Department of Psychology

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Vern Quinsey

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Professor Emeritus

T: 613-533-3881
F: 613-533-2499

Psychology Department
Queen's University
Kingston, ON K7L 3N6

Personal Website
• Official Violence Risk Appraisal Guide-Revised (VRAG-R) Website:

Curriculum Vitae
  • 1970 Ph.D. Biopsychology, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
  • 1969 M.Sc. Biopsychology, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
  • 1966 B.Sc. Psychology, University of North Dakota at Grand Forks
Research Interests

Prediction, modification, and management of antisocial and violent behavior, applied decision making, program development and evaluation, sexual preference assessment, sex offenders, forensic/correctional psychology, evolutionary influence on sexual and aggressive behaviors.

Selected Publications - Animal Research

Quinsey, V.L. (1970). Some applications of adaptation-level theory to aversive behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 73, 441-450. (PDF, 937 KB)

Quinsey, V.L. (1971). Conditioned suppression with no CS-US contingency in the rat. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 25, 54-67. (PDF, 709 KB)

Quinsey, V.L. (1972). Lick-shock contingencies in the rat. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 17, 119-125. (PDF, 829 KB)

"Copies of selected papers. Official archival versions can be obtained from the journals in which the papers originally appeared."

Selected Publications - Sex Offenders: Assessment and Treatment

Quinsey, V. L. (2012). Pragmatic and Darwinian views of the paraphilias. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(1), 217-220. (PDF, 227 KB)

Camilleri, J.A. & Quinsey, V.L. (2011). Appraising the risk of sexual and violent recidivism among intellectually disabled offenders. Psychology, Crime, and Law, 17, 59-74. (PDF, 149 KB)

Quinsey, V.L. (2010). Coercive Paraphilic Disorder. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 405-410. (PDF, 137 KB)

Quinsey, V.L. (2003). Etiology of anomalous sexual preferences in men. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 989, 105-117. (PDF, 277 KB)

Lalumière, M.L., Quinsey, V.L., Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E., & Trautrimas, C. (2003). Are rapists differentially aroused by coercive sex in phallometric assessments? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 989, 211-224. (PDF, 3 MB)

Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E., Quinsey, V.L., Lalumière, M.L., Boer, D., & Lang, C. (2003). A multi-site comparison of actuarial risk instruments for sex offenders. Psychological Assessment, 15, 413-425. (PDF, 140 KB)

Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E., Chaplin, T.C., Quinsey, V.L. (1999). Dissimulation in Phallometric Testing of Rapists' Sexual Preferences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 28, No.3. (PDF, 137 KB)

Quinsey, V.L., Khanna, A. & Malcolm, B. (1998). A retrospective evaluation of the Regional Treatment Centre Sex Offender Treatment Program. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 13, 621-644. (PDF, 2.6 MB)

Lieb, R., Quinsey, V.L., & Berliner, L. (1998). Sexual predators and social policy. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, 23, 43-114.

Lalumière, M. L., & Quinsey, V. L. (1998). Pavlovian conditioning of sexual interests in human males. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 27, 241‑252. (PDF, 151 KB)

Lalumière, M. L., Harris, G. T., Quinsey, V. L., & Rice, M. E. (1998). Sexual deviance and number of older brothers among sexual offenders. Sexual Abuse, 10, 5-15. (PDF, 791 KB)

Quinsey, V.L., Earls, C., Ketsetzis, M., & Karamanoukian, A. (1996). Viewing time as a measure of sexual interest. Ethology and Sociobiology, 17, 341-354. (PDF, 2.1 MB)

Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E., Quinsey, V.L., & Chaplin, T.C. (1996). Viewing time as a measure of sexual interest among child molesters and normal heterosexual men. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 34, 389-394. (PDF, 569 KB)

Quinsey, V.L., & Lalumière, M.L. (1995). Evolutionary perspectives on sexual offending. Sexual Abuse, 7, 301-315. (PDF, 2.3MB)

Lalumière, M.L. & Quinsey, V.L. (1994). The discriminability of rapists from non-sex offenders using phallometric measures: A meta-analysis. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 21, 150-175. (PDF, 2.1 MB)

Walker, W.D. Rowe, R.C., & Quinsey, V.L. (1993). Authoritarianism and sexual aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 1036-1045. (PDF, 965 KB)

Quinsey, V.L., Rice, M.E., Harris, G.T., & Lalumière, M.L. (1993). Assessing treatment efficacy in outcome studies of sex offenders. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 8, 512-523. (PDF, 695 KB)

Lalumière, M.L. & Quinsey, V.L. (1993). The sensitivity of phallometric measures with rapists. Annals of Sex Research, 6, 123-138. (PDF, 843 KB)

Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E., Quinsey, V.L., Chaplin, T.C., & Earls, C. (1992). Maximizing the discriminant validity of phallometric data. Psychological Assessment, 4, 502-511. (PDF, 1.72 MB)

Rice, M.E., Quinsey, V.L., & Harris, G.T. (1991). Sexual recidivism among child molesters released from a maximum security psychiatric institution. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 59, 381-386. (PDF, 615 KB)

Quinsey, V.L. & Chaplin, T.C. (1988). Penile responses of child molesters and normals to descriptions of encounters with children involving sex and violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 3, 259-274. (PDF, 1.2 MB)

Quinsey, V.L. & Chaplin, T.C. (1988). Preventing faking in phallometric assessments of sexual preference. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 528, 49-58. (PDF, 625 KB)

Quinsey, V.L., Chaplin, T.C., Maguire, A.M., & Upfold, D. (1987). The behavioral treatment of rapists and child molesters. In E.K. Morris and C.J. Braukmann (Eds.), Behavioral approaches to crime and delinquency: Application, research, and theory (pp. 363-382). N.Y.: Plenum. (PDF, 3.7 MB)

Stermac, L.E. & Quinsey, V.L. (1986). Social competence among rapists. Behavioral Assessment, 8, 171-185. (PDF, 2 MB)

Quinsey, V.L. (1986). Men who have sex with children. InD.N. Weisstub (Ed.), Law and mental health: International perspectives, 2, (pp. 140-172). New York: Pergamon. (PDF, 5.8 MB)

Quinsey, V.L. & Upfold, D. (1985). Rape completion and victim injury as a function of female resistance strategy. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 17, 40-50. (PDF, 503 KB)

Quinsey, V.L., Chaplin, T.C., & Upfold, D. (1984). Sexual arousal to nonsexual violence and sadomasochistic themes among rapists and non-sex offenders. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 52, 651-657. (PDF, 660 KB)

Quinsey, V.L. & Chaplin, T.C. (1984). Stimulus control of rapists' and non-sex offenders' sexual arousal. Behavioral Assessment, 6, 169-176. (PDF, 982 KB)

Quinsey, V.L. (1984). Sexual aggression: Studies of offenders against women. In D.N. Weisstub (Ed.), Law and mental health: International perspectives, 1 (pp. 84-121). New York: Pergamon. (PDF, 6.8 MB)

Quinsey, V.L. & Chaplin, T.C. (1982). Penile responses to nonsexual violence among rapists. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 9, 372-384. (PDF, 839 KB)

Quinsey, V.L., Chaplin, T.C., & Varney, G.W. (1981). A comparison of rapists' and non-sex offenders' sexual preferences for mutually consenting sex, rape, and physical abuse of women. Behavioral Assessment, 3, 127-135. (PDF, 1.28 MB)

Whitman, W.P. & Quinsey, V.L. (1981). Heterosocial skill training for institutionalized rapists and child molesters. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 13, 105-114. (PDF, 1.36 MB)

Quinsey, V.L., Chaplin, T.C., & Carrigan, W.F. (1980). Biofeedback and signaled punishment in the modification of inappropriate sexual age preferences. Behavior Therapy, 11, 567-576. (PDF, 542 KB)

Quinsey, V.L., Chaplin, T.C., & Carrigan, W.F. (1979). Sexual preferences among incestuous and non-incestuous child molesters. Behavior Therapy, 10, 562-565. (PDF, 235 KB)

Quinsey, V.L. (1977). The assessment and treatment of child molesters: A review. Canadian Psychological Review, 18, 204-220. (PDF, 1.48 MB)

Quinsey, V.L., Bergersen, S.G., & Steinman, C.M. (1976). Changes in physiological and verbal responses of child molesters during aversion therapy. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 8, 202-212. (PDF, 535 KB)

Quinsey, V.L., Steinman, C.M., Bergersen, S.G., & Holmes, T.F. (1975). Penile circumference, skin conductance, and ranking responses of child molesters and "normals" to sexual and nonsexual visual stimuli. Behavior Therapy, 6, 213-219. (PDF, 387 KB)

Selected Publications - Interventions

Quinsey, V.L. (1999). Comment on Fallon, P., et al. Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Personality Disorder Unit, Ashworth Special Hospital, Vol 1. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, 10, 635-648. (PDF, 1.89 MB)

Quinsey, V.L., Reid, K.S., & Stermac, L.E. (1996). Mentally disordered offenders' accounts of their crimes. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 23, 472-489. (PDF, 2.3 MB)

Rice, M.E., Quinsey, V.L., & Houghton, R. (1990). Predicting treatment outcome and recidivism among patients in a maximum security token economy. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 8, 313-326. (PDF, 841 KB)

Rice, M.E., Harris, G.T., Quinsey, V.L., & Cyr, M. (1990). Planning treatment programs in secure psychiatric facilities. In D. Weisstub (Ed.), Law and mental health: International perspectives, 5, (pp. 162-230). New York: Pergamon. (PDF, 7.3 MB)

Quinsey, V.L., Cyr, M., & Lavallee, Y. (1988). Treatment opportunities in a maximum security psychiatric hospital: A problem survey. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 11, 179-194. (PDF, 1.13 MB)

Quinsey, V.L., Maguire, A., & Varney, G.W. (1983). Assertion and overcontrolled hostility among mentally disordered murderers. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 51, 550-556. (PDF, 667 KB)

Quinsey, V.L. & Maguire, A. (1983). Offenders remanded for a psychiatric examination: Perceived treatability and disposition. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 6, 193-205. (PDF, 1.03 MB)

Quinsey, V.L. & Varney, G.W. (1977). Social skills game: A general method for the modelling and practice of adaptive behaviors. Behavior Therapy, 8, 279-281 (PDF, 173 KB)

Selected Publications - Institutional Violence

Quinsey, V.L. (2000). Institutional violence among the mentally ill. In S. Hodgins (Ed.). Violence among the mentally ill: Effective treatments and management strategies. (pp. 213-235). NATO Science Series. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer. (PDF, 6.6 MB)

Quinsey, V.L. (1990). Aggression research and intervention strategies for the 1990s. In L.D. Presse (Ed.). Proceedings of the Third Symposium on Violence and Aggression.  (Pp. 241-254). Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan. (PDF, 3.1 MB)

Rice, M.E., Helzel, M.F., Varney, G.W., & Quinsey, V.L. (1985). Crisis prevention and intervention training for psychiatric hospital staff. American Journal of Community Psychology, 13, 289-304. (PDF, 898 KB)

Selected Publications - Prediction

Camilleri, J.A. & Quinsey V.L. (2011). Appraising the risk of sexual and violent recidivism among intellectually disabled offenders. Psychology, Crime and Law, 17, 59-74. (PDF, 145 KB)

Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E., Quinsey, V.L. (2010). Allegiance or Fidelity? A Clarifying Reply. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 17, 82-89. (PDF, 74 KB)

Quinsey, V.L., Jones, G.B., Book, A.S., & Barr, K.N. (2006). The dynamic prediction of antisocial behavior among forensic psychiatric patients: A prospective field study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 21, 1539-1565. (PDF, 99 KB)

Quinsey, V.L., Coleman, G., Jones, B. & Altrows, I. (1997). Proximal antecedents of eloping and reoffending among mentally disordered offenders. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 12, 794-813. (PDF, 1.8 MB)

Quinsey, V.L. (1995). The prediction and explanation of criminal violence. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 18, 117-127. (PDF, 770 KB)

Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E., & Quinsey, V.L. (1993). Violent recidivism of mentally disordered offenders: The development of a statistical prediction instrument. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 20, 315-335. (PDF, 2 MB)

Quinsey, V.L. & Walker, W.D. (1992). Dealing with dangerousness: Community risk management strategies with violent offenders. In R. DeV. Peters, R.J. McMahon, & V.L. Quinsey (Eds.). Aggression and violence throughout the lifespan. (pp. 244-260). Newbury Park, CA: Sage. (PDF, 3 MB)

Quinsey, V.L. & Maguire, A. (1986). Maximum security psychiatric patients: Actuarial and clinical prediction of dangerousness. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1, 143-171. (PDF, 2.5 MB)

Quinsey, V.L. & Cyr, M. (1986). Perceived dangerousness and treatability of offenders: The effects of internal versus external attributions of crime causality. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1, 458-471. (PDF, 1.2 MB)

Quinsey, V.L. (1980). The base rate problem and the prediction of dangerousness: A reappraisal. Journal of Psychiatry and Law, 8, 329-340. (PDF, 1.24 MB)

Quinsey, V.L. & Ambtman, R. (1979). Variables affecting psychiatrists' and teachers' assessments of the dangerousness of mentally ill offenders. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 47, 353-362. (PDF, 689 KB)

Pruesse, M.G. & Quinsey, V.L. (1977). The dangerousness of patients released from maximum security: A replication. Journal of Psychiatry and Law, 5, 293-299. (PDF, 1 MB)

Selected Publications - Psychopathy

Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E., Hilton, N.Z., Lalumière, M.L., & Quinsey, V.L. (2007). Coercive and precocious sexuality as a fundamental aspect of psychopathy. Journal of Personality Disorders, 21, 1-27. (PDF, 367 KB)

Book, A.S., Quinsey, V.L., & Langford, D. (2007). Psychopathy and the perception of affect and vulnerability. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34, 531-544. (PDF, 98 KB)

Seto, M.C. & Quinsey, V.L. (2005). Toward the future: Translating basic research into prevention and treatment strategies. In C.Patrick (Ed.). Psychopathy Handbook. (pp. 589- 601). NY: Guilford. (PDF, 5.4 MB)

Book, A.S. & Quinsey, V.L. (2004). Psychopaths: Cheaters or warrior-hawks? Personality and Individual Differences, 36, 33-35. (PDF, 178 KB)

Barr, K.N. & Quinsey, V.L. (2004). Is psychopathy a pathology or a life strategy?  Implications for social policy. In C. Crawford & C. Salmon (Eds.). Evolutionary psychology, public policy, and personal decisions. (Pp. 293-317). Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum. (PDF, 4.3 MB)

Skilling, T.A., Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E., & Quinsey, V.L. (2002).  Identifying persistently antisocial offenders using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist and the DSM Antisocial personality disorder criteria. Psychological Assessment, 14, 27-38. (PDF, 137 KB)

Skilling, T.A., Quinsey, V.L., & Craig, W. (2001). Evidence of a taxon underlying serious antisocial behavior in boys. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 28, 450-470. (PDF, 107 KB)

Quinsey, V.L., Book, A.S., & Lalumière, M.L. (2001). A factor analysis of traits related to individual differences in antisocial behavior. Criminal Justice and Behavior. 28, 522-536. (PDF, 3M KB)

Lalumière, M.L. & Quinsey, V.L. (1996). Sexual deviance, antisociality, mating effort, and the use of sexually coercive behaviors. Personality and Individual Differences, 21, 33-48. (PDF, 1.5 MB)

Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E., & Quinsey, V.L. (1994). Psychopathy as a taxon: Evidence that psychopaths are a discrete class. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 387-397. (PDF, 367 KB)

Belmore, M.F. & Quinsey, V.L. (1994). Correlates of psychopathy in a non-institutional sample. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 9, 339-349. (PDF, 1 MB)

Selected Publications - Evolutionary Psychology

Provost, M.P., Quinsey, V.L., Troje, N.F. (2008). Differences in gait across the menstrual cycle and their attractiveness to men. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37, 598-604. (PDF, 161 KB)
Camilleri, J.A., Quinsey, V.L., Tapscott, J.L. (2009). Assessing the propensity for sexual coaxing and coercion in relationships: Factor structure, reliability, and validity of the tactics to obtain sex scale. Arch Sex Behav, 38: 959-973. (PDF, 246 KB)

Provost, M.P., Troje, N.F., & Quinsey, V.L. (2008). Short-term mating strategies and attraction to masculinity in point-light walkers. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29: 65-69. (PDF, 161 KB)

Provost, M.P., Kosakoski, G., Kormos, C., & Quinsey, V.L. (2006). Female sociosexuality and preference for male masculinization. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35, 305-312. (PDF, 156 KB)

Waller, K.L., Volk, A. & Quinsey, V.L. (2004). The effect of infant fetal alcohol syndrome facial features on adoption preference. Human Nature, 15, 101-119. (PDF, 84 KB)

Quinsey, V.L.  (2002). Evolutionary theory and criminal behavior. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 7, 1-13. (PDF, 168 KB)

Volk, A. & Quinsey, V.L. (2002). The influence of infant facial cues on adoption preferences. Human Nature, 13, 437-456. (PDF, 273 KB)

Silverthorne, Z.A. & Quinsey, V.L. (2000). Sexual partner age preferences of homosexual and heterosexual men and women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 29, 67-76. (PDF, 42 KB)

Lalumière, M. L., & Quinsey, V.L. (1999). A Darwinian interpretation of individual differences in male propensity for sexual aggression. Jurimetrics, 39, 201-216. (PDF, 123 KB)

Quinsey, V.L., Lalumière, M.L., Querée, M. & McNaughton, J.K. (1999). Perceived crime severity and biological kinship. Human Nature, 10, 399-414. (PDF, 1.9 MB)

Lalumière, M.L., Chalmers, L.J., Quinsey, V.L., & Seto, M.C. (1996). A test of the mate deprivation hypothesis of sexual coercion. Ethology and Sociobiology, 17, 299-318. (PDF, 982 KB)

Landolt, M.A., Lalumière, M.L., & Quinsey, V.L. (1995). Sex differences and intra-sex variations in human mating tactics: An evolutionary approach. Ethology and Sociobiology, 16, 3-23. (PDF, 1.2 MB)

Selected Publications - Other

Vernon L. Quinsey (2009) Are We There Yet? Stasis and Progress in Forensic Psychology. Canadian Psychology 2009, Vol. 50, No. 1, 15–21 (PDF, 95 KB)

Vernon L. Quinsey (2008) Seeking Enlightenment on the Dark Side of Psychology. Trauma Violence Abuse (PDF, 115 KB)

Rice, M.E. & Quinsey, V.L. (1986). Contributions of Canadian applied psychological research to correctional and psychiatric institutions. Canadian Psychology, 27, 1-21. (PDF, 2 MB)

Book Reviews - Biology, Psychology, and General Science

Alcock, J. (2005). Animal behavior: An evolutionary approach. 8th edition. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

I read this textbook because I wanted an up to date overview of research on animal behavior, having not read one since Marler and Hamilton’s Mechanisms of Animal Behavior, published in 1966. Alcock’s text is quite a treat. It is up to date, exceptionally well-organized, clearly written, has a wealth of well-selected illustrations and photographs, and is entertaining to read.

What an amazing amount of conceptual and empirical progress over the intervening forty years. Whereas Marler and Hamilton’s book, as the title implies, dealt (somewhat tediously) with proximal mechanisms in the ethological sense popular at the time, Alcock’s book is organized around domains of functioning and tied together with a thorough-going evolutionary approach. Alcock has analyzed changes in textbooks of animal behavior (see his chapter in Lucas & Simmons, 2006)—apparently, all recent textbooks adopt an evolutionary approach.

Alcock, J. (2001). The triumph of sociobiology. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

After all the controversy beginning with the attacks of Harvard biologists Gould and Lewontin on their colleague Wilson’s book Sociobiology: The new synthesis (1975), could it be that sociobiology has finally triumphed? John Alcock’s book argues that it has. Moreover, Alcock’s thesis is that Wilson simply integrated what a large number of scientists had been doing over a long period as part of the new synthesis and gave it a name. In Alcock’s view, the motivation of the intellectual assault on sociobiology was ideological rather than scientific. After Alcock’s critique of a number of popular and to a large degree current misapprehensions about sociobiology, the reader is inclined to agree.

If the criterion for triumph is popularity among biologically minded behavioral scientists, the growth of the multidisciplinary Human Behavior and Evolution Society is compelling. On the other hand, the Human Behavior and Evolution Society did change the name of its journal from Ethology and Sociobiology to Human Behavior and Evolution in 1997, it apparently still appeared politically incorrect to at least some academics to have "sociobiology” in the journal title. Similarly, the phrase "evolutionary psychology" has come to be used in place of sociobiology, in part because of political sensitivities regarding the name sociobiology, in part because having "psychology” in the new name is appealing to the scientific proprietariness of psychologists. It has been argued that evolutionary psychology views humans as adaptation executors, whereas sociobiologists see them as consciously pursuing fitness goals. However, I do not believe that the latter has ever been a defining characteristic of sociobiology.

The fact that none of the critics changed their mind in response to the steady empirical progress of the sociobiological research program ably summarized in this book is one of the most salient aspects of Segestråle’s (2000) detailed description of the long history of the sociobiology debate. One wonders what it would take in the way of evidence or argument to convince the principal critics of sociobiology that they had been mistaken. As the old saw goes, science advances through the deaths of senior professors. An observation that suggests, at least to sociobiologists, that the dispute was more over status and social dominance than fact and logic. One can only hope that the tokens of increased fitness that accrued to the critics as a result of their involvement in the debate proved a satisfactory substitute for enlightenment.

Segestråle, U. (2000). Defenders of the truth: the battle for science in the sociobiology debate and beyond. New York: Oxford University Press.  
Wilson, E.O. (1975). Sociobiology: The new synthesis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Altman, I. & Ginat, J. (1996). Polygamous families in contemporary society. London: Cambridge University Press.

Somewhat better educated and politically upwardly mobile men related by blood and marriage to the community leaders are allowed, encouraged, and sometimes ordered to have more than one wife. Women are jealous of new (younger) wives, fearing that their husband will no longer love them. Wives particularly dislike their husband courting prospective wives. Honeymoons are very short (generally three days) but treasured by wives and a source of great jealousy if unequal. Quelle surprise!

This book is repetitive and longwinded but can’t help but be interesting. These fundamentalist Mormons live in a sort of time warp.

In a sense, this treatise exemplifies the best and the worst of social science. The authors are very respectful of their informants, scrupulously evenhanded, and gather interesting information. On the other hand, their attempts at explanation are what Tooby and Cosmides would label "theories of the mid-range.” Kind of a formalization of folk psychology that is unconnected with any other area of science. This is more obvious in this book than in many other sources, because the informants sound like they just read an evolutionary psychology book on male-female differences and parental investment.


Altemeyer, R. (1997). The authoritarian specter. Harvard University Press.

The sequel to Enemies of Freedom. Altemeyer presents the latest findings of his lifelong research program on right wing authoritarianism. Guess what? High RWAs are just as bad as you thought they were and worse. He ends the book with a list of their characteristics and it isn't pretty. Altemeyer pulls no punches here and he clearly links religious fundamentalism, especially Protestant fundamentalism, with high RWA attributes.

Altemeyer makes a very convincing case. Social science research at its best.

Angier, N. (2007). The canon: A whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science. NY: Houghton-Mifflin.

In the preface, Angier laments the state of American interest in science and education in the US. The 2008 Canadian federal election shows the same dismal level of scientific understanding—the election can be viewed as a national test of the electorate’s understanding of the basics of climate change. The electorate flunked.

Angier aims to make her review of the basics of science entertaining for non-scientists. She asks a bunch of experts to describe what they wish the public knew about their respective fields and covers these topics in her book. She does a very good job and has a knack of explaining things clearly and describing how the scientific view of the world is so very different from our everyday experience of it.

In the jacket blurbs, Dawkins observes that “Every sentence sparkles with wit and charm”. That, in fact, is the problem with the exposition. The author is funny but tries so hard to be entertaining that her witticisms become distracting.


Baker, R. (1996). Sperm wars: The science of sex. Toronto: Harper/Collins.

Glib, sensationalised, panglossian, adaptationist speculation presented as fact.


Bakker, R.T. (1986). The dinosaur heresies. N.Y.: Kensington.

Underneath the apparent need to pose as a rebel and the rhetorical posturing, Bakker is a master of functionalist and comparative anatomy. It is no wonder that he is the most popular popularizer of dinosaurs ever. Whether Bakker turns out to be correct about some of his controversial views, such as the warm-bloodedness of dinosaurs and the nature of their extinction, his views are closely and sensibly argued.

Bakker teaches us to appreciate the beauty of dinosaur design. A very informative and nicely written book.


Barham, P. (2001). The science of cooking. London: Springer.

There is some great popularization of science in this book. For example, there are 10 to the 25th atoms in a glass of wine. If each atom were the size of a grain of salt, one would have enough salt to cover the earth (including the oceans) to a depth of a meter. The author explains the chemistry of quite a few things in cookery of which I, at least, was ignorant. I’m sure better cooks would know a lot more of this stuff.

The book is clearly written but a bit repetitious. The author doesn’t have a clear idea of his audience. The book is for chemical neophytes but clearly not for children—nevertheless, there are experiments to try in the kitchen that require adult supervision!


Baron-Cohen, S. (Ed.). (1997) The maladapted mind: Classic readings in evolutionary psychopathology. Hove, East Sussex: Psychology Press. (appeared in Evolution and Human Behavior, 19, 265-271).

The editor, Simon Baron-Cohen from the Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, introduces the theme of this edited volume in the preface. "If universal aspects of the mind, together with their neural mechanisms, are adaptive, then the breakdown of such mechanisms should be maladaptive. Evolutionary psychopathology investigates the breakdown of such mechanisms, and their consequences for cognition and behavior." (p. x). The book’s 12 chapters are examples of this approach that have previously appeared in the literature. The publication of this edited volume, together with the increasing number of evolutionary interpretations of biologically oriented explanations of psychopathology appearing in the literature (e.g., Ayres, 1998; Maier & Watkins, 1998), indicates that evolutionary accounts of mental illness are entering the mainstream.

The first three chapters (Nesse & Williams; McGuire, Marks, Nesse, & Troisi; Wilson) are general reviews that make the argument that mental diseases are usefully viewed from an adaptationist perspective. The next two chapters (Marks & Nesse; Nesse) treat anxiety disorders. Chapters 6, 8, and 9 (Blair; Mealey; Dugatkin) concern psychopathy and chapter 7 (Daly & Wilson), family homicide. Chapter 10 (Baron-Cohen) discusses the theory of mind and autism. The final 2 chapters (Price et al.; McGuire, Toisi, & Raleigh) discuss depression.

It is not altogether clear why these particular articles were placed together in this volume. Although the title refers to "classic" readings, the preface refers to the papers as "examples." Classic articles could be construed as citation classics or as seminal works that have spawned a large number of studies. A minority of the articles reprinted in this volume meet either of these criteria.

There are some small production problems evident in this volume. For example, computer scanning of the original papers miraculously but intermittently transformed "Rowe" to "Howe." Chapter authors’ names are frequently accompanied by footnote numbers but the corresponding footnotes are not provided.

The papers in this volume are more heterogeneous than in most edited books. In scope, they range from James Blair’s empirical study of a small number of mentally disordered offenders to Linda Mealey’s comprehensive review of psychopathy. In level of difficulty, they range from Nesse and Williams’ conversational and casually referenced discussion of whether mental disorders are diseases to Daniel Wilson’s treatise on evolutionary epidemiology, a chapter that requires a basic understanding of behavior genetics.

All but the chapter on family homicide, however, wrestle in one way or another with the conceptual status of mental disorders, an issue familiar from introductory abnormal psychology textbooks. Are some or all mental disorders diseases? Do they represent the breakdown of a universal mental mechanism? In the perspective offered by The Maladapted Mind, the question could be phrased as: "How could a maladapted mind be recognized"? If we ignore the difficulties involved in defining "minds," the task is first to look for species typical characteristics of individuals that have been created by their past effects on fitness (adaptations) or for heritable individual differences within a species that have been maintained in the population by their relationship to fitness and, second, to determine if the mechanisms underlying these characteristics have broken down.

If there is a breakdown in these heritable characteristics, then one could argue that this breakdown constitutes psychopathology, but it is not entirely clear that one would also want to say that it is "maladaptive." To be "maladaptive" some characteristic would have to involve fitness costs. One can imagine a history of selection in an ancestral environment that led to species typical or individual traits that have fitness costs in the current environment. This would be maladaptation without breakage. Continuing this reasoning, one could imagine that if this selected mechanism broke, we would observe a fitness benefit, resulting in breakage without maladaptation. "Maladaptation" in this context is slippery indeed, partly because its invocation depends upon whether the fitness effects of some characteristic are evaluated in the context of an ancestral or current environment. It is very tempting to lapse into a non-Darwinian, more colloquial, use of the term "maladaptation" to simply mean poor coping in a present environment.

Wakefield (1992a; 1992b) has bravely conceptualized a disorder from an adaptationist perspective as a harmful dysfunction. In this view, the concept of a disorder is at the interface of the constructed social world and the given natural world. A person is considered to have a disorder when that person’s internal mechanisms fail to perform their natural function, thereby causing harm to that person's socially defined well being. "A condition is a mental disorder, therefore if and only if (a) the condition causes harm or deprivation of benefit to the person as judged by the standards of the person's culture (the value criterion), and (b) the condition results from the inability of some mental mechanism to perform its natural function, wherein a natural function is an effect that is part of the evolutionary explanation of the existence and structure of the mental mechanism (the explanatory criterion)." (1992b, p. 385).

Wakefield’s formulation avoids some of the problems of the maladaptation approach. The adaptationist argument is grounded in the ancestral environment and speculations about current fitness effects are replaced by a social judgment.

The importance of the distinction between the value and explanatory criteria is well illustrated by the celebrated example of male homosexuality. Male homosexuality used to be considered a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association but is now not. Most biologically informed investigators would agree that the male sexual preference system is an adaptation designed to direct male sexual behaviors toward fertile females (e.g., Quinsey & Lalumière, 1995). From this viewpoint, male homosexuality appears to involve a malfunction in a universal mental mechanism and, moreover, one that can be shown to reduce reproductive success. It is not clear, however, that male homosexuals are harmed in any sense other than suffering a statistical reduction in their number of offspring (a "harm" shared by many others who choose to employ birth control or remain celibate). In fact, one could argue that male homosexuals are psychically advantaged by not having to make the compromises with the preferred female mating and dating strategies that heterosexual men have to make (Bailey, Gaulin, Agyei, & Gladue, 1994; Symons, 1979). Somewhat bizarrely, it seems that one could argue from Wakefield’s formulation that homosexuality would be considered a disorder only if homosexuals were persecuted enough to make them miserable. Therefore, although preferable to the maladaptationist formulation, Wakefield’s harmful dysfunction concept is not without problems.

There is accumulating evidence concerning the nature of the proximal mechanisms underlying variations in male sexual preferences. A testosterone surge appears necessary to masculinize the brain in utero (Ellis & Ames, 1987). Male homosexuals lie between women and heterosexual men in sexually dimorphic features that arise in fetal development, such as the degree of directional bilateral asymmetry in fingerprint ridge count (Hall & Kimura, 1994) and the size of the third interstititial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (LeVay, 1991). The finding that men are more likely to have homosexual preferences the more older brothers they have, born to the same mother (Blanchard, Zucker, Cohen-Kettenis, Gooren, & Bailey, 1996) suggests that a maternal immune response is of etiological significance (Blanchard & Klassen, 1997). Twin studies show that male homosexuality is in part heritable (Bailey & Pillard, 1991). The genes involved appear to be maternally derived and located on the X chromosome (Hamer, Hu, Magnuson, Hu, & Pattatucci, 1993; Hu, Pattatucci, Patterson, Li, Fulker, Cherny, Kruglyak, & Hamer, 1995).

Although our increasing understanding of the proximal and genetic causes of male homosexuality is irrelevant to Wakefield’s value criterion, it is important to the explanatory criterion. If the male sexual preference system is an adaptation, it must be under genetic control (as appears to be the case from the heritability and DNA analyses). In contrast to male homosexuality, which meets only the explanatory criterion, certain other male sexual preference anomalies are likely to meet both of Wakefield’s criteria. Pedophilia is one of these. The elder brother effect has been demonstrated for homosexual pedophiles (Bogaert, Bezeau, Kuban, & Blanchard, 1997). Among both homosexual and heterosexual pedophiles, psychophysiological assessment of sexual partner preference indicates an increasing relative preference for children as a function of the number of older brothers (Lalumière, Harris, Quinsey, & Rice, 1998). This is about as clear a demonstration as one could wish of the importance of the value criterion in Wakefield’s scheme: two phenomena that apparently share a similar etiology, one a pathology and the other not.

Note that the harm involved in the value criterion in the example of pedophilia is not necessarily intra-psychic. Pedophilia is likely to be viewed as harmful because of potential harm caused to underage victims and to the pedophile in terms of liability to arrest. As discussed below, these issues recur in considering another putative disorder discussed in The Maladapted Mind, psychopathy.

Wakefield’s position has received considerable comment. Lillienfeld and Marino (1995) raise two primary objections, neither of which are likely to be endorsed by readers of this journal. First, they make the Gouldian claim that "many mental functions are not direct evolutionary adaptations, but rather adaptively neutral by-products of adaptations." (p. 411). Second, that Wakefield "neglects the fact that natural selection almost invariably results in substantial variability across individuals." (p. 411).

A more sympathetic review of Wakefield’s position is offered by Richters and Cicchetti (1993) in their delightfully entitled article Mark Twain meets DSM-III-R: Conduct disorder, development, and the concept of harmful dysfunction. After reviewing evidence that conduct disordered children are at risk for a wide variety of problems in later life, that neuropsychological dysfunctions are related to and perhaps causes of conduct disorder, and so forth, they note that the harmful dysfunction framework also invites attention to "the possibility that some children might develop antisocial behavior patterns in the absence of internal dysfunctions: their conduct problems instead may be caused entirely by extrinsic, environmental factors." (p. 15).

In The Maladapted Mind, Mealey develops an explicit dual process or dual path theory of antisocial behavior based upon an integrative literature review. She argues that psychopathy is a genetic phenomenon whereas "sociopathy," although mimicking psychopathy in many respects, is a response to competitive disadvantage. In the genetically based life history strategy of psychopathy, affected individuals actively seek deviant and arousing stimuli while being selectively unresponsive to cues necessary for socialization. Psychopathy is maintained in the population by frequency dependent selection (Frank, 1988; Gangestad, 1997).

In contrast, sociopathy involves a genetically based differential use of environmentally contingent strategies. Sociopaths are more responsive to risk factors and can be termed psychopathic phenocopies. In this causal pathway, the adoption of a "cheater" life history strategy is related to competitive disadvantage. Competitive disadvantage is reflected in Ellis’s (1988) identification of 7 cross cultural correlates of crime: Large number of siblings, low socioeconomic status, urban location, black racial group, single parent family of origin, youthfulness, and maleness. Mealey therefore argues that the cause of sociopathy is environmental and should be strongly related to socioeconomic status of origin, in contrast to psychopathy, that should, by this argument, be unrelated to socioeconomic status of origin or other manifestations of competitive disadvantage.

We have found support for the dual path conception of psychopathy in offender populations. We have performed taxometric analyses using the Revised Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R, Hare, 1991) that provide very strong evidence that psychopathy is underlain by a taxon (Harris, Rice, & Quinsey, 1994). These taxometric analyses indicate that psychopaths are not arbitrarily defined or at the end of a continuum but rather a naturally occurring class of individuals. Scores on the PCL-R, therefore, do not indicate the amount of the psychopathy trait but rather the probability that a person is in the psychopathy class. The items that were the best taxon indicators were almost exclusively from the antisocial lifestyle or behavioral factor: proneness to boredom, manipulativeness, callousness, parasitic lifestyle, early behavior problems, lack of realistic goals, impulsiveness, and irresponsibility. From an evolutionary perspective, psychopathy can be considered to be a life history strategy consisting of short-term mating tactics, an aggressive and risky ("warrior-hawk") approach to achieving social dominance, and frequent use of nonreciprocating and duplicitous (cheating) tactics in social exchange (Skilling et al., in preparation; cf. Lyons et al.,1993).

The same analyses showed, as expected, that criminal behavior per se is not a taxon. Another set of non-PCL-R variables, however, did provide evidence of a taxon and could predict which subjects would be assigned to the psychopathy taxon. These variables pertained to childhood history, specifically: elementary school maladjustment, teen alcohol abuse, childhood aggression, suspension or expulsion from school, arrest under age 16, separation from parents, parental alcoholism, and childhood behavior problems. Note that these items are also behavioral in nature. Recently, we have shown that these childhood taxon indicators can substitute for the PCL-R as an item in the Violence Risk Appraisal Guide, an actuarial prediction scale, without diminution of (very good) accuracy in the prediction of violent or sexual reoffending among released offenders (Quinsey, Harris, and Rice, in press).

McGuire, Troisi, and Raleigh make an argument similar to Mealey’s for the heterogeneity of depression in Chapter 12 of The Maladapted Mind. They note that "multiple causes can lead to similar phenotypes because of constraints on phenotypic expression." (p. 257). McGuire et al.’s view of depression is also similar to Mealey’s view of psychopathy in that it contrasts with "hypotheses developed by evolutionary psychologists....which emphasise phenotypic plasticity, cross-person similarity in adaptive capacities, and selection favouring the development of psychological mechanisms or rules (traits) that mediate behaviour largely in response to environmental contingencies." (p. 259).

Gangestad (1997) has explicated the role of genetic variation in behavioral characteristics from an evolutionary perspective, arguing that some of this phenotypic variance is fitness related. One can contrast this approach to pathology or individual differences to that taken in Chapter 7 of The Maladapted Mind by Daly and Wilson. These authors treat homicide as a measure of conflict in the population. Their data convincingly demonstrate that people act nepotistically, being less likely to kill their biological kin than unrelated individuals. The sources of inter-individual conflict are supplied by universal human motives whose ultimate cause is relative reproductive success. This chapter is hardly about maladaptation, harmful dysfunction, pathology, or genetically caused individual differences.

The conflict between an individual difference and a universal mental mechanism approach is, to a large degree, illusory. Scientists who study stable behavioral differences among individuals will find genetic and early environmental causes of those differences; they are unlikely to find proximal environmental causes because these vary faster than the stable traits in which they are interested. On the other hand, scientists who study specific behaviors at the population level will find their occurrence to be related to proximal antecedents that reflect individuals’ transient perceptions of their genetic self interest (cf. Daly, 1996). Taken together, the chapters in The Maladapted Mind illustrate that a complete understanding of pathology requires a selectionist account of both individual differences and universal human characteristics.

In sum, The Maladapted Mind, raises difficult conceptual issues. Despite its unevenness, it serves as an introduction to current evolutionary conceptualizations of psychopathology. Readers will perceive indicators of both progress and the need for further empirical and conceptual work in this exciting and promising new area.


Ayres, J.J.B. (1998). Fear conditioning and avoidance. (pp. 122-145). In W. O’Donohue (Ed.). Learning and behavior therapy. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Bailey, J. M., Gaulin, S., Agyei, Y., & Gladue, B. (1994). Effects of gender and sexual orientation on evolutionarily relevant aspects of human mating psychology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 1081-1093.

Bailey, J. M., & Pillard, R. C. (1991). A genetic study of male sexual orientation. Archives of General Psychiatry, 48, 1089-1096.

Blanchard, R., & Klassen, P. (1997). H-Y antigen and homosexuality in men. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 185, 373-378.

Blanchard, R., & Zucker, K. J. (1994). Reanalysis of Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith's data on birth order, sibling sex ratio, and parental age homosexual men. American Journal of Psychiatry, 151, 1375-1376.

Blanchard, R., Zucker, K. J., Cohen-Kettenis, P. T., Gooren, L. J. G., & Bailey, J. M. (1996). Birth order and sibling sex ratio in two samples of Dutch gender-dysphoric homosexual males. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 25, 495-514.

Bogaert, A.F., Bezeau, S., Kuban, M., & Blanchard, R. (1997). Pedophilia, sexual orientation, and birth order. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106, 331-335.

Daly, M. (1996). Evolutionary adaptationism: Another biological approach to criminal and antisocial behaviour. In G. R. Bock & J. A. Goode (Eds.), Genetics of criminal and antisocial behaviour. (pp. 183-195). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Ellis, L. (1988). Neurohormonal bases of varying tendencies to learn delinquent and criminal behavior. In E.K. Morris and C.J. Braukmann (Eds.), Behavioral approaches to crime and delinquency: Application, research, and theory (pp.499-520). N.Y.: Plenum.

Ellis, L., & Ames, M. A. (1987). Neurohormonal functioning and sexual orientation: A theory of homosexuality-heterosexuality. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 233-258.

Frank, R.H. (1988).Passions within reason: The strategic role of the emotions. N.Y.: Norton.

Gangestad, S.W. (1997). Evolutionary psychology and genetic variation: non-adaptive, fitness-related and adaptive. In G.R. Bock & G. Cardew (1997). Characterizing human psychological adaptations. NY: Wiley (Ciba Foundation).

Hall, J. A., & Kimura, D. (1994). Dermatoglyphic asymmetry and sexual orientation in men. Behavioral Neuroscience, 108, 1203-1206.

Hamer, D. H., Hu, S., Magnuson, V. L., Hu, N., & Pattatucci, A. M. L. (1993). A linkage between DNA markers on the X chromosome and male sexual orientation. Science, 261, 321-327.

Hare, R.D. (1991). Manual for the Revised Psychopathy Checklist. Toronto: Multi-Health Systems.

Hersh, S.M. (1997). The dark side of Camelot. Toronto: Little, Brown.

Hu, S., Pattatucci, A. M. L., Patterson, C., Li, L., Fulker, D. W., Cherny, S. S., Kruglyak, L., & Hamer, D. H. (1995). Linkage between sexual orientation and chromosome Xq28 in males but not in females. Nature Genetics, 11, 248-256.

Lalumière, M. L., Harris, G. T., Quinsey, V. L., & Rice, M. E. (1998). Sexual deviance and number of older brothers among sexual offenders. Sexual Abuse, 10, 5-15.

LeVay, S. (1991). A difference in hypothalamic structure between heterosexual and homosexual men. Science, 253, 1034-1037.

Lilienfeld, S. O., & Marino, L. (1995). Mental disorder as a Roschian concept: A critique of Wakefield's "Harmful Dysfunction" analysis. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 104, 411-420.

Lyons, M.J. et al. (1993). Do genes influence exposure to trauma? A twin study of combat. American Journal of Medical Genetics, 48, 22-27.

Maier, S.F. & Watkins, L.R. (1998). Cytokines for psychologists: Implications of bidirectional immune-to-brain communication for understanding behavior, mood, and cognition. Psychological Review, 105, 83-107.

Quinsey, V.L., Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E., & Cormier, C. (in press). Violent offenders: Appraising and managing risk. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Quinsey, V.L., & Lalumière, M.L. (1995). Evolutionary perspectives on sexual offending. Sexual Abuse, 7, 301-315.

Richters, J. E., & Cicchetti, D. (1993). Mark Twain meets DSM-III-R: Conduct disorder, development, and the concept of harmful dysfunction. Development and Psychopathology, 5, 5-29.

Skilling, T.A., Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E., & Quinsey, V.L. (in preparation). Psychopathy and antisocial personality reflect the same underlying categorical entity.

Symons, D. (1979).The evolution of human sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wakefield, J. C. (1992a). Disorder as harmful dysfunction: A conceptual critique of DSM-III-R's definition of mental disorder. Psychological Review, 99, 232-247.


Barry, J.M. (2004). The great influenza: The epic story of the deadliest plague in history. Toronto: Viking.

Given SARS, AIDS, and the other acronyms passing among us and other species, this fast-paced and easy read is most timely. The enormous scope of the influenza epidemic and the huge number of deaths has been documented in other works but probably not as extensively as here. From a scientific viewpoint, the most interesting aspect of the epidemic is the changing virulence of the virus - a result predicted by Darwinian theory under certain conditions of viral transmission. From a political and policy perspective, the contributions of wartime secrecy, propaganda, and troop concentrations and movement to the spread of the disease appear critical.

The odd and frightening thing about the influenza epidemic is how it differentially struck down the young and healthy, leaving the very old and young relatively unscathed. Some evidence suggests that it was the very vigour of the immune response of those in the prime of life that killed them so quickly.


Beard, C. (2004). The hunt for the dawn monkey: Unearthing the origins of monkeys, apes, and humans. Berkeley: University of California Press.

An interesting exposition on the search for the origins of the anthropoids. The author argues that the first tiny ancient primate-like creatures originated in Asia, subsequently rafting to Africa whereupon they underwent an explosive evolutionary radiation. There are many recent finds, mostly of incredibly informative teeth but also a few spectacular skulls from around the world, which clarify the evolutionary relationships among tarsiers, lemurs, monkeys, apes, and various extinct, but closely related groups. At least according to the author—there are some big guns who disagree and this book is about scientific disagreements (and all of the oh so familiar personalities and vested scientific interests that that entails), as well as the state of the science.


Bernstein, P.L. (1996). Against the gods: The remarkable story of risk. Toronto: Wiley.

This is a charming book. The author communicates his enthusiasm for the probability calculus. The first part of the book is a remarkably clear and interesting history of the concepts and personalities involved in probability. The second part applies the concepts to stocks and bonds (managing risk).

I was surprised how much I knew about the stock business, at least in theory. Much of it appears to involve ordinary statistical concepts that most of us have drilled into our spinal cords. So, if we’re so smart, how come we ain’t rich? I was also surprised at the impact that Kahneman and Tversky’s prospect theory has had on financial risk management. Lastly, I was surprised at how easy it seems to be to get Nobel prizes in economics, at least from what Bernstein says about the theoretical work that has led to them.

For beginners in economics, this book would make a nice sequel to The Wordly Philosophers.


Blum, D. (2002). Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the science of affection. N.Y.: Berkley Books.

I remember very well the first psychology conference I ever attended. It was a huge meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in Philadelphia in the late sixties. My advisor, Joe Ayres, presented a paper of ours at a standing room only symposium - I was supposed to have presented it but had chickened out. One of the subsequent papers dealt with operant conditioning in monkeys who had been maintained for very long periods in restraint chairs. Joe Ayres rose after this presentation to ask the presenter how keeping the animals in restraint for so long could be justified ethically. I don't remember the answer but do recall the tension in the crowded room when the issue(about which probably everyone was thinking) was raised publicly.

The same tension suffuses Love at Goon Park. Some of Harry Harlow's brutal experiments on monkeys, such as those using the "pit of despair", would be upsetting to most experimenters today but appear to have bothered only a minority of scientitsts in the fifties.

Harry Harlow (1905-1981) emerges as an unhappy, driven, and very hard drinking scientist. He was, particularly in his later years, spectacularly and deliberately politically incorrect. Harlow was made famous by his sense for important questions coupled with a love of controversy and eye for publicity.


Blum, K. & Noble, E.P. (1997). (Eds.), Handbook of Psychiatric Genetics. New York: CRC Press. (appeared in The Journal of Psychiatry and Law, 26, 409-413).
Keeping up with the literature has changed from being a merely unattainable goal to a painful joke. Regardless of when one first started in the scientific enterprise, one’s expertise, in the sense of what one really knows in detail, has shrunk in proportion to what is known. Books that review the current state of a particular literature, therefore, are ever more useful as the pace of scientific change quickens. The necessity to get up to speed on particular topics explains the popularity of focused edited books, such as handbooks, and journals, such as Behavioral and Brain Sciences, that publish review articles followed by extensive commentary. Nowhere are these observations more to the point than in the broad spectrum of topics dealing with genetics.  

The editors of the Handbook are Dr. Kenneth Blum, Research Professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and Dr. Ernest Noble, Pike Professor of Alcohol Studies at UCLA and Director of the UCLA Alcohol Research Center. The editors are both very well known researchers in the area of genetics and the addictions. Together with their colleagues, they discovered a molecular genetic variant of the dopamine D2 receptor gene in severe alcoholism and other addictive behaviors. They aptly introduce their Handbook in the preface.

"The study of psychiatric genetics has become increasingly important as a specialty area within medical genetics. This domain, originally restricted to a few researchers, has now become a vast (although somewhat uncharted) common ground for scientists from very diverse fields including psychiatry, psychology, medical and population genetics, anthropology, molecular biology, biochemistry, pharmacology, neurology, and medical ethics. The increased interest stems principally from advances in molecular genetic techniques, the genome project, the neurosciences, enhanced public awareness of the role of genes in somatic diseases, and more recently, the finding of genes for complex mental disorders. The announcements of genes associated with such devastating genetically based single-gene disorders such as Huntington's disease, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, lung cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, and even aging has profoundly aroused the interest of people all over the world."

The Handbook is divided into six sections. The first, Genetic Mechanisms in Psychiatry: Analytic Approaches deals with research design and strategy. Topics that are revisited in several subsequent chapters. Investigations of the genetics of behavioral disorders has been guided by the "one gene, one disorder" or OGOD hypothesis. This approach has led to such successes as the discovery of the gene for Huntington’s Chorea. Unfortunately, this strategy has not been successful in the area of major mental disorders, leading to failures to replicate and withdrawn claims. These problems of replicability are the central concern of many of the chapters in the Handbook. The principal reason for this lack of success appears to be that the etiology of major mental disorders does not involve single genes of large effect. Therefore, the staple of investigations of psychiatric disorders, pedigree studies of affected kindreds, has not been very informative because many genes are involved.

One of the attractive features of the Handbook is that the methodologically oriented chapters recommend a variety of different approaches to obtaining replicable findings. Sometimes these approaches are mutually supportive and sometimes reflect underlying disagreements about the best strategy. Among the issues debated are the relative merits of allelic association designs (in which affected and unaffected individuals are compared regardless of their kinship status), affected-sibling-pair designs, and affected-pedigree-member designs, the importance of ethnicity and other potentially confounding factors in association studies, the relative merits of representative versus pure samples, and so forth.

It does appear, however, that allelic association studies will become more important in the future. Already, the genome project has identified a large number of markers on many chromosomes. The identification of these markers means that genes of modest effect size can be identified in association studies. This improvement allows pedigree studies to be bypassed and, because association studies are relatively easy to conduct, will contribute to rapid progress in the study of polygenic disorders and other conditions.

The second and third sections deal with DNA analysis and the Molecular Biology of Receptors and Associated Proteins, respectively. These two sections are written clearly enough for persistent nonspecialists to follow the main points and cover the DNA techniques and neurotransmitters that are the subject of the remainder of the book. Regrettably, all I am able to say with any authority about these two sections is that a very attractive font is employed in each of their eight chapters.

Section Four presents research on Psychiatric Genetics. The psychiatric disorders covered include childhood psychopathology, Alzheimer’s Disease, manic-depressive illness, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and reward deficiency syndrome. In addition there is a chapter on polygenic inheritance of psychiatric disorders and the genetics of personality. These latter two chapters require additional comment.

David Comings’ chapter on polygenic inheritance presents what is likely to be the most controversial thesis. Comings argues from association studies that "polygenes (mutant genes involved in polygenic inheritance) are not disease specific but are involved in a spectrum of disorders and are fundamentally different from those involved in single-gene disorders in that they have a much milder effect on gene function and tend to involve non-exon sequences. As such, the carrier rate in the population can be high. Their deleterious effect comes when individuals inherit a greater than threshold number of polygenes." (p.237). These polygenes are asserted to cause an imbalance between dopamine and serotonin (and norepinehrine) resulting in a variety of impulsive, compulsive, addictive, anxious, and affective disorders. These disorders include alcoholism, drug abuse, pathological gambling, compulsive behaviors, ADHD, antisocial behaviors, conduct disorder, depression, obesity, phobias, panic attacks, PTSD, autism, Tourette syndrome, and chronic tics.

Comings’ thesis is provocative, not because of the methodology employed or the finding that these conditions are in part heritable, but because of the grouping of the disorders that is implied. Do we expect persons with antisocial personality disorder to be more likely to be obese or to suffer from PTSD? Perhaps not, as we might expect some genes of small effect to be related to a wide range of conditions.

Thomas Bouchard, of the famous Minnesota Twin Study, describes research on the genetics of personality. The establishment of replicable heritability estimates for personality traits has been possible because of the great effort put into the development of psychometrically sound measures. A message also made abundantly clear in a recent edited book on intelligence (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 1997). This same care in measurement permits the identification of specific genes that are related to particular personality traits, in fact, a gene related to the trait of novelty seeking has already been identified (Benjamin et al., 1996; Ebstein et al., 1996). The new usefulness of the very large amount of previous psychometric research is demonstrated in a number of the other chapters, particularly the chapter on childhood psychopathology by James Hudziak.

Section Five, Substance Abuse Disorders, contains six chapters. Alcoholism, cigarette smoking, polysubstance abuse, and compulsive disorders are covered, primarily in connection with dopamine receptor genes. The last chapter, by Kenneth Blum and others presents a meta-analysis of the DRD2 gene locus in the "reward deficiency syndrome." Meta-analytic results strongly support the greater frequency of the D2A1 allele in severe forms of alcoholism and suggest, as in Comings’ studies described earlier, that the D2A1 allele is more common in a variety of other psychopathological conditions.

Section Six, From Animal Research to Society: Genetic Impact on Behavior, has a chapter on quantitative trait loci for mouse behaviors, on genetic determinants of alcohol preference, and on ethical issues in genetic screening, gene therapy, and scientific conduct.

In all, this is a worthwhile book. The chapters are authoritatively written by prominent researchers, the state of the art knowledge on the genetic etiology of a wide variety of conditions is described, and there are descriptions of the technology involved in this sort of work. Overall, the sense one gets from reading this handbook in its entirety is that research in psychiatric genetics holds tremendous promise and that this promise will be realized with astonishing speed.


Benjamin et al. (1996). Population and familial association between the D4 dopamine receptor gene and measures of novelty seeking. Nature Genetics, 12, 81-84.

Ebstein et al. (1996). Dopamine D4 receptor (D4DR) exon III polymorphism associated with the human personality trait of Novelty Seeking. Nature Genetics, 12, 78-80

Sternberg, J. & Grigorenko, E. (1997). (Eds.). Intelligence, heredity, and environment. Cambridge University Press.


Bock, G.R. & Cardew, G. (1997). Characterizing human psychological adaptations. NY: Wiley (Ciba Foundation).  

This is a book with chapters by some of the best in the business. Written for an academic audience. Some of the chapters are quite technical, but most are pretty accessible, if closely argued. The most interesting part of the book for me was the criticisms of the more radical aspects of Randy Thornhill’s adaptationist approach in the discussion of his paper.

Steven Gangestad makes the argument for people like me who are interested in individual differences from an evolutionary perspective.

Not for the casual reader but real good for those who do research in this area.


Bricker, D. & Wright, J. (2005). What Canadians think….about almost everything. Toronto: Doubleday Canada.

Cram full of facts but I’m not sure that I have much more insight into what Canadians think having read them. The great weakness in surveys is in framing a question that means something. For example, 78% of Canadians say they believe in God. What does this mean—do they believe in some divine principle of the universe, a vengeful, jealous old man up in the sky, or something yet different, such as the Easter Bunny? After a chapter of talking about belief in God, we finally find that 77% of Canadians say that God is an impersonal spiritual force, while 17% view God as a person.

Regardless, one can’t help reading these facts. Top day-to-day irritants of Canadians: Traffic (42%), someone reading over their shoulder (18%), people who crack their knuckles (16%), getting sand in one’s bathing suit (11%), socks with sandals (2%--but 14% in Quebec).


Briggs, D. & Walters, S.M. (1984). Plant variation and evolution, 2nd edition. London: Cambridge University Press.

I got this book on sale because I know beans about plants. This book is written as a textbook and is quite dry, well, more than dry...tedious. Some interesting stuff on plants achieving reproductive isolation in one swell foop by chromosomal doubling. Many plants self-pollinate, either occasionally or always, some reproduce vegetatively. I suppose one needs more reproductive options if one is planted firmly in the ground.

