Helena Rosenblatt on The Lost History of Liberalism

Lost History LiberalismThe Lost History of Liberalism challenges our most basic assumptions about a political creed that has become a rallying cry—and a term of derision—in today’s increasingly divided public square. Taking readers from ancient Rome to today, Helena Rosenblatt traces the evolution of the words “liberal” and “liberalism,” revealing the heated debates that have taken place over their meaning. This book sets the record straight on a core tenet of today’s political conversation and lays the foundations for a more constructive discussion about the future of liberal democracy. 

What led you to write this book?

 I became interested in the history of political thought in college and my interest grew in graduate school.  My PhD dissertation, which became my first book, was on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I wrote my second book on Benjamin Constant. Both these thinkers had a huge influence on liberalism, Rousseau as a kind of gadfly, and Constant as a founder. In the course of my work, I became aware of a curious fact: despite the importance of liberalism to our history and current politics, no comprehensive history of liberalism had been written in a surprisingly long time. So I began thinking about writing such a history myself.

I set to work, but soon confronted a series of perplexing questions and contradictions. In one way or another, they all involved defining liberalism. Why was it, I wondered, that liberalism means one thing in Europe and something else in the United States? Why do some people speak of a “classical liberalism” that they say is more authentic than today’s? Why are there so many different “founders” of liberalism? Some call Machiavelli a founder, while others speak of John Locke, or even Jesus Christ.  How can they all be founders of liberalism when they are so radically different? While pondering these and other questions, I couldn’t help noticing that liberalism was often called a “slippery,” “elusive,” or “vague” concept in the books and articles that I read. All of it led me to ask a deceptively simple question: what is liberalism? And how do you write a history of liberalism when you don’t know what it is? After struggling for some time, the smoke cleared and I fell upon a new approach.

What is original about your approach to the history of liberalism?

I made it my mission to let the past speak for itself. In my book, I trace the history of the words “liberal” and “liberalism” over the course of history, starting with classical Rome—when the word “liberal” existed, but not yet “liberalism”—and ending today. What did “liberal” mean to the people who used the term two thousand years ago and how did that meaning change over time? When was the word “liberalism” coined, why was it coined, and what did it mean to the people who used it? When was the first “liberal party” formed and what did it stand for? These are the sorts of questions my book asks and seeks to answer. And my approach leads to a number of surprising findings.

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

 It is hard to summarize the many interesting discoveries I made. One concerns liberalism’s origins. We tend to think of liberalism as an age-old and venerable “Anglo-American” tradition with roots stretching deep into English history. Some trace its origins as far back as the Magna Carta. From England, liberalism is said to have spread and slowly gained acceptance until it was transported to America in the eighteenth century. There its principles were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. During the 19th century, liberalism continued its steady and inexorable progress until it became the dominant doctrine of the West.

This is a nice story, but it’s inaccurate. “Liberalism,” as a word and cluster of concepts, emerged in France in the wake of the French Revolution, not before. Its first theorists were Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël, not John Locke. For most of the nineteenth century, liberalism was widely seen as a French doctrine and closely associated with France’s successive revolutions (1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871). The Encyclopaedia Americana of 1831 did not contain an entry on “liberalism,” and the article on “liberal” explained that its political meaning came from France. Only half a century later was liberalism given an entry in the American Cyclopaedia of Political Science and, even then, it was a translation of a French article equating liberalism with the “principles of 89.” During the closing years of the nineteenth century, “liberalism” remained a rare word in the language of American politics and, when it was used, was sometimes spelled “liberale,” or rendered in italics, to indicate its foreignness. The word “liberalism” only gained currency in America’s political vocabulary in the early twentieth century and the idea of an “Anglo-American liberal tradition” half a century later.

What is the relationship between liberalism and democracy?

A common mistake we make today is to use the expression “liberal democracy” unproblematically, as if “liberalism” and “democracy” go together naturally. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably as if they were synonyms. However, for the first one hundred years of their history, most liberals were hostile to democracy, which they associated with chaos and mob rule. Certainly, the founders of liberalism were not democrats. Although he believed in popular sovereignty, Benjamin Constant insisted that it be limited and advocated stiff property requirements for voting and office holding. Madame de Staël championed the “government of the best,” which she distinguished from democracy.

To Constant, de Staël, and many other liberals, the French Revolution proved that the public was utterly unprepared for political rights. People were ignorant, irrational and prone to violence. Under popular pressure, the rule of law had been suspended, “enemies of the people” guillotined, and rights trampled upon. Napoleon’s despotic rule, repeatedly legitimized by plebiscite, only confirmed the liberals’ apprehensions about democracy.  They watched with horror as demagogues and dictators manipulated voters by appealing to their lowest instincts. It was obvious to them that the masses lacked the judgement necessary to know their true interests, and even less those of their country. Liberals accepted democracy very late and even then they thought hard about ways to contain it.  They pondered methods to “enlighten” and “educate” democracy and make it safe. 

What is the relationship between liberalism and socialism?

The relationship between liberalism and socialism is often described as antagonistic, but this is untrue. Again, the question has a lot to do with definitions, since “socialism” has always been a contested and evolving cluster of ideas. At first, the word “socialist” simply described someone who felt sympathy for the poor. Three more revolutions, in 1830, 1848, 1871, and the dislocations and hardships brought to the poor by the Industrial Revolution, caused many liberals to become increasingly receptive to socialist ideas. By the early twentieth century, some began calling themselves “liberal socialists.” In 1909, the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, championed what he referred to as a “socialistic” form of liberalism dedicated to improving the lives of the “left-out millions.” A leading British liberal weekly declared that “we are all Socialists in that sense.”

It was World War II and the fear of totalitarianism that caused a rift between liberalism and socialism. First published in 1944, the bestseller, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, warned that the “social liberalism” toward which Britain and America were headed would inevitably lead to totalitarianism. Such anxieties caused other prominent Cold War liberals increasingly to distinguish themselves from socialists.

How is your book relevant today?

As an historian, I tend to think that getting history right is important in its own right. But I also think that history can lend critical perspective on the present. It can tell us about the challenges people in the past faced, the options they had, and the choices they made. Today it is clear that liberalism is facing crisis. Alarming statistics indicate that people around the world are losing confidence in liberal democracy. Populism is on the rise, American hegemony in decline. And it is not just that liberalism is being attacked by enemies or losing adherents. Liberals are divided among themselves. Some say that they have lost sight of their essential values. Some are beginning to ask what liberalism’s essential values really are. One way of answering this question is to turn to the history of liberalism. That is what my book does.

Helena Rosenblatt is professor of history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her many books include Liberal Values: Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Religion and Thinking with Rousseau: From Machiavelli to Schmitt. She lives in New York City.

Leslie Umberger on Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor

Leslie Umberger Bill Traylor Between Worlds book coverBill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949) came to art-making on his own and found his creative voice without guidance; today he is remembered as a renowned American artist. Traylor’s experiences spanned multiple worlds—black and white, rural and urban, old and new—as well as the crucibles that indelibly shaped America—the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration.

Leslie Umberger’s book Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor accompanies the exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, curated by Umberger. She presents an unparalleled look at the work of this enigmatic and dazzling artist, who blended common imagery with arcane symbolism, narration with abstraction, and personal vision with the beliefs and folkways of his time. In this Q&A, Umberger offers an introduction to Traylor’s life and work. For more, check out the exhibit and the book!

Who was Bill Traylor?

Bill Traylor was born into an enslaved family in rural Alabama around 1853. Although slavery ended when Traylor was about twelve, things in Alabama didn’t change dramatically or rapidly after that, and families like Traylor’s had limited options for finding work, shelter, and safety elsewhere—so they often stayed on as laborers, living in the same cabins as they had before Emancipation. This is what Traylor’s family did.

