No, not the drugs forum, the real one.  I just read a book about it, Silk Road: A new history, by Valerie Hansen.


There’s been a lot of archeological research in the last fifty years, and it overturns much of the received wisdom about the Silk Road. E.g., let’s take the summary from Wikipedia:

Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe, and Arabia, opening long-distance, political and economic interactions between the civilizations. Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other goods were traded, and religions, syncretic philosophies, and various technologies, as well as diseases, also travelled along the Silk Routes. […]

The main traders during antiquity were the Chinese, Persians, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Armenians, Indians, and Bactrians, and from the 5th to the 8th century the Sogdians. During the coming of age of Islam, Arab traders became prominent.

The major edit: strike the focus on “trade”. Thanks to the dry conditions in the Taklamakan desert, we have extensive written records from certain cities and periods, and trade was– if you’re picturing huge, constant caravans– underwhelming. The size of a party was generally under 10 persons. Only a third of the parties had horses. Groups arrived and departed less than once a week. (We have these records because trade was taxed and regulated. To move within China you had to have a document listing the people and animals in your group and the cities you intended to visit.) It was also incredibly slow: if you made 20 miles a day you were doing pretty well.

The biggest actor in the height of the Silk Road (the first millennium CE) was the Chinese government. It was the major source of product (silk bundles used both as cloth and as currency), of coins, and of demand (what it mostly wanted was horses). When the Tang lost control of the Taklamakan, trade declined greatly.

Also strike “Romans”. The silk route was essentially a line of contact between China and Persia, with an important spur down to India. Quite a few Persian coins have been found in China; no Roman ones. (By contrast Roman coins are easily found in India.) However, the Byzantines got in on the action. The Romans had silk, but most of it came from India or the island of Cos.

And don’t picture people traipsing from Antioch to Xīān. Most trade was local– a merchant would make a circuit of 500 miles or so.

Once you accept the scale and nature of the trade, I’m afraid Hansen ends up undermining her own point. She emphasizes over and over that “merchants” are rarely mentioned in official documents, that full-time traders were small beans, that pilgrims, Chinese garrisons, and official envoys were more important economic factors. Well, yes, that means that goods were traded. The people doing the trading might not have called themselves traders, but large amounts of materials were entering and leaving the region.

It’s well documented (and not neglected in the book) that religions traveled along the silk road– especially Buddhism, but also Zoroastrianism (the old Persian religion), Islam, Judaism, and Nestorian Christianity. And again, by her own account, there was a Central Asian community in Xīān, and a Chinese stereotype of Central Asians as rich merchants. These point to a fairly intense level of contact– China was influenced by people and ideas coming from Central Asia far more than those coming from, say, India. (E.g. the Indic writing systems and Theravada Buddhism reached Southeast Asia but not China.)

Plus, don’t underestimate local-scale trade. There are Shāng dynasty tombs from about -1000 containing Central Asian jade. This was long before there was any military presence in the Taklamakan; but jade was increasingly valuable the farther you got from its origins, so it could migrate east in small steps. The major long-distance trade items on the silk road were things like spices, silk, paper, jade, and sal ammoniac– items that were lucrative even in small volume. Thanks to the magic of geographic pricing, the silk road could move items a long way without any individual travelling its whole extent.

Finally, the total tonnage transported might have been low, and mostly inessential luxury goods, but, well, what else would you expect? Large-scale trade in staples like grain existed, but within empires (Egypt to Rome, south to north China). Luxuries are big motivators– the European rush to reach the East was driven by a taste for spices and other Asian goods.

For my book, I just read Robert Temple’s The Genius of China (1998), which is a popularization of Joseph Needham’s decades-long project to recover and inventory the science and technology of China.

A drum roll for... the dromon

A drum roll for… the dromon

Now, I’m 90% satisfied with the book. For most of its history, China was not only ahead of Europe– which wasn’t that hard to do– but ahead of the Mediterranean and Middle East. It had more intensive agriculture, more sophisticated government, a more inclusive religious atmosphere, and a jump start on any number of technologies: paper, porcelain, gunpowder, printing, the wheelbarrow, the spinning wheel, canal locks, watertight bulkheads, cheap cast iron, the compass, even mathematics and equal temperament in music.

