Jerry Coyne on Deepak Chopra, Alex Ross on Max Richter, and others

  • Jerry Coyne on Deepak Chopra
  • And on the latest argument for the compatibility of science and faith
  • A misleading article on the recent “paradigm” shift in the understanding of human evolution
  • Reviews of new books by Sarah Bakewell and Sarah Hart
  • And Alex Ross on Max Richter
  • (Updated 13 Apr, including a couple places where I said the opposite of what I meant. Useful/useless e.g.)

Jerry Coyne, 1 Apr 2023: What has Deepak Chopra been up to?

I know everyone’s been asking, “Where has Deepak Chopra gone?”  I haven’t seen any shenanigans from him in a while—at least not since he was deplatformed by the College of Emergency Physicians 2½ years ago, with the group realizing too late that they’d invited a Woomeister to give a keynote speech. (They disinvited him.) But reader Pyers (and some others) called my attention to this piece in the Times of London updating us on Deepakity.

Pyers couldn’t resist adding this acerbic remark: “I had hope that the man had disappeared up his own woo-full fundament but no, like the proverbial bad penny, he is back plugging a new book.”

If you click on the link below, you’ll probably find the article paywalled, but a reader found it archived here, and so you can read five pages of rather anodyne interviews with Deepakity. Surprisingly, it describes one decent thing he did, and for which he does deserve credit, but the rest is his usual palaver, including bringing up epigenetics, quantum woo, and making an unconscionable dig at Richard Dawkins.

I’ll mostly give indented quotes from the article. One thing I deplore is Chopra’s repeated claims that, after he’d been emphasizing it for years, science and medicine now recognize that he was right: there’s a mind-body connection—what you are thinking and how you’re behaving affects the health of your body. I am sad to report that we’ve known that for years, from other data, but of course Deepakity takes credit for it.

This matches my own impression of Deepak — he’s a charlatan along the lines of Mehmet Oz, not completely out to lunch but wrong or misleading so often that he is useless — even though I occasionally see a blurb from him on the back of an otherwise perfectly legitimate science-themed book. (And there’s an art, not generally appreciated, about the selection of book blurbers.) Coyne concludes by calling Chopra’s comments about Richard Dawkins’ stroke “an odious act” and then:

I’m not jealous of Chopra or the $180 million fortune the article says he’s accumulated. In fact, I despise him for fleecing the gullible by peddling pseudoscience. I’d rather be right than rich.


Later, Coyne takes this to task:

Jerry Coyne, 6 Apr 2023: Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic promotes the “compatibility of science and faith” by finding religious people who like science

Naturally, this kind of argument is only persuasive to religious folks who somehow want to justify their beliefs; it would never occur to a scientist.

Coyne concludes,

…I can’t see any purpose to this article except to tout God, do down science, claim that science detracts from wonder at the same time that it claims that science and religion are compatible? No, science and religion are incompatible, mainly because religious understanding and its truth claims are based on faith, while science’s truth claims are based on empirical evidence. The presence of religious people who like science no more proves that science and religion are compatible than observing sports fans who like science proves that science and baseball are compatible.

Dawkins has explained the fallacy of this view, but maybe it’s time to explain it to people again.


AlterNet, Jan Ritch-Frel, 7 Apr 2023: We are living through a paradigm shift in our understanding of human evolution

When I captured this link (and before I read the article) I made a note to myself: What is really new here? Anything? How have I not heard of this “paradigm shift” before? This is an interview with one professor Chris Stringer, and it summarizes things that have been going on for two or three decades. Gist: human evolution has been more complicated than previous thought. My reaction: well *of course,* everything on close examination becomes more complicated than previously thought. And: this is not new. The article is not major revelation; it’s a journalistic artifact, like most of the posts on Big Think.

There’s a paradigm shift underway in our understanding of the past 4 million years of human evolution: ours is a story that includes combinations with other Homo species, spread unevenly across today’s populations—not a neat and linear evolutionary progression.

Technological advances and a growing body of archaeological evidence have allowed experts in the study of human origins and prehistory to offer an increasingly clear, though complex, outline of the bio-historical process that produced today’s human population and cultures.

