Everything I Learned from the Best American Science and Nature Writing This Year

Ha, ha, just kidding. How could I possibly enumerate every single thing that I learned from this year’s edition of the Best American Science and Nature Writing? Impossible! I have already forgotten most of it! My brain is a leaky sieve and I am lucky even to remember my blog password in order to log in and write this post!

Best American Science and Nature Writing

I read this as part of the #24in48 Readathon, which was great except that right as I got to the end and I was all like “nailed it, book finished, no more science to be learned here,” and then they had an appendix with a list of like twenty more science articles to look up and read. I haven’t done it yet BUT I WILL. My thirst for science information is vast and all-consuming.

Or, okay, my thirst for science information is quenched by periodically reading a bunch of pop science journal articles, but like, better than nothing, right? And there’s no need for judgment anyway! Don’t you want to hear what all I learned? With links?

From Rose Eveleth’s “Why Are Sports Bras So Terrible,” I learned that there are many many obstacles in the way of us getting awesome sports bras, and one of them is that companies don’t want to sell sports bras in which women don’t look adorable BECAUSE APPARENTLY WE HAVE TO JUST LOOK CUTE ALL THE TIME GODDAMMIT.

I did not exactly learn about AA’s evidence problem by reading Gabrielle Glaser’s “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous,” but it reminded me how frustrating I find it that as a society we’re weirdly unwilling to consider alternative treatments for addiction than this one that’s ineffective for the majority of people who use it because it’s basically church.

By contrast, I had no idea that bed rest for pregnant ladies wasn’t backed by science. Apparently it’s NOT. Or so says “The Bed-Rest Hoax,” by Alexandra Kleeman. Gasp.

From Charles Mann’s “Solar, Eclipsed,” I learned a bit more about national efforts in India to figure out how to get electricity to the many rural areas that don’t reliably have it. The Modi government was for a time the darling of the renewable energy crowd for its apparent commitment to solar energy (although NOT the darling of the religious liberty crowd, given Modi’s Hindu nationalism, I understand? idk correct me if I’m wrong), but has since shifted more to the use of coal energy (eek).

For some reason I thought the only nail salon scoop we had recently was about the terrible pay in nail salons in New York. But no, Sarah Maslin Nir’s “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers,” has made me feel that regardless of pay conditions at any given nail salon, it’s still p. unethical to go there. Because the nail salon workers apparently all have horrific health problems as a result of the terrible nail chemicals. This is exactly why I stopped eating microwave popcorn, guys.

Rinku Patel’s “Bugged” taught me something I am now furious I haven’t seen in science fiction stories: Astronauts have immune system problems when they get back from space! Space is too sterile! Astronauts get home from space and their systems are all screwed up and their immune systems go haywire and produce wacko allergies out of nowhere. Get on this, SF.

In bleak and terrifying news, Kathryn Schulz’s “The Really Big One” told me that the Pacific Northwest is going to absolutely have a massive earthquake and it’s going to be devastating and we’re not prepared. It was scary af. Also, I learned that the length of time an earthquake lasts is a reasonable proxy for how severe an earthquake it is. Y’all California people probably all knew that already but I am an earthquake noob. I only know hurricanes.

Anyway, thanks, science. I am sad about some things and excited about other things. I guess that is the fate of deeply engaged science learners like myself.

Review: Beyond Trans, Heath Fogg Davis

So it used to be that I cared what words people used to describe their gender. Not a lot, but some. Enough to roll my eyes about this or that gender description that I suspected the youths had gotten from spending too much time on Tumblr. At some point, though, I stopped caring, and I have to tell you that it is a much, much better way of life. Society wants you to care a lot about gender, and my path as I have gotten older and older is to care about gender closer and closer to zero. Are women supposed to this? Are men supposed to that?

SANSA STARK

Heath Fogg Davis’s book Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? is a refreshing reminder that many of the areas in which we think we care about gender could do with some reexamination. He’s not actually arguing that gender never matters, although as I get older and older I more and more think that it maybe does not. Does gender matter isn’t a rhetorical question for Davis; the book explores whether and how gender matters on personal identification documents, in various sports settings, bathrooms, sex-segregated schools, etc.

