Daily Data Dump – Tuesday

The Democrats’ New Normal. It’s looking real bad. On the other hand, the Dems passed Health Care Reform. What’s the point of being in power if nothing is achieved? I’m sure the Republicans would have lost bigger if they’d passed Social Security Reform, but they would have achieved a big goal of their party.

Guardian science blogs: We aim to entertain, enrage and inform. They don’t have many science blogs. Yet. But I’m sure they’ll add more, and other “big media” outfits will be adding/expanding in the near future.

Wolves Are Smart, but Dogs Look Back. Makes me think of the empathizing–systemizing theory. Dogs empathize, wolves systemize.

Scientists Square Off on Evolutionary Value of Helping Relatives. Carl Zimmer has a good overview of the controversy which emerged out of the Nowak et al. paper, which seems to take a maximalist position against the utility of kin selection in explaining euosociality. Apparently some “big names” are going to be writing a response, so I’ll be curious. I haven’t bothered going through Nowak et al.’s supplements, so I really can’t say much more than that.

Outlines Emerge of Future State in the West Bank. The thing that stood out was the relative quiescence engendered by economic growth. Idle hands and all.

The New World in three easy steps

One aspect of human demographic expansions seems to be the fact that we often model them as a constant diffusion process, when in reality there were likely pulses (economic historians can conceive of this as the periodic gaps between land and labor factor inputs). I don’t know much about the human movements prior to H. sapiens sapiens, and from what I can gather the fossil remains are too sparse to be too wedded to a specific model, but it seems clear that anatomically modern human expansion occurred through a series of rapid outward sweeps which would periodically reach a “natural barrier.” Modern humans reached the Solomon Islands ~30,000 years ago, after which there was stasis for ~25,000 years. Only with the Austronesian expansion did humanity push past the Solomons. And this was no baby-step, ultimately the Austronesians went as far as the Hawaiian islands and Easter Island.

The New World is similar. The initial migration out of Africa by modern humans resulted in the range expansion of the human lineage into a region which had been untouched by earlier hominins, Australasia. But after that point tens of thousands of years passed before our species pushed into virgin territory, in this case North America. The when and the how of this though is still up for debate. A new paper PLoS One attempts to construct a plausible scenario by taking archaeological data points and inputing them into a diffusion model. Archaeological Support for the Three-Stage Expansion of Modern Humans across Northeastern Eurasia and into the Americas:

We use diffusion models…to quantify these dynamics. Our results show the expansion originated in the Altai region of southern Siberia ~46kBP , and from there expanded across northern Eurasia at an average velocity of 0.16 km per year. However, the movement of the colonizing wave was not continuous but underwent three distinct phases: 1) an initial expansion from 47-32k calBP; 2) a hiatus from ~32-16k calBP, and 3) a second expansion after the LGM ~16k calBP. These results provide archaeological support for the recently proposed three-stage model of the colonization of the Americas….Our results falsify the hypothesis of a pre-LGM terrestrial colonization of the Americas and we discuss the importance of these empirical results in the light of alternative models.

It’s an interesting paper because it seems to have been triggered in part by inferences made from the genetic data. I don’t know how confident archaeologists are about their radiometric dates, but I think some of the molecular clock results from the genetics of Amerindians need to be taken with a grain of salt (I don’t see many people repeating some of the really ancient coalescence dates for Amerindian Y lineages at this point).

These data seem to indicate that modern humans made it no further than previous hominin groups for several tens of thousands of years. But something happened within the last 20,000 years, and our species made the leap across Beringia. The bottleneck here is certainly not the Bering Strait, which was spanned by land much of the time in any case. Rather, our species didn’t have the biological or cultural capacity to survive in extremely frigid environments. I’ve read modern humans pushed the boundaries of their range in northern Europe further than Neandertals ever did, indicating our flexibility and plasticity. Since the human lineage had been resident in Eurasia for at least one million years that suggests to me that it was behavioral modernity that was key. In particular, how quickly our cultures evolve and shift. Though that flexibility itself may be a function of our biological competencies.

