Philip Lieberman


On his book The Theory That Changed Everything: “On the Origin of Species” as a Work in Progress

Cover Interview of January 22, 2018

In a nutshell

Charles Darwin’s 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, is often cited but hardly ever read. My book presents the observations and the concepts that he actually proposed because they continue to guide research in the twenty-first century; and suggests how we should deal with issues of general concern.

Darwin’s explanation of Natural Selection, the key mechanism of his theory, cannot be improved on. Darwin wrote:

[A]ny variation, however slight, and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to its physical conditions of life, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally by inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving […]. I have called this principle, by which each small variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection. (On the Origin of Species, p. 61)

Darwin thought that Natural Selection acted slowly. The facts that demonstrate that it can act rapidly were not then known. However, he knew that abrupt transitions had occurred. His solution was “recycling”: an organ that had evolved for one purpose could be modified to serve a new end. Swim-bladders that allowed fish to hover had turned into lungs. Current studies show that brain mechanisms that evolved for motor control now enhance human cognition and language. Neural structures involved in the early stages of vision play a part in recalling memories.

Darwin borrowed from his grandfather Erasmus the premise that the development of an organism could provide insights on its evolution—the basis for current “Evo-Devo” studies. Although the role of genes was then buried in an obscure journal and DNA was discovered a century later, Darwin proposed that the environment could directly produce heritable effects. “Epigenetic” DNA that does not specify genes, govern the processes that yield brains and bodies. These processes explain why we don’t look like or generally act like chimpanzees though we share almost 99% of our genes with them. Some epigenetic processes are directly affected by environmental factors; your grandmother’s diet can lower your lifespan by 30 years.

The opening scenes of documentaries showing lions tearing apart their prey have little to do with Darwin’s “struggle for existence.” He devoted chapters to describe how different species profitably interact to enhance survival. Darwin stressed the interplay between ecosystems and biological evolution as well as the unintended consequences of human intervention. And he was one of the first practitioners of the modern “scientific method”—running experiments to confirm, modify, or reject a theory. His pigeon breeding experiment showed that “fancy” pigeons, thought to be distinct species, had descended from the common rock pigeons you see on city streets.

Darwin’s theory will become clear in examples drawn from his work, On the Origin of Species, what’s on the shelves of your supermarket, and current research including my own. And there will no need to google to decipher jargon.



Lynn Keller


On her book Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene

Cover Interview of January 15, 2018

In a nutshell

Recomposing Ecopoetics examines 21st-century poetry by a dozen Americans and Canadians who are engaging in their poems with the environmental challenges we currently face. It is, then, a work of environmental literary criticism—or ecocriticism, as it is called in academic circles.

Earlier ecocritical work on poetry focused almost exclusively on nature writing. In the contemporary American context, it attended to poems by Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, and others that depict a seemingly timeless solace found in tranquil rural landscapes or sublime wild ones. Such poetry can connect readers with natural realms that we should indeed value—places worth preserving for their aesthetic or spiritual value as well as their biological importance. However, such poetry’s vision of an essentially unchanging natural world to which one may always escape is in crucial ways inadequate to our present situation of dramatic and often irreversible environmental transformation.

Consequently, my ecocritical study focuses not on soothing or celebratory nature writing but on poetry that reflects a keen awareness of human impact on the planet and of nature’s entanglement in culture. The poetry examined here confronts the homogenization of landscape by extraction industries across the world, explores the impact of toxic chemicals on human and non-human animal bodies, considers the emotional and intellectual challenges of coming to grips with human-induced climate change, attempts to approach the perspectives of the nonhumans with whom humans share an increasingly uninhabitable planet, reminds readers of the inequitable distribution of the benefits and costs of environmental changes associated with industrialization, or juggles a fear of impending environmental apocalypse with hope for its prevention.

