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Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes
by Tamim Ansary

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The SwerveThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a case of popular history done well. It’s intensely well-researched, but written for a popular audience. It tells a particular story, but nests that story well in the broader historical context. Stephen Greenblatt isn’t afraid to do a lot of heavy lifting, but doesn’t need to show off that he’s done the lifting. I get the sense that he’s done ten thousand pages of work and distilled that out into 400 pages of readable story, and left pointers to the rest in the citations and footnotes. It’s the way scholarship is supposed to work.

That said, The Swerve is nonetheless storytelling. Broadly, it traces a single work – On The Nature Of Things by Lucretius – as its ideas re-entered the European canon thanks to the rediscovery of the text by one Poggio Bracciolini of Florence. Greenblatt makes the case that the atomism of Lucretius and the Epicureans gave the Renaissance world a portrait of a mechanistic universe — one ruled not by gods and demons and incomprehensible forces of whim, but rather by discrete particles operating within natural laws. Lucretius didn’t necessarily argue that the gods didn’t exist; he merely argued that they could have no interest or influence in worldly affairs. According to Greenblatt, as the ideas of On The Nature Of Things spread across the world of the European Renaissance, it enabled thinkers like Galileo to probe the natural universe. If the world operates according to natural laws and not supernatural whims, then it can be studied and understood. Predictions can be made and reliably tested. In short, the Dark Ages could finally end.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the story than that. There were rival popes, earthly empires, political intrigues to influence and survive, patrons to satisfy and heretics to burn. One of the great ironies of the story is that while the Epicureans would eventually be decried as heretics, the survival of the Epicurean texts was due almost entirely to the efforts of religious copyists who toiled in secluded monasteries to copy and preserve the ancient Latin texts, despite often having little understanding or sympathy for the texts they copied. While they may have considered the pagan ideas expressed within to be dangerous, as aspiring Latinists they couldn’t deny the value of the classical Greek and Roman texts as far as language and rhetoric went. (Even the great church fathers like Thomas Aquinas had spilled massive amounts of ink trying to get Aristotle to square with Christian doctrine.)

There are an awful lot of details lost to time that Greenblatt just needed to invent. We know that Poggio found On The Nature of Things in the scriptorium of some monastery, but we don’t know which one. For the sake of the story, Greenblatt sketches in the missing details, tells us where Poggio may have found it, how the conversation with the abbot might have gone, how Poggio may have handled getting access and copying the text. It’s a lot of speculation, but to his credit Greenblatt frames it as speculation, and provides the citations that serve as the basis for that speculation.

Nonetheless, that kind of speculative storytelling is the way that history gets written, for better or worse. Our stories of nearly all significant historical figures depend heavily on imagined reconstructions, simply because the mundane things they did in their youth didn’t seem worth recording; they only became history in the retelling once the world had been changed. That’s the nature of history, and The Swerve does no worse than any other history in that respect.

The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible

The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is PossibleThe More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible
Charles Eisenstein

I wanted to like The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. I really did. I thought that Sacred Economics was a pretty good book. While academically slipshod, it was nonetheless insightful, challenging, and offered specific (but radical) solutions to real-world problems. But The More Beautiful World does none of that. It’s just academically slipshod, with little insight. It dwells in generalities, vapid platitudes, unjustified assertions, and vague handwaving at complex issues. It simply refuses to do any heavy lifting, and is unapologetic and even proud of that refusal.

