Book Review: Brexit & Ireland

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

The United Kingdom’s European Union membership referendum of 23 June 2016 did not go as expected. By a slim majority those of the UK electorate who voted, chose to leave the EU. Since then there has been continuous emotional outrage and rhetoric published in the mainstream media and on social media. Much of this has centred on the personal and economic impact of limiting immigration and the apparent enfranchisement some now assert to openly voice their horrifying xenophobia.

There is, of course, more to it than this. The EU is, amongst other things, a behemoth of bureaucracy. Its increasing federal powers have over the years been the subject of much criticism. Since the referendum vote, the EU’s positive aspects have been much vaunted by those appalled at the prospect of Brexit. Yet because a country leaving the EU is unprecedented, the longer term impact can still only be guessed at.

Brexit & Ireland is written from the latter country’s point of view. Physically, historically and economically close they have been European allies since they both joined what was the EEC in 1973. The two countries recognise many bilateral agreements. Since the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to The Troubles in 1998, the island of Ireland has effectively functioned as one unit, albeit with differing laws and currency north and south. The difficulties to be overcome if the UK leaves the EU while Ireland stays is the subject of this book.

Although it is refreshingly educative to read a calm and balanced account of the potential political and economic issues – rather than the personal – raised by Brexit, the detail makes for rather dry reading. Around half of the text explains the challenges faced by sectors that work across the border and with the UK. These include: agriculture and fishing; food processing and distribution; just in time supply to supermarkets across the Irish Sea. Horse racing and breeding gets a mention as does medical research and the pharmaceutical industry. It is not just goods that benefit from unhindered travel but also a workforce, tourists and students.

Ireland was well aware early on in the process of the difficulties it would have to overcome, yet was hindered by the EU’s stance on negotiations with the UK. If Ireland wishes to remain within the EU then it must abide by EU rules and timetables. After Brexit, the UK wishes to continue to trade without borders but will not accept free movement of people from the entire EU, or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Other EU member states demand that the UK be punished for daring to leave – they will not countenance allowing the UK to ‘have their cake and eat it’.

A key issue for Ireland is to maintain the peace within the island and this requires that the border remain simply a line on a piece of paper, not a series of cumbersome controls that may require the military to enforce. The EU states that it supports the peace process yet refuses to consider a customs and tariff free arrangement with a country unwilling to pay to be a part of its existing agreements.

“Tusk and his team were eager to help Ireland. But other member states suspected that by being too flexible on the Irish border, they were playing into the hands of the British. Concessions given to Ireland might just suit the British as well.”

“The EU is an historic political project whose future is at stake”

“allowing the UK to have their cake and eat it […] would destroy the European Union”

There are many other borders between EU and non EU countries in the world. Those that function efficiently rely on mutual cooperation. There is reluctance within the EU to allow what Ireland and the UK would benefit from, but other disputed territories, such as Gibraltar or Cyprus, worry that Brexit would set a precedent that they are unwilling to accept.

The author’s access to key documents and political discussion highlights the intransigence over issues which reminded me of the loyalist and republican viewpoints I had to listen to growing up in Belfast. Each side felt justified in their stance, claiming that lack of progress was entirely the other’s fault. It is a comparison that strikes fear given where it led back then.

When it takes a group of EU negotiators two weeks to agree to the wording of a single paragraph in a document, and this can then be thrown out by the DUP unhappy at the suggestion of a border running down the Irish Sea, it is no surprise that little progress is being made. With Theresa May beholden to the DUP since the last UK General Election,

“the unionist and nationalist views on any particular issue come to the fore, rather than the collective interests of Northern Ireland.”

The numerous pages dedicated to the economic difficulties of Brexit are eclipsed by potential damage to the peace process if the EU demands a hard border.

“Peace and prosperity is underlined by the free movement of goods and services.”

“We need to look at the border in isolation and to look for bespoke solutions.”

This does not please certain EU member states.

“Pressure will come on the Commission to balance the wishes of the UK and Ireland and the political wishes of the other 26 leaders around the Council table.”