Much of this poetry is experimental in its approaches to poetic form and language. Its experimentalism reflects the poets’ hopes that expanding the conventions of literary form or linguistic intelligibility may help push us toward new conceptual structures alternative to the ways of thinking that got us into the environmental mess in which we find ourselves. If I have a particular gift as a literary critic, it is in reading difficult poetry, and my hope is that this book will make difficult yet intellectually and emotionally rich poems accessible to my readers, generating in them an appreciation for this poetry that mirrors my own.



Michael J. Ryan


On his book A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction

Cover Interview of January 08, 2018

In a nutshell

Stunning beauty abounds in nature. We see it everywhere we look. The brilliant colors and dances of butterflies and fishes, the songs of crickets, frogs, and birds, and even the odors of moths and mammals are all part of nature’s astounding collage of beauty. We humans are so attracted to animal beauty that we domesticate it for our own enjoyment. The multi-hued fishes in aquariums and melodious canaries in cages provide live art and music in our homes, much as we hang paintings on our walls and broadcast tunes from our stereos.

But animals did not evolve beauty to please us; their aim is to please their own. Indeed, the most stunning beauty in nature is tied up in sex, as animals evolve beautiful and often elaborate traits in order to make themselves more attractive as mates, thereby increasing their reproductive success—this is the theory of sexual selection, first articulated by Darwin.

Darwin puzzled over how animals judge and perceive beauty. Why do animals perceive certain traits as beautiful and others not? Do animals possess an inherent sexual aesthetic? Where is this aesthetic rooted? What might unlocking the mysteries of sexual aesthetics tell us about the evolution of beautiful traits and our own perception and appreciation of beauty?

In this book, I argue that beauty is determined by what is happening in the brain. In short, beauty is in the brain of the beholder! Drawing on recent studies in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, I argue that sexual aesthetics are rooted in the brain—specifically the female brain—and that many of the details of what we find beautiful actually derive from other things the brain evolved to do. I describe what it is about the senses, the brain, and its cognitive architecture that leads to an appreciation for beauty among animals, including humans.



Andrew Feenberg


On his book Technosystem: The Social Life of Reason

Cover Interview of December 18, 2017

In a nutshell

Technosystem: The Social Life of Reason is a philosophical reflection on the technified world in which we live. Ours is a world of technical systems designed in accordance with technical disciplines and operated by personnel trained in those disciplines. This is a unique form of social organization that largely determines our way of life. Technosystem builds a theory of both the threats of technocratic modernity and the potential for democratic change.

Technosystem draws on the tradition of social criticism represented by Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School. These radical thinkers recognized the dystopian implications of the generalization of instrumental rationality but they did not advance a convincing alternative to the new forms of domination imposed by rational systems. That is the contribution of the empirically informed approaches of Science, Technology, and Society Studies (STS). Technosystem uses these approaches to reconcile the new power of rationality with the agency of a public increasingly mobilized to intervene in technical life. In STS this is called “co-production.” The application of this concept in Technosystem recognizes emerging forms of resistance, such as protests and hacking, as essential expressions of public life in the “rational society.”

Combining the most salient insights from critical theory with the empirical findings of STS, Technosystem advances the philosophical debate over the nature and practice of reason in modern society. The book offers lucid explanations of the theories of leading figures in both traditions. Neither tradition is sufficient by itself but together they offer deep insight into contemporary experience in technologically advanced societies.



Bryan W. Van Norden


On his book Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto

Cover Interview of December 11, 2017

In a nutshell

Issues of inclusiveness and cultural identity are at the center of contemporary debates in fields from politics to entertainment. Many educators have been accused of succumbing to “political correctness” for teaching a multicultural curriculum. However, Western philosophers overwhelmingly insist on teaching only the philosophical traditions that grow out of Greece and Rome. Are they right to dismiss the thought of China, India, Africa, and the Indigenous People of the Americas as “not really philosophy?” No! In Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, I show that contemporary Western philosophers are wrong to ignore philosophy that is outside of the Anglo-European canon.

