Review: The Babel Effect

The Babel Effect
The Babel Effect by Daniel Hecht
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second book by Hecht that I have read, and it was as good or better than Skull Session. The story is about a group of geniuses, a think tank nominally pursuing neurological areas, but also working on the larger pictures that emerge – emergence, pattern recognition, etc. At the beginning of the book they were finishing off modeling computer software that, taking all the epidemiological and medical information about a disease outbreak, and being able to correctly and accurately predict when and where the disease would move, and also the ability to trace it back to the source, or patient zero. The leader of this group, Ryan McCloud, is approached about working on finding out what causes violence in killers, and other such types. He and his wife Jess and the group agree to do it, but as they look at it, and do some preliminary work with a bunch of guys on death row, they begin to see that the pattern of violence is much larger, and indeed, encompasses society as a whole, with staggering trends in the past century, and also, going back into history, waves of violence that would travel through populations, almost like a disease. Jess, several months pregnant, take this one to heart, as she is still grieving the murder of her sister two years ago. She wants to know why – to put things into perspective. Are we victims of our genes, of a disease vector that attacks the areas of the brain known to cause violence and aggression, or are we victims of environmental poisoning, etc. She begins to pull away, and since Ryan is working on concomitant projects and other areas of this one, he doesn’t realize. He is called to Africa to study a new outbreak there, and while there, sees an opportunity to look at the people there for the new project, called the Babel Effect. He studies two groups of Congolese Africans, those who are prisoners, and were killers, and those who refused to get caught up in the killing and took refuge at a plantation nearby. As he is closing up that project, all hell breaks loose and he is captured by a new warlord, and imprisoned for several months. Meanwhile Jess is stateside, pursuing leads on this Babel Effect, where people loose their connections to others, both the kinship connection and the theory of mind, or the ability to relate to others. When Ryan gets back, he finds that his wife and their colleague who had been working with her have been kidnapped, and all traces of their work destroyed. So the group sets out to retrace her thoughts, her work, who she talked to, since the FBI is stymied. What follows is a blend of thriller, and thoughtful discussion of what it means to be good, is it because of our genes, or because we choose it, and what are we really made of. Lots of tough questions, and tons to think about, so this book took me longer, since every few pages, my thoughts would latch onto something and wander off on that tangent. I’d have to grab my mind and bring it back to the book – not because it was dull, but because there was so much of interest that you could study, follow up on. Hecht did 3 years of intensive research for this book, and most of the neurological and genetic stuff is real, as is the historical record. One fascinating book for me.

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