September 26, 2017

Steve Chapman – “The Unabomber had a point”

Filed under: History, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In his Chicago Tribune column, Steve Chapman does his very best “grumpy old man yelling at a cloud” imitation, while the headline writer goes one step further:

The iPhone X proves the Unabomber was right

The introduction of the new iPhone X — which features wireless charging, facial recognition and a price tag of $999 — appears to be a minor event in the advance of technology. But it’s an excellent illustration of something that has long gone unrecognized: The Unabomber had a point.

Not about blowing people up in an effort to advance his social goals. Ted Kaczynski’s campaign to kill and maim chosen victims with explosives was horrific in the extreme and beyond forgiveness. But his 35,000-word manifesto, published in 1995, provided a glimpse of the future we inhabit, and his foresight is a bit unsettling.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” it begins. Among the ills he attributes to advances in technology are that they promise to improve our lives but end up imposing burdens we would not have chosen.

He cites the automobile, which offered every person the freedom to travel farther and faster than before. But as cars became more numerous, they became a necessity, requiring great expense, bigger roads and more regulations. Cities were designed for the convenience of drivers, not pedestrians. For most people, driving is no longer optional.

Smartphones have followed the same pattern. When cellphones first appeared, they gave people one more means of communication, which they could accept or reject. But before long, most of us began to feel naked and panicky anytime we left home without one

He also comes up with a non-Unabomber book that kinda-sorta supports the point he’s trying to make, I think:

The problem is hardly a new one. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the agricultural revolution that took place 10,000 years ago was “history’s biggest fraud.”

In the preceding 2.5 million years, when our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers they worked less, “spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease” than afterward.

Farming boosted the population but chained humans to the land and demanded ceaseless drudgery to plant, tend, harvest and process food — while making us more vulnerable to famine, disease and war. People who had evolved over eons for one mode of life were pushed into a different mode at odds with many of their natural instincts.

Our distant pre-agricultural ancestors may have worked less than their post-agricultural descendants, but they hardly could be said to have lived lives of leisure and plenty. They lived in very small family groups because without advanced technology they were limited to what could be hunted or gathered in a small region and had very few portable possessions because they generally had to move frequently as the availability of food dictated. Once a group switched from a nomadic to a fixed lifestyle, “work” became how most members of that group would live the vast majority of their lives. Lives of hunter-gatherers were not stunted by the work that farmers had to put in, and hunter-gatherers had no fixed territory to defend, so they had no need of a warrior class or caste to help them protect the land they farmed, and no king or chief or overlord to “protect” them from other groups’ kings or chiefs or overlords. The advantage of the farmers over the nomads was that farmers could build up a surplus of food to tide them over when food was normally scarce – nomads would have to move on to find new hunting grounds.

July 15, 2017

QotD: Ancient beliefs and modern ones

It is, I suppose, very attractive to the modern mind, with its idea that every Jack and Jill (but mostly Jill) needs a role model that matches his or her external or cultural characteristics that they assume worship of any sort of fertility goddess would mean a great respect for women.

Do I need to tell you this is poppycock?

I shouldn’t need to. We know almost every ancient religion worshiped at least one (often more) female deities, and we know that compared to us in the present so called “patriarchy” women were not only not respected, but were often used in strictly utilitarian ways as in “Mother, caretaker, etc.”

I see absolutely no reason to imagine that primitive humans were better than that, particularly since we do have archaeological evidence (scant, so non-conclusive) to back up the sort of hard scrabble/winner take all existence the great apes bands have, where the word “family” and “harem” are basically equivalent and the alpha male takes all.

In fact the evidence from modern day primitives, whether or not the worship of a female goddess is present, often leads one to conclude that the presence of a female goddess implies stronger patriarchy.

Sarah A. Hoyt, “Inventing the Past — The Great Divorce”, According to Hoyt, 2015-09-23.

July 12, 2017

QotD: Modern myth-making

Filed under: History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… evidence of myth making is everywhere, and not just in the far past, when it’s easier to swallow just-so stories.

There seems to be this strange idea that we must tell stories of the world as we wish it to be and then it will automagically become so. And because no part of the world, and no time in History can compare to Western society in the current times (and very few can compare to the United States of America) the way to bring their stories into existence is to tell us how bad we are in comparison to everyone else.

The fact that this is a blatant lie doesn’t matter. They still do it.

They are convinced, if they can shame us with these imaginary superior cultures that we will somehow adopt the ways they want us to.

