In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and a band of 168 Spaniards punctured the heart of the Inca Empire and proceeded to capture its emperor, decimate its citizIn 1532, Francisco Pizarro and a band of 168 Spaniards punctured the heart of the Inca Empire and proceeded to capture its emperor, decimate its citizens, and plunder its gold. Why didn’t it happen the other way around? Why didn't the Incas sail to Europe, capture Charles V, kill his subjects, and loot his castles and cathedrals? Jared Diamond attempts to answer this question in Guns, Germs & Steel.
Why have Europeans tended to dominate other peoples on other continents? Does it have something to do with race? Were Europeans cleverer than other races? Diamond says no. It wasn't racial characteristics that tipped the scales of fortune for the Europeans; it was their geography. Their geography gave them access to the best domestic grains and animals, which led to specialization and advanced technologies like steel and guns. Their domestic animals also helped them develop potent germs, and the antibodies for those germs.
The importance Diamond lays at the hoofs and paws of domesticated animals is, in fact, one of the fascinating themes of the book. According to Diamond, our animals have played an uncanny role in our cultural and economic development, both in a negative sense (human contact with farm animals facilitated the germ-exchange that produced man’s deadliest diseases) and in a positive sense (men from the Russian steppes, riding their newly domesticated horses, spread the Indo-European language both westward into Europe and southeastward into Persia and India). Diamond's point is that people living in areas with more domesticable animals (sheep, cattle, pigs, horses, etc.) gained an important advantage over people without them.
For example, Native Americans had only three domesticated animals before 1492: llamas, turkeys, and dogs. Why only three? Weren’t there wild horses and cattle in America too? Actually, fossil records show huge populations of horses, oxen, and millions of other large mammals in the Americas until about 11,000 BC. What happened around 11,000 BC? You guessed it: man showed up via the Bering Strait. The American horses, oxen and other large mammals, having never experienced a human predator, approached the new arrivals like slobbering puppy dogs, and were consequently turned into steaks. In fact, it was steaks every night for a couple thousand years for the new immigrants, until most of the continents’ large mammals— and all but one suitable candidate for domestication— were wiped out.
Now this is fascinating enough, but then consider that because the Native Americans didn't have any horses, oxen, pigs, etc. left to exploit as beasts of burden and domesticated food sources, they also lost the civilizational benefits those animals would have brought (and did bring to Eurasians), not the least of which is germs. Yes, germs. Because the Native Americans didn't live in close proximity to a plethora of "farm animals" like their counterparts in Eurasia, they lacked the "petri dish" wherein deadly germs could grow and proliferate. They thus failed to develop the infectious diseases and (more importantly) the antibodies to those diseases that might have protected them from the germs of invading Europeans when Señor Columbus and his crew showed up.
It was for this reason that when the Conquistadores did finally show up, they were able to wipe out 80% of the indigenous population before ever unsheathing their swords— with germs— with small pox and influenza, both diseases generated by the passing back and forth of germs between domesticated animals and their human caretakers (small pox between cattle and humans, and influenza between pigs and ducks and humans). If that doesn't blow your mind, your mind is blowproof.
Then again, you may well ask: “What about moose and bison? Why didn’t Cortés and his boys float up to the Mexican shoreline and find a bloodthirsty cavalry of Aztecs on mooseback, energized by the milk and meat of their plentiful herds of bison?” Diamond surmises that by the time most the large mammals in America had been digested into extinction by their hungry human friends, there was only one suitable candidate left for domestication: the llama/alpaca. Every other large mammal that remained (including moose and bison) lacked the qualities that allow for domestication.
In all of human history only 14 large mammals have ever been domesticated: sheep, goat, cattle, pigs, horses, camels (Arabian and Bactrian), llamas, donkeys, reindeer, water buffalo, yaks, and two minor relatives of cattle in southeast Asia called Bali cattle and mithrans. Outside of these, no other large mammals have been transformed from wild animals into something useful to humans. Why? Why were Eurasia's horses domesticated and not Africa's zebras? Why were Eurasia's wild boar domesticated and not America's peccaries or Africa's wild pigs? Why were Eurasia's five species of wild cattle (aurochs, water buffalo, yaks, bantengs, and gaurs) domesticated and not Africa's water buffalo or America's bison? Why the Asian mouflon sheep (the ancestor of our sheep) and not the American bighorn sheep?
