Ethan Shagan on The Birth of Modern Belief

ShaganThis landmark book traces the history of belief in the Christian West from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, revealing for the first time how a distinctively modern category of belief came into being. Ethan Shagan focuses not on what people believed, which is the normal concern of Reformation history, but on the more fundamental question of what people took belief to be. Brilliantly illuminating, The Birth of Modern Belief demonstrates how belief came to occupy such an ambivalent place in the modern world, becoming the essential category by which we express our judgments about science, society, and the sacred, but at the expense of the unique status religion once enjoyed.

What led you to write this book?

Good works of history often begin with a chance discovery that sticks like a splinter in the historian’s mind: something weird or surprising in the historical record that demands an explanation. In this case, that oddity was something I found in Martin Luther’s collected writings: his claim that most people do not believe that God exists. This struck me as utterly outlandish. Besides the fact that more or less everyone in sixteenth-century Europe believed in God, Luther also wrote elsewhere that atheism was virtually impossible because knowledge of God is imprinted on all human souls. So what on earth was going on? Upon further research, I found other versions of this same bizarre claim popping up elsewhere in the sixteenth century. John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that anyone who follows their own passions in defiance of heavenly judgment “denies that there is a God”—the translator of the modern English edition changed this passage to “virtually denies that there is a God,” presumably because he thought the original must have been some sort of mistake. The radical spiritualist Sebastian Franck claimed, far more drastically, that “there is not a single believer on earth!” These remarkable and unexpected ideas were not written in obscure places, nor were they written by unknown people. So why had no historian ever written about them before?

These discoveries set me on a journey that has lasted seven years. I started with the intuition that “belief” itself had changed its meaning over time. Thus, for instance, Luther could say that everyone knows God exists, but he could still argue that most people do not believe God exists, because he took “belief” to be a more difficult condition. But from there I had to figure out what preexisting, medieval understandings of belief Luther was rejecting. Then I had to figure out how the different factions in the Reformation interpreted belief. And then, most importantly, I set myself the task of figuring out how a modern understanding of “belief” emerged. Hence this became a book about the birth of modern belief: a whole new way of imagining the relationship between religion and other kinds of knowledge, which we take to be absolutely timeless and natural but was in fact an invention of the seventeenth century and a touchstone of the Enlightenment. 

Can you explain a bit about the book’s argument? What do you mean by a modern category of belief?

Belief has a history; the concept changes over time. We take it for granted that “belief” means private judgment or opinion. From that assumption, which we assume is timeless but is in fact profoundly modern, lots of other conclusions follow which seem equally unquestionable. For example, if belief is private judgment, then our beliefs might change over time in light of new evidence or further reflection. Likewise, if belief is opinion, then our belief on any particular issue might be probable rather than absolute: we might reasonably say we believe something if we think it’s likely, even if we’re uncertain. Most importantly, if belief is private judgment, then I might believe a religious doctrine in more or less the same sense that I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or that our sun is part of the Milky Way galaxy.

None of this would have been taken for granted in the Western tradition before the seventeenth century, and indeed a great deal of intellectual energy was poured into denying that any of it was true. Of course, people sometimes used the verb “believe” (credo in Latin, glauben in German, etc.) in a colloquial way—“I believe this peach is ripe,” or “I believe my husband loves me”—but a vast range of theology and philosophy was devoted to the proposition that this was totally different from belief in its proper, religious sense. To believe required an absolute, certain conviction, guaranteed to be true by reliable authority. Anything lesser or different could easily be denounced as unbelief, a failure of the mind and soul; anyone who believed wrongly, or insufficiently, or for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong way, might be taken not to believe at all. So my book is a history of how belief was freed from these constraints, creating the conditions in which religion could flourish in a secular age, but only at the cost of relinquishing the special status religion had previously enjoyed.

It seems intuitive that modern belief formed as a reaction against the Church, but how was it also a reaction against Luther and Calvinism?

Lots of people think that the Reformation produced religious liberty, because in the Reformation individuals—like Luther purportedly saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other”—insisted upon their own conscientious right to believe differently from the Roman Catholic Church. But this is quite wrong. Luther and his allies did indeed insist that their own beliefs were genuine, and that their own consciences were inviolable. But in the very act of making this claim for themselves, they insisted that all other beliefs were not simply false, they were not even beliefs at all. When early modern Protestants claimed the right to believe as they would, they were creating a new and exclusive category of belief to which others did not have access. So the Reformation did not inaugurate modern belief. Instead it produced a new kind of authoritarianism: whereas Catholics disciplined people to believe, Protestants accepted that belief was rare, and instead disciplined unbelievers. The reaction against these twin pillars of orthodoxy thus came from dissidents within both traditions. Modern belief emerged in fits and starts, not as a revolution against Christianity, but as a revolution from within Christianity by mutineers whose strained relationship to orthodoxy necessitated a more porous understand of belief.

How does the modern idea of belief travel through later intellectual movements such as the Enlightenment? Did it undergo changes there as well?

This is really a book about the Enlightenment, as much or more than it’s a book about the Reformation, because it was in the Enlightenment that modern belief truly emerged as a powerful force in the world. But the Enlightenment you’ll find in these pages may not be the one you expect.

First, it is an Enlightenment that is inclusive of religion rather than against religion. I do not deny, of course, that there was a “radical Enlightenment” which attempted, often quite explicitly, to undermine the claims of organized Christianity. But by far the more significant project of the Enlightenment was to reestablish religion on a new basis, to render it not only compatible with reason but a partner in the task of criticism which was at the heart of eighteenth-century ideas. The Enlightenment thus pioneered a question which we take for granted today, but which had received remarkably little attention previously: on what grounds should I believe? There were many different answers in the Enlightenment—as there remain today—but the task of Enlightenment religion was to tear down the medieval architecture of the mind which had strictly separated belief, knowledge, and opinion, and had thus made the question itself virtually meaningless. Enlightenment Christianity established what the Reformation had not: the sovereignty of the believing subject.

Second, my Enlightenment is not about the triumph of reason, but rather the triumph of opinion. Modern critics of the Enlightenment, on both the Left and the Right, often denigrate Enlightenment reason—and not without reason, if you’ll pardon the pun—as a false universal which allowed a new orthodoxy to establish itself as the natural frame of all argument rather than a peculiar argument in its own right. But this understanding of the Enlightenment, which takes Immanuel Kant as its avatar, misses huge swathes of late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century thought which instead privileged opinion, a kind of judgment that was particular rather than universal. In this book, I want to resuscitate an Enlightenment that privileged autonomous judgment rather than judgment constrained by someone else’s reason, and thus led to new kinds of spiritualism as much as it led to new kinds of scientism. At its worst, this modern spirit of autonomy produces the world of “alternative facts” and “fake news;” but at its best, it produces the conditions of freedom that allow for peace in a diverse society.

What is the relationship between the history of belief and secularization?

Every page of this book is engaged at least obliquely with the secularization question, but one of my key points is that secularization is the wrong question.

Secularization assumes that the crucial development in modernity is the creation of spaces outside or apart from religion; in modernity, this argument goes, religion has been relegated to a separate, private sphere. But by contrast, what I find is that modernity’s encounter with religion is not about segregating belief from the world, but rather about the promiscuous opening of belief to the world. Belief becomes, in modernity, not the boundary separating religious claims from other kinds of knowledge, but rather the least common denominator of all knowledge. Here my favorite example is the claim of many modern Christians that scientific knowledge—like the theory of evolution, for instance—is just another form of belief. This claim would have been literally nonsensical before the seventeenth century, because the whole point of belief was to preserve a special prestige for Christianity: science was a different beast altogether, belonging to different mental faculties and defended in different ways. The fact that scientific theories can now be understood as beliefs suggests that instead of thinking about the rise of a modern secular, we instead need to think about what happened when the walls separating religious belief from other kinds of knowledge-claims were breached.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

That belief has proliferated rather than waned in modernity, but only because the definition of belief has changed in our society to make it compatible with diversity, democracy, and freedom of thought. The old world of belief—where it was structured by authority, and where it functioned as an axis of exclusion to preserve orthodoxy—is dead and buried, and we should be thankful for its demise rather than nostalgic for the oppressive unity it once provided.

