Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Lawrence M. Principe, “The Secrets of Alchemy”

The Secrets of Alchemy (2013) is the best introduction to alchemy that I have read, and it includes some great stuff on the testing of alchemical recipes in modern labs. If you’re curious about alchemy, read it. Meanwhile, a short primer on this ancient and mysterious art:

In the ancient and medieval worlds, alchemy was not distinguished from any other sort of chemistry, and people we call alchemists did other sorts of chemical experiments. But the core of alchemy was the transmutation of metals, especially the transmutation of “base” metals such as lead or mercury into silver or gold. The central goal of alchemy was already established by the time our first surviving alchemical manuscript was written. That is On Apparatus and Furnaces by Zosimus of Panopolis in Roman Egypt, written around 300 AD. Zosimus was already drawing on an extensive previous literature, and he was engaged in debates with his contemporaries. (One of the authorities he cites is a woman named Maria, who gave her name to a method for heating compounds in water that evolved into the bain-marie of French cooking.) Anyway Zosimus gave instructions for methods used in transmutation, especially exposing one substance to vapors drawn from another substance. He described different kinds of transmuting agents, from simple agents that could only (in our terms) catalyze one reaction to the highest level, a substance that could transmute any metal into any other. That supreme reagent came to be called the Philosopher’s Stone. Most authorities did not think it was a literal stone, leading to it being called “the stone that is not a stone” and similar things.

The remarkable thing about alchemy, to me, is that serious, educated people kept on trying to transmute lead into gold down into the 1700s, but none of them ever succeeded. Why did people keep banging their heads against this lead wall for 1500 years?

First, because their theories of matter told them that it should be possible. You have probably heard of the most famous ancient theory of matter, the Four Elements of Empedocles. Empedocles taught that all matter was composed of earth, air, fire, and water. To this Aristotle added four characteristics: hot, cold, wet, and dry. There were other theories, but all of them agreed that all the materials we see around us are made up from differing proportions of a few simpler substances. Therefore it ought to be possible to transform any substance into any other. Not everyone agreed; alchemists were regularly attacked by other scholars who argued that the combination of elements to make up gold or silver had been done by God using powers that humans did not and could not possess. But that seemed to many of the more scientifically minded like special religious pleading, and the belief that any substance could be transmuted into any other remained widespread until modern chemistry was established after 1750. Using Aristotle’s schema, most authorities agreed that while lead and mercury were cold and wet, gold was much hotter and drier; therefore, for a thousand years the basic recipes of alchemy involved reacting the cold, wet base metal with something considered hotter and drier, such as sulfur or antimony.

Second, because the chemical manipulations alchemists could perform seemed to those who performed them at least as amazing as turning one metal into another. This is true on multiple levels. The chemistry itself was impressive, turning metals into white powders, red liquids, or crystal trees – that is, when it worked. Some of these reactions are fairly difficult even in a modern lab, and for people working with impure materials and shoddy equipment they could take years of effort. Principe describes trying to replicate one 16th-century recipe that involved an ore of antimony called stibnite. He could not make it work until he ordered stibnite from the same Eastern European region as that used by his source, whereupon the reaction worked perfectly, turning the gray ore into yellow glass. (The eastern European ore contained 2% quartz as an impurity.) You would have to multiply this a hundredfold for workers in medieval conditions. An alchemist who had labored for years to create one of the intermediate products on the way to the Stone and then finally succeeded would have his faith in the overall process dramatically revived. Plus, if it took five years to achieve the first or second step, then perhaps it seemed perfectly plausible that the last might take a lifetime.

Third, much of the alchemical literature was written in deliberately obscure ways. It is not clear how this started, since Zosimus was already doing it, but it remained part of the alchemical tradition down into the 1700s. Some of the tricks involved giving the materials nicknames, using metaphors for reactions (like marriage for mixing things together) and dispersing knowledge across a whole text or multiple texts, so that a metaphorical description of an action might be given in one chapter and the explanation of the metaphor given in another chapter or book. To the beginner, alchemical texts presented a façade of extreme obscurity that might take years to master. Those who stuck with it were rewarded with membership in a club of real insiders, the magi who understood the obscure texts and used that knowledge to pry into the secrets of matter.

Fourth, and most mysterious, were the many eye-witness testimonies to successful transmutation. Some of these have the feel of folklore or friend-of-a-friend stories, including one about the Byzantine emperor’s storehouse of transmuting powders that goes back to an Arabic text of the 9th century. But others were written in the first person by scholars with reputations for great integrity. Robert Boyle (1627-1691), one of the creators of modern chemistry and a founder of the Royal Society, was convinced that transmutation was real by a mysterious stranger who visited him around 1680. Boyle’s notes refer to him only as “the Traveller.” This Traveller had a paper envelope containing grains of a coarse powder that looked like ground rubies. The Traveller put one grain of this substance into a crucible with mercury and heated it over a fire for 15 minutes. When the crucible had cooled enough for its contents to be handled, Boyle was shocked to discover that it contained, not mercury, but “a solid Body.” It felt, thought Boyle, heavier than the mercury they had started with, and when he tested it later it seemed to be gold.

