as we know it: on the evolution of culture, technology and knowledge
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I should mention the good work Ian Glendinning is doing over at Psybertron. Not just because he's always blogging me but because we're working on similar problems from different approaches. Ian's one of the KM people (and an engineer with over 20 years' experience) whom it never occured to me would be interested in asweknowit. In my ignorance, I didn't realize how philosophical some KM types were. So if you want to know what Rorty and Nietzsche have to do with business knowledge, have a visit. If you like the problem raised in his manifesto--as I understand it: How can we better understand what we do given we never know precisely what it is we are doing--then have a visit. Check out my blogroll (finally back up after some kind of DNS snafu) for more KM with a philosophical bent from the likes of Dave Pollard and Ton Zijlstra.

"If any student comes to me and says he wants to be useful to mankind and go into research to alleviate human suffering, I advise him to go into charity instead. Research wants real egoists, who seek their own pleasure and satisfaction, but find it in solving the puzzles of nature."--Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (Thanks, Alex!)
submitted by on 2003-10-06T03:08 | Comment | Permalink

From Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles:

Truth is, Im just not interested in sex anymore. Knowledge, on the other hand Theres still a desire for knowledge. Its a curious thing, the thirst for knowledge very few people have it, you know, even among scientists. Most of them are happy to make a career for themselves and move into management, but its incredibly important to the history of humanity. Its easy to imagine a fable in which a small group of mena couple hundred, at most, in the whole worldwork intensively on something very difficult, very abstract, completely incomprehensible to the uninitiated. These men remain completely unknown to the rest of the world; they have no apparent power, no money, no honors; nobody can understand the pleasure they get from their work. In fact, they are the most powerful men in the world, for one simple reason: they hold the keys to rational certainty. Everything they declare to be true will be accepted, sooner or later, by the whole population. There is no power in the worldeconomic, political, religious, or socialthat can compete with rational certainty. Western society is interested beyond all measure in philosophy and politics, and the most vicious, ridiculous conflicts have been about philosophy and politics; it has also had a passionate love affair with literature and the arts, but nothing in its history has been as important as the need for rational certainty. The West has sacrificed everything to this need: religion, happiness, hope--and, finally, its own life. You have to remember this when passing judgment on Western civilization. (221)

This book is a contemporary Frankenstein. The hero is an emotional invalid named Djerzinski who creates an improved successor to homo sapiens. This new species is immortal and each organism has the same genetic code. Says one of them: "Science and art are still a part of our society; but without the stimulus of personal vanity, the pursuit of Truth and Beauty has taken on a less urgent aspect. To humans of the old species, our world seems a paradise. We have even been known to refer to ourselves--with a certain humor--by the name they so long dreamed of: gods." (263)

submitted by on 2003-10-07T01:36 | Comment | Permalink

Dr. Frankenstein was another victim of Apollo. Instead of slaying a monster, however, he made one:

I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.

Frankenstein already knew the dangers of possession when he warned the would-be polar explorer Walton: "Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drank also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me, -- let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!" And also: "Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow."

The book is full of reflections on the Apollonian paradox. Here Frankenstein calls on the more familiar Apollo of balance and order:

"A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed."

Yet the book also has a tendency to glorify the scientist-- "the modern prometheus" of the book's subtitle--as an anti-hero. He is like Milton's fascinating rebel Satan. There is also something inhuman about Dr. Frankenstein: his love of desolate landscapes, his lonely brooding. He is like Coleridge's poet in the last part of Kubla Khan--someone to be wary of, yet the Romantic hero through and through. The romantics were all for striving beyond the human and the book leaves it open whether or not the pursuit of knowledge is indeed compatible with a balanced mind. A cautionary tale?

submitted by on 2003-10-07T01:44 | Comment | Permalink

One obvious victim of Apollo is Oedipus, who gets done in after he does the sphinx in. Seeking knowledge of his origins as a young man, he is shunned by the Apollonian Oracle at Delphi. Later, in the part of the story taken up in Sophocles's drama, we see him single-mindedly, if deludedly, pursuing the answer. He does so with considerable skill, using the talents which served him in his confrontation with the sphinx. He mocks the blind soothsayer Teiresias and ignores his warnings. But wise Teiresias knows that it is Oedipus's own greatness that is his undoing. It is as if the original mystery of his birth has set in motion his considerable mental powers.

His wife and mother, Jocasta, pleads with him:

Why should a mortal man, the sport of chance,
With no assured foreknowledge, be afraid?
Best live a careless life from hand to mouth.
This wedlock with thy mother fear not thou.
How oft it chances that in dreams a man
Has wed his mother! He who least regards
Such brainsick phantasies lives most at ease.

She says, "Oh, as thou carest for thy life, give o'er this quest."

"I cannot; I must probe this matter home," he answers.

"Ah mayst thou ne'er discover who thou art!"

His acumen is short-sighted but effective at uncovering truth. Always questioning, always pursuing some blinding hypothesis: that Creon is the guilty party, that the Shepherd will only reveal his low birth. Then the moment of truth and off he runs. When he returns the Chorus asks him what made him pluck his own eyes out: "Apollo! oh, my friends, the God, Apollo! Who worketh all my woes yes, all my woes."

submitted by on 2003-10-06T01:38 | Comment | Permalink

Oh boy, another series, just like "We Are Stupid For a Reason, Parts I-V". This one requires some explanation, however. For starters, we need to establish there is such a thing and that it is as powerful as the more familiar Dionysian possession. Apollo is, after all, the god of rational detachment, order, good government, etc. Possession suggests a frenzy that is anything but those things.

