Reviewed by Amy Ione, March 2019
Published: Leonardo Reviews
A Different Kind of Animal is based on two lectures Robert Boyd delivered in 2016 at Princeton University as a part of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values series. In these lectures Boyd introduces his theory that biology and culture are both evolutionary, a topic he’s been working on with Peter Richerson for three decades. Needless to say, this is a broad topic, a point brought home by the four Responses to the lectures also included in the volume. All four commentators endorse the contours of Boyd’s theory and their critiques also raise valid questions: Is Boyd too reductive? Does Boyd’s view of social learning and cooperation rely too much on copying others? Does he adequately define the ways that norms arise and change? Is he ignoring how individuals manipulate norms?
At the beginning of the book Boyd points out that his lectures are about human uniqueness and cumulative cultural adaptation, not the inventive capacities of individuals. He writes:
“We are much better at learning from others than other species are, and equally important, we are motivated to learn from others even when we do not understand why our models are doing what they are doing. This psychology allows human populations to accumulate pools of adaptive information that greatly exceed the inventive capacities of individuals. Cumulative cultural evolution is critical for human adaptation.” (p. 16)
William Kentridge: Process as Metaphor and Other Doubtful Enterprises by Leora Maltz-Leca
Reviewed by Amy Ione
Published Leonardo Reviews, August 2018
In my 2007 Leonardo review of Rosalind Krauss’ book Perpetual Inventory I characterized her essay on William Kentridge as the most compelling in the book . Krauss introduced him as a South African artist whose animated films pursue the problems of apartheid and spoke about how he creatively mixed film, drawing, and erasure with highly charged ideas. She also spoke about how his peripatetic approach, improvisational process (fortuna), and his use of erasure spoke of a creative practice that combines drawing and seeing with making and assessing. Krauss concluded that regardless of whether Kentridge’s drawings for projection come together in a series that examines apartheid, capitalist greed, eros, memory, or whatever, his process is not based primarily on the theme of the series. Rather, in her view, and I share her view to some degree, the works result through the dictates of his creative process. William Kentridge: Process as Metaphor and Other Doubtful Enterprises by Leora Maltz-Leca sees his philosophical relationship to the work as more important than his creative practice per se. Therefore, one intriguing question on my mind as I wrote this review is why Maltz-Leca, and indeed Kentridge himself as relayed in this book through a number of interviews, did not change my mind.
Reviewed by Amy Ione, March 2018
The title of Lisa Sideris’ book, Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World, made me wonder: Would this consecration expose me to something wondrous? While I don’t think the word wondrous quite fits my response, the book is a rewarding read. Sideris, a talented writer, introduces pointed questions to guide her study. I was particularly impressed with her nuanced evaluation of the new cosmologies that claim to bring science and spirituality together. In addition, the author’s erudite discussion stands out as a refreshing example of why the kind of critical thinking encouraged by the humanities has value.
Reviewed by Amy Ione, January 2018
Although creating a mess is not qualitatively the same as creating an original mathematical equation, what the word ‘creating’ denotes in each case is nonetheless clear. I cannot answer why we easily comprehend the meaning in both instances, but I do know that creativity’s amorphous and multidimensional reality is tantalizing even if our use of the word spans a spectrum of activities. In terms of discovery and human psychology, a good touchstone is a graphic that the creativity researcher Robert Sternberg put together titled “Cognitive Characteristic of Creative Persons” . In it he summarizes the views of 16 authors who contributed to an anthology he edited on this subject in 1988. One striking feature of the chart is that each author stressed multiple traits and yet no single trait was postulated by every one of the renowned contributors. Among them were Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Howard Gardner, Howard Gruber, and Dean Simonton. Equally striking 30 years later is that the distribution of the 20 relevant characteristics they identified seems dated now. Nine of the experts, the second highest number for any trait, argued for specialization (or creativity in a particular domain) in 1988. Given the emphasis on transdisciplinary work in the 21st century, I would guess that this factor would not rank as high today. By contrast, the top characteristic, stressed by 11 of the 16 authors, seems to still hold. This is the use of existing knowledge as a basis for new ideas. Even so, at under 70% it was nonetheless not universally chosen.
