Saturday, September 20, 2014

Shieldmaidens: Were there Female Warriors in the Viking Age?

Were there female warriors in the Viking Age? Probably. But beyond that, everything about this questions is vexed, including how many women fought, under what circumstances, whether they had any special status, and so on. The reason the question is vexed is that the sources are not very good. Although I love the sagas, it has to be said that they are epics or novels, not histories, and while some of them are historical novels with good attention to detail, others include elements of outright fantasy. Under the right circumstances archaeology can tell us a lot about this question, but unfortunately in the part of the world where the Vikings lived the circumstances are mostly bad. (Figurine above was found at Hårby, in Denmark, in late 2012; it dates to around 800 CE. It probably depicts a Valkyrie.)


I was inspired to write about this question by all the attention paid on the internet to a 2011 study by Australian archaeologist Shane McLeod. Lots of people have asserted, based on his work, that half the Viking warriors in Britain were women, but that is not what he found. This is what he asserted:
Viking women accompanied their male partners to Britain in far greater numbers than had been previously thought, a study has shown. Almost half of all bodies in burial grounds researchers examined were those of women - with some carrying swords and shields.

The numbers show that not only were the Vikings accomplished fighters but also the marrying kind who made sure their men had company. . . .  examination of 14 burial mounds found that it was not just the menfolk who came over. Of the 14 studied, six were women and seven were men, with one not set indistinguishable. The researchers came to their conclusion by examining objects found in the graves and looking at isotopes from their bones to identify where they were born. The bones were also examined for signs of which gender they belonged to - previous studies had just assumed that because the body had a knife near it it was a man. One burial site at Repton Woods near Derby, for example, was identified as female even though the remains of three swords were recovered. ‘These results, six female Norse migrants and seven male, should caution against assuming that the great majority of Norse migrants were male, despite the other forms of evidence suggesting the contrary,' the report says. ‘This result of almost a fifty-fifty ratio of Norse female migrants to Norse males is particularly significant when some of the problems with sexing of skeletons are taken into account.’ 
So even if McLeod is right, which is disputed, his main focus was on the number of women among Viking settlers, not among Viking warriors, and he claimed to have found only one female skeleton equipped as a warrior.

Perhaps you are wondering why Shane McLeod went to press after studying only 13 identifiable skeletons, a ridiculously small sample. He did so because identifying the sex of human bones is actually not easy, especially when they have been buried for centuries, and almost all the bones from Viking graves are too badly decayed to be analyzed in this way. Unlike raccoons and lions, male and female humans have exactly the same bones. The only differences are in the size and thickness, especially of the pelvis and skull, These differences are statistical, and there are outliers; there exist women in the world today whose bones would almost certainly be typed as male, and men whose skeletons would be identified as female. If you bury the bones under a ton of dirt -- remember that a cubic yard of dirt weighs 2,000 to 3,000 pounds -- they warp. If the soil is acidic, they gradually dissolve, and sadly for Viking archaeologists, most of the places where Vikings lived and died have acidic soil. Therefore the skeletons that survive are far from ideal for these purposes, and most of them don't survive at all. (Note the poor preservation of these Viking skeletons from Poland.)

Archaeologists bitterly dispute the sexing of partially preserved skeletons. Those archaeologists who come across as sexist fools in internet articles based on McLeod's work, because they prefer to identify the sex of skeletons based on the artifacts buried with them, do so because they do not trust the identifications made by forensic anthropologists. In graduate school I read about some field archaeologists who distrusted their lab so much they sent in the skeletons of ten known people who had died within the past century, and their lab got the sex of only eight correct. I suspect that even under good archaeological conditions, the sexing of human skeletons is never more than 90 percent accurate, and as I said the conditions in the Viking world are rarely good.

So while I consider the occasional reports of well-armed Norse skeletons that seem to be female to be evidence of female Vikings, I don't consider it proof. The situation is quite different on the Sarmatian steppes, where there are dozens of well-preserved skeletons of female warriors.