To make my case I use no less an authority than Roberto Calasso whose The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is an epic of near-musical analogy applied to the Greek myths. The harmonies between D and A make them brothers under the skin:

The destiny of death by burning runs through the stories of Apollo and Dionysus like a scar. Semele is burned to death, and she is Dionysus's mother; Coronis and Asclepius are reduced to ashes, and they are Apollo's lover and son. The divine fire devours those venturing outside the human sphere, whether they be betraying a god, bringing a man back to life, or seeing a god bereft of the cloaking veil of epiphany. Beyond the limit laid down for what is acceptable, burns the fire. Apollo and Dionysus are often to be found along the edges of that borderline, on the divine side and the human; they provoke that back-and-forth in men, that desire to go beyond oneself, which we seem to cling to even more than to our humanity, even more than life itself. (59-60)

The Dionysian frenzy is a giving in, a letting go:

Dionysus is not a useful god who helps weave or knot things together, but a god who loosens and unties. The weavers are his enemies. Yet there comes a moment when the weavers will abandon their looms to dash off after him into the mountains. Dionysus is the river we hear flowing by in the distance, an incessant booming from far away; then one day it rises and floods everything, as if the normal above-water state of things, the sober delimitation of our existence, were but a brief parenthesis overwhelmed in an instant. (45)

The Apollonian frenzy, on the other hand, happens when one is taken by the vision of things woven together in abstract harmony. The promise of new powers and a new day beyond the present one, the attainment of which requires great sacrifice. That is Apollo's promise. Those possessed might be visionaries, so certain of the outcome of things, or those who monomaniacally pursue truth and knowledge or a political cause.

The cases of Asclepius and Coronis mentioned above are instructive. Asclepius was an ancient Dr. Frankenstein who "had dared to bring a dead man back to life, so Zeus struck him with a thunderbolt. And, just that once, Apollo cried." (59) His mother Coronis preferred a mere mortal, Ischys, to Apollo.

Pindar comments proverbially: "The craziest type of people are those who scorn what they have around them and look elsewhere / vainly searching for what cannot exist." In Coronis's case, what she had around her was a god, a god whose child, Asclepius, she was already bearing. It is as if, out of sheer caprice, the fullness of the Greek heaven were fractured here. The stranger from Arcadia [Ischys] was even more of a stranger than the god, and hence more attractive. The bright enamel of divine apparition is scarred by sudden cracks. But this allows it to breathe with the naturalness of literature, which rejects the coercion of the scared text. (59)

There are strong parallels between Ischys and Theseus, says Calasso. Theseus belongs to the age of heroes, of men acting like gods, adopting the strength of gods. "With the heroes, man takes his first step beyond the necessary: into the realm of risk, defiance, shrewdness, deceit, art." (70) Once he could detach himself from his environment, he could also detach from himself and conquer that self; he could ask for more. The monster the hero slays is the given, the old order which conspires against the possible. Apollo, who killed Python and took over the Delphic cult, was the first slayer of monsters, the first model for the heroes.

The heroic impulse strives to clear some breathing room, to escape the old circumscriptions of fate. But it requires not only turning against the divine order but against ourselves: "It is part of the hero's civilizing work to suppress himself, because the hero is monstrous. Immediately after the monsters, die the heroes." (70) The hero dies because he is unable to appreciate that he is also doing battle with himself. Had he known that he probably would not have embarked on the adventure in the first place. The hero is therefore tragic, unable to know what he is doing until it is too late. Yet the hero is stupid for a reason, a good evolutionary reason: the hero builds culture. His sacrifice is good for us all.

The Dionysian impulse dissolves the ego, alters the self to attain union with the other, or with nature. The Dionysian accepts the world as given, the Apollonian remakes the world. The Apollonian impulse adapts the world to man. But a new world means a new man of unknown fate. In both cases an alignment and dissolving of boundaries is sought. This blog is concerned with the Apollonian impulse because it is based on a fascinating paradox: the god of order and detachment is really the god of a different kind of intoxication.

submitted by on 2003-10-01T03:02 | Comment | Permalink

NYT Mag story by Jon Gertner about the work on "affective forecasting" by the psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Tim Wilson and the economists George Lowenstein and Daniel Kahneman. Can people accurately predict the outcomes of decisions which are supposed to make them happier? It turns out not. Things that are supposed to make us happy--dream job, dream house, dream car--don't as much as we hoped. Conversely, things we think of as disasters--death of a loved one, a disability--don't turn out to be as bad as we imagine. The implications for economics are obvious: how much does economic behaviour depend on this psychic "defect"? A lot, it turns out, and this has been known since the time of Adam Smith. Simply put, if you are comfortably off, the effort you expend trying to improve your situation is based on a delusion. It requires too much effort for too little payback. You are better off just as you are. Some highlights:

One experiment of Gilbert's had students in a photography class at Harvard choose two favourite pictures from among those they had just taken and then relinquish one to the teacher. Some students were told their choices were permanent; others were told they could exchange their print after several days. As it turned out, those who had time to change their minds were less pleased with their decisions than those whose choices were irrevocable.