I’m still looking for an interesting book on plant evolution.


Bryant, K.J., Windle, M., & West, S.G. (Eds.). (1997). The Science of Prevention: Methodological advances from alcohol and substance abuse research. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.  

This book grew out of a 1994 meeting of methodologists and researchers sponsored by the US National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The editors are active and prominent researchers in the areas of substance abuse and quantitative evaluation methods. The book consists of 12 chapters pertaining to the analysis of substance abuse prevention programs. The techniques covered include latent-variable modelling, latent transition analysis, econometric models, behavioral genetic methods, estimating the magnitude of the effect sizes of components of multi-component interventions, time series, item homogeneity scaling and multi-level analysis, measurement invariance of psychological instruments, missing data, power analysis, and the methodological quality of research in meta-analysis.

The editors have been successful in obtaining clear and up- to- date descriptions of analytical methods that apply to a wide variety of prevention programs, not just substance abuse. The level of difficulty of the chapters varies but in general is suitable for applied researchers and students who have had some graduate training in statistics. Unless one is planning to write a review of this book for a journal or teach a graduate course in program evaluation, one would never sit down and read this entire book. The book’s primary use is for researchers who are interested in an overview of a specific quantitative method.

The book provides evidence for the editors’ belief that applied quantitative methods developed in the past few years allow investigators to tackle more difficult new questions and to approach old questions with more precision. It turns out that Sokal’s (1996) "liberatory mathematics” is not a complete hoax after all.

I found the chapter on the methodological quality of meta-analytic reviews by Bangert-Drowns, Wells-Parker, and Chevillard of particular interest. Meta-analysis has been controversial since it was first developed, in part because it combines effect size data over studies that vary widely in methodological quality. Consumers of these reviews are implicitly asked to believe the implausible claim that methodologically flawed studies contribute to a more precise estimate of effect size. The demand placed on consumer credulity by this claim is not reduced much by reports that measures of studies’ methodological quality do not correlate with effect size, correlate inconsistently with effect size over meta-analyses, or fail to meet minimal criteria for inter-rater reliability. After reviewing various approaches to dealing with variations in methodological quality over studies, Bangert-Drowns et al. provide an instructive and detailed example of a meta-analysis of interventions designed to reduce incidents of driving under the influence of alcohol. They used different groups of experts in the area to define dimensions of study quality, to operationalize the measurement of these dimensions, and to perform the actual ratings. Grouping strategy (random assignment, pretreatment equivalence, and low attrition) was the most reliably rated index of study quality and was highly related to experts’ assessment of overall study quality. All this effort led to a satisfying and sensible result: The higher the rating of the rigour of the grouping strategy, the greater the convergence on the average intervention effect size.

Sokal, A.D. (1996). Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.  Social Text, 46/47,  217-252.


Buderi, R. (1996). The invention that changed the world. NY: Simon & Schuster.

The invention was radar. It is amazing how radar and the research work associated with it had ramifications across a wide spectrum of science and technology. The first part of the book is very entertaining. It describes the early British work leading to the later start of the Americans who carried the thing through to fruition. The middle part of the book (on reverberations, repercussions, and ramifications) had too many scientists in it for my tiny brain, something like the cast of characters in a big Russian novel. The book picks up again toward the end in a very interesting description of the development of the North American air defense network (figured out primarily by guys who were originally in the “Rad Lab”).


Burke, J. (1999). The knowledge web. Toronto: Simon and Schuster.

Burke, J. (2000). Circles. Toronto: Simon and Schuster.

There is a pedagogical lesson in these two books. Burke produces entertaining educational TV shows that document the unexpected connections among developments in science and technology. These books (which overlap somewhat in content) are exactly like the TV shows - they are brain candy. The connections draw one on and are indeed interesting but once one (or at least this one) is through reading, not a damn thing can be remembered. Our brains seem designed to remember themes and content and the connections among disparate things simply do not serve as a mnemonic device.


Burr. C. (2002). The emperor of scent: A story of perfume, obsession, and the last mystery of the senses. N.Y.: Random House.

A very uneven and somewhat strange book by a fine science writer (author of the first rate A separate creation). A chance encounter led Burr to set out to write a book about a paradigm shift in olfaction. The protagonist, Luca Turin, is a prickly and difficult, although undeniably brilliant, investigator who is at odds with established researchers clinging to Amoore's venerable, but rather unsucessful, receptor shape theory of odour perception. Turin's alternative theory of molecular vibration can explain why we can smell an infinitie number of different smells, why molecules of similar shapes may smell dissimilar, and why different molecules of exactly the same shape smell differently from each other.

The book brings out the remarkable characteristics of olfaction in a very interesting discussion of perfumes (upon which Turin is an expert) and the perfume industry. The trouble for Burr is that Turin's apparently superior theory does not triumph but is dismissed, seemingly because of the ignorance of its critics, who basically can't be bothered to read it carefully (or at all). Part of the problem is that the theory spans physics and chemistry and most scientists specialize in one of the other. In any event, the book doesn't have the end for which Burr had hoped and he becomes a little disenchanted with the scientific enterprise, at least as practiced by self-interested and intellectually limited humans.

Despite being odd, this is a good book.


Burr, C. (1996). A separate creation: The search for the biological origins of sexual orientation. N.Y.: Hyperion.

A little low and slow and repetitious but nevertheless very well done. Interviews with Hamer, Bailey, Botstein and others. Much worrying about the implications of this genetic work and a beautiful conclusion (when you think about what’s coming real soon, testing for the gay gene isn’t much of a big deal).

A few things I didn’t know, like how far we’ve come in being able to test for any number or all genes in your local physician’s office. Alone, the book is worth reading for finding out about sex determination in the Trichogramma wasp. I won’t tell you how it’s done but it’ll knock your socks off.


Burt, J. (2006). Rat. London: Reaktion Books.

This is a peculiar little book purporting to tell all about rats. It is copiously illustrated—some of the illustrations are interesting but many are too small, at least for my eyes. The book presents the varied portrayals of rats in history and in literature, and describes aspects of rats’ natural history and their use in science. The latter two topics are covered only superficially. Although the book is of some interest, the author seems to be searching unsuccessfully for some theme to motivate the prose.


Cairns-Smith, A.G. (1996). Evolving the mind: On the nature of matter and the origin of consciousness. Cambridge University Press.

Cairns-Smith is the chemist who thinks life originated with clay. Here, he disdains the mundane questions surrounding the origin of life and moves to the classic mind-body problem. Unlike most who tackle this subject, he is definitely not a flake. The book is a review of almost everything but the best part concerns matter at the cellular and subcellular level, particularly an exceptionally clear intuitive presentation of quantum theory. The neuroscience is well presented but is extremely basic. Cairns-Smith understands Darwinian theory and uses it to effect, essentially arguing that consciousness is highly likely to be an adaptation designed to integrate information from separate neural systems. How does mind influence matter? Well, matter is not what one naively thinks it is and mind and matter turn out to be made of the same fundamentally baffling stuff.


Caputo, P. (2002). Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the mystery lions of East Africa. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

A somewhat strange but mostly interesting little book from the author of Rumours of War. The book is weak when Caputo tries to make it into a popular science essay—he interviews scientists about some not very interesting theories and laments his (very evident) lack of biological training. The historical part of the book, on the other hand, is very good. The author evokes the sense of being stalked by giant cats (very scary), and tells some very interesting tales about lions preying on humans. One lion, for example, preyed upon people coming from a particular bar. The lion probably interpreted drunken walking as a symptom of poor health because lions routinely use disturbances in gait to select their victims. Now, one would think this bar would quickly go out of business but no--it must have been a very good bar! The lions of Tsavo seem to have come by their predilection for eating people honestly. They live on the route of the old slave trade where the dying were left behind.


Caras, R.A. (1996). A perfect harmony: The intertwining lives of animals and humans throughout history. NY: Simon & Schuster.

Aimed at a lay readership. Some interesting observations but not anything new to biology types and bereft of theory.


Carroll, S.B. (2005). Endless forms most beautiful: The new science of evo devo. NY: Norton.

Very nice job of clearly describing the most recent big theoretical advance in the life sciences. Evo-devo, as I never tire of telling anyone who will listen, represents our scientific future. The big advances in biological theory have been the formulation of the theory of natural selection, the synthesis of genetics and natural selection, the discovery of DNA, the discovery of the self-organizing principles of embryology, and now evo-devo, the linking of genes, development, and evolutionary theory. All of these advances save the first two have occurred in my lifetime and the pace is quickening. A very good time to be alive!

I highly recommend this book. It’s pitched at roughly a biology 100 level and has lots of helpful examples and illustrations. Less difficult and not as abstract as, for example, another masterpiece of this genre, The Art of Genes.


Carter, C.S., Lederhendler, I.I., & Kirkpatrick, B. (Eds.). (1999). The integrative neurobiology of affiliation. MIT Press.

A good source of information on the hormonal mechanisms of affiliation across a variety of mammals. This is a fast moving area of research and, because the book is a reprint of a New York Academy of Sciences volume that appeared in 1996, some of this research is now a little out of date. The research on prairie voles, for example, has considerably advanced since this volume, mostly because of work done by those who wrote the chapters in this book.


Cartwright, J. (2000). Evolution and human behavior. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

This new book on evolutionary psychology will be a strong competitor in the burgeoning market of texts for undergraduate evolution and human behavior courses. Instructors and students will appreciate the very clear exposition, the even level of difficulty that is maintained throughout, and the apposite choice of illustrations and graphs. Cartwright strikes a good balance between skepticism and enthusiasm. He gives credit where it’s due and suspends judgment or advises a caution in areas where the evidence is weaker.

There are twelve chapters. Their topics are the history of evolutionary psychology, the mechanisms of evolution, the selfish gene, mating, sexual selection, the evolution of brain size, language and the modularity of mind, anthropological approaches to understanding human sexual behavior, human mate choice, conflict, altruism, and the use and abuse of evolutionary theory. The coverage is fairly complete and the book avoids a common problem of introductory texts in evolutionary psychology, that of unduly emphasizing a particular narrow topic (usually involving the author’s own area of research).


Changeux, J.-P. & Chavaillon, J. (Eds.). (1995). Origins of the human brain. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Like most edited books, this is a mixed bag. An interesting overview of the mitochondrial DNA clock research. Most interesting is the fact that the brain blood supply is observable in endocasts of hominid fossils such that the development of different parts of the brain can be traced through time.


Charles Crawford and Dennis L Krebs. (Eds.). (1998). Handbook of evolutionary psychology: Ideas, issues, and applications. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Eribaum (appeared in The Quarterly Review of Biology, 1994, 74, 113).

The editors, professors of psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, have produced an edited volume that is suitable for senior undergraduate or beginning graduate courses in evolutionary psychology and psychobiology. The handbook consists of 21 chapters divided into three parts: ideas, issues and applications. Each chapter is written by a noted specialist and, together, the chapters cover most of the domains interest in evolutionary psychology. An attractive feature of the book is that the chapters are quite even in quality and level of difficulty, with the exception of an interesting chapter by Hudson Kern Reeve on kinship and reciprocity that is a little more difficult than the others.  

Not surprisingly in a handbook of evolutionary psychology, the authors are like-minded in their commitment to a Darwinist approach to behavior. Nevertheless, there are three areas of continuing debate that are well explicated in this volume. The first is the tension between evolutionary psychologists who are primarily interested in a species-typical design of the mind and a growing number of behavior geneticists who seek to understand heritable behavioral differences among individuals from an evolutionary perspective. This issue is beautifully captured by Michael Bailey's evenhanded chapter, Can Behavior Genetics Contribute to Evolutionary Behavioral Science?

The second debate is between those theorists who conceive of people as "adaptation executors" and those who conceptualize people as "fitness maximizers." The former argue that, because current psychological mechanisms were designed to maximize reproductive success in ancestral environments, current reproductive success is not theoretically informative. The latter argue that relative reproductive success in current environments provide useful information concerning species-typical reproductive strategies. In her concise chapter, Not Whether to Count Babies, but Which, Laura Betzig argues strongly that contemporary relative reproductive success is more lawful from an evolutionary perspective than popularly believed, a conclusion that is buttressed by Bobbi S Low's chapter on the evolution of human life histories.

The debate over the theoretical merits of examining contemporary reproductive success is closely related to the broader issue of the nature of the environment of evolutionary adaptation and its relation to contemporary environments. Charles Crawford, in his chapter, Environments and Adaptations: Then and Now, argues that no general answer is possible because different adaptations were created at different times, and because people tend to re-create features of the ancestral environment in contemporary societies. A possible example of this tendency is the limited (constant?) number of close friends and collaborators with whom people interact, regardless of the complexity and size of larger social systems. Crawford advises a piecemeal approach to the important question of the nature of the environment(s) of evolutionary adaptation.

A fourth issue, although not one that divides evolutionary psychologists, deserves comment. The most frequent criticism of a Darwinist approach to behavior is that evolutionary hypotheses cannot be rigorously tested. In his chaptmon R Hoer, Testing Evolutionary Hypotheses, Harlcomb III provides a thoughtful discussion of the progress that has been made and the most promising strategies for improving Ernst Mayr's "one long argument."

In conclusion, Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology is a very worthwhile book. Apart from its great expense, it would make an excellent textbook for an upper-level undergraduate course in evolutionary psychology. My solution to the pricing issue for my course is to put a copy of the book on reserve in the library and to assign chapters from it to accompany Robert Wright's easy-reading but persuasive The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology in Everyday Life (1994. New York: Pantheon Books).


Chitty, D. (1996). Do lemmings commit suicide? Beautiful hypotheses and ugly facts. N.Y.: Oxford.

No they don’t but there is a picture on the cover of a lemming making a non-fatal leap from a rock.

Written by the elder statesman of population ecology. Chitty argues that we still don’t understand population swings in animals and that it is our (including his) fault. The science just hasn’t been good enough. Not enough strong inference research.

This book is jumpy and hard to follow. Some of the book’s features seem to be a result of the author’s aging. The early history of population ecology is interesting. Each section is begun by a quote of some kind, many of these are quite good.


Cockburn, A., Cockburn, E., & Reyman, T.A. (Eds.). (1998). Mummies, disease and ancient cultures (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

A very odd new edition of the original mummy book. Very uneven chapters, some of which shouldn’t have been included. Among the book’s problems is the frequent failure to present enough context to inform very particularized and detailed discussions of individual mummies and, more understandably, missing information about some of the cases presented. Nevertheless, there are items of interest. I was absolutely amazed to discover the enormous number of mummies there are, especially in Egypt. There are some pathetic stories of how individuals met their demise, like the chronically unhealthy Inuit child who ate gravel (not gravol) in a futile attempt to keep from starving and the folks who got buried by accident and inhaled earth. Ancient populations had lots of parasites as well as lung damage from inhaling smoke from cooking fires in enclosed spaces or in Egypt, from inhaling sand.


Coen, E. (1999). The art of genes: How organisms make themselves. Oxford University Press.

Absolutely brilliant. The best science book I’ve read in a long time. Coen starts with a kind of far-fetched metaphor of organismic "hidden colours" that is a little off-putting at first but it soon becomes apparent that the metaphor greatly facilitates an intuitive understanding of the process of development. Coen does indeed explain how organisms make themselves while avoiding the problems of infinite regress that are fatal to many explanations of development, such as those postulating that genes create the organism from a DNA blueprint-- recent work reviewed in this book shows that it’s much more complicated and interesting than that.

Coen is a snapdragon runner and one of the highlights of the book is a description of how two groups of investigators (one of them Coen’s) independently developed a theory of floral differentiation from studying mutants; the theory predicted in detail the function of specific organ identity genes that were later identified.

By the time readers have mastered the meaning of Coen’s metaphors, they are ready to understand the deep parallels between the development of snapdragon flowers and fruit flies.

Very highly recommended.


Coren, S. (1993). The left-hander syndrome: The causes and consequences of left-handedness. NY: Vintage.  

Coren writes page turners. Always lots of interesting facts.

So, where have all the left handers gone, long time passing, where have all the left handers gone, long long ago? Well, it turns out they’re dead. Why do left-handers die (relatively) young? Because they are sinister? Gauche? I won’t tell you.

Good book up until the last chapter. Interesting theory of left handedness that could also apply to homosexuality. An important theoretical update on the genetics of left-handedness has appeared in Psychological Review (2000)


Crump, T. (2001). A brief history of science as seen through the development of scientific instruments. London: Constable & Robinson.

Crump is an excellent guide who provides exactly what the title promises. The book is well organized, has good pictures, and the scientific concepts are clearly explained. The book mostly concerns physics and chemistry together with little biographies of the principal protagonists. Highly recommended—even if you know most of this stuff, it’s a good review.


Dawkins, R. (1995). River out of Eden. N.Y.: Basic.

The Selfish Gene this is not. A well-written book and an easy short read but not anything new. The central metaphor (that of a river of information separating into streams which intertwine for awhile, and then flow separately forever) is fatally flawed by the wholesale exchange of genetic material between species that has been documented in recent years.


Dawkins, R. (1996). Climbing mount improbable. N.Y.: Norton.

I liked this book better than River out of Eden but it’s not as good as The Selfish Gene or even the Blind Watchmaker or the Extended Phenotype. Essentially, I think, every good story or analogy has already been used by Dawkins or Dennett or Wright or some other member of the "Darwin Industry” to explain selectionist theory to the masses. As fundamental and important as it is, there ain’t nothing left to say.

The most interesting part of the book is the last bit on figs and fig-wasps. They seem damned improbable, if you don’t know better.


Dawkins, R. (2004). The ancestor’s tale: A pilgrimage to the dawn of life. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson.

A very large coffee table-type book in which the story is very loosely modeled on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Well and clearly written, although Dawkins can’t help giving his opinions on various matters every so often. The idea is that we go backwards in time meeting ever more remote ancestors. At times this involves a bit of conjecture because our precise lineage has not been worked out. Despite our knowing an enormous amount more than we did when I took a course in invertebrate zoology in the sixties, some of the uncertainty about phylogenetic relationships persists. There’s a very nice and interesting little summary of recent empirical work on the origin of life.

In all, this is a worthwhile book. I’m not clear, however, who the audience is. It’s not written for professional biologists but I don’t think people without considerable prior knowledge of biology could follow it.


Dennett, D.C. (1995). Darwin’s dangerous idea: Evolution and the meanings of life. NY: Touchstone.  

You have to love a guy who doesn’t like the people you don’t like and likes the people you like. Darwinism for the philosophically inclined. Dennett is one smart cookie.

Dennett is at his best when critically evaluating other people’s arguments. He does a very nice job of debunking Gould (not nearly so savage and amusing as Wright’s reply to Gould that appeared in Slate).

So, a sprightly defense of Darwinism, full of interesting and often illuminating thought experiments, and a few interesting facts, such as a nice description of Haig’s work on maternal-fetal competition. Highly recommended.


Desowitz, R.S. (2002). Federal bodysnatchers and the New Guinea Virus: Tales of parasites, people and politics. N.Y.: Norton.

Not nearly as good as his previouis book, Malaria Capers. Desowitz retains his eye for the ridiculous and his fine sense of outrage but there is not as much content in this book. There are, however, some interesting comments on the use of patents in tropical disease research.


Desowitz, R.S. (1991). The malaria capers: More tales of parasites and people, research and reality. N.Y.: Norton.  

This is indeed about reality--it’s as real as plastic hip joints. All of the waste, fraud, and stupidity that we are aware of in safe little Canada is exaggerated on the international stage in the failed control of diseases like malaria and kala azar with results so cruel that the mind boggles. If there is a history of depression in your family, do not read this book.

Desowitz is pissed off and pulls no punches. A real interesting book but it sure paints a bleak picture. In addition to all of the incompetence, there are the inadvertent effects of almost any intervention imaginable. On the other hand, a book like this makes one appreciate what great luck we and our friends have had to date (this and the Margulis book below show quite clearly that a plague of some sort is going to be the Malthusian agent that deals with the ridiculously large human population). Child molestation and homicide are not really big deals in the grand scheme of things.


Devine, R.S. (1998). Alien invasion: America’s battle with non-native animals and plants. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

I had planned to write a book on exotic species, entitled "Alien Invasions of North America." I am now making other plans....

A thoroughly depressing book on alien invasions. There are a lot more foreign species introduced into habitats everywhere than I was aware of. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it can’t be gotten back in. It’s like taking a bunch of species, putting them in a bottle, and shaking vigorously. This phenomenon appears to be much more important in causing extinctions than I had thought.


Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. New York: Norton.

This is a wide ranging and cogently argued book. Diamond’s thesis is that differences in intellectual abilities of the peoples of the earth are irrelevant to the historical ascendancy of particular societies. The book takes an evolutionary selectionist perspective that accounts for the success of particular societies on the basis of geography. Some of the ideas are similar to those proposed by Wilson to explain the success of animals and plants derived from large continents when in competition with those evolved on islands.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is Diamond’s description of how we have been domesticated by plants. We have been enslaved by such plants as wheat and rice to serve their reproductive purposes. Aspects of Diamond’s discussion are reminiscent of Morley’s (1984) article on the domestication of the dog that I highly recommend.

Diamond’s assertion that it is guns, germs, and steel that have determined the fate of societies is compelling in explaining phenomena such as why Spain invaded Peru rather than vice versa. The historical vignettes he presents are gripping, some, such as the complete massacre of hunter gatherer island Maori by the New Zealand Maori ("because it is our custom”), confirming the wisdom of Bertrand Russell who commented on the old mistake of believing that the oppressed are morally superior to their oppressors.

The final third of the book is a little repetitious and a bit preachy, nevertheless an excellent read. Of course, Diamond does not demonstrate that there are no important intellectual differences among the varieties of humankind but does show, I think, that the differential success of societies can be explained on historical, ultimately, geographical grounds.

Morey, D.F. (1984). The early evolution of the domestic dog. American Scientist, 82, 336-347.


Dodwell, P. (2000). Brave new mind: A thoughtful inquiry into the nature and meaning of mental life. NY: Oxford University Press.

Dodwell, formerly a colleague of mine at Queen’s, has long retired but, as evidenced by this book, still very active and sharp. His central thesis is that the implicit reductionist philosophical project of neuroscience is doomed to failure because of its logical incoherence. Dodwell makes a good case using visual perception, the most advanced area of the neurosciences, as his principal example. He is most convincing when discussing how the predictions of a successful mathematical theory are its necessary (deductive) consequences.

This work is not aimed at a lay readership. It is quite a bit more sophisticated than most of what is written on consciousness and the reductionist enterprise, although I don’t mean this statement to damn the book with faint praise.


Draaisma, D. (2004). Why life speeds up as you get older: How memory shapes our past. NY: Cambridge University Press.

A charming set of informal historically oriented essays about memory. The book is translated from the Dutch and has a European feel to it. The author contrasts Ebbinghaus’s memory experiments with Galton’s research on autobiographical memory. This book is concerned with the latter, in particular in explaining the reminiscence effect, first documented by Galton. The reminiscence effect is seen among people in their mid- to late fifties or older and consists of a bump in the quantity and quality of the memories they laid down in their late teens and early adulthood. In an engrossing chapter, Draaisma uses the autobiography of an eighty-year old Dutch schoolmaster, Willem van den Hull (b. 1778), to describe the effect and to explore some of its possible causes. This chapter is also a deeply touching essay on the human condition—you should read it.


Dufresne, T. (Ed.). (2007). Against Freud: Critics talk back. Stanford University Press.

Dufresne is a philosopher based at, of all places, Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. This little book is a series of interviews with the most prominent modern critics of Freudian theory, including Frank Sulloway (who is now even more critical than he was when he wrote his book on Freud, Biologist of the mind) and that ever most delightful professor of English, Frederick Crews (read his Postmodern Pooh). Only MacMillan, of the totally devastating Freud evaluated: The completed arc critique appears to be missing. This is a fun read, partly because there are some insiders included from the early days of psychoanalysis and partly because of the spontaneity engendered by the interview technique. It continues to amaze me that so many people bought into psychoanalysis.


Duncan, D.E. (1998). Calendar: Humanity’s epic struggle to determine a true and accurate year. N.Y.: Avon.

As the cover blurb asserts, this is an engaging little book. It turns out that it is harder to determine an accurate year than one would think. The book presents an interesting history of attempts to improve the accuracy of the year’s measurement and follows how these become entangled with politics and theology. Ironically, we can measure too accurately now; because the earth’s movement is less accurate than our clocks, these have to be periodically adjusted. It seems like you just can’t win sometimes.


Editors of Linqua Franca. (2000). The Sokal Hoax: The sham that shook the academy.   Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.  

The book begins with physicist Alan Sokal’s delightful article ATransgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity” reprinted from the 1996 special "science wars" issue of Social Text. Sokal subsequently revealed that he had duped the editors of Social Text with his article that comprised scientific nonsense, assertions supported only by appeals to modernist authority, unreadably dense prose, and so forth. There has been a great deal of controversy about this event and the remainder of the book captures this controversy by reprinting a variety of responses to the hoax. Some of these are interesting but in all, they become a bit repetitive by the end of the book. Two things are clear: Sokal’s hoax succeeded because of a lack of intellectual rigour in the review process and the editors of the journal are not only fools but dishonest fools.


Ellis, L. & Ebertz, L. (Eds.). (1997). Sexual orientation: Toward biological understanding. Westport, CT: Praeger.  

This book is the product of an interdisciplinary meeting held in Minot, North Dakota in 1995. The chapters are written for scientists and most present original research data in addition to reviews of the literature. To my mind, the first chapter, Neuroendocrine foundations of diverse sexual phenotypes in fish by Matthew Grober, is the most interesting. Interesting because it documents the conservation of the mechanisms of neural sex differentiation over species from fish to primates and because it describes our understanding of the fascinating phenomenon of ontogenetic sex switching in certain species of fish. Very cool stuff.  

There is more disagreement about models of sexual differentiation in rat brain than I had thought. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough to critically examine these disagreements and will have to wait for the dust to settle.

Halpern & Crothers present a nice summary of the effects of biological sex and sexual orientation on cognition. They have some challenging data on homosexual men that indicate they are more masculinized on cognitive variables than heterosexual men.

Worth looking at.


Evans, D. & Zarate, O. (1999). Introducing evolutionary psychology. Cambridge, U.K.: Icon Books.  

An introduction to evolutionary psychology in 178 pages of text and cartoons. The first author, Dylan Evans, is a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy, Logic, and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics. The second author, Oscar Zarate, is an illustrator and graphic novelist.

What can one say about a comic book introduction to evolutionary psychology? In particular, a comic book introduction that is published at the same time as a whole raft of serious books on the subject have appeared, including a weighty introductory textbook by David Buss. In this case, I think one has to say "well done!"

The text is very simple, very clear, and deals exclusively with important topics and issues. It is remarkably free from error. My only serious complaint about the book is its construal of evolutionary psychology as the merging of cognitive science and evolutionary biology. In my view, there is much more involved in this merger on the psychology/behavior side than cognitive science.

The illustrations are generally apt. Most entertaining to people in the field will be the caricatures of many leading evolutionary biologists and psychologists. The caricatures are not flattering but all of them, with the exception of those of Martin Daly and Margot Wilson, are easily recognizable.

The authors have succeeded in producing a very short, entertaining, and accurate introduction to evolutionary psychology. The book would not stand on its own as a undergraduate university level text in evolutionary psychology but would be useful as a supplement to such a text or even as a supplement to an introductory psychology text. More importantly, the book provides easy access to important and useful knowledge to a wide reading public outside of academe.


Falk, D. (1992). Braindance. NY: Holt.

The thesis of this book is an interesting one. We evolved in a very hot climate, hence standing erect, a first class sweating system, hairless body, but lots of hair on the head (to insulate the brain). In addition, our ancestors developed a more efficient manner of cooling the brain (involving a very large occipital venous sinus visible in cranial endocasts) that allowed the brain to grow larger. We now have a somewhat more complicated cooling system.

The author seems to thrive on controversy and often seems like she has a bit of a chip on her shoulder.


Feduccia, A. (1996). The origin and evolution of birds. New Haven: Yale University Press.  

Believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs? That animals evolved wings to help them run (the cursorial theory)? Forget it (even though the recent Chinese finds muddy the waters).

Feduccia is a no nonsense, give me the facts kind of guy. I don’t believe he has a romantic bone in his body. This book is a portrayal of the broad sweep of vertebrate evolution through a detailed interpretation of both old fossil discoveries and the very many new finds. The fossil record is, of course, incomplete but it is truly remarkable how much is known and how much can be inferred.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the discussion of the evolution of flightlessness and gigantism among island birds. Flightlessness involves a neotenous process and certain families of birds are more likely to become flightless because of the order in which structures develop in embryos (if flight muscles and associated structures appear after structures vital for survival, the flight apparatus can easily be jettisoned by small changes in ontogenesis). Emus and ostriches are, in a sense then, just "big chicks.”

There are some very strange facts. Among these, the eerie resemblance of the feeding filter apparatus of flamingoes and right whales produced by convergent evolution.

This book, although fascinating, may be a little too detailed for some: "Right tarsus of the late Triassic Coelophysis with distal ends of tiba-fibula, fused astragalocalcaneum, and proximal ends of metatarsals....Even if the ascending process of the astragalus was homologous with the ratites, it also matches with late theropods and the ornithischian Hypsilophodon.”  Of course.


Fiest, G.J. The Psychology Of Science And The Origins Of The Scientific Mind. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

As indicated by the title, this book has two parts, the first is a plea for a new discipline, the psychology of science, and the second explores the origins of the scientific mind--where does the ability to do science originate? With respect to the first part, although one can debate the question of whether there should be a formal psychology of science to complement the extant major science studies disciplines of history, philosophy, and sociology, it is clear that psychology can make contributions to the selection and recruitment of successful scientists and to understanding the nature of scientific thinking. There are, for example, instructive similarities in abilities, motivations, and training experiences among elite scientists, chess players, musicians, and athletes.

In the second part, Fiest traces the origins of the scientific mind back through prehistory. Unfortunately, in so doing, the issue of the origin of the scientific mind gets swamped by a lengthy and sometimes speculative discussion of the origins of the mind per se.

The book ranges widely over different areas of psychology, the philosophy, history, and sociology of science, and hominid evolution. In fact, the principal difficulty with this work is that the author has cast his net too widely in both sections, resulting in an unfocussed exposition that often reads like an introductory undergraduate survey text as opposed to a work designed for professional scientists and academics.


Forsyth, A. (1993). A natural history of sex: The ecology and evolution of mating behavior. Vermont: Chapters.  

Very nicely written introduction for layfolk. Not anything new, but interesting examples of  odd reproductive behaviors. Theoretically sound. He doesn’t like Gould, always a plus in my view.


Gerhart, J. & Kirschner, M. (1997). Cells, embryos, and evolution: Toward a cellular and developmental understanding of phenotypic variation and evolutionary adaptability. Malden Mass.: Blackwell Science.  

Opening up the black box. It is insufficient to know that natural selection is the engine of evolution, one must know the mechanics of how it accomplishes evolutionary change. These mechanics have to be understood at both the cellular and developmental levels.

This is a fine book. The authors summarize a phenomenal amount of recent research in a manner intelligible to those who have sufficient background. I found it in places extremely difficult reading; not so much because the ideas were hard to grasp but rather the memory load that is occasioned by so much unfamiliar detail.

This book, however, is very much worth the effort. I will definitely read it again when my brain feels less tired. Some structures are more evolvable than others for essentially chemical reasons. The conservation of principles and even structures across a wide range of organisms is truly remarkable. We’ve come a long way from the pharyngula stage, but each of us, in common with all other chordates, must pass through this stage during embryonic development. This book explains why.

One wonders what profound philosophical meaning resides in the observation that we share genes, not only with fruit flies and peas, but yeast.


Gibson, G. (2006). The bedside book of birds: An avian miscellany. Toronto: Random House.

This is an attractively produced book, meant to be kept at hand and perused from time to time. I am incapable of such activity and read it in a couple of settings—a mistake I think because there isn’t much of a theme here, unless it be that birds are neat and often mistreated. The book is comprised of short sections written in very different styles from different periods and the authors aren’t identified until the end of each—I found this disorienting. I also found the stories concerning extinctions and slaughters depressing, although that was not the author’s intent.


Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York: Knopf.

This is a breezy account of what academic psychology has to say about happiness. I imagine Gilbert is a fabulous teacher, given the humour and clarity of this book. Although most of what is presented about how the brain works will be no surprise to cognitive psychologists, this body of work is put to very good use in showing how and why we are poor at anticipating correctly what will make our future selves happy. Imagining the future is even more problematic than accurately reconstructing the past and for some of the same reasons, for example, the difficulty in escaping the influence of the present.

After reading this book, I was struck once again by just how different the world is from what it appears to be—weird in a different sense than quantum mechanics but certainly not what I signed up for.


Gilmore, J.B. (1998). In cold pursuit. Toronto: Stoddart.

Gilmore used to teach introductory psychology to enormous classes at the University of Toronto. He became interested in the transmission of the cold virus toward the end of his career and wrote this book during his retirement.

He presents some very interesting accounts of studies conducted at remote islands in various God-forsaken parts of the world and somewhat less interesting descriptions of natural and contrived experiments in England and North America. I’m sure that Gilmore used the cold experiments to teach elements of experimental design to undergraduates, he can’t help being an academic psychologist.  

The book would be great if it ended with a definitive set of studies. Alas, the transmission mechanism has not been conclusively demonstrated, giving the book an unsatisfying conclusion. Gilmore also ends with a bit of whining about the research priorities of funding agencies; going out with a whimper instead of a bang.


Greaves, M. (2000). Cancer: The evolutionary legacy. Toronto: Oxford University Press.  

Once cancer is conceptualized as an evolutionary process involving mutation and selection, the facts about it obediently fall into place. Such a view accounts for the differential likelihood of different tissues to become cancerous, the cycles of remission and metastasis, the effects of age and toxins, and so forth. The occurrence of cancer is fundamentally related to the retention of primitive properties of propagation of certain cell lines inherited from single celled ancestors. The selfish success of these cells leads to the death of the commonwealth of cells.

Worth reading as an advanced primer or case study of evolutionary biology.  


Greene, B. (1999/2003). The elegant universe: Superstrings, hidden dimensions, and the quest for the ultimate theory. NY: Random House.

Beautiful description of relativity—for a brief period I felt that I really understood it. Not so with string theory—I can read the words but I just don’t get it. Dimensions in Calabi-Yau shapes indeed.

The quest for a theory of everything and the glimmers of success that have been had so far raise the perplexing question of how numbers relate to fundamental reality. If our intuition can’t help us with the very small or very large, then interpretation of the mathematics is simply a psychological crutch, not part of an understanding of physical reality. In any event, there is a lot that is completely beyond our ken (multiple universes, the nature of the universe before the big bang) and so forth. Even a theory of everything isn’t really.


Grove, J.W. (1989). In defence of science: Science, technology, and politics in the modern world. University of Toronto Press.

A comforting book for beleaguered scientists. Very well written and erudite. This is the sort of book that humanities students should read. He presents a differentiation between science and technology that I have found useful in several contexts.


Hauser, M.D. (2000). Wild minds: What animals really think. N.Y.: Holt.  

Hauser gave an excellent presentation at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society meeting in Amherst Mass. last year on the topic of this book. The book reviews some of the more recent experimental studies of animal cognition that use audio playback (a la Cheney) and formal experiments (a la Premack and Hauser himself). This is interesting work but I don’t think that there was enough new material or enough definitive work to support a book length treatment. We still don’t know what it’s like to be a bat, for example.


Heinrich, B. (1999). Mind of the raven: Investigations and adventures with wolf-birds. N.Y.: Harper Collins.  

Heinrich doesn’t like to climb but is willing to lightly  freeze his gonads by lying still in the snow for hours on end and to handle rotting carcasses. He thus has two of the three personal attributes needed by scientists who study ravens. An intense attraction to road kills also helps.

Although this book is written for non-scientists, the theory is nevertheless pitched a little too low and slow. The state of knowledge of raven behavior and cognitive abilities is somewhat frustrating; one wishes we knew more and more definitively. Nevertheless, the natural history aspects of the book make it well worth reading, particularly those involving the symbiotic relationship between wolves and ravens. Very amusing tales of people who report being "warned” by ravens about the approach of large carnivores; amusing because the ravens were signalling the carnivores about the presence of a meal!


Hellman, H. (1998). Great feuds in science: Ten of the liveliest disputes ever. Toronto: Wiley.

This somewhat Richard Scarryishly titled book covers Urban the VIII vs Galileo on the heliocentric theory, Wallis versus Hobbes on geometrical method, Newton versus Leibnitz on the invention of the calculus, Voltaire vs Needham on spontaneous generation, Huxley versus Wilberforce on natural selection, Kelvin vs the geologists and biologists on the age of the earth, Cope versus Marsh on dinosaur evolution, Wegener vs everybody on continental drift, Johanson versus the Leakeys on hominid evolution, and Freeman vs Mead on nature vs nurture.

These disparate controversies are covered in less than 200 small pages. The stories are more interesting if you haven’t read longer versions of them. Taken together, there are few morals to be drawn from these controversies. Some are simply priority disputes (Newton vs Leibnitz and Cope vs Marsh), some in which one party is completely right and everyone else wrong (e.g., Wegener, Huxley).  


Henry, C.J.K. & Ulijaszek, S.J. (Ed.). (1996). Long-term consequences of early environment: growth, development, and the lifespan developmental perspective. N.Y.: Cambridge University Press. (appeared in The Quarterly Review of Biology, 72, 357).  

The title of this book aptly captures the theme of its 14 chapters. The editors' introduction is a very brief and accurate summary of the content of the remaining chapters. The first chapter examines human growth and development from an evolutionary perspective; a related chapter describes research on the determination of human sex ratios. Five of the chapters deal with the effects of early nutrition on later growth, examining such questions as whether children who are undernourished at various ages can "catch up" in growth if later nourished adequately. Other chapters concern the development of human taste and smell preferences, the development of sexuality, and the relationship of puberty to fertility. The book concludes with R.M. Garruto's very interesting chapter on late onset neuro-degenerative disorders that compares amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinsonism-dementia common in the Western Pacific with Alzheimer's disease.

To a reader outside the specialties represented in this book, three findings concerning the long-term consequences of early environment seemed of particular interest. The first, reported in A.H. Goodman's chapter Early life stresses and adult health: insights from dental enamel development, is that linear enamel hypoplasias can be used to study the longitudinal pattern of morbidity, mortality, and stress, not only in living populations, but also in past populations. The teeth's memory of stress can thus provide information about the living conditions of ancient groups not otherwise attainable.

Two surprising findings are described by D.J.P. Barker in The origins of coronary heart disease in early life. The first of these is that females conceived or born during a brief period of famine in Holland were of normal birth weight and achieved normal adult size but had small babies themselves. The second is that homeostatic settings are established in response to in utero malnutrition that lead eventually to premature death from coronary heart disease.

Overall, this book is, like most edited books, somewhat uneven in the quality of its chapters and, despite the unifying theme, quite diverse in content. However, the writing is clear enough to be accessible to nonspecialists and, as the examples above attest, there are some interesting long-term consequences of early environmental conditions.


Hixson, J. (1976). The patchwork mouse: Politics and intrigue in the campaign to conquer cancer. NY: Doubleday.  

This is a story about an infamous scientific fraud. Dr. William Summerlin claimed he could graft foreign tissues onto mice without them being rejected. Get this, he painted some white mice to make them appear as if they had black (transplanted) fur on them. Makes a person believe in Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime (crimes are easy things done opportunistically and impulsively).

Hixson tries to conclude that the pressure to get results and lax supervision (of this fully grown MD) is the culprit. Well, maybe a little character weakness as well--it turns out that the good doctor had been suspected of fraudulent activities much earlier. So crimes may all be easy things done opportunistically but they are differentially likely to be committed by certain kinds of folks.


Holmes, H. (2001). The secret life of dust: From the cosmos to the kitchen counter, the big consequences of little things. Toronto, ON: Wiley.    

I think I’ll stop breathing now--too much Mongolian dirt, rubber tire bits, and strangers’ skin flakes. If it weren’t for the garbage transport system in my lungs, I would have stopped long ago. A very interesting book covering lots of things that I didn’t know--like just how much dust there is and how far it travels, for example.


Hooper, E. (1999). The River: A journey to the source of HIV and AIDS. N.Y.: Little, Brown.  

A meticulously researched investigation of an iatrogenic hypothesis for the origin of the AIDS pandemic. Hooper attempts to show that the HIV retrovirus was introduced to people from chimpanzee kidneys used to produce polio vaccines in Africa in the 1950's. Hooper can’t prove his case because he discovers no smoking gun; he does, however, provide compelling circumstantial evidence. If it didn’t happen as Hooper suggests, it certainly could have.

This is a very long book but, despite a little repetitiveness, retains the reader’s interest by presenting the argument in the context of the author’s investigations and describing the personalities of the parties involved. Most of these individuals do not come across very well-of course, who could blame someone who may have been involved in the introduction of AIDS for being a little defensive.

In the fight for the glory of developing an anti-polio vaccine that occurred during the polio panics of the fifties, many short cuts were taken, particularly by Albert Sabin’s chief rival, Hilary Kropowski. Producing vaccines turns out to be extremely risky and remains so today, despite technological improvements.

An interesting side note: William Hamilton acted as a benefactor to this research and his African involvement ultimately led to his premature death.


Hrdy, S.B. (1980). The langurs of Abu: Female and male strategies of reproduction. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

When this book was written, infanticide by male langurs was little known and very controversial. Now, of course, both the practice, in species ranging from lions to grizzlies, and its explanation are known even to those who only watch nature shows on TV.

How did the idea, a kind of a noble savage mythology, ever arise that animals were kindly social democrats? Prior to the seventies, didn’t anybody watch cats play with mice or male pigeons peck squabs to death very, very, slowly while their mothers watched impassively?

A good book.


Johnston, V.S. (1999). Why we feel: The science of human emotion. Perseus.  

This book reads like it is from a very good set of lectures. The arguments are crystal clear and presented without distractions. The Darwinian selectionist paradigm is central to Johnston’s thought, not on the periphery; it informs not only his science but also his epistemology.

Emotions are conceived of as exaggerated representations of likely changes in fitness that are tightly linked to motivations. Johnston presents some neat computer simulations to illustrate his points.  For example, a computer program that allows the user to chose a face from among those of a "genetically related” group of faces on the basis of its similarity to the remembered target face (that of the  perpetrator). The program then uses this face to form the basis of the next generation of  mug shots (similar to Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker program). Johnston reports better results with this technique than those produced with identikit drawings. Other interesting data come from a similar program on the web that for the user-guided evolution of beautiful faces.

This book doesn’t require any specialized knowledge to understand but is informative to people who have already read a lot of this literature. Highly recommended.


Jones, S. (1999). Darwin’s ghost: The Origin of Species updated. Toronto: Doubleday.  

An interesting idea to update Darwin’s Origin. The work is competently executed in a somewhat odd style--a mix of laconic summary and quasi-nineteenth century exposition. Not a heavily referenced book and written for non-biologists. In general, good reading but surprisingly weak on the sociobiology side.


Jones, S. Martin, R, & Pilbeam, D. (Eds.). (1992). The Cambridge encyclopedia of human evolution. London: Cambridge University Press.

The editors have done a fine job of very clearly explaining a great deal of material. The chapters are very short, written by experts, and among the easiest to understand that I’ve come across. Because of the breadth of material covered, no one is likely to know all of it.

The book is a bit dated now but still very worthwhile. Interestingly, in a few spots, the author of a chapter will predict what should be found in future. In some of these cases, we already know they were right! Very strong on primate evolution.


Kagan, J. (1998). Three seductive ideas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

And the flawed ideas are: Psychological processes generalize broadly, infant determinism (the effects of the first two years of life are observable throughout life), and that most behavior is motivated by sensory pleasure. I concluded after reading this book, that criticisms made at this level of generality aren’t very helpful. Exceptions can be noted in which some aspect of these "flawed ideas” are in fact correct. We can’t tell, for example, how broadly psychological processes are likely to generalize from history or methodological caveats, only through investigation.


Kevles, D.J. (1998). The Baltimore Case: A trial of politics, science, and character. N.Y.: Norton.

This is the Kafkaesque story of Nobelist David Baltimore and his colleagues who ran afoul of the NIH bureaucracy and a committee of the Congress. It started with a disgruntled postdoctoral fellow alleging sloppiness and errors of interpretation in a paper published in Cell and grew to encompass charges of scientific fraud. The "whistle-blower” informally became part of the NIH investigative team and the congressional committee treated this team as if it were in its employ. The charges kept changing but the defendants were neither allowed to know what these charges were nor to be privy to the evidence upon which they were based.

Scientific rivals of Baltimore were the most vociferous critics. Semi-professional "fraud busters” became involved and, together with members of the congressional committee, leaked all of the investigative details to the lay and scientific press (who published it and editorialized about it). The careers of all of the defendants were permanently damaged. This sorry business took a decade to sort out and ended with the exoneration of the investigators.

This is a tale of political correctness gone nutty, the peculiar relationship of big government to expensive science, the corrosive effects of professional jealousy, and how specialized scientific knowledge has become.

Half way through the book, I realized that I knew one of the NIH principals (a villainess of course) from my days dealing with NIMH.

Nobody is safe from this sort of thing.


Kimura, D. (2000). Sex and cognition. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.  

Doreen Kimura is Professor of Psychology at Simon Fraser University. She provides an accessible and brief summary of sex differences in cognition in this book. Many of the findings are derived from the program of research she maintained for many years at the University of Western Ontario.

It is likely to be a surprise to nonspecialist readers that there are so many sex differences in cognition and that some of them are of considerable magnitude. The documentation of these differences, together with their evolutionary implications, has been unwelcome in some academic and social policy circles. Kimura doesn’t say much about the criticism her work has received but the book is organized so as to preempt knee jerk politically correct criticism and she makes a few comments that suggest that she is a little weary of it.

Another surprise to nonspecialists will be the findings on sex differences in directional bilateral dermatoglyphic asymmetry (people have more fingerprint ridges on their right than left sides and men are more strongly lateralized than women). Surprising, because homosexual men are less lateralized than heterosexual men, making the former resemble women more than the latter. This finding, among others, supports a neurohormonal organizational theory of sexual orientation.

In sum, Kimura has achieved her goal of writing an accurate summary of the research on sex differences in a form suitable for a lay audience. The illustrations complement the text nicely and contribute to the book’s comprehensibility.


Koertge, N. (Ed.). (1998).  A house built on sand: Exposing postmodernist myths about science. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.  

The authors of these chapters are profoundly unimpressed with the contributions of "science studies” to the sum total of human knowledge. Only one author, Philip Kitcher, offers (a somewhat lame) defense of science studies. However, none of the authors object to the scrutiny of science by nonscientists or to historians who attempt to construct theories of scientists’ behavior, rather they object to the scientific illiteracy of many of the practitioners of science studies and their ideological axe-grinding.

The state of science studies is much worse than one would naively expect. Three examples from the many presented will suffice. The first is Alan Sokal’s "Social Text Affair” in which his farcical parody of postmodernist criticism entitled "Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity” was published as a serious paper in Social Text, a leading postmodernist journal . One of the most interesting aspects of the hoax is that the paper was deliberately written to be funny to anyone trained in mathematics or the physical sciences.  "Liberatory mathematics” shall set us free.

A second example is a John Huth’s detailed examination of Latour’s influential critique of Einstein’s theory of relativity. An examination that reveals Latour’s understanding of relativity to be inferior even to mine (and that’s saying something). Equally amusing is the third example in which Paul Gross dissects the  "discovery” that male scientists suppressed knowledge of the active role of the egg in fertilization. His chapter is titled "Bashful eggs, macho sperm, and tonypandy”.  "Tonypandy” is a dramatic story without a word of truth in it.

Unfortunately, it’s not all funny. Some of the chapters are densely written academic treatises and do not deal with the palpably absurd in an amusing way. However, the last chapter by Meera Nanda is not only unfunny, it’s quite disturbing. This chapter "The epistemic charity of the social constructivist critics of science and why the third world should refuse the offer” describes the use that Hindu nationalists, Islamic fundamentalists, and Chinese communists have made of cultural relativity and social constructionist criticisms of science in bolstering extreme nationalist and ultra-conservative agendas.

Although many postmodernist arguments reflect simple ignorance and fuzzy thinking, they are advanced in all seriousness from reputable academic institutions; scientific illiterates, whether in the third world or elsewhere, cannot be expected to detect their fundamental flaws. Thus, underlying the "science wars” is the very real problem caused by the combination of the exponential growth of factual knowledge and theoretical understanding with brains that are no smarter they used to be. Not only is more stuff known, what is known is understood at increasing levels of abstraction. Each of us knows less and less of what is known and are increasingly dependent on specialists for understanding issues outside of our narrow window of personal expertise. But scientists at least understand something of the methods used in other areas of science, people without much training in mathematics and science do not even have that, and are completely dependent on faith for their knowledge of the world. For such individuals (the overwhelming majority of the world’s population), the postmodernist critique actually applies, one truth or way of knowing appears to be as good or authoritative as any other. It is no wonder that there are science wars.


Kummer, H. (1995). In quest of the sacred baboon: A scientist’s journey. Princeton University Press.  

Very well done personal history of Kummer’s fieldwork on baboon behavior. Kummer comes across as a very...well, noble guy. The book illustrates how much we have learned about primate behavior over the past twenty years because of Kummer and other people doing careful studies in the field.


Larsen, C.S. (2000). Skeletons in our closet: Revealing our past through bioarcheology. Princeton University Press.  

Despite a somewhat wooden expository style, a sparsity of data on several central issues, and a little too much on the author’s own career, an interesting book. The very idea that one can find out about the nutritional status and amount of physical activity by looking at skeletons can’t help but engage the reader. The author reviews how activity and disease affects bones, the now standard story of how the adoption of agriculture can cause health problems, and attempts to reconstruct how colonization affected colonists and aboriginals in the New World.


Lax, E. (2004). The mold in Dr. Florey’s coat: The story of the penicillin miracle. NY: Holt.

Wow! An exceptionally interesting book. Florey and his lab developed Fleming’s discovery of penicillin at Oxford during the dark days of the battle of Britain. The science, the personalities, and the politics involved are presented in engaging detail. The book communicates the excitement involved in doing important research during the war years (reminding one of the Rad Lab), the naiveté of scientists (especially the English scientists), and the reach and importance of the Rockefeller Foundation. The title refers to the lab’s plan to put penicillin mold in their coats if the Germans invaded and they had to destroy their lab—if any made it to North America, they could grow new cultures of penicillin from the mold in the fabric of their jackets. But this is primarily the story of a scientific project and its products--the end packs quite a punch and I won’t give it away.


Leroi, A.M. (2003). Mutants: On genetic variety and the human body. NY: Viking.

This is a first class book--easy to read, with up-to-date science, and a real, if politically incorrect, fascination with human variety. Each chapter takes a condition (red-headedness or no-headedness, for example) describes some affected or afflicted individuals together with a bit of history, and then provides the genetic and developmental explanation for the condition. Excellent.


Lucas, J.R. & Simmons, L.W. (2006). Essays in animal behaviour: Celebrating 50 years of animal behaviour. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

This is a series of self-congratulatory historical essays written by leaders in the field of behavioral ecology. These authors have in fact a lot to congratulate themselves about, although some areas have moved much faster than others. I read Wynne-Edwards’ tome invoking group selection as the explanation for stable population densities when a graduate student but didn’t read the critical rejoinders by Williams and others that initiated the period of theoretical progress caused by focusing on the gene as the locus of selection. Too bad, I would have been a lot further ahead in my thinking in the seventies and early eighties.

The next development that contributed to rapid progress was the development of genetic methods of testing kinship. This has paid off big time in contributing to our knowledge of mating systems in a wide variety of species, leading to the current focus on sexual conflict.

Parker, one of the big guns in this area, remarks “Mercifully, the political feuds about human nature and criticisms that the adaptationist approach was “Panglossian” (Gould & Lewontin, 1979) proved to be only diversions that obscured what was happening: the explosion of one of Tingbergen’s (1964) celebrated “four questions”." The fourth question pertained to the evolution of behavioral characteristics.

Parker is certainly correct about animal behaviourists but the confusions caused by the sociobiology controversy live on in psychology. The majority of psychologists read only biology books and reviews written for a general audience rather than the primary literature. These books, many of which are quite good, nevertheless mistakenly give the impression that the controversies about genetic determinism, political correctness, and so forth are current in biological circles.


Maples, W.R. (1994). Dead men do tell tales. Toronto: Doubleday.

A bit disappointing. Lots of description of what happens to dead bodies. Amazing to what lengths forensic anthropologists will go to find out the cause of death or the identity of a body. The author is a little full of himself. A few interesting cases, one is establishing the identity of the murdered Tsar and his entourage (see Massie’s book on the last days of the Romanovs for a very different view).


Margulis, L. & Sagan, D. (2002). Acquiring genomes: A theory of the origins of species. N.Y.: Yale University Basic.

Very interesting reading and not very technical. The authors argue that speciation requires acquisition of genomes from unrelated organisms (as in chloroplasts and mitochondria by eukaryotes) rather than mutations and natural selection. The wholesale horizontal transfer of genes among bacteria and the lack of clearcut species of bacteria are emphasized. There are many fascinating examples of weirdly hybridized organisms.

I'm no evolutionary theorist but it seems to me that Margulis and Sagan simply push back the creative role of natural selection one step - how did the incorporated genome acquire its useful properties in the first place? I have no problem with the belief that "random" mutations have been overemphasized. Indeed, I think that biologists do not really mean "random" in the ordinary sense when they speak about mutations - instead they mean that their origin is unknown and their nature orthogonal to the purpose to which natural selection may put them.


Margulis, L. & Sagan, D. (1986). Origins of sex: Three billion years of genetic recombination. New Haven: Yale University Press.

I can remember how excited I was when mitochondria were asserted to have originated as separate organisms. Margulis was the originator of that now accepted hypothesis. She believes that all cellular organelles originated similarly.

This book is incredibly difficult reading. I was not convinced by her final thesis on the origin of sex but it is an interesting one. Worth the trouble.


Mayor, A. (2000). The first fossil hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman times. Princeton University Press.  

The book presents good evidence that the Griffin is based upon findings of Proterceratops fossils in the Gobi desert. Many Greek towns had "hero’s bones” on display. Mostly these were enormous mastodon and mammoth remains. It’s not hard to understand why the ancients believed that the world had been populated by giants. The author argues for greater collaboration between paleontologists and classical scholars.


McDougall, C. (2009). Born to run: A hidden tribe, superathletes, and the greatest race the world has never seen. NY: Knopf.

I remember being absolutely amazed by a video showing a small group of bushmen running down a healthy antelope. How did they do it? They picked the largest and followed it. They had to track it part of the time because it would run out of sight. The idea was to prevent it from resting and cooling down. They picked the largest because it would overheat the fastest. One can imagine the use of a bow and arrow to improve the method—a blood trail would prevent the animal from disappearing into a larger group, make him easier to track, and of course the loss of blood would cause him to tire and overheat more quickly.

This book is about these sorts of issues—in particular, how we appear born to run. Only animals that run have an Achilles tendon for spring and a nuchal ligament to stabilize the head. We are designed to dissipate heat (with our upright stance and hair-covered head, together with our magnificent ability to sweat). People can run successfully even late in life. Of course, we are designed to run bare foot. McDougall argues that people in ancestral environments ran in hunting groups. This strategy worked particularly well in savannahs and parkland but not so well in ice age Europe where the non-running Neanderthals practiced ambush hunting.

The book makes these arguments entertaining by telling us about an amazing race between the fabled Tarahuamara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyons and elite American super endurance runners, such as Caballero Blanco and Scott Jurek.

Very good.


McGrew, W.C., Marchant, L.F., & Nishida, T. (Eds.). (1996). Great ape societies. London: Cambridge University Press.    