Nor is this, as a general principle, surprising: you’d expect the planet’s richest and most populous civilization to be its most advanced, and so it was. It’s not a bad bet that in a few centuries, when we finally enter galactic civilization, we won’t be known as Terrans but as Dìqiúrén.

But sometimes I want to ask… did anyone check over Needham’s work? To support the idea that the Chinese had man-lifting kites, Needham cites the alchemist Gě Hóng, writing in the 4C:

The Master said, Some have made flying cars with wood from the inner part of the jujube tree, using ox leather straps fastened to returning blades so as to set the machine in motion. Others have had the idea of making five snakes, six dragons, and three oxen to meet the “hard wind” and ride on it, not stopping until they have risen to a height of forty lǐ [13 miles]… This account comes from the adepts and is handed down to ordinary people, but they are not likely to understand it.

Needham concedes that we have no evidence of the sort of machines Gě describes, but as for the kites, he thinks “there would have been really nothing to prevent it.” Reeeeally, Joe? That’s the sort of dodge you use when you really really want to believe something. Temple helpfully provides a picture of a hang glider to help the claim sink in.

Surely flight is one of the things attributed to sages all over the world? The Siberian shamans and Castaneda’s Don Juan were supposed to be able to flit about using the spirit world; TM dudes are said to levitate; witches fly on brooms; the Monkey King could jump 108,000 lǐ at a time. In Matthew 3, the devil takes Jesus to a mountain tall enough to see “all the kingdoms of the world”. Gě Hóng goes on to support his notion of a high gale by appealing to how dragons fly. Reading an alchemist literally is generally not a good idea.

In other cases my question is, if you pored over the Western and Arabic historical record, mightn’t you find a large number of surprises? The Greeks and Romans were loquacious on their philosophy and politics, tight-lipped on their engineering. E.g. knowledge of the Antikythera gear work was lost for millennia.

A few pages after the hang gliders, Temple remarks “For most of history, Europeans used ships which were drastically inferior to Chinese ships in every respect imaginable. They had no rudders, no leeboards, no watertight compartments, single masts, and square sails…” Which is simply wrong. Roman ships had rudders and multiple masts. The Byzantine dromon, shown above and used throughout medieval times, had multiple masts and triangular sails.

Needham often suggests that any particular Chinese discovery must have found its way to the West. This is frustrating, as in fact science is full of multiple independent discoveries. Now, sometimes he has good clear evidence: e.g. he has a 1787 quote from Ben Franklin suggesting that mail ships be built with watertight bulkheads “after the Chinese manner”. But the monogenesis of ideas is a terrible heuristic.

Temple’s cheerleading gets tiresome at times— e.g. the last section, on warfare, says “No nation in the world could match the Chinese expertise in warfare for two millennia.” Except, you know, China was conquered twice by northern nomads, and northern China several times more. And China, for all its might, was remarkably unsuccessful at expanding into Korea and Vietnam, despite multiple tries. I think the problem here is that Temple confuses invention with mass deployment: they had land mines! burning gas! cannons! repeating catapults! Well, yes, but it’s far from clear that these were manufactured in sufficient quantity, or used with sufficient skill. Everything in China was at huge scale, but so were the logistical problems. So far as I can see, China’s government was always underfunded, and its army was subpar for an empire its size (not least because its elite was– unusually for the premodern world– not drawn from the military).

(And yes, I’m aware that for some of those conquests, the nomads used Chinese troops and engineers.  On the other hand, the Sòng, back when they controlled all of China, were completely unable to get the Sixteen Prefectures back from the Khitans, which doesn’t say much for Temple’s claim of unbeatability.)

Anyway, it’s still a fascinating book.  As I say, I don’t have problems with 90% of it.  It’s just that a few bits rang my skepticism meter.

I’ve been reading a lot about China lately; this is a bit of a teaser.

Reading about the 19th century is embarrassing: it was one reverse for China after another, starting with the first Opium War in 1839-42. China had been trading with the West for a few centuries. The West wanted various things– silk, porcelain, tea, carpets– while about all the Chinese wanted was silver. But Britain had recently come up with a new product: opium, grown in India. This was a winner, though immoral.

