The Aardvark Is Ready For War, by James W. Blinn

I have just now finished reading The Aardvark Is Ready For War, by James W. Blinn.

The book is about an anti-submarine warfare specialist in the United States Navy and the forty days before the First Gulf War is over. He travels from his home town (indeterminate location) to Hawaii, then Sri Lanka, then to the Gulf.

Intro to Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW): Basically, he’s goes up in a plane (S3s, I think) and drops sonar buoys into the water. These triangulate the position of enemy submarines. Then I’m not sure if they drop the torpedos in or if they signal to another submarine where the enemy one is. What Blinn does is he is the “acoustic specialist” who can interpret the data from the sonar buoys. He can tell what kind of sub, how fast it’s going, etc. When he describes it the first time it is interesting, but eventually it’s very show-boat-ish.

While reading I have been consistently saying, when asked, that it is a terrible book and would definitely not recommend it to anyone. I mostly still agree with this.

The book is incredibly obscene, is not written very well, doesn’t seem to have much of purpose besides being the wrapping of a few non-sensical rants about “the Machine” and voyeurism, all with the egotistical trappings of ASW shop talk. Add to this a boatload of curses on every page, discussions about pornography every time he’s on the ship, and hookers of indeterminate sexuality at every port call–and you have “The Aardvark Is Ready For War.”

(Note on the title: The gas masks the narrators wears make him look like an aardvark and he wears it all the time… not just when he has to.)

With these problems, however, come a few gems hidden amongst the filth and meaningless dribble. And near the end the story almost has an important message about learning to face your fears… but doesn’t actually end up doing it.

The gems.

Before the author ships off, he talks to someone who lives in the same apartment complex as him:

Says I should take care of myself over there. Even though she says it nicely I can tell she’s trying for an opening. Wants to dazzle me with her impressive war thoughts that fly so good down at the leather bar. I don’t want to hear it. I just say, You bet, and walk upstairs pretending to sort my junk mail. [pg. 5]

There’s a constant theme where the author simply sees his work as a job that has no real attachment to reality. This is hammered down when you realize that every situation he’s in during the entire book is a simulation of an event. At one point this makes him feel worthless because he wants to be a hero (so people will watch him like he watches others) but eventually he gets over it.

On said simulations:

The target is a Los Angeles Class fast attack sub playing a Soviet Echo II guided missile boat. A stretch. Like a Nissan NSX simulating a pathetic rusted-out Datsun B210. With missiles. The Echo II is a Krushchev-era, first-generation nuke. Max speed twenty knots. Noisy as a freight train. A total piece of shit. Thing has to surface to salvo if you can believe that. Soviets honed their reactor shielding technology after crews came back glowing. Still lose about one a year to reactor fires. Or rust. I could track a real Echo II five miles off, ten miles in good water. Not that I’ve ever SEEN a real-world Echo II. Not that I’m ever LIKELY to see one. [pg. 37]

I think this sort of attitude has to do with why he thinks so little of the other sailors:

Napoleon’s still screwing with the projector. He’s not really rewinding, though, like I thought. He rewinds some, stops it, then pulls out a bunch of film and holds it to the light. Then he wraps it back on and rewinds some more. I figure, dumbshit airman, some dirt-scratcher from Gimcrack, Iowa, probably never seen film up close and wonder where the little people come from. It sounds dumb to think like that, like people that stupid exist anywhere outside movies but they DO, and the navy’s got them. Hell the navy’s MADE for them. [pg. 59]


This is funny, he’s getting on the ship and describing how they are checking bags:

They got tables set up on the sponson and MAAs searching everything. Even got a dope dog. Don’t want any nasty unnatural stimulants getting on board. No guns or knives. Nothing threatening. God forbid. Meanwhile they’re craning on pallets of thousand-pounders and Sidewinders and torps and Sparrows and twenty mike-mike ack-ack belts and Harpoons and cluster bombs and Phoenixes and Tomahawks and who knows what all. [pg. 19]


The author also talks a bit about what the American think about war, whether they feel responsible for the deaths and that sort of thing. Here is an interesting comment:

A big billboard facing the channel says, We Support Our Heroes! What’s THAT supposed to mean? Last week we were all just scummy squids but now we’re heroes? [pg. 58]

He sees this at Pearl Harbor and then begins to think about D-Day and how those guys were REAL heroes.

But us? Program a Tomahawk from two hundred miles away and let her loose. Drop a torp from a thousand feet up on a sub a thousand feet under. Where’s the heroics? THOSE guys fought eye-to-eye. They SAW who they were shooting at. Close up and personal. I don’t want to sound like some gung-ho kill-crazy jarhead (ed–Marine) or something, but there’s a difference. There’s got to be a difference. [pg. 59]

This ties into a later comment about war and football. The party line is that people like football because it’s like war…

Said it was twentieth-century war technology that made football so popular, since there aren’t many opportunities for real combat anymore. Used to you could count on a war for every generation so everybody got a chance to work out their aggression cookies at least once a lifetime. Attain hero status. The wars are still here but stand-off ranges have gone from the distance between the rife stock and the bayonet to hundreds of miles. The psychic charge just isn’t the same. So in its place there’s football, a kind of warfare masturbation — the uniforms, the anthems, the regional fervor, teams like armies, the forward pass like primitive airpower insurgence, cheerleaders on the sidelines like some caramelized myth of the good woman on the homefront. [pg. 86-87]

And a wee bit later is a return to what the American public think of the military:

And she naturally gives me that Oh-the-military look. No details required. People always do that. Especially, it seems like, people who are supposed to be smart in every other way and who should know better than to slap labels on people. Yet when it comes to us “heroes” they’re perfectly willing to think we’re all a bunch of morons and baby-killers and each of personally participated in the My-Lai massacre that probably happened when I was about three years old and that just because we all dress the same we must all BE the same underneath, there’s no possibility for individuality or personality or, god forbid, original thoughts or anything else they’d give credit for as a matter of course to the lowliest most ignorant dust-squatting aborigine.


Either you’re a hero or a war-mongering dickhead, there’s hardly any in-between. Hardly any chance to be just a standard-issue HUMAN doing some BEING. [pg. 96]


The whole simulation, “nothing is real” thing is another common theme of the book. One take on it I actually found to be a good illustration:

They’re not even NEW words, not HIS words at all. Just words he’s repeating from some other source, only not even a source but a relay — radio or TV or the papers, pulled in by an antenna, bounced off a satellite in geo-synchronous orbit, maybe two, maybe more, from where? From never-never land. Just a chief saying what a newscaster read from what reporter copied from a CRT wired to a modem that’s hooked up with a news service where an inputter copied from a memo from another reporter who got the words from a phone call with ANOTHER reporter who got it from some military press briefer who read it from the message put out by some unit commander — who MAYBE saw it (whatever IT really was) happen. [pg. 80]

This is my citizen journalism is cool. “I was there, you were not, let me tell you about it.” Not, “I was paid to be there and report what they want me to, where they is either my employer or the actor, who may or may not be different.”


There are a great number of rambling lists and things about serial killers, because the narrator is obsessed with television and public figures, and they are mostly obnoxious. But one is funny:

“A nursery school teacher who mutilated rabbits? A priest who kept toys under his cassock? Was your father a strict disciplinarian? Maybe too lax? An absent father? Around too much? A Baby-sitter with hydoencephalitis? Did you collect animal cadavers as a child? Torture insects? Draw cartoon characters with genitalia? Ever see a pentagram? Hang a Christmas tree upside down? Dip a crucifix in urine? Dad have a black cloak in the closet?”

“Naw, we were Catholics but not that kind.” [pg. 210]

Good answer.

