This article is part of a collection of my favorite media pieces in 2021.
SURVIVAL OF THE FRIENDLIEST
by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods
“We are both the most tolerant and the most merciless species on the planet”.
When the eugenics gang grabbed hold of evolution to suit their own weird fetishes, I don’t know that we ever fully got it away from them. Concepts like “survival of the fittest” have gradually had their meanings torn away from them by racists and people who know what the term “negging” means. In a way, it’s fitting that our hypercompetitive and individualistic society sees evolution (when it does see evolution) as a contest to be won, usually through the preferred lens of the beholder. A millionaire stock trader sees himself as the peak of human perfection, even when his peers hate him and his face looks like a testicle. A doomsday prepper survivalist looks down on the unfit sheep reliant on modern technology from his cabin in the woods that will be demolished long before the apocalypse comes, a decade after he’s died of preventable waterborne illness.
I’m dredging up a lot of feelings here. My point is that we tend to view ourselves as evolutionary masterpieces and our equally-evolved peers as accidents of natural selection. Mean, ambitious people are ALPHAS and kind, generous, and quiet people are lesser folk. In their book, Brian Hare and Vanessa Wood explore ideas of evolution rewarding cooperation rather than competition to create a more social species. They investigate the hypothesis that we didn’t domesticate dogs — they domesticated themselves, by following the humans who discarded viable meat and vegetables, with those who were friendliest being awarded food from the humans’ own hands. If dogs domesticated themselves, they wonder, what if we did too?
The bigger ideas in the book form an unproven theory, that humans self-domesticated similarly to dogs, but the science and facts sprinkled throughout the journey make this a worthwhile read no matter your level of skepticism. Did you know that our eyes are probably white to make them more visible to other humans, so they can tell what we’re looking at? That our chimpanzee cousins struggle with determining what we’re looking at from gaze alone, but our distant relatives, the domesticated dogs, do so with ease? Or that those same chimps, after hours of teaching, still struggle to understand pointing, but human babies master it before they can walk?
This book is littered with facts like these that I adored and repeat as frequently as I can, facts that demonstrate just how uniquely geared to socialization we are from the very start. If nothing else, Survival of the Friendliest is a great trivia compendium and an excellent attempt to move the discussion of evolution a little further from “who’s the best killer?”
by Tara Westover
Author Tara Westover recounts growing up in Mormon-dominated rural Idaho, the first 17 years of her life under the command of a father whose personal beliefs compelled his children from modern medicine and organized education. With limited help, she learns to read and applies for college against her father’s wishes, going on to complete a PhD program at Cambridge University. The memoir is a tale of triumph in the face of rural American repression, but it also offers a focused look into the everyday lives of those who grow up in the paranoid prepper communities of the American west.
THE PRINCESS BRIDE
by William Goldman
I was a young child the first time I watched the film adaptation of The Princess Bride. I was also a young child the next several times, and I remember enjoying it as an authentic swashbuckling tale about vagabonds, royalty, and danger. Then, on an off-day at the end of eighth grade, one of my teachers put the movie on to fill time. I remember the absolute surprise when the first few minutes make it very clear that this story is a comedy satirizing the sort of movie I’d always thought it was. As children, we’re liable to consuming whatever’s put in front of us. I’m thankful my trash-tier media plate was littered with The Master of Disguise and not the “Pregnant Elsa Marries the Joker” content today’s young ‘uns have to deal with. Still, I think there’s something particularly noteworthy about a satire so strong that it holds up as a shining example of the style it sought to parody.
In true “the book is better than the movie” form, The Princess Bride is everything you’d expect of it and more. The format allows for some silly one-offs that didn’t make it into the movie (the feudal farmboy Westley is introduced in blue jeans), and asides from the author (“There’s death coming up, and you better understand this: some of the wrong people die. Be ready for it. This isn’t Curious George Uses the Potty.”) add value to the passages they intersperse. If you loved the film, the book is a must read. If you’ve never seen it, it’s just as good.
RAISIN D’OR: A TALE OF TWO CITIES
by Charles Dickens
This was the best book I read this year, this was the worst book I read this year. I think 90% of the time I’ve put into these end-of-the-year mini reviews went into deciding whether or not to open with that dumb joke. That I opted into it is a critical look into the flawed operations of my brain.
A Tale of Two Cities is the expertly-woven tale of larger than life characters existing in a time of turmoil in 18th-century France and England. Fans of last year’s awards will remember I was over the moon about The Count of Monte Cristo, a book that weaves in real historical events like they’re anecdotes from the extended canon that only real fans will appreciate. I guess there’s no better way to explain it than admitting I have a thing for well-composed historical fiction. Give me the plot of a That’s So Raven episode set during the Ottoman siege of Constantinople and I’ll give it next year’s top honor.
- On Writing Well
- Hyperbole and a Half
Read the rest of my favorites here.