Dowager Empress Cixi, the de facto ruler for the last half of the century

Dowager Empress Cixi, the de facto ruler for the last half of the century. It was her fault, in part

The Chinese understandably objected, and sought to ban the trade. Britain responded with war, and trounced China. The price was high: an indemnity; extraterritoriality; Hong Kong Island; opening several treaty ports, and of course allowing the opium trade. This was only the first of many humiliations.

Which raises many questions: Didn’t people realize what was at stake? Why didn’t China modernize, when Japan managed it so fast that it became one of the Great Powers oppressing China by 1894? For that matter, how could Dèng Xiǎopíng do it a hundred years later?

There is no one answer, but a constellation of factors:

  • It was a huge, sudden adjustment. The 18C in China had been a huge success. China had never had a larger empire; it was stable and prosperous; it was largely peaceful at a time when war between the Western powers was near-constant; it wasn’t troubled by Western problems like religious wars and aristocracy. As late as 1800, the Chinese could feel that they were the most civilized nation on Earth, and see little around them to contradict this.
  • If you’ve been on top of the world, it’s hard to grasp that things have changed. This is a lesson we might learn today. In a hundred years, people will have as many questions about us as we have about the Qīng: Why did they ignore climate change? Why did they persist with a government structure that obstructed itself? Why did they ignore the domination of the 1%?
  • It didn’t help that China wasn’t run by the Chinese, but by the Manchus. As a foreign conquest dynasty, their chief priority was hanging onto power, and their basic attitude was conservative.
  • Yet the Manchus were perhaps too flexible. For millennia Chinese policy was to both fight and appease the barbarians, as seemed appropriate. You gave way a little in order to buy time and lessen threats; most likely the barbarians would all sinify sooner or later anyway.
  • Peasant rebellions, especially that of the Tàipíng, were far more destructive than the Western incursions, and till the end were more of a preoccupation to the elite.
  • China’s civil service examinations produced an elite defined not by wealth or blood, but by their shared achievement in mastering the Confucian classics.  The scholars could not embrace any educational reform that would eliminate their achievement and their status. In the 1870s there was a program to send Chinese students to US universities. It was controversial— and was canceled—because the students were being deprived of the opportunity to take the Confucian examinations.
  • The government was not well structured to address either development or foreign affairs. Much of the work that was done, including setting up factories and even fighting wars, was left to local officials.
  • China had long had merchants, but little of the underpinnings of capitalism: banks, insurance, civil law, an effective administration, bourgeois self-government.
  • The Western nations (including the US) had all protected their native manufactures by high tariffs; this was forbidden to the Chinese by the unequal treaties.
  • There was no real model to follow— contrast Dèng, who without even leaving the Sinosphere could contemplate Táiwān, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Curiously, there was a precedent for the unequal treaties, only a few years before. Chinese power in Xīnjiāng, 3500 miles from Běijīng, had to be excercised with a light hand: the local population was Muslim, and were best ruled indirectly, through their own leaders. Kokand, in modern Uzbekistan, just outside Xīnjiāng, demanded extraterritoriality for its merchants, and fought a war to get it (1826-35).

Things did get done— after the first few wars, there was something China wanted very much: rifles and steamships.  It built arsenals, steelyards, shipyards.  It should also be noted that the service firms Westerners dealt with (‘compradors’), essentially their local partners, became huge enterprises that sometimes became richer than the Westerners they dealt with.

As for why Japan could modernize— just forty years after Commodore Perry’s visit in 1853 it was able to win a war with China— I’d point to some key differences:

  • Japan had less than a tenth of China’s population; smaller nations are easier to control and change.
  • It was used to borrowing ideas and institutions from abroad, whereas China had not really imported anything major after Buddhism.
  • Japan’s modernization required a coup d’état; but once this was done it had an effective government— when orders were issued, things got done. The Manchus never had that guarantee.
  • There was no scholar-bureaucrat class. The samurai elite defined itself militarily, and had less trouble embracing Western science and technology.
  • The Japanese had a stronger mercantile and maritime focus,which seems to offer a leg up on development— it was Britain and the Netherlands that led the way to modern capitalism.

Things started changing in 1911… but then everything fell apart.  But that’s a story for later.

