Humanity’s recent surge

Earlier this semester, I gave my first-year students a thought question. I do this now and then just to wake them up and get them thinking and talking — in this case, I wanted them to speculate and also think hard about how they came up with their answers, and how they would try to evaluate them. Here’s the question:

Anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record about 150,000 years ago. The first record of systematic agriculture appears about 10-15,000 years ago. The Industrial Revolution began about 300 years ago. People nowadays seem to be coming up with new ideas at an increasingly rapid pace. What’s going on? Why did it take ancient hunter-gatherers over 100,000 years to invent farming, but going from the invention of the airplane to passenger jetliners took less than a century?

Now The Economist comes up with an interesting chart that might explain some of that.


SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already “longer” than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of Angus Maddison’s figures.

The figure is a little murky: the units and axes aren’t clearly explained. The bars are percentage of the total, so “years lived” actually means the percentage of the total number of human years lived. So when “years lived” for the 20th century reads out as about 27, that means that 27% of all the years lived by all humans occurred in the 20th century.

I might show this graph to the class next year when I ask the question, but I’d still get to emphasize that the how of knowledge is really important: a serious flaw in the chart is that they don’t explain how they came up with, for instance, their estimate of relative economic output in the 5th century.

The 21st century is off to a roaring start, isn’t it?

(Also on FtB)

An archaeologist watches the History Channel

And deeply regrets it.

It’s very sad. I remember when cable TV was new, and had such promise — there would be channels dedicated to specialty disciplines, that would pursue a niche doggedly for a slice of the audience. The History Channel would be about history, not von Daniken and Nazi UFOs; Discovery would be about science, not motorcycle enthusiasts and bargain hunters; the Learning Channel would be about learning, not octuplets and hoarding; the SciFi channel would actually present decent science-fiction, instead of schlock horror, ghost-hunters, and fake wrestling. Garbage conquered all, didn’t it?

(Also on FtB)

Creationism evolves by jerks

I think one thing Razib says is exactly right:

One of the most interesting things to me is the nature of Creationism as an idea which evolves in a rather protean fashion in reaction to the broader cultural selection pressures.

Creationism has evolved significantly, but it’s not exactly protean: it’s punctuated equilibrium. If we had a time machine and could bring a typical creationist who came to age after Whitcomb and Morris’s The Genesis Flood face-to-face with a pre-Scopes trial creationist, there would be a fabulously ferocious fight, because their theology and their basic beliefs would be so radically different. They do change in response to the environment, but reluctantly and not without a lot of hysteresis.

I’d say there were four major shifts in the last century.

  • The Scopes trial, 1925. Even though the creationists nominally won this case, it was a public relations disaster for them: this was the polarizing event that split the country into the righteous rubes and the smug scientists.

  • The Genesis Flood, 1961. The creationists struck back with this popular book of pseudoscience, in which miscellaneous myths drawn from sources such as the Seventh Day Adventists were laundered and whitewashed and propped up with sciencey talk, in addition to religious justifications. You want to understand modern creationists? Read this. It’s the new dogma, and it’s what Ken Ham and Kent Hovind preach.

  • McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 1982. This was a major defeat for the creationists, and provoked a new change in tactics: skulking. They realized they couldn’t be quite so brazen in the courtroom anymore, and so began an era in which they’d claim the mantle of science more and more. They were still making the Genesis Flood arguments, but they’d hide away the Bible references.

  • Intelligent Design creationism, 1990. One could argue that this is just more post-McLean shifting, but the Discovery Institute, Bill Dembski, and Michael Behe did greatly influence the rhetoric. “Specified complexity,” “irreducible complexity,” and “teach the controversy” became the new catch phrases.

Where I disagree with Razib, though, is in his impression of eloquence in this clip of Richard Land defending creationism. Maybe it’s because I’m so familiar with this stuff, but I was completely unimpressed: he may have spoken confidently, but the impression of fluidity is false, because that was a rote recital of done-to-death creationist talking points. It was Duane Gish spiced with a superficial seasoning of Michael Behe, a lot of 1961 mixed with a bit of glib 1990s, and rather than supporting the idea of a flexible creationism that evolves in response to cultural pressures, that was a beautiful example of stasis.

Here are Land’s arguments distilled down:

  • “significant majority of Americans don’t believe [in evolution]”. Slightly less than half, actually, but I think it was a fair point in defense of Rick Perry’s denial of evolution as a pragmatic political move. But still, it’s part of an ancient and fallacious argumentum ad populum. That uninformed people believe in something doesn’t make it true.

  • “I believe in evolution within species, don’t believe in Darwinian theory of origins.” This is extremely standard creationist tripe, I’ve been hearing it for ages. Modern creationists blithely accept a kind of hyperevolution within “kinds” and erect imaginary boundaries to delimit it. You’ll hear this story in Ken Ham’s Creation “Museum”, for instance. It ignores the fact of molecular evidence linking whole phyla together.

  • “It takes far more faith to believe nothing became something than to believe in a Creator.” Tired. Old. Boring. Yeah, I’m supposed to find it easier to believe in a magic invisible superman that I’ve never seen than to believe in natural forces that I see in operation every day.

  • “irreducible complexity.” This has become a stock phrase reduced to meaninglessness — it sounds impressive, though! These are the creationists’ new magic words. I suspect that Land doesn’t really understand the concept, let alone that it has been refuted.

  • “Single celled organisms that Darwin could not know about because those microscopes hadn’t been invented yet.” Oh, please. Microscopes had achieved the theoretical limit of resolution (the Rayleigh limit) in the 19th century. Darwin had microscopes that were just as powerful as the high-end scope sitting on my lab bench today, although he wouldn’t have had the range of contrast-generation techniques we now enjoy. Darwin wrote papers about microorganisms.