This reminds me of Samuel Johnson's famous quote: "I believe marriages would in general be as happy, and often more so, if they were all made by the Lord Chancellor, upon a due consideration of characters and circumstances, without the parties having any choice in the matter." Found here. Choice does not necessarily lead to greater happiness.

According to Lowenstein, the reason the happiness brought by good fortune eventually wears off is because:

Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things. And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we're designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.

Three things: 1) This is an implicit endorsement of PCT (perceptual control theory). 2) This passage does not necessarily espouse relativism. Yes, we adjust to differences in background illumination but there are still the absolutes of total darkness and blinding light. This is why the author suggests Lowenstein's research has moved him to the left: lifting the standards of the rich has little effect on their well-being. This is not true of the poor. 3) Is depression the breakdown of this regulatory system? Are depressives too good at affective forecasting for their own good? More than that, don't we owe our general state of prosperity and well-being, so much improved since Smith's day, to the deluded over-reachers? Says Gilbert:

Maybe our caricatures of the future--these over-inflated assessments of how good or bad things will be--maybe it's these illusory assessments that keep us moving in one direction over the other. Maybe we don't want a society of people who shrug and say, "It won't really make a difference." Maybe it's important for there to be carrots and sticks in the world, even if they are illusions.
submitted by on 2003-09-24T03:17 | Comment | Permalink

I'm almost finished Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel so I understand why he takes an interest in the fate of the Norse in Greenland. As H. Allen Orr says about the IQ debate , the reason it relentlessly rages on is "because we cannot perform the required critical experiment with humans. For ethical and practical reasons, we cannot force a large set of parents and children to live in a common environment, allowing us to compare the IQs of parent and child, thereby computing a percentage of heritability." Same goes for history and the debate over why Europeans conquered the rest of the world. History can't be re-run and tweaked for answers. Nonetheless, Diamond has a gift for clearly identifying the constants and variables of human history. Human intelligence, he assumes, is a constant among groups. The important variable is geography. The unimportant variable is skin colour.

The fate of the Greenland Norse is also instructive because of its relevance to the question why it was Europeans rather than Native Americans or Africans or Aboriginal Australians who ended up as the people to conquer most of the rest of the world. Racists attribute the outcome to a postulated genetic superiority of Europeans themselves. In my book Guns, Germs, and Steel I instead attributed the outcome to advantages conveyed by the environment where the societies ancestral to European society developed. The Fertile Crescent of Western Asia was home to the world's most varied and useful domesticable wild plants and animals. Hence Fertile Crescent hunters and gatherers became the world's first farmers and herders, and were thereby able to settle down and undergo a population explosion. The germs of their domestic animals mutated into germs infecting humans (like smallpox), to which the exposed farmers themselves developed some resistance but unexposed peoples could not. Fertile Crescent farmers went on to become the first societies to develop metal tools and writing and empires, and thus spawned the first societies to develop the proximate agents of the European conquests: guns, germs, and steel.

But racists often challenge me to provide experimental proof: for example, by going back to 11,000 BC in a time machine to interchange the populations of the Fertile Crescent and Aboriginal Australia, and then observing Aboriginal Australians to become the ones who conquer the world. Until we invent such a time machine, I cannot do that particular requested experiment, but Greenland will continue to exemplify a reasonable approximation of it: a natural experiment of history. When the Vikings settled Greenland, they lacked guns, germs, and steel: guns hardly existed then, the Greenland Norse colony was too small and isolated to sustain the Eurasian germs that later decimated the Inuit, and Norse depletion of Greenland's woodlands robbed them of the charcoal necessary to produce much iron or steel. Hence the Norse met the Inuit on a level playing field: neither of them had the advantage of guns, germs, and steel; may the best brains and the most innovative society win! If the Norse had really had higher IQs, they should have won. Instead, when it was all over, it was the Norse who ended up dead, and the Inuit who inherited Greenland.

submitted by on 2003-08-28T02:27 | Comment | Permalink

Here's some bio background on Bill Benzon with links to three very useful Listmania lists on music, Mind and Culture and Cultural Evolution, respectively. Lists are fun and even better when they are smart!
submitted by on 2003-05-16T16:00 | Comment | Permalink

It is a great honour and pleasure for me to announce the hosting of Mind-Culture Coevolution, a collection of works by William L. Benzon and the late David G. Hays. The papers (and one book) attempt to explain cultural change according to a theory of progressive cognitive ranks. The theory is applied to different forms of expressive culture (jazz, dance, storytelling) and the history of technology. There are many theories of mind and many systematic histories of culture but there are very few theories which fuse these two in a way which does justice to both. What is significant about the Benzon/Hays approach is that it treats culture as part of the whole system of mind.

"We believe that the genetic elements of culture are to be found in the external world, in the properties of artifacts and behaviors, not inside human heads," writes Benzon in the introduction to Mind-Culture Coevolution. "This puts our work at odds with some students of cultural evolution, especially those who identify with memetics, who tend to think of culture's genetic elements as residing in nervous systems."