I just finished The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer. The subtitle is From the rediscovery of Aristotle to the conquest of Constantinople, which means it’s about what most people would call the Middle Ages.

The major subject

The major subject

It’s a weird mixture of new and old style history. It’s worldwide, so you get fairly good coverage of China and India, and sporadic chapters on Africa and Native America. But it’s also all about personalities– almost nothing about culture, literature, technology, economics.  Which means it’s mostly stories about kings.

Condensed into one worldwide narrative, the story of human monarchy gets distilled to its essence: it sucked.  Srsly, all over the world, it worked about the same way, and that was “badly”.  The whole theoretical advantage of monarchy is that it avoids succession disputes.  Only it doesn’t– no matter how sacredly the king vows that his successor shall be his well-beloved son, some cousin or uncle or general or duke is likely to object once the old man is laid out.  Plus, of course, a new king is often a child, or at best inexperienced and dominated by his elders; very often this becomes institutionalized in some way.

Japan in this period provides a nice example. It became customary for the emperor to abdicate in favor of an infant relative– becoming the Cloistered Emperor, a position where he could wield the power while the child did all the onerous ceremonies. Only the military took over the actual administration of the country, producing the shogunate.  Only the shogunate was hereditary, so there was a problem of infant shoguns… no problem, an older relative became the shikken, the shogun’s protector.  For a time all four levels of this ridiculous hierarchy perpetuated themselves. (Nor did this prevent the country from being fragmented between senior and junior lines of the imperial family.)

If you did get a strong king, that often just meant that he had the resources available to spend his entire reign at war, or that he was enough of a sociopath to stop rivals before they could get going– usually by murdering them.

Elective monarchies in theory could choose only strong candidates, but of course the electors normally had little interest in electing anyone who would restrain their own freedom.

The other theme in the book is the ever-broadening idea of the crusade. It didn’t exactly start off as a noble idea, but it steadily worsened, soon being used against heretics and then anyone the Pope had a quarrel with.  The last chilling echo of the crusades was the Pope’s blessing of the Portuguese slave trade. For all that, the crusades, like all of the Papacy’s secular schemes, were a self-defeating failure. The popes, like certain right-wing politicians, just never understood the difference between how they thought the world should work and how it did work. They constantly overreached, never learned from their mistakes, and eventually destroyed what unity the church had.

The multiculturalism of the book is refreshing, but also jarring– you’ll bounce from France to China to Sri Lanka to Egypt to Africa, in chapters that are only a few pages long. This makes longer-term stories (like the papal schism or the Hundred Years war) hard to follow. Plus it’s still Eurocentric: there are 54 chapters on Europe and the Middle east, 32 on India, China, and points east, and just 8 on everywhere else.  And because of the focus on kings, regions only appear once they have some royal history– so e.g. Scandinavia doesn’t get any coverage till chapter 86.  The chapters on Mexico and Peru are barely worth having.

I have some quibbles over names. Bauer mixes pinyin and Wade-Giles for no good reason. She insists on calling France “Western Francia” until the realm of Philip II, which is weird.  (If it’s to underline that the king in Paris had little control over the territory until that time, that’s no less true of the kings of Germany.)  She also uses English names for all the European kings– this is traditional, but with the short chapters it would be a lot easier to keep the kings apart if the local names were used.

I didn’t know it when I picked it up, but the book is the third in an ongoing world history. I can about 3/4-heartedly recommend it.  It’s very readable, and presents quick, vivid portraits of a slew of kings, queens, and hangers-on. And the worldwide focus means that at least some of the stories will be new to you.  But it has almost no interest in culture; you get very little about how these nations differed, or what anyone below the elite was doing, or about any non-kingly story that was going on: what scholasticism actually taught, courtly love, early capitalism, what the alchemists were doing, the windmill revolution, how exactly the Central Asian nomads adapted to ruling China, how the Arab scientific mindset stalled, how military tactics evolved.  And even stories it focuses on, such as the English-French wars, are often better told elsewhere.  Still, it’s a fun and fast read.





This book, by David Graeber, is great.  Provocative, brilliant; also crankish and infuriating.