Western philosophers didn’t always have such a narrow-minded perspective. During the early Enlightenment (17th century), European philosophers took for granted that philosophy originated in either India or Africa, not Greece. When the sayings of Confucius were first translated into a European language, he was hailed as a great philosopher. However, influential philosophers like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that the racial characteristics of Chinese, Indians, Africans, and Indigenous Americans made them incapable of producing philosophy. “The race of the whites contains all talents and motives in itself,” Kant proclaimed. Although almost no contemporary philosopher would explicitly endorse such views, their influence lingers in structural racism.

The structural racism of philosophy is evident in the fact that only 15% of doctoral programs in philosophy in the US teach any philosophy outside the Anglo-European mainstream. Contrast this with China, where every philosophy department teaches both Chinese and Western philosophy. A further indication of structural racism is the shocking willingness of leading philosophers to state that there is no philosophy outside the West—even when they admit that they have never read any of it!

Readers will reasonably want evidence that there is vibrant philosophy outside the Anglo-European mainstream. I provide detailed but easily understandable examples of how Buddhist philosophers can be brought into dialogue with the seminal French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) on the nature of the self, and how Confucian philosophers can productively engage with Western political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

My book is not just about academic curriculum, though. It shows how these issues tie into broader topics in politics and culture. I discuss how Trump’s desire to build a literal wall between the US and Mexico is part of a larger political movement to build metaphorical walls between races, religions, and cultures. Something similar is happening in China, where President Xi Jinping has appropriated Confucianism as the basis for a nationalistic revival of “Chineseness.” (This is one of the reasons we in the US need to learn about what Confucianism is!) US philosophers, including ones who consider themselves politically progressive, are unwittingly allying themselves with these same forces of ethnocentrism and xenophobia that they abhor in politics.

Finally, I address the anti-intellectualism that claims philosophy is a waste of time. I illustrate with numerous examples the contributions that philosophy has made to the development of civilization. I also show that the study of philosophy contributes significantly to solid vocational goals. Finally, I argue that, in an era of “fake news,” we need the skills of careful reasoning and civil argumentation more than ever before.



Susan L. Marquis


On her book I Am Not a Tractor! How Florida Farmworkers Took On the Fast Food Giants and Won

Cover Interview of December 04, 2017

In a nutshell

I Am Not A Tractor! is about the courage, vision, and creativity of the farmworkers and community leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), who have transformed what had been the worst agricultural situation in the United States to one of the best. Florida’s tomato fields have long been known for abuses that included toxic pesticide exposure, beatings, sexual assault, rampant wage theft, and even, astonishingly, modern-day slavery. In the past seven years, violence has largely disappeared, working conditions are now safe, worker pay has increased by as much as 60%, and there has been but one (quickly identified and prosecuted) reported case of slavery. And all of this has happened without new legislation, regulation, or government participation. Tractor! answers the question, Why has this effort succeeded when so many other “social responsibility” and labor reform efforts have failed?

Who are the people who imagined and led this effort? A teenage immigrant from Mexico whose standoff with a violent crew box was a first step to co-founding the CIW; a man who was a neuroscience major at Brown who takes great pride in the watermelon crew he’s on; a leading farmer/grower who was once homeless, pushing a shopping cart on the streets of LA; a woman who began working just with the farmworker community in Immokalee and now, as part of that same work, trains law enforcement, diplomatic, and criminal justice officials in identifying and eliminating modern-day slavery; and a retired New York State judge who volunteered to stuff envelopes and ended up building a ground-breaking institution. These are the people who have built the Coalition and the Fair Food Program that changed the lives of more than 30,000 field workers and are offering a solution to a problem with long roots in our nation’s slave history and continuing conflict over immigration.

The reason I wrote I Am Not A Tractor! is because I wanted to get at the big questions of not only what the Coalition has accomplished but how they did it, what they’ve achieved, why the Fair Food Program has worked, and what this tells us about effective social change.



