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Friday, March 26, 2010

Book Review - Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Jared Diamond. To quote from the book itself, it is "A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years." Diamond has attempted to explain why world history has taken the course it has. But he's more interested in large scale trends and causes, as opposed to battle by battle or even war by war tracking of history. Or, to put it another way, he was taking a more scientific approach to history, as opposed to just stamp collecting. Wikipedia has a good overview of the book, so I'll only present a brief summary here.

To use an example, we all learned in school of the European conquest of the Americas, even though the Europeans were vastly outnumered. We've been taught many of the factors that lead to that result, most notably the superior weapons technology of the Europeans, horses, and the diseases that Europeans brought with them. Diamond noted all these proximate causes (and a few others), but then moved on to ask why the Europeans had developed those advantages, and not the other way around. Why hadn't Motecuhzoma sent ships to conquer Spain?

According to Diamond, much of the advantage of certain regions was a result of geography and the indigineous plants and animals. To help support his case, Diamond looked at native plant species around the world, how nutritious they were, and how easily they could be domesticated. Wheat, for example, is a very nutritious crop, with a fairly high protein content for a plant. It required only a single mutation in wild wheat, inhibiting the seeds from falling off the crop when ripe, to make it suitable for agriculture. Teosinte, by comparison, required many more mutations to become domestic corn (maize), which isn't as nutritious as wheat. As it turns out, Eurasia has a greater number of nutritious, easily domesticated plants than any other region.

Eurasia also had a higher number of potential livestock candidates. In many regions of the world, the Pleistocene extinction event killed off most large mammals at the end of the last ice age (there is debate over the cause of this extinction, but that's largely irrelevant to Diamond's hypothesis). If you don't have large wild mammals, you can't domesticate them into livestock. But you can't just domesticate any large animal. In this section of the book, Diamond quoted Tolstoy, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." There are many traits an animal has to have to make it suitable for domestication (diet, behavior, lack of aggression, social structure, etc.), but missing any one of them would make an animal unfit for domestication. Diamond used this reasoning to show why, for example, zebras weren't domesticated in Africa like horses were in Eurasia, or why bears or rhinos weren't suitable to domesticate for food or as draft animals.

Diamond went on to argue how differences in geography allowed agriculture and domestic animals (referred to collectively as food production) to spread more easily in some regions than others once they had been developed. Eurasia, without any great barriers such as deserts, and with an east-west axis that meant the climate was more similar along its breadth, facilitated this spread more so than other regions.

Once regions had developed food production, they could maintain higher population densities. Initially this gave them a military advantage just through shear numbers. But eventually, by providing for an artisan class that didn't have to grow its own food, it led to technological advantages, as well. The high population densities, along with domestic animals, also contributed to those regions having endemic diseases that didn't exist elsewhere.

As an example of how Diamond was attempting to explain the grand patterns in history over tens of thousands of years, he pointed out that someone could ask why, out of all the areas of Eurasia, Western Europe currently dominates the world stage, and not Eastern Asia. He stated that this simply might be a short term 'blip', and not part of the long term trend (just look at the resurgence of modern China).

As I said, this is only a brief summary of the book. Diamond had many more reasons and examples that he used to support his hypothesis.

Some parts were more convincing than others. It also didn't help that in a few examples he brought up that I already knew a bit about, I saw some mistakes. For example, when discussing ancient human history, he compared the Out of Africa hypothesis to the multiregional hypothesis. The weight of evidence strongly favors the 'Out of Africa' hypothesis, but Diamond seemed a little more ambiguous in the book. In another section, discussing why cultures might be resistant to adopting certain technologies, he brought up the old QWERTY/DVORAK controversy, claiming that DVORAK is clearly superior to QWERTY, but market forces have kept it from being adopted. This is an old urban myth that isn't true. There haven't been many actual studies comparing the two keyboard layouts, and the studies that have been done don't show a very big advantage of one design over the other (certain advantages of each layout are offset by different advantages of the other layout).

Overall, I thought the book was very interesting, and that Diamond did a good job of presenting his case. I'd definitely recommend it.

Update 2010-03-29 - Slightly revised wording in 4th from last paragraph.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Website Update-New & Revised Religious Essays

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI've added two new essays to my Religious Essays section, along with a collection of quotes (for anyone who reads this blog regularly, the two essays will be familiar). I've also revised most of the other essays.

Friday, March 12, 2010

How Monotheistic Is Christianity?

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismChristianity claims to be monotheistic (as do the other Abrahamic religions). It's right there in the first commandment. But if it weren't for the Christians' own insistence on this term, would people really label Christianity as monotheistic?

I'll ignore the trinity for this discussion. The father son relationship would certainly seem to suggest at least two deities, but let's just accept the Christian explanation, and assume that they're different manifestations of the same god.