Traylor spent over seven decades working as a farm laborer. His life was split almost evenly between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so he was eyewitness to enormous change over a lifetime that almost reached ten decades. Around 1927—Traylor’s wife had died and most of his grown children had given up on life in the South—he made the choice to move, alone, into Montgomery. The city was segregated, and he was increasingly old and frail between then and his death in 1949. But in the last years of his life, Traylor began to draw and paint memories, stories, and dreams recalling that remarkable lifetime and observing black life in an urban setting. Against the odds, many of the artworks he made in the late 1930s and early 1940s survived, and today he is acclaimed as one of America’s most significant artists.

Your book is titled Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor. What “worlds” was Traylor between?

Traylor’s lifetime spanned an epic period of American history that encompasses slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, two world wars, and, through it all, the steady rise of African American culture in the South. Traylor didn’t live to see the civil rights movement, be he was among those who laid its foundation. Six years after Traylor died, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger just a few blocks from where Traylor had sat and painted.

Throughout his life, Traylor straddled markedly different worlds: slavery and freedom, plantation and city life, and overarching it all, black and white cultures. “Racial etiquette” was the custom in the Jim Crow South wherein black people had strict and demeaning rules governing what they said and how they behaved in the presence of white people—any minor infraction of which might literally imperil that individual’s life. Traylor knew these systems, and his drawings nimbly employ symbolism, allegory, and ambiguity to send different messages to black and white viewers—to “code switch” as we would say today. He lived between worlds, looking back at a long life of labor and oppression, and ahead at the long, hard road toward freedom his children were traveling on.

What kind of topics did Traylor depict in his artworks?

Traylor covered a lot of territory in his subject matter. He became known not only for deceptively simple renderings of horses, mules, and other animals he knew from farm life, but also for many other species, including dogs, snakes, and birds. Traylor knew these animals and their visages well, but his representations of them are complex, for he also had a deep grasp of their symbolism. For example, the mule as a metaphor for black slaves or laborers, or the snake as a symbol of deceit—the lurking enemy.

Throughout his oeuvre there is a strong thread of storytelling. He often revisits particular themes or memories, and very often the works cohere when seen together in ways they don’t when viewed alone. A particular focus of both the exhibition and the book is to give certain images adjacency and draw out related themes, so that the artworks can function collectively and tell their stories more completely. Traylor depicted people he recalled from plantation days as well as the finely dressed black citizens of Montgomery he saw before him. His drawings are often quite enigmatic, as the artist engaged dreams, superstitions, and various spiritual belief systems.

Some of Traylor’s most iconic drawings present multifaceted narratives, chaotic action that swirls around a house, a tree, or a local site such as the fountain in Montgomery’s Court Square. He devised a manner of presenting story lines, sometimes left to right on the page but more often from top to bottom—or bottom to top. He discovered that vertical arrangements gave the story a different reading: events unfold rapidly or simultaneously, instead of sequentially. The viewer’s eye is caught in a swirling eddy of action that obscures Traylor’s meaning, which, in turn, gave him a higher degree of safety among white viewers. These works have a quality of operatic drama and demand a deep look: narratives that might at first seem humorous are often quite dark; the unspeakable violence of Traylor’s life and times looms large.

Traylor’s body of work is a sizable pictorial record of the oral culture that had shaped him. He embarked on making a record of selfhood that he devised for himself, one picture at a time.

Exhibition Schedule
Smithsonian American Art Museum
September 28, 2018–March 17, 2019

Leslie Umberger is curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She is the curator of the exhibition Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor and the author of the accompanying exhibition monograph.

 

Stephen Blackmore on How Plants Work

All the plants around us today are descended from simple algae that emerged more than 500 million years ago. While new plant species are still being discovered, it is thought that there are around 400,000 species in existence. From towering redwood trees and diminutive mosses to plants that have stinging hairs and poisons, the diverse range of plant life is extraordinary. Stephen Blackmore’s How Plants Work is a fascinating inquiry into, and celebration of, the complex plant kingdom.

Why is the book called How Plants Work?

Too many people overlook the fact that plants are at work all around us. The title helps convey the idea of plants as active players, not just a green background. Our species and other animals could never have evolved if photosynthesis, first in blue green algae,  later in plants, had not made the atmosphere and oceans rich in oxygen. Plants are now known to make up 80% of the living biomass of our planet, and having created the conditions for animal life they are essential for our continued survival as the base of our food chain and as providers of essential ecosystem services.

What attracted you to becoming a botanist?

As a child, I was fascinated by nature and curious about all living things. As such, I wanted to know their names and understand how they lived. At first I was most interested in animals, especially, butterflies, birds and reptiles. As I began to learn more about them I understood that each lived in a specific kind of vegetation, fed on different fruits or seeds, or laid eggs on a particular species of food plant. It dawned on me that plants were at the heart of nature and I wanted to know more about them. I have been fortunate to travel widely as a botanist, collecting plants in several continents.

My own journey led me from studying pollen grains and spores to plant conservation. Pollen fascinated me because each cell-sized grain is an entire male gametophyte plant. I wanted to understand how their enormous diversity of form, surprising since they all perform the same task of delivering the male gametes, originated during their development in the anther. I came to plant conservation through seeing some of the finest forests and grasslands disappearing before our eyes. Botanists are now in a desperate race to save plant diversity to keep the biosphere working.

But, aren’t plants all more or less the same?

Plants are deceptively simple in that they are constructed from so few, very familiar, organs: roots, stems, leaves, and flowers or cones. But within each of these organs there is great diversity of form, a consequence of plants solving such problems as how to live in widely differing environments, from a desert to rain forest. Because they are literally rooted to the spot plants have found ingenious ways to colonize new places, dispersing seeds, pollen, and spores on the wind or harnessing animals to carry them from place to place. A major theme of the book is to explore the diversity of each major organ of the plant and to understand their life cycles and reproduction as products of this diversity.

How were the authors selected?

In bringing together a team to write the book it was important to select world leading botanists, people with the experience as research leaders, and teachers to be able to share their specialist understanding of the workings of different parts of the plant. Just as medical practitioners specialize in different parts of the human body, so botanists focus on investigating specific organs or processes in plants. By engaging such talented botanists, the most authentic information emerges, in a new telling, hopefully resulting in a freshness rarely found in standard textbooks.

What do you hope the book will achieve?

The authors, in sharing their passion for plants, hope to attract people to look more closely at plants and to understand more deeply how diverse they are and how important for our future. Plants, as the source of our food, the foundation of the natural and agricultural landscapes we cherish, are a vital for the future of our species. It matters profoundly to the quality of life in the future that as many people as possible understand the value and importance of plants, as much as their great beauty and endless fascination.

 

Stephen Blackmore is a botanist and conservationist. His books include Green Universe and Plant Conservation Science and Practice. He was the 15th Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and was appointed Her Majesty’s Botanist in Scotland in 2010. He is chairman of Botanic Gardens Conservation International and the Darwin Expert Committee.

Dora Malech on her new collection, Stet

In Stet, poet Dora Malech takes constraint as her catalyst and subject, exploring what it means to make or break a vow, to create art out of a life in flux, to reckon with the body’s bounds, and to arrive at a place where one might bear and care for another life. Tapping the inventive possibilities of constrained forms, particularly the revealing limitations of the anagram, Stet is a work of serious play that brings home the connections and intimacies of language.

Why anagrams?