Both Bill and David are former professors of mine at the New School for Social Research. They taught in the online Media Studies MA program, run in its heyday by Paul Levinson. Bill has put his theories of music and cognitive evolution in book form with Beethoven's Anvil. David Hays passed away in 1995.

submitted by on 2003-05-07T01:35 | Comment | Permalink

Robert Skidelsky on economic growth and human behaviour:

An earlier generation of economists assumed that as people became more efficient at satisfying their wants, they would and should as rational agents--work less and enjoy life more. This view seems to have been replaced by the view that human wants are insatiable. We are constantly being urged to work harder, and save more, in order to satisfy wants continuously being created by advertising, whose main effect is to enlarge the human capacity for envy. The evidence, moreover, suggests that increasing real income fails to make citizens of rich countries happier. In other words, Western societies remain organized around an objectless disposition to continuous wealth-creation--something that did not exist in earlier times, and that remains, in some sense, peculiar to them.
submitted by on 2003-04-05T05:09 | Comment | Permalink

Brad DeLong wonders about Aristotle's disdain for trade and gain in his post "Thinking About Aristotle of Stagira and Moses Finley". Why did Aristotle "...believe that '[t]here are two sorts of wealth-getting... one is a part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former necessary and honorable, while that which consists in exchange is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another...'?" Aristotle's position was simply that of any thinker prior to the emergence of the market system and his attitude was prevalent in pre-modern Europe. Robert Heilbroner has some fascinating examples in the first chapter of The Worldly Philosophers of which all but the last page is available on Amazon. A great read. So what changed in the eighteenth century? The abstracting of "Land, labor, and capital as "agents" of production, as impersonal dehumanized economic entities."

submitted by on 2003-02-26T02:56 | Comment | Permalink

Re Munz's claim: I came across a passage in Nietzsche once which, if I recall correctly, went something like this: the perverse and sublimated nature of the Christian mentality led to remarkable achievements in philosphy and culture. I haven't been able to find it, however. Any assistance would be much appreciated.
submitted by on 2003-02-12T16:37 | Comment | Permalink

Peter Munz's Our Knowledge of the Growth of Knowledge: Popper or Wittgenstein? offers some elaboration on my questions about an interesting problem in utilitarian thought. Must we be sheltered from the evolutionary (or utilitarian) rationale of a belief? According to Munz, the absurdity of a belief can increase its usefulness for social bonding:

The evolution of consciousness does not, in the first instance, lead to an increase in genuine knowledge nor to a speeding-up of the growth of knowledge, but to an increase in false knowledge... Intellectual mercantilism or protectionism and epistemological lunacy are nevertheless evolutionary strategies which usher in, across the threshold from one set of evolutionary mechanisms to another, a new evolution of evolution.

...societies form pseudo-species and manage to survive because they can, through the cultivation of false knowledge, provide social bonding. Moreover, inside the socially bonded area, there is a chance for a cognitive apparatus to develop. This cognitive apparatus develops best under intellectual protectionism. Its scope is enormous. It extends from the acquisition of reading and writing to the cultivation of quite complex intellectual discussion, even though such discussion remains in the grip of false knowledge. One can practice a large number of logical skills by discussing the implications of the proposition that God is omnipotent or that twins are cucumbers, even though one cannot afford to criticize the proposition itself.

submitted by on 2003-02-13T02:53 | Comment | Permalink

More interesting than the discussion about reconciling Darwin with left-wing causes is the mention of this problem in utilitarian thought:

Singer is always very open in showing the full implications, consequences and ramifications of his viewpoint, which doesnt always make him popular. As a consequentialist, how does he feel about the argument that the best way to bring about a better society from a utilitarian point of view is not to advance complex utilitarian arguments but to appeal to more simple concepts?

"I think people are in different positions and different roles. For a political heavyweight involved in strategies for a political party to achieve office, it probably wouldn't be possible to be quite so open. But I think philosophers can have a role in clarifying people's thinking, with broader aims than simply saying 'I want the political party with these view to get into office and do this and that'."

Too bad the evolutionary connection wasn't made here: Knowledge of the utility of a belief or action does not necessarily promote it. In fact, it can work against its adoption. It's the same in the evolution of cultural traits. The silly beliefs that support cultural solidarity are utile from an evolutionary perspective precisely because they are wrong. And those wrong beliefs are not adopted from a utilitarian rationale. In order for them to have their unifying effect, they must be truly believed in. Although I haven't read the book, I think this is illustrated in David Sloan Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral.

On another level--and yes, I confess, this is now philosophical amateur hour--is there an analogy between the utilitarian position that an ethic must have some "fitting" result (as opposed to, say, its correspondence to natural law) and the evolutionary criteria of adaptation to the environment?

submitted by on 2003-02-26T03:59 | Comment | Permalink

Barabara Epstein writes about the AIDS plague in Africa for the New York Review. Although I realize the need for direct intervention, I can't help thinking, when reading an article like this, that the real defense against AIDS is institutions that work. Institutions and the knowledge they implement, more than anything else, are what makes the developed world immune to diseases which would have ravaged it a century ago, and which ravage the under-developed nations today. It's not just knowledge, it's knowledge plus the institutions that deploy it. Can such things be built overnight?