Page from one of Isaac Newton's alchemical notebooks

Many such stories survive from the 16th and 17th centuries. What can they mean? If Boyle’s Traveller was a fraud, what was his goal? Boyle gave him no gold or silver, only mercury that was used up in the reaction. There were plenty of stories about men who said that given some small amount of gold they could multiply it and then absconded with the gold, but there also are many like Boyle’s in which a financial motive is hard to find. Could these stories, even Boyle’s, actually be instructive fictions; by not naming this “Traveller” is he telling us we have entered the realm of myth? That would be, I think, very unlikely for the hard-headed Boyle, whose most famous book is called The Sceptical Chemist. I am not at all sure what to make of these tales.

While scientists of the 1600s like Boyle and Newton were very interested in alchemy, that changed in the 1700s. You might think that learned opinion was turned against alchemy by scientific progress, but that is not really so; the alchemists had been driven out of chemistry decades before Lavoisier and others discovered the reality of chemical elements in the late 1700s. This parallels what happened with witchcraft, which was banished from British and French lawcourts by Enlightenment attitudes a century before the scientific revolution had born much fruit. Anyway the progress of chemistry after 1750 sealed the argument, keeping alchemy out of science for good. But not out of the civilization. People kept practicing alchemy across the 19th and into the 20th century, and for all I know they still do. More interesting is a dramatic shift in how alchemy was perceived. Beginning around 1850 people began to argue that alchemy had never really been about making gold, but was instead a spiritual practice focused on purifying the soul. This view drew strength from some of the metaphorical texts written by alchemists but does violence to their history: they really were trying to make gold, and only a few thought the state of the alchemist’s soul was relevant. But this new idea spread like wildfire through occult and spiritual circles, embraced by people like Arthur Waite (of the Tarot deck) and Carl Jung. From there interest in alchemy entered avant garde artistic circles such as the Surrealists, who made much use of alchemical concepts.

These moderns embraced alchemy because they were fascinated with transformation. Alchemy interested them as a language for speaking about transformation on many levels: of society, of the self, of the soul, of the civilization. And perhaps this fascination with dramatic change also explains part of why so many smart people devoted so much effort to mixing metals and reagents in crucibles and exposing lead to sulfurous vapors for so many long centuries

Monday, July 15, 2019

Mount Desert Isle 1: Wonderland

First day and half of vacation. I'm on Mount  Desert Isle, Maine, with four of my children and assorted other relatives. These pictures are from Wonderland, on the Atlantic.

Wild turkeys by the driveway.

Yesterday afternoon on Beech Mountain, our traditional first hike.

Moldboard Plows and Medieval Agriculture

(Author's note: this is so nerdy that I hesitated to post it when I wrote it last week, but, well, here it is. If you don't want too learn about manure management stop now.)

I was reading Peter Wells' Barbarians to Angels (2008), a book arguing that the early Middle Ages were anything but Dark, and he says this:
Of fundamental importance was the development of a new technology of agriculture — the moldboard plow — which vastly increased the efficiency of food production beyond anything in Roman times. This new technology meant that fewer people could produce larger harvests than was possible earlier, thereby releasing many former farmers to work in other, specialized, activities such as manufacturing, trade, and building. (11)

Other technological improvements also contributed to making food production more efficient. The development of the horse collar allowed this faster and stronger animal to replace oxen on some farms as the draft animal pulling the plow. The introduction of the three-field system increased agricultural yields. . . . These three changes — the moldboard plow, the horse collar, and the three-field system — enabled farmers to feel their communities at an unprecedented level of efficiency. (132)
I have been reading statements like these since I was in high school and I have long wondered how they could be true. Did the Roman empire really feed 60 million people with inferior plows and no crop rotation? Roman Gaul had at least as many inhabitants as the France of 1200 AD, and its towns were probably larger; how were all those people fed? Plus, the ancient Romans were obsessed with agriculture, which along with war and politics was the only suitable employment for a gentleman, and they left us a rich legacy of detailed treatises on how to manage an estate. Can the technically marvelous Romans, whose bridges still stand in the hundreds, really have been that ignorant about farming, the art they loved the most?

I looked into this problem several years ago but never had any reason to write about it, until Peter Wells inspired me to dive back in. If the experts on Roman agriculture are right, what Wells says, and what all the other textbooks that repeat the same line say, is nonsense. Roman agriculture was actually more intensive and productive than anything practiced in the Middle Ages, and in fact some authorities say the western Europeans did not exceed Roman productivity until after 1850. Here is a fairly typical sample of contemporary writing on Roman agriculture:
The best informed authorities have long acknowledged that Roman farming was both sophisticated and productive, with clear evidence that the ancients had anticipated the critical innovations most responsible for the modern agricultural revolution: seed selection; effective tillage; hoeing and harrowing to destroy weeds; crop rotations; the suppression of bare fallow; the rotation of legumes, whether for human consumption, fodder or green manure; irrigation, particularly of meadows and garden vegetables; artificial leys sown with leguminous fodder crops; housing of livestock; improved manure management; careful grazing management for range and pasture land; and, most decisively, as I have argued in a number of publications, ley farming or convertible husbandry, still the most effective system of intensive mixed farming. . . .

Within the highly urbanized and affluent heartland of the Roman empire, our sources and archaeological evidence present a coherent picture of market-oriented intensive mixed farming, viticulture, arboriculture and market gardening, comparable, and often superior, in its productivity and agronomic expertise to the best agricultural practice of England, the Low Countries, France (wine), and Northern Italy in the mid 19th century. GrecoRoman farmers supplied a large urban population equal to, if not significantly greater than, that of early 19th century Italy and Greece, with a diet rich, not just in cereals, but in meat, wine, olive oil, fish, condiments, fresh fruit and vegetables.
If you have read much about modern organic farming you have probably seen ancient Roman works on farming cited approvingly; one gardening book I read noted that using methods described by Columella (c 70 AD) organic vineyards can equal the yields of more "modern" operations, and in a more sustainable way.

