Tag Archives: Europe

Coals to Newcastle

289-275 million years ago

It seems like Gaia really went on a bender in the late Carboniferous, getting drunk on oxygen. By some estimates, the atmosphere was over 30% oxygen back then, compared to 21% today. Living things took advantage of the opportunity. Insects apparently face an upper limit in size because they rely on diffusion through tracheas instead of forced respiration through lungs to get oxygen into their bodies. With more oxygen in the air, this limit was raised. The Carboniferous saw dragonflies with a wingspan up to 70 centimeters, and body lengths up to 30 centimeters, comparable to a seagull.

dragonfly

This happened because plants were turning carbon dioxide into organic matter and free oxygen, and the organic matter was accumulating. With carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere, the late Carboniferous and subsequent early Permian saw a reduced greenhouse effect, and global cooling. This was another Ice Age, with ice caps around the southern pole.

A lot of organic carbon ended up being buried. Much of the world’s coal, especially high quality anthracite, has its origin in Carboniferous tropical forests. Western Europe and eastern North America lay in the tropics at the time, and got a particularly generous allotment of coal. Three hundred million years later this bounty would fuel the early Industrial Revolution. (Thanks partly to some of my Welsh ancestors, who helped dig it up back in the day.)

coal age

Europe of nations

May 1989 – September 1992

The 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union was not widely anticipated. Academic Sovietologists were probably less likely than knowledgeable non-academics to anticipate that the Union was not going to last. One of the small number of people who got it right was public intellectual (and long-time Senator from New York) Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He argued a decade earlier that the Soviet system faced serious economic problems and that ethnic divisions were likely to lead to a collapse of the Union, as they had to earlier colonial empires like the British.

Being of Irish ancestry helped Moynihan to appreciate the continuing importance of ethnicity and nationalism under the cover of universalist ideologies. As warfare diminished in importance over the later twentieth century, the earlier Orwellian nightmare of a world divided into a few warring super-states receded, and an older vision of a Europe of nations revived. In 1900, neither Ireland, nor Poland, nor the Czech Republic was an independent country; by 2000 they were all running their own affairs – not because they built unstoppable military machines, but because they mobilized feelings of imagined community.

However there was a dark side to the return to nationalism. The newly independent nations of Eastern Europe were successful in resolving older border conflicts partly owing to a wave of mass killing and mass expulsions during and after the Second World War that tidied up the ethnic map. In Yugoslavia, where different nationalities were still heavily intermingled, the return to nationalism resulted in a civil war that killed about 130,000 people, and introduced the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to the language.

At the time, the fall of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact, and of communism is Eastern Europe, was widely seen as the decisive victory of one ideology – liberal capitalist democracy – over another. As it has turned out however, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe did not represent The End of History, even European history. Nationalism helped finish off the Soviet Empire; more recently it has emerged as a challenge to the multinational institutions of the West, NATO and the European Union.

On a scholarly note: Is ethnic nationalism an expression in the modern world of an evolved human psychology, a psychology shaped by the process of kin selection, as some scholars have argued? I considered the matter in an article, Kin selection and ethnic group selection (and here’s a blog post). The short answer: it’s complicated. Here’s my conclusion to the paper

Both the study of prehistory and political psychology are changing rapidly in the face of new evidence from biology, especially genetics. It would be intellectually satisfying if we could integrate these findings under the heading of an already existing theory, by equating ethnicity with kinship and applying kin selection theory. But we’ve seen that this won’t work. Ethnicity, like kinship, may have to do with shared genes. There may even be such a thing as ethnic nepotism. But an evolutionary theory of ethnicity – even the barebones theory presented here – has to be something more than the theory of kin selection, because of the way ethnicity is entangled with some of the most complicated aspects of human sociality: norms, rules, and political ideals, and their connection with large-scale population processes.

When the Berlin Wall fell

9 November 1989

I’m not sure of the age range of readers here, but I’m old enough to have been in Berlin, and East Germany, just months after the Berlin Wall fell. I’ve still got an expired passport with a DDR (German Democratic Republic = East Germany) stamp in it. I visited with my wife, who knows Germany, East and West, better than I do. West and East Germans mingled throughout the streets of Berlin, but you could easily tell the latter by their shabby clothing. We ate in a Cuban restaurant in East Berlin – the tacky socialist bloc version of tacky Polynesian restaurants in the United States. Most of the people we talked to were still in a state of euphoria about the Wende (the change) – I still remember the beatific smile our waitress gave us when we asked her – although we also ran into those who had had modest security under communism, and who worried about how they would fare under capitalism.

According to one story, Schiller’s Ode to Joy, set by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, was originally an Ode to Freedom; Prussian censors forced Schiller to change the words. Leonard Bernstein turned it back it an Ode to Freedom in a concert in Berlin in December, 1989.

