we’re seeing is largely a result of helicopter parenting and a failure of children developing resilience, problem-solving capabilities, and of social-emotional skills. The result is high anxiety, entitled demands, and continued coddling.

Why you should read it: This book is controversial. Disagreements abound, there are very serious changes in child rearing and young adult social trends that all educators should be taking seriously whether they agree with the Coddling’s thesis. Free speech is being challenged at universities, despite free speech, exchange of ideas, and exploration being the foundation of liberal education. Today’s generation Z has been raised under more careful supervision and non-independence than previous generations, which those who study human development know to be a disservice and impediment to children’s social-emotional development. Their take is more of a hypothesis for what’s going wrong socially and culturally on today’s college campuses, but it’s a hypothesis worthy of engagement and discussion.

The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, by Paul Tough

The take: Higher education is said to be the surest path to economic mobility, helping students access higher ranks of American socioeconomic class. But does American education deliver on its promise? Not always. Paul Tough takes an intimate, investigative journey into the how the current educational system is failing too many students. He works through the systems of higher education from college decision making, test prep and admissions, to student belonging and retention. The Years That Matter Most was truly an eye-opener for me to understand where higher education is going wrong. You can read more about my thoughts on this book here.

Why you should read it: The approach Tough takes in this book is personal and intimate. Each stage of the higher education system that he highlights is complemented by real student stories – stories of high-achieving, well-deserving students that are butting up against the flaws in our system. If you want a student perspective on higher education to really get a grasp at the ways in which we’re not fully serving our students, this book will not disappoint.

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, by Bryan Caplan

The take: We all know higher education is, honestly, an enormous rip off. It is way, way too expensive and everyone knows it. So, why do we keep buying it? Because we have to—employers demand it. Caplan argues that obtaining a university degree is mostly signaling to employers that your IQ is high enough, you’re relatively conscientious, and conformist. How much of your degree is signaling? He says around 80% but there’s room for debate. He shows with enormous amounts of data the continued arms-race that is occurring between employer demands and higher education is leaving students with useless degrees and crippling debt. From the macro perspective, higher education is a waste. From your personal perspective, you should get a degree (in an applied discipline).

Why you should read it: Any data packed book on a relevant topic is deserving of a read, or at least a skim of the tables. But Caplan exposes glaring flaws in the connection between higher education and employment. Why does a bachelor’s degree in art history, psychology, or literature qualify you for a range of basic office jobs if your content knowledge is nearly useless on the job? Why do you only get the college pay-off if you graduate? If your knowledge was truly worth something to employers, you’d think you’d get a pay bump for any college credits, but you don’t. And if you ever wondered whether your major matters, it does. If you’re a parent with children deciding on college or working in higher education, you should read this to better advise students. Also, it was one of my favorite books I read last year.

Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s School Back to Reality, by Charles Murray

The take: Real Education takes a very different approach to higher education than the books mentioned above. Murray’s thesis rests on the idea that human ability varies, and therefore not all students that go to college should necessarily be in college (see The College Dropout Scandal for how many students aren’t finishing!). He highlights a big problem in American education: the devaluing of skilled-labor and vocation training. Note everyone needs to be an engineer or lawyer. Given these realities, he argues that too many students are going to college, and we should redirect training resources and high school courses on vocational careers. Higher education should be primarily reserved for student above average, intellectually speaking.

Why you should read it: Don’t let his name turn you off – it’s a great book that makes very valid arguments. Essentially, Real Education is a different solution the problem outlined in The College Dropout Scandal. We as a society value the college path over the vocational and labor paths, and the result is an enormous proportion of college student dropping out, with lots of debt and no degree. If we can’t graduate students, we’re actually leaving them worse off than if they hadn’t gone to college in many cases (not good!). Unlike Kirp who argues for colleges changing to serve new student populations, Murray’s argument is to only admit high-achieving students (i.e., high SAT scores). This is not an unpopular perspective in the academy—and exactly why you should read it.

So, what is the state of higher education today? How do we fix its problems? There is certainly no straightforward answer to such a complex question, but the answer will certainly involve nuanced discussion and hearing from a variety of perspectives, such as those above. Remember, you can disagree that higher education is only for the IQ elite, but that does not mean you should not engage with the perspective and work to understand it. Each of these authors provides a valid take on higher education today. Each have contributed to my own perspective of higher education, and my views on higher education – its problems and solutions – continue to evolve as I engage with diverse perspectives. I encourage you to engage as well.

