(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘civilization

“Food is culture, habit, craving, and identity”*…

 

Brian Fagan is an archaeologist, a profession that we associate with dust and soil and stone, but here he attempts to capture the history of fishing in ancient civilization. It is not just fish that elude the historian: fisherfolk have always lived on the margins — of land and in recorded history (and still do). ‘To a scholar,’ writes Fagan, ‘the illiterate fishing people of the past are elusive, and their trade is a challenging puzzle of clues.’ So assembling a history of fishing means, well, fishing among archaeology, anthropology, history, marine biology and oceanography and paleoclimatology — ‘to mention only a few’.

Fagan has to fish deeply sometimes and into unexpected places. He investigates the ears of several-thousand-year-old men buried in what is now Israel, which show damage consistent with diving in cold, deep water. He uncovers the giant middens of mollusc shells that appear all over the planet, because though molluscs yield a tiny amount of protein — they are ‘small meat packages sealed in heavy inedible shells’ — they are easy to catch. ‘To knock a limpet from a rock,’ wrote Darwin, ‘does not require even cunning, that lowest power of the mind.’ Darwin was wrong: the ability to subsist on shellfish allowed humans to live through the lean seasons. It enabled survival.

Fishing, writes Fagan, “has created the modern world”…

The ways in which fishing– more than agriculture and husbandry– were central to the rise of civilization, from social organization to technology: “Holy mackerel! Civilization begins with fishing.”

* Jonathan Safran Foer

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As we spread our nets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude switched on the first public display of neon lights– two large (39 foot long), bright red neon tubes– at the Paris Motor Show.  Over the next decade, Claude lit much of Paris.  Neon came to America in 1923 when Earl Anthony purchased signage from Claude, then transported it to Los Angeles, where Anthony installed it at his Packard dealership… and (literally) stopped traffic.

Claude in his lab, 1913

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Written by LW

December 3, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs”*…

 

The 11,000-year-old Göbekli Tepe settlement in what is now southern Turkey

The emergence of state authority was a logical consequence of the move to settled agriculture, or so we thought. Until recently, we also assumed that ancient peoples welcomed the advantages of this way of life as well as the growth of state leadership, since it was key to the development of culture, crafts and civil order.

Over the past 50 years, though, more and more cracks have appeared in this picture. We now know settled agriculture existed for several thousand years before the emergence of the city states of the Near East and Asia. In the past few years, archaeologists have been stunned to find 11,000-year-old structures such as those at Göbekli Tepe, in what is now southern Turkey. These were built by peoples who foraged, and who also developed specialised skills, both artistic and artisanal.

This is a surprise, and leaves researchers busily trying to get the story straight – something that really matters for a number of reasons. Traditional definitions of the state and its authority hinged on the right to raise taxes, and on its legal monopoly on coercing its people, from punishing and imprisoning them to waging formal war.

But as James Scott points out, roughly between 8000 BC and 4000 BC we find settled agricultural communities with developing craft skills – yet no evidence of anything much by way of state authority.

This also poses a key question, one which resonates in the 21st century, about whether there is a necessary link between state power and community life.

Scott is a political science researcher at Yale University who has stepped out of his academic comfort zone to grapple with the new archaeological reality. Against the Grain delivers not only a darker story, but also a broad understanding of the forces that shaped the formation of states and why they collapsed – right up to the industrial age…

In the interest of understanding history (lest we repeat it), “The real roots of early city states may rip up the textbooks.”

* Tony Kushner

As we try to learn from the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1917 that Margaret B. Owen won her fourth speed-typing title with a world-record 143 words per minute.

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Written by LW

October 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I think it would be a good idea”*…

 

Culture – like religion and nation and race – provides a source of identity for contemporary human beings. And, like all three, it can become a form of confinement, conceptual mistakes underwriting moral ones. Yet all of them can also give contours to our freedom. Social identities connect the small scale where we live our lives alongside our kith and kin with larger movements, causes, and concerns. They can make a wider world intelligible, alive, and urgent. They can expand our horizons to communities larger than the ones we personally inhabit. But our lives must make sense, too, at the largest of all scales. We live in an era in which our actions, in the realm of ideology as in the realm of technology, increasingly have global effects. When it comes to the compass of our concern and compassion, humanity as a whole is not too broad a horizon.