The World Bank itself admits that the inefficiency and corruption of the basic institutions that should serve the poor, including banks, pension funds, insurance companies, courts, and real estate transfer systems, are a major hindrance to economic development throughout the third world. Making these institutions work requires government oversight, and so does rebuilding Africa's devastated economies. But donor policies emphasizing free trade and small government make regulation of such institutions more difficult.

Peter Lamptey of Family Health International, an agency that implements AIDS programs for the US Agency of International Development, has written that such programs shoud include awareness-raising to encourage people to use condoms and have fewer sexual partners, and improved treatment services for other sexually transmitted diseases that make HIV transmission more likely. He also argues that the social conditions that make people vulnerable to HIV infection in the first place must be improved, including poverty, unemployment, and discrimination against women.

submitted by on 2003-02-01T03:34 | Comment | Permalink

"Trading is a fairly bloody business—minus the violence—in that it needs a constant influx of new losers. Extending trading hours will allow more losers to enter the game, which is great."—Alexander Elder
submitted by on 2003-01-23T03:30 | Comment | Permalink

"It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."—Alfred North Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics

submitted by on 2003-01-23T03:11 | Comment | Permalink

Great but short interview with David Sloan Wilson, author of Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society:
Q. Give me an example of looking at the natural history of a religion.
A. The coolest example can be seen in what the religious scholar Elaine Pagels wrote about the evolution of early Christianity. When you compare the gospels that eventually made it into the New Testament with the many competing gospels that were rejected, what you find is that those that made it in were the ones that were best as blueprints for various early Christian communities. The narrative differences in the four Gospels--of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John--and the fact that Jesus is shown as being well received in one but practically thrown off a cliff in another, were not the result of the passage of time, or of memories fading. These Gospels were serving the needs of different Christian communities in different social environments. They're fossils of local adaptations.
submitted by on 2002-12-31T04:28 | Comment | Permalink

John Terborgh reviews Alexander Stille's The Future of the Past. Cultures are disappearing just like species are and there is nothing we can do about it. What right do we have to mourn this state of affairs? Do exotic peoples exist for our entertainment and edification? Are we moved by the loss of a way of life we imagine was better for newly modern folk, or do we just fear a homogenized future too boring to contemplate? These are my questions, not Terborgh's (or Stille's as far as I know). But Terborgh knows something is irretrievably lost when a culture disappears: a way of being in the world.

But what is it to be a Machiguenga? That is something that can't be captured by any medium. The essence of being a Machiguenga cannot be preserved. What it is to think like a Machiguenga, to be part of the tribe's intimate social life, to sit around the smoldering fire recounting legends, to be escorted by a "guide" through the central rite of Machiguenga spiritualism--the fantasies induced by ayahuasca, the Amazon's famed hallucinogen? None of this can be preserved: thoughts, attitudes, feelings, sensations, all given a distinct enunciation in a tongue no one else speaks, all distinctively flavored by a cultural legacy extending back thousands of years. These are really the ingredients that make a Machiguenga, and none of these can be conserved. The collected items are merely curiosities and data for anthropologists to analyze and compare.
submitted by on 2002-12-18T15:47 | Comment | Permalink

P.N. Furbank's review of Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World illustrates Joel Mokyr's point about the exchange between scientific and practical knowledge that characterized the early Industrial Revolution. The Lunar Society counted Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley and James Watt among its members.

But then, much unlike their successors in the capitalist era, these Lunar industrialists by no means spent all their days in the countinghouse. They shared with their philosopher friends a passion for mineral-hunting and fossil-hunting, searching in the Derbyshire caves or the newly dug canal tunnels for "spath fusible"an ingredient of porcelainor mammoth bones, and forming conjectures about geology (an even more undeveloped science). "I have been into the Bowels of old Mother Earth," writes Darwin to Boulton in 1767 in his usual florid style,
and seen Wonders and learnt much curious knowledge in the Regions of Darkness...And am going to make innumerable Experiments on aquaeous, sulphureous, metallic and saline Vapours. Food for Fire-Engines!
What strikes one is the extreme openness of outlook of the Lunar men; they made so little distinction between commercial ambition, freewheeling inventiveness, and the sheer rage of curiosity.
submitted by on 2002-12-17T02:31 | Comment | Permalink

Durn good article on Joel Mokyr's latest, The Gifts of Athena. A rash of innovations like those that made the Industrial Revolution possible is not in itself a remarkable thing, and is no guarantee of future prosperity. What changed was the way knowledge was shared and how bridges were built between those who practiced "useful" and scientific knowledge. This is why the Industrial Revolution was sustained past 1820. As well, the generalizing and theorizing of knowledge made it possible to economize by avoiding dead ends and to apply "foresight" instead of blind trial and error:

Connecting practical invention to broader "epistemic knowledge" also avoids blind alleys. "When no one knows why things work," Professor Mokyr writes, "potential inventors do not know what will not work and will waste valuable resources in fruitless searches for things that cannot be made, such as perpetual-motion machines or gold from base metals."
submitted by on 2002-12-08T23:14 | Comment | Permalink

Just as the Japanese reinvented Shinto to provide an ideological basis for a modern state, so did Indians reinvent Hinduism. One could very well say they invented it since, according to Pankaj Mishra, "there was no such thing as 'Hinduism' before the British invented the catch-all category in the early 19th century and made India seem the home of a 'world religion' that was as organized and theologically coherent as Christianity and Islam." Very few Indians knew of the Vedas or the Bhagavad-Gita until they were translated by British scholars in the 18th century.