I can remember being enthralled by Irvin DeVore’s (1965) book on primate behavior. Made me want to leave the rat lab for the veldt. It is of interest to see what has changed in nearly thirty years. Well, certainly a lot more is known about a lot more species. Analyses of primate behavior are much more detailed now than formerly, there are longitudinal data on chimpanzees and gorillas, and there is new technology (establishing paternity from DNA obtained from hair found in sleeping nests and playback experiments that allow one to determine what particular calls mean).

Reference   DeVore, I. (1965). Primate behavior: Field studies of monkeys and apes. NY: Holt Rinehart, & Winston.


McQuaig, L. (2006). War, big oil, and the fight for the planet: It’s the crude, dude. Canada: Anchor.

Superbly organized and very clearly written. The story of Standard Oil's achievement and maintenance of a monopoly is well known and infuriating. The plundering of Middle East oil and the blundering of recent American foreign policy is also well known. Putting all this together, however, makes a very compelling story. The most interesting (and depressing) part of the book is on how SUVs arose as a byproduct of the Japanese challenge to the North American car market.


McNeill, W.H. (1977). Plagues and peoples. New York: Double Day.  

A classic review of the relationship of disease to history. Despite a little conjecture, the book presents a compelling argument. It now seems strangely up to date and foreshadows more recent reviews, such as Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.


Meinesz, A. (1999). Killer algae. University of Chicago Press (trans. D. Simberloff).  

Warning: If you have high blood pressure or a familial history of aneurisms, do not read this book. The killer algae, Caulerpa taxifolia, were deliberately introduced into the Mediterranean (or accidentally introduced and deliberately ignored) by the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco (the Jacques Costeau Institute). The author of the book valiantly battles the prestigious Museum, hostile scientists, ignorant bureaucrats, mindless journalists, and corrupt politicians and sort of wins......but too late.


Miles, J. (2003). Born cannibal: Evolution and the paradox of man. London: IconoKlastic. £9.99. Paperback, 229 pages with a foreword by George Williams.

This is one of many recent books on Darwinism intended for the intelligent layman. It advances the thesis that, because evolution occurs through selfish genes prospering at the expense of less efficiently selfish genes, immoral organisms are the only possible end result of evolutionary processes. Man's evolved nature is therefore evil and only culture can make mankind moral.

The tone of this volume is quarrelsome and the arguments are often supported by repetition and appeals to authority. Thus, readers will tend to find only the arguments they already agree with convincing. The following quotes give the flavor of the book.

"Mankind has a universal, innate nature. It is a nature shared with every other ape. A nature shared with every other mammal. It is the nature of the selfish gene, and of pure, unalloyed, genetic self-interest. It is a nature of sexual eclecticism, horrific violence, cannibalism and infanticide." (p. 73, bold and italics in original).

"Culture is not the product of biology, the claim of the evolutionary psychologists. Culture must combat biology, as Thomas Huxley said. And as Williams, Maynard Smith and Dawkins have all written." (p. 74, italics in original).

The manner in which the moral nature of man is conceptualized and argued about in this book is strikingly reminiscent of 17th century debates on the same topic. Despite their hoary vintage, however, there are many problems with these arguments, some of which occur in other works applying evolutionary theory to human behavior. Perhaps the most obvious of these in this work is that "culture" is never defined and in any case does not provide an explanation of anything-it is merely a hopeful label for things not popularly considered to be "biological."

A similarly serious problem is that, although this book is concerned with man's morality or immorality, as exemplified by cannibalism and violence, there is no definition of morality and no consideration of human cannibalism or violence. Granted, there is but a modicum of knowledge about human cannibalism from archeology, anthropology, and history, but there is an enormous amount known about human violence and antisocial behavior more generally. None of this information informs this book and it is, therefore, unclear what an evolutionary theory of human immorality is intended to explain. For example, a successful theory of violence and antisocial behavior must explain the ubiquitous age and sex differences in perpetration (and victimization), the stable individual differences in antisocial propensities together with their degree of heritability, the striking cross-cultural similarities in the perception of certain behaviors as criminal, the well-documented influence of an individual's peers on that person's criminality, and so forth.

Part of the recurring confusion among biological theorists concerning the applicability of evolutionary theory to human behavior is likely caused by their frequent failure to take human behavior seriously. This is particularly the case because evolution has acted by creating proximal mechanisms that addressed immediate problems of survival and reproduction in ancestral environments. In the human case, contemporary problems may or may not be similar to those in which the mechanisms originally developed. In order to develop successful theories to account for human behaviors, these behaviors must be understood in detail. Of course it also helps to know something about the proximal mechanisms that cause the behaviors in the current environment. To return to the problem of evil, the devil is in the details.


Mithen, S. (2003). After the ice: A global human history 20,000-5000 BC. London: Orion House.

This is a survey of what is known about prehistorical history. The author covers the principal archeological sites and describes the scientific methods and sleuthing that allow their interpretation. The author attempts to bring this large work to life by inventing a person who visits each of the sites at the time it was occupied. The difficulty with prehistory for readers of it is that, unlike actual history, there are usually no actual personalities to capture our interest and sympathy. Similarly, the invented person/observer of this prehistory has no personality and doesn't really interact with the people he observes. Thus, this narrative technique fails to achieve its purpose. Nevertheless, for those of us who like archeology, it's a useful summary of contemporary knowledge on a very broad scale.


Mithen, S. (1996). The prehistory of mind: The cognitive origins of art and science. N.Y.: Thames and Hudson.  

This is an archeologist’s reply to Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind. After a superb summary of what traditional and evolutionary psychologists have to say about the structure of the mind, especially the controversy over a general purpose computer versus a modular mental organization, Mithen attempts to relate the archeological record to the changing nature of our ancestors’ minds.

Mithen makes a good case for a general purpose brain organization developing through the elaboration of mental modules to a mind in which the modules can communicate with each other. I don’t think there are enough data to prove the author’s thesis but it is plausible. This book shows, however, that there is enough known now from archeology and cognitive science to start addressing questions concerning functional mental organization. There are exciting times ahead.

Very enjoyable book and an easy read.

PS. A relevant and noteworthy new study: Roche, H., Delagnes, A., Brugal, J.P., Feibel, C., Kibunjia, M., Mourre, V., & Texier, P.J. (1999). Early hominid stone tool production and technical skill 2.34 Myr ago in West Turkana, Kenya. Nature, 399, 57-60.


Monbiot, G. (2007). Heat: How to stop the planet from burning. Toronto: Anchor.

I suppose that if there was a "must read" book, this would be it. I learned a lot about global warming--some of it should have been obvious (e.g., freezers in supermarkets without lids!). Monbiot is very clear and knowledgeable. He reviews the biggest energy-using human endeavours, identifies the problems, and for every instance, except aviation, is able to identify measures that would produce massive carbon dioxide emission savings, at least in principle.


Morris, S.C. (1998). The crucible of creation: The Burgess Shale and the rise of animals. Oxford University Press.

Not a very good read. This book describes what has already been better described by Gould (although this author does not have an ideological axe to grind) and does not have anything more general to say of much interest.


New Scientist. (2005). Does anything eat wasps? Toronto: Free Press.

The New Scientist has long had a column of questions and answers supplied by readers. This book comprises selections from the column. How fat would you have to be to be bullet-proof? Can a person survive on only beer? What nutrition is lost when vegetables are pickled? These and many other questions are answered in this book. A fun little read.


Nüsslein-Volhard, C. (2006). Coming to life: How genes drive development. Kales Press.

A book on evo-devo written by a Nobel laureate. It clearly and concisely describes the scientific history leading up to the revolution in embryology. Not nearly as good as some of its splendid competitors, such as Endless forms most beautiful, though.


O'Brien, G. & Yule, W. (Eds.). (1995). Behavioural Phenotypes. Cambridge University Press. (appeared in The Quarterly Review of Biology, 72, 105).  

A behavioral phenotype is a characteristic pattern of behavioral abnormalities associated with a biological disorder, as found, for example in Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome, where severe self-injurious behavior and sometimes compulsive aggression accompany mental retardation.

This edited book describes what is known abut behavioral phenotypes, primarily in conditions associated with mental retardation. The first chapter by O'Brien and Yule, very clearly describes the conceptual and empirical background of the concept. The second chapter (Richards) provides a general overview of recent genetic research. The next two chapters concern methodology and measurement issues; these, however, are written at a more elementary level than the others and therefore seem a little out of place. Chapter five reviews recent research on the Fragile X Syndrome.

Jonathon Flint's chapter "Pathways from genotype to phenotype" makes fascinating reading. The research it describes is exciting because the path from genotype to behavior is frequently not too complex to be followed, permitting not only the use of animal models but the actual genetic dissection of behavior. By the end of this chapter, readers may contemplate jettisoning their own research program in favor of unravelling these paths.

The last chapter, "Psychological and behavioural phenotypes in genetically determined syndromes" by Udwin and Dennis, comprises over half of the book. It summarizes what is known about each, beginning with Aicardi Syndrome and ending with Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome. This chapter is a useful reference for those working in the field but is not intended to be read through.

In all, an uneven but worthwhile contribution to the literature. It will be of particular interest to clinicians who are interested in collaborating with geneticists in the study of mentally retarded individuals, although the more general chapters contain information relevant to genetically influenced psychiatric disorders as well.


Plotkin, H. (2004). Evolutionary thought in psychology: A brief history. Oxford: Blackwell.

Having written extensive notes for a distance course on the history of psychology, I had been thinking about what further use I could put them to. There were too many fine books on the history of psychology written by actual professional historians to make it worthwhile for me to write another. Because of my interest in evolutionary psychology, my notes covered the history of Darwinian thinking in biology and psychology in some detail. I thought therefore that a book on the history of selectionist thought in psychology was well within my grasp.

Mindful that some years ago I had abandoned a project to write a book about the problems caused by the introduction of exotic species, cleverly entitled Alien invasions of North America, when I discovered that a book had on the same topic with the exact same title had already been published! So, I thought I had better check for books on the history of Darwinism in psychology.

Lo and behold, what pops up on my screen but just such a book by an English psychologist named Plotkin! My first hope was that the book might have been so poorly done or at least written from a point of view sufficiently different from my own that another book on this topic would be justified. Alas, not only is this book well done but the author’s favourite sources are my favourite sources (in particular, Richards’masterful Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary theories of mind and behavior (1987)).

A friend suggested that I conceptualize having been scooped as having one less thing to do and I’m trying that.


Poinar, G. & Poinar, R. (2008). What bugged the dinosaurs? Insects, disease, and death in the Cretaceous. Princeton University Press.

One couldn’t construe this book as well-written. The authors use too many species names, introduce species without describing them adequately or memorably, and weary the reader with “could haves” and “maybe dids”. Nevertheless, the overall story of disease in the Cretaceous is very interesting—ancient versions of all of the viruses, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, ticks, lice, biting flies, and mosquitoes that make vertebrates miserable and sick today were present in the Cretaceous.

There is, in addition, one spectacular find that makes the whole book worthwhile. A sand fly was preserved in Burmese amber 100 million years ago and, remarkably, amastigotes of Paleoleishmania proterus could be observed in its proboscis and flagellated adults in its midgut. These are the first sightings of ancient trypansomatids (protozoans that cause leishmaniasis in a wide variety of vertebrates today). In humans, Leishmaniasis symptoms include anemia, skin lesions and damage to the spleen and liver. The ancient sand fly resembles modern flies that prey on reptiles rather than mammals. More remarkably yet, reptilian blood cells were found in the gut and some of the blood cells contained developing amastigotes. It thus appears that the sand flies fed on reptiles, most likely, dinosaurs, and, from additional finds, that the reptile/dinosaur population was heavily inflected.


Poinar, G. & Poinar, R. (1994). The quest for life in amber. Don Mills: Addison-Wesley.  

An interesting book in spots but often amateurishly written and in need of an editor. The husband of this team very frequently comes close to getting himself killed; the reader starts to wonder about this guy and whether he carries enough life insurance. Fossils in amber are much more common than I thought. One can get a picture of ancient forests.


Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma. Toronto: Penguin.

Omnivores have to decide what to eat among a wide variety of alternatives. Pollan investigates where his dinner comes from in an effort to decide what he should be eating. He buys a beef calf and follows it through the feed lot to the abattoir, he works on a sustainable farm and participates in slaughtering chickens, he follows the route industrial corn takes from farm to soft drinks and fast food--most of what we eat is corn, even (indirectly) our meat.

The pervasiveness of corn, the reasons for its pervasiveness, and the destructiveness of its pervasiveness are the biggest surprises in this book. Corn is a great plant turned into a monster by government policies that drive farmers off the land, wreck whole ecosystems, and encourage the ascendancy of giant corporations (which, needless to say, are indifferent to our welfare). Talk about unsustainable!

The most interesting chapter of this book describes the operation of a sustainable farm. Very cool stuff, most of which I didn’t know before. It’s clearly possible to practice sustainable farming, the problem of implementation is primarily one of scale.

Apart from the practicalities of food production, Pollan is primarily interested in its ethics. His discussion of these issues is sensible and I, think, sound.

 In all, a compelling read and highly recommended.


Pollan, M. (2001). The botany of desire: A plant's eye view of the world. New York: Random House.  

An entertaining and thought provoking little book. Pollan considers apples, potatoes, tulips, and marijuana. The book is written for laymen but contains some little known information. There are some interesting observations on monocultures and genetic modification of plants. The plant's eye view of the world cannot be maintained for long but is only occasionally necessary as a narrative vehicle to get one in the mood.


Pringle, H. (2001). The Mummy Congress: Science, obsession, and the everlasting dead. Toronto: Penquin.

The book moves between the personalities of the mummy scientists and the science of mummy investigation. This is an interesting book, particularly the scientific parts, although the pronouncements about the deep psychological reasons that people are interested in mummies are too numerous to be an effective literary device.


Quammen, D. (1996). The song of the dodo: Island biogeography in an age of extinction. NY: Simon and Schuster.  

This book is a real winner. Imagine reading a whole big book on extinction without becoming suicidal depressed, just a little sad. Quammen has literally gone to the four corners of the earth to research this book, scared himself silly on a cliff side in Madagascar, traveled to remote Southeast Asian Islands on tramp steamers, collected ants on islands off Mexico, and interviewed all of the big guns in biogeography. And he has read a great deal.

All of this traveling and reading permits Quammen to present a nice little course on biogeography, a discipline founded by some of my favorite people like Jared Diamond and E.O. Wilson. Quammen takes us through how the seminal ideas about speciation and extinction on islands developed by telling us about the people who developed the ideas, from Wallace to the present. Usually, he writes about the ideas in the actual locations where they were developed. He also covers the substance and personalities involved in the major scientific disputes, it sounds oh so familiar.

Despite the very annoying practice of occasionally talking directly to the reader "don’t worry, this won’t be hard, and will be over soon,” this is a remarkably well written and engaging book. The reader actually learns a great deal of material without hardly noticing (it really isn’t hard).

Highly recommended.


Quammen, D. (Ed.). (2000). The best American science and nature writing 2000. New York:  Houghton Mifflin.  

I bought this because I greatly admired Quammen’s Song of the Dodo. This collection contains some very good essays and a few that are mediocre to a little dumb. Good ones include Judith Hooper’s Atlantic Monthly article entitled AA new germ theory” that describes Paul Ewald’s evolutionary analysis of changes in germ virulence.  Dumbish ones include Nathalie Angier’s AMen, women, sex, and Darwin” from the New York Times Magazine. Angier believes she is arguing against an evolutionary view of human behavior whereas in actuality she is annoyed by some relatively minor issues and some casually made silly overstatements; the chapter ends with arguments supporting an evolutionary interpretation. Other articles deal with themes of consumerism, conservation, and declining species diversity; these chapters are OK but very depressing. The book as a whole is a good choice for those who prefer to or must read in snippets.


Repcheck, J. (2003). The man who found time: James Hutton and the discovery of the earth’s antiquity. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.

Hutton was part of the Edinburgh enlightenment of the late 1700’s. He was enlightened himself in many areas other than geology (such as in improved agricultural practices) and a great friend of intellectual luminaries like Joseph Black, the chemist, James Watt, the inventor of the two cylinder steam engine, and Adam Smith, the economist. These folks, including David Hume, happily socialized in supper clubs they organized to promote discussion and to give each other’s work encouragement and friendly criticism.

Hutton, through his geological rambles and association with the digging of the Forth and Clyde Canal, made observations on patterns of erosion suggesting the earth’s great antiquity. Again, in contrast to prevailing views, Hutton believed that rocks were made in the interior of the earth rather than solely by deposition in oceans. During his lifetime and for a time thereafter, Hutton’s views received a very rough ride from dismissive and acerbic critics. Eventually, however, his theories were to emerge triumphant through their influence on Lyell’s decisive magnum opus.

A very good little book.


Ridley, M. (1999). Genome: The autobiography of a species in 23 chapters. N.Y.: Harper Collins.  

Ridley’s idea of having a separate chapter about each of the chromosomes is clever and effective. This is an easy read and the book covers a lot of interesting topics on the cutting edge of genetic research.


Rolls, E.T. (1999). The brain and emotion. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

A book that demonstrates that the brain works like the systems of relays that used to be used to work pinball machines and run psychological experiments (talk about an obsolete programming skill!). The principal experiments are based on a very clever idea for studying the neural basis of reward that entails looking for individual cells that respond to cues associated with food reward but that cease responding with satiety. The experiments demonstrate the hierarchical and functional organization of the primate and rodent brain. For example, in the visual system, the first neurons in the system respond to points of light, at the next level to lines, and so on until the neurons respond to objects regardless of their context or orientation. At the next level, neurons respond when a food object or cue appears and the subject is hungry and stop responding when the subject is full. From this explication of the hardware, one can see the system is organized to achieve functional ends and how it would be easy to develop during evolution in stepwise fashion.

I was reasonably knowledgeable about this literature in the late sixties and early seventies and it is remarkable to see how knowledge has progressed in such an orderly fashion. Whereas thirty years ago, most workers in the area thought of the brain as a machine, the actual mechanisms were only guessed at except in the most simple cases. The mechanisms underlying motivation and object recognition are now known , at least in outline. They turn out to be just as mechanical and simple in principle as people hoped.

Regrettably, the book is much weaker toward the end. There are some speculative chapters and the chapter on sexual motivation is not particularly good.   Written for an academic audience.


Rose, M.R. (1991). The evolutionary biology of aging. N.Y.: Oxford.  

Not for the faint of heart, this is not a book written for the Aintelligent layman.” Rose is good and knows his stuff and the stuff is theoretically important. I think with a good understanding of population genetics, this book wouldn’t be nearly so hard.

The basic idea is that in expanding or even stable populations having children younger is more important to one’s fitness than having them older. The effects of selection are therefore more important in youth than in old age (where we, dear reader, are abandoned).


Rosenthal, J.S. (2005). Struck by lightning: The curious world of probabilities. Toronto:HarperCollins.

Amusing in spots. Explains how to think about probabilities. Not for people who have taken statistics courses.


Ruggiero, G. (1980). Violence in early renaissance Venice. Rutgers University Press.  

There is a surprising amount of documentation concerning crime and punishment in Venice in the 1300's. Should we be surprised that people murdered for the same reasons they seem to now? Trivial quarrels, quickly escalating to murderous brawls. Contract killings of  business rivals. Murdering unfaithful wives, husbands in the way of love affairs, and unwanted children.

And sex offenses. Rape of children was punished most severely. Rapes of post-adolescent girls not very much. Rapes of married women the most severely. Rape was not, however, seen as that important (there were problems of corroboration, potential blackmail of the rich by the poor, and so on). Physical injury and breaking into one’s house to commit the crime were viewed as more serious. In general, compared to today, property crimes were viewed as more serious than non-fatal crimes against the person.

The nobility were a violent lot who were not punished very severely for transgressing against the non-nobility. Punishments were meted out in a politically sensitive manner. The stability of the state was the most important issue (vendettas among the nobility had to be suppressed and the poor must not strike against the rich). In this connection, a great distinction was made between crimes of passion and premeditated crimes (the latter punished more severely).


Ryan, W. & Pitman, W. (1998). Noah’s flood. NY: Simon and Schuster.

WOW!! A real good one. The authors argue that there is a real-life basis to the Biblical and Sumerian flood stories. Melting glaciers raised the sea level until the Mediterranean erupted into an arid valley that became the Black Sea. This is about as interdisciplinary an enterprise as can be imagined, archeology, drill core samples from glaciers and sea beds, stories in ancient texts. It’s written in kind of a breathless detective story style.


Sabbagh, K. (1999). A rum affair: A true story of botanical fraud. Da Capo.

Well constructed book concerning allegations that J.W. Heslop Harrison, a professor at Newcastle University, had literally planted specimens of rare plants on the remote Hebridean island of Rum and claimed to have discovered them. These plants supported Harrison’s theory that certain species living on the island periphery of Scotland had survived the last ice age.

Harrison’s botanical frauds, long suspected by many, were uncovered in an investigation by John Raven, an amateur botanist and professional classicist at King’s College, Cambridge. Raven’s damning report was never published, although elliptical excerpts appeared in the literature and its contents were widely known by rumour within the botanical community.

Harrison’s reaction to these allegations in several letters is one of self-righteous anger, self-pity, and (to some degree justified) paranoia. The letters remind one strongly of the literature on pro-criminal sentiment and neutralizations. In line with this theme, we learn that Harrison had committed other frauds involving butterflies, other insects, his name, and his address!!

Strangely reminiscent of the English amateur, Charles Dawson, who in 1912 was responsible for the very destructive Piltdown hoax. It turned out later that all or most of  Dawson‘s previous historical and paleontological “finds” were frauds. This inspired me to write a haiku poem about the Piltdown affair:

Mispilt, pit down,
But not out--design,
Not nat silection


Sapolsky, R.M. (2005). Monkeyluv: And other essays on our lives as animals. Toronto: Scribner.

A very readable and entertaining set of eighteen short essays reprinted from a variety of magazines such as Discover, the New Yorker, and Scientific American. Sapolsky, Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford, covers a wide range of loosely related topics ranging from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, through the consequences of genetic imprinting, to sexual attraction among monkeys. A helpful set of notes and recommendations for further reading follow each essay. The author has a light and humorous touch and, although the material is written for non-biologists, the information is scientifically accurate.  Mercifully, there is only a little of the tiresome sermonizing about the evils of genetic determinism that mars so many books on biology and behavior that are aimed at educated lay folk.


Sargent, T. (2005).  The dance of molecules: How nanotechnology is changing our lives. Toronto, Penquin.

Great start to this little book. What good is technology and science for really important things? Sargent wants to re-create Greta Garbo but to “push around carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms to form 50 kilograms of luxurious closet-Swede is a major enterprise. The math tells the story: [Mass of Greta Garbo ~ 50 kg] + [Mass per carbon atom ~ 2x10-23] = 2x10-27 atoms to be arranged.” We’re not quite up to it yet but nanotechnology promises us Swedes of our own designing.

The book is organized into three sections Health (Diagnose, Heal, Grow), Environment (Energize, Protect, Emulate), and Information (Compute, Interact, Convey), followed by an epilogue (Humanize). There are some amazing feats of technology in all of these areas coming soon. It is all very simply and clearly written. The basic idea is to modify matter from the molecule up.


Schopf, J.W. (1999). Cradle of life: The discovery of the earth’s earliest fossils. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

A book about pushing back the limit of paleontological frustration. There is remarkably early evidence for the existence of life from tiny fossils. Since this book was written, still earlier fossils of eukaryote cells have been found in Australia.   Schopf is one of the pioneers in this area and provides a very basic and reader friendly review of the chemical fundamentals of life. Curiously, Schopf is a name dropper and clearly fascinated with the famous.  For example, we are treated to a completely irrelevant section on Dali whom Schopf met after a scientific conference, complete with (not very good) pictures. Despite these occasional irrelevancies, this is a good book by a guy who has his scientific head screwed on straight.


Segal, N.L., Weisfeld, G.E., & Weisfeld, C.C. (1997). Uniting psychology and biology: Integrative perspectives on human development. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

How can a book like this fail? Well by not being nearly selective enough in choosing authors, I suppose. Not nearly as good as its competitors. Even Trivers gives a weak contribution to this volume. Despite the title, the theoretical focus of this book is weak and not sustained over chapters.


Segerstrale, U. (2000). Defenders of the truth: The battle for science in the sociobiology debate and beyond. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.  

Having heard Segerstrale talk, I can conclude that she’s a better writer than speaker. This is a very detailed account of the sociobiology controversy from a quasi-insider. The protraction of the conflict between Lewontin and Gould on the one side and Wilson and Dawkins on the other suggests that dominance rivalries lie at the heart of the matter. Firmly held ideological positions were attached to what were essentially technical scientific questions. However, the connections between these moral concerns to real issues of social and scientific policy are, at least in my view, highly speculative and likely nonexistent. For example, people don’t need scientific justification to persecute groups that they don’t like. History shows that they will legitimate their prosecution using whatever is at hand, if the pointy-headed scientists don’t provide something appropriate, they’ll misrepresent the science, use religion, history, Realpolitik, or whatever. In any event, these ideological positions appear to have been used primarily to discredit opponents and occupy the moral high ground (not that all the participants were equally guilty). Lewontin and Gould come out as the losers on the "let’s try to be objective” metric.


Short, R.V. & Balaban (Eds.). (1994). The Differences Between the Sexes. Cambridge University Press.

This book consists of 22 chapters and covers a great deal of ground. Differences between the sexes are described over a wide range of species from the cellular to the behavioral level. Aside from an Overview and an Afterword section, the chapters are grouped into four sections: Somatic dimorphisms across the species, sexual dimorphisms in organ systems, sex differences in behavior, and genetic and environmental control of gonadal sex.

Most of the chapters are well written and all are informative. There are some memorable passages, of which my favorite is the following: "The female germ cell enters into a long metabolic sleep from the moment of its formation in the embryo, thereby preserving the beauty of its mtDNA. It is awakened only by the kiss of the Prince, in preparation for the ensuing ovulation and fertilization." (p. 21). Most of this book would be comprehensible to anyone who has taken introductory courses in biology and genetics. The dominant impression that one has after reading this book is that there has been a tremendous explosion of knowledge in the last ten years.

A curious and regrettable feature of this book, however, is its failure to review the scientific literature on human behavioral sex differences. As is the case with non-human animals, the adaptationist perspective has made good progress in explaining human sex differences in a variety of behaviors, from homicide to mating. Instead of reviewing this extensive literature, the book concludes with an After word describing the editors’ opinions about whether the adaptationist paradigm can be applied successfully to human sex differences in behavior and, if so, whether it should be. The inconsistency in the application of a scientific approach between the body of the book and the After word is striking.

Quinsey, V.L. (1999). A review of the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Quarterly Review of Biology, 74, 113.


Shreeve, J. (1995). The Neandertal enigma: Solving the mystery of modern human origins. N.Y.: Morrow.  

This book, like several others, such as Wright’s Moral Animal and Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, raises the question of when science reporters become contributors to the scientific enterprise on which they are reporting. Some of these exceptional reporters appear to become as well informed about their subject matter as the scientists they interview and often reach a much wider audience.

Shreeve is passionately involved in the search for understanding human origins. He travels the earth to interview the principal anthropologists and strives mightily to reconcile their conflicting views.

Shreeve is at his absolute best in describing the strangeness of a creature who is closer to us than chimps. There are many mysteries about Neandertals. Why was there no interbreeding with other hominids? Is it really true that Neandartal females and males lived apart from each other? Why would it be that Neandertals don’t appear (from the trailing end of their thigh bones) to have walked long distances? Why were they so extremely robust? And why did they lead such rough lives (they were subject to the same sorts of injuries as rodeo riders)? What was the significance of their protruding nose and mouth?

Shreeve ends the book in barely concealed agony over not being able to definitively select the correct theory. If he would have waited a little, he would have been helped a lot by Krings, M. et al. (1997). Neandertal DNA sequences and the origin of modern humans. Cell, 90, 19-30. I hope he writes a second edition of this very interesting and worthwhile book.


Shubin, N. (2008). Your inner fish: A journey into the 3.5 billion year history of the human body. Toronto: Pantheon.

An interesting little book with a fabulous title. Shubin is well qualified to write on this topic, having discovered in the Canadian arctic the 375 million year old Tiktaalik, an intermediate between fish and primitive land dwelling tetrapods. Not at all a fluke, this discovery was entirely the result of knowing what age and what type of rocks to examine. “Tiktaalik” means “large fresh-water fish” in Inuktitut.

Some of the signs of our fishy ancestry are well known to anyone with a nodding acquaintance of comparative anatomy, for example, that the jaws, ears, larynx and throat develop from fetal gill arches. Other origins are more surprising: Skull bones originally developed from teeth. “It turns out that exactly the same process underlies the development of all the structures that develop within skin: scales, hair, feathers, sweat glands, even mammary glands. In each case, two layers [of tissue] come together, fold, and secrete proteins. Indeed, the batteries of the major genetic switches that are active in this process in each kind of tissue are largely similar.” (p. 78).


Singer, C. (1928). From magic to science: Essays on the scientific twilight. Montana:  Kessinger Publishing Co.

In those bygone days early in the century, one could still characterize folks from the dark ages as dirty, ignorant, barbaric, superstitious savages and not have one’s office picketed. Singer demonstrates that the old saw that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste (or the intelligence) of people applied to the mediaeval peasantry.

Knowledge in the dark ages was very limited in extent and a perverted and corrupt version of that developed in the classical world. The botanical works, for example, were entirely based on idealized and not very good copies of Roman works. It was often unclear what plant was actually being depicted. Because nobody had any idea about the geographical distributions of different plant species, people were generally confused.

Part of this book’s appeal is its very arcaneness. The reader learns about the sixth or seventh century "Lorica of Gildas the Briton.” A lorica is a chain mail shirt which is used as a metaphor in a very lengthy charm designed to protect one from the darts foul demons were wont to hurl at Amy flanks, skull, head with hair and eye, forehead, tongue, teeth, and nose, neck, breast, side and reins, thighs, under-rump and two hands.......uvula, larynx, and frenum of the tongue, to head-pan, brain and gristle......breast, peritoneum, and breast bone, mammae, stomach and navel.....bladder fat.....” and so forth, including anything the reciter forgot.

Then there are the migrainous visions of Hildegaard of Bingen (b. 1098) woven into a theoretical tapestry of the mind and cosmos.   All in all, an appealing book. Too bad many of the figures did not fare well in the reissue.  


Smith, J.M. & Szathmary, E. (1999). The origins of life: From the birth of life to the origin of language. Toronto: Oxford University Press.  

A precis of their larger book. Although the book is well done, it is too difficult for non-biologists and not detailed enough for professional readers (they should get the unexpurgated version).


Sobel, D. (1996). Longitude: the true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time. London: Fourth Estate.

John Harrison, the Yorkshireman who, after a lifetime of trying, solved the problem of longitude, appeared to be an entirely self made man. He made his first clocks almost entirely of wood when he was yet very young. The book presents a very clear description of the problem of determining longitude and how it was solved by accurate time keeping. Not enough historical detail for my liking but a good little book nonetheless.


Spalding, D.E. (1993). Dinosaur hunters. Toronto: Key Porter.

This is about the people who found dinosaurs, particularly in the 19th century. The book is organized by geographical area. Some interesting stories but also a lot of uninteresting details about not very important events and people.


Spindler, K. (1994). The man in the ice. Toronto: Doubleday.  

This is the very interesting story of the 1991 discovery of a man who had lain frozen in the ice for 5,300 years. Looks like he was a shepherd who got caught in a storm and fell asleep. Neat to see what he was carrying and from that to infer something about his life and the material culture of the society in which he lived.

A little too much about the reaction to the discovery but highly recommended.


Sternberg, J. & Grigorenko, E. (1997). (Eds.). Intelligence, heredity, and environment. Cambridge University Press.  

The list of authors is a who’s who in the nature-nurture intelligence debate. This is a fascinating book in the context of the philosophy and history of science. The editors in the introduction say that they don’t want to give away their position on the controversy.

By the time the end of the book was nearing, I kept on thinking "What controversy”? As the feminists used to like to say, it was crazy making. The chapters divide neatly between those who find substantial heritability estimates in well designed sophisticated studies and those who don’t appear to understand the literature, are ideologues, or deal primarily with irrelevancies.

Fortunately for my sanity, the last two contributors review the previous chapters and come to the same conclusion as me.

The only possible way in which these high heritability estimates can be off is if the effects of intrauterine environments are more important than previously thought. There is a recent paper in Nature that argues that this is so but this has been looked at before and the jury remains out. Thus, individual differences in intelligence are surely pretty much established at birth in any event. Plomin’s yet unpublished finding of a gene related to high intelligence and the also yet unpublished discovery of a gene related to visual construction ability points to the direction this field is moving in. Inevitably but ironically, this genetic research will mean that intelligence will eventually become malleable.


Stewart, I. (1995). Nature’s numbers: The unreal reality of mathematics. N.Y.: Basic.  

A beautifully written, very thoughtful, slim volume. Stewart describes the patterns in nature that numbers describe. This is written for non-mathematicians, yet for those of us who are not used to thinking abstractly (we really could if we wanted to....couldn’t we?), it is occasionally difficult. That said, it is well worth reading and I think I’ll read it again.

The beauty of a mathematical understanding of some phenomenon is the recognition that the it emerges as a necessary consequence of a simple underlying regularity.

There is a great figure of a computer simulation of the evolution of the eye in this book that I plan to use in my lectures. 256 steps and each one an optical improvement on the former as theory requires.  


Sykes, B. (2006). Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The genetic roots of Britain and Ireland. NY: Norton.

A fascinating little book describing recent results of DNA analyses in the British Isles. In sum, the matrilineal history of the Isles is ancient, probably over 10,000 years old. One route that these maternal genes took was along the coast from the Middle East to Iberia, and then to England. The migrants were likely to have been family groups. The maternal stalk of the Isles has remained Celtic/Pictish, with the exception of the Orkney and Shetland Islands where more than a third of the maternal genome is Viking. Nevertheless, above the Danelaw Line (from Chester to London) there is an overlay of Viking female genes (5 to 10%).

On the male side, the strongest genetic signal is again Celtic and the origin Iberian. However, the lack of male genetic diversity strongly suggests that a few men monopolized reproduction and hints at the genetic rewards to successful warrior-politicians.


Taubes, G. (2007). Good calories, bad calories: Fats, carbs, and the controversial science of diet and health. NY: Anchor Books.

There are some great quotes in this book.

 “A colleague once defined an academic discipline as a group of scholars who had agreed not to ask certain embarrassing questions about key assumptions.” (Mark Cohen).

“The researches of so many eminent scientific men, have thrown so much darkness upon the subject that if they continue their researches we shall soon know nothing.” (Hilde Bruch, quoting Artemis Ward).

Being the end of an unbroken line of millions of successful ancestors extending into the primordial ooze, one would think that we’re pretty well designed. One expects the weight of a well-designed animal to be well regulated—it should eat more if many calories are burned and eat less if fewer calories are burned. Nevertheless, there is an epidemic of obesity. What is going on?

This book is a detailed review of the research on the relationship of diet to obesity and longevity. To make a very long story short, the author argues that the emperor of dietary wisdom has no clothes. Most of the research on diet is correlational, motivated by preconceived notions that the studies are designed to support (rather than falsify), and fatally confounded. Recommendations to eat a “balanced diet”, to burn more calories than one consumes in order to reduce weight, and to avoid fat appear to be unfounded. The author has characterized the recommendations of the nutritionists accurately as the following guidelines for prevention of obesity from PEDIATRICS (2007) 120, Supplement 4, show.

“Evidence supports the following:

    limiting consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (CE or consistent evidence)
    encouraging consumption of diets with recommended quantities of fruits and vegetables (ME)
    limiting television and other screen time (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television viewing before 2 years of age and thereafter no more than 2 hours of television viewing per day), by allowing a maximum of 2 hours of screen time per day (CE) and removing televisions and other screens from children’s primary sleeping area (CE) (although a relationship between obesity and screen time other than television viewing, such as computer games, has not been established, limitation of all screen time may promote more calorie expenditure)
    eating breakfast daily (CE)
    limiting eating out at restaurants, particularly fast food restaurants (CE) (frequent patronage of fast food restaurants may be a risk factor for obesity in children, and families should also limit meals at other kinds of restaurants that serve large portions of energy-dense foods)
    encouraging family meals in which parents and children eat together (CE) (family meals are associated with a higher-quality diet and with lower obesity prevalence, as well as with other psychosocial benefits)
    limiting portion size (CE)

The prevention writing group also suggests, on the basis of analysis of available data and expertise, the following behaviors:

    eating a diet rich in calcium
    eating a diet high in fiber;
    eating a diet with balanced macronutrients (energy from fat, carbohydrates, and protein in proportions for age, as recommended by Dietary Reference Intakes)
    encouraging exclusive breastfeeding to 6 months of age and maintenance of breastfeeding after introduction of solid food to 12 months of age and beyond,
    promoting moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 60 minutes each daylimiting consumption of energy-dense foods.”
    The author argues that most of these guidelines are either wrong or based on inadequate evidence (although the first recommendation on sugar sweetened beverages is in line with his thesis).

Toward the end of this tome, the author betrays increasing frustration with low inference research that leads to conclusions betrayed by the “inadequacy of lesser evidence”. The parallels between diet research and research in a number of other applied areas, such as the treatment of sex offenders, are palpable. This low inference research is associated with a politically correct style of orthodox discourse among nutrition professionals that similar to that observed in many other areas.

I think that at a fundamental level, we all suffer from the primitive belief that we are what we eat. If we get fat, it’s because we eat fat. Moreover, because it is a just world, fat people are fat because they are lazy gluttons. If they’d just straighten up and live right, they’d be OK.

The dietary culprits appear from this book’s review to be carbohydrates (bread, rice, pasta, sucrose, and fructose). High proportions of these foods are a very recent change to our diets. These culprits induce obesity by altering insulin metabolism such that the cells starve while the body stores calories in the form of fat. Sedentary behaviour is a consequence of obesity, rather than its cause.

What is the evidence for these radical claims? According to the author, restricting calories and/or increasing activity levels are not associated with reduced weight in the long-term—indeed, episodes of caloric restriction are often associated with increases in weight. Obese individuals ordinarily maintain their weight at a particular level, just as non-obese individuals do. Obesity is rare among hunters and hunter-gatherers, even though they apparently spend a lot of time leaning on their digging sticks. An exclusively meat diet containing lots of fat (as among the Inuit) is healthy. Laboratory animals can become fat on reduced calorie diets. Fat animals who are starved do not become lean, they lose muscle mass. Skin from the abdomen transplanted to the hand will become fat when the abdomen becomes fat. There are individuals who are fat from the waist down and lean from the waist up.

I have read next to none of the primary literature that the author cites but his interpretation certainly fits with what I do know. Interestingly, there is new evidence on exercise that supports part of the thesis of this book. Four 30-second sprints on a stationary bike twice a week were found to be at least as effective as 30 minutes of daily exercise in improving sugar metabolism. In another recent study, school exercise programs were found not to reduce weight among children (of course, exercise is good for many other things). However, reducing TV time did reduce weight (perhaps because it reduced the opportunity to binge on carbohydrates).

In conclusion, this is a very thought provoking book that has pervasive implications for our diets and health. I think I’ll go out for a burger and skip the bun.


Trautmann, T.R. (1987). Lewis Henry Morgan and the invention of kinship. Berkeley: University of California Press.

How many famous fathers of twentieth century thought can there be? Well, too many for me to remember or even know about. Morgan is one of the fathers of modern anthropology who invented kinship by being the first to father lots of kids by many wives who varied in their genetic relationship to him, ending up by being his own grandfather. OK, OK, not really. Morgan became a lawyer for the railways and made enough money to indulge his serious intellectual interests. Starting in the 1860s, he studied the Iroquois kinship system in New York and attempted to derive principles from it that could be applied more broadly. Morgan was sympathetic to Darwinism and, remarkably for the time, not particularly religious or racist. Nevertheless, he tended to see the modern European kinship system as the most advanced and made some errors as a result. Morgan believed that the stages of man’s development from a promiscuous horde to monogamous families with kin-related property rights could be traced in the meaning of kinship terms used by societies around the world. Thus, the key to understanding ethnology and social evolution lay in comparative philology.

The reception of Morgan’s research by anthropologists has varied through the years. His work on kinship was certainly influential early on, mostly through its effects on the quite different theories of later investigators.

This book is interesting in spots, particularly in its description of the 19th century scientific establishment in the US and the influence of religious political correctness on anthropological work. It’s also interesting how Morgan became involved with the Iroquois. But a bit tedious in spots and not always easy to follow.


Vaillant, G.E. (1995). The natural history of alcoholism revisited. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.  

This is a revised edition of a classic book describing a longitudinal study of identified alcoholics, a sample of ivy league kids, and a low socioeconomic status group. Vailliant seems like an intelligent and careful thinker with a high quality data set. Which is why it is disappointing, at least to me, that more definitive conclusions could not have been drawn. Vailliant postulates that the best single definition of an alcoholic is a person who cannot predict when a drinking bout will end. He adopts a disease model of alcoholism and is very sympathetic to AA. All this is OK, but the disease doesn’t appear to have a predictable course, leading to the enduring debate with psychologists who endorse Marlatt’s social learning approach. Oh yeah, we don’t have treatments known to reduce drinking in the long-term, although, as everybody knows, some people stop drinking.


Ward, P.D. (1997). The call of distant mammoths: Why the ice age mammals disappeared. N.Y.: Copernicus.  

Ward mixes science fiction and personal reminiscence with straightforward science reporting. Usually this mixture works. The book gets better toward the end and is written as a mystery. It looks like the smoking gun has been found or close to it--the crucial data come from cross sections of mammoth tusks (which are ringed like tree trunks). The rings show patterns of nutritional variation and indicate pregnancies in the females because the fetus takes the calcium from the mother. I won’t tell you who- or what-dunnit.

Did you know that dwarf mammoths were alive on islands off of Siberia when the pyramids were built?


Weiner, J. (1994) The beak of the finch: A story of evolution in our time. N.Y.: Knopf.  

Written for non-biologists. This is a fun read and highly recommended. Evolution looks slow in the fossil record because of changes in the direction of selection over short time periods.


Weiner, J. (2004). His brother's keeper: A story from the edge of medicine. NY: HarperCollins.

This is an odd departure for the author of the Beak of the Finch and Time, love, memory, both first class popular science books. This book is about a young man of promise who contracts amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) and the frantic efforts of his brother to save him by raising money and encouraging scientists to invest in long-shot, high pay-off efforts at developing a cure. Because one knows how the story must end, it's difficult to suspend belief while reading the book. I'm not sure what I think about the book or the characters involved. One issue that clouded the picture was the entrepreneurship and profit motive of the altruistic brother and another was the relationship of the writer to the story (part reporter, part confidante, part publicist). The whole thing made me (and the author) a bit uncomfortable.


Weiner, J. (1999). Time, love, memory: A great biologist and his quest for the origins of behavior. N.Y.: Vintage.  

A charming book by the author of The beak of the finch. The book is beautifully written and Weiner can clearly communicate complex arguments. Ironically, in the last chapter Weiner falls prey to the disorder that causes otherwise sensible people to speculate about consciousness and cosmic significance, a disorder that the hero of this volume, Seymour Benzer, would have warned him against.


Weisman, A. (2007). The world without us. Toronto: HarperCollins.

There are some arresting descriptions of the world without us—the remaining rump of a primeval forest in Poland, New York City streets becoming rivers without human attention, and an abandoned strip of land between the Turks and Greeks on Cyprus. Most of our creations are ephemeral. Depressingly, some are not—untended oil refineries will wreak catastrophe for generations and untended nuclear reactors indefinitely. Otherwise, the rest of creation will gladly be rid of us.


Whitehead, H. (2003). Sperm Whales: Social evolution in the ocean. University of Chicago Press.

Looking for culture in all the salt-water places......The author argues that there is evidence for cetacean culture in which mothers teach their offspring cultural traditions, including foraging patterns and particular patterns of vocalizations. There is some evidence to support the author's thesis but it is not yet overwhelming. Sperm whales are nevertheless such very strange beasts that they are well worth reading about.


Williams, G.C. (1997). The pony fish’s glow and other clues to plan and purpose in nature. N.Y.: Basic.

Yet another book by the master. Although surely everything about Darwinism has been packaged for the masses by some academic or other in the recent past, Williams’ book is very much worth reading. The arguments are presented in a spare style so that one is not distracted by irrelevancies and unnecessary detail. This is the clearest exposition of selectionist thinking I have seen.


Wilson, E.O. (1998). Consilience: The unity of knowledge. Toronto: Random House.  

The subtitle could be "Why oh why are people so dumb and why don’t they listen to me?” If Wilson wasn’t right most of the time, this would be incredible pretentiousness. Nevertheless, although tactfully written, it comes across as a bit preachy, even to the converted. The text is designed for lay people but is remarkably up to date and flows from a clear understanding of the important issues. There is a nice critique of the state of theory in economics in which Wilson accurately complains that economics does not predict actual behavior despite its mathematical sophistication.

There have been a number of negative reviews of this book. The ones that I have seen argue that the philosophy Wilson presents is naive. Maybe so, but I think these reviewers miss the essential point. The important and convincing point that Wilson makes is that if you’re not part of the mainstream scientific enterprise, you’re not likely to get anywhere in a cumulative sense and not likely to have much fun either.


Winchester, S. (2003). Krakatoa: The day the world exploded: August 27, 1883. NY: HarperCollins.

A good book, although written in a very digressive style. Digressive, because the actual explosion didn’t take very long. What saves the book is the excellent quality of the digressions. I learned a lot about colonial Java and the rise of Islamic militancy there. A nice mix of history, biology, geology, and personal reflection.


Wrangham, R. & Peterson, D. (1996). Demonic males: Apes and the origins of human violence. N.Y.: Mariner.  

I liked the book and highly recommend it. It contains very good description of chimpanzee warfare  ("gorilla” warfare--ha, ha).  


Zimmer, C. (2000). Parasite rex: Inside the bizarre world of nature’s most dangerous creatures. Toronto: The Free Press.   

There are more parasites than any other type of organism. This book is a fast paced romp through this enormous group of organisms that focuses on a variety of evolutionary oddities. A good, if sometimes disturbing, read.

If the Victorians knew that "let others do all the hard work while exploiting them cruelly and mercilessly” was nature’s basic moral premise, while "nature red in tooth and claw” was for romantic panty-waists, what kind of social Darwinism would they have developed?

Book Reviews - History and Biography

Ackroyd, P. (2006). Shakespeare: The biography. London: Vintage.

This is much better than other books I have read on Shakespeare. The emphasis is on the political and social context of the plays and on how differently Shakespeare and his colleagues acted and thought from us.

The playwrights thought of themselves in the main as craftsmen, as opposed to artists. Theatrical effect, audience appeal, and the political and financial support of patrons was all. Shakespeare was an actor as well as author and an investor in his acting company. This was a communal venture in which plays underwent repeated revisions based on audience reaction and actors’ suggestions. Different versions of the same play were staged according to the venue (outside or inside performance), the time available, and various current
events that might be profitably alluded to.

The Elizabethans loved spectacle, costumes, dancing, special effects, and music—they weren’t particularly interested in actors acting like normal everyday people. The actors in fact had to project their voices while speaking quickly and communicate a great deal with their bodies because few in the audience could actually see the details of their faces. There were traditional postures and arm gestures to assist them.

Shakespeare was not university-educated and not nobly borne, although from a somewhat prosperous family. His family of origin was covertly Catholic. Shakespeare maintained his interests and his wife and children in the small town of Stratford while he pursued his career in London. Most of his plays were composed more or less anonymously until he became better known, his growing renown was partly based on his publication of some very popular poems under his own name. In any case, Shakespeare became moderately wealthy and quite famous early in his career. He wrote his inspired work at incredible speed. Shakespeare’s characters are in some sense real in themselves and stand apart from their creator. Shakespeare’s peculiar genius for character and his amazing facility for language remain a mystery.


Ackroyd, P. (2004). Chaucer. London: Random House.

A brief life of Chaucer for non-specialists. Chaucer was an urban man of the world and a successful senior servant of the crown. He was married but he and his wife seldom lived together—it makes you wonder about how the nature of his marriage was related to the many views that his characters expressed on the relations between the sexes. Many of Chaucer’s works appear to been meant for reading to small groups of people he knew, yielding many opportunities for ironic expression.


Ackroyd, P. (2001). London: The biography. Toronto: Doubleday.

I thought I would like this book because I greatly admired Ackroyd's biography of More. I didn't much like this biography of London though. It does have some interesting vignettes and many odd facts, but this giant tome grows tedious and prompts the fatal question "Why am I reading this?" The author tries mightily to provide some underlying themes to motivate the book but they fail intellectually and are somewhat tiresome. Unless one knows the London streets very well, I don't think there is a reason to read this book.


Ackroyd, P. (1998). The life of Thomas More. London: Random House.

A very fine biography of the clever, loyal, and admirable "man for all seasons." Ackroyd attempts to convey the strangeness and credulity of the mediaeval mind. More is portrayed as a mediaeval intellectual fighting a dogged rearguard action against the floods of the Reformation and modernism. Highly recommended. I plan to find more of Ackroyd's work.


Adams, M. (2006). Napoleon and Russia. NY: Hambledon Continuum.

A detailed account of the famous ill-fated French invasion of Russia. The strategies and the personalities of the combatants are nicely laid out. Napoleon appears to have been losing his edge (either because he wasn’t as good as he was formerly or because his opponents were getting better). Nevertheless, this war of attrition was a close run thing and the Tsar could have negotiated a settlement instead of letting Napoleon sit in Moscow waiting in vain for battle.

My favourite line from the Napoleonic wars (I don’t think in this book though) was in a letter from Napoleon to Josephine--“Home in four days, don’t wash”.


Adams, I. (1999). Agent of influence: A true story. Toronto: Stoddart.

The title says that this book presents a true story. Indeed, the historical facts about the death of the Canadian Ambassador to the Soviet Union, John Watkins, during an 1964 RCMP interrogation and its subsequent coverup appear to be historically accurate. Similarly, the attempts of the counter-intelligence division of the CIA, under the directorship of its paranoid ultra-rightist chief James Jesus Angleton, to remove "KGB operatives" such as prime ministers Lester Pearson and Harold Wilson seem to have really happened. If it is true, as alleged in this book, that Prime Minister Pearson abandoned his friend Watkins in order to protect himself from a CIA plot directed against himself, we have a sorry and sordid bit of history indeed.

The wooden writing style and juvenile embellishments in the semi-fictional body of the text reduce the book's credibility; in fact, the fictional dialogue and invented characters get in the way of our understanding what we know for sure about what happened. An epilogue clarifies things somewhat but cannot rehabilitate the fictional part.


Akenson, D.H. (1998). Surpassing wonder: the invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

The latest book from the master of the Irish diaspora. Akenson wrote an earlier book that I liked very much about the Irish Protestants, Israelis, and Afrikaners (all people who have a convenant with God). This book is about the parallel development of Christianity and Judaism from the Yahwehist beliefs of the late second Temple times (pre-CE 70).

Akenson writes with grace and authority. He loves these texts. However, he is very critical of the majority of biblical scholars (basically he believes that they do not rigorously and objectively enough apply historical methodology). Although much of what Akenson says is sound, my sense is that he is a bit too critical of biblical scholars, such as those represented in the Jesus Seminar. For example, he severely criticizes the Jesus Seminar’s measurement and use of inter-scholar agreement. Akenson’s basic point that agreement cannot establish historical accuracy is well taken, if elementary, but misses the value of this sort of exercise. By establishing what scholars agree not to be veridical and, more importantly, by presenting the evidence that supports this consensus, a great deal of progress can be made.

Akenson describes the method of religious textual invention that characterizes Christianity and Judaism (never say it’s new, always say it’s an old part of the original Yahwehist tradition; attribute it to an authoritative source, and so forth). Both religions are convincingly interpreted as essentially being responses to the final destruction of the temple.

A good book, although a bit repetitious. Lots about the Talmuds that are unfamiliar to most people raised as Christians. Ultimately, I didn’t like this book as much as some others on similar topics, such as the shorter but riveting Who Wrote the Bible?  


Alexander, C. (2009). The war that killed Achilles: The true story of Homer’s Iliad. Toronto: Penquin.

Alexander presents a readable but extensive review of the Iliad, adding her own retranslations where appropriate. One would think that everything that could be said has been said about one of the most famous books in the world but, it turns out, not so. In the not so distant past, the Iliad was used to glorify the heroic martial tradition in support of imperialist wars. The author shows, however, that this glorification was achieved by very selective quotation. Homer’s epic, she argues, subverted traditional martial epics.

Homer was in fact anti-war. For example, Achilles complains in his quarrel with Agamemnon—“What am I doing here--the Trojans never did anything to me.” A sentiment echoed centuries later by Muhammad Ali in his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. As for eternal glory and renown achieved by dying bravely in battle, Homer implies that most warriors are in fact not remembered forever. After his death, Achilles concludes the epic by remarking to Odysseus in his visit to Hades that he would rather be a live landless ploughman than a dead king of the dead. Ultimately, Homer depicts both Greeks and Trojans as big losers in the big war.

I fundamentally do not understand the minds of bronze and iron age Greeks. As depicted by Homer, the gods are quarrelsome, duplicitous, amoral, and above all, capricious beings who control human events on earth despite people’s best efforts, usually in a sneaky manner.  Human commanders are generally vain and incompetent. Military leaders constantly argue bitterly over trivial slights and the division of spoils. Human life is portrayed as essentially tragic. So, why didn’t the Greeks commit mass suicide in a fit of existential depression? Perhaps, because after death, they can only look forward to perpetual sorrow and darkness.


Alexander, R.M. (1995). The 'girl problem': Female sexual delinquency in New York, 1900- 1930. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.  

Describes a number of case histories from a girls' training school. Lots of unwed mothers. In part, this is a tale of thwarted mating effort and it is clear that not all of the fallen wanted to be saved. Not nearly so good or so revealing as Bartley's book reviewed below. Part of the problem is the limited amount of data available in the training school records.


Alperovitz, G. (1995). The decision to use the atomic bomb and the architecture of an American myth. N.Y.: Knopf.

A wealth of old (suppressed) documents pertaining to the decision to bomb Hiroshima and, even more inexplicably, Nagasaki, has recently come to light. The author presents them in excruciating detail so that the reader knows, minute by minute, when folks like Truman were lying. And lie they did. If you have a flicker of faith that democracy is a superior form of government or that the Western powers are well intentioned and you want to maintain that faith, this is not the book for you.

Why did Stimson (who was Secretary of War, a position that included that of National Security Adviser at the time) become chief apologist for the decision? Here was a guy who pressed upon Truman and that snake in the grass, Byrnes, the consensus view of the joint chiefs, the scientists, and the American government before the bomb was dropped that the bomb was unnecessary to win the war quickly; that if it were to be used, a demonstration would suffice, that it would set a poor moral example, and would create an unparalleled arms race. If you have the patience to wade through this mass of detail, a more or less satisfactory answer awaits you.


Ambrose, S.E. (1996). Undaunted courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the opening of the American West. N.Y.: Touchstone.

A very detailed account of the Lewis & Clark expedition by an outdoorsman who is well acquainted with the route that was taken to discover the Northwestern US. Despite the commonplace irony of explorers "discovering" an area filled with people, Lewis's detailed journal provides a sense of what the land was like before European settlement and how bloody difficult the journey was.

A modern reader, well this modern reader, had the uncomfortable sense throughout the book of how everything that was being described would soon be ruined or swept away by "civilization". Already, patterns of Indian settlement had changed: Tribes who had access to guns chased their less well armed traditional enemies into the mountains. Soon after the expedition, the populous tribes to the West of the Rockies would be wiped out by smallpox and similar diseases. Remnants of the abundant game in the prairies would hang on in the mountains.

