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on February 15, 2010
Very interesting book by Dorian Sagan that takes a different approach to the big questions in science and philosophy. Sagan is at times hilarious, especially in his critiques of religion and creationism. He is a big thinker with some unique insights on nature. I recommend this book as well as his book from years ago entitled "Biospheres" which is in some ways similar and had a profound effect on my own ways of perceiving nature. As with his late father Carl Sagan, you cannot go wrong with anything Dorian writes, nor with his mother Lynn Margulis who is a renowned biologist. Don't miss Dorian and Lynn's book "Microcosmos" if you want to know the foundations of life, climate and who really controls the show.
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on November 7, 2008
This book talks about science but is not science. It is more like thoughts of a new-age guru.
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on July 1, 2008
I bought this book in the University of California at Berkeley book store and read the last half of it while flying back to El Paso, Texas. It was well worth the price of admission! Dorian Sagan is an interesting and stimulating thinker. In "Notes from the Holocene: A Brief History History of the Future" he often argues, or at least introduces, both sides of an argument. In this he is quite superior to writers of straight polemics. He makes few pronouncements, but invites the reader to take part in the discussion as an equal. This does not mean that he lacks an opinion. It just means that he knows that his opinion could change, based on new evidence, and so has not invested his ego into absolute statements of "facts," when there is uncertainty. By the time you finish reading the book you are convinced however of the basic weirdness of the universe and of the planet earth in particular, and of the fragile state of human existence.

This book is a treat for those who think about such issues as the existence of a creator, the effects of human-induced global warming, the possibility of a living planet, the Anthropic Principle, the tragedy of the commons and other stimulating questions. While Sagan does not solve most of these (this is not his purpose in any case), he certainly gives the reader something to ponder. I highly recommend this book for those who would plumb the depths of such perennial questions. You may not always like Sagan's take on these issues, but he will make you see many questions from a new and often surprising perspective.
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on October 16, 2007
If you enjoy philosophy, history of human consciousness, creative speculative thinking and the fine arts of nature as manifest over the past 4,000,000,000 years you will enjoy this book. Notes from the Holocene is both very smart and totally unpretentious. Equally important, for the reader's pleasure, it is at once profound and hilarious.

Dorian Sagan's "Brief History of the Future" is way pre- and post- postmodern. At times I felt I was on a train to nowhere, lucky enough to be seated near Douglas Adams and Foucault having a heart-felt chat.

With sleight-of-hand artistry, Sagan deftly deconstructs our trained-incapacities--we see our delusional projections (aka reality) for what they are. While making us feel we are part of the continuity of 4,000 million years of life on this planet, Sagan uncovers our arrogant self-importance and, at the same time, leaves room for wonder. Notes from the Holocene, much the way Shakespeare's Cleopatra does, moves us into re-cognizing the difference(s) between delusion and illusion--between disjunctive destruction (of much of the planet and ourselves) and visionary imagination.

If you enjoy philosophy, science, evolution of planet Earth, and the ins and out of humans thinking about these things, you'll enjoy this book. If you don't, my hunch is you will enjoy the book anyway. Notes from the Holocene is simply a good read, at he desk with highlighter in hand or at the beach with a glass of wine.
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on December 17, 2007
Holocene is a sophisticated, energized, literary-scientific essay in geoecology that is also a very enjoyable read. The breadth, depth and seriousness of Dorion Sagan's scholarship is unexpectedly punctuated every couple of pages with his captivating dry wit. At times I imagined portions as a script for a standup comedy act - perhaps combined with a few magic routines - Dorion being among other things a professional magician. If this book were to be developed into a Holocene television series paralleling his father's Cosmos, it would be equally eloquent; yet enhanced with a touch of science fiction vaudeville. StarTrek's Data might costar.

The inclusion of numerous references to science fiction (cf Robert Dick) reflects the essay's dual polemic - as much an exploration as an update of current thinking. Unlike classical mechanical science that tends to see the future as pre-determined by universal laws of necessary causal connection, the science fiction mind is that of the engineer, a participant in the universe, who wants to know, not what must be, but what could be. And it is through this portal that Dorion connects us to literature and philosophy. The breadth of the scientific examination is inspiring, covering the billion of years of Gaia's evolution partitioned into the viewpoints founded on what has been recognized since ancient times as the four thermodynamic phases - earth, water, air and fire.