The Sagas

Viking literature has many references to women fighting, in both the more historical works and the legendary material. However, much of that does not really describe warriors. Some of the internet pieces I have seen lately cite a scene from Erik the Red's Saga in which Erik's daughter Freydis picks up an ax and goes after five women who pissed her off. No doubt many Viking women engaged in fist and knife fights, and some of them grabbed a spear when men tried to invade their houses. But that isn't the same as being a warrior. One of the standard saga scenes depicts an attack by a gang of farmers against a real warrior, typically a man of noble family who has served in the retinue of the King of Norway. These are not fair fights, and with his training, sword and helmet the warrior can easily overmaster two or three farmers; it takes four or even five farm boys to bring him down. The question that interests me is not whether some women might have picked up a weapon in an emergency, but whether any were actually trained as warriors and served in elite war bands. Even in the grimly sexist Mediterranean women appear in ancient battles when they were fought in towns, hurling roofing tiles and other missiles down on attackers. But it would be pushing things to call them "warriors."

The most famous legendary account of shieldmaidens comes from Hervor's Saga, part of the mythic material that depicts battles between Goths and Huns in the fifth century. The saga was written down around 1200, 750 years after those events, so it has little historical value. Wikipedia summarizes it like this:
The saga deals with the sword Tyrfing and how it was forged and cursed by the Dwarves Dvalinn and Durin for king Svafrlami. Later, he lost it to the berserker Arngrim from Bolmsö who gave it to his son Angantyr. Angantyr died during a fight on Samsø against the Swedish hero Hjalmar, whose friend Orvar-Odd buried the cursed sword in a barrow together with Angantyr. From the barrow it was retrieved by Angantyr's daughter, the shieldmaiden Hervor who summoned her dead father to claim her inheritance. Then the saga continues with her and her son Heidrek, the king of Reidgotaland. Between his sons Angantyr and Hlod, there is a great battle about their father's heritage and Hlod is aided by the Huns. However, Hlod is defeated and killed. In the end, the saga relates that Angantyr, had the son Heidhrekr Ulfhamr who was king of Reidgotaland for a long time. Heidhrekr's daughter was Hildr and she had the son Halfdan the Valiant, who was the father of Ivar Vidfamne. After Ivar Vidfamne follows a list of Swedish kings, both real and semi-legendary, ending with Philip Halstensson.
Hervor was eulogized as:
More cheery in battle
than chatting to suitors
or taking the bench
at a bridal feast.
In these stories it is taken for granted that a woman can choose the path of the warrior, but then these stories also take it for granted that Odin walks among men, dragons sit on hoards of gold and a single hero can slay a thousand enemies. In fact the most common meaning of "shieldmaiden" in the ancient material is Valkyrie, the choosers of the slain who led the greatest warriors off to Valhalla after their deaths. Yet the regular appearance of armed mortal women in these stories is still suggestive to me.

Danish historian and mythographer Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150 to 1220) probably preserves more mentions of female Vikings than any other writer. Consider this, from his account of the Battle of Barvalla, around 750 CE:
Now out of the town of Sle, under the captains Hetha (Heid) and Wisna, with Hakon Cut-cheek came Tummi the Sailmaker. On these captains, who had the bodies of women, nature bestowed the souls of men. Webiorg was also inspired with the same spirit, and was attended by Bo (Bui) Bramason and Brat the Jute, thirsting for war...The same man witnesses that the maiden Weghbiorg (Webiorg) fought against the enemy and felled Soth the champion. While she was threatening to slay more champions, she was pierced through by an arrow from the bowstring of Thorkill, a native of Tellemark.
So there we have three female warriors, presented as historical figures. Yet they lived, says Saxo, 450 years before his own time, and his accounts of this period read more like Hervor's Saga than Tacitus or Livy. As you approach his own time and his sources get better, the shieldmaidens disappear. An interesting detail about Saxo's account is his notion that these women had men's souls. This is a literary trope we could find in a hundred histories, yet this is exactly the language used by some American Indians to describe people who switched gender roles. They weren't just men who wanted to live as women, they had women's souls. Or in some societies, two souls. I mention this because my impression is that people in traditional societies people who chose to switch genders did so in a profound, lifelong way. Like the Albanian "sworn virgins," women who lived as men. In every way they took a male role, dressing like men, speaking like men, doing men's work, except that they never had sex because motherhood was forbidden to them. So I would suspect that if there were shieldmaidens they chose to live entirely as men -- in their dress, they way they cut their hair, and so on. They were not, I suspect mothers, or if they became mothers they had to put their days as warriors behind them.

