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“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation”*…



You take a flight from New York to London. Thousands and perhaps millions of people — including ticket agents, baggage handlers, security personnel, air traffic controllers, pilots, and flight attendants, but behind the scenes also airline administrators, meteorologists, engineers, aircraft designers, and many others — cooperated to get you there safely. No one stole your luggage, no one ate your in-flight food, and no one tried to sit in your seat. In fact, the hundreds of people on the airplane, despite being mainly strangers, behaved in an entirely civilized and respectful manner throughout.

For most of us in the industrialized world, every aspect of our lives is utterly reliant on thousands of such cooperative interactions with millions of individuals from hundreds of countries, the vast majority of whom we never see, don’t know, and indeed never knew existed. Just how exceptional in nature such intricate coordination is — with many unrelated individuals performing many different roles — remains hard to appreciate. Notwithstanding the familiar examples of ants, bees, and other species known for coordinating their behavior, largely with relatives, nothing remotely as complex as human cooperation is found in any of the other millions of species on the planet. And although modern marvels like air travel are very striking examples of large-scale cooperation, human societies have engaged in impressive feats of organized cooperation for many thousands of years. Carving terraces out of mountains, planting and harvesting crops, building granaries, and managing city-states all involved extraordinary levels of cooperation among community members. Hunter-gatherers also coordinated their actions in cooperative endeavors such as group hunting and foraging, as well as through sharing food, labor, and childcare, and when hostility or disputes with other societies arose. How is it that humans came to be the most cooperative species on earth? And how can understanding our evolutionary history help to explain human cultural, cooperative achievements, whether technological or artistic, linguistic or moral?…

Find out at “On the Origin of Cooperation.”

* Bertrand Russell


As we share and share alike, we might send foresightful birthday greetings to Erasmus Darwin; he was born on this date in 1731.  Erasmus was an accomplished doctor (he declined an offer to be personal physician to Charles III).  He was also a restless inventor, devising both a copying machine and a speaking machine to impress his friends (inventions he shared rather than patenting).  But he is better remembered as a key thinker in the “Midlands Enlightenment”– a founder of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and author of (among other works) The Botanic Garden, a poem that anticipates the Big Bang theory in its description of an explosion, a “mass” which “starts into a million suns,” and Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, which contained one of the first formal theories of evolution… one that foreshadowed the theories of Erasmus’ reader– and grandson– Charles.



Written by LW

December 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Three meals a day are a highly advanced institution”*…



The typical American “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” pattern is a product of the Industrial Revolution.

Early U.S. dining habits were shaped by those of English colonists. And, as Anne Murcott, a British sociologist specializing in food, writes, for centuries, up until about 1800, most English people ate two, not three, meals a day. The larger of these was often called dinner, but it wasn’t typically an evening meal. During the reign of Henry VII, from 1485 to 1509, the day’s big meal normally took place around 11 am.

In both England and the U.S., dinner became the large afternoon meal for farm families—which is to say most families—in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It might be preceded by breakfast—the meal to break the nighttime fast—and followed by some kind of light meal or meals, variously called supper or tea.

Lunch is the newest addition to the triad of U.S. meals. Back in 1968, the English-language scholar Anne Wallace-Hadrill traced the etymology of the word itself, along with its close relation, “luncheon.” One possible origin of the words is from “lump.” A 1617 source mentions “eating a great lumpe of bread and butter with a lunchen of cheese.” In 1755, one dictionary writer defined lunch or luncheon as “as much food as one’s hand can hold,” but not as a specific meal. Somewhere in the first half of the nineteenth century, the word “lump” seems to have merged with “nuncheon,” a light midday meal (with the “nun” coming from “noon.”)

As workers and kids left the farms for factories and schools over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, eating patterns shifted. Workers and children might shove a lunch of bread into their pocket to eat during the day or return home for a quick luncheon, but dinner now had to wait for the end of the day, creating the set of mealtimes we know so well…

The origin of the familiar breakfast-lunch-dinner triad: “Why Do Americans Eat Three Meals a Day?

* E.C. Hayes, Introduction to the Study of Sociology (1913)


As we dig in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1999 that the Russian Duma (its legislature) voted 273-1 to pass an animal rights bill that prohibited Russians from eating their “animal companions”– their pets.  Shortly thereafter the newly-elected President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, vetoed the bill.

group-of-pets-together-15229056 source


Written by LW

December 1, 2018 at 1:01 am

“For most of human history, ‘literature’… has been narrated, not written — heard, not read”*…



Bradshaw rock paintings help Aboriginal people record knowledge to memory


In preliterate societies, oral stories were likewise relied upon as necessary and meaningful—and they conveyed a range of knowledge and human experiences. In some instances, particularly in harsh environments like Australia where certain information was key to survival, rigid methods of intergenerational knowledge transfer were in place. Essential knowledge, such as that for finding water and shelter, or for knowing what food was present where, was passed down along patriarchal lines but routinely cross-checked for accuracy and completeness between those lines.