The central theme of Holocene is best understood as a probing response to the question - Where is geoecology leading us? It is both a statement and broadening of the inquiry.

Although understated, there is a palpable sense that we are involved in an historic intellectual transition. Darwin looked at Nature and saw a Malthusian competition of all against all. Vernadsky looked at the same Nature and saw a diverse and highly organized community equally as cooperative as competitive. Many of us recall the experience when first introduced to the Darwinian theory of wondering 'if it is competitive, and obviously humans are the winners, then what are all these other life forms doing still hanging around'. Richard Dawkins modernized the competitive metaphor, in his book The Selfish Gene. The natural expectation of the Darwinian tradition is for there to be only one winning species. The overwhelming evidence against this has been handled by introducing what philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn referred to as 'auxiliary hypotheses' - plausible exception clauses. But modern ecology, epitomized in Vernadsky's 'biosphere', sees an organizational structure completely unexplained by The Darwinian Research Program. James Lovelock's ecological research program captured in his Gaia Hypothesis serves as the modern counterpoint and prospective successor to Dawkins and the dwindling Neo-Darwinian research program.

The depth of the intellectual transition was pointed out by Sagan in his previous book, with Eric Schneider, Into The Cool. And it is here even more explicit in the Earth, Water, Air and Fire partitioning of the presentation. Mechanics, the cornerstone of modern science, doesn't handle the full breadth and significance of thermodynamics. The argument that irreversible processes are 'really' reversible processes, has been hanging uncomfortably in the intellectual air of the science community - 'magically suspended' - supported by increasingly implausible 'auxiliary hypotheses'.

Sagan reviews complexity, chaos and self-organization, the most recent attempts in the 20th century to make sense of irreversible processes, which remain unaccounted for in the physicists representation of thermodynamics as reversible.

Thermodynamics is a natural component of the cluster of concepts associated with modern ecology. But this is thermodynamics more in the Carnot tradition - the engineering tradition - than in the Maxwell/Boltzmann tradition. Awareness of the connection to engineering is welling up slowly. Peter Atkins, in his book, The Second Law (page 7), points out, honestly if unexpectedly that: "The aims adopted and the attitudes struck by Carnot and Boltzmann epitomize thermodynamics. Carnot traveled toward thermodynamics from the direction of the engine, then the symbol of industrial society: his aim was to improve its efficiency. Boltzmann traveled to thermodynamics from the atom, the symbol of emerging scientific fundamentalism: his aim was to increase our comprehension of the world at the deepest levels then conceived. Thermodynamics still has both aspects, and reflects complementary aims, attitudes, and applications."

Sagan more than anyone else in the modern ecological movement sees - or perhaps, more accurately, senses - the engineering perspective and, most insightfully, its connection to Enlightenment thinking. Both Lazere and Sadi Carnot were early graduates of the first engineering university, France's Ecole Polytechnique - and deeply involved in the French Revolution. The same natural philosophy was at the heart of the American Revolution where the concept 'evolutionary progress' was taken for granted. Thomas Jefferson's repeated themes combined faith in the 'useful sciences' (viz engineering) and the laws of nature with ideals of freedom, beauty and progress. None of this makes sense in the framework defined by the Darwinian program - as it remains tethered to time-reversible mechanics.

In the first half of the 20th century, American Pragmatist, John Dewey, clarified the distinct conceptual clusters associated with the Spectator and Participant approaches to understanding our place in the universe. The Spectator sees the universe as an isolated mechanical system where our inquiry as to the nature of the universe has no consequence in altering the nature of the universe. Dewey points that the Spectator perspective is internally incoherent and self-referentially paradoxical. From the Participant perspective Dewey treats the mechanical sciences as sub-perspectives - special cases that only make sense in the broader context of freedom, beauty and progress.