There is a sense of incredible naivete about the Lewis and Clark expedition. As the party killed and ate its way into the West, Lewis practised diplomacy with the various tribes. He lectured the Indians about peace and how they should stop making war on each other. The young Indian men couldn't figure out how they were supposed to get wives if they couldn't go on raiding parties. Lewis, of course, was not only naive, he was also more than a little disingenuous. The plan was to pacify the tribes in order to make them junior partners in the fur trade. When the furs ran out, the area would be settled by miners, farmers, and ranchers and annexed to the US.

None of the explorers, or anyone else at the time, had any sense of conservation. The idea was to exploit the land and when done, move on. This was as true of tobacco farming as it was in the fur trade. The expedition itself, as it shot its way across the land, was a harbinger of things to come.


Anderson, J.L. (1997). Che Guevara: A revolutionary life. N.Y.: Grove Press.   

A very absorbing biography. Even though the book runs 768 pages and we know how it turns out, it is difficult to put down. The author has interviewed just about everybody concerned who is still alive, covered a vast store of documentary evidence, and organized this mass of material into a readable and even suspenseful account. The pictures are well selected.

Che was a physically fearless, honest, romantic, photogenic, and ambitious young man. He very gradually adopted a revolutionary strategy and its ideology to combat colonialism and dictatorship in South America. Che embraced communist ideology with an awesome thoroughness and consistency. This consistency, his willingness to sacrifice himself and his friends for the revolutionary cause, and his personal magnetism would have made him a saint in a Catholic era. Instead, he ended up a secular revolutionary, squandering his life and those of his comrades in an amateurish and ill advised attempt to export the Cuban revolution.

This account of Che's life leads one (or at least me) to the depressing thought that idealism is just the flip side of naivete. Despite all of Che's experience of the world, he really believed that an altruistic socialist man (as Che himself assuredly was) could be created through force of arms and bloody struggle. "Abandon self interest or I'll kill you" could have been his motto.

The success of the Cuban revolution depended not only on the failures of the Batista regime and the near-sightedly selfish colonial policy of the United States but on incredible blind luck and the ruthlessness of the guerillas in their dealings with the peasants (this was sure as hell not any spontaneous uprising of the peasantry). Unfortunately, it takes more than luck, ruthlessness, hard work, and good will to run a country successfully.

The description of the interactions of Fidel and Che with the Soviets is perhaps the most interesting and least well known part of the Cuban revolution. Interesting, but not something to inspire confidence in the competence of world leadership.


Andrew, C. (2009). The defence of the realm: The authorized history of MI5. Toronto: Penguin.

This is a very fat history of the MI5 branch of the British Secret Service. MI5 dealt with German spies in WWI and WWII, post-war communist spies, Irish terrorists, and Arab terrorists. By far, MI5’s greatest success was during the second war, when it successfully turned virtually all German spies in England into double agents. A remarkable coup, that unfortunately couldn’t be turned into political capital for use in inter-agency competition for money and status because MI5’s activities and, even existence, were secret.

The covert nature of intelligence work inevitably causes problems for intelligence agencies. When should one believe the statements of an agency part of whose mandate is duplicity? There are thus endless conspiracy theories and mistaken notions about MI5—indeed, the book documents a very large number of occasions when the public and many politicians had quite wrong ideas about a variety of contemporary events. One of the most surprising and unnerving of these was the MI5 discovery in 1985 that the Soviet Union was convinced that Reagan was planning an imminent nuclear attack.

Intelligence work tends to attract and, in some cases, create individuals with paranoid and fanciful ideas. Peter Wright, an MI5 employee, became convinced that the DG of MI5, Peter Hollis, had been a Soviet spy. This conviction was spawned by the decades-long failure to find the identity of the last member of the “Cambridge 5” group of traitors in MI5—he eventually was found to be a minor spy named Cairncross. The more important spies were already known: Philby, Burgess, MacLean, and Blunt. Wright’s accusations were widely publicized and caused great embarrassment. Of course, many people still believe them.

Successive British governments intermittently pressed MI5 to do something about often nonexistent threats, to transgress restraining laws and policies, and to gather information that could be used to improve their political fortunes. MI5 required personal influence with government ministers to provide reassurance, to resist unlawful extensions of its practices, and to obtain the funding to do the job it was actually supposed to be doing. All difficult—if there are no incidents, is it because of successful counter-intelligence or because there is no threat? Many of the incidents described in this book sound like they were lifted directly from episodes of “Yes, Minister”.

The problems of interpreting intelligence data appear to be worse in totalitarian regimes. The spies from these regimes are very reluctant to report facts at variance with the beliefs of their political masters—to do so invites suspicion that one has been “turned” and leads to getting oneself shot. There is thus a big barrier that prevents government leaders from learning something new or different about their opponents.

In sum, there is much of interest buried in this tome. It’s too long, however, and too much of it is devoted to detail that only bureaucratic insiders would find of interest.


Anonymous; Boehm, P. (Translator). (2005). A woman in Berlin: Eight weeks in the conquered city. A diary. Picador.

This is required reading for anyone interested in sexual coercion. These matter-of-fact memoirs put flesh on abstract theories concerning the differing sexual strategies of men and women. A compelling story and highly recommended.


Barber, M. (1978). The trial of the Templars. Cambridge.

This is the history of mind-boggling, even magnificent, cynicism hard at work creating the modern state; a lovely complement to the similar story of the crushing of the Cathar heresy in Southern France. The Templars were a holy order of crusading knights. After the failure of the crusades in the 1100s, they retained their lands and banking activities, particularly in France. The tragedy of the Templars was caused by their riches and the King of France’s chronic inability to fund his political and military ambitions. Since the Templars were wealthy and helpless, why not accuse them of something, torture them to induce confession, and take what they had?

This is a timely tale because the Pope so recently decided that the Templars were not guilty after all of such sins as kissing each other on the buttocks and spitting on the cross. Contemporary observers, particularly outside of France, had reached the same conclusion because the financial motivation of the accusations was transparent and the Templars did not confess until after they were abused, terrified, and/or tortured (even then, they recanted when they got the chance, even though such an action often led to burning at the stake).


Barbero, A. (2007). The day of the barbarians: The battle that led to the fall of the Roman Empire. (trans. J. Cullen). NY: Walker.

The beginning of the end for the Western Roman Empire happened in the East, at Adrianople in Thrace (now Western Turkey), where an eastern German tribe, the Goths, defeated the Romans. The year was 378 and it would take another hundred years for the Empire to unravel.

It didn’t happen quite the way one might expect. The Goths, particularly their leaders, were partly Romanized and they had supplied troops for the Roman army for generations. The Goths had suffered a series of defeats by the Huns and wished to emigrate. They, like all barbarians, were poor, and wanted to settle within the empire. Now, because of the encroaching Huns, they were starving and panic stricken. The Romans had a policy of admitting barbarians and resettling them in under-populated areas—they needed farmers, cheap labour, and soldiers.

The admission of the Goths across the Danube was badly bungled. Delays were deliberately created by government and army contractors who stood to profit by selling the Goths provisions that had been provided by the government as free relief. The sheer numbers of the Goths combined with lack of preparation for their resettlement led to further debacles and Goth rebellion. The rest, as they say, was history.

One interesting aspect of the post-Adrianople treatment of the Gauls is that the Eastern (Greek) part of the Empire encouraged the Goths with each new treaty or agreement to travel further west. This turned out to be a winning strategy for the East.

Barbero (wonder who he descended from?) has written a very fine little book.


Bartlett, W.B. (1999). God wills it! An illustrated history of the crusades. Somerset, U.K.: Sutton.   

Give these folks some AK-47s and they would feel right at home in the Mideast today, committing a great deal of religiously and monetarily motivated murder and mayhem. An interesting book because it shows that the conflict was not only between Muslims and Christians but among Muslims and Christians, leading to cross religion alliances. Not a period, however, within which to search for admirable causes or characters, although Saladin is a cut above the rest. I think it is best to conceptualize the majority of the leaders as a cross between bandits and war-lords.

The legendary Assassins often allied themselves with the Christian side, using their terrorist techniques against their co-religionists. Eventually, however, they went a bit too far when they assassinated the son of the invading Mongol Huns. The Huns were not amused and wiped them from the face of the earth.


Bartley, P. (2000). Prostitution: Prevention and reform in England, 1860-1914. NY: Routledge.  

A very nice account of the efforts to protect and reform girls of the lower classes. As in the Alexander book, not all of the girls wanted to be reformed and a lot of other people (like the police) thought criminalization of the sex trade was a misplaced and sometimes counterproductive policy. The redemptive efforts were made by organizations comprised of pious middle class women. Ironically, the money made by the husbands of these women allowed the husbands the leisure and resources to philander with young girls of low socioeconomic status and their wives the resources and leisure to try to prevent it.

On the one hand, there was very real economic and sexual exploitation of poor girls and, on the other, very paternalistic and heavy handed interventions designed to render fallen girls fit for domestic service. In the end, the reader appreciates that there really wasn't a neat solution to the problem at hand. Much of this history is reminiscent of other attempts to deal with crime, mental illness, and alcoholism during the same and slightly later period (see particularly D.J. Rothman's fine book, Conscience and convenience: The asylum and its alternatives in progressive America, 1980, Harper Collins).


Beevor, A. (2006). The battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. London:Weidenfield & Nicolson.

This book could be described as magnificent on several levels. After reading a number of Beevor’s books, I imagine him as a man with a head the size of a mutant giant pumpkin. The level of detail at his command is truly astonishing even though he tries manfully not to burden the reader with trivia.

As is often the case, political polarization led to irresponsible rhetoric in which both sides of the political spectrum were radicalized. This radicalization spiralled Spain into an incredibly destructive civil war—the principal actors were like sleep walkers moving toward a cliff. Or, as Beevor suggests, people took their apocalyptic political visions so seriously that they thought it was better to see the country ruined than to have it go over to the other side.

Essentially all of the data on the Spanish Civil War are now in. The publication of secret Soviet documents and relentless investigations of Spanish historians allow us to see clearly the lies, half-truths, and propaganda in the contemporaneous context of the war and the republican-dominated historical accounts that followed. Beevor treats all this with studied even-handedness. As a result, one is at a loss as to whom to despise most—the ruthless, duplicitous, and vicious left, the nutty, callous, and brutal right, or the hypocritical and impotent middle. The hopelessly romantic and impractical anarchists did predictably poorly in this mix while the criminal elements (many “liberated” from prisons) did rather better.

There is a very perceptive selectionist explanation of how the newspaper accounts were shaped. For example, in places where the reporters spoke no Spanish, the news stories were shaped by the upper classes because only they (not the peasantry) spoke the reporters’ languages. Because reporters were “imbedded” usually on the republican (left) side, they naturally slanted their stories from that perspective; they did so as well because of prior conviction—a number were communists, sometimes secretly, sometimes openly. There was a great deal of media manipulation on both sides. The republicans eventually won the global propaganda war but the nationalists had already won over the constituencies that really mattered—the conservative elite of America and England.

The backwardness of Spain relative to other European countries at this time is remarkable. As just one pathetic example, the Spanish were too proud and too dumb to dig trenches!! There was boundless incompetence, petty infighting with tragic consequences, and a lot of corruption on both sides. The German, Italian, and Russian “advisors” treated Spain like a banana republic governed by idiots.


Beevor, A. (2004). The mystery of Olga Chekhova. N.Y.: Penquin.

Some folks are luckier than others. Olga and her brother, composer Lev Knipper, survived the Russian Revolution, the civil war, the Stalinist purges, and the Second World War. Olga traded on her family name in Nazi Germany, becoming Hitler’s favourite movie star. Her brother likely recruited her as a “sleeper” spy for the Soviet Union. After all this, Olga returned to Russia and was not shot!!


Beevor, A. (2002). The fall of Berlin 1945. London: Penguin.

This is bleak reading. I now understand the black quip that a woman who survived the fall of Berlin told me was circulating at the time-"if you're going to be raped, you might as well lie back and enjoy it." The corresponding Russian joke, recounted by Laurie in his biography of Sakharov, concerns a soldier who can't get an erection with his wife after returning from the war. He instructs her to stand up and put on her clothes-when that doesn't work, he says "fight!" The Russian soldiers had become more discriminating in their victim choice by the time they entered Berlin. They went into the bunkers and cellars with flashlights and chose their victims according to the appearance of their faces.

Probably the most macabre scene is that of the young children amusing themselves by spinning the corpses hung on lamp posts. The most interesting aspect is the self delusion practiced by the fanatics among the Nazis.


Beevor, A. (1998). Stalingrad: The fateful siege: 1942-1943. London: Penguin.

A tale too horrible to contemplate. The numbers of dead boggle the mind. More people died in Russia during the second war than live in Canada in the present day. Stalingrad is about starving in the cold as a prisoner or under fire. It didn't make much sense to surrender on either side, regardless of how hopeless and miserable one's situation. I suppose that it's one's duty to know about the largest battle ever fought and one that changed the course of the war.


Bellonci, M. (1939/2000). Lucrezia Borgia. London: Phoenix Press.

A very interesting biography of Lucrezia Borgia. It reminds us that the history of the Borgias was written by their enemies and they were really no different from the rest of the conniving nobility who strove mightily for themselves and extended families using whatever resources they could. They were also very young as a group because so many died early from plague, poisoning, or combat.


Berg, A.S. (1998). Lindbergh. N.Y.: Berkeley.

A gripping and satisfyingly long biography of a man who had a truly remarkable life. It is a tragic story on several levels: the horrible kidnap of the Lindbergh' first child, Lindbergh's political naivete and frankness that led to his association with the Nazis in the public mind, the growing emotional sterility of his once close marriage, and his embrace of the ecological movement toward the end of his long life. A conversion that inexorably led him to the conclusion that his enormously successful lifelong support for aviation had been fundamentally misguided.

Lindbergh was as incredibly lucky in his early flying career as he was hard working in his private life. He went from being a nobody to being the most famous and celebrated person on earth literally overnight. No one else in history has attracted the attention of ordinary people and the paparazzi as did Lindbergh. For all of his personal qualities and amazing experiences, the most memorable part of the book is the depiction of the endless crowds and their behavior towards him both when he was perceived as a hero and a villain.


Bergreen, L. (2007). Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. NY: Knopf.

“In Xanadu did Kublai Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…” Marco Polo discovered for the West what exactly this 13th century pleasure dome was like. Kublai Khan had a very good time living in luxury with his six very carefully selected and frequently replaced concubines (the Khan did more than his share to further Genghis’s Y chromosome). It could be argued that the Khan should have paid more attention to affairs of state in his declining years then to sexual gymnastics. In any event, a couple of disastrous naval expeditions were a sign that the dynasty was in decline.

This is an excellent account of Marco Polo’s incredible journeys and subsequent life. Marco was brave, smart, ambitious, and very, very lucky. After a period of genteel imprisonment in Genoa (where he dictated his stories), he ended up old and well-off in his native Venice.


Bernstein, W.J. (2004). The birth of plenty: How the prosperity of the modern world  was created. Toronto: McGraw-Hill.

Pitched at a high school level but interesting nonetheless. In a nutshell, the argument is that four factors—property rights, scientific rationalism, effective capital markets, and efficient transport and communication—are necessary and sufficient conditions for the development of wealth in a nation. The four factors first came together in 16th century Holland, followed by English speaking countries about 1820. This argument, long familiar to economists, has not been assimilated by those outside the field so that its implications are often missed or misunderstood. The example of historical Spain, impoverishing itself in spite of, or perhaps because of, its vast quantities of plundered gold is a compelling example of how states that depend upon military conquest and/or raw materials fail economically. The rapid rise of the German and Japanese economies after their devastation during the Second World War are stunning examples of how robust economies can be when the four factors are in place.

All this makes it interesting to contemplate the effects of globalization on the world economy and how the wealth-producing institutions might best be exported to those nations that presently lack them. One also wonders whether great concentrations of wealth can undermine the very conditions that created the wealth in the first place.

Want some déjà vu—how about this quote?

“Thomas Bonham, a physician, practiced in London. Henry VIII had authorized, and Parliament had confirmed, the right of the London-based College of Physicians to license doctors in the city. Although Bonham was clearly competent to practice, it was his misfortune to have trained in Cambridge. The College exercised its monopoly power and excluded Bonham. The College then fined and imprisoned him.

In 1610 Bonham brought a charge of wrongful imprisonment against the College. Coke presided and ruled in favor of the doctor. Although Coke agreed that the College had a duty to license physicians in order to protect the public from incompetent practitioners, he ruled that the College had unjustly deprived Bonham, who was clearly well trained, of an essential liberty—the ability to make a living. By so ruling, Coke asserted almost two hundred years before Adam Smith and three hundred years before the Sherman Antitrust Act, that free markets, unencumbered by monopoly power, were also an essential right. Ruled Coke, ‘Generally all monopolies are against this great charter, because they are against the liberty and freedom of the subject, and against the law of the land.

The College of Physicians had attempted to cloak its monopolistic behavior behind its status as a guild. The public face of the medieval guild was that of guarantor of high professional standards. In reality, guilds were cartels that restricted entry into a trade or profession and kept prices high……No judicial body, he [Coke] ruled, should be allowed to preside in a matter involving its own interests.”


Biagioli, M. (1993). Galileo courtier: The practice of science in the culture of absolutism. University of Chicago Press.

When they used to say "It's not who you know, it's who you blow" in Thunder Bay, they must have been talking about Renaissance Europe. In the period around 1600, the patronage of princes made the world go round. Galileo and contemporary scientists were intimately involved in a world of ritualized sycophancy that makes sense but is hard to empathize with. A different world.

Biagioli is a bit heavy handed and repetitive in pressing his argument but he does illustrate the manner in which scientists marketed themselves and were marketed in this system of patronage. Galileo was the master at this delicate and high risk business.


Blaise, C. (2000). Time lord. Toronto: Knopf.

An exposition of 19th century scientific and bureaucratic efforts to standardize time. Of course, various countries had difficulties in agreeing about where the Prime Meridian should be on nationalist grounds. Historical precedent with American brokerage eventually won over French objections. The vehicle for this history is the life of Sandford Fleming. Fleming exemplified the practical Victorian man of science and was a major force in the planning of the Canadian railways. Unfortunately for the plan of the book, Fleming's role in the time standardization debates petered out before its resolution. A moderately good read. The most interesting part is the commentary on how railroads changed everything.


Bodansky, Y. (1999). Bin Laden: The man who declared war on America. New York: Random House.

Imagine the pecuniary advantage of writing a book about September 11th just before it happens! This book is rambling and repetitious and it is unclear to me how sound its political analysis is. However, the broad outlines of the book, arguing that there is lots of cooperation among intelligence forces and Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Kuwait, assorted emirates, Pakistan, Chechyna, Bosnia, and Somalia, appears to be correct, if not very encouraging. Certainly, this analysis seems to be accepted by the American government.


Bostridge, M. (2008). Florence Nightingale. Toronto: Penguin.

Not quite the lady of the lamp I had expected. Florence was a very ambitious upper class woman stifled by convention—there were no useful social roles for unmarried upper class English women in the 1840-50s. Reading books aloud, knitting, and tinkling on the piano in the bosom of one’s family each evening could drive one balmy, and in Florence’s case, almost did. Florence longed to be useful and was motivated by quasi-religious feelings of duty to the poor and sick.

Florence’s role in organizing better treatment for the wounded in the Crimean war made her an English heroine. Her reputation continued to grow through the years.

Florence was very smart and played an important, sometimes crucial, behind the scenes role in reforming the army after the Crimean debacles and reforming hospitals (for most of her life she was not a believer in germ theory—but she wanted cleanliness and lots of ventilation). She also worked tirelessly to establish a nursing profession independent of (male) doctors. Although she was very ill and irritable a lot of the time (probably because she picked up some bug in the Crimea), she continued for decades to exert her mostly anonymous influence on the English government through various parliamentarians and bureaucrats who relied on her statistical work. Ironically, her most important influence occurred long after the public believed her to be dead or incapacitated.

Long, but very readable.


Bowler, P.J. & Morus, I.R. (2005). Making modern science: A historical survey. University of Chicago Press.

A model of clear exposition but frequently off-putting nonetheless. The agenda of these authors is to show that earlier accounts of scientific discovery are not only Whig History but mythical. Their modus operandi is to describe a scientific revolution (such as the Newtonian or Darwinian) and then inform us that it wasn’t really a revolution (because it was anticipated, some scientific contemporaries didn’t buy the new conception, and so forth). These authors prefer some sort of less “rigid” holistic approach to reductionist methodologies. In the end, I didn’t trust their scientific judgment.

The frontispiece of this book could have been a New Yorker cartoon in which a devil comes up to heaven to claim a forlorn looking angel who is told by a senior angel “Sorry, Ed, but the revisionist historians finally caught up with you.”

The descriptions of continental drift theory and ecology are the most interesting, possibly because these (non) revolutions are more seldom described.

Boyko, J. (2010). Bennett: The rebel who challenged and changed a nation. Toronto: Key Porter Books.

Bennett (1870- 1947) became the prime minister who personified the “progressive” in the oxymoronically named Progressive Conservative Party. He created the CBC and the Bank of Canada; he improved old age pensions and unemployment insurance. The author argues strongly and in the main, persuasively, that history has given Bennett a bum rap. All that most people know about him is that he set up the notorious work camps for unemployed young men during the depression and is associated with “Bennett buggies”—cars that were drawn by horses because people couldn’t afford gas.

Bennett had an incredible appetite for work, in addition to a very unhealthy appetite for food and aversion to exercise. He had a formidable intellect and was extremely well read. He became a lawyer and used his mental gifts to make money, a lot of money, wheeling and dealing and representing large corporations.

Bennett was an anglophile, like his life-long best friend Max Aitkin (later Lord Beaverbrook). He eventually retired to England, purchasing an estate near Beaverbrook’s and receiving a peerage, becoming Viscount Bennett of Mickleham, Calgary, and Hopewell. Mickleham was where his English estate was located, Calgary, where he spent most of his career, and Hopewell, the area in New Brunswick where he spent his childhood (home of the famous rocks). Bennett made a large contribution to the war effort in his adopted home.

Surprisingly for a corporate lawyer and successful investor, Bennett was generally on the side of the little guy. His view was that finance and business had to be regulated in order to preserve capitalism and its attendant economic benefits by protecting the public from the avarice and short-sightedness of capitalists. Bennett understood and deplored the scams in which the economic and political elite colluded. Coupled with his views on public policy was his practice of philanthropy—often secret, philanthropy. It was no secret, however, that he often financed the campaigns of the Conservative party out of his own pocket.

There was also a darker side to Bennett, a character flaw that, as in a classic tragedy, led to his political, and to some extent, social downfall. Bennett was not only among the richest person in most gatherings, he was almost always the smartest, and he did not suffer fools gladly. One of the reflections of this is a series of radio broadcasts he made while prime minister, explaining his decidedly left and progressive policies to the nation. Amazingly, Bennett, with his complete command of finance and economics, did not talk down to the electorate but forthrightly explained his set of Keynesian ideas. It’s hard to imagine a politician seriously trying to explain important and complex issues to an entire country.

Bennett did not delegate much to his intellectual inferiors and this cost him in his own party and provided the opposition liberals under Mackenzie King an opportunity to pillory him as an autocrat. Bennett also had a mercurial temper and, once angered, held a grudge. Over time, some prominent conservatives became disaffected and a revolt split the party, leading to its defeat. Bennett got blamed for the depression but his progressive agenda, first decried, was later adopted by that master politician, Mackenzie King, and his successors.


Braun, A. & Scheinberg, S. (Eds.). (1997). The extreme right: Freedom and security at risk. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

There is a rightist international conspiracy that threatens to take over Western civilization. Well, maybe not a conspiracy or at least not a widespread conspiracy. Well, maybe not an immediate threat but they're dangerous. Not sure just how dangerous....... It's more dangerous in the Soviet Union, well, then again, maybe not....

A whole book to tell us what anybody could learn by reading the newspaper once and a while. Sure a let down after books like Enemies of Freedom and the Authoritarian Spectre.

Brown, F. (2010). For the soul of France: Culture wars in the age of Dreyfus. NY: Knopf.

As you probably know, Dreyfus was a Jewish army officer who was wrongfully convicted of spying for the Germans on the basis of fabricated evidence and sentenced to Devil’s Island. He eventually was granted a retrial, raising a controversy that split France.

This is a very good read with topical relevance—the anti-Dreyfusards sound something like the Tea Party people of the United States but even more like the National Socialists in the Weimar Republic. Catholic priests in particular were prone to offer bloodthirsty recommendations for solving the problem of the (amazingly tiny) Jewish minority. I won’t spoil this story by summarizing it further but offer a few choice quotes.

“The flood of foreigners, the unproductiveness of wombs, the immolation of aristocrats, the triumph of secularism, the shaming of the army, all figured as portents of decadence in radical right-wing lamentation. How could a country sapped from within and deficient in numbers wage war, win back its lost provinces, and bulk larger among nations? To unreconstructed anti-Dreyfusards that was the question, and the future might never have looked bleaker to them than on August 30, 1898, when Colonel Hubert Henry killed himself after confessing that he had fabricated the documents used to incriminate Dreyfus. But, as we have seen, belief trumped evidence. The suicide soon inspired a fable according to which Colonel Henry, far from soiling his uniform, had, almost alone, braved a Jewish world conspiracy.” Pp. 248-249.

“While priests tended increasingly meager flocks, charismatic priests who specialized in the conversion of ‘distinguished minds’ flourished. To Zola’s way of thinking , these conversions suggested a revival of the Romantic mal du siècle. “Pessimism twists people’s guts, mysticism fogs their brains.”……. “The charge of ‘bankruptcy’ or ‘decadence’ was commonplace among writers disposed to portray science as a small, desert kingdom bordering the wide, lush expanse of the ‘unknowable’. Pp. 252.

Brumwell, S. (2006). Paths of glory: The life and death of General James Wolfe. Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

It’s strange that all I knew about Wolfe was that he was a British general who was killed on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 during the siege of Quebec and the words to the song “Brave Wolfe”. Wolfe has an important part in Canadian history, so important that even children know about it—my once five year old asked my daughter about her marriage to a French guy: “Why do you want to live with someone who attacked us?”

Wolfe was a somewhat sickly, skinny, and homely boy from a military family. His ambitions and sense of efficiency were continually thwarted in the anachronistic and class-ridden British army. Eventually, he got his chance to shine in the successful siege of the fortress at Louisburg. Wolfe came to represent bravery, concern for the common soldier, modern efficiency, and an emerging meritocracy. Of course, he was also the target of jealous gossip.

The siege at Quebec was a close-run thing and for a long time things went poorly for the British. Wolfe became seriously ill but recovered sufficiently to lead the successful surprise assault on the Plains of Abraham above the city of Quebec.

Wolfe’s death at a young age in the most successful campaign of the Seven Years War ensured that he achieved the glory that was his childhood dream. He became as famous a military figure as his childhood hero, Nelson. Wolfe’s reputation, however, fell victim to historical revisionism in the wake of the Quebecois separatist movement.

This is a good read.


Brittlestone, R. (2005). Odysseus unbound: The search for Homer’s Ithaca. Cambridge University Press.

A coffee table sized book with many illustrations. Brittlestone is an amateur in the best British tradition who has a theory that the home of Odysseus is located in the islands off the West of Greece and is not the island presently named Ithaca. Brittlestone relies on a close reading of the Odyssey in the original Greek and geological data (much of it gathered from the internet) to identify an island that meets all of the criteria specified in the Odyssey story line.

There turns out to be a surprising amount of relevant data and these are used to support the tentatively identified candidate island in a closely reasoned argument. It all sounds convincing to me but, as with many such books, most readers will, like me, be unable to evaluate the argument independently of the author making it.

The geology of the Western Greek islands is quite interesting as well is what we can learn from a careful reading of the Odyssey. The book becomes a bit tedious and repetitious toward the end—it is after all one big argument.


Burtt, E.A. (1939). Types of religious philosophy. NY: Harper.
I recently re-read this book 40 years after I first read it! In my senior undergraduate year, I had asked a favourite philosophy professor to recommend a few of the philosophy books he thought were the absolute best. He recommended this one and Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being, which I also recently re-read.

The purpose of Burtt’s book is to outline the philosophy of the great Western religions. The text is wonderfully clear and well-organized. Burtt is scrupulous in first sympathetically and convincingly describing each type of religious thought—he includes fundamentalist Protestantism, liberal Protestantism, orthodox Catholicism, as well as some forms of atheism and agnosticism. One would swear he believes each religion or philosophy he describes. Then he deftly and succinctly presents the weaknesses and problems in each. I liked this book as much as I did the first time I read it. However, I didn’t remember quite how devastating Burtt’s critiques were. No wishful or fuzzy thinking here.


Butterworth, A. & Laurence, R. (2005). Pompeii: The living city. London: Phoenix.
This is a fine book. It is the best at describing what the lives of the ancient Romans must have been like that I have read. Lots of information on the economy of Pompeii from the abundance of information gleaned from successive excavations. Freed slaves became entrepreneurs and craftsmen, struggling to scale the social ladder. Couples with property had few children in order that their estate not be partitioned among their offspring (as legally required). Because infant and child mortality was very high, many couples were forced to adopt heirs, who were sometimes not their kin and even sometimes former slaves.

The urban Romans had bad teeth and used a lot of an awful sounding fish paste (garum or rotted fish intestines) in their recipes—their breath was probably lethal at close range. Because they didn’t have access to the internet, they put their pornography up on walls--there was a lot of it that would offend today’s family values big time.

Here’s a quote describing a fancy dinner to give a flavor of the work:

“Next, to stimulate conversation once the salty morsels had been gulped down whole, the paraphernalia for the first entertainment of the evening may have appeared: a sloshing vessel of water from which a flapping surmullet was lifted, placed on a polished surface, and then covered by a glass dome, which rapidly starved it of air while ensuring that its death-throes remained visible to all. For it is the curse and wonder of the surmullet that, as it asphyxiates, its scales pass through a whole spectrum of subtle colours to signal its passage from life. And for what nobler purpose could a fish die than to elicit the hollering, mocking delight of a Neronian dinner.”

“Although most of the slave household were busily employed behind the scenes, the sedate start to the night’s drinking gave the wine waiters an opportunity to reflect upon the spectacle they had witnessed and the cruel and capricious appetites of their masters. Standing slightly apart from the diners, watching anxiously for the moment when the cup of their master or assigned guest might need refilling, the fate of the surmullet was a warning to these pretty young men—and the occasional older one who was forced to maintain a semblance of youth—to steel themselves for what lay ahead. Smooth-skinned and long haired, some only recently acquired at market to add erotic luster to this special evening, wine-waiters were often viewed as little more than sexual playthings. Long before they were required to drape the slack arm of an inebriated guest over their shoulder and drag him to his bed—a squalid scene that is depicted in one Pompeian painting—they would have had to submit to endless verbal abuse, humiliation, and drunken violence along with all manner of lascivious petting and predation. Seneca remarked of these beautiful unfortunates that,’their slightest murmur is repressed by the rod; they pay a huge penalty for the smallest breach of silence; all night long they have to stand around, hungry and dumb’”.

All was not fun, however. Pompeii suffered a serious earthquake some years before the final catastrophe. It is a bit sad to read of the people’s strenuous efforts to repair the damage and get life back to normal when you know how futile it would turn out to be.


Byock, J. (2001). Viking age Iceland. Toronto: Penguin.
This book is fairly interesting but repeats a fair bit of material from the 1982 book. I'm not sure that I buy the author's analysis of the sagas in terms of narrative units used by the authors like Lego blocks.


Byock, J. (1982). Feud in the Icelandic saga. Berkeley: University of California Press
Disputes over land holdings were common in early medieval Iceland, particularly when kinship was tangled (as when a man had old and young families by different wives). These frequently led to killings, each of which would be avenged. Widows would save keepsakes of their dead husbands (preferably something with blood on it) to arouse their sons' anger when they were old enough to fight. These feuds could easily escalate. To Byock, the sagas illustrate how civil wars were averted by a mixture of litigation, mutual intimidation by rival kinship groups, exile, and a limited amount of killing.


Caesar, J. (trans. 1982). The conquest of Gaul. Penguin.
It appears that those darn Gauls were just asking to be conquered. Although this book was apparently written by Caesar in an attempt to justify his conquest of Gaul to a Roman audience, by the time one gets to the end, the motive for conquest of the Gauls appears to be simply because they were there.     

I was unaware that the practice of taking large numbers of hostages to guarantee good behavior of potential enemies that was common in medieval times was often practised by the Romans as well.

This book consists primarily of a laconic description of many battles. What a modern reader would like is more of an ethnography. We do find out that Gauls are fickle and inconstant but brave (for savages) and can learn military technology by imitation.


Cahill, T. (1995). How the Irish saved civilization. Toronto: Doubleday.
A charming little book. This guy knows how to make history come alive. Almost all the information here has been well known to scholars for a long time but it is very artfully presented. The title is only a bit of an exaggeration.

Sometimes, the obvious has to be spoken as it occasionally is in this book. Ever wonder why there were hordes of German barbarians trying desperately to get into the Empire? Why didn't they just stay at home? It turns out they were starving. They were starving because they had switched from hunting and gathering to farming and suffered the attendant population explosion. With the new large population and inevitable crop failures, they were willing to take their chances with the Roman army.


Cameron, S. & Cashore, H. (2001). The last amigo: Karlheinz Schreiber and the anatomy of a scandal. Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter, and Ross.  
This is a well written, infuriating book about how financial grease shmoozily applied to politicians' hands makes the economic world go round. Schreiber is currently in Canada fighting extradition to his native Germany with the help of his Tory friends Frank Moores and Elmer MacKay and Liberal amigo, Marc Lalonde. Schreiber was intimately involved in the Airbus scandal and closely associated with Mulroney and his associates in this and other business dealings. It was the Canadian end of the Airbus scandal investigation that led, insanely, to the debacle of Justice Minister Allan Rock's public apology to Brian Mulroney and the humiliating and shameful spectacle of the Canadian taxpayers covering Mulroney's legal fees.

The only worthwhile thing to come out of this mess so far was a CBC skit presented by This Hour Has 22 Minutes. The skit depicted two goofy mounties rubbing their hands with glee about the Mulroney investigation. An interviewer inquires as to how they could be happy with this obvious and very expensive failure. They reply that it was really a bargain because even the briefest thought by the Canadian electorate that Mulroney would be brought to justice was priceless.

The German side of this investigation, involving Airbus, arms deals, and influence peddling, has brought down many Christian Democratic politicians. It's a little late in Canada but the investigation continues.


Canduci, A. (2009). The greatest lies in history: Spin, doublespeak, buck passing, and official cover ups that shaped the world. Pier 9.
This is a catalog of various lies. It starts with an account of the “victory” over the Hittites at Kadesh in 1275 BCE (written by the losing Egyptians), and ranges through the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the propaganda that justified the American annexation of Northern Mexico in 1846.

The book is long on survey and short on analysis but it’s an easy read and there are lots of good illustrations and pictures. It would be great for a high school student who is keen on history. It does make one wonder, however, what lies one would choose for such a catalog—such an embarrassment of riches!


Carman, J. & Harking, A. (Eds.). (1999/2004). Ancient warfare: Archeological perspectives. Phoenix Mill, UK: Sutton.
There are methodological problems in studying ancient warfare—in particular, the absence of obvious battle sites is difficult to interpret (no warfare or just none discovered?). Similarly, certain building structures may or may not be fortifications.

The beginning section has some amateurish theoretical chapters dealing with aggression but most of the chapters interpret archeological sites. The extensive work in the American Southwest is alluded to but not dealt with in any detail. This is a pity because the evidence of warfare and its variation through time seems better documented there than in Europe, which is the focus of this book. Nevertheless, it does appear that the prevalence of warfare did vary over time.

The history of ancient warfare is very difficult to figure out from archeology alone. If there is some written history to go with the archeology, a rich picture emerges. Consider this quote from Victor Hanson’s chapter concerning sixth and seventh century BC Greece entitled Hoplite obliteration: The case of the town of Thespiai.

The history of the Greek city-state cannot be understood without considering the histories of hoplite battles. It is no exaggeration that the fate of entire communities literally depended on where, how and against whom their landowning hoplite soldiers were deployed in particular engagements… because of the decisive and horrific nature of the conflict, and the uneasy nature of coalition armies, [an] entire generation of farmers could be lost and their homes and families left vulnerable for decades—the experience of Classical Thespiai is an especially good example. In some sense, that city-state’s entire history is the story of little more than three tragic hours of fighting at Thermopylai, Delion and Nemea. Hoplite obliteration on those days led directly to the demolition of the city itself.”


Carter, S. (1997). Capturing women: The manipulation of cultural imagery in Canada's prairie west. Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen's University Press.
Carter documents several cases in which women were abducted by "wild Indians" and how their accounts of their treatment were altered and changed over time to suit the political agenda of disenfranchisiney were g and marginalizing Aboriginals in the prairies. Covered in most detail is the Frog Lake incident. In 1885, nine White and one Métis man were murdered at Frog Lake by Wandering Spirit, war chief of a group of Plains Cree led by Big Bear. Two of the widows of the men killed were taken with Big Bear's group and lived with them for two months before their escape with a sizeable party of Métis. The women's initial descriptions of how thtreated markedly changed (or was changed for them by ghost writers) in a manner most unfavourable to the Cree and those who had helped them in Big Bear's camp.

The racist treatment of the Métis and Aboriginals that grew with White settlement in the prairies is documented by changes in marriage patterns. While it was common for Whites to marry Aboriginal women earlier, it became less and less common with time, although cohabitation remained common. White men would frequently live with Indian women and then abandon them and their shared offspring. This pattern is most clearly seen in the relations of members of the North West Mounted Police with Aboriginal women. However, marriages still occurred in small numbers. For example, my grandfather, a member of the NWMP, married a Métis woman who had been adopted by a Scot who was the Hudson's Bay Factor at Nelson House in Northern Manitoba.

Carter is somewhat less convincing in her argument that the status of women was not appreciably less than that of men among the Aboriginals of the West. Contemporary accounts predating the period covered in her book, such as Alexander Mackenzie's, paint a different picture.

Some interesting and somewhat mind-boggling hoaxes concerning children being kidnaped by the Aboriginals are also described. In all, an interesting exploration of racism in colonial environments


Cassidy, D.C. (2005). J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century. NY: PI Press.
On the one hand, one feels that Oppenheimer is picked on (the tall poppy syndrome?)—One can imagine people saying “he didn’t win the Nobel you know, he frittered his time away learning Sanscrit and drinking too much.” However, Oppenheimer does, even granting envy, come across as a less than heroic figure during the post-war American communist hunts. I think that people are disappointed that an apparently left-leaning and urbane scientist failed to protect science from the politicians, failed to protect his friends and himself from right-wing opportunists, and failed to move nuclear policy in a more sane direction. Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty were extremely ambitious. In the end, his reputation suffered because of what he was willing to do to satisfy this ambition.

The cynicism and the aggressive imperial nature of post-war American foreign policy and the complicity of leading American and European scientists (cf. Simpson, 1998) does not at first appear to be the focus of this book but emerges gradually from Oppenheimer’s biography. Big science as a tool of big business and the big military, coordinated in a short-sighted way by a reckless, ignorant, and amoral government. What a mess and what a legacy!


Simpson, C. (Ed.). (1998). Universities and empire: Money and politics in the social sciences during the cold war. NY: Norton.


Cesarani, D. (1998). Arthur Koestler: The homeless mind. London: Heineman.
Koestler led an unusual life. He was by turn a Zionist, a communist, an extremely influential anticommunist, a popularizer of science, a popularizer of mystical thinking, and a crusader against capital punishment and the British practice of lengthy quarantines for immigrant dogs. He was a reporter and novelist but preferred to be thought of as a scientist. His last great cause was parapsychology. Koestler moved constantly over space, living in Hungary, Israel, Germany, France, England, and the US, and across the political spectrum from left to right. He was on the run from the Nazis, was interned in a Spanish prison, and, towards the end of his life, heaped with honours, including an honorary doctorate from Queen's University.

Koestler may be best remembered for his novel Darkness at noon, based on the Moscow show trials of the thirties, his own experience in the Soviet Union as a visiting communist, and his Spanish prison experience. This book was extremely effective in undermining the growing communist influence in Western intellectual circles and is a cold war classic. I highly recommend it.

The biography is very long and the moral that Cesarani wants us to understand (Koestler must be understood as a Jew) is needlessly repeated throughout. Nevertheless, this book may increase your self esteem. If you worry that you drink to much, bully your spouse, don't think at all clearly, alienate your friends, misrepesent your past and current life, make a fool of yourself in public, drive recklessly, neglect your child, are disloyal, are rude, are racist and sexist, are promiscuous, a spendthrift, and fail to benefit from experience, you will gain comfort from the understanding that your sins and pecadilloes pale in comparison with Koestler's. Koestler was a chronic drunk driver, I lost count of the accidents he was in, and a serial rapist. He was way in over his head in the science end of things but maintained his intellectual reputation anyway. He was, in sum, incredibly selfish. Perhaps the real moral is that once one establishes a big enough reputation, one not only gets a large harem but the privilege of being able to get away with publishing junk.


Champlin, E. (2003). Nero. Harvard University Press.
A nice political counterpoint to Butterworth and Laurence’s book on the economic and social life of Pompeii. Nero’s reign was contemporaneous with Pompeii’s last days. Nero was quite as wacky as portrayed in the movies but his life on the stage was somewhat more politically calculated than it at first might appear. As well, Nero only murdered individuals, such as his mother, because they were a political threat to him. Amazingly, the author concludes from contemporary sources that Nero probably did have Rome burned. I had always thought it was just a silly story. Nero’s life was melodrama all the way to his pathetic end.


Chancellor, E. (1999). Devil take the hindmost: A history of financial speculation. Toronto: Penquin.
There are remarkable similarities among the periodic collapses of speculative bubbles from the sixteen hundreds onward: Investments are made in riskier and more exotic ventures, insiders generally profit at the expense of outsiders, people often think that the government cannot afford to let some capitalist venture fail, and so forth. The development of new financial instruments that I cannot understand, like derivatives of derivatives of...., and trading on the internet will inevitably lead to greater financial instability and more pervasive effects of speculative bubbles.

It is hard to see the financial market as a rational way of valuing things (as often argued) in this little history..


Chang, I. (1998). The rape of Nanking: the forgotten holocaust of World War II. N.Y.: Basic.
Definitely not for the weak of stomach. The best estimate of the number of murders is about 330,000 in 7 weeks. Very ironically, the chief hero to emerge from this godawful mess is a German nazi!!!

There was a story about two crazy kids in the army reported in the Japanese newspapers. They were having a high spirited and good natured competition to see who could behead 100 prisoners first. It was reported like a soccer game.

The general in charge of the invading army became severely ill shortly before the fall of Nanking. He had circulated orders prohibiting looting or abusing the population. One wonders whether it would have made a difference if he had been present but also what he knew that would have motivated him to write such a memo.

The Japanese have never apologized for this massacre, although the number murdered dwarfs the number killed in both the atomic explosions.

If you have sexually sadistic interests, you will enjoy this book.


Cicero, M.T. (44BC/1972) The nature of the Gods. Translated by H.C.P. McGregor and introduction and commentary by J.M. Ross. Baltimore, Md: Penguin.
By turns irritating and fascinating. Cicero wrote this book with incredible speed very late in life as part of his project to present Greek philosophy to the Romans. It takes the form of a dialogue between representatives of the various ancient schools of philosophy. The most interesting parts describe how much we now know to be true was known by the ancients-quite a lot. All of the familiar mediaeval Christian arguments for the existence of God are here as well as some very sharp refutations (mixed with some amazing credulity).

This book illustrates (if any illustration was necessary) how utterly dependent mediaeval Europe was on the legacy of the much more advanced Roman civilization.


Collins, A. (1988). In the sleep room: The story of the CIA brainwashing experiments in Canada. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys.   

This is kind of an update/branch plant version of John Mark's (1979) book The search for the "Manchurian candidate": The CIA and mind control: The secret history of the behavioral sciences. The careless and radical tinkering with the lives of the mentally ill by the charismatic and ambitious Dr. Ewen Cameron of the Alan Memorial Institute who happened to be president of the American Psychiatric Association was secretly funded by the CIA during this period. Pretty good for a guy who started out at the Brandon (Manitoba) Psychiatric Hospital. His therapy involved lots and lots of shock treatments, endless sleep induction, and autosuggestion. All evaluated with a protocol that could better have been designed by a child.

Outlandish treatments? I can remember as a boy psychiatric hospital attendant being told by a psychiatrist that the young high school principal we had just admitted because of an acute psychotic episode would be given multiple regressive shock treatment and then retrained. I remember wondering who ran the retraining program at the hospital because I'd never heard of it. Unlike most of the stories involving Cameron's patients, however, my story does have a happy ending--the principal did get enough shock treatments to put him in a wheel chair for awhile but when they stopped he rapidly got better (the curative effects of a wheel chair? Spontaneous remission? You choose--(note that retraining is not one of the alternatives)..

The book presents a very nice portrait of psychiatric attitudes towards women in the fifties and the colonial relationship between Canada and the U.S. Some interesting snippets of Hebb's view of his famous sensory deprivation experiments and his opinions of his colleague Cameron.


Cook, T. (2008). Shock troops: Canadians fighting the Great War 1917-1918. Vol. 2. Toronto: Viking Canada.
425,000 soldiers served as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, about 61,000 died during the war. Of the 345,000 men who served at the front, about 7 out of 10 were killed or wounded. Given Canada’s population of less than 8 million at the time, the losses were proportionate to what the Americans suffered during their civil war. These figures do not include the many soldiers who died after the war’s end from their wounds, particularly lung damage from mustard gas. The war is generally credited with creating a Canada independent of Britain.

This was the first industrial war. Because massive artillery, machine guns, barbed wire, and shovels gave an extraordinary advantage to the defenders, a stationary front developed, such that the major battles were fought in a charnel house made of mud. The horror was beyond belief.

Currie was the lead Canadian general. He was competent and very hard working, although not appreciated by his troops. He was seen as lazy (he was fat) and too willing to sacrifice his men to impress his superior, Haig (the ill-fated) British general. It appears, however, that Currie and his fellow-officers were very much in the forefront of reforms in organization and logistics that were conducive to greater battlefield success. Regrettably, this success led to the Canadians being given ever more difficult assignments and in the end, the Canadian infantry was pressed too hard—to the breaking point.

The magnitude of the sacrifice, the “butcher’s bill,” later seemed not to be justifiable by any possible result. The contemporary saying was that “Britain would fight to the last Canadian”, despite Britain’s own horrific losses.  One is reminded of the “stab in the back” rumours among the defeated Germans that contributed to Hitler’s post-war ascendancy. There is even the remarkable spectacle of Currie defending his war record in a libel suit against a small town Ontario newspaper many years after the war.

Although the reader can’t possibly keep the various army groups straight, the battles are clearly described and their results linked to the changing tactics used by both sides. The book quotes extensively from letters that soldiers wrote home during their time in the trenches and consequently, it is very, very sad. The letters do convey, however, what the front was actually like.

As children, we used to sing the smutty songs that the soldiers had sung in France—I still recall some of the endless lyrics to “inky dinky, parlez vous.” I was born in 1944, so many of the men of my father’s generation had served in the Second War. But there were lots of old guys still around who were veterans of the First War and even a few ancient guys from the Boer War. It was natural for us boys to not only play war with toy guns and toy soldiers but to practice marching. I often used to wonder whether I would be brave enough to do my duty when my time game. Thank God I never got to find out.


Cordingly, D. (1995). Under the black flag: The romance and the reality of life among the pirates. N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace, & Co.
Very young out of work sailors enjoyed usually brief careers as pirates. They had a well developed MO: The basic idea was to have a very fast ship, scare the hell out of the victims so they would comply (they really used the “jolly Roger” for this purpose), torture those suspected of having hidden treasure into revealing its whereabouts, and force essential tradesmen, such as coopers and ship carpenters, into service.

There are some good pictures of scary pirates. It turns out that Robert Louis Stevenson accurately portrayed pirates. It was, for example, common for sailors in the British Navy who had lost a leg in battle to be made into cooks, just like Long John Silver.


Crews, F. (2001). Postmodern pooh. NY: North Point.
A series of papers from a fictional post-modernist English literature conference. It starts out a little slow but the later papers are quite funny. Crews is very sharp—showing a good grasp of sociobiological thinking in Renee Francis’s contribution Gene/meme covariation in Ashdown Forest: Pooh and the consilience of knowledge in which the emerging and rigorous field of biopoetics is presented. One can discern the individual identity of some of the targets of Crews’ satire even from outside the field; there is, for example, a hilarious caricature of Harold Bloom, the octogenarian literary critic (who seemingly produces a weighty tome a fortnight). A very funny little book.


Cummins, J. (1995). Francis Drake: The lives of a hero. New York: St. Martin's Press.

The first part of this book is more interesting than the remainder, which tends to drag a bit. The account suffers from a lack of documentation on Drake's early life. Most interesting is the combination of English state and private enterprise in both piracy and war.

Poor Drake died in a completely unsuccessful attempt to relive his earlier spectacular success against the Spanish.


Dawkins, R. (2006). The God delusion. NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Dawkins debunks the intellectual and moral arguments that have been used to support belief in God. Dawkins argues that atheism is the only defensible position and that agnosticism results from a failure of moral courage, political correctness, or confusion. While it is true, as Dawkins asserts, that the supernatural aspect of religion, in particular the belief in an anthropomorphic being, is simply childish and that the historical effects of religious belief have been primarily negative, it cannot be proved that some sort of a God doesn’t exist. Part of the problem is that there are many definitions of God. In the end, I just don’t think that notions of God and religion are of any substantive interest—although they are of cultural and historical importance. I think that makes me an agnostic.

Dawkins writes entertainingly but works in very well trodden ground. Most of the arguments for the existence of God and their refutations were well known in antiquity. In the twentieth century, for example, Bertrand Russell provided a lucid summary of these arguments in Wisdom of the West (for high school students) and Why I am not a Christian and A History of Western Philosophy (for the adults). The most sophisticated evaluation of familiar Western beliefs that I have read is in Burtt (1939). Types of religious philosophy.The familiar arguments for atheism achieved the most notoriety when advanced by Madalyn O’Hair, who was for a long time the most famous American atheist.

There are only so many arguments for the existence of God and only so many fallacies that can be found in each. It’s a pity that a large portion of the world is not educated enough to want to move on. Pardon my elitism.


Dean, T. (2001). Crime in medieval Europe 1200-1550. Toronto: Pearson.

Here’s the bird’s eye lowdown: At the beginning of the period, trials increasingly replaced vendettas and the ordeal was dropped as a mode of proof. Serious crime patterns varied little across time or rural versus urban location, the states relied on unpaid judicial officers, punishment was selective and increasingly focused on the poor, shaming punishments declined, out-of-court settlements declined, and imprisonment grew more common. At the end of the period, the state curtailed clerical immunity and the right of sanctuary.

This is a text-bookish volume and definitely not popular history. As you can see from my little summary, there isn’t enough theory of any consequence to motivate the exposition.  


Debré, D. (1998). Louis Pasteur. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. (translated by E. Forster).

Written by an admiring but not sycophantic insider. Pasteur, a tanner's son, became a chemist who turned to biological matters and then medical topics later in his career. Despite saving the wine industry and the sheep of Europe, he got less than respect from some quarters. There were those who based their careers on opposition to his ideas on microbes, some who were opposed on philosophical grounds (primarily believers in spontaneous generation), some foreigners who were nationalist chauvinists, surgeons who resented an outsider telling them that they were killing their patients by infecting them, those who had financial interests in current practices, and then there were the simple nuts. Some surgeons ostentatiously kept their persons and instruments dirty to show their contempt for Pasteur and his microbes. Pasteur personally wrote rebuttals to these many attacks in scientific journals and the popular media. He was also regularly attacked in the Academy of Sciences. He took big worrisome risks in conquering rabies. Little wonder he had a stroke.

Pasteur worked incredibly hard and ran a strictly hierarchical lab. Unfortunately, sometimes this meant he missed valuable advice and information that his subordinates could have offered him. But in the end, as we all know, complete triumph was his.


Defourneaux, M. (1970). Daily life in Spain in the Golden Age. Stanford University Press. Translated by N. Branch.

A marvellous piece of history writing about Spain from 1556 to 1665. The book is very well written, entertaining, and consistently informative. Academics will enjoy the portrayal of university life, economists and moralists will like the description of the effects of New World gold on Spain's economy, and anti-clerics will particularly enjoy the descriptions of the Inquisition. Of course, everyone is interested in the topic of sex and romance, ably dealt with here. The book provides the cultural and political context to Cervantes' Don Quixote. Highly recommended.


Deichmann, U. (1996). Biologists under Hitler. Harvard University Press.

A much more genteel story than Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners (no killing babies or any real messy stuff) that is entirely consistent with Goldhagen's thesis. German biologists welcomed the culling of their Jewish colleagues for their own advancement, pitched their research toward racist goals (not necessarily opportunistically because they were on-side in any case), and, in general, did their research and science as usual right to the end of the war.

The quality of the science did suffer, partly because of the isolation of German scientists during and after the war.

Konrad Lorenz was an enthusiastic collaborator. Tinbergen, in Holland, was traumatized but brave and, if not forgiving, was committed to working for the good of post-war Europe; he appears to have been a thoroughly admirable man.

Most of this book reads like a PhD thesis but there is a letter printed as an epilogue that is particularly moving.


Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. Toronto: Penguin.

Diamond has done it again. This is a worthy successor to Guns, Germs, and Steel. Not much of the material is new but I have not seen it put together before and the effect of the whole is much greater than that of its components. The style and organization of the book make it engaging reading.

Much of the book is about the Malthusian dilemma and the determinants of soil depletion and renewal. Diamond reviews instructive cases of dismal failure and others of sustained success. The potential for disaster on a world-wide scale is greater with globalization because nobody has anyplace to move to if things go badly in a global sense, although in the shorter term local disasters can be dealt with more easily because resources can be taken from elsewhere. Diamond manages to maintain a sense of optimism but I’m not sure how many careful readers of this book will share this view.


Dowling, L. (1994). Hellenism and homosexuality in Victorian Oxford. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

It is interesting how close homosexuality came to being accepted in upper class Victorian England. Hellenism was presented as an alternative to Christianity to the upper classes at Oxford and Cambridge. Part of this Hellenism was homosexuality or homosexual pedophilia. The Uranian poets celebrated homosexual love more and more openly. Within Oxford, the tutorial system was designed to foster attachment between the students and their tutors--if not platonic attachment--still innocent attachment.

Not surprisingly, all was not innocent and there were several anticipations of the Oscar Wilde tragedy that brought the whole Hellenistic edifice crashing down. Dowling knows her stuff and presents it with a sure touch. First rate.


Dubinsky, K. (1993). Improper advances: Rape and heterosexual conflict in Ontario, 1880- 1929. University of Chicago Press.

Although the author tries mightily to illuminate heterosexual conflict in Ontario around the turn of the last century, the quality of the data available is such that one ends up primarily with a series of anecdotes from court records and newspapers, with no idea how representative these vignettes are of what actually went on. Nevertheless, worth a quick read, if only to document the similarity of sexual coercion of a century ago to what occurs today.


Dunk, T.W. (1991). It’s a working man’s town: Male working class culture in Northwestern Ontario. McGill-Queen’s University Press. Kingston.

This book is about working class guys who work steadily in paper mills and grain elevators, or more seasonally in construction and lumbering. Although later than my Thunder Bay cohort and of less antisocial and more employable propensities than many in my old circle (of admittedly younger) friends, these guys, self-styled “the boys”, were certainly recognizable to me—the bar fly behavior, anti-intellectual dismissal of things bookish and embrace of things “common-sensical”, the norms of easy reciprocity, and the style of humour are exactly as I remember them.

Dunk attempts to explain the nature of this male working class culture using Marxist theory. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything Marxist and I found the approach very interesting. Marxism isn’t really scientific in the sense of attempting to produce and evaluate falsifiable predictions. It is nevertheless, a highly disciplined and intellectual world-view that allows one to understand or at least feel that one understands a very wide range of social phenomena. Not history, not science, but something else—maybe a cross between ideology and philosophy.


