Tag Archives: book review

On the (actual) Origin of Species

I’m pretty happy with my pokemon fanfic’s name, but I didn’t just pick it because it sounds cool and has some thematic fit. I picked it because Darwin’s book means something very special to me. This isn’t going to be a detailed review of the book’s contents itself, but rather why I think it’s so much more important than most people realize.

161 years ago today, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, a book that literally changed the way we humans understood ourselves, and our place in the world around us. It  For those that haven’t read it, haven’t seen Darwin’s thoughts in their original form back when this was the cutting edge of science rather than taken for granted by all but the most ignorant, it may be hard to appreciate just how important this book was. Ironically enough, atheists and agnostics may especially underestimate the importance of it, thinking it simply the root of our understanding of evolution. Most don’t realize that if it hadn’t been written, they may not be skeptics at all.

Because skepticism doesn’t come easy to people, and our brains are pattern-matching machines. Before Darwin, the vast majority of the irreligious were, at the very least, deistic or spiritualists. Great thinkers, rationalists, and philosophers may have recognized the absurdities and contradictions of the theistic religions, but surely, they thought, something supernatural existed. How else to account for the origin of the universe? Or the miracle of life’s variety, including us, in our apparent superiority over the lesser creatures of the world?

Edwin Hubble answered the first, and Charles Darwin the second. They gave us something precious: the ability to conceptualize a world, a universe, a cosmos, as just what it is. A reality that explains itself, to those willing to put in the hard work of studying it, so that even in our immense ignorance, we are still capable of distinguishing the map from the territory.

Even today, as widespread as evolutionary acceptance is, while many religions become more progressive and attempt to integrate it into their worldview, there persists a stumble at the finish line, an insistence of some supernatural intervention on the part of humans, thus setting us intrinsically apart from the rest of naturally evolved life. This is done to preserve our sense of universal importance, our God-granted cosmic purpose, or to preserve specific fundamental aspects of the faith, such as “original sin.” But all it reveals is just how powerful this truth is, that it continues to make otherwise intelligent and accepting people flinch and ignore parts of it, often without even realizing that they’re doing it, or why it matters. Imagine trying to have such a difficult thought, in the world before anyone knew better?

Charles Darwin was one of the most important figures in human history. Like all scientific findings, his discovery would have been made by someone else if he hadn’t (and very nearly was), but he had not just the intelligence to discover the true mechanism of evolution, but also the courage to take what he saw as truth, and put his name on it, and invite the ridicule, scorn, and disbelief that it received. Almost all of modern medicine, our understanding of life’s diversity and origins, and the fundamental unity of our species and connection to the rest of the planet’s life, comes from his discoveries.

For that, I thank him, and I invite you all to as well.

As an addendum, for people who might wonder about Alfred Wallace not being mentioned despite his great contributions, I’ll quote this informative article:

Darwin always put the emphasis on selection acting on individuals whereas Wallace apparently thought selection acted on groups or species. That selection acts on the individual, due to competition between individuals of the same species, is one of the key points in Darwin’s theory. Whether selection acted for “the good of the group” or on individuals was debated for a long time. Now, however, it is generally accepted that Darwin was right and that selection acts primarily on individuals.

Another apparent difference is that Darwin emphasized competition within populations as the driving force for evolution, whereas Wallace put more emphasis on the species meeting the demands of a change in their environment. Wallace also seemingly disagreed with many of the terms Darwin coined. For example Wallace never appreciated the analogy between evolution and artificial selection which was one of Darwin’s key insights and the source of the term Natural Selection. Wallace even scored out natural selection from his copy of On the Origin of Species and wrote ‘survival of the fittest’ in its place.

In later years the two men differed on other points, for example Darwin invoked other processes than natural selection to explain the evolution of particular characteristics. One of Darwin’s other key theories is sexual selection, which he viewed as an incredibly important process. Wallace however thought its effects were negligible and put more emphasis on natural selection. In his book Darwinism Wallace proposed alternative explanations to many of Darwin’s examples of sexual selection. In the 1970s sexual selection received increased attention from biologists after a long period of being largely forgotten. Work since then has shown that Darwin was right; sexual selection is a key factor in the evolution of many traits.

Darwin and Wallace also disagreed on human evolution. For Darwin, all aspects of humans, including the emotions, conscious mind and intelligence could be explained by natural or sexual selection. By the late 1860s Wallace had become a Spiritualist, and perhaps linked to this, began to reject evolutionary explanations of human intelligence and abilities invoking ‘the unseen universe of Spirit’. This, he claimed, had intervened in the normal run of natural selection three times; at the creation of life, the introduction of consciousness, and the generation of man’s mental capacities.

Later in his life Wallace also believed in teleology; the idea that the development of the universe has had a direction and that direction is towards the perfection of man. There are suggestions that Wallace also applied his teleology to evolution. Darwin was clearly a bit perplexed by his former ally’s new views and at one point wrote to Wallace pleading with him not to kill ‘our baby’.

