Category Archives: history

The World in 2036–Nassim Taleb

Via The World in 2036: Nassim Taleb looks at what will break, and what won’t | The Economist.

Paradoxically, one can make long-term predictions on the basis of the prevalence of forecasting errors. A system that is over-reliant on prediction (through leverage, like the banking system before the recent crisis), hence fragile to unforeseen “black swan” events, will eventually break into pieces. Although fragile bridges can take a long time to collapse, 25 years in the 21st century should be sufficient to make hidden risks salient: connectivity and operational leverage are making cultural and economic events cascade faster and deeper. Anything fragile today will be broken by then.

The great top-down nation-state will be only cosmetically alive, weakened by deficits, politicians’ misalignment of interests and the magnification of errors by centralised systems. The pre-modernist robust model of city-states and statelings will prevail, with obsessive fiscal prudence. Currencies might still exist, but, after the disastrous experience of America’s Federal Reserve, they will peg to some currency without a government, such as gold.

Companies that are currently large, debt-laden, listed on an exchange (hence “efficient”) and paying bonuses will be gone. Those that will survive will be the more black swan-resistant—smaller, family-owned, unlisted on exchanges and free of debt. There will be large companies then, but these will be new—and short-lived.

The world will face severe biological and electronic pandemics, another gift from globalisation.

Religious practice will experience a revival, seen as a conveyor of robust heuristics, cultural values and rituals. Science will produce smaller and smaller gains in the non-linear domain, in spite of the enormous resources it will consume; instead it will start focusing on what it cannot—and should not—do. Finally, what is now called academic economics will be treated with the same disrespect that rigorous (and practical) minds currently have for Derrida-style post-modernist verbiage.

Nassim Taleb: professor of risk engineering at New York University; author of “The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms” (Random House and Penguin, January 2011)

Leave a comment

Filed under global issues, history, note to future generations, politics, religion, science

Exclusive: Zizek on Iran

A collaborative translation of BBC Persian’s recent exclusive interview with Zizek. Cross-posted on the new site, transliminal.org:

http://www.overstream.net/swf/player/oplx?oid=awswrnnzipa3&noplay=1

Many thanks to Kam, Mani and Sheyda for their help on this one.

Leave a comment

Filed under global issues, history, middle east, persian, philosophy and metaphysics, politics, religion, translation

Slavoj Zizek talks to Ali Alizadeh on BBC Persian

YouTube – Slavoj Zizek talks to Ali Alizadeh on BBC Persian Tamasha

*UPDATE* — Fully subtitled version here:

http://www.transliminal.org/?p=220

BBC Persian discovers the joys of Slavoj Zizek.

Here’s a quick breakdown of their coverage (don’t mind my amateur translation):

0:00-0:27:

The speaker introduces Zizek, saying how he’s one of the sharpest thinkers around today, and that you can find his work in the bookshops of all the world’s major cities. If you’d like to know more about the ideas of this renowned Slovenian philosopher, she says, have a listen to the exclusive interview he gave to [BBC Persian anchor] Ali Alizadeh, where he talks for the first time about his views on Iran, Iranians, and their culture and socialization.

0:28-1:16:

Narrator: In 2005, he defended Iran’s right to a nuclear bomb… in 2008, he regarded the film 300, which offended most Iranians, as Hollywood’s most anti-imperialist movie…  in 2009 he publicized how the Green Movement in Iran was creating space for the repetition of European patterns of struggle… In his 61 years, Slavoj Zizek has written over 54 books which have been translated into over 20 languages… 12 of those works have made him one of today’s most renowned living European philosophers… [BBC host Stephen Sackur talks in English…]

1:17-…

Narrator: …

[to be continued…]

Leave a comment

Filed under global issues, history, middle east, persian, philosophy and metaphysics, politics

Paul Collier on the “bottom billion” | TED.com

Paul Collier on the “bottom billion” | Video on TED.com

Leave a comment

Filed under development, global issues, history, justice, note to future generations, politics

… this speaks for itself.

YouTube – Hebron / Soldier’s ballett on Ke$ha’s Tik Tok song

…. But, for some context (via Juan Cole’s Informed Comment):

Posted on July 7, 2010 by Juan

Israeli troops dance to Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok.”:

… The piece begins with the Muslim call to prayer in al-Khalil, a Palestinian city in the Palestinian West Bank, which Israelis call Hebron. Some 30,000 Palestinians are being kept in an urban prison for the sake of 600 far-right armed Jewish colonists who have squatted on Palestinian property in the city. Al-Khalil (“Hebron”), like the 2.5 million Palestinian residents of the West Bank, has been militarily occupied by Israel since 1967. Israeli squatters have stolen private Palestinian land and control 42% of the West Bank, according to B’Tselem. It is illegal in international law for Occupying powers to transfer their own populations into occupied territories or for them to usurp property from the occupied.