Durschmied, E. (2002). The hinges of battle: How chance and incompetence have changed the face of history. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Some evolutionary psychologists have argued that military incompetence is an adaptation designed to keep one from getting killed, but that isn't the kind of incompetence being discussed here. There is a very interesting discussion of Stalin keeping secret from the Germans and his allies an enormous army in the East that was unleashed at Stalingrad. Here, as in Beevor's book, the superiority of the Russian T-34 tank is stressed.

In all, an entertaining romp through history. Durschmied covers Attila's last great battle in 451, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the first use of cannon, Napoleon's 1805 victories, the English debacle in Afghanistan in 1842, Custer's last stand in 1876, the Zulu defeat of the English in 1879, the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin, the faked 1939 Polish attack on Germany, Stalingrad in 1942, and the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu.


Dylan, B. (2004). Chronicles. Volume One. Toronto: Simon & Schuster.

Clearly written by a bright guy lacking a university education and editor, as illustrated by the awkward organization of this book and its occasional misuse of big words. Dylan, as he has often pointed out, is a musician, not a philosopher or an academic social critic. However, the artlessness and lack of organization of this book is somewhat appealing because it makes it appear as if the reader is getting the straight goods on what Dylan thought over his long career. The book is much more interesting when describing his early life and career than his later career, making one think of how autobiographical memories are more vivid and densely laid down in late adolescence and early adulthood. I had known how fans relentlessly invaded Dylan’s privacy but was nevertheless surprised by the extent of it.


Dyer, G. (2004). War: The new edition. Toronto: Random House.

The first edition of this book was originally written to accompany a 1985 CBC documentary. It is an unsentimental and chilling description of the evolution of warfare from small groups of men fighting over food and women through total warfare. Dyer knows something about evolutionary psychology, economics, and history. We learn, for example, that officers in all armies must be willing to spend their men to achieve military objectives. Not too many men though, because after a certain proportion of men are spent, the fighting force becomes ineffective through “shell shock,” “battle fatigue,” and outright mutiny or desertion. If potential recruits were to read this book, the armed services would get precious few volunteers. Written to the same end as Shaw’s Arms and the Man but modern social science rather than a play.

A well-written, fast paced narrative with excellent photographs.


Eduardo, L. (2005). Mistresses: True stories of seduction, power and ambition. London: O’Mara.

Not as titillating as one might desire but I found it of some interest anyway, partly because I had heard the names of some of these women but really didn’t know anything about them. There are some real adventuresses in this group and the story of some of their lives wouldn’t be believable if presented as fiction. Many also went through one hell of a lot of money and died broke. Women covered include Lola Montez (adventuress with a whip) and La Belle Otero (the suicides’ siren).


Elliott, J.E. (2009). Strange fatality: The battle of Stoney Creek, 1813. Hamilton: Robin Brass Studio.

The war of 1812 was described by an historian as “a succession of timorous advances and hasty retreats, of muddle-headed planning and incompetent generalship, interspersed with a few sharp actions and adroit manoeuvres which reflected credit on a few individuals and discredit on many”. Such was the case in the series of engagements culminating in the battle of Stoney Creek. The Canadians had been driven out of Fort Niagara and were allowed to escape toward Hamilton. The Americans finally got their act together and were poised to annihilate the remnants of the British regulars and win the war.

The Canadians launched a surprise bayonet attack under cover of darkness that, in a confused but deadly action, drove the Americans from the field. Although the battle was a close run thing, the Americans began a confused retreat and in the ensuing weeks suffered more serious losses. The invasion of Upper Canada was over.

Part of the reason for the precipitous retreat of the American army was their fear of attack by the Canadian’s Indian allies. The Indians, however, were sitting on their hands waiting to see who would be on the winning side and did not join the Canadians in any numbers until after Stoney Creek.

The story illustrates the deplorable state of leadership on both sides. The Canadian general “went missing” during the Stoney Creek battle and only turned up the next day when all was over. The American general, whose appointment was a disastrous product of partisan politics, was far too ill to leave Fort Niagara.

This book is very crisply written and has a lot of good pictures and maps. As a bonus, there’s a brief and clear account of the naval war on Lake Ontario. Highly recommended.


Ellis, J. (1998). One day in a very long war: Wednesday, 25th October, 1944. London: Random House.

I’m sure you have often wondered exactly what was going on in the month of my birth. Of course, my parents had to return to the village of Flin Flon to be taxed, three wise guys came from down east following the aurora borealis..... but this book is about the war.

The idea of describing a single day around the world during the war works very well as an expository device, although in order to be understandable, the author actually has to describe the entire month. One gets a much better feel for what a staggeringly enormous enterprise the war actually was from this approach as opposed to much larger volumes covering smaller theaters of action. Imagine how long a list of those killed during the war would be.

Some interesting information that I didn’t know. For example, the Canadians fighting near Antwerp in the Battle of the Scheldt lost 3,650 men killed, missing, or wounded in 29 days from one division (111 men per day). This is almost as high a casualty rate as the infamous Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) in 1917 where four Canadian divisions lost 15,654 men (119 men per division per day). Although this is a high casualty rate, one must remember that most of the dying during the Second War occurred on the Eastern front. For example, the Soviets accounted for 90% of the German Army’s killed and wounded during the entire war.

There was a lot more graft and profiteering going on than I was aware of previously. Big time stuff on the Western front.

All in all, a good book.


English, JH. McLaughlin, K., & Lackenbauer, P.W. (Eds.) (2002). Mackenzie King: Citizenship and Community. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio.

An edited book with chapters on various aspects of King’s life. King came of age in Berlin, Ontario, and had strong ties to the German community there. These ties gave him faith that Germany and the British Empire would, in the end, be friends. Well, during WWI, Berlin renamed itself “Kitchener.”

In 1897, King went to the University of Chicago to do graduate study in activist sociology. He was heavily involved with Jane Addams’ Hull House settlement in working class Chicago. King also became romantically involved with a nurse. His mother disapproved of the nurse and his social activism, writing: “I have built castles without number for you. Are all these dreams but to end in dreams? I am getting old now Willie and disappointment wearies and the heart grows sick. Sometimes when I hear you talk so much [about] what you would do for those that suffer I think charity begins at home.” After this King became more emotionally attached to his mother and never had a girlfriend again. He gave up his activism for a more conventional political career and, after getting his Harvard PhD in economics, a more conservative worldview.

Many years later “King could see in his own behaviour that he had “sold out”: he had become a lackey of the capitalist class he had once ridiculed, the Rockefeller family in particular. His retreat into the spirit world is probably best understood as his way of dealing with the failure he knew he had become, by the standards of the man for whom he was named.” (p. 207). The latter being his maternal grandfather, William Lyon MacKenzie, the leader of the 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada.

F.R. Scott of McGill University summed it up thusly:


How shall we speak of Canada,
Mackenzie King dead?
The Mother's boy in the lonely room
With his dog, his medium and his ruins?

He blunted us.

We had no shape
Because he never took sides,
And no sides
Because he never allowed them to take shape.

He skilfully avoided what was wrong
Without saying what was right,
And never let his on the one hand
Know what his on the other hand was doing.

The height of his ambition
Was to pile a Parliamentary Committee on a Royal Commission,
To have "conscription if necessary
But not necessarily conscription,"
To let Parliament decide--

Postpone, postpone, abstain.

Only one thread was certain:
After World War I
Business as usual,
After World War II
Orderly decontrol.
Always he led us back to where we were before.

He seemed to be in the centre
Because we had no centre,
No vision
To pierce the smoke-screen of his politics.

Truly he will be remembered
Wherever men honour ingenuity,
Ambiguity, inactivity, and political longevity.

Let us raise up a temple
To the cult of mediocrity,
Do nothing by halves
Which can be done by quarters.

(F.R. Scott)

Dennis Lee was briefer in Alligator Pie.

William Lyon Mackenzie King

William Lyon Mackenzie King
Sat in the middle & played with string
And he loved his mother like anything—
William Lyon Mackenzie King.

(Dennis Lee)

When all is said and done, however, it should be remembered that maudlin and ostentatious attachment to mothers was not at all uncommon among middle class men, that belief in the spirit world was widespread in Europe and North America, and that a number of historians consider MacKenzie King, for all his caution and warts, to be among the greatest of Canadian Prime Ministers.


English, T.J. (2007). Havana nocturne: How the mob owned Cuba and then lost it in the revolution. NY: HarperCollins.

The mafia, like other American corporations (such as United Fruit and Freeport Sulphur), bribed Cuban officials in order to obtain permission to exploit the country. Of course, the chief Cuban colluder was Batista. The mafia invested a great deal of money in building up gambling and prostitution enterprises to serve the American tourists who flocked to the new luxurious Havana hotels. It was just like Vegas, but without meddling from the American government.

Meyer Lansky, the brains behind the Cuban venture, was less bloodthirsty and more averse to publicity than his colleagues but nevertheless willing to benefit from their brutality. Business people love monopolies.

There were some trickle down economic benefits for Havana and, in particular, musicians and entertainers had lots of work. Lansky’s crew even trained up some locals as card dealers (no cheating was allowed because it was both unnecessary and bad for business). The countryside, however, remained desperately poor. Revolutionary acts, such as bombing, were increasingly frequent and were bad for business.

Lansky and his colleagues believed that either Batista would remain in place or, once the unpleasantness was eventually over, that the new regime would see the benefits of money flowing from tourism and graft. Not only were they wrong, the revolution succeeded suddenly, almost overnight. The mafia lost a lot of money.

A very nice evocation of a vanished era and a great read for a Cuban beach.


Etzioni, A. (1999). The limits of privacy. N.Y.: Basic.

An unbelievably boring read. Etzioni argues that privacy is often over-valued in comparison to other societal goods. He presents very convincing arguments on issues like the desirability of revealing the results of AIDS testing of neonates to their mothers and the dangers of computer encryption. But, even if convincing, the book is just so tedious. It would make a fine pamphlet.


Evans, R.J. (2008). The Third Reich at war 1939-1945. London: Penquin.

Exceptionally well done and readable. Despite all that has been written, there are still surprises. For example, Hitler was told by his economic advisors in 1942 that the Axis powers would lose the war based solely on a comparison of the number of tanks and planes produced monthly by the combatants. However, Hitler, like many in high Nazi circles, persisted in wishful thinking that was close to delusional.

Extensive quotes from the diaries of Germans from disparate backgrounds provide interesting insights. Most Germans, in contrast to the completely indoctrinated (usually younger) people, knew the war would be lost early on. Many viewed the allied bombing as a sort of just world retribution for the crimes that Germany had committed in the east (you can’t keep crimes of that magnitude a secret because far too many are involved). For similar reasons, Germans were afraid of what the Soviets would do to Germany after their inevitable victory. The ideological fanatics believed that the Fuhrer would either produce the promised secret weapons or finally convince the Western allies to unite with Germany to fight the Soviets.


Fagan, B. (2008). The great warming: Climate change and the rise and fall of civilizations. NY: Bloomsbury.

Written in the spirit of Diamond’s Collapse and covering some of the same ground (pun intended), this book documents the effects of world-wide warming in the tenth to fifteenth centuries. The chief effect of the “Medieval Warm Period” was widespread drought resulting in millions of deaths and the destruction of a number of states. These effects were caused by only a few degrees of temperature change.

Fagan’s thesis is that the Medieval Warm Period is a gentle warning of what’s coming. Although a lot of this material has been described before, it is of interest that quite a bit more has been learned recently.


Fiest, G.J. The Psychology Of Science And The Origins Of The Scientific Mind. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

As indicated by the title, this book has two parts, the first is a plea for a new discipline, the psychology of science, and the second explores the origins of the scientific mind--where does the ability to do science originate? With respect to the first part, although one can debate the question of whether there should be a formal psychology of science to complement the extant major science studies disciplines of history, philosophy, and sociology, it is clear that psychology can make contributions to the selection and recruitment of successful scientists and to understanding the nature of scientific thinking. There are, for example, instructive similarities in abilities, motivations, and training experiences among elite scientists, chess players, musicians, and athletes.

In the second part, Fiest traces the origins of the scientific mind back through prehistory. Unfortunately, in so doing, the issue of the origin of the scientific mind gets swamped by a lengthy and sometimes speculative discussion of the origins of the mind per se.

The book ranges widely over different areas of psychology, the philosophy, history, and sociology of science, and hominid evolution. In fact, the principal difficulty with this work is that the author has cast his net too widely in both sections, resulting in an unfocussed exposition that often reads like an introductory undergraduate survey text as opposed to a work designed for professional scientists and academics.


Fletcher, R. (2002). Bloodfeud: Murder and revenge in anglo-saxon England. London: Penguin.

This is a detailed and interesting story of the endless intrigue and murders in a balkanized land where life was nasty, brutish, and short. My favourite Viking, Egil Skallagrimson, sets the tone when writing a poem about Eric Bloodaxe's Northumbrian kingdom:

where the king kept his people cowed
under the helmet of his terror.
From his seat at York he ruled unflinchingly
over a dank land.
One of the more interesting historical tidbits in this book is a discussion of how incredibly lucrative Viking intimidation could be around the year 1,000. The Danegeld (a tax raised to pay the Vikings to go away for a year or so) amounted to a 100 percent level of taxation in one year; this was followed by a levy to raise an army to fight off the Vikings in subsequent years. People who couldn't pay lost their land to other parties who could cover their taxes. The unfortunates often had to sell themselves into slavery.

Unfortunately, the story of the particular feud around which the book is structured is incompletely documented and this leads to a bit of frustration for the reader.


Fowler, R. (Ed.). The Cambridge companion to Homer. Cambridge University Press.

The Odyssey and the Iliad were likely created in the form we know them around 700 BCE. Many of the practices referred to in these epic poems were, however, much older. Osborne points out in his chapter on Homer’s society that…”much in the world of epic would have brought an eighth-century audience up short. The palaces, the silver bath tubs, the chariots of war, the exotic armour, the treatment of iron as a precious metal, the existence of bride-price as well as dowry, the domination of the labour force by slaves: all of these will have served to distance the world described in the poems from that experienced by an eighth- or early seventh-century audience. And almost all of these find close correlates in the late Bronze Age archaeological record.” Nevertheless, Homer’s world was far closer to an eighth-century audience than it is to us. Although human motivations appear to be unchanging, how difficult it is for us to appreciate such a remote period. This edited book therefore attempts to describe what Homer’s world was really like, how he constructed his poems, and how later generations interpreted them. There is a Homer for every generation.


Fox, J. (2007). Jane Boleyn: The true story of the infamous Lady Rochford. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Wealth, land, and success could be gained by noble families in the court of Henry the VIII. All depended, however, on earning and keeping the increasingly irascible king’s favour. This was a hazardous enterprise. Jane Boleyn survived the execution of her husband, returning to court (after a brief disgrace) as a lady-in-waiting for the new queen, Catherine Howard. Catherine, not yet 20, and Henry, aged 49, had a happy marriage at first. But Catherine was incredibly foolhardy, despite having managed to capture the king’s heart. Revelations of her pre-marital sexual indiscretions led to the discovery of current infidelity. Jane was complicit in Catherine’s adultery (it is unlikely that she could have avoided complicity given her dependence on the queen) and paid with her head.

Very well done book. Entertaining and informative.


Frankfort, E. (1983). Kathy Boudin and the dance of death. N.Y.: Stein & Day.

Che Guevara had many imitators, such as Kathy Boudin of the USA.

Kathy was an underground weather person who almost got blown up in a secret bomb factory and was later arrested for participating in a Brinks truck robbery in which a number of people were killed. The police stopped the robbers who were driving a car pulling a U-Haul van. Kathy convinced the (black) cop to put down his shotgun, whereupon one of her accomplices jumped out of the van and shot him dead. Kathy ran off down a highway until stopped by an off duty correctional officer, whereupon she started screaming that she wasn't the one who had done the shooting.

Kathy, like many of her underground radical friends, had wealthy and influential parents. Kathy's father was a lawyer who spent his career defending well known leftist activists. Her upbringing on the affluent moral high ground is presumably responsible for her incredible sense of entitlement and self righteousness documented in this book.

Does Kathy maintain solidarity with her poor black criminal accomplices/freedom fighting colleagues? Well, to mix a metaphor--Does the pope shit in the woods? Nevertheless, there is some suspense in this book--Does daddy save the day?


Fraser, A. (2001). Marie Antoinette: The journey. Toronto: Doubleday.

A very interesting and enjoyable biography. Marie Antoinette was never a master of her fate and was an ordinary, if unfortunate, sort of person until ennobled by her response to her persecution during the revolution. The incompetence of the hidebound court of Louis the Sixteenth (talk about a somewhat less than ordinary man) overshadowed its wastefulness. Not that they deserved to be turned over to the Parisian savages.

There are some striking psychological and political similarities between the situation of the French royal family before their execution and those of the Romanoffs before theirs.

The most remarkable part of the book is the descriptions of the pre-revolutionary and revolutionary crowds, driven into a frenzy by a steady diet of outrageous, scurrilous, and implausible lies fed to them by the pamphlets of the day. I couldn't help but be reminded of some of the heatedly partisan paranoidal commentaries one hears on TV shows. Enthusiasm should have remained a term of abuse.


Funk, R.W. & the Jesus Seminar. (1998). The acts of Jesus. N.Y.: Harper Collins

This volume reports on the efforts of a large group of New Testament scholars to discover what Jesus actually said and did. They take each phrase in the New Testament and assign it a numerical rating according to whether it is definitely false, possible, probable, or almost certain. The averaged ratings are given corresponding colours: Black, grey, pink, and red.

Very little of the New Testament gets coloured red, a little more gets pink, mostly it's black

There is a lot here to interest nonspecialists. First, the sheer amount of knowledge gleaned from decades of biblical study and detailed translations of the New Testament texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other fragments found about the Mideast, historical studies of Hellenistic society during the period, and collateral sources, most notably Josephus's The Jewish Wars.

It was news to me just how Greek the New Testament is. It's not only that all of the New Testament gospels were originally written in Greek (as opposed to Hebrew or Aramaic) but also that the type of stories told about Jesus (e.g., the miraculous birth stories) were commonly written about other Greek heroes.

The most interesting parts of the book are the explanations of how the scholars know a particular passage is false. These reasons include the many contradictions among the different gospels (the temporal order of their composition is known, as well as who copied from whom), anachronisms, the impossibility of certain sorts of information being preserved in oral tradition (the gospels were written long after Jesus's death), evidence that the political motivations of the later gospel writers were imposed upon narratives from an earlier time, simple historical mistakes, the modelling of stories of Jesus's life on the stories about earlier biblical figures, and so forth.

It was highly likely that Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist and that Jesus left John's movement, taking some of John's disciples with him. The John the Baptist sect was an important competitor of the Jesus movement after Jesus's crucifixion.

Although Jesus' brother later become prominent in the Jesus movement, there is pretty good evidence that his family (a mother, four brothers and some sisters) thought he was on the nutty side, at least early in his career.

The translations presented in the book are written in the style of the original Greek. If an author used a high-falutin' style of Greek, the English is lofty; if a street style of Greek, the English is written accordingly, with amusing results. So, the "verily, verily I say unto you" of the lovely King James Version becomes "If you got two ears, you'd better listen."

There's a lot more of interest in this very big book. For many readers who were raised as Christians, it will come as a bit of a shock to realize how much of the Bible they actually know, even though it is unlikely that many of them have ever studied it in a critical manner.

So what do we know? Jesus spoke in parables, was not a biblical scholar (he might not have been able to read but probably spoke Greek as a second language), was a charismatic healer, exorcist, and itinerant sage who preached the good news about God's or Heaven's Imperial Rule, and consorted with people from all classes (including the lowest of the low, the hereditary tax collectors). He was crucified by the Romans for some offense against the temple in Jerusalem but stayed dead.


Garth, J. (2003). Tolkien and the Great War: The threshold of Middle-earth. London: HarperCollins.

This is really a book for specialists-more than a bit tedious for the average reader. Tolkien wrote the Hobbit for his children somewhat late in life and was persuaded to write the trilogy after. Although this work was completed late, Tolkien had been interested in the fairy world and ancient languages from his childhood. The book documents the effects of the Great War on the romanticism (I recall 'romanticism' once being defined as the belief that the world was like an English country garden) of Tolkien and his small circle of public school friends. The wonder is, I suppose, that any of it survived to be expressed in Tolkien's books.


Gathorne-Hardy, J. (1998). Alfred Kinsey: Sex the measure of all things: A biography. London: Chatto & Windus.  

Strangely, the title of the book on the dustcover and cover does not agree with that on the frontispiece of the book. This is not a well written book. The author irritatingly takes great pains at every opportunity to inform his English readers how different trivial things are in far off America. Nevertheless, one can’t miss with a character like Kinsey. An inveterate collector-first of galls, then of sexual histories, then of sexual partners-Kinsey worked incredibly hard his entire life.

Kinsey was a sexually repressed youth who stayed involved with the scout movement well into adulthood (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). When he became sexually liberated, he really went to town..

One can’t help but admire Kinsey for his herculean efforts and his many kindnesses to strangers, although Kinsey did not countenance disagreement from colleagues or subordinates very well. Any resemblance between Kinsey and other entomologists who study human sex is purely coincidental.....


Gay, P. (1998). Pleasure wars: The bourgeois experience: Victoria to Freud. N.Y.: Norton.

Why I finished reading this book is something of a mystery to me. It is the last of a long series on the 19th century bourgeois experience written by one of the more credulous biographers of Freud (I definitely don't recommend the biography).

Maybe I finished it because it reminded me of books I read when in high school. I particularly remember reading Martin Eden by Jack London; a book that concerned the relationship of a (very juvenile and romanticized) "intellectual" to the uncomprehending and unworthy bourgeois. Martin Eden, having risen from the working class on the basis of pure intellect, kills himself because nobody understands the big ideas underlying his writings. Great stuff when one is a naive 14 year old. Apparently, 19th century fiction and high cultural writing is full of this stuff, much of it even more juvenile that I had imagined.


Gilbert, M. (1965). The European Powers 1900-1945. New York: New American Library.

A concise, somewhat moralistic, summary of this period. Because of its brevity, however, it shows nicely how the second war was a continuation of the first.


Glendinning, V. (1998). Jonathan Swift: A portrait. Toronto: Doubleday.  

A curiously unsatisfying biography. At the end of it, I couldn't decide whether I liked Swift or how important he was as a thinker. Part of the problem is that the information on Swift's life is either very detailed or non-existent, depending on the issue and the particular period. The other difficulty concerns biographers who depend on aristocratic patronage--they always seem to be waiting around for someone to do something for them. In Swift's case, an ultimately futile wait, although he did have his hour. Obviously frustrating for him and frustrating for us to read about.


Goldhagen, D.J. (1997) Hitler's willing executioners: Ordinary Germans and the holocaust. NY: Vintage.

I've read some depressing books in my day but this one takes the cake. Basically, the author argues that the vast majority of ordinary Germans wanted to be rid of the Jews, liked to terrorize them, and thought it was a real nifty thing to humiliate, abuse, and slaughter them. The Nazis do not appear on this account to be out of step with the rest of Germany at all. I can't evaluate the author's thesis about whether the Jews were victimized more than say, gypsies, the retarded, or the slavs but it hardly matters. This book bummed me out for months.


Goldstone, P. (2001). Making the world safe for tourism. New Haven: Yale University Press.   

This is a very uneven book about big business tourism. There are a few very funny vignettes that call to mind the phrase "When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun". Unfortunately, large parts of the book somewhat pointlessly recount the author's travels and are accompanied by photographs too small to be worthwhile. Sad descriptions of the effects of tourism in Ireland, Turkey, and the Middle East. In all, a cynicism engendering read. The Middle East sounds hopelessly and angrily divided-after the demolition of the World Trade Towers, quelle surprise!


Goldsworthy, A. (2003). In the name of Rome: The men who won the Roman Empire. London: Phoenix.

This book describes the lives of Roman generals selected from various periods of Rome’s long history. Then, as now, war was as much about internal politics as foreign affairs. Often, it was unwise to be too successful a general (you could end up being killed by nervous politicians in the capitol). As well, even generals who literally saved the empire, like Scipio Africanus, did not receive the gratitude they deserved because military success had domestic political implications. In all, an interesting description of the strengths and weaknesses of Roman military tactics and technology.


Gopnik, A. (2000). Paris to the moon. New York: Random House. New Haven: Yale University Press.   

A charming set of sometimes very funny stories describing the Gopniks' two-year sojourn in Paris. Some of the stories reminded me very much of my two-year period of working in a French institution in Montreal.


Gotlieb, A. (2007). The Washington diaries 1981-1989. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Alan Gotlieb was a celebrity Canadian ambassador to Washington in the era of Ronald Reagan. He gave and attended zillions of dinners and soirées. According to his account, he was a tireless and effective advocate for Canada, particularly in connection with NAFTA, a device he considered Canada’s only defence against American protectionism. Although most Americans and government officials seemed to neither know nor care, Canada was by far the US’s largest trading partner and Canada was perennially in danger of having its various economic sectors inadvertently ruined in recurring fits of US protectionist sentiment. Gotlieb is convincing in portraying the American governmental system as without a centre of coherent authority—he uses the term “ungovernable”—perhaps the most striking symptom of this is the predominance of narrow, parochial, political concerns in congress. The Canadian government, however, was not far behind—there were dramatic policy shifts according to who was in power, and members of cabinet frequently pursued their own idiosyncratic political agendas. All of this reinforces the view that democracies are particularly ill-suited for achieving long-term objectives or policies, even those that are simply economic or political.

Through vivid examples, Gotlieb portrays the press in both countries as frequently sensationalist, spectacularly ill-informed, and occasionally vindictive. It’s a wonder anyone wants to serve in government. Sometimes, however, the press did have something real to gossip about, as when Sondra Gotlieb (Alan’s wife) slapped one of their servants when preparations for a big party went awry. This incident raises the issue of the behaviour of the elite (in democracies, elites generally try to disguise their eliteness). Gotlieb is enamoured with the powerful and famous glitterati, partly because he was paid to seek influence and partly because he shared the interests of most everyone else. The account of the endless round of receptions and dinners, however, does start to grate on the reader—it starts to sound like name-dropping and the participants begin to appear something like the French aristocracy before the revolution. Let them eat Manitoban golden caviar!


Gough, B. (1997). First across the continent: Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. New Haven: Yale University Press.   

A terse account of Mackenzie's journey up the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean and across the Rockies to the Pacific (but not down the raging Fraser River). Mackenzie's successful journey was a stimulus to Jefferson's plans for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Jefferson wanted to secure the Northwest for the Americans instead of the British (or Russians).

Mackenzie showed that there was no easy passage across the continent for trade with China. He did, however, show that the area was great for the fur trade and died a rich man (unlike Lewis, who killed himself shortly after returning from his expedition). Mackenzie's scheme of trading furs directly from the West coast across the Pacific, although insightful and feasible, was never taken up by the British.


Granastein, J.L. (1993). The generals: The Canadian army’s senior commanders in the Second World War. Toronto: Stoddart.

The generals were recruited from the starving rump of a Canadian army that was barely allowed to exist between the world wars. Of course, one gets what one pays for. Nevertheless, the rump quickly became the nucleus of the formidable army that was so quickly put together—a remarkable achievement.

There were two principal difficulties with the generals. One was that few of them had any real experience in battle conditions or even in large training maneuvers. It is not surprising then that they varied considerably in their competence. The second problem is that they were old—old men simply don’t have the stamina or quickness of thought that is required in battle. Some of the generals (who had been heroes in the First War) tried to refight it.

It took awhile for the unfit to be weeded out. This process involved lots of gossip, backbiting, and political machinations. This all seems very familiar. Because it is difficult to measure competence in generalship (particularly in advance of real battles), there is frequent disagreement about who should be promoted or demoted, making “meeting well with others” more important than it should be.


Gray, C. (2006). Reluctant genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the passion for invention. NY: Arcade.

A page turning (but very detailed) biography the inventor of the telephone. Bell was a rather poor and health-challenged Scottish emigrant to North America who became interested in the prospects of the telephone through his and his father’s work on sign language for the deaf. Deafness as a result of infection was at the time (late 19th century) very common. Both Bell’s mother and his wife were deaf.

Bell was justifiably hypochondriacal but driven by mad bouts of creative energy throughout his life. A very complex person who, ably assisted by his wife, ended up being much more successful and happy than he or anyone else expected. As an aside, it’s interesting that the familiar controversy regarding the relative merits of sign language and lip reading was aflame so long ago.


Gregory, A. (1911/2001). Cuchulain of Muirthemne: The story of the men of the Red Branch of Ulster. Toronto: General Publishing

Lady Gregory translated and patched ancient Irish fragmentary stories together as a labour of love. What emerges is a fantastical, dream-like world of warring heroes. Everything is larger than life. The tales of Cuchulain (pronounced Kuhoolin) are about the head-hunting Irish and the warrior ethos is pervasive.

The date for the composition of the original stories is unclear but probably much earlier than the 12th century. They certainly seem earlier than the Icelandic sagas and likely predate Beowulf. The stories are a strange mix of heroic sentiment, magic, incredible exaggeration, glorification of ancestors, and stories about the origin of place names. Some of it is quite childlike. Nevertheless, the resemblance of these stories to those of the Odyssey and Iliad is striking.

Something about killing for revenge, women, and livestock appeals to the male psyche. The relationship of a fearsome reputation to the acquisition of the most desirable women is palpable in these stories. Of course, this relationship is found in many societies, as is head-hunting. The imperialist Aztecs, for example, were great head-hunters who displayed their trophies on skull racks (even the heads of the conquistadores' horses!). Aztec boys started to grow a lock of hair when they were about ten. They were not allowed to cut it off until they had taken a prisoner in battle. The female age-mates of these boys were given to mocking the "stinking" lock of hair. But I digress.

What was all the fighting about? As apparently everywhere among preliterate people, large mammals. For example, Sualtim’s head (Sualtim, Cuchulain’s father, had accidentally cut off his own head with his shield¬go figure) tells King Conchubar of an invasion in which “Men are being killed, women brought away, cattle brought away in Ulster”. The king replies “…unless the sky with all its shower of stars comes down on earth…. I swear that I will bring back every cow to its own shed, and every woman to her own dwelling-house.” An Irish Helen of Troy sort of story that the Yanomamo would understand.

When did Cuchulain's oft repeated motivation, "It is little I would care if my life were to last one day and one night only, as long as my name and the story of what I had done would live after me," which he first expressed as a boy too young to bear arms, become Shakespeare's "pursuing the bubble reputation even in the cannon's mouth"?


Grosskurth, P. (1997). Byron: The flawed angel. Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter, & Ross.   

Byron was a crash dieter but ended up fat. He had a history of manic-depressive illness in his family and suffered from it himself. He engaged in a poorly concealed incestuous relationship with his half sister. The Westermark hypothesis survives disconfirmation because they were not raised together.

This book fails to answer the major question I have about Byron: Why is anybody interested in this guy? He appears from the biography to be petty, vain, politically and economically naive even for his class and time, snobbish, selfish, mean, unfaithful to his friends, associates, relatives, and lovers in many different ways, and, as far as I can tell, never accomplished very much. Nor did he have a particularly interesting life. I'm told his poetry is good and I'm no judge, although I wasn't impressed with what was quoted in this book.

This book is a little hard to follow and not well organized. The author has difficulty in emphasizing what's important (perhaps because in this case, nothing is).


Gurevich, A. (translated by J.M. Bak & P.A. Hollingsworth). (1990). Medieval popular culture: Problems of belief and perception. Cambridge University Press.

A very thoughtful attempt to discern the mentality of the illiterate majoritiy of people in medieval Europe from the penitentials, sermons, eschatological visions, and lives of the saints. The idea is to use written material that was about the people or for priests to use with the people as a guide to what the masses thought. Although the book moves a little too slowly, it is well worth the effort of reading. There are many contradictions in medieval thought, for example, it was simultaneously believed that there was an individiual judgment that occurred upon a person's death and a judgment that occurred at the end of the world. These two ideas can't be fitted together in a coherent account.

Gurevich argues that the peasant masses were never fully converted to Catholicism. The peasants were Christian in an instrumental and superstitious sense but neither understood nor were very intereseted in theological niceties. That turned out to be a blessing.

Gurevich describes the Elucidarium written by Honorius of Autun at the end of the 11th century in some detail. This book was intended to summarize complex theological thought for the ill-educated priesthood and was very popular over several centuries. It is difficult for a modern reader (me, at least) to understand how such a vicious set of beliefs could ever have commanded widespread acceptance. Honorius's beliefs make Sade's fantasies appear beneficent. Honorius believed that most people will be eternally tortured in hell (a few good priests and simple farmers will go to heaven where they can watch the torture - it will make them feel better, even if it's their relatives and friends who they are watching). God has always known who the elect (those going to heaven) are and those who are damned. Good works are of no avail. Getting the chance to do good works is of no consequence either (unbaptized babies for example go straight to hell). The damned have been created only so that the elect may rejoice more greatly. A crueler, more futile, and more unjust universe is hard to imagine.


Guttridge, L.F. (2000). Ghosts of Cape Sabine: The harrowing true story of the Greely Expedition. NY: Berkeley.

This true story of a once famous arctic expedition of the 1880s is a very long nightmare. It starts off badly (conceived by a fraud artist then heading up the US Signal Corps and implemented in the midst of inter-service rivalry and partisan politics), continues badly (the men hate each other and especially their leader, Greeley), gets worse when their relief ship fails to appear the following year, and then gets really bad when they head South and across the ice in an ill-fated and ill-thought out scheme. However, they discover that their troubles are just beginning when they arrive at Cape Sabine and there is no big cache of supplies waiting for them, their last relief ship having neglected to leave any and its companion ship having been crushed by the ice.

The pitiful few that survived were given heroes' welcomes, although these were soon tarnished by the discovery of cannibalism and continuing accusations of incompetence against many involved in mounting the expedition and the relief efforts. Amazingly, Greeley went on to a very successful career and lived into his nineties.

Compulsively readable and highly recommended.


Hajdu, D. (2008). The ten-cent plague: The great comic-book scare and how it changed America. NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

I loved comic books when I was a kid but I was aware that crime comic books had been banned and I avoided the creepier ones like Tales from the Crypt because they scared the be-Jesus out of me. Well, it turns out that there was a massive and largely successful campaign in the late forties and early fifties to ban the majority of comic books--those that catered to the eternal pre-adolescent/adolescent interest in violence, gore, weirdness, and sex (OK, OK, adult interest too). Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham wrote a book sounding dire warnings, entitled Seduction of the Innocents, that catalyzed the campaign. Although Wertham’s punditry was based solely on clinical anecdote, Catholic schools staged book burnings, there were congressional hearings in which comic books were asserted to lead to such ills as juvenile delinquency, and so forth. The comic book illustrators were shamed and lost their jobs. The episode sounds very similar to less successful later campaigns against TV, computer games, and rock and roll music, not to mention earlier ones concerning the evils of masturbation and newspaper funnies. The sole surviving spin-off of the comic books was a magazine—MAD Magazine. What, me worry?


Harpur, T. (2004). The pagan Christ: Recovering the lost light. Toronto: Allen.

This is an earnest plea for a kindly theology liberated from any dependence on the traditional Christian interpretation of the life of Christ. Harpur argues from academic comparative religion studies that early Christianity appropriated pre-Christian myths and beliefs, used them to fashion the account of Christ’s life presented in the Bible, and then lied about their origins. These notions are, of course, anathema to Christian fundamentalists but, for those who have abandoned a religious world view altogether, they appear somewhat quaint. I think one has to have some sort of religious faith (or perhaps very recently lost one’s faith) to have much interest in these kinds of arguments.


Heaney, S. (2000). Beowulf (a new verse translation). N.Y.: Norton.   

Beowulf 's continuing interest lies in the pre-Christian psychological context of the stories. Being a hero is admirable but it is grim work and one does one's duty entirely alone. The ravens start to circle as soon as the hero weakens, just as in the real lives of the poem's original audience.


Heilemann, J. & Halperin, M. (2010). Game change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the race of a lifetime. NY: Harper.

This is a very fast paced page-turner that follows the personal and political fortunes of the principals in the last presidential campaign. Much of what is described will be familiar to anyone who followed the contemporaneous news reports closely. As it seemed during the campaign, Palin was clueless; McCain was decent but cognitively very old; Biden couldn’t keep his mouth shut; Obama’s breath taking confidence in himself kept being justified; Hillary, probably the best prepared candidate, felt keenly that she was treated unfairly by the press and her ungrateful party, and, finally, Bill Clinton couldn’t refrain from meddling. On the other hand, it was a bit of a surprise to me what a total twit John Edwards was and what a nut case his wife turned out to be. This book, however, shows that the distinctions among the candidates were even greater than they appeared to be during the campaign.

The process of presidential campaigning is crazy. It is dominated by trivialities, is phenomenally expensive, incredibly stressful to the candidates and their campaign teams, and highly dependent on chance. That the process has not been reformed contributes to the perception that the US is essentially ungovernable. Despite it all, this book is essentially an argument that the best man won. Of course, it doesn’t always turn out that way.


Herman, A. (1997). The idea of decline in Western History. Toronto: The Free Press.

Herman traces the idea of the decline of Western civilization from Gobineau and racial pessimism through Nietzche and Burckhardt, the Adams brothers, DuBois, Spengler, Toynbee, the Frankfurt School (Adorno et al.), Marcuse, Sartre, Foucault, Fanon, the mulitculturalists, and the eco-pessimists. Herman’s treatise is that all of these intellectuals and philosophers falsely conceptualize society as a unitary organism, such that only total solutions will work.

This is a good book for those who like me can’t quite keep the big intellectual names straight like they are supposed to. I mean how many of us can remember or even ever knew what Heidigger said as opposed to Marcuse or Burckhardt?

Some interesting stuff. I’ve tried several times, for example, to read Foucault and could never get by the first page (I think he was a moron). Much to my perverse satisfaction, I learned in this book that he was certainly a moral moron, knowingly passing on AIDS in San Francisco orgies.

What struck me reading this book was how futile a lot of this thinking and writing was. More than a little of it seems downright silly and some of the writing, particularly that of the French existentialists, sounds a great deal like self-absorbed adolescent whining. Part of the apparent futility is that the intellectual currents shift back and forth from left to right, what are supposed to be eternal truths seem to be simply responses to current events, the grand predictions about the fate of society keep getting disconfirmed, but, through all this, the philosophizing just continues and people take it as seriously as they ever did.

If there is a lesson here (not quite the one that Herman intended I think), it is that thinking at the level of abstraction that much of this stuff is pitched at and mixing poetic metaphor, history, science, and ideology together results in just one dumb thing after another. These intellectual efforts are best viewed as ways to win friends, punish enemies, and influence people, not as ways to figure anything out.

A well written book. Reading it will make you sparkle at intellectual soirées (until you once again start forgetting who all these folks were).   


Hibbert, C. (1993). Cavaliers and roundheads: The English Civil War, 1642-1649. N.Y.: Scribner's.   

Thousands of deaths and enormous destruction was visited upon the British Isles by the civil war that ended with Cromwell's ascendancy and the Execution of King Charles the First. It all began with what appeared to be political arguments over taxation (the Ship Money Bill) among participants who shared a belief in England's ancient liberties, a hierarchical social structure, and the role of the King. But the traditional social order soon unravelled and religious extremists (Puritans and Catholics) were at each other's throats. In the process of winning the war, Cromwell's New Model Army became increasingly radicalized under the influence of the Levellers, as documented first in the Putney Debates and later in the Remonstrance of the Army (directed at Parliament's mistreatment of it).

After Cromwell's death, the monarchy was restored under Charles the Second, leading many to wonder what all the fighting had been about. I recall the following lines from somewhere (maybe about this war): "And what was the upshot of it all"? quoth little Peterkin. "Why that I cannot tell said he, But twas a famous victory."


Hibbert, C. (1978). The Great Mutiny: India 1857. Penquin.

England administered the fragmented Indian states with the help of British-trained Indian soldiers and the collusion of local elites. In the enervating heat, swarms of servants attended every need of the officers and their families. The British army needed all the help it could get because it was small, inefficiently organized, and led by frequently incompetent nobles.

Muslims objected to pig grease used in their new cartridges (they had to put them in their mouths to prepare them for firing). Rumours and unrest grew until the Indian soldiers mutinied in a number of areas. The insurgents killed all the Europeans they could find while looting, wrecking, and burning fortifications and homes. The British were totally unprepared. Those that weren’t killed fled to safer areas while some endured horrible sieges. All very awful. As were the bloodthirsty reprisals of the British when they put down the rebellion. The whole affair was much bloodier than I had realized.

It’s very interesting to read about what life was like in colonial India in the mid-nineteenth century. Most of the British were very bigoted and treated the Indians very poorly. This bigotry was a recent change and, of course, part of the reason for the rebellion. I was a little surprised by this, given British feelings about slavery as the 19th century wore on.


Hingley, R. & Unwin, C. (2005). Boudica: Iron age warrior queen. London: Hambledon Continuum.

The authors review what frustratingly little we know about Boudica. All of what we knew until very recently came from a couple of Roman sources and the sources disagree about some of the scanty details. It appears that Boudica was the wife of the leader of the Iceni, a tribe of partly Romanized Celts. In response to the Roman abuse of Boudica and her daughters, the Iceni led a rebellion, burning several towns and gruesomely slaughtering the inhabitants. A Roman army returned to the area and defeated the much more numerous Celts in a large battle. The site of the battle has not yet been identified but burned ruins of towns dating from the right time have been found.

Regrettably, the interpretation of the Roman written sources is far from clear. In addition to the discrepancies in the accounts, it isn’t known whether the tales were meant to be historically accurate or were more of a morality tale written to edify the Roman elite—viz., if you are nasty to native women, even they will rise up and bite you. The lack of historical knowledge has allowed lots of more or less fanciful modern accounts to be written in aid of supporting various ideological causes.


Hoffman, D.E. (2009). The dead hand: The untold story of the cold war arms race and its dangerous legacy. Toronto: Doubleday.

This is an important and timely book, masterfully presented. During the Reagan era, the aging Soviet leadership was convinced that the Americans were planning a preemptive nuclear strike. The Soviets had secretly constructed something eerily similar to the doomsday machine lampooned in the movie Dr. Strangelove. And so, totally unbeknownst to the West, the existence of civilization and perhaps multi-cellular life teetered on a razor’s edge. Response times to warnings of a nuclear attack were measured in minutes—false alarms, particularly on the Soviet side, were common.

Then, an off-course airliner was shot down over Siberian airspace. The duplicity of both the Americans (denying their flagrant provocations in the area in the form of aggressive spy flights and huge war games) and Russians (who denied shooting the plane down) worsened an already bad and very dangerous situation. Much of this was apparent to outsiders—I recall writing a letter to CBC radio at the time complaining about a news report of the airliner incident that sounded like it was a Pentagon press release. I pointed out that the suspicions of the two armed camps made this kind of incident inevitable. Mercifully, I didn’t know just how close to Armageddon we were.

We are not now in much danger of nuclear annihilation but the risk of small nuclear strikes by accident, religiously inspired fanaticism, or general nuttiness has become greater. The knowledge of nuclear technology is wide spread, there are poorly guarded decaying stockpiles of nuclear weapons throughout the former Soviet Union, and large numbers of impoverished, unemployed nuclear scientists and engineers. The latter have been the subject of large-scale clandestine recruitment efforts by North Korea and Iran.

The remains of the vast Soviet biological weapons program raise similar issues. Germ warfare capabilities are much more difficult to police than nuclear ones because the factories are cheap, small, undetectable by satellite, and easy to disguise as medical research facilities (after all, the Soviets successfully duped the Americans for decades).

Of course, that the Soviet system was consumed by deceit and paranoia is news to no one. Less appreciated is the participation of Western governments in the business of duplicity. Although on a smaller and much less successful scale than in the Soviet Union, Western duplicity was an important destabilizing force in world politics (the best documentation can be found in Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets). Neither is it news that the cold war antagonists pursued highly aggressive and reckless foreign policies—so much so, that it is apparent that we emerged intact from the cold war largely because of a long run of very good luck. What this book makes clearer is that governments of whatever kind are unable to control their military-industrial complexes, fall victim to their own propaganda, and base their foreign policies on a bizarrely myopic form of realpolitik. Regardless of the form of government (dictatorship or democracy, left or right), the degree of domestic freedom, and the individual characteristics of the leaders (smart or dumb, well meaning or not), the product has been a foreign policy that amounts to lethal buffoonery. There has always been this sort of buffoonery, but nuclear technology raised the stakes exponentially while requiring foolproof control procedures and apocalyptic decisions to be made in real times measured in minutes. Needless to say, states couldn’t and can’t manage any of this effectively. So…. what does one think when all systems of government have been discredited?

Highly recommended. Believe it or not, it reads like a spy novel. The portraits of the principal actors are entertaining and illuminating.


Hoffman, A. (1997). Inventing Mark Twain: The lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. New York: Quill.   

I bought this book because I knew nothing about Mark Twain. Now I know a good deal more than I wanted. There is an enormous amount of detail in this book, some of it amounting to trivia; clearly, the author had great difficulty in prioritizing his material. Nevertheless, there is much of interest to know about the man who invented his own persona and our modern sense of celebrity.

Early on, Samuel Clemens consciously decided to become a "moral phenomenon"-i.e., to become not only a humorist but a commentator on contemporary moral issues. In his later life, when his private views of mankind had become much darker, this strategy became somewhat problematic-writings by a cynical moral phenomenon are not terribly amusing.


Hollingdale, R.J. (1999). Nietzsche: The man and his philosophy. Rev. Ed. N.Y.: Cambridge University Press

Nietzsche's philosophy seems more sensible in this book than it is often portrayed. He was the first to rigorously pursue the implications of the "death of god" produced by Darwinism and other advances in science. Nietzsche was initially enthralled by Wagner (OK, his judgment wasn't perfect) but later broke with him. Nietzsche was in fact difficult to get along with and he never married (despite trying). His sister was a flaming anti-Semite (Nietzsche thought anti-Semitism was silly); she shamelessly profited by his disability and death. One of the reasons that Nietzsche's work has been underestimated is that, following his dementia, his sister published his discarded notes as if they were finished works intended to be published. Imagine what one's work would look like if it came out of one's waste basket or recycle bin. Oh, and Nietzsche was, like Lenin, a great walker-sort of an unhappy wanderer.


Horan, J.D. (1997). Desperate men: The James Gang and the Wild Bunch. (Rev. Ed.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.   

This is a reprint of a book originally published in 1949. Horan was the first author to have access to the Pinkerton archives. These archives proved a rich source of material and Horan's conclusions have fared well according to later scholarship. The book is well written and moves quickly.

The author is neither credulous nor romantically inclined and his portrayal of Jesse James as a genuinely "bad guy" is credible. Much of what was written about the James gang was either propaganda or sensationalized material designed to sell newspapers and books.

The Wild Bunch was certainly that. They managed to spend their money on prostitutes and drinking amazingly quickly. Like good desperadoes, they died young.


Hughes, R. (1993). Culture of complaint: The fraying of America. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

This book presents what has become the standard criticisms of multiculturalism and related excesses. The book is based on some lectures and magazine articles written earlier by Hughes (an Australian expatriate). Probably the lectures and articles were very good but there is not enough material here to sustain a book length treatment. I'd give it a miss.


Humphreys, R.S. (1999). Between memory and desire: The Middle East in a troubled age. Berkeley: University of California Press.

A sympathetic, well reasoned, and reasonable description of the contemporary Arabic political scene with an emphasis on the relationship of the Arabs with Israel and the West. It gets somewhat repetitious and less interesting toward the end but worthwhile anyway.


Hunt, C.W. (1995). Whiskey and ice: The saga of Ben Kerr, Canada’s most daring rumrunner. Toronto, Dundern Press.

Kerr was born into a wealthy Hamilton family in 1884. Always rebellious and headstrong, he left school at age 13, eventually becoming a plumber by day and a ragtime pianist at night. Kerr first achieved notoriety by facing down the police who were arresting and harassing the public during a bitter strike by the city transit workers. Kerr escaped arrest and later beat his charges at trial.

Prohibition created opportunities for liquor smugglers. Over a considerable time, Kerr made himself rich by employing very fast boats (often piloted by himself) to run liquor into New York State. He took the hazardous winters off and sponsored a local hockey team. More dangerous than the American coast guard, at least at first, was the local mafia, headed by the infamous bootlegger Rocco Perri. Kerr and Perri, however, eventually reached a modus vivendi.

The Americans put a large price on Kerr’s head and created a fleet of fast, heavily armed, boats to shut down the cross-lake smugglers. There was a mini-arms race on Lake Ontario in which, Kerr, always a risk-taker, was undeterred. He pushed his deliveries ever later in the winter, defying the danger of ice, in order to avoid the coast guard (who sensibly stayed in port).

Kerr’s belief in his invincibility eventually cost him his life in 1929. Ending a long mystery and rumours that Perri had had him killed, his boat was found in 1994. Kerr had almost got back to Canadian shore near Colborne when he became trapped in the ice. Eventually, he must have decided that he was close enough to shore to wade in. He wasn’t.


Irwin, W. Conard, M.T., & Skoble, AJ. (Eds). (2001). The Simpsons and philosophy: The D’oh! Of Homer. Chicago: Open Court.

Nice premise for a book. Most of the chapters present modern (post-Kantian) perspectives on ethical philosophy using examples from episodes of the Simpsons: For example, a chapter on how one should treat one’s neighbours, “Hey-diddily-ho, neighboreenos: Ned Flanders and neighborly love”. But some other philosophical topics are also covered—e.g., in “Homer and Aristotle” and “What Bart calls thinking”.

It is wonderful how much detail these authors know about the Simpsons. The best part of the book are the gags that are quoted throughout. A painless way for TV addicts to learn about philosophy.


Isaacson, W. (2003). Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Toronto: Simon and Schuster.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) had an amazing life. He knew everybody and seemed to be involved in everything. A journalist by trade, he was a great joiner and originator of clubs and voluntary associations, some of which, like lending libraries, survive today. He was a tinkerer and inventor (of, for example, the Franklin Stove and the lightning rod) and a more important scientitst than I had imagined. His work on electricity was fundamental - he, for example, was the first to recognize the polarity of electricity. Franklin played an important diplomatic role in the American Revolution, although it appeared that he really preferred to live in England.

This book also describes his personal life. Franklin had trouble getting on with his son (leading to some dramatic moments at the end of the revolution), lived apart from his wife for much of their marriage, and exhibited successful, although over-the-top, flirtatiousness throughout his long life.


Jenish, D. (1999). Indian fall: The last great days of the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy. Toronto: Penguin   

Interesting reading. It must have been an exciting and rewarding life for the young hunters and warriors of the plains. Their heroic ethos resembles that of many other peoples. In the mid-nineteenth century, Blackfoot boys, such as the future chief, Bear Ghost, were encouraged to become brave warriors. "'If you want to be somebody,' they would tell the boy, 'you must be brave and unflinching in war. You must not think it is a good thing to grow old. The old people have a hard time. They are given the worst side of the lodge. They are sometimes neglected. They suffer when the camp moves. Their sight is dim, so they cannot see far. Their teeth are gone, so they cannot chew their food. Only misery and discomfort await the old. It is much better, while you are young and strong, while your body is in its prime, while your sight is clear, your teeth are sound and your hair is long and black, to die in battle, fighting bravely.'" (p, 72).

As elsewhere, everybody lived surrounded by inconstant allies and hereditary enemies. Revenge was a way of life. Nevertheless, the pacification of the Blackfoot and Cree was an awful lot worse for them, not to mention more boring.


Jennings, P.S. (Ed.). (1983). Medieval legends, NY: J.K.&T.

There are 20 legends presented in the book. Some, like The Song of Roland,  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Death of Arthur, are famous, while the remainder are obscure. Many of the tales are cautionary, some poke fun at hypocritical clerics, and others deal with valour and chivalry. The proportion of tales that treat adultery, however, is remarkable. Love comes instantly on sight and unrequited love makes one ill to the point of death. All this is completely involuntary.

These stories provide some insights into the concerns of the age, particularly sexual conflict. In all a good read. There are also some very good illustrations.       


Jones, H. (2008). The Bay of Pigs. Oxford University Press.

This is a description of the Bay of Pigs debacle. The invasion never had a chance of success because it was “planned” not by three, but by many stooges. Just how stupid this intervention was is something of a revelation, it makes the Dieppe Raid look like a product of good judgment. Many of the same factors of the two botched raids appear to have been at work—too many cooks, frequent changes in plans, increasing commitment to a bad idea, group-think, careerism, internal rivalries, wishful thinking, avoidance of being the bearer of bad news, and so forth. To these must be added in the case of the Bay of Pigs, a total lack of secrecy!

I suppose the most instructive aspect of this story is that no one, from Kennedy on down, was ever held politically or morally accountable.


Kagan, F.W. (2006). The end of the old order: Napoleon and Europe: 1801-1805. Cambridge, MA.: Perseus.

This book concerns the links between diplomacy, military strategy, and battlefield tactics in producing the outcome of the middle series of Napoleonic wars. There is a great deal of detail in this book (there are more volumes coming) but it is on the whole interesting. Many of the diplomatic themes appear in subsequent European wars—Realpolitics, historical sentimentality, bungling, and nationalism . Interestingly, a longing for the restoration of Poland among some members of the Russian court plays a small part in this series of debacles. The principal problem among the allies (England, Austria, and Russia) was that they could not effectively coordinate their armies (there was a gross underestimation of the logistical difficulties) and they faced a united foe (Napoleon). Prussia ended up mobilizing but too late to get involved in the fighting. Napoleon was superb in the military and diplomatic game but also lucky. Too bad he never thought about the long-term consequences of his (temporary) domination of Europe.

I think it must be my declining orientation abilities (doubtless induced by vanishing testosterone) that caused me to find the many maps of troop movements very hard to follow.

In the end, the dominant impression is of vast numbers of more or less innocent men being killed for no particularly compelling reason.


Kagan, D. (2003). The Peloponnesian War. Toronto: Penquin.

A very fine account of the most analyzed war in history. The enormous tragedy that befell the Greeks in this completely futile war is brilliantly portrayed. The war was “a great turning point in history, the end of an era of progress, prosperity, confidence, and hope, and the beginning of a darker time.” This was the conflict that “inspired Thudydides’ mordant observations on the character of war as ‘a savage schoolmaster that brings the characters of most people down to the level of their current circumstances.”

All this is the more disturbing because it all sounds so modern to a contemporary ear. Democracy and tyranny were both hard to export. The practice of realpolitik and its seemingly inevitable inadvertent consequences seem to mock human agency.

Kapica, J. (Ed.). (1985). Shocked and appalled: A century of letters to the Globe and Mail. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys.

This collection of letters starts in 1885 and is designed to illustrate contemporary topics that concerned readers’ minds and trends in the style of letter writing. Some are included simply to amuse the reader—defenses of the flat earth hypothesis, for example. Included are some stunning examples of political acumen and modern thinking in old letters: For example, an 1885 globally informed critique of national policy and editorial pronouncements concerning the Riel Rebellion. Many of the letters, however, even the amusing ones, begin to appear to have been written primarily to advertise the cleverness of their authors. In the end, I don’t believe a book length compendium of letters can sustain a reader’s interest.


Kaplan, W. (2004). A secret trial: Brian Mulroney and the public trust. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

At times written in a stilted and even tedious manner, the author struggles to contain his moral outrage. Hell hath no fury like a lawyer publically betrayed. Kaplan had written a book defending Brian Mulroney against charges of corruption and then learned that Mulroney, upon stepping down as Prime Minister, had secretly accepted $225,000.00 in thousand dollar bills from indicted German arms dealer Karlheinz Schrieber.

The bulk of the book describes a bizarre secret trial in which it is at length discovered that Mulroney’s nemesis, reporter Stevie Cameron, was a secret RCMP informer. Both Cameron and Mulroney emerge from the trial and its aftermath totally discredited. The RCMP doesn’t fare much better. The high-priced legal helpers, of course, do rather well—doing their utmost to help the rich get a little richer and to avoid the rightful consequences of their betrayal of the public trust.