So yeah. In my view, while Wallace formed a similar theory, he was far less accurate in his specifics, and had far less data to prove his assertions. It’s not enough in science to be right but for the wrong reasons, and we should not lightly dismiss the spiritualist and supernatural insistence Wallace held onto when comparing which of the two great scientists was able to find a better approximation of truth.

Stormlight Archives

Spoilers below for Stormlight Archives (and some minor ones for Mistborn). Extra warning that this may mildly ruin the books for you even if you enjoy it, maybe, but I’m a strong believer in being able to look critically at things that I can still appreciate for other elements.

So there’s four main criticisms I have of the Stormlight Archives (maybe more that I’ve forgotten), not all of which are spread evenly over all three books. In fact the sequels get a lot better, by my reckoning, and may be worth reading through the first one to get to them. But hoo-boy, that first one’s got some problems, and I’ll try to highlight those as I go.

First off, the author cheats. He was bad about this in the Mistborn trilogy, and it’s no different here. For someone who’s codified the “laws” of how to write magic systems, you’d think he would be able to get through a book without pulling some new shit out of thin air to resolve a major conflict. Seriously, pretty much every single major conflict in Stormlight is resolved by a character suddenly having a philosophical breakthrough that gives them new superpowers. It’s fine to have superpowers tied to resolve or oaths or wisdom or whatever, but when there’s NO indication ahead of time of WHEN these can manifest, or WHAT those superpowers are, or who they work for and not work for… it may feel awesome the first time or two, but it quickly gets more and more cheap and anticlimatic once you see it coming. They start to feel like deus ex machina, which is complemented by all the diabolus ex machina that keep ratcheting up the stakes for cheap tension throughought the series. This may be the only one of these flaws that is actually not as bad in the first book as the later ones.

Second, and even worse, Sanderson hands Idiot Balls out like he’s playing Hot Potato. Why did it take three books for Adolin to use that nifty Shardblade-throwing technique he developed, despite multiple circumstances where it would have been the perfect solution to the problem he faced? Guess he just forgot about that. Why doesn’t anyone put two-and-two together about Elhokar’s mutterings about seeing spren, even after everyone was in the same place and talking about them? For that matter why didn’t he try saying the words just before the battle at Kholinar, rather than waiting until his life was in danger? It goes on and on, I could probably list a dozen in each book and still find more with a reread.

But the most egregious of Idiot Balls is in the first book, where Sanderson hands it to a god. The CENTRAL PLOT of book 1 ends up hinging on whether or not Dalinar could trust both his visions and Sadeas. He does a SMART thing by demanding the visions give him one clear answer to see if he can trust them, rather than vague and ominous statements. In return for his question of whether he can trust Sadeas, the vision says, unambiguously, “Yes.” Full stop. Followed by “This is important.” Full stop. Followed by some more vaguer comments that seem to tie in to trusting Sadeas.

And after Sadeas betrays him, he asks the visions why they lied, and finds out that they’re just recordings. That the god who sent them is dead, and this god somehow decided that randomly saying YES like they were ANSWERING A QUESTION was a smart thing to do. This would be bad enough on its own, but the fact that Sanderson wrote the story so that Dalinar would finally ask THAT question at just THAT moment to get THAT response is so infuriatingly hackneyed that I nearly stopped reading the series then and there. Because there were so many better, simple ways to have the same effect, and he should know better.

Third complaint is that a lot of the characters feel soulless in Way of Kings. This is a general problem I have with Sanderson’s writing, and YMMV, but I’ve talked to a lot of people about his books and this does not seem to be a unique view of mine. It definitely gets a LOT better in the sequels (in direct contrast to Mistborn, where the first book felt like its characters were more alive than in the later ones), but most of the Way of Kings feels like a slog in part because I just didn’t care about most of the characters. They don’t act like real people to me, they don’t seem to care enough about solving the problems they have, they talk like they’re reading scripts. The pacing here is part of the problem too: each of the different storylines feel like they take forever to get from point A to point C, and like you’re just rereading Point B again and again and again. How many times did we really need to read about Shallan agonizing over whether to steal the soulcaster, or Kaladin struggling with his depression, or Adolin being frustrated with his father? It feels like at least 1/3 of the book could be cut out without much loss.

Fourth complaint is a fairly niche one: Sanderson is not great at writing non-theists. Again, he gets a bit better with it in the sequels, but listening to Jasnah justify her atheism in book 1 made me want to pull my hair out with how canned and unconvincing her arguments were, especially coming from someone who the text keeps insisting is exceedingly brilliant. I can’t fault Sanderson for trying, he’s at least very clearly treating atheism with RESPECT, but I still can’t help but wish he found some better atheists to beta read and give feedback so he could better understand the epistemics that go into skepticism. Also I’m still wary Jasnah might eventually recant and realize the error of her ways, similar to what happened to Mistborn’s atheist.

So yeah, that’s it just off the top of my head. There’s certainly a lot to admire in the series, and I enjoyed the sequels more than the first book, so maybe it’s worth reading for that, but I’m not holding out hope for the author to get past these flaws overall. Despite his amazing skills in worldbuilding and designing magic systems, Sanderson has disappointed me too often for me to ever see him as some shining beacon of the fantasy genre that others seem to perceive him as.