The Decline of War

On this International Day of Peace, it would seem perverse to celebrate the idea of world peace in the midst of ongoing and horrific conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and elsewhere, each persisting with no apparent end in sight.

But as Oxford academic Max Roser makes vividly clear at Our World in Data, humanity has in fact come closer than ever to widespread peace and prosperity, even if we still have quite a long way to go. This might seem counter-intuitive given the prevalent notion that the world is coming apart from all sides. But the data are resoundingly clear:

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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

Understanding Russia

As an almost life-long Russophile — despite not remotely having any roots or personal connections to the country or its people — I have always been fascinated by Russian culture, society, history, and politics. For better or worse, few nations have had so much presence and influence on the world stage, and while my love of all things Russia certainly does not include its government or foreign policy, I recognize the importance of better understanding this still relevant — some say resurgent — global power.

Over at Foreign Affairs (one of my favorite international relations journals),  explores Russia’s long history of trying to achieve greatness, defined “by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities”. It is equal parts tragedy and glory, with every victory coming at great cost (the defeat of Napoleon and Nazi Germany), and every instance of power and global status being tenuous (the perennial political and economic stagnation of the Soviet period throughout the Cold War).

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Liberty v. Security?

It has become something of a cliche that liberty and security are at inherent odds with each other, and that strengthening one necessarily requires weakening the other. Most citizens of a democracy would ostensibly prefer less security in favor of more liberty — better to die free than to live as a slave, etc. But it is more complicated than that, because clearly one needs security — be it from war, civil unrest, or even natural disasters — to allow the conditions for democracy to emerge and function.

It is no coincidence that democracy historically, and to this day, takes roots in places that are stable and mostly free from existential threats. The United Kingdom, whose liberal and constrained parliamentary monarchy formed the basis of the United States’ owns democratic ideals, was an island nation that had not been successfully threatened or invaded since the early 12th century. The U.S. enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, an entire hemisphere without any remotely hostile, let alone viable, competitor, and has two big oceans to buffer it from the rest of the world. Both countries had the fortune of being able to experiment with freer forms of government without needing to rely on iron rule to protect them. Continue reading

Jesse Owens Beats the Nazis at Their Own Game

13938522_10157238071245472_2853304882803904285_nOn this day in 1936, African American track and field athlete Jesse Owens won the first of four gold medals at the Berlin Summer Olympics, eventually becoming the most successful competitor in the games — and as such, crushing the Nazi leadership’s hopes of proving “Aryan superiority” (Nazi propaganda had anticipated that other inferior races, like Owens’ would be soundly defeated by Aryans).

Indeed, Hitler himself was reportedly “highly annoyed” by Owens’ triumph, remarking that his ancestors were primitive jungle dwellers that were biologically stronger than more civilized whites, and should thus be excluded from future games (so much for anticipating an easy “Aryan” success). It is still an open debate whether Owens was actually snubbed by the Nazi leader (even Owens himself disputed this at the time), though clearly he was indignant about it. Continue reading

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 Symbolic Passivity of the Term President

When the Founding Fathers of the United States set about forming a new nation, for obvious reasons they wanted to ensure that the executive could have neither the potential nor the pretensions of tyranny. So in addition to setting in place all of the checks and balances we learn are integral to the U.S. political system, they made a conscious effort to devise a new and unusual term for their head of government: President, derived from the Latin prae- “before” plus sedere “to sit”.

Up until that point, a president was someone originally tasked with presiding over (e.g., sitting before) a gathering or ceremony to ensure that everything runs smoothly. It was largely limited to academia, and was hardly an authoritarian position — which of course was precisely the point. The executive of the United States was not vested with anything more than the power to help enforce the laws of Congress, and to essentially preside over a system of power wherein the people, via their representatives, governed themselves.

(Interestingly, several countries, such as Germany and India, have offices of the president that are truer to the original etymology of the term: their presidents are mostly figureheads with few actual powers in paper and in practice.)

Granted, all this was pretty idealistic and aspirational, and as we all know, the office of the president has not always been true to its original spirit; indeed, even back then there was debate as to how much authority or power the president should have, and it was not long before presidents of all political stripes started pushing the boundaries of executive power. But it is interesting to see how even semantics could be an important consideration in formulating a political system.

 

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The 25th of May

Today marks the May Revolution of Argentina, a national holiday commemorating the start of the eight-year war of Argentine independence. Inspired by the revolutions of the United States and France, Argentina would ultimately become of one of modern history’s earliest republics, setting in motion a series of other independence movements throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The above painting, by Chilean artist Pedro Subercaseaux, depicts the “open cabildo”, or assembly, that occurred on May 22, 1810 and led to the decision to establish a new government. Continue reading

Conceptual Progress

It is easy to take values like freedom and democracy for granted, and that speaks volumes about how good we have it (at least in some parts of the modern world). For the overwhelming majority of human history, across almost every society, ideas like individual liberty, human rights, and equality were not even conceived, let alone practice.

In the approximately 200,000 years that homo sapiens have existed, only in the last three thousand or so years did such concepts even emerge, and even then they were quaint ideas limited in scope and agree — the ancient republics of Athens and Rome still had slavery and the disenfranchised women, as did the republics of the United States and France.

We are fortunate to live in a time when we have higher aspirations and ideals to live up to. People speak of realism versus idealism, but at least better values and principles exist to be attained, if even only conceptually. It was not that long ago that the very idea that slavery was morally monstrous, that women were fully humans, that children warranted rights, and that people should have a say in their governance, simply did not exist in the minds of even the most heightened intellectuals, let alone the largely impoverished and illiterate masses.

We have come a very long way as a species, even if we have an even longer ways to go.