I asked myself this question over and over as individual lines became individual poems became project became book. Most of the poems in Stet take shape through anagrammatic methods, and almost all of them operate through some kind of “constrained form,” foregrounding alphabetic transposition or redaction. The immersive nature of these processes drew me to them; I’d find myself lost for hours dismantling and reassembling these building blocks of written language. Of course, many cultures, including Jewish mysticism, have a spiritual relationship with the letters of the written word, but I couldn’t bring myself to make that leap. Rather, it was wanting to make that leap into belief, and being unable, that led me from constraint-as-process to constraint-as-theme. I found myself asking what it means to attempt to remake one’s life from the same old materials, what it means to want to believe in transformation.

Is this use of constrained form a departure from your previous work?

It seems so, but it isn’t exactly. Gertrude Stein referred to her repetitions as “insistence”; this book feels like an insistent exploration of tendencies that have always captivated me. I’ve always been deeply invested in sound, and pattern, and linguistic play in my poetry. I’m also drawn to the full spectrum of enactment and subversion of “traditional” prosody. Rhyme and meter and verse form is “constrained form” too, of course, though I use the term to refer to practices viewed as peripheral to canonical verse, embraced by the writers of Oulipo in the middle of the last century. I wrote this book from a place of intense change and questioning, and its forms reflect that intensity, but I have always been obsessed with thinking about what language is made of both on and off the page – sound, sense, word, letter.

Are there particular writers who inspired this project, or contemporary writers engaged in similar work?

As my teachers used to remind me to do in math class, Stet “shows its work.” It foregrounds both its formal process of making, and those who inspired and informed that process. For example, Andrew Joron’s sense of “language as a speculative substance” continues to be an energizing force for me. Unica Zürn and Sylvia Plath (both mothers who took their own lives) echo through the book. Influence isn’t always linear; as I went deeper into the project, I sought out those who could in some way explain or justify my own practices to me. For example, I read from the work that has become Stet in Amsterdam several years ago, where some of the students urged me to read the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens. This work on the culturally fundamental nature of play became a touchstone for me, articulating some of my own previously inchoate thoughts.

For a reader accustomed to reading verse that employs a more straightforward narrative or lyric mode, or for a reader hesitant to approach contemporary poetry altogether, what could you say to convince them to take a chance on Stet?

The lived stakes of Stet are fragmented and submerged, but they are present nonetheless – relationships, closures, and apertures enacted in language. I hope that the pleasure I take in the materiality of language translates to pleasure for the reader, and I hope that the emotional intensity I channeled into the process of making and remaking translates as well. As Stet is a book that foregrounds process, it’s also a book that invites the reader to participate in that process and in the act of meaning-making. That engagement can bring its own kind of pleasure, and for someone asking “why poetry?” This collection foregrounds that very question.

Dora Malech is the author of two previous books of poetry, Say So and Shore Ordered Ocean. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, The Best American Poetry, and many other publications. She is assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.

Martin Rees on On The Future

Humanity has reached a critical moment. Our world is unsettled and rapidly changing, and we face existential risks over the next century. Various prospects for the future—good and bad—are possible. Yet our approach to the future is characterized by short-term thinking, polarizing debates, alarmist rhetoric, and pessimism. In this short, exhilarating book, renowned scientist and bestselling author Martin Rees argues that humanity’s future depends on our taking a very different approach to thinking about and planning for tomorrow. Rich with fascinating insights into cutting-edge science and technology, this book will captivate anyone who wants to understand the critical issues that will define the future of humanity on Earth and beyond.

Are you an optimist?

I am writing this book as a citizen, and as an anxious member of the human species. One of its unifying themes is that humanity’s flourishing depends on how wisely science and technology are deployed. Our lives, our health, and our environment can benefit still more from further advances in biotech, cybertech, robotics, and AI. There seems no scientific impediment to achieving a sustainable and secure world, where all enjoy a lifestyle better than those in the ‘west’ do today (albeit using less energy and eating less meat). To that extent, I am a techno-optimist. But what actually happens depends on politics and ethical choices.

Our ever more interconnected world is exposed to new vulnerabilities. Even within the next decade or two, robotics will disrupt working patterns, national economies, and international relations. A growing and more demanding population puts the natural environment under strain; peoples’ actions could trigger dangerous climate change and mass extinctions if ‘tipping points’ are crossed—outcomes that would bequeath a depleted and impoverished world to future generations. But to reduce these risks, we need to enhance our understanding of nature and deploy appropriate technology (zero-carbon energy, for instance) more urgently. Risks and ethical dilemmas can be minimized by a culture of ‘responsible innovation’, especially in fields like biotech, advanced AI and geoengineering; and we’ll need to confront new ethical issues—‘designer babies’, blurring of the line between life and death, and so forth—guided by priorities and values that science itself can’t provide.

Is there a moral imperative as well?

There has plainly been a welcome improvement in most people’s lives and life-chances—in education, health, and lifespan. This is owed to technology. However, it’s surely a depressing indictment of current morality that the gulf between the way the world is and the way it could be is wider than it ever was. The lives of medieval people may have been miserable compared to ours, but there was little that could have been done to improve them. In contrast, the plight of the ‘bottom billion’ in today’s world could be transformed by redistributing the wealth of the thousand richest people on the planet. Failure to respond to this humanitarian imperative, which nations have the power to remedy—surely casts doubt on any claims of institutional moral progress. That’s why I can’t go along with the ‘new optimists’ who promote a rosy view of the future, enthusing about improvements in our moral sensitivities as well as in our material progress. I don’t share their hope in markets and enlightenment.

A benign society should, at the very least, require trust between individuals and their institutions. I worry that we are moving further from this ideal for two reasons: firstly, those we routinely have to deal with are increasingly remote and depersonalised; and secondly, modern life is more vulnerable to disruption—‘hackers’ or dissidents can trigger incidents that cascade globally. Such trends necessitate burgeoning security measures. These are already irritants in our everyday life—security guards, elaborate passwords, airport searches and so forth—but they are likely to become ever more vexatious. Innovations like blockchain could offer protocols that render the entire internet more secure. But their current applications—allowing an economy based on cryptocurrencies to function independently of traditional financial institutions—seem damaging rather than benign. It’s depressing to realize how much of the economy is dedicated to activities that would be superfluous if we felt we could trust each other. (It would be a worthwhile exercise if some economist could quantify this.)

But what about politics? 

In an era where we are all becoming interconnected, where the disadvantaged are aware of their predicament, and where migration is easy, it’s hard to be optimistic about a peaceful world if a chasm persists, as deep as it is today’s geopolitics, between the welfare levels and life-chances in different regions. It’s specially disquieting if advances in genetics and medicine that can enhance human lives are available to a privileged few, and portend more fundamental forms of inequality. Harmonious geopolitics would require a global distribution of wealth that’s perceived as fair—with far less inequality between rich and poor nations. And even without being utopian it’s surely a moral imperative (as well as in the self-interest of fortunate nations) to push towards this goal. Sadly, we downplay what’s happening even now in far-away countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for new generations. Governments need to prioritise projects that are long-term in a political perspectives, even if a mere instant in the history of our planet.

Will super intelligent AI out-think humans?

We are of course already being aided by computational power. In the ‘virtual world’ inside a computer astronomers can mimic galaxy formation; meteorologists can simulate the atmosphere. As computer power grows, these ‘virtual’ experiments become more realistic and useful. And AI will make discoveries that have eluded unaided human brains. For example, there is a continuing quest to find the ‘recipe’ for a superconductor that works at ordinary room temperatures. This quest involves a lot of ‘trial and error’, because nobody fully understands what makes the electrical resistance disappear more readily in some materials than in others. But it’s becoming possible to calculate the properties of materials, so fast that millions of alternatives can be computed, far more quickly than actual experiments could be done. Suppose that a machine came up with a novel and successful recipe. It would have achieved something that would get a scientist a Nobel prize. It would have behaved as though it had insight and imagination within its rather specialized universe—just as Deep Mind’s Alpha Go flummoxed and impressed human champions with some of its moves. Likewise, searches for the optimal chemical composition for new drugs will increasingly be done by computers rather than by real experiments.