As you can see, though, the evidence for shieldmaidens is pretty sketchy. Your hard core, skeptical scholar just waves all these accounts away. Here is Judith Jesch, a historian who as written books on Viking women and is anything but sexist:
It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.
Actually I agree: shieldmaidens are Viking legend. But so is Vinland, which turned out to be Newfoundland, and Midgard, which is Constantinople, and the sunstone, which is a sort of feldspar you can really use to navigate in cloudy weather, and all sorts of other things that have turned out to be rooted in fact. My feeling is that the number of female warriors in Viking stories, and the number of armed skeletons identified as female, suggests that there was some reality behind this particular legend. But I have to admit that I don't really know. (Above, female grave from Bogovej in Denmark)

Flakes and Skeptics in the Sixth Grade

So my son's sixth-grade reading teacher has assigned them all "unexplained phenomena" to investigate; Ben got the Rendlesham Forest UFO Incident. On the one hand, the woman seems to be a flake, and I hate to think what she might be saying to them in class. On the other, this is actually a cool assignment for middle school kids: take an incident with a defined body of original data -- in Ben's case, the testimony of five witnesses and an audiotape recording their radio conversation with the base while they investigated the mysterious lights, plus various after the fact explanations -- and try to sort out what really happened. Ben and I have been having fun sorting through this. He started from the supposition since the source was "the military" the information ought to be good, but in fact the sources are five different servicemen and officers who reported quite different things.

I am certainly enjoying this more than helping with long division.

If I taught history to middle or high school students I think I might try an assignment like this, taking an event like a disputed police shooting and working through all the evidence, with the idea of showing how hard it can be to establish even the basic facts about anything.

Mythological Paper Cuts by Morgana Wallace

More here.

Demography and Politics in Georgia, U.S.A.

Georgia is changing:
In 1980, Georgia was what Mathew Hauer, a demographer at the University of Georgia, calls “a black-and-white state.” Whites were 72 percent of the population and blacks, 26 percent. Now, Georgia’s population has more than doubled, to nearly 10 million. By last year, the state was 55 percent white, 31 percent black, 9 percent Latino (up from 1 percent in 1980) and nearly 4 percent Asian.

The growth has shifted the population north, to the counties that ring Atlanta, like Gwinnett, a pocket of multiculturalism, where Lawrenceville is the county seat. In nearby Duluth, business leaders embrace diversity as “an asset” in attracting international companies, said Joe Allen, who runs a public-private partnership to promote economic development. “Our motto is: ‘A world of places in one place,’ ” Mr. Allen said.

On Gwinnett’s main thoroughfare, Pleasant Hill Road, a giant Asian market, Assi Plaza, occupies a former Walmar. . . .  Honor boxes carry four different Korean-language newspapers.

Down the road at the Santa Fe Mall, a former outlet center converted into a Hispanic market, retailers sell bright-colored cowboy boots and frilly quinceañera gowns. A Spanish-language radio station broadcasts from here; its Mexican-born general manager, Franco Vera, moved to Georgia from Chicago.
It's not just immigration from Latin America and Asia; Georgia is also getting more black because African Americans are moving in from Mississippi, Alabama, and the Midwest. This all has Democrats sensing possibilities. They are not likely to win this year's statewide races but in a few years we could see Georgia move into the battleground column.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Today's Nightmare Headline: Ebola Health Team Found Dead

No, they didn't die of Ebola; they were murdered by locals in Guinea, who believed that they had come to spread the virus.

Why Scots Voted Yes or No

Responses to the question, "What were the two or three most important issues in deciding how you ultimately voted?"

Notice that dissatisfaction with Westminster policies came in at the top; the energy driving the Yes camp came largely from anger over the way Britain is governed right now. Which is very similar to the way the U.S, Germany and lots of other countries are governed, and can be put down as another sign of widespread dissatisfaction with the current political order. Which nonetheless remains the dominant political order because there is no real alternative.

But I also notice that whoever wrote this poll did not think to ask about plain and simple nationalism; no choices like, "Because I consider myself Scottish and hate being ruled by Oxbridge toffs."

Alex Massie Reflects on the Scottish Vote

Relief, actually. Not joy. A battle won is better than a battle lost but still an exhausting, bloody, business. Scotland voted and made, in my view, the right choice. The prudent choice. The bigger-hearted choice.

