The Peasant Wedding

Today’s featured picture on Wikipedia — which represent the highest quality and most valuable images publically available on the site — is a personal favorite of mine: The Peasant Wedding, a Renaissance-era oil painting by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (The Flemish people live primarily in the Flanders region of what is now Belgium.)


What I love most about this painting is its slice-of-life subject matter: at a time when most well-known paintings were of merchants, aristocrats, or religious figures and events, Bruegel’s trademark was depicting various aspects of peasant life in the 16th century. (Indeed, he was known as the “Peasant-Bruegel” for his unconventional, though still often symbolic portrayal of the common person.)

You can read more about the painting, including speculation as to who the groom is, here. (The bride is sitting in front of the green textile hanging on the wall, right below what has been identified as a paper crown.)

The World’s Most Emotional Countries

While there is no shortage of international data on things like GDP, military expenditure, and employment, it is only recently that the more intangible aspects of a society, as life satisfaction and happiness, have been subject to similar collection and analysis. Obviously, the inherent subjectivity of such factors make them difficult to quantify, but polling a representative sample of a given population can still offer a good enough picture of how the average person of a given society feels about their lot in life.

Gallup is contributing to this effort by gathering data on, of all things, “how often residents feel positive or negative emotions on a day-to-day basis”. The Global Emotions Report is a survey of almost 153,000 people conducted across 148 countries, asking questions such as how often a person laughs or smile, and how often they are angry. Continue reading

A Tree of World Religions

Humans today practice around 4,200 religions in total, albeit only a handful of which can be classified as major “world religions“, with followers in the tens of millions or more.

Throughout history there may have been tens of thousands of other distinct religious traditions, the vast majority of which are no longer followed. (The complex and often nebulous definition of “religion” makes it hard to get a solid count.)

Someone named Dzvenislava Novakіvska from what looks to be a Ukrainian consulting firm has created a gorgeous and extensively detailed “tree of world religions” (which is nonetheless labeled in English). Continue reading

We Will Soon Get a Window Into Two Ancient Civilizations

The passage of time and ravages of war have together destroyed literally thousands of years worth of culture and knowledge from ancient civilizations across the world. We are often left with little more than fragments or the unverified and often biased accounts of outsiders and conquerors, depriving us of a fully fleshed out understanding of how ancient people lived, loved, thought, or struggled with day to day.

Now, two different archaeological breakthroughs have gleaned previously inaccessible information on two of humanity’s most enduring and influential civilizations: the Aztecs and the Egyptians. In the case of the former, they also reveal the horrific ease with which almost an entire culture can be eradicated in just a few years.

According to The Guardianan international team from the U.K. and the Netherlands, utilizing advanced imaging technology usually applied to geological research, discovered an extremely rare pre-Columbian manuscript hidden within another rare colonial era book. Continue reading

Bolivia’s Remarkable Neo-Andino Style

While there remains tens of millions of people of indigenous descent throughout Latin America, much of their culture has been forgotten, deliberately repressed, or socially marginalized by the Spanish-influenced mainstream. Thankfully, a vast corpus of native languages, customs, folk beliefs, music, and visual art remains influential in many Latin American countries, and in some cases are even thriving. But architecture was generally absent from the long list of indigenous influences that, to varying degrees, remain prevalent (knowingly or not) in Latin American culture.

Hence my surprise, and subsequent delight, at a recent article in Remezcla that explores a fascinating new architectural movement in Bolivia inspired by the indigenous Aymara (who make up the majority of the country’s population, yet have long been marginalized). Centered in the sprawling metropolis of El Alto, which is located over 13,000 feet above sea level, this Andean or “Neo-Andino” style is like nothing else I have ever seen, combining modernist geometric patterns with the ornate and colorful motifs of the Amarya.

The leader of this eclectic architectural revolution — the “Aymara version of Michelangelo”, as some publications have called him — is a mostly self-taught forty-one-year-old architect named Freddy Mamani, who was inspired to “inject some color” into El Alto’s drab cityscape. The popularity of his style, especially among the rising middle class, reflects a cultural renaissance among indigenous Bolivians, who until recently were largely marginalized both socially and politically despite their numbers.

Remezcla has an illuminating interview with Mamani, whose works have already been the subject of a book, song, and several news reports, and can be seen in other cities in Bolivia, as well as in Peru and Brazil. It is great to see something new emerge in a global architectural scene that has largely become monocultural, with cities across the globe adopting more or less similar Western modernist motifs. It is even more exciting to witness a resurgence in one of the world’s richest and hitherto repressed cultures. As more Latin Americans of indigenous descent finally get their due economic, social, and political opportunities, we can expect to see more of their long-neglected culture gain a platform.

How Altruism and Cooperation Help Us Survive

Evolution by natural selection is blamed for promoting ruthless competition as a way to succeed in life — hence concepts such as “survival of the fittest” and “Social Darwinism”, which are seen as rooted in evolutionary theory but, are in fact perversions and misunderstandings of it. Take it from the man who formulated the theory of evolution:

The conclusion that cooperative groups will flourish at the expense of more selfish ones, and that as a result moral instincts will gradually evolve, was at the heart of [Charles Darwin’s] evolutionary writings. In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin wrote about loving and cooperative behaviours in dogs, elephants, baboons, pelicans, and other species. He thought that sympathetic and cooperative tribes and groups would flourish in comparison with communities made up of more selfish individuals, and that natural selection would thus favour cooperation.

Another tendency that Darwin shares with more recent scientists is his willingness to leap from the world of natural selection to the language of morality. Writing of the evolution of human cooperation, Darwin predicted that “looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant.”