They also had a strong literary bias. They thought that since Christianity had canonical texts, Indian tradition must have the same. Their local intermediaries tended to be Brahmans, who alone knew the languages needed to study such ancient texts as the Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita. Together, the British scholars and their Brahman interpreters came up with a canon of sorts, mostly Brahmanical literature and ideology, which they began to identify with a single Hindu religion.

The Brahmanical literature would later create much of the appeal of Indian culture for its foreign connoisseurs, such as the German Romantics, Schopenhauer, Emerson, and Thoreau. It also provided the British the standards with which to judge the state of contemporary religion in India. Since few Indians at the time seemed capable of the sublime sentiments found in the Bhagavad-Gita and the Rig-Veda, Hinduism began to seem a degenerate religion, full of evils like widow-burning and untouchability, and in desperate need of social engineering from above. The idea appealed both to British colonialists and their Brahman allies, who had long felt threatened by the non-Brahmanical forms of religion that most Indians followed. It was equally convenient to blame the intrusion of Islam into India for Hinduism's fallen state, and to argue that British rule would save India from Muslim tyranny and prepare the path to a higher civilization.

Swami Vivekananda is the key figure who synthesized Indian spirituality with Western materialism in the name of nation building:

Vivekananda borrowed from both British-constructed Hinduism and European nationalist realpolitik. In doing so he articulated the confused and aggressive desires of a Westernized Indian bourgeoisie that was then trying to find its identity. But his ambition of regenerating India with the help of Western techniques - science, technology, nationalism - did not separate him entirely from the folk religious traditions he had grown up in. He remained a mystic. Looked at today, his contradictory rhetoric seems to prefigure the oddly split personality of the modern Hindu, where devotion to a Muslim saint can coexist with an anti- Muslim nationalism.

Vivekananda's importance doesn't end there. The marriage of Indian religiosity and Western materialism that he tried to arrange makes him the perfect patron saint of the BJP, a political party of mostly upper-caste, middle-class Hindus that strives to boost India's capabilities in the fields of nuclear weapons and information technology while also revering the cow as holy.

A hundred years after his death, the BJP has come closest to realizing his project of fully Westernizing Hinduism and turning it into a full-fledged nationalist ideology: one that has pretensions to being all-inclusive but demonizes Muslims, one that places itself above caste divisions while aiming to block, or at least delay, the long-overdue political empowerment of lower-caste Indians.

submitted by on 2002-12-05T05:07 | Comment | Permalink

Was Adam Smith the first to notice the utility of mistaken beliefs? This is from The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, Part IV, Ch. 1:

'The pleasures of wealth and greatness... strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it. And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth.'

submitted by on 2002-11-25T04:25 | Comment | Permalink

It's too much to say that a technologically-creative society requires democracy, but you can't have Western technology without other ideas creeping in. According to Ian Buruma, the imperial Japanese needed the technology but wanted to control the culture:

'Even though Japanese authorities (following the Chinese example) had done their best since the mid-nineteenth century to reserve "Western learning" for purely practical matters, such as building guns and battleships, and to preserve Sino-Japanese thought for ethics, morality, and social order, this didn't really work. With Western ideas came demands for more democracy and civil rights. Exposure to European literature and philosophy encouraged individualism, and a different perspective on sex and romantic love. Industrialization brought millions of rural people to the cities and changed social relations in the countryside. Political parties were formed. Critical journalism started to appear. And a national movement for civil rights began to spread fast.'

Their strategy was to follow the German model and invent a mythical past to legitimize authoritarianism. Hence, the Shinto revival of the 19th century:

'It was [Prussian jurist Lorentz] von Stein who advised the Japanese to make Shinto into a national religion, which would supply the reverential ceremonies of the imperial court and hold the nation together. Where such ceremonies didn't exist, they were invented. This was not so different from Victorian England. But the mixture of Teutonic legalism and Japanese nativism laid the foundation for an authoritarian, militarist state, whose highest authorities became almost impossible to challenge, because their decisions were wrapped in the priestly mantle of divine kingship.'

submitted by on 2002-11-25T15:54 | Comment | Permalink

Caesar's bridge (see next item below) got me thinking about the relationship between knowledge and technology. Technology requires knowledge, that's why we have engineering departments. But technology is itself knowledge exercised within a whole knowledge system. That system is called culture and theories of knowledge transfer that look at isolated modules of know-how seem inadequate. Why couldn't the meme of Caesar's bridge simply leap into the Germans' brains? To answer that question I need to get hold of some sources on Roman engineering. Meantime, there's some general theory, mostly applied to the question of "Why the West won", which generally means "Why did the Industrial Revolution happen in Europe?" Joel Mokyr is doing the most interesting work on this problem:

'I submit that the Industrial Revolution's timing was determined by intellectual developments, and that the true key to the timing of the Industrial Revolution has to be sought in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century. The key to the Industrial Revolution was technology, and technology is knowledge.'