The answer is simple: we tried and it didn't work. Since 2500 BC not one new large mammal (out of the 148 worldwide candidates) has been domesticated, and not for lack of trying. In fact, in the last 200 years, at least six large mammals have been subject to well-organized domestication projects: the eland, elk, moose, musk ox, zebra, and American bison. All six failed. Why? Because of one or more of the following problems: diet, slow growth rate, nasty disposition, tendency to panic, captive breeding problems, and/or social structure.
Diet: Why don't we eat lion burgers? Because raising lions, or any other carnivore, is uneconomical. You need 10,000 lbs of feed to grow a 1,000 lb cow. You would likewise need 10,000 lbs of cow to grow 1,000 pounds of lion. That means you’d need 100,000 lbs of feed to produce 1,000 pounds of lion. Hence the lack of lion burgers on the Wendy’s drive-thru menu.
Growth rate: Why don't we eat rhino burgers? Simple, it takes 15-20 years for a rhino to reach adult size while it only takes cows a couple.
Nasty disposition: Here's where we eliminate zebra burgers, hippo burgers, grizzly burgers and bison burgers. These animals retain their nasty and dangerous tempers even after several generations of captive breeding. Did you know zebras injure more zookeepers per year than do lions and tigers?
Tendency to panic: No deer or gazelle burgers either. Why? Because they take flight at the first sign of danger and will literally kill themselves running into a fence over and over to escape the threat.
Captive breeding problems: Many animals have elaborate breeding rituals that can't happen in captivity.
Social structure: This may be the most important requirement for domesticates. The best candidates for domestication live in herds, maintain a clear herd hierarchy, and overlap ranges with other herds rather than having exclusive ranges. Here humans just take over the top of the hierarchy. They literally become the herd leader (think “Dog Whisperer”).
So the reason European explorers didn't find Native American ranchers with herds of bison and bighorn sheep is because these animals can’t be domesticated. Diamond contends that if there had been any horses left in the Americas, or any of the other 13 candidates for domestication, the Native Americans surely would have domesticated them, and reaped all the attendant benefits. But alas, their great-great-grandpas had already killed, grilled and digested them all.
Diamond's book is a great read. If you're a student of history, it’s a must read. The way I see it, the story of man (and the story of all things, for that matter) is the story of varied states of disequilibrium moving violently and inexorably toward equilibrium. What was Pizarro's vanquishing of Atahualpa's empire if not an example of such violent re-balancing? The beauty of Diamond's book is that it seems to pinpoint, with surprising simplicity, the original source of disequilibrium among men: geography. Roughly put, some got born in the right place and some didn’t. Skin color had nothing to do with it. Race has always been nothing more than an arbitrary mark to show the geographical birthplace of one's ancestors'.
By the way, if you do read this book, take note of the way we humans first discovered agriculture. According to Diamond, it happened at the latrine. We'd go out gathering seeds, eating some along the way, and then come back to camp and defecate, all in the same spot. Guess what started growing in that spot? Yes, my friends, as crude as it may sound, we humans shat are way to civilization. Thank your ass when you get a chance. ...more
Crime dropped in the 90s because Roe v Wade took out millions of potential criminals.... everybody cheats when they can, including Sumo wrestlers.....Crime dropped in the 90s because Roe v Wade took out millions of potential criminals.... everybody cheats when they can, including Sumo wrestlers..... traditionally black first names may not hinder people as much as simply being black and poor, which increases the chances one will be named a traditionally black name...
These and other interesting inferences, gleaned from the world that is (as opposed to the world that should be), await readers of this short book.
My evaluation: interesting, but over-hyped on the cover.
Kershaw discusses 10 "fateful choices" made between May 1940 and December 1941 that "changed the world." To wit:
In spring 1940, (1) the "bulldog" ChuKershaw discusses 10 "fateful choices" made between May 1940 and December 1941 that "changed the world." To wit:
In spring 1940, (1) the "bulldog" Churchill convinced his cohorts in the War Cabinet (Halifax and Chamberlain) that fighting on against the Nazis was Britain's only choice. Better to go down fighting than negotiating. Either way, they'd end up at Hitler's mercy. At least if they went down fighting, they'd become a moral cause for Britain's friends to avenge.