But knowledge was also exchanged from generation to generation through song, dance, and performance. Geography and history in Aboriginal Australian societies were told as people moved along songlines, which were remembered routes across the land. Their memories were prompted by particular landforms. Even ancient rock art may have been created as memory aids, prompts to help storytellers recall particular pieces of information. Today many Aboriginal groups keep alive their ancient memories of songlines.

Such oral traditions could be viewed as “books” that were kept in the mental libraries of those who had actually heard and memorized them. Knowledge was passed on by “reading” those books out loud to young people, some of whom memorized them and would later “read” them to others. And so these ancient stories are still alive today—from memorable events like the formation of Crater Lake or the drowning of land along the Australian fringe to information about the names of places and their associations.

Now pause to consider what this means.

Humanity has direct memories of events that occurred 10 millennia ago…

Evidence gathered in recent years shows that some ancient narratives contain remarkably reliable records of real events– records that have survived for thousands of years: “The Oldest True Stories in the World.”

See also: “How oral cultures memorise so much information” (the source of the image above).

* Angela Carter


As we sing along, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that The Aboriginal Protection Act was enacted in Britain’s colony of Victoria– Australia, as now we know it.  At a time when democratic reforms were being introduced for most of the population, (including the extension of the franchise from the wealthy to all adult males and the provision of free public education), Aboriginal people were losing their freedom: pursuant to the Act, the government developed controls over where Aboriginal people could live and work, what they could do, and who they could meet or marry.– and most horrifyingly, it removed Aboriginal children from their families, starting the process that created the Stolen Generation.  Still, the Aboriginal oral tradition has survived.

apa source


“The more we claim to discriminate between cultures and customs as good and bad, the more completely do we identify ourselves with those we would condemn”*…



A new paper, “Coming Apart? Cultural Distances in the United States over Time” aims to see if people of different races, genders, and incomes have become more culturally distant from each other over the past few decades…

The authors use a simple metric for this: how easy is it to predict who you are? For example, if I know your five favorite TV shows, how well does that predict whether you’re male or black or high income? If different groups watched similar shows in the past but now they all watch different shows, this kind of prediction becomes more accurate because we’re moving apart in our tastes. But it turns out we aren’t. The basic conclusion of the paper is that nothing much has happened:


For the most part, these lines are pretty flat. For example, take a look at the red line in the top left panel. It represents the consumption pattern of rich vs. poor, and it’s around 0.9. This means that the rich and poor are very different in the products they buy, but also that they’ve always been very different. The size of the difference, or “cultural distance,” is about the same as it’s always been…

The biggest changes have been in gender issues, party affiliation, religion, and confidence in institutions. This isn’t surprising, nor is the fact that the divergences have been relatively large, since ideology is self-selected. The increasing political polarization of Americans has been a topic of endless discussion over the past decade, and it’s a real thing.

[And] on a less serious side, here are the products [see chart at the head of this post] that most distinguish whether or not you’re white…

Read on for more detail on the ways in which “We’re About as Different From Each Other As We’ve Always Been.”

C.f. also: “What we buy can be used to predict our politics, race or education — sometimes with more than 90 percent accuracy.”

* “The more we claim to discriminate between cultures and customs as good and bad, the more completely do we identify ourselves with those we would condemn. By refusing to consider as human those who seem to us to be the most “savage” or “barbarous” of their representatives, we merely adopt one of their own characteristic attitudes. The barbarian is, first and foremost, the man who believes in barbarism.”  ― Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race et histoire


As we note that what’s true latitudinally is arguably also true through time, we might send magical birthday greetings to John Dee, the  mathematician, astronomer, and geographer who was a consultant to Elizabeth I– and who was born on this date in 1527. Dee was a translator of Euclid, and a friend of both Gerardus Mercator and Tycho Brahe; he revolutionized navigation by applying geometry; and he coined the word “Brittannia” and the phrase “British Empire.”  He had a tremendous impact on architecture and theater– and was the model for Shakespeare’s Prospero.