Tsuyoshi Hasegawa


On his book Crime and Punishment in the Russian Revolution: Mob Justice and Police in Petrograd

Cover Interview of November 26, 2017

In a nutshell

The story of the Russian Revolution has more often been told from the perspective of the active participants in the revolution, whether they were the leaders of political groups or social groups who actively participated in the revolutionary process. Rarely has it been told from the perspective of ordinary people who were swept up in the process of revolutionary change. This book examines how the revolution affected ordinary people and, in turn, how their reaction influenced the course of events.

There was euphoric excitement after the February Revolution. Having acquired freedom and equality, people expected life to improve immediately. But life only got worse. Electricity and the water supply dwindled, and soon stopped. Garbage piled up in the streets and courtyards, uncollected. The city stunk so bad that newspapers commented that even an elephant would faint. Worst of all, basic food became scarce. People stood for hours in long queues for a mere loaf of bread. Horses, dead from starvation, lay strewn about in the city’s major streets, and signs were posted not to eat dead horses. Dogs disappeared, ending up in people’s stomachs. Epidemics spread, and hospitals were overwhelmed.

As horrible as this all was, the most frightening change was the sharp rise of crime, especially violent crime. The tsar was gone and with the tsar the tsarist police was also annihilated. The newly created municipal police, inexperienced and untrained, was infiltrated by former criminals. Pickpockets became muggers. Robbers became murderers. People believed that merchants were taking advantage of shortages and the economic decline to the detriment of a population already suffering from rationing and deprivation. An ugly specter of anti-Semitism reared its head in the mob justice against merchants.

The old court system was paralyzed, and temporary new courts passed erratic verdicts without solid legal basis. Soon, even the temporary courts were abolished, leaving the citizens nowhere to go to lodge their complaints. Likewise, the prison system broke down, leading to mass escapes and returning criminals to the streets.

How did people react to all this?

Longing for order and security that political authorities could not provide, people took the law into their own hands. Crowds turned to mob justice. When witnessing a crime, people attempted to catch the thieves, even petty thieves, then surrounded the perpetrators, and there on the spot, beat them up, kicked them, sometimes even tearing their limbs, or shot them point-blank, or paraded them through the streets, tied them to carts, and then often ended the punishment by throwing them into the canals and rivers to enjoy watching them drown.

Mob justice was not merely an expression of rage against criminals and speculators. This was an expression of the frustration and anger of ordinary people felt about deteriorating life in general. This brutal violence is one of the most prominent, frightening, and often ignored aspects of the Russian Revolution. The revolution brought out the worst of human emotions—hatred, cruelty, brutality, and vengeance.

It is important to recognize that the Bolsheviks approved and often encouraged this breakdown of social order. Lenin in fact thought mob justice was the expression of justifiable popular anger against the bourgeois order.

When they came to power, the Bolsheviks were blissfully ignorant about the necessity to maintain public order. Carried away with their utopian vision, they assumed that all they had to do was to dismantle the old bourgeois militia and replace it with proletarian universal militia. But things went from bad to worse under the Bolsheviks. Both crime and mob justice grew in size and cruelty. Moreover, under the Bolsheviks, a new element of mob violence was added: alcohol pogroms. Mobs began to attack wine and vodka cellars in November and December. The most violent raid took place in the wine cellars of the Winter Palace, where the cellars turned into a sea of wine. Many were drowned to death. A Bolshevik high official helplessly observed that the Bolshevik power was drowning in a sea of wine and vodka.

To deal with this unprecedented social breakdown, the Bolsheviks resorted to draconian measures. The Red Guards were ordered to shoot and kill any criminals on the spot. This stop-gap measure proved no deterrence to criminals. Having exhausted all measures to create a new proletarian police system, the Bolsheviks finally proclaimed all common crimes be identified as political counterrevolutionary acts to be dealt with by the Cheka—an extralegal secret police without any institutional checks. The Bolsheviks’ dealing with crime, mob justice, and alcohol pogroms thus became one of the most important steps toward the establishment of the totalitarian state.