The author highlights potential positives for Ireland from Brexit but these rely on global businesses being willing to relocate there. Ireland is in competition with other EU countries wishing to attract businesses that will leave a UK that is not in the EU.  Unsubstantiated claims have been made by competitors that Dublin does not have the necessary infrastructure, housing or quality education. Without the UK to support them in EU decision making, Ireland is losing out.

Irish businesses who would be hit by punitive cross border EU custom and tariff regimes could ask for transitional aid from their government to enable them to move business operations south, but the EU is ‘notoriously strict on state aid’. Many businesses rely on the land so moving is not an option.

The final chapter covers a round of negotiations on the details of Brexit and highlights the difficulties of dealing with a notoriously slow moving organisation that scrutinises every detail, fearing a chink in the armour it is building.

“Theresa May was effectively saying ‘if it weren’t for the European Union being so pesky about the four freedoms and things like that, then we wouldn’t have this problem.’”

What comes out of this book is that it is more complex than this, but made more so by the self protecting intransigence of an unwieldy organisation fighting for its survival.

Any Cop?: This is as detailed and factual a perspective as I have read about Brexit. The UK is entering unchartered waters without a map or visible compass. Ireland has clearly stated that it has no wish to follow. Without more flexible support from the remaining EU members, staying may prove untenable.

 

Jackie Law

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Book Review: Under the Knife

Under the Knife: The History of Surgery in 28 Remarkable Operations, by Arnold van de Laar, offers an eye watering, riveting, always accessible account of surgical techniques and development from biblical times through to the present day. The operations detailed focus on well known names – figureheads, tyrants and celebrities – as well as the medical practitioners who pioneered new practices, mostly without anaesthetic. Along the way technical terms commonly used by doctors are explained.

With the benefit of hindsight the unhygienic conditions that prevailed for so long may horrify, as will recurring treatments such as blood letting. For centuries surgeons and doctors were regarded separately, each developing their skills but rarely working together. Progress was sometimes accidental with a key observation or new practice ridiculed by peers until accepted by a high profile patient.

“in the Middle Ages common sense was obscured by tradition. Rather than looking at the results of their actions, our medieval forefathers would follow what some great predecessor had written in an ancient book.”

The Hippocratic Oath, historically taken by medical students as a step towards qualifying as a doctor, used to contain the line ‘I will not cut for stone’, implying that such dangerous practices as lithotomy – stone cutting – should be left to experts. The first operation detailed in the book involves a Dutch man who ignored this advice and, in desperation, cut out his own bladder stone at home. It was larger than a chicken’s egg and somehow he survived. The formation of such stones is explained as is the more standard operation to remove them and how this has changed over the years. Bladder stones are caused by bacteria. What was once an everyday complaint is now rare.

Treatment for asphyxia – problems with breathing – is then explored by detailing treatment of a very famous patient following a shooting – President John F. Kennedy. As we know he did not survive, following in the footsteps of the first president of the United States, George Washington, who suffocated after his doctors refused to perform a tracheotomy – a cut into the windpipe to allow air into the lungs. This and similar treatments are described along with when and why they may be needed.

Further chapters cover other common complaints: wound healing, including reasons for circumcision; shock, which in medical terms means a failure of the blood’s circulatory system; obesity and its complications, recurrent amongst popes over the years; fracture; varicose veins and other problems caused when our ancestors decided to walk on two legs; peritonitis, which killed Harry Houdini; narcosis and the introduction of anaesthetics for which Queen Victoria was thankful; gangrene; aneurysm; castration; hernia; stroke and more.

Bob Marley died because his religion forbade him from accepting required treatment. Alan Shepard became the fifth man to walk on the moon thanks to a placebo. Lenin suffered multiple strokes throughout his life, the causes and effects of which likely contributed to making him the tyrant he became, although he may have been felled due to lead poisoning from a bullet that remained in his body following a shooting years previously.

As well as detailing key operations, methods of diagnosis are discussed along with complications that can arise due to surgical error. Successful surgeons can become much sought after, especially by those willing and able to pay. Michael DeBakey was one such man in the twentieth century. Described as a maestro by his famous patients he enjoyed to the full his reputation and fame. Nevertheless he dismissed an assistant’s concern during an operation and did not follow through when the patient, the deposed Shah of Iran, developed worrying post operative symptoms which ultimately led to the former leader’s death.