No, Maslow Didn’t Create the Famous Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid

Humanistic psychology, the perspective that humans are inherently good and strive to be better, is ubiquitously associated with Abraham Maslow and his famous pyramid of needs culminating in self-actualization. Introductory psychology students around the world learn about this foundational perspective of psychology usually in the first section of their course. It is often, however, regulated to the historical perspectives of psychology section of lectures (as in my own) and introductory texts, with little more thought paid to Maslow and his pyramid of needs after a couple brief slides.

Scott Barry Kaufman’s latest book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, brings Maslow out of history and into the present state of psychology research. Kaufman presents a refreshingly modern take on humanistic psychology, situated in the contemporary research. I’ll be honest, until I read Transcend, I had firmly relegated Maslow to the history bin of psychology with little interest in pursuing the area further. Kaufman, however, convinced me that I was wrong, and that Maslow’s theory is a serious psychological perspective worth reading about.

Transcend successfully balances two broad arcs throughout its 300+ packed pages. The first – and my favorite – being a history of humanistic psychology. I have fallen in love with the history of science genre the last couple of years, and Kaufman demonstrates precisely why historical knowledge is so important. Did you know Maslow did not create the famous pyramid visualization? I certainly did not. And our introductory psychology textbooks never even hinted that a random management consultant actually created the famous visualization! (This is one of only many problems introductory psychology textbooks face regarding content accuracy.) A lack of science history can distort contemporary knowledge and, for me at least, I was none the wiser when it came to humanistic psychology. I appreciate the rich historical knowledge Transcend provided me.

The second arc of Transcend focuses on is the individual components of Maslow’s theory itself, as Kaufman moves from the foundations of security and safety to transcendence. What I appreciate most about his book is the breadth of research incorporated at every stage – a truly impressive feat. Transcend introduces the reader to myriad research areas within the discipline of psychology. I have little doubt that Transcend will contain a section that connects with any psychologist’s research area. My personal favorites were the beginning chapters comprising Part 1 of the book with their rich connections to evolutionary perspectives on human behavior.

If I ever return to university teaching, my introductory psychology slides will be worthy of a serious update, with Kaufman’s book receiving a spotlight feature on my recommended reading slide for students interested in humanistic psychology. If your knowledge of Maslow and humanistic psychology, like mine, is limited to what your introductory psychology course offered you Transcend is a must read to bring your knowledge of the area into the 21st century.

Photo by Gabriel Lamza on Unsplash

An Intimate Look at What’s Not Working in American Higher Education

I’ve spent my entire adult life thus far at university. I began my undergraduate degree at 17 years old and just graduated with my doctorate at 28. And, I now work at a non-profit education innovation hub affiliated with the largest university in the United States. I have devoted so much time to my education personally, and now professionally, because I love learning and, quite honestly, I am not sure what else I could do or would want to do.

Maturing personally and professionally within the American higher education system has left me with seemingly conflicting views of our institutions that I’m sure many other higher education professionals and professors share. On the one hand I view education as one of the most, if not the most, important thing in one’s life; education and learning enable everything else within my life. On the other hand, there are very real problems with our higher education institutions today, problems that are leaving students behind and underserving too many students once they get to campus.

The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us by Paul Tough is the most compelling account of the myriad problems plaguing higher education that I have read. Aside from what I think is an utterly uncompelling title (one that really undersells the importance of the book in my opinion), the data and stories contained within its pages give broad, yet intimate insights into the lives of the students that our education system is failing in mass numbers.

What makes this book special and enormously moving are that the problems with our higher education system Tough details are not only backed by data, but demonstrated by real stories with real college students that Tough interviewed and followed over many years. Connecting abstract institutional problems with the lives of real students makes the problems in higher education tangible and salient.

Tough organizes his reporting somewhat chronologically, starting with the decision to go to college and how it differs across income level. For students in higher income levels, the general rule and decision-making process of which college to attend is to go to the most selective college that will accept you. For lower income students, many of whom have parents without college degrees, figuring out which college to attend typically isn’t based on selectivity, but rather location or unambitious recommendations from high school guidance counselors. In what Tough calls “income-typical behavior” high-achieving students from low income neighborhoods miss out on the advantages that going to a selective university can offer for their economic mobility.