A government agency such as the CDC has legitimate public health reasons for collecting and maintaining sex-specific data. However, the agency should define its use of those terms and clearly articulate the “substantial” connection between its use of sex classification and its institutional objectives. Instead of using “female” or “male” as a proxy for particular body parts, the agency may find that the more targeted language of “people with uteruses” or “people with prostate glands” is more statistically inclusive.

That is just a really good idea? Because of trans and intersex people (intersex people are as common as redheads, a statistic I read recently in Hida Viloria’s Born Both and now can’t stop repeating to people), many of the common gender definitions turn out to be inadequate. Differentiating between sex classifications that depend on hormone differences, present or absent body parts, and present or absent chromosomes enables us to have clearer conversations about what criteria are being applied and why. As Davis points out, the alternative is that we depend on the discretion of individuals like TSA agents, bouncers, or bus drivers to determine whether a person’s gender/sex matches what’s on their documents. Which is unfair to the people whose gender is being policed, and also unfair to the people being asked to police gender without any clear definitions or guides on how to do it.

At a minimum, I would like to see individual schools clearly and publicly explain whether and how sex classification is related to their organizational aims.

This is basically what Davis is asking for: Not that organizations unilaterally eliminate gender as an identifier, but rather that they take a step back and ask themselves why they need to know and what goals will be accomplished by asking this question.

I don’t always agree with Davis’s arguments — at one point he makes the case for increased use of biometrics, which seems dicey as hell from a privacy standpoint — but Beyond Trans is an excellent book that asks its readers to stop taking gender for granted and instead to think critically about what gender differentiation is accomplishing in all the spheres where we think it’s important. Is it actually important? Davis asks, or is it just a habit? And if it’s the latter, why do we need to keep caring about it?

Thanks to the lovely Monika for reviewing this book recently and reminding me of how much I wanted to read it too!

Rest in Peace, Wilkie Collins Readalong

After two weeks of anxious waiting for my damn book to arrive and two weeks of enthusiastic readalong participation, the Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation has reached its close. It was a magical and sensational time in which we found that it is hard to write a biography of someone who sensibly avoids putting incriminating information in writing.

Wilkie Collins

The main surprise to me in this readalong is how together Wilkie Collins was. I always thought of him sort of the same way I think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, high all the time, unworldly, and perpetually strapped for cash. This could not have been more wrong. Wilkie Collins was savvy af, all the time thinking of ways to increase his exposure as an author and maintain copyright protections. He was constantly meeting deadlines! PLUS:

On his return, he finalised details of yet another will, this time specifically dividing his estate between Caroline and Martha [his two paramours] (with their children as subsidiary beneficiaries. [He also] ensur[ed] that a character reference for his manservant Edward Grosvisier was in order.

Like. That is the total opposite of how I pictured Wilkie Collins. I have been so wrong all this time. I have been doing him an Injustice.

His attitude [toward Washington DC] may have been colored by the inebriated congressman in Washington who insisted on calling him “Milky” and saying how much he liked his books, including The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which was by Walter Scott.

Bahahahah and to think that all this time we’ve been missing the opportunity to call him Milky.

Lycett also finds the time to confirm what Alice has long suspected ie that old Milky was an ass man:

I too think the back view of a finely-formed woman the loveliest view — and her hips and her bottom the most precious part of that view. The line of beauty in those quarters enchants me.

Oh, Milky. You do not have to explain this. It is obvious to anyone who read The Woman in White. Like I do not know how anyone in the world would read that book and have any interest in insipid Laura when Marion is around with her sweet, sweet ass and searing intellect.

Oscar Wilde did not care for Wilkie Collins’s work. I am immensely grieved. Surely if given the opportunity, they would have gotten on brilliantly? I suspect Oscar Wilde just didn’t like what Wilkie Collins represented, ie the literary establishment which Oscar Wilde loved to scandalize and also badly wished to be a part of slash remake in his own image. In terms of amiability and love of melodrama, I really think that Oscar Wilde and Milky could have been great friends. They are probs up in heaven having drinks together as we speak.