J. C. Sharman


On his book The Despot's Guide to Wealth Management: On the International Campaign against Grand Corruption

Cover Interview of November 20, 2017

In a nutshell

Twenty years ago, if a leader from a country like Nigeria looted billions of dollars from his own country and stashed the money in the United States, the US had no moral or legal duty to do anything about it. Now, however, there is an international, moral, and legal rule prohibiting one country from hosting money stolen by the leader of another country. In response, the book asks three questions. First, why is there a new prohibition on hosting foreign corruption proceeds? Second, how well does this new rule work? Third, given that there is still a lot of this kind of dirty money crossing borders, how could we make this rule more effective?

Most studies of corruption are about how money is taken; this book is about where it ends up. The kind of corruption I am interested in is kleptocracy. Literally, in a ‘rule by thieves,’ leaders and their families take huge sums of money from the countries they rule, often further impoverishing some of the poorest populations in the world. Usually, most of this money does not stay at home. Instead, corrupt rulers either spend or stash their ill-gotten gains in places like London, New York, or Switzerland. The new rules aim to break this cycle of looting, laundering, and under-development by following the money trail, seizing illicit wealth, and trying to return it to the victims.

In The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management, I argue that the new rules to counter kleptocracy potentially represent a huge change. Many, perhaps most, state leaders are corrupt, so the world effort to hold them accountable is a sea-change in the conduct of diplomacy and international politics. But the gnawing doubt is that the rules aren’t really working. Leaders are continuing to steal, and their tainted funds are still ending up in the four host countries that I studied in detail: the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Australia.



Daryn Lehoux


On his book Creatures Born of Mud and Slime: The Wonder and Complexity of Spontaneous Generation

Cover Interview of November 13, 2017

In a nutshell

The planet we live on is positively crawling with life. There is not a nook or a cranny, it sometimes seems, where we don’t find some odd species of worm, some crawling slime or microscopic organism. Again and again, we drill or submerse or dig and we find new kinds of life, farther down than we thought possible, colder than we thought possible, hotter, more acidic, weirder.

Every one of those plants and animals and prokaryotes and whatnot—every single one of them—came into existence from another of their kind. Some reproduce sexually, some by budding, some by division, but all from a parent organism more or less identical to them. As we run backwards in geological time, however, this great chain of living things must have had some first beginning, some origin, that did not involve a parent of the same—or indeed of any—species. Living things, now, may all come from parents of one sort or another, but life itself had, once upon a time, an absolute beginning. Matter that was utterly nonliving somehow turned into matter that was now living. Perhaps just once or at any rate not often, but one time at a minimum, somewhere and somewhen in the cosmos, a living thing must have just come into existence. Pop.

But this is a very new way of thinking. From antiquity to the Middle Ages, from Aristotle on past Vesalius, Galileo, Newton, and after even Darwin, it appeared that this kind of thing, life from non-life, happened all the time. Maggots, famously, but also eels, bees, mice and sometimes even people—think about that—just sprang into existence from putrefying, dead matter. True, the list of organisms took some hits over time, eventually whittling down to just microorganisms or a few parasites like liver flukes, but the idea that life could come from non-life, regularly and routinely, was a remarkably hard one for us to shake.

Why is that?

This book argues that one of the main reasons is that the evidence for spontaneous generation is, when you look hard at it, really quite good. There is a reason spontaneous generation was a fact for so long: it stands up to testing—and very, very good testing—remarkably well.

By diving in to the debates around spontaneous generation as they unfolded historically, this book raises some important philosophical questions about what it means to do science, to understand nature. From its earliest articulation in Aristotle, all the way to the end of its plausibility as a fact about the world, we find that the problems posed by spontaneous generation provoked some very good, very hard thinking about what life was and how it could possibly come to be from nonliving matter. This is no easy problem, in fact. This story is emphatically not one of primitive thinkers failing to see the simple evidence, the easy tests (just cover the vials! Just boil the solutions!), right before their eyes. Not at all. Instead what we find is a long series of remarkably intelligent approaches to the evidence for spontaneous generation, struggling to figure out which animals might come to be in this way, and even more importantly: How?