One egregious demonstration of this is the claim that other times and places were more tolerant of different sexual personas. This one makes me want to SCREAM because… well… define “more tolerant.”

Traditional societies often had niches for sexually different people, including but not limited to those who lived as the opposite sex. BUT when the ignorant parrots of the western world go on about this stuff, they usually know just enough about the other culture to project all sorts of happy thoughts upon it. The thing is that assuming the persona and lifestyle of the opposite sex was often not a choice, and not because the person “felt” one way or another. Certain social circumstances dictated a certain change. Like, in Romania (I think) a woman whose brothers have been killed was almost required to assume a male persona in order to support the family. Whether she wanted to or not. And I have a vague idea that in certain parts of India, a woman who cannot find a husband is allowed to “marry” another woman. Note there is no mention made of sexual desire for her own gender. It’s more a matter of fitting neatly into society.

Sarah A. Hoyt, “Inventing the Past — The Great Divorce”, According to Hoyt, 2015-09-23.

February 6, 2017

The “beer before bread” theory gains strength

Filed under: History, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

The received wisdom about the transition from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies is that clans or tribes stopped being nomadic in order to grow crops and secure their food supply more consistently … that growing grain for bread was one of the strongest underlying reasons for the change in lifestyle. That theory is being challenged by researchers who believe the real reason was to produce grains for brewing instead:

The story of humanity’s love affair with alcohol goes back to a time before farming — to a time before humans, in fact. Our taste for tipple may be a hardwired evolutionary trait that distinguishes us from most other animals.

The active ingredient common to all alcoholic beverages is made by yeasts: microscopic, single-celled organisms that eat sugar and excrete carbon dioxide and ethanol, the only potable alcohol. That’s a form of fermentation. Most modern makers of beer, wine, or sake use cultivated varieties of a single yeast genus called Saccharomyces (the most common is S. cerevisiae, from the Latin word for “beer,” cerevisia). But yeasts are diverse and ubiquitous, and they’ve likely been fermenting ripe wild fruit for about 120 million years, ever since the first fruits appeared on Earth.

From our modern point of view, ethanol has one very compelling property: It makes us feel good. Ethanol helps release serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins in the brain, chemicals that make us happy and less anxious.

To our fruit-eating primate ancestors swinging through the trees, however, the ethanol in rotting fruit would have had three other appealing characteristics. First, it has a strong, distinctive smell that makes the fruit easy to locate. Second, it’s easier to digest, allowing animals to get more of a commodity that was precious back then: calories. Third, its antiseptic qualities repel microbes that might sicken a primate. Millions of years ago one of them developed a taste for fruit that had fallen from the tree. “Our ape ancestors started eating fermented fruits on the forest floor, and that made all the difference,” says Nathaniel Dominy, a biological anthropologist at Dartmouth College. “We’re preadapted for consuming alcohol.”


Flash forward millions of years to a parched plateau in southeastern Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. Archaeologists there are exploring another momentous transition in human prehistory, and a tantalizing possibility: Did alcohol lubricate the Neolithic revolution? Did beer help persuade Stone Age hunter-gatherers to give up their nomadic ways, settle down, and begin to farm?

The ancient site, Göbekli Tepe, consists of circular and rectangular stone enclosures and mysterious T-shaped pillars that, at 11,600 years old, may be the world’s oldest known temples. Since the site was discovered two decades ago, it has upended the traditional idea that religion was a luxury made possible by settlement and farming. Instead the archaeologists excavating Göbekli Tepe think it was the other way around: Hunter-gatherers congregated here for religious ceremonies and were driven to settle down in order to worship more regularly.

H/T to Tamara Keel for the link.

August 29, 2016

QotD: Conflating the Hobbesian and Rousseauvian views of mankind

Filed under: Government, History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

[…] there is a second, possibly more important source of the man-as-killer myth in the philosophy of the Enlightenment — Thomas Hobbes’s depiction of the state of nature as a “warre of all against all”, and the reactionary naturism of Rousseau and the post-Enlightenment Romantics. Today these originally opposing worldviews have become fused into a view of nature and humanity that combines the worst (and least factual) of both.

Hobbes, writing a rationalization of the system of absolute monarchy under the Stuart kings of England, constructed an argument that in a state of nature without government the conflicting desires of human beings would pit every man against his neighbor in a bloodbath without end. Hobbes referred to and assumed “wild violence” as the normal state of humans in what anthropologists now call “pre-state” societies; that very term, in fact, reflects the Hobbesian myth,

The obvious flaw in Hobbes’s argument is that he mistook a sufficient condition for suppressing the “warre” (the existence of a strong central state) for a necessary one. He underestimated the innate sociability of human beings. The anthropological and historical record affords numerous examples of “pre-state” societies (even quite large multiethnic/multilingual populations) which, while violent against outsiders, successfully maintained internal peace.