The basic premise of the book is as follows: Charles Eisenstein describes what he terms the Story of Separation. This story corresponds roughly to things like the Enlightenment, the Scientific/Industrial Revolution, the narrative of Man’s triumph over nature, and the story of rationality more generally. In the European/Western arc of history, man separates himself from the animals, separates himself from the natural world, separates himself from his fellow man, an eventually even separates himself from himself. Throughout most of modernity, we have been living in the Age of Separation, and that Age has now reached its limits. Our planetary resources are sagging under the weight of consumption, the perception of scarcity drives humanity to fight humanity, and we feel the weight of separation as anxiety, depression, fear and hopelessness. The Story of Separation is drawing to a close, and Eisenstein believes that we are now entering the Story of Interbeing and the Age of Reunion. This new story is one of interdependence instead of independence, of balance in place of unchecked growth, of spirituality over rationality. As he tells the arc of history, we currently sit in an uncomfortable place between two ages of human history, where the old story is breaking down, but we haven’t yet embraced the new one. And he argues that we don’t need to fight against the Story of Separation, because fighting against things is part of that Story. Instead, we only have to give way to the Story of Interbeing, to let it happen through our words and action, and humanity will get to where it needs to be because humanity has no other choice.

In the broadest general terms, I agree with him. It mostly boils down to “be kind to people, and take care of where you live”. Fair enough. But it somehow takes 282 pages to hash that out, mostly by way of anecdotes and bold assertions without footnotes or citations. We get gems like this:

We need to understand nature, the planet, the sun, the soil, the water, the mountains, the rocks, the trees, and the air as sentient beings whose destiny is not separate from our own. As far as I know, no indigenous person on Earth would deny that a rock bears some kind of awareness or intelligence. Who are we to think differently?

Er, citation needed? As far as you know, no indigenous person would deny this? How far do you know? Before speaking on behalf of every indigenous person on Earth, did you look this up? I always get pretty creeped out whenever someone starts making arguments by appealing to the wisdom of “indigenous people”, as if that were one thing, and the Hopi and the Aboriginal Australians and the original residents of New Guinea (and their 827 languages) all shared one animistic worldview. The lionization of “indigenous people” denies them their humanity. Certainly some “indigenous people” were less self-destructive than modern Europeans, and certainly others were more self-destructive (and are probably no longer with us as a result). Certainly some exhibit enormous wisdom and courage, and others exhibit enormous fear and selfishness. The thing about “indigenous people” is that they are people, with all of the diversity and all of the good and bad that comes with that. To pretend otherwise is to deny them their basic humanity.

But I get the sense that Eisenstein isn’t much bothered with research and citations and justifying assertions. Those are things that we did during the Age of Separation. In the Age of Reunion, what we need is good storytelling and things that spiritually feel right. He doesn’t leave room for criticism, because criticism is part of the old story. The book is full of anecdotes in which someone challenges him on some point in a talk he’s giving, and he becomes the hero of the anecdote by asking the critic to look within themselves to understand why his point makes them uncomfortable. They’re asking the question from the vantage point of the Story of Separation, and if they would just heal the separation within themselves, the challenge becomes irrelevant from within the Story of Reunion.

If that sounds like a tautology, that’s because it is. And Eisenstein is okay with that. Rationality is part of the old system. As he puts it:

I wish I could rely on evidence to choose my belief. But I cannot. Which story is true, Separation or Interbeing? I will in this book offer evidence that fits the latter, but none of it will constitute proof. No evidence is ever enough. There is always an alternate explanation: coincidence, fraud, wishful thinking, etc. Absent conclusive evidence, you will have to decide on some other basis, such as “Which story is most aligned with who you truly are, and who you truly want to be?” “Which story gives you the most joy?”

The Story of Reunion exists beyond “being right” or “being wrong”. But it doesn’t give you much to work with when you need to solve real-world problems. But yes: be kind to each other, and take care of where you live. And maybe let’s just leave it at that for now.

Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality

Sex At DawnSex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
by Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan

The authors of Sex At Dawn begin by setting up what they call the ‘standard model’ of human sexuality. In the standard model, humans are primates that form monogamous pair bonds for the purpose of raising children. The male tries to prevent the female from having additional sex partners (to protect the certainty of his paternity) whilst also trying to cheat with as many other females as possible (as to better spread his own genes). In this model, it is to the female’s advantage to keep the male emotionally faithful to her, as to secure his resources (i.e., food and protection) for her children and to better make sure that her genes survive. The standard model is one based on scarcity (males compete for access to females with which to mate; females secure males to protect access to food and defense) and conflict (the sexual goals of the male and the sexual goals of the female are at odds; the males are in competition with one another). The consequences are infidelity, war, and rugged pursuit of individual gain. For the standard model, this is the essence of human nature, which we try (and usually fail) to overcome.