George Hawley


On his book Making Sense of the Alt-Right

Cover Interview of November 06, 2017

In a nutshell

This book traces the antecedents, origins, major figures, and tactics of the white nationalist movement commonly known as the Alt-Right. Although the Alt-Right’s ideology is not new, it is much more effective at drawing attention and converts than its recent predecessors. We can primarily attribute the Alt-Right’s success to its skillful use of the internet, which it effectively used to inject itself into the national conversation. Breaking from earlier manifestations of white nationalism, the Alt-Right embraced an ironic, transgressive tone that appealed to many disaffected white millennials. The internet also allowed the movement to grow because it allows white nationalists to maintain anonymity; most of the people creating and consuming Alt-Right material remain anonymous, which keeps them generally safe from the social ostracization that often follows open and explicit expressions of racism.

Given its current high profile, a number of authors have recently released books on this subject; several more are in the pipeline. Mine is unique in that it relies predominantly on the Alt-Right itself for insights. That is, I carefully read the Alt-Right’s material, going back to its birth in 2008. I additionally interviewed dozens of people affiliated with the Alt-Right, including its leading figures and minor players that spread their message via anonymous Twitter accounts.

The Alt-Right has confused many people. Because of its ironic tone and use of humor, it was not always clear if the Alt-Right was sincerely committed to its rhetoric on race, or if it was just a group of nihilistic pranksters that enjoyed needling progressive pieties. The relationship between the Alt-Right and the broader movement supporting Donald Trump is also often ambiguous. Well-known provocateurs – such as Milo Yiannopoulos – who served as a bridge between the Alt-Right and mainstream politics added an additional layer of complexity. This book clarifies the subject.

In the book, I presented the material as dispassionately as I could. I wanted to keep it short, and mostly free from polemics; I trusted readers to make sound judgments without lengthy diatribes from me. I did not downplay the Alt-Right’s radicalism, but I also did not exaggerate its influence on American politics and society. My goal was to shed some light on one small element of our strange and disruptive political moment.



Brooks E. Hefner


On his book The Word on the Streets: The American Language of Vernacular Modernism

Cover Interview of October 30, 2017

In a nutshell

The Word on the Streets is a book, first and foremost, about slang: how slang and vernacular language gain purchase as experimental and self-conscious forms in American literature. The book charts how a variety of popular genres underwent a transformation in the early twentieth century, as authors began to see slang as a way of reformulating their respective genres’ aesthetic practices. This reformulation, I argue, is a part of what we understand as literary modernism, that multifaceted movement that famously sought to “make it new” in all aspects of the arts. Central to these modernist goals was the self-conscious alienation of language, which could take forms from stream of consciousness narration to the impenetrable incorporation of ancient languages and neologisms.

Modernism also defined itself against commercial art (or “mass culture” as critics like Andreas Huyssen would have it), though scholars in recent years have been quick to note that even these difficult texts participated in a specialized market. So, it’s become easy to see how modernist giants like Gertrude Stein or William Faulkner crossed the line into commercial zones. But scholars have been reluctant to imagine any of that “mass culture” as crossing the line into self-conscious literary experimentation. This is where The Word on the Streets comes in. In the early twentieth century, popular writers in a wide variety of genres began to understand slang and vernacular language as a way to experiment with new forms of representation, to raise questions about knowledge, and to challenge entrenched boundaries based on race, class, and ethnicity.

The “vernacular modernism” of my subtitle refers to this loose aggregation of writers, working in wildly different popular traditions, who turn to slang and vernacular language(s) to enact a kind of experimental transformation within their received genres. This practice is contemporaneous with a growth of scholarly and popular interest in the so-called “American language” (best exemplified by H.L. Mencken’s magnum opus of the same name). But it goes far beyond any kind of linguistic standardization: multi-ethnic and cross-class slang was a moving target during this period, and Mencken claimed that this “American language” was defined by its “steady reaching out for new and vivid forms.”

