Book: The death and life of great American cities - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: The death and life of great American cities
Saturday, 07 June 2003 at 05:54 pm
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Author: Jane Jacobs

Details: (c) Jane Jacobs 1961; Pub Pimlico 2000; ISBN 0-7126-6583-8

Verdict: The death and life of great American cities has some interesting ideas but the style got wearing.

Reasons for reading it: M was reading it a few months ago, and wanted to talk about some of the ideas in it.

How it came into my hands: M lent me his copy. One of many reasons why I like M is that when he recommends a book, he quite often lends it to me as well, rather than getting offended when I don't manage to find a copy very quickly.

I have to confess I don't read a great deal of non-fiction, and even less polemic regarding subjects I know nothing about (town planning, in this case). I generally have a bit of an aversion to being told what to think.

Anyway, the central theme of D&L seems to be that diversity (as opposed to segregation or unity of function) is a good thing for cities. This seems a reasonable contention, and Jacobs puts some plausible arguments in favour of this view. However, as she herself admits:

Readers who would like a fuller account, and a sympathetic account, which mine is not, should go to the sources


she doesn't present the opposing view particularly fairly, and I don't know enough about the subject to be able to make much judgement about one-sided polemic.

I am rather less convinced by her rejection of any possibility of generalizing or abstracting. Not only does she argue that large cities are an entirely different proposition from small cities, towns or any other kind of settlement (which may or may not be true, again, I don't know the field well enough to comment), but also that pretty much every aspect of town planning has to be judged on an individual, case by case basis. OK, so her ideal city is diverse, preferably even full of unique features, but as a scientist I find it very difficult to swallow an argument that does not proceed from properly validated evidence to a generalized theory. This attitude means that almost all her "evidence" is anecdotal, which I would regard as a weakness except that she is specifically arguing that only anecdotal (rather than, say, statistical) evidence is permissible when it comes to considering what makes a city successful.

Of course, I have to take Jacobs' word for both the situations she describes (as I have almost no first hand experience of any Great American Cities), and for her interpretations of these situations. But assuming that she's not completely distorting the situation, even allowing for the fact that her style of 'argument' is radically different from what I feel comfortable with, her views seem largely appealing.

But the style! She writes like a soap-box orator. Admittedly rather a good soap-box orator; for a couple of paragraphs she's amusing, accessible, witty, passionate, aphoristic and really got me on her side. Over several pages though, this starts to grate, and by the time I'd ploughed through 400 pages, it became downright irritating. I know I shouldn't judge works of non-fiction in literary terms, but I'm very much less likely to be convinced by an argument if its style alienates me to this extent.

Oh, the other reason D&L irritated me was dragging in inappropriate biological metaphors. Possibly I notice this more than a non-specialist might, but honestly, if you're trying to explain a technical subject to a lay audience, what on earth is the point of using metaphors from another technical discipline, and one that neither you nor your presumed audience know anything about?!

The book D&L most reminds me of is Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. Like Dawkins, Jacobs presents a fairly radical view of her discipline, and presents it in a way that is very accessible to a non-specialist reader (who may well not know the conventional view that is being rejected). But, also like Dawkins', her witty polemic tends to degenerate into "Anyone who disagrees with me is obviously stupid, so yah boo". At least Jacobs doesn't try to drag religion into the argument.


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wychwood: default
From:wychwood
Date:June 7th, 2003 11:53 am (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry
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So is Dawkins generally considered to be very one-sided? I've read The Selfish Gene (actually, I own a copy), but obviously have no background in the field. I found it very interesting, although his stuff generally annoys me.

I read one (called something like "Unweaving the Rainbow") where he attempts to prove that understanding the scientific background of things like rainbows doesn't detract from their beauty.

He seem determined to make the reader think that it is the *same* whether you know the background or not, rather than focusses on the different kind of beauty there is in understanding something rather than just seeing it.

It's focussing on the weakest aspect and trying to make it into an argument. Which is annoying. At least to me. And I also get angry with people who try to claim that religion and science cannot coexist.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:June 7th, 2003 12:07 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 12:07 pm (livredor's time)
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Dawkins is incredibly one-sided. I'd go so far as to call him a monomaniac.

The Selfish Gene can be summarized in two statements: 1) Natural selection operates at the level of the gene (in a fairly loosely defined sense of the word gene) not at the level of the species, and 2) Therefore there is no God.

1) is generally accepted among the scientific community; it is an important and largely valid insight of Dawkins'. However, as anyone with a modicum of philosophy will realize, 2) blatantly doesn't follow from 1).

The book is worth reading because it presents modern evolutionary theory very well for a non-specialist. The trouble with it is that it's horribly dogmatic.

Like, if Dawkins' problem with religion is that it requires people to take things on faith rather than think critically (which I think is unfair, but that's another thing), why is he himself completely dismissive of anyone who disagrees with either his scientific view or his atheist fundamentalism? (And he tries to pretend they are the same thing, which is just dishonest.) This seems to me hypocritical, frankly.
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wychwood: default
From:wychwood
Date:June 7th, 2003 12:44 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry
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Thanks. It's good to get an informed opinion on something like this :)
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:June 9th, 2003 10:04 am (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 06:04 am (rysmiel's time)
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Dawkins is the sort of screaming monomaniac who has the potential to do his side more harm than a dozen literate intelligent people on the other side, and he does not appear to grasp neutral evolution, or evolution of evolvability, or anything else that recomplicates or acts around narual selection.