Well. I have done Wilkie Collins a great wrong, and I am glad that Alice organized this readalong so that wrong could be corrected. Thank you, Alice. I am sorry, Wilkie. In future if anyone asks about you, I will be sure to tell them about the Milky thing and then emphasize your practicality, discretion, and work ethic.

23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang

Okay, so y’all know how I am on a quest to one day know everything?

What I have discovered on this quest is that it is possible to become interested in just about anything. Most things (maybe all things? I have not fully tested the hypothesis) are only boring until you know enough about them to get past the 101-level stuff, and then they quickly become very very interesting indeed. It’s like that thing where you’re never more than one really good story arc away from loving a certain superhero in comics? Seems weird now, but a few short years ago, I thought African history was boring.

I KNOW. I KNOW.

Or to give another example, I’ve never been hugely interested in East and Southeast Asian history, but recently I learned a little bit more about Chinese history while reading up on the terracotta army guy, and I learned a little bit more about Vietnamese history from my Enormous Genocide Book, and now I’m kind of feeling like I should start dipping my toe in those waters. Like, the Opium Wars? Gotta know about that, right? That shit was insane!

So I think the stages are:

  1. Don’t know/care about the topic and feel fine about it
  2. Don’t know/care about the topic but feel guilty about it
  3. Feel guilty enough to grudgingly read an article/compile a mini-reading list about the topic
  4. Read a little bit about the topic but then feel annoyed that I still don’t know enough to speak with any authority on the topic
  5. Become mildly-to-very obsessed with the topic

I have been at Stage Two with economics since oh, around the end of the Bush Jr presidency, when the economy was shot to hell and everything was terrible and I couldn’t understand one damn explanation as to why. (Of course, the definition of terrible has since been reset by the Trump presidency and now basically has no bottom so I shouldn’t have worried my pretty little head about it, really.) I reached Stage Three like around maybe mid-2014, and reading 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism has nudged me into Stage Four.

Everyone I talk to regularly is now glancing at the exits as they contemplate the prospect of living with me if I should reach Stage Five with economics, the topic I have always claimed is the most boring topics in the entire fucking world and from which, therefore, they have probably felt they were secure from having to hear all about nonstop for weeks.

–my friends and relations, probably

All of that is to say that while I appreciated 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism for the critical eye that it casts on myths of the free market and why they are misleading, I do not feel I understood more than, oh, 30% of what the book was telling me. 30% is a generous estimate, really. The thing is (this is always the thing at Stage Four) that I do not know enough information to have any means of assessing the information 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism was providing me. I am a babe in the woods when it comes to economics. I hate being a babe in the woods. I HATE IT.

Here’s the one single thing I feel absolutely certain I have grasped and can believe: Ha-Joon Chang says early on in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism that the free market only seems free because we take for granted many market regulations such as immigration control. Because immigration control prevents the “free” market in developed countries like the US from capitalizing on cheap labor from developing nations. As soon as Chang said it, it seemed obvious, but that had never occurred to me before.

Anyway, I guess I now have to learn everything about economics. God damn it.

Review: All the Real Indians Died Off, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker

After reading An Indigenous People’s History of the United States a few years back, I was in the tank for p. much anything from Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz. All the Real Indians Died Off (and 20 Other MYths about Native Americans) is her latest book, cowritten with Colville author Dina Gilio-Whitaker, and it serves as an excellent 101 text for understanding Indian history in the US and ongoing legal, social, and economic issues.

All the Real Indians Died Off

Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker (my stars they have a lot of name between them) tackle issues ranging from terminology (Indian? Native American? Indigenous?) to broken treaties (too many to count) to casino earnings to indigenous tax breaks. Each section (well, nearly each, but I’ll get into that) lays out the origins of the myth, cites some examples of its function in historical or contemporary discourse, and then explores the reality behind it.