The vernacular modernist writers I examine include humor writers, crime fiction writers, Jewish American memoirists, and African American urban novelists. They were published in middlebrow and lowbrow venues for popular audiences, but nearly every one of them grazed the boundaries of capital-M Modernism. In The Word on the Streets I hope to give these writers their due and to shatter the (often unspoken) presumption in modernist studies that popular writers are not really worthy of close formalist analysis. I also hope to provide a way for thinking about American modernist practices that cuts across traditional boundaries of race, class, and ethnicity.



E. Fuller Torrey


On his book Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods: Early Humans and the Origins of Religion

Cover Interview of October 23, 2017

In a nutshell

Based on an idea originally proposed by Charles Darwin, Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods argues that the emergence of gods was an incidental consequence of several evolutionary factors. Using data ranging from ancient skulls and archeological artifacts to child development, primate studies and brain imaging, the book traces how our evolving brain gave rise to new cognitive abilities that in turn produced new behaviors. Ultimately these new cognitive abilities led to the emergence of gods.

For example, approximately 1.8 million years ago a new hominin, Homo erectus, emerged. This hominin made better stone tools than its predecessors, made spears for hunting animals, controlled fire, and migrated halfway around the world. It is likely that Homo erectus had developed self-awareness. This cognitive ability may be a product of a special neuron that is found predominantly in human brain areas known to be associated with self-awareness. Intriguingly, this special neuron has also been found in smaller numbers in the brains of bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, elephants and dolphins, all of which have demonstrated rudimentary self-awareness using mirrors. It has not been found in animals that have shown no self-awareness.

Similarly, approximately 40,000 years ago modern Homo sapiens began exhibiting an extraordinary range of new behaviors in painted caves, burials with grave goods, musical instruments, improved tools and weapons, memory devices – an outpouring of human creativity without precedent. It is likely that Homo sapiens had developed an autobiographical memory, the ability to relive past events emotionally, and use that information to plan the future. Humans had essentially conquered time, giving them a tremendous advantage over all other hominins. Soon Homo sapiens would stand alone as the last surviving hominin.

However, autobiographical memory was a two-edged sword. Once Homo sapiens could project himself into the future he became aware for the first time that he would die. Overwhelmed by this knowledge, he created an afterlife and peopled it with his ancestors. This ultimately led to ancestor worship. As people came together in towns and cities during the subsequent agricultural revolution, the ancestors were arranged in a hierarchy with the most powerful ultimately becoming the first gods.



Emily Skidmore


On her book True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Cover Interview of October 16, 2017

In a nutshell

True Sex discusses the lives of eighteen individuals who were assigned female at birth but who lived as male in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. By looking closely at their lives, I argue that much of what we think we know about queer history in America is not true.

I uncover a past where everyday Americans frequently encountered newspaper stories about “female husbands” and other gender transgressors, and where trans men lived in communities, large and small, throughout the nation. Perhaps most surprising of all, my book reveals that non-metropolitan spaces could be tolerant of trans men, as long as those men conformed to the normative expectations of masculinity. As long as they were economically productive, law-abiding, supportive husbands, and helpful neighbors, their masculinity was valued, not derided. Perhaps unsurprisingly, trans men of color found such tolerance more difficult to come by, and often found their best bet was to try to pass as white in order to attain the privileges of whiteness, including the presumption of innocence.

Much of True Sex challenges what we might assume transgender history looks like. Often, as Americans, we tell ourselves that our history is one of consistent improvement; that while things may have been hard in the past, they are always getting better (e.g., while slavery exists as a blight on our nation’s past, it was followed by Emancipation, and eventually Civil Rights). Given this frame of reference, we might expect that transgender people in the past experienced much worse treatment than they receive today. Yet, my book reveals many cases of trans men who were able to find tolerance instead of condemnation.

