Saturday, June 23, 2012

Butterflies Worth Knowing / Clarence M. Weed -- Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1925

Not having any significant knowledge of butterflies, it is difficult for me to know how reliable Butterflies Worth Knowing is. First of all, much has changed since it was copyrighted in 1917 and published in 1925. Large swaths of butterfly habitat have been destroyed, migration routes are different, and climate conditions are changing. Nonetheless, much in the work is in all likelihood quite reliable.

The introduction to Butterflies Worth Knowing describes the behaviors, life histories, and attributes common to most all butterflies and provides a little advice on photographing and collecting butterflies. It then provides entries for scores of butterfly families, tribes, and individual species found in North America. Accounts of the discernable features of the butterflies are likely still reliable. The descriptions of their life histories, though, may be less so. The author, Clarence Weed, frequently acknowledges that there are gaps in the current understanding of one or another species. Indeed, he ocassionally suggests a fertile research topic for young entomologists. His very caution makes one wonder if there also might not be mistakes in his settled understanding, particularly as the growth of our knowledge of the natural world has changed significantly since Butterflies Worth Knowing was written.

Regardless of these doubts, reading the work cover to cover (as opposed to using it as a reference book) likely leaves the lay reader with a better impression of North American butterflies generally. Unfortunately, reading it cover to cover subjects the reader to a repetition of details describing slightly varying species, making it a bit mind numbing. The best use of Butterflies Worth Knowing would be to consult it in conjuction with a recently published reference work on butterflies to see just how our understanding has changed.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Planning for Uncertainty: Living Wills and Other Advance Directives... / David John Doukas and William Reichel -- Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2007

Medical science has reached a stage of development in which the ability to keep a person's body alive well outstrips its ability to maintain worthwhile cognitive functions. Consequently, irreversible comas, persistent vegetative states, and extended periods of unconsciousness during the final stages of an illness are increasingly common. This raises troubling questions for families and doctors regarding what sort of treatment is appropriate in such cases. In response, living wills, durable powers of attorney, and other advance directives have become increasingly popular. Still only a small percent of people draw up such instruments. Planning for Uncertainty: Living Wills and Other Advance Directives\ by Doukas and Riechel provides a useful guide to thinking about these critical situations and offers practical advice on drawing up an advance directive.

The work provides some background for the legal development of advance medical directives, but it's real strength is providing the reader with the opportunity to think carefully and systematically about issues that they might otherwise consider in a jumbled and confused way. However, when all is said and done, it seems that the purpose of most advance directives is to provide assurance to the doctors and family members of an unconscious patient that withholding or withdrawing treatment is a morally acceptable path. In some cases, it can also bind a family to withhold or withdraw treatment or establish obstacles to such a course.

There are numerous books of this sort in print. One may be as good as another. Anyone seeking to draw up an advance directive would be well advised to investigate the state laws that regulate such documents.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Happiness Project / Gretchen Rubin -- N.Y.: Harper, 2009

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin is the sort of light reading that you'll find in popular, daily blogs. It fits into the gimmicky genera of "The Year of... books" (the year of eating locally, the year of living Biblically, the year of cooking Julia Child recipes, etc...). Rubin's year consisted in making a "project" of being happier. Rubin chose this project on the belief that being happy is often thought to be the most important goal in life and while she felt she already was happy, becoming happier would not be a bad goal.

Her project divided into committing herself to twelve resolutions, one of which she concentrated on each month of the year. Actually, her twelfth resolution was to fulfill all her previous eleven resolution at once. My initial reaction to the project was somewhat negative: turning being happy into a project seemed rather artificial to me, but there were enough thoughtful passages early in the book to make me think that the book would eventually offer something worthwhile. Furthermore, Rubin anticipated nearly every facile criticism of the book that crossed my mind. She dispensed with them in a rather charming and disarming way, writing something along lines of, "O.K., but if I'm going to be happy, I've got to be myself, so I'm going to do this anyway." Fair enough.

The most serious objection to her work is the superficiality of her concept of happiness. Despite claiming to have read Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and the Dalai Lama (or some other treatment(s) of Buddhism), her notion of happiness is by and large the temporary psychological state that has its epitome in euphoria. Contrast this with, in particular, Aristotle's concept of happiness (or eudaimonia) which goes well beyond euphoria to involve living a good life. If Rubin truly wants to follow the path recommended by philosophers through the ages, then the happiness that she ought to seek should reach beyond her first-person perceptions of her own emotional state. Certainly, pleasant experiences are likely to be a component of happiness, or a good life, but Rubin seems to think that the highest good is built on these experiences. To be fair, she occasionally recognizes that happiness contains components that are other than euphoria, but the bulk of her book is a compendium of tips on on boosting one's mood. One wonders if Prozac, Paxil, or Ecstacy might be an easier and more effective approach.

Despite this criticism, her mood-enhancing tips are frequently worthwhile and given the success of her blog, they appear to resonate with many blog-readers; some of whom claim to be following her explicit advice and engaging in "happiness projects" of their own. One should not diminish the importance of maintaining a happy state of mind nor deny that it can be cultivated. Rubin reports that her project was successful, and if it leads others to enhance their own happiness, it is all to the good. The danger is that it will feed narcissistic and ego-centric tendencies that are a significant obstacle to the general happiness.