The video depicts Hebron as mired in tradition and virtually empty, which mirrors the Israeli Orientalist view of Palestinians more generally. The soldiers are depicted as playful, fun-loving and hyper-modern, gyrating to the music of the most recent blonde valley-girl top 40 phenomenon.

In fact, militarily occupying other people is a sign of backward, 19th-century-style imperialist ideology. The 600 Israeli colonists these troops are supporting include people far more fundamentalist and mired in tradition than most Palestinians.


Israeli settlers, Al-Khalil/Hebron

And struggling for local independence versus globalizing oppression, whether it is BP destroying the Gulf of Mexico, coal companies causing global warming and destroying human habitat, or neo-imperial schemes to steal local resources on the part of global bullies, is actually the avant-garde of the 21st century.


Palestinian youth dancing to Shakira at the Cosmos dance club in the West Bank Courtesy McClatchy

Here is a video of the more usual activities of the Israeli army in al-Khalil:

“On Feb. 25, 2010, Palestinian and international activists held a march in Hebron/Al Khalil to demand the opening of Shuhada Street, open to Israelis but closed to Palestinians for the last ten years. Marchers attempted to walk onto Shuhada Street, once a primary street for Palestinian business and markets, but Israeli military prevented them from entering. The man detained in this clip was released late that evening.”

And here is a B’tselem video of what life is like for al-Khalil residents trapped among aggressive Israeli squatters determined to drive them out:

Leave a comment

Filed under history, justice, middle east, note to future generations, politics, religion

How Muhammad created Europe?

A fun post from the personal blog of Andreas Kluth, a real-live 10-year veteran of The Economist (yes, these people actually exist):


Historians are still arguing about why and how (and even when) the Roman Empire fell — and by extension why, how and when the “Middle Ages” and “Europe” (ie, northwestern Europe as we understand it) began.

Here, for example, is Man of Roma‘s take on the subject – as ever charming, amusing and fun.

One theory is that the answer is to be found, somewhat surprisingly, not in northwestern Europe but on the opposite side of the former Roman Empire. This story-line involves Muhammad, Islam and the Arab conquests in the century after Muhammad’s death in 632. The stages of those conquests you see in the map above.

In this post, I want to introduce that thesis to you and the one it tried to replace.

I do this not in order to endorse either thesis, but in order to celebrate the elegant and imaginative beauty of the thought processes of the two historians who produced them.

These two thinkers are

  • Edward Gibbon and
  • Henri Pirenne,

and I am hereby including them into my pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers.

(Which reminds me: Scientists and philosophers are currently over-represented on my list, so I am also retroactively including the historians Herodotus, Polybius, Livy and Plutarch. Thucydides is already on the list.)

And at the end of the post, I’ll ponder what this eternal debate about Rome tells us about intellectual theorizing in general.

My source, besides the books of Gibbon and Pirenne, is Philip Daileader’s excellent lecture series on the Early Middle Ages.

I) Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon

Gibbon was a typical specimen of the Enlightenment. He hung out with Voltaire, considered religion (and especially Christianity) a load of superstitious poppycock, trusted in human reason and was enamored by the classics.

Being a man of independent means, he was able to devote all his time and energies to investigating what he considered the great mystery of antiquity. Why did the Roman Empire fall?

The result was an epic work of beautifully written English prose called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The first of its six volumes came out in the year of America’s Declaration of Independence.

The book was so powerful that its thesis turned into what we would call a meme. Ask any semi-literate person today why the Roman Empire fell and he is likely to answer something like this:

Barbarians invaded → Rome fell

Gibbon’s thesis in more detail

Charlemagne

In brief, Gibbon believed that the Roman Empire was

  1. in part a victim of its own success, having prospered so much that its citizens had become soft, and
  2. in part a victim of Christianization, which replaced the pagan warrior ethic with an unbecoming concern for the hereafter.

As Gibbon famously said, Rome’s

last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister.

This corrosion of morals or values, according to Gibbon, left the Western Roman Empire (Diocletian had divided it into two halves, east and west, for administrative purposes) vulnerable to the blonde hordes from the north.