Tough then dives into the big business of test prep, and the importance of the SAT/ACT scores in higher education. The decision to heavily weigh SAT/ACT test scores, or use them at all, in the college admissions process is a hotly debated topic. On the one hand, the test scores are the most predictive piece of information admissions offices have for whether a student will be successful (i.e., GPA and graduation likelihood). On the other hand, the use of test scores appears to be leaving a non-trivial minority of students behind. And much of the time, these students are from below-average high schools that tend to be in low-income and/or minority neighborhoods.

College admissions and its focus on test scores works against many high performing students. There is a group of students, which Tough refers to as “deflated-SAT” students that have test scores much lower than their high school GPA would predict. These students account for about 1/6th of those that take the SAT/ACT. For the remaining students that take the SAT/ACT, 2/3rd of them score consistent with their GPA and the other 1/6th score higher than what their GPA would predict, who Tough calls “inflated-SAT” students. The students in the deflated-SAT group compared to the inflated-SAT group, however, are three times more likely to be low-income, three times more likely to be first generation college students, twice as likely to be female, and at least twice as likely to be black or Hispanic. With the exception of women, then, test scores work against already underserved populations in our institutions.

Tough describes research by DePaul university, which is a test-optional institution meaning that students with deflated SAT scores are not required to submit them if they choose not to, shows that students who do not submit their test scores do, in fact, have ACT scores about five points lower, on average, than students that do choose submit them (the university requests that they submit their scores for research purposes). Importantly, however, these students with deflated scores are no different than the students who submit their scores: they have equivalent freshman GPAs, are just as likely to enroll in their sophomore year, and their six-year graduation rates are within two percentage points of the test-submitting students.

After getting in, students need to stay in. Tough’s chapter, Staying In, describes many big problems facing public universities today. How to best help an increasingly diverse student body, and how to get students to graduate. At most public state universities, only around two thirds of students actually graduate, with rates being far higher at more homogeneous Ivy league universities and other prestigious institutions, but much lower for non-selective institutions and community colleges. Thus, even at our best state institutions, too many students are unsuccessful. And, these problems disproportionately plague minorities (but not Asians), first generation students, and low income students.

Why this happens is due to many reasons. For example, primary and secondary educational institutions are not equal across neighborhoods, and the prior knowledge and education of incoming students varies dramatically. In many ways, problems in higher education are rooted in many of the problems plaguing our primary and secondary schools. Moreover, underserved students are often the minority on campus, and their sense of belonging and community can suffer. These big problems are difficult to address at scale, though Tough describes inspirational cases of programs, such as those within the University of Texas university system that are making strides to combat these problems.

The Years That Matter Most is truly eye opening to higher education’s problems; but isn’t ideologically driven. The stories he shares about real students facing real challenges at their university offer something for many to resonate with. And, Tough made me reflect on the ways in which these problems have personally impacted me during my decade-long educational journey. Although higher education does, indeed, work just fine for most students, our higher education institutions need to work for more. We need to find ways to build up underserved students – minorities, low income, first generation, and deflated-SAT – and we need to do so at scale.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Thoughts on Human Diversity

Human diversity is complex and controversial, but we know more about our diversity now than at any other point in human history. Charles Murray’s latest book, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class, has stirred up op-eds and disagreements in which critics have correctly focused on Murray’s suboptimal description about polygenic scores and the presumed causally between genetic associations with phenotypic traits. The points critics have raised are important and although I largely agree with these criticisms, others have already sufficiently discussed them. Here, instead, I want to focus on my thoughts about the race section of Human Diversity, and Murray’s argument against the idea that race is a social construct.

I have remained intentionally mute on the ongoing scholarly debate of race differences in psychological traits. The debate can be summarized as two oversimplified positions. On one side of the debate, the argument is that race is a social construct in which proponents assert that race differences in skin color or other outwardly visible traits do not correspond to meaningful differences in psychological traits, with IQ being the primary trait of focus. The other side of the debate argues that race is not a social construct, and there are real, partly genetically based differences between races in psychological traits, including IQ.

This debate about the ‘realness’ or ‘biologicalness’ of race intersects with various orthogonal questions: Can the term “race” be used interchangeably with “population”? What evolutionary processes are responsible for any observed differences? If natural selection is responsible for these observed differences, what are the selection pressures that prompted the differences?