While the structure of the book — each “myth” receives five to ten pages — precludes the authors from going into depth about any one issue, they pack a lot of information into this slim book. The notes section also provides plenty of avenues for further reading, both foundational works by scholars like Vine Deloria Jr. (who even I have heard of) and recent peer-reviewed research. For instance, in the chapter about tribes getting rich from casinos (they mostly don’t), the authors lay out the hard numbers of casino earnings and their impact on average tribe members (on and off reservations).

Occasionally there’s a disconnect between the “myth” as described in the the chapter heading, and the actual content of the chapter. The chapter “Indians Are Anti-Science” touches on indigenous knowledge and scientific racism but devotes the bulk of its time to technological advances made by Indian groups in history. Which is awesome! Yay for agricultural innovation and such! But like — doesn’t really address the question, particularly? I closed out the chapter not sure who was saying Indians were anti-science or on what basis or why it was wrong.

However, even in chapters where that’s the case, All the Real Indians Died Off has tons of good information for readers who are seeking a basic grounding in Indian history, discourse, and activism. Recommended!

Review: Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, Helen Young

WHAT A GREAT BOOK. I impulse-ILLed it because — something? Why did I impulse-ILL this book? Was it honestly just because I was tipsy? I have two drinks let’s say once a week, and even so I haven’t impulse-ILLed a book since that one book about internet trolls that was weirdly sympathetic to internet trolls considering how terrible internet trolls are. I believe that what happened was I encountered this book while I was reading up on racebending for this blog post, and I was slightly tipsy and this book looked sooooo gooooooood and anyway it was a GREAT LIFE DECISION.

“Jenny, are you tipsy — while you are writing this?” NO. I am high on theories of racism and academic prose. Which reminds me, has anyone here read Sara Ahmed? I keep meaning to, and then her books keep being checked out of the library. Also, I feel like theory is a young person’s game. Like if I hadn’t read Judith Butler in college for a course, there is a 0% chance I would ever read Judith Butler now. I am better with praxis.

FAIR CRITIQUE.

Anyway, so this book is terrific. Young gets into the racial coding practices in some of the foundational works of fantasy literature — Tolkien if you’re fancy, Howard (he wrote Conan the Barbarian) for pulp — then comes for the nonsense arguments about “historical authenticity” and how they enact a racist vision of an imagined Middle Ages that draws less on evidence than on instinctive feelings about what that era most probably was like. And then there is this whole excellent chapter about orcs and their horde-like nature and racial coding in that, a chapter that includes the subheading “Orc Societies and Cultures,” which despite the utter misery and terrifyingness of our country’s descent into authoritarianism reminded me that in some respects I am awfully lucky to live here and now in a culture where books have subheadings like “Orc Societies and Cultures” and I can just read them willy-nilly.

hello there Mr. Orc I am sure there is no significance to the fact that you have dark skin and all of Our Heroes are white, white, white as the fresh-fallen snow

My God and then she starts talking about postcolonialism in fantasy stories and apparently there is a Cherokee fantasy author called Daniel Heath Justice whose oeuvre I must deposit directly into my brain. And all this talk about NK Jemisin and her depictions of the colonization of language and ideology in the Inheritance trilogy (which you may recall I really liked), and then as if that isn’t enough greatness for one book, an entire chapter on RaceFail ’09. What a terrific motherfucking book. Here’s a thing Heather Young says:

The caveat that representing characters of colour — and indeed any characters from minority and marginalized backgrounds — should be done with respect, and that doing so does not protect an author from criticism or entitle him or her to congratulations is overlooked, dismissed, and/or taken as a restriction according to this construct. The freedom to speak — write — un-censured is constructed as the freedom to write uncensored.

That last sentence is the tidiest way to phrase that sentiment that possibly I have ever seen.

And then there is a whole bibliography full of articles with titles like “Aboriginality in Science Fiction” and “Why Is the Only Good Orc a Dead Orc?” No word of a lie, I went through this bibliography line by line and created myself a reading list based on it. Thanks Routledge. Thanks Helen Young. Thanks universe.