Ethan H. Shagan is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion, and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England and Popular Politics and the English Reformation. He lives in Orinda, California.

PUP Seminary Co-op Notables for 2018

We’re thrilled and honored to see so many Princeton University Press titles featured as notables for 2018. Thanks to our friends at the Seminary Co-op!

 

Hassan Malik on Bankers and Bolsheviks

In a year that has seen emerging markets, including Argentina and Turkey, experience major market crashes, Hassan Malik’s Bankers and Bolsheviks is a timely reminder of the long history of emerging market booms and busts. Bankers and Bolsheviks charts the story of the foreign investment surge that made Russia the largest net international borrower in the global bond market, and the collapse which culminated in the largest default in history in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. Based on research in government and banking archives in four countries and three languages, the story is truly global. It focuses on the leading gatekeepers of international finance in Europe and the United States, showing their thinking about the most significant emerging market of the age through some of the most important events in world history.

Many scholars, writers and filmmakers have engaged with the period you chose to write about. What in particular attracted you to it?

I was always struck by how frequently financial history surveys focus on a few set stories and episodes – the Dutch Tulipmania of the seventeenth century, the hyperinflation in Weimar Germany, or the 1929 stock market crash – but how rarely they mention Russia, especially given the scale of the Russian borrowing binge in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a banker living and working in Moscow during mid 2000s, I was constantly walking by pre-revolutionary buildings that had once housed banks. These vestiges of a previous Russian boom piqued my interest in the role of finance during the revolutionary period and inspired me to approach the subject through the archives and writings of key individual players in this drama. The Russian case was particularly interesting given that all the major players in global finance were able to participate in Russian markets. Unlike other emerging markets that were dominated by a single country or bank, the Russian story featured a diverse group of actors, and so provided an ideal vantage point from which to write about global finance during the first modern age of globalization.

What are the parallels with today’s standoff between Ukraine and Russia over sovereign debt?

Central to the book is the notion of “odious debt” – the idea that a population cannot be held liable for the debts contracted on its behalf but without its consent by an illegitimate regime. The Bolshevik default of 1918 was remarkable for reasons other than sheer magnitude. Unlike Argentina in 2001 or Greece in 2012, the Bolsheviks not only defaulted but repudiated the debts contracted by pre-revolutionary governments. It is notable that the Bolsheviks were not outliers in this respect – moderate liberals in Russia also objected to debts the Tsarist government in particular raised in international bond markets.

Fully 100 years on, the Ukrainian government is fighting Russian claims on a similar basis with respect to a bilateral loan structured as a $3bn Eurobond contracted by the government of Viktor Yanukovych in December 2013, shortly before it was overthrown in the 2014 uprising. The Ukrainian government ultimately defaulted on the loan in 2015. Like the Bolsheviks in 1918, the current Ukrainian government claims that Yanukovych was a dictator ruling without the consent of his people, and that therefore, they should not be held accountable for debts contracted by his government. Like the Bolsheviks and liberal opponents to the Tsarist regime in the early twentieth century, the present Ukrainian government is also claiming that the creditor in question actively sought to undermine and control the debtor country.

What lessons does the book hold for investors in emerging market bonds today?

Another of the book’s central messages is that investment in emerging markets does not happen in a vacuum. Politics matter, on several levels. Most obviously, managing and hedging against geopolitical risk remains very important. Global politics also influenced thinking about Russia, even amongst ostensibly clear-eyed investors. Fears of an ascendant Germany during the time period discussed in the book are mirrored in present-day apprehension about the rise of China and relative decline of “the West.” More specifically, such fears can generate biases and influence investment decisions. The strategic decisions of the first National City Bank of New York – one of the largest in the world at the time, and a forerunner to Citigroup – were heavily influenced, for example, by the wartime context, and led to a remarkable expansion of the bank’s operations in Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution.

Politics also operate on a subtler level. The case of Russia, for example, demonstrates how the act of investing itself became a political act–when investors enter an emerging market, they often are aligning themselves with a particular set of political forces. Bankers in Russia at the time failed to appreciate the degree to which they were becoming entwined in domestic politics – and with the Tsarist regime in particular. Today, a similar theme is evident along the New Silk Road that China is developing across Eurasia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean as part of President Xi Jingping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

What are the implications for China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

The investment wave Russia witnessed during the first modern age of globalization was inextricably intertwined with contemporary geopolitics. While notionally private French, British, and American banks were key gatekeepers channeling capital into Russia, they did so in a particular geopolitical context. The French and Russian authorities in particular cooperated to a significant degree in channeling French savings to Russian markets. The French, however, frequently failed to persuade Russia to direct industrial orders to French firms, which often lost out to their German rivals.

In this respect, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is markedly different from the Franco-Russian financial ties of the Belle Époque. Under the BRI, China extends loans largely to developing countries for infrastructure projects built primarily by Chinese workers employed by Chinese engineering firms, using mainly Chinese equipment and materials. At a time when Chinese economic growth is slowing and there are signs of excess capacity in areas such as the construction industry, the BRI holds significant promise for China, not least since it diversifies the country’s trade routes away from contested territory such as the South China Sea. The benefit to countries receiving BRI funds is less clear. While there is little doubt that infrastructure is being built, the utility of some projects is arguable; and crucially, there is little transparency with regard to the commercial terms of the deals, to say nothing of contracting processes.

Several cases of questionable China-related deals are already evident. Before the formal launch of the BRI in 2013, Sri Lanka infamously signed a deal for a Chinese port of dubious feasibility and under terms that saw Sri Lanka’s debt balloon. When a new government faced difficulties in making payments, the Chinese ultimately took control of the strategic asset via a 99-year lease. More recently, erstwhile Malaysian premier Najib Razak signed major Chinese investment deals under the BRI. His successor has attacked the deals as shady and wasteful, and has already announced their cancellation in the amount of at least $22bn.

As the Malaysian case shows, the Chinese government – like foreign investors in Tsarist Russia – is willing to sign deals with leaders of contested legitimacy. The latter, in turn, are incentivized to seek BRI funding given the relatively higher degree of scrutiny and conditionality imposed by more traditional lenders such as the World Bank or individual developed countries. As both the Malaysian and Russian cases show, however, such an approach carries the risk that new regimes – whether they arrive through revolution or the ballot box – can question, push to renegotiate, or outright repudiate debts contracted by their predecessors.

Have emerging markets evolved, or have they repeated cycles of boom and bust that are fundamentally the same, with only superficial changes in context? Are the mistakes of the past vis-à-vis emerging markets destined to be repeated?

It would be simplistic to say that history repeats itself in emerging markets, but at the same time, financial history can be useful in thinking about historical analogs to current market conditions and potential future scenarios. Of course, government and businesses in emerging markets have evolved both over the centuries, as well as in the last several decades that witnessed the growth of “emerging markets” as a specific institutional asset class. For instance, macroeconomic management has shifted dramatically over the last 20 years in markets from Argentina to Russia, not least through the abandonment of fixed exchange rate regimes that contributed to past crises. At the same time, macroeconomic prescriptions directed at emerging markets from institutions such as the IMF, academia, and the investment community have themselves changed as investors and economists learn and re-learn lessons from the major EM crises of recent years.

Emerging markets have changed in other respects, too. Tsarist Russia attracted investors in part due to its relatively large population and resource base. Today, Russia’s demographics are seen as a handicap by investors, as is the economy’s dependence on commodity exports. Of course, even high-growth Asian economies have become victims of their success, with improvements in living standards and life expectancies contributing to ageing populations in major emerging markets such as China and India.