Science with soul sells

Vivienne Raper who analyzed the Wikio Top 100 Science Blogs left a comment below:

I’m now curious to find out why there are no ‘popular’ blogs in certain subjects. Do working condensed matter physicists who want to engage with the public write about astrophysics? Or are astrophysicists the only physicists who want to blog for the public? Or does the public only read astrophysics blogs?

675px-CrabNebulaHubbleThe contrast between astrophysics and solid state physics is a clue to what’s going on I think. Solid-state physics is very important work. Like agricultural science solid-state physics may not have all the public glamor, but it puts bread on the table of our civilization. So why all the love for astrophysics? I think part of the issue is real straightforward. Astrophysics lends itself easily to a visual “hook,” such as the false-color image of the Crab Nebulae to the left. This isn’t necessarily the heart of astrophysics of course, but it’s a way to connect with the broader public in a literally eye-catching manner. Compare the image search results for “solid state physics” vs. “astrophysics. Not a good sign if the first page is overloaded with head-shots of old nerdy white, Middle Eastern, and brown guys. But that’s not the only issue here. I think there’s a “soul factor” at work. To understand what I’m getting at, let’s look at Vivienne’s breakdown by the umbrella categories:


Neuroscience, evolution, and astrophysics speak to normative concerns of our species. That is, they grapple with values. The brain is the seat of our self in a material sense, and neuroscience emerges out of a deep tradition of philosophy of mind which goes back 2,500 years. Evolution has had a fraught relationship with teleology, and some philosophers of biology have quipped that their field to a first approximation can be reduced to philosophy of evolution. Molecular biology is more fundamental in a concrete proximate sense, but evolutionary biology is more fundamental in the ultimate abstract sense. And finally, astrophysics when it bleeds into cosmology rather obviously treads on the ground which was once the domain of mythology, of cosmogony. In a very broad sense these disciplines push against our conceptions of ontology. Astrophysics in the most general sense, neuroscience in a very anthropocentric sense, and evolutionary biology spanning the two extremes.

I think the anti-alternative medicine category also emerges from the same dynamic, but mainly not to appeal to it, but to battle it. Modern scientific medicine does not jive with the deep intuitions of many people of how bodily processes work, They wish for a more “holistic” and “natural” model. I use the quotations because these sorts of terms are more figures of speech in this context than anything substantive. If there was a “holistic” and “natural” alternative engineering discipline then engineering weblogs would no doubt sprout up to battle intuitive pseudo-science.

Mathematics is a strange discipline because I think it too falls into the category of a soulful science. But as Keith Devlin observed in The Millennium Problems translating deep cutting edge mathematics to the general public can be very difficult, because there is less room to use metaphor and analogy than in the natural sciences. Technical hurdles are not barrier if analogy and visuals can substitute, but this does not seem so easy for many deep mathematical questions.

I believe therefore the issue here is to a large extent demand side. People get worked up over controversy, and emotionally invested in topics which cross the threshold of deep emotional commitment. Whether we are simply another primate, or sui generis and a Special Creation, fits that bill. More practical, and very important in an economic sense, endeavors may not fit the bill.

Note: I think other factors are at work as well. Climate science is popular because of its high profile in public policy right now and the potential existential implications. There are probably other hidden factors too. Why is neuroscience blogging more well developed than psychology blogging (or at least so a psych blogger has complained to me)? Neuroscience is a young field which is maturing right now, and perhaps it simply has the right demographic profile which allowed it to bloom very quickly in the next technological context. And I also think fMRI images are preferable to another stock photo of rats in a maze!

