Thursday, June 27, 2013

Exterminate the brutes

The reviews for The Book of Barely Imagined Beings have been good (see, for example, here and here).  The book has been longlisted for the Royal Society science book prize and the Society of Authors Biology book prize (general category).

Customer reviews at have been varied. Some have been disappointed that the pictures are only in black and white. Others have liked the text. William Suddaby of Sugarloaf Key,  Florida (More than a Bestiary, June 23, 2013) writes:
A book of cosmic importance. If you have ever wondered who are we, where are we, and where might we be going, this is a book for you. It is a delight to read and hold -- breathtakingly wise, startling, preeminently significant for the 21st Century. 
The most unfavourable review of which I am aware appears in the Good Reading Guide. Harely J Sims accuses me of anti-humanism and finds my sociopolitics obnoxious, associating me with “the extreme environmental and animal-rights movements.”

Mr Sims is welcome to find my sociopolitics obnoxious so long as he understands what they actually are. It is clear that at present has no idea. An epigraph for the book, and one which I quote most in talks, is from Montaigne:
The most barbarous of our maladies is to despise our being.
This speaks to an explicitly pro-human viewpoint and the celebration of human capabilities throughout the book. The fact that many of our capabilities are grounded in things we share with other animals does not diminish them.

I am not going to respond in detail to his criticism, much of which is daft, but I will take two points by way of illustration.

1) I do not write that giant sponges are the ancestors of human beings. To find what I actually write see page 31.

2) Sims takes issue with the description of the First World War as an occasion on which Europeans killed each other on a scale matched only by their destruction of native peoples overseas in the previous few decades. But consider the following:
Total casualties in the four years of WW1: about 37 million, of which 16m dead and ±20m wounded.
Starvation to death of peasants in late 19th century British India resulting from government policies: 30 to 60 million.
Deaths of natives in Congo caused by the Belgian regime, 1880/90s: 2 to 15 million.
During the Italian pacification of Libya a quarter of Cyrenaica's population was killed.
The Herero and Namaqua genocide by German forces in Southwest Africa 1904-1907  is recognized as the first genocide of the 20th century.
These are just a few examples from a much longer list of brutal policies and outright atrocities committed by the European colonial powers and the United States in the period 1850 to 1914, not to mention earlier outrages. Not all were deliberate acts of extermination. All were associated with policies intended to keep subject peoples under control and shore up imperial power.

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