We live with seven billion fellow humans on a small, warming planet. The cosmopolitan impulse that draws on our common humanity is no longer a luxury; it has become a necessity…

From “There is no such thing as western civilisation,” an excerpt from the edited version of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s BBC Reith lecture, “Culture,” the fourth part of the series Mistaken Identities.

* Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization (widely quoted, but possibly apocryphal)

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As we take E.M. Forster’s advice (Howard’s End), “only connect, we might send recently-reformed birthday wishes to Augustine of Hippo, AKA St. Augustine; he was born on this date in 354. Augustine famously came to his faith later in life, after a youth filled with worldly experience… including a long engagement (to an underaged girl– to wit the length), for which he left the concubine who was the love of his life, “The One”– and which he broke off just before the wedding.

After his embrace of the faith, Augustine became a theologian and philosopher whose writings (e.g., The City of God and Confessions) were hugely influential in the development of… western civilization.

Imagined portrait by Philippe de Champaigne (17th cen.)

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Written by LW

November 13, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”*…

 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Triumph of Death” c. 1562

 

Researchers at Oxford University have compiled a “scientific assessment about the possibility of oblivion”

The scientists from the Global Challenges Foundation and the Future of Humanity Institute used their research to draw up a list of the 12 most likely ways human civilization could end on planet earth.

“[This research] is about how a better understanding of the magnitude of the challenges can help the world to address the risks it faces, and can help to create a path towards more sustainable development,” the study’s authors said.

“It is a scientific assessment about the possibility of oblivion, certainly, but even more it is a call for action based on the assumption that humanity is able to rise to challenges and turn them into opportunities.”

* Joesph Heller, Catch-22

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As we count the ways, we might send heavenly birthday greetings to Nicolaus Copernicus. the Renaissance polyglot and polymath– he was a canon lawyer, a mathematician, a physician,  a classics scholar, a translator, a governor, a diplomat, and an economist– best remembered as an astronomer ; he was born on this date in 1473.  Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres; published just before his death in 1543), with its heliocentric account of the solar system, is often regarded as the beginning both of modern astronomy and of the scientific revolution.

Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind – for by this admission so many things vanished in mist and smoke! What became of our Eden, our world of innocence, piety and poetry; the testimony of the senses; the conviction of a poetic – religious faith? No wonder his contemporaries did not wish to let all this go and offered every possible resistance to a doctrine which in its converts authorized and demanded a freedom of view and greatness of thought so far unknown, indeed not even dreamed of.

– Goethe

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So many books! So little time!…

Daniel Rourke– a contributor to the terrific Three Quarks Daily, and proprietor of the equally-nifty MachineMacine— reminds us that the problems of coping with information overload are nothing new…

Agostino Ramelli’s Rotary Reader

In 1588, the Italian Engineer Agostino Ramelli described a novel invention to facilitate the reading of multiple books at once:

A beautiful and ingenious machine, which is very useful and convenient to every person who takes pleasure in study, especially those who are suffering from indisposition or are subject to gout: for with this sort of machine a man can see and read a great quantity of books, without moving his place: besides, it has this fine convenience, which is, of occupying a little space in the place where it is set, as any person of understanding can appreciate from the drawing.

The precursor, no doubt, to internet surfing… Gout beget Carpal Tunnel Syndrome beget Muscle Atrophy beget Internet Addiction Disorder. Will mankind stop at nothing in the pursuit of pure information?!?

As we meditate on multi-tasking, we might wish an admiring and grateful Happy Birthday to one of the most accomplished multi-taskers of all time, the mathematician, biologist, historian of science, literary critic, poet and inventor Jacob Bronowski; he was born on this date in 1908.  Bronowski is probably best remembered as the writer (and host) of the epochal 1973 BBC television documentary series (and accompanying book), The Ascent of Man (the title of which was a play on the title of Darwin’s second book on evolution, The Descent of Man)… the thirteen-part series (which is available at libraries, on DVD, or Netflix), a survey of the history of science–  from rock tools to relativity– and its place in civilizations, is still an extraordinary treat.

Bronowski

 

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