Murray, unsurprising to many reading this I would presume, argues against the ‘race is a social construct’ position and states that there is sufficient evidence to reject the proposition that race is a social construct. Human Diversity includes three chapters dedicated to laying out his argument for why race is biologically real. The first chapter focuses on genetic distinctiveness among ancestral populations; the second on evolution since humans left Africa; and the third on population differences in genetic variants associated with psychological traits. This evidence, Murray argues, is supportive of the position that race is a biologically ‘real’ entity.

I disagree.

For a few years now, I have been passively observing the biological race debate unfolding between academics and intellectuals online, wrestling with the arguments and data to come to a confident conclusion about my own position on this topic. Reading Human Diversity has led to the culmination of my position that, yes, race – as has been historically and culturally defined, predominantly by skin color – is more of a social construct than a biological reality. Independent of this conclusion, even if one were to hold the view that race is ‘biological’ Murray’s argument for such a view is simply unconvincing.

The basis for my position that race is more accurately described as a social construct rather than a biological reality rests on two primary points, described in detail below. First, using the terms “race” and “population” interchangeably is inappropriate and inaccurate.  And, second, the extraordinary genetic diversity within continental regions is largely ignored, and currently, too limited to draw convincing conclusions about race differences in psychological traits.

Importantly, however, I do not disagree with the data that Murray presented in these chapters, but I do disagree with the conclusions he draws from them, and I find his presentation of the argument for the position that race is not a social construct inappropriate given the data he uses as support.

I do agree with the claim that human populations differ genetically and for many evolutionary-related reasons. This is an indisputable fact of modern genetic findings that cannot be dismissed. But that human populations differ genetically is not synonymous with the claim that human races differ genetically. Using “population” in place of “race” is a slight I’ve seen used to support the position that races – Black, White, Asian – differ genetically in meaningful ways that contribute to psychology and behavior, which I view as incorrect.

This inappropriate term-switching is used by Murray often in the race chapters of his book. The inconsistency is apparent by looking at the title of the book and comparing it with the chapter titles and propositions in the race section of Human Diversity. To argue against the position that race is a social construct, Murray inappropriately uses data about human populations. Although he defends his term switching by rightfully stating that race has “outlived its usefulness when discussing genetics” (p.135) he then proceeds to inappropriately use the term race throughout the chapters, and uses populations data to support his claim that race is biologically real. (At one point he even refers to other hominid species as “races” of humans.)

That human populations differ genetically, and that Africans, Europeans, and Asians have some broad-level statistical covariation in models is a more appropriately a reflection of human migration patterns over evolutionary history, than meaningful categorical distinctions for understanding psychology. As the number of groups in these statistical models increases, populations begin to split off by regions within these broad continental groups, as Murray shows. Specifying three, seven, or 15 groups, however, is a rather arbitrary decision. Imagine you are an alien visitor with only the genetic data that Murray describes in Chapter 7. Would you pick three groups? Seven? Why? Without pre-existing cultural concepts of race, it is hard to justify an answer that corresponds with socially derived racial groups.

Another problem with these kinds of data is that the data we have from populations within Africa and Asia are incredibly limited relative to that of populations from European. The genetic diversity in African populations is notoriously diverse, yet we have comparably minimal data. As Dr. Adam Rutherford discussed in his book, two Africans are likely to be more genetically distinct from each other than either is to a European. To simply lump all Africans into a single racial group is lazy, misinformed, and more of a reflection of the dearth of data that we have from the continent – an argument that Rutherford articulates elegantly in his book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.

The lack-of-data problem leads me to another criticism of Murray’s argument, which he outlines in Chapter 8: that “evolutionary selection pressure since humans left Africa has been extensive and mostly local”. I have two problems with this line of argumentation. First, what seems to be ignored here is that evolution didn’t stop in African populations when some humans migrated out of Africa – populations in Africa continued to evolve and change, too(!).

The chapter describes evolutionary processes responsible for changes in genetic frequencies between populations, and how migration causes reduction in genetic diversity in the migrating populations. But, the ability of genes to vary (for various evolutionary reasons) across populations does not necessitate that there is, or has been, selection pressures to build adaptations between populations, nor does it make it necessarily more likely. The fact that migrating populations can contribute to genetic differences between Africans (as a group) and Europeans (as a group), must also apply to different (migrating) African populations. The argument is not specific to races; though when Murray frames his argument as ‘evolution post-Africa is extensive’, the evolutionary changes within Africa are ignored.