Review: Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine

Note: I received this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect the content of my review. The book is just so honestly extraordinarily good.

Before I read Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine’s last book before Testosterone Rex, I thought that I had a pretty good grip on what it would contain, given that I already agreed with her arguments; and then when I actually did read it, it blew my mind straight out of the back of my skull and onto the wall behind me, and that was five years ago and I’ve been tucking splattery bits of brain back into my head ever since.

Testosterone Rex

Well wouldn’t you know it, here we are five years older and I made the exact same mistake when I was picking up Testosterone Rex. I thought, “I already agree with Cordelia Fine, and I’ve read a book by her about gender and science. I undoubtedly know what this book is going to be!” But then my reading experience was as follows:

YES. MY MIND WAS FRESHLY BLOWN. BLOWN ANEW.

Whereas Delusions of Gender focused on brains primarily and how they do not supply us with a clean binary divide between male and female, Testosterone Rex is about evolutionary biology and development and how they do not supply us with a clean binary divide between male and female. I loved this book so much I couldn’t shut up about it even to the person I bought it for for her birthday and desperately needed to conceal it from until birthday day arrived. I kept starting to tell her awesome things I learned from the book and then awkwardly pretending to lose my train of thought.

Okay, so what are some of the gendered science narrative that Cordelia Fine is countering in this book? (I hear you ask.) Pretty much everything that suggests men are this way and women are that way and it is always immutably so due to having evolved that way. Men have a greater penchant for risk! A disinterest in monogamy!

A desire to acquire showy possessions and high status in order to attract women! A lesser ability to nurture and feel empathy!

All because of evolution and testosterone!

Let’s take just one example, the claim that men are more prone to risk-taking than women. If you’d asked me ahead of reading Testosterone Rex whether this claim was true, I’d have said that yes the science showed men are bigger risk-takers but that no it wasn’t an inherent biological thing but was instead about socialization. If you’d pressed a little bit, I might have been able to come up with one of the points Fine makes, which is that surveys of risky behaviors likely tend to focus on areas that are traditionally male-dominated (due, again, to socialization) such as sports betting, fast motorcycle riding, or major financial investments.

Fine does go deep on the question of the gendered assumptions inherent in how we assess risk, pointing out complication after complication for the idea that men take risks and women tend not to. For instance, pregnancy is twenty times more likely to result in death than skydiving,1 yet women do it all the time. Or here’s another thing: Women do perceive the world as being inherently riskier than men perceive it as being, but this disparity disappears when you control for ethnicity.

Society seemed a significantly safer place to white males than it did to all other groups, including nonwhite men. What on first inspection seemed like a sex difference was actually a difference between white males and everyone else.

IT IS ALMOST AS IF SOCIETAL ROLES ARE IMPORTANT DETERMINANTS OF BEHAVIORS AND ATTITUDES.

Here’s something else I didn’t know: When you divide risks into categories by type (one study Fine cites broke it out into gambling, financial, health, recreational, social, and ethical risks), there’s no correlation between a high level of risk-taking in one domain with a high level of risk taking in the others (see also).

To see the problem this creates for the idea of risk taking as an essential masculine trait, ask yourself which group are the “real” men, or show a properly evolved masculine psychology: the skydivers, or the traders? . . . . The pure, unadulterated daredevil no doubt exists, but such individuals are statistical exceptions to the general rule that people are fascinatingly idiosyncratic and multifaceted when it comes to risk.

The whole book is like that. Wherever Fine encounters a simple, intuitive-seeming precept that would seem to explain gendered difference, she massively complicates the picture. Gender won’t account for the difference, genes and hormones give an incomplete picture, and every word in the original precept was miserably inexact to begin with. Watching Fine take these gendered claims painstakingly, methodically, devastatingly to pieces should rank among the great works of art that humanity has ever produced.