The Afterword, by Norman Spector, a former Mulroney aide, is a damning description of political corruption and moral decay (assuming that it used to be better) in Ottawa. Jesus, what a bunch.


Katz, I. (Ed.). (2003). Salam Pax, The Baghdad Blog. Toronto: McArthur.

“Salam Pax” wrote an irreverent web journal from inside Iraq just before and during the Iraq War. At the time, no one knew who this person was and some suspected he was a spy or a plant by one of the parties. He comes across as a likable, very funny, astute, and sophisticated young man in the blog that is reprinted in this book. In a sense, the story has a happy ending for Salam Pax in that he is neither caught and executed by Saddam nor blown up by the Americans--rather he starts writing for the Guardian. Too bad about his country.


Kay, D. (1992). Shakespeare: His life, work, and era. N.Y.: Morrow.   

An ambitious attempt at a biography of Shakespeare and an interpretation of his plays in the context of his life and times. Ultimately, the author is stymied and the reader frustrated because so little is known for sure about Shakespeare, particularly his formative years and his early career as a playwright. We know a great deal more about his later life and his business career. Despite its limitations, the book is worth a read, particularly if one wants to understand some of Shakespeare's plays a little better.


Kelly, J. (2004). Gunpowder: Alchemy, bombards, and pyrotechnics: The history of the explosive that changed the world. NY: Basic.

This is a very good piece of popular history writing. It's a page turner without extraneous detail but with lots of little known and interesting pieces of information. It starts with an intelligible explanation of how gunpowder works and how it was made (very, very carefully). Gunpowder underwent a slow evolution to make it more reliable, although it was never safe to manufacture. The process was perfected by the Dupont Company before further technological developments confined its use to firecrackers. In all, a fascinating story in which gunpowder is shown to have had an important influence on the course of history. One interesting observation relates to the almost unbelievable inaccuracy of early firearms and the slow adoption of more accurate ones. They could have dropped the "aim" from "ready, aim, fire!"


Kelly, J. (2005). The great mortality: An intimate history of the black death, the most devastating plague of all time. NY: HarperCollins.

This book recounts the story of the black death and is moderately interesting, although sometimes pointlessly repetitious. Histories of the plague constitute very well worn ground and very little in the way of new material is presented. OK if you haven’t read previous histories of the plague.


Kern, S. (2004). A cultural history of causality: Science, murder novels, and systems of thought. Princeton University Press.

In small pieces, Kern describes the major currents of Western European thought from Victorian times to the present and argues that they are exemplified in representative murder mystery novels written throughout this period. Thus progressively later novels increasingly interpret causes as more specific, more multi-faceted, and more complex.

The author is extremely well read and articulate and the short essays on how various intellectual traditions conceptualize causation are wonderfully clear. Nevertheless, this remains a somewhat strangely argued book. Despite the efforts of the author to convince us otherwise, the probative value of the causal interpretations in these novels is unclear. I don’t doubt that the conceptions of causation vary over these novels in the way that Kern asserts but what does this mean? Are the novelist consciously expressing causal conceptions that they learned from the intellectuals who developed them, do the causal conceptions come from the popular culture and influence intellectual and novelist alike, is it sometimes one thing, sometimes another, and sometimes both? One wonders about the sampling issues—what proportion of crime novels express notions of causality in these particular ways over time.


Kessler, D. (2001). A question of intent: A great American battle with a deadly industry. NY: PublicAffairs.

Tobacco farming made lots of money for the tobacco industry and it was gradually taken over by accountants and lawyers with predictable results. “Amoral” is far too weak a term to describe these people. For example, they stopped research on a nicotine delivery device (cigarette) that was less likely to cause cancer because such work would make them vulnerable to lawsuits by showing that they knew that cigarettes were carcinogenic. The goal of the companies was to addict adolescents to nicotine before they knew any better (“if they’ve got lips, we want them”).

Kessler, as head of the US federal Food and Drug Administration, led the battle to regulate cigarettes as a drug (the cigarette companies resisted strenuously, secretly, and without scruple). The difficulty of the battle illustrates the weakness of the American government as compared to wealthy corporations. The book is very entertaining, if infuriating, reading because it presents an insider’s view of big-time bureaucratic/corporate struggles and damns the companies by reproducing some of their private memoranda.


Kilzer, L. (2000). Hitler’s traitor: Martin Bormann and the defeat of the Reich. Novato, CA: Presidio Press.

The Third Reich was mind-boggingly porous. There was Ultra with which the British decoded most of the German military orders. But then there were also two important Russian spy rings that radioed information to “the Center” in Moscow. By far the most important of these rings received information from a person or persons code-named “Werther”. This person has never been identified and the Center did not itself know who Werther was. This book argues that Werther was none other than Martin Bormann, the de facto second in command of the Reich in the final months of the war.

Amazingly, Werther’s reports of Hitler’s meetings with the generals would be radioed to the Center within hours. These were not simply memoranda and orders but descriptions of the discussions themselves—who thought what, what disagreements there were, how firm the decisions taken, what options were considered, and so forth. The Center took to asking Werther specific questions about what the Soviets needed to know in the next few days and generally received detailed answers in time. Despite Stalin’s paranoia (he was prone to execute his spies because their jobs entailed too much contact with Westerners), Stalin came to depend on Werther.

Of course, I can’t evaluate the author’s claim that Bormann was the guilty party but he did appear to be in all the right places at the right times and one of his mistresses was a communist.


Kitz, J.F. (1989). Shattered City: The Halifax explosion and the road to recovery. Halifax, NS: Nimbus.

This is the sad story of the 1917 explosion in Halifax Harbour told from contemporary documents and interviews with aged survivors. Two ships, one of them carrying tons of munitions, gently collided. The boat carrying the explosives caught fire and everyone went to their windows or down to the docks to watch. Thus it was that the ensuing terrific explosion caused 1600 deaths and 9000 injuries, many of the latter eye injuries from shards of glass. The entire downtown was wrecked, much of it obliterated, and the damage extended well into the suburbs. To add to the misery, a blizzard descended on the city the next day.

Relief efforts began immediately and became better organized with time. A great deal of help came from the US, particularly Boston. The first tasks were to find all of the wounded, identify the bodies, repair hospitals, set up tents, and later, temporary housing. Help in the form of pensions continued for decades. Some of the stories are sad beyond belief, for example, social workers trying to find alternate living situations for children whose parents had been both blinded and physically disabled. Or, soldiers learning that their families had been killed back home while they lay in the mud of Flanders.
The cause of the collision appears to be human error made easy by some rather lax navigational rules and practices.

The book, however, is simply a chronicle of the tragedy, much of it consisting of stories about individuals and their families. It starts to read a bit like a sad catalog.


Knight, A. (2005). How the cold war began: The Gouzenko affair and the hunt for soviet spies. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Weeks after  WW II ended, Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet cipher clerk, managed with some difficulty to give himself up to the RCMP in Ottawa. Gouzenko’s revelations of spying made even the over-polite and trusting Canadians somewhat paranoid. South of the border they had profound effects, leading to the Hiss affair and the HUAC investigations. Interesting material on the start of the cold war.


Lacey, R. (2004). Great tales from English history. NY: Little, Brown.

This small book uses contemporary historical knowledge to relate what appears to have actually happened in a number of oft-described incidents in English history. Included are Joan of Arc, the Princes in the Tower, Newton, and so forth. There is no theme here but it’s kind of interesting for the most part. Light reading—it’s pitched at about a high school level.


Landes, D.S. (1998). The wealth and poverty of nations: Why some are so rich and some so poor. NY: Norton.

Sort of a Guns, Germs, and Steel without the anthropology and biology. Landes attempts to explain why some nations are rich and some poor (Switzerland, the wealthiest nation, is 400 times richer than the poorest, Mozambique). These great differences are very recent--previously the world’s nations were more egalitarian in their poverty.

The book presents a series of economic histories in an attempt to find patterns in changes in wealth (bad examples, Spain’s reliance on plunder, and good examples, Japan’s work ethic). Landes has clearly grown very tired of political correctness and ritual criticisms of Western thought and institutions. He identifies the roots of wealth in technological improvement, political stability, property rights, adherence to a work ethic, and so forth. All very sensible, with no hope of a panacea. The most interesting and compelling part of the book is his examination of when and where industrial revolutions occurred—e.g., why was England first?


Larson, E.J. (1997). Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's continuing debate over science and religion. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.   

Yet another account of the famous encounter between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. Larson argues that the fundamentalists did not see this encounter as a failure and that the evolutionist cause was harmed by Darrow's unkind characterization of Bryan following his death soon after the debate. The victory of the evolutionists arose from Spencer Tracy's performance in the much later movie about the monkey trial.

The best part of the book describes how the Scopes trial was set up in a good natured attempt to lure some commerce and tourists to rural Tennessee.


Laurie, R. (2002). Sakharov: A biography. London: Brandeis University Press.   

This is a very well written biography-a real page turner. The author effectively communicates his admiration for Sakharov. And Sakharov does seem to have been a fine and incredibly bright man. He was also extremely lucky not to have been shot. As Stalin, with his inimitable humour, remarked to Beria concerning some uppity physicists-"never mind, we can always shoot them later." Stalin was a real card, he also said something like "a few deaths are a tragedy, a million just a statistic."

The context of Sakharov's life also provides a very nice overview of post-WW II political history, with compelling portraits of all the famous Russian rulers.

Sakharov shared the American physicists' opinion that their views on the use of the bomb should prevail because they knew how it worked and could calculate its effects. A combination of hubris and breathtaking naivete. Sakharov, for example, calculated the number of deaths that would be caused by each nuclear test (a surprisingly high number) and thought that the Kremlin should cease testing on this basis. The Russians, however, were only marginally more interested in this side effect than the Americans.

Sakharov recounted a wonderfully ironic story about an occasion when he got carried away with his weapons work and approached a naval officer about some issues concerning a multi-megaton torpedo upon which he was working. The officer was horrified by the very idea of the massive and indiscriminate slaughter the torpedo would produce and Sakharov suddenly found himself chastened and on the very wrong side of the issue.

Sakharov's most remarkable characteristic was his independence of mind. Not completely independent of course, but remarkably free given his education, incentives to conform, and penalties for non-conforming. Extremely few would have done so well in similar circumstances..

There are many stories about the KGB in this volume. It makes one think that the secret police are the same everywhere-mean-spirited ideologues given to impractical, foolish, and expensive schemes. It's hard for North Americans to imagine living in a totalitarian police state-such a place inevitably becomes a land of hypocrites.


Le Beau, B.F. (2003). The atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. NY: New York University Press.

Madalyn O’Hair was once the most hated women in America—it all began with her lawsuit on behalf of her son that ended with the prohibition of prayers in the public schools. Madalyn was a publicity hound, somewhat eccentric, and often abrasive. She became the spokesperson for American atheists in the sixties, challenging “In God we trust” on American currency, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the tax exempt status of churches.

In 1995, God eventually got even. In a bizarre sequence of events, Madalyn, her son, and her granddaughter were kidnapped and murdered by some vicious ex-cons, one of whom Madalyn had formerly employed in her work for the American Atheists organization.

LeBeau’s book is pretty good but drags a bit at times, partly because of too much detail and partly because Madalyn is not that appealing or interesting.


Lindahl, C., McNamara, J., & Lindow, J. (Eds.). (2002). Medieval folklore: A guide to myths, legends, tales, beliefs, and customs. Oxford University Press.

The fact that I read this book from cover to cover is proof positive that I don't have a life. However, even though it is an encyclopedia, it is more interesting than reading the phone book. There are some interesting narratives and observations here-the medieval folk were much more scatological than I was aware-simply the nicknames are revealing, having to do with the size, cleanliness, and use of one's genitals for example. There's a fair bit of humour in many of the stories as well as the nicknames. For example, the East Anglian Godlef Crepunder Hwitel (Godlef Creep-Under-the-Blanket), a Monty Pythonesque sobriquet if I've ever heard one.

There is much effort expended in trying to identify the origin and evolution of the many overlapping folktales. Most of this effort is futile because evolution usually can't be distinguished from reinvention or borrowing from another tradition or copying from a classical written source. The problem is everybody talked to everybody.


Lovejoy, A.O. (1936). The great chain of being: A study of the history of an idea. NY: Harper & Row.

This is one of the great classics of intellectual history. I first read it 40 years ago when I had just received my undergraduate degree. It was a bit more tedious in spots than I remember it being (there’s more detail than necessary, I think, or maybe I’m just getting tired). It remains, however, a tour de force. The use of certain intellectual ideas or building blocks that originated in Plato’s writings is traced in philosophical and religious thought through the ages. The amazing thing is that the major idea (an infinite hierarchy of worth stretching from inanimate things to God’s omnipotence and perfection) and the attendant ideas (e.g., the principle of plenitude which asserts that all gradations must exist) held such great appeal across the ages despite the fact that the ideas are inherently self-contradictory. I think I was more impressed this time with the extent of the confused thinking at the core of European philosophical thinking that Lovejoy tries to get us to appreciate than I was the first time round.


Lukacs, J. (1990). The duel: The eighty-day struggle between Churchill and Hitler. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.  

This book focuses on the brief time period when Hitler could have overrun England. A very dramatic bit of history indeed. Suspenseful reading even though you know what's going to happen.


Lundy, D. (2006). The bloody red hand: A journey through truth, myth and terror in Northern Ireland. Toronto: Knopf.

This is a personalized account of the long history of Irish sectarian violence. The author was born in Northern Ireland but immigrated as a child to Canada. He returns to his roots during the “troubles”. Lundy describes the history with a view to revealing how myth (or propaganda) has been used to keep the conflict going and how far the myths are from what actually appears to have happened historically. Well worth reading.

And the bloody red hand? The legend goes of future colonists of ancient Ireland heading for the Irish shore by boat. The first man there would get to claim the land. One man gave himself a leg up by cutting off his hand and throwing it ashore.


MacMillan, M. (2001). Paris 1919. N.Y.: Random House

This exceptionally informative and interesting book should be required reading for anyone who watches the news. I occasionally had the sense when reading this book that I finally understood the polictical geography of Europe and it was somewhat different than what I had imagined.

I think that people of my generation perceive the political map of the world as it existed in the years before the Second World War as the default or natural state of affairs--later changes appear to be derivative and somehow less natural. It seldom occurs to us that political boundaries in Europe have been in a continual state of flux throughout modern times. Many of the European political boundaries that existed in the thirties were drawn in the Treaty of Versailles that was negotiated (and sometimes dictated) at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. this book is about the conferernce and how it dealt with the shrinkage of Germany and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, among many other territorial changes in other parts of the world.

The portraits of the principal protagonists (Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Vittorio Orlando) are entertainingly drawn, and there are excellent cameo appearances by lesser and sometimes exotic figures from around the world. The descriptions of the many peronalities are very entertaining

Here, in no particular order, are some of the conclusions of this work. Wilson's 14 points elevated the tone of moral discourse, increased nationalist aspirations, and was fundamentally unworkable. The patchwork and intermixture of ethnic, linguistic, and religoius groups around the world usually meant that political boundaries could not be drawn without making some groups unhappy. Small countries behaved as selfishly, greedily, and insensitively as larger countries; the same was true for minorities. The major powers adopted a eurocentric view of the world. The Treaty of Versailles represtented compromises among the national self-interests of the victorious countries (weighted by the amount of blood and treasure lost in the war, the importance of the particular issue at hand to one of the four countries concerned, and the amount of the particular country's post-war military power). The French were justifiably afraid of a recovered Germany and everyone was afraid of the Bolsheviks. The English threw in their lot with the Americans. As the conference continued, the amount of influence of its decisions steadily declined with the demobilization of the armies - decisions were sometimes made that were unenforceable or easily reversed by the locals.

The conferees were certainly conscientious. Nevertheless, the complexity of the very many decisions that had to be made defied the limitations of the human intellect. Decisions were sometimes influenced by wishful thinking, ignorance of local conditions, the propaganda of particular groups, the personalities of particular leaders, shocking publicized incidents, and sheer mental exhaustion. In the end, the leaders behaved like policitical and bureaucratic leaders do everywhere when making complex decisions under extreme time pressure - according to an informal mixture of expediency, unexamined preconceptions, mutual social influence and satisfiscing.


Maddocks, F. (2001). Hildegard of Bingen: The woman of her age. London: Headline.

Hildegaard, a twelfth century German abbess, entered a nunnery as a young girl where she lived for the remainder of her life. She became influential as a saintly mystic through her letters and books. Her book Scivias was dictated to her faithful amanuensis, Volmar, and contains descriptions of her strange waking visions. Some think she suffered from migraines of which the visions were auras. Her correspondence reveals a disputatious and opinionated theologian. Although we have letters and books that Hildegard wrote, there is a great deal more we would like to know about her. Despite the lacunae in her history, this book provides an interesting glimpse into a very foreign time and an indication that the social lives of these people were very similar to our own.


Maier, T. (2009). Masters of sex: The life and times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the couple who taught America how to love. NY: Basic Books.

A surprising cautionary tale on several levels. I remember seeing Masters and Johnson at a small talk I gave in New York, probably in he early eighties. I was struck by how uptight and insular they looked. Now I understand why.

Masters was a fiercely ambitious and brusque man with a very sad childhood (his father, suffering from a personality twisted by a brain tumour, disowned him early). Masters became a prominent ObGyn in St. Louis. He got university support for a medical study of sexual behaviour—a very different and far riskier proposition than conducting interviews like Kinsey. First, he used prostitutes for his lab work. Later, he recruited nurses, secretaries, faculty, faculty wives, and so forth.

Masters recruited Gini Johnson, a secretary without particular qualifications, as a research assistant. She was a twice-divorced single mother of two. Part of her job was to help Johnson understand the sexual response by having sex with him in the lab. Gini was spectacularly successful in procuring volunteers. As the work progressed, Johnson contributed more and more under Masters’ tutelage. She was promoted until she became co-director of the lab.

Masters’ research was very secret because of its controversial nature and inspired a great deal of gossip. It became clear that the university would neither give Masters full support nor Gini a faculty position after Masters presented the preliminary results of his research to the medical faculty. People were shocked by a film of a nude woman stimulating herself to orgasm.

Masters moved his research to a private institute. He consistently failed to get government funding for his research or to publish in refereed journals. The clinic was dependent on private donors—usually wealthy clients, grateful for having their sexual dysfunctions fixed by the two-week behavioural treatment developed by Masters and Johnson (mostly the latter), although Playboy Inc. was also a long-time contributor. The treatment was spectacularly successful for problems like premature ejaculation.

Fame came with the publication of Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy. Masters and Johnson treated wealthy and famous clients, went on speaking tours, appeared on TV, and hobnobbed with the rich and famous.

The problem was that Masters had to do a lot of lying to carry this all off. He lied to his wife and everyone else about keeping Gini as a mistress and he lied about using paid “sexual surrogates” for treating unpartnered clients. The use of surrogates was concealed because it simply raised too many ethical issues. This high risk enterprise could and almost did blow up on several occasions. When Gini appeared ready to marry another man and leave the clinic, Masters abruptly divorced his wife and shortly thereafter married Gini himself.

Because the clinic had little research money, basic research was largely replaced by clinical work. The treatment was expensive and labour intensive but Masters and Johnson resisted forming franchises. Gradually, everything unravelled. Masters and Johnson had become accustomed to fame and they wanted more “firsts”. They published a book touting successful alteration of homosexual preferences on the basis of scant, sloppily documented, and, to some degree, imaginary data. This book became and remains grist for the evangelists’ mill—homosexuality was a choice that could be overcome by treatment and, later, prayer.

Sex clinics sprang up around the country—some of the practitioners had been trained in the clinic—but most had not. Charlatans and untrained clinicians offered the usual mix of regular psychotherapy and flakey nostrums for sexual dysfunctions and some sexually exploited their clientele. Masters argued mightily for credentialing sex therapists but appeared hypocritical because the best therapist of them all, Gini, had no formal training whatsoever.

The denouement was sad. Masters developed Parkinsons and started dementing. Gini took care of him and protected him as best she could from professional embarrassment. In return, Masters suddenly asked for a divorce in order to marry his first and long unrequited love. Masters finally retired to Arizona and Gini sank into embittered obscurity.

A good read and not at all what I had expected.


Mallan, C. (1995). Wrong time, wrong place? How two Canadians ended up in a Brazilian jail. Toronto: Key Reporter Books.   

Che lives!!......... In Canada, in a pathetic Canadian sort of way. Christine Lamont, daughter of a British Columbia doctor and sometime student at Simon Fraser University became interested in Latin America and later an activist in the cause of the El Salvadorean revolutionaries. She teamed up with David Spencer, a budding left-wing activist from (of all places) Moncton, New Brunswick. They went to El Salvador and joined an international group of revolutionaries who organized a series of professional kidnappings of very wealthy Brazilians to raise money for the world-wide armed struggle against imperialism.

David and Christine were arrested with a bunch of South American revolutionaries and a very high profile hostage. The evidence against them was overwhelming, later including dozens of fraudulent Canadian identity papers bearing their photographs that was discovered after a bomb inadvertently went off in a Nicaraguan arms cache.

Christine's mother, Marilyn, began and orchestrated a campaign to get her "innocent" daughter out of the clutches of those nasty Brazilians. The campaign, subsidized by the good doctor's income (as was Christine's fulltime activism in Canada), was very successful, being adopted by some dumb and/or opportunistic Canadian politicians, such as Bob Horner, Sven Robinson, and Lloyd Axworthy. The Canadian government ended up pissing off the Brazilians and probably delayed the release of Christine and David. Funny how those Brazilians don't like being looked down on.

The Tory minister of foreign affairs, Barbara McDougall, is one of the few politicians who seems to have had some common sense.

All this is quite a tale and well presented.


Márquez, G.B. (1996). News of a kidnapping. N.Y.: Penquin (translated by E. Grossman).   

Of course, the memory of Che doesn't inspire all South American kidnappings. Unbelievable amounts of money in wretchedly poor Columbia can do the same. The awesome mark up of cocaine generated billions of dollars for the Medellin cartel, making them and their leader, Pablo Escobar, many enemies. This is the story of a number of journalists who were kidnapped by Escobar's minions and held for months before their release or execution.

This book is not at all well written but is of interest because of its suspense and its portrait of the peculiarities of Colombian society. The bad guys are devout (and simple minded) peasant Catholics. The good guys are wealthy agnostics. All the rich people know each other. Everybody loves American and British pop music. Life is very cheap.......

Marks, K. (2009). Lost paradise: From mutiny on the Bounty to a modern-day legacy of sexual mayhem, the dark secrets of Pitcairn Island revealed. NY: Free Press.

After the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, nine of the mutineers kidnapped twelve Polynesian women, six men, and one baby, and found their way to Pitcairn Island, literally in the middle of nowhere. Each of the mutineers took a wife and left three women for the Polynesian men to share. Over the first decades, the men murdered each other, one committed suicide, and one died of asthma. By 1800, only one man, John Adams, survived, with all the women.

Most of what people know about Pitcairn and the mutiny is derived from highly romanticized Hollywood movies that glorified the mutineers. The reality of the mutiny and subsequent life on Pitcairn was quite different. This different reality came to light when some contemporary women complained that they were repeatedly raped in childhood. The ensuing judicial and internet brouhaha went on for years. The Pitcairners closed ranks and many of the women recanted. This long story reveals a lot about post-colonial sensibilities, strongly biased interventions designed to save Pitcairn “culture”, and the types of exculpatory stories people in trouble invent.

Even more interesting, however, are the implications the history of the Island suggests. Basically, all of the girls on the island were fair game and were “broken in” way before puberty. Surprisingly, fathers did not protect their daughters (leading one to wonder about the degree of paternity certainty). Men of poor prospects sexually assaulted the younger girls, while men of better prospects monopolized the older girls and women. Not uncommonly, repeated rape led to longer-term liaisons. This Darwinian reproductive soap opera invites us to consider what life among our isolated bands of ancestors may have been like. Could it be that the sexual psychologies of contemporary men and women were forged under such circumstances?

Massie, R.K. (1991). Dreadnaught: Britain, Germany, and the coming of the Great War. New York: Random House.

This great fat book is the best I've read in quite some time. I was very sorry to have it end. The narrative captures the flavor of the times. It documents the interplay of personalities, politics, and strategic constraints in bringing about history's greatest tragedy. The author is not afraid to express his admiration or disapproval for those individuals who, by his documentation, are deserving. The portraits of the key figures, particularly of Sir Edward Grey and the Kaiser, are unforgettable.

The greatest irony manifest in this account is that competence and strength of character were as instrumental as stupidity and childishness in creating the chain of events that swept Europe over the brink.

Because of the incredible amount of documentation concerning this pivotal period of modern history, there are a great many books for layfolk. Before reading Massie's book, my favorite historian had been Barbara Tuchman. I still recommend her books on this subject highly: The Proud Tower (the history of the prewar disarmament movement), The Guns of August (about the critical first month of the war), and The Zimmerman Telegram (concerning the entry of the Americans into the war). The Guns of August makes a great sequel to the Dreadnaught book.

For a more complete picture of the antecedents to the war, the Archduke and the Assassin: Sarajevo, June 28th, 1914 (L. Cassels, 1985, Briar Cliff Manor, NY: Stein & Day) fills out the picture on the Austrian Empire and Balkan side. The dying Archduke's exhortation to his already dead wife (it was a love match that had cost him dearly) "Sophie, Sophie, don't die! Live for my children!" makes a suitably pathetic beginning to the war.


Massie, R.K. (1995). The Romanovs: The final chapter. N.Y.: Ballantine.

Massie is a historian who wrote one of my favourite books, Dreadnaught: Britain, Germany, and the coming of the Great War. I had been looking for his book on the Romanovs and instead found his brief post-Romanov book on what happened to their remains.

Much of this tale has to do with forensic anthropology and DNA evidence. It's quite interesting. At the human level, the villain of the piece is Dr. William Maples of Dead men do tell tales (which I didn't like much). The sin of hubris leads Maples to make a fool of himself.

The book also provides a glimpse into how screwed up Russia is. It appears almost anarchic.


McGoogan, K. (2001). Fatal passage: The untold story of John Rae, the arctic adventurer who discovered the fate of Franklin. Toronto: Harper.

John Rae was a truly remarkable man, sadly neglected by history. His neglect is largely because he came up with the politically incorrect answer about Franklin's fate-his men perished miserably as starving cannibals. Franklin's indomitable widow and the self-interest of the British Navy ensured that Rae did not get his historical or public due as discoverer of what happened to the Franklin expedition or of the long sought-after Northwest Passage.

Rae travelled Indian or Inuit style with small numbers of men, mostly aboriginal. He was a fabulous shot, enabling his men to live off the land while carrying few supplies, an excellent canoeist and small boat sailor, and probably the best snowshoer ever. In all his expeditions he only lost one man, and him to a freak accident. Rae thought nothing of travelling by himself from Hudson's Bay to Montreal to Winnipeg and back.

There is lots of interesting and little known history in this book and some useful nuggets of information should you do a little winter camping in the arctic. For example, if your roof is made of snow, your breath won't condense on it and drip on you.


McLaren, A. (2002).  Sexual blackmail: A modern history. Harvard University Press.

Attempts to legislate morality by criminalizing various sexual behaviours serve chiefly to support blackmailing as a cottage industry. Depending on the time and place, English and American blackmailers focused on alienation of affection, bigamy, adultery, abortion, and homosexuality. It is noteworthy how frequently police and lawyers were involved in blackmail.

There’s an interesting section on how homosexuals came to be viewed as security risks during the McCarthy era. It was argued without evidence that their vulnerability to blackmail made them ‘unreliable.” The irony of  the closeted J. Edgar Hoover’s focus on gays is duly noted. The book as a whole, however, fails to sustain interest. One problem is that there isn’t much in the way of theory or analysis and what there is, is presented repetitively. A bigger problem is that most of the book is simply a catalogue of cases.


McNab, A. (1993). Bravo Two Zero. New York: Dell.

An incredible story of endurance behind the Iraqi lines during the Gulf War. McNab is very lucky to have survived, even though at times he was probably wishing he wouldn't. The Iraqis are not nice captors. The special forces are remarkably well trained and well equipped. One gains an appreciation for the planning and preparation required for even a very small scale operation behind enemy lines.


Medvedev, Zh.Z. (1969). The rise and fall of T.D. Lysenko. Translated by I.M. Lerner. N.Y.: Columbia University Press.

I found this book by accident. What a find!!! Medvedev was a participant in the final phase of the Lysenko farce/tragedy. The first two parts of the book were refused publication and circulated in the mimeo underground of the USSR. When it became known, another, unrelated Medvedev was fired before it was discovered he was the wrong guy. Which says something about the efficiency of the system under discussion.

Lysenko, among other silly things, thought that new species were directly created in response to environmental conditions out of old, as well as by spontaneous generation. Genes didn't exist and organisms sacrificed themselves for the good of the species. Genetics was linked to fascism, racism, bourgeois science, and foreign influence.

Lysenko's opponents, such as the distinguished academician Vavilov, were first vilified in the newspapers and scientific journals as Menshiviking idealists, anti-Darwinists, Morganist-Mendelists, Trotskyites, and toadies of the Western scientific establishment, then arrested. Most perished, Vavilov from starvation.

The agricultural losses in the USSR were staggering. Lysenko developed the questionnaire method of measuring the results of his innovations. Agricultural workers generally gave the "right" answers but when there were problems, data were simply falsified. After the first war, the civil war, the second war, and the agricultural debacles occurring from the thirties on, one wonders that there are any Russians left at all. A triumph of the human will (or fecundity). In the never ending but good chronicle of the civil war (Lincoln, W.B. (1989). Red Victory: A history of the Russian Civil War. Toronto: Simon and Schuster), there is a picture of these starving Russians who were arrested for cannibalism--it looked like the pickings were slim indeed.

All this being said, the real interest in this book is how close it hits to home. I thought when I began reading it that it would be an account of something completely foreign and exotic, of anthropological interest. That expectation was strengthened by the pictures of these guys in the book--they look exactly like the slavic peasant immigrants that we Thunder Bay kids (many of whom were their children) used to mock, in our childish ignorance.

There are some quotations of Vavilov being questioned in a committee meeting by Lysenko and his comrades. I swear, you'd think it was taken from the HUAC hearings during the McCarthy era. It's uncanny. It would be an interesting exercise to read Ewald, W.B. (1984). Who killed Joe McCarthy? Toronto: Simon & Schuster and the Medvedev book back to back. Talk about a mirror image!!

Some parallels between the Lysenko scientific hegemony in the USSR and current controversies here are more uncomfortable.......


Meier, C. (1982). Caesar. New York: Basic.

A nice treatment of the end of the republic and the motivations of the principal political antagonists at the time of Caesar. Meier illustrates how the senate had become incapable of administering the Roman empire and how this led to their ambivalent treatment of their great generals. Not as fast paced reading as Michael Grant's many books about the same period but worthwhile in any event. Caesar reminds one of a cross between Pierre Trudeau and General Patton.


Merridale, C. (2005). Ivan’s war: The Red Army 1939-45. London: Faber and Faber.

This is a compellingly readable history of the Red Army in WWII based on many interviews with survivors and newly available documentary information, particularly contemporaneous letters. One is hard pressed not to weep while reading this heart-breaking story. The barbarous conditions and the scale of the catastrophe (about one third of the army were casualties) are essentially incomprehensible. But that is just the beginning. There were those who joined the army because they believed in saving the motherland from invaders, those who sought revenge for German atrocities, those who were essentially abducted at gun-point, those who were placed in the punishment brigades as a death sentence (primarily for imaginary crimes against the state), those who wanted to save the international proletariat from fascist capitalism, and those who simply hoped they would get food if they joined the army. All except those who only sought revenge were disappointed and all were ultimately betrayed.

Political interference with the military almost cost Russia the war—that and a whopping dose of mind-boggling incompetence at the war’s beginning. Bureaucrats and party officials did well on graft while the soldiers froze, starved, and were blown to bits at the front. Eventually many of the soldiers became resistant to the endless propaganda to which they were forced to listen (they were preoccupied by fear, cold, and hunger) and when they reached Europe wondered why the farms were so rich in capitalist countries and so poor in the collectivized farms of the workers’ paradise. They couldn’t understand why a country as obviously rich as Germany could possibly want to go to war to take poverty-stricken Russian territory. Because of this, the Party came to prefer dead heroes to independently thinking live ones. The stupendous soviet victory came to be shared among the glorious leader, the Party, and the dead. Returning veterans were not allowed to talk about the realities of the front, conditions in Europe, or to make suggestions for political change. They were sidelined, politically suspect, and, particularly poignantly for the many invalids, ignored. The army had destroyed one despotic regime, often with the loftiest intentions and always with great sacrifice, in order to save one that was, if anything, worse.

Ivan’s War is a wonderful counterpoint to A woman in Berlin because both deal with the atrocities of the Red Army from completely different, but equally valid and complementary viewpoints. One factor that I had not appreciated was that the political commissars strongly encouraged revenge on the fascist beasts and the total destruction of Germany. Although hardly the whole story, the rape, mindless property destruction, wholesale theft, and casual murder of civilians during the early part of the occupation was a logical consequence of these exhortations.


Mersey, D. (2002). Legendary warriors: Great heroes in myth and reality. London: Brassey’s.

A good account of nine legendary warriors: Arthur, Dracula, Achilles, Beowulf, Robin Hood, Hiawatha, Roland, Cuchulain, and Wallace. For each warrior, Mersey starts with the best-known legends and moves to what we know about the history of the time the warrior lived (or is alleged to have lived) with an emphasis on contemporary military equipment and tactics. There is an interesting dissection of the accuracies and inaccuracies of the portrayal of Wallace in the movie Braveheart.


Montefiore, S.S. (2003). Stalin: The court of the red Tsar. London: Phoenix.

This is the best book on Stalin I have read. The big surprise to me was how his extended family and large group of inter-related Georgians perpetrated, witnessed, and were victimized by the various waves of terror that Stalin orchestrated. The political elite were tireless workers who were terrorized by Stalin in grotesque mandatory drunken parties, night after night. The stamina of these folks was remarkable. The scale and brutality of the ethnic and political cleansings is on a scale too large for comprehension. The incongruous blend of socialist rhetoric, old-style prejudice, paranoid ideation, careerism, and spectacular incompetence is thought provoking, even mind-boggling. But I finally think I understand something of this tragic and bizarre episode of history.


Moore, L. (1997). The thieves’ opera. NY: Harcourt.

This is an entertaining description of the 18th century London underworld, enlivened by a number of Hogarth’s engravings (for example, Gin Lane). These are great but a little small.

There was widespread poverty in London, leading to a high death rate and rampant crime. Everybody seemed on the take, especially in the prisons. The book deals with two principal criminals: Jack Sheppard, a robber and jail breaker, and Jonathon Wild, a more complex and sinister figure. Wild was London’s Thief –Taker General (there was no real police force). He would return people’s stolen property to them for a fee, having often had it stolen earlier. Wild would turn in thieves who operated outside his authority or who displeased him. He controlled his associates through black mail because he could prove that they were guilty of capital offenses. In the end, both Sheppard and Wild were hung.


Moore, R. (2002). A time to die: The untold story of the Kursk tragedy. Toronto: Random House.

Fast paced and suspenseful, even if we know the outcome. Lots of little known details about submarining and diving. The most amazing part of the story is how soon the tragedy was known in the West and how the Russians (eventually) reached out to the private entrepreneurial diving community. Highly recommended.


Moorhouse, G. (2002). The Pilgrimage of Grace: The rebellion that shook Henry VIII’s throne. London: Phoenix.

Northern England half-heartedly rebelled, ultimately failing because of its own hesitations. Henry the VIII, in case you didn’t already know, was a thoroughly dislikable, relentlessly duplicitous guy. The pathetic truth is that the vast majority of the rebellious were loyal to the king, naively blaming his rapacious and often incompetent policies on the low-born ministers of the crown. The pilgrims wanted to set religious and economic things right by returning to the good old days. The rebellion was started by the commons but they forced various nobles to join them because they lacked credible leaders—these folks couldn’t escape their feudal psychology even in rebellion. The nobles that they coerced into joining had to make knife-edge calculations concerning whether they were more likely to be murdered in the short run or hung in the long run.

There’s far too many names (like a Russian novel) and too much geographical detail in places for a general reader but it’s worth persevering.

Morrison, R. (2009). The English Opium Eater: A biography of Thomas de Quincey. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

I had to read this biography of my purported ancestor, De Quincey. De Quincey (1785-1859) was an English author who wrote for a variety of magazines—a kind of public intellectual. His most famous work was the “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”. And prodigiously eat opium throughout his life he did, in the form of laudanum mixed with alcohol. De Quincey developed an almost superhuman tolerance for both drugs despite his diminutive stature and, although the drugs made him sick and brought him bizarre dreams, seldom affected his lucidity.

De Quincey was born fairly wealthy and was extremely well read. His passion for book collecting rivaled his other addictions. He became a very early admirer of the Lake Poets, including Wordsworth and Coleridge (the latter also an opium addict). De Quincey introduced himself to the two poets and then moved to a cottage nearby Wordsworth’s.

Through a combination of generosity and the purchase of innumerable books and oceans of laudanum, De Quincey quickly impoverished himself. He spent the rest of his life borrowing from friends and associates, hiding from creditors, living in debtors’ prison, and causing his wife and children a lot of misery. All the while, he wrote because writing was his only source of income.

The book is long but pretty good.

Nasar, S. (1998). A beautiful mind. N.Y.: Simon and Schuster.

A well written book. It sure doesn't appear at first glance to be something that a hit movie would be made from. The unavoidable weakness in the book is that most readers (like me) have only the dimmest understanding of the mathematical insights which made Nash famous. One has to take it on faith. Nash comes off in the book as an exceptionally unappealing guy until he grows old. Perhaps the message is that there is hope for all of us.


Newman, W.R. (2004). Promethean ambitions: Alchemy and the quest to perfect nature. University of Chicago Press.

The author argues that modern worries over the relationship between technology and nature are anticipated by ancient and medieval debates about whether art can reproduce nature and whether alchemy resulted in real or only apparent changes in matter. Modern debates about the wisdom of cloning and my childhood neighbour’s worry that sending rockets into space risked “putting the light out” are continuations of historical arguments. Interesting enough intellectual history but this presentation is so pedantic and slow paced that I ended up skimming the last parts. Not recommended.


Newman, P.C. (2005). The secret Mulroney tapes: Unguarded confessions of a prime minister. Toronto: Vintage.

This book has been described as a hatchet-job betrayal of the former prime minister by one of his close friends. Newman, a reporter, recorded many phone calls from Mulroney. Mulroney knew he was being recorded and that Newman was going to write his biography. Mulroney told Newman he wanted him to tell it like it was but then was apparently unhappy with the result. My guess is that Mulroney was in part simply horrified by the unedited transcriptions of his casual and, sometimes before he quit drinking, drunken, conversations. Who of us would like to hear our conversations played back to us verbatim, let alone broadcast to the world?

But a hatchet job this is clearly not. Newman clearly likes and admires Mulroney and, even more, the astuteness and charm of his wife, Mila. In fact, the central issue of the book is how someone who was apparently so personally charming and well meaning as Mulroney could come to elicit such visceral hatred from a large part of the Canadian public. This is indeed an interesting question that raises issues concerning how partisan politics, the media, and personality conflicts interact to warp the perception of reality. Fatally, Mulroney looked stiff and stilted on TV. His fabled hail-fellow-well-met Irish gift for blarney and exaggeration in the service of compromise and negotiation that had served him so well as a labour lawyer, just appeared to be dishonesty when he was prime minister.

To me this book was a welcome reality check. What so clearly emerges is the absolute ordinariness of Mulroney and his family. Not evil, not brilliant, not incompetent. Ambitious, for sure, like many of us, and sometimes a bit deluded by self-serving perceptions, like all of us. To my great surprise, I ended up liking Mulroney and admiring his family.

I really am amazed after reading this book that any knowledgeable person would seek to be prime minister.


Nicolson, A. (2008). Quarrel with the king: The story of an English family on the high road to civil war. NY: HarperCollins.

The Pembrokes were among the first families of England from the early 1500s to 1650. The fabulously wealthy earls of Pembroke created an Arcadia in one of the most beautiful areas of England—Wiltshire, adjacent to Salisbury. A remarkable wedding portrait painted by Van Dyck in 1635 is reproduced in the book and gives the flavour of the whole. “At the top left, the dead children of the family float on clouds. Below them, the three youngest brothers…look up to heaven. In the center.… the bride in white. Two steps above her, the boy she is marrying…and his younger brother… with whom she is in love. Holding center stage, Philip, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, and his wife, Lady Anne Clifford” [who looks desperately unhappy, as if she grieved for her dead children or was disaffected from her husband and family]. “On the right, the earl’s daughter… and her husband, the highly glamorous Cavalier Robert Dormer, Earl of Carnarvon. Life for the Pembrokes would never again seem as complete.”

The Pembrokes started out as arriviste Welsh bullies but soon entered the high aristocracy because they attracted the favour of successive monarchs. As the monarchy became more centralized, there was increasing pressure on manorial magnates to become royal bureaucrats. The Pembrokes resisted such change, they were reactionaries, committed to upholding the liberties and customs of England that had existed since time out of mind.

Excellent book. Very reflective. The author paints a vivid picture of the lives of the earls and farmers in the Elizabethan countryside (there’s a lot more to customary practices than one might imagine) and the intrigues at court.      


Nicolson, A. (2003). God’s secretaries: The making of the King James’ Bible. NY: HarperCollins.

Surprisingly little is known about the men who wrote the King James’ version of the Bible and much of what is known is fairly recent. Nicolson does a wonderful job of telling us about these men and their times. There are excellent portraits of the personalities of the principal figures, including King James himself, who was very much in charge of this giant project. Much of the book concerns the choice of language in the King James Bible—these choices were made with extraordinary care by a series of committees who with great effort usually succeeded in producing the clearest meaning with the most magnificent sounding phrases (this bible was meant to be read aloud). It’s marvelous to think of how many of the best phrases of English come from this Bible.

Highly recommended.


Nielsen, R.F. (2000). Total encounters: The life and times of the Mental Health Centre Penetanguishene. Hamilton: McMaster University Press.

Of interest primarily to those who, like me, participated in the life and times of the Mental Health Centre. The author interviewed a great many people for this book and quotes them liberally. The book emphasizes the early history of the hospital and the later controversial developments in the Social Therapy program for psychopaths. Because a lot of ground is covered, there is inevitably a great deal of condensation. This condensation occasionally approaches caricature of a type that I suppose to be difficult to avoid in historical writing. From an insider's view, it appears both that the versions of events are coloured by who is doing the telling and that the actions and opinions of administrative heads receive a disproportionate amount of attention.

Nevertheless, a good source of historical material for the tiny but very interested audience for whom it is intended.


Ollard, R. (1966). The escape of Charles II after the Battle of Worcester. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

This engaging little adventure story begins in 1651 after Cromwell defeated Charles the II’s Scottish army at Worcester. Charles had initiated the campaign in spite of the views of his advisors, with predictable results, and hardly endeared himself to his largely disaffected subjects by inflicting an invasion of barbaric Scots upon them.

Charles narrowly escaped after the battle and, with Cromwellian agents and soldiers scouring the countryside for him, lived an underground existence aided by brave Royalist sympathizers. Many of these were papists who were used to covert operations and maintained “pope’s holes” (places where priests could hide) in their houses. While sequestered in one safe house, Charles witnessed the joyous celebrations of the townsfolk occasioned by a rumour that he had been captured. Charles was fast on his verbal feet and talked himself out of a number of precarious situations. Some of these dangerous situations were caused by the fact that he had never been taught to do work of any kind—he didn’t know how to put a bridle on a horse, use common kitchen instruments, and so forth. This was a serious problem when he was going about dressed as a commoner.

Charles was on the run for about three weeks before his helpers managed to get him on a small boat (later renamed the Royal Escape) that returned him to France. Nine years later, Charles returned in triumph to resume his rule.

One of the most striking aspects of this book is the attitude of the royalists toward the king. It hadn’t been long before that people believed that scrofula could be cured by the king’s touch. People believed that the king was very, very, special. The rather ordinary acts of courtesy, foresight, and bravery of the king were remembered and cherished. If these acts had been done by anyone else, they would have been considered unremarkable. The author, in a muted fashion, shares this sense of the specialness of royalty. Lady Diana aside, I think that it’s a bit hard for many North Americans to really understand this perception.

Charles handsomely rewarded those brave individuals who helped in his escape, usually with pensions to the individuals and their sons. This was exceptional because Charles didn’t ordinarily show gratitude for past services. Remarkably, there remains a family today that continues to receive a pension from the crown stemming from Charles’ escape.


O'Shea, S. (2000) The Perfect Heresy: The revolutionary life and death of the medieval Cathars. Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre.

When the walls of Béziers had been breached in the siege of 1209, soldiers asked Arnold Amaury, the monk who led the first Albigensian crusade how to distinguish Catholics from Cathar heretics. Amaury is said to have replied "Kill them all, God will know his own." The slaughter of 20,000 or so of the hapless inhabitants followed. Over the next 200 years, the Cathar heresy was extinguished along with the political independence of Languedoc in Southern France. The crusade was particularly thorough and barbaric: There is the tale of a long line of men wending their way toward a Cathar fortification, each man with his hand on the shoulder of the man in front. All had been blinded by the crusaders save the first, who was spared one eye.

This is a very worthwhile read. It is interesting because the nature of the Albigensian heresy is not widely known and because the sophisticated and brutal methods developed for its extirpation were later applied widely throughout Europe against heretics, such as relapsing Jews, and pernicious witches.


Ozment, S. (1996). The Burgermeister's daughter: Scandal in a sixteenth century German town. N.Y.: Harper

A very interesting read. It is remarkable how much correspondence, such as love letters, and legal documentation survives from a dispute between a father and daughter from so long ago. Neither party is particularly admirable but both very human. One of the fascinating aspects of this history is how it illustrates the detail and sophistication of sixteenth century German family law. The issues and many of the specific rules concerning the inheritance and distribution of family property are both sensible and very familiar. It does, however, require at least some good will to make things work and that good will was conspicuously absent in the soap opera described in the present work.


Paris, E. (2000). Long shadows: Truth, lies and history. Toronto: Knopf

A thoroughly depressing book about the possibility of reconciliation following oppression. It deals with efforts at reconciling blacks and whites in South Africa and the legacies of American slavery, the holocaust, and the war in Bosnia. On the one hand, one wants to have the historical record accurate and some sort of justice and, on the other, one wants peace and understanding between previously antagonistic parties. There is no solution offered in this book.


Paul, W. (1998). Herman Göring: Hitler paladin or puppet? London: Brockhampton Press. Translated by H. Bögler.

Not a smoothly written (or perhaps smoothly translated) book. It covers the biographical facts of Göring's life but does not offer a convincing explanation of his motives. It is clear that he was brave, vain, charismatic, smarter than the average member of Hitler's entourage (the only one who could actually read a balance sheet), and a greedy lover of luxury. His attitude toward the Jews was ambivalent. Hitler gradually lost confidence in his abilities during the war, despite having designated him his successor.


Payne, R.J. (1995). The clash with distant cultures: Values, interests, and force in American foreign policy. Albany: State University of New York Press.

This book illustrates the total vacuousness of the concept of culture as an explanatory vehicle. "Culture" is mentioned in nearly every paragraph and if it were to be removed, the book would be shorter, read a lot better, and lose absolutely nothing. The political analysis presented is OK, just that it is not aided by the ad hoc and insistent attempts to explain political events by invoking culture.

For example, the author wishes us to believe that states are more likely to war upon states that are culturally different from them. This causes real problems in explaining the history of warfare between, say, France and England, not to mention England and the US. or, even better, culture is used to explain why the US did not come to the aid of Bosnia but did attack Iraq (Muslims are more culturally different from Americans than Serbian Christians). Clearly, this book was written a little too soon. I am confident, however, that such slippery and vague explanatory devices could be made to postdict US support for Kosovo.

There clearly isn't a theory of this type that can actually predict political behavior. A case study of the worst kind of thinking in social science.


Phenix, P. (2006). Private demons: The tragic personal life of John A. MacDonald. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

This book, true to its title, doesn’t talk a lot about MacDonald’s political career but does talk a lot about his private life. Demons indeed, if I were more medievally-minded, I would conclude that MacDonald was cursed. First, there was his alcoholism. MacDonald was not a “problem drinker,” he was a full-blown alcoholic from his teenage years until almost the last years of his life. He was regularly literally carried out of bars and parties because he was too drunk to walk and incurred the costs of such heavy drinking (insulting his friends, missing work, massive hangovers, and so forth).

MacDonald was also chronically in debt and suffered recurrent anxiety about whether he would be able to somehow come up with the money he owed (it didn’t help that both he and his two wives were spendthrifts). His first wife was a dependent, manipulative opium addict. Their first son died very young for no obvious reason. Their second son was raised by MacDonald’s sisters and brother-in-law (who were constantly bickering among themselves) because his invalid wife finally died and MacDonald himself was too busy with politics and law to raise him (they were estranged while the boy was young—he was a real twit as a young man but seemed to improve somewhat with age).

MacDonald’s second marriage was better than the first but the daughter born of that union had severe cerebral palsy and mild hydrocephaly. Then MacDonald’s friends and relatives started dying—including his dear friend, drinking partner, and political ally, Darcy Magee, who was murdered by a Fenian near to MacDonald’s house in Ottawa (incidentally, the house was built atop a stinking sewer pipe). And so forth--if you didn’t know the story, you’d be waiting for him to kill himself (he did try once, however). The wonder of it all is that MacDonald had a great sense of humour, was extremely attractive to the ladies (he was a big flirt), and was one of the most successful Canadian politicians ever.


Power, S. (2008). Chasing the flame: Sergio Vieiro de Mello and the fight to save the world. Toronto: Penguin.

This book could have been titled Bureaucracy meets Godzilla, with Godzilla played by the aspirations of the right-thinking peoples of the world. Sergio is a Brazilian who is first a left-leaning philosophy student in France and then a career bureaucrat with the UN. Sergio cuts a dashing and womanizing figure while he occupies ever more senior positions in the world’s hotspots: Lebanon, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, East Timor, and Iraq. In Iraq, Sergio’s luck finally runs out and he is murdered by an al Qaeda suicide bomber because of his successful work in restoring peace to East Timor.

The UN is comprised of careerists, idealists, and mixtures of the two. At times, UN officials forget or disregard the purposes of the policies and directives they administer in favour of a stupid and self-defeating literalism. The UN is generally poorly served by the countries that sit on the Security Council and given impossible tasks to carry out under impossible conditions—generally, the various countries want to appear to be doing something but are not motivated to part with much of their blood or treasure. My favourite quote from the book: “Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.” (Cohen, a US military analyst).

Sergio, while remaining a loyal UN bureaucrat, gradually gathers experience that enables him to be increasingly effective operator in chaotic and murderous field conditions. He was most successful in his penultimate assignment, East Timor. The book documents the replacement of his idealistic preconceptions with a more ruthless and effective pragmatism.


Radzinsky, E. (2005). Alexander II: The last great tsar. (trans. A.W. Bouis). Toronto: Free Press.

Radzinsky is a Russian playwright and TV celebrity. If this book is any guide, his plays are fabulous. After the death of his totalitarian father, Alexander II set controversial reforms in motion, most notably the liberation of the serfs (this is before the American Civil War freed the slaves). Alexander, however, dithered and compromised—he freed the serfs but didn’t grant them enough land to live on. He encouraged more liberal education, thereby creating a generation opposed to the monarchy, whom he then had to suppress.

All of this made him many enemies. His repressions radicalized the students, some of whom began the anarchist movement. The anarchists used bombs and terror in the naïve hope of toppling the government. The conservatives blamed the Tsar for the unrest. Then the court turned against him because he married the love of his life shortly following his first wife’s death. Would the aristocracy be forced to recognize this woman as the empress and her (previously bastard) children as heirs to the throne? People in high places, including the security apparatus, were no longer highly motivated to protect the Tsar. The fifth attempt on his life was successful.

Highly recommended.


Raffo, P. (2005). Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital 1934-2004: From institution to community: A transformation of psychiatric hospital services. Thunder Bay: St. Joseph’s Care Group.

Despite the brave title, this is a pathetic tale of the extended failure of a psychiatric institution in Ontario’s hinterland. From the decades of delay in its beginning caused by the imperialistic neglect of its Southern Ontario political masters and the inter-city rivalry of Port Arthur and Fort William, to the inability to attract mental health professionals (particularly psychiatrists and psychologists) that characterized the sixties to nineties period, to its demise in the confusion of Ontario psychiatric care policies of the nineties and beyond, it’s a litany of missed opportunities and stifled initiative. Its final demise occurred in a period characterized by anti-psychiatric rhetoric (patients became “consumer-survivors”), anti-institutional policies (essentially de-staffing), and weak attempts to develop community programs by a centralized, demoralized, and confused bureaucracy.

Could it be as bad as all this? The author, historian Raffo, apparently thinks so. Here’s the complete text of the Epilogue as witness of badness on several levels.

Pat Mitchell lived from her youth, first at the Ontario Hospital Port Arthur, and then at LPH. In recent years she has returned to the community of Thunder Bay, to a shared apartment in the south ward of the city. It is clean and brightly decorated. It has modern appliances, comfortable furniture and is fully carpeted. The apartment block itself is located on a busy main road, amidst a variety of housing units. It is within reach of a park and other social and commercial amenities. Pat has direct access to a resident nurse, on the premises.

Pat volunteered readily to be interviewed for this book. She talked at some length about her long experience of a variety of forms of mental health care.
When she came to describe her present circumstances, she beamed with pride. Pat Mitchell loves her new way of life, away from LPH. Nothing made her attitude to that old institution more clear than the moment when she was asked to sign a waiver that released the contents of the interview for possible quotation in the final text. Perhaps remembering the consequences of signing other documents during her long stay at LPH, she looked up sharply at me and said, with a note of alarm in her voice: “You’re not going to send me back there, are you?”

I lived in the neighborhood of LPH through primary and high school. My father was an attendant there from the early sixties until his retirement in the eighties. I worked as an attendant at LPH during the summers of 1964 and 1965 and from 1971 until 1988 I worked in another psychiatric institution in the Ontario psychiatric “system”. There is lots of nostalgia in this book for me, in particular photographs of people I hadn’t seen in more than thirty years.


Remnick, D. (2000). (Ed.). Life stories: Profiles from The New Yorker. N.Y.: Random House

This is a series of biographical portraits selected from the New Yorker. The quality of writing is extremely good. The people who are portrayed range from master conjurors through ordinary folk to tycoons and ballet stars. Some of the portraits are very funny, in particular a lampoon of the "baby tycoon," Henry Luce, written in "Time-speak" in which "backward rolled the sentences, until reeled the mind".

A summer vacation or bedside kind of book. Very entertaining.


Renshon, S.A. & Larson, D.W. (Eds). (2003). Good judgment in foreign policy: Theory and application. NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

A series of essays on what good judgment is, illustrated by numerous examples, mostly from American foreign policy. The essays are generally well written and always well-informed. The authors are aware of the fundamental epistemological problem in their effort but are unable to overcome it. How can we specify the necessary and sufficient conditions for good judgment that can be used by future decision-makers in any but the most obvious broad strokes? Be careful, don’t be too proud, consider the alternatives, get good advice, and so forth. An additional and equally fatal problem is that one can draw different morals from past debacles and successes—is this another quagmire, another Munich? Who the hell knows??


Reston, J. (2005). Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the defeat of the moors. Toronto: Doubleday.

This is a very readable book about an interesting, if brutal and mean-spirited, period of history. The rise of the Spanish Inquisition is described in the context of the final victory over the Moors in Granada, the expulsion of the Jews, and the competition with Portugal over trade with the Orient. A nice explanation of the motivation of Ferdinand and Isabella to (finally) fund Columbus’s voyage is provided. There are some very good pictorial illustrations of some of the practices of the inquisition but, strangely, their provenance is not made clear in the book (other than courtesy, Library of Congress). I tried to find them on the net and couldn’t. I did find, however, a whole bunch of sites of Catholic apologists who claimed that the Spanish Inquisition wasn’t really so bad, was largely a fiction of Protestant propaganda, was a good idea because it forestalled civil war, and so forth. Nothing’s ever over, I suppose.