For the most part, the public is presented with new findings as interesting novelty items in the news and science coverage. The fuller picture, and the notion that this information has valuable implications for society and our political arrangements, doesn’t usually percolate into public consciousness, or in centers of influence.

But there is an emerging realization in the expert community that humanity can greatly benefit from making this material a pillar of human education—and gradually grow accustomed to an evidence-based understanding of our history, behavior, biology, and capacities. There’s every indication that a better understanding of ourselves strengthens humanity as a whole and makes connection and cooperation more possible.

All true, especially the part how public understanding of complex issues is via an accumulation of novelty items in the news. The interview goes on with details about the various species of Homo that have existed and interbred over the past tens and hundreds of thousand years. That this is not new is shown by how the books by Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens, reviewed here and Unstoppable Us, reviewed here) open with summaries of these backgrounds of human evolution.


Another review of the Sarah Bakewell book:

The Atlantic, Franklin Foer, 5 Apr 2023: Can Humanism Save Us?, subtitled “In her new book, Sarah Bakewell champions an intellectual tradition that might be just what we need today—if only we could properly define it.”


A review today by Jordan Ellenberg (author of How Not to Be Wrong, reviewed ending here) of the new book by Sarah Hart, whose essay I noted five days ago.

NYT Book Review, Jordan Ellenberg, 11 Apr 2023: Mathletes and Poets: Allies at Last!, subtitled “In ‘Once Upon a Prime,’ Sarah Hart explores the surprisingly deep relationship between mathematics and literature.”

That, in the end, is Hart’s message: that here in the third dimension, people are pretty much alike, and strive for beauty and meaning in similar ways whether they’re finding those things in words or sounds or equations.

Though again, I don’t get any hint from this review about whether Bakewell addresses science fiction at all. I’ll find out when I get the book.


And here’s a New Yorker essay about Max Richter, whose concert piece of variations on Vivaldi’s The Four Season I reviewed a couple weeks ago.

The New Yorker, Alex Ross, 10 April 2023: The Doleful Minimalism of Max Richter, subtitled “The composer is everywhere on film and television soundtracks, promising that we will dissolve in mist before the apocalypse arrives.”

Alex Ross is a long-time music reviewer, especially of contemporary music; I have two of his books.

Richter’s most inescapable creation is a six-minute juggernaut of wistfulness titled “On the Nature of Daylight,” which first appeared in 2004, on an album called “The Blue Notebooks,” on the indie label FatCat Records. (D.G. rereleased the album in 2018, in an expanded version.) The piece has been featured in a slew of movies, from “Shutter Island” to “Arrival,” and recently heralded a scene of gay double suicide in the series “The Last of Us,” also dystopian. It is built around a recurring block of hymnal chords in the key of B-flat minor. We first hear the chords alone; then a solo violin unfurls a languid ribbon of eighth notes over them; more voices are added, with aching suspensions; there is a mild crescendo. The chords are often inverted, with a note other than the root in the bass, resulting in a chorale-like, let-us-pray atmosphere. There’s no melody as such, but the violin line, sliding upward by steps and drooping by fifths, sticks in the mind. It’s an earworm that actually moves like a worm.

Ross goes on to invoke Satie, Reich, Glass, Eno, and even Pachelbel. And then expresses this reaction. He is clearly a very wise, perceptive person.

What troubles me about Richter’s enterprise is, ultimately, its inoffensiveness. The music is impassive, deferential, anonymous. This is why Hollywood soundtrack supervisors push it so hard. If the audience recognized “On the Nature of Daylight” every time, it wouldn’t be as effective. Somehow, it keeps erasing itself and making itself new. We’ve come a long way from minimalism’s pioneer days, when scandals erupted in concert halls and established composers spluttered in fury. Minimalism was countercultural and iconoclastic; ambient music, likewise, echoed utopian ideals, as Szabo shows. Richter’s pieces exude a gentle fatalism, a numbed acquiescence. Don’t worry, be pensive. As we sleepwalk toward global disaster, these algorithmic elegies promise that we will dissolve into mist before the abyss opens.

I linked this piece to my earlier Richter post, but here it is again.

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