Britain's choice to continue fighting imposed a new sense of urgency on Hitler. Instead of winning the war in the west and then turning east to release his full fury on Stalin (like he'd planned), he decided (2) to attack the Soviets immediately, win, and then turn back to the west to release his full fury on Britain (and, by then, probably the U.S. too).
In the meantime, the Japanese and Mussolini saw France and the Low Countries vanquished and Britain seemingly on her knees, and decided (3 & 4) to attack their interests in Southeast Asia and Greece, respectively. Roosevelt saw the same dire picture and decided (5) to lend/lease an unlimited supply of munitions and materials to Britain.
Meanwhile, Stalin, despite every scrap of intelligence coming his way, decided (6) that Hitler would never attack him without first defeating the British, or at least issuing an ultimatum. He was wrong.
Hitler's June 1941 invasion of Russia was a godsend in Roosevelt's eyes. The President decided (7) to wage undeclared war on Germany by way of unlimited military aid to both Britain and the Soviets. A month later, Japan joined the club of Roosevelt's undeclared enemies-- an American oil embargo of Japan began in late July-- and the Japanese (8) set their sites on Pearl Harbor.
No sooner was the Oahu harbor filled with battleship parts and charred US sailors than Hitler decided (9) that he too wanted a piece of an enemy with unlimited resources. On December 11, 1941 he declared war on the United States.
The 10th "fateful decision" Kershaw relates is Hitler's decision to "kill the Jews."
This is not a good book. The content can be had in more readable form elsewhere (Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" for example) and Kershaw's analysis is boring-- "It had to happen the way it did" basically sums it up. Yes Mr. Kershaw, it did..... but you didn't have to write a book about it, did you? Kershaw also has an uncanny ability to present the same information 5 different times in each chapter, when once would have sufficed. And despite the epic nature of the book's content, Kershaw's mind-numbing prose turns the telling of it into a lullaby.
What if everyone just disappeared? How would the entropy of our civilization ensue? Read this book if you want an educated guess that's both entertainWhat if everyone just disappeared? How would the entropy of our civilization ensue? Read this book if you want an educated guess that's both entertaining and enlightening.
So what would be the last remnant of us to go? What would be the last product of ours to dissipate into the universal dust? Plastic? Nope. The pyramids? Nope. The radioactive elements we've unleashed into the world? Not even them.
No, the thing outlasting all these and everything else is even more complex, and took 10,000 years of cultural development to achieve. A hint: it's transmigrating galaxies right now.
Weismann's book is a great read that turns out to be a pretty powerful plea for greener living. When our largest ocean has a floating island of plastic debris the size of Texas swirling at its vortex and a random sample of ocean water yields more synthetic polymers than organic material, well, you know something needs to change.
And by the way, you'll never watch another disaster movie again without thinking... "When is the nuclear meltdown gonna occur?" Yes, our hundreds of nuclear power plants would be some of the first things to go, with chilling environmental consequences.
One last question: If we did all die off suddenly, how likely would it be that we would evolve again? Read the book....more
Imagine two brothers born to compete, the elder dominating the younger. The elder brother is arrogant and manipulative, but also sincere and well-inteImagine two brothers born to compete, the elder dominating the younger. The elder brother is arrogant and manipulative, but also sincere and well-intentioned. When people ask him questions about the world, he answers quickly and often flippantly, as if he knows all. When he doesn’t know, he answers anyway, gleaning his answers from within. He never thinks to look to the world for his answers because he’s certain he already knows everything. His younger brother agrees and admires him, repeating his answers when people ask him the same questions.
One day late in life, the younger brother decides on a whim to compare his wise old brother’s answers about the world to the world. He quickly notices discrepancies and points them out. The elder is horrified by his young brother’s disrespect and orders him to apologize and forgo any further comparisons. But the younger continues his comparisons and in short time proves most of his elder brother’s claims about the world to be grotesque, deleterious superstitions. In the face of overwhelming evidence, the elder can do nothing but retreat from his prior claims and assert that their truthfulness is insignificant when compared to the “feeling” he has in believing them. The younger brother can make no real world comparison to his elder brother’s “feeling,” and thus the fraternal competition ends, the elder left grinning in self-righteous impotence while the younger busies himself with the salvation of mankind.
