Gourmet reading—rich in ideas, global references and amusing and provocative examples, served with great style.



The mother-son co-authors of Chances Are…: Adventures in Probability (2006) turn their considerable authorial skills and wit to human behavior, from our isolated cave-dwelling ancestors to today’s globalized, interconnected world.

Humans make a lot of mistakes, write documentarian Michael and archaeologist Ellen (co-author: Out of the Labyrinth: Setting Mathematics Free, 2007, etc.). Rather than use logic and reason, our brains are hardwired to make snap judgments, go with gut feelings, surrender to passions and celebrate our in-group as Us and dislike others as Them. It’s all part of the adaptability mechanisms that favored cooperation and sharing among small hunter-gatherer groups and wariness, if not fear, of unknown Others. Much of this behavior can be found in other primates as well—along with strategies for getting along, resolving conflict and overthrowing leaders who become too powerful. Before expanding on the tenets of evolutionary biology, the authors offer a timely discussion of behavioral economics, including flawed logic, the failure to apply rules of probability and the irrational exuberance underlying the current economic meltdown. They also include some nifty new vocabulary—“hyperbolic discounting” describes the never-have-to-pay thinking that drives credit-card spending; “availability heuristic” describes the tale that a Ponzi schemer tells to explain his financial genius; and so on. Our beliefs and our errors, write the Kaplans, derive from the complexity of the brain, a parallel processor with myriad connections linking visceral, emotional and rational parts. These enable us to construct our idiosyncratic perceptions of the world—which are susceptible to illusions—but they are also hardwired to read gestures and facial expressions common to all cultures, as well as interpret notions of civility and fairness. The authors discuss how concepts of morality and justice have developed, and the last chapters concentrate on the dilemmas of life, love, marriage and child-rearing in modern society. In a world grown enormously complex, culture may be our salvation, giving us the tools to create new explanations when we err, and in so doing enable us to rewrite our history and survive.

Gourmet reading—rich in ideas, global references and amusing and provocative examples, served with great style.

Pub Date: May 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-59691-400-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2009

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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 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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This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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