Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives

The Economist recently featured a new book that aims to present a more nuanced and encouraging picture of the history of Islam and its innumerable, if now often understated, intellectual and cultural achievements. Chase Robinson’s Islamic Civilisation in Thirty Lives: The First 1,000 Years encapsulates Islamic history through the perspectives and experiences of thirty figures, who represent a cross section of Muslim society.  Continue reading


The World’s Cultures, Mapped

Utilizing the results of the World Values Survey (WVS), one of the world’s leading sources on human beliefs and values, political scientists Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan and Christian Welzel of Germany’s Luephana University created the following “culture map”, a unique attempt to categorize and understand the world’s many unique cultures and societies.

In addition to categorizing countries by shared religious, linguistic, or cultural attributes, the map takes into account four sets of values: Continue reading

How Human Sacrifice Created Modernity

The title doesn’t just refer to the tens of millions of faceless laborers who, over the centuries, quite literally built, maintained, and fought for everything that makes up modern civilization. I am talking about ritual and religious human sacrifice, wherein individuals — and sometimes masses of people at a time — are killed to serve or petition some sort of higher divine source.

While this once near-universal practice has thankfully been left behind (for the most part), a recent study makes the provocative suggestion that religiously sanctioned killings helped lay the sociopolitical groundwork of modern society. As The Washington Post reported: Continue reading

Graph: The World’s Most Religious Societies

The Pew Research Center’s 2015 Global Attitudes survey measured the degree to which people around the world value religion in their personal lives.  The results show that poorer and less stable countries tend to be more religious, although there are some interesting outliers to this pattern.

Religious Conviction Around The World

Courtesy of The Telegraph

The above data is drawn from over 45,400 interviews from adults spanning the forty subjection nations. (You can learn more about the methodology here.) Continue reading

The Western Hemisphere Before Columbus

While everyone knows that the “New World” had long been inhabited prior to Columbus’ arrival in 1492, most of us Westerners do not give the matter much thought. The people living here — who spanned a vast and culturally diverse assortment of tribes, kingdoms, nations, and advanced civilizations — have been as casually swept aside in present consciousness and historical memory as they were in actuality following the mass arrival of Europeans.

The Atlantic has an interesting piece that touches on what life was like in the Western Hemisphere before Europeans “discovered” it. Although it is a long read — albeit insufficient to capture the entirety of indigenous experience across two continents — I highly recommend it, for it fleshes out the pre-Columbian Americas in a way most history books fail to.

Take for example demographics. Though widely regarded by Europeans, and indeed their contemporary descendents, as having been a mostly empty and untouched place, scholarly research going back to the 1960s discovered that the hemisphere numbered more people than even Europe. Continue reading

A World of Dreams

While traveling the world as a journalist, Roc Morin spends his down time “collecting dreams” for the World Dream Atlas, an index that aims to compile dreams from every country on Earth. Over the past ten months, he has managed to gather dreams from hundreds of people across 17 countries. Continue reading

The American Values Atlas

Keeping up with politics is tough, especially if you are going state by state. There are a wide range of issues, policies, and social attitudes spanning the nation’s fifty subnational entities, and things are changing all the time.

Thankfully, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has launched the unique American Values Atlas (AVA), an online tool that allows users to navigate the religious, political, and demographic landscape of the United States in real time, as well as Americans’ attitudes toward key issues like immigration same-sex marriage, and abortion. The details even go down to the local level, with most of the major metropolitan areas represented.

Here is a sample of what the AVA looks like:

You can see the breakdown by state (which includes a comparison to the nation as a whole):

Screen Shot 2015 02 23 at 3.14.23 PM 640x358 Introducing the American Values Atlas (AVA)

And can also view the breakdown by individual state:

Screen Shot 2015 02 23 at 3.00.08 PM 640x631 Introducing the American Values Atlas (AVA)

The PRRI explains how it gleaned such meticulous details about the cultural and religious landscape of the U.S.

