Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Book Review


A Natural History of the Senses,
by Diane Ackerman
1990; paperback, 330 pages

I have had this book in my library for several years, but only now got around to reading it.  Frankly, it is superb.  The author begins by talking about the sense of smell, in minute detail.  With equal excitement and depth of knowledge and research, she then proceeds through the other senses: touch, taste, hearing, and vision. Interestingly, nowhere in the book does she mention nerves, or the nervous system.

           The author has a PhD from Cornell University, and began her writing career as a poet. She then began writing books, and at this time has published 34. As the New York Times said in its review, “in A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman conducted a splendid tour of the human body's tools for interpreting the world around it. The simple inventory of smell, touch, taste, hearing and vision provided a sturdy structure into which Ms. Ackerman crammed all sorts of arcane and beguiling information. Because the senses are both natural and cultural – we share them with animals, but they also form the bases of human institutions – she could move smoothly from, say, the mating habits of mice to the activities of the international perfume industry. All seemed to hang together in one big sensory carnival.” That says it well.

           To give you a sense of her style, Here’s the opening paragraph of her chapter on Sight, the last of the senses she describes.

Look in the mirror. The face that pins you with its double gaze reveals a chastening secret: you are looking into a predator's eyes. Most predators have eyes set right on the front of their heads, so they can use binocular vision to sight and track their prey. Our eyes have separate mechanisms that gather the light, pick out an important or novel image, focus it precisely, pinpoint it in space, and follow it. They work like topflight stereoscopic binoculars. Prey, on the other hand, have eyes at the sides of their heads, because what they really need is peripheral vision, so they can tell when something is sneaking up behind them. Something like us. If it's a jungle out there in the wilds of the city, it may be partly because the streets are jammed with developed predators. Our instincts stay sharp, and, when necessary, we just decree one another pray and have done with it. Whole countries sometimes. Once we domesticated fire as if it were some beautiful temperamental animal; harnessing both its energy and its light, it became possible for us to cook food to make it easier to chew and, and, as we found out eventually, to kill germs. But we can eat cold food perfectly well, too, and did for thousands of years. What does it say about us that, even in refined dining rooms, our taste is for meat served at the temperature of a freshly-killed antelope or warthog?

She has a clever writing style, as I think this paragraph suggests, and a tremendous ability to make things that don't seem to connect at first, connect. For example, after finishing her chapters on the senses, she has a chapter which she calls “Fantasia.” In this chapter she discusses, for example, how many of us associate sounds with colours. And she describes the quirks of many of her friends and their sometimes-exotic practices. For example, a novelist named Paul West “listened nonstop to sonatinas by Ferruccio Busoni” while writing one of his books.

I'd like to bring this commentary to a close by quoting from yet another paragraph from the book – this time, part of the postscript. Read it, and consider the implications:

…many animals have infrared, heat sensing, electromagnetics, and other sophisticated ways of perceiving. The praying mantis uses ultrasonics to communicate. Both the alligator and the elephant use infrasonics. The duckbill platypus swings its bill back and forth underwater using it as an antenna to pick up electrical signals from the muscles of the crustaceans, frogs and small fish on which it preys. The vibratory sense, so highly developed in spiders, fish, bees, and other animals, needs to be studied more in human beings....  

Citing an enormous range of sources, from authors of fiction, science writers and an amazing array of others, she has produced in this book a masterpiece. I will be reading other books of hers, soon. This book is wonderful; reading it gave me the sense of being in the presence of genius.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Book Review and a Comment, Jews, God and History


Book Review by Peter McKenzie-Brown

Max Dimont: Jews, God and History: A modern interpretation of a four-thousand year story

Published in 1962, Simon and Schuster, New York; 421 pages plus extensive bibliography and index. The book has sold some two million copies, in two editions.

My copy is a first edition, which I first read at age 15. Max Isaac Dimont (12 August 1912 – 25 March 1992) was a Finnish-American historian and a practicing Jew whose writings were virtually all about Judaism.

The book covers the history of the Jews from approximately 2,000 BCE until 1962 – roughly four millennia. It follows the story of the Jews from their beginnings as a group of Middle Eastern nomads through their development as a people and the many impacts their religious ideas had on world civilization. For example, the world’s most widely practiced religion today, Christianity, is an offshoot of a Jewish sect that began roughly 2,000 years ago.

Of particular interest to Christians today, perhaps, is that a study of the Dead Sea Scrolls shows how the world’s most widely practiced religion evolved. Before Jesus of Nazareth arrived on the scene, a Jewish sect – the Essenes – had fully developed the ideas that Jesus now represents.

I personally have no religious convictions, but because of my long-standing interest in human history I found this discussion to be of particular interest. In a comparison discussion of the Essene and Christian creeds, Dimont cites A. Dupont-Summer, a professor at the Sorbonne. These comments deserve quoting.