Reston, J. (1998). The last apocalypse: Europe at the year 1000 A.D. Toronto: Doubleday.

An easy, pleasant read. A very good idea to write a book about various societies about the year 1000. A very good piece on Spain (more bloodthirsty than one might expect) and the Vikings (who are about as bloodthirsty as one expects). Lots of violence and intrigue.....


Richards, D.A. (2008). Lord Beaverbrook. Toronto: Penguin.

This is a short, well put together biography of a remarkably little known man. Lord Beaverbrook (née Max Aitken). Beaverbrook was a wheeler-dealer from New Brunswick who, after becoming a wealthy entrepreneur, emigrated to England and bought up newspapers. Beaverbrook made a major contribution to the WW II war effort as the UK economic czar—he played a role analogous to Albert Speer in Nazi Germany. Beaverbrook was never accepted by the aristocracy in England—despite his wealth, contribution to the war, and taste in art (his large and very valuable collection now resides in New Brunswick), he was regarded as a crass colonial noveau riche. Beaverbrook was sometimes tactless and always outspoken, but, nevertheless, extremely shrewd—to many of his contemporaries, not an endearing combination of traits.

I suspect that the worldly, unsavoury, and definitely non-aristocratic Canadian character of Rex Mottram (played by Charles Keating) in the wonderful British television series Brideshead Revisited is based on Beaverbrook.


Rhodes, R. (2004). John James Audubon: The making of an American. NY: Knopf.

A moderately interesting book on a mostly self-taught naturalist and artist working just before the Darwinian revolution. Audubon escaped being pressed into the French army or execution during the French revolution as a very young man, ending up in frontier America. He made and lost several fortunes, gradually becoming ever more dedicated to painting birds. This passion slowly and by dint of enormous effort led to success—especially in England. What a tireless worker he was. Audubon had a very strong marriage that survived his endless wilderness traveling. Audubon witnessed and participated in the wholesale slaughter of innumerable species of wildlife. As he grew older, this caused him increasing discomfort because he could see where it was leading.


Roller, D.W. (2010). Cleopatra: A biography. NY: Oxford University Press.

This is a very good book. Roller distinguishes between modern popular ideas about Cleopatra (69-30 BCE) and what the historical record shows. The book is very good at placing Cleopatra in her historical context. She was Queen of a country that had to come to terms with the expanding Roman Empire. To do so, She practiced what would now be recognized at Realpolitik in an attempt to get the best deal for Egypt that she could while advancing her Ptolemaic dynasty. What an eventful and dramatic life she had!

There is a wonderful (if fanciful) painting on the front cover of Cleopatra watching poisons being tested on her slaves.


Rosen, W. (2007). Justinian’s flea: The first great plague and the end of the Roman Empire. Toronto: Penguin.

Very nicely written history and the clearest description of the biology of the plague I’ve read. The author attributes the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of the Islamic states to the arrival of the bubonic plague from Egypt in AD 542. Although the author can only provide plausible interpretation of correlational historical data, the sudden demise of about 25 million people is unlikely to be without historical effect


Ryback, T.W. (2008). Hitler’s private library: The books that shaped his life. Toronto: Random House.

Hitler is often thought to be anti-intellectual but he read for long hours every night. Most of his library still exists and some of the volumes contain the marks he made as he read. Hitler considered Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be at the forefront of great literature. He was a Shakespeare fan, preferring him to Goethe, and in particular admired the Merchant of Venice (guess why), Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. In addition to adventure novels, he read political tracts that he recommended to his followers. Among the most important of these was a German translation of Henry Ford’s The international Jew: The world’s foremost problem. Exclamation marks and heavy underlining mark late 19th century German books advocating the elimination of the Jewish “pestilence” from Germany. Unsurprisingly, Hitler had a book on Zyklon B and others on tank warfare.


Saunders, F.S. (2005). The devil’s broker: Seeking gold, God, and glory in 14th century Italy. London: Faber & Faber.

John Hawkwood participated in the rape and pillaging of France under the Black Prince. In 1360, he and his band of marauders (the White Company) headed for richer pickings in politically fragmented Italy. Hawkwood, through many adventures and fluctuations in fortune, became successful and a political power there. His goal was to retire with enough wealth to be respectable and to finance his children’s entry into the nobility.

Nicely done history. It’s amazing how frankly mercenary these mercenaries were—they had contracts and such, just like the contemporary trading companies and other economic institutions. This book complements Unger’s biography of Lorenzo— but it’s written about the other (dark) side of the Italian city states.


Scahill, J. (2007). Blackwater: The rise of the world’s most powerful mercenary army. NY: Avalon.

The American mistrust of government and faith in private enterprise came together in the Bush era to create a private mercenary force. In 2001, Secretary Rumsfeld addressed the Pentagon officials in charge of defense contracting:

“The topic today is an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America,” Rumsfeld thundered. “This adversary is one of the world’s last bastions of central planning. It governs by dictating five-year plans. From a single capital, it attempts to impose its demands across time zones, continents, oceans, and beyond. With brutal consistency it stifles free thought and crushes new ideas. It disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk.”

While these words were presumably spoken tongue in cheek, Rumsfeld proceeded to divert huge sums of money to the private sector by outsourcing an increasing number of military functions to the private sector. The result, a cancerous growth on the already bloated military-industrial complex, promises to eventually destabilize the American government. As the ancient Romans and the not so ancient Tsars of Russia discovered, a military force dependent directly on the executive acts entirely in accord with its own narrowly defined interests. The large group of mercenaries with headquarters and training facilities based not far from Washington (in Blackwater) can sooner or later be expected to depose leaders that fail to please them. Tail wagging the dog indeed!


Schele, L. & Mathews, P. (1998). The code of kings: the language of seven sacred Maya temples and tombs. N.Y.: Scribner.

This is a very disappointing book. The authors describe the various Mayan sites in great detail and present drawings of the murals that are too small to be seen without a magnifying glass. There isn’t much context setting or story-line and what there is was covered in their earlier books. Still, it is of interest to see how the ability to read the glyphs has progressed. Very gradually, the builders of these magnificent sites are being brought into written history.

The similarities among all of the early civilizations never cease to boggle my mind.


Serge, V. & Trotsky, N.S. (1975). The life and death of Leon Trotsky. (Translated by A.J. Pomerans). NY: Basic.

This is the story of the communist revolution and its betrayal by Stalin told by true believers who witnessed the events. Interesting to read now as a testament to the limitation of human understanding—these folks really thought they had it all figured out. Tragic, the enormous sacrifices that are made for misguided causes.


Service, R. (2000). Lenin: A biography. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lenin was a good deal more like Stalin than popularly believed. I was very surprised that he was not the rigorously logical intellectual I had thought him to be (who says propaganda doesn't work?). Lenin pursued power and his writings provided a justification of his actions, not a rationale. A worthwhile read.


Seward, D. (1978). The hundred years war: The English in France, 1337-1453. NY: Atheneum.

Seward provides a very readable account of what can be a very confusing period of history. The wonder was that tiny England nearly prevailed against giant France, mostly because of French disunity. The tremendous waste caused in France because of the scorched earth policy of the English, the omnipresent routiers (multi-ethnic groups of bandits), and English stealing boggle the mind. Whatever is said about the war, one of the primary motivations of the English was the economic advancement of individuals and the state through ill-gotten gains.


Shaffer, P. (2009). We’ll be here for the rest of our lives: A swingin’ showbiz saga. Toronto: Random House.

I had to read this book because Paul Shaffer is the most famous showbiz type to ever come from my hometown of Thunder Bay, even more famous than Bobby Curtola. Unfortunately, he’s from the Fort William part of Thunder Bay, not the vastly superior Port Arthur part, so, although we overlapped, I never met him.

The book is a collection of anecdotes held together by an autobiographical thread. Shaffer was star struck from the time he was a child and he still is. He loves celebrities, especially musical celebrities, and all entertainers, even lounge lizards who never made it. It’s all rather endearing. Happily, he ended up on Saturday Night Live and then on David Letterman, where he can live out his dreams of hobnobbing with the famous.

The book isn’t all that interesting if you’re not keen on celebrities but Shaffer seems like a nice guy.


Shanks, H. (1998). The mystery and meaning of the Dead Sea scrolls. N.Y.: Random House.

An easy read. Two aspects of this book are of interest. The first is the documentation of religious preoccupation and schisms up to the time of Christ. The various sects, such as the Essenes, were fundamentally divided over purification rites so arcane as to boggle the mind. One keeps wondering: Why didn't they have a life?

The second aspect of interest is the description of how the Scrolls were acquired (cloak and dagger derring-do sorts of stuff) and published. The publication (or lack thereof) is billed as the scientific scandal of the century and it seems that this is no exaggeration. I won't give this part of the book away but if you ever wondered why deadlines were necessary, this is a book you should read.


Sharpe, J.A. (1984). Crime in early modern England 1550-1750. Burnt Mill, Haslow, UK: Longman.

All criminology books begin with a tedious description of the fallibility of the measures of crime employed. After the ritual deconstruction, the authors go on to use what they have available regardless. This book is no exception.

I found this book a bit tedious but persisted nevertheless out of sheer perversity and lack of a real life. There were a few interesting things though. I was unaware how seldom the “bloody code” was actually used to effect executions. The bloody code made more and more minor offenses punishable by execution—it was enacted piecemeal over time—almost in fits of inadvertence and with no awareness of what was occurring. There were, however, many alternatives to the gallows, including the popular transportation to the colonies, but more importantly, character witnesses were generally sufficient to save miscreants from the noose. Only people who were universally despised, total strangers to the community, or extremely unlucky were hung for any of the many minor capital crimes.


Shuyun, S. (2006). The long march: The true history of communist China’s founding myth. Toronto: Doubleday.

This story had to be written now because the long marchers will soon all be dead. The author followed the route taken by the marchers (not starving, on foot, and being shot at, however) and interviewed all the survivors she could find.

The author is full of admiration for the heroism and idealism of the marchers but grows increasingly disillusioned as her investigations reveal the myth-making and lies of the Communist Party. There were a lot of secrets (for example, treachery in high places) that needed to be kept from the people and Mao, like Stalin with the Red Army, preferred his heroes dead.

This is a truly incredible story and is very well told.


Silcox, D.P. (2003). The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. Toronto: Firefly.

This is a large coffee table type book with many excellent colour reproductions of the Group of Seven's paintings. Like many Canadians of my generation, I imprinted upon these paintings of the rugged (near) north. For me, these paintings almost seem to be Canada. It is of interest that the Group of Seven had more formal "European" style artistic training than their publicists let on.


Siljak, A. (2008). Angel of vengeance: The “girl assassin,” the Governor of St. Petersburg, and Russia’s revolutionary world. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Oh my, this is a good one. Siljak is a Queen’s professor whose book placed second in the Canadian nonfiction competition this year (Cook’s Shock troops came first).

I have wondered off and on, when reading about the communist revolution and the show trials (e.g., Darkness at noon) where the peculiar communist rhetoric and ideas came from. The dictatorship of the proletariat, the vanguard of the workers, the “deed” that would ignite world revolution, the idea that everything must be destroyed before the new era could miraculously appear, the romanticized, selfless, monomaniacal, and amoral revolutionary who would bring the revolution about, the fetish of secret organizations, democratic centralism, and so forth. Did Marx and Lenin just invent these notions? If they did, why would anybody find them compelling? To an contemporary outsider, these ideas seem like they’ve been lifted from any of the dime a dozen paranoid conspiracy sites that one can visit on the web.

This book shows how these notions (notions are thoughts too small to be considered ideas) developed as a result of historical events,  politically evocative novels, and terrorist tracts during the 19th century. The radical students of the 1860s (nouveau-atheist idealists inspired by the suffering of the saints) initially attempted to educate the peasants to provoke an uprising—the peasants, still living in the dark ages, weren’t interested. The students, having no followers, determined on direct violent action. They would mobilize the masses by sacrificing themselves during the assassinations of various government officials.

There are stunning parallels between the Russian student radicals of the eighteen sixties and the student radicals of the nineteen sixties, including the concern for and romanticizing of the poor (none of whom were represented among the radicals), contempt for bourgeois conventions, and the affectation of workmen’s clothing.

The heroine, Vera Zasulich, was part of the early radical movement. Following a term of imprisonment, she unsuccessfully attempted to kill the Governor of St. Petersburg. Famously, she stood trial for attempted murder in 1878. But the government of Alexander II was so incompetent, it appeared to harbour a death wish. Nowhere was this clearer than in the outcome of Zasulich’s trial. Her tragedy was not only that she was denied martyrdom but that she lived long enough to see the catastrophic results of the ultimate victory of the terrorist movement.


Stape, J. (2007). The several lives of Joseph Conrad. Toronto: Doubleday.

Conrad was a Polish expatriate who was first an underemployed sailor and later a captain at a time when less and less labour was needed for merchant ships. He was a bit of a ne’er do well who was frequently bailed out by his uncle (he had no other family). It is surprising that he ended up becoming a master of English writing and a successful author at a relatively advanced age. Financial success, however, was very slow in coming and Conrad’s laboured writing was always motivated by money. He sometimes mistook his audience, particularly in his later years.


Sugden, J. (1997). Tecumseh: A life. New York: Holt.
Tecumseh was a warrior and political advocate of a cause that was lost before he took it up. Even the ancestors' unifying religious precepts advanced by his brother "the Prophet" were already a mix of European and aboriginal beliefs. Nonetheless, Tecumseh was a capable and admirable man. The book is hampered by the lack of information about Tecumseh's early life but he comes into focus in his prime as a political and military leader.


Swanton, M. (Ed. & translator). (1993). Anglo-Saxon prose. London: Orion.
Fairly short excerpts of surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Some interesting pieces on the ravages of the Vikings (oh the terror and expense!) and a large number of sermons and saints lives. The latter raise some interesting questions about the minds of the monks that originally wrote them.

Consider the obviously false tales in these hagiographies—birds and saints conversing, people raised from the dead, instances of precognition, long-buried bodies perfectly preserved, and so forth. One can understand the credulous people who accepted these childish tales as true because some one in authority told them they were, but what about the individuals who made the stories up? They knew for sure that the tales were untrue—what were they thinking?

As everyone knows, instances of people knowingly promulgating falsehoods abound—the lost golden tablets of the angel Moroni, accounts of socialist progress in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, corporate denial of the link between smoking and lung cancer, Hoover’s crusade against rampant communism in post-WWII America, and so on, ad nauseum. In each case, the assertions were certainly known to be false by the people who originally made them. These are not simply instances of mistaken judgments or credulous acceptance. Nor is it the case that these lies are associated only with totalitarian regimes, an ignorant populace, religious zealotry, or remote times and places. The phenomenon appears ubiquitous.

In the case of the saints’ lives, the lies were likely told by people who in fact believed in miracles. If they didn’t see one but believed that such things could, should, and occasionally did happen, did they take it upon themselves to make the story truer than truth?


Tetlow, E. (1992). Hastings. N.Y.: Barnes and Noble.
A nice little book about the Battle of Hastings and its political and military context. Quite an amazing series of events, chief among them, Harold's victory over Hardrada and Tostig at Stamford Bridge just before William's invasion. Tetlow is very sceptical about William's claim on the English throne, arguing that most of it is simply Norman propaganda.


Tomalin, C. (2002). Samuel Pepys: The unequalled self. Toronto: Penquin.
An excellent read. Pepys was an important bureaucrat in the navy of Charles the Second’s restoration monarchy but is remembered today for his compendious diary. The diary recounts in a compelling narrative the story of Pepys’s ascent to power and his navigating the shoals of his puritan and republican youth in the circumstances of a royalist and covertly Catholic government. Pepys himself had no interest in religion but had to appear to hold the religious beliefs in favour at the time.

Pepys was good at his job and made a handsome living by accepting bribes from navy contractors. This was officially frowned upon, although one couldn’t live on the tiny salaries these jobs provided, and the practice was ubiquitous. Pepys claims that he accepted gifts but did not allow them to affect his judgment. Amazingly, his diaries record many instances of shameful conduct, such as cheating one of his associates and forcing his sexual attentions on a variety of servants, wives of acquaintances, serving wenches, and so on. Pepys was fascinated by his life and presents it to us warts and all.


Unger, M.J. (2008). Magnifico: The brilliant life and violent times of Lorenzo De’ Medici. NY: Simon & Schuster.
This is a wonderful book. Surprisingly, Lorenzo (1449-1492) “the magnificent” really was magnificent and not just in comparison with contemporary rulers, such as his son and successor, Piero, “the unfortunate”. Lorenzo was smart, brave, civic-minded, a patron and connoisseur of the arts, a poet, and skilful in politics and intrigue. He inherited the Medici banking empire from his father and grandfather, along with the family arthritis.

Unger artfully portrays the constraints on Lorenzo as the “first citizen” of Florence, as well as the opportunities he exploited. Lorenzo was not nobly born and lived in a kind of republican democracy. This was a problem for Florentine rulers because there was no noble lineage to offer irrefutable legitimacy. Florentine political power and wealth was vested in extended families who in turn were embedded geographically in neighbourhoods and socially in clusters of clients and dependents (sounds a lot like ancient Rome!). Unfortunately, the government was legally organized in such a way that it wouldn’t work if the laws were actually followed. Power had to be exercised behind the scenes through cabals of cronies. Propaganda, and subtlety, not to mention a sound economic program, were necessary. And, one had to avoid assassination by rival families.

The goal of all of the intrigue and striving was not only to have the most stuff when one died, but to advance the fortunes of one’s kin, particularly one’s children. One way to accomplish this was to amass a fortune and then marry into the landed nobility. Lorenzo succeeded admirably--he became one of the ancestors of the Kings of France and two of his sons became popes (ironic, because he had to face down a pope to accomplish what he did).


Warner, J. (2005). The incendiary: The misadventures of John the Painter, first modern terrorist. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Very interesting little biography of a guy who tried to burn down several English shipyards during the American revolution. If he had succeeded, he would have had a big effect on the English war effort. Excellent historical details and well-fashioned. It’s marvelous how much the author could discover about this obscure historical figure.


Weber, E. (1999). Apocalypses: Prophecies, cults and millennial beliefs through the ages. Toronto: Random House.

Not a worthy successor to Norman Cohn's classic 1957 book, The pursuit of the millennium. There are two difficulties with this book. The first is that there are so many cults and millennial crises over the years that the reader is overwhelmed and the second is that the author doesn't seem to have a purpose in writing this book and presents no satisfying theory.

God knows, there will be many more books on the millennium in the next year (1999).


Weatherford, J. (2004). Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world. N.Y.: Crown.
One doesn't have to agree with the author's contention that the Mongol Empire was the first secular state to appreciate its importance in the development of the modern world. The Mongols were superb cavalrymen, conquering everyone that was not separated from Asia by water or living in heavily forested areas. At its height, the empire stretched from the Middle East to Korea. Unlike the Americans, the Mongols succeeded in conquering Vietman. It has been argued that the Mongols saved Chinese culture for the Chinese by retaining and promoting the best of what they had. As a matter of policy, when conquering an area, the Mongols killed all of the nobility, were totally indifferent to the fates of commoners, but preserved all those who had particular manufacturing, mining, or agricultural skills, were literate, or holy men. They used the skilled people they conquered where they needed them in their vast empire.

As a very young man of bleak prospects, Genghis Khan (1162-1227) rescued his new bride from wife-stealing abductors. The resulting uncertain parentage of Ghenghis's eldest son had polictical consequences but apparently little effect on Genghis's fitness. There is genetic evidence that one in two hundred men alive today owe their Y chromosone to Genghis Khan (Tyler-Smith et al., 2003, American Journal of Human Genetics). Though the "universal ruler" was happily married, the most beautiful women were reserved for him.


Westhues, K. (2004). Administrative mobbing at the University of Toronto: The trial, degradation and dismissal of a professor during the presidency of J. Robert S. Prichard. Queenston, ON, Edwin Mellen Press.
This strange book is fascinating on several levels. There is dramatic tension in the story of the dismissal itself and what slimy administrative memoranda will appear next. Dramatic tension in that one often can’t tell whether the protagonist, Professor Herbert Richardson, is really guilty or simply victimized—or even if he’s guilty of something else, so deserves dismissal anyway. As Beria used to say—“Everybody’s guilty of something.” Then there’s tension in trying to decide whether the author has been duped or is attempting to dupe the reader, while trying to ignore an obvious conflict of interest when evaluating the arguments and evidence. The (real or apparent) conflict is that Herbert Richardson owns the company that published this book. All this is made worse by somewhat overblown assertions that “mobbing” has emerged as an exciting new area of scholarly inquiry. I don’t think so—however, I can believe that it is an exciting new area of reportage. And there is nothing wrong with good reporting, particularly by someone who appears as well informed and humanistic as Westhues.

I highly recommend this book and won’t spoil it for you by detailing what I think. It takes a bit of getting into but I found that I couldn’t put it down thereafter. The book is worth reading for the quoted memoranda alone.

One of the questions that the dismissal of Richardson involves is whether the Edwin Mellen Press is or is not a “vanity press.”Hard to know how to evaluate this assertion when the bulk of academic publications (especially journal articles) are read by vanishingly few people. Is it “Vanity, all vanity”?


Wheatcroft, A. (1995). The Habsburgs: Embodying empire. London: Penguin.
An examination of the Habsburg dynasty from 1020 through the present. Some very interesting history and a penetrating examination of the symbolism that the Habsburgs used as propaganda for their family. Unfortunately for the historically ignorant, the author assumes the reader is familiar with all of the more famous political events in the Habsburg dynasty. A good book to read while one is in Vienna!


Williamson, E. (2004). Borges: A life. Toronto: Penguin.
I became interested in Borges when I stumbled across a quote in a statistics book that I thought was wildly funny—right up there with Oscar Wilde’s deathbed ultimatum—“Either this wallpaper goes or I do!” Here’s the passage—

An Ancient Chinese Classification of Animals
Animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k), those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, and (n) those that resemble flies from a distance. (Jorge Luis Borges, Other inquisitions: 1937-1952)

Borges, however, did not have a funny life. By all accounts, he emerged from an overprotected childhood to early promise as a poet and went from there to humiliation and obscurity as a low-level library worker in a very unionized shop. At one point a co-worker found a reference to a Jorge Luis Borges in a reference book and called Borges’ attention to the “amazing coincidence” of their names. All the while Borges was tormented by obsession over unrequited love, financial dependence on his parents, a morbid preoccupation with his faults, and a fear of falling into solipsistic madness.

About the time Borges was becoming blind, at age 60, his work was belatedly discovered when he was awarded the International Publishers’ Prize in 1961 (Borges initially thought it was a joke). In short order he became famous—visiting professorships at leading universities around the world (ironic because he never managed to graduate from high school), speaking tours, interviews, photos, and celebrity status. Borges was the most famous living Argentinian. So famous that casual remarks, such as, that the war between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falklands (Malvinas) reminded him of two bald men fighting over a comb, caused him lots of trouble. More importantly for Borges himself, he found reciprocated romantic love at long last with a very young and pretty Japanese-Argentinian woman of literary tastes and independent spirit.


Wilson, A.N. (2006). After the Victorians: The world our parents knew. London: Random House.
This is a history of the twentieth century from an English perspective. It covers the loss of empire and the two great wars and chronicles what it asserts are associated cultural trends. The book is easily read and a bit chatty. It is sometimes cluttered by the inclusion of many figures of modest importance and the author’s many opinions (sometimes they are sound, sometimes not, and sometimes one can’t tell). There is some interesting documentation on the persistence and pervasiveness of the English class system. The author believes in decency, the importance of ideological and religious tolerance, and the British National Health Service.

Of course, it is easy to be depressed by a history of the twentieth century. How many millions of deaths due to plague, war, and starvation were there? One is reminded of Sagan’s “billions and billions”. As Stalin famously remarked—a few deaths are a tragedy, a million, just a statistic.

The author argues that the allies in WWII were hardly morally pure (witness the pointless and perhaps counterproductive massive bombing of civilians in Germany and the American insistence on unconditional surrender that essentially (it is argued) led to the continued enslavement of Eastern Europe). Wilson also describes the unequal relationship of England and the US. He believes that the Americans used England’s predicament to effect the elimination of the remains of the British Empire and England as a world economic and political power.


Wilson, I. (2007). The Bible as history: Exploring the book that changed the world. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
A fascinating book on several levels. The author first deals with the archeological evidence for the history in the Old Testament. There is lots of new and interesting historical and archeological evidence and a good deal of it lends plausibility for several of the Old Testament stories. The illustrations are very well selected and complement the text admirably. I learned a lot—for example, when and why the Israelites dropped Hebrew for Aramaic. Then—POOF!—the author is suddenly bitten by the credulity fairy (or ingests something that affects his brain) when he turns to the New Testament. The treatment of Jesus’s life is essentially a religious tract that I couldn’t be bothered to finish reading. It does go to show you, however, that religious beliefs can be encapsulated in an otherwise perfectly sensible mind.


Winchester, S. (1998). The professor and the madman: A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. N.Y.: Harper Collins.
Interesting story detailing how the "madman", an American named William Minor, helped create the Oxford Dictionary from his confinement in Broadmoor Security Hospital. Minor had been a physician in the Yankee Army during the American Civil War before his breakdown. Subsequently he took a trip to England and murdered an innocent man as part of a psychotic delusional episode. Although a combination of schizophrenia and repressed sexuality ruined his life, he managed to achieve something worthwhile before his pathetic end.


Wineapple, B. (1996). Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
This is a very long book. It’s well written but contains too much detail for someone with no academic interest in either of the Steins. In fact, that was the main problem I had with the book: Gertrude Stein was not a particularly agreeable person and I, in my philistine sort of way, didn’t think she ever did anything very important. Her brother was nicer, less ambitious, and an art collector.

There is some interesting context to the biographies—for example, descriptions of painters like Matisse and Picasso early in their careers and the influence that William James had on his younger American contemporaries.


Winter, A. (1998). Mesmerized: Powers of mind in Victorian Britain. University of Chicago Press.

Mesmerism became wildly popular and very contentious in Britain during the mid-nineteenth century. Winter uses this phenomenon and the failure to establish a consensus about its meaning to illuminate Victorian epistemological difficulties. When should people defer to authorities when seeking to understand something and who were the authorities? Mesmerism formed an important part of the context of the establishment of scientific expertise and the exclusion of laypeople from meaningful participation in the professional specialists' domains.

Well written and worth reading. There are great 19th century illustrations throughout.


Woodward, B. (2004). Plan of attack. Toronto: Simon and Schuster.
A history of events leading up to the Iraq War from a well-known Washington insider. The characteristics of the principal protagonists seem much like what would be expected from the regular news. Bush, not a rocket scientist; Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Cheney sabre rattling; Powell cautious and a bit out of the loop; Rice, the president's loyal warrior princess.

From all that can be learned from this book, the war still seems strangely inadequately motivated. The author argues that the planning exercise itself led inexorably to war. The physical and political logistics of a modern overseas operation of this size boggle the mind.

I think that the best line concerning the Iraqi War so far comes from John Stewart of the Daily (fake news) Show. He reported Paul Wolfowitz's claim that the alleged torture of Iraqi detainees was actually only "freedom tickling."


Wroe, A. (2004). The perfect prince: Truth and deception in Renaissance Europe. NY: Random House.
This is the story of how a pretender to the throne, the fraudulent “Richard, Duke of York” attempted and failed to take the English throne from Henry the Seventh. Richard claimed to be the younger of the two pathetic sons of Edward IV who had been taken to the Tower upon Henry’s accession and never seen again. Richard was encouraged to varying degrees by various European kings and nobles for their own purposes but was supported in England only by the poorest and most marginal people. The tale is psychologically rich, involving deceptions, betrayals, naiveté, and pathos.

The author has a somewhat convoluted style that makes this book slow reading. In addition, the pace of action is glacial. However, the reader is sustained by the level of description of the background to the events of interest and the many asides describing what people believed and how they expected others to act in the 1450s to 1490s. All this context pays off in the second half of the book when the events come to have much greater interest and significance than they would have otherwise.


Yeatman, T.P. (2000). Frank and Jesse James: The story behind the legend. Nashville, Tenn.: Cumberland House.
As its title promises, this book tells the complete story of the notorious James brothers, a great deal of the context of their lives, and the wacky tale of the popularization and exploitation of their legend, involving bold and demented frauds, deceit, and con games.

As a case study in crime, there are no surprises. The James boys' career in crime began in vicious civil war struggles where they fought as part of an unofficial Confederate guerrilla cavalry and blossomed in the context of carpetbagging and oppression. However, their career of banditry and petty crime continued long after the course of history had made such rationales obsolete.

Jesse James letters' to the public, often embellished by a promotional reporter, reveal a litigious and vindictive man who viewed himself as the victim of circumstances and oppression. And there can be no doubt that the James family had been traumatized, first by their political enemies and later by the Pinkertons. Nor was there doubt that the scale of the James brothers crimes was tiny in comparison to the contemporary massive railroad frauds, influence peddling, and other scams.

Both the James brothers, but especially Jesse, had a love of risk taking in the form of gambling, horse racing, and defaulting on debts. Late in his life Frank James became involved with a sort of travelling circus that had more than its share of the gambling, fraud, and petty crime typically associated with such enterprises.

From an evolutionary perspective, it is of interest to see the respect and awe that a reputation as a killer provides.

We see in this history a public longing for a Robin Hood figure--the brave little guy fighting the system on behalf of the oppressed. Unfortunately, however, the public had to make do with sometimes murderous and always reckless "boys" who were out for themselves and their families.


Zimmer, C. (2004). Soul made flesh: The discovery of the brain - and how it changed the world. Toronto: Free Press

One of the most informative and interesting books I've read in some time. It is written in a very engaging fashion. The author succeeds in capturing some of the intellectual and phsyical atmosphere of the times and presents theories that may now appear ridiculous in a sympathetic and intelligible way. The book is a biography of Thomas Willis (1621-1675), the guy after whom the circle of arteries at the base of the brain is named.

Zimmer situates the famous Oxford Circle (including Willis, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, Richard Lower, Robert Hooke, and John Wallis) in the polictical context of the English Civil War and its aftermath. The Members of the Oxford Circle were the intellectual heirs of William Harvey and Francis Bacon. They did not embrace the puritanical anti-royalist doctrines of Cromwell's protectorate. Nevertheless, they substituted empirical investigation for the received wisdom of Aristotle and Galen - potentially dangerous views in the restoration England of Charles II. Thus Willis and his friends would not go as far in their mechanism as Thomas Hobbes - they continually looked for signs of God's handiwork while unintentionally but systematically undermining the whole idea of spiritual purpose in nature.

At least one of the Oxford Circle, Boyle, seemed to be partly aware of the subversive nature of what he was accomplishing.

"For the rest of his life, Boyle would chase after grace and be tormented by a feeling that he was unworthy of God's love. He would relentlessly question whether he was pious enough, if he had actually committed some evil that he was unaware of. His uncertainty turned his life into an endless round of questions, a perpetual suspicion that he had not yet found Truth." (pp. 132-133).

None of what Willis learned about the brain had any immediate medical or practical consequences. Like all physicians of his time, Willis remained dependent on folk remedies, remedies devised by the ancients or promulgated by contemporary alchemists and astrologers. Willis nevertheless went from being an obscure "pisse prophet" (a doctor who examined urine samples to arrive at a diagnosis) to a well-connected, famous, and wealthy phsyician. Despite his financial and social success, Willis continued to provide free medical services to the poor throughout his career.

John Locke saw that no practical consequences arose from the anatomical investigations of Harvey and Willis. Locke concluded that, because it was vain or impossible to discover the true workings of the body, we should instead use more common-sense empirical methods of developing treatments for illness. Look at a lot of cases that have been treated in different ways and see what worked best. We need to deal with likelihoods, not essences. Locke won the day and neurology fell out of favour for generations, being replaced by a "black box" form of associationistic psychology. A psychology nevertheless infomed and constrained by Willis's discoveries.


Von Boeselager, P.F. (2009). Valkyrie: The story of the plot to kill Hitler, by its last member. NY: Knopf. (with F. Fehrenbach & J. Fehrenbach. Translated by S. Rendall).
A brief account of the plots to kill Hitler. I hadn’t realized that there were quite a number of these attempts and several came close. One of the problems is that the plotters wanted to simultaneously assassinate the SS leader, Himmler, in order to avoid a civil war.

Most of the plotters supported a German resurgence. These were conservative soldiers who shared the Nazi desire to restore the losses and remove the humiliation occasioned by the Treaty of Versaille. They were marvellously brave men who deserved to succeed. Nevertheless, one wonders about how much such memoirs are coloured by hindsight biases and self-presentational concerns.

Book Reviews - True Crime

Abagnale, F.W. (1980). Catch me if you can: The true story of a real fake. NY: Random House.

Abagnale was a con man who, at an early age, victimized Pan American airlines, posing as a pilot. He was a very successful cheque forger. Later, his career included stints of posing as a sociology professor and a pediatrician. After his eventual capture in France, he was incarcerated there under deplorable conditions before being incarcerated in Sweden in lovely conditions. He escaped from an airplane while being transported to the US and later from an American prison.

Abagnale is remarkably unintrospective and either cannot or will not give us much insight into the development of his character. In all, a fast-paced and fun read but I’m not sure I believe all of it.

Ablow, K. (1994). Without mercy: The shocking true story of a doctor who murdered. NY: St. Martin’s.

This is the story of an unlikable and mentally unbalanced physician, Dr. John Kappler, who drives onto a jogging path and runs over a couple of people. It turns out he has tried to kill some patients in the past as well. The author is a physician himself who notes that knowledge of the secret handshake enables him to secure candid interviews with doctors that Kappler had worked with in the past.

The book contains long stretches of rambling and undisciplined speculation and comment about the hackneyed mad/bad issue as applied to this particular case and whether Kappler’s working class origins and resulting drive for status was the true motivation for the killings. All of this is completely bootless and very annoying.

Ablow provides some hair-raising descriptions of anesthesiologists as the lowest form of medical life. Not very reassuring for readers who may be contemplating surgical procedures. This was news to me, I had thought that jailhouse doctors and psychiatrists practicing on “special licenses” in psychiatric facilities were at the bottom of the medical hierarchy.

Anastasia, G. (1999). The summer wind: Thomas Capano and the murder of Anne Marie Fahey. N.Y.: Avon Books.

A gossipy account of a murder among the upper classes. Capano is mean-spirited above and beyond the call of self interest.


Berendt, J. (1994). Midnight in the garden of good and evil: A Savannah story. N.Y.: Random.

A fun read. Well written, with a good sense of place. It is sort of a murder mystery that is supposedly based on real events. If all this happened as described, Savannah contains more than its share of very weird folks.


Bledsoe, J. (1989). Bitter blood. Toronto: Penguin.

I really liked this true crime book. Things get really bad, and then, they get a lot worse! In fact, it is downright bizarre how bad things can get. If you read the book, make sure you don’t read the figure captions or the cover blurbs, just let the whole horrible story unfold.


Bledsoe, J. (1994). Before he wakes A true story of money, marriage, sex, and murder. N.Y.: Penquin.  

A good true crime story. The female villainess is a piece of work whose life illustrates an intertwining of appetitive strivings (sex and shopping), egocentricity, and callousness. Her   nemesis is that she is but a one trick pony.


Bourrie, M. (1997). By reason of insanity: The David Michael Krueger story. Toronto: Hounslow Press.

Warning, do not waste your money on this book. Bourrie manages to tell the story of a serial killer (who is well known to many of us) without illuminating the subject of serial killing or the development of Krueger one little bit.


Cairns, A. (1998).Nothing sacred: The many lives and betrayals of Albert Walker. Toronto: Seal Books.

Walker is a weasel from the word Astop. A very good true crime book and more interesting than most. Not to give it all away, the reader remains in total awe of the incredible credulity of the people Walker exploits. Quite an amazing tale.


Carlo, P. (2009). The butcher: Anatomy of a mafia psychopath. NY: HarperCollins.

Tommy “Karate” Pitera was a real mean guy and maybe an example of a quasi-successful psychopath. However, he was also creative, finding a novel use for a wildlife sanctuary (as a repository for lots of bodies); disciplined (he used coke sparingly and did post-black belt karate training in Japan), and loyal (he murdered his wife’s closest girlfriend after his wife OD’d while partying with said friend).

An interesting aspect of Pitera’s history is that he was definitely not an antisocial youth. He spent most of his time in the dojo. He started karate because his squeaky high voice made him a potential victim of bullying in the very tough neighborhood in which he was raised. He didn’t adopt a life of crime until he was in his twenties.


Casey, K. (2007). Die, my love: A true story of revenge, murder, and two Texas sisters. NY: Harper Collins.

A nice academic (who published a paper in Psychological Bulletin!) marries a manic depressive woman with a manipulative sister. A pathetic story in which the nice academic is killed by the mentally unbalanced and entitled wife who is aided and abetted by her sister. The poor kids of this union! The story of the investigation and trial is quite entertaining. The wife (herself a lawyer, albeit an incompetent one) must have thought that the police and legal system were unbelievably dumb in the foolish way she planned the murder (the plan involved wigs, alibis that could not be checked out, and cell phone calls). She didn’t realize that the locations of cell phone calls could be identified.


Clark, D. (2002). Dark paths, cold trails: How a mountie led the quest to link serial killers to their victims. Toronto: HarperCollins.

A bit on the amateruish side but tells some important tales about the invasion of computerized data bases and actuarial techniques into the area of criminal investigation. The vicissitudes of ViCLAS, the Violent Criminal Linkage Analysis System are featured. Progress appears to be measured, as in science, by the retirements or deaths of senior investigators.

Crowley, K. (2005). Almost paradise: The East Hampton murder of Ted Ammon. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Very similar to Casey’s book, except that the husband is much richer and not nearly so nice. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is the amazing amount of money these folks could waste. When the husband started an affair and wanted to escape his crazy-making wife, it became an affair of two scorpions in a bottle. The sense of entitlement of this female scorpion was palpable, making her far more dangerous than the male—so much so that his friends and associates had long been concerned for his safety.

The wife gets a rounder electrician, with whom she is having an affair, to kill the husband. Are there clues as to whodunit? Well, the electrician had installed the security system in the house and was one of the very few who knew its location and how to disable it and had installed cameras throughout the house so that he, the wife, and their friends could continuously observe the husband and his girlfriends’ activities.

Cruise, D. & Griffiths, A. (1998). On South Mountain: The dark secrets of the Goler Clan. Toronto: Penquin.  

"Oh they say don’t go, to Sou-outh Mountain.....” If the description in this book be true, wonder no more where they got the hillbillies for the scenes in Deliverance--it was South Mountain, Nova Scotia. One can only hope that this book is a caricature of mountain folk because the basis of every joke you ever heard about inbreeding mentally retarded hill billies is here. The authors try mightily to explain the incest and general lack of civilization among the Goler Clan and their (exceptionally close) kin. First they try geology, (the mountain area is strange, geologically speaking, and has no soil to speak of), then they try geography (the mountain is isolated), then history (the riff raff from Boston came up after the French were expelled), then prejudice (the villagers despise the ignorant mountain folk), then neglect (the social service agencies gave up), and so forth, all to no avail. I thought that they were eventually going to come up with SATAN in the end but they didn’t get quite that far.

After these somewhat feeble attempts at explanation, the descriptive part concerning the crimes, the trials and their aftermath is much more interesting. There isn’t a lot of theoretical insight to be gained from this book but it is morbidly fascinating nonetheless. Most interesting is that the apparent moral of this tale is that there really doesn’t appear to be a damn thing anybody can do about the incest, neglect, and abuse. After all the trials, imprisonments, social service interventions, and media hoopla, life continues in these mountains pretty much as it always has.

Comments on the On South Mountain book from one of the former victims


Douglas, J. & Olshaker, M. (1997). Journey into darkness. NY: Scribner.

Self-indulgent cashing in on the earlier best-seller Mind hunter, which I haven’t read but will bet real money was god-awful after attempting to read this one. Makes you wonder how the FBI actually catches anyone.


Drewe, R. (2000). The shark net: Memories and murder. Toronto: Viking.

This is a slow paced autobiographical reminiscence. The author is a master story-teller who manages to evoke a sense of the fifties in Perth, Australia. A very good read.


Edwards, P. (2010). The Bandido Massacre: A true story of bikers, brotherhood, and betrayal. Toronto: Harper Collins. Press.
In 2006, the bodies of eight bikers were found along a farm road near Shedden Ontario. For those few who don’t know, Shedden is home to the world famous rhubarb festival.

This is a very good true crime book, even though a bit repetitious in spots. As so often, the cover-up of the crime consists of the perpetrators seemingly doing everything they can to aid the police short of videotaping it and mailing it to them.

This “one percenter” biker gang (the phrase “one percenter” comes from the observation that 99% of bikers are law-abiding) are portrayed as incredibly and pathetically dumb losers. The cloudy motivation for the murders involved a putsch of an essentially non-existent Canadian Bandido organization. Even though natural selection must run its (in this case bloody) course, one can’t help but feel sorry for these bikers and their families.


Engel, H. (1996). Lord High Executioner: An unashamed look at hangmen, headsmen, and their kind. Toronto: Key Porter.
A basically unilluminating book about executioners. Some interesting and weird tales but not interesting and weird enough to sustain a book length treatment. The best story is about a woman who seduced the man who was to hang her and so escaped the noose. They lived happily ever after.


Fanning, D. (2009). A poisoned passion. NY: St. Martin’s.

This true crime story raises disturbing questions about the state of education in Texas. A female veterinarian gets pregnant and her ex-boyfriend, a military pilot, does the honourable thing. His mother-in-law doesn’t approve of him and poisons the relationship. The wife in turn drugs and murders her husband. All this is standard fare in this genre; however, the body disposal is, although not the most stupid I’ve read about, a close contender.

This murderess seems to be as dumb as a post—not only can she not figure out how to get rid of a body, she can’t spell or write grammatically, nor construct a plausible story for her legal defense. I thought veterinarians were supposed to be smart—can’t quite get my head around it.


Finkle, D. (1998). No claim to mercy: The controversial case for murder against Robert Baltovich. Toronto: Penguin.

An interesting case of a Toronto guy who may have been wrongfully convicted of one of Bernardo's murders. As of this writing (2004), the case is still dragging on, although Baltovich is no longer in custody. Whether Baltovich is innocent, as the book well argues, or not, one can't help drawing unflattering conclusions about the competence and objectivity of the police and the eptitude and ethics of the defense bar.


Firstman, R. & Talan, J. (1997). The death of innocents. N.Y.: Bantam.

This is a first rate book. Extremely well done and entertainingly written. There is lots of drama here. If you decide to read the book and haven’t seen the TV documentary derived from it, don’t read the rest of this review and make sure that you don’t look at any of the pictures in the book before you finish it. Most of the book is written as a mystery and you don’t want to spoil it.

In part, the book is about professional myths and their creation. The villain of the piece is an incompetent but very ambitious MD./Ph.D, a Dr. Alfred Steinschneider. Steinschneider wrote the classic study on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) that purported to show that infant apnea was related to SIDS. The series of cases used in this study were much later shown to be murders in the investigation described in this book. Steinschneider was originally misled by professional hubris, ambition, and sloppy methodology; but persisted in his mistake because of greed. Greed because the apnea theory of SIDS led to the development of apnea monitors sold to anxious parents.

This whole sorry business of a harmful technology based on wishful thinking, poor science, and ideology (parents are always victims never culprits) is disturbingly reminiscent of developments in other fields.


Flacco, A. (2009). The road out of hell: Sanford Clark and the true story of the Wineville murders. NY: Union Square.

One of the few books so horrific that they are best left for forensic types to read. In 1928, 13-year old Sanford Clark was given by his mother, a Saskatchewan farm wife, to her brother, a sadistic homosexual pedophile and serial killer, to help with his chicken ranch in California. Clark is brutalized and forced to participate in murdering young boys on the ranch. His uncle is aided in his murdering by Clark’s maternal grandmother (Louise), an unbelievably antisocial woman. After an interminable period of time, Clark is saved by his elder sister who alerts the police.

Clark is helped a great deal by the prosecuting attorney, is sentenced to a forward-looking training school, and 23 months later, at 17, returns to Canada to live near his sister. Although tormented for the remainder of his days by post-traumatic stress symptoms and shame, he leads an exemplary, and under the circumstances, remarkably happy life.

“Dysfunctional” and “antisocial” don’t come close to describing Louise and her two children. I’d sure like to know more about this extremely strange family.


Glassner, B. (1999). The culture of fear: Why Americans are afraid of the wrong things. NY: Basic.

What are the wrong things that Americans fear?-"crime, drugs, minorities, teen moms, killer kids, mutant microbes, plane crashes, road rage, & so much more." Much of this isn't very surprising to anyone with a nodding acquaintance with current criminology and some of the cases aren't as clear cut as the author suggests but, nevertheless, the book makes a compelling case about how misleading, sloppy, sensationalistic, and biased the news media are. The examples are simply appalling-the best of which is the nonexistent phenomenon of "road rage".


Horton, S. (1989). The billionaire boys club. N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press.

Lovely little true crime book that tells the oh-so-familiar story of credulous people being taken in by the preposterous schemes of a very psychopathic young man. The highly entertaining twist to the story is that the psychopath gets conned by a much smarter con-man, with tragic results.


Humphreys, A. (1999). The enforcer Johnny Pops Papalia: A life and death in the Mafia. Toronto: Harper Collins.

A pretty good true crime book. It will be of particular interest to people living in Montreal and southern Ontario. There is a very interesting account of the tragic conflict between Papalia and the Toronto gambler Maxie Bluestein.


Irving, C. (1988). Daddy’s girl: The Campbell murder case. N.Y.: Kensington.

Fast moving true crime book made interesting not only by the betrayal involved in the murder but the betrayal involved in solving the case.


Junger, S. (2006). A death in Belmont. NY: Harper.

This is yet another book on the Boston strangler, Anthony DeSalvo, but it is a very good one. It also details the story of a black small-time criminal and alcoholic who was probably wrongfully convicted of one of DeSalvo’s murders. Incredibly, DeSalvo worked on Junger’s parents’ house when Junger was a boy and it appears that Junger’s mother came very close to being one of his victims.


Kersten, J. (2009). The art of making money: The story of a master counterfeiter. NY: Penquin.

Very well done true crime story. The book captures the sense of "unexplained failure" characteristic of highly antisocial, if often quite nice, people and how criminal proclivities run in families.


Kingsbury, K. (1994). Deadly pretender: The double life of David Miller. NY: Dell.

David Miller is a guy with a magnificent sense of entitlement. So, he lives beyond his means and acquires two wives. He tells one of them that he works for the CIA on important and dangerous undercover missions that often keep him away from home, incommunicado. One wonders sometimes whether any real people actually work for the CIA! This is only one of many incredibly implausible lies that his gullible wives and associates buy. Miller can’t afford to keep two wives in any style so has to keep making up even more improbable lies. All this leads to a great scene when the two wives connect by phone—Hello, is this Mrs. Miller? Yes, this is Mrs. Miller—who’s this?

Miller gets bummed out and angry that his lies have been exposed, so murders one of his wives in front of a lot of witnesses. He’s too upset to even try to get away.


Knuckle, R. (1996). The flying bandit: Bringing down Canada’s most daring armed robber. Burnstown, ON: General Store.

I loved this book. Gilbert Galvin, aka Robert Whiteman, is an escaped prisoner from Wisconsin who gets a chance at another life in Canada. He marries a straight girl to whom he lies about his background and source of income and moves to, of all places, Pembroke, Ontario. Galvin flies all over Canada robbing many banks (you have to rob a lot of them because they don’t keep much money there) and later jewelry stores, because they are more lucrative. The downside of jewelry store heists is that you have to fence the goods.

As the French say, “quelle front”—Gilbert was one cheeky and impetuous guy!

Several morals to this tale: first you can do a lot of robbing whilst drinking an enormous amount. Second, you shouldn’t use a credit card to buy your plane tickets. Third, extradition can be a good way to reduce your sentence.

Krakauer, J. ( 2003). Under the banner of heaven: A story of violent faith. Toronto: Random House.

I have a morbid love of reading about these wackoes. This is a good read, fast-paced and suspenseful. The radical mormons strikingly resemble the Taliban. If these groups ever became aware of their similarities, what a fifth column would exist in America! On the other hand, given the incompetence and credulity of the folks described in this book, it probably wouldn't matter.

Krivich, M. & Ol’gin, O. (1993). Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books.

A soviet serial killer. Chikatilo is, as one would expect, sexually deviant and sexually preoccupied. He becomes a sexual sadist who savagely kills both males and females, using the time honored system for avoiding arrest of targeting vulnerable strangers close to a means of transport (in this case trains). The book provides an interesting look at the Russian judicial system.


Lamothe, L. & Humphreys, A. (2006). The sixth family: The collapse of the New York mafia and the rise of Vito Rizzuto. Toronto: Wiley.

This book documents the rise of a branch of the Sicilian mafia in Montreal. It’s a modern organization that believes strongly in globalization through alliances with both mafia and other gangs, such as biker groups. Family ties remain important in the new look organization, although sometimes altered—for example, the children become lawyers and conversations at home subject to lawyer-client privilege. This gang is now under serious siege. Vito has been extradited to New York for an old murder and there have been many more arrests since this book’s publication. The book is based on a lot of documentation and is well written.


Lawson, G. & Olham, W. (2006). The brotherhoods: The true story of two cops who murdered for the mafia. Toronto: Pocket Books.

An engrossing true crime story. It’s strange to discover that I can still be offended by criminal behaviour but there is something particularly abhorrent about police acting as informers and hit-men for the Mafia. Two senior and decorated detectives are weasels from the start of their career—one has the effrontery and stupidity to write a book entitled Mafia cop: The story of an honest cop whose family was the mob. One gets a good feel for the departmental dynamics in police work in the description of the bad guys’ careers and the long pursuit by the good guys. Mercifully, justice eventually prevails and the bad guys don’t get to enjoy their retirement.


Lehr, D. & O’Neill, G. (2000). Black mass: The Irish mob, the FBI, and a devil’s deal. NY: Public Affairs.

A story of careerism, bad judgment, and poor organization within the FBI. Justifiably, this tale has become quite notorious and been the subject of a lot of TV coverage. Good reading, especially for those who believe that crime never pays.


Maas, P. (1968). The Valachi Papers. N.Y.: HarperCollins.

I finally got around to reading this classic work on the mafia. If you have been watching the Sopranos, you probably don’t need to read this. The Soparano writers have paid very close attention to Joseph Valachi’s account of life in the mafia. The efforts of government officials to suppress the publication of the story are of interest as well as Valachi’s tragic end.


Maas, P. (1997). Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano’s story of life in the mafia. N.Y.: Harper Collin.

A good "red and black” book. Gravano’s account (from many interviews) is detectably self serving in spots but a very good portrait of  La Cosa Nostra.

One very interesting vignette. John Gotti tells Vincent "the Chin” Gigante that his son, John Junior, has recently been made (inducted into the Cosa Nostra). Chin (who spent his adult life feigning mental illness) replies, "Jeez, I'm sorry to hear that.” Given the life expectancy of the made guys who avoid prison, a sensible reaction.

MacDonald, I. & O’Keefe, B. (2003). Born to die: A cop killer’s final message. Surrey, BC: Heritage House.

Rather amateurishly written and in need of an editor but admirably portrays the ambience of Vancouver in the fifties. Joe Gordon is a petty career criminal who ends up shooting a cop. Before his hanging Gordon wrote an account of his life and a plea for unfortunate high risk kids that could have been taken from Willard Motley’s Knock on any door, the 1947 classic crime novel.


McClintick, D. (1982). Indecent exposure: A true story of Hollywood and Wall Street. NY: Dell.

It all starts when a straight-shooting actor, Cliff Robertson, is told by the IRS that he owes taxes on a $10,000.00 payment from Columbia Pictures. Robertson has no memory of receiving any such payment and starts to investigate--at first tentatively and then in earnest. Robertson is distinctly irked and won’t let it drop. It turned out that the cheque was issued by 56-year old David Begelman, a flamboyant former talent scout who had become president of Columbia pictures. It then turned out that not only had Begelman issued the cheque, he had also endorsed it using Robertson’s signature and cashed it. I didn’t say “forged” because Begelman didn’t go to the trouble of trying to copy Robertson’s signature.

The exposure of the fraud is indecent in the sense that it leads to revealing not only Begelman’s history of fraud and the prevalence in tinsel town of slippery ethics combined with a mind-blowing sense of entitlement but also how many in show business would collude in lying to protect their own. Are all corporations the same?

This tangled web ensnares a large number of individuals and precipitates a series of career changing within- and between-corporate altercations. It’s really amazing and I found it quite interesting, somewhat oddly I suppose, because I neither know nor care about any of these (apparently famous) people.


McGinniss, J. (2007). Never enough. Toronto: Pocket Star.

OK, this has got to be the absolutely dumbest crime ever committed (it is true, however, that I’ve thought this several times before). An about to be divorced woman drugs her financially predatory, very rich, husband and bashes his brains out in the bedroom of their luxury suite in Hong Kong. So far, so good. What could be the problem? Well, the live-in servants and the little kids for starters. Because, you see, the body begins to smell after a time. When the murderess finally calls workmen to cart away a heavy, heavy object rolled up in a rug to—get this—the storage area in the basement (!!), they become nauseous and call the cops. As well, there is the problem that she had simultaneously drugged the husband’s friend who went home and slipped into a quasi-coma. Then there were the e-mails to her lover and the internet searches for poison recorded on her computer….oh yeah, and the body parts and bloody linens hidden in the children’s closets. Oh, I forgot, she also neglected to get rid of the drugs used in the murder.

The wife is splendidly psychopathic. She reminds me of Diane Downs in Ann Rule’s book, Small Sacrifices. The husband’s wealthy family is portrayed as a nest of vipers. For example, in a subsequent and unrelated incident, the husband’s brother (a big-time embezzler) is found murdered just before he is to be sent to jail.

Well done and very entertaining.


McGinniss, J. (1991). Cruel doubt. Toronto: Simon & Schuster.

If you ever think you are having a bad day, give this book a read to make yourself feel really lucky. At one level this is the standard scenario of conflict between step-dad and children and at another it is a tale of a mother’s cruel betrayal and continuing faith in her offspring. Well done true crime.


McSherry, P. (1999). The Big Red Fox: The incredible story of Norman "Red" Ryan. Canada’s most notorious criminal. Toronto: Dundurn.

Ryan is the sort of career criminal that a theory of crime must explain. A classic early starter and an almost unbelievably persistent bank robber in adulthood who possessed a breathtaking lack of prudence. Ryan is noteworthy partly because of the drama of some of his exploits (including an escape from Kingston Penitentiary) but mostly because he bamboozled a prison priest into recommending his release. The priest was an easy victim because he could use Ryan’s "reform" as evidence that Catholicism and his chaplaincy should receive more support from the penitentiary service.

Penitentiary officials thought that Ryan’s renunciation of a life of crime and his religious conversion was a simple con. Nevertheless, a Toronto newspaper had an interest in Ryan and used his criminal exploits and subsequent reformation in its circulation wars with other papers. The paper kept the pressure on the government, ultimately leading to Ryan’s politically expedient but tragic release.

In all, quite an entertaining and interesting story. Ryan managed to hurt a lot of people but required a great deal of help from his noncriminal accomplices to do so.


Morgan, J. (1985). Prince of crime. N.Y.: Stein and Day.

Llewelyn (The Camel or Murray the Hump) Humphreys is one of the more appealing gangsters to come out of the Capone era. One of his racketeering enterprises involved Chicago laundries and he originated the jokes about "taking people to the cleaners” and "laundering money”. His advice to the Chicago voters was "to vote early and vote often.” Humphreys was the first gangster to "take the fifth” and he had a wooden plaque with the fifth amendment on his wall, together with one that read "Love they crooked neighbour as you love thy crooked self.”