And thus, federations of Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine and Danube and ransacked the Roman Empire, eventually sacking Rome itself and deposing the last (Western) Roman emperor in 476.

The Ostrogoths and Lombards took Italy, the Visigoths took Spain and the Franks took Gaul (→ Francia, France).

Within a few generations, one Frankish family, the Carolingians, seized power. Under Charlemagne (= Carolus Magnus, Karl der Grosse, Charles the Great), the Carolingians then united much of western Europe, an area that happens to overlap almost perfectly with the founding members of the European Union.

In the nice round year of 800, Charlemagne, the king of Francia, became a new Emperor. He sparked a small cultural and economic recovery (the “Carolingian Renaissance”), but his descendants bickered about inheritance, and the Carolingian empire split into what would become France, the Low Countries and Germany.

And there we have it: “Europe”.

II) Henri Pirenne

Henri Pirenne

Like Gibbon, Henri Pirenne was a man of his time. But that time was the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Historians now felt that “moral” explanations of history were a bit woolly and preferred to think in terms of impersonal, and primarily economic, forces rather than great individuals or events.

And this led Pirenne, a Belgian (and thus a Carolingian heir), to a very different, and extremely original, thesis. The title of his monumental book, Mohammed and Charlemagne, essentially says it all.

The Pirenne thesis begins with a view that, first of all, nothing noteworthy “fell” in 476. Who cares if an emperor named, ironically and aptly, “little Augustus” (Romulus Augustulus) was deposed in that year? Roman civilization went on exactly as before. To most Europeans, nothing whatsoever changed.

That civilization was

  1. urban
  2. Mediterranean and
  3. Latin in the West

The Germanic tribes in fact came not to destroy but to join this civilization. They had entered the Roman Empire long before 476 to live there in peace, but were forced repeatedly to move and fight. When they eventually deposed the Romans, the Barbarians settled in the Roman cities and gradually adopted Latin (which was by this time, and partially as a result, branching into dialects that would become Catalan, Spanish, French etc).

Most importantly, the Mediterranean (medius = middle, terra = land) remained the center of this world, and trade across its waters enriched and fed all shores, north and south, east and west.

So what changed?

What changed was that Muhammad founded Islam, united the Arabs and then died. Suddenly, the Arabs poured out of the desert and conquered everything they encountered.

Look again at the map at the very top. In effect, the Arabs conquered the entire southern arc of the former Roman Empire until Charles Martel (Charlemagne’s grandfather) stopped them near Poitiers in France.

The Arabs thus split the Mediterranean in two. Suddenly, the “Mediterranean” was no longer the center of the world, but a dividing line between two worlds.

Ingeniously, Pirenne then inferred the rest of his thesis from archaeological finds: In the years after the Arab conquests, papyrus (from Egypt) disappeared from northwestern Europe, forcing the northerners to write on animal hides. Locally minted coins disappeared, too. Gone, in fact, was everything that was traded as opposed to produced locally.

The Arabs, Pirenne concluded, had blockaded and cut off northern Europe from the rest of the world. Europe thus became a poor, benighted and involuntarily autarkic  backwater.

This, finally, amounts to the “fall” of Roman civilization in northwestern Europe. Roman cities, administration and customs disintegrated. Europe becomes a small and isolated corner of the world.

It is within this then-forgettable corner that the Carolingians rise and create “Europe”. As Pirenne famously said:

Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would have probably never existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable.

III) So who was right?

I promised to ponder what this debate might say about intellectual theorizing in general. Well, here goes:

1) Nobody needs to be wrong

As it happens, neither Gibbon nor Pirenne have ever fallen out of favor. Both are still considered to have got much of their interpretation right. The caveat is merely that their theses are considered … incomplete.

We encountered such a situation when talking about Newton and Einstein. Einstein in effect proved Newton “wrong”, and yet we have never discarded Newton, just as we won’t discard Einstein when somebody shows his thinking to have been incomplete.

2) Progress = making something less incomplete

Although both Gibbon’s and Pirenne’s theses were incomplete, they add up to an understanding that is less incomplete, so that others can make it even less incomplete.

This, in fact, is what has been happening. Subsequent historians have wondered why, if their theories were true in the West, the Eastern Roman (ie, Byzantine) Empire did not fall for another millennium.

Regarding Gibbon: The East, too, faced Barbarian invasions (from the same tribes). And the East was even more Christian than the West. So something must be missing in Gibbon’s explanation.

Regarding Pirenne: The East, too, was cut off from the south by the Arab conquests (though perhaps not as much).