One of the chapters in Testosterone Rex begins thus:

Sometimes these days I’m introduced to people as an academic who wrote a book about how the brains of men and women aren’t that different. Disappointingly, the wide range of reactions to this brief biography has yet to include You must be Cordelia Fine! Would you sign this copy of your book that I carry around with me?

That would be me. That would be my response. I would also probably burst into tears and propose marriage. Y’all, for real, buy a copy of this book. Buy a box set of this and Delusions of Gender. Buy twelve. Distribute them to your loved ones. Absolutely everyone in the world should read it. You’ll thank me later.

  1. Not anywhere in the world. Pregnancy in America.

Review: Death, an Oral History, by Casey Jarman

Note: I received Death: An Oral History from the publisher for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

Death an Oral History

So my favorite thing about Death: An Oral History is the story of its genesis. Casey Jarman noticed that he hadn’t yet lost anyone he couldn’t afford to lose, and it started to cause him anxiety about death. He therefore decided to spend the next few years of his life talking, reading, and thinking extensively about death, with the ultimate goal of producing a collection of interviews with people familiar with death.

This is very very relatable to me. I have learned that when you are afraid of something, it’s either fine to live your life without that thing (like acid trips or the many species of spider that live in Australia) and then you are fine to go on avoiding it, or else it is diminishing/impossible to live your life without that thing (like taking long walks alone at night while a lady or people I love dying or getting a job in publishing and moving to New York without knowing anybody there) and then you have to make a decision about your priorities. I am terrible at not being afraid of things, but I am excellent at triaging. (I am too jittery and on edge to enjoy long walks alone at night, which defeats the purpose they would otherwise be serving. People I love are definitely going to die. I really wanted to work in publishing.)

Jarman interviews a wide range of people who spend their time thinking about death: a retired warden on death row who now opposes the death penalty, a grief counselor, a songwriter whose lyrics deal with the inevitability of death, a hospice volunteer. Each of his interviewees has considered death extensively from a certain angle, and each of them is able to say what they’ve learned about it, what they believe it means, how they believe people can approach it in a healthy way.

As oral histories go, I liked this one a lot. Inevitably, a few of the interviewees rubbed me the wrong way — I have no patience for woo-woo granola bullshit, and I had to quit reading the interview with the psychedelic scientist who’s convinced we could all have peaceful and pleasant deaths if only we dropped a lot of acid at the crucial time.1 Most of them, though, spoke with respect about the dead and the process of dying, and the book made me feel — and I hope made Casey Jarman feel, bless him — that there are people in this world who have the process of death under control and who can see the rest of us through it.

  1. Ugh okay that’s not a fair representation of her position but “psychedelic hospice” is a thing she wants to do and I just cannot with people sometimes.

Review: Death by Video Game, Simon Parkin

Who here is a gamer? Show of hands, please! I went into Death by Video Game with a very low level of gaming knowledge, and people with a low level of gaming knowledge is who I recommend this book for. I suspect that readers with knowledge of the gaming world would say “fie” to this book.

gamers reading this book, probably
gamers reading this book, probably

THIS IS NOT A CRITICISM. I found Death by Video Game during a random, but pleasant, browse through my library’s catalog, and it is exactly what I wanted it to be: A series of journalistic sociology essays about the worlds and possibilities of video games, from people dropping dead at gaming cafes after hours of play, to fundraisers that depend on gamers being willing to play mind-numbingly dull video games for hours upon hours, to games that realistically explore some of the most difficult and terrifying things about being human. And I came away from the book feeling how I wanted to feel: That there are worlds of knowledge under the sub-heading “video game,” and I should dedicate some time to learning more about them.

Death by Video Game

(Jenny Learns Something New and Gets Excited about It: An Autobiography in Infinite Chapters.)

Did it make me want to play video games? Yes, but not enough for me to actually do anything about it. Knowing my addiction to stories as I do, I am sure that if I got into gaming, it would quickly consume my life (very expensively!) and I would never get anything else done ever again. So I continue to opt out of gaming. I feel the same way, roughly, about getting your ears pierced. Earrings would delight me! I would have tons of them! And it would cost money and I’d have to keep track of all of them and it’d be one more damn thing for me to worry about when I’m getting ready in the morning.