But 45 per cent of my countrymen disagree. That’s something to be respected too. Moreover a good number of No voters did so reluctantly and not because they were necessarily persuaded by the case for Union but because they felt the Yes campaign had not proved its own argument beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s an important qualification. A reminder that the Union is a contract and support for it remains provisional.

To put it another way, a 55-45 victory is both a handsome margin – wider than the 53-47 I had guessed – and a remarkable repudiation of the Union. It is clear enough to be decisive; close enough to demand modesty in victory. . . .

The most heartening thing, for me, in the campaign’s final days was the rediscovery that, actually, Britain was something – a place and an idea too – that was worth fighting for. The country – countries, even – may need to change now but there was, at last and at least, an attempt to make a No vote an expression of something bigger than a question of accountancy. . . .

And yet, inescapably, class and generational division is a large part of this story. The Union was saved, in the main, by wealthier and older Scots. The poor chose differently. That’s an uncomfortable fact for Unionists and one that requires attention. Plenty of Yes votes were cast in hope more than expectation; many others were votes predicated on the fear that voting No offered no prospect of personal or community improvement.

One lesson of this campaign is that the poor, so often marginalised, have a voice too and that they should be heard. This too, I think, should temper Unionist joy this morning. A sobering, timely, even necessary, reminder that the status quo does not float all boats. Too many of our people lack the means or opportunity to make the most of their lives; too much human capital and potential is still squandered. . . .

Scotland was a good place before the polls opened and remains a fine place now. The task, in which we are all shareholders, is to make it a still better one. That’s a heavy responsibility to be born by the victors and a hefty consolation for the vanquished. We beat on, Scotland, we beat on.

The Union Endures

No: 55.3%; Yes: 44.7%

The Women of War

Interesting article on a new book by Helen Thorpe that focuses on three women of the Indiana National Guard who deployed to Afghanistan. For me, reading this piece hammered home how little meaning what we call "traditional" family life has for many Americans of our time. Two of these women "gave up legal custody of their children to get around rules against training and deploying single parents." Not that they have written their children out of their lives; they were and remain mothers. But like characters from the Iliad, they find war compelling in a way that home life is not:
Though it would be easy to read “Soldier Girls” as antiwar, it does not present the kind of narrative in which everything points neatly in the same direction; Debbie sees her time in Afghanistan and Iraq as the highlight of her life, and Desma says that in certain ways, “life is easier in a combat zone; it’s simplified.”
Their sex lives are also anything but traditional:
One of the biggest surprises of the book, Thorpe says, “was the amount of sex and the number of relationships” the women had, though those stories only came out slowly, over time.
This reminded me of a military woman I worked with recently, who is married but lives a thousand miles from her husband and child and regularly disappears for weeks at a time for training or other assignments. I am enough of a conservative to wonder if this is really the best sort of system for raising children. And then there is the perennial question of what war does to the people who experience it:
Soldiers in their unit routinely opt not to visit home in mid-deployment, even when they can, because it’s so rough on them and their families when they have to leave again a few days later. The cost that Desma’s children paid for her service was awfully high even before she was wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq. And “the hardest thing about a deployment is coming home,’’ she tells me, because “we’re definitely different people” at that point.
There are things about our world that worry me because they are genuinely new, and therefore have consequences we can hardly guess at. One of these is our determined effort to break down all barriers between men's and women's work, extending even to the trade of soldiering. (Internet-intensified global financial capitalism is another.) It puzzles me that contemporary American conservatives worry much more about things that strike me as side-issues, like gay marriage and Obamacare, than the really big changes taking place around us. The way the American working class is shedding the gender roles, marriage practices, sexual mores, and other assumptions of previous generations is a big deal, and we could use a lot more thoughtful discussion about where this is going and what we should do to help people, especially children, survive these changes.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Window in Aberdeen

The Glasgow Necropolis

As I have mentioned, my elder daughter is in Scotland, spending her junior year at Glasgow University. Since classes haven't started, she has been exploring, and she just posted these wonderful pictures of the Glasgow Necropolis (and many more) on her study abroad blog.

Artificial Sweeteners, Obesity, and Gut Bacteria

People who use artificial sweeteners are just as fat as people who don't. Nobody has ever tried to read very much into this finding, though, because it's pretty obvious that some people are using artificial sweeteners because they are fat and worried about it. But anyway it has long been clear that saccharin and aspartame are not the cure for obesity.