One such example is the case of George Green. Green was assigned female at birth in Ireland around 1833. He emigrated to the United States in 1865, and two years later, married a young woman in Erie, Pennsylvania. The pair moved East, and finally settled in the rural town of Ettrick, Virginia, where George worked as a farm hand. The couple was well-respected in the community—a community that appeared genuinely shocked when, after George died suddenly in 1902, neighbors discovered the body lacked the traditional markers of masculine anatomy. However, their shock did not translate into condemnation, and George’s life was positively memorialized in local newspapers. He was celebrated for having been a hard worker, a kind husband, and generous neighbor. In addition, his funeral was held in the local Catholic Church, and his body was buried in the parish cemetery—two actions which attest to the fact that the people of Ettrick were willing to stand by their queer neighbor in life and in death.

Green’s story, and the stories of the other trans men in my book, force us to confront the progressive narrative of history, and think more critically about transphobia that exists in present-day America.



Brandon L. Garrett


On his book End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice

Cover Interview of October 09, 2017

In a nutshell

End of its Rope explores why the death penalty in America unexpectedly faded away.

Twenty years ago, death sentencing was at its modern height. Across the Southern “death belt,” death sentences and executions were common. The death penalty was popular, as opinion polls showed, and politicians understood well.

Suddenly, this cycle of punishment began to slow down. The story of this great decline of death penalties in America teaches important lessons for all involved in the effort to reduce mass incarceration.

In 2016, just thirty-one people were sentenced to death in the entire country. If you look back at the mid-1990s, by way of contrast, several hundred people were sentenced to death in as many as two hundred counties per year. Executions are fading fast too. Only twenty people were executed in 2016.

In this book, I explain what changed. I draw on death penalty trials across the country, from high-profile cases like the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting trial, to small-town trials in Virginia and North Carolina that only made local news.

Increasingly, juries are rejecting the death penalty, even in cases of serious murders. Increasingly, they are hearing mental health evidence and background evidence that causes them to vote for mercy for convicted murderers. Those decisions have changed the shape of the American death penalty and represent a sea change in our attitudes towards criminal punishment.



Philip E. Auerswald


On his book The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand Year History

Cover Interview of October 02, 2017

In a nutshell

The Code Economy is a book about the past and likely future of human progress. My aim in writing it was to combine history with economics to explain how human societies have evolved over the span of millennia. At a time when concern about the future impacts of technological advances seems to grow daily, better understanding long-term trends is important because it helps us anticipate the future. I draw from the work of some of the great thinkers of the past four centuries who shared a deep interest in understanding the “how” of human productive activity: Gottfried Leibniz, Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, Claude Shannon, and Herbert Simon.

In the book, I use the word “code” to refer to the instructions and algorithms that guide production in the economy, or, how ideas become things. To convey the intuitive meaning of the concept I intend to communicate with the word “code,” as well as its breadth, I use two specific and carefully selected words interchangeably with code: “technology” and “recipe.”

The first half of the word “technology” derives from techné (τέχνη), which signifies “art, craft, or trade.” The second half derives from the word logos (λόγος), which signifies an “ordered account” or “reasoned discourse.” Thus, technology literally means “an ordered account of art, craft, or trade”— in other words, broadly speaking, a recipe.

The culinary recipe is not merely a metaphor for the how of production; the recipe is, rather, the most literal and direct example of code as I use the word. Anthropological research suggests that culinary recipes were the earliest and among the most transformative technologies employed by humans.

We have understood for some time that cooking accelerated human evolution by substantially increasing the nutrients absorbed in the stomach and small intestine. However, recent research suggests that human ancestors were using recipes to prepare food to dramatic effect as early as two million years ago—even before we learned to control fire and began cooking, which occurred about 400,000 years ago. Simply slicing meats and pounding tubers (such as yams), as was done by our earliest ancestors, turns out to yield digestive advantages that are comparable to those realized by cooking. Cooked or raw, increased nutrient intake enabled us to evolve smaller teeth and chewing muscles and even a smaller gut than our ancestors or primate cousins. These evolutionary adaptations in turn supported the development of humans’ larger, energy-hungry brain.

The first recipes—code at work—literally made humans what we are today.

That’s where the code economy begins.