Nevertheless, there are strong continuities. The political dimension in particular remains very real in emerging markets, as seen in the major market moves surrounding regime changes in places such as Argentina, Brazil, India, and Malaysia in recent years. In this respect, there are strong parallels between emerging markets today and in the past.

Hassan Malik is an investment strategist and financial historian. He earned a PhD at Harvard University and was a postdoctoral fellow at the European University Institute in Florence and the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. He lives and works in London.

 

 

Kevin Mitchell: Wired that way – genes do shape behaviours but it’s complicated

Many of our psychological traits are innate in origin. There is overwhelming evidence from twin, family and general population studies that all manner of personality traits, as well as things such as intelligence, sexuality and risk of psychiatric disorders, are highly heritable. Put concretely, this means that a sizeable fraction of the population spread of values such as IQ scores or personality measures is attributable to genetic differences between people. The story of our lives most definitively does not start with a blank page.

But exactly how does our genetic heritage influence our psychological traits? Are there direct links from molecules to minds? Are there dedicated genetic and neural modules underlying various cognitive functions? What does it mean to say we have found ‘genes for intelligence’, or extraversion, or schizophrenia? This commonly used ‘gene for X’ construction is unfortunate in suggesting that such genes have a dedicated function: that it is their purpose to cause X. This is not the case at all. Interestingly, the confusion arises from a conflation of two very different meanings of the word ‘gene’.

From the perspective of molecular biology, a gene is a stretch of DNA that codes for a specific protein. So there is a gene for the protein haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around in the blood, and a gene for insulin, which regulates our blood sugar, and genes for metabolic enzymes and neurotransmitter receptors and antibodies, and so on; we have a total of about 20,000 genes defined in this way. It is right to think of the purpose of these genes as encoding those proteins with those cellular or physiological functions.

But from the point of view of heredity, a gene is some physical unit that can be passed from parent to offspring that is associated with some trait or condition. There is a gene for sickle-cell anaemia, for example, that explains how the disease runs in families. The key idea linking these two different concepts of the gene is variation: the ‘gene’ for sickle-cell anaemia is really just a mutation or change in sequence in the stretch of DNA that codes for haemoglobin. That mutation does not have a purpose – it only has an effect.

So, when we talk about genes for intelligence, say, what we really mean is genetic variants that cause differences in intelligence. These might be having their effects in highly indirect ways. Though we all share a human genome, with a common plan for making a human body and a human brain, wired so as to confer our general human nature, genetic variation in that plan arises inevitably, as errors creep in each time DNA is copied to make new sperm and egg cells. The accumulated genetic variation leads to variation in how our brains develop and function, and ultimately to variation in our individual natures.

This is not metaphorical. We can directly see the effects of genetic variation on our brains. Neuroimaging technologies reveal extensive individual differences in the size of various parts of the brain, including functionally defined areas of the cerebral cortex. They reveal how these areas are laid out and interconnected, and the pathways by which they are activated and communicate with each other under different conditions. All these parameters are at least partly heritable – some highly so.

That said, the relationship between these kinds of neural properties and psychological traits is far from simple. There is a long history of searching for correlations between isolated parameters of brain structure – or function – and specific behavioural traits, and certainly no shortage of apparently positive associations in the published literature. But for the most part, these have not held up to further scrutiny.

It turns out that the brain is simply not so modular: even quite specific cognitive functions rely not on isolated areas but on interconnected brain subsystems. And the high-level properties that we recognise as stable psychological traits cannot even be linked to the functioning of specific subsystems, but emerge instead from the interplay between them.

Intelligence, for example, is not linked to any localised brain parameter. It correlates instead with overall brain size and with global parameters of white matter connectivity and the efficiency of brain networks. There is no one bit of the brain that you do your thinking with. Rather than being tied to the function of one component, intelligence seems to reflect instead the interactions between many different components – more like the way we think of the overall performance of a car than, say, horsepower or braking efficiency.

This lack of discrete modularity is also true at the genetic level. A large number of genetic variants that are common in the population have now been associated with intelligence. Each of these by itself has only a tiny effect, but collectively they account for about 10 per cent of the variance in intelligence across the studied population. Remarkably, many of the genes affected by these genetic variants encode proteins with functions in brain development. This didn’t have to be the case – it might have turned out that intelligence was linked to some specific neurotransmitter pathway, or to the metabolic efficiency of neurons or some other direct molecular parameter. Instead, it appears to reflect much more generally how well the brain is put together.

The effects of genetic variation on other cognitive and behavioural traits are similarly indirect and emergent. They are also, typically, not very specific. The vast majority of the genes that direct the processes of neural development are multitaskers: they are involved in diverse cellular processes in many different brain regions. In addition, because cellular systems are all highly interdependent, any given cellular process will also be affected indirectly by genetic variation affecting many other proteins with diverse functions. The effects of any individual genetic variant are thus rarely restricted to just one part of the brain or one cognitive function or one psychological trait.

What all this means is that we should not expect the discovery of genetic variants affecting a given psychological trait to directly highlight the hypothetical molecular underpinnings of the affected cognitive functions. In fact, it is an error to think of cognitive functions or mental states as having molecular underpinnings – they have neural underpinnings.

The relationship between our genotypes and our psychological traits, while substantial, is highly indirect and emergent. It involves the interplay of the effects of thousands of genetic variants, realised through the complex processes of development, ultimately giving rise to variation in many parameters of brain structure and function, which, collectively, impinge on the high-level cognitive and behavioural functions that underpin individual differences in our psychology.

And that’s just the way things are. Nature is under no obligation to make things simple for us. When we open the lid of the black box, we should not expect to see lots of neatly separated smaller black boxes inside – it’s a mess in there.

Innate: How the Wiring of our Brains Shapes Who We Are by Kevin Mitchell is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

David Hu on How to Walk on Water and Climb Up Walls (Part 2)

Insects walk on water, snakes slither, and fish swim. Animals move with astounding grace, speed, and versatility: how do they do it, and what can we learn from them? In How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls, David Hu takes readers on an accessible, wondrous journey into the world of animal motion. From basement labs at MIT to the rain forests of Panama, Hu shows how animals have adapted and evolved to traverse their environments, taking advantage of physical laws with results that are startling and ingenious. In turn, the latest discoveries about animal mechanics are inspiring scientists to invent robots and devices that move with similar elegance and efficiency.

In the second part of our Q+A with David Hu, he describes what we know (and don’t know) about animal motion, and what the future of robots will look like. Check out the first part of our Q+A here.

Don’t we already know everything about animal motion?

From cave paintings to today’s videos of cats on YouTube, the movement of animals has always fascinated people. The thesis of my book is that there is an explosion of new interest and progress in understanding animal motion. Recent technological developments and the teamwork of biologists, computer scientists, physicists, and engineers, are leading to changes in the way animal motion is now studied.

What can we learn from studying animal motion?

Animals have existed for millions of years. As a result, they have evolved a huge diversity, inhabiting nearly every part of the planet, across terrains from desert to forest to sea. This range of environments, combined with their intense competition to eat or be eaten has led to the evolution of ingenious methods of locomotion. Their varying locomotion mechanisms can inspire new ways of propulsion for humans, from robots that walk across the clutter in our homes to tracked vehicles that move across the dusty surface of Mars. But before we robots are improved sufficiently to enter our everyday lives, an understanding how animals movement is of great benefit.

What kind of approach is needed to study animal motion?

We already have many of the tools to understand the movement of animals.  Because animals move through air and water, the same tools that engineers use to design boats and airplanes can be applied to animals. The brains of animals can be studied in a similar way. To react quickly to their surroundings, animals rely on a system of nerves that can act autonomously, similar to the cruise control in your car, and the motion of an autonomous robot. Since animals share things in common with boats, airplanes, and robots—the same tools to study these human-made systems can be used to reverse-engineer systems in nature.