For Bertrand Russell the elder brother is religion and the younger science. His book about the two makes for a great read and a devastating critique of religion. For Russell, religious creeds are little more than residue of a former age’s prejudices clung to by fearmongers and fools. Cloaking themselves in “goodness” and “righteousness,” the followers of these creeds invariably enact the most depraved barbarities upon their fellow man, and never come close to conferring upon humanity the kinds of benefits science offers.
Russell’s book has teeth. He sets forth his arguments with immaculate reasoning, plentiful examples, and centuries of history conveyed in lucid and witty prose. If you’re like me, you’ll be fascinated to learn, for example, that Darwin (the “apostle of dirt-worship,” in Carlyle’s words) was very much standing on the shoulders of geologists when he transgressed orthodoxy and declared evolution.
It was geologists of the 18th century who first proffered a theory of development in nature, speculating that mountains, seabeds, and coastlines actually change with time, and that the changes they’ve endured over millennia can be attributed to causes observable now. This was a revolutionary idea. Orthodoxy had hitherto claimed that the world and everything in it had, Venus-like, sprung to life in full form and, barring a few miracles, not changed since. Thus when French geologist Buffon claimed in 1749 that the hills one sees may not have always been there, the pathway to Darwin was sure as set.
The two most interesting chapters in Russell’s book are those on Determinism and Cosmic Purpose. In the former Russell has the audacity (and wisdom) to disavow both determinism and free will. He does so by relegating both theories to the dustbin of “absolute metaphysical theories”—theories that go beyond what’s provable in the real world. For Russell, claiming that our lives are completely determined or that they are freely willed is something akin to claiming life is just a dream— a point that can neither be proved nor disproved and is, in the end, moot.
Referring to the “modern doctrine of atomic caprice” (quantum physics), Russell maintains that even if a law were discovered that could determine with certainty the behavior of atoms, their subatomic parts, and everything composed of atoms and subatomic parts (in a word, everything) — something that still hasn’t happened as of 2008, by the way — that discovery would add no consequence to the claim that our lives are determined. On the other hand, Russell urges us to reject “uncaused volitions” (truly “freely” willed choices) as impossible occurrences, and to avoid lamenting this fact or feeling any less potent because of it. Power, Russell rightly claims, “consists in being able to have intended effects,” and that ability is neither increased nor diminished by discovering what causes our intentions.
Regarding the purpose of our cosmos, Russell rejects all doctrines that assert as much. To claim the cosmos has a purpose intended by God or by some creative or blind impulse in matter is to be guilty of logical fallacy. We sense order within us and we see it around us, and then we assume someone or something has intended that order. But we could just as well assume that no one intended it. And we could just as well assume that someone intended disorder, of which we’ll find an equal amount within and around us if we so choose to look for it. What we choose to look for and assume, however, will always depend upon our values, which stem from our desires. Science, as it were, has nothing to say about our values—it cannot tell us what is good or bad or right or wrong— and thus science has nothing to say about cosmic purpose.
Sir James Jeans, whom Russell quotes at length in his chapter on Cosmic Purpose, claims that life could just as well be regarded as “something of the nature of a disease, which infects matter in its old age when it has lost the high temperature and the capacity for generating high-frequency radiation with which younger and more vigorous matter would at once destroy life.” Another conception devoutly to be wished, perhaps.
For his part, Russell wonders if there isn’t something in mankind that could be described in terms worse than Jeans’ “disease.” Writing the book in 1935 at the height of the world’s most dangerous new religious creeds, those of Hitler and Stalin, Russell muses about mankind’s seemingly infinite capacity to inflict suffering upon the world. He ends the book warning of a new Dark Age that will descend on civilization if either of the murderous creeds succeeds and prevents scientists from doing their work. “New truth,” he writes, “is often uncomfortable, especially to the holders of power; nevertheless, amid the long record of cruelty and bigotry, it is the most important achievement of our intelligent but wayward species.”