Equally important is the capability to ‘crunch’ huge data-sets. As an example from genetics, qualities like intelligence and height are determined by combinations of genes. To identify these combinations would require a machine fast enough to scan huge samples of genomes to identify small correlations. Similar procedures are used by financial traders in seeking out market trends, and responding rapidly to them, so that their investors can top-slice funds from the rest of us.

Should humans spread beyond Earth?

The practical case for sending people into space gets weaker as robots improve. So the only manned ventures (except for those motivated by national prestige) will be high-risk, cut price, and privately sponsored—undertaken by thrill-seekers prepared even to accept one-way tickets. They’re the people who will venture to Mars. But there won’t be mass emigration: Mars is far less comfortable than the South Pole or the ocean bed. It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth’s problems. We’ve got to solve these here. Coping with climate change may seem daunting, but it’s a doddle compared to terraforming Mars. There’s no ‘Planet B’ for ordinary risk-averse people.

But I think (and hope) that there will be bases on Mars by 2100. Moreover we (and our progeny here on Earth) should cheer on the brave adventurers who go there. The space environment is inherently hostile for humans, so, precisely because they will be ill-adapted to their new habitat, the pioneer explorers will have a more compelling incentive than those of us on Earth to redesign themselves. They’ll harness the super-powerful genetic and cyborg technologies that will be developed in coming decades. These techniques will, one hopes, be heavily regulated on Earth; but ‘settlers’ on Mars will be far beyond the clutches of the regulators. This might be the first step towards divergence into a new species. So it’s these spacefaring adventurers, not those of us comfortably adapted to life on Earth, who will spearhead the post-human era. If they become cyborgs, they won’t need an atmosphere, and may prefer zero-g—perhaps even spreading among the stars.

Is there ‘intelligence’ out there already?

Perhaps we’ll one day find evidence of alien intelligence. On the other hand, our Earth may be unique and the searches may fail. This would disappoint the searchers. But it would have an upside for humanity’s long-term resonance. Our solar system is barely middle aged and if humans avoid self-destruction within the next century, the post-human era beckons. Intelligence from Earth could spread through the entire Galaxy, evolving into a teeming complexity far beyond what we can even conceive. If so, our tiny planet—this pale blue dot floating in space—could be the most important place in the entire cosmos.

What about God?

I don’t believe in any religious dogmas, but I share a sense of mystery and wonder with many who do. And I deplore the so called ‘new atheists’—small-time Bertrand Russell’s recycling his arguments—who attack religion. Hard-line atheists must surely be aware of ‘religious’ people who are manifestly neither unintelligent nor naïve, though they make minimal attempts to understand them by attacking mainstream religion, rather than striving for peaceful coexistence with it; they weaken the alliance against fundamentalism and fanaticism. They also weaken science. If a young Muslim or evangelical Christian is told at school that they can’t have their God and accept evolution, they will opt for their God and be lost to science. When so much divides us, and change is disturbingly fast, religion offers bonding within a community. And its heritage, linking its adherents with past generations, should strengthen our motivation not to leave a degraded world for generations yet to come.

Do scientists have special obligations?

It’s a main theme of my book that our entire future depends on making wise choices about how to apply science. These choices shouldn’t be made just by scientists: they matter to us all and should be the outcome of wide public debate. But for that to happen, we all need enough ‘feel’ for the key ideas of science, and enough numeracy to assess hazards, probabilities and risks—so as not to be bamboozled by experts, or credulous of populist sloganising. Moreover, quite apart from their practical use, these ideas should be part of our common culture. More than that, science is the one culture that’s truly global. It should transcend all barriers of nationality. And it should straddle all faiths too.

I think all scientists should divert some of their efforts towards public policy—and engage with government, business, and campaigning bodies. And of course the challenges are global. Coping with potential shortage of resources—and transitioning to low carbon energy—can’t be solved by each nation separately.

The trouble is that even the best politicians focus mainly on the urgent and parochial—and getting reelected. This is an endemic frustration for those who’ve been official scientific advisors in governments. To attract politicians’ attention you must get headlined in the press, and fill their inboxes. So scientists can have more leverage indirectly—by campaigning, so that the public and the media amplify their voice. Rachel Carson and Carl Sagan, for instance, were preeminent exemplars of the concerned scientist—with immense influence through their writings, lectures and campaigns, even before the age of social media and tweets

Science is a universal culture, spanning all nations and faiths. So scientists confront fewer impediments on straddling political divides.

Does being an astronomer influence your attitude toward the future?

Yes, I think it makes me specially mindful of the longterm future. Let me explain this. The stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture (maybe not in Kentucky, or in parts of the Muslim world). But most people still somehow think we humans are necessarily the culmination of the evolutionary tree. That hardly seems credible to an astronomer—indeed, we could still be nearer the beginning than the end. Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it’s got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out. It then flares up, engulfing the inner planets. And the expanding universe will continue—perhaps forever. Any creatures witnessing the Sun’s demise won’t be human—they could be as different from us as we are from slime mold. Posthuman evolution—here on Earth and far beyond—could be as prolonged as the evolution that’s led to us, and even more wonderful. And of course this evolution will be faster than Darwinian: it happens on a technological timescale, driven by advances in genetics and AI.

But (a final thought) even in the context of a timeline that extends billions of years into the future, as well as into the past. this century is special. It’s the first where one species—ours—has our planet’s future in its hands. Our creative intelligence could inaugurate billions of years of posthuman evolution even more marvelous than what’s led to us. On the other hand, humans could trigger bio, cyber, or environmental catastrophes that foreclose all such potentialities. Our Earth, this ‘pale blue dot’ in the cosmos, is a special place. It may be a unique place. And we’re its stewards at a specially crucial era—the anthropocene. That’s a key message for us all, whether or not we’re astronomers, and a motivation for my book.

Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal, and has been Master of Trinity College and Director of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. As a member of the UK’s House of Lords and former President of the Royal Society, he is much involved in international science and issues of technological risk. His books include Our Cosmic HabitatJust Six Numbers, and Our Final Hour (published in the UK as Our Final Century). He lives in Cambridge, UK.

Poet Austin Smith on Flyover Country

Flyover Country is a powerful collection of poems about violence: the violence we do to the land, to animals, to refugees, to the people of distant countries, and to one another. Drawing on memories of his childhood on a dairy farm in Illinois, Austin Smith explores the beauty and cruelty of rural life, challenging the idea that the American Midwest is mere “flyover country,” a place that deserves passing over. At the same time, the collection suggests that America itself has become a flyover country, carrying out drone strikes and surveillance abroad, locked in a state of perpetual war that Americans seem helpless to stop.

Why did you title your collection Flyover Country?

Because I despise the term. I’ve always found it to be extraordinarily condescending. I had heard the phrase for years, and it always grated on me, but since the election of 2016 it has become even more common. As with most things that hurt us, I think my impulse was to take it in and use it. This is a risk, because, as poets, the titles of our collections announce to the world what we’re about. The title is a the purest distillation of the themes a reader can expect to find in the book. I’ve already had one reader ask me whether I’m nervous that using the term might not offend the very people I’m writing about. But my intention is to say to readers: “Here is book about the Midwest, so-called ‘flyover country,’ and now I’m going to show (if the poems are successful) all the ways in which that definition of this region is offensive and inadequate.” I try to set up an expectation, and then challenge it. And after deciding to call the book Flyover Country, I realized that the title also resonated with some of the war poems in the book, particularly the poems that involve American foreign policy, preemptive war, drone strikes. While I refute the idea that the Midwest is flyover country, I would argue that the nation itself has become a flyover country in our utilization of drone strikes and other acts of war that protect us from seeing the damage we are doing.