I know, it's unusual
how other adult women respond to discovering that my ears are not pierced

“But what’s your favorite thing you learned from this book, Jenny?” Glad you asked! My most favorite thing is that the EVE Online, a science fiction video game, has an elected player council called the Council of Stellar Management that meets once a year with the game developers, CCP, in Iceland to talk about new planned features and to represent player interests to the company that owns the game.

“Council members can have very different ambitions and concerns depending on which part of space their hail from,” explains CCP’s Ned Coker. “You may have somebody who lives in the galaxy’s outer reaches and, as such, they will have a very different viewpoint to those that live in a more centralised area.”

Fascinating, no?

Parkin also talks about the way games encourage imaginative identification to an extent that less immersive media do not. In a game like That Dragon, Cancer, it becomes impossible to separate yourself emotionally from the experience of having a baby who’s dying, because the game forces you to experience it from the viewpoint of the caretakers. He rejects the idea that video games are “just games,” or that the worldviews of the games have no effect on the worldviews of the gamers. At the same time, he doesn’t delve very deeply into this topic (or any of his topics), since the idea is more to provide a window into the variety of games that exist than to provide substantial critiques of gaming culture.

Verdict: An excellent, readable introduction to the video games and player types that exist in our wondrously varied world.

Review: Becoming Evil, James E. Waller

A note: I read the first edition of Becoming Evil, published in 2002, because that’s the edition my library had a copy of. Waller did publish a second edition in 2007, which may contain a more robust defense of evolutionary psychology and some refinements to his model.

So one of my things for the upcoming year (two years, four years) is that I want to learn more about the historical, social, and scientific contexts for some of the things I’m afraid will happen under President Trump. One thing that scares me is the heightening of racist speech against Muslims and immigrants. More and more in recent years, America has been rhetorically isolating certain groups, and this worried me badly even before a president got elected on the strength of that type of rhetoric. Laws that target Muslims have been in place since 9/11, and the election of President Trump will almost certainly lead to more open legal targeting of vulnerable groups. This is, to put it lightly, not a good path for us to walk down.

Becoming Evil
luckily the cover isn’t sensational at all, ha ha that’d be inappropriate for the topic, amirite?

I checked out James Waller’s Becoming Evil about a week after the election, as well as an enormous book all about genocide, because I guess I am not an optimist. We all want to believe the “never again” rhetoric; we want to believe that we’re sufficiently enlightened that it couldn’t happen here, but I have read enough books about genocide and its aftermath to know that it could absolutely happen anywhere.

I KNOW THIS IS A VERY DOWNER POST. But, still important, so on we bloodily stagger. Becoming Evil posits a four-part model that explains why people do evil things.1 The first prong of the model depends on evolutionary psychology, a branch of science that makes me want to lie down on the floor for several hours because it is nigh untestable and I find that suspect.2 The idea is that we are prone to love “us” and be suspicious of “them” — which I do believe, based on the way even tiny infants respond in tests, but which I have yet to be convinced is due to How We Lived in Ancient Times. But however it may be with evolutionary psychology, the first prong of the model is, basically, suspicion of outsiders.3

The second prong of the model is personal characteristics that make a person more prone to Evil.4 Cultural belief systems that emphasize submission to authority and externalize the locus of control of one’s life tend to produce people more inclined to accede to the commission of violence like genocide. Moral disengagement also makes genocide more likely — i.e., justifying one’s behavior to oneself, giving euphemistic labels to the bad deeds one is doing, etc. And finally, of course, self-interest plays a role: Very often when genocide takes place, it’s because the perpetrator group believes they will profit by the elimination of the victim group.