The second problem I have with this argument is that nearly all the evidence for local adaptations across populations are related to specific physiological process or medical disease traits, not psychological traits. Murray and most other’s arguing for his position describe several population specific traits: sickle cell, altitude adaptations, lactose tolerance, etc. (which don’t even vary consistently across racial lines anyway). The primary difference between these kinds of adaptations and the proposed psychological traits that proponents of Murray’s position argue for, such as IQ or personality, is that the physiological and disease traits have clearly defined selection pressures underlying their evolution and extensive empirical support. Proposals for psychological race differences, however, do not, nor is there strong evidence in support of the claims that I have read. A recent study by doctoral student Kevin Bird tested this idea specifically and shows that IQ differences between Blacks and Whites are not genetically driven nor is there evidence of natural selection operating to produce differences.

Although I think evidence of race differences in psychological traits is unlikely to be (accurately) found in the current research environment, I do not think it is unreasonable to hypothesize and explore questions related to psychological differences between populations (or races). However, it seems to me that the likelihood of finding differences between races is more unlikely than finding differences between populations. Because the variation within races (e.g., ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ as broad groups) is undoubtedly larger than the variation within specific human populations, the effect sizes for ‘race’ differences would have to be large relative to population differences to be accurately detectable.

Moreover, as I mentioned above, we have an extremely limited amount of genetic data from African populations, relative to populations in Europe and (east) Asia. Thus, current results comparing data from one European population and data from one African population, for example, tells us only about those two specific populations, not about Whites and Blacks as racial groups. More accurate information will be known as the amount of genetic data from non-European populations becomes comparable to that of European populations, and problems of comparing across human populations is resolved.

Murray’s claim that we should move on from the use of race in genetics in favor of population is one I agree with. But that is not consistent with the claim that race is not a social construct. Race, as he describes in Chapter 6, came into the cultural lexicon to categorize people by different skin color and other outward features. What genetics has done is to clearly show that race as skin color or outward features is not a proxy for genetic variation of human populations. Two populations can look the same, but be genetically distant. As Rutherford explains in his book, using ‘black’ skin as a categorical marker hardly makes sense.

What genetics has done for our understanding of race is analogous to what happened in taxonomy with the evolution and genetic revolutions. As described by Dr. Carol Yoon in Naming Nature, taxonomy historically was based on the outward appearance of organisms. Humans have all sorts of culturally useful names for categories of animals, such as fish, birds, and bugs. These categories of animals, like humans, contain enormous diversity within them. Dolphins and trout both swim, bats and magpies both fly, but these outward characteristics from which we group them do not correspond to the biological reality of their relatedness.

This is what has happened with race, in my opinion. As our knowledge of genetics and human diversity has flourished, race – once a seemingly reliable, accurate, and obvious way to categorize human groups – has become a social construct with the acquisition of knowledge. We now know that social categories of race as defined by skin color are not a reliable and accurate way to categorize human groups. So, Murray is right to say that race is no longer an appropriate way to discuss human diversity. He is wrong to conclude from this that race is therefore not a social construct. Race, in my view, is as biologically real as the socially derived, yet meaningful, category “fish”.

Brief Book Review: The Education of an Idealist

Memoirs are a new genre I’ve been exploring recently, The Education of an Idealist being my third over the past few months, preceded by Educated: A Memoir and Becoming (Michelle Obama needs no subtitle). The common thread throughout each has been the personal education journey of the subject, despite the actual journeys of Tara, Michelle, and Samantha being exceptionally different.

Samantha’s journey began in Ireland and followed her to America when she was a young girl. She ferociously absorbed American culture throughout her childhood becoming intensely passionate about baseball – a sport which I could never quite grasp the interest of. The aspect of her story which I liked most was that her path wandered, beginning in sports journalism, and ending as the United States Ambassador at the United Nations. The stories of many successful individuals, in contrast, tend to look linear in hindsight: a determined person with a clear goal since adolescence. A story that is true of only a select few.

Samantha was humble throughout her story, intimately sharing her deepest insecurities, uncertainties, and fears with the reader. She acknowledged when serendipitous events, like meeting Barack Obama, were pivotal moments in her life course, as they so often are. But it is nonetheless comforting to hear about someone who reaches the echelon of their career by following a meandering path sprinkled with gracious opportunity.