I must admit, I'm very fond of Death and Life, because it paradigm-shifted how I see cities, particularly in terms of the difference variety of uses make; which I thought she was actually close to abstracting as a general principle.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:June 9th, 2003 11:10 am (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 11:10 am (livredor's time)
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Dawkins is the sort of screaming monomaniac who has the potential to do his side more harm than a dozen literate intelligent people on the other side
I am within a whisker of sharing your opinion, except that I don't like to badmouth[1] people if I can help it. I also would rather not see religious people as being on the opposite 'side' from atheists; people like Dawkins are very confrontational, but I don't think it has to work like that.

he does not appear to grasp neutral evolution, or evolution of evolvability
True, there are lots of things he doesn't write about (it goes with being a monomaniac), but then nine tenths of professional scientists are ignorant outside their speciality.

If a non-scientist is going to read only one book on evolution, I'd recommend, hm, let's see, Dennet or Ridley? one of the two anyway (depends on the person, I suppose), over Dawkins. But The Selfish Gene is far from being the worst popular science book I've ever read, and its one good idea has become pretty key to the whole field subsequently.

[1] The phrase I'm looking for is 'to speak lashon', to speak with a [nasty] tongue. I suppose the best English translation is probably 'malign', in its literal sense, but that's not strong enough for what I want.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:June 13th, 2003 09:49 am (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 05:49 am (rysmiel's time)
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I think the main flaw in Dawkins' grasp of the scale of his argument is in going from "evolution provides a better rationale for the development of life on Earth than a literal reading of the first chapters of Genesis" to "evolution removes the need a very particular value of deity" [ which is an argument I can sympathise with, though removing a need is not suffiicent to prove non-existence of ] to "there are no gods". He is being confrontational towards what strikes me as a very limited grasp on possible values of deity or why people believe in them. [ I feel tempted to qote about monotheists being almost atheists here.. ]

Myself, for a book about philosophy of evolution, I'd go with Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea; for something to tie together lots of different information into a compelling picture of evolution and selection pressures as they have worked on humans in a historical timescale, I'd recommend Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:June 13th, 2003 05:10 pm (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 05:10 pm (livredor's time)
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Mm, interesting comments and recs (I started the Diamond in... odd circumstances and didn't get very far; it's currently high on my to-read list).

Your summary of Dawkins' flawed argument is possibly a bit fairer than my version. A very limited grasp on possible values of deity or why people believe in them hits the nail exactly on the head, I feel. (I have very little time myself for the 'god of gaps' version of religion: we'll inoke a deity when our science / philosophy isn't good enough to explain something. Ugh.)

I feel tempted to qote about monotheists being almost atheists here
Can you please stop being tempted to quote things and actually quote some of them already? This is getting far too tantalizing!

Anyway, Karen Armstrong on the same subject:

We can learn that God does not exist in any simplistic sense... or that the very word "God" is only a symbol of a reality that ineffably transcends it. The mystical agnosticism could help us


(A History of God, 1993)

I don't like ineffably transcends very much, but I like what she's getting at.

Woah, this thread is starting to look like a cat's cradle. Never mind.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:June 16th, 2003 10:24 am (UTC)
9 days after journal entry, 06:24 am (rysmiel's time)
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We can learn that God does not exist in any simplistic sense... or that the very word "God" is only a symbol of a reality that ineffably transcends it.

The thing I dislike about this value of deity is how easily it slips into declaring certain things unknowable, the province only of deity, and how easily that in turn slips into a way of slapping down uppity types who want to explore those limits. [ "Eppuor si muove" ] Believing in a God that exists in spaces above and beyond the scope of human reason doesn't work for me becuase it seems excessively early to say human reason's hit such limits.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:June 9th, 2003 11:16 am (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 11:16 am (livredor's time)
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In fact, on the subject of Dawkins, and relating back to shreena's discussion on eccentric interview questions, at my Oxford interview I was asked, "As a religious person, how do you feel about coming to a university where one of the country's most famous atheists lectures?" Um, you know, I'm not so insecure in my beliefs that I'm scared to be in the same town with an atheist... That was my first attempt at dismissing his ludicrous 'argument' without actually descending into bitchy.

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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:June 10th, 2003 09:55 am (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 09:55 am (livredor's time)
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I'm very fond of Death and Life, because it paradigm-shifted how I see cities
Well, it's probably indirectly your fault that I ended up reading it :-)

I think possibly why I didn't get quite so much out of D&L is that I didn't really start out with any sort of opinion on cities; I've never so much as lived in one, let alone considered them theoretically. So I had no preconceptions to be dispelled by Jacobs' radical view. And I agree, she does seem to argue that diversity is good in general, which is one thing I was pretty much convinced by.
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