How did you become interested in studying animals and insects?

My PhD was on the physics of insects that walk on water. People who study the motion of fluids have often looked to birds and fish for inspiration. During my PhD, I realized that while we often see insects as annoying, they are the dominant non-microscopic life form on earth, and their small size gives them an even greater versatility to move. After my PhD study on water striders and a postdoctoral study on snakes, I founded my own laboratory for studying animal movement.

What are the applications of your work, whether it’s a shaking wet dog or animals waving their tails?

In the course of my work, I often design and build new devices based on animal movement. My work on water striders led to a collaborator building a palm-sized water-walking robot. My work on cat tongues led to a cat-tongue inspired brush that combs with lower force and is easier to clean. From this book, I hope to show curiosity-based research on animal motion can lead to useful new inventions.

What are the robots of the future going to be like?

Many robots rely on wheels and are tested on linoleum floors. Robots built for such structured environments often do poorly in nature. A grassy field, a moss-covered stream, even a living room littered with children’s toys. These are terrain that is impassible by most robots. To traverse these cluttered areas, robots will likely need multiple legs, or no legs at all, resembling insects or snakes. I bet that robots that successfully traverse outdoor environments will show some resemblance to the animals that make this place their home. This is because the laws of physics provide immutable constraints that have influenced the shape and kind of motion that is most effective on these terrain.

David L. Hu is associate professor of mechanical engineering and biology and adjunct professor of physics at Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives in Atlanta.

An Innocent Abroad: Starting Out in Oxford

It is by a stroke of good fortune and a gesture of good faith that PUP has seen fit to permit me to spend this academic year living and working from Oxford. It is good fortune insofar as we have a lovely and cozy (and I do mean cozy) office in Woodstock full (and I do mean full) of wonderful colleagues who all share our trans-Atlantic commitment to being a global publisher. It shows good faith that our Director Christie Henry and the Head of Our European Office Caroline Priday, have supported this knowing there was a distinct possibility I might enter that shrine to books that is Blackwell’s legendary bookshop never to be seen or heard from again (more on that later).

It was a busy first month or so getting settled in our home away from home. I am now largely familiar with the inner workings of the banking system, the variety of mobile phone plans, and what school “catchments” mean as well as the fact that there is something called “Brexit” which most everyone seems to agree is bad, but which a frightening number of people think that they should “just get on with it already”, as if it were just a routine appendectomy. (It is also no joking matter, unless, of course, you are a guest on one of the several news quiz show panels on the BBC that I have become addicted to). After I mastered that, I looked something like this:

I was then off and running, almost literally, to as many as meetings as I can muster each week with scholars here in Oxford. This is the scholarly publisher’s equivalent of a kid in candy store and if I am anything like my son, with whom I have been to actual candy stores, this may require some boxes and a handtruck.

As our authors Daniel Bell and Avner de Shalit call it in their book The Spirit of Cities, Oxford is truly the “City of Learning.” It is the original and ultimate college town. It is not so much “town and gown” as “town as gown.” Walking the streets you can’t help but feel this is a place dedicated to learning (or if you are in Christ Church where they filmed the Hogwarts dining hall scenes in the Harry Potter movies, a place dedicated to learning magic). It is an inspiring place of students, scholars and scholarship, and really, really old buildings. Back in Princeton, I can recall walking past Nassau Hall and thinking how cool it was that it dates back to the mid-18th century when the college was founded. That’s what they call a “new college” here. In fact, there is a New College Oxford and it was founded in 1379! But there is undoubtedly an academic aroma constantly in the air—albeit mixed with the occasional wafting of spices from a kebab truck parked on Broad St. most evenings (and that’s “kebab” pronounced to rhyme with “tab” not “bob”).

It is thrilling to be here in such surroundings and to see a city essentially dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and its transmission. But that feeling isn’t limited to the university itself. In the center of town across the street from the world’s great library, The Bodleian, is another great temple dedicated to books, the aforementioned Blackwell’s Bookshop, whose offerings are immense, immaculate, and often “3 for the price of 2”— a blessed offering as any I have encountered.

Get 3 for 2! Or better yet 6 for 4! Collect them all!

Going there on a Saturday or Sunday morning is akin to a holy experience. Just look at how many people showed up on Saturday morning at 11am to hear Nigel Warburton in conversation with Sue Prideaux, author of a new biography of Nietzsche. I was first in line to get her to sign a copy of her book and, of course, tell her about our soon to be published intellectual biography of Nietzsche biographer and translator, Walter Kaufmann. She seemed genuinely eager to receive a copy (arguably to make up for the fact that there is only one footnote to Kaufmann in her biography) which we will dispatch soon (that’s right dispatch, not send).

Just another Saturday morning in Oxford

The shop is teeming with the eye candy of beautifully designed and packaged books that scream, “judge this book by its cover!” And you would be right to do so, because the contents are often as alluring as the cover is fetching. My weekly (or thrice weekly) trips to Blackwell’s have reminded me that there is in this worrisome world an audience for serious non-fiction properly packaged and promoted. And this is true not just at Blackwell’s but at the other bookstores I have visited here as well. Serious books remain a potent source for understanding. I am also immensely pleased and proud that they seem to really like our Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series (either that or Andrew Brewer, our International Sales Director, told them I was coming and bribed them to strategically place these face-out around the store; I guess they call that co-op back in the States).

Display your wisdom!

In fact, our Ancient World offerings are very well-represented here as well as so many of our other books.

As I write Thanksgiving approaches—well, not here it doesn’t, though Black Friday seems to have strangely caught on—so it seemed as good a time as any to say how immensely thankful I am for my sojourn here, how thankful I am to my colleagues, the city of Oxford, and especially Blackwell’s for reminding me each and every week why I love being in publishing so very much (and why I need that job if I am going to pay for all these books I am buying).

P.S. Lest people think I only spend my time in bookstores, we did make a trip to Greece at the end of October for my son’s “half-term” break (the schools appear to be closed here roughly every eight weeks) where I visited the Temple of Hephaestus. To find out more about the god Hephaestus see Adrienne Mayor’s just published Gods and Robots.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Rob Tempio

Senior Publisher, Executive Editor, Expatriate

 

 

 

 

Daniel Rodgers on As a City on a Hill

Rodgers“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” John Winthrop warned his fellow Puritans at New England’s founding in 1630. More than three centuries later, Ronald Reagan remade that passage into a timeless celebration of American promise. How were Winthrop’s long-forgotten words reinvented as a central statement of American identity and exceptionalism? In As a City on a Hill, leading American intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers tells the surprising story of one of the most celebrated documents in the canon of the American idea. In doing so, he brings to life the ideas Winthrop’s text carried in its own time and the sharply different yearnings that have been attributed to it since.

How did you come to write this book? 

Like many book projects, this one began when with a sense of surprise. “We shall be as a city on a hill” has been part of the core rhetoric of American nationalism since the 1980s when Ronald Reagan began using it as a signature phrase in his speeches. In modern times, it is virtually impossible to discuss the “American creed” and the main themes in American civic culture without it. Like other teachers of American history, I had taught the Puritan text from which Reagan had taken the phrase to hundreds of students. “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop had titled his “lay sermon” in 1630. Here I said, with the confidence of repeating a rock-solid certainty, lay the origins of the idea of special, world-historical destiny that had propelled American history from its very beginnings.