Germans took a long time to go from writing music about freedom and cherishing their inner freedom, to being politically free. Here’s a student song going back to the nineteenth century

 

 

Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger erschießen
mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

 

Ich denke was ich will und was mich beglücket,
doch alles in der Still’, und wie es sich schicket.
Mein Wunsch, mein Begehren kann niemand verwehren,
es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

 

Ich liebe den Wein, mein Mädchen vor allen,
sie tut mir allein am besten gefallen.
Ich sitz nicht alleine bei meinem Glas Weine,
mein Mädchen dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker,
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke.
Denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei. Die Gedanken sind frei!

Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
No man can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free! 

I think what I want, and what pleases me,
all in silence, and as it should be.
My wish and desire, no one can deny me
and so it will always be: Thoughts are free!

 

I love wine, and my girl above all,
Only her I like best of all.
I’m not alone with my glass of wine,
my girl is with me: Thoughts are free!

 

And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
all these are futile works,
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls in two. Thoughts are free!

Ballad of the soldier’s wife

Here’s the song by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht,
performed by Marianne Faithfull (video) and by Amanda Palmer (video).

For the role of plunder in the Nazi political economy, there’s Götz Aly Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.

Here are the lyrics:

Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the ancient city of Prague?
From Prague came a pair of high heeled shoes,
With a kiss or two
Came the high heeled shoes
From the ancient city of Prague.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Oslo over the sound?
From Oslo there came a collar of fur,
How it pleases her
The little collar of fur
From Oslo over the sound.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the wealth of Amsterdam?
From Amsterdam he got her a hat,
She looked sweet in that,
In the little Dutch hat
From the wealth of Amsterdam.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Brussels in Belgian land?
From Brussels he sent her the laces so rare
To have and to wear,
Those laces so rare
From Brussels in Belgian land.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Paris city of light?
In Paris he got her a silken gown,
It was envied in town
That silken gown
From Paris city of light.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the south, from Bucharest?
From Bucharest he sent her a shirt
Embroidered and pert,
That Romanian shirt
From the south, from Bucharest.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the far-off Russian land?
From Russia there came just a widow’s veil
For her dead to bewail
In her widow’s veil
From the far-off Russian land,
From the far-off Russian land.

Commerce and coalitions

1864-1872

The theory of comparative advantage is one of the really great theories in the behavioral sciences. It implies that even if country E has an absolute disadvantage at producing every kind of good compared to country P, it can still gain by finding goods for which it has a comparative advantage, and specialize in producing those, and trading for other goods with P.

But the theory of comparative advantage (like another great theory,  the theory of kin selection) needs to be handled with care. Even if a country benefits in the aggregate from international trade, there may be losers as well as winners. As the world came to be increasingly tied together by international trade, conflicts over free trade and protectionism moved to the fore of politics. In nineteenth century England, the free traders, representing industrialists and urban workers, took control, opening the country to cheap imported food. But in the 1870s, both Germany and the United States arrived at political settlements that favored protectionism over free trade.

Germany was unified in 1871. The densely populated country had a comparative advantage in labor and a comparative disadvantage in capital and land. Free trade for Germany would have meant specializing in labor intensive goods, and importing capital intensive goods from more industrialized countries like England, and cheap food from the more thinly populated Americas and Eastern Europe. Instead, Germany put up high tariff barriers to protect her industrialists and landowners – a “marriage of iron and rye.” Germany’s industrial working class was pro-free trade (so was Karl Marx), but their main political vehicle, the Social Democratic Party, was excluded from the government. This political settlement lasted right up to the First World War; on some accounts, the fraying of the protectionist ruling coalition was a factor pushing Germany toward war.

The United States had a different protectionist coalition. In the 1870s the country had an abundance of land, but it was short of labor and still in the early stages of industrialization. Protectionism, supported by Republicans, promoted national industry, and kept high-wage American workers from having to compete with low-wage workers overseas. The agricultural South and West were the big losers under this scheme, but there was a compensating advantage for the South. The compromise of 1876 put the Republican, Hayes, in the White House in exchange for ending Reconstruction in the South. White Southerners then had a free hand to set up a one party state under the Democrats, committed to black disenfranchisement and white rule. When the upstart Populists started winning support in the South and West on a free trade platform, they were beaten back by Southern Democrats playing the race card. The condominium between Republicans and Democrats lasted until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In Latin America at the same time period, the free traders were largely in the ascendant. In Brazil, for example, the ruling coalition stood for café com leite – coffee with milk – São Paulo coffee planters and Minas Gerais cattle ranchers committed to an export oriented economy. Brazil had a lot of vacant land that could be opened up for coffee production, and was able to attract European immigrants to help with the harvest.

