The vulnerability of monolingual Americans in an English-speaking world

Ivan Krastev writes: In our increasingly Anglophone world, Americans have become nakedly transparent to English speakers everywhere, yet the world remains bafflingly and often frighteningly opaque to monolingual Americans. While the world devours America’s movies and follows its politics closely, Americans know precious little about how non-Americans think and live. Americans have never heard of other countries’ movie stars and have only the vaguest notions of what their political conflicts are about.

This gross epistemic asymmetry is a real weakness. When WikiLeaks revealed the secret cables of the American State Department or leaked the emails of the Clinton campaign, it became a global news sensation and a major embarrassment for American diplomacy. Leaking Chinese diplomatic cables or Russian officials’ emails could never become a worldwide human-interest story, simply because only a relative handful of non-Chinese or non-Russians could read them, let alone make sense of them. [Continue reading…]

Although I’m pessimistic about the prospects of the meek inheriting the earth, the bi-lingual are in a very promising position. And white Americans should never forget, this is after all a country with a Spanish name. As for where I stand personally, I’m with the bi-lingual camp in spirit even if my own claim to be bi-lingual is a bit tenuous — an English-speaker who understands American-English but speaks British-English; does that count?


Where did the first farmers live? Looking for answers in DNA

Carl Zimmer writes: Beneath a rocky slope in central Jordan lie the remains of a 10,000-year-old village called Ain Ghazal, whose inhabitants lived in stone houses with timber roof beams, the walls and floors gleaming with white plaster.

Hundreds of people living there worshiped in circular shrines and made haunting, wide-eyed sculptures that stood three feet high. They buried their cherished dead under the floors of their houses, decapitating the bodies in order to decorate the skulls.

But as fascinating as this culture was, something else about Ain Ghazal intrigues archaeologists more: It was one of the first farming villages to have emerged after the dawn of agriculture.

Around the settlement, Ain Ghazal farmers raised barley, wheat, chickpeas and lentils. Other villagers would leave for months at a time to herd sheep and goats in the surrounding hills.

Sites like Ain Ghazal provide a glimpse of one of the most important transitions in human history: the moment that people domesticated plants and animals, settled down, and began to produce the kind of society in which most of us live today.

But for all that sites like Ain Ghazal have taught archaeologists, they are still grappling with enormous questions. Who exactly were the first farmers? How did agriculture, a cornerstone of civilization itself, spread to other parts of the world?

Some answers are now emerging from a surprising source: DNA extracted from skeletons at Ain Ghazal and other early settlements in the Near East. These findings have already challenged long-held ideas about how agriculture and domestication arose. [Continue reading…]


Guns, empires and Indians

David J Silverman writes: It has become commonplace to attribute the European conquest of the Americas to Jared Diamond’s triumvirate of guns, germs and steel. Germs refer to plague, measles, flu, whooping cough and, especially, the smallpox that whipsawed through indigenous populations, sometimes with a mortality rate of 90 per cent. The epidemics left survivors ill-equipped to fend off predatory encroachments, either from indigenous or from European peoples, who seized captives, land and plunder in the wake of these diseases.

Guns and steel, of course, represent Europeans’ technological prowess. Metal swords, pikes, armour and firearms, along with ships, livestock and even wheeled carts, gave European colonists significant military advantages over Native American people wielding bows and arrows, clubs, hatchets and spears. The attractiveness of such goods also meant that Indians desired trade with Europeans, despite the danger the newcomers represented. The lure of trade enabled Europeans to secure beachheads on the East Coast of North America, and make inroads to the interior of the continent. Intertribal competition for European trade also enabled colonists to employ ‘divide and conquer’ strategies against much larger indigenous populations.

Diamond’s explanation has grown immensely popular and influential. It appears to be a simple and sweeping teleology providing order and meaning to the complexity of the European conquest of the Western hemisphere. The guns, germs and steel perspective has helped further understanding of some of the major forces behind globalisation. But it also involves a level of abstraction that risks obscuring the history of individuals and groups whose experiences cannot be so aptly and neatly summarised. [Continue reading…]


Hints of tool use, culture seen in bumble bees

Science magazine reports: For years, cognitive scientist Lars Chittka felt a bit eclipsed by his colleagues at Queen Mary University of London. Their studies of apes, crows, and parrots were constantly revealing how smart these animals were. He worked on bees, and at the time, almost everyone assumed that the insects acted on instinct, not intelligence. “So there was a challenge for me: Could we get our small-brained bees to solve tasks that would impress a bird cognition researcher?” he recalls. Now, it seems he has succeeded at last.

Chittka’s team has shown that bumble bees can not only learn to pull a string to retrieve a reward, but they can also learn this trick from other bees, even though they have no experience with such a task in nature. The study “successfully challenges the notion that ‘big brains’ are necessary” for new skills to spread, says Christian Rutz, an evolutionary ecologist who studies bird cognition at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom.