Let's start off looking at the Catholic saints. There are patron saints for everything, from various illnesses, to occupations, to places. I remember when my wife and I were selling our house, my sister in law suggested we bury a statue of Saint Joseph in our front yard. These characters are deities in all but name.

But not all sects of Christianity accept the saints, so let's move on to another character from Christianity - Satan. Here's a being so powerful that he was able to fight a war against Yahweh. He has his own kingdom, Hell. And many sects of Christianity believe that he's powerful enough to influence events in the universe, and that he's going to wage another war against Yahweh at some point in the future.

Most Christians also believe in angels and demons. Archangels are even mentioned by name in the Bible and other religious texts, such as Michael, Gabriel, Luke, Raphael, Uriel, Metatron, and Azrael. Many Christians also accept the concept of guardian angels. So, while the angels may not be as powerful Yahweh, they do have powers that they can use to influence the world.

Now consider the Greek pantheon. Gaia was the first deity, from whom all the other gods came. After the war between the Olympian Gods and the Titans, there were only three main gods who shared control of the universe - Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. Yes, there were other lesser gods, but they all answered to those three. It seems like this is fairly comparable to Christianity. There are two primary gods, Yahweh and Satan, and all the lesser gods answer to them. The biggest difference seems to be that Yahweh isn't just a powerful god, he's also the creator god. But other polytheistic religions also have the creator god as the most powerful one (such as Vishnu's role in Hinduism).

Considering all this, it seems that calling Christianity a monotheistic religion is mostly an issue of semantics.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Interstellar Potatoes

Alien FoodI like potatoes. A lot. I half jokingly tell people that I'm glad I was born after Europeans discovered the New World, or else I wouldn't get to eat potatoes. But, if I'd been born a thousand years ago, I wouldn't have known what I was missing. And that got me to thinking - what foods might we discover in the future that I'm missing out on, now. Most of the surface of Earth has been explored (if not by Europeans, at least by other cultures), so most of the good foods on this planet have probably already been discovered. But what about if we ever start exploring other planets? What might we find then? And that got me thinking some more - would we even be able to eat what we found on other planets. Of course, we'd probably be able to chew it and pass it through our digestive tracts, but how nutritious would it be? I don't know enough about biology to know the answer, but how flexible are our digestive systems? Are they tuned to the molecules created by the DNA based life here on Earth? I know that we need to consume certain molecules, such as vitamin C for example, because our bodies can't synthesize them on their own (so we'd probably need Earthly supplements for those). But for the molecules that we can synthesize, can we just use matter in any form, or does it already need to be assembled in a form that we can use?

Maybe this doesn't really matter for my culinary question. Since we're talking about the future here, by the time that humans have the technology to travel to other planets, we'll probably have the technology to engineer gut microbes to digest that food for us. Maybe I should go crygenically freeze myself, and get thawed out every thousand years or so to see what new and delicious foods are in humanity's pantry.

Added 2010-03-09 After I wrote this entry, I sent off the same question to a friend of mine who happens to be a biologist. Here was his response.

Good question. Actually its funny that you asked me this now because my lecture on Monday is on digestion. My short and unsatisifying answer is it depends. First, it would depend on whether alien life is carbon based. If it is, I think that there is a very good chance we could digest it unless it is in forms that our digestive enzymes cannot break down, like cellulose. In order to use the nutrients that are in the food we eat, we must break them down into molecules that are small enough that they can be absorbed. In other words, we can't directly use proteins, lipids, and complex carbohydrates, but if we break them down we can reassemble their components into the forms that we need. The enzymes we use to break down what we eat (like amylase that breaks down starch and glycogen) ARE tuned in, as you put it, to the types of food that we eat. So if alien life had some sort of complex chemistry that we do not have the enzymes to process then we would not be able to digest it. The second issue is whether it was somehow toxic, which seems to me to be reasonably likely. If alien life had a different balance of elements, which I assume it would (unless it is derived from the same origin as life on earth, which is possible) I think the chances are good that some of them would be toxic to our systems.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

McLeroy Out

Woo Hoo!In yesterday's primary, the incumbent State Board of Education member, Don McLeroy, lost to the challenger, Thomas Ratliff. I can't say how happy I am that McLeroy is going to be off the BoE. Most of the news stories I've read about the primary bring up McLeroy's stance on evolution, which is certainly a major problem, but it certainly wasn't the only one. I've covered a lot of this recently, so I'll just direct readers to this blog entry for a brief summary of McLeroy's shenanigans (English standards, social studies standards, back door dealings, 'standing up to the experts'). Or, go read this essay from McLeroy's own site, where he downplays teaching children critical thinking skills. The election was close, though, so those of us in Texas will have to remain vigilent in future elections. But for the time being, we can breathe a little easier, knowing that there's one less kook affecting our children's education.

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