Graeber is an anthropologist, and the best parts of the book are where he does anthropology. He’s devastating on what he calls the “myth of barter”. Economists love to talk about the invention of money as freeing us from the situation where Fred has arrowheads and Madge has pots, and Fred needs a pot, but they can’t trade because Madge doesn’t need arrowheads right now.

This doesn’t happen.  There was never a “barter stage”; no societies suffer from this hangup.  There’s a number of possibilities, but the basic pre-money mechanism is that Fred goes to Madge and says “That’s a handsome pot.”  Madge gives it to him.  At some later time, if she needs arrowheads, she goes and asks for some.  These may be considered tiny little debts, or they may just be considered the way social life works: people help each other out.

Once money exists, debts tend to be enumerated in units of account– but these are rarely transferred physically, and in fact the system long predates coins and even writing.  For 2500 years, Middle Eastern civilizations had markets, checks, traders, inns, interest, and debt without coinage.  Everything was done on credit.

Coins, according to Graeber, come in with large empires.  This developed out of the existing tradition that strangers are outside the credit economy.  Once you have a large standing army, you need to pay the soldiers, and they need to buy beer and horses and prostitutes.  As they’re rarely natives of the area they’re stationed in, it’s enormously useful to provide small portable bits of currency. It’s only in the last couple hundred years that this marginal coinage-based system took over the whole economy.

And then there’s debt.  As promised, Graeber gives a history of debt from ancient times, and in his telling it’s up to no good.  Debt always gets out of hand.  Ancient societies were plagued by a cycle of debt peonage: peasants would get loans; they were unable to pay the interest; they then sold off implements and furniture, then their fields, then their wives and children, and finally themselves.  Periodically, in the Middle East, kings would decree a vast cancellation of debts– all the records would be destroyed and the debt slaves would return to their restored homes.

In his telling, this process was linked to other bad things– such as slavery and misogyny.  Slavery was once limited largely to war captives, which were a limited resource; debt created a vast and increasing population who were effectively slaves.  Women in early Sumerian society were surprisingly visible and influential, and temple sex was a respected profession; the selling of wives and daughters to repay debts, and the subsequent sexual service, degraded the position of women.  And the fear of such selling-off led to the Middle Eastern focus on honor… meaning a man’s ability to protect his womenfolk, keeping them out of his creditor’s hands– and under his control.

And then there’s the moral effects.  Debt becomes a metaphor for the relationship of children to parents, or humans to gods.  We’re told to pay our debts, and yet most human cultures have despised usurers, and the first act of any peasant rebellion was to destroy the debt records.  Not infrequently kings or religious authorities took the part of the poor against their creditors, going so far as to ban interest or slavery… though these measures didn’t often last.

In the end, Graber suggests, debt– and economic theorists– blind us to how human societies really operate.  There are at least three types of human economy, which he calls communism, exchange, and hierarchy.  ‘Communism’ is the helpful, altruistic systems that underlie all human society– it’s how families work, and entire villages in many cultures, and even how corporations work internally.  Hierarchical exchanges are largely exactions by the rich and powerful, and their salient feature is precedent: a particular tax or tribute, once levied, becomes customary, which is one reason you should be wary of offering a gift to the king.  (On the other hand, it’s rare that an elite simply does nothing but take; usually it needs to attract supporters by giving things away.)

To Graeber, economists go terribly wrong in ignoring or underestimating the non-exchange portions of the world.  The whole attitude of looking at the world in terms of rational, egoistic calculation is a vast misapplication of what was originally a very narrow part of the economy– associated with debt, war, and slavery.

All of this is fascinating and eye-opening, and can be used to deepen (and darken) your view of history, or your conworld.

At the same time… well, for Graeber history is full of villains, and he’s often so busy flinging mud at them that he loses track of who’s worse and who we should be rooting for.  E.g. he talks about the rise of coinage as something of a disaster, destroying the credit economy and ultimately turning the Roman citizens into slaves.  Yet he’s already shown that debt slavery functioned with its full horribleness in pre-coinage societies, and turned the Mesopotamians into slaves.  Later he provocatively suggest that the Dark Ages weren’t so dark, as the Europeans ended slavery, resisted usury, and ended the militarism of the Roman Empire.  But the Middle Ages, as he well knows, replaced slavery with serfdom, and threw out the political and technological advances of the ancients.