Your first collection, Almanac, was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets in 2014. What are some of the differences between Almanac and Flyover Country?

The manuscript for Almanac was a decade in the making. In some ways it began when I took a poetry class with the inimitable Michael Theune as an undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan University. Within a year or so of graduating I was submitting a manuscript to prizes. Every year the book changed, from the title to the selection of poems to individual poems themselves, all through two graduate programs in poetry. I had many different titles, including Salvation Army, Ducks’ Misery and Autumn’s Velocity. It was Theune who suggested I call it Almanac. Eventually the book began to stabilize. Certain poems just stuck, and versions of poems became indelible, so that I felt I couldn’t change them. If Paul hadn’t taken the book, it surely would have kept changing. I feel a bit disconnected from Almanac, because I have no idea how the book came together. It grew parallel to me. It was different with Flyover Country. The publication of Almanac wiped the slate clean. I knew that every poem I wrote from then on would be vying for its place in the next collection. Also, the fall that Almanac was published I had just started the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford in fiction, and so was focusing more on prose. All this to say that I wrote many fewer poems, and therefore Flyover Country came together more deliberately. Once I started recognizing some of the themes I was working with, I started writing towards those themes. I’ve never been able to understand when poets say they’re working on a book: I tend to just write poems and let them fall together as they will. But my process for Flyover Country was definitely more linear and rational, whereas Almanac was much more subconscious.

Many of your poems involve political subject. I’m thinking in particular of “Augury,” which suggests Trump’s inauguration, and the poem “That Particular Village,” written in the voice of Donald Rumsfeld. Do you consider yourself a political poet?

I’ve thought long and hard about the role of the poet in relation to politics. I’ve had intense but jovial arguments with many friends on the subject. To require that poets’ poems be political (perhaps in the hopes that their art might agitate for change) seems dangerous to me. People say that these times are crazy, and that poets should be putting their shoulders to the wheel and writing about the world as it is now, but we know that all times have been crazy. If poets have to be political today, they ought to have always been political. I got in a pleasant argument while at Stanford with the incredible novelist and teacher Richard Powers. To paraphrase his argument, he suggested that any fiction writer who isn’t writing about climate change is shirking their moral responsibility. He didn’t mean, of course, that every novel be explicitly about climate change. But he seemed to believe that, in being alive at this moment, it was only appropriate that our work respond to this moment. This argument makes me extremely uncomfortable. I worry that one day books will require a kind of imprimatur, vouching that they have been deemed sufficiently politically-engaged in order to be published. I make this argument in recognition of the fact that Flyover Country is at times explicitly political, especially in the poems you mention in your question. These explicitly political poems are my least favorite poems in the collection. The poems I have the most affection for are those poems that suggest the political, but work at a deeper, more symbolic level. For instance, when I wrote the poem “Cat Moving Kittens,” I wasn’t thinking about the Trump administration’s immoral policy of family separation at the southern border because I wrote the poem before Trump was even elected, but I can’t help but read the poem in that context now. This is only possible, I would argue, because the poem operates by suggestion and metaphor. I want to write poems that have a chance of becoming relevant in the future, not poems that becoming more and more irrelevant as time goes on.

Your father was a dairy farmer for many years, and is also a poet. What impact has his work as a poet had upon yours?

I came to poetry through my parents’ love of poetry and of literature generally. The farmhouse I grew up in was chock-full of books. For whatever reason I was instinctually drawn towards the poetry collections. Before I could even really understand the poems I was reading, I just liked the way the poems looked on the page, visually. I still find myself randomly pulling a book of poems down from the shelf, just to consider a poem’s shape. My first book of poems was the New Directions edition of One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, translated by Kenneth Rexroth. I loved the book itself, the simplicity of the cover, the feel of the pages, the font. But when I really wanted to be a poet was after seeing my Dad read poems at the art museum in town. He was writing about the farm, about places and events I was utterly familiar with, but in what seemed to me a completely different language. Actually, it wasn’t a different language but the same language heightened. The poems had more in common with prayer and song than with ordinary speech. I distinctly remember the first time I found that heightened language myself. It was my first poem, called “Christmas,” rhymed couplets, beginning: “The fire is burning hot. / I can hear the hunter’s shot.” Something clicked for me there. And then there were the poets who would come out to the farm for dinner, having been brought to Freeport by the poet and provocateur Kent Johnson to read at Highland Community College. I met Gary Snyder, Forrest Gander, Michael Mott, Margaret Gibson, and many others. I saw how poets inhabited the world, how they talked and laughed and walked and ate and drank. It struck me early on I think that to become a poet was not merely to become a person who writes poems, but to live a life oriented towards what poetry suggests: careful (by which I mean “full of care”) and compassionate language and living. So, yes, it was my Dad, his books, his poems, his friendships, who sent me on my way. I was very nearly derailed by the embarrassment of turning in a collection of haiku titled Silver Moon for the Young Author’s competition in third grade, but after recovering from that pitfall it has been more or less smooth sailing.

Who are the poets who mean the most to you?

My reading habits are so eclectic that I’d rather give a broader answer, composed mostly but not entirely of poets. To be honest, I don’t read many poems these days. I have many friends, poets all, who sit down and read new collections straight through. It’s rare that I’ll do that. It’s rare that I’ll like a poem, including my own. And usually, I become enamored with a poet, not with a particular collection or even a particular poem, and everything that poet has written will seem like gold to me. An example is the great French poet Jean Follain. I love reading Follain’s short, unpunctuated, imagistic poems, considering how he makes the moves he does, and comparing different translations. It seems to me that his poems are reflective of some deeper quality he must have had, and that cannot have helped but come through in his poems. Another poet like this is Keats, not so much in his poems, but in his letters: I feel I know him, his humor, his compassion. And then there are the Wordsworths, especially Dorothy, and Coleridge. I read Dorothy’s journals in a kind of continuous loop. I also love the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, especially The Poetics of Space. All of these people, Follain, Keats, Dorothy Wordsworth, Bachelard, are like saints to me. So I could say that the poet Larry Levis has been very important to me, or that the poet W.S. Merwin has been very important to me (and the namesake of a long-lost cat of mine), but a more accurate answer would be that I live in an atmosphere of blended enthusiasms, which transcend genre.

Austin Smith grew up on a family dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He is the author of a previous poetry collection, Almanac (Princeton), and his work has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, and many other publications. He teaches at Stanford University and lives in Oakland, California.

Simon Levis Sullam on The Italian Executioners

Levis Sullam Italian Executioners book coverMost historians have long described Italians as relatively protective of their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust. But Simon Levis Sullam’s gripping new history The Italian Executioners shows how ordinary Italians actually played a central role in the deportation and genocide of Italian Jews during the Second World War. Levis Sullam recounts in vivid detail the shocking events of this period, dismantling the seductive popular myth of italiani brava gente—the “good Italians” who sheltered their Jewish compatriots from harm. Here, Levis Sullam answers several questions about the Holocaust in Italy, the book, and the misconceptions it corrects.

How does your book supersede previous historiography on the fate of the Jews of Italy during the Holocaust?

Historians have long represented Italy during the Holocaust as a safe place for Jews, due to the many rescues of Jews by Italians, in particular by members of the Catholic clergy.  Some of the founders of Holocaust historiography, such as Léon Poliakov or Raul Hilberg, viewed the Italians’ benevolent national character as antithetical to violence and genocide. But following a new stream of research starting with the work of Michele Sarfatti and Liliana Picciotto, The Italian Executioners claims that Italians—including ordinary Italians—were accomplices in the genocide of the Jews. Over 8,000 Jews, about 20% of the Italian Jewish population, were arrested and deported from Italy. Nearly half of these arrests were carried out by Italians.