If Hobbes underestimated the sociability of man, Rousseau and his followers overestimated it; or, at least, they overestimated the sociability of primitive man. By contrasting the nobility and tranquility they claimed to see in rural nature and the Noble Savage with the all-too-evident filth, poverty and crowding in the booming cities of the Industrial Revolution, they secularized the Fall of Man. As their spiritual descendants today still do, they overlooked the fact that the urban poor had unanimously voted with their feet to escape an even nastier rural poverty.

The Rousseauian myth of technological Man as an ugly scab on the face of pristine Nature has become so pervasive in Western culture as to largely drive out the older opposing image of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” from the popular mind. Perhaps this was inevitable as humans achieved more and more control over their environment; protection from famine, plague, foul weather, predators, and other inconveniences of nature encouraged the fond delusion that only human nastiness makes the world a hard place.


In reality, Nature is a violent arena of intra- and inter-species competition in which murder for gain is an everyday event and ecological fluctuations commonly lead to mass death. Human societies, outside of wartime, are almost miraculously stable and nonviolent by contrast. But the unconscious prejudice of even educated Westerners today is likely to be that the opposite is true. The Hobbesian view of the “warre of all against all” has survived only as a description of human behavior, not of the wider state of nature. Pop ecology has replaced pop theology; the new myth is of man the killer ape.

Eric S. Raymond, “The Myth of Man the Killer”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-07-15.

August 11, 2016

QotD: The Great Vowel Shift and “Canadian Raising”

Filed under: Cancon, Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Linguists do not generally attempt to answer questions of causality. “Why? I can’t answer that,” said Dailey-O’Cain when I asked. “You can look at ongoing changes sometimes if you have the right kind of data but it’s very, very hard.” But there are theories. One particularly fascinating explanation has to do with what’s called the Great Vowel Shift. If you’ve ever wondered why English is such a legendarily horrible language to learn, a lot of the problems can be traced back to the Great Vowel Shift.

There is no firm date on the beginning and end of the Great Vowel Shift, but at most, we can say it happened between the 1100s and the 1700s, with probably the most important and biggest changes happening in the 1400s and 1500s. This coincides with the shift from Middle English to Modern English, and also with the standardization of spelling. The shift itself? Every single “long vowel” — ”ey,” “ee,” “aye,” “oh,” “ooh” — changed. (Nobody knows why. Linguistics is turtles all the way down.)

Before the Great Vowel Shift, “bite” was pronounced more like “beet.” “Meat” was more like “mate.” Everything just kind of slipped one notch over. This happened in stages; that first word, “bite,” started out as “beet,” then became “bait,” then “beyt,” then “bite.” You can hear a nice spoken-aloud rundown of those here.

If you’re wondering what the difference between “bait” and “beyt” is, well, there you have one possible origin of Canadian Raising. “Beyt,” one of the later but not the final stage of the Great Vowel Shift, is extremely similar to the Canadian Raised sound spoken today. There is a theory — not necessarily accepted by all — that Canadian Raised vowels are actually a preserved remnant of the Great Vowel Shift, an in-between vowel sound that was somehow stuck in amber in the Great White North.

Maybe a certain population of Englishmen from that particular time period, around 1600, landed in Canada and due to its isolation failed to observe the further changes happening in England. Maybe.

But I like this explanation. Canadians aren’t weird; they’re respecting the past. One very specific past, that everyone else skipped on by. It’s an awfully nice-sounding diphthong.

Dan Nosowitz, “What’s Going On with the Way Canadians Say ‘About’? It’s not pronounced how you think it is”, Atlas Obscura, 2016-06-01.

July 26, 2016

QotD: Natural born killers? Not so much…

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One of the most dangerous errors of our time is the belief that human beings are uniquely violent animals, barely restrained from committing atrocities on each other by the constraints of ethics, religion, and the state.

It may seem odd to some to dispute this, given the apparently ceaseless flow of atrocity reports from Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon and Los Angeles that we suffer every day. But, in fact, a very little study of animal ethology (and some application of ethological methods to human behavior) suffices to show the unbiased mind that human beings are not especially violent animals.