As you may notice they jewels are mostly in a 50 page block from about page 50 to 100. The book is pretty short, so the mild entertainment does not suffer from too much overhead, but if you just wanted to pick it up then I would recommend those 50 pages. You won’t have a problem just jumping in because no story last the whole book anyways.

I’m very lukewarm about the book. I really like those quotes, but they are honestly the only quality parts.

Computer: A History of the Information Machine by Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray

I read this book for a class, Computers in Society. Some parts of the book were very interesting and others not so much. Once the book gets past the 1960s it converged very rapidly to talking about things I already knew, versus the earlier part of the book which was very new to me.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the discussion of business and information processing and management before the computer. The majority of my favourite quotes are from this section.

The first section of the book is called, “When Computers Were People”, and it talks about De Prony’s novel invention of the “computation factory” for making nautical, and other, tables of numbers.

De Prony organized his table-making “factory” into three sections. The first section consisted of half a dozen eminent mathematicians-including Adrien Legendre and Lazare Carnot-who decided on the mathematical formulas to be used in the calculations. Beneath them was another small section-a kind of middle management-that, given the mathematical formulas to be used, organized the computations and compiled the results ready for printing. Finally, the third and largest section, which consisted of sixty to eighty human computers, did the actual computation. The computers used the “method of differences,” which required only the two basic operations of addition and subtraction, and not the more demanding operations of multiplication and division. Hence the computers were not, and did not need to be, educated beyond basic numeracy and literacy. In fact, most of them were hairdressers who had lost their jobs because “one of the most hated symbols of the ancient regime was the hairstyles of the aristocracy.” [pg. 12]

I was surprised to learn that the main desire to use a typewriter versus handwriting documents was not that it was faster to write, but that it was faster to read…

Prior to the development of the inexpensive reliable typewriter, one of the most common office occupations was that of a “writer” or “copyist.” These were clerks who wrote out documents in longhand. There were many attempts at inventing typewriters in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, but none of them was commercially successful because none could overcome both of the critical problems of document preparation: the difficult of reading handwritten documents and the time it took a clerk to write them. In the nineteenth century virtually all business documents were handwritten, and the busy executive spent countless hours deciphering them. Hence the major attraction of the typewriter was that typewritten documents could be read effortlessly at several times the speed of handwritten ones. [pg. 30]

There was a funny quote from Charles Babbage about how the English government was not interested in his inventions. Compare this criticism of blogs.

“Propose to an Englishman any principle, or any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficult, a defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible: if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple.” [pg. 58]

“It’ll never work!” “It’s not journalism so it’s useless!”

There was also an interesting quote from an pioneer of the EDSAC computer about bugs.

[...] Before people began to write real programs for real computers, it had always been assumed that there would be no particular difficult in getting programs to work. Consequently, there was a surprise in store for whichever group was the first to get a computer running. This of course was the Cambridge EDSAC, and the problems surfaced within a few weeks of the machine first operating. Wilkes later recalled:

By June 1949 people had begun to realize it was not so easy to get a program right as had at one time appeared. I well remember when this realization first came on me with full force. [...] I was trying to get working my first non-trivial program, which was one for the numerical integration of Airy’s differential equations. It was on one of my journay’s between the EDSAC room and the punching equipment that “hesitating at the angles of stairs”the realization came over me with full force that a good part of the remainder of my life was going to be spent in finding errors in my own programs.

At first mistakes in program were simply called mistakes, or errors. But within a few years they were called “bugs” and the process of correcting them was called “debugging.” [pg. 185]

Something funny about FORTRAN…

The first programmer’s manual for FORTRAN, handsomely printed between glossy IBM covers, announced that FORTRAN would be available in October 1956, which turn out to be “a euphemism for April 1957″-the date on which the system was finally released. [pg. 189]

The book talked a little bit about one of the first industry conferences about software engineering. Very little has changed…

Although there were some serious academic and industrial papers presented at the conference, the real importance of the meeting was to act as a kind of encounter group for senior figures in the world of software to trade war stories. One participant from MIT confessed: “We build systems like the Wright brothers built airplanes-build the whole thing, push it off the cliff, let it crash, and start over again.” [pg. 201]

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

Generally, I would say that I do not like most fiction that is not considered a classic or of the quality sci-fi variety. However, I appreciate Ernest Hemingway a great deal. For this reason, I have just read The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. If you like him, I recommend this collection.

I will highlight my favourite stories, and possibly a few of their parts.

The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber

The first story in the collection and possibly my favourite of all his stories. Surprise ending, brilliant dialogue, and truthful thoughts on the lives of men.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Such a sad story about a broken and meaningless life.

The Undefeated

This is a my favourite story regarding bull-fighting.

Ten Indians

The most succinct account of young love I’ve read.

A Natural History of the Dead

This is a story of about battlefield deaths and contains this strange tidbit:

We agreed too that the picking up of the fragments had been an extraordinary business; it being amazing that the human body should be blown into pieces which exploded along no anatomical lines, but rather divided as capriciously as the fragmentation in the burst of a high explosive shell. [p. 337]

The Good Lion

I think I laughed the hardest at this story. This story is about an African lion who “only ate pasta and scampi because he was so good.” He has wings and is an outsider.

“Don’t kill me,” the good lion said. “My father is a noble lion and always has been respected and everything is true as I said.”

Just then the wicked lioness sprang at him. But he rose into the air on his wings and circled the group of wicked lions once, with them all roaring and looking at him. He looked down and thoughts, “What savages these lions are.”

He circled them once more to make them roar more loudly. Then he swooped low so he could look at the eyes of the wicked lioness who rose on her hind legs to try and catch him. But she missed him with her claws. “Adios,” he said, for he spoke beautiful Spanish, being a lion of culture. “Au revoir,” he called to them in his exemplary French.

They all roared and growled in Africa lion dialect. [p. 483]

The Real Lincoln, by Thomas DiLorenzo

Thomas DiLorenzo writes The Real Lincoln.

A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War

Most Americans consider Abraham Lincoln to be the greatest president in history. His legend as the Great Emancipator has grown to mythic proportions as hundreds of books, a national holiday, and a monument in Washington, D.C., extol his heroism and martyrdom. But what if most everything you knew about Lincoln were false? What if, instead of an American hero who sought to free the slaves, Lincoln were in fact a calculating politician who waged the bloodiest war in american history in order to build an empire that rivaled Great Britain’s? In The Real Lincoln, author Thomas J. DiLorenzo uncovers a side of Lincoln not told in many history books and overshadowed by the immense Lincoln legend.

Through extensive research and meticulous documentation, DiLorenzo portrays the sixteenth president as a man who devoted his political career to revolutionizing the American form of government from one that was very limited in scope and highly decentralized—as the Founding Fathers intended—to a highly centralized, activist state. Standing in his way, however, was the South, with its independent states, its resistance to the national government, and its reliance on unfettered free trade. To accomplish his goals, Lincoln subverted the Constitution, trampled states’ rights, and launched a devastating Civil War, whose wounds haunt us still. According to this provacative book, 600,000 American soldiers did not die for the honorable cause of ending slavery but for the dubious agenda of sacrificing the independence of the states to the supremacy of the federal government, which has been tightening its vise grip on our republic to this very day.

You will discover a side of Lincoln that you were probably never taugh in school—a side tha calls into question the very myths that surround him and helps explain the true origins of a bloody, and perhaps, unnecessary war.

“A devastating critique of America’s most famous president.”

I found the book very interesting and would recommend it. You might also be interested in some of DiLorenzo’s articles:

Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand

Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal is a collection of essays about capitalism, primarily from Ayn Rand with contributions from Nathaniel Branden, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Hessen.