Continue reading “Book Review by Amy Ione: The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World”
Review of ChildArt Magazine: Arts and Mind – The Brain Science of Human Experience, Guest Editor, Susan Magsamen; Editor, Ashfaq Ishaq.
Posted at Leonardo Reviews
I sat down to read this ChildArt issue about art and the brain a few days after I learned of Marian Diamond’s (1926-2017) death . Perhaps best known for her studies of Einstein’s brain, which noted that he had more support cells in the brain than average, she was also a distinguished educator and a pioneer in brain plasticity research. The two products of her legacy that influenced me directly came to mind as I absorbed the essays. First, I recalled how Diamond’s skill as an educator came through in an interactive videotaped lesson on the brain she did during her tenure as Director of the Lawrence Hall of Science (recorded in 1990). While explaining the brain’s functions and dissecting an actual brain she also sensitively responded to questions posed by a group of two elementary school students and two graduate students. The composite demonstrated how a talented instructor is able to stimulate learning . In addition, and similarly, when I was a docent at the Hall, one of the most popular installations was an interactive installation about the brain, designed by Diamond, that engaged visitors of all ages and backgrounds.
ChildArt’s “Your Brain on Art” likewise captures the importance of engagement in education and human development, introducing projects that highlight children in schools as well as cross-cultural and community outreach. Divided into three sections, the issue also reminds us that children learn and experience life in more than one way. Continue reading “Amy Ione Review of ChildArt Magazine: Arts and Mind – The Brain Science of Human Experience”
Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists
edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman
One of the Times Higher Education’s Best Books of 2015, Future of the Brain offers a compilation of original essays by leading brain researchers. Divided into seven sections, the range and disparities of the authors’ views underscore the dearth of an overarching theory researchers apply to studies in this area. Cross-references among chapters do, however, remind us that science itself succeeds through communication among scientists about what their data says. Also noteworthy is that, even given the spectrum of views, most of the authors share a “we can do this” attitude: They are confident we can and will eventually understand the brain. Suffice it to say, as Gary Marcus, one of the book’s two editors notes: “Neuroscience today is a collection of facts, rather than ideas; what is missing is connective tissue. We know (or think we know) roughly what neurons do, and that they communicate with one another, but not what they are communicating” (p. 205).
The first section, mapping the brain, presents connectome projects. This idea (with computation) is the primary research paradigm presented in the book. Essays by Mike Hawrylycz, Misha Ahrens, Christof Koch, Anthony Zador, and George Church set the stage for this book’s survey of current efforts to understand brain connectivity through mapping and imaging neural activities of mice, strategies for reverse engineering and so forth. Computation, the subject of the second section, includes essays by May-Britt and Edvard Moser, Krishna Shenoy, Olaf Sporns, and Jeremy Freeman. Together the two sections argue that the brain is an organ of computation and scientists need to figure out what the brain is computing. Continue reading “Book Review by Amy Ione: Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists”
Review of A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman
As a fan of biographies, I was excited to learn about A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. Not only is it a timely biography, this well researched and easy to read book also captures the imagination. Because Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman take care to situate Shannon’s contributions in their cultural context the volume encourages the reader to explore their broader implications. Claude Shannon’s legacy is no doubt of particular interest to Leonardo readers due to the range of his work. If Shannon’s training and conception of Information Theory brings the current elevation of STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to mind, many of his lesser known projects clearly align with projects associated with the STE(A)M (the inclusion of Art) community, although the authors never speak of STEAM per se. These include the playful spirit evident in his ongoing tinkering with electronic toys, his multi-faceted studies of juggling, and his unicycle experiments.
So, who was Claude Shannon? Born in 1916 in Michigan, by all accounts Shannon had an ordinary childhood. Noteworthy traits included a love of math and science, a dislike of facts, and mechanical inclinations. These proclivities led him to purse a dual degree in mathematics and engineering at the University of Michigan. After Michigan, Shannon was hired by the well-connected Vannevar Bush, then at MIT and later founder of the National Science Foundation (NSF), to help with his differential analyzer. This was a mechanical analog computer that depended on combinations of equivalent equations, using a wheel-and-disc mechanism for computation. A major problem was that the equations needed to be reconstructed for every problem, in effect annihilating the very efficiency the machine was intending to add to problem solving. The resounding question was how could it reassemble itself on the fly? Shannon, who was conversant with both symbolic logic and electrical circuitry, produced a landmark master’s thesis with an innovative solution. Titled “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits,” the young Shannon tied Boolean logic and circuitry together, conceptualizing a path where 1’s and 0’s could represent logical operators of Boole’s (AND, OR, NOT) system, with an on switch standing for “true” and an off switch for “false.”