There are two sources of confusion here. One is that the Romans lived around the Mediterranean, and all of their expertise concerned farming in that environment. Northern Europe was another world. Especially on the heavy clay soils that dominate around around the North Sea, very different farming methods were required to get good yields. Peter Wells is an expert on Northern Europe, and that is also the focus of most American textbooks. As near as I can tell the improvements they are writing about were things necessary to bring the agriculture of England, the Low Countries, northern Germany, and Denmark up to Mediterranean standards. In that environment these methods have been very successful, and by the 1600s the Netherlands may have surpassed Valencia or the Po Valley as the most productive farming region in Europe.

The other has to do with the different kinds of agriculture practiced in the Classical world, which have parallels wherever people farm. There were vast areas of the Mediterranean zone where people practiced low-intensity, fairly primitive agriculture. These were places without enough water, from either rainfall or irrigation, to sustain intensive farming, and where there were not urban markets or ports close enough to make commercial farming viable. In those regions people alternated wheat and bean crops with sheep grazing in a loose, long-rotation system, which is not very efficient. Really intensive farming was limited to places with enough water for year-round plant growth and nearby markets where the surplus could be sold. Yet even in remote places the Roman economy led to changes; under the Empire more and more dry wheat and sheep land was converted to olive groves, which we can tell from the vast proliferation of olive presses on Roman archaeological sites (above).

Until 19th-century farmers began fertilizing with guano mined from Pacific islands, intensive farming required manure. It could be practiced only where there was a sufficient density of animals and people to created the requisite dung. With enough water, dung and attention, yields per acre could be boosted ten- or twenty-fold. But that was expensive and could only be profitable where there were nearby markets. Traditional agriculture could therefore get into a virtuous cycle with urban populations: more people meant more dung and higher crop prices, which meant more effort could be put into intensive farming, supporting higher populations. This happened in ancient Egypt, Italy and other favored locations; during the Middle Ages it happened in the Low Countries and around Paris and London. Part of the increase in productivity noted by historians of northern Europe came, not from new methods, but from population increase and the rise of urban markets that made it profitable for farmers to work their land more intensively.

This also explains how some parts of the Classical world came to have such primitive agriculture in more recent times. Especially in Greece and Sicily 19th-century travelers marveled at the primitive farming methods they saw and rhapsodized about peasants whose lives had been unchanged since the dawn of time. The more astute puzzled over how ancient Athens or Syracuse could have been sustained that way. The real story is that in some areas that virtuous cycle was broken: the towns were sacked and abandoned, which tanked the markets and cut off the supply of night soil, so the farmers reverted to subsistence methods that required less investment of money and labor; without profitable work, many people moved away to more prosperous regions.

In conclusion, the history of agriculture is vastly more complex than anything your textbooks told you, which should make you question everything else your textbooks told you about technology, society, or economics.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Links 12 July 2019

Trump and Evangelical Christianity

Spitalfields Life at the 134th Italian Parade in Clerkenwell

Scott Alexander's review of Red Plenty by Francis Spufford, a book about the Soviet economy focusing on how central planning was supposed to work and why it didn't.

Anti-Wokeness on the Dirtbag Left.

Ross Douthat on Marianne Williamson. (And on the new Paganism more broadly here.)

Did slavery make white Americans better off?

The original manuscript of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom has been declared a National Treasure of France.

Can an intellectual love America?

Two interviews with Eric Kaufman about his book Whiteshift, which says white nationalist politics is entirely about increased immigration: New Yorker, Tyler Cowen.

Website of the week: No Brash Festivity. For me a Tumblr like this is the best way to appreciate 20th-century art. There is no push to engage or understand, just a parade of images that grab you or don't, and if something intrigues you then just search for more somewhere else.

Tomorrow I'm heading off for a week in Maine, so don't expect much except pictures of scenery until I get back.

Inigo Montoya's Guide to Networking Success

Making the rounds on Tumblr.

Mrinalini Mukherjee

Big exhibit at the Met of work by Indian artist Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949-2015). These are made from hemp rope using a technique something like macrame. Mukherjee has always insisted that
she wasn’t making folk art, or design, or fiber art, or female art. She was using a pre-modern medium to make up-to-date art, period.
Most of these seem to date to the 1980s.

Some of them have names that suggest folk Hinduism – this is "Forest King" – but Mukherjee always denied that they were religious.

Fascinating, and you certainly aren't likely to see anything else that looks remotely like it this week.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Are Americans Losing Interest in Our Past?

Baby boom-era Americans piled into their station wagons and visited historic sites in such record numbers in 1962 that the National Geographic Society sought to capture the trend in a huge, colorful volume it called America’s Historylands. The book’s cover featured the colonial capitol in Williamsburg, Virginia, and showed men and women dressed up in tricorn hats and white bonnets, making an organic connection to the founding of the nation. Americans loved the houses, public buildings and battlefields that told the story of the nation, and the book spent 500 pages explaining the extraordinary attraction of these settings for families on their weekend sojourns.

Now, while families gather to celebrate the nation’s founding and President Donald Trump seizes the moment to bask in the historic aura of the Lincoln Memorial, many of the landmarks where that history was really rooted seem to have lost their allure.