Many researchers have used string pulling to assess the smarts of animals, particularly birds and apes. So Chittka and his colleagues set up a low clear plastic table barely tall enough to lay three flat artificial blue flowers underneath. Each flower contained a well of sugar water in the center and had a string attached that extended beyond the table’s boundaries. The only way the bumble bee could get the sugar water was to pull the flower out from under the table by tugging on the string. [Continue reading…]


Study suggests human proclivity for violence gets modulated but is not necessarily diminished by culture

A new study (by José Maria Gómez et al) challenges Steven Pinker’s rosy picture of the state of the world. Science magazine reports: Though group-living primates are relatively violent, the rates vary. Nearly 4.5% of chimpanzee deaths are caused by another chimp, for example, whereas bonobos are responsible for only 0.68% of their compatriots’ deaths. Based on the rates of lethal violence seen in our close relatives, Gómez and his team predicted that 2% of human deaths would be caused by another human.

To see whether that was true, the researchers dove into the scientific literature documenting lethal violence among humans, from prehistory to today. They combined data from archaeological excavations, historical records, modern national statistics, and ethnographies to tally up the number of humans killed by other humans in different time periods and societies. From 50,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago, when humans lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers, the rate of killing was “statistically indistinguishable” from the predicted rate of 2%, based on archaeological evidence, Gómez and his colleagues report today in Nature.

Later, as human groups consolidated into chiefdoms and states, rates of lethal violence shot up — as high as 12% in medieval Eurasia, for example. But in the contemporary era, when industrialized states exert the rule of law, violence is lower than our evolutionary heritage would predict, hovering around 1.3% when combining statistics from across the world. That means evolution “is not a straitjacket,” Gómez says. Culture modulates our bloodthirsty tendencies.

The study is “innovative and meticulously conducted,” says Douglas Fry, an anthropologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. The 2% figure is significantly lower than Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker’s much publicized estimate that 15% of deaths are due to lethal violence among hunter-gatherers. The lower figure resonates with Fry’s extensive studies of nomadic hunter-gatherers, whom he has observed to be less violent than Pinker’s work suggests. “Along with archaeology and nomadic forager research, this [study] shoots holes in the view that the human past and human nature are shockingly violent,” Fry says. [Continue reading…]


The social practice of self-betrayal in career-driven America

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Talbot Brewer writes: I don’t know how careers are seen in other countries, but in the United States we are exhorted to view them as the primary locus of self-realization. The question before you when you are trying to choose a career is to figure out “What Color is Your Parachute?” (the title of a guide to job searches that has been a perennial best seller for most of my lifetime). The aim, to quote the title of another top-selling guide to career choices, is to “Do What You Are.”

These titles tell us something about what Americans expect to find in a career: themselves, in the unlikely form of a marketable commodity. But why should we expect that the inner self waiting to be born corresponds to some paid job or profession? Are we really all in possession of an inner lawyer, an inner beauty products placement specialist, or an inner advertising executive, just waiting for the right job opening? Mightn’t this script for our biographies serve as easily to promote self-limitation or self-betrayal as to further self-actualization?

We spend a great deal of our youth shaping ourselves into the sort of finished product that potential employers will be willing to pay dearly to use. Beginning at a very early age, schooling practices and parental guidance and approval are adjusted, sometimes only semi-consciously, so as to inculcate the personal capacities and temperament demanded by the corporate world. The effort to sculpt oneself for this destiny takes a more concerted form in high school and college. We choose courses of study, and understand the importance of success in these studies, largely with this end in view.

Even those who rebel against these forces of acculturation are deeply shaped by them. What we call “self-destructive” behavior in high school might perhaps be an understandable result of being dispirited by the career prospects that are recommended to us as sufficient motivation for our studies. As a culture we have a curious double-mindedness about such reactions. It is hard to get through high school in the United States without being asked to read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye — the story of one Holden Caulfield’s angst-ridden flight from high school, fueled by a pervasive sense that the adult world is irredeemably phony. The ideal high school student is supposed to find a soul-mate in Holden and write an insightful paper about his telling cultural insights, submitted on time in twelve-point type with double spacing and proper margins and footnotes, so as to ensure the sort of grade that will keep the student on the express train to the adult world whose irredeemable phoniness he has just skillfully diagnosed. [Continue reading…]


Atheists in America

Emma Green writes: In general, Americans do not like atheists. In studies, they say they feel coldly toward nonbelievers; it’s estimated that more than half of the population say they’d be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who didn’t believe in God.