Y’all, I know this is a super heavy post. Let’s all take a breather and have a look at this Pomeranian getting blow-dried.

what a warm and happy dog
what a warm and happy dog

Okay, that was a good Pomeranian, thank heavens, because this third element is the one that feels the most controllable and urgent to me. (You can see what you think.) The third prong of Waller’s model is about the immediate social contexts in which we are asked to commit acts of violence and exclusion; he calls this “a culture of cruelty” and explores some ways that we’re socialized gradually into such a culture. Reading the book as “how not to commit genocide 101,” this prong of the model was the most useful to me. Here are two hot tips I gleaned:

  1. Do not do small, harmless-seeming compliances. Waller talks about “escalating commitments,” wherein we (humans) are more likely to commit resources to something “once [we] have been induced to go along with a small initial request.” He describes it as a “mounting momentum of compliance” — once we have done the first thing, we want to believe that we’re doing Right, so we get deeper and deeper in. Waller quotes psychologist John Darley as saying “the individual’s morality follows rather than leads.” Our brains are basically very bad at doing things we don’t agree with, so if we start regularly doing an action like saying “Heil Hitler,” our brains are like “oh yeah we must think Hitler is good, else why would we keep saying this thing?” Don’t comply with the small things, and you inoculate yourself (to a degree) against compliance with the big things.
  2. Related: Get better at not conforming not to peer pressure. I know this is so, so difficult. We are social animals and we want to fit in with the group. But this is a reason that people go along with mass murder: They never got good at resisting peer pressure, and they feel guilty “making” their peers do this unfun dirty work of, you know, literally killing people. Get good at it now while it’s easy, and you’re less likely later to agree to violence and repression against a target group.

The last prong of the model, of course, is inflicting “social death” upon the target population; i.e., making the “them” into the themiest “them” you possibly can manage. This includes rhetorical othering (see why I’ve been saying all along not to do that!) as well as physical separation (into, for instance, camps) and super-intense victim-blaming, which arises from our passionate desire to believe that the world is just and that if we ourselves do everything right, we and our loved ones will be safe and not get genocided.

The scary thing about this book5 is how quickly countries can move from the small things — the rhetoric, the ritual displays of national loyalty — to actual straight-up genocide. A robust democracy with lots of participation by its citizens is a strong line of defense against mass ethnic violence, so it is, again, incumbent upon us to be that. Defend our institutions, and participate early and often in our democracy, any way that you can.

  1. Sidebar, I have thought for years that it’s a bad idea to use the word “evil” to describe people who do particularly awful crimes like child abuse or murder. It’s an othering kind of word that absolves us of any commonalities we may share with the so-called evildoer, and I think that makes us less willing to believe that these crimes can happen close to us. Waller says, “Extraordinary human evil can never be simply distilled to one particular psychiatric diagnosis. To do so is to project evil exclusively onto some small segment of the population instead of acknowledging its imminent presence in each of us.” In other words, if only evil people abuse children, and our kid’s friend’s stepfather does not appear to be evil, then how can we believe our kid’s friend if she says the stepfather touched her inappropriately? He’s not evil, right? And abusers are evil? SEE HOW THIS LEADS TO BAD OUTCOMES?
  2. Man, this post is reeeeeeally how to win friends and influence people 101, n’est-ce pas? “First she said we can’t call child abusers evil, now she’s slagging off all of evolutionary psychology, wot a jerk.” I KNOW I KNOW but honestly I think I am correct on both fronts. Waller addresses some of the criticisms of evolutionary psychology but not really its untestability. Whatever, dude. You know what you did. (Maybe this is better in the second edition.)
  3. This does not reflect well on me, but I admit that I was reading this book trying to see if any of these things applied to me. I am okay on suspicion of outsiders, I think! But I do want to emphasize that this did not happen by magic: My parents taught me to be this way, and I have spent a lot of time in my adult life actively eradicating suspicion of outsiders from my brain by having as diverse a range of life experiences and reading material as possible. I recommend these strategies to everyone. They are not perfect, but they help.
  4. Again, I don’t endorse the use of the word evil. I think it’s a word that’s too unspecific to be of much use in contexts such as these, but whatever, I’m following Waller’s vocab use for the purposes of this post.
  5. aside from, just, everything