Now, Israeli scientists have been feeding artificial sweeteners to mice, and they have found that in mice (at least), saccharin can actually cause metabolic problems, apparently by interfering with gut bacteria. So it seems possible that artificial sweeteners actually make some people fatter by changing the population of bacteria in their guts. After all, as we have seen so many times on this blog, gut bacteria control everything, so messing with them can be a very bad thing to do. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here. No, I'm not obsessed. Why?)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Will the Shetlands Secede from Scotland?

Here's the thing about secession: it's a game everybody can play:
The Orkney and Shetland islands could remain part of the UK if the rest of Scotland votes to separate, according to a report submitted by their MSPs to the Government. The islands could even declare independence themselves, it adds.
Or, says Shetland Islands council head Dr. Leif Erickson, they might vote to rejoin Norway, 600 years later.

As you can see, a lot of the oil Scotland is counting on to fund its independence is actually in the Shetlands, and in the Shetlands they want no part of an independent Scotland. What sort of logic would allow Scotland to secede from Britain, but forbid the Shetlands from seceding from Scotland?


Sadly, the particular post I linked to was partly based on a hoax -- the Dr. Leif Erickson thing should have clued me in. Just goes to show that my reason gets clouded when I am too emotional, which is why I try to stay away from emotion. (Feelings - ugh.) But there really are rumblings about secession in the Scottish islands, specially Shetland and Orkney. The Guardian:
Once you stir the nationalist pot, you can never know where it will lead. Residents of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles are petitioning the Scottish parliament at Holyrood for the right to hold their own referendum on independence, but this time from Scotland rather than the UK. In one scenario, the islands might vote to leave Scotland and remain in the UK.
This may be partly trolling, but the trolls have a point -- Shetland (the preferred form, rather than the Shetlands as I have it above) really is more distinct from most of Scotland than most of Scotland is from the rest of the UK. Most of the news about secession is the islands is from last spring or earlier, so there doesn't seem to be much agitation about this issue right now. But wait and see; this could boil up again if Scotland as a whole votes to secede but Shetland and Orkney vote strongly to stay in the UK.


This essay by Bagehot at the Economist seems to be a very measured take on the islands' likely future.

Today's Graduate School Statistic

Right now in the U.S. there are 86,000 students pursuing Ph.D. degrees in the biological sciences. More than half say their first choice of career would be university faculty, but there will be such jobs for less than 10% of them.

And this is why science will remain a cutthroat business full of fraud, dubious corner-cutting, misleading publications, unjustified grandstanding, and so on no matter what any funding body decides. When there are five ambitious, highly-qualified applicants for every job, there is simply no way to design a fair and humane system.

Independence Will Not Help Poor People in Scotland

Polls consistently show that young people in Scotland favor independence more than their elders, which is why the referendum's backers authorized 16- and 17-year-olds to vote (just this once). Jack Shenker at Slate attributes this to newly radical thinking:
The story of Scotland’s forthcoming referendum on independence, which takes place on Thursday, is about many different things—the majority of which have received very little attention from a mainstream press determined to interpret the debate through a tired prism of establishment parties, establishment politicians, and establishment narratives. One of those things is about what happens when big, nominally social-democratic political institutions—in Britain’s case, the pro-union Labour Party—sign up to the prevailing economic orthodoxy, leaving those who feel excluded by a doctrine of free-market fundamentalism with no one to represent them. Another is about the cracks that open up when an era of widespread, popular disillusionment with authority coincides with a vote in which almost every organ of authority—be it political, financial, or editorial—is advocating on one side of the argument, while all the popular momentum lies with the other.

Perhaps most importantly though, it’s a story about the emergence of a generation that has big and radical thoughts, at a time when all the ideological questions that matter are supposedly long-settled and when big, radical thoughts are distinctly out of fashion. To the alarm of just about everyone else, it’s a story about a generation that displays little instinctive faith in the status quo.
Well, great. We could all use some new economic thinking focused on greater equality. Let's shake up the status quo. But where are the ideas? What are they? And if the Scottish National Party has some, why haven't they done anything about implementing them during their reign in the Scottish Parliament? They said devolution would make things better for Scots. It has not. So now they say they need full independence to do more for Scots. That won't help, either.