Why do you prefer the category of genocide to those of Holocaust or Shoah? How do you apply it?

In the book, I use “genocide” as it was coined by the Polish Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin during the Second World War, to indicate the attempt to eradicate a group, in whole or in part, based on ethnicity or race. I underline how genocide does not take place only in foreign or distant lands, but can happen during circumstances of distress in any society, when next-door neighbours are persecuted as internal enemies. On the footsteps especially of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, I stress the role of the fragmentation of tasks and the bureaucratization of functions in the machinery of destruction, which required the large-scale involvement of ordinary citizens.

What was the role of antisemitism among Italian executioners?

Italy had a centuries-old tradition of particularly Catholic anti-Judaism and, since the nineteenth century, had also developed a racially based anti-Jewish hostility of the type that had already spread throughout Europe. In the twentieth century, antisemitism was not a founding principle of Italian Fascist ideology, although certain streams of the Fascist movement used anti-Jewish propaganda, especially in the 1930s. The racial question rose within Fascism first with the proclamation of an Italian empire in Ethiopia in 1936 and later, starting in the fall of 1938, with Mussolini’s enforcement of antisemitic laws.

But were ordinary Italians who participated in the Holocaust motivated by antisemitism?

Some of those who participated in the arrest of Jews were ideologically motivated. The Fascist Party, which was reborn during the German occupation of Italy in the fall of 1943, declared Jews to be “foreigners” and “enemies.” Ideologically committed members of the Fascist Party and the Fascist press adopted this line. However, the arrest of Jews was mostly conducted by policemen and by military police (“carabinieri”) who obeyed higher orders from the government and from the prefects and chiefs of police who represented the State locally. Many Italians, however, participated in the arrest of Jews and the confiscation of their property while performing bureaucratic functions, such as drafting lists of people to be arrested or registering confiscated property. Other Italians were motivated by greed.

Speaking of greed, can you tell us what happened to Jewish property?

Greed, revenge, and sometimes envy were important motivating factors in ordinary Italian citizens’ involvement in anti-Jewish activities during the Holocaust. Very often, arrests were the result of Italians informing about the whereabouts of Jewish next-door neighbors or former business partners. Informants aimed to take hold of Jewish property or move into vacated houses or apartments after the arrests. Fees were also promised for those who reported Jews.

After the war, what happened to those Italians who were responsible of the deportation of Jews?

There was never an Italian Nuremberg trial. Only a few postwar trials considered anti-Jewish persecution among the defendants’ responsibilities, and anti-Jewish action was never treated as a specific crime. In 1946, a general amnesty for Fascist crimes was enforced. Major war criminals served short sentences of only a few years. Most, if not all, of the police personnel who had been active during Fascism and the war remained in place. And there were paradoxical episodes such as that of a police officer who had been in charge of the confiscation of Jewish wealth, and who after the war was put in charge of the return of Jewish property. The role of Italians in the Holocaust was basically never examined by Italian justice.

What motivated you to write this book?

I was concerned about the relatively benevolent representation of Fascism by international historiography, which often still considers it a lesser evil compared to Nazism. The criminality and violence of Fascism began, at the latest, in the mid-1920s, when the movement started persecuting and even killing political opponents. In this case, I wanted to look at one of its most criminal phases: Fascism’s active participation in the Nazi project of extermination. On a more personal level, I was motivated also by my family’s history. Part of my family was rescued during the war, and that is how my parents survived and I could come to life. Another part of my family, including elders and months-old children, were arrested by Italians and killed by Germans in Auschwitz. I wanted to tell this story, the story of the Italian executioners in the Holocaust, which has been too often overlooked both by historians and in the public memory.

Simon Levis Sullam is associate professor of modern history at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. His previous books include Giuseppe Mazzini and the Origins of Fascism.

David Bainbridge on Stripped Bare

For more than two thousand years, comparative anatomy—the study of anatomical variation among different animal species—has been used to make arguments in natural philosophy, reinforce religious dogma, and remind us of our own mortality. This stunningly illustrated compendium traces the intertwined intellectual and artistic histories of comparative anatomy from antiquity to today.

Stripped Bare brings together some of the most arresting images ever produced, from the earliest studies of animal form to the technicolor art of computer-generated anatomies. David Bainbridge draws on representative illustrations from different eras to discuss the philosophical, scientific, and artistic milieus from which they emerged. He vividly describes the unique aesthetics of each phase of anatomical endeavor, providing new insights into the exquisite anatomical drawings of Leonardo and Albrecht Dürer in the era before printing, Jean Héroard’s cutting and cataloging of the horse during the age of Louis XIII, the exotic pictorial menageries of the Comte de Buffon in the eighteenth century, anatomical illustrations from Charles Darwin’s voyages, the lavish symmetries of Ernst Haeckel’s prints, and much, much more.

Why The Art of Animal Anatomy?

Although my day job is teaching anatomy to veterinary students, it has taken me until my seventh book to write about it. All my other books have been about how very strange and unusual human biology is when compared to animals, but this time I thought I’d try something different. Animal structure has been a central artistic element since early humans were painting on cave walls, and I wanted to write a book that reflects how much it has permeated our artistic culture. To do this, the format had to be right – everything else I’ve written has been very text-heavy, but Stripped Bare had to let the images speak for themselves. I did have to weave it into a narrative, but just as important is the quality of the reproductions. Enormous effort and skill went into them, so we wanted to do them justice.

Has the artistic side of science always interested you?

I’ve always found that some of the most interesting aspects of science are when it interacts with language, culture and the arts. Right back when I was slogging through my science subjects to get into vet school, I was also lucky enough to be able to take a two-year course in Art History. I suppose that’s where I learnt the language – knowing my Cubists from my Fauvists, and so on – but also understood for the first time the very real ways that changes in the visual arts reflect, and are reflected by, changes in thought and society. It didn’t take long for me to realise that animal anatomy is not only depicted for its own practical sake, but has also become an eerie, visceral motif to which artists have returned again and again. It has the power to both shock and inspire, and often that’s just too good for artists to ignore.

So how important is it to be familiar with anatomy and art history to enjoy the book?

Not at all, I would say. I assumed nothing of the reader, other than an intelligent inquisitiveness. Comparative anatomy is so much more interesting than seeing the striking ways in which a human, a flamingo and a trout differ, and are similar. It’s a story which almost writes itself. In the book, I tried to highlight what I think are fascinating snippets of the science, but anatomy is a huge topic, and I couldn’t assume any prior knowledge of it. I guess I assumed slightly more foreknowledge of art history, but still not much. A general sense of the flow of the centuries and movements is beneficial, but that’s all. And if readers are teased into finding out more about Futurism or Hyperrealism, then that’s great.

Who is the most important character in the book?

It would have to be Carlo Ruini, an anatomist from Bologna who wrote the remarkable 1598 Anatomia del Cavallo (Anatomy of the Horse), what I like to think of as the Principia Mathematica of comparative anatomy. Before the Anatomia anatomical writings just looked ancient – rare, error-strewn, unscientific, fragmentary, and worst of all, often unillustrated. In contrast, for all its four centuries of existence, Ruini’s book looks recognisably modern: structured, enquiring and detailed. For example, Ruini discovered the one-way nature of the valves of the heart, an important component of later discoveries of the circulation of the blood. The anatomical precision in the book is amazing, especially as it seems to have sprung into existence as if from from nowhere, but most striking is its artistic beauty. There are hundreds of meticulous wood-block engravings, capturing not just the science of the animals’ structure, but also the emotional visual impact of gnarled bones, contorted intestines and convoluted brains. Most of all, the animals retain a remarkable dignity, despite their progressive ‘disrobing’ – they stand proud, or even sometimes trot gaily through renaissance landscapes.