But for Jethá and Ryan’s model, this actually isn’t human nature at all. Arguing partly from primatology, partly from evolutionary psychology, and partly from anthropology, they make the case that human nature is historically communal rather than individual, polyamorous rather than monogamous, and cooperative rather than competitive. Of the other primates, they point out that humans are most closely related (genetically) to bonobos and chimps (both of whom live in social groups and share multiple mates), rather than gorillas (alpha male with many females), orangutans (solitary), or gibbons (monogamous pair bonding, and the furthest from humans genetically). Through anthropology, they attempt to demonstrate that in hunter-gatherer societies, the evolutionary advantageous norm is for humans to live in groups in which resources are shared and to have multiple sex partners in which paternity is uncertain (and unimportant). They argue that these were cultures of abundance rather than scarcity – when someone in the clan makes a large kill, there is no reason (and indeed no way) to hoard the meat. Likewise, when fruit is on the trees for the taking, there is no reason for competition to arise. When paternity is uncertain, every male in the group looks out for all of the children in the group, leading to social cohesion and better group survival. Jethá and Ryan assert that the social bonds broke only very recently in human history, with the dawn of agriculture. With agriculture came ownership of land and scarcity of resources. With that came inheritance, and the need to know whom your offspring actually are. And with that came concepts of fidelity, monogamy, infidelity, and the corresponding moral imperatives.

bonobosThe authors make the further claim that the monogamous nature of humanity has always been a Puritan fantasy — and one that we aren’t very good at. Even societies that glorify monogamy and chastity as the pinnacle of virtue simply don’t practice them: the data shows that nearly everyone cheats, and it causes us no end of societal trouble. The final chapter of Sex At Dawn encourages us to abandon the pretense. If we accept that we aren’t monogamous by nature, then what? We don’t necessarily need to go back to non-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies. But we do need to de-couple sex from land ownership, inheritance, moral norms, etc. In short, we need to treat sex as being no big deal, a thing that our evolutionary history has given us to enhance (rather than disrupt) our social bonds. The authors encourage us to have frank discussions with our chosen partners in light of our biological truth, and decide what actually works for us, rather than what we wish and pretend would work for us.

It’s hard to disagree with their conclusions. One need look no further than the newspaper on any given day to see that the people in power who push hardest for the virtues of chastity and monogamy fail to practice them any more than anyone else. Pick your pedophile priest, your homosexual evangelical Christian, your conservative politician who makes a tearful apology for infidelity to his family at a press conference. And while they rarely take the fall as publicly (partly because we simply have fewer of them in positions of power), the data shows that the women don’t fare any better in this regard. Take a look at the numbers on paternity testing, and how many children out there are fathered by someone other than their mother’s husband. And that’s just the episodes that result in pregnancy. There’s no denying it: we’re terrible at monogamy, and our biology is mostly to blame. And in evolutionary terms, that’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

But while I mostly agree with its conclusions, a lot of the argumentation in Sex At Dawn is frankly a mess. It’s a popular science book written for a non-academic audience, and so it can get away with a lack of academic rigor. The manuscript was rejected by Oxford University Press for that very reason, the authors took it to Harper’s, where it became a New York Times bestseller. It’s an easy read, a great conversation starter, and I think it ends up at the right place. But they way it gets there is sloppy. The authors cherry-pick from the literature, grab the anthropological cases that bolster their argument, extrapolate from the data that fits their premise and ignore the data that doesn’t. Upon its publication, Sex At Dawn was criticized as being pseudo-science, and I can’t bring myself to disagree. It is pseudo-science, pseudo-anthropology, and pseudo-primatology. It’s like a television dramatization of a true story — it gets at the spirit of the truth, but not in any literal way. But in the court of public opinion, for better or worse, that doesn’t matter. The book got far more attention in the public imagination than it would have as a peer-reviewed academic work, and in that sense it probably accomplished the authors’ goals better than a more scientifically rigorous work. Because that’s another feature of the human primate: we like shiny things, and we don’t like to work too hard for them.



Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The central question of Flow is that of how to experience life well. It’s not about the conditions of living well, because Csikszentmihalyi makes the case that the conditions of living (past a baseline of survivability) have little to do with the experience of living well. That experience, he argues, is a psychological state induced by a particular structuring of consciousness, and that structuring of consciousness is one over which we can (and should) exert control. His shorthand for this ‘optimal experience’ is ‘flow’, and the state of flow has a few specific conditions:

  1. To experience flow, one must be engaged in a purposeful activity. The purpose need not necessarily be a ‘higher’ purpose with moral weight, but simply a purpose: jumping higher, producing a garden, or learning to juggle will do.
  2. The purposeful activity must be one that challenges us. If it’s too easy, we get bored. If it’s too difficult, we get frustrated. We need goals that are achievable, but only with some effort.
  3. We need feedback. We need to have some means of knowing whether or not we’re making progress toward the chosen purpose.

When these conditions are satisfied, Csikszentmihalyi argues that we find ourselves in a state of ‘flow’ or ‘optimal experience’, and that flow is the basis for what we experience as having a good life. Without those conditions, what we experience is boredom, lack of purpose, low self-esteem, anxiety, or any of a number of other non-optimal experiences.

I find myself in agreement with Csikszentmihalyi‘s basic premise, and I find the argument persuasive based on my own experiences. That said, I don’t think Flow is a very good book. There wasn’t quite enough material in it. The substantive parts of the book were enough for a good solid article or essay, and the rest is just padded with endless listing of examples. Examples are useful in illustrating points, but they aren’t a substitute for arguments.

Nonetheless, the book succeeded in getting me to write about reading again – the point being to impose a structure on my reading, to once again read with purpose instead of merely to pass time. I try not to read books that don’t affect me, and this one did. Which, despite the sub-par writing, makes it not a waste of time to have read.

Blues and Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer

Blues and ChaosBlues and Chaos: The Music Writing of Bob Palmer

Anthony DeCurtis (ed.)

The best writing transforms the reader.  It shows them parts of themselves that they didn’t know existed, shows them potentials that they didn’t know they had, shows them perspectives that they thought themselves incapable of adopting.  That, I suppose, is the mark of writing that transcends to the category of literature.  The best of the best transforms not just the reader, but the world: think Invisible Man or The Jungle or The Grapes of Wrath.

Blues and Chaos didn’t transform me.  But it did make me buy a lot of CDs.

Bob Palmer, longtime popular music critic for the New York Times and regular contributor to Rolling Stone, had a Hunter S. Thompson approach to music journalism.  He was able to write well about musicians living on the edge because he was a musician living on the edge.  He played and partied with the people about whom he wrote, ranging from bluesmen from the American south to sacred musicians from the mountains of Morocco.  That gonzo journalism granted him access, whether to the inner sanctum of Yoko Ono’s apartment, the back rooms of black juke joints in Mississippi, or the private sacred rituals of his beloved Moroccans.  Of course, it also granted him access to drugs, and subsequent fatal addiction.  Palmer burned brightly and blew out early, like so many of the musicians that he interviewed.

But reading through his book of essays, I realized just how much American and world music I didn’t know.  I started making a CD wish list.  Son House!  How could I have missed Son House?  I felt a little ashamed to admit that I didn’t own the Robert Johnson recordings.  And there wasn’t a single Ray Charles album in my collection.  I picked up a collection of 45s from Morocco.  I looked in vain for recordings of Pandit Pran Nath and had to settle for LaMonte Young.  And still I felt ignorant.  We live in a world with too much good music, and reading someone like Robert Palmer is like drinking from a firehose.  He listened to records professionally; most of us can’t.  But Blues and Chaos is a great starting point for building a sample of things you may have missed.