'The idea that changes in human knowledge are a crucial ingredient in economic growth seems so self-evident as to leave elaboration unnecessary, were it not that with some notable exceptions especially the work of the Stanford school embodied by the work of Nathan Rosenberg and Paul David economists actually rarely have dealt with it explicitly. Even the "New Growth Theory" which explicitly tries to incorporate technology as one of the variables driven by human and physical capital does not try to model the concept of knowledge and its change over time explicitly. Yet nobody would seriously dispute the proposition that living standards today are higher than in the eleventh century primarily because we know more than medieval peasants. We do not say that we are smarter (there is little evidence that we are) and we cannot even be sure that it is because we are better educated (though of course we are). The central phenomenon of the modern age is that as an aggregate we know more. But who is "we"? What is meant by "know" and what kind of knowledge really matters?'

submitted by on 2002-11-25T15:55 | Comment | Permalink

Caesar's diary entry for November 13 in its entirety:

'We've crossed the Rhine. As a reminder to the Germans, I left our bridge standing, save the last couple hundred feet on the Gallic side. They'll look upon it and think about how easily we Romans might invade their territory again - but also about our technological superiority. My men could complete the bridge again in a matter of days, whereas the Germans will never be able to.'

More on this bridge from a roman page of a tutorial on infrastructure:

'Julius Caesar also was quite a bridge builder. He supervised the construction of a bridge at Confluentes on the river Rhine during the Roman conquest of Gaul. This structure was particularly difficult since it spanned a river which was 1300 feet wide, 6 feet meters deep, and flowed at 6 feet per second. To overcome this, Caesar used parallel sets of piles. One set of piles was inclined in the direction of the current. Forty feet downstream, a second set of piles was inclined in the opposite direction. These piles were held together by iron braces. The result was a structure that was so rigid that the stronger the current, the more tightly the piles held in place. Another interesting fact about this wooden bridge was that it was constructed in only ten days.'

If indeed the Germans could "never" have built such a bridge it would not have been for lack of men or iron, but for lack of a culture which supported the kind of knowledge needed to build something like that. Here are some pictures.

submitted by on 2002-11-25T15:55 | Comment | Permalink

Jared Diamond reviews David Sloan Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society and notes the adaptiveness of whacky beliefs:

'It nevertheless troubles skeptics that each religion's account of its moral code's supernatural origins seems implausible to outsiders. For example, non-Mormons doubt Joseph Smith's claim that the angel Moroni appeared to him on September 21, 1823, to reveal golden plates buried on a hilltop near Manchester Village in western New York State and awaiting translation. Non-Mormons also doubt the sworn statements of eight witnesses (Christian Whitmer, Hiram Page, and six others) who claimed to have seen and handled the plates. But what, really, is the difference between the statements of Joseph Smith and his witnesses, and the biblical accounts of divine revelations to Moses and Jesus, except for millennia of elapsed time and our differing skepticisms derived from our differing upbringings? As Wilson points out, the success of a religion's moral code depends on whether the code motivates the religion's adherents to constitute a smoothly functioning society, not on whether the religion's claims happen to be fictitious: "Even massively fictitious beliefs can be adaptive, as long as they motivate behaviors that are adaptive in the real world"; "...factual knowledge is not always sufficient by itself to motivate adaptive behavior. At times a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better."'

submitted by on 2002-11-25T16:01 | Comment | Permalink

Useful list of economic history readings from J. Bradford DeLong covering, among other things, the industrial revolution and pre-colonial and colonial India.
submitted by on 2002-11-25T16:03 | Comment | Permalink

'In the early days you were very detached. It was only after you sat up one night and cut yourself all over with a penknife that you began to connect with the prehistoric dead. How did that experience change you?' Interesting interview with Timothy Taylor. Some of the things he says:

'Yes. I'm challenging archaeologists to go out and look again at isolated burials in the Middle Palaeolithic. I think they are likely to represent people who were excluded from society, which is why they remained as more or less whole skeletons in the backs of caves. By the Upper Palaeolithic this develops into what I call "theatre of transgression" burials. I've suggested that the people getting buried are classic scapegoats - those with physical disabilities or who have transgressed social rules.'


'We have to ask ourselves why formal burials begin to appear when they do. There was certainly competition over scarce resources - possibly between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans - and there would have been a premium on social cohesion. It wouldn't be unusual in that context to have ceremonies that isolate individuals by throwing them out in death or scapegoating them, because it's a common way to re-establish solidarity within small groups.'

submitted by on 2002-10-11T03:02 | Comment | Permalink

The pithiest article is on Lance Knobel's site (this is what blogs are all about). Kahneman: "People take risks because they don't know the risks they are taking." Adam Smith said similar things about the delusions necessary for the market to work. I'll blog Smith at a later date.
submitted by on 2002-10-10T16:44 | Comment | Permalink

Some juicy stuff here from John Lukacs:

'The Modern Age discovered the virtues -- and pleasures -- of privacy. Life in the Middle Ages -- both in and outside the dwellings of people -- was public, in more than one way. Soon after the beginning of the Modern Age, there came a change. The most evident material sign of that was the new ideal of the bourgeois house or "apartment." (The latter word is telling: It meant the separation of working and public places apart from private chambers, whether in the palaces of kings or in the houses of the bourgeois.) The recognition of interiority affected our very language (and our very thinking); the increasing recognition of imagination (arising from the inside) rather than of inspiration (occurring from the outside). Thereafter, the increasing emphasis on political and legal rights of the "individual" seemed to affirm the rights to privacy, at least implicitly. But the idea of the private -- and thereby autonomous -- "individual" was a fiction. In a mass democratic society (perhaps especially in the United States), the desire for privacy was much weaker than the desire for respectability, usually within a particular community. Compared with the wish for public recognition, the cultivation of private behavior, of private appearances, of private opinions remained confused, occasional, and feeble.'