In Guatemala by contrast, free trade took a more sinister turn. From 1871, a “liberal” government facilitated the expropriation of Indian lands to promote coffee production, all in the name of progress. Indians were recruited to work on the plantations by a combination of forced labor and debt peonage. The country came to resemble a penal colony under the control of a large standing army.

Joseph Conrad spent his early life as a sailor, and had plenty of chance to see the dark underside of globalization, most famously the Congo rubber trade as depicted in Heart of Darkness. In Nostromo, set in a fictional Latin American republic, he wrote

Liberals! The words one knows so well have a nightmarish meaning in this country. Liberty, democracy, patriotism, government – all of them have a flavor of folly and murder.

Debt and democracy

1750-1765

General rule: one can raise higher taxes, in proportion to the liberty of the subjects; and one is forced to moderate them to the degree that servitude increases. This has always been, and will always remain so. It is a rule drawn from nature, which does not vary at all; one finds it in all countries, in England, in Holland, and in all states in which liberty becomes degraded, right down to Turkey.

Montesquieu

The Seven Years War (1756-1763) was a bunch of major powers (Austria, France, Russia) ganging up to cut Prussia down to size. The English joined in on the Prussian side, on the theory that an enemy of France was a friend of theirs. The war was also a world war, long before World War One, involving fighting as far afield as North America and India. In this respect, it was a win for England, and a loss for France, with the French losing Quebec and India.

The war brought home an important advantage of a constitutional state over an absolutist one. England was able to raise higher taxes per capita on its subjects because they were voting for the taxes themselves, through Parliament. And England was able to borrow money for the war on easier terms than France, because English lenders were more confident that Parliament wouldn’t default on its debts: many of those who bought English war bonds either stood in Parliament, or voted for those who did. In spite of the “absolutist” label, French kings had a harder time squeezing money out of their subjects, and resorted to a lot of dubious expedients. For example, the government raised money by selling life annuities to investors: pay a lump sum for the annuity, and the government would pay back a fixed amount for every year the beneficiary was alive (sort of reverse life insurance). This led, among other things, to syndicates of investors buying annuities on behalf of groups of young girls (such as The Thirty Geneva Maidens), judged the best bet, actuarially, for long life expectancies.

Generally they had to have reached the age of seven so as to be beyond the risk of smallpox. These maidens received the finest medical care, and Geneva’s wealthy bourgeoisie followed their health in the newspapers – not surprising given the huge investments that rested on their shoulders.

But the government was in such financial straits that it eventually started paying only a fraction of the promised annuities. The military weakness of the French state, stemming from its fiscal weakness, was the major cause of the French Revolution.

It would be nice to follow Montesquieu, and draw an improving moral lesson from this: constitutional liberty beats absolutism. But things played out differently in Eastern Europe, where there was less of a commercial sector to tap, and governments depended more on coercion – serfs serving their lords, lords serving the state – to keep up as great powers. There, the great constitutional state – the elective monarchy of Poland – was reduced to a second rank power, and eventually eliminated entirely. The most impressive military power, relative to its size, was Prussia, “not a country with an army, but an army with a country.” This was not the last time that military exigencies would push social evolution in very different directions in Western and Eastern Europe.

See A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy

Witches

1587-1611

“It is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.”

Montaigne, “Of Cripples”

Among the Gebusi, a small tribal society on the edge of the New Guinea highlands, all the deaths that we would call natural were attributed to witchcraft. Most natural deaths led to an inquest to determine who the witch was. Children and young women were pretty safe from accusation; others were fair game. Witchcraft was a capital crime, and one third of alldeaths of adults in the immediate pre-contact period were killings of suspected witches! The Gebusi are an extreme case, not typical of New Guinea, or of tribal societies in general. But witchcraft beliefs, and punishment of accused witches, have been widespread across cultures, including Europe in past centuries.

A common idea about European witchcraft accusations and executions is that they’re “medieval,” both in the literal sense of happening in the Middle Ages, and in the figurative sense of expressing the spirit of a dim and barbarous age. Monty Python gave comic expression to both ideas. But neither idea is true. For much of the Middle Ages, the Church condemned the idea that people could fly through air on broomsticks, and similar beliefs, as pagan superstitions, unbefitting good Christians. It is only toward the end of the Middle Ages that the fear of witches starts to take off. And it is at the beginning of the Modern Age – the Age of Discovery, the time of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the early Scientific Revolution – that the witch craze reaches its height. Most witchcraft trials and executions in the West happen between 1550 and 1700. The total number executed is probably in the high tens of thousands, with additional tens of thousands persecuted but not killed. About 80% of the victims are women.

witch trial chronology

And some of the most educated men in Europe contribute to the witch craze (although some are skeptics, like Montaigne). In the 1570s, Henri Bouget, a respected French jurist, calculates that there are 1,800,00 witches active in Europe. Slightly later, Jean Bodin, a major figure in early modern political theory, argues that witches are so dangerous and devious that normal judicial safeguards should be suspended: there can be no presumption of innocence for accused witches. King James VI of Scotland (=James I of England) writes a whole book on witches, Daemonologie, and organizes witchcraft persecutions in Scotland; the witches in Macbeth are Shakespeare’s nod to James.