It upsets me to see that young Scots think independence is some kind of new and radical idea. (My sons are pro-independence for the same reason.) But tribalism is not new; it is the oldest idea of all. If you ask me, at base there is no difference between Scottish independence and "kill all the Amalekites, every one." Or World War I. At base they are the same old sin of insisting that we are different from them, and better. Real radicalism, the kind that came out of the Enlightenment and has led to democracy and just about everything ever done in modern times to help poor people, is international. Real radicalism shuns tribalism, which is fundamentally a conservative sentiment.

I understand that left-wing Scots feel frustrated at always being outvoted by more conservative people in southern Britain. But so do left-wing people in northern Britain and for that matter in London. If Scotland secedes, that will entrench the conservatives in power in Britain, and no matter what any future Scottish government does their economy will remain dependent on London for generations, which means that by seceding the Scots will give up all power over the government that mainly controls their economy. Great idea. Every economist who has looked at the numbers says that independence will hurt Scotland economically, stealing around $5,000 from every Scottish family over the next few years. How is that going to help struggling neighborhoods?

Ask people in Slovakia or Turkmenistan if independence helped them.

If Scots are unhappy with their political choices, they should found new parties, or take over the Labour Party. If they think that will be easier in Scotland than it would be across all of Britain, they are mistaken.

Making the world better is hard. There are no easy ways to do it. Pro-independence Scots seem to think that this independence referendum is a shortcut to a more just and equal society. They are mistaken. Whether the referendum passes or fails, they will soon  learn this hard truth.

Kevin Gray's Veiled Sculptures

At least one modern still knows the tricks that Baroque sculptors used to make stone and bronze looks like flesh and fabric. Kevin Francis Gray, born 1972 in Northern Ireland, was trained in Dublin, Chicago and London and has just had his first big shows. Above and below, Bellerina, 2011. More here.

In Kentucky, Voting anything but Self Interest

Cynics have always said that people just vote their own financial interests. And certainly there is a lot of that in politics: old people love Medicare and Social Security, and everybody hates paying taxes. But in Kentucky, Abby Goodnough found something very different going on. Since the Affordable Care Act was passed, Kentucky's uninsured population has fallen from 20.4 to 11.9 percent of the total -- that's about 400,000 people who didn't have health insurance but now do. Kentucky's health care exchange, Kynect, is very successful and generally popular. But even the people directly benefiting from Obamacare are planning to vote Republican:
“I’m tickled to death with it,” Ms. Evans, 49, said of her new coverage as she walked around the Kentucky State Fair recently with her daughter, who also qualified for Medicaid under the law. “It’s helped me out a bunch.”

But Ms. Evans scowled at the mention of President Obama — “Nobody don’t care for nobody no more, and I think he’s got a lot to do with that,” she explained — and said she would vote this fall for Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, who is fond of saying the health care law should be “pulled out root and branch.”
Let us pause first to note that bizarre notion of the President's power, greater than anything Confucius ascribed to the emperor: “Nobody don’t care for nobody no more, and I think he’s got a lot to do with that.” The mind boggles. But then ponder that even though this woman has gotten herself and her daughter on Medicaid thanks to the efforts of the President and other Democrats, she still hates them. She is voting prejudice, not self interest. Based on the polls, the people of Kentucky (at least the white people) agree with her, and as a result the charisma-free Mitch McConnell will coast to reelection.

We see this sort of thing all over America. Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe once listed the issues that matter to his constituents as “God, gays, and guns.” Republicans have long anguished over why they can't get churchgoing, small-business-owning Latinos to vote for them, but the answer is pretty simple; people hate to be told, “we don't want you here.”  Ideology and identity trump interest.

Not entirely, of course -- no political party could survive in America that didn't at least claim to have pocketbook solutions for its voters. But the older I get the less impressed I am by self-interest as an explanation of anything.

Meanwhile in Galt's Gulch

The proposed Libertarian utopia of Galt's Gulch in Chile, imagined by investors as a refuge from the coming implosion of the socialist United States, has collapsed into lawsuits and recriminations and may have been nothing more than a scam.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Is Sin Selfish? Is Cooperation Moral? And what about Evolution?

E.O. Wilson complains that humanity is a "dysfunctional species," then elaborates like this:
Some of the dysfunction of course comes from the youthful state of global civilization, which is still a work in progress. But the greater part is due simply to the fact that our brains are poorly wired. Hereditary human nature is the genetic legacy of our prehuman and Paleolithic past -- the “indelible stamp of our lowly origin” as identified by Charles Darwin, first in anatomy ("The Descent of Man," 1871) and then in the facial signals of emotion ("The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals," 1872). Evolutionary psychologists have pressed on to explain the role of biological evolution in gender differences, child mental development, status ranking, tribal aggression and even dietary choice.