After a false start at an honest career as a paper boy, Humphreys (a Welshman) joined the Sicilian mob in Chicago. During the thirties, he was second in command to Capone. However, he was clever enough to outlast all of his peers and retained his influence in organized crime to the end of his life.


Neff, J. (1995). Unfinished murder: The capture of a serial rapist. Toronto: Pocket Books.

A pretty good "red and black” book. Very nice description of compulsive rape as a manifestation of mating effort and sexual deviance.


Norris, W. (1987). The man who fell from the sky. Markham, ON: Viking.

Very entertaining whodunit. Yes, the victim, an unpopular robber baron type tycoon and financial speculator named Alfred Loewenstein, really did fall from the sky over the English Channel in 1928. Amazingly, no one was convicted or even charged with his murder—even though it was reasonably clear that someone among the small number of individuals on his private plane must have thrown the victim out and the others must have been keenly aware of what was going on. The author claims to have solved the mystery and I believe he really has identified the culprit.


Olsen, G. (1997). Starvation heights: A true story of murder and malice in the woods of the Pacific northwest. NY: Random House.

This is a masterfully constructed story about how a dominating lady “doctor” proponent of flaky new age nostrums, such as starvation therapy, together with her alcoholic cad of a hen-pecked husband, fatally “treat” and rob their gullible clients. I swear that each page of this book describes something even more outrageous. Highly recommended.


O’Shea, G. (2005). Unbridled rage: A true story of organized crime, corruption, and murder in Chicago. NY: Berkley.

This is a real cold case. The murder of two Chicago boys in 1955 is finally solved forty years later. This book is written much better than most true crime stories, making the murders more poignant and disturbing.


 Phelps, M.W. (2008). I’ll be watching you. NY: Kensington.

Edwin Snelgrove is a bumbling Ted Bundy wannabe. Bumbling, but convinced of his intellectual superiority. He strangles and stabs his victims and then poses them in a sexual way. First, he murders a woman who has jilted him, then, a few years later, attempts but fails to kill a stranger. He plea bargains by admitting to both crimes and gets sentenced to 20 years.  Because of “good time” he is out in eleven and ready to try again.

The most amazing aspect of this story is the short original sentence, particularly because, in his letter to the court, Edwin described having homicidal sexual fantasies since he was a child. It is not clear how many women (in addition to the post-release victim he is currently incarcerated for killing) paid for the brevity of this sentence with their lives.


Phelps, M.W. (2010). The devil’s rooming house: The true story of America’s deadliest female serial killer. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press.

This is the crime upon which “arsenic and old lace” is based. It’s all simple economics. If you run a boarding house for old folks, you can recruit a lot of boarders by offering them a really good life-time contract. Once recruited, however, the boarders who continue to live cost more to take care of than the contract they signed is worth. A simple solution thus presents itself; a solution all the more satisfactory if the boarder appears to have left their wordly estate to the owner of the boarding house.

A very entertaining little book.


Preston, D. & Spezi, M. (2008). The monster of Florence: A true story. NY: Grand Central Publishing.

Marriage is late in Florence and during the long engagements, affianced couples live in their respective parents’ homes. The couples drive to secluded spots to have sex where they are subject to the attentions of local voyeurs. There are even guides who, for a fee, will lead voyeurs to the “good cars” and best vantage points.

Over a period of many years, the monster of Florence preyed upon these couples—shooting the man, then killing and mutilating the woman. Writer Preston teams up with detective Spezi to investigate the crimes. They advance a theory of the crimes at variance with the official prosecutors’ view and, because of the very foolish way Italian law is organized, become scapegoats and even suspects themselves.

Interesting—for example, the serial killer has accomplices--but ultimately disappointing because there is no definite proof of the principal suspect’s culpability.


Read, S. (2005). On the house: The bizarre killing of Michael Malloy. NY: Berkley.

Alcoholism can be just as devasting as an addiction to crack cocaine or any other substance. This is the stunning tale set in the seediest part of New York in the thirties of how habituation to enormous doses of alcohol can cause a person to be extremely resistant to his “friends’” determined efforts to collect his life insurance policy through the use of heroic doses of poison.


Richmond, C. (2007). The good wife: The shocking betrayal and brutal murder of a godly woman in Texas. NY: HarperCollins.

The title says it all. I suppose the moral to this good little crime book echoes the conclusion reached by academic criminologists—religious belief does not protect perpetrators or victims from criminal activity.


Robins, N. & Aronson, S.M.L. (1985). Savage grace: The true story of fatal relations in a rich and famous American family. NY: Simon & Schuster.

This is a book about the sort of people my mother invariably referred to as “the idle rich”. The book is entirely composed of interviews, quotations from psychiatric reports, diaries, and the like. The material is skilfully edited and very effective. It does, however, engender misanthropy. The majority of these people reveal themselves, usually unintentionally, to be shallow, callous, name dropping social climbers and snobs.

It’s interesting to ponder why the reader (well, at least one reader) is so disappointed in the lives of these glitterati and heirs to great wealth. The lives of many of them seem to totally lack meaning. But this is quite a double standard—the lives of the unwashed masses also lack meaning. I guess we don’t expect ordinary people to rise above mediocrity, whereas we believe that the very rich could and should do better.

The story concern the callous and aloof heir to the Bakelite fortune, his gold-digging, pretentious, aggressively convivial, wife, and their unfortunate son. A delightful part of the book deals with the Broadmoor sojourn of the somewhat antisocial and very psychotic son following his murder of his mother. Broadmoor is the senior “special” or forensic psychiatric hospital in England. As might be expected, the son, coming from an upper class family, gets special treatment. Well meaning and totally ignorant relatives and friends arrange to get him released, with predictable results.


Rule, A. (2004). Green River, running red. Toronto: Pocket Star.

Once again, an uninteresting serial killer. Anne does a good job but the book is burdened by her need to tell us a little bit about each of the very, very, many victims.

Murder seems pretty easy to get away with if you don’t tell anybody about it and choose transient strangers as victims. Although Gary Ridgway was caught essentially by chance, there were pieces of evidence pointing toward him for many years—his co-workers called him “Green River Gary” because of the police interest in him. His other nickname was “Wrong-way” Gary because of the mistakes he made painting trucks.


Rule, A. (2003). Heart full of lies. NY: Free Press.

Pretty good true crime book. As in many of these stories, one is left wondering about the credulity of people who are bamboozled by the villain (in this case, villainess of the piece). This woman basically lies nonstop throughout her adult life-and when I say nonstop, I'm not kidding, one wonders when she breathes. Not only does she talk, she writes, and writes about fictional crimes that resemble very strongly what eventually comes to pass. Not a sound strategy for a budding murderess.


Rule, A. (1999). The end of the dream: the golden boy who never grew up and other true cases.  N.Y.: Pocket Books.

Rule rules. Straight up crime reporting at its best. Rule deservedly has quite a following. You can visit her website to get the bird’s eye lowdown. The story about the golden boy is interesting in showing the expected continuity in risk taking and antisocial behavior that culminates in very serious crime. One might think that this continuity results from retrospective bias but in this case it is too extreme and well documented.


Sanger, D. (2005). Hell’s witness. Toronto: Penquin.

An artfully crafted and carefully organized saga of a long-time informer in the Quebec biker milieu. This organization is necessary because Sanger packs an enormous amount of detail into his story—not that the tale is ever boring. The events described are often so bizarre and the bikers such pigs that a writer couldn’t employ them in fiction. Some conclusions: The police in Quebec are deeply divided among themselves, incompetence is a serious problem among both the bikers and police, justice is costly and uneven (to put it mildly), and, in case you didn’t know, loan sharking and drug selling is very lucrative. An excellent read.


Sassé, C.S. & Widder, P.M. (1991). The Kirtland massacre. N.Y.: Fine.

Billed as the true and terrible story of the Mormon cult murders. Yet another description of how a psychopathic jerk convinces a bunch of credulous folks that he’s divine. Barnum was on the money. Great description of the cult leader: "Lundgren, Jeffrey Don.......receding hair, hazel eyes. Tall, muscular, tends toward obesity. Manipulative narcissist, thief, con man.”

In typical cult fashion, the husbands have to be separated from the wives and the wives end up having sex with the Leader. There’s some amusing twists in Jeffery’s accomplishing this. Jeffery is the "father” of the group and his children are known as, of all things, the "naturals” who have lots of special privileges (like going to MacDonald’s). The group ends up killing a family that annoys Jeffery and his wife (they are too clingy and want their money back). Jeffery uses some nice thought control methods.


Scott, G.G. (2006). Homicide by the rich and famous: A century of prominent killers. NY: Berkely.

I needed a trashy book for a train ride but didn’t anticipate just how trashy this one would be. Quite dreadful it was, as Yoda would say. The synopses of the crimes aren’t bad even if they are taken from very popular books (a number of which I’d read) but the connecting material dedicated to why we should be interested in crimes by the rich and famous and whether they are the same or different than those committed by the less fortunate is pure and fatuous filler.


Scott, R. (2005). Unholy sacrifice. NY: Kensington.

Fairly typical of its genre. A weirdish but good-looking dude with millennial preoccupations acquires a few dumb and malleable followers. Together they start murdering various folks as part of some hare-brained scheme. This book is more entertaining than most because the culprits manage to leave more clues for the investigators than one would have thought possible. Why so many criminals keep receipts and to-do lists, among other incriminating things, is beyond me. This book describes what is possibly the absolutely dumbest scheme to dispose of bodies ever.


Scott, R. (2003). Dangerous attraction. NY: Pinnacle.

An incredibly oafish and brutal skin-head rapes and kills a foolhardy female gang groupie in front of some gang wannabes in his mother’s home. The mother cleans up and the body disappears. It’s possible that the killer could have got away with it but he just couldn’t stop being antisocial. The mother gets jailed for a while because of her continuing illegal efforts to protect her son. The book raises interesting questions about how the son managed to become such a horrible person—family dynamics, hanging around with similar oafish people, shared genes….?

Scott, R. (2002). Like father like son. NY: Kensington.

A nasty little book about some very nasty sexual sadists. Not very informative about the etiology of sadism (one keeps hoping). The only real interesting thing here is the description of the extended family—a homicidal version of the Kallikaks!


Smith, C. (1999). Death in Texas. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

The wife of a wealthy Texan bookmaker wants a divorce and half of the big-time money. The problem is that the money was illegally obtained. How can the bookmaker solve his tax problem? Not only does he solve his problem, he gets away with it, after an increasingly bizarre sequence of events. No one would ever find this story plausible as a fictional plot line.


Stewart, J.B. (1999). Blind eye: The terrifying story of a doctor who got away with murder. Toronto: Simon & Schuster.

An entertaining, if infuriating, story about a bizarre and homicidal physician who did indeed get away with many murders. This is as good an argument I’ve seen for the view that professions should never be allowed to police themselves. Prospective employers and academics almost never check into applicants’ suspicious applications. Mind boggling but it all rings true.


Summerscale, K. (2008). The suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detective. Vancouver: Raincoast Books.

Oh my, this was a good read. I finished it in one marathon sitting. This story is about the widely publicized murder of an upper-middle class young boy in rural Victorian England. Belatedly, the investigation is taken over by Mr. Whicher, a Scotland Yard detective, with disappointing results. By the middle of the book, the reader begins to believe that the mystery will never be solved. However, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, and the mystery does eventually get solved in all of its sociobiological glory many, many years later. I won’t give the plot away.

Van Sant, P. & Jackson, J. (2007). Perfectly executed. Toronto: Pocket Star Books.

This is a story of shockingly immature and coddled boys who believe that they are very special—Nietzschean superboys. So, as a mercenary lark, the dominant boy murders the sub’s parents and autistic sister with a baseball bat while the sub looks on. The lads have carefully planned their perfect crime, leaving no material clues, and have a good alibi.

After questioning by the police and leaking guilty knowledge in various ways, the pair escape to Canada. This complicates everything legally and leaves the case suspended until extradition can be worked out. However, their escape also leaves them vulnerable to the attentions of the RCMP who (unlike their American brethren) are relatively unfettered in employing extremely elaborate schemes designed to elicit surreptitiously videotaped confessions.

Very entertaining read.


Volkman, E. & Cummings, J. (1986). The heist. N.Y.: Dell.

Great story of the Lufthansa robbery at the JFK airport. I read this years ago and had forgotten just how dumb most of the perpetrators of the largest robbery in history were. Dumb, but they got away with it (if you include being liquidated as getting away with it). Very entertaining.


Wambaugh, J. (1973). The onion field. NY: Dell.

A well-written and impassioned argument for capital punishment. Wambaugh describes the two police officers who were victimized in the onion field, the perpetrators, and the crime in great detail in order to set up the endless series of trials and legal shenanigans that follow, the account of which succeeds in infuriating the reader.


Wansell, G. (1997). An evil love: The life of Frederick West. London: Headline.

A must read for those benighted souls who think that serial killers might be interesting people. Frederick West was a graceless, dumb, jerk of a guy who nevertheless managed to murder a large number of unlucky and vulnerable women and girls.

The book itself is poorly written and repetitious to the point of being annoying.

Book Reviews - Fiction and Miscellaneous

Bakker, R.T. (1995). Raptor red. Toronto: Bantam Books.

This book is a biography of a Utahraptor written from its viewpoint. An implausible premise you say? Bakker actually makes it work. A fun read.

Bloom, H. (2004). The best poems of the English Language: From Chaucer to Frost. NY: Harper/Collins.

I loved to memorize poems in high school and still recall large fragments of what I learned. So, I’ve been on the look out for a book that has the poems I already knew. This book fills the bill. It has great selections of the major English poets and well- known poems from many minor ones, together with some rather arcane and sometimes very tedious stuff (one gets very tired of personifications of aspects of nature and endless allusions to Greek and Roman gods).

The author’s commentary is sometimes rather ponderous, frequently repetitious, and sometimes obscure—the editor should be fired. Many of the poems, particularly the older ones or those in dialect are very hard to follow and there isn’t much help provided for the long-suffering reader. There are some translations of certain words in Chaucer but not necessarily the words readers are most likely to not understand. In addition, here as in other Chaucer explications I have seen, the translator chooses modern words that are not nearly as close as other modern words to the original—go figure.

For all this, one can’t help but love many of these works. Some of the poems have influenced the development of the language. One can identify the source of quite a few modern expressions.


Borges, J.L. (1964). Dreamtigers. Austin: University of Texas Press.

A charming little book of poetry from a deeply introspective writer pondering the meaning of it all. This is a very accessible translation from Spanish written by an admirer and colleague of Borges. The work is the more accessible to us because Borges is an expert on English literature.


Enright, D.J. (1955/1985). Academic year: A novel. Oxford University Press.

A wonderfully evocative novel about English academicians teaching in Alexandria during the last decadent days of King Farouk. How often the British Empire and Commonwealth created the “feel” of institutions around the world! I remember, for example, how vividly the correctional system in Hong Kong reminded me of the Canadian and British correctional systems. In this novel, aspects of the university, for example the centralized administration of examinations, reminds me of Queen’s.

The middle part of the book is about a “major” symposium at the Cultural Center of the university entitled Education: It’s scope and aims with one of the papers being The usefulness of education. All of this slightly boggles the mind because essentially the symposium concerns teaching the English classics to the Egyptians. The sheer silliness of it all will produce a profound sense of déjà vu in any academic.

This very funny but ultimately tragic little story is well worth reading on a number of levels, not least in 2006 because it invites one to ponder the precursors of recent Islamic militancy in their colonial context.


Keillor, G. (1985). Lake Wobegon days. Penguin.

I generally liked this series of short stories about the busy metropolis of Lake Wobegon. Lots of description, sentimental and nostalgic, but not usually too sappy.


Leckie, R. (1998). Scipio: A novel. London: Abacus.

A good novel about Hannibal’s nemesis. You’d think the Romans would have been grateful to him. The book describes a remarkable military life, with lots of action and historical detail. But one always wonders about the extent to which one is reading what a twentieth century person thinks that Scipio should have been thinking.


Leibovich, M. (2002). The new imperialists. Toronto: Prentice Hall.

A profoundly uninteresting book about guys who made fortunes in new technology companies. It's not at all clear why they are labeled "imperialists". The author tries to explain their success and vaulting ambition through superficial psychologizing (some of them had disappointments and loss in adolescence…and so forth). Of course, one can't tell whether these successes are any different than the many guys who tried and failed or succeeded more modestly. One thing I learned though, is that at least some of them, like Bill Gates, are godawful smart!


McGrath, P. (1997). Asylum. N.Y.: Vintage.

A recent novel by the master of unease.” Paddy McGrath lets the story line illustrate the nerdiness and exquisitely poor judgment of the protagonists rather than simply labelling them as dolts. The novel nicely and accurately illustrates certain aspects of the medical culture of English special hospitals.

A very good read. An attractive feature of the book is its narrative economy. What appear at first to be simple descriptive details, turn out later to be necessary for the plot.

Paddy worked for me many years ago and we were part of the same social circle at Oak Ridge. I can’t help but think I recognize some real people among his fictional characters.


Pawel, E. (1984). The nightmare of reason: A life of Franz Kafka. NY: Random House.

I first became interested in Kafka when I was a young man during the denouement of a long party held in an old house on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital. Six or seven people were seated about a long dinner table late in the night and the discussion turned to the topic of the worst thing that we had ever experienced. In turn, we each described some very depressing or horrifying event—one well-traveled guy, for example, described how he had seen two women stoned to death as witches near a train station in some part of India. The last person to speak confessed that he had no suitably horrific experiences of his own to relate. However, he said he had read a book that he would tell us about. The book he chose to describe was Kafka’s The Trial and I shall never forget it. As he told the nightmarish story of inescapable but nameless guilt, we could hear a woman’s tormented screams coming from one of the wards through the falling snow.

Pawel situates Kafka historically, in the late 19th and early 20th century death throes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The nationalist rivalry between the Czechs and Germans, who were seemingly united only in their hatred of the Jews, eventually tore the Empire apart. Some of the Jews attempted to be assimilated as secular Germans with little success—“it’s not their religion that makes them swine” one polemicist remarked. Others adopted Zionism. Kafka first tried assimilation and later, in his ambivalent manner, Zionism, but by then it was too late-- he was dying from tuberculosis of the larynx. One feels a premonition when reading this book of how all of this world would be swept away in the holocaust. Given that Kafka was Jewish and the subsequent political history of central Europe, it is no little irony that he became posthumously famous as the world’s best writer of German prose.

Pawel relates Kafka’s all-consuming guilt and self-loathing to Freudian notions of the Oedipal complex, guilt over masturbation, and fear of homosexuality, although Pawel cautions against any simple-minded deterministic explanations of Kafka’s art on these or other grounds. The similarity of Kafka’s remarkable neuroses to some of those that Freud described does make these psychoanalytic explanations appear more plausible than usual, undoubtedly because Kafka in Prague and Freud in Vienna shared a similar cultural milieu.

Kafka, unbearably unhappy and convinced of his own ineptitude and worthlessness, was nevertheless an extremely effective quasi-civil servant in the occupational insurance field. He was well liked by everybody in the organization, implemented pioneering measures to help industrial accident victims and later disabled veterans, and was consistently turned down for military service because his job performance made him invaluable to the war effort. Kafka was one of the very few to be retained when the Czechs took over from the Germans after the war. Kafka’s bosses invariably treated him considerately.

The office, however, was perceived by Kafka only as a sort of necessary purgatory, when it was not actually hell. He could only expiate his crimes through writing and any relief he found by this method was ephemeral. All this makes one wonder about how many anguished people there are, living within their heads, but without a voice.


Remnick, D. (2000). The new gilded age: The New Yorker looks at the culture of affluence. NY: Random House.

Although not up to the exceptional standard set by the previous volume of New Yorker essays (Life stories), the essays in this volume are generally well written and interesting. Several concern finding an apartment in New York City (even the modestly rich have problems) and a number of chapters deal with celebrities of the new gilded age (Donald Trump is described in a very funny essay and Alan Greenspan in an admiring one).

Two essays deserve further comment. The first, Marisa and Jeff, by Calvin Trillin, tells a pathetic true story of insider trading fraud. The story involves greed, a gullible and vulnerable woman, and a predatory crook, who meets expectations with his stupendous egocentricity. The second, The quarter of living dangerously, is written by David Denby. Denby writes a phenomenological narrative of his involvement in high risk, high tech stock trading. He masterfully makes the reader feel his greed and fear.

In all, these essays provoke a sense of unease. The easy money, the speculation bubble that everyone knows will burst, the environmental despoliation, and economic exploitation that underlie this modern economy combine to suggest a children’s game in which the object is to be the last one to take one’s hand from an alligator’s mouth before it snaps shut.


Russo, R. (1997). Straight man. NY: Random House.

This is a novel about a failed academic department head (who could imagine such a thing!). It’s very light reading and amusing in spots—at one point the hero threatens to throttle a goose on television in order to dramatize the effects of budget cuts. The inanity of the university budget process is one of the many details that will be familiar to academics.


Shelley, M. (1994). Frankenstein. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth.

Mary Shelley wrote this novel in 1816 when she was just 19. She was living on the continent with the poet Shelley with whom she had recently eloped. The novel was the result of an agreement between she, Shelley, and Byron to each write a ghost story.

The novel is a real page turner. Quite interesting from a historical viewpoint because of the science and science fiction that is used in creating Frankenstein. The book is a morality play written in the noble savage genre.


Simonds, M. (1996). The convict lover: A true story. Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter, & Ross.

In the attic of her Kingston house, the author found a collection of letters written by a Kingston Penitentiary inmate to its former owner around the time of the Great War. The novel/documentary is based upon these letters. I found this book enthralling.

Some interesting descriptions of the history of penitentiary reform. Sadly, those of us with a lot of experience with offenders doubtless read this book with a different set of expectations than others.

Turow, S. (2002). Reversible errors. Toronto: HarperCollins.

A fast-paced novel about prosecutors, judges, and cops. The plot is carefully constructed and the details are realistic. The story itself, though, I found a bit far-fetched. I suppose it's redundant to call a fictional plot contrived. The problem, I think, is that I don’t like fiction very much.

Book Reviews - New Book Reviews

Spring 2011

Cook, T. (2010). The madman and the butcher: The sensational wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie. Toronto: Penguin.

Sam Hughes was a domineering populist Ontario politician who “shot from the lip”. He became a powerful minister in Borden’s WWI cabinet because of his enormous energy and bullying behavior. As Borden remarked about his champion recruiter, “On matters which touch his insane egotism, he is quite unbalanced. On all other matters able and sometimes brilliant.”

As the war dragged on, Hughes appeared more and more unbalanced. The British war office thought him quite mad. He attempted to promote his favourites and cronies to generals, meddled in army decisions, and unflaggingly pursued lost causes, like the Canadian-made Ross rifle (that was prone to jam). He became an inveterate Monday morning quarterback who advanced naive schemes that he believed would turn the tide. Gradually, many of the rank and file turned against Hughes. Borden at long last emasculated him and insulated the rest of the war effort from him.

Hughes, however, was a very good hater and adept at spreading innuendo and outright lies about people he had come to despise for causing his political demise. Among these were former favourites, like General Arthur Currie. Currie had risen from obscurity in the peacetime militia on account of his indefatigable labour and attention to detail. Currie was a very fast learner who benefited from his mistakes on the battlefield. He was a staff man, beloved by those who worked closely with him. Unfortunately, he didn’t look like a general—he was blimpish (and became more so as all he did was desk work) and lacked a moustache—and despite being socially skilled, was stilted and aloof with the troops. Currie became one of the most successful allied generals of the war by assiduously adopting newly developed tactics. He accepted but attempted to minimize the casualties that were required for victories. For Currie, preparation was everything.

The casualty rate and horrors of trench warfare embittered many Canadian soldiers and civilians. How to account for the “butcher’s bill”? Rumours that Currie had kowtowed to the British and needlessly sacrificed Canadian soldiers at the end of the war to advance his own career began to fester. A declining Sam Hughes circulated these rumours and eventually included them in a bitter tirade in the House of Commons. No one in the shocked House sprang to their feet to defend Currie.

So, instead of returning to a hero’s welcome, Currie was given a distinctly subdued reception and then offered a largely ceremonious position. McGill University saved the day by offering Currie (who had never attended university) the principalship. It was an inspired choice. Not only was Currie a great fundraiser, he used his formidable organizational talents to McGill’s great benefit. Less importantly, but remarkably, Currie quickly learned most of the students’ names.

It wasn’t, however, a fairy-tale ending. Currie, even after he shed his weight, had health problems and suffered from what is now known as post-traumatic stress. And the rumours continued. In 1928 (14 years after the war!!), the old charges were rehashed in the newspaper of the small Ontario town of Coburg. Currie sued for libel. In a sensational trial that left Currie totally exhausted, his reputation was finally vindicated.

A good book—much more readable than Cook’s previous books.

Frank, T. (1997). The conquest of cool: Business culture, counterculture, and the rise of hip consumerism. University of Chicago Press.

Here is the central thesis of this interesting but disconcerting little book. “Not only does hip consumerism recognize the alienation, boredom, and disgust engendered by the demands of modern consumer society, but it makes of those sentiments powerful imperatives of brand loyalty and accelerated consumption.” P. 231.

The book provides a number of examples of cool marketing strategies, accompanied by some good pictures. Here’s one of the examples: “Pepsi’s strategy was obvious. It would imbue its model consumer, its Pepsi Generation, with characteristics that were at odds with, if not outright antagonistic to the paradigmatic personality of the Coke order: noncomformity, daring, enthusiasm for the new, and a passion for individual liberation through product choice. Pepsi would identify itself with cultural dissent. As Volkswagon had just a few years before, Pepsi took up the cultural cudgels against mass society for hard-headed corporate reasons. And in its attack on the cola of conformity, Pepsi soon gained an ally in the social ferment then taking place.” P. 172.

Even though short, some of the book has the repetitious ponderousness of the thesis the it came from.

Kershaw, I. (2004). Making friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and Britain’s road to war. Toronto: Penguin.

The Marquess of Londonderry was one of many right-leaning English aristocrats who were partial to Hitler and Mussolini. These individuals, most of whom were traumatized by the first war, of the belief that the Treaty of Versailles was unfair to Germany, and annoyed at France’s vindictiveness and obstruction, thought to promote Anglo-German friendship through their personal informal connections. These approaches, in fact any diplomatic approaches, were doomed by Hitler’s territorial ambitions and duplicity.

Londonderry persisted in promoting Anglo-German friendship long after most others had given up. To his credit, in the thirties, Londonderry did want Britain to arm so that it could pursue a diplomatic rapprochement with Germany from a position of strength. The Chamberlain government, of course, pursued diplomatic solutions from a position of weakness very late in the game.

Londonderry spent the remainder of his life involved in bitter recriminations (he wasn’t Hitler’s dupe, or a Nazi, and he could have saved the day).

This book would have made a great article. OK, I’m exaggerating but it is very repetitious. Nevertheless, it’s always fun to read about English aristocrats—their sense of entitlement, their snobbery, and the great life they must have had at lavish balls and riding to the hounds. I must revisit Brideshead.

Krentz, P. (2010). The Battle of Marathon. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Athens defeated the mighty Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490BC. Herodotus claimed that the Athenian hoplites engaged the Persians after a mile-long run. Many have been skeptical that the soldiers could have run that far in their armour and still have the wind to fight. Krentz argues that their armour was much lighter than has been believed. Furthermore, he maintains that the Athenians seized a fleeting opportunity by reaching the Persian infantry before the Persian cavalry could be brought out of the boats that carried them.

Always amazing how much is known about the ancient world. A nice little book.


Lawday, D. (2009). The giant of the French Revolution: Danton, a life. NY: Grove Press.

Danton was a bearish, homely man from the country. He loved to eat and drink with friends and was the opposite in temperament and appearance from the priggish Robespierre. When accused of conspiracy at his “trial”, Danton replied incredulously, “A conspirator? Why I bed my wife every night”.

Danton, although a lawyer in royal employ, was the favourite of the Parisian radical working class. He had a popular following greater than that of the murderous Marat and one that Robespierre could never attain. Danton was a fabulous orator (despite being dyslexic) and became the most powerful figure in the National Assembly. He sat with the radical Mountain faction on the left side of the assembly, although he was not a member of that group. Danton often got carried away with his own rhetoric, sometimes saying things like advocating violence, which he later regretted.

Robespierre’s tragic outmaneuvering of Danton is well known but splendidly recounted in this book. Danton said to the weary executioner as he was placed in the guillotine, “Show the people my head, it’s worth it”. He was 34.

Man, J. (2007). The terracotta army: China’s first emperor and the birth of a nation. Toronto: Bantam.

The book moves back and forth from a history of China’s first emperor, the discovery of the terracotta army in Mao’s era, and the author’s experiences in gathering information for his book. This expository scheme works very well.

Man finds resonances between the ancient conflict between the Confucian scholars and the Legalists in the political machinations in Maoist China. The former believed in tradition and honour, whereas the latter believed that might was right—because power came from the barrel of a gun (or, rather, from the business end of a cross bow), the emperor was justified in doing whatever it took to seize and maintain power. Kind of an extreme form of Machiavellianism—Mao, of course, was a Legalist.

I think the tension between these approaches lies deep in everybody’s mind. Not only among the ancient Chinese and the mediaeval Italians, but also delinquents in Thunder Bay fifty or so years ago. I remember when a friend asked me for advice about a conflict he was having with an acquaintance who was attempting to take away his girlfriend. I gave him legalistic advice (if you’re going to fight, make sure you arrange it so you win). This was, I concluded shortly thereafter, bad advice that came close to causing wider conflict. Although this story had a happy outcome (the guy got the girl and they’re still together), I still think that a more formal, even ritualistic, approach would have been better.


McLynn, A. (2009). Marcus Aurelius: Warrior, philosopher, emperor. London: Vintage.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) has fascinated philosophers and moralists to the present. This work has over time become the foremost exemplar of the stoic school of philosophy. McLynn nevertheless argues persuasively that stoicism is basically a logically incoherent and problematic philosophical system that deals unsuccessfully with issues such as free will and determinism. Notwithstanding the failures of stoicism as a philosophic doctrine, Aurelius remains a remarkable and, in many respects, admirable character. He succeeded as a general in his huge wars against the encroaching German tribes and many historians rate him as among the best of the Roman emperors. Unfortunately, his efforts ultimately failed--his abominable son, Commodus, succeeded him and caused the empire irreversible harm. Another philosophy might have allowed Aurelius to have his son dispatched before he had a chance to become emperor!

Although this big book is a bit repetitious and heavy-handed, its portrayal of the problems of the Roman Empire at the beginning of its long period of decline is thought provoking. Rome was beset with serious problems—some natural and others self-inflicted. First, horrific mortality caused by plague led to social disruption and labour shortages. Mortality was particularly heavy in the army and among the legions of slaves. The Romans didn’t help the situation by working slaves to death and disrupting slave families so they couldn’t reproduce themselves.

The Roman economy was unsustainable without the slaves and booty provided by the continuous military conquest of developed countries. War with barbarians, such as the Germans, provided only slaves. The problem was that the barbarians, even though partially Romanized through trade, service as mercenaries, and geographical propinquity, were poor. In fact, poverty caused the wars in the first place. Barbarians sought admittance to the empire in order to improve their economic status.

The Romans granted gifts and subsidies to the barbarian elite to keep the peace with Rome or to encourage the tribes to fight each other. This largesse in turn increased barbarian social and economic stratification; in effect, the Romans colluded with the barbarian elites to suppress the elites’ own people.

Throughout the empire, slaves working on enormous estates produced food more cheaply than small-time farmers working their own land. Because farmland was such a great investment, the price of land rose steeply, forcing farmers out. The farmers fled to the city, where their bread was subsidized and they were amused by chariot races and enormously expensive gladiatorial shows.

Rome had a humungous balance of trade deficit. The plutocracy loved to display silk, gems, and gold. Silk had to be imported from China but China would only accept gold in payment. Similarly, India would only accept gold for its spices and gems. Rome had no functioning gold mines.

All of these issues led back to the army. The army was increasingly made up of barbarian mercenaries loyal to their generals rather than Rome. Because of the economic problems, the army was increasingly difficult to fund and, because the army could and did depose emperors in order to promote their generals to the purple, there was increasing political instability.

Of course, if you’ve been following the American news, you already know how all of this works.

Martin, L. (2010). Harperland: The politics of control. “Toronto: Penguin.

This little book is a partisan attack on the prime minister. It argues that Harper’s policies are a fundamentally anti-democratic right-wing assault on traditional Canadian liberal values. Perhaps more than any other prime minister, Harper keeps not only his cabinet, but his caucus, and, to the degree he can, the civil service on a stranglingly tight leash.

Unfortunately, the book’s central thesis is likely correct.

Richards, R.J. (2008). The tragic sense of life: Ernst Haeckel and the struggle over evolutionary thought. University of Chicago Press.

Another fine book by Richards. This time he tackles the long misunderstood and often vilified Ernst Haeckel of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” fame. Haeckel is probably the most important evolutionary biologist after Darwin, whose valued collaborator he was. Haeckel’s books were extremely popular and the most widely read were written for an audience of educated lay people. Part of their popularity was due to Haeckel’s ability as an illustrator.

Less fortunately, Haeckel was a polemicist with a bitter tongue. He became more strident and bitter with the tragic death of his young wife, causing apoplexy among devout Christians and even managing to alienate many of his natural intellectual allies. Even, Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog” wanted him to cool it. All these polemics led to a great deal of controversy and venomous attacks from which Haeckel’s reputation has suffered to this day.

A somewhat amusing example is provided by Haeckel’s illustrations of the embryos of a dog, chicken, and turtle at the “sandal” stage of development in a popular science type of book. Haeckel wrote that one couldn’t tell these embryos apart. And indeed one couldn’t, because they were in fact duplicate prints. When his enemies discovered this, they accused him of scientific dishonesty, a charge that stuck forever. A more likely explanation, however, is carelessness because, in fact, it is difficult and often impossible to tell these embryos apart at this stage.

All of this was needlessly tragic. Haeckel was a superb biologist who contributed enormously to the scientific enterprise, particularly in his work on the radiolaria. And he was absolutely right—the best proof of evolution is in development.

Thomas, E. (2010). The war lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the rush to empire, 1898. NY: Little, Brown.

These men born to privilege were children at the time of the American Civil War. Lodge and Roosevelt were close friends and successful politicians. Hearst became the most powerful newspaper owner in the US. All of them wanted an American empire and worked indefatigably toward that end. Roosevelt also wanted to achieve personal glory and Hearst, not too dissimilarly, wanted to produce spectacular patriotic war stories, even some with him playing a role.

The foolishness and naivete of these mandarins is breathtaking. After a series of unfortunate events and misleading sensationalized press reports, America got the desired, yet pathetic, war with moribund Spain. Once the Americans conquered Cuba and the Phillipines, they had no idea what to do with them. Most of the war’s consequences were unanticipated—let the water-boarding and exploitation begin.

Very nicely done.

Dynamic Risk Scale


For each item below, you are asked to rate the client's behaviour on a variety of domains. There are two scale scores – one for predicting any incident, and one for predicting violent incidents. Two columns have been placed on the right, one for each scale score. Simply transfer the score for each item into the appropriate column(s) on the right. If the item does not count towards the total for a particular scale score, that cell is blacked out. If both cells are white, transfer that score to both cells.

For each item, choose the one number that best describes the client's presentation over the past MONTH and record it in the appropriate scoring column. If the problem does not apply to this client (i.e. medication non-compliance for a client who is not prescribed any medications), or if insufficient information is available to make a judgement, record “N/A” in the appropriate scoring column. If you are able to assert that the client has not had the particular problem at any time during the past month, record “0” for No Problem in the appropriate scoring column. If the problem has existed at any time in the past month, record “1”, “2”, “3”, or “4” in the appropriate scoring column.

The “Therapeutic alliance” items are set out somewhat differently, however, the scoring is the same. Select the number that best describes the client over the past MONTH, and place that number in the appropriate answer column(s).

Frontline Staff






Problem Severe

N/A or




1. Previous violent acts ignored or passed over

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

2. Takes no responsibility for behavior

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

3. Anxiety, anger, or frustration

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

4. Shows no remorse

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

5. Unrealistic discharge plans

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

6. Escape or escape attempt

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

7. Unusual thought content

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

8. Complaints about staff

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

9. Shows no empathy and concern for others

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

10. Has antisocial attitudes and values

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

11. Poor compliance with current supervision restrictions

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

12. Exhibits few positive coping skills

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

13. Poor compliance with medications

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

14. Psychiatric symptoms are not in remission

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

15. Therapeutic Alliance

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

16. Denies all problems













0 0



Clinical Staff






Problem Severe

N/A or




17. Psychotic actions

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

18. Inactivity

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

19. Refusal to take part in non-medical therapy

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

20. Social withdrawal

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

21. Shallow affect

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

22. Lack of consideration for others

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

23. Mania

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

24. Anger

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

25. Inappropriate suspicion

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

26. Unconventional attitudes

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

27. Conceptual disorganization

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

28. Medication non-compliance

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0

29. Therapeutic alliance

0 1 2 3 4 N/A 0 0



Any Violent


Item Descriptions – Frontline Staff

1. Previous violent acts ignored or passed over: Uncaring about violent acts he/she has perpetrated. Dismisses his/her violent acts as being unimportant.

2. Takes no responsibility for behavior: Tries to blame others or circumstances for his/her acts or problems. Sees him/herself, inappropriately, as a victim.

3. Anxiety, anger, or frustration

4. Shows no remorse: Does not feel responsible for index offense.  Is not sorry for what he/she has done to others.

5. Has unrealistic discharge plans: Include both unrealistic plans about being released and unrealistic plans about post-release activities.

6. Escape or escape attempt: Has actually escaped from supervised care or has tried to.

7. Unusual thought content: Thoughts seem unusual, bizarre, strange. Fixation on topics of no consequence.  Putting together ideas that obviously do not go together. This does not include silliness or feeble attempts at humor.

8. Complaints about staff: Any complaints against staff, justified or not.

9. Shows no empathy and concern for others.

10. Has antisocial attitudes and values.

11. Poor compliance with current supervision restrictions: Late returning from pass. Drifts from group if out on group activity. Does not report when required. Does not deal with stressful or upsetting events in a constructive way (i.e., is aggressive or self-defeating).

12. Exhibits few positive coping skills: Deals inappropriately with anger, i.e., reacts aggressively rather than assertively. Does not deal with stressful or upsetting events in a constructive way (i.e., is aggressive or self-defeating).

13. Poor compliance with psychiatric medication: Does not take medication or misses medication. If living in the community, use drug testing as evidence.

14. Psychiatric symptoms are not in remission.

15. Client denies all problems or just “goes through the motions”.

16. Therapeutic alliance: Code as follows:

  • "0"  Client is enthusiastically involved in treatment activities; recognizes and explores problem areas; seeks out staff assistance; makes realistic plans for the future.
  • "1"  Client is passively receptive to treatment efforts; attends programs as scheduled; participates when engaged directly; future plans are vague and poorly formulated. 
  • "2"  Client is variable in treatment; irregular attendance at programs; reluctant participant; difficult to engage in dialogue on problem areas. 
  • "3"  Client declines most treatments offered; sees no need for further hospitalization; passively waiting for discharge. 
  • "4"  Client actively refuses most treatments; sees no purpose to the hospital stay; denies all problems; constantly demanding discharge.

Item Descriptions – Clinical Staff

17. Psychotic actions: For example, stereotypes, bizarre mannerisms, facial grimaces, obviously inappropriate laughter, talking, or singing, or perseverative movements.  This does not include tics, spastic movements from a physical illness or disability, or movements that may be due to medications

18. Inactivity: Gets no physical exercise. Spends a great deal of time sleeping, or lying about.

19. Refusal to take part in non‑medical therapy: Includes psychological, social work, vocational, etc.

20. Social withdrawal: Avoids contact with others deliberately (as compared to others avoiding him).

21. Shallow affect, superficiality: General “so-what?” attitude.  Does not respond to normally emotional circumstances.

22. Lack of consideration for others: Callousness, little empathy - anything that shows an attitude of thinking only about his/her own concerns and never of the thoughts, feelings of, or consequences for, other clients or staff.

23. Mania: Hyperactivity. Worked up for no obvious reason. Not due to the effects of medication.

24. Anger: Inappropriate displays of losing temper. If the anger expressed is minor, then an isolated instance can be ignored.

25. Inappropriate suspicion: Must definitely be inappropriate (e.g., belief that food is poisoned, aliens are reading his thoughts, or “everyone is out to get him”. In some cases because of the nature of the client’s offense, his/her personality, or some physical abnormality, other clients may “pick on” him/her, and the client’s suspicions are possibly correct.)

26. Unconventional attitudes: Client is non-supportive of, rejects or denies validity or worth of conventional (anti-criminal) persons, activities or settings such as those associated with work, school or family. Shown by obvious contempt for, or a general cynical attitude about, such conventional persons, activities, or settings.

27. Conceptual disorganization: Thoughts seem confused, disconnected, disrupted. Inability to maintain a train of thought. This does not include silliness or feeble attempts at humor.

28. Medication non-compliance: This includes all types of medication, and either not taking medication or over-reliance on medication (e.g., requesting non-prescription medication for an extended period of time).  Also include evidence from drug-testing, especially if the client is living in the community.

29. Therapeutic alliance: Code as follows:

  • "0"  Client is enthusiastically involved in treatment activities; recognizes and explores problem areas; seeks out staff assistance; makes realistic plans for the future.
  • "1"  Client is passively receptive to treatment efforts; attends programs as scheduled; participates when engaged directly; future plans are vague and poorly formulated.
  • "2"  Client is variable in treatment; irregular attendance at programs; reluctant participant; difficult to engage in dialogue on problem areas.
  • "3"  Client declines most treatments offered; sees no need for further hospitalization; passively waiting for discharge.
  • "4"  Client actively refuses most treatments; sees no purpose to the hospital stay; denies all problems; constantly demanding discharge.

The Parable of the Lawnmowers

Structured Clinical Judgment in Risk Appraisal: An idea whose time has gone: The Parable of the Lawn Mowers*

Vernon L. Quinsey, Ph.D.
Queen’s University at Kingston, ON

So I go to Canadian Tire and pick up a lawn mower for a couple of hundred bucks. Its operation is simple enough that, following the application of a little authoritarian persuasion, I can sit on my deck sipping mint juleps and increasing the likelihood of my developing a malignant melanoma while supervising my kids cutting the lawn.

One day a guy comes to my door with a very fancy looking lawn mower. Now this lawn mower comes with a tweed or pinstripe dust cover and has a unique feature–the machine that drives the blades is mounted on springs! This feature means that the operator must apply exactly the right amount of downward pressure to cut all the grass at the same height. Difficult? You bet. But the operator has trained for eight years (actually mostly in the ethics and philosophy of lawn management) and is now a bored certified and registered grass height consultant who can commit the controlled act of mowing as long as he uses tasteful fonts in his advertising.

In addition, the operator has mowed court house and prison lawns all over North America and knows what he’s doing. So I ask him–“how high will you cut my grass?” He says, “How high would you like it? Very high, moderately high, or low?” “Well,” I say “How high is moderately high?” “Well, you know,” he replies, “....moderate.” “How many inches is moderate?” I say, betraying my age. He smiles secretively. “That all depends on how hard I’m pushing.”

“So how consistent will ‘moderate’ be across my lawn? Right now I cut it all at exactly two inches.” “We’ve looked into this in great detail.” he says. “Our spring loaded model in the hands of a bored certified operator is almost as consistent as the completely mechanical ones. And you know what?” he confides, “The newer models have shorter and stiffer springs that make them just as good as the mechanical models in some studies.”

As prestigious and dynamic as this guy is, I can’t afford to pay him to cut my lawn–he’s just too expensive. However, for only ten times the cost of my old lawn mower, he’ll run a training workshop for me in the use of the spring-ed machine in the privacy of my own backyard. I think there’s a living to be made here and I’m thinking about it. As to capital investment, all I have to do is add four springs to my old lawn mower.

*A French version of the parable, entitled “Il faut que je meau de lawne avec les petites spirales de fer ou les bandes de latex” is permanently unavailable from the author.

Much Better CV

Vernon Lois Quinsey, B.S., M.S., M.D., D.D., Ph.D., C.Psych., L.L.D. (Hon), F.R.C.P. (U.K.), P.K.U., STP, F.R.S.

Rosedale, Ontario, 1959

Psychology Department,
62 Arch Street
Queens’ University, Kingston, Ontario, K7L 3N6


  • Registered as a Psychologist in Ontario.
  • Registered as a Health Service Provider in Psychology.
  • Registered as a SCUBA instructor.
  • Registered as a Recreational Pharmaceutical Supplier.
  • Registered Empathy Provider.


  • B.S., Harvard, 1966.
  • M.S., Yale, 1968.
  • Ph.D., Oxford, 1970.
  • D.D., MIT, 1972.
  • M.D., McGill, 1974.


  • Recumbent.
  • Reclining.
  • Relaxed.
  • Redolent.
  • Relapsed.



Rel. 200. Christianity before Jesus.

Psy. 302. Psychological theory after Quinsey.

Med. 950. Third World surgical and hygiene techniques.



Supervising cashier, Mac's Milk, Midland, Ontario, 1982-88.

Social Secretary, Young Conservatives of Canada, 1988-present.


  • Fellow of the Royal Society
  • Order of Canada
  • Order of Brazil
  • Mike Harris Amateur Civility Service Award
  • Order of Sears


  • Grand Prefect Award, Uppersnot College, Toronto.
  • Bayonne Deciduous Tree Worshippers Holy Bark Fellowship.
  • Who=s Who in the Galaxy.
  • Nobel Prize (declined).
  • Nobel Peace Prize (declined).


  • Science
  • Nature
  • Psychological Review
  • New England Journal of Medicine
  • Plant and Soul Science


  • Consulting Psychologist to Queen Elizabeth II.
  • Theological Advisor to the Vatican.
  • Physician to the Queen Mother.


  • The Geraldo Rivera Show: Transvestism, Transexualism, and Transylvanian Disclosures.
  • The Jerry Springer Show: It takes one to know one: Perversion among ATSA members.



Quinsey, V.L. (1997). The scientific scandal of the century: Watson and Crick stole my data! Sleazedale, N.J.: Self Promotion Press.

Quinsey, V.L. (1998).(Ed.). The Wundt Papers. Kingston, Jamaica: Hemp Products Inc.


Skilling, T., Beninger, R. & Quinsey, V.L. (1993). Differences between mice and men are solely attributable to measurement error. Nature, 135, 3017-3019.

Harris, G.T. & Quinsey, V.L. (1994). Severity ratings made by a representative sample of Barrie residents of C.Psych. font size misdemeanours in comparison with number of underage clients slept with. Psychology Kollegy Newsletter, 1005, 277-290.

Jones, G.B. & Quinsey, V.L. (1994). One born every minute: Bamboozling research ethics committees. Transactions of the Philosophical Society, 200, 1-39.

Atkinson, J.L., & Quinsey, V.L. (1994). Unlimited liability of Day Care Board Members. Canadian Law, 32, 81-85.

Jones, G.B. & Quinsey, V.L. (1994). Was he on my caseload? Unlimited liability of Forensic Directors. Journal of Paper Coverage Insurance, 20, 16-17.

Lalumiere, M.L., Seto, M. & Quinsey, V.L. (1995). Don=t be last: Euthanasia and later born males. Asymmetry, 69, 112-118.

Varney, G.W., & Quinsey, V.L. (1995). Teaching staff to deescalate violence: Mace in the face when they're turning blue. Journal of Real Gentle Restraint Techniques and Ammo, 12, 125-137.

Atkinson, J.L. & Quinsey, V.L. (1996). Creative bookeeping and neutralizations among former Day Care Board Members. Prison for Women Journal, 12, 16-32. (distributed by Corcan).

Lieb, R., Berliner, L., & Quinsey, V.L. (1996). Not so bad: A three day followup of released sexual predators. False Memory Syndrome Bulletin, 46, 8-20.

Theresa, M., Diana, L., & Quinsey, V.L. (1996). Compassion fashion: Ergonomically designed carewear. Toronto Sun, 15, 20-22.

Quinsey, V.L. (1998). Straight up: Heterosexuality among the ATSA. American Anthropologist, 32, 125-133.

Rice, M.E., Harris, G.T., Quinsey, V.L., & Cormier, C. (1998). Old wine in older bottles: Recycling the VRAG for shut-ins. Gerontology, 99, 7-11.


Good News Memo to Psyc Faculty

Good News!

The Office of University Affairs announced today that a major upgrade in Queen's computing facilities is imminent. This upgrade will unify many now separate computer services, making them much more efficient. The separate services include various personnel functions, Advancement, corporate relations, and anti-spy ware programs. In addition, the new software will enhance Queen's spirit and promote loyalty to the university.

At the heart of the new system is an enhanced home page/screen saver that will be installed by ITS on all university computers. Displayed on the home page/screen saver will be important announcements from the Principal and various messages designed to motivate faculty and staff--such as "Go, diversity, go!", "Up with world engagement!" and "Prepare more citizens for a global society!" In addition, smaller, somewhat subliminal messages (termed MacMessages) provided by our corporate partners, will be displayed. A major advantage of these messages is that they can be varied throughout the day--for example, around lunch, the MacMessage "I really feel like some golden fries" could be flashed repeatedly in the corner of the computer screen. Research conducted by Queen's School of Business indicates that these messages need not interfere with worker productivity (in this example, the message would not appear until shortly before lunch). In terms of spyware, the computer program will automatically notify the RCMP should one type certain key phrases on the keyboard. Phrases such as "Let's blow up the library" will be routed directly to the police together with GPS coordinates and the personnel file of the person associated with the computer.

The system will also improve faculty personnel functions such as merit review, tenure applications, and promotion applications. The University Senate, in consultation with QUFA and the Committee of Departments, has developed discipline- or department specific phrases that will automatically be tabulated for each computer. For example, in Psychology, the number of times that a faculty member types such phrases as "three-way interaction", "fatally confounded", or "dopamine receptor" will be cumulated. An equation relates the number of these phrases to the number of times they are expected to be used by professors of varying rank. In order to translate the raw number of phrases into a "promotion value" the number of Spider Solitaire games played on the computer is subtracted from the number of target phrases.

New Rules Memo for Psyc Faculty

Dear Colleagues:

This is to inform you that upon assuming the headship I discovered certain technical flaws in the employment contracts between psychology faculty and the university. Although this is a serious problem, in that, strictly speaking, none of you have jobs, there is also some good news.

You are cordially invited to reapply for your positions. A council has been appointed from members of the Quebec wing of the National Governing Party to vet the applications. Members of the panel have been selected because of their special expertise in the interpretation of contracts.

Please note that the distribution of duties in the new contracts has been changed. The apportionment of duties is now 60% administration, 60% teaching, and 20% research. The reapportionment was required in order to avoid an even larger reduction in the salaries associated with the new positions.

QUFA regulations require that a level playing field be established to ensure equity. Because the present incumbent of a particular position might be perceived as having an advantage in the competition, please write your application in a manner that does not identify you as ever having worked at Queen’s. It is recognized that this might cause problems for more senior faculty who will have lengthy gaps in their CVs for which they will need to account. This should, however, be recognized as a challenge to be met with creativity and pluck, as opposed to a fatal liability.

Because Queen’s values diversity, special consideration will be given to individuals who have talents and views that are not represented in the present department. If, for example, you can juggle or are a member of the flat-earth society, be sure to bring these matters to the attention of the selection committee.

I wish you every success in applying for a new position, although I cannot promise anything, because, as you know, Queen’s keeps setting the bar higher.


Some Modest Proposals

Department of Psychology
To: Unit and Department Heads
From: Vern Quinsey
Subject: Some modest proposals for evaluating academic excellence
Date: 07/11/2007

Dear Colleagues:

Research-intensive universities, such as Queen’s, must take the lead in developing sound measures of academic performance because the alternative is to have measures designed for us by politicians and bureaucrats. The latter measures, as we have seen in the UK, are unlikely to embody our core values and almost certain to lack academic rigour.

Below, I sketch a series of academic performance indicators that constitute an attempt to operationalize our shared conception of academic excellence. Although the approach taken here is psychological in nature because of my own academic background, I believe that most of the indicators proposed are quite general and new measures may be developed in other disciplines following the same principles.

There are three criteria that performance measures must meet. Indicators must be quantifiable, embody our core values (i.e., be correct in a political sense), and reflect outcome as opposed to process.

Number of Global Leaders of Tomorrow

The most direct measure of our academic performance in terms of our core values is the number of global leaders-of-tomorrow we produce annually. This number is meaningful in aggregate form—the number of global leaders produced by the university or by an individual department or unit—and in individual form—the number of global leaders produced by each individual faculty member. The latter is also appropriate for annual merit evaluations. Global leaders can be identified rigorously by counting Queen’s alumnae in current Who’s Who biographies. Note that Who’s Who in Canada will not suffice, only inclusion in Who’s Who in the World satisfies the global-leader criterion. Although this works for an institution-wide measure, at the departmental level, the value of each global leader would be assigned proportionally to each department in which the leader took courses. The same principle applies to individual faculty, who would receive credit for the leader in proportion to the number of courses, or fractions of courses, he or she taught the leader. An obvious exception occurs when the leader failed the course in question—in this case the faculty member who taught the course receives no credit.

Because our measure focuses on tomorrow’s leaders, counting today’s leaders is suboptimal, albeit undoubtedly correlated with the “gold standard”. However, this problem of measurement can be minimized by including only global leaders less than sixty years of age, on the grounds that those older don’t have that many tomorrows during which they will or even can be leaders and that those younger will, on average, obey Newton’s First Law. Some astute readers may have noticed a subtle problem that remains. How can an annualised measure of current performance take into account the time lag of varying lengths that inevitably occurs between students’ graduation from Queen’s and their appearance in Who’s Who? Fortunately, a backward application of regression techniques, well known to historians, allows one to adjust for time lags of varying lengths in the analysis of event histories.

Citation analysis

Citation analysis provides a better measure of research productivity than amount of grant support because grant support is a measure of process, not outcome. What we want to measure is not the number of papers published but rather the impact they have, operationalized in terms of how many times these papers are cited in the literature. There are, however, some issues with which one has to deal in performing these analyses. First, citation analysis only works at the individual article level in the sense that it is entirely inadequate to multiply the impact rating of a journal by the number of publications because in most fields, most journal articles in even the highest impact journals are seldom, if ever, cited.

It is also widely accepted that self-citations should be removed from the total number of citations (the result is sometimes referred to as net citations). I believe, however, that further refinements of citation analysis can increase its rigour, as well as better reflect our core values. Although the self-serving nature of self-citations is obvious, the inclusive self-serving nature of citations by relatives is not. Nepotistic citation is the dark underbelly of academic performance evaluation. Once again, this problem cannot be eliminated but it can be minimized by eliminating any citation by an author who has the same last name as any author in the work being cited. Although this procedure may be biased against people with common names like Smith, Wright, or Wong, individuals with these surnames get more than their share of citations in any case. In the final analysis, if one wants to make an omelette, one must break a few eggs. The full potential of citation analysis has yet to be realized. Perhaps surprisingly, citation analysis can be used to empirically investigate one of our core values, the attainment of gender equality. One can simply count the number of male and female authors that an individual faculty member cites and form a discrimination ratio. Of course, authors with gender-neutral names, like Kelly, Kim, and Toad-face, would not contribute toward this ratio. The beauty of this procedure is that it also works in reverse: One can tabulate the discrimination ratio of authors who cite the individual faculty member. Some faculty members, indeed some disciplines, might not care to make their work appealing to opposite gendered individuals.

I look forward to discussing these issues further.

Group Data

Group Data PDF (PDF, 12 KB)


Plants PDF (PDF, 11 KB)

Letter to Editor RE: Xmas Phenomenon

Letter to Editor RE: Xmas Phenomenon PDF (PDF, 225 KB)