Image Credit: NASA

Open Thread – August 30th, 2010

I always forget about open threads! Anyone read any good books over the summer? Bad ones to avoid? I’ll have a review of The Tenth Parallel up soon, but after reading it, and several other books…I’m beginning to think that for most Americans they should stick to American history if they want to read history. Unless they read high school level books. Shorter works are really hard to get much out of unless you have a thicker interpretative framework. So many times I catch myself thinking, “Ah, makes sense, I read in X the context behind this fact.” Or, “That’s a biased reading, I know that it doesn’t comport with the field’s consensus orthodoxy, which the author isn’t noting for readers….” Next in my list is The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, but first I need to finally finish The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Also looking forward to Eureka Man: The Life and Legacy of Archimedes.

Daily Data Dump – Monday

Hope you had a good weekend! Winter is not quite coming…but summer is ending.

Phoneme Inventory Size and Demography. Some original data analysis in this post! Turns out that phoneme segment length is positively correlated with population density. Too often culture is viewed as something we can only have a qualitative understanding of, but these sorts of analyses show that there are ways to get a quantitative grasp of the sea of memes (if this post was of interest, see the blog Replicated Typo).

Why Isn’t the Missing Heritability Nearly Neutral and Tightly Networked?. Interesting idea that we’re missing causal variants because of selection bias on the set of SNPs which current gene chips detect. The past 10 years have been awesome in genomics, but what’s going to happen when whole genome sequencing becomes the norm?

Bring Your Genes to Your Life Insurance Sales Representative. Brad DeLong makes the argument for single-payer as a way to obviate the conundrums which will emerge when genetic profiling of disease becomes more efficacious. This is an area where I think the marketing of personal genomics companies have given people the wrong impression of how powerful the techniques are currently. But the time will probably come when there’s a lot more juice to squeeze out of the prediction algorithms. And yet one issue that DeLong assumes is that your genetic endowment is a lottery. That it’s something we can’t control in generation t + 1. That’s false. Parents will be able to screen. If health care is totally socialized, should we also socialize some aspects of the decision making process in relation to procreation? Rights without responsibilities?

Iranian Jews in America: Torn Between Homelands. In the 2004 movie Crash both of the Persian leads were played by Iranian Americans who also happen to be Jewish, Shaun Toub and Bahar Soomekh. Here’s Bahar Soomekh, “Just because I’m in Hollywood doesn’t mean that I forget that I’m Persian or that I’m Jewish. Judaism is not only my religion—it’s my identity.” Remember that only a minority of Iranian Americans are self-identified Muslims.

In Search of Time. A cognitive trick to stretch out your perception of time? Perhaps.

10 Questions for Hugh Pope

popehughHugh Pope is the author of Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East, Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World, and Turkey Unveiled. He was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for 25 years, most recently with The Wall Street Journal, and has a degree in Oriental Studies from Oxford. He currently works for the International Crisis Group, focusing on issues of Turkey and Cyprus. Despite similarities of physiognomy and Oxford educations Hugh Pope is not Hugh Grant.

Below are 10 questions.

1 – In Sons of the Conquerors I recall you being able to communicate with people from all over the Turkic world in Turkish. My impression from that is that from Xinjiang to Anatolia the differences between Turkic languages are relatively marginal. Am I misremembering something here? Can you give an analogy as to the distance between Turkic languages in terms of intelligibility? (e.g., Spanish:Italian::Turkish:Uzbek)

Turkic languages are in three main groups: roughly the more westerly group of Turkish, Azeri, Balkan Turkish and Turkmen; a central group including Uzbek and Uygur; and an eastern group that includes Kazakh and Kyrgyz. The westerly is the most developed, and you could say share the same inter-intelligibility of Spanish, French and Italian. A Kazakh and a Turk will however take longer to learn each other’s languages. However, since the structure is similar, and there is quite a good overlap of words (although they can be pronounced very differently), they learn them much quicker than learning a tongue in another language group. Because Japanese shares many grammatical similarities with the group, many Turks and Japanese can also learn their languages much quicker than others.