'Yet -- especially in the United States -- the desire of a woman to be employed somewhere in the so-called "marketplace" was often not the result of financial necessity but, rather, of a new kind of impulse: The life of a housewife -- especially in the suburbs -- proved to be lonely and boring. Women thought (or, rather, convinced themselves) that they were reacting against the age-old and often senseless categories and assertions of male authority; yet their dissatisfaction often arose not because of the oppressive strength but because of the weakness of males.'


'In that increasingly bureaucratized world, little more than the possession of various diplomas mattered. Since admission to certain schools - - rather than the consequently almost automatic acquisition of degrees -- depended on increasingly competitive examinations, the word "meritocracy" was coined. In reality the term "meritocracy" was misleading. As in so many other spheres of life, the rules that governed the practices and functions of schools and universities were bureaucratic rather than meritocratic. It is bureaucracy, not meritocracy, that categorizes the employment of people by their academic degrees. The number and the variation of degrees awarded by higher institutions grew to a fantastic, and nonsensical, extent. Besides being custodial, the purpose of institutional education was now the granting of degrees to provide instant employment.

'The inflation of "education" had much to do with the decline of reading (and of its declining requirement in the curriculums of the schools). That was another sign of the end of the Modern Age, which was also the Age of the Book. The invention of the printing of books coincided with the beginning of the Modern Age. At first, it was the availability of books, rather than of schools, that led to an increase of readers -- until, by the 19th century, men and women who could not read became a small minority among the populations of the Western world. Around the same time, the flood of reading matter, including newspapers, rose even higher than the ever-rising flood of books: With the rise of universal literacy (due to the extension of schooling) there was now a new reservoir of potential readers to be tapped. But the inflation of printed matter unavoidably reduced its quality; and there were other influences at hand. The reproduction of more and more pictures in newspapers, magazines, and books; the advent of moving pictures and, finally, of television led to a condition in which -- again, not unlike the Middle Ages -- the routine imagination of large masses of people became pictorial rather than verbal.'


'A deep shift in consciousness at the end of the 18th century then affected art, first of all poetry and painting. That was the conscious recognition of imagination, beyond the older idea of inspiration (an early recognition of the inseparability of the observer from what he observes). During the 19th century, literature and architecture were increasingly influenced, if not altogether inspired and formed, by historicity. Meanwhile, Realism and Naturalism in poetry and painting were more and more affected by the artist's comprehension of the limitations of "objectivity" -- that is, of the entire separation of the observer (and, of course, of the artist) from his subject.'

submitted by on 2002-09-30T14:49 | Comment | Permalink

"We made a big mistake 300 years ago when we separated technology and humanism," Dertouzos said in an interview in Scientific American. "It's time to put the two back together."
submitted by on 2002-09-14T19:29 | Comment | Permalink

Ian Buruma counters the assumption that China is doing the post-communist thing right while Russia has made a balls-up of it. Some excerpts:

'It is often claimed that economic freedoms create a middle class, which produces a ''civil society,'' which in the long term will lead to democracy. This claim is made about China too, hence the common view that the Chinese government is right to concentrate on economic reforms first. The rise of a new middle class is plainly visible in Beijing, if crowded restaurants and discotheques are the yardstick. But every attempt to produce anything resembling a civil society is quashed -- independent labor unions, political parties, student unions, religious communities. Indeed, any organization outside party control is forbidden.'

'Liu Xiaobo is disgusted by the effect centuries of political authoritarianism has had on his people. As with so many Chinese intellectuals in the last hundred years or so, his political criticism has curdled into a sense of cultural despair. His recent writings are full of attacks on the Chinese character, the cowardice of Chinese intellectuals, the crass materialism of the common people. ''The frightening thing about China,'' he says, ''is that almost everyone says one thing in private and the opposite in public.'' Why frightening? ''Because of the psychological damage,'' he says. ''It corrupts society. It offends human dignity.'''

'The Russians, like the people of India, at least have the institutions, however fragile and flawed, to give voice to their discontents. Russian democracy is far from perfect, and it could still come to grief. But so far it has proved more resilient than many people expected. In China, there is no institutional way for people to protest, and that is why China could easily explode one day, even as the poor, inefficient Russians stumble on.'

submitted by on 2002-09-30T14:45 | Comment | Permalink

about this category

cultural evolution

Here's where I get into trouble. Disclaimer: the sense in which I am using the phrase "cultural evolution" has nothing to do with Social Darwinism. It has nothing to do with any teleological sense of historical development. Although there may be interest in theories, such as those put forward by Teilhard de Chardin or someone like Ken Wilbur, about a spiritual force in evolution, these are treated as hypotheses to which the usual skepticism is applied. That said, this category covers aspects of history to which evolutionary epistemology might offer some explanatory insight.