We really ought to pay more attention to historians

One of my worries, as I have benefited from choosing a career in the sciences as the world goes mad for practical educations, is that I see all the non-STEM fields being neglected by a capitalist perspective on universities. This is not good. Balance in all things, please, and we should support the entirety of knowledge, not just the bits that give us missiles and antibiotics (although, at the same time, I think students in non-STEM fields would benefit from a little more math and science — liberal arts educations are currently a bit asymmetric, with science students expected to broaden their horizons while the history majors get to ignore calculus and physics).

So here’s a historian taking the “STEM Bros” to task, entirely justifiably.

The last two decades have seen the rise of the Irritating STEM Bro.™ Two well-known examples are Neil deGrasse Tyson and Steven Pinker: Great Men from Important Science Backgrounds who blithely talk and write about the history of their topic as if they are expertly qualified polymaths. Both use the word ‘medieval’ pejoratively, and see the history of science as an inexorable, teleological march of progress from the fantastic Classical Period to the Terrible Medieval Dark Ages and then woo Renaissance! And then things gradually getting better and better until hurrah! We are enlightened and clever in the 21st century!

Quite simply, though, this is insulting, ahistorical nonsense. The problem, which Irritating STEM Bros™ don’t understand – or more likely don’t want to acknowledge – is that our modern categories of ‘science’, ‘religion’, and ‘magic’ do not map in any meaningful way onto the medieval period. So let’s first examine this problem of categories.

The whole thing is entertaining, but this bit made me laugh.

Psychologist Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined has as its central thesis the idea that violence has declined over time, and that we now live in the most peaceful era yet. This is, he tells us, due to five main developments: the monopolisation on the use of force by the judiciary stemming from the rise of the modern nation-state (as expressed in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan of the mid-17th century); commerce, feminisation, cosmopolitanism and the ‘escalator of reason’.

It’s this last factor, which is of most interest here, this ‘escalator of reason’ which says that we now apply ‘rationality’ to human affairs. This, Pinker tells us, means there’s less violence in modern society than there was because we’re more rational. And he’s not shy to use the Awful Irrational Medieval Dark Ages as a counterpoint to the Brilliant Post-Enlightenment Modern Times of Awesome.

Why laugh? Because I have eyes and ears and I live in 21st century United States of America, in a red county, in a town that is full of churches, and I can look around and see all the “rationality”. 40% think a greedy, incompetent grifter was a great president, and about the same number think God created the Earth in a literal 6 days. I suspect that your typical medieval peasant wouldn’t have been quite so delusional. Not that they wouldn’t have had their own follies, but sheesh — people are still people, and haven’t become noticeably more intelligent in the last thousand years.

Now I’m hungry for snails

They’re still digging things out of Pompeii? Cool. Here’s an open food stand that’s beautifully painted and would tempt me even now:

Known as a termopolium, Latin for hot drinks counter, the shop was discovered in the archaeological park’s Regio V site, which is not yet open the public, and unveiled on Saturday.

Traces of nearly 2,000-year-old food were found in some of the deep terra cotta jars containing hot food which the shop keeper lowered into a counter with circular holes.

The front of the counter was decorated with brightly coloured frescoes, some depicting animals that were part of the ingredients in the food sold, such as a chicken and two ducks hanging upside down.

Analysis revealed traces of pork, fish, snails and beef remaining in the cylindrical containers. What I really need to know is what spices were used and how they were prepared, and I’m not handing over a single as until I smell the food being cooked.

Can the Wehrmacht be absolved?

They were just soldiers fighting for their country, right? Not Nazis. Comrades in arms, brave fighters, etc.

Three Arrows says no, and I learned a lot of things. The Holocaust and WWII were not separate things.

The officer class was fully enrolled in the antisemitic agenda, and were explicitly committed to genocide and enslavement. They kept their soldiers informed of the same, and they all knew exactly what they were fighting for. In particular, you have to sympathize with how Russia was shaped by this event: the Eastern Front wasn’t just a war, it was a campaign to exterminate the native population and enslave the few survivors to serve as captive labor to German colonizers. The Wehrmacht knew this. How could they not?

Don’t get cocky, fellow Americans. He ends on this quote from an American president.


160 years ago today

Darwin’s Origin of Species was published on 24 November 1859, and people are still mad about it.

You know, biologists don’t really regard this like some people do their Bible. It’s an old, flawed book that is now rather outdated, but contained some really smart ideas that sparked a revolution in biology. We don’t take it literally. We don’t even use it in our classrooms anymore, and we don’t think it’s a particularly good place to start your study of the science, unless you’re deeply into the history of science.

We look at it the same way we think everyone ought to regard the Christian Bible, or the Koran: critically, representing a key moment in the history of ideas.