And which artist brings you the most pleasure?

It would have to be Georgia O’Keeffe. In many ways she’s at the other end of the spectrum. Ruini’s book was a practical, scientific book, whereas O’Keeffe uses animal bones solely as elements, often central elements, in her compositions. Just like her paintings of libidinous flowers, her depictions of animal bones allowed her to explain her own feelings about her adopted environment in the American Southwest. Bleached skulls become the central band in the American red, white and blue, while a crumbling pelvis on the desert floor becomes a grand, eroded rock arch framing the distant sierra. I believe that the use of the dusty white skull as a symbol of the desert states (think of an Eagles album cover!) can be traced directly back to O’Keeffe’s decision to place them centre-stage in her compositions.

Has the art of animal anatomy run its course, do you think?

Not at all. If anything, there’s more happening now than ever before. Over recent decades it has become clear that biology is bewilderingly complex and detailed, and one of the major challenges we face is explaining and depicting the new superabundance of information in a comprehensible way. As soon as a neuroscientist generates a scan of the internal nervous pathways of the brain, they have to make artistic – yes, artistic – decisions, if they are to intelligibly represent the tangled and cascading neural superhighways they’ve discovered. Modern, computer-generated diagrams of animal structure and biology are usually beautiful, and always striking. Animal anatomy has even made its way into modern street art. One of the most inspiring images in the book is of a dog’s skull, spay-painted freehand apparently, by the artist SHOK1, onto a building-site hoarding in Walthamstow, North London. It’s one of the most anatomically accurate depictions in the book, a true memento mori for the modern age. The pace of anatomical art is hastening, not slowing – I’m sure there is much more to come.

 

David Bainbridge is University Clinical Veterinary Anatomist at the University of Cambridge. His books include Curvology: The Origins and Power of Female Body Shape and Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: A Fantastic Journey through Your Brain.

José R. Castelló on Canids of the World

This stunningly illustrated and easy-to-use field guide covers every species of the world’s canids, from the Gray Wolf of North America to the dholes of Asia, from African jackals to the South American Bush Dog. It features more than 150 superb color plates depicting every kind of canid and detailed facing-page species accounts that describe key identification features, morphology, distribution, subspeciation, habitat, and conservation status in the wild. The book also includes distribution maps and tips on where to observe each species, making José R. Castelló’s Canids of the World the most comprehensive and user-friendly guide to these intriguing and spectacular mammal.

What are Canids?

Canids are the family of carnivores that includes wolves, coyotes, jackals, foxes, dogs, dingoes, dholes, and other dog-like mammals, with at least 37 extant species, ranging in weight from less than one kilogram to well up to eighty kilograms. Most people would readily recognize the more well-known members of the family Canidae. However, some of its members, as the short-eared dog or the bush-dog, are very elusive and are poorly known, even to enthusiasts. Other species, as the African golden wolf, have just been recently rediscovered. Canids are present in each continent except Antarctica and inhabit every major ecosystem, from arctic regions to deserts and tropical forests. Many canids have distributions that span over a whole continent, and red foxes and grey wolves have the most extensive natural range of any land mammal, with the exception of humans and perhaps some commensal rodents.

What makes Canids so attractive?

Canids are charismatic animals and possess an interest to many readers who are not necessarily biologists or students. The long association of man and dog have guaranteed a greater than usual interest in the knowledge of canids. They are a group with which humans have had the most longstanding and profound associations. They are also one of three modern families of carnivorans notable for including top predators, species capable of hunting down prey several times their own size (the other two are the cat family and the hyena family). Canids are also highly intelligent and develop complex social systems, and adapt rapidly to changing circumstances, as well as different habitats. A canid – the wolf – was the first animal to be domesticated. Domestic dogs have accompanied us for some 15,000 years and have been useful to humans in many ways, such as guarding of livestock, protection, or as pets. Wolves may be the most familiar of large mammalian carnivores and have always held a fascination to humankind; people either love them or hate them, and folklore has portrayed them as vicious and devious killers, but also as symbols of wilderness. Many species of canids are also viewed as pests to humans, and populations of many species have been decimated. Wolves, coyotes, and foxes are persecuted by ranchers, who blame them for losses to livestock. Foxes have been targeted as carriers of rabies and likewise have been the target of hunting, and some foxes are valued for their pelts, which have been used in the fashion industry.

Why is conservation of Canids so important?

Members of this group are widely hunted, persecuted, and used by humans. At least 25% of Canid species are threatened and need urgent protection. Others are rare and even declining or involved in major wildlife management issues, such as disease transmission, predation on livestock, sports hunting, or fur trade. Grey wolves, for instance, have been extirpated from many areas and several of their subspecies have vanished. The Red wolf was declared extinct in the wild by 1980. African Wild Dogs are extinct in most countries that they formerly inhabited, with fewer than 5,000 free-ranging remaining, while Dholes, formerly living throughout Asia, are extinct in half of the countries that they inhabited. Ethiopian wolves, the most threatened canid in the world, number fewer than 500 in the wild. And one species has gone extinct in recent times: the Falkland Island wolf was declared extinct in 1876.

Why did you write this book?

The main reason for writing “Canids of the World” is to showcase people the great, and sometimes unknown, biodiversity of this family of mammals, and also to enable the observer to identify most species of wild Canids from all over the world. Most canids are easy to recognize, but morphological variation within the family is relatively slight, which creates problems of species recognition and classification. Most canids have a similar basic form, as exemplified by the wolf, although the relative length of muzzle, limbs, ears and tail vary considerably between species. Canids also demonstrate a high clinal variability which also may create problems of recognition.

The second reason is to try to clarify the taxonomy of this group. Taxonomy of canids is somewhat controversial and this ever-changing classification can seem confusing to the enthusiast. The family Canidaecurrently includes 37 species and a larger number of subspecies whose status is under constant revision. There are still uncertainties regarding the taxonomic status of some species (eastern wolf, red wolf), while the use of some generic names (Lupulella for some African jackals) is also disputed. Recent phylogenetic studies have found that red foxes in North America are genetically distinct from Eurasian red foxes and merit recognition as a distinct species. In India, two small endangered populations of wolves, the Himalayan and Indian wolves, have also been shown to be genetically distant from other wolves, and some have proposed to treat them as separate species, while dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs are now considered by most authors as feral derivatives of ancient breeds of domestic dogs. It should be pointed that difficulties regarding this taxonomic delimitation among canids can lead to underestimating species and subspecies richness, and these problems can compromise biodiversity conservation.

Last but not least, this book is written to raise awareness for species of canids that has become endangered and to protect wildlife. This book includes information on reproduction, behavior, diet, and conservation of these species. “Canids of the World” is a book for everyone interested in canids, from the expert requiring a reference work, to the layperson fascinated by their beauty, biology and diversity. You certainly can’t protect what you don’t know!

 

José R. Castelló is a medical doctor, naturalist, and wildlife photographer. He is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and the Spanish Society for Conservation and Study of Mammals. He is the author of Bovids of the World: Antelopes, Gazelles, Cattle, Goats, Sheep, and Relatives (Princeton).

Jack Wertheimer on The New American Judaism

Jack Wertheimer The New American Judaism book coverAmerican Judaism has been buffeted by massive social upheavals in recent decades. In The New American Judaism, Jack Wertheimer, a leading authority on the subject, sets out to discover how Jews of various orientations practice their religion in this radically altered landscape. What emerges is a quintessentially American story of rash disruption and creative reinvention, religious illiteracy and dynamic experimentation. Here, Wertheimer provides insight on why and how he wrote the book, and what readers of all faiths can learn from it.

What led you to write this book?