2 – One of the first nations in the Middle East in which you lived was Syria. As you observe in Dining with al-Qaeda Syria preserves a great deal of religious diversity, a variety draining out of many of the other nations in the region. In particular, I am curious as to your assessment of the attitudes of Alawis to the Muslim world as a whole. From my reading I am to understand that they have been “mainstreaming” their identity over the past few generations so that they are now a sect of Twelver Shia Muslims, whereas in the early 20th century their own self-perception was much grayer, with an identity more distinct from Islam as a whole like the Druze or Yezidis.

Interestingly, Alawis in Syria are different from the Alevis in Turkey, but both have hesitated to describe themselves completely outside mainstream Islam. Clearly they come from rural groups who share a common point of a different, Shia-style tradition, distinct from the main (Ottoman) Sunni power of the Middle Ages. In Turkey, many Alevi communities appear to have been converted by missionaries from Safavid/Shia Iran, and because there was so little communication between different parts of the empire, it gave rise to many different Alevi traditions. The picture in the two main post-Ottoman countries with Alevis/Alawis, Syria and Turkey, has diverged somewhat since then. The minority Alawism of the Assad family, in power since the 1970s, has had more impact on their efforts to keep Syria ’secular’ rather than promoting any Alawi orthodoxy. In Turkey, where Western style rights and freedoms have been spreading, various Alevi factions compete to be known as mainstream or even official. There are some Turkish Alevis, apparently a minority, who want to be considered as a distinct religion. One feature shared with Syria is a love of secularism — some Turkish Alevis even treat republican founder Kemal Ataturk as a kind of saint, probably because his secularism defended them from oppression by the Sunni majority. A difference with Syria is that even though the Alevis in Turkey can’t agree on a common dogma, Alevism is now very much established as an alternative to Sunni Islam.

3 – I’ve never been to the Middle East so what I know is mostly from books, papers, and various data sources. The World Values Survey in 2005-2008 had he following results for selected nations in regards to those who were convinced atheists:

Great Britain – 10.4%, 105 out of 1041
USA – 3.6%, 42 out of 1249
Turkey – 0.5% 7 out of 1346
Egypt – 0% 0 out of 3051
Iran – 0.1% 3 out of 2156
Jordan – 0.1% 1 out of 1106

I’ve provided percentages and counts. As someone more intimately familiar with Middle Eastern people, do these numbers tell us anything real? (I know in the USA the percentage who don’t believe in God is higher than those who say they’re atheists, because the label atheist has some stigma)

It’s true that religion, and respect for religion, is very deep-rooted in Middle Eastern societies. I think it is partly because they have had a very rough time in the past couple of centuries, making people distrustful of human efforts and outside powers. You should also take into account the very vivid and influential stigma attached by the Koran and Muslim societies to anyone leaving the faith or not believing in God.

4 – The term nation has a relatively broad meaning in English today, and informally denotes a particular land mass enclosed by political boundaries. But a narrower older meaning is that a nation consists of a particular people with an identity as a nation on a particular territory. The nation-state if you will. By the second definition it seems that Turks and Iranians (despite the ethnic and religious diversity in both these nation-states) have a sense of nationality. Most Americans at this point would probably agree with the assertion that Iraqis do not have such a viewpoint, while it seems that many of the Persian Gulf monarchies are more coalitions of clans brought together by personal rule. Of the Arab nations Egypt in particular seems to stand out to me as analogous to Turkey or Iran. What would say of this assertion?

I think your assertion is broadly correct, and I’d also note that the sense of Iraqi nationality may be in eclipse but that it is still there. Most Iraqi Kurds might dream of an independent Kurdistan, but I’m not sure they really want to merge their advanced society of three million people with, say, the 12-15 million poorer, less educated Kurds of Turkey. Turkey, Iran and Egypt all have long and well-established state traditions, which also tends to nurture a sense of nationhood. Arab states, many of which were previously part of the Ottoman Empire, have a much harder time making their statehood seem like nationhood. Saudi Arabia may come the closest to this – the Saudi family has been running things in that part of the world off and on for 300 years – but Saudi Arabia is a rather unusual place so hard to make generalisations about it!