Colonial Williamsburg, for one, reportedly draws about half the number of visitors it attracted in the 1980s, the last decade of the Cold War. Other iconic destinations also face flat or dwindling attendance; Civil War sites, once guaranteed to entrance the young, are among them. As a historical moment, Gettysburg will always be the high-water mark of the Confederacy, but the battle site happens to be at a 10-year low in numbers of visitors, and far below the levels it drew in the 1970s.

Even places that depict American ingenuity in a different way, such as by telling the story of flight, show signs of losing their claim on the imagination, with attendance at the National Air and Space Museum trending down over the last 10 years despite drawing far more foreign tourists than in previous decades.
Something else that Millennials are killing!

Seriously, interest in the old-school Patriotic version of American history is way down. Some people say that means we should put more emphasis on a woke version: women's rights, Civil Rights, slave rebellions, and so on. But actually people are not flocking to those sites either.

Is it because fewer people care about the past, or because people would rather experience it on video? Both?

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

We often overestimate our explanatory prowess, exhibiting an illusion of explanatory depth (IOED). In the IOED paradigm, participants initially rate their explanatory ability (Time 1) and then after writing out as complete of an explanation as they can, they rerated their ability (Time 2). People show a consistent drop from Time 1 to Time 2 in their reported understanding of such things as common artifacts, word meanings, and political issues. The IOED is one facet of a broader family of phenomena in which people make inaccurate self‐assessments, often being far more confident about their abilities than is warranted.
People especially overrate their own ability both with general knowledge of the kind the old used to foist on the young, but things are not always better in areas of technical expertise:
The relationship between expertise and overconfidence is not straightforward. It sometimes is associated with reductions in overconfidence and other times with increases.
People with technical knowledge, the authors note, may be especially reluctant to admit that they don't know.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Peter Wells, "Barbarians to Angels"

Peter Wells is one of the leading archaeologists of early medieval Europe, and in Barbarians to Angels (2008) he tried to sum up the main things he had learned over the course of his career. It's well written, short, and has some good material. Too bad it's wrong.

Wells is from the "there were no Dark Ages" school of history, and he devotes most of the book to showing you all the great stuff that was happening in Europe between 400 and 800 AD. Which is fair enough, I mean, lots of stuff did happen in Europe, including the growth of new towns across the north, the spread of some key technologies like moldboard plows and window glass, and the creation of the amazing artistic vision we call the Insular Style. I recognize that my preference for the stuff shown in this post over classical marble is a matter of taste, but you have to admit that this is an amazing breath of fresh air after a thousand years of satyrs chasing nymphs.

But there is also clear evidence of decline, from abandoned agricultural fields in Wales to a dramatic fall in the amount of airborne lead incorporated into glaciers in Greenland. Roman Portus, the huge port complex that supplied the city with grain, was destroyed and abandoned by 550; Rome itself shrank from around a million people under Augustus to perhaps 20,000 in 600. (Wells flat out ignores that collapse by ending his account of post-Imperial Rome in AD 450 when it was still a thriving city.)

Wells admits that the early Middle Ages were different from classical times. This is a very important point that I want to emphasize. Even though Wells thinks there was no overall decline in the population of Europe or its economic activity, he agrees that things had changed in important ways. The elite of northern Europe was no longer looking to the Mediterranean for its models of how to dress, act, or educate its children, but to a broad "barbarian" culture; Wells lists a dozen very similar royal burials from around 500 AD that stretch from France to the Crimea. These warrior kings did not simply replace the old Roman elite and go on as before; they radically changed what it meant to be a leader. No more studying Homer or learning rhetoric; instead they listened to heroic lays and practiced sword fighting.

Where I think Wells is silly is in his insistence that the changes taking place across Europe were in no sense a "decline." Take, for example, his account of post-Roman London. After around 270 AD the thriving provincial capital changed:
Beginning in the third century and continuing into the fourth, there is clear evidence for major changes in what people were doing in the city. Two changes are particularly evident, one involving the reuse of stone architectural elements, the other the deposition of soil over much of the formerly built-up urban area. . . .

Some large public structures built of stone were allowed to fall into disrepair, whereas others were carefully taken down, apparently for re-use of the stone elsewhere. Some of the stone was employed for building a new wall along the north bank of the Thames. (109)
Other stones from old public monuments were built into the houses of wealthy families.

And then there is the Dark Earth:
The third and fourth centuries at London are characterized by the widespread presence of dark humic soil, sometimes more than a yard thick, and with cultural debris (pottery, bones of butchered animals, glass fragments) mixed into it, covering occupational remains of earlier centuries. This material, known as dark earth, is not unique to London but has been identified at many urban sites all over northern Europe. . . . 
The dark earth is now thought to represent not abandonment but rather thriving activity — but activity of a very different character from that of the Roman urban centers. The dark earth has been found to contain remains of timber-framed, wattle-and-daub huts, along with sherds of pottery and metal ornaments datable to the late Roman period. These observations demonstrate that people who were living on the site were building their houses in the traditional British style rather than in the stone and cement fashion of elite and public Roman architecture. (111)
So what happened in London, and many other Roman towns across Europe, was that grand public buildings were abandoned or torn down and people built wattle and daub huts within their ruins. Now ask yourself: what does the build-up of three feet (1 m) of humus in 200 years tell you? It tells you that nobody, ever, during that whole period, hauled any trash outside the walls. All of it – animal bones, oyster shells, hearth ash, shit, demolished huts (wattle and daub structures last only a decade or two), and whatever else people and their animal produce, was just left to molder away right next to where people were living. Even Neolithic householders were more careful with their trash than that.

