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Posts Tagged ‘civilization

“Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice?”*…

Wild rice

Rice is the most valuable agricultural commodity on the planet. Hundreds of millions of metric tons of it are produced every year, an amount valued at more than $300 billion every year. Billions of people around the world rely on it as a staple of their diets, and have done so for millennia all over East, Southeast, and South Asia, and beyond.

But the rice that’s so popular today has a distinct beginning as a cultivated crop, a beginning that arrived somewhere along the Yangzi River more than 10,000 years ago. (The rice traditionally grown in West Africa, and which was brought across the Atlantic by enslaved people and merchants in the early modern period, stems from a separate domestication event. It’s not as productive as its Asian cousin, and so is less widely cultivated now.)

Ten millennia in the past, rice grew a bit beyond its current range thanks to slightly warmer and wetter climatic conditions at the dawn of the Holocene. The people living around the Yangzi River, and slightly to the north of there, were quite happy to use the stands of wild rice growing in their homeland. Grasses might not seem like the most natural food source for people to exploit, because it requires a great deal of processing (grinding, cooking, etc.) to make it edible. As part of a forager’s diet, however, it offered advantages: It was plentiful, it was reliable when other food sources like wild game came up short, and if properly stored, it could last for years.

Around the Yellow River, northern China’s key waterway, rice didn’t grow. Millet, however, grew in abundant quantities. As their counterparts had done further to the south with rice, the inhabitants of northern China learned to process it. A couple of thousand years of experimentation led from simply collecting wild grasses wherever they were found to planting wild varieties in gardens and fields, then intentionally and unintentionally selecting for traits to make those grasses more productive and less likely to fall off the stalk. Farmers created their crops, the ancestors of the foods we eat today, and the increasing viability of the crops created farming as a way of life.

For a variety of reasons, successful farmers tend to have large numbers of children, who expand outward from their core areas, taking their way of life with them. This process of demic diffusion defines most centers of early agricultural innovation around the world. Farming begets more farmers, who tend to spread out. For this reason, Neolithic China – an environment home to not one but two distinct agricultural traditions – produced a stunning diversity of early farming cultures. Starting around 7000 years ago, after 5000 BC, these farming cultures exploded in numbers, scale, and complexity. They filled up new territories and built more and larger villages. Towns followed, and leaders in the form of chieftains and kings. Social hierarchies and inequality defined these new Neolithic societies, distinctions of rank that could be inherited across generations.

These were the foundations on which organized states, writing, and what we might eventually call “Chinese civilization” built, many thousands of years down the road…

Jared Diamond has argued that the advent of agriculture was “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race“; in any event, it was a watershed moment. Patrick Wyman explores the dawn of agriculture and of the social complexity it spawned: “Neolithic China.”

* “Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice? One takes away a million lives, the other saves a hundred times as many.” – N.K. Jemisin, How Long ’til Black Future Month?

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As we contemplate cultivation, we might recall that it was on this date in 2017 that the U.N. General Assembly adopted 2019-2028 as the Decade of Family Farming. This program aims to serve as a framework for developing and promoting better public policies on family farming– an opportunity to contribute to an end to hunger and poverty as well as to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Here’s something that each of us can do to help the neediest.

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“When angry, count four. When very angry, swear”*…

Annibale Carracci – The Cyclops Polyphemus (detail)

Anger, like other emotions, has a history.

It is not merely that the causes of anger may change, or attitudes toward its expression. The nature of the emotion itself may alter from one society to another. In classical antiquity, for example, anger was variously viewed as proper to a free citizen (an incapacity to feel anger was regarded as slavish); as an irrational, savage passion that should be extirpated entirely, and especially dangerous when joined to power; as justifiable in a ruler, on the model of God’s righteous anger in the Bible; and as blasphemously ascribed to God, who is beyond all human emotions.

Profound social and cultural changes—the transition from small city-states to the vast reach of the Roman Empire, the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of Rome—lay behind these shifting views, but all the positions had their defenders and were fiercely debated. This rich heritage offers a wealth of insights into the nature of anger, as well as evidence of its social nature; it is not just a matter of biology….

The history of anger– indeed, the very fact that it has a history– sheds light on the elevated emotional climate of today: “Repertoires of Rage.”

* Mark Twain

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As we wrestle with wrath, we might recall that in 1752 in Britain and throughout the British Empire (which included the American colonies) yesterday was September 2. The “jump” was occasioned by a switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, as a product of which almost all of “western civilization” was then on Pope Gregory’s time; Sweden (and Finland) switched the following year.

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Written by LW

September 14, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable”*…

 

FL covid

 

Data visualizations that make no sense...

cheese

weather

flights

work from home

More at “WTF Visualizations.”