5 – Let’s play at “alternate history.” What if the world’s largest concentration of oil reserves were not in the Arab Middle East and Iran. Would these Middle Eastern nations be more well off, like Turkey, or would they be ignored and destitute like much of Africa and Afghanistan?

With all the caveats of alternative history, I suspect that a country like Iraq, with a state tradition and a long history would have done better, and that it would have been very hard without oil to make something of the Persian Gulf states. I agree however with the underlying idea behind your question, that lack of oil has forced a country like Turkey to work harder and have a more tolerant and pluralist culture.

6 – I’m curious about your interactions with the Yezidi’s. Did you discuss the details of their religion at all with them? If so, were you simply stonewalled, or did they give you consistent or inconsistent descriptions of their beliefs?

I did discuss aspects of their religion with some Yezidis, and they seemed to have as coherent a world view as any other in terms of theology (try explaining the Trinity to an outsider). In terms of religious culture, however, they had almost nothing to talk about since they have been so marginalized and oppressed. Certainly they feel a lot freer in U.S.-backed Iraq than they did under Saddam Hussein, but the attacks on them by extremists show that things could go badly for them too.

7 – I have an Iranian American friend. He is an ethnic Persian, and I inquired of him as to the existence of an independent Azeri Iranian community, and he did not know if such a group existed. Of course he knew that many Iranians were Azeris, but the distinction seemed of minimal interest to him. More a matter of curiosity than any importance. I’m curious as to ethnic relations in Iran, which seem relatively amicable. One model I have proposed for why Azeris and other Turks are so well integrated into the Iranian state is that to a great extent modern Iran as a Shia nation is a product of the Turkic Safavids and their successors. What do you think of this thesis?

That’s possible, but I’m not sure the Safavids took their ‘Turkicness’ very seriously (the Ottomans, their big rivals, didn’t make a big deal of it either). Iranian Azeris are well-integrated because they share Shia faith, they fought side by side with the others in the Iran-Iraq war, and because there is no limit to how high they can rise in Iranian society (despite all the Iranian snobbery against Turks and the Turkish language, and the occasional ethnic frictions there are in Persian/Azeri border towns). Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei comes from an Azeri family, as does Hossein Mousavi. The merchants of the Tehran bazaar are mostly Azeris.

8 – In Dining with al-Qaeda I was struck by the fact that Iranians you questioned about their militant rhetoric dismissed those who took their slogans literally. There seems to have been a gap in how people perceived language from culture to culture (this is true even within the United States). Perhaps a specialist in semiotics would have been handy. Your task as a journalist was to transmit information to the Western public, and so serve as an intermediary. And yet sometimes you encountered difficulties because your editors were less than familiar with the different way language is used in other cultures. Are the diplomats and politicians who deal with Middle Eastern issues versed in these nuances? After the Iraq War debacle I am not so sure that complacent confidence in the “commanding heights” of American civil service and politics should be a default.

The American civil service was well-versed in the nuances of Iraq before the war, but the political power chose to disregard their wisdom almost completely. (Same goes for the UK). American civil servants could not be expected to rebel against an unwise policy – in fact, only a handful resigned – but applied their can-do optimism to what (to me) seems like a completely impossible proposition. In Dining with al-Qaeda I was trying to tell people that they should trust no one with complacent confidence, especially not the media, and that they should develop a sceptical approach to information.

9 – A personal question. Your “divided loyalties,” so to speak, are highlighted in Dining with al-Qaeda. You’re British by national origin, have lived in the Middle East for much of your life, and worked for American journalistic outfits. If someone asks you “where are you from?, what do you answer? Is it very important who is asking the question?

I find this a very difficult question to answer. I was born in South Africa and raised there until I was nine, by English parents; I went to school in Britain; my university studies were of the Arab and Iranian worlds; I lived nearly half of my life in Turkey; I first married a Swiss national and now a Dutch national; my children have been educated in French and German schools. Generally I say, “I’m from Istanbul”, but even that seems less part of my loyalties now, since my favorite place to live is my house in the mountains in the south of Turkey.