Desmond Morris, in his fascinating book Manwatching, for example, shows that the instinctive fighting style of human beings seems to be rather carefully optimized to keep us from injuring one another. Films of street scuffles show that “instinctive” fighting consists largely of shoving and overhand blows to the head/shoulders/ribcage area.

It is remarkably difficult to seriously injure a human being this way; the preferred target areas are mostly bone, and the instinctive striking style delivers rather little force for given effort. It is enlightening to compare this fumbling behavior to the focussed soft-tissue strike of a martial artist, who (having learned to override instinct) can easily kill with one blow.

It is also a fact, well-known to military planners, that somewhere around 70% of troops in their first combat-fire situation find themselves frozen, unable to trigger lethal weapons at a live enemy. It takes training and intense re-socialization to make soldiers out of raw recruits. And it is a notable point, to which we shall return later, that said socialization has to concentrate on getting a trainee to obey orders and identify with the group. (Major David Pierson of the U.S. Army wrote an illuminating essay on this topic in the June 1999 Military Review).

Criminal violence is strongly correlated with overcrowding and stress, conditions that any biologist knows can make even a laboratory mouse crazy. To see the contrast clearly, compare an urban riot with post-hurricane or -flood responses in rural areas. Faced with common disaster, it is more typical of humans to pull together than pull apart.

Individual human beings, outside of a tiny minority of sociopaths and psychopaths, are simply not natural killers. Why, then, is the belief in innate human viciousness so pervasive in our culture? And what is this belief costing us?

Eric S. Raymond, “The Myth of Man the Killer”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-07-15.

July 12, 2016

QotD: Did our distant ancestors select for intelligence?

Filed under: History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

This is a special case of one of my favorite Damned Ideas, originally developed by John W. Campbell in the 1960s from some speculations by a forgotten French anthropologist. Campbell proposed that the manhood initiation rituals found in many primitive tribes are a selective machine designed to permit adulthood and reproduction only to those who can demonstrate verbal fluency and the ability to override instinctive fears on verbal command.

Campbell suggests that all living humans are descended from groups of hominids that, having evolved full-human mental capability in some of their members, found the overhead of supporting the dullards too high. So they began selecting for traits correlated with intelligence through initiation rituals timed for just as their offspring were achieving reproductive capacity; losers got driven out, or possibly killed and eaten.

Campbell pointed out that the common elements of tribal initiations are (a) scarring or cicatricing of the skin, opening the way for lethal infections, (b) alteration or mutilation of the genitals, threatening the ability to reproduce, and (c) alteration of the mouth and teeth, threatening the ability to eat. These seem particularly well optimized for inducing maximum instinctive fear in the subject while actually being relatively safe under controlled and relatively hygenic conditions. The core test of initiation is this: can the subject conquer fear and submit to the initiation on the basis of learned (verbal, in preliterate societies) command?

Campbell noticed the first order effect was to shift the mean of the IQ bell curve upwards over generations. The second-order effect, which if he noticed he didn’t talk about, was to start an arms race in initiation rituals; competing bands experimented with different selective filters (not consciously but through random variation). Setting the bar too low or too high would create a bad tradeoff between IQ selectivity and maintaining raw reproductive capacity. So we’re descended from the hominids who found the right tradeoff to push their mean IQ up as rapidly as possible and outcompeted the groups that chose less well.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Campbell or his sources, but this theory explains why initiation rituals for girls are a rare and usually post-literate phenomenon. Male reproductive capacity is cheap; a healthy young man can impregnate several young women a day, and healthy young men are instinct-wired to do exactly that whenever they can get away with it. Female reproductive capacity, on the other hand, is scarce and precious. So it makes sense to select the boys ruthlessly and give the girls a pass. Of course if you push this too far you don’t get enough hunters and fighters, but the right tradeoff pretty clearly is not 1-to-1.

Eric S. Raymond, “Selecting for intelligence”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-11-14.

February 5, 2016

QotD: Chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans

Filed under: Health, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Popular concerns are often weirdly unrelated to actual circumstances. It was only in the 1960s, after the percentage of Americans failing to complete secondary school had been falling for decades and had reached an historic low, that Americans discovered the problem of “high school dropouts.” Political and economic conditions in France steadily improved in the decades leading up to the French Revolution; as Tocqueville explained, expectations rose faster than conditions could improve, so more humane government was accompanied by growing dissatisfaction over “despotism.” A similar process may underlie contemporary hysteria over “intimate partner violence.”

Many have commented on the “irony” that the most pampered women in history are the ones complaining most about oppression. Perhaps we should consider whether this does not represent an irony but a direct causal relation: whether modern woman complains of her lot because — rather than in spite of — its being so favorable.