The part of her story that was most interesting to me was her role as a foreign correspondent in the Balkans during the Bosnian genocide in the 1990s. There she learned of suffering, geopolitics, risk, and reporting. I had never before read from the perspective of a foreign correspondent, especially not during a tumultuous time in Balkan history. It was a particularly engrossing part of the book, perhaps because of the salience of being in a war zone and perhaps because I was too young at the time of the events to know of their occurrence.

But it is nonetheless comforting to hear about someone who reaches the echelon of their career by following a meandering path sprinkled with gracious opportunity.

Because of Samantha’s roles – as a foreign correspondent, as an aid for then Senator Obama, and finally as UN ambassador – her book not only served as story worthy of sharing, but also as an interesting history and political lesson. A substantial portion of her book focused on Balkan history, but an equally substantial portion of her book focused on UN international relations, particularly with Russia. She plainly portrayed the difficult position the United States is in when human rights issues intersect with geopolitical ones, such as the recognition of genocide on the world stage, and action in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Samantha’s story showcases the contrasting reality of geopolitics with idealistic goals – goals from which she admirably never wavered on. Her educational journey throughout her story is evident – in her career and personal life. Learning about her story, and those of Tara Westover and Michelle Obama, demonstrates how deeply personal education really is, the true essence of which is too often lost in current educational institutions.

Brief Book Review: Mind in Motion

A goal of mine for 2020 is to write more — a goal many academics commit to each year. This year, however, as I have stepped away from the ivory tower, I am going to make a concerted effort to write more public essays and blog posts now that I am far less tied to the necessity of formal academic publishing. As part of this goal, I am introducing a new series, Brief Book Reviews, where I will do exactly as the title suggests: I’ll offer brief reviews of (hopefully) all the books I read this year. I hope to provide readers with at least a couple of interesting recommendations. (To see my 2019 book recommendations, see here)

First up for 2020 was Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought, by Barbara Tversky. I first heard of this book on Sam Harris’ podcast where he discussed Tversky’s interesting thesis that action and motion are the basis of abstract though. The thesis was phenomenally interesting as, evolutionarily speaking, we (and other animals) evolved diverse means of communication previous to the evolution of our remarkable and complex language systems. Her thesis is doubly interesting in that one hypothesis for the ultimate function of the brain (or, centralized nervous system) that I find enchanting is that the brain ultimately evolved to facilitate locomotion — all animals must move; and, those that do not, typically don’t need a brain. Take, as a favorite example of mine, the sea squirt (and other related species) which, upon locomoting to a suitable permanent location to attach to, it promptly digests its own brain — it is no longer needed.

To continue reading, click here.

This post originally appeared on my Medium account on 22 January 2020.

The Most Interesting [Non-Fiction] Books I Read This Year — 2019

This year has been filled with many wonderful books. Below are my top five most interesting books I read this year. These five books are diverse, each covering a different knowledge area, which I think is reflective of my effort to branch out (I even read a novel this year — a first in many, many years). Everyone’s “to read” list is too long, but hopefully at least one of these will snag a spot on your 2020 reading list. Happy reading.

1. The Second Kind of Impossible: The Extraordinary Quest for a New Form of Matter by Paul J. Steinhardt

The Second Kind of Impossiblewas an experience from start to finish. For the last year I had been searching for history of science books (my current favorite genre) and I stumbled upon this book on a display table at my local Barnes and Noble on a Saturday night book run. The reason I bought it? It was on sale. I had never heard of the book, despite it just being published a few months prior. It sounded interesting enough, and physics is my second favorite science subject next to evolution. The book sat on my “to read” pile until July when I cracked it open over the holiday weekend.

This book is the embodiment of a scientific journey. Pual Steinhardt recounts his 35-year journey to discover a new form of matter, “quasicrystals”. Through improbable set backs, inspiring insights, and far-flung journeys to the tundra, this is a journey that you just can’t wait to see how it ends. Part of what made this book so fascinating and exhilarating to read was that I had no prior knowledge of any aspect of the book. I didn’t know what a quasicrystal was, I did not know who Paul Steinhardt was, and I hadn’t read even a word about the final discovery. I have yet to read another science discovery book that was as enveloping as this one. Even if physics is not your topic of choice, the book is focused on the journey rather than dense scientific details, and is absolutely worth a spot on your “to read” pile.

Buy it here.

To continue reading, click here.

This post originally appeared on my Medium account on 1 December 2019.