IV) One possible omission: depopulation

So, even though both Gibbon and Pirenne, may well have been right, that there had to be at least one more factor: disease.

Perhaps it was smallpox arriving from China, and later plague. Perhaps it was something else. (The theory of massive lead poisoning is now discredited. Again: They had lead pipes in the East and the West.)

Whatever the disease(s), the population of the Roman Empire collapsed. And the West, which had fewer people than the East to begin with, became largely empty.

Its cities were deserted. Rome’s population was 1 million during the reign of Augustus but 20,000 by the time of Charlemagne. People used the Roman baths of northern cities as caves. New city walls were built with smaller circumferences than older city walls.

Fields and land lay fallow, too. We know this because taxes were levied on land (not labor), and tax revenues fell due to agri deserti, “abandoned fields”.

Viewed this way, both the Germanic invasions that Gibbon focussed on and the Arab invasions that Pirenne focussed on were perhaps not a cause but a symptom of the fall of Rome. It seems likely that the Germans and Arabs showed up because there were few people blocking their way, and conquered for that same reason.

If we ever find out the complete answer, it will be because Gibbon and Pirenne pointed us in the right direction.

<Sigh> … If only i could write as well as Kluth, not only would i be finished my comprehensive exams, i might even have an honest-to-goodness career path ahead. The stuff dreams are made of.

Leave a comment

Filed under history, middle east, religion

Are the Desert People Winning? | DISCOVER

Are the Desert People Winning? | Mountain, Desert, & Forest | DISCOVER Magazine

My desk, like the desk of most research scientists, sees an overwhelming traffic of scholarly journals and articles—reams of pages of the latest cutting-edge discoveries, destined to be outdated before next week. But one study, A Cross-Cultural Summary, written in 1967 by the Stanford anthropologist Robert Textor, has remained firmly planted there for some time now—and not only because, at 3,000 pages long, it’s rather hard to pick up and move. Textor’s massive tome contains a cultural correlation that bears disquietingly on the type of planet we humans have produced for ourselves today, and my mind turns to it more and more of late.

THE FALLOW AND THE FERTILE

Eleven thousand years ago Clovis nomads may have dwelled in the Great Sand Dunes of Mosca, Colorado, where the desert abruptly ends at an alpine forest. Their culture still rings true in our daily lives as the successful societies on Earth continue to adopt the ways of desert dwellers.

All across the world, the sort of culture you live in has something to do with the ecosystem around it. Traditional tundra societies are more likely to share cultural patterns with each other than with tropical rain forest societies, regardless of whether some descended from a common ancestral culture. High-altitude plateau cultures differ in systematic ways from fishing cultures in island archipelagoes. Some of these correlations are fairly predictable: Tuareg desert nomads are not likely to have 27 different words for types of snow or fishhooks. But as Textor found, some of the correlations are far from predictable and have helped contribute to the sociopolitical mess we now inhabit.

Attempts to link culture with climate and ecology have an old history (Herodotus did it long before Montesquieu), but with the rise of anthropology as a discipline, the effort became scientific. Early efforts were often howlers of dead-white-male racism; every study seemed to generate irrefutable scientific proof that northern European ecosystems produced superior cultures, more advanced morals, technologies, and intellects, and better schnitzel. Much of contemporary social anthropology represents a traumatized retreat from the sins of those intellectual fathers. One solution was to resolutely avoid cultural comparisons, thereby ushering in an era wherein an anthropologist could spend an entire career documenting the puberty rite of one clan of farmers in northeastern Cameroon.

But some anthropologists remained generalists, studying cross-cultural patterns while cautiously treading around ideological bias, and many continued to explore how ecology affects culture. One such pioneer was John Whiting of Harvard, who in 1964 produced a paper entitled “Effects of Climate on Certain Cultural Practices.” Comparing data from non-Westernized societies from around the planet, he noted that husbands and wives from cultures in the colder parts of this planet are more likely to sleep together at night than are spouses in the tropics. He also found that cultures in habitats that produce protein-poor diets have the longest restrictions on postpartum sex. Whiting hypothesized that to counterbalance the lack of protein, infants required a longer period of nursing, which placed a premium on well-spaced births.

