A Rough History of Disbelief

I’ve wanted to write this post for several years, ever since I watched a BBC documentary titled Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief. It was presented as a quiet, sometimes autobiographical, and decidedly old-fashioned video essay narrated by the disarming and wonderful Jonathan Miller.

The 3-hour series steers clear of the sensationalism that spoils many modern programs and debates on atheism. Instead, it charts the history of atheism over the past two thousand years, touching upon its primary proponents and highlighting some of their prominent scholarly works. The slow and calm nature of the film – and indeed the fact that many portions of it are put forth unadorned with rationalizations and inviting considerate, non-inflammatory debate – is quite an achievement given the sensitive nature of its subject.

My track record at convincing people to watch 3 hours of anything, let alone a documentary on atheism, would be classified (rather too charitably) as “not good”. Still, for those with the time and the interest, I’m linking to its three parts below:

  1. Shadows of Doubt
  2. Noughts and Crosses
  3. The Final Hour

The Belmont Syndrome

On a recent business trip to Baltimore, I found myself unable to socialize with the other meeting attendees. These were people far more experienced than I at technology standardization, who seemed comfortable within the established cliques that are a fact of life at recurring meetings like these, who didn’t seem that interested in carrying out a conversation with me. Partially intimidated by my ignorance of the myriad intricacies of motions and ballots and voting rights and partially put off by their cliqueishness, I spent most of my meal-times alone with a copy of John Kenneth Galbraith‘s A Short History of Financial Euphoria, having failing to read it once before.

On the second reading, I was sustained by a growing interest in investing, which provided me with enough motivation to read about the phenomenon of market bubbles which constitute the primary subject matter of this book. In the short space of about a hundred pages, Galbraith treats the most important market bubbles in history, beginning with Tulipomania of the 17th century and ending with the stock market crash of 1987. It is a cautionary essay written for the general public and until the very end, it remains remarkably lucid, free of jargon, and punctuated by the writer’s mature, benevolent wit. It is the sort of writing that I quietly admired in the books of Bertrand Russell.

Because the book is so clear, it’s message can be easily distilled though Galbraith admits, it is hard to internalize. Firstly, financial instruments do not lend themselves to true innovation. As a consequence, each supposedly new financial innovation happens to be — at its root — a different method of leveraging debt. The public at large seems to have a short financial memory of a few decades at most, and when painful recollections of previous bubbles have faded, it becomes comfortable with incurring the risks of very high leverage, setting the next bubble into motion. For each successive bubble, Galbraith elaborates on which “new” financial innovation set the bubble in motion, how the bubble was sustained, who were the supposed financial geniuses of the era, how the bubble burst, who became the scapegoats, and how the question of what caused the public to speculate was repeatedly ignored. It is quite the eye-opener and I recommend it highly.

Having liked this book, I searched for other written work by Galbraith and interviews he gave at various points in a long and productive life in politics and academia. Preliminary exploration turned up this funny and insightful remark —proximately about the state of economics research, but applicable to other spheres of our lives as well — made in a 1986 interview with an unbelievably young Harry Kreisler:

… I do think that the last 20 years have brought a strong shift back to what I’ve called the “esoteric aspects” of economics — to mathematical expressions in economics, econometric niceties, and a tendency to leave the real world alone. It’s something that in Cambridge we call the “Belmont Syndrome.” Belmont is an extremely comfortable suburb adjoining Cambridge, and the “Belmont Syndrome” is a desire to move from a peaceful, happy life in Belmont to a peaceful, happy life at Harvard, from life to computer and back again, without any disturbance from Ronald Reagan.

[Conversations with History Archives.]

Not in Zen

An intrusive but well-meaning bookseller at Boston’s Logan airport saw two books in my hand and recommended that I buy the smaller one. It was Asimov’s Foundation; I have wanted to read it for a long time. At the last moment though, I disregarded the recommendation and bought Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This is what I have been reading on my visit to India, on occasions that permit some reading and even on some occasions that do not.

It is rather a different book, in terms of content and style, than I had expected. Pirsig talks about the pleasure of seeing red-winged blackbirds on his motorcycle rides in the American West, and I smile to myself. This  bird has been good to so many people. The book slides seamlessly between a description of Pirsig’s motorcycle expeditions with his son, and recollections from his past –  he was declared insane and spent time in an asylum. I had not read anything about the book before, and so it disturbed me greatly to discover its subject matter. I haven’t had the energy to read for days and was looking for a book that would be a calming experience, and did not expect this level of focussed and rivetting introspection in a book with “Zen” in its title.  Clearly, I do not understand Zen!

There is a sense of foreboding whenever Pirsig shares his recollections of Phaedrus (his former self) and of the problems that Phaedrus saw in the world. I don’t know where the book is going, but it has gone beyond the point at which it could have been abandoned. Last night, cramped in the lilting semi-darkness of a middle berth inside the force of Nature that is  an Indian train, I was troubled and piqued by Pirsig’s (Phaedrus’s) meditations on the nature and limitations of the scientific method. He was commenting on the fact that as knowledge advances, truth grows ever more distant – the sheer number of available hypotheses defeats the attempt to arrive at the truth by testing each hypothesis. I hadn’t thought about it in this way, but it is indeed true. The scientific method, by its very construction, seems to be leading us away from the aim for which it was developed – to arrive at the truth.