“great surgeons can sometimes make a mistake. Complications are, after all, part and parcel of operations and the risk of problems can never be counted out, no matter how great you are.”

Each of the twenty-eight chapters offers a fascinating insight into surgical developments and subsequent treatment. They are written with sympathy and wit in a style that enables lay readers to understand and learn more about doctor’s reasoning, vernacular and limitations.

For anyone interested in little known medical issues suffered by the famous over the centuries, in how their own body functions and the work of those who may be called upon to keep it going, this is a well structured, digestible, recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, John Murray, via Bookbridgr

Book Review: Self and I

Self & I, by Matthew De Abaitua, is a cautionary yet always engaging tale, ideal for anyone who dreams of becoming a published author. Written in the form of a memoir it recalls true events and interactions from the author’s earlier years. It offers a reflection on a bygone era capturing how life was experienced without the maturity of hindsight. It remains mindful of those involved at the time.

In July 1994, twenty-two year old Matthew Humphreys was employed by Will Self as the newly divorced enfant terrible of the British literary scene’s amanuensis, translated as slave-at-hand. Matthew lived alongside the in-demand author in a remote cottage in Sussex. He was eager to learn from his new employer and develop his own writing. Matthew grew up in a Liverpool dormitory town, took a holiday job as a security guard on the city’s docks, attained an English Literature degree from the University of York, and studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia under the tutelage of Malcolm Bradbury. He was still waiting for his expected coming-of-age moment that would define what he would afterwards be.

1994 was before the internet and social media. Authors expected to be revered, to have readers accept whatever they were given. Writers sought validation from other writers, feeling anger and frustration when readers didn’t pay their work the attention they believed it deserved.

“A sympathetic protagonist, an easy and unassuming prose style, and a strong plot – these were marks of weakness. Signs of pandering to the reader. And who wants to hang out with that loser?”

Matthew was a naive young man full of big words and little understanding. Now a creative writing lecturer at the University of Essex he may well have written this book with his students in mind. It is very funny in places and offers an insight into the mindsets of both an aspiring and an established author. Will Self was well aware of how the world viewed him and worked on maintaining his reputation despite the personal costs. He offered the young Matthew practical help and advice whilst warning him against the excesses in which he himself regularly indulged.

“Play up the vivid persona and use it to smuggle the work into the culture. The side effect of such a public persona is that it becomes the object of other people’s frustrated ambition, and they take out their grievances upon the work.”

In the period covered Matthew is attempting to find his place in the world whilst learning to accept his own inadequacies. At times he struggles with the lonely life in the cottage and his relationships with the people he interacts with, including those from his home town.

“The people you leave behind, the life you reject. Old friends are signposts down an untaken path. Ambition requires betrayal.”

Matthew worked for Will Self for six months although they remained in contact for longer. As well as relating thoughts and incidents from this time he offers the reader pivotal periods from his background, and what came after. He recognises now that he didn’t yet have the lived experiences needed to strengthen his writing. He was impatient for the life he craved to begin.

“I was a young man who compared the books I read with the books in my head, and found them wanting.”

He quotes author Jenny Offill who wrote

“You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones.”

The ups and downs of living with a big personality like Will Self is fascinating but the insights in this book come from the author’s musings on his own thoughts and actions at the time. He has captured the intense certitude of a young person alongside that giddy concern encountered when they realise achievements beyond qualifications do not come with a map. In time Matthew will become a published author. That path is but one in a life chequered by mixed experiences and not coming to an end with the longed for publication.

As a reader with no illusions of ever acquiring the skills needed to write a book I am probably comparable to the nineties authors’ derided fans. I wonder if, in private, we are still thus perceived.

“Novels give us access to other lives, a few of which might be our own. Literary ambition belongs to readers as well as writers.”

An original memoir that is both absorbing and highly entertaining. Recommended to all with an interest in the world of creative writers, their yearnings, perturbations and conceits.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Eye Books.