Other anthropologists explored the ecological roots of violence. In 1982 Melvin Ember of Yale found that certain ecosystems are so stable and benign that families remain intact throughout the year, farming their plot of land or hunting and gathering in the surrounding rich forest. In less forgiving settings, family units often split up for long periods, dividing their herds into smaller groups during dry seasons, for instance, with family members scattered with subflocks on distant pockets of grazing land. In such situations, warrior classes—as one sees among the pastoralist cowherding Masai of East Africa—are more common. There are advantages to having a communal standing army in case enemies appear when many of the men are away finding grass for the cattle.

In the 1960s, Textor pursued a radically different approach to cross-cultural research. He collated information on some 400 different cultures from around the world and classified them according to nearly 500 traits. What sort of legal system did each culture have? How did its people make a living? Did they believe in an afterlife? Did they weave or know about metallurgy? When at play, did they prefer games of chance or of strategy? Then he fed all these variables about all these cultures into some gigantic paleo-computer, cross-correlated everything, and laid out the significant findings. The result, his monumental A Cross-Cultural Summary, offers table after table indicating, among other things, which cultural differences are statistically likely to be linked to ecological differences. While not the sort of book you toss in your knapsack for beach reading, there is something irresistible about thousands of pages of correlations. Where else could you discover that societies that don’t work with leather very well are disproportionately likely to have games of skill? How do you explain that one?

From these various anthropological approaches, a basic dichotomy has emerged between two types of societies from very different ecosystems: societies born in rain forests and those that thrive in deserts. Think of Mbuti pygmies versus Middle Eastern bedouin, or Amazonian Indians versus nomads of the Gobi. There turn out to be consistent and permeating differences between the two. Obvious exceptions exist, some quite dramatic. Nonetheless, the correlates are unnerving.

Begin with religious beliefs. A striking proportion of rain forest dwellers are polytheistic, worshipping an array of spirits and gods. Polytheism is prevalent among tribes in the Amazon basin (the Sherenti, Mundurucu, and Tapirape) and in the rain forests of Africa (the Ndorobo), New Guinea (the Keraki and Ulawans), and Southeast Asia (the Iban of Borneo and the Mnong Gar and Lolo of Vietnam). But desert dwellers—the bedouin of Arabia, the Berbers of the western Sahara, the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert, the Nuer and Turkana of the Kenyan/Sudanese desert—are usually monotheistic. Of course, despite allegiances to a single deity, other supernatural beings may be involved, like angels and djinns and Satan. But the hierarchy is notable, with minor deities subservient to the Omnipotent One.

This division makes ecological sense. Deserts teach large, singular lessons, like how tough, spare, and withholding the environment is; the world is reduced to simple, desiccated, furnace-blasted basics. Then picture rain forest people amid an abundance of edible plants and medicinal herbs, able to identify more species of ants on a single tree than one would find in all the British Isles. Letting a thousand deities bloom in this sort of setting must seem natural. Moreover, those rain forest dwellers that are monotheistic are much less likely to believe that their god sticks his or her nose into other people’s business by controlling the weather, prompting illness, or the like. In contrast, the desert seems to breed fatalism, a belief in an interventionist god with its own capricious plans.

Another major difference was brought to light by Melvin Ember. Desert societies, with their far-flung members tending goats and camels, are classic spawning grounds for warrior classes and the accessories of militarism: military trophies as stepping stones to societal status, death in battle as a guarantee of a glorious afterlife, slavery. And these cultures are more likely to be stratified, with centralized authority. A cosmology in which an omnipotent god dominates a host of minor deities finds a natural parallel in a rigid earthly hierarchy.

Textor’s work highlights other differences between desert and rain forest societies. Purchasing or indenturing wives is far less prevalent among rain forest peoples. And in rain forest cultures, related women tend to form the core of a community for a lifetime, rather than being shipped off to serve the expediency of marriage making. In desert cultures, women typically have the difficult tasks of building shelters and wandering in search of water and firewood, while the men contemplate the majesty of their herds and envision their next raid. Among rain forest cultures, it’s the men who are more likely to do the heavy lifting. Rain forest cultures also are less likely to harbor beliefs about the inferiority of women; you won’t be likely to find rain forest men giving thanks in prayer that they were not created female,

as is the case in at least one notable desert-derived religion. Finally, desert cultures tend to teach their children to be modest about nudity at an earlier age than in rain forest cultures and have more severe strictures against premarital sex.

Which kind of culture would you prefer to get traded to? When it comes to the theistic part, it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other to me. As for the other correlates, desert cultures, with their militarism, stratification, mistreatment of women, uptightness about child rearing and sexuality, seem unappealing. And yet ours happens to be a planet dominated by the cultural descendants of the desert dwellers. At various points, the desert dwellers have poured out of the Middle East, defining large parts of Eurasia. Such cultures, in turn, have passed the last 500 years subjugating the native populations of the Americas, Africa, and Australia. As a result, ours is a Judeo-Christian/Muslim world, not a Mbuti-Carib/Trobriand one.