It is in the Participant's engineering perspective - defined by the enterprise of problem-solving - that C.P. Snow's separation between the sciences and the humanities disappears. As Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon put it, 'problem solving is trying to move from a given state to a more desired, more valued state'.

My main criticism of Holocene, as well as the otherwise excellent, Into The Cool, is that Sagan's treatment of thermodynamics is still tied - although with obvious discomfort - to the mechanical metaphor presupposing that the overall organization of the universe is running down. A better guess is that this apparent decline - the so-called 'heat death' - is an artifact of trying to account for real, irreversible change in terms of a reversible mechanical framework. When we accept that the evolution of the biosphere, as well as the evolution of the cosmos, are real phenomena - explanations in terms of time-reversible mechanics simply inadequate.

Dorion Sagan, the magician, is well aware of the connections between science and magic. Notably up until the last few centuries, engineers who had mastered a technology - most often without any help from science - were often characterized as magicians, performing technological magic. Reverse engineering Nature to discover technological secrets (viz How does Nature do that?) is methodologically identical to trying to discover the secrets of a professional magic trick. I captured this quote during some now forgotten listserv discussion. Apologies to the now anonymous author. "What is astonishing is that when the development of a previously unknown structure is suddenly revealed as the result of new research, the feeling is often that of seeing the secret of a magic trick or illusion revealed. If there is an Intelligent Designer, he/she/it must be one (excuse the vernacular) helluva magician."

Dorion Sagan's Holocene moves us a step closer to a more magical, enchanting vision of our place in the universe - and to a Participant view of the universe as something like the cosmic engineering enterprise that Plato intimated over 2500 years ago in his dialogue Timaeus.
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on September 29, 2007
"Notes from the Holocene"
By Dorion Sagan
Sciencewriters / Chelsea Green Publishing
Reviewer: Reg Morrison

With wit, grace, and an encyclopedic fund of scientific and cultural data at his fingertips, Dorion Sagan adroitly tap-dances his way through four billion years of life on Earth in search of answers to the deepest questions humans can ask: Why do we humans exist? Is the Earth an organism? Can we save it from Global Warming?

In this he displays a fine grasp of the Earth's massive Gaian machinery and its multitude of biological feedbacks. This is hardly surprising of course, given his illustrious parents, the late Carl Sagan and Lynn Margulis, and his personal connection to the British mathematician-meteorologist James Lovelock, author of the Gaia concept.

I passionately share Dorion's disappointment with the many scientists who mistakenly assumed that Lovelock's adoption of the memorably metaphoric label `Gaia' represented an attempt to personalise the planet as an organism with its own agenda. He quotes Lovelock: "It has never been more than a metaphor--an aide pensée, no more serious than the thoughts of a sailor who refers to his ship as `she'."

Admirable too, is Dorion's comprehensive grasp of the chaotic and fractal nature of the universe at all scales of magnitude. And into this, with consumate ease, he manages to weave an extraordinary array of conceptual threads drawn from human culture--art, music, history, religion and philosophy--thereby creating an entirely fresh tapestry, studded with glittering quotes.

While his prodigious fund of science data is up-to-the minute, and his grasp of it seems effortess, his stream-of-consciousness literary style sits uneasily with me; as does his use of philosophical and religious aphorisms. However, I should here confess a strong personal bias against such references in a science-based book. My research indicates that traditional philosophers are almost as ignorant of the real world as popes, witchdoctors and politicians. I realise, of course, that this statement reflects a personal bias that most people don't share.
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on September 27, 2007
If I were to write a history of the Holocene Period at some time in the distant future, I would likely focus on Dorion Sagan's book, Notes from the Holocene, as a critical turning point in humanity's relationship with its environment. It is not so much that Sagan presents any new ideas; rather it is in his organization of many recent and old ideas into a cohesive epistemological system at a critical time in history when such a cohesive system is needed to understand and address pressing planetary issues such a global warming, pollution, peak oil, and population growth.