Maybe just stop naming things after people, period?

David Shiffman suggests that we should stop naming species after awful people, which sounds like good common sense, but those arcane taxonomic rules don’t allow for changing it.

Currently, there is no procedure under ICZN rules to change the scientific name of a species because that species is named after someone whose crimes against humanity offend the modern conscience, and the taxonomists I spoke to for this essay told me that they don’t see this changing anytime soon. This is perhaps something that we should think about; after all, “there’s no way to do this under the current rules” doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done. At the very least, however, we should probably consider no longer naming *new* species after awful humans from this point forward.

Except…I can already see a problem with that. Awful humans may not be recognized as awful humans at the time of the naming. His own given example illustrates that problem.

At the opening of 2019’s Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Snowbird, local host committee co-chair Al Savitsky of Utah State University told us about a local reptile with an inglorious common name: the common small-blotched lizard. These lizards have some unusual reproductive behaviors that have attracted the interest of herpetologists, but for the purpose of this essay let’s just consider their scientific name: Uta stansburiana, named in 1852. They are named after Howard Stansbury, an explorer in the Army Corps of Engineers who led a famous expedition to study the flora and fauna of what’s now Utah and collected the type specimens of this lizard. By the standards of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, the formal scientific body involved in species names, naming a species after an explorer who collected the first specimens of a species is not only appropriate, but fairly standard. However, while Stansbury was an influential naturalist, he was also a terrible person—he was a vocal supporter of and played a key role in a locally-infamous massacre of Timpanogos Native Americans in which more than 100 were killed.

Yikes. I knew about Stansbury already — not only did he participate in the planning and execution of the massacre, he had like 50 of the dead Indians decapitated so he could ship the heads back to Washington DC for “scientific study”. He wasn’t considered awful at the time, that was just standard operating procedure for Western colonizers. You’d get a blank look then if you suggested this was not worthy behavior that merited allowing a lizard to be named after him.

Furthermore, there is a mountain range west of Salt Lake City named after him, the Stansbury mountains, and a big island on the edge of the Great Salt Lake named Stansbury Island. Geographers and geologists maybe have to take some responsibility here, too.

(It’s a very nice island, as desert islands go. Lots of lizards and scorpions and spiders. Good camping and picnicking in those mountains, too.)

One potential solution: don’t allow individual human names in scientific nomenclature at all. There was a long period where anatomists were naming organs and parts of organs and cells after other scientists, which when you think about it, is kind of squicky — who the heck was Paul Langerhans, and why are cells in my body named after him? That has definitely gone out of fashion today, and you’d be considered egotistical if you started naming body parts after your good buddies from medical school, and expected everyone else to go along with your convention.

While we’re at it, isn’t it odd to be living on some continents named after some otherwise forgotten Italian guy who made a couple of visits half a millennium ago?

What horrors lurk in the past of your sleepy little town?

Today’s blast from the past: I know Olalla! I’ve never been there, but I’ve passed by it and seen the signs.

Today the little town of Olalla, a ferry’s ride across Puget Sound from Seattle, is a mostly forgotten place, the handful of dilapidated buildings a testament to the hardscrabble farmers, loggers and fisherman who once tried to make a living among the blackberry vines and Douglas firs. But in the 1910s, Olalla was briefly on the front page of international newspapers for a murder trial the likes of which the region has never seen before or since.

I don’t know if there is a ferry to Olalla, though…it’s on the other side of Vashon Island, and I’ve only gone by it by looping south around the sound and up towards Bremerton. It’s a sleepy quiet place.

But oh yeah, there was a famous murder there? It was before my time, and I certainly never heard about anything exciting in Olalla.

…Hazzard attracted her fair share of patients. One was Daisey Maud Haglund, a Norwegian immigrant who died in 1908 after fasting for 50 days under Hazzard’s care. Haglund left behind a three-year-old son, Ivar, who would later go on to open the successful Seattle-based seafood restaurant chain that bears his name. But the best-remembered of Hazzard’s patients are a pair of British sisters named Claire and Dorothea (known as Dora) Williamson, the orphaned daughters of a well-to-do English army officer.

Wow, I’ve been to Ivar’s Acres of Clams, and I recall those frequent commercials on TV in my youth. His mother died? How?

It’s a shocking story. “Dr” Linda Hazzard was one of those quacks with a cure-all treatment for all kinds of ailments, and she had a “clinic” where her patients got a really cheaply implemented method: she starved them. No food but a thin vegetable broth, with enemas.

The institute’s countryside setting appealed to the sisters almost as much as the purported medical benefits of Hazzard’s regimen. They dreamed of horses grazing the fields, and vegetable broths made with produce fresh from nearby farms. But when the women reached Seattle in February 1911 after signing up for treatment, they were told the sanitarium in Olalla wasn’t quite ready. Instead, Hazzard set them up in apartment on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, where she began feeding them a broth made from canned tomatoes. A cup of it twice a day, and no more. They were given hours-long enemas in the bathtub, which was covered with canvas supports when the girls started to faint during their treatment.

