Cover of Exercised by Daniel Lieberman

Exercise in the modern world has been commodified. The people talking about it the most are some of the least trustworthy. Daniel Lieberman has taken a step back from the fitness-industrial complex and asked the elephantine question: Are homo sapiens even supposed to exercise? Through the lenses of anthropology and evolution, he has untangled exercise from modern culture. The result is an enlightening journey through history, civilization, and biology.

It is common knowledge that exercise is good for you, but how much? What kind? What about dieting? What about strength? What about weight? Lieberman addresses nearly every aspect of exercise and fitness with clarity and thoroughness. By asking deeper questions, he surprisingly comes to simpler answers. He takes us on a grand tour of human activity, dispels common myths, and distills it all to a simple prescription. Lieberman’s enthusiasm for this topic comes through clearly. It would be hard not to put this book down and go for a walk or a run if this book were not so hard to put down. From surviving pre-industrial peoples to disease and aging, Lieberman puts moving our bodies in context. It’s inspiring, informative, and just plain amazing.

If you have a body, this book is relevant to you. It is both liberating and imprisoning; exercise is not nearly as complicated as the people selling stuff say it is, but it is a very good idea.

Cover of Breath by James Nestor

History is a funny thing. We like to think that civilization advances, that progress only goes in one direction, but reality is more complex than that. New things are learned, discoveries are made, truths uncovered, but just because someone somewhere learns something doesn’t mean everyone everywhere hears about it or remembers it. In Breath, Nestor has done some invaluable detective work; looking closely at something we all do every minute of our lives but that few of us have thought much about. He has done some hard journalism in a world of mysticism. The result is some fascinating history, a few great anecdotes, a generous helping of compelling evidence, and new questions to go with every answer.

The breadth of this topic is monumental; from anatomy and archaeology to medicine to sports to spiritualism. This is a project that cuts through our collective amnesia and starts documenting what we’ve known on and off for generations. And this is not niche, specialist material; this is practical truth for everyone everyday with huge implications for health. And by now, your skepticism alarms should be going off and rightly so. The subject matter experts for this topic are often not academics or scientists. This is a subject that, while universal, has been neglected by the modern scientific machine. Some of what we do have is truly ancient knowledge, passed down the old-fashioned way, but Nestor does not fetishize the wisdom of the past. He merely documents it, tests it, and tells us about his experiences. This is gonzo science-journalism.

And this is where the skepticism alarms quiet down. Nestor is not making fanciful claims himself. He is collecting others’ claims and research and, as best as he is able, subjecting them to analysis and experimentation. Individually, they are fascinating and thought-provoking. Together, they form an immensely compelling picture; there is, it appears, something going on that not many people are talking about. Nestor’s research points out some of the failings of modern medicine and academia. This is not a critique of those institutions, merely an illustration of their being works-in-progress. This book is part of that progress. Bringing popular attention to something is an effective way to further our collective understanding of it. This is not a replacement for rigorous, academic research; it is what motivates such research.

In addition to giving us perspective on what we know and what we have known, this is also a practical book. Nestor has compiled the basics of several techniques. He does not make grandiose claims about them, he gives you some context, he tells you his experience, and then gives you what you need to try it for yourself.

While his writing does occasionally stray a little too far into superlatives and sensationalism for my taste, there is a healthy collection of references at the back of the book. While much of the most compelling content is anecdotal or from small samples at best, this is simply how limited our knowledge is in this field. We have some guidance from past human experience, but we have yet to evaluate this guidance scientifically. If those in a position to contribute are paying attention, we have but to wait… In the meantime, breathe through your nose.

Nose Dive by Harold McGee

This is a book about chemistry. Actually, one could say that it’s about chemicals and only one specific group of chemicals at that. It is essentially a catalog of chemicals that you can smell. This is exactly as exciting as it sounds. The book is, on the whole, dry and repetitive, like a reference book. And yet, between the surprisingly comprehensive and thorough lists and tables, there is a wealth of fascinating information from chemistry to biology to botany to geology to history and anthropology. By looking at the world through its smells, it is necessary to take a broad view. McGee has undertaken a monumental task with patience and thoroughness and the result is a curious but unmistakably valuable book. Where else can you find answers to all those questions you never knew you had?

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Roughly speaking, this is a history of the field of taxonomy. This is not a scientific text, but it is a text about science, and science is done by people, and people are flawed biased stubborn creatures (also clever, so very clever). It is a delight to see how this problem of classification changed and coalesced over time, and all the drama and controversy that went with it. Scientists are as dysfunctional as everyone else, perhaps more so in some regards. Yoon shows us how messy progress is.

If there is one flaw to this book, it is Yoon’s treatment of her central thesis. The thesis itself is sound enough: many problems are a result of people feeling increasingly separated from nature. This relates to our improved understanding of the tree of life displacing our natural intuition: as scientists became the authorities in naming things “correctly”, so the every-person was discouraged from participating. This conflict between science and intuition is exemplified by the scientifically-sound pronouncement: “there is no such thing as a fish”. The problem with Yoon’s analysis is that there is more than one way to categorize things, and everyone knows it.

Just because some people are working out how organisms relate to each other evolutionarily doesn’t mean other people aren’t discussing how they relate behaviorally, or visually, or intuitively. Indeed they are. To put it simply, the naming of Dendrocygna does not preclude the existence of bottom-dwelling fish or flightless birds, or perhaps you’ve heard the terms scavengers, predators, burrowers, nocturnal, diurnal. Yoon’s failure to even acknowledge the existence and use of polyphyletic groups severely undermines her argument that monophyletic classification has ruined everything.

While her thesis is intruiging, Yoon’s analysis lacks rigor. She presents more correlation than causality, and neglects to even mention other possible explanations for the woes of modern humans. Wielding the umwelt like a proverbial hammer, she pounds on every problem like a proverbial nail. The result is thought-provoking but ultimately unsatisfying.

This book was listed as reference for Lulu Miller’s “Why Fish Don’t Exist”, and it is clear why; this is a superior history. However Soon’s deeper analysis of how that science has influenced modern life feels incomplete and shallow. This is a valuable read with a questionable premise.

This review contains spoilers. For a biography. Of a man who died in 1931. You have been warned.

I don’t have a proper name for this sort of story, perhaps a sub- or sibling genre of gonzo journalism. I’m going to content myself by calling it kin to “Sita Sings the Blues”. Miller interleaves a biography of David Starr Jordan with the events of her own life while writing said biography. Miller’s half of the story recounts a low point in her life. In that time she leans into her research on Jordan, who spent a lifetime classifying fish, trying to reconstruct the tree of life (for a broader view on this part of the story, see Naming Nature by Carol Kaesuk Yoon). His dedication to this cause despite catastrophic setbacks was a source of inspiration to her. So in her darkest days, she clung to the idea of this steadfast scientist; trying to understand how he did it. And then she learns that he was implicated in a murder, supported compulsory sterilization, and was more than a little racist. This is a strong beat narratively, but comes off a bit contrived. It only takes a few minutes of research to learn about the more controversial parts of Jordan’s life. To be working on a biography of a person in such a granular way so as to know the details of their early life without knowing the first thing about their adult self seems… implausible. Also, using a surprise reveal in a biography of someone who died in 1931 is questionable.

This ultimately results in a book that feels a little padded, a little forced. The biography of Jordan is strong, but the sudden reveal of his dark side is unnecessarily dramatic. Miller’s own tragedies are lamentable, but the weave with the rise and fall of Jordan’s life adds little. “Here is a biography of an amazing scientist who turns out not to have been such a great guy after all and by the way I was depressed when I wrote this.”