But I was wrong. The closer I looked at the text that speechwriters, op-ed contributors, preachers, historians, political scientists, and so many others thought they knew so well, the more I began to realize that the story of Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” held a string of surprises. Rather than running as a continuous thread through American history, Winthrop’s text had almost immediately dropped out of sight where it stayed, unread and unimportant, for generations. When historians and social commenters revived it two and a half centuries after its writing, they did so in the act of making it into a radically different document than it had been at its origins. Winthrop had placed a plea for charity and intense mutual obligations, not greatness, at the heart of his “Model.” How had this core meaning been lost? How had Winthrop’s sense of the acute vulnerability of his project been replaced by confidence that the United States had a unique and unstoppable mission to be a model to the world? How had this story of forgetting and remembering, erasure and revision, reuse and contention actually unfold? It was when these puzzles began to accumulate in my mind that I realized this book about the continuous reshaping of the past needed to be written.

What exactly did John Winthrop mean by “a city on a hill,” then?

The chasm between Winthrop’s use of those words and what they were claimed to mean when his “Model of Christian Charity” burst into public notice in the mid twentieth century is immense. On the eve of the Puritan settlement of New England, Winthrop meant the phrase “we shall be as a city on a hill” as a warning. As he used the words, a “city on a hill” was a city exposed to the “eyes of all people;” it was a place of high conspicuousness. To live there was to live under the critical scrutiny of a God who might, in a moment, make it a “story and a byword through the world.” There was nothing comforting about it.

At its best and most demanding, Winthrop’s “Model” had urged, the mission of the Puritan project in America was to realize a mutual “charity” deeper than any modern society had yet achieved. It was to be a community where the temptations of unrestrained commerce and self-interest would be held in check by an ethic of love and mutuality. He and his fellow New Englanders fell short of that ideal, as the book’s sketches of some of the early New England recipients of Puritan public charity show. But Winthrop’s “city on a hill” promised, nonetheless, a radically different future than capitalist America was to realize.

When Winthrop’s phrase was reinjected into politics at the end of the twentieth century, it stood not for mutual love and obligation, not for the rules of fair lending and public responsibility for the poor, but for the cornucopia of goods and liberties that the United States was destined by history to spread to the rest of the world. It stood for the uniqueness of the United States among all other nations. It radiated the power of modern American capitalism. It reassured Americans in a globalizing world that their mission was timeless. How had a warning morphed into a conviction of enduring greatness?  How had a vision of a charitable society been reimagined as a celebration of American material abundance? How could a phrase be refilled with such radically different contents and yet, in the end, be made to appear as if it had been a stable foundation stone of the American “idea” from the beginning?  In the task of tracing that story across four centuries, in and beyond the United States, has been the challenge and the exhilaration of the book’s writing.

Many historians spell out powerful straight-line stories of America. You have said that you are more interested in the unexpected that lies, half-hidden, beneath the overly familiar stories we tell about our past.

All good history writing needs to hold both those impulses in play, but the past is often very different than the version that has been straightened out and encapsulated in public memory. Winthrop and his contemporaries were not the Founders of America as our linearized historical narratives routinely describe them. At the outset, they were English folk in flight from their worldly, commercial, and libertine culture. They had to be made post facto into founders of a nation they never envisioned. The “city on a hill” phrase did not have a continuous presence in American political rhetoric, as we conventionally assume; and it was in no way unique to Americans. You’ll find far more references to the phrase among the founders of Liberia (for good reason; they knew the world’s first black republic was going to be the object of intense critical scrutiny) than among the eighteenth-century founders of the United States (who rarely used it all). Although we conventionally describe a sense of uniquely high moral responsibility for the world as distinctive to Americans, it was not exceptional to them; they shared that sentiment with the peoples of almost all the great powers at the turn of the twentieth century. We associate the American sense of mission with the enduring force of the Protestant heritage in the American past. But among many contemporary evangelical Protestants the relationship of the “city on a hill” phrase to the nation of the United States is much more vexed and troubled than straight-line history imagines it.  

Part of the challenge of writing history is a willingness to take seriously these elements of strangeness, these crooked, disorienting departures from the expected and to follow them to the surprises toward which they lead. The other part is to puzzle out the processes by which this never-linear history, so full of close calls and contingencies, gets ironed out in the stories we tell about ourselves: how, under the pressures of nationalism, our history is made into something easier to swallow and more reassuring to live with.

Is the story of Winthrop’s sermon unique or are there similar examples of the invention of foundational documents in American history?

 No other text that we now think to be as fundamental to our statement of who we are went missing for as many centuries as John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity.” But many of the symbols of modern nationalism are much more recent than we imagine, and the meanings Americans have invested in them have changed almost as remarkably as in the case of Winthrop’s text. The Declaration of Independence is a critically important example. The Declaration that we know now, with its promise of equal rights and liberties to all, wasn’t a foundational document in its own time. At many July 4 ceremonies in the generation after 1776, those opening lines of the Declaration were not read at all. As the Declaration’s preamble began to be revived, contests over its meanings revived as well. The Declaration didn’t begin to be imagined as carrying a fundamental criticism of slavery until abolitionists read it again with a radically new moral urgency in the 1840s. It wasn’t imagined to carry the fully panoply of human rights that we now associate with it until the mid-twentieth century. It was a document continuously remade by those who used it. Those struggles and those reworkings—not the document itself—form our national story.  

John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon, written in a moment of high anxiety, eclipsed by hundreds of other patriotic texts as the nation took shape, its core theme of mutuality forgotten and misremembered and the rest embraced as if it had been part of the unitary American consciousness from the beginning, is a story of the same sort. Its story is a history of struggles to remake and remember a civic culture. We live within these struggles now and within some of the terms that Winthrop himself wrestled with. As they are reminded of that, I hope readers will see themselves—as well as an unexpected America—in this book’s pages.

Daniel T. Rodgers is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Age of Fracture, winner of the Bancroft Prize; Atlantic Crossings; Contested Truths; and The Work Ethic in Industrial America. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

François-Xavier Fauvelle on The Golden Rhinoceros

FauvelleFrom the birth of Islam in the seventh century to the voyages of European exploration in the fifteenth, Africa was at the center of a vibrant exchange of goods and ideas. It was an African golden age in which places like Ghana, Nubia, and Zimbabwe became the crossroads of civilizations, and where African royals, thinkers, and artists played celebrated roles in the globalized world of the Middle Ages. The Golden Rhinoceros brings this unsung era marvelously to life, taking readers from the Sahara and the Nile River Valley to the Ethiopian highlands and southern Africa.

How did this book come about?

This book came about for two reasons. The first is scholarly. As an historian and archaeologist, I have worked in several regions of Africa (the Horn of Africa, South Africa, and countries on both sides of the western Sahara) and have been lucky enough to visit archeological sites in other places. My research has made me understand that despite the profound cultural differences between these different regions there existed a point of convergence: their participation in a global system of exchange during the Middle Ages. This phenomenon had similar and synchronous effects on several African societies, particularly their participation in religious, economic, political and architectural “conversations” with other powers of the time, notably within the Islamic world. The second rationale behind this book is civic. French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech in Dakar in 2007 where he claimed that “the African has not fully entered into history,” made me understand that there was a severe shortage of works on African history that were both serious and accessible. Some Africanist historians took it upon themselves to respond to this scandalous speech. For my part, what I found scandalous was not that this speech could be delivered, but that it was audible in our society, that there was room for it to be heard. For me, the blame lies with scholars rather than politicians. The Golden Rhinoceros attempts to address this by making what we know about medieval African history available to a large audience.

Is there a method to how you structured the book? 

I have always been very sensitive to the argument of American historian Hayden White. He believed that historians generally narrate history in a conservative way. In my opinion, one of the conservative ways of writing the history of ancient Africa is to write it so that it conceals the characteristics of African societies and the available documentation in order to imitate the history of medieval and modern Europe. I wrote The Golden Rhinoceros to respond to a particular challenge presented by ancient African history: the fragmentary character of the written and archaeological documentation. Thus, this book is organized into small chapters that seek to embrace the fragmentary nature of the documentation by opening “windows,” but without covering up the lacunas, without leading the reader to think it is possible to tell this history in a linear fashion. I have also sought to lay out two different levels of reading: each chapter is followed by a short bibliographic essay that tells another story, that of the documentation.

