Category: Society

I’ve decided that the purpose of civilization…

…is to allow the human spirit to flourish.  All the while I am reading John Gray and his empirical argument that humans are nothing more than other animals, I am at odds with myself.  On the one hand, I have to agree with him intellectually, empirically.  But on the other, I know in my gut that it is not true.  There is something more there, something intangible, but real nonetheless.  You see it more than anything in art and music and math, in the prodigies, the anomalies, the young children who seem to be from another planet, who seem to channel Chopin or Mozart, Picasso or da Vinci, or Fermin or Descartes.  You sense it in any truly transcendent human being.  We all know them when we see them, when we meet them.  There are psychic connections, spiritual connections, charismatic connections that transcend the physical.  And you know, even if you can neither understand nor articulate it, that there is something else going on, something beyond the physical, beyond DNA, beyond proteins and neurons.  There is something in the human spirit, when it is at its best, that transcends words and science.  I am convinced of it....

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Will the last to go please turn out the lights…

I once heard author Jared Diamond speak about his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” As he was addressing Easter Island, a once forested isle that was eventually denuded by its inhabitants (leading to their demise), Diamond wondered aloud about the last tree. What must the guy who cut it down have been thinking? Now, as the global human population exceeds seven billion, and we watch real and potential cataclysm unfold around us—civil war, collapse of ocean and tropical ecosystems, global warming, storms and floods, the emergence of new pathogens, nuclear holocaust—I can’t help but  ponder the eventual extinction of our species. And I can’t help but wonder what it will be like for the last man or woman left...

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On significance (or lack thereof)…

Remember Genesis 1:28? “…God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'” As I write, the remnants of Harvey continue to wreak havoc in southeast Texas. Even as I sympathize, I remember the adage, “There but for chance…”.  My own home on a hill won’t flood, and we don’t get hurricanes in Tennessee. But tornados? Hail storms? Fire and lightning? As a certain ex-governor would say, “You betcha!” Harvey reminds us how wrong-headed we are about nature. Consciously or not, Genesis 1:28 still holds sway in Judeo-Christian and related cultures. But thinking we are in charge of anything is laughable. The lessons just keep coming: Chinese floods, 1931: 3.7 million to 4 million dead. Galveston Hurricane, 1900: 6,000-12,000 dead. Spanish influenza, 1918-1920: 50 to 100 million dead. Bhola Cyclone, modern Bangladesh, 1970: 500,000 dead. Indian Ocean tsunami, 2004: 230,000 dead. Haiti earthquake, 2010: 50,000 to 200,000 dead, depending on sources. Hurricane Katrina, 2005: $108B damages. Tōhuko earthquake and tsunami (i.e., Fukushima), 2011: $300B in damages. Superstorm Sandy, 2012: $75B damages. Hurricane Harvey, 2017: possibly $190B, per USA Today And what’s on the horizon? In the U. S. alone, we’ve yet to flood Biloxi or Miami or...

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The good and the bad…

“When I tried day after day to do good and to relieve the suffering of my patients, I was myself. And when I let myself go and plunged into shameful activities, I was also myself. My scientific studies forced me to the following truth–man is not truly one person, but actually two.” –Dr. Henry Jekyll, in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by Robert Louis Stevenson (various publishers). Thinking about human cruelty these past few weeks, I found myself reading Stevenson’s classic allegory of good and evil, the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Like many, I suspect, I knew something of the story but had never actually read it. Doing so after the last two posts was discomfiting. “Jekyll and Hyde” is an allusion to the very things we’ve been considering. In a sense it’s a parable, because of its implicit warning. Jekyll is a respected, upper class physician with a bent towards tinkering. He’d always lived within cultural norms. But, having long sensed his personal darkness, he wondered how it would feel to indulge it. So he developed a potion to allow himself to do that. The heart of the story is that his dark side proved stronger than his good. Eventually it began to take him over without the potion. The more it indulged itself, the greater became it’s greed and disregard...

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Review of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari

“We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steam ships to space shuttles—but nobody knows where we’re going.” — Yuval Noah Harari (From Animals Into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind, draft edition 2012) —- Harari is Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Israel.  This review is of a prepublication draft of his book, titled “From Animals into Gods,” which I bought on Kindle at the time. He subsequently renamed it on publication in 2015.  A cursory examination suggests the two are functionally identical.  For simplicity, I present it as “Sapiens,” but I read the former.   —-  To begin, I wouldn’t say Sapiens is a profound book, but it is unquestionably useful and insightful, perhaps more so than any I have read. It reflects an ability on the part of Mr. Harari to think holistically and synthetically across many disciplines. In today’s stovepiped academia, this is a rare and commendable trait. Only someone with extraordinary intellectual perspective could have produced this work. It has its faults, enough that I almost put it down. But as I gradually saw disparate disciplines woven into a story, I became hooked. I’d consider Sapiens required reading for anyone wishing to offer meaningful comment on our modern world. The author might have subtitled his work, “A Unified Theory of Civilization.” He treats biology, cognition, culture, religion, history, economics, science, psychology and...

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Reflections on early civilizations and social stratification

I’ve spent six years now traveling throughout Western Europe, also reading histories of western civilization…from earliest prehistory to modernity.  I’ve but scratched the surface, I know…an adequate appreciation would require a lifetime.  But even with my limited exposure, there is one theme I see virtually taken for granted rather than deeply explored:  social stratification, class and the distribution of power and wealth.  The effects have been hugely studied: feudalism, the French Revolution, colonialism and imperialism, capitalism and Marxism and communism, slave revolts, American civil rights,  even in budding movements like Occupy Wall Street within the U.S. today.  And the recent election in the U.S. is no less a reflection of its continuing dominance.  But I want to know the when, the how and the why:  When, how and why did differentiation and stratification by income and social status begin?  What are its drivers?  Why has it been so ubiquitous throughout history, and why have the less empowered classes accepted it so readily?  And what’s more, why throughout history have those in power so insistently treated their “lessers” like dirt…and why do the underprivileged so readily put up with it? This seems indeed a ubiquitous theme throughout all recorded history, and not just in the West…Ancient Egypt, the Middle East, the Orient, India all did the same.  A cursory consideration would suggest it arose in the Neolithic with the onset...

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