Book Review: Linescapes

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“We describe the world in rational terms, aware of geology and geomorphology […] whereas our ancestors saw a landscape filled with agency, one that was animate.”

The land on which we reside is forever being reshaped by the varying needs of its flora and fauna, including man. Pathways form where creatures habitually traverse their domains, their existence in any space resulting in some species flourishing, others being threatened. When changes are made to the land a rebalancing is required. Elements may be lost but, given time and sufficient neglect, nature regenerates.

The ancient tracks formed by man have been developed, expanded and altered dramatically as our ability to travel in new ways has increasingly isolated us from our fellow creatures. The linear features we use to form connections or to separate the land we now work so intensively have resulted in increasing fragmentation. Many traditional species have, as a result, been unable to survive. In Linescapes, Hugh Warwick examines the history and impact of the various lines man has created which shape our countryside. He explores hedges, ditches and dykes, walls, ancient paths and green lanes, canals, railways, roads, pylons and pipelines. He muses on potential steps that could be taken to mitigate the damage caused when these lines denude and shrink the habitats of creatures requiring more space than they are granted.

“They are so much more than their function as barriers or carriageways. To change our perspective – towards an empathetic look at the landscape – is to become aware of the impact they have”

The author emphasises the value to all of a healthy and diverse natural world, even when managed for man’s benefit. He warns against trying to measure this value in monetary terms, arguing for its intrinsic worth. In his research there is recognition that what now appears beautifully peaceful was often once a heavily worked landscape. The old may be lost and what comes after unexpected.

The author clearly favours certain features. Hedges protect his beloved hedgehogs. Dry stone walls offer sanctuary to many plants and creatures. He has little love for canals which he describes as ‘a concrete ditch of stagnant water’. He writes fondly of green lanes and the benefits these bring.

“There is a ‘green-lane effect’, whereby the inside faces of the hedges that bound the lane tend to be warmer, more sheltered and more attractive to wildlife than the outside faces, creating a microclimate tunnel within which wildlife, should the surrounding fields be forgiving, can flourish.”

“finding over 2000 individual species in an 85-metre stretch is not unreasonable”

Although he argues for protection of nature he also wishes to protect his favoured man-made features.

“The biggest threat these lanes face is neglect – left alone for long enough they will become absorbed into the fabric of the land. The next biggest threat they face is being discovered.”

For each chapter he explores the history before going on site to talk to experts in their fields. Where he held preconceptions to the contrary he invariably comes away more sympathetic. The concrete barriers that prevent vehicles crashing through the central reservations on motorways may be the cause of fatal impacts when large mammals become trapped, but motorway verges are home to a wide diversity of life-forms, left alone as they are to flourish. Railway land enjoys similar biodiversity despite the need for regular interventions for tree maintenance. The argument for building HS2 with adjacent cycle lanes, walkways and linear reserves is a rare suggestion that this infrastructure project could deliver something positive despite its exorbitant cost in money and impact.

The writing is eager and enthusiastic. Interesting facts are shared and points made. Nevertheless I wondered at the focus which seemed to wander. I remain unclear what exactly the author wishes to accomplish.

Any Cop?: A country walk is often circular, the point being the pleasure of the journey rather than to achieve a destination. Likewise this book is a pleasing amble through features that most will encounter but may not always appreciate. With my interest in nature I learned little new but was provided with a congenial reading experience.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Natural Causes

“For all our vaunted intelligence and ‘complexity’, we are not the sole authors of our destinies or anything else.”

Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is a sometimes provocative but genuinely questioning exploration of modern western attitudes to health, fitness and ageing. The author is a doctor although not of medicine, holding a PhD in cellular immunology. She writes from a personal but also knowledgeable perspective.

Starting with the increase in routine healthcare testing and screening now expected of supposedly sensible citizens, she explains why she has opted out of those she has a choice in taking (living in America some tests are required for medical insurance). She has decided that, having reached an age where she considers death could be deemed acceptable, she prefers to enjoy her life and not spend what time remains anticipating its end.