How did the experiences of ordinary Africans of the Middle Ages differ from their counterparts in Europe?

This is a difficult question to answer because the written sources, primarily Arabic, which were produced outside of African societies, tell us mostly about capital cities, political elites, diplomatic relations, and the buying and selling of luxury merchandise. I have focused the book on these aspects, as they allow us to better observe the agency of African societies. Nevertheless, this approach sometimes opens small windows onto the lives of ordinary people. Take for example this request which was formulated before Sultan Sulayman of Mâli in 1352: a Muslim cleric had come from a village and presented himself before the sultan.  He said that locusts had spoken to him, saying that God had sent them to destroy the harvest because of the oppression reigning in the land. We have here a window, very small but very illuminating, onto the political order and the language in which recriminations regarding power in the medieval kingdom of Mâli were expressed.

What would you like readers to take away from this book?

I would like readers to understand that African societies were not “tribes” frozen forever in their landscape; that their social organization changed over time; that they participated in global exchange; that they created institutions and cities; that they adopted and adapted forms of religion coming initially from the outside, such as Christianity and Islam. That’s the first take away. There is a second: It’s one thing to understand that African societies have a history, it’s another to realize that medieval African societies were the contemporaries of the Islamic, European, Indian or Chinese societies of the period, and that they participated in a larger conversation. It’s why I speak of a medieval Africa that should be seen as part of a global Middle Ages that contained other provinces. For me, from the point of view of an Africanist, the goal is not, in the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty, “to provincialize Europe,” but to conceive of a multi-provincial world in which Africa has its place. Finally, a third take away: I would like for The Golden Rhinoceros to contribute to putting our knowledge of the history of Africa into the current conversation about history; to have it participate in the shared conceptions of world civilizations; and to influence teaching and discussion on the historical trajectories of societies and the methods of the historical discipline.

What did Africa offer during the Middle Ages that other regions did not?

Several very strong singularities should be highlighted. One is that forms of centralized power and the accumulation of prestige, sophisticated systems of exchange, and a cultural and material finesse existed without being accompanied by the widespread use of writing (except in Ethiopia). Another is that although the regions of Africa under discussion were not conquered by Arab armies in the seventh century, many of their societies, in any case their elites, adopted Islam because it allowed them to access a political, commercial, juridical and intellectual language common to the whole Islamic world (the Maghreb, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and Persia). These political elites, as in Mâli for example, invented ways for Islam and local religions to coexist. This coexistence is also found at the level of the linguistic, economic, and technological diversity of African societies: it’s a characteristic of the longue durée in African history, which distinguishes Africa from other regions of the world that became culturally homogeneous to a higher degree when they were integrated into centralized political formations. But far be it from me to promote an angelic vision of African history: we must not forget that several of these societies (the Ethiopian kingdoms, for example) raided their neighbors to export slaves to the Islamic world.

Why do you think the history of medieval Africa has been neglected?

This is a complex question. The Arab authors of the Middle Ages had no problem admiring the political sophistication of the African kingdoms (such as al-Bakrî, who wrote approvingly of Ghâna in the eleventh century) or investigating their history (such as Ibn Khaldûn did for Mâli at the end of the fourteenth century), although the Islamic societies to which they belonged imported massive numbers of black slaves from these regions. In contrast, the slave trade practiced by the Europeans and their American colonies was accompanied by a monstrous ideology that not only negated the humanity of the captives, but also the singularity, and thus the historicity, of their societies. This negation has stealthily managed to install itself in modern mentalities. It lives on in multiple forms, whether it’s coldly saying that Africans have no history, or shutting away African art behind museum showcases with “ethnic” labels which lead one to think that objects produced by Africans reflect unchanging African “souls.” History is a remedy against such beliefs.

François-Xavier Fauvelle is senior fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse, France, and one of the world’s leading historians of ancient Africa. The author and editor of numerous books, he has conducted archaeological digs in South Africa, Ethiopia, and Morocco.

Edward Burger on Making Up Your Own Mind

BurgerWe solve countless problems—big and small—every day. With so much practice, why do we often have trouble making simple decisions—much less arriving at optimal solutions to important questions? Are we doomed to this muddle—or is there a practical way to learn to think more effectively and creatively? In this enlightening, entertaining, and inspiring book, Edward Burger shows how we can become far better at solving real-world problems by learning creative puzzle-solving skills using simple, effective thinking techniques. Making Up Your Own Mind teaches these techniques—including how to ask good questions, fail and try again, and change your mind—and then helps you practice them with fun verbal and visual puzzles. A book about changing your mind and creating an even better version of yourself through mental play, Making Up Your Own Mind will delight and reward anyone who wants to learn how to find better solutions to life’s innumerable puzzles. 

What are the practical applications of this book for someone who wants to improve their problem-solving skills?

The practicality goes back to the practical elements of one’s own education. Unfortunately, many today view “formal education” as the process of learning, but what they really mean is “knowing”—knowing the facts, dates, methodologies, templates, algorithms, and the like. Once the students demonstrate that newly-found knowledge by reproducing it back to the instructor on a paper or test they quickly let it all go from their short-term memories and move on. Today this kind of “knowledge” can be largely found via any search engine on any smart device. So in our technological information age, what should “formal education” mean?  Instead of focusing solely on “knowing,” it intentionally must also teach “growing”—growing the life of the mind. The practices offered in this volume attempt to do just that: offer readers a way to hone and grow their own thinking while sharpening their own minds. Those practices can then be directly applied to their everyday lives as they try to see the issues around them with greater clarity and creativity to make better decisions. The practical applications certainly will include their enhanced abilities to create better solutions to all the problems they encounter. But from my vantage point as an educator, the ultimate practical application is to help readers flourish and continue along a life-long journey in which they become better versions of themselves tomorrow than they are today. 

How has applying the problem-solving skills described in your book helped you in your everyday life?

In my leadership role as president of Southwestern University, I am constantly facing serious and complex challenges that need to be solved or opportunities to be seized. Those decisions require wisdom, creativity, focus on the macro issues while being mindful of the micro implications. Then action is required along with careful follow-up on the consequences of those decisions moving forward. I use the practices of effective thinking outlined in this book—including my personally favorite: effective failure—in every aspect of my work as president and I believe they have served me well. Effective failure, by the way, is the practice of intentionally not leaving a mistake or misstep until a new insight or deeper understanding is realized.  It is not enough to say, “Oh, that didn’t work, I’ll try something else.” That’s tenacity, which is wonderful, but alone is also ineffective failure.  Before trying that something else, this book offers practical but mindful ways of using one’s own errors to be wise guides to deeper understanding that natural lead to what to consider next. I also believe that through these varied practices of thinking I continue to grow as an educator, as a leader, as a mathematician, and as an individual who has committed his professional life to try to make the world better by inspiring others to be better. 

Can we really train our brains to be better problem solvers?

Yes!

Would you care to elaborate on that last, one-word response?

Okay, okay—But I hope I earned some partial credit for being direct and to-the-point. Many believe that their minds are the way they are and cannot be changed. In fact, we are all works-in-progress and capable of change—not the disruptive change that makes us into someone we’re not, but rather incremental change that allows us to be better and better versions of ourselves as we grow and evolve. That change in mindset does not require us to “think harder” (as so many people tell us), but rather to “think differently” (which is not hard at all after we embrace different practices of thinking, analysis, and creativity). Just as we can improve our tennis game, our poker skills, and the playing of the violin, we can improve our thinking and our minds. This book offers practical and straight-forward ways to embraces those enhance practices and puzzles to practice that art in an entertaining but thought-provoking way.

Why do you refer to “puzzle-solving” rather than the more typical phrase, “problem-solving?”