[The AVA draws] upon data from 50,000 bilingual telephone interviews conducted among a random sample of Americans in 2014. Roughly 1,000 interviews were conducted every week, with 40,000 interviews on political issue areas. Because of the vast amount of data and large sample size, users have the ability to use the AVA’s dynamic online map to explore specific census regions, all 50 states, and 30 major metropolitan areas. The AVA also provides a rare look into smaller religious communities and ethnic groups, such as Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and more.

You can read more about the methodology here.

The AVA will be updated annually with 50,000 fresh interviews to reflect the changes in demographics, culture, social views, and political policy. It is an invaluable resource for policymakers, academics, and anyone else interested in these details.

Happy Languages

It seems that most humans are inclined towards pessimism and negativity: look at how we enrapt by the awful occurrences we encounter day to day (from gossip to car accidents), or how sordid and scandalous news spreads like wildfire (especially when compared to more positive developments, which are more likely to get no reporting in the first place).

But a recent study suggests that contrary to popular belief, or indeed to our frequent reactions to negativity, our fundamental means of communication is rife with a “universal positivity bias”. As The Atlantic reports:

This bias was first posited in 1969, when a pair of psychologists wrote a paper called “The Pollyanna Hypothesis,” named for the fictional orphan girlwith a propensity to look on the bright side. The original study had high school boys, who belonged to different cultures and spoke different languages, do word association tasks, and then ranked whether the pairs were positive or negative. More often, they were positive.

In the new PNAS study, researchers analyzed texts from Google Books, Twitter, the New York Times, a Google Web Crawl, subtitles from movies and TV shows, and music lyrics. They measured how frequently words were used in each language (English, German, Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, and Indonesian), and had native speakers rate how negative or positive they felt upon hearing those words.

In every language, on every platform, the median happiness score was higher than five—five being a totally neutral word—as seen in the chart below. The yellow is the “above-neutral” portion, and the blue is the “below-neutral.”

Below is the aforementioned chart. In total, over 100,000 words spanning ten languages were examined.

Given that these languages cover a large proportion of the world’s population (especially when you count non-native speakers), it is safe to say that most humans communicate in a language that leans towards positivity. Moreover, there are some nuances between languages:

Spanish and Portuguese were the most happy, in this study. For some languages, it really depended what kind of text the researchers were looking at—in English, music lyrics were significantly less positive than books, the New York Times, or even Twitter.

So all the languages studied tended to use happy words more often, but overall, languages also contained more happy than unhappy words. The researchers also measured “average word happiness” and found it to be high, regardless of how frequently those words were used in the text. So even lesser-used words were more often positive than negative.

As someone who is not a scientist, let alone linguist, I am not sure what to make of these results or their implications. The responses to the article seem skeptical or at least neutral, with one commentator pointing out something that also came to my mind:

The study does not cover words used in everyday interpersonal speech by everyday people, only the mere existence of the word types and writing, which is done by professional and political individuals to show off in one way or another. Maybe the study proves language bias accurately, but not the bias of language users in everyday life.

I would be curious to know how positive languages are when used in an everyday, colloquial context among average people. Were such a study possible, it would yield more comprehensive results. But given the recentness of this study, perhaps we can expect that in the future. For now, I am inclined to agree with the article’s conclusion:

“Words, which are the atoms of human language, present an emotional spectrum with a universal, self-similar positive bias,” the researchers write. While individual texts—books, songs, tweets—may skew negative, all in all, it looks like language is a positive tool.

What are your thoughts on this?

Global Spotlight: Socotra, Yemen

Socotra (also spelled Soqotra) is an archipelago of four islands in the Indian Ocean that is part of Yemen. Evidence of human settlement go back to antiquity, where the island served as a stopover for various trade routes that passed by. However, there are signs of a pre-human presence going back over a million years. Ancient inscriptions have been found written in everything from Aramaic and Greek, to pro-Arabic and ancient Indian scripts.

Today, only around 50,000 people live on Socotra, most of them eking out a living as subsistence farmers and fishers. A product of the area’s isolation, they continue to speak a nearly extinct language alongside their own distinct Arabic dialect.