The idea that evolution makes selfishness and immorality pivotal to survival is not only factually wrong, but a key reason why so many people — particularly the religious — are so reluctant to accept it as true. But mounting scientific evidence has verified Darwin’s early observations that prosocial behaviors are vital to our species’ flourishing: Continue reading

The Most Popular Second Languages in the World

So there is an app called Duolingo that is apparently one of the most popular language-learning services in the world. (I’ve heard of it but never knew much about it, let alone tried it.) With about 120 million users worldwide learning one of nineteen different languages, it seems to offer a pretty good sample size for determining which of the world’s languages are most popular to learn. That said, the company crunched numbers and discovered the following:


As is always the case with this sort of research, there are some caveats. As Quartz reports: Continue reading

What People Around The World Value

You can tell a lot about a nation’s culture or the state of its society from what it values. Utilizing years of data from the OECD Better Life Index, which surveys 60,000 people across the world, U.K.-based global moving company Movehub has put together a colorful infographic showing what people  around the world care about the most. Here it is courtesy of Business Insider. Continue reading

The Rise of Megacities

For thousands of years, cities have been at the center of human experience, social organization, and innovation. Even though the vast majority of humanity throughout history has, until very recently, lived in rural areas, it was the cities from where rulers governed, goods and services were traded, and ideas were born and disseminated.

Given that precedent, it is no surprise that today’s cities — bigger and more sophisticated than ever — have begun to rival whole nations, including the very ones in which they are located, as centers of culture, economic activity, scientific research, and political influence.

Writing in Quartz, Parag Khanna discusses the emergence and future of “megacities” — metropolises numbering tens of millions of citizens and accounting for anywhere from a third to even half of a nation’s economic output. Spanning every continent, but most especially Asia and Africa, these massive urban conurbations will reshape our species’ development in every sphere, from economy to culture.


For a larger version of the above map, click here.

As can plainly be seen, the developing world — once largely rural — will lead the way in the formation of megacities, albeit not by design; most megacities have formed organically, driven by heady economic growth and the influx of migrants from rural areas and smaller cities. The process has often been as rapid and haphazard as the political, social, and economic forces of the cities’ nations.

Within many emerging markets such as Brazil, Turkey, Russia, and Indonesia, the leading commercial hub or financial center accounts for at least one-third or more of national GDP. In the U.K., London accounts for almost half Britain’s GDP. And in America, the Boston-New York-Washington corridor and greater Los Angeles together combine for about one-third of America’s GDP.

By 2025, there will be at least 40 such megacities. The population of the greater Mexico City region is larger than that of Australia, as is that of Chongqing, a collection of connected urban enclaves in China spanning an area the size of Austria. Cities that were once hundreds of kilometers apart have now effectively fused into massive urban archipelagos, the largest of which is Japan’s Taiheiyo Belt that encompasses two-thirds of Japan’s population in the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka megalopolis.

China’s Pearl River delta, Greater São Paulo, and Mumbai-Pune are also becoming more integrated through infrastructure. At least a dozen such megacity corridors have emerged already. China is in the process of reorganizing itself around two dozen giant megacity clusters of up to 100 million citizens each. And yet by 2030, the second-largest city in the world behind Tokyo is expected not to be in China, but Manila in the Philippines.

For its part, the United States, which is the world’s third most populous nation, and which is expected to grow steadily over the next century, is seeing the rise of several megacities thus far: the Northeast Megalopolis, which runs from Washington, D.C. through New York City to Boston; the Southern California Megaregion, which runs from San Francisco to San Jose; and the Texas Triangle, which includes Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. Though not as large as their counterparts in the developing world, they will be formidable economic and cultural centers in their own right, and are already economically larger than some medium-sized countries.


Khanna goes on to note that the sheer size and influence of these megacities, in conjunction with the rapid pace of globalization, will make them as much a part of the world as of the nations in which they are located.

Great and connected cities, Saskia Sassen argues, belong as much to global networks as to the country of their political geography. Today the world’s top 20 richest cities have forged a super-circuit driven by capital, talent, and services: they are home to more than 75% of the largest companies, which in turn invest in expanding across those cities and adding more to expand the intercity network. Indeed, global cities have forged a league of their own, in many ways as denationalized as Formula One racing teams, drawing talent from around the world and amassing capital to spend on themselves while they compete on the same circuit.

Megacities will also redefine the relationship between the developed and developing worlds, and as well as between themselves and the rest of their countries. They will be polities of tremendous influence to reckon with in their own right.

The rise of emerging market megacities as magnets for regional wealth and talent has been the most significant contributor to shifting the world’s focal point of economic activity. McKinsey Global Institute research suggests that from now until 2025, one-third of world growth will come from the key Western capitals and emerging market megacities, one-third from the heavily populous middle-weight cities of emerging markets, and one-third from small cities and rural areas in developing countries.

There are far more functional cities in the world today than there are viable states. Indeed, cities are often the islands of governance and order in far weaker states where they extract whatever rents they can from the surrounding country while also being indifferent to it. This is how Lagos views Nigeria, Karachi views Pakistan, and Mumbai views India: the less interference from the capital, the better.

Needless to say, megacities will pose as many challenges as they do opportunities: urban planning, social organization, resource management, law and order, and infrastructure will need to be subject to considerable investment and re-imagining. Political challenges will no doubt emerge between certain megacities and their smaller peers, as well as their national governments.

Khanna concludes that these issues, along with the sheer potential and influence of megacities, should change the way we map the world — metropolitan areas should be given as much attention as the 200 or so countries that make up the world. It is an interesting argument, and one that I think bears some consideration. I look forward to exploring the topic further in Khanna’s new book Connectography.

What are your thoughts?