Because throughout our lives we all face challenges and conundrums that need to be faced and resolved as well as opportunities and possibilities that need to be either seized or avoided. Those negative challenges and possibilities are the problems in our lives. But everything we face—positive, negative, or otherwise—are the puzzles that life presents to us. Thus, I do not believe we should call mindful practices that empower us to find innovative or smart solutions “problem-solving.” We should call those practices that enhance our thinking about all the varied puzzles in our lives what they truly are: “puzzle-solving.” Finally, I believe we thrive within an optimistic perspective—and no one likes problems—but most do enjoy puzzles.

How did this book come about?

As with most things, this project natural evolved from a confluence of many previous experiences. My close collaborator, Michael Starbird, and I have been thinking about effective thinking collaboratively and individually for dozens of years. That effort resulted in our book, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (published by Princeton University Press and referenced in this latest work). Then when I began my work as president of Southwestern University over five years ago, I wanted to offer a class that was not a “typical” mathematics course, but rather a class that would capture the curiosity of all students who wonder how they can amplify their own abilities to grow and think more effectively—originally, wisely, and creatively. So I created a course entitled Effective Thinking through Creative Puzzle-Solving, and I have been teaching it every year at Southwestern since 2016.

How did your students change through their “puzzle-solving” journey?

Of course that question is best answered by my students at Southwestern University, and I invite you to visit our campus and talk with them to learn more. From my perspective, I have enjoyed seeing them become more open-minded, think in more creative and original ways (“thinking outside the box”), practice a more mindful perspective, and make time for themselves to be contemplative and reflective. Also, I have them write a number of essays (which I personally grade), and over the course of our time together, I have seen their writing and overall communication improve. Obviously, I am very proud of my students.

Edward B. Burger is the president of Southwestern University, a mathematics professor, and a leading teacher on thinking, innovation, and creativity. He has written more than seventy research articles, video series, and books, including The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (with Michael Starbird) (Princeton), and has delivered hundreds of addresses worldwide. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

Christie Henry on the Evolution of University Press Science Publishing

In The Atlantic this month, science journalist Ed Yong writes about new studies on the evolution of mammals that convey how much humans have turned up evolutionary dynamics. Since the 16th century, we sapiens have wiped out 500 million years of phylogenetic evolutionary history, and we stand to lose a further 1.8 billion years within the next five decades, breaking twigs, branches, and core trunks of the mammalian evolutionary tree. It’s astonishing, and humbling, to contemplate the scale of impact, but some of the online commentary on the article is just as devastating. One reader stated that humans just do not care; some of our species don’t read about science, others are persuaded by the untruths of redactions of climate science, or denunciations of planetary temperature fluctuations. Is news about scientific discovery heard as much as a felled tree falling in uninhabited woods?

The evolution of science publishing at university presses tells a different narrative. The #ReadUP world knows how to #TurnItUp for science, and many new branches of editorial programs are generating stands of books that range in topic from altruism to zooplankton, from neuroscience to natural history. In a 2018 survey of university press areas of acquisition, 58 presses reported publishing in earth and environmental science, and 53 in the areas of ecology and conservation. The diversity of presses, and the morphology of their science lists, helps build resilience, and niches for a wide range of book types, from graphic science to popular narratives to graduate level course books. The #Readup editors foraging in these landscapes are resilient, and opportunistic, as books in these fields do not grow on trees, and rarely on the cvs of scientists.

This year, #ReadUPscience readers can swim in the pages of Drawn to the Deep to learn about the underwater explorations of Florida’s Wes Skiles, explore the richness of The Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas , have a trusted foraging companion in Mushrooms of the Gulf Coast States, savor daily joys of A Year in Nature, chatter over the Tales that Teeth Tell, learn best practices of Communicating Climate Change, and how thinking like a geologist can help save the planet in Timefulness.

While there are a diversity of university presses working to amplify science, the evolution and long-term sustainability of these programs, Princeton University Press’s included, depend on the ability to create equitable and inclusive populations of authors, a particularly acute challenge in science publishing. The American Association of Science dedicated much of its annual meeting in 2018 to diversity and inclusion, but waiting for the waves of change to reach the shores of the UP world is akin to waiting for ocean acidification to naturally rebalance; we need intervention. University presses, like scientists we collaborate with, can be pioneers, innovators, and intrepid explorers, discovering new authors to change the world of science publishing. Just as we have found ways to evolve impactful science programs at presses with origins in the humanities and social sciences, so too can we create niches for a greater equity of authorial expertise and voice in these programs.

I turn to Ed Yong again, who spent two years working to fix the gender imbalance in his stories about science. As he notes, gender parity is just a start. We need to first quantify the problem, and provide data to track change. We are doing this research at PUP now, and while the science list here is amazing in its thematic diversity, we are keen to fix the imbalances of author voices.

Just as ecosystems of great biodiversity are more resilient, so too will presses of greater diversity be sustainable. Every microbe in our publishing guts tells us that if we can present the state of scientific understanding from as wide a perspective as possible, our chances of getting readers to tune in, and turn up their own understanding of science, exponentially amplify.

Check out #TurnItUp science posts from our colleagues at Johns Hopkins University Press, Rutgers University Press, University Press of Colorado, Columbia University Press, University of Toronto Press, and University of Georgia Press.

David Hu on How to Walk on Water and Climb Up Walls (Part 1)

Insects walk on water, snakes slither, and fish swim. Animals move with astounding grace, speed, and versatility: how do they do it, and what can we learn from them? In How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls, David Hu takes readers on an accessible, wondrous journey into the world of animal motion. From basement labs at MIT to the rain forests of Panama, Hu shows how animals have adapted and evolved to traverse their environments, taking advantage of physical laws with results that are startling and ingenious. In turn, the latest discoveries about animal mechanics are inspiring scientists to invent robots and devices that move with similar elegance and efficiency.

In the first part of our Q+A with David Hu, he describes what helps this book stand out, and why any reader would be interested in learning more about the secrets of animal movement. 

Why this book now?

The last twenty years have seen an explosion in the number and types of investigators studying animal motion, in large part due to the greater number of tools that can visualize the motion of animals. High speed videography has gone digital. CT-scanners originally for use in hospitals can now see the shapes and insides of animals with better clarity than ever before. These shapes can now be printed using 3-D printing and then subjected to physically tests, for example to show that a shark’s scales can increase its fuel economy.

What is unexpected about this book?

Many concepts from animal motion have no analogy in the built world. For example, most of the things we ride around on are hard, like the stiff frame of a car or bicycle. However, a great number of animals, especially insects, have evolved crushable bodies that enable them to survive impacts with their surroundings. Bees for example are so rushed to obtain pollen that they collide with hundreds of thousands of plant stems and flowers in a lifetime. Their wings have origami-based crush zones. Their hinges are made of a material called resilin, that is more springy than the springiest human-made material, Zectron, the main component in the 25-cent super ball.

What makes you qualified to write this book?

My laboratory has featured in award-winning documentaries by Discovery Channel, and I have been an invited guest on Good Morning America, National Public Radio, and on television and radio broadcast across the world. I love talking about animal motion to the general public, and now it’s my chance to tell the story of my field.

What is your favorite part of writing this book?

What I enjoyed the most about this book was getting to know the scientists whodid the work. The science that they discovered are easily found in their academic papers or in the news. But few people know abouttheir journey on the way to the facts. Often the scientists did not know exactly where they were going. Sometimes, their experiments were not working and they just got plain stuck, and their only option was to quite or follow a hunch. The scientists were often challenged by working with animals, which have a mind of their own. In my book, a scientist who wants to test flying snakes must climb to the top of a tall tower with snakes in burlap sack. He tries to avoid thinking of his fear of heights and snake bites as he climbs the tower. Dealing with situations like this is both hilarious and at times ridiculous, yet these are the things scientists must do to answer their burning questions. By following the thought process and the various things these scientists have had to subject themselves to, I hope to have brought in the feeling of talking to sworld-class scientist as if they are sitting across from you at a bar. My goal is for you to see theirthought process and say, I would have probably done the same thing in their shoes.