The book in no way rejects the worth of advances in modern medicine but rather questions the intense preoccupation so many have with attempting to control their health. She points out the lack of correlation between many diet and fitness fads and increased longevity. She notes that medical interventions can also produce harmful side effects, at times triggering conditions they aim to prevent becoming deadly.

Written with a dry wit she opens by looking at a number of screening tests carried out on women which are unpleasant, invasive and of dubious worth. The trust placed in doctors has granted them a power over other’s bodies that makes questioning what they do appear an act of foolishness, the patient marked down as uncooperative.

“Physicians have an excuse for flouting the normal rules of privacy”

Back in 1971 patients started asking why certain demarcations were necessary and examining themselves

“many doctors were outraged with me arguing that in lay hands a speculum was unlikely to be sterile, to which feminist writer Ellen Frankfort replied cuttingly that yes, of course, anything that enters the vagina should first be boiled for at least ten minutes.”

As well as questioning the usefulness of tests the author discusses over-treatment and the marketing of alternative medicines. She then moves on to the exponential growth in the use of gyms and other such facilities in the late twentieth century.

“a fashionable segment of the society had taken up a new project – themselves”

She writes that what resulted was women being masculinised, men feminised and all increasingly objectified. Unfit behaviour signified lower-class status, as did certain food choices. In fitness culture there was a separation

“in which mind struggles for control over the lazy, recalcitrant body”

Such attitudes spread into the workplace where incentives were offered to employees presented as workplace perks. Weight and size became a measure of ability.

“But there’s a darker, more menacing side to the preoccupation with fitness, and this is the widespread suspicion that if you can’t control your own body you’re not fit, in any sense, to control anyone else”

The increasingly vocal and judgemental public looked at healthcare costs and taxation, deciding that blame could be apportioned to those needing treatment.

“the less-than-fit person is a suitable source not only of revulsion but resentment”

The mega-wealthy and self proclaimed smart elites, particularly those in Silicon Valley, started looking for ways to achieve immortality, asking in all seriousness

“why should you ever die?”

The author points out, in case any reader needs reminding, that death happens anyway and often from the causes the various personal projects have worked so hard to avoid – cancer, heart failure, autoimmune diseases. However it is looked after, the human body continues to function in unpredictable ways.

The focus of the writing moves on to mindfulness where the brain, as a muscle, is given repeated work-outs to affect change. The mind is also affected by its bombardment of negative attitudes towards those who do not look or act as proponents of health and fitness expect.

“Still we persist in subjecting anyone who dies at a seemingly untimely age to a kind of bio-moral autopsy: Did she smoke? Drink excessively? Eat too much fat and not enough fiber? Can she, in other words, be blamed for her own death?”

This is particularly noticeable in commentary on the lifestyles of those living in poverty whilst rarely looking at the reasons for their choices.

“Concern for the poor usually comes tinged with criticism.”

Having explored the efforts influential segments of society put into caring for their bodies, the author then turns attention to why they continue to die anyway. She explains how cells grow and change, how certain cells work to clean up but can mutate.

“Deadly combat among cells is part of how the body, and especially the human body, conducts its normal business”

Towards the end she steps back from this preoccupation with self quoting Stephen Hawking.

“We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe”

A human being is a building block of matter, existing for a time and with some perhaps contributing to the natural order in some unremarkable, minuscule way. Before and after, the universe continues.

Throughout the narrative sources are cited for readers wishing to dig deeper into the claims made. I felt at times that accuracy was simplified for the sake of readability but this remains an interesting subject presented in a mostly cogent, always accessible way. It is not a polemic against any of the topics covered but rather an invitation to question why we accept certain widely held views, ceding to demands made. It advocates for choice, to live and enjoy life before those recalcitrant cells call time, as they inevitably will.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Granta.

Book Review: Under the Rock

The first thing a reader will notice on picking up Under the Rock is that it is beautifully produced: the vibrant detail and embossing on the cover; the purple end papers; the clear, well spaced print. Within a few pages it becomes clear that the writing is something special too. That subtitle, The Poetry of a Place, is deserved.