And what does Wells say about this?
To call these changes "decline", "collapse," or "abandonment" is to adopt a conservative Roman attitude toward change. (112)
If you object to a town full of people who never haul away their trash, you must be a conservative Roman.

That was probably too harsh, because Wells has put his finger on something important. Across much of Europe we find that Roman citizens, rather than defending the empire against barbarian invaders, welcomed them into their towns and handed over the local Roman officials to the Franks or the Goths for execution. There were also widespread revolts against Roman rule, notably the rising of the Bacaudae that raged for decades across western France. Roman patriotism was in short supply.

That was partly because the Roman empire was in a bad state. Our best source on this is Ammianus Marcellinus, whose narrative of the years from 353 to 378 is a sad catalog of civil wars, treason trials, corruption, incompetence, and more treason trails, culminating in the crushing Roman defeat by the Goths at Adrianople. After reading it my students are always amazed that the empire survived as long as it did. Reading about the way many in western Europe welcomed their new barbarian overlords makes me think that for many people the empire was no longer worth it: why keep paying taxes to a state that can't provide justice or defend its frontiers?

And if the empire wasn't worth it, maybe the rest of Roman civilization wasn't worth it, either? Why keep spending money on marble law courts where you didn't trust the judges, or marble statues of leaders you despise or can't name, or libraries full of books you can't read?

I do not think that such a shift in attitudes can explain everything that happened in western Europe in this period. As I said, I think there is strong evidence for real decline. But it does seem to me that many people just got tired of classical civilization and were ready for something new.


Bronze ornament depicting the Etruscan sun god Usil, who drove a chariot across the sky just like Helios or Sol. Dated to 500-475 BC. 8 inches tall (20 cm). In the Getty.

Gay Pride as Civil Religion

Scott Alexander attended San Francisco's Gay Pride Parade and came away thinking it was eerily reminiscent of both Easter parades in Guatemala and the 4th of July parades he attended as a child. This launched him into a long essay about civil religion and what our new civil religion might be:
I’m a pretty big believer in the theory of an American civil religion. For me, the important part of religion isn’t the part with gods, prophets, or an afterlife – Buddhism lacks gods, traditional Judaism doesn’t have much of an afterlife, and both get along just fine. It’s about a symbiosis between a society and an ideology. On the most basic level, it’s the answer to a series of questions. What is our group? Why are we better than the outgroup? Why is our social system legitimate?

For most of history, all religion was civil religion – if not of a state, then of a nation. Shinto for the Japanese, Judaism for the Israelites, Olympianism for the Greeks, Hinduism for the Indians. This was almost tautological; religion (along with language and government) was what defined group boundaries, divided the gradients of geography and genetics into separate peoples. A shared understanding of the world and shared rituals kept societies together. . . .
The old American civil religion is on the rocks, and conservatives are very worried about it:
Say it with me: patriotism is a great force uniting our country. Now liberals aren’t patriotic enough, so the country is falling apart. The old answers ring hollow. What is our group? America? Really? Why are we better than the outgroup? Because we have God and freedom and they are dirty commies? Say this and people will just start talking about how our freedom is a sham and Sweden is so much better. Why is our social system legitimate? Because the Constitution is amazing and George Washington was a hero? Everyone already knows the stock rebuttals to this. The problem isn’t just that the rebuttals are convincing. It’s that these answers have been dragged out of the cathedral of sacredness into the marketplace of open debate; questioning them isn’t taboo – and “taboo” is just the Tongan word for “sacred”. The Bay Area’s lack of civic rituals (so goes the argument) is both a cause and a symptom of a larger problem: the American civil religion has lost its sacredness. That means it can’t answer the questions of group identity, and that communities aren’t as unified as they should be.
But then consider the Gay Pride Parade and what it celebrates:
The parade itself hit all the requisite notes. Marching bands. Celebrities. Floats. Adorable children. Charitable organizations. The Governor drove by in his shiny black car. The Mayor, surrounded by adoring supporters. Public streetcars and sightseeing buses, festooned for the occasion. . . .
Am I saying that gay pride has replaced the American civil religion?

Maybe not just because it had a cool parade. But put it in the context of everything else going on, and it seems plausible. “Social justice is a religion” is hardly a novel take. A thousand tradcon articles make the same case. But a lot of them use an impoverished definition of religion, something like “false belief that stupid people hold on faith, turning them into hateful fanatics” – which is a weird mistake for tradcons to make.

There’s another aspect of religion. The one that inspired the Guatemala Easter parade. The group-building aspect. The one that answers the questions inherent in any group more tightly bound than atomic individuals acting in their self-interest:

What is our group? We’re the people who believe in pride and equality and diversity and love always winning.

Why is our group better than other groups? Because those other groups are bigots who are motivated by hate.

What gives our social system legitimacy? Because all those beautiful people in fancy cars, Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed and all the rest, are fighting for equality and trying to dismantle racism.
I would put it this way: Gay Pride has become a key ritual in the Civil Religion of liberals. I know some gay people are unhappy about how the day has been taken over by mainstream politicians and giant corporations and support for the police, but really it is a perfect way for liberals to celebrate our identity. And, you know, there are only so many ritual templates available to choose from, and a parade is both the most inclusive and communal ritual in our repertoire.