By the time the Williamsons were transferred to the Hazzard home in Olalla two months later, they weighed about 70 pounds, according to one worried neighbor.

It was a very effective treatment. After the patient was thoroughly debilitated, Hazzard drained their bank accounts until they died. When the law caught up to her over the emaciated corpses of her victims, she was convicted of manslaughter and served a two year sentence, and later built a sanitarium in Olalla.

These kinds of nightmares can be found everywhere, I guess — it’s how Stephen King made a fortune, inventing bizarre histories for normal towns.

Nothing like that could have happened in Morris, Minnesota, could it?

Oh, right. I’m sitting next door to an old Indian school. Worse things probably occurred here than I can imagine.

History can be horrifying

Case in point: that time when human fat was a valuable commodity.

Whether procured from plant, animal, or human sources, in one form or another fat has been an important element in the European pharmacopoeia since ancient times. For reasons that are not quite clear, a medicinal interest in human fat was especially pronounced in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1543, the physician Andreas Vesalius instructed anatomists who boiled bones for the study of skeletons to carefully collect the layer of fat “for the benefit of the masses, who ascribe to it a considerable efficacy in obliterating scars and fostering the growth of nerves and tendons.” Vesalius knew what he was talking about. At the time, human fat was widely considered—and not just by “the masses”—to be efficacious in healing wounds, and was typically harvested from the recently deceased. In October 1601, after a particularly bloody battle during the Siege of Ostend, Dutch surgeons descended upon the battlefield to return with “bags full of human fat,” presumably to treat their own soldiers’ wounds.

Yikes. Let’s go kill some people, and then smear their bloody greasy bits on any injuries we might receive. I’d normally think that shooting medics was an evil act, but what do you do when you watch their doctors descend on your friendly fallen to rip out their guts?

Once you got home, you’d find there was an active trade in the bodies of executed criminals, and any other dead people they could get their hands on, to sell in the local drugstore.

The wise druggist kept large supplies of human fat (Axungia hominis) on hand alongside numerous other solids and liquids derived from human corpses, a class of materia medica known as “mummy.” If fortune smiled on the fat trade when the rate of executions increased, it would have been positively beaming during the Terror days of the French Revolution. According to some reports, certain Parisian butchers started offering their customers an exciting new item: graisse de guillotiné, supposedly procured from the corpses of the freshly executed.

I wonder if Walgreens has any in stock? In a capitalist economy, creating a demand for graisse de guillotiné might actually make billionaires worth something to humanity.

Happy Darwin Day?

I’m a big fan of Darwin, and think he made an important contribution to the world of science, but I also have to remind you all…NO HEROES. I go even further than Edna Mode. He said a few things we’d all rather forget.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that evolution made man “superior” to woman. For Darwin, that superiority largely played out in the intellectual and artistic realm. He wrote: “If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music—comprising composition and performance, history science and philosophy … the two lists would not bear comparison.” Spencer echoed Darwin’s sentiments and went further, postulating that in order for the human race to flourish, women must devote their lives to reproduction.

These assholish attitudes have afflicted science for a long, long time.

To compensate, everyone should go read that article about Antoinette Brown Blackwell.

Blackwell was among those grappling with science’s social implications. Reading works by scientists and social scientists such as Darwin and Spencer forced Blackwell to come to terms with her moral, religious and scientific beliefs. Just as Blackwell preached against Biblical passages that were at odds with her ethics, she began to write against scientific theories that she believed to be biased. Through her writing, she reconciled her understanding of science with her religious beliefs: “If one can perceive a truth,” she wrote, “it matters very little whether he got it at first hand from God’s book, or from man’s.”

Blackwell had no formal scientific training, which she freely admitted. But she read widely. Although she knew her critique of Darwin and Spencer—who she called “the great masters of science and scientific inference”—would be seen as presumptuous, she believed she had one qualification to address inequality of the sexes through evolution: she was a woman.

To refute Darwin and Spencer’s claims that the process of evolution made man superior to women, it was vital to Blackwell that women weigh in. Male scientists, Blackwell wrote, stood on “a learned masculine eminence, looking from their isolated male standpoints through their men’s spectacles and through the misty atmosphere of entailed hereditary glamour.”

In other words: Men, by virtue of being men, were biased, and so too were their scientific theories. And if women, such as herself, had little scientific training, so be it. “There is no alternative!” Blackwell exclaimed. “Only a woman can approach the subject from a feminine standpoint; and there are none but beginners among us in this class of investigations.”