This is not a book to be rushed. Over the course of the days I spent reading I kept setting it down to step outside and appreciate my surroundings – the small things it is easy to pass by, unregarded, on my walks through local fields and woodland.

The author is curious and unafraid of straying beyond marked paths. He views man as a part of nature, a shaper of landscape albeit for short term, selfish gain. There are no gushing superlatives about the beauty of our natural world – however that may be defined given man’s tinkering – but rather an exploration of a microcosm through the changing seasons and from a variety of perspectives. There is recognition and appreciation of the cycle of life, that death is not an end.

“Nature does not stop. It never shies away from the task at hand: perpetual growth and death, growth and death. Survival – that is all. Of plant species and creature alike. Feeding, mating, birthing. Dying. On and on it goes.”

“Only humans reach further, filling their time with false desires, delusion and distraction from the self. Turning away from news media, I find myself instead considering the wider environment, at a deeper level.”

Ben moved out of London with his partner a decade ago. He left the noise and bustle of the city for a village in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. Within Mytholmroyd is a fenced off area containing the looming mass of Scout Rock. The site has been quarried, was once the town dump in which asbestos from a nearby factory was buried. It is a place of:

“toxic soil and bottomless mineshafts and cliff-diving suicides and unexpected landslides in the night”

Having been abandoned by man, the flora and fauna thrived. This is the story of the place, its history and surrounds, the impact a sometimes desolate environment has had on the author.

Ben and his wife purchased a property in the shadow of the rock. Each day he would take their dog and walk through the fenced off area, scrambling around the rock, making his way to the moorland above. He came to understand the personal changes wrought by the seasons, to endure the persistent rainfall, to accept the mud splatter, the minor injuries from slips and falls. He would swim in the nearby pools and at a reservoir, seeking to immerse himself physically in the place. Gradually he learned its history from libraries and conversations with locals, some of whose families had lived there for generations.

Divided into four main sections – Wood, Earth, Water and Rock – each is completed by field notes, poetry, and photographs. The chapters in Water detail the devastating floods that affected the area at the close of 2015. There is acceptance that this was not a unique event in the valley’s long history. It did, however, bring change.

“The Scout Rock I have known for the past decade is no more. It is something else now.”

When the workmen, drafted in to supposedly make the area safer, finally leave, this fresh molestation will be recolonised, reclaimed. The author may then explore the place anew, recreate the paths he chooses to take.

Ben’s walks and swims lift his mood but the dank darkness of winter, the heavy rainfall of the area, are oppressive. He mentions the financial difficulties of surviving as a writer. He acknowledges both the challenges and benefits of modern living. Woven into these deeply personal musings are the layers of discovery from his daily perambulations.

He writes:

“My goal in life is
to walk the
hills unheard.”

Within these pages we hear his voice, and it sings.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Behave

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Longlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Prize, Behave sets out to explain, from a rational and scientific perspective, why people behave as they do. As the author notes, it’s complicated. The reader must first learn about the neurobiology of how components of behaviour interact – the role of neurons, hormones, genes, evolution, culture, and ecological influences. There are many controlled studies to consider, the results of which offer better understanding but with limitations. The terms used are explained in some detail. Areas of the brain play different roles that must be understood before their impact on behaviour can be rationalised.

As an example of the writing style, from Neuroscience 101:

“some of the most interesting findings that help explain individual differences in the behaviours that concern us in this book relate to amounts of neurotransmitter made and released, and the amounts and functioning of the receptors, reuptake pumps, and degradative enzymes.”

Chapters explain the separate areas of the brain and how they function, reminding the reader that this is simplified as it is a continuum. It is then pointed out that all can change due to experience. Brain structure can adapt over time.

At close to 800 pages, around half of which is fairly technical, this is not a book that can be rushed. The main text regularly refers to notes at the back where the studies cited are detailed. There are also three appendices and an index. Footnotes elaborate on certain deductions reached by the author. It is dense but fascinating.

Examples of behaviours are given throughout, such as how a person reacts when they encounter another who is in pain. The distress this causes may render some incapable, unable to do more than deal with their own resulting suffering. Others will immediately rush to help. Individual reactions depend on brain function. How one judges another’s actions and needs, how they deserve to be treated, also varies depending on how ‘other’ they are judged to be.