Writer Jack Donovan has made an ethological argument in favor of such an interpretation. Bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees, are physically not very different from other chimps, but they are now classed as a separate species because of radical differences in their behavior. Bonobo males are not very aggressive. They compete less for status than do male chimps, and they do not compete at all for mates. Sex is promiscuous, and males are not possessive. Homosexual mating is common. All parenting is done by mothers. Female bonds are stronger and more enduring than male bonds. In short, bonobo society is a feminist paradise.

Chimpanzee behavior is the opposite of bonobo behavior in almost every respect. Male chimps form hierarchical gangs and compete constantly for status and access to females. They are violent and territorial, forming alliances both to defend their own territory and raid that of other chimpanzee bands. They kill stray males from other bands when the opportunity presents itself. They push females around, and females are expected to display submission to males. Homosexuality is uncommon among them. Chimpanzee social behavior is a feminist’s worst nightmare.

Evolutionary theory would lead us to look for a difference in the living environments of bonobos and chimps to which their radically different behavior could represent adaptations. And the primatologists have found such a difference: chimps must compete with other species, especially gorillas, for food. The bonobos live in a food-rich, gorilla-free environment where the living is easy. It is this lack of competitors which makes violence, hierarchy, competition, and male bonding unnecessary for bonobos.

F. Roger Devlin, “The Question of Female Masochism”, Counter-Currents Publishing, 2014-09-17.

January 11, 2016

Pre-agrarian life

Filed under: Health, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Cedar Sanderson guest posts at According to Hoyt:

I’m currently studying the history of the world, prior to 1500. In the first chapter of the book we were assigned to read, the point is made that humans have been around for a very long time, it took a long time to develop agriculture, but there weren’t many of them pre-agriculture. The crux of the matter is the ability to grow more food than you could hunt, or gather, in a small group. Large groups, which would build societies and cities, simply could not exist on a subsistence diet.

One of my classmates, in a discussion forum, stated that humans were desperate for nutrients and one of the main ways to get food was to graze which made me do a head-desk, and then start thinking. We take abundant food for granted. The child (in college, but still, a child) who seems to think that humans grazed on grass in pre-history has no doubt never missed a meal in their life unless it was by choice. The world we live in offers enough variety, enough abundance, that people can be ‘vegan’ and still survive, although thriving and being healthy are different matters.

The book tells me that women didn’t have as many children before agriculture, and that’s why population was lower. I snort and mutter something impolite under my breath. In reality hunter-gatherers have more in common with herds of animals, and again, it’s about the food. They were reliant on what was growing right there, right then. They had no way of producing a surplus nor of storing same. If they overhunted an area they were forced to move or die. If the tribe’s population grew too large, they starved or succumbed to disease, just like a deer herd or the snowshoe hare population collapses every few years to build slowly back up, limited by the supply of available food.

Humans lived that way for a very long time. Women having less babies? Probably, only it wasn’t through some kind of arcane desire to keep the population down. It was through the lack of food – nursing a child in the modern era is not terribly effective birth control, but in the time of subsistence the woman’s body simply couldn’t handle the dual load of nursing and pregnancy. I became pregnant with two of my children while nursing full time, I can speak to the enormous drain it is even on a well-fed body.

Because it’s fat. I have fat, on me, and in my diet. Fat is something you just don’t see prior to agriculture, and there’s a reason so many cultures revere the plump woman (just look at all the Venus statues from around the world). A fat woman could have babies and she could survive nursing and this meant the family could go on. And while we’re on the makin’ babies topic, here’s something: my history book laments the rise of the patriarchy alongside the rise of civilization after agriculture, constraining women and making them be under the thumb of the male. Well, that’s not patriarchy, that’s food. Men could hunt, and bring in the meat that was desperately needed for survival. Women gathered, but the men were the hunters.

Why didn’t the women hunt? Well, babies. Pregnant, nursing, malnourished…. The women were managing all they could, and the men were taking care of them. Women were better able to survive (yes, I am counting death in childbirth) in that harsh world than men were. Men were a valuable commodity in a time when hunting and protection of the tribe-family against others who wanted the same food they needed to live menaced the women and children. Female infanticide was practiced long before recorded history, evidence shows. Men were more valuable to the hunter-gatherers and it wasn’t even questioned it seems. But my history book complains that it was the rise of civilization post-agriculture that was to blame for the oppression of women and the gender inequality. Prior to ‘society’ it claims men and women were equal.