The last half of the book is a breezy retelling of history which grows increasingly polemical and tedious.  A particular low point is where he talks about the Iberian traders engaging in the arms trade, the slave trade, and drug trade, and a moment later explains that the “drugs” meant coffee, tea, sugar, and tobacco.  He’s often a bracing cynic and amusing contrarian, but this is just propaganda.

The last chapter, on the world since 1971, is a weird political diatribe of the Everything Is Horrible school.  He’s mostly mad at the US, and throws everything he can at it, no matter how contradictory: the US military is overwhelming, yet is easily resisted; the national debt can’t be eliminated, except it totally could if we didn’t spend so much on the military; the US oppresses everyone economically, but it was forced to grant favorable trading terms to Europe; buying US treasury bonds is a sign of empire, except when the Chinese do it.  Or there’s a bit where the US creates “a vast apparatus of armies, prison, police” to create an atmosphere of fear and jingoistic conformity… er, sorry, Dave, but those two things are pretty much opposites; people celebrating American power are not also afraid of it.  He even inserts charts to show how things are out of control!! with the propagandist’s tool of not correcting for inflation.  Plus his frequent references to “wage slavery” only cheapen his earlier discussion of real slavery.

As an anthropologist, he’s very good at criticizing the fantasy history that economists create; it doesn’t make him an expert on economics.

He’s also an anarchist activist, and was involved with anti-globalization protests, but he’s missed the biggest story of the new century: the fact that the Third World has become far, far better off.  He keeps asserting that capitalism can’t include everyone… and yet it seems to be doing just that.

The problem with a worldview where everything is horrible is that there’s no room for progress at all, including in the future.  A contrarian can point out truthfully enough that living standards stayed the same for most people– that is, on the edge of starvation– until about 1800. But even in that period there were advances, such as the abandonment of absolute monarchy, the rise of science, and the development of a vast array of progressive philosophies.  (The thing about idealisms is that somebody eventually will take them seriously… e.g., you pass a Bill of Rights and then, a couple centuries later, courts start to make it real.)  Plus, even in Graeber’s own telling, not infrequently the authorities found it useful to cancel debts, repress usurers, or free serfs.

And after 1800, it’s hard to deny (though Graeber does his best) that the average American is better off than the average Babylonian.  Knowing more about the world helps; tamping down the claims of kings and priests is valuable; rural villages don’t seem like such paradises to the people who live in them.

Graeber likes to detail how many of our institutions arose in war, debt, and slavery.  And they did!  However, things don’t remain forever tainted because of their bad origins.  He’s fond of pointing out that governments went into debt and issued coins and taxed people largely to finance wars, and that a huge portion of US spending is still military.  But it’s now far from the majority of spending– most government spending is education, roads, social security, health insurance. and so forth.

(The problem with criticizing an Everything Is Horrible person is that some people will get the impression that I’m instead saying that Everything Is Great. It’s not, of course. I understand the impulse to think that the whole system is rotten and has to be thrown out. But sometimes our impulses aren’t so smart. Throwing the whole system out rarely goes well.)

After all that, I should emphasize that I don’t disagree with all of his cynical remarks.  He’s pretty acute, for instance, about the disaster of neoliberalism… the insistence that with every crisis, Third World governments implement “reforms” that favored First World creditors and clawed back social progress for the poor.

He doesn’t say much about what he’d like to do instead; but in his concluding section he does make a practical suggestion: cancel debts!  And he has a point.  High-debt systems generally lead to reforms that do just that; the irony is that under the current plutocratic system, rich debtors get government relief and poor debtors are screwed.  As he points out, we’re trained to say “People should pay their debts!”, and never to ask why people get so far in debt and whether we really want that to be the system we live under.

A couple good books I’ve read lately:

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman.  The first third of the book is the best; it’s a demolition of the idea that we run our brains.  That is, there’s this thing we call us, the conscious mind, and like a bad manager, it takes credit for its underlings’ hard work.   This is not a novelty in philosophy, but Eagleman is a neuroscientist, so his examples of how the conscious mind isn’t in control are based in neurology and psychology, and they’re fascinating.