10 – There exists the category “Middle East,” which includes the Arab nations (or perhaps the Arab nations of the Mashriq + Egypt + Arabia), Turkey and Iran. And yet there is also quite a bit of prejudice between Arabs, Turks, and Persians (as a South Asian I have experienced members of each group taking pains to distinguish itself from the others). But walking through Istanbul, Tehran, and an Arab city such as Damascus or Cairo, are the cultural differences that stark? Can the casual observer tell simply from styles of architecture what is Turk and Persian and Arab? Is it simply narcissism of small differences?

There are real differences between Turks, Persians, Arabs, Kurds and Jews, who are all main Middle Eastern peoples. But each national category has many sub-categories, some of which seem closer to the other main categories than they are to each other! It’s the same with Islam – people keep claiming it’s ‘one’, but in fact, Turkish, Persian and Saudi Islam, despite their shared theological reference points, could be entirely different religious cultures. The important thing in the Middle East is to recognize these differences, but also to see where they overlap, along with equally important overlaps with Western culture and commerce.

Image Credit: Thomas Foley

When the ancients were wise

2009-02-02-HouseofWisdomcovI picked up The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization on the run, as I was about go traveling somewhere. I didn’t look at the contents or even the jacket summary very closely. My interest specifically was to get to know a little more about the Abbassid House of Wisdom, which like the Academy of Athens was more defined by a bustle of intellectual activity rather than a physical space. In particular I wanted to know more about Thābit ibn Qurra, arguably the most renowned translator of ancient works for the House of Wisdom, and the last pagan intellectual of note in western Eurasia before Plethon. Thābit ibn Qurra was a Sabian, a religious sect in Haran which had convinced the Islamic authorities that they were a People of the Book, but who clearly descended from the pagan tradition of that city which persisted down to late antiquity thanks to the protection given by the nearby Persian rulers (during the period when Justinian was eliminating all traces of institutional paganism from the Byzantine Empire, from the Academy in Athens, the Sun Temple in Balbek, to the Temple in Philae, Haran was spared because the proximity of the Persian Empire meant that the Byzantines did not have a free hand in disrupting the local social equilibrium without cost to their domination of the region). But The House of Wisdom is not that book at all, only a few pages are given over to the Abbassid House of Wisdom. Rather, the title refers to the interaction between the civilization of Islam and Western Christendom between late antiquity to the high medieval period, and is a metaphor for Arab Islamic civilization. If you want to know about Adelard of Bath, Roger of Sicily, and Frederick II, this is the book for you! These are some of the novel bit players in the rather well worn story of “How X Saved Western Civilization,” with X being the Arabs in this narration (the other figures, such as Averroes, are well known to you from other works).

I was disappointed with the framework of The House of Wisdom. Because I misunderstood the title I thought it was going to be a narrowly focused work with a scholarly bent. Instead it was meandering, broad brush, and most definitely aimed toward an ignorant lay audience. This sort of work isn’t all bad. Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World is of similar bent, though more focused and scholarly. The intent of the publishers in these sorts of works are clear. Here another book in the same vein, Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization (I can not recommend this as much as Wells’ attempt). Jonathan Lyons tries to do the same for the Arabs as Colin Wells did for the Byzantines, but there are differences which I think are instructive. Lyons turns the Byzantines into bit-players on the margins of his story, which is really about the dance of the West, those societies which were heirs to the Western Roman Empire, and the Muslims of Araby (there is sentence where he refers to “Christians” and then to “Byzantines,” with it being obvious that he’s distinguishing the two. This is obviously a minor error, but it points to the fact that the Byzantines have been pushed so far to the margin Lyons’ story that they aren’t even included in Christendom!). Wells used the Muslims as a contrast with the Byzantines, showing how these two streams of preservation of ancient wisdom differed in the details, and how they complemented each other. So Byzantine influence was more powerful in Italy, while works derived from Al-Andalus were more prominent in what became France. The historical reasons for this moderate disjunction are straightforward and need not concern us here. But of more interest is that while the Muslims tended to focus on the abstract philosophical and technical wisdom of the Greeks, it was from the Byzantines that we derive the preservation of the Hellenic humanistic tradition. Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes. This is a substantive distinction, and one that is not often highlighted.