Twenty-five years ago, I published a book offering my take on contemporary Jewish religious life. When I revisited that book in recent years, I realized an entirely different approach, not merely an update, would be needed to do justice to today’s scene. I also was curious to learn more about the proliferation of new settings for Jewish religious expression and the remaking of existing places for congregating.

You interviewed 220 people for this book. How did you decide whom to interview and what questions to ask?

I mainly interviewed rabbis situated in different corners of Jewish life, and then turned to other observers to help me understand new developments. My overall questions were straightforward: What are you seeing among the Jews in your orbit when it comes to religion? And what are you doing to draw Jews into religious life? From there, the questions led us down fascinating byways. I learned about the re-appropriation of long-discarded Jewish religious traditions, and creative efforts to engage attendees at religious services; about the self-invented forms of Jewish practice taken for granted by some Jews and also the return to traditions by others. I heard about startling religious practices one would not have seen in synagogues even twenty years ago, and also learned of Jewish religious gatherings in unlikely places.

So what is new about the new American Judaism?

I could be flip and answer: “that’s why you have to read the book.” But to begin addressing the question, I’d say the environment in which American Jews find themselves is new. In some ways, it is remarkably open to all religious possibilities—or none; in other ways, American elite culture is highly dismissive of religion in ways that was not the case but a few decades ago. This has further eroded what Peter Berger called “the plausibility structure” for religion. Jews in our time are less likely than in the past to regard their religion as a package of behaviors and, as the old saw put it, “a way of life.” Now religious settings have to contend with Jews who wish to connect only episodically and only on their own terms. This has led both to religious participation as a “sometime thing” for many Jews, and simultaneously has spurred a great deal of experimentation to create enticing religious environments in the hope of drawing more participants. Congregations of all types are reimagining the use of space, the choreography of prayer service, the impact of music and visual cues, the ways they extend hospitality and mutual support to fellow congregants, and the messages they deliver about how Jewish religious practice enriches one’s life.

Is all of this unique to Judaism?

Not at all. One cannot really understand Jewish religious developments in a vacuum. Even the seemingly most insular of Jews who deliberately live in their own enclaves cannot escape the impact of the powerful culture all around us. (One of the rabbis I interviewed put this colloquially when he said: “culture eats mission for breakfast”—i.e. it overwhelms religious ideology.)

Many internal Jewish developments described in this book are quintessentially American (though some have parallels in other countries). New ways of thinking about religious experiences can be found in American churches, mosques and synagogues. Religious leaders across the spectrum recognize that they face common challenges, such as the well-documented retreat from institutional engagement, the quest for spirituality among some, the disenchantment with religious leadership, the DIY mindset when applied to religion and the desire for a more engaging worship experience. Experimentation is a hallmark of American religious life, as it is in many Jewish religious institutions.

Can you talk about one challenge you faced in your research?

There are a great many ways Jews practice their religion. One challenge facing anyone attempting to survey the scene is how to capture American Judaism in all its complexity and variety. To be clear, the term Judaism is used in many different ways. Some see it as synonymous with all of Jewish life. Others as the expression of a distinct theology and package of do’s and don’ts. The book endeavors to examine how “average” Jews incorporate Jewish religious practices into their lives, what they believe, what in their religion is important to them, and what is available to those who seek out Jewish religious settings.

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future of American Judaism. Do you agree with them?

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future health and vitality of Jewish life in this country. Some also worry about the long-term future of this or that denomination of American Judaism. There are good reasons to worry about both. But given the explosion of creativity in the Jewish religious sphere, I don’t worry about the future of Judaism. It’s the adherents, the Jews in the pews or those who rarely show up, that require our attention. I devote attention in the book to writing about some approaches to this challenge that I regard as short-sighted, if not wrong-headed. I also suggest some guidelines that might make for a stronger Jewish religious life.

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

First, that like so much in life, American Judaism is complicated, anything but static, and replete with pluses and minuses. Second, by stepping back to behold the entire scene, there are some remarkably fascinating things to observe. And related to that, perhaps readers will join me in appreciating a bit more the enormous investment of energy, creativity and good-will that so many rabbis and other religious leader are pouring into efforts to revitalize Jewish religious life. We don’t have to find every effort personally congenial to appreciate the explosion of energy at precisely a time when religion is not held in the highest esteem.

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His many books include The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish LandscapeFamily Matters: Jewish Education in an Age of Choice, and A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America.

Marcia Bjornerud on Timefulness

Timefulness coverFew of us have any conception of the enormous timescales in our planet’s long history, and this narrow perspective underlies many of the environmental problems we are creating for ourselves. The passage of nine days, which is how long a drop of water typically stays in Earth’s atmosphere, is something we can easily grasp. But spans of hundreds of years—the time a molecule of carbon dioxide resides in the atmosphere—approach the limits of our comprehension. Our everyday lives are shaped by processes that vastly predate us, and our habits will in turn have consequences that will outlast us by generations. Timefulness reveals how knowing the rhythms of Earth’s deep past and conceiving of time as a geologist does can give us the perspective we need for a more sustainable future.

What exactly do you mean by Timefulness?

It’s the habit of seeing things not merely as they are now, but also recognizing how they evolved—and will continue to evolve—over time. In a sense, it’s perceiving the world in four dimensions. I use the word as a deliberate counterpoint to the idea of Timelessness, which is an impossible, and ultimately sterile, aspiration.

Unless you’re jet-setting around the cosmos at relativistic speeds, nothing exists outside the framework of time; every person, idea, culture, organism, landscape, and continent exists in a particular time-stamped moment while also bearing vestiges of a much deeper historical and evolutionary past. We tend to view these entities only as they appear in the current temporal plane, but their paths through time shaped what they are now, and what they may become in the future. In other words, all things are full of Time— they’re Timeful.

The natural world in particular is bursting with backstories— tragedies, comedies, sprawling million-year sagas, chronicles of forgotten empires. Reconceiving everything, including ourselves, as entities sculpted by time is a perceptual shift that can be transformative on the personal and societal levels.

I don’t quite get the connection with geology.

This way of viewing the world is the very essence of geological thinking – being able to hold in the mind’s eye multiple past— and plausible future— iterations of the Earth and its ecosystems. I recognize that geology suffers from a public perception problem; people either associate it with musty museum displays or rapacious oil companies and mineral prospectors. But in fact it’s an intellectually vibrant science that requires exceptional powers of imagination: the capacity to zoom in and out of spatial and temporal scales, and to visualize long vanished landscapes and inaccessible parts of the Earth we can never see directly.

Geology is also a strange field in that it addresses both very pragmatic questions—where to find groundwater, how to protect people from natural hazards—and deep, even philosophical ones: Where do we come from? Why is the Earth the way it is? Both kinds of questions are important to humans, and both require a keen sense of temporal proportion—the relative and absolute durations of the great chapters in the planet’s past, the characteristic rates and timescales of natural phenomena. But as a society, we are largely time-illiterate: shockingly ignorant about how our activities intersect with the Earth’s long-established habits.  

Human and geological timescales are so vastly different – why does it matter if ordinary people have a feeling for ‘deep time’?

Actually, they’re not as disparate as one might think. Geologists have perhaps overemphasized the idea that the Earth is incredibly old and slow-moving and that humans are mere last-minute walk-ons. I think this misrepresents our place on Earth in a number of ways. First, we humans may have taken our current form only recently, but we have very deep roots in the evolutionary tree. Second, even though we may be relative newcomers, we are having an outsized effect on the planet. Finally, the Earth’s habits are really not that sluggish. Today, satellite observations allow us to see glaciers and tectonic plates moving in real time. Many geologic processes—erosion, river migration and climate change, for example—can play out well within a human lifetime. And some of the planet’s behaviors, like earthquakes and landslides, happen so fast that we are left dazed in their aftermath. Earth has many tempos and modes