One of his examples: you know how to change lanes, correct?  Can you explain it, as a short sequence of instructions for a smart (and English-speaking) robot?  Give it a try.

Most people say something like “Turn the wheel right; when you’ve moved over, straighten it out.”  If the robot tried that, it would steer off the road.  The thing is, after turning the wheel right, you have to turn the wheel an equal amount left in order to get back to your original direction.  Your brain knows this, but you probably don’t.  Any skilled behavior like this has been shuffled off to unconscious routines which manage all the details (and far more fluidly than the conscious mind could do them).

After this he reviews some theories of mind; he like Minsky’s Society of Mind, but extends it to include a multitude of competing sub-units– what he calls a “team of rivals”.  Another of his metaphors is an electoral system.  This broadly makes sense, though I think Eagleman overestimates how revolutionary it is: it’s an updated version of the theory of mind put forth in medieval allegories.

Then he gets into issues of responsibility, including legal responsibility.  We used to blame the person for everything; now we think that some things, like mental illness, are ‘not the person’s fault’.  He suggests that we go all the way and just admit that nothing is anyone’s fault. This doesn’t mean that we don’t punish anyone; it means that we take a scientific view of what it takes to prevent bad behavior from recurring.  This last part of the book is the least convincing, as by now he’s gone far beyond our actual knowledge.

The Secrets of Alchemy, by Lawrence M. Principe.   This is a history of alchemy, from its origins in Hellenistic Egypt, through the Arab period, and then to medieval and Renaissance Europe.  I read a lot about alchemy while researching substances– the history of alchemy is basically the history of chemistry.  And it’s fun stuff, especially for the beautiful names– orpiment, realgar, the Green Lion, calx of lead, spirit of hartshorn…

Alchemy has a bad rap because, of course, the alchemists were mostly pursuing an impossibility: the transmutation of metals by chemical methods.  Principe answers the obvious question– why didn’t they notice it was impossible?– by analyzing their methods, their principles, and their idea of authority.  Briefly:

  • with (by modern standards) inconstant heating methods and no good tests for purity, it was hard to replicate results and thus easy to think that someone else had done better
  • the best physical theories, going back to the ancients, said that metals were compounds
  • people claimed to have succeeded, and the whole medieval mindset was to trust written sources attributed to known experts.

So the alchemists thought they had good evidence, and their critics (and there were many) had the same limitations, and couldn’t actually disprove the claims.  (There was a lot of fraud, to the point that alchemists in literature are almost always comic figures.)

The most interesting bits are where Principe digs out the retorts and Bunsen burners and attempts to follow old recipes.  His conclusion is that the old alchemists were often careful observers– though they were wont to disguise their knowledge as what sounded like insane mystical ramblings:

Take the ravenous grey wolf that on account of his name is subjected to bellicose Mars, but by birth is a child of old Saturn, and that lives in the valleys and mountains of the world and is possessed of great hunger.  Throw the king’s body before him that he may have his nourishment from it. And when he was devoured the king, then make a great fire and throw the wolf into it so that he burns up entirely; thus will the king be redeemed.

That’s some instructions by Basil Valentine, from 1602.  Principe explains that this is a real experiment: the king is gold; the wolf is melted stibnite, or antimony ore.  A 14-karat gold ring is 58% gold, 42% copper.  Throw it in melted stibnite and it dissolves. The copper turns into a sulfide, while the gold and antimony meld together and sink to the bottom, where they can be easily retrieved.  Roast this mixture and the antimony evaporates, leaving you with pure gold.  So this is an obfuscated but correct recipe for purifying gold.

Why did the alchemists write this way?  Well, they didn’t always; there are examples of very straightforward books.   But it’s clear that the writers were masters of PR.  You didn’t want to give all your secrets away; and if your early steps could be puzzled out, it added authority to the more fanciful steps describing the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone.  Principe describes and reproduces a few quite striking experiments– not transmutation, of course, but chemical tricks that could wow a rich patron.

In the 1900s, a lot of this mystical-sounding obfuscation was reinterpreted as actual mysticism– that is, it was taken as a spiritual rather than a chemical process.  This was a wrong turn; much better to think of alchemy as early chemistry, with a commendable interest in hands-on experimentation.