Many of the studies detailed involve a variety of primates, some captive and others observed in more natural settings. The former allows changes in areas of the brain to be monitored, such as when processing rewards (the mesolimbic/mesocortical dopamine system). The results are familiar.

“What was an unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won’t be enough tomorrow.”

Other studies of the brain’s reactions are more uncomfortable to consider, particularly when a subject observes those of a different race. The exploration of us/them is important and returned to frequently. At its most basic it is an innate desire to reproduce, to pass on copies of genes. The reader is reminded that subjects can learn and modify behaviour.

The topic is complicated as everything is linked to everything else, including the environment in which one exists. The difference between collective and individual cultures is explained along with the impulse markers of those who migrate. Psychology and anthropology have an effect but in drawing neurobiological conclusions there are limitations due to the size and makeup of historic sample data. Many recent human studies have been carried out on university students but did not balance for gender or race. In concluding the first half of the book the author states

“Instead of causes, biology is repeatedly about propensities, proclivities, interactions, modulations, contingencies, if/then clauses, context dependencies, exacerbation or diminution of pre-existing tendencies.”

The second half of the book, while still veering into technical explanations at times, is less demanding to read. The key points from the first half include what has been learned about the function of the amygdale and the frontal cortex – natural vs learned. The author notes of people

“we are just like other animals but totally different”

Moral decision making is explored along with the introduction of spirituality, the effects of proximity on moral intuitionism, entrenched bias, the impact of social groups and perceived beauty. It is clear that primates have us/them minds and that kinship matters. People act the way they do because of how their brain is structured, but brains can learn and change. Empathy is affected by attitudes to others, and if they are perceived to be to blame for their situation.

“our moral intuitions are neither primordial nor reflexively primitive. They are the end product of learning; they are cognitive conclusions to which we have been exposed so often that they have become automatic […] In the West we nearly all have strong moral intuitions about the wrongness of slavery, child labor, or animal cruelty. But that didn’t used to be the case. Their wrongness has become an implicit moral intuition, a gut instinct concerning moral truth, only because of the fierce moral reasoning (and activism) of those who came before us, when the average person’s moral intuitions were unrecognisably different.”

Aroused empathy, or tunnel vision compassion, such as raising money for cancer research after a loved one dies of the disease, is shown to do more harm than good in the broader measure of such things. Help is more likely to be offered based on emotion rather than rational decision making.

The Rwandan Genocide killed more people than the Nazi Holocaust yet garners less attention. Irrational behaviour, including such violence, often relies on dehumanising. The brain confuses reality with metaphor, supporting symbols over people. Contact can decrease willingness to inflict or passively accept other’s suffering. Justice is shown to be difficult to achieve. Even when dealing with individual transgressors in the West

“every judge should learn that judicial decisions are sensitive to how long it’s been since they ate”

Wealth and stability are shown to affect behaviour, although these may not lead to improved acceptance. After basic needs have been met, satisfaction depends not on what one has but on how this compares.

“When humans invented socioeconomic status, they invented a way to subordinate like nothing that hierarchical primates had ever seen before.”

The book concludes on a hopeful note pointing out how much has changed over time. Hateful behaviours still exist but many of these are viewed through a cultural lens. War may bring out the worst in participants but it has been shown that individuals struggle when ordered to kill. Studies prove that cooperation is more beneficial for all than aggression, and that greater equality improves economic growth and stability (if only our current leaders could understand this). Whatever our neurobiological makeup, change in behaviour is possible.

As a personal footnote, I cannot help but feel discomfort at the animals held in captivity and used in the many studies referred to within these pages. I ponder the benefits achieved at the cost of their suffering. The increase in understanding that they provide may be of interest but will people, as a result, change how they behave?

Any Cop?: This is a challenging but ultimately rewarding book to read. The topic is fascinating and explored in detail. The biases of the author are clear but do not detract from what may be learned. It will likely appeal most to those with a pre-existing interest in the science.

 

Jackie Law