Paying close attention for almost six years to administrative machinations at the university I attended in my youth proved to be perpetually dispiriting, but as a compensating balance I also became aware of the individual academic and educational contributions of members of that community. One such example is a book which was published earlier this year by UI Professor Ed Wasserman, titled, As If By Design: How Creative Behaviors Really Evolve. Situated like a traffic cop at the crossroads between cultural narratives and behavioral evolution, Wasserman’s book not only reveals the concept of a eureka moment to be unfounded in many celebrated instances, but fills in critical context which was excluded over time to bolster the romantic concept of individual inspiration.
Although Wasserman is a professor in the University of Iowa’s Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences, and as such is certainly familiar with statistics and the rigors of the scientific method, his book is accessible to readers of all ages and backgrounds. In fact, if you’re in secondary or undergraduate education, and looking for a text that will not only spur discussion but engage your students, you would be hard-pressed to find a better current example — and that’s particularly true if you are located in Iowa. (There are a number of Iowa-centric examples which will be broadly familiar to residents of the state, yet for those who believe they are in the know that only makes the missing details that much more compelling when Wasserman fills out the story.)
To be clear, you don’t have to be from Iowa to connect with Wasserman’s examples, many of which will be familiar to most Americans. Personally, as an Iowan I found the section on Iowa’s blackout license plates to be both hilarious and absurd, but if I had to pick a favorite vignette it would unquestionably be the section on Florence Nightingale. Although I already knew a great deal about Nightingale’s importance to the practice of medicine and profession of nursing, I knew nothing about her contributions to what we now call data visualization.
In short, an enjoyable and informative read, and an important corrective on the all-too-human tendency to create and celebrate idols.
— Mark Barrett