Instead the author of The House of Wisdom spends an inordinate amount of time contrasting the civilized and the barbaric. The civilized in this case being the Arab Muslim, and the barbaric being the Latin Frank. We’ve been around this block many times, and I don’t understand why we need to revisit this normative inversion again. Perhaps I’m not part of the intended audience, I’m the type of person who reads thousand page books on the Crusades, so I’m not really interested in rehashes of the conflict over a few paragraphs. The corrective bias which I believe Lyons is operating under because of the presumption of an Islamophobic ignorant audience is why there are counter-polemics such as Rodney Stark’s God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. The Crusades were of course balanced by the Arab conquests, which was a veritable rollback of Christendom. One could write another book about “how the Greeks and Persians civilized the Arabs.” The contempt with which the older cultures viewed the Arab Muslims is evident in the Shahnameh or John of Damascus’ writings, and the transformation of Araby into a font of literate sophistication which the Franks encountered in the 4th Muslim century is an important story in and of itself. But instead we’re treated to these black & white morality plays which satisfy the Middle Eastern urge to remind the West who was savage and backward once. This isn’t serious scholarship. Positivism may not be possible in a pure form, but there’s a spectrum between the objective and polemical.

But there are gems of interest in The House of Wisdom. With only 200 pages at his disposal the author really didn’t have time to delve into the literature which he cites and alludes to (which makes the standard West-is-bad framework annoying as it wastes space). In particular, though not explicitly fleshed out I think one can see how Arab Muslim civilization benefited from its geopolitical position and economies of scale. The Arabs reunited many parts of Alexander the Great’s Empire, bringing Alexandria under the same political and social order as the Persian heartland. With the Arab conquest of Sindh, and the defeat of the Tang at Talas, we see that they had interface with other great civilizational traditions. At its height the Umayyad Caliphate was bounded on the West by Latin Christian civilization and on the east by the outposts of the Chinese cultural penumbra. In India the Umayyad’s seem to have come to an understanding with both the Buddhists and Brahmins of Sindh (in particular, the tax exemptions of Buddhist monks and Brahmin priests were maintained as a holdover from the pre-Islamic order). Greek, Chinese, Indian, and Persian wisdom all came together during the Abbassid period in the House of Wisdom (as well as extinct civilizations, such as that of Persian Christianity and Central Asian Buddhism). If there is one fact which I found to be noteworthy in The House of Wisdom it is that Lyons connects the spread of paper from China to the Arab world in the 8th century with the explosion in translation in the 9th century under the aegis of Al-Ma’mun. So like the printing press paper may have triggered an intellectual revolution. It is very interesting that almost all the earliest preserved works of the ancients can be traced to the Carolingian Renaissance, the Abbassids in the 9th century, and the Byzantines under Constantine VII. This occurred over ~150 years or so, and it is to this expenditure of capital on the part of these potentates to which we can give thanks for our remembrance of secular Western antiquity.

So what wisdom did the the Arabs transmit to the Franks? If you’re deeply interested in that, I recommend Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages and more especially The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450. Remember that a disproportionate contribution by the Arabs was in the domain of natural philosophy, the precursor to science. The Byzantine advantage lay in works in the original Greek, but the Arabs transmitted the works through the intermediation of several languages, from Greek to Syriac to Arabic to Latin. Science’s beauty is that such translation shouldn’t garble the meaning so much, it is a clear and distinct enterprise with little need for semantic nuance. The introduction to most of Aristotle’s thinking in the West was famously through Averroes, the “Commentator” cited by Aquinas. Averroes did not know Greek, and himself relied on Arabic versions of Aristotle’s work.