Things change. But other things stay remarkably the same, like our deep tribalism and love of celebrating identity together.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019


Sleep, you black-eyed pig,
Fall into a pit full of ghosts.

– from Iceland, early 19th century

Gareth Edwards

 Contemporary British landscape painter. More at his web site.


Kamala Harris went after Joe Biden in the first Democratic debate for his opposition to mandated school busing, bringing it back into the discussion. So let me just say: busing was an unmitigated disaster for America, and especially for its cities, and it has become for me the template for how not to pursue civil rights.

It is certainly true that in most American cities school district boundaries were drawn along racial lines. But the solution busing offered, randomly selecting tens of thousands of kids to be bused miles across town to unfamiliar schools, was awful. The results were: massive white flight to the suburbs (an economic and demographic hit from which some cities have still not recovered) and rocket fuel poured on the fire of the conservative reaction against the 1960s, leading directly to the election of anti-busing leader Ronald Reagan as president. This is an idea we should bring back?

If you're going to tell me, "but it was the right thing to do," I honestly don't care. When it comes to politics I am a follower of Vladimir I. Lenin: only the objective outcome of your actions matters. If the objective outcome of your integration strategy is schools that are in some cities (e.g. Boston) more segregated then they were in 1965, then you need a new strategy. If the objective outcome of your integration strategy is the election of a whole generation of leaders devoted to never letting it happen again — equally true of both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — then you need a new strategy. That is not the same as saying that we should never pursue school integration, but the busing story is a cautionary tale about how not to go about it.

My model of progressive politics is this: societies can only change so fast. You can only attack so many traditional practices at once. Therefore, you have to pick your battles.

Neighborhood-based elementary schools were absolutely the worst target activists could possibly have picked. This hit every sensitive American issue at once: race, class, parents' anxiety for their children, fear about homes losing value, fear of urban crime (not an exclusively racial issue; Victorian Londoners were obsessed with it), and so on.

A better model would have been to start with universities, which have been integrated with minimal trauma; then use magnet high schools for science, arts, business and so on to create some mixing; fiddle with district lines where they are obviously gerrymandered; hope for attitudes to change. Somebody  might say in response, "The social science is absolutely clear that poor minority kids do better in mixed race, mixed income schools! You're condemning thousands of black children to stagnate in terrible schools!" Well, we had busing, the white families all left, and the black kids ended up in schools that were 98% black instead of 95%; who did that help?

If your super well-intentioned plan to help poor, black children helps none of them, you need a new strategy.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Today's Side Note on the State of Our Society

"Literary fiction is increasingly borrowing from the horror genre to explore the fears and anxieties of modern motherhood."

– Here

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Moral Fervor of Young Americans

In the long history of the old complaining about the young, one refrain has been that young people are immoral. That have never really been my experience; I have always known many young people who suffer from what looks to me like excessive moral rigidity and inability to see that reality sometimes imposes a very high cost on abstractly correct moral choices.

I was one once.

David Brooks has spent the past year interviewing hundreds of people for a new book, and what strikes him about young people these days is their moral passion:
The big thing I encountered was the seismic generation gap. People my age rag on the younger generation for being entitled, and emotionally fragile, etc. But this generation is also seething with moral passion, and rebelling against the privatization of morality so prevalent in the Boomer and Gen-X generations.

They can be totally insufferable about it. In the upscale colleges on the coasts, Wokeness is a religious revival with its own conception of sin (privilege) and its own version of the Salem Witch Trials (online shaming). But the people in this movement have a sense of vocation, moral call, and a rage at injustice that is legitimate rejection of what came before. . . .

It’s often uncomfortable and over the top, but we’re lucky to have a rebellion against boomer quietism and moral miniaturization. The young zealots may burn us all in the flames of their auto-da-fe, but it’s better than living in a society marked by loneliness and quiet despair.
Right now the worldview of many young Americans is dominated by morality. Interest in Socialism is mainly driven by a sense that Capitalism is immoral. The "sure it's unfair but it works and nothing else does" position disgusts many young Americans. Historical figures are appreciated only for their morality: I have had two conversations with young people about George Washington recently that went like,
"He owned slaves."
"But he was a great first President."
"He owned slaves."
"He did free them in his will."
"He doesn't get points for that."
Colin Kaepernick's protest against the American flag of 1776 fits perfectly into this pattern: for him and millions of other people, America in the 18th century was just a place where white people owned slaves and killed Indians and they don't want to hear anything else about it.

From my jaded middle-aged perspective the problem with this passion is that in politics passion is of only limited use. Real political change is usually engineered by pragmatists willing to do deals with their enemies: Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson. If you're so full of rage against racists that you can't imagine working with them, you're not likely to pass many bills. And when it comes to economics, it just seems to be true that greed motivates people to work harder than love of your community, so only systems that tap into greed work in the long run.

Politics, in my view, should be how we solve our common problems, not how we vent our indignation.

Nan O’Toole of the Claddagh

Nan (Anne) O’Toole of the Claddagh, Galway city was an Irish fishmonger and herbalist born in 1877:
For infants suffering with bowel problems Nan prescribed holy water mixed with burnt turf dust, which was then fed to the child. Babies born prematurely were hung in a fishing net over a basin of hot warm water, as this was said to replicate the womb, providing the greatest comfort to the child. She was also renowned for her cure for eye infections, which involved Nan licking the eye.
Photo is from 1913.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Links July 5, 2019

By request I am experimenting with a weekly post of links to things I liked but didn't get around to writing about:

English gardens

The genetic case for an Aryan invasion of India in the Bronze Age: one, two.