The epistemological shift advocated in Notes from the Holocene concerns our concept of life and its relation to our planet Earth. Is this third planet from the sun simply a rock upon which life maintains a foot hold in the universe, or has the thermodynamically complex self organizing, self maintaining, and self reproductive systems known as life so infiltrated this planet over the past 3.9 billion years that the planet itself exhibits these same characteristics; self organizing, through the ongoing recycling of material by tectonic processes; self maintaining through the distributive processes of weather and oceanic circulation systems; and self reproductive in its facilitation of a species that has evolved a predilection for exploring and colonizing other planets beyond this one?

The proposition of a living planet, where the constituents consists of the multitudes of species that we've organized into five taxonomic kingdoms function in conjunction with physical processes endemic to this particular planet, such as crustal plates moving along convection currents that are the result of heat given off by internal radioactive decay, air movement resulting from planetary spin, and temperature fluxes due to changing positions relative to the sun, will inevitably elicits accusations of anthropomorphizing ; undertaking a subjective as opposed to an objective inquiry. Sagan confronts these accusations head on presenting this idea of a super organism, variously called Gaia, Biosphere, Noosphere, and Life, as a system in complete conformity with the second law of thermaldynamics.

A living system, whether a bacterium, plant, person, or a planet, cannot be describe through the simple iteration of its basic components (modern Cartesian science), but must be understood through its behavior; the ongoing dynamic relationships between the components. Understanding things according to their parts requires that the individual components be isolated out of context and evaluated according to the linear effects they might have on other components. Through this process of reductionism, modernist science conflates the fundamental components of cognitions; the entity as it actually is, a dynamic system or subsystem of some greater system, and our conceptual abstraction of it, thus resulting in the fallacy of misplaced concreteness (Whitehead 1978; Rescher 2000). This fallacy is akin to conflating the referent and the interpretent in semiotics as argued by Pierce (Wiener 1958).

Vladimir Vernadskii, the father of biogeochemistry, proposed in the early twentieth century five criteria by which a living system can be defined.
1. First, a living process is energetic, obtaining and using energy from its environment.
2. Second, a living process is concentrative, accumulating selective elements.
3. Third, a living process is destructive, changing the nature of elements within its domain.
4. Forth, a living process is medium-forming, transforming and organizing its local environment, and
5. Fifth, a living process is transportation moving elements within, as well as into and out of, its domain, without reliance on gravity (Vernadskii, 1998).

All of these processes are evident in the various Earth system process presented by Sagan under the loosely constructed chapters of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, the four primary elements in classical Greek thought; the fifth and essential element, ether, being the emergent property unique to this planet, life. Life is presented, not a result of vitalism or divine action, but as an emergent property of a thermally dynamic system dissipating large amounts of energy for its self organization and self maintenance.

Sagan's blend of scientific and philosophical theory with science-fiction provides an interesting point-counter point between actual and possible futures with the science-fiction offering Kiplingesque vignettes to describe how the future might unfold given the driving imperatives of a planetary scale organism. Sagan, a confessed illusionist, also uses various science-fiction plots as distractions; a literary sleight-of-hand to distract the reader while building his arguments. Together, these two uses of the fictional help make the physics and scientific theory accessible and comprehendible to a wide audience.

From my vantage point in the distant future, I might point to one essential ingredient conspicuously missing from this treatment of dynamic self organizing systems; gravity, that force that on the cosmic scale flows up-hill against thermodynamics bringing things together, and on the local/global scale provide the dynamic perturbations required for self maintenance and that force systems into self organizing adaptive changes that result in new emergent properties.

The lack of integration of gravity's role in this planetary organism in no way diminishes the value of this book. It is informative and thought provoking, and offers a badly needed way of thinking productive to our future efforts to keep this living system we call home, and to maintaining our role as one of its constituent members. As such, Notes from the Holocene takes its place next to other cherished classics such as Edwin Abbot's Flatland,Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers' Order out of Chaos, and Doug Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe.

Abbott, E. A. 1984. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. Signet Classic. New York: New American Library.

Adams, D. 1979. A Hitch Hikers' Guide to the Universe. New York: Harmony Books.

Prigogine, I. and I. Stengers. 1984. Order out of Chaos: Man's new dialogue with nature., New York: Bantam Books.