In reading the book, I am aware of the obvious metaphor of the motorcycle journey; I am reminded, predictably, of  Kerouac’s On The Road. But, more immediate than these two is the (possibly self-manufactured) connection between the book’s subject matter and the circumstance that I find myself in – visiting India after a long time to find that some places and concepts in my own city have changed beyond recognition. I find myself looking at the new and thinking back about what used to be in its place, and by extension, comparing the person who was at home in the old places and this restless person who finds everything so changed. May be, subsequent posts will have something to say about this.

A Truly Fascinating History

When a friend recommended that I read Guns, Germs and Steel, I commented cavalierly, without having read a single word, that the book seemed like an oversimplification: How can one possibly account for all the twists and turns and blind alleys of human history? Now, as I race through the pages of Jared Diamond’s monumental work, I could not be more ashamed of myself. Subtitled “The Fates of Human Societies”, this large, and often dense book describes, through the lens of an evolutionary biologist and biogeographer, the fascinating journey of man on earth. Its claimed objective is to try to explain how today’s world came to be, with its glaringly unequal divisions of haves and have-nots. Diamond explains, painstakingly and precisely, why some societies became overlords while others remained primitive or vanished; why some people preferentially reaped the benefits of Guns (conquest), Germs (disease) and Steel (technology).

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at UCLA. His first love, however, is ornithology. It was the study of bird evolution that took him to Papua New Guinea, where a local politician put to him the question that was to germinate into his Pulitzer Prize-winning book: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo, and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

The first step that Diamond takes in answering this question is to explain why he thinks it is necessary to answer it at all. Having explained this with a nuanced, delicate perspective that is increasingly lacking in much of the scientific nonfiction today, the writer proceeds to dispense with simpler explanations such as “X had superior technology and superior weapons” or “X developed education and language and trade”. These explanations, Diamond says, are only proximate, and a scientific inquiry into history must ask the question “Why is it that  X developed technology and Y didn’t?”

As one reads more and more of this book, it seems ludicrous that anyone can attribute the unequal distribution of wealth, technology, language, etc. to genetics. Yet, rationalizations such as “People from continent A have higher IQs than those from continent B, and this correlates with differences in their genes” abound in people’s minds. These thoughts are not often expressed because they would be considered indecent. One does not have to be a post-modernist (though it would certainly help in this case) to point out that an IQ test in society A is designed to test intelligence according to the conventions and culture of society A, and therefore said IQ test is not a good metric for society B. Recently, James Watson got into hot water when he made comments about Africans having inferior intelligence than Europeans. It is presumptuous to conclude that Watson was motivated by the racist sentiments that many people accused him of, but it is clear that if the difference in IQ test scores is not a good indication of a difference in innate intelligence, then the point about causative genetic differences is moot.

The method of Guns, Germs and Steel is to keep asking the “How and why” questions until they lead to one answer: The difference between the fates of human societies was caused by a difference in the environment in which those societies lived. This thesis seems simple and anti-climactic, but reading about the details is truly fascinating. I have read half of the book so far, and have been completely enthralled by Diamond’s explanations of the change in lifestyle from hunting-gathering to farming and the domestication of herbivores. How did man, at first unconsciously and later deliberately, influence the evolution of certain plants? Why is it that man took so long to farm apples? Why is it that over 13000 years, humankind has succeeded in domesticating only 14 large mammals? How did previously detrimental mutations turn into blessings for some crops, aided by the human hand, while previously beneficial mutations became excuses for extinction? Diamond answers these and other questions while being careful to evaluate the strength of the scientific evidence for those answers. One of the most intellectually rewarding consequences of doing science – or reading about it – is that a discovery (whether firsthand or not) causes something to “click into place,” that mental “light-bulb-going-on” effect. Reading Guns, Germs and Steel is akin to walking the road of history and discovering markers and lights – not too many, but just tantalizingly enough to enable us to connect the dots.

A book that attempts to compress 13000 years into less than 500 pages is bound to favor broad patterns over spatially and temporally specific threads of human history. Some of these hypothesized broad patterns, such as the role of the orientations of continental axes, are likely to be very speculative. Experts in modern (recorded) human history can easily give specific examples from the past 5000 years which point, not to the environment but to the role of culture and politics in the unequal distribution of wealth and power, and in this they are right. However, I feel that, if one is interested in the basic framework underlying the elaborate tapestry of history since the Pleistocene Era, Jared Diamond’s book is a superb accomplishment that is definitely worth reading.

If you are strapped for time, you might consider watching National Geographic’s TV series on the book. I wouldn’t judge the book from the TV series, but it would be a good first approximation. As of this writing, the program is available in 18 parts on YouTube.

Clothes maketh the man … obscure.

A colleague of mine selected a rather intriguing paragraph for some technical experiments that the two of us have been doing this month. Upon my inquiring, he said that it came from an excellent article that appeared last year in the Washington Post. The article narrates a real life experiment that turns a crowded metro station in Washington D.C. into a theater of public morality. To me, it reads almost like a short story; I was reminded of Saki and Maugham. Read it!

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment? – [Gene Weingarten, Pearls Before Breakfast, April 8, 2007]

Hint: The article relates (rather obliquely) to a previous post on Mirkwood called The Morning Dollar.