ESBdioceses0811The aforementioned Adelard of Bath looms large in The House of Wisdom because he brought back works from the Arab world on astrology and philosophy of immediate technical utility. Prior to the modern era astrology and other pseudo-sciences were part of the body of natural philosophy. Star charts and models of celestial mechanics were critical to a proper astrological enterprise. The ancient societies had developed excellent techniques over time, culminating in the work of Ptolemy. Additionally, the Islamic world had an infusion of complementary knowledge from Indian astrologers. The combination of the wealth of the Arab world, the fact that it had access to ancient works, and its cross-cultural connections, meant that in the domain of astrology it was far superior to anything found in the Latin West. Because of the belief in the power of the stars the Arab wisdom in this case had immediate yield and quickly spread after Adelard’s translation effort. Something similar occurred in the realm of geography, where Arabs had a natural advantage over the isolated and parochial Franks. Jonathan Lyons does not explore the economic basis of these differences in cultural capital much, but if you are curious I recommend Christopher Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Of the successor polities to the Roman Empire that of the Arab Muslim world was clearly the wealthiest to start out with. Much of the subsequent advancement in various technical arts can be attributed to the ability of the Arabs to marshal their surplus capital, and the consequent positive feedback loops which might emerge even in a Malthusian world.

In the big picture though The House of Wisdom has less impact on the modern mind because I believe we do not comprehend the power of the ancients over those who lived before 1800. Lyons himself observes that Western Europeans on occasion selected inferior techniques and truths from the Greeks over Arab derivations and extensions because of the presumption that the Greeks were superior in all way to later peoples. The idea that ancient peoples were wiser, and lived in a better age, is not one that most of us in a post-Malthusian consumer world of technological obsolescence can grasp, but it is a cultural universal. The Chinese, Indians, Greeks and Romans all looked to golden ages, when morals were superior, and wealth and health were the way of the world. Part of this may be that in the Malthusian world there were recollections of periods in their culture when the demographic parameters were expansionary. That is, land was in surplus, labor in a deficit, and necessities a surfeit. But whatever the origin, this model persisted down to the 18th century and the Enlightenment. The Renaissance had been an efflorescence of learning, but it had been retarded in its progress in some ways because of the reverence for ancient precedents. This is most evident in medicine and physics, where Galen and Aristotle led scientists astray.

There are some domains where the ancients still hold sway today. Religion is one. To some extent the literary humanities as well. Among non-scientific, and even some scientifically minded, there is still the idea that “ancient wisdom” can unlock secrets which we moderns have forgotten. To understand psychology I know of individuals who go seeking wisdom in the Sufis or Bhagavad Gita. I suppose that says something about the state of modern psychology. But it is also testament to the fact that despite our modern reliance on technological and scientific advancement the mind still craves ancient wisdom which can be gotten for free. Many believe that just by digging in musty archives one can find magics which unlock the secret of the universe. Magics which the ancients had stumbled upon, and which we have forgotten. To me that is the real polemical lesson that books such as The House of Wisdom should be teaching us, that pre-modern man thought that wisdom could be excavated and borrowed, and not created de novo. Instead, these sorts of popularizations are aimed toward an ignorant and dull modern audience caught up in Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann’s latest hobby-horses.

Image Credit: Howard Wiseman

What do science bloggers blog about

What do science bloggers blog about? My study of the Wikio Top 100:

As a former scientist, I like evidence-based blogging so I needed a dataset to test my theory that ‘all top bloggers are biologists’. To get a randomish sample of big science bloggers, I did a dodgy analysis of the blogs in the Wikio Top 100 science bloggers ranking.

Here’s the breakdown of bio bloggers topicality:

The large number of neuroscience bloggers has always perplexed me. Any idea what’s going on there?

A minor note: could someone at Wikio update my blog’s address? I tried to do it let myself but it wouldn’t let me. Would be nice to get that before I drop off the list of top 20 science blogs.