I would grant Razib the point that creationists do know how to lie boldly, which allows them to sail through unchallenged in many situations. The clip is a good example: it’s from a bloggingheads dialog with Amy Sullivan, that apologist for liberal Christianity, who looks on like a stunned fish while Land regurgitates creationist tropes, and then ignores all the wrongness to move on to a completely different point.

I think that’s another source of the impression of eloquence: too often, creationists are paired with incompetent or unprepared opponents who grant them the privilege of lying smoothly. If Sullivan had a bit of wit or even a tiny bit of knowledge about what Land was saying, he could have been exposed as a dishonest fraud fairly easily. And that would have been entertaining.

(Also on FtB)

Invasion of the Viking women!

The cartoon version of my Scandinavian ancestors has swarms of fiercely bearded men charging off of their longships into monasteries, where they lopped the heads off priests and plundered the gold and silver from the altars. While I admit that I find that imagery quite romantic and appealing, the truth was more complicated: they were also settlers and traders. Also, the beards may have been less common than we thought—an examination of Viking graves in East England, graves that were assumed to have belonged to men because they contained swords and shields, has revealed a surprise. When they examined bones directly to determine sex, almost half of them were female.

Women may have accompanied male Vikings in those early invasions of England, in much greater numbers than scholars earlier supposed, McLeod concludes. Rather than the ravaging rovers of legend, the Vikings arrived as marriage-minded colonists. “Although the results presented here cannot be used to determine the number of female settlers, they do suggest that the ratio of females to males may have been somewhere between a third to roughly equal,” the study concludes.

One major caveat: old decayed skeletons that are often fragmentary or broken can be hard to sex. Skulls are subtle and sex differences are variable; pelves are pretty reliable in modern skeletons, but thousand year old bones? All bets are off. What you really want is DNA analysis, which is more expensive and which this study did not do.

But now I’m curious about something. Burying women with swords may have just been a mark of respect or wealth, and not at all indicative of their use in life, but I know some graves have revealed evidence of violent death in battle; were any of those women? I’d be surprised if more than a small minority of Viking women were actually involved in warfare, but there is a mythical and historical tradition of the Germanic and Celtic tribes having women fighting, so it would be interesting to see some verification of that.

Also, I’m married to a purebred Scandinavian woman, so I want to know if there is a possibility of some deep-seated berserkergang genes in her makeup, so I’ll know not to piss her off. Wouldn’t want to forget to take the garbage out, and have some howling Valkyrie chasing me around the house with a sword, you know.

(via Making Light)

Happy 189th Birthday, Gregor!

It’s really a shame he didn’t live to be even 78 or so, so Gregor Mendel could have lived to see his work recognized.

I also wonder what he would have thought to know that even godless atheists centuries after his life would know his name and his scientific work so well…

Also, via Google today:


Notice the parental, F1, and F2 generations from left to right, and the 3:1 ratio in the F2s…nice.

The fascinating logic of Cosmic Pluralism

Weird ideas can flourish if enough people share a false preconception, and here’s a marvelous article on the history and philosophy of widely held certainty that other planets were inhabited by people. Not just any people, either: good Christian people.

By the 1700s, there could no longer be any doubt. Earth was just one of many worlds orbiting the Sun, which forced scientists and theologians alike to ponder a tricky question. Would God really have bothered to create empty worlds?

To many thinkers, the answer was an emphatic “no,” and so cosmic pluralism – the idea that every world is inhabited, often including the Sun – was born. And this was no fringe theory. Many of the preeminent astronomers of the 18th and 19th century, including Uranus discoverer Sir William Herschel, believed in it wholeheartedly, as did other legendary thinkers like John Locke and Benjamin Franklin. How could so many geniuses believe in something so silly?

It’s a good read. The key idea that was leading everyone to this patently false conclusion was teleology, the notion that everything in the universe had a purpose, coupled to another belief, that that purpose had to be us.

Lest you think this is just ancient history and that we’ve moved beyond it, here’s a story about a contemporary crank with peculiar ideas about alien life.

Speaking at an international forum dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life, Finkelstein said 10 percent of the known planets circling suns in the galaxy resemble Earth.

If water can be found there, then so can life, he said, adding that aliens would most likely resemble humans with two arms, two legs and a head.

“They may have different color skin, but even we have that,” he said.

Andrei Finkelstein runs a program that resembles SETI — and if I wanted to start a real argument here I’d tell you that SETI is about as quaintly absurd as Herschel’s belief that people lived on the moon. So I won’t tell you that. Yet.

Sometimes, we make progress

It takes decades, though. When did you last hear anyone seriously advocate a flat earth? How many Republican presidential candidates would raise their hands if asked if they believed the earth was flat? Sure, you can find a few far out fringe cranks who babble about it, just as there are a few geocentrists around, but it’s a dead idea — not even Ken Ham pushes it, although I am wondering, since the Bible does support it literally, whether he doesn’t secretly suspect the astronomers have been lying to him for all these years.

But there used to be more noisy flat-earthers around. A complete copy of a map by Orlando Ferguson from 1893 showing his flat earth model has been found, and it’s gorgeous and hilarious. Here’s his Biblical interpretation of the shape of the earth:


Spectacular! Unfortunately, the book that justifies this is lost, and all we have left for support are the notes on the map: Four Hundred Passages in the Bible that Condemn the Globe Theory, or the Flying Earth, and None Sustain It. This Map is the Bible Map of the World.” Just like creationists, though, he does emphasize negative evidence: he ridicules physicists with their absurd proposition that the earth is zooming through space.


Let’s hope that a century from now people will look back on the quaint artifacts from the age of Creationism and Intelligent Design as amusing curios that only a lunatic would find plausible.