As I’ve suggested in previous writing, the chain of causation runs yet deeper, extending all the way to the level of the biological organization on which natural selection works. Selfish activity within the group provides competitive advantage but is commonly destructive to the group as a whole. Working in the opposite direction from individual-level selection is group selection -- group versus group. When an individual is cooperative and altruistic, this reduces his advantage in competition with other members but increases the survival and reproduction rate of the group as a whole. In a nutshell, individual selection favors what we call sin and group selection favors virtue. The result is the internal conflict of conscience that afflicts all but psychopaths, estimated fortunately to make up only 1 to 4 percent of the population.
That sin is selfish, and morality cooperative, is an oft-repeated generalization that I think is completely wrong.

On a petty, everyday level, much of the evil we encounter is simple selfishness -- no need to look any deeper into why that bastard cut you off in traffic, or why somebody stole your iPhone. But I think the really big evils are not especially selfish, except indirectly; I would say on the contrary that the big evils afflicting humanity are distortions of the cooperative impulse. The root of totalitarianism is not selfishness; it is wanting everyone to act as the group dictates. The inquisitors were not after personal gain; they were sacrificing their own time and energy pursuing a world in which everybody believes the same things. The secret policeman says, "Why aren't you cooperating?" To me the image of evil is not the serial killer, but a brigade of marching Nazis.

In American politics we have all sorts of fights that boil down to this. Ask small-town southern conservatives what they really want, and the answer is likely to be "a community where everybody gets along and follows the same rules and honors the same truths." Why do you insist on a right to be different? Why can't you just do what has always been done, what your neighbors do? On the opposite side we have liberals who claim to be tolerant but won't tolerate conservatives, in fact won't even try to understand what it is that upsets conservatives about the contemporary world. The problem with our politics is not individualism, it is twisted groupthink.

In practice the limit to gross immorality is not set by altruism, but by laziness and other forms of selfishness. The reason societies aren't more totalitarian is that people are too selfish to make the necessary sacrifices and do the necessary work. This strikes me as the lesson of the fall of the Soviet Union, along with the unraveling of Calvinist Geneva and many other such experiments. They were defeated, and their people set free, less by brave rebels than by human inertia.

To me the ultimate root of most evil is not selfish, but tribal; to me the most basic sin is dividing the world into us and them and insisting that our way is better. We may commit murder for selfish reasons, but war and genocide are cooperative crimes.

To get back to E.O. Wilson, I think his equation of individual selection with sin, and group selection with cooperative virtue, is utter nonsense. If we measure fitness by the number of offspring, then having friends matters a lot more than accumulating resources -- in many cases social behavior is selfish, going it alone ultimately self-destructive. Just figuring out what selfishness and altruism mean in the complex social world is often all but impossible. Did you really do that for someone else, or because you selfishly want to feel like an altruistic person? Wilson's simple model does great violence to both evolutionary biology and human history, and in psychological terms it is balderdash.

But then any Buddhist could have told him so: morality is found neither in extreme selfishness nor extreme altruism, but on the Middle Way.

The Rock Cut Churches of Lalibela

Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia famous for its eleven churches carved into solid rock. The exact dates when they were built (carved? dug?) are a bit obscure, but in the main they date to around 1200. They are still a major destination for Christian pilgrims from across Africa.

The traditional story of the churches goes like this:
During the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, an emperor of the Zagwe Dynasty, the town of Lalibela was known as Roha. The saintly king was given this name due to a swarm of bees said to have surrounded him at his birth, which his mother took as a sign of his future reign as Emperor of Ethiopia. . . .

Lalibela is said to have seen Jerusalem and then attempted to build a new Jerusalem as his capital in response to the capture of old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187. As such, many features have Biblical names – even the town's river is known as the River Jordan. It remained the capital of Ethiopia from the late 12th century and into the 13th century.
According to UNESCO, Lalibela's name means "The bee recognizes his sovereignty," which is certainly one of the odder royal names I have encountered.

Most famous is the church of St. George -- Bet Giyorgis, the House of George -- carved as a giant cross.

Saint Mary's.