A new information technology, the printing press, doesn’t just foster the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. It also helps the witch craze go viral. The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches), a 400 page witchcraft treatise originally published in 1486, goes on to become a best seller, through multiple editions. It is just one of a number of treatises and tracts on witchcraft pouring out of the printing presses.

witch geography

And the witch craze is also tied up with the religious struggles of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Witchcraft persecutions are strongly associated, both in time and space, with confessional battles between Protestants and Catholics. Where Protestants and Catholics are in competition with one another – especially southern and western Germany and neighboring areas – they try to outdo one another in their zeal for persecuting witches. Where one denomination or the other is securely in power – Catholics in Spain and Italy, Lutherans in Scandinavia – witchcraft persecutions are mild. Although the persecutors wouldn’t have admitted it, witches are innocent collateral damage in the great religious struggles of the age.

Philology

“Just don’t take any course where you have to read Beowulf.

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) to Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) in Annie Hall

It seems difficult for people nowadays to get a handle on the intellectual side of the Renaissance. The Age of Discovery, sure. The Scientific Revolution, sure. But the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy before Columbus and da Gama, well before Copernicus and Galileo. Even before Gutenberg. So what was the big deal? Or was it such a big deal (apart from the amazing art, of course)?

A lot of the problem is that we’ve lost touch with one of the great intellectual achievements of the last 600 years, the discipline of philology. Below is a Google Ngram showing the fortunes of two academic words, philology and ecology (i.e. their frequencies in English language books).

ecology vs philology

Most  everyone today has some idea what ecology is, while even educated people are likely to draw a blank on philology. But, as the figure suggests, it wasn’t always that way. In his excellent recent book Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Humanities, James Turner writes (p. x)

It used to be chic, dashing … Philology reigned as king of the sciences, the pride of the first great modern universities. … It meant far more than the study of old texts. Its explorations ranged from the religion of ancient Israel through the lays of medieval troubadours to the tongues of American Indians – and to rampant theorizing about the origin of language itself.

Philology’s golden age was the nineteenth century. This blog has covered just a few of its achievements – the reconstuction of Proto-Indo-European language and culture, and the Higher Criticism of the Bible. Philology flourished especially Germany, and its decline had partly to do with the special path of Germany in the twentieth century. But philology was also at the center of the Italian Renaissance, allowing a much clearer view of the Classical past. Famously, in the 1440s, Lorenzo Valla used a close study of language to demonstrate that the Donation of Constantine, in which the East Roman Emperor supposedly granted the pope authority over the West Roman empire, was a medieval fake.

And philology puts in a good showing in two of the twentieth century’s literary masterworks. In Episode 14, “The Oxen of the Sun,” in Joyce’s Ulysses, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, as the course of a pregnancy is narrated in a historical succession of English prose styles. And The Lord of the Rings might be considered a work of philological science fiction; rather than turn to physics or biology to build his imagined world, ala Poul Anderson or Hal Clement, Tolkien turned to the science of philology. In The Road to Middle Earth, Tom Shippey does justice to this side of Tolkien’s romance. (Tolkien however lost the battle to keep philology at the center of the Oxford English curriculum.)

Back to the future with Renaissance Man

1441-1473

The Renaissance walked backward into the future, with eyes fixed on the past, scorning the Middle Ages for Antiquity. The Renaissance was not the first or last epoch to be blinded by “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome,” but the Renaissance, at the beginning of the modern age, caught a particularly bad case of nostalgia. This period is famous for recovering a sense of history. (Donald Brown argues that this has to do with Italians – and then urban Westerners in general – moving from a closed to an open class system; this in turn has to do with the decline of serfdom and the rise of cities in the West.) The Renaissance also coincided with the beginning of the modern scientific revolution. Not coincidentally, the pioneers of the scientific revolution, all the way up to Newton, considered that they were doing intellectual archaeology, recovering the Lost Wisdom of the Ancients.

vitruvian-man

Leonardo da Vinci – not quite a scientist, but equally fascinated by art and technology – is an early example, from the time when the Two Cultures were one. Lucio Russo, who argues that the Hellenistic age produced a Forgotten Revolution in science, puts it this way:

The oft-heard comment that Leonardo’s genius managed to transcend the culture of his time is amply justified. But his was not a science-fiction voyage into the future so much as a plunge into a distant past. Leonardo’s drawings often show objects that could not have been built in his time because the relevant technology did not exist. This is not due to a special genius for divining the future, but to the mundane fact that behind those drawings there were older drawings from a time when technology was far more advanced.