This kind of deep-seated suspicion is a long-standing tradition in the U.S. In his new book, Village Atheists, the Washington University in St. Louis professor Leigh Eric Schmidt writes about the country’s early “infidels” — one of many fraught terms nonbelievers have used to describe themselves in history — and the conflicts they went through. While the history of atheists is often told as a grand tale of battling ideas, Schmidt set out to tell stories of “mundane materiality,” chronicling the lived experiences of atheists and freethinkers in 19th- and 20th-century America.

His findings both confirm and challenge stereotypes around atheists today. While it’s true that the number of nonbelievers is the United States is growing, it’s still small — roughly 3 percent of U.S. adults self-identify as atheists. And while more and more Americans say they’re not part of any particular religion, they’ve historically been in good company: At the end of the 19th century, Schmidt estimated, around a tenth of Americans may have been unaffiliated from any church or religious institution.

As the visibility and number of American atheists has changed over time, the group has gone through its own struggles over identity. Even today, atheists are significantly more likely to be white, male, and highly educated than the rest of the population, a demographic fact perhaps tied to the long legacy of misogyny and marginalization of women within the movement. At times, nonbelievers have advocated on behalf of minority religious rights and defended immigrants. But they’ve also been among the most vocal American nativists, rallying against Mormons, Catholics, and evangelical Protestants alike.

Schmidt and I discussed the history of atheists in the United States, from the suspicion directed toward them to the suspicions they have cast on others. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. [Continue reading…]


‘I am sorry’: Islamist apologises for destroying Timbuktu mausoleums

The Guardian reports: The first defendant to plead guilty at the international criminal court has apologised to Mali and to mankind for destroying religious monuments in the ancient city of Timbuktu.

Ahmad al-Mahdi admitted directing the destruction of nine mausoleums and a mosque door in 2012, when Timbuktu was controlled by rebels and members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

At the opening of his trial for war crimes in The Hague, he expressed his “deep regret” to the people of Timbuktu, to whom the monuments had been of great religious and cultural importance.

“I seek their forgiveness and I ask them to look at me as a son who has lost his way,” he said. “Those who forgive me will be rewarded by the almighty. I would like to make them a solemn promise that this was the first and the last wrongful act I will ever commit.”

Wearing a grey suit, blue shirt and tie and glasses, his long curly hair slicked back, Mahdi said he drew on Islamic teachings to enter his guilty plea. “We need to speak justice even to ourselves. We have to be truthful, even if it burns our own hands,” he said.

“All the charges brought against me are accurate and correct. I am really sorry, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused.” [Continue reading…]


The countries leading the world in happiness and sustainability are not the economically wealthiest

Anna Bruce-Lockhart writes: Is life on this planet getting better? When it comes to the progress of nations, how do you measure what matters most? There’s wealth, there’s health, there’s basic human freedoms. These criteria, and others, make regular appearances in a variety of international rankings, from the Better Life Index to the Sustainable Economic Development Assessment and the World Happiness Report.

But a new study takes a different approach. The Happy Planet Index, which has just published its 2016 edition, measures health and happiness not in isolation but against a crucial new gold standard for success: sustainability.

The formula goes something like this: take the well-being and longevity of a population, measure how equally both are distributed, then set the result against each country’s ecological footprint.

In this calculation, the most successful countries are those where people live long and happy lives at little cost to the environment.

So which countries are they?

They’re not the wealthy Western countries you’d expect to see, or even the progressive Nordic ones that normally bag the lifestyle laurels. Instead, a list of the top 10 (the index ranks 140 countries overall) shows that when it comes to people’s ability to live good lives within sustainable limits, Latin American and Asia Pacific countries are ahead of the crowd. [Continue reading…]


Anger has come to saturate our politics and culture — philosophy can show a way out


Martha C Nussbaum writes: There’s no emotion we ought to think harder and more clearly about than anger. Anger greets most of us every day – in our personal relationships, in the workplace, on the highway, on airline trips – and, often, in our political lives as well. Anger is both poisonous and popular. Even when people acknowledge its destructive tendencies, they still so often cling to it, seeing it as a strong emotion, connected to self-respect and manliness (or, for women, to the vindication of equality). If you react to insults and wrongs without anger you’ll be seen as spineless and downtrodden. When people wrong you, says conventional wisdom, you should use justified rage to put them in their place, exact a penalty. We could call this football politics, but we’d have to acknowledge right away that athletes, whatever their rhetoric, have to be disciplined people who know how to transcend anger in pursuit of a team goal.

If we think closely about anger, we can begin to see why it is a stupid way to run one’s life. A good place to begin is Aristotle’s definition: not perfect, but useful, and a starting point for a long Western tradition of reflection. Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback. So: significant damage, pertaining to one’s own values or circle of cares, and wrongfulness. All this seems both true and uncontroversial. More controversial, perhaps, is his idea (in which, however, all Western philosophers who write about anger concur) that the angry person wants some type of payback, and that this is a conceptual part of what anger is. In other words, if you don’t want some type of payback, your emotion is something else (grief, perhaps), but not really anger. [Continue reading…]


How should we live in a diverse society?