Given the size and number of these churches, many scholars are dubious that they could all have been carved during the reign of Lalibela, and there are also significant differences in stylistic details. Some think that the carving extended well into the 1300s, while others think that some of the churches may be much older, dating to the heyday of the Kingdom of Aksum in the eighth century. Hard to date a church carved out of volcanic stone. But all eleven churches were certainly in existence by the sixteenth century, when they were described by Portuguese travelers. (Above, Bet Abba Libanos)

Some Ethiopians maintain that the churches were all carved during Lalibela's reign, and that they were completed so quickly because angels labored side-by-side with the workmen. (Above, Bet Emmanuel.)

Another fine legend is that Lalibela was poisoned by his brother and lay in a coma for three days, during which time he ascended to heaven and saw a vision of the churches he would build. (Bet Medhane Alem)

The churches are connected by tunnels.


I was inspired to write about them by the photographs of Holland Carter, a scholar of African Art, who took the picture above and the two at the top of the post. Much more of his work here. The rest are from wikipedia and UNESCO.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Today's Folly: Chrismark Castle

Built in Connecticut by Christopher Mark, completed in 2009. Now for sale along with 75 acres of land, asking price $45 million.

I became a fan of the builder when I read this:
Owner Christopher Mark told a local reporter during construction several years ago that he didn't want to talk about it, and he hasn't really elaborated since.
So refreshing in our too much sharing age.

Nice door.

So, if you're in the market for a folly. . . .

Lots more pictures here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lithium and Mental Health

According to Anna Fels, evidence is accumulating that the tiny amounts of lithium that occur naturally in the drinking water of some areas are good for mental health:
Researchers began to ask whether low levels of lithium might correlate with poor behavioral outcomes in humans. In 1990, a study was published looking at 27 Texas counties with a variety of lithium levels in their water. The authors discovered that people whose water had the least amount of lithium had significantly greater levels of suicide, homicide and rape than the people whose water had the higher levels of lithium. The group whose water had the highest lithium level had nearly 40 percent fewer suicides than that with the lowest lithium level.

Almost 20 years later, a Japanese study that looked at 18 municipalities with more than a million inhabitants over a five-year period confirmed the earlier study’s finding: Suicide rates were inversely correlated with the lithium content in the local water supply. More recently, there have been corroborating studies in Greece and Austria.
This strikes me as plausible. Our bodies need several metallic elements to survive; too little iron is associated with all sorts of problems. What if we do need lithium, in amounts greater that what we get naturally in some areas?

From the Treasure House of Bunny Mellon

Rachel Lowe Lambert Lloyd Mellon (1910 – 2014), generally known as Bunny, was the second wife of Paul Mellon, who spent his life trying vainly to reverse, through philanthropy, the bad karma accumulated in his line by the dastardly deeds of his robber baron ancestors. Mrs. Mellon led a pretty retiring life for a famous zillionaire; her most important public act was designing the White House rose garden. She spent her time planting gardens, riding horses, flying planes, and collecting art. Sotheby's is getting ready to sell a mansionful of her stuff, including paintings, jewelry, antique furniture, and more. Above, Winslow Homer, Children on the Beach, 1873.

The living room of the Mellon estate in Upperville, Virginia. The Homer shown above is to the left of the fireplace; above it is a Seurat; to the right is a Klee. Slideshow of the house here.

One of two valuable Rothkos in the collection, expected to fetch more than $20 million each.

Two diamond pendants, one a particularly fine blue, 9,75 carats, estimated at about $15 million.

A hallway in the house, with a George Braque (top center -- normally Braque doesn't do much for me, but I like this one) and one of Jan Van Kessel the Elder's seventeenth-century drawings of insects or birds (bottom left). Also lots of the tchotchkes that Bunny also collected with great enthusiasm.

Georges Seurat, Woman with a Bouquet.

Two diamond brooches by Van Cleef and Arpels.

The dining room, which features a Diebenkorn, a Georgia O'Keeffe (White Barn, over the hutch), and a Nicholas de Stael.

Still Life by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621)

And this thing, which Sotheby's describes as  a "gold, gem-set, rock crystal and sodalite rhinoceros, Fulco di Verdura, Mid 20th-Century," with the incredible estimate of $15,000,000-20,000,000. I think "owning a $15 million sodalite rhinoceros" might be the perfect synonym for "having too much money."