Anti SJW humor at McSweeney's, one of the most liberal publications on the planet. Trend?

For the GOP, "There is only Trump."

Spitalfields Life tours the Chatham Royal Dockyard in London.

Building a robot to figure out the best way to skip rocks.

Cicadas high on fungus drugs won’t stop mating

"Credibilty is just an excuse to launch attacks."

Web site of the week: Dido of Carthage, a Tumblr devoted to classics, archaeology, and more recent art on classical themes.

The Rationalist Political Program

"Rationalist" Jeff Kauffman offered this list of policies he supported back in 2014 and other self-proclaimed rationalists have linked to it:
  • Single Payer Healthcare. Medicare for all, everyone has coverage. Give up on the pretense of charging people in proportion to risk. Unless we're willing to tell people "no" when they show up bleeding at the emergency room and can't pay, it's foolish to imagine we can limit coverage.
  • Build More Housing. A unit is a unit, and when there aren't enough units to go around prices go up and people get forced out. Overall people are leaving high wage states for cheap housing states; they can't afford to stay. To make housing more affordable, make it easier to build.
  • Legalize Drugs. Prohibition didn't work for alcohol, and it's not working for pot either. The states that have legalized it are doing well, though we'll know more soon. Probably legalize some other drugs too; probably not the hardest ones.
  • Jail People Less. We have way too many people in jail. Drug legalization would help, but we're far too willing to lock people up in general.
  • Less Military. Military action is incredibly expensive for what you get. Keep a smaller military, don't go starting wars, and prefer non-military solutions.
  • Give People Money. No more EBT, Section 8, Medicaid, student loans, school lunches, or other forms of restricted assistance. No more means testing. No more high marginal tax rates disincentivising work. Give every person rich and poor a minimum income, and charge every person the same income tax percentage from their first dollar earned.
  • No Minimum Wage. Once people have a guaranteed income they don't need minimum wages to protect them from exploitation. If someone wants to work and someone else wants to hire them, let them figure out what the rate should be.
  • Tax Land Value. Some wealth is mobile and will flee your jurisdiction if you try to tax it, but land isn't going anywhere. Tax the unimproved value of the land, promoting higher value uses of land and letting the taxes fall on the people who can most afford them.
  • Tax Harmful Things. Taxes reduce how much people consume, so tax things you want people to consume less of. Generally these are things with externalities: increase the tax until the cost paid includes the full social cost. Carbon taxes are a clear example.
  • Reduce Other Taxes. Get rid of sales tax, social security tax, property tax, and everything else you can. Sales taxes are regressive, social security tax only exists for historical political reasons, and land value tax replaces property tax. Keep income tax, maybe raise it, but make it a simple percentage. Guaranteed income progressivizes the taxation.
  • Fund Schools Federally. When we fund schools locally our best "public" school districts are really "private," restricted to the children of people rich enough to afford to live in superexpensive areas.
  • Let People In. Immigration is good for existing residents, and it's very good for new residents. The potential gains here are very large; stop turning people away.
  • Opt-Out Organ Donation. You don't need your organs when you die, but other people do. If you feel strongly about it you should be able to easily opt out, but if you don't care enough to fill out a form saying so then let your organs go on to save lives instead.
  • Randomize Everything. Test new policies before rolling them out to everyone. When person-to-person variation works, do that, otherwise pick states at random. For example, you could test single payer healthcare on a random half of people but testing changes to the minimum wage would be harmful if they applied to some people and not others who were direct competitors. 
Interesting list; it overlaps with libertarianism but is not the same as libertarianism, especially on health care.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Don Komarechka: Water Drops and Flowers

Fascinating macro photographs; more at My Modern Met.

David Anthony, "The Horse, the Wheel, and Language"

This review is going to be one of those where I tell you what this book says so you don't have to read it. Because while it is full of information, it is zero fun to read.

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Steppes Shaped the Modern World came out in 2007, just a few years before paleogenetics revolutionized the study of the European Bronze Age. It presents the archaeological case for the theory that the Indo-European languages were spread by Bronze Age people from the eastern European steppes who had mastered horse riding and lived at least partly as nomads. Their culture is called by archaeologists Yamnaya. I wanted to read the book because it is the most thorough treatment of this evidence in English, and because I wanted to see what sort of arguments dominated the field before genetics trumped them all.

Yamnaya burials

As I have mentioned several times before, it is really hard to write about archaeology. Archaeological arguments turn on questions like how much one set of pots resembles another set, how different one way of making stone arrowheads is from another way, and whether cultural change in a region is sudden or gradual, and to really answer  these questions you have do dig deep into the muck of pottery decoration, flint knapping, the calibration of radiocarbon dates, and the like. Plus, we have no idea what the people we study called themselves, so we dream up names for them based on the archaeological sites where they were first found. In Eastern Europe these are unpronounceable mishmashes like Starčevo–Körös–Criş or Krivodol-Sălcuţa-Bubanj. These days archaeologists are also very interested in climate change over time and thus our work fills up with arcana like Bond Events and the Piora Oscillation.