For the most part is predictable, but persuasive.

What Is Capitalism?

Ayn Rand refers to a encyclopaedia entry on socialism and why “investing in people” is the best position for a government.

The collectivization of Soviet agriculture was achieved by means of a government-planned famine–planned and carried out deliberately to force peasants into collective farms; Soviet Russia’s enemies claim that fifteen million peasants died in that famine; the Soviet government admits the death of seven million.

At the end of World War II, Soviet Russia’s enemies claimed that thirty million people were doing forced labor in Soviet concentration camps (and were dying of planned malnutrition, human lives being cheaper than food); Soviet Russia’s apologists admit to the figure of twelve million people.

This is what the Encyclopaedia Britannica refers to as “investment in people.”

In a culture where such a statement is made with intellectual impunity and with an aura of moral righteousness, the guiltiest men are not the collectivists; the guiltiest men are those who, lacking the courage to challenge mysticism or altruism, attempt to bypass the issues of reason and morality and to defend the only ration and moral system in mankind’s history–capitalism–on any grounds other than rational and moral. [p. 34]

America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business

The name says the whole of it.

The Property Status of Airwaves

Ayn Rand thinks this “public property” rests on a fallacy.

There is no essential difference between a broadcast and a concert: the former merely transmits sounds over a longer distance and requires more complex technical equipment. No one would venture to claim that a pianist may own his fingers and his piano, but the space inside the concert hall–through which the sound waves he produces travel–is “public property” and, therefore, he has no right to give a concert without a license from the government. Yet this is the absurdity foisted on our broadcasting industry. [p. 122]

The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus

What early 20th century party wrote this platform?

We ask that the government undertake the obligation above all of providing citizens with adequate opportunities for employment and earning a living.

The activities of the individual must not be allowed to clash with the interests of the community, but must take place within its confines and be for the good of all. Therefore, we demand: … an end to the power the financial interests.

We demand profit sharing in big business.

We demand a broad extension of care for the aged.

We demand … the greatest possible consideration of small business in the purchases of the national, state, and municipal governments.

In order to make possible to every capable and industrious [citizen] the attainment of higher education and thus the achievement of a post of leadership, the government must provide an all-around enlargement of our entire system of public education. … We demand the education at government expense of gifted children of poor parents. …

The government must undertake the improvement of public health–by protecting mother and child, by prohibiting child labor… by the greatest possible support for all clubs concerned with the physical education of youth.

[We] combat the … materialistic spirit within and without us, and are convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only proceed from within on the foundation of The Common Good Before the Individual Good. [p. 219-220]

Other Notes

I find it very interesting that one of Alan Greenspan’s articles is about what is wrong with the Federal Reserve System. What happened there?

So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance, by Gabriel Zaid

Richard Gwai Lo sent me the book So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance, by Gabriel Zaid, translated by Natasha Wimmer.

This book looks at reading and books and contains the author’s thoughts about the state of the publishing and reading world. Backed up by statistics for effect, Zaid attempts to make these points clear:

  • The publishing of books is at such an explosive rate that it is impossible to read any significant portion of them.
  • This is not a bad thing, in and of itself, because most books are only interesting to a few people, and these people generally find the books they want to read.
  • Reading itself is not always a desirable activity, morally or aesthetically speaking. Socrates famously disliked books because they are not as powerful or responsive as a real conversation.
  • The only real problem this represents is that more people want to write books, than want to read them. Statistics related to academics are abound, as well as an interesting survey that found over eighty percent of Americans feel they should write a book.
  • Books are the most versatile media form because they support blockbusters and experimentation–they promote wealth, diversity, and creativity. This is because the barrier to entry is so much less than a movie or a television program, and thus a book doesn’t have to make as much money to be justified, and thus it does not have to appeal to as many people to be published. Thus diversity flourishes and hits are possible.
  • Although not necessarily a problem, because it is sometimes solved, another issue with the deluge of books is finding the books that are right for you. A book may be perfect for three thousand people, but often times only two thousand find the book. Book advisors, book clubs, and “constellations” of readers and books are ways around this and they all have room for improvement. [I hope that my book-related blog activity helps readers find their books.]

So many books…

Books are published at such a rapid rate that they make us exponentially more ignorant. If a person read a book a day, he would be neglecting to read four thousand others, published the same day. In other words, the books he didn’t read would pile up four thousand times faster than the books he did read, and his ignorance would grow four thousand times faster than his knowledge. [p. 22]

Barriers to entry…

Book people (authors and readers, publishers and booksellers, librarians and teachers) have a habit of feeling sorry for themselves, a tendency to complain even when all is well. This makes them see as a failure something that is actually a blessing: The book business, unlike newspapers, films, or television, is viable on a small scale. In the case of books, the economic threshold, or the minimum investment required to gain access to the market, is very low, which encourages the proliferation of titles and publishing houses, the flourishing of various and disparate initiatives, and an abundance of cultural richness. If the threshold of viability were as high as it is for the mass media, there would be less diversity, as is true of mass media. Let us suppose that only one of every hundred titles were published, but for readerships the size of film audiences. What advantage would that scenario offer? None at all, because those titles are already being published today: they’re our bestsellers. [p. 26-27]

The lack of the all teaching importance of books:

In a survey of reading habits today, Socrates would score low. His scant scholarship and his lack of academic titles, foreign languages, resumé, and published work would prevent him from competing for important posts in the cultural bureaucracy, which would confirm his criticism of the written word: The simulation and credentials of learning have come to carry more weight than learning itself. [p. 38]

Chances of finding a particular book…

A good general bookstore carrying thirty thousand titles doesn’t stock even 1 percent of all books available. Supposing the demand were the same for every title, the probability of the store not having a certain one would be 99 percent. If, under these circumstances, a strange arrived blind-folded to take charge of the store and responded “We don’t have it” to any request, 99 percent of the time he would be right. [p. 102]


We must take joy in fat, embrace it, celebrate it, explore bookstores in hope of a miracle. As Heraclitus said, if you don’t expect the unexpected, you won’t find it. In our wanderings across islands of overloaded shelves, on deserted beaches, and even in those floating garbage dumps that bob alongside piers, a fortunate encounter may come swimming along: the message in the bottle you’ve been waiting for. [p. 110]

Some thoughts…

I found the discussion of how the real important thing about books is not how many you read or what you remember from them, but what conversations they allow you to be a part of and how you experience life afterwards. Part of me used to feel that I should keep out of the conversation until I was officially learned enough, but I don’t think that makes sense anymore. You learn anything by doing it, if even in theory, rather than staring a book. Not that a book can’t be a good teacher, but without utilization it is little more than nothing.

As part of embracing conversations, in think speaking foreign languages is a clear advantage here. While I could generally find an English speaking person to talk to about any particular subject, an Arabic and Pushtu speaker is likely to have a different take on many things and I will be able to navigate a wider sea of memes.

One thing I found lacking in this book was a discussion of the overlap in books. For example, reading books like Empire and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations make it possible to learn a great deal about certain subjects while avoiding the requirement of reading some hundreds of other books. By looking at the relations between books (due to citation and bibliographies) it is very possible to imagine a discussion of what books have the most ‘bang for the buck’ in terms of content.

A final thought I had was related, of course, to blogs. Many of the things that Zaid writes about books could easily be applied to blogs. The entry point is even lower, both in terms of start-up capital, but even more in terms of the investment of the author. An blogger with only a few pages of thoughts every month is very unlikely to be able to put those pages in a mass-media outlet and equally unlikely to personally publish a few pamphlets. With a blog, small bits of writing can slowly build up. Also, this should have something to say about the quality of the most popular bloggers. They are not popular because they are overwhelmingly good, but because the appeal to a wide amount of people. (This of course, can be interpreted to mean that they are good if you measure ‘good’ in number of viewers, but critics of television do not seem to think this, so for analogy I do not assume it.)

Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, by Niall Ferguson

Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power is the book that serves Niall Ferguson as a foundation for (1) why the British Empire was largely a good thing; and (2) why the United States should pick up the White Man’s Burden and continue in its tradition.

There is a massive amount of commentary on Empire (and the second book Colossus) out there on the Internet. For example,Christopher Lydon interviewed Niall for The Whole Wide World and Benjamin Wallace-Wells quotes Ferguson as calling his own books “edutainment.”

Ferguson, like a retreating army, is now shooting his slow horses. First, in “Colossus,” he pulled back from the idea of American empire that has, so far, come to define his career for many Americans. In a frank, similar move, he told me that “Colossus” was “vulnerable to attack,” and that his books on empire were “edutainment at best.” There are not many authors willing to spend their publicity junkets openly denigrating the books they are ostensibly trying to sell.

Additionally, Benjamin characterizes the style of the book very well:

With “Empire”, a breezy, optimistic history of the British empire accompanied by a vociferous essay urging the United States to colonize the world in order to guarantee security, free trade, and development, this tendency went pathological. “Empire,” which was designed as a companion to a six-part series on Channel Four which Ferguson also executive produced, looks and reads like a coffee-table book, with no footnotes, great photos, and a lively text which focuses heavily on biographical sketches of key imperial figures.

But, I will largely focus on the interesting things I learned from the book and not so much whether or not American should become an empire formally. I plan to tackle this issue with greater depth when I read the next of Ferguson’s books, Colossus, which currently sits on my desk.


In this first chapter, Ferguson is very clear, from page one, that it is addressed to Americans who have an image of the British Empire as a “Bad Thing” and its purpose is to offer an argument that the British Empire was good, not only for the world at large, but the colonies and the colonists as well.

Ferguson’s explanation of opposition to the Empire is interesting:

The central nationalist/Marxist assumption is, of course, that imperialism was economically exploitative: every fact of colonial rule, including even the apparently sincere efforts of Europeans to study and understand indigenous cultures, was at root designed to maximize the surplus value that could be extracted from the subject peoples. The central liberal assumption is more paradoxical. It is that precisely because imperialism distorted market forces – using everything from military force to preferential tariffs to rig business in favour of the metropolis – it was not in the long-term interests of the metropolitan economy either. In this view, it was free economic integration with the rest of the world that mattered, not the coercive integration of imperialism. [p. xvii]

He states that his primary argument will be that the British Empire was the best empire, during its reign, to be conquered by because all the others were far-worse: far more destructive of local environments and of local peoples. Thus the British Empire was the best possible and practical choice, but maybe not the best in an ideal or perfect world that does not exist.

(To recall the purpose of the book, this seems to suggest that the Americans are the best in comparison to something else. What? Muslim fundamentalism, I imagine is Ferguson’s reply.)

1 Why Brittain? (Pirates)

It should not be forgotten that this was how the British Empire began: in a maelstrom of seaborne violence and theft. It was not conceived by self-conscious imperialists, aiming to establish English rule over foreign lands, or colonists hoping to build a new life overseas. Morgan and his fellow ‘buccaneers’ were thieves, trying to steal the proceeds of someone else’s Empire. [p. 1]

This was how it got started in the Western Hemisphere, while in the Eastern (India primarily) it grew from English merchants groveling for crumbs from the Mughal Emperor.

In 1700 the population of India was twenty times that of the United Kingdom. India’s share of total world output at that time has been estimated at 24 per cent – nearly a quarter; Britain’s share was just 3 per cent. The idea that Britain might one day ruler India would have struck a visitor to Delhi in the late seventeenth century as simply preposterous. [p. 22]

While the growth was not all “done ‘in a fit of absence of mind’” (p. 43) it had roots not in the government but of the private sector of both sides. Only later did the British trading companies request support from the Crown and only did the ruling governments willingly pass control (particularly in India) to the British.

After this foundation in trade came the deliberate colonization promoted and sometimes enforced (Australian) by the British.

2 White Plague (Planters)

This is just hilarious:

In his pamphlet ‘A Good Speed to Virginia’, the Chaplain to the Virginia Company Robert Gray asked: ‘By what right or warrant can we enter into the land of these Savages, take away their rightful inheritance from them, and plant ourselves in their place, being unwronged or unprovoked by them?’ Richard Hakluyt’s answer was that the native Americans were a people ‘crying out to us … to come and help’ them. The seal of the Massachusetts Bay Company (1629) even had an Indian waving a banner which read ‘Come over and Help Us’. [p. 55]

It is in the chapter where Ferguson explains the American Revolution in very interesting terms: It was primarily a British civil war fought in one of its less important colonies. (Jamaica was five times more profitable than all the American colonies combined prior to the war, p. 61.) And because it was a civil war, there were many who disagreed on both sides of the Atlantic, most famously the British who ensured that Canada would not remain ‘New France.’

The war is at the very heart of Americans’ conception of themselves: the idea of a struggle for liberty against an evil empire is the country’s creation myth. but it is the great paradox of the American Revolution – and it strikes you forcefully when you see today’s prosperous Lexingtonians trying to relive their forefathers’ self-sacrifice – that the ones who revolted against British rule were the best-off of all Britain’s colonial subjects. There is good reason to think that, by the 1770s, New Englanders were about the wealthiest people in the world. Per capita income was at least equal to that in the United Kingdom and was more evenly distributed. The New Englanders had bigger farms, bigger families, and better education than the Old Englanders back home. And, crucially, the paid far less tax. In 1763 the average Briton paid 26 shillings a year in taxes. The equivalent figure for a Massachusetts taxpayer was just one shilling. To say that being British subject had been good for these people would be an understatement. And yet it was they, not the indentured labourers of Virginia or the slaves of Jamaica, who first threw off the yoke of imperial authority. [p. 70]

He gives many interesting examples of how the common conception of the Revolution is not entirely accurate. And ultimately he settles that the issue was over the principle of representation, and only the rich can afford to stick to principles; and, that the Americans were right as the Durham Report of the 1830s announced in its recommendations to Parliament on how to increase representation in the colonies. (p. 92)

3 The Mission (Missionaries)

This chapters describes the missionary societies and groups of the 19th century as the ‘original NGOs’ that dreamed of helping other countries and exporting ‘civilization’ to the dark corners of the world. It seems to me that Ferguson ranks this as the both the lowest and highest points of the Empire. Highest because they were behind abolishing the slave trade, or rather getting the British Navy to abolish it. And the lowest, because of the way they disrespected other cultures, in particular India’s, and led to many bitter relations and uprisings, like the Indian Mutiny.

4 Heaven’s Breed (Mandarins)

This chapter deals with the Indian Civil Service, the British administrators totaling 900, that controlled and managed India. Ferguson sees this group of ‘mandarins’ as the most powerful argument for the British Empire: it worked. And thinks that this is where Americans are lacking. Not in the skill, but in the will.

Ferguson also addresses the issue of whether Empire was good for India:

[Would] Indians have been better off under the Mughals? [The Mughals were the old Muslim emperors.] Or, for that matter, under the Dutch – or the Russians?