Principe obviously loves this stuff, and probably makes a few too many excuses for the alchemists.  It’s true that it’s not edifying to simply make fun of early thinkers for bad theories or poor methods.  One Arab alchemist, for instance, had the excellent idea of quantifying the notion of how much of the four humors were active in a substance– there were 28 degrees of hot, cold, wet, and dry.  So far so good, but how did he assign the degrees– some kind of crude measurement?  No, he took the Arabic name of the substance, letter by letter, and applied numerological rules to derive the degree.  Principe carefully explains that this is not as silly as it sounds– it was in accordance with the best Islamic thought, in which Arabic was God’s language, and could be expected to match aspects of God’s creation.  Well, that is an interesting glimpse into an earlier worldview, and you might want to incorporate things like that into your conworld.  But, well, that line of thought was ultimately sterile, and alchemy was not really medieval thought at its best.

I’ve been reading Bruce Trigger’s Early Civilizations, which is a comparative study of Egypt, early Mesopotamia, Shang China, the Maya, the Aztecs, the Inkas, and the Yoruba. It’s a huge book and rather dry, so unfortunately I can’t say I read it all. But for conworlding purposes I thought I’d list some of the stuff that was new to me.

It's got a great beat, and you can dance to it

Early dancers were half the size of the musicians

He finds a significant difference between city-states (Mesopotamia, Maya, Aztecs, Yoruba) and territorial states (Egypt, China, Inkas). Both were governed by kings, were hierarchical, were divided into an elite and a peasantry with little social mobility. But territorial states are likely to have fewer cities (with peasants living in villages rather than the cities), government road systems, and long-distance trade run largely by the government.

My favorite historical atlases, by Colin McEvedy, are apparently out of date on the subject of early trade. Or to be precise, McEvedy gave an accurate picture of the Egyptian state, which had a command economy; but Mesopotamia had a lively trade economy even if it didn’t have marketplaces or coinage. (The picture of early traders in my story “The multipliers” is more accurate than I thought!)

None of the civilizations really valued traders, and indeed often took steps (e.g. with sumptuary laws) to signal that they were not aristocrats. On the other hand, in some civilizations, lesser members of the aristocracy could supplement their income with trade.

The position of women in all the civilizations was lower than the men, and tended to deteriorate over time. E.g. in earlier Egypt and Shang China we see female bureaucrats (often relatives of the king), later replaced by men. Traders among the Yoruba, and innkeepers in Mesopotamia, were often women.

The idea of a straightforward practical manual on anything seems to have eluded the literate societies– what they wanted to write down was magic and rites. Even practical concerns, like metallurgy in Benin and navigation in China, were conducted with rituals and superstitions.

The Tea Party view of the world– a 1% who cannot be coddled enough, the poor who need to be treated ever more badly– is as old as dirt. The social contract was always a rotten bargain. E.g. in China, there was ‘punishment’ (xing) for the lower classes, ‘etiquette’ (li) for the gentry. It was viewed as just and natural for the elite to live off the labor of the masses– and make sure the masses had no real avenues of improvement. When ordinary coercion wasn’t enough, it was always possible to invent even more pretexts for oppressing the poor, e.g. with accusations of witchcraft. Things like the admirable road system of the Inkas were not built as social services– they were for military movements and for provisioning the elite. About the one service the poor could count on was security: times of anarchy and disunion were even worse.

At the same time, management was a very difficult problem for early states. No ruler could keep an eye on everything, and the elite was both a necessity and a threat. The elite had to be kept relatively happy, and it was the only source of people one could delegate authority to, but it also took all the independence it could get. In practice, totalitarian micromanagement was impossible– even conquered groups of people were generally left to rule themselves so long as they paid their taxes.

The book is organized by topic, so you can compare (e.g.) class organization or cosmology across all seven societies. It’s very thorough, but he doesn’t have a gift for making it vivid (as e.g. Marvin Harris or John Fairbank do).

The choice of civs is just a little odd– the Aztecs and Inka were hardly early; there were the culmination of a thousand years of development. He has some excuses for not including anything from India– I think he says we know too little about early civilization there– but if you’re going to include something as late as the Inka Empire, you could certainly include Asoka’s empire.

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