My recommendation: read this book. It cannot lead our species any further wayward and will only make you more intelligent....more
Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body? -Othello, end of Act V
When I was about 9 years old, I put a healthyWill you, I pray, demand that demi-devil Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body? -Othello, end of Act V
When I was about 9 years old, I put a healthy, live mouse into my parents' microwave oven. It was a summer day and I was all alone. I had this devilish feeling inside me. I knew it was wrong, but I had to do it. I grabbed a kitchen chair, dragged it across the floor, stood on it, opened the door, and threw the mouse in. Then I hit start.
At first it was no big deal. The light turned on inside, the mouse sniffed around, and I watched from outside, keen to see the first sign of distress. I felt exhilarated, euphoric, omnipotent. This living thing— this twitching, whiskered, beady-eyed creature— its life was mine for the taking, its fate mine for the making.
After ten seconds, I stopped the microwave and cracked the door. The mouse seemed unfazed and crawled toward me. I shut the door again and hit start: twenty seconds this time. It was just enough. When I cracked the door again, the mouse was visibly shaken. It crawled much slower and traced a clumsy arc across the microwave floor. I shut the door again and hit start. Another ten seconds. Then ten more. Then ten more.
I never felt any hate for that mouse. I wasn't seeking revenge for its past acts. I didn't even draw any specific pleasure from its pain or agony. Why then? Why would I, a young and well-adjusted child of God, a pillar of Cub Scout values and lover of mothers and cousins and little brothers... why would I nuke this helpless rodent in the mortal chamber of parents' microwave oven?
Why? Because I could.
And I believe Shakespeare's Iago would say the same thing to Othello's question above. Why did Iago ensnare the Moor's soul? Why did he devise, occasion, direct, and execute the collapse of the man's entire world? Why? Because he could.
Rodrigo, Cassio, Desdemona, Othello... mere mice in Iago's oven.
The fact that he can destroy them so cleverly, so precisely, so artistically functions as proof to him. It proves the superiority of his will over theirs, just as my minute-mice experiment proved the superiority of a 9-year-old's will over another creature's entire existence.
I find little mystery in the psychology of Shakespeare's Iago. His motivation is clearly all-too-human. The real mystery of the play and the play's deepest question is why that is so. Why do such beings like Iago, like the 9-year-old me, like the thousandfold prison guard, priest and parent who, seduced by omnipotence, inflicts terror and torment on a fellow living being... why do such creatures exist?
It’s a sublime question asked by a sublime play. Iago is evil, no doubt. But the kernel of his wickedness is commonplace among men. Be honest. If I were suddenly to place you at the almighty helm of mankind, can you really be sure you wouldn’t inflict on man the kinds of calamities and catastrophes wrought by old Jehovah? Overflowing with power, knowledge and time, could you really avoid torturing man? Even if you were the only one watching?
Read this play, or better, watch it. I assure you, if you're honest, you will see a bit of yourself in Iago and a bit of him in you, and you will be properly horrified.
_____ . . . . . . . . . . .
Disclaimer: the "mouse" was actually a spider. Sorry for the embellishment, but an Arachnid didn't have the same "punch" as a Mammal....more
Entertaining read on Concord, Mass during the 1840s and 50s. The town was essentially a genius garden cultivated by the money and sweat of Ralph WaldoEntertaining read on Concord, Mass during the 1840s and 50s. The town was essentially a genius garden cultivated by the money and sweat of Ralph Waldo Emerson. After his first wife (and love) Ellen died young, Emerson inherited a small fortune and used it to buy up properties in Concord and lure New England's most promising minds.
One by one the freeloaders showed up and sucked Emerson dry: first Bronson Alcott and his family, then Thoreau, then Hawthorne and the rest. Margaret Fuller also stopped in intermittently to disrupt the domestic peace of both Emerson and Hawthorne.
In a sense, Fuller is the most mysterious and interesting person in the book. A woman with a rambling propensity, a sharp wit, and a seductive streak, Fuller helped forge both the women's suffrage and abolitionist movements in America before becoming the NY Times' first foreign correspondent in Europe. There, in Rome, she married an Italian revolutionary and got pregnant.