Everything in the Jewish New Covenant heralds and prepares the way for the Christian New Covenant. The Galilean Master, as He is presented to us in the writings of the New Testament, appears in many respects as an astonishing reincarnation of the Teacher of Righteousness. Like the latter, He preached penitence, poverty, humility, love of one’s neighbor, chastity. Like him, He prescribed observance of the law of Moses, the whole Law, but the Law finished and perfected, thanks to His own revelations. Like him, He was the Elect and the Messiah of God, the Messiah Redeemer of the World. Like Him, He was the object of the hostility of the priests, the party of the Sadducees. Like him, He was condemned and put to death. Like him, He pronounced judgment on Jerusalem, which was taken and destroyed by the Romans for having put Him to death. Like him, He founded a church whose adherents fervently awaited His glorious return. In the Christian Church, just as in the Essene Church, the essential rite is the sacred meal, whose ministers are the priests. Here and there, at the heart of each community, there is the overseer, the “bishop.” And the ideal of both Churches, is essentially that of unity, communion in love – even going so far as the sharing of common property.

All these similarities – and here I only touched upon this subject – taken together constitute a very impressive whole. The question at once arises, to which of the two sects, the Jewish or the Christian, does the priority belong? Which of the two was able to influence the other? The reply leaves no room for doubt. The teacher of righteousness died about 65 to 53 BC; Jesus the Nazarene died about 30AD. In every case in which the resemblance compels or invites us to think about borrowing, this was on the part of Christianity. But on the other hand, the appearance of the faith in Jesus – the foundation of the New Church – can scarcely be explained without the real historic activity of a new Prophet, a new Messiah, who has rekindled the flame and concentrated on himself the adoration of men. [Quoted on pages 135-6.}

Later chapters cover a mixed bag of historical events – from the esteem Jews held in many parts of the world because so much of the religion reflects basic morality, such horrors as the ghettoization of the Jews in the modern era to the atrocities carried out by the Nazis in World War II. I find the lead to that chapter, titled “The Brown-Shirted Christ Killers,” both chilling and illuminating. The chapter begins with these paragraphs:

On January 30, 1933, history played a trice on the world and made Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany. Jubilant Germans spilled into streets “heiling” the brown-shirted stormtroopers marching in triumph down Unter den Liden, little knowing that in a few short years they would drench the world in blood and go down in history as the barbarian’s barbarians; little suspecting that within one decade they would choke in the sands of the Sahara, drown in the waters of the Atlantic, die on the steppes of Russia, and be crushed in the ruins of their own cities.

From that first day in power to that April day in 1945 when, with Berlin ablaze, Hitler shot himself through the mouth, the Germans exterminated with systematized murder 12 million men, women and children, inn concentration camps, by firing squads, and in in gas chambers. Of these 12 million victims, 7 million were Christians and 5 million were Jews – 1.4 Christians for every Jew. But because the Nazis shouted “Kill the Jews,” the world blinded itself to the murder of Christians.

Hundreds of figures people these pages, many of which most readers will be familiar with. These range from Moses and Jesus of Nazareth to Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud; from the writers of the Talmud to those who wrote the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.

Dimont’s writing style and passion for his subject make it a pleasure to read (or, in my case, reread) this book. It’s hard to imagine, but the revised version – the one I haven’t read – is probably even better than the first.


When I showed this post to a friend with Jewish family, he told me a story compelling to those of us living in the COVID 19 era. The story goes back to the outbreak of WWII. At that time, when sixty thousand Jews lived in Thessaloniki, Greece. That vibrant community was dynamic, and strongly influenced by the Jewish community. For example, the port of Thessaloniki was closed on Saturday, because it was Shabbat (the sabbath) which requires “strict adherence as a day of prayer.”

It was in this glorious community that the Nazi terror brutally arose. Hitler took Greece by storm to secure his southern wing before launching Operation Barbarossa and the offensive against Russia. Out of the 60,000 Jews in Thessaloniki, about 50,000 were exterminated in Birkenau. The small number of survivors included the Bourla family who in 1961 had a son named him Israel-Abraham (Albert).

Albert studied veterinary medicine, receiving his doctorate in reproductive biotechnology from Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University. At age 34 he moved to the United States where he integrated into the medical industry. He soon joined Pfizer company, where he became head of global vaccines. In 2019, he became Pfizer’s CEO, and led the company's efforts to find a COVID 19 vaccine – the vaccine which is already saving the lives of millions around the world.

Put another way, 75 years after the Nazis murdered so many in the port that was his family’s home, Dr. Bourla is leading humankind’s race to save millions. Yet the antisemitism goes on. As Pfizer was leading the world in its pandemic response, according to a Jewish newspaper tropes about Bourla’s Jewish heritage were widespread in Greece. One Greek paper, for example, “claimed that Bourla is evil and the vaccine that Pfizer is working on is actually deadly.” According to this online trope, “Albert Bourla wants to ‘stick the needle, into Greeks, delivering what the paper described as ‘poison’ in the guise of a vaccine.”

In what must become a better world, among some madcap groups the beat goes on.