For serious students of neurobiology as well as readers interested in philosophical questions of mind and body.

THE BIOLOGICAL MIND

HOW BRAIN, BODY, AND ENVIRONMENT COLLABORATE TO MAKE US WHO WE ARE

What is the brain? If you answered by describing what the brain does, then this well-crafted overview may not be your cup of gray matter.

The devil may not make us do things, but peer pressure, illness, addiction, and the health of our wallets certainly do. Jasanoff, the director of the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering, begins his account by stating that his chief interest lies more in “what the brain is rather than what it does.” Though he allows some operational description along the way, he arrives at a suitably open-ended definition: the brain is “a transit point for myriad influences that work jointly on us and through us.” So, the brain is an organ that perceives and organizes perception, but there is a difference between brain and mind, a distinction between what is innate in the physical being and what comes in from the outside world. The definition is biologically grounded, and in that regard, one of the fascinating branches of the author’s discussion concerns the evidence for the notion that an organ or tissue transplant might “change a person’s mind or personality” beyond the obvious one of having a new lease on life. The text can get a touch dense, for matters such as “body-wide emotional responses” and “ventromedial prefrontal cortex damage” resist easy reduction to pop science. Still, Jasanoff writes with admirable clarity as he argues that the modern tendency of neuroscience to take a “brain-centered view” that overlooks external sources of behavior can lead to epistemological dead ends. For instance, if the mere fact of having a brain explains all the things we do, can we hold anyone accountable for crime—anyone, that is, other than the brain itself? The question opens onto a consideration of the brain of the mass shooter Charles Whitman, who suddenly seems a timely presence considering all the mischief brains get into these days.

For serious students of neurobiology as well as readers interested in philosophical questions of mind and body.

Pub Date: March 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-465-05268-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Jan. 9, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

THE LAWS OF HUMAN NATURE

A follow-on to the author’s garbled but popular 48 Laws of Power, promising that readers will learn how to win friends and influence people, to say nothing of outfoxing all those “toxic types” out in the world.

Greene (Mastery, 2012, etc.) begins with a big sell, averring that his book “is designed to immerse you in all aspects of human behavior and illuminate its root causes.” To gauge by this fat compendium, human behavior is mostly rotten, a presumption that fits with the author’s neo-Machiavellian program of self-validation and eventual strategic supremacy. The author works to formula: First, state a “law,” such as “confront your dark side” or “know your limits,” the latter of which seems pale compared to the Delphic oracle’s “nothing in excess.” Next, elaborate on that law with what might seem to be as plain as day: “Losing contact with reality, we make irrational decisions. That is why our success often does not last.” One imagines there might be other reasons for the evanescence of glory, but there you go. Finally, spin out a long tutelary yarn, seemingly the longer the better, to shore up the truism—in this case, the cometary rise and fall of one-time Disney CEO Michael Eisner, with the warning, “his fate could easily be yours, albeit most likely on a smaller scale,” which ranks right up there with the fortuneteller’s “I sense that someone you know has died" in orders of probability. It’s enough to inspire a new law: Beware of those who spend too much time telling you what you already know, even when it’s dressed up in fresh-sounding terms. “Continually mix the visceral with the analytic” is the language of a consultant’s report, more important-sounding than “go with your gut but use your head, too.”

The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-42814-5

Page Count: 580

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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