Socotra’s long geographic isolation, combined with its unforgiving heat and dryness, have created a distinct and spectacular ecosystem comprised of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world; nearly 700 species are unique to the area (only Hawaii, New Caledonia, and the Galapagos Islands surpass it in terms of sheer biodiversity). For this it has been recognized as a world heritage site and nicknamed the Jewel of the Arabian Sea. 

Among the most famous occupant is the dragon blood tree, so named for its crimson red sap, which was highly valued for centuries as a dye, medicine, glue, lipstick, and even breath-freshener. Because it was believed to be dragon’s blood — a fact that could not be unverified in ancient times given the island’s seclusion — the sap was also valued in alchemy, and even today many inhabitants of the island and nearby areas allegedly regard it as a miracle cure for all sorts of ailments.

Socotra, Yemen IV

Socotra continues to retain its centuries-long mystique and character, offering an often alien landscape that is found nowhere else in the world.

First Pre-Human Art Discovered

The news is a bit old, but is no less relevant and amazing: for the first time in history, scientists have discovered evidence that our pre-human ancestors had some concept of art — something previously believed to be intrinsic to Homo sapiens. 

As National Geographic reports:

[N]ew analysis of an engraving excavated from a riverbank in Indonesia suggests that it’s at least 430,000 years old—and that it wasn’t made by humans, scientists announced Wednesday. At least it wasn’t made by humans as most people think of them, meaning Homo sapiens.

Rather, the earliest artist appears to have been one of our ancestors, Homo erectus. Hairy and beetle-browed, H. erectus was never before thought to have such talents.

“The origin of such cognition, such abilities,” said archaeologist Josephine Joordens, “is much further back in time than we thought.”

As it turns out, the source of this art — a geometric engraving on mussel shells — had been unearthed over a century ago by a Dutch paleoanthropologist named Eugène Dubois. They were found among the remains of what we now know as Homo erectus, the first hominids of the genus Homo to leave Africa, as well as the foundings members of the family from which modern humans emerged.

It was only seven years ago that Joordens and an Australian anthropologist, Steven Munro, noticed this unusual and clearly deliberate zigzag pattern. They and their team of nearly two dozen researches meticulously determined the shell to be between 430,000 and 540,000 years-old — far earlier than the previously oldest example of art among humans — and were also careful to rule out alternative explanations; a paleoanthropologist from the esteemed Smithsonian Institution also confirmed that the methodology was sound.

Needless to say, the implications this has for human evolution is, to quote Joordens, profound:

It’s generally thought that humans became anatomically and behaviorally modern  between 100,00 and 200,000 years ago, in a relatively quick stroke of evolutionary inspiration.

In subsequent millennia would come cave paintings and sculpted figures, the full flowering of an ostensible cognitive uniqueness reflected in our very name: H. sapiens, or “wise man.” Neanderthals may also have possessed a rich symbolic culture, but theirs was relatively recent, and they are arguably not so evolutionarily distinct from modern humans as H. erectus.

A geometric artmaking H. erectus challenges the narrative of dramatic human exceptionality. “What we think of as typically modern human behavior didn’t suddenly arise, in sparklike fashion,” Joordens said. “Something like that seems to have been in place much earlier.” (Learn more about H. erectus smarts in “Homo Erectus Invented “Modern” Living?”)

Like goods scientists, Joordens and her group are careful with drawing their conclusions too definitively; they avoid terms like “art”, “symbolism”, and “modernity”, even if those things can be reasonably gleaned from this finding. Indeed, despite the caution, they admit that had a similar finding be found among Homo sapiens, “it would easily be called symbolic or early art” (as has been the case).

“This raises the big, hairy question of what is ‘modern human behavior’ all over again,” said paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman of Pennsylvania State University.

Indeed, the very notion of modern humans as being cognitively unique is now “up for reconsideration,” said Joordens.

That will likely be argued for years to come. In the meantime, the researchers plan to further study the collection and revisit the excavation site.

“We’re certain we haven’t found everything yet,” Joordens said.

Clearly, the question of what it is to be human will remain an ever-more dynamic and complex one. It may never have a true answer given the larger philosophical and religious variables involved, but it is great to see more evidence to expand our discussion.

The precursor to the sum of human artistic output may have began with humble zigzags on a shell.