Why should I read this book?

If you have ever enjoyed watching animals on Discovery channel, this book will provide a conversational explanation of the things that you see in the show. With the more leisurely format of the book, I have adequate space to explain the physical principles at work. I bet you’ll find the discussion satisfying, and you’ll want to tell others about what you’ve learned.

Is the material suitable for young readers?

There are usually plenty of kids at my talks, and a number of their parents have bought the book. The book doesn’t assume any prior knowledge, and uses everyday language.  It also has 40 black and white and 20 color pictures to illustrate the points. Many of the topics in the book have videos of the associated material online. So the answer is yes, I think young readers will enjoy the book.  

 

David L. Hu is associate professor of mechanical engineering and biology and adjunct professor of physics at Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives in Atlanta.

Joel Waldfogel on Digital Renaissance

WaldfogelThe digital revolution poses a mortal threat to the major creative industries—music, publishing, television, and the movies. The ease with which digital files can be copied and distributed has unleashed a wave of piracy with disastrous effects on revenue. Cheap, easy self-publishing is eroding the position of these gatekeepers and guardians of culture. Does this revolution herald the collapse of culture, as some commentators claim? Far from it. In Digital Renaissance, Joel Waldfogel argues that digital technology is enabling a new golden age of popular culture, a veritable digital renaissance

Are we living in a digital renaissance? How can we tell?

We are absolutely experiencing a digital renaissance. There are a few big signs. The first is the explosion in the number of new cultural products being created. The number of new songs, books, movies, and television shows created and being made available to consumers has increased by large amounts. There has been a tripling in the number of new songs, and similar growth rates for other sectors.

Of course, quantity alone is not enough to qualify a renaissance. What makes the recent period a renaissance is that the recent crops of new products are appealing to consumers, compared with old products. By various measures, new music, television shows, books, and movies are really good compared with earlier vintages.

And finally, we know it’s a digital renaissance because the higher quality of the new vintages is driven by the products made possible by digitization, i.e. new technologies that make it possible for small-scale creators and intermediaries outside of the traditional mainstream to bring products to market. The fruits of the digital renaissance include the music on independent record labels, the self-published books, movies from independent film makers, and television shows distributed outside of the traditional distribution channels. Again, many of these new products are created and distributed without the support of the traditional cultural gatekeepers (major record labels and movie studios, traditional television networks, and major publishing houses).

What will happen to traditional gatekeeping? Is it going away or will we see the creation of new gatekeepers?

First, while lots of creation now happens outside of the traditional gatekeepers, those traditional gatekeepers still have an important role. Once an artist has demonstrated his or her commercial promise, the traditional players are well-placed to bring new works to a large audience. Quite often, an artist will become known using independent channels and will then get snapped up by a traditional player. This happened with the famous self-published Fifty Shades books, and it happens with many musical acts—think Arcade Fire—whom consumers first encounter on indie labels.

Even though digitization has allowed a lot of people to create their work and put it in front of potential audiences, consumers have limited attention and limited capacity to figure out which of the new products are good. This puts a lot of power in the hands of new kinds of gatekeepers, the people choosing the content at Netflix, or the people deciding which products to recommend at Spotify or Amazon.

Why has piracy been a bigger problem for some creative industries over others?

Music faced piracy first and had to “write the book” on how to respond. It’s hard to go first since there are few examples to follow. It took the music industry four years to respond to Napster, until the iTunes Music Store. For four years there were convenient ways to steal music digitally but no convenient way to buy it. In the meantime, many consumers had become accustomed to getting music without paying. Music also had the problem that digital music files are small enough to move quickly over the Internet, while movie files were initially too large.

The industries hit after were also able to learn from the experience of the music industry, and responded more quickly. For example, roughly a year after the appearance of YouTube, the major television networks were making their shows available online free of charge.

Having convenient ways to buy digital products goes a long way toward stemming piracy. One of the first impacts of Spotify—the streaming music service—was to substantially reduce music piracy. More recently, Spotify (and other paid subscription services) have also reversed the long decline in music revenue.

What are your thoughts on copyright law in the United States? Does it need to be stricter? Better enforced?

The reason we have intellectual property rules, such as copyright laws, is to provide incentives for people to create. The goal is to make sure there is a steady supply of new products that consumers find appealing.

The digital era has ushered in a great deal of piracy and has therefore threatened the revenue of creators and intermediaries. If that’s all that digitization had done, then we would expect a drop off in creative activity. And we would need a stiffening of copyright enforcement just to keep creative incentives where they were.

Fortunately, digitization has also reduced the costs of creation and distribution, along with its facilitation of piracy. And the net effect of those two offsetting forces has been to unleash a large amount of good new creative production.

Many people in the creative industries would like to see stronger enforcement of intellectual property protections. They may be right, for a variety of reasons, including just respect for property rights. But the evidence in the book shows that we don’t need a strengthening of intellectual property rights in order to maintain the creative incentives that prevailed before Napster. We are, after all, experiencing a digital renaissance.

When representatives of creative industries lobby for stricter copyright protections, are their arguments sound? How should we assess the health of their industries?

The creative industries are really good at what they do, particularly in the US. And during the digital era many creators and intermediaries have felt real pain. U.S. recorded music revenue fell  by more than half in the decade after Napster. Moreover, users in many countries have blithe disregard for intellectual property. When the industry points out these facts, they are telling the truth.

But the pain of a particular industry is not as relevant to public policy as its output. If the creative industries could no longer cover costs of creating new products and new creative activity dried up, then we would require changes in public policy to keep the consuming public happy.

When the industries go before Congress for legislative assistance to protect their revenues, however, it should be to secure a steady supply of good new products, not to protect their revenues and incomes for their own sakes.

We should assess the intellectual property regime according to whether we are seeing a steady and robust supply of new products that consumers find appealing. And that we are.

How does the old adage “Nobody knows anything” come into play in this new era of digitization?

New products in most industries typically fail. Nowhere is this more common than in the creative industries, where roughly 90 percent of new products fail to generate enough revenue to cover their costs. This “hit or miss” aspect to creative production is what makes an explosion in new products so potentially valuable.

To see this, suppose that everyone knew everything, meaning that intermediaries could accurately predict which new products would find favor with consumers. Then a cost reduction giving rise to new products would bring forth the products that were not sufficiently promising to be worth delivering before. There would be some benefit to consumers, but it would be small.

Contrast that to the real world, in which we can’t really predict which products will be good before we spend the money to test them with consumers. In that—our real—world, a tripling in the number of new products brings with it lots of unsuccessful ones as well as some really successful ones that consumers find valuable.

What are the potential pitfalls of digitization in the creative industries? What should we be wary of?

Two things come to mind. First, there is so far no evidence that the undermining of creative nurture by the traditional intermediaries— the publishers, movie studios, and record labels, for example—has undermined the quality of new products, at least in the sense of being appreciated by contemporary fans and consumers. But it will be interesting to see whether the fruits of this era are still appreciated 25, 50, or 100 years from now.

Second, the new digital economy is increasingly dominated by a small number of players. These include Google and Facebook, Apple and Amazon, and Netflix and Spotify. So far, most of what these players have done has helped to deliver the renaissance. But many of these players could become influential gatekeepers, with outsized influence on what succeeds. I don’t see any evidence of this yet, but it’s something we should be watchful about. What makes things worse is that most of these players keep their data secret, so it’s really hard to know what’s happening to the consumption of particular products. This, in turn, makes it hard to keep tabs on the health of the industries. The digital renaissance can continue only as long as a large swath of creators can continue to create, and audiences can discover the new works.

Joel Waldfogel holds the Frederick R. Kappel Chair at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. His previous books include Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays. He lives in Minneapolis.