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Apr. 2nd, 2017

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What did you just finish?
A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz. I am a huge fan of Horwitz (who is primarily a journalist rather than a historian), so of course when I realized that he had a book criticizing the primacy of Plymouth Rock in the narrative of American origins I had to read it. I reliably go on rants about how the Pilgrims didn't earn their mythologized status of the "first" immigrants, and adding in a favorite author just sweetened the deal.

Horwitz starts the book by realizing that he knows very little about the history of European exploration in the New World pre-Plymouth Rock, and sets out to correct that lack with a mix of historical research and traveling around to visit modern people at once-important locations. It's a book that's really as much about how historical myths are created, sustained, and reacted to as it is about straight history, which gives it an interesting twist.

Horwitz starts out with the Viking exploration of Newfoundland, skips ahead to Columbus in the Caribbean, and then details the stories of various conquistadores: Cabeza de Vaca (abandoned in Florida, eventually walked all the way around the Gulf and south to Mexico City), Coronado (came north from Mexico, made it all the way to Kansas), Ponce de Leon (who was not searching for a Fountain of Youth!), de Soto (landed in Florida, rampaged all throughout the SouthEast). There's also chapters on the lost colony of Roanoke (not so lost), the founding of Jamestown with its famous inhabitants John Smith and Pocahontas, the French Huguenots in Florida who were shortly afterward attacked by the Spanish who subsequently founded St Augustine and, of course, the Pilgrims themselves.

Horwitz makes a great effort to speak to descendant communities or local historians where he can, but it's often difficult to include non-European perspectives due to the massive dislocation and cultural loss in Native American groups in the last few centuries. Still, the chapters on the Zuni (in New Mexico) and the Powhatan (in Virginia) were fascinating. My favorite part of the whole book may have been a hilarious section where Horwitz hangs around in the Dominican Republic, fighting against bureaucracy and disinterested locals in an attempt to get a glimpse at what are (supposedly) Christopher Columbus's bones.

Ultimately Horwitz concludes that it's not so surprising Americans have chosen the Pilgrims to focus on for our national origin myth – it's tidy, it's happy, it promotes the 'right' sort of values – and I wish he had been a little more critical of that. But overall it's a fun book, a great combination of interesting history and funny modern anecdotes.

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – And Us by Richard O. Prum. A common problem for evolutionary theorists is explaining animal traits such as the peacock's tail: it's huge, extravagant, a target to predators, prone to getting caught in branches, and in plenty of other ways seems to be detrimental to the peacock's survival. So why did it evolve? The standard explanation is that it functions as a "costly signal" – that is, the bigger the tail, the more likely the peacock is to have good genes to survive such a handicap, and the more likely female peacocks are to choose it as a mate, since they want those good genes for their offspring.

Prum argues that this explanation doesn't work. He says instead that there's no need to bring natural selection into the picture at all. If a big tail seems "beautiful" to potential mates, that is enough for it to evolve: females will choose big-tailed males so that their sons will also have big-tails, who will then also be preferentially chosen by the next generation of females, and on and on it goes, tails forever getting bigger even if it's actually detrimental to the good of the overall species. Prum calls this "aesthetic selection" or "sexual selection" and argues that it's an important force in understanding evolution. It can function against natural selection, and recognizing the conflict between these two impulses is the only way to understand the diversity of modern biology. Prum is primarily a bird scientist, so the first half of the book consists of examples from his own research, from the amazing tails of Great Argus pheasant, to manakin courtship dances, to the elaborate and colorful structures built by bowerbirds. He even discusses the origin of feathers in dinosaurs, and what colors they might have been! In the final chapters, Prum speculates on how aesthetic selection might also have influenced human evolution regarding everything from our body shape to female orgasms to the existence of same-sex desires.

Overall it's an interesting and insightful argument, and Prum makes his case very well. The one thing I would critique is that I don't think he did a good job of proving that aesthetic preferences are themselves heritable, or how they would originally spread within a population. It's also a book that requires the reader to have a fairly well-informed background in evolutionary theory, which I'm not entirely sure matches the fact that it's being sold as popular science. But maybe I'm underestimating the average person's level of knowledge! At any rate, I'm glad I read it, even if it required more thought than I expected.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: A Voyage Long and Strange takes me up to 10!

What are you currently reading?
Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours by Nog Arikha. Non-fiction books are hard to blurb, since they have all the information right there in the title.


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