It might seem self-evident that they would have been better off under Indian rulers. That was certainly true from the point of view of the ruling elites the British had overthrown and whose share of national income, something like 5 per cent, they then appropriated for their own consumption. But for the majority of Indians it was far less clear that their lot would improve under independence. Under British rule, the village economy’s share of total after-tax income actually rose from 45 per cent to 54 per cent. Since that sector represented around three-quarters of the entire population, there can therefore be little doubt that British rule reduced inequality in India. And even if the British did not greatly increase Indian incomes, things might conceivably have been worse under a restored Mughal regime had the Mutiny succeeded. China did not prosper under Chinese rulers. [p. 182]

5 Maxim Force (Bankers)

This chapter deals with the “Scramble for Africa” and the many bloody results of European activity on that continent. It is so named for the Maxim machine guns that proved unbeatable by the natives and the Bankers who greatly increased their gain from the gold and diamond mines in Africa.

6 Empire For Sale (Bankrupts)

This chapter deals with the developments of the twentieth century: mainly the consequences of two world wars on the British Empire. And, they were not good.

He opens with words that Winston Churchill wrote to his classmate at seventeen:

I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger – London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London … I see further ahead than you do. I see into the future. The country will be subjected somehow to a tremendous invasion … but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and the Empire from disaster. [p. 245]

The crux of this chapter is the decline of the British Empire was a sacrifice. It was sacrificed to stop the much worse empires of the Japanese, Germans, and Italians. And it was the right choice to make, but it left a power vacuum that was filled by Russia and the United States.

But, the United States has always been against formal colonies, as evidenced by this entertaining discussion between Woodrow Wilson and British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey on Mexico in 1913:

‘Suppose you have to intervene, what then?’
‘Make ‘em vote and live by their decisions.’
‘But suppose they will not so live?’
‘We’ll go in and make ‘em vote again.’
‘And keep this up 200 years?’ asked he.
‘Yes’, said I. ‘The United States will be hear for two hundred years and it can continue to shoot men for that little space till they learn to vote and to rule themselves.’

Anything, in other words, but take over Mexico – which would have been the British solution. [p. 291]


The British Empire exported the institutions invented by the West to bring prosperity and liberty to men. Ferguson, in fact, uses the listed provided by David S. Landes in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations as a template when summarizing the benefits of Empire.

For more, please refer to the discussion in the post related to Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire.

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by Eric Hoffer

On fourth of July weekend, one of the books I read was The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by Eric Hoffer. This book is a collection of ideas and theories on the various whys and hows of “mass movements”, a term he uses to speak about religious fundamentalism, political revolutions, and social revolutions.

Among these “whys and hows” are the primary questions of why a person may want to join a mass-movement and how a mass-movement should be run if it is to be effective. But, before I write about the content of the book I’d like to comment on its character and form.

The book reminds me very much of an old European treatise or personal philosophy dissertation, it is very much like Democracy in America in this regard. The structure is largely uninterrupted and seems to flow, while being divided into four parts, then chapters with smaller sections. Often these sections are only a single sentence. All these sections have unique numbers that are often referred to by the text itself. In addition to this style of division, there are many quotes and references to the author’s ideals of great minds. These are often surprising and interesting.

General Comments

About half-way through the book I was very intrigued by the author’s lack of knowledge about Soviet Russia and focus on Hitler. I then realized that the book was first published in 1951. I found this to be a useful data point when thinking about the book’s commentary.

One of the other things about the book that I thought was particularly ingenious is how Hoffer divides the life of a mass-movement into an ‘active’ and ‘passive’ phase. The ‘active’ phase is when it is growing and has not “won” yet. This is where his investigation lies primarily. The ‘passive’ phase is when the mass-movement has become the norm and it begins to defend and stabilize itself–often leading to future movements. Thus, every institution is the stable form of some “mass-movement.” I will write more on this later on at the same place as Hoffer.

A note of caution, the book really is a book of “thoughts.” It does not offer more than verbal persuasion and appeal to the intellect. It does not offer rigorous or scientific study. It does not, however, make outrageous claims or contradict itself. The only sin I have seen is a slight bias in favour of America and against prying to much into the passive stage of mass-movements. But, this second problem is not within the stated scope any ways.

The reader is expected to quarrel with much that is said in this part of the book. He is likely to feel that much has been exaggerated and much ignored. But this is not an authoritative textbook. It is a book of thoughts, and it does not shy away from half-truths so long as they seem to hint at a new approach and help to formulate new questions. “To illustrate a principle,” says Bagehot, “you must exaggerate much and you must omit much.” [p. 60]

Part 1. The Appeal of Mass Movements

I. The Desire for Change

The core personality problem that leads to the appeal of mass-movements is the lack of complete responsibility. The idea that a person is not responsible for the conditions of his or her own life:

There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves. Success and failure are unavoidable related in our minds with the state of things around us. Hence it is that people with a sense of fulfillment think it a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favor radical change. The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health and so on. [p. 6]

It is for this reason that mysticism is often the partner of mass-movements, some sort of justification for why your problems are not your own must be engineered. And because this is false, it must venture into the land of make-believe.

II. The Desire for Substitutes

A mention of how to measure the passive stage and a comparison with “practical” organizations:

The fact remains that a practical concern cannot endure unless it can appeal to and satisfy self-interest, while the vigor and growth of a rising mass movement depend on its capacity to evoke and satisfy the passion for self-renunciation. When a mass movement begins to attract people who are interested in their individual careers, it is a sign that it has passed its vigorous stage; that it is no longer engaged in molding a new world but in possessing and preserving the present. It ceases then to be a movement and becomes an enterprise. [p. 13]

A brilliant description of the modern day bleeding heart liberal:

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often holding on for dear life. Take way out holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless. [p. 14-15]

However, I think it needs a bit of tempering. What self is to be esteemed in the selfless individual? It shows that those who preach selfless do not want to practice it themselves, they only want the appearance of being the most selfless, and thus in the seat of greatest power over others.

III. The Interchangeability of Mass Movements

Part 2. The Potential Converts

IV. The Role of the Undesirables in Human Affairs

V. The Poor

The poor are often so intricately attached to mass-movements because of their strength in numbers, they are useful assets and thus strategy as evolved towards pleasing them. (Cite: The demagogues of Rome.) So, a movement will try to preach towards their desires, which is often equality. Any equality generally, even equality in poverty: (Read the last quote here.)

Where freedom is real, equality is the passion of the masses. Where equality is real, freedom is the passion of a small minority.

Equality without freedom creates a more stable social pattern than freedom without equality.

This last statement, about the stability of equality, is questionable. A response to it, which I will not write now, would include a questioning of what definition of stability, as well as a reference towards the history of societies with equality, or rather that tried to attain the ideal of equality.


Also in this section, the author makes a comment that I think is very important. He says that mass-movements need not be true to be successful. (See above about the requirement of pandering to mysticism.)

It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises. What has to be judged is its corporate organization for quick and total absorption of the frustrated. Where new creeds vie with each other for the allegiance of the populace, the one which comes with the most perfected collective framework wins. Of all the cults and philosophies which competed in the Graeco-Roman world, Christianity alone developed from its inception a compact organization. [p. 41]

VI. Misfits

VII. The Inordinately Selfish

VIII. The Ambitious Facing Unlimited Opportunities

IX. Minorities

X. The Bored

XI. The Sinners

The author makes this great comment concerning how both the oppressed and the oppressors are vulnerable to mass-movements:

The sardonic remark that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels has also a less derogatory meaning. Fervent patriotism as well as religious and revolutionary enthusiasm often serves as a refuge from a guilty conscience. It is a strange thing that both the injurer and the injured, the sinner and he who is sinned against, should find in the mass movement an escape from a blemished life. Remorse and a sense of grievance seem to drive people in the same direction. [p. 53]

And at the conclusion of the part, it becomes that everyone and anyone who is not attached to reality is vulnerable to a mass-movement. This makes me think that mass-movements will never cease as long as passive movements are still alive. Why? The passive movements retain their attachment to mysticism and thus cultivate this propensity in those under their grasp, thus they prepare their minds for the next rising mass-movement.

Reality seems to be the antidote.

Part 3. United Action and Self-Sacrifice

XII. Preface

XIII. Factors Promoting Self-Sacrifice

The author wonders about why self-sacrifice is a desirable thing for some humans. His resolution is that when a human is in extreme peril, it needs something great than itself to hold on to:

The unavoidable conclusion seems to be that when the individual faces torture or annihilation, he cannot rely on the resources of his own individuality. His only source of strength is in not being himself but part of something mighty, glorious and indestructible. Faith here is primarily a process of identification; the process by which the individual ceases to be himself and becomes part of something eternal. Faith in humanity, in posterity, in the destiny of one’s religion, nation, race, party, or family–what is it but the visualization of that eternal something to which we attach the self that is about to be annihilated? [p. 64]

This idea melds well with the notion that governments do not create wars, but that they are created by wars. And George Orwell’s explanation in The Lion and The Unicorn that socialism and state control of industry can always beat the free-market in times of crisis and war. (He was referring to England being unprepared to battle Germany because its capitalists could not make a profit yet.)


In this chapter, one of my problems with the book first appears: The author’s refusal to admit that democracy is itself a mass-movement that seeks to annihilate the individual by making him a fly and commanding him by the “representatives of the mass.”

The spokesmen of democracy offer no holy cause to cling to and no corporate whole to lose oneself in. [p. 87]

XIV. Unifying Agents

One of the unifying agents described is hatred. Hoffer explains that the best subject of hate is “the devil” and preferably the foreign devil. An interesting comment on Americans:

It is easier to hate an enemy with much good in him than one who is all bad. We cannot hate those we despise. The Japanese had an advantage over us in that they admired us more than we admired them. They could hate us more fervently than we could hate them. The Americans are poor haters in international affairs because of their innate feeling of superiority over all foreigners. An American’s hatred for a fellow American (for Hoover or Roosevelt) is far more virulent than any antipathy he can work up against foreigners. It is of interest that the backward South shows more xenophobia than the rest of the country. Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life. [p. 96]

Another agent may be persuasion, or propaganda, but Hoffer has doubts:

The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates only into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients. The gifted propagandist brings to a boil ideas and passions already simmering in the minds of his hearers. he echoes their innermost feelings. Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already “know.” [p. 105]

Completely unrelated question: Can advertising force people to buy something?

The last I think I will mention, suspicion:

Collective unity is not the result of the brotherly love of the faithful for each other. The loyalty of the true believer is to the whole–the church, party, nation–and not to his fellow true believer. True loyalty between individuals is possible only in a loose and relatively free society. [p. 125]

Part 4. Beginning and End

XV. Men of Words

XVI. The Fanatics

XVII. The Practical Men of Actions

XVIII. Good and Bad Mass Movements

It is here that Hoffer asserts that some mass-movements are generally seen as good, the American, French, and Protestant Revolutions, despite the bloodshed of their ‘active’ phase. This meshes well with Leo Strauss‘ conception of justice and government–that might (success) makes right and that “the foundation of every city [government] is in crime.”

Open Questions

After reading this book, some questions were left in my mind…

  • Are there “meta-mass-movements”, like the establishment of the philosophy of Kant that tries to destroy the individual in spirit, that are the building blocks of other mass-movements (socialism, Communism, totalitarianism, et cetera), and are they interesting?
  • If all mass-movements aim to destroy the individual mind, then what of groups resembling mass-movements (in that they are a group aiming for social change), such as the Objectivists and Libertarians, that explicitly champion the importance of the individual man in the present? (Possibly this just means that they are destined to be unsuccessful movements, because a movement requires the doctrine of self-sacrifice?)
  • Is it that some of these groups, i.e. the Libertarians, are actually hiding behind the veil of the individual when in fact they are nationalists (“Restore the original glory of the Constitution.”), millenarian saviors (“Socialism and Totalitarianism is destroying the globe and it is my legion of saviors and my doctrine that is the only cure!”), or just plain fakes? (After the restoration of anarchy, their goal is to be the strongest man and establish some new government.)

And perhaps the biggest questions of them all:

  • Is the study of these “mass-movements” truly the general study of the organization of humans? That is, are lasting organizations by their nature destructive of the individuality of man? This may have support particularly because of the passive phase of mass-movements when they become stable organizations. (I use the word “lasting” to reference Ayn Rand’s comment in Philosophy: Who Needs It about the only valuable organizations being ad-hoc temporary committees with a specific and defined purpose. N.B.: I also read this book over the weekend and will review it shortly.)

The Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond

The Third Chimpanzee is Jared Diamond’s exploration of the what the 2% difference in human DNA and chimpanzee DNA changed in our structure. His hypothesis is that some of the traits that this 2% exploited are apparent in animals today and that the were small fundamental changes.

What were those few key ingredients that made us human? Since our unique properties appeared so recently and involved so few changes, these properties or at least their precursors must already be present in animals. What are those animal precursors of art and language, of genocide and drug abuse? [pg. 3]

The book contains many interesting theories and stories about the human animal and describes many strange behaviours of animals we have yet to understand.

One of my favourite things that Jared talks about in this book is the striking similarity between animals and humans, yet the intense double standard of ethics with regards to those animals.

[Next time you're at the zoo] ask yourself why those apes are on exhibit in cages, and why other apes are being used for medical experiments, while it’s not permissible to do either of those things to humans. Suppose it turned out that chimp genes were 99.9 percent identical to our genes, and that the important differences between humans and chimps were due to just a few genes. Would you still think it’s okay to put chimps in cages and to experiment on them? Consider those unfortunate mentally defective people who have much less capacity to solve problems, to care for themselves, to communicate, to engage in social relationships, and to feel pain that do apes. What is the logic that forbids medical experiments on those people, but not on apes?

You might answer that apes are “animals,” while humans are humans, and that’s enough. An ethical code for treating humans shouldn’t be extended to an “animal,” no matter how similar its genes are to ours, and no matter what its capacity for social relationships or feeling pain. That’s an arbitrary but at least self-consistent answer that can’t be lightly dismissed. [pg. 15-16]

Another thing that was intriguing in the book was the dismissal of many common myths about man’s past. For example, his history as a great hunter of big game. This is a great romantic quote about this mythical past:

As an example of the purple prose spawned by this men’s locker-room mentality, consider the following account of human evolution by Robert Ardrey in his African Genesis: “In some scrawny troop of beleaguered not-yet-men on some scrawny forgotten plain a radian particle from an unknown source fractured a never-to-be-forgotten gene, and a primate carnivore was born. For better or for worse, for tragedy or for triumph, for ultimate glory or ultimate damnation, intelligence made alliance with the way of the killer, and Cain with his sticks and his stones and his quickly running feet emerged on the high savannah.” What pure fantasy!

Western male writers and anthropologists aren’t the only men with an exaggerated view of hunting. In New Guinea I’ve lived with real hunters, men who recently emerge from the Stone Age. Conversations at campfires go on for hours over each species of game animal, its habits, and how best to hunt it. To listen to my New Guinea friends, you would think that they eat fresh kangaroo for dinner every night and do little each day except hunt. In fact, when pressed for details, most New Guinea hunters admit that they have bagged only a few kangaroos in their whole lives. [pg. 39-40]

A large portion of the book is devouted to explaining the details of human sexuality and what is currently not understood about it.

There is a large difference between human sexuality and physiology and that of apes.

Still other features of our life cycle differ far more drastically from those of apes than do our testes, yet the functions of those remaining novel features of ours remain hotly debated. We are unusual in having sex mainly in private and for fun, rather than mainly in public and only have the female is able to conceive. Ape females advertise the time when they are ovulating; human females conceal it even from themselves. While anatomists understand the value of men’s moderate testis size, an explanation for men’s relatively enormous penis still escapes us. [pg. 61]

This whole issue of testis size is very strange but apparently rather important to science.

The combined weight of the testes in the average man is about 1.5 ounces. This may boost the macho man’s ego when he reflects on the slightly lower testis weight in a 450-pound male gorilla. BUt wait: our testes are dwarfed by the 4-ounce testes of a 100-pound male chimpanzee. Why is the gorilla so economical, and the chimp so well-endowed, compared to us?

The Theory of Testis Size is one of the triumphs of modern physical anthropology. By weighing the testes of thirty-tree primate species, British scientists identified two trends: species that copulate more often need bigger testes; and promiscuous species in which several males routinely copulate in quick sequence with one female need especially big testes (because the male that injects the most semen has the best chance of being the one to fertilize the egg.) [pg. 72]

The purpose of the relatively larger penis of human men still escapes physical anthropologists though.

Some of the other topics in this section are adultery, sexual compatibility and selection.

After explaining the peculiarities of the sexual life of humans, Jared then talks about how these things can be used to explain otherwise unexplained things about humans such as skin colour and eye colour that are particular to certain cultures.

On the lack of a consistent theory of skin colour outside sexual selection.

With at least eight theories in the running, we can hardly claim to understand why people from sunny climates have dark skins. That in itself doesn’t refute the idea that, somehow, natural selection caused the evolution of dark skins in sunny climates. After all, dark skins could have multiple advantages, which scientists may sort out someday. Instead, the heaviest objection to any theory based on natural selection is that the association between dark skins and sunny climates is a very imperfect one. Native peoples have very dark skins in some areas receiving relatively little sunlight, like Tasmania, while skin color is only medium in sunny areas of tropical Southeast Asia. No American Indians have black skins, not even in the sunniest parts of the New World. when one takes cloud cover into account, the world’s most dimly lit areas, receiving a daily average of under 3.5 hours of sunlight, include parts of equatorial West Africa, South China, and Scandinavia, inhabited respectively by some of the world’s blackest, yellowest, and palest peoples! Among the Solomon Islands, all of which share a similar climate, jet-black people and lighter people replace each other over short distances. Evidently, sunlight has not been the sole selective factor that influenced skin color. [pg. 115]

The idea is that rather than the Natural Selection of early Darwin, a new concept of Sexual Selection is used. Basically the Sexual Selection is when a sexual preference makes beings possessing some trait more likely to procreate and spread their genes. So, those attributes are promoted and continue through the generations.

Yet another one of the interesting topics in this book is the discussion of aging and why it is a good thing for humans to grow old, die, not be able to regenerate limbs and women to go through menopause, but with the qualification that the age we CAN live to isjust right.

Why it is important to have older persons in a hunter-gatherer society:

Slow aging is a crucial to the human life-style as are marriage, concealed ovulation, and the other life-cycle features that we’ve been discussing in the preceding chapters. That’s because our life-style depends on transmitted information. As language evolved, far more information became available to us to pass on than previously. Until the invention of writing, old people acted as the repositories of that transmitted information and experience, just as they continue to do in tribal societies today. Under hunter-gatherer conditions, the knowledge possessed by even on person over the age of seventy could spell the difference between survival and starvation for a whole clan. Our long life span, therefore, was important for our rise from animal to human status. [pg. 123]

How evolution decides whether or not to support strong and comprehensive regeneration, a decision that is at the heart of our ability to live long lives:

The risk of death from predators is lower for birds than for mammals (because birds can escape by flying), and lower for turtles than for most other reptiles (because turtles are protected by a shell). Thus, birds and turtles stand to gain a lot from expensive repair mechanisms, compared to flightless mammals and shell-less reptiles that will soon be eaten by predators anyway. [...] The bird species most protected from predators are seabirds like petrels and albatrosses that nest on remote oceanic islands free of predators. Their leisurely life cycles rival our own. SOme albatrosses don’t even breed until they’re ten years old, and we still don’t know how long they live: the birds themselves last longer than the metal rings that biologists began putting on their legs a few decades ago in order to keep track of their ages. In the ten years that it takes an albatross to start breeding, a mouse population could have gone through sixty generations, most of which would already have succumbed to predators or old age. [pg. 132]

Menopause is explained as following: it is dangerous for women to have children, and as a woman gets older she is more likely to have already had many children. Because children need their parents it becomes increasingly more expensive for a woman to die during childbirth: she would leave children motherless. As a women gets older and weaker the chance of death during birth and the cost this brings is more than the potential benefit of another child, so they lose the ability to have more children. Evolution is good, huh?

The next section of the book is all about language: how it evolved, how it is different across the cultures of the world, and what kinds of animals also possess some form of language.

I was rather disappointed he didn’t talk about alternative methods of communication other than speech; ie, the colour shifting of octopi.

I’m severely fascinated by the differences in the expressive power of different languages. One, because I think that allowing more freedom of expression is the key to unlock the beauty innate in any individual. And two, because there is a sharp difference in expressive power between different computer languages and I wonder how this parallels to natural languages. This is an interesting note about Neo-Melanesian:

Neo-Melanesian proved to be as strict as English in its grammatical rules. It is a supply language that lets one express anything sayable in English. It even lets one make some distinctions that cannot be expressed in English except by means of clumsy circumlocutions. For example, the English pronoun “we” actually lumps two quite different concepts: “I plus you to whom I am speaking,” and “I plus one or more other people, but not including you to whom I am speaking.” In Neo-Melanesian these two separate meanings are expressed by the words “yumi” and “mipela” respectively. After I have been using Neo-Melanesian for months and then meet an English speaker who starts talking about “we,” I often find myself wondering, “Am I included or not in your ‘we’?” [pg. 156-157]

Diamond also has some introductions to concepts in linguistics that I find peculiar, for example:

A blueprint [for languages] has been widely assumed ever since the linguist Noam Chomsky argued that the structure of human language is far too complex for a child to learn within just a few years, in the absence of any hard-wired instructions. [...] Difficulties [in learning languages] convinced Chomsky that children learning their first language would face an impossible task unless much of language’s structure was already preprogrammed into them. Chomsky concluded that we are born with a “universal grammar” already wired into our brains to give us a spectrum of grammatical models encompassing the range of grammars in actual languages. This prewired universal grammar would be like a set of switches, each with various alternative positions. The switch positions would then become fixed to match the grammar of the local language that the growing child hears. [pg. 163]

My interpretation may be a common one, but I don’t know because I haven’t studied it extensively, but here goes. Speech is not something that can be detached from thought; not only is our speech constraint to what and how we can think, our thoughts are constraint by the means of which we can express them. Any suggestion of a “universal grammar” suggests to me not a way common way of speaking – but a common way of thinking. It is not hard for me to believe that our minds have intrinsic limitations in their thoughts and common idioms of thoughts that have been optimized over time. Because of language is a mapping of thoughts to speech, it seems to follow that it would inherit any innate or common attributes of thought patterns. Creativity and modes of expression other than language are then interpreted as ways of literally expanding your mind by forcing it to work in ways it is not optimized or particularly capable for. I love being an armchair intellectual.

It is fitting that I should mention art, because following language in the list of seemingly particularly human abilities is the ability and desire to produce art.

Jared Diamond explains that the bowerbird of New Guinea is a particularly tasteful and clever artist,

If I hadn’t already heard of bowers, I’d have mistaken the first one I saw for something man-made, as did nineteenth-century explorers in New Guinea. I had set out that morning from a New Guinea village, with its circular huts, neat rows of flowers, people wearing decorative beads, and little bows and arrows carried by children in imitation of their fathers’ larger ones. SUddenly, in the jungle, I came across a beautifully woven circular hut eight feet in diameter and four feet high, with a doorway large enough for a child to enter and sit inside. In front of the hut was a lawn of green moss, clean of debris except for hundreds of natural objects of various colors that had obviously been placed there intentionally as decorations. They mainly consisted of flowers and fruits and leaves, but also some butterfly wings and fungi. Objects of similar color were grouped together, such as red fruits next to a group of red leaves. The largest decorations were a tall pile of black fungi facing the door, with another pile of orange fungi a few yards further from the door. All blue objects were grouped inside the hut, red ones outside, and yellow, purple, black, and a few green ones in other locations. [pg. 173]

A picture of what he’s talking about.

I really like this paragraph about why it’s plausible for animals to create art:

Perhaps we can now answer the question why art as we know it characterizes us but no other animal. Since chimps paint in captivity, why don’t they do so in the wild? As an answer, I suggest that wild chimps still have their day filled with problems of finding food, surviving, and fending off rival chimp groups. If wild chimps had more leisure time plus the means to manufacture paints, they would be painting. The proof of my theory is that it actually happened: we’re still 98 percent chimps in our genes. [pg. 179]

The next section of the book is all about agriculture and how it was not all good for humans.

I enjoyed this paragraph about the myth of the overworked, tired, and struggling hunter-gatherer:

Another indirect test of the progressivist view is to study whether surviving twentieth-century hunter-gatherers really are worse off than farmers. Scattered throughout the world, mainly in areas unsuitable for agriculture, several dozen groups of so-called “primitive people,” like the Kalahari Desert Bushmen, continued to live as hunter-gatherers in recent years. Astonishingly, it turns out that these hunters generally have leisure time, sleep a lot, and work no harder than their framing neighbors. For instance, the average time devouted each week to obtaining food has been reported to be only twelve to nineteen hours for Bushmen; how many readers of this book can boast of such a short work week? As one Bushman replied when asked why he had not emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, “Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” [pg. 184]

Another myth is that hunter-gatherers are far less healthy than their industrious brothers,

To most American and European readers, the argument that humanity could on average be better off as hunter-gatherers than we are today sounds ridiculous, because most people in industrial societies today enjoy better health than most hunter-gatherers. However, Americans and Europeans are an elite in today’s world, dependent on oil and other materials imported from countries with large peasant populations and much lower health standards. If you could choose between being a middle-class American, a Bushman hunter, and a peasant farmer in Ethiopia, the first would undoubtedly be the healthiest choice, but the third might be the least healthy. [pg. 188]

A great paragraph about why it is a good thing that we have not found other intelligent life in the universe and a foreshadowing of the next great hallmark of humanity: genocide.

I find it mind-boggling that the astronomers now eager to spend a hundred million dollars on the search for extraterrestrial life have never thought seriously about the most obvious question: what would happen if we found it, or if it found us. The astronomers tacitly assume that we and the little green monsters would welcome each other and settle down to fascinating conversations. Here again, our own experience on Earth offers useful guidance. We’ve already discovered two species that are very intelligent but technically less advanced than we are-the common chimpanzee and pygmy chimpanzee. Has our response been to sit down and try to communicate with them? Of course not. Instead we shoot them, dissect them, cut off their hands for trophies, put them on exhibit in cages, inject them with AIDS virus as a medical experiment, and destroy or take over their habitats. That response was predictable, because human explorers who discovered technically less advanced humans also regularly responded by shooting them, decimating their populations with new diseases, and destroying or taking over their habitats. [pg. 214]

In the section of the book on genocide, Jared shows how while there have been some extreme instances that have been condemned, it is something that has been essential to our growth and has been a perpetual artifact throughout our story.

In the discussion on the genocide of American Indians, there are some surprising quotes from otherwise nobles individuals:

President George Washington: “The immediate objectives are the total destruction ad devastation of their settlements. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

President Thomas Jefferson: “This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.” [pg. 308]

The final section of the book discusses how and why current human activities will lead to our ultimate destruction and the reversal of all our “progress.”

On the lost respect for the world:

Undoubtedly, two simple reasons go a long way toward explaining our worsening mess: modern technology has far more power to cause havoc than did the stone aces of the past, and far more people are alive now than ever before. But a third factor may also have contributed: a change in attitudes. Unlike modern city dwellers, at least some preindustrial peoples-like the Duwanish, whose chief I quoted-depend on and revere their local environment. Stories abound of how such peoples are in effect practicing conservationists. As a New Guinea tribesman once explained to me, “It’s our custom that if a hunter one days kills a pigeon in one direction from the village, he waits a week before hunting for pigeons again, and then goes in the opposite direction.” We’re only beginning to realize how sophisticated the conservationist policies of so-called primitive peoples actually are. For instance, well-intentioned foreign experts have made deserts out of large areas of Africa. In those same areas, local herders had thrived for uncounted millennia by making annual nomadic migrations, which ensured that land never became overgrazed. [pg. 318]

But that’s not to say that every “Noble Savage” society preserved their environment and did no wrong. Consider Easter Island,

When Polynesians settled Easter around A.D. 400, the island was covered by forest that they gradually proceeded to clear, in order to plant gardens and to obtain logs for canoes and for erecting statues. By around 1500 the human population had built up to about 7,000 (over 150 per square mile), about 1,000 statues had been carved, and at least 324 of those status had been erected. But-the forest had been destroyed so thoroughly that not a single tree survived.

The immediate result of this self-inflicted ecological disaster was that the islanders no longer had the logs needed to transport and erect status, so carving ceased. But deforestation also had two indirect consequences that brought starvation: soil erosion, hence lower crop yields, plus lack of timber to build canoes, hence less protein available from fishing. As a result, the population was now greater than Easter could support, and island society collapsed in a holocaust of internecine warfare and cannibalism. [...] What had once been a lush island supporting one of the world’s most remarkable civilizations deteriorated into the Easter Island of today: a barren grassland littered with fallen statues, and supporting less than one-third of its former population. [pg. 330-331]

We can’t today’s society do any better than those of the past? This paragraph illustrates the confusion over our lack of commitment to the world.

Tragic failures become moral sins only if one should have known better from the outset. In that regard there are two big differences between us and eleventh-century Anasazi Indians: scientific understanding, and literacy. We know, and they didn’t know, how to draw graphs that plot sustainable resource population size as a function of resource harvesting rate. We can read about all the ecological disasters of the past; the Anasazi couldn’t. Yet our generation continues to hunt whales and clear tropical rain forest as if no one had ever hunted moas or cleared pinyon-juniper woodland. The past was still a Golden Age, of ignorance, while the present is an Iron Age of willful blindness. [pg. 337]

If this sounds interesting, I recommend picking up the book or Jared Diamond’s other book that I’ve read: Guns, Germs, and Steel. In GGS, he elaborates more on development of human civilization and how groups of humans have interacted with each other over the years.

Heretics of Dune, by Frank Herbert

Heretics of Dune, by Frank Herbert, is the fifth installment of the Dune Chronicles.

I did not enjoy the majority of this book, but like most books in the Dune series, the end is so compelling and so curious that you just have to want to read the next book. Luckily, there is only one more original, then I can just look at FAQs and the like for more informational cravings.