After much deliberation, she and her husband and child boarded a rickety ship bound for the states. The ship was weighted down with a hull-full of stone blocks and, after a harrowing journey during which her baby almost died, the ship foundered a mere hundred yards from the New England shore. In the melee that followed, Fuller gave her child to one of the young shiphands, thinking that he, if anybody, could make it ashore. He and the baby drowned before her eyes. Fuller and her husband suffered the same fate shortly thereafter. After hearing the news, Emerson sent Thoreau to the beach near the site of the wreck to search for bodies and remnants. None were found.
Apparently, Fuller is the inspiration for Hester Prynne in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter and also a few of his other hardy heroines.
Another great anecdote from the book, one that has undoubtedly been chronicled in other works, recounts an encounter between Thoreau and Emerson. Thoreau goes to jail for his civil disobedience (refusing to pay taxes to a slave-sanctioning government). Emerson comes to bail him out.
"What are you doing in there?" Emerson asks upon seeing his disciple behind bars.
This book is out of print, so you can only find it in libraries. If you can get your hands on it, it's a great read. Ehrlich defines and describes theThis book is out of print, so you can only find it in libraries. If you can get your hands on it, it's a great read. Ehrlich defines and describes the most fundamental cogs in nature's machinery, and the relationships between those cogs. The final chapter on ecosystems is the creme of the book, and the creme of that creme is his discussion of how food chains are ruled by entropy (the second law of thermodynamics).
Why is the total mass of top level predators a mere fraction of the total mass of lower level vegetation? Because as energy moves up the food chain, at each stop on the "energy escalator," a portion of the available energy is (in practical terms) lost. Ehrlich writes:
"Organisms at each [food chain:] level do work in the course of maintaining their structure and metabolism, growing, and reproducing. The energy so used [at that level:] is thus subject to the inexorable tax of the second law, and the portion taxed away is not available to the next trophic level. The significance of the second law here is that, in any ecosystem, the amount of energy available to each successive trophic level declines. Thus more energy is available to support plants than herbivores, more to support herbivores than carnivores, and so on."
In other words, were it not for entropy, our planet would have a total mass of lions and tigers equal to its total mass of trees and grasses. That would be a lot of cats. We don't have them because, as Ehrlich makes clear, only 10% of the energy that flows into one level of a food chain is available to the next level. So if the grass on an African plain manages to capture 1000 calories of energy from the sun, only 100 of those calories will be available to support the zebras and wildebeest, and only 10 of the those 100 will be available to support the lions.
The corollary to this fact is that we humans would have far more calories available for chewing and swallowing if we decided to only chew and swallow plants. The further up the food chain we dine, the less food is available to us, all other things being equal. So.... vegetarians of the world unite! (I'm actually not one... and never will be.)
My favorite part of the book is Ehrlich's discussion of how ecosystems become disturbed, and how seemingly tiny organisms can cause extreme changes in landscapes. For example, in the 1880s, the viral disease "rinderpest" was accidentally introduced into Africa's Serengeti region by cattle imported from Russia. The pest quickly decimated the cattle of the local Masai and then began knocking off herds of native buffalo, wildebeest and giraffe. With less "natural" food, the lions of the region began dining on local humans instead (these were the famed Tsavo man-eaters made famous in the Val Kilmer/Michael Douglas flick "The Ghost and the Darkness"). Not wanting to end their lives as lion fodder, local farmers abandoned their fields, which soon overgrew with brush and woodland. It wasn't until 50 years later, in the 1930s, that these woodlands were regained as plains and farmland again.
So in roughly a decade, a tiny virus, invisible to the naked eye, transformed a vast swathe of African landscape from a herbivore-filled plain and farmland into a brushy woodland forest replete with man-eating beasts. Amazing....more
This book is the definition of pornography. But that doesn't mean it's not good literature. In the end, the reader must come to terms with the fact thThis book is the definition of pornography. But that doesn't mean it's not good literature. In the end, the reader must come to terms with the fact that he can't believe a word the narrator has written. This both disturbs and gives hope...
Disturbs: "Maybe I just wasted 300 pages sifting the sick fantasies of an imaginative, benign nutter."
Gives hope: "Maybe he really didn't do that thing with the rat... or with the car battery!"
Whatever the case, this book will stoke your latent cruelty, expose your tolerance for violence, and compromise your innocence. Reader beware....more