The basic problem with David Anthony's book is that while he tried to make it accessible to non-archaeologists he was unwilling to jettison the vast weight of archaeological terminology, I suppose because he also wanted it to seem professional to his peers. So a lot of the text looks like this:
Middle Bug-Dniester sites (Samchin phase), dates about 5600-5400 BCE, contained more domesticated pigs and cattle: at Soroki I/level 1a, a Middle-phase site, cattle and swine make up 49% of the 213 bones recovered (32% MNI).

So, anyway, what does archaeology tell us about those Bronze Age steppes people who had such a huge impact on the future of Eurasia?

First, they arose in a connected world, with trading links that spanned hundred of miles (at least). In particular they were connected to nearby farming peoples, especially the fascinating cultures now commonly called Old Europe. From around 6,000 to 4,000 BC parts of Southeastern Europe were occupied by people who built large towns with impressive walls and buried their leaders with impressive assortments of copper and gold. (Burial from Varna in Bulgaria above.)

They made charming figurines of women or goddesses in fancy dresses and other cool things.

The genetic ancestors of the Yamnaya people were mostly the foragers who had lived in Ukraine for millennia, but they had adopted farming and the raising of cattle, sheep, and goats from neighbors, and they seem to have taken in some genes from them as well.

Stone mace head in the shape of a horse's head, Yamnaya culture

One thing they probably did for themselves is domesticate horses. The date of horse domestication is much disputed, and some experts think it took place as early as 6,000 BC. The current view is that horses were domesticated at least twice, once in Kazakhstan by the Botai people around 3800 BC and then again by the Yamnaya people's ancestors around 3600 BC, but that may well change. Horses were fundamental to Yamnaya life, prominent in their iconography and rituals, as well as in the Indo-European religion as we reconstruct it.

Yamnaya culture proper arose around 3300 BC when the people of the steppes region began living in wagons. Wagons transformed life on the steppes; with wagons whole communities could stay on the high steppes for months at a time, easily bringing along enough goods for housekeeping as they followed their grazing herds. Settlements became less important. Instead, to mark their territories the herders began building great burial mounds (kurgans) on prominent points and burying their chiefs inside them. Their herds consisted of sheep whose long hair could be spun into wool – something created by human breeding – goats, cattle, and horses. Their diet was mostly meat and dairy products, with greens and some grain.

Depiction of a war wagon from the Standard of Ur

Incidentally nobody knows who invented the wheeled wagon. Some say it happened in Mesopotamia, others that it happened on the steppes. Radiocarbon dating has not settled the question because the dates for the earliest wagons in each place are about the same, suggesting that whoever invented them the idea spread very quickly.

Anyway wagons allowed the Yamnaya people to spread out across the steppes, which in turn allowed them to accumulate huge herds of animals. Their chiefs became rich. They developed some of the characteristics we associate with steppes nomads: they were violent, patriarchal, and much given to raiding. Sometimes they stole horses or other animals from each other, and sometimes they raided settled people to steal things to make their lives on the steppes easier. Of course sometimes they also traded with settled people; almost all nomads in history maintained trading relationships with settled communities. In fact some of the Yamnaya people still were settled in farming communities along the great rivers of the region.

Kernosovsky Stela, found in a Yamnaya kurgan

From language studies we know that they had poetry based on patterns of short and long syllables, as in Homeric Greek, and that these poems included both stories and praise poems directed to gods or human leaders. Their pantheon was led by a Thunder God and included a war god, a goddess of the dawn, and divine twins closely associated with horses.

Around 3100 BC the Yamnaya began to spread. They moved southwest into the Danube valley, where their burial mounds are found adjacent to older settlements; there are a few sites that had two graveyards side by side for a while, one in the old local style and one for the Yamnaya leaders.

Corded Ware pots from Germany, c. 2000 BC

They moved northwest into central Europe, where they fused with an older culture to create a vast culture zone called Corded Ware that stretched from Ukraine to Holland. (See map at top of the post. Besides the cord-marked pots the distinctive artifact of this culture was stone and copper battle axes, and before the Nazis they were often called the Battle Ax People. After the Nazis archaeology went pacifist and naming cultures after weapons became a no-no.)

They moved east into central Asia, where their descendants created a chariot-riding culture called Sintashta that seems to be the progenitor of both Sanskrit and Persian culture; most archaeologists think the early Indian Vedas are set in central Asia among the Sintashta people. The latest genetic studies show that Sintashta people included some genes from central European farmers, so we now think they arose from the eastern Corded Ware culture rather than directly from Yamnaya.

Anthony thinks these early migrations closely map the later development of Indo-European languages. In his view the Corded Ware people spoke proto-Germanic, the Sintashta people spoke Indo-Aryan (the hypothetical ancestor of Persian and Sanskrit), the people who migrated up the Danube spoke proto-Celtic and proto-Italic, and those who settled in southeastern Europe spoke proto-Slavic. (Proto-Greek is hard to fit in, because it resembles Indo-Aryan more than any of the other western tongues.)

The impressive thing about this archaeological synthesis is that it has been decisively confirmed by paleogenetics. Sometimes it seems as if the things archaeologists dig out of the ground might mean anything, and that the stories about them might be sheer fantasy. But the story of horse-riding, battle ax-wielding conquerors who rode out of the steppes into Europe, Iran and India has turned out to be true. Many of the details remain to be worked out, but the basic shape of the change now seems certain. So all credit to the archaeologists who first understood this vital event in human history: Marija Gimbutas, J.P. Mallory, David Anthony, and hundreds of Russian and Ukrainian scholars whose names remain completely unknown in the west. Sometimes scholarship works.