Rescher, N. 2000. Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Vernadskii, V. I. 1998. The Biosphere. American Scientist, 33. New York: Copernicus; Springer-Verlag.

Whitehead, A. N. 1978. Process and reality. New York: The Free Press.

Wiener, P. P. (Editor), 1958. Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), New York: Dover Publications.
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This book is aptly named because it is a notebook of a wide variety of observations from science, science fiction novels, philosophy, pop culture and personal anecdotes. It is essentially a discussion of the Gaia hypothesis, and a critique of reductionist science. The book bears a slight comparison with Derrick Jensen's Endgame, but lacks a moral and political critique of human civilization, is more reportorial, and does not use the first person as effectively as Jensen does. Notes from the Holocene also reminds one of Mike Davis' books a little bit, but is not as focused on a specific topic and, doesn't dig into it's subject matter as Davis does. The lack of investigation is puzzling. For example, Sagan writes that "it is said" that Johnny Rotten applied to study marine biology. Why not verify this claim with the marine station or with Rotten himself? Although sources are provided, the book would be more valuable with detailed, numbered, references. But it is not an academic book. It is a popular book that will introduce many new discoveries in planetary science to aficionados of science fiction, and will give scientists a view of the cultural context in which they work.
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on March 10, 2008
NOTES FROM THE HOLOCENE: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FUTURE BY DORION SAGAN: Dorion Sagan, son of the late astronomer and author Carl Sagan, attempts to outline our possible future in his latest book now in paperback, Notes From the Holocene. Sagan uses every informational tool possible, not just drawing from the sciences of physics and evolutionary biology, but also from "science fiction, knowledge of magic tricks, and even a little metaphysics to speculate on basics questions of who and what we are in relationship to the Earth and the universe." It is a book that at times seems almost silly in its thoughts, drawing from ideas that are certainly not facts, and yet when viewed as a whole is comprehensive of the way things are and what they might turn out to be. As humans, we are always asking the "Why are we here?" question, sometimes with our own answers in mind. Notes From the Holocene is Dorion Sagan's answer to this question and many more.

The book is split into four distinct parts: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Each section goes into immense detail about these specific components, educating the reader greatly in these areas, but at the same time, Sagan ties each part significantly to the overall idea of the book. The afterword, "Twelve Mysteries," does an excellent job of quickly summing up his answers to the questions posed throughout the book. The twelve questions are:

Why does life exist?
Why do we drink water?
Can we save the earth from global warming?
Are human beings central and special?
Is it possible that we've arisen by pure chance?
Is the Earth an organism?
Are we part of its exobrain?
If Earth is alive, can it reproduce?
Can the universe?
What does the future hold in store for us?
Does God exist?
What is the nature of human reality?

Whether you're an absolute scientist, a fundamentalist, or one who believes in reading the future in tea leaves, there is something for everyone in this book. The key is that Sagan is open minded and non-judgmental in every regard, saying that nothing is right or wrong, for nothing is certain, but here are all the possibilities. Notes From the Holocene is a book that may not have your answer to life's questions, but it may get you thinking more about these questions, and start you on a journey with a destination where you will have your own satisfactory answers to these great questions.
[...]
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on July 16, 2010
I am going to type my review below in the same mannerism that drove me crazy in the book.

Notes from the Holocene is a quasi-science book, by that I mean that it talks about scientific subjects but isn't actually a science book, which contains some interesting (sometimes illuminating) ideas but on the whole the ideas drift toward the metaphysical (of which I am not a huge fan) but I could probably have gotten past that, especially if I'd found the sections that the other reviewer deem so humorous, but I couldn't get past the run-on sentences that subreferenced themselves ad-nasuem (and made way to many parenthetical comments) and thus forced me to re-read each sentence multiple times in order to follow the thought (maybe someone transcribed a stream-of-conscious rant?) so in the end I had to put it down unfinished though before doing so I considered making an informal count of the sparse number of sentences on each page so that I could include it in this review (in the end I didn't as I was just too frustrated with the text to invest any more time).
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