“So how come such a significant philosopher– one of very few in a country then considered an intellectual backwater– barely features in British history books?  Because of his notorious links with magic” (observed BBC’s Discover).  Dee was indeed involved (most heavily, toward the end of his life) in the Hermetic Arts: alchemy, astrology, divination, Hermetic philosophy and Rosicrucianism (the Protestant answer to the Jesuits, which Dee founded).  Perhaps most (in)famously, Dee put a hex on the Spanish Armada, a spell widely credited at the time for the misfortunes that befell the Iberian fleet (as readers may recall).

In a way that presaged Isaac Newton, Dee’s work spanned the world’s of science and magic at just the point that those world’s began to separate.

220px-John_Dee_Ashmolean source



Written by LW

July 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“All food is comfort food… maybe I just like to chew”*…


To understand the evolution of macaroni and cheese is to realize that pursuit of the “cheapest protein possible” has been a longstanding quest of the American food system. At times, cheese itself has shared a similar trajectory. Cheesemaking, which began 10,000 years ago, was originally about survival for a farm family or community: taking a very perishable protein (milk) and transforming it into something less perishable (cheese) so that there would be something to eat at a later date. Many of us today think of cheese in the context of tradition, flavor, or saving family farms, but a basic goal—whether a producer is making farm-made cheddar or concocting the cheeseless dairy product Velveeta—has always been getting as much edible food from a gallon of milk as possible…

Macaroni and cheese has been served as long as there has been a United States of America, but in a 20th-century economy driven by convenience packaging and industrialization, it was elevated to an ideal American food: Pasta and processed cheese are very cheap to make and easy to ship and store, and they certainly fill up a belly…

The story of a the versatile dish, popularized by Thomas Jefferson, that satisfied the quest for “the cheapest protein possible”: “A Brief History of America’s Appetite for Macaroni and Cheese.”

* Lewis Black


As we dig in, we might spare a thought for Jimmy Ray Dean; he died on this date in 2010.  First successful as a country singer (he’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame), he later found success as an actor (as Fess Parker’s sidekick in Daniel Boone), a television host (The Jimmy Dean Show, which introduced Jim Henson and the Muppets to the wider world), and as a businessman.  With his brother Don, he founded Jimmy Dean Sausage Company, for which he served for many years as its TV pitchman.

Jimmy on the right



Written by LW

June 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”*…


A New Orleans levee, lit from above [source]

400,000 years ago, humans and Neanderthals discovered fire. This ignited a relationship between people and photons that changed the course of mankind—and continues to evolve to this day…

* Martin Luther King, Jr.


As we remove our sunglasses, we might spare a thought for Roger Bacon; he died on this date in 1292.  A philosopher and Franciscan friar, Bacon was one of the first to propose mathematics and experimentation as appropriate methods of science.  Working in mathematics, astronomy, physics, alchemy, and languages, he was particularly impactful in optics: he elucidated the principles of refraction, reflection, and spherical aberration, and described spectacles, which soon thereafter came into use. He developed many mathematical results concerning lenses, proposed mechanically propelled ships, carriages, and flying machines, and used a camera obscura to observe eclipses of the Sun.  And he was the first European give a detailed description of the process of making gunpowder.

He began his career at Oxford, then lectured for a time at Paris, where his skills as a pedagogue earned him the title Doctor Mirabilis, or “wonderful teacher.”  He stopped teaching when he became a Franciscan.  But his scientific work continued, despite his Order’s restrictions on activity and publication, as Bacon enjoyed the protection and patronage of Pope Clement…  until, on Clement’s death, he was placed under house arrest in Oxford, where he continued his studies, but was unable to publish and communicate with fellow investigators.

Statue of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum





Written by LW

June 11, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.”*…


Art work by Banksy (title unknown). Source: Flickr

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications…

An important essay from David Graeber and David Wengrow: “How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened).”

* Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


As we rethink our roots, we might spare a thought for W. Lloyd Warner; he died on this date in 1970.  A sociologist and anthropologist, he is remembered for his studies of social class structure, in which he was a pioneer in applying anthropology research methods to the study of contemporary urban social communities.  Probably best-remebered for his (5 volume) study Yankee City, he was the first sociologist to use a six-fold classification scheme in attributing social class: Warner recognized three distinct groups – upper, middle and lower classes – each sub-divided into upper and lower sections… a rubric still very much in use.

An empiricist in a time when the social disciplines were increasingly theoretical, fascinated with economic and social inequality in a time when Americans were eager to deny its significance, and implicitly skeptical of the possibilities of legislating social change at a time when many social scientists were eager to be policymakers, Warner’s work was unfashionable in its time.  His interest in communities — when the social science mainstream was stressing the importance of urbanization — and religion — when the fields’ leaders were aggressively secularist — also helped to marginalize him.  But recently, more positive assessments of his work have emerged (e.g., Grant McCracken‘s, here).



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