* Mark Twain

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As we celebrate clarity, we might spare a thought for the mathematician, biologist, historian of science, literary critic, poet, and inventor Jacob Bronowski; he died on this date in 1974.  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, a survey of the history of science–  from rock tools to relativity– and its place in civilizations, is still an extraordinary treat.  It’s available at libraries, on DVD, or (occasionally) on streaming services.

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“A culture, we all know, is made by its cities”*…

 

c-atalho-yu-k_after_the_first_excavations_by_james_mellaart_and_his_team

Çatalhöyük after the first excavations

 

Welcome to one of the mothers of all cities, Çatalhöyük, a community on the Anatolian plane that is now part of Turkey. … [Nine thousand] years ago … Çatalhöyük consisted of attached dwellings covering 33 acres. … The city was so new back then, they hadn’t invented the street yet — or the window. So the only way you could get into your apartment was to walk over your neighbors’ rooftops. A ladder was propped against the skylight opening of your apartment.

Çatalhöyük lacked something much more significant than streets and windows. There was no palace here. The bitter price of inequality that the invention of agriculture cost human society had yet to be paid. Here, there was no dominance of the few over the many. There was no one percent attaining lavish wealth while most everyone else merely subsisted or failed to subsist. The ethos of sharing was still alive and well. There is evidence of violence against women and children, but the weakest ate the same food that the strongest ate. Scientific analyses of the nutrition of the women, men, and children who lived here show a remarkable similarity, and everyone lived in the same kind of home. … Dominating [every] room was a giant head of an auroch with massive pointed horns, mounted on the richly painted wall. The walls were lavishly festooned with the teeth, bones, and skins of other animals.

The apartments at Çatalhöyük have a distinctly modern look. The floor plan is highly utilitarian and modular, uniform from dwelling to dwelling, with cubicles for work, dining, entertaining, and sleep. Bare wood beams support the ceiling. It was home for an extended family of seven to ten people…

More of this excerpt from Ann Druyan’s Cosmos: Possible Worlds at “The First Proto-City.” (Via the ever-illuminating delanceyplace.com)

* Derek Walcott

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As we appraise our antecedents, we might spare a thought for Muhammad; he died on this date in 632.  The founder of Islam, he is considered by its adherents to have been a prophet– the final prophet– sent to present and confirm the monotheistic teachings preached previously by Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.  He united Arabia into a single Muslim polity, with the Quran (the transcriptions of divine messages that he received), as well as his other teachings and practices, forming the basis of Islamic religious belief.

220px-Mohammed_receiving_revelation_from_the_angel_Gabriel

Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. From the manuscript Jami’ al-tawarikh by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, 1307

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Written by LW

June 8, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Civilization is a race between disaster and education”*…

 

pre-human

 

One of the creepier conclusions drawn by scientists studying the Anthropocene—the proposed epoch of Earth’s geologic history in which humankind’s activities dominate the globe—is how closely today’s industrially induced climate change resembles conditions seen in past periods of rapid temperature rise.

“These ‘hyperthermals,’ the thermal-maximum events of prehistory, are the genesis of this research,” says Gavin Schmidt, climate modeler and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “Whether the warming was caused by humans or by natural forces, the fingerprints—the chemical signals and tracers that give evidence of what happened then—look very similar.”

The canonical example of a hyperthermal is the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a 200,000-year period that occurred some 55.5 million years ago when global average temperatures rose by 5 to 8 degrees Celsius (about 9 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit). Schmidt has pondered the PETM for his entire career, and it was on his mind one day in his office last year when the University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank paid him a visit.

Frank was there to discuss the idea of studying global warming from an “astrobiological perspective”—that is, investigating whether the rise of an alien industrial civilization on an exoplanet might necessarily trigger climate changes similar to those we see during Earth’s own Anthropocene. But almost before Frank could describe how one might search for the climatic effects of industrial “exocivilizations” on newly discovered planets, Schmidt caught him up short with a surprising question: “How do you know we’re the only time there’s been a civilization on our own planet?”

Frank considered a moment before responding with a question of his own: “Could we even tell if there had been an industrial civilization [long before this one]?”

Their subsequent attempt to address both questions has yielded a provocative paper on the possibility Earth might have spawned more than one technological society during its 4.5-billion-year history. And if indeed some such culture arose on Earth in the murky depths of geologic time, how might scientists today discern signs of that incredible development? Or, as the paper put it: “If an industrial civilization had existed on Earth many millions of years prior to our own era, what traces would it have left and would they be detectable today?”…

The entire fascinating piece at “Could an Industrial Prehuman Civilization Have Existed on Earth before Ours?

* H. G. Wells

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As we ponder predecessors, we might recall hat it was on this date in 1974 that Nature published a paper by F. Sherwood Rowland documenting his discovery that chlorofluorocarbons (like freon in aerosols and refrigeration units) contribute to ozone depletion.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA source

 

Written by LW

September 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

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