After a brief stint at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, New Jersey) Shannon joined Bell Labs to work on World War II projects. Here he found an environment that fostered cutting-edge discovery and even met a visiting Alan Turing, another key figure of the Information Age. The sections discussing the shared interests of Shannon and Turing are among the book’s high points, particularly in light of the role of computers in contemporary life. Both probed machine intelligence, feedback and programming commands, and cryptology. The authors tell us that, according to Shannon, much was also left unsaid between them. He did discuss his notions about Information Theory with Turing, but they needed to avoid cryptography because of security concerns.
The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene
by Oswald J. Schmitz
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2016
256 pp. Trade, $35
Although global-scale human influence on the environment has been recognized since the 1800s, the term Anthropocene, introduced about a decade or so ago, was only accepted formally as a new geological epoch or era in Earth history in August 2016. Then an official expert group said that humanity’s impact on the Earth is now so profound that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – should be officially declared. Ironically, this geologic term, frequently associated with ecology in the public’s mind, is generally attributed to Paul J. Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist. Crutzen, who is obviously neither a geologist nor ecologist, explains its beginnings as follows:
“The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. This date also happens to coincide with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.” 
Perhaps it is because Crutzen and Oswald J. Schmitz, the author of The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene, come from different backgrounds that there is a noteworthy difference in how each embraces the term. Schmitz’s emphasis in The New Ecology is on optimism despite what many see as a global environmental crisis. Crutzen, by contrast, sees more reason for concern, claiming that the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica served as defining evidence that human activity has moved us into a new epoch. Indeed one of the defining features of The New Ecology is Schmitz’s assertions that the idea that Earth’s biota is doomed is incorrect: “[t]he New Ecology reveals that species may rapidly evolve and adapt to their changing environmental conditions,” and, perhaps more importantly given the concerns of many today, “[t]his gives hope that the future may not be as dire as it is often portrayed” (p. 104). In other words, while some see a grim picture, Schmitz, a professor of ecology at Yale University, declares, “the realization that evolutionary and ecological processes operate contemporaneously offers some hope that species have the capacity to adapt and thereby sustain ecological functioning” (p. 102). In support of this view Schmitz further argues that new computational tools now allow us to account for feedbacks and nonlinearities. With the ability to understand the dynamics of complex ecological systems, he claims, we are able to use models to predict how feedbacks propagate throughout food webs in response to disturbances, such as harvesting. Researchers can also explore different scenario outcomes.
Art Nouveau In Buenos Aires: A love story
by Anat Meidan
Ediciones Polígrafa, 2017
242 pp. Trade, US$ 55; 45.00€
Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute
Posted on Leonardo Reviews
After the recent election in the United States, I was drawn to the title of Anat Meidan’s exquisite book, Art Nouveau In Buenos Aires: A love story. How I longed for a love story to escape the raucous tone! Meidan’s book seemed like a particularly apt vehicle since Art Nouveau was the first art movement I fell in love with as a young artist. As it turned out, this volume was the perfect salve. The author both conveyed her love for this city and shared the joy she found in exploring it:
A museum curator with a special interest in the Art Nouveau movement, the book succeeds because Meidan’s love story combines a passion for the art with a scholarly perspective. We learn that the project was seeded when she purchased a postcard with images of local Art Nouveau buildings in the city. (An image of the card is among the book’s illustrations.) This postcard led her to become a “collector of buildings” as she turned the city into an open-air museum. The large format of the volume, it measures 10×12 inches, readily conveys the elegance of her “building collection.” Credit is also due to Gustavo Sosa Pinilla, a leading architectural photographer who accompanied her on the expeditions around the city. Indeed, the use of multiple photographs helps her present both the architecture and its details. Her presentation was also helped by the generosity of people she met. She tells us that in many cases her evident interest in a site led to personal tours of private spaces. Looking back, Meidan sums us the project as follows: