Sunday, March 15, 2009

Evolution, genetics and history - New Books In History

The podcast New Books In History begins to state that among biologists it is assumed that mankind has not evolved in the last 60,000 years. I have heard this mentioned on other podcasts as well. NBIH then interviews Gregory Cochran who wrote a book together with Henry Harpending that presents reasons why mankind has continued to develop.

The title of their book is The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution and it sort of puts the common evolutionary logic on its head. Whereas the consensus assumes that since man has captured all corners of the world and with the help of agriculture made himself independent of environment, there is no evolutionary strain towards development in any direction. Cochran tries to show that exactly the development of agriculture in the last 10000 years radically changed the environment of man and with its fundamentally different culture, presented man with totally new parameters of survival, hence with new evolutionary constraints.

He continues to apply this logic onto more smaller levels and groups in a much shorter time span, such as Ashkenazi Jews, who were rather isolated in Europe since the Middle Ages and needed a whole different set of qualities for survival than others. He claims this counts for special features of the group. I wonder whether this isn't taking it too far, since this stretches only over 1000 years and that seems awfully short to me, from the standpoint of evolution. In any case, we need to know more of genetics to get better answers and this goes to show, genetics is going to affect our narratives of history, which is only one reason among many why this podcast issue was a thrilling one to listen to.

More NBIH:
Kees Boterbloem about Jan Struys.

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The Great Library - In Our Time

Last Thursday's episode of BBC's In Our Time was about the The Library of Alexandria. As far as I knew it was destroyed by a Muslim conquerer who reasoned (I paraphrase): anything that is there this is the Koran, we already have it and anything that is there that is not the Koran, we do not need it.

The surprise by the end was that, likely, the Library was not destroyed, it just faded away, its remains now residing under the sea level before the north coast of Egypt. The beginning was with Ptolemy, who was taking the heritage of Alexander's conquests to a cultural level, to conquer the culture of the world after Alex had conquered the world. In addition, the Greeks with Ptolemy needed to preserve their Greek heritage in their new Egyptian surroundings.

And so, Alexandria became, as designed, the cultural center of the world. Amassing texts in its library and creating the ultimate environment for study. It also rapidly became the largest city. In its heydays it mast have attracted scholars and students from all over the world, but eventually its was overtaken by other centers such as Byzantium and Rome and even though there must have been attacks on the Library, its end as the guests on IOT assume, was simply that it fell apart. Became disorganized, dilapidated and slowly vanished into oblivion.

More In Our Time:
The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot,
The destruction of Carthage,
The brothers Grimm,
The modest proposal,
History of history.

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