So now we have Christians and Jews and Muslims in the wheat fields of Kansas, and in the cantons of the Alps, and in the rain forests of Malaysia. The desert mind-set, and the cultural baggage it carries, has proven extraordinarily resilient in its export and diffusion throughout the planet. Granted, few of those folks still live like nomadic pastoralists, guiding their flocks of sheep with staffs. But centuries, even millennia after the emergence of these cultures, they bear the marks of their desert pasts. Our vanquished enemies in Afghanistan, the Taliban, and our well-entrenched Saudi friends created societies of breathtaking repressiveness. In Jerusalem in recent years, Jewish Orthodox zealots have battled police, trying to close down roads on Saturday, trying to impose their restrictive version of belief. And for an American educator with, say, a quaint fondness for evolution, the power of the Christian right in many parts of this country to dictate what facts and truths may be uttered in a classroom is appalling. Only one way to think, to do, to be. Crusades and jihads, fatwas and inquisitions, hellfire and damnation.

Unfortunately, the rain forest mind-set appears not only less likely to spread than its desert counterpart but also less hardy when uprooted, more of a hothouse attribute. Logging, farming, and livestock grazing are rapidly defoliating Earth. Our age witnesses not only an unprecedented extinction of species but of cultures and languages as well. William Sutherland, a population biologist at the University of East Anglia, has shown that the places on Earth with the most biodiversity are the most linguistically diverse as well and that languages are even more at risk for extinction than are birds or mammals. And so the rain forest cultures, with their fragile pluralism born of a lush world of plenty, deliquesce into the raw sewage of the slums of Rio and Lagos and Jakarta.

DESERT, DESERT EVERYWHERE

Map by Matt Zang

Legend: Yellow: subtropical; dark blue: cool coastal; light blue: cold winter

At least a fifth of Earth is desert. As rain forests are destroyed by humans, deserts expand. Global warming, farming, and water use compound desertification. In the last 50 years, the Sahara, in Africa, which accounts for 8 percent of the world’s land area, has grown by more than 250,000 square miles.


What are we to make of the correlations between environment and cultural practices? Think of humans as the primates that we are, and it makes perfect sense. Go discover two new species of monkeys never before seen. Know nothing about them other than that one lives in the trees of an Amazonian forest and that the other walks the arid scrubland of Namibia, and a card-carrying primatologist can predict with great accuracy the differing sex lives of the two species, which is the more aggressive, which is the more territorial, and so on. In this respect, we are subject to the influences of ecology, like any other species.

Still, two big differences make us distinctive. First, human cultures allow far more—and far more dramatic—exceptions to rules than one finds in other primates. After all, our mean old Judeo-Christian/Muslim world has also produced peaceful Quakers and Sufis. In contrast, no olive baboon, living a savanna life that favors omnivory, has ever opted for vegetarianism as a moral statement.

The second distinctive trait of human culture is its existential bent. We’re not just talking about how ecology influences the kind of arrowhead you make or whether, during some ceremonial ritual, you shake the rattle before or after you do the dance with the hyena skull. What’s at stake are profound, and defining, human preoccupations: Is there a god or gods, and does your existence matter to Them? What happens when you die, and how do your actions in life affect your afterlife? Is the body basically dirty and shameful? Is the world basically a benevolent place?

In the end, if we want to understand how people find answers to these intensely personal, individuating questions, we must admit some biology in the back door. We already recognize the many ways in which genetics, neurochemistry, and the endocrinology of depression affect whether a person constitutionally views life as a vessel half empty or half full. We are even beginning to glimpse a biology of religious belief itself. There are neurological injuries that cause religious obsessions, neuropsychiatric disorders associated with “metamagical” thinking; there are brain regions that regulate how tightly an organism demands a link between cause and effect, potentially creating room for insight into that odd phenomenon we call faith.

To answer the question, How did I become who I am? we must incorporate myriad subtle and interacting factors, from the selective pressures that shaped our primate gene pool eons ago to the burst of neurotransmitters in the previous microsecond. Maybe it’s time to add another biological variable to the list: When our forebears pondered life’s big questions, did they do so while contemplating an enveloping shroud of trees or an endless horizon?

Leave a comment

Filed under general, global issues, history, religion, science