Kenan Malik writes: Debates about immigration are… rarely about numbers as such. They are much more about who the migrants are, and about underlying anxieties of nation, community, identity and values. ‘We should not forget’, claimed Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, as Hungary put up new border fences, and introduced draconian new anti-immigration laws, ‘that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim.’ ‘Is it not worrying’, he asked, ‘that Europe’s Christian culture is already barely able to maintain its own set of Christian values?’

Many thinkers, Christian and non-Christian, religious and non-religious, echo this fear of Muslim immigration undermining the cultural and moral foundation of Western civilization. The late Oriana Fallaci, the Italian writer who perhaps more than most promoted the notion of Eurabia – the belief that Europe is being Islamicised – described herself as a ‘Christian atheist’, insisting that only Christianity provided Europe with a cultural and intellectual bulwark against Islam. The British historian Niall Ferguson calls himself ‘an incurable atheist’ and yet is alarmed by the decline of Christianity which undermines ‘any religious resistance’ to radical Islam. Melanie Phillips, a non-believing Jew, argues in her book The World Turned Upside Down that ‘Christianity is under direct and unremitting cultural assault from those who want to destroy the bedrock values of Western civilization.’

To look upon migration in this fashion is, I want to suggest, a misunderstanding of both Europe’s past and Europe’s present. To understand why, I want first to explore two fundamental questions, the answers to which must frame any discussion on inclusion and morality. What we mean by a diverse society? And why should we value it, or indeed, fear it?

When we think about diversity today in Europe, the picture we see is that of societies that in the past were homogenous, but have now become plural because of immigration. But in what way were European societies homogenous in the past? And in what ways are they diverse today?

Certainly, if you had asked a Frenchman or an Englishman or a Spaniard in the nineteenth or the fifteenth or the twelfth centuries, they would certainly not have described their societies as homogenous. And were they to be transported to contemporary Europe, it is likely that they would see it as far less diverse than we do.

Our view of the Europe of the past is distorted by historical amnesia; and our view of the Europe of the present is distorted by a highly restricted notion of diversity. When we talk of European societies as historically homogenous, what we mean is that they used to be ethnically, or perhaps culturally, homogenous. But the world is diverse in many ways. Societies are cut through by differences, not only of ethnicity, but also of class, gender, faith, politics, and much else. [Continue reading…]


How patriotism brings people together — and divides them

Adam Piore writes: It started with one man quietly sipping a Tom Collins in the lounge car of the Cleveland-bound train.

“God bless America,” he sang, “land that I love …”

It didn’t take long. Others joined in. “Stand beside her … and guide her …” Soon the entire train car had taken up the melody, belting out the patriotic song at the top of their lungs.

It was 1940 and such spontaneous outpourings, this one described in a letter to the song’s creator Irving Berlin, were not unusual. That was the year the simple, 32-bar arrangement was somehow absorbed into the fabric of American culture, finding its way into American Legion halls, churches and synagogues, schools, and even a Louisville, Kentucky, insurance office, where the song reportedly sprang to the lips of the entire sales staff one day. The song has reemerged in times of national crisis or pride over and over, to be sung in ballparks, school assemblies, and on the steps of the United States Capitol after 9/11.

Berlin immigrated to the U.S. at age 5. His family fled Russia to escape a wave of murderous pogroms directed at Jews. His mother often murmured “God Bless America” as he was growing up. “And not casually, but with emotion which was almost exaltation,” Berlin later recalled.

“He always talked about it like a love song,” says Sheryl Kaskowitz, the author of God Bless America, the Surprising History of an Iconic Song. “It came from this really genuine love and a sense of gratitude to the U.S.”

It might seem ironic that someone born in a foreign land would compose a song that so powerfully expressed a sense of national belonging—that this song embraced by an entire nation was the expression of love from an outsider for his adopted land. In the U.S., a nation of immigrants built on the prospect of renewal, it’s not the least bit surprising. It is somehow appropriate.

Patriotism is an innate human sentiment. It is part of a deeper subconscious drive toward group formation and allegiance. It operates as much in one nation under God as it does in a football stadium. Group bonding is in our evolutionary history, our nature. According to some recent studies, the factors that make us patriotic are in our very genes.

But this allegiance—this blurring of the lines between individual and group—has a closely related flipside; it’s not always a warm feeling of connection in the Cleveland-bound lounge car. Sometimes our instinct for group identification serves as a powerful wedge to single out those among us who are different. Sometimes what makes us feel connected is not a love of home and country but a common enemy. [Continue reading…]