January 9, 2016

QotD: Humans and apes

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

On what separates us from the apes:

    Michael Tomasello, one of the world’s foremost experts on chimpanzee cognition, [said] “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.”

On what doesn’t separate us from the apes:

    Acheulean tools [a style used by hominids 1.8 million years ago] are nearly identical everywhere, from Africa to Europe to Asia, for more than a million years. There’s hardly any variation, which suggests that the knowledge of how to make these tools may not have been passed on culturally. Rather, the knowledge of how to make these tools may have become innate, just as the “knowledge” of how to build a dam is innate in beavers.

Jonathan Haidt, quoted by Scott Alexander in “List Of The Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind“, Slate Star Codex, 2014-06-12.

December 22, 2015

QotD: Communes

Filed under: History, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The anthropologist Richard Sosis examined the history of two hundred communes founded in the United States in the nineteenth century. Which kind of commune survived longest? Sosis found that the difference was stark: just 6% of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39% of religious communes. He found one master variable: the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members. It was things like giving up alcohol and tobacco, fasting for days at a time, conforming to a communal dress code or hairstyle, or cutting ties with outsiders. For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted. But Sosis was surprised to discover that demands for sacrifice did not help secular communes. Most of them failed within eight years, and there was no correlation between sacrifice and longevity.

Jonathan Haidt, quoted by Scott Alexander in “List Of The Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind“, Slate Star Codex, 2014-06-12.

December 21, 2015

QotD: Witches

Filed under: Africa, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It turns out that witchcraft beliefs arise in surprisingly similar forms in many parts of the world, which suggests either that there really are witches or (more likely) that there’s something about human minds that often generates this cultural institution. The Azande believed that witches were just as likely to be men as women, and the fear of being called a witch made the Azande careful not to make their neighbors angry or envious. That was my first hint that groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.

Jonathan Haidt, quoted by Scott Alexander in “List Of The Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind“, Slate Star Codex, 2014-06-12.

August 24, 2015

Comparative Advantage

Filed under: Australia, Economics, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 25 Feb 2015

What is comparative advantage? And why is it important to trade? This video guides us through a specific example surrounding Tasmania — an island off the coast of Australia that experienced the miracle of growth in reverse. Through this example we show what can happen when a civilization is deprived of trade, and show why trade is essential to economic growth.

In an economy with a greater number of participants trading goods and services, there are more ways to find a comparative advantage and earn more by creating the most value for others. Let’s dive right in with an example from our new friends, Bob and Ann.

July 18, 2015

Early anthropology

Filed under: History, Science — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

At The Scientist, Ian Tattersall describes the early days of anthropological studies:

Before the mid-1900s, human fossils were for the most part studied and pronounced upon by specialists in human anatomy. Based in medical schools, these researchers were exquisitely attuned to variation within Homo sapiens, but were largely unconcerned with the riotous diversity of species out there in the living world. Ignorant of taxonomic norms, they branded newly discovered hominin fossils with new Latin names, much as they gave each of their children a separate name. In this way, throughout the first half of the 20th century the rapidly expanding paleoanthropological literature became littered with formal names — even though many of the freshly unearthed fossils actually belonged to species that had already been described.

I write about this crucible of discovery and folly in my new book, The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack.

The haphazard application of species names to every new hominin fossil was a practice that could not continue indefinitely. And in 1950 the ornithologist Ernst Mayr, one of the fathers of the Evolutionary Synthesis, took it upon himself to lecture the paleoanthropologists on the error of their ways. The Synthesis was an elaboration of evolutionary theory that saw most evolutionary change as the gradual accumulation, via natural selection, of small genetic innovations within ancestor-descendant sequences. So Mayr depicted human evolution as the slow modification of a single lineage culminating in Homo sapiens. Among the fifteen hominin genera then described, Mayr said, there was in reality only one: our own genus, Homo. What’s more, the Homo lineage contained only three species: Homo transvaalensis (an early biped) had given rise to Homo erectus, which in turn had evolved into Homo sapiens. Acutely aware that their nomenclatural proliferation lacked any theoretical justification, the paleoanthropologists capitulated. For half a century thereafter, most of them viewed human evolution as a single-minded progression from primitiveness to sapient perfection driven by natural selection: an idea that fit rather well with the undeniable fact that only one hominin exists in the world today.

From the beginning, though, it was obvious that Mayr’s scheme was a huge oversimplification. As fossil discoveries rapidly continued to accumulate, his single lineage began to bulge at the seams. A new image of hominin evolution began to develop.

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