At the edges where popular science and popular social criticism meet, with interesting if not always sharply limned...

THE HACKING OF THE AMERICAN MIND

THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE CORPORATE TAKEOVER OF OUR BODIES AND BRAINS

I want my MTV—and my doughnuts and my meth. Thus the American mind, racing to attain rewards that entire industries are glad to supply.

Lustig (Pediatric Endocrinology/Univ. of California, San Francisco; Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, 2012, etc.), the chief officer of the nonprofit EatREAL, has written widely on the obesity epidemic, particularly among younger Americans. Here, branching out into realms such as neuroscience, sociology, and even theology, he looks at the reward system whereby the brain lives and dies via serotonin, cortisol, and dopamine, chemicals that drive us to have that one piece of cake too many—or to smoke, snort cocaine, stare into our cellphones, and watch game shows. Medical specialists treat effects, he argues, whereas we should be looking into root causes: not just the chemistry of the brain, driven to seek reward and vulnerable to falling into addiction, but also the economic machine that creates vast industries devoted to choking processed foods with reward-delivering sugar and putting an opioid-supplying pharmacy on every street corner. That economic machine is massively parasitic and spectacularly successful. Lustig leaves it to readers to connect the dots—as he writes, early on, “I’m not going to stick my neck so far out as to say that there has been a conspiracy between different industries and the government to purposefully inflict malice on the public”—and there are plenty of dots to connect. With so much to condemn, the argument is sometimes loose and scattershot, but there’s a lot to write about in the vast subject of how the brain works and how capitalism aims to satisfy its every craving, no matter how harmful to body, mind, and society.

At the edges where popular science and popular social criticism meet, with interesting if not always sharply limned arguments.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-101-98258-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Avery

Review Posted Online: July 3, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2017

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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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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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