Business Books: The cover vs. the core

7 12 2009

For a person who deeply loves Biology and keeps blogging about Darwin, I have to confess: I never read The Origin of Species, only parts of it. There, I said it. I actually tried to go through it a few times, the last attempt being via Stanza on my iPhone:

Stanza for the iPhone: Origin of Species

Heck, I haven’t even skimmed Origin‘s Cliff’s Notes (that’s just a figure of speech: there’s none, actually) so you can say that my knowledge of what Darwin said or thought is like second-hand smoking or back-seat driving: mostly hear-say. Some saving grace are those 5 years spent at University studying Biology. Furthermore, I would guess that most Biology students (at least in Brazil) have never seen a copy of Origin either.

On a smaller scale, many of us have a similar approach with business books. We have not read most of them – well except maybe Sacha did :-) , but we often have an opinion about them, typically based on indirect evidence.

I usually don’t go through the same book twice – life is short and time is at a premium, but I recently made an exception with The Wisdom of Crowds (2004) and The Long Tail (2006), two books that have been much maligned by supposedly championing the advent of new business models that never materialized or that failed to deliver at the promise.

The Long Tail and The Wisdom of Crowds

The Long Tail and The Wisdom of Crowds

Their respective authors even had faceoffs of sorts with the excellent Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point and Blink fame, one friendly, the other not so much. By the way, if you are unfamiliar with Slate’s Book Club feature, you are in for a treat. It’s kind of The Next Supermodel for the written world. I know that doesn’t sound very enticing, but the series is really good.

The major problem I see with both books is not their content: it’s their covers. Both books are fairly balanced in their core and depict scenarios showing both supporting evidence and possible shortcomings for their arguments. But their covers are not as nuanced. Why the future of business is selling less of more and Why the many are smarter than the few, besides sounding like catch phrases written by the same marketing wiz, are hardly shy in the over-promising department.

My learning going through the re-reading process is that I have a much better appreciation for the content of these books now that they don’t have all the buzz around them. It’s like listening to popular songs from the past years after they fell in oblivion. You can more clearly see their actual merits and limitations, without being so influenced by the media. So, if you haven’t yet, give them a try, you may still learn a thing or two, no matter if you believe in their premises or not.

I can’t help but think that, if The Origin of Species was published today, instead of the dull sub-title The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, it would bring something like: Why everything you knew about life will change forever.

The Origin of Species, original cover

The Origin of Species, original cover (Darwin Online)





Five things I didn’t know about Darwin

28 02 2009

You should probably know by now that in 2009 we celebrate 200 years of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years since “The Origin of Species” was first published. I’ve been feasting on all the information flooding in the media about him, and I learned quite a bit about the man and the book in the last few months. Here’s my top 5 list, in no particular order.

1. A dinasty of sorts
The last publication by Darwin, written just 2 weeks before he died, was about a tiny clam found on a beetle leg. Nothing particularly interesting there. The person sending Charles the specimen was Walter Drawbridge Crick, a shoemaker and amateur naturalist. Even less remarkable, one could say, until you learn that Walter would eventually have a grandson named Francis, of Watson & Crick’s double helix fame, arguably the second most important insight in Biology, and perhaps in all sciences (Source: National Geographic Magazine).

2. Evolution
The word “Evolution”, so associated with Darwin in our collective mind, never appears in “The Origin of Species”. The closest you get is the last word in the last sentence of the book, a poetic gem of scientific literature: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” You can check that yourself by downloading a PDF version of the book here (Source: Quirks and Quarks podcast, CBC).

3. Survival of the fittest
Even more puzzling is the fact that the term “survival of the fittest” was first coined by Herbert Spencer in the book “The principles of biology” (1864), and only shows up in late editions of Origin, duly acknowledging Spencer’s authorship: “I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.  But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”. (Sources: The Phrase Finder and Gutemberg project).

4. The destiny of species
Long before coming up with his theory about where the species came from, many of Charles’ objects of study ended up in his stomach. Darwin used to eat several of the animals he helped describing, including, but not limited to, water-hogs (capivaras for Brazilians, a REALLY big rat, in fact the largest rodent in the world), birds of prey like the caracara, and armadillos. I guess that to provide a comprehensive description of a species, behaviour and looks were not enough: the more information the better :-) . I learned about this bizarre piece of trivia while watching the excellent “Darwin’s Legacy” course by Stanford University, available in iTunes U., but you can find a very good description of Darwin’s culinary adventures here.

5. Brazil according to Darwin
Charles, to put it mildly, didn’t enjoy much his time in Brazil, affirming at the end of his “Voyage of the Beagle” travelog: “On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country.” I’m not sure if slavery in Brazil was worse than in other parts of the world, but being the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery suggests that the Brazilian society of the 18th century relied heavily on it, to the point that even today Brazil still has the second largest population of black origin in the world (after Nigeria). On the other side, Darwin was awed by the forests in Brazil: “Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and decay prevail.  Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: — no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.” Both quotes are a bit surprising given their quasi-spiritual tone. Finally, to conclude on a lighter note, this is Darwin’s account of Carnival folies in Salvador, Bahia, written on March 4th, 1832:

This day is the first of the Carnival, but Wickham, Sullivan & myself nothing undaunted were determined to face its dangers. — These dangers consist in being unmercifully pelted by wax balls full of water & being wet through by large tin squirts. — We found it very difficult to maintain our dignity whilst walking through the streets. — Charles the V has said that he was a brave man who could snuff a candle with his fingers without flinching; I say it is he who can walk at a steady pace, when buckets of water on each side are ready to be dashed over him. After an hours walking the gauntlet, we at length reached the country & there we were well determined to remain till it was dark. — We did so, & had some difficulty in finding the road back again, as we took care to coast along the outside of the town. — To complete our ludicrous miseries a heavy shower wet us to the skins, & at last gladly we reached the Beagle. — It was the first time Wickham had been on shore, & he vowed if he was here for six months it should be only one.

Watching Darwin braving the festive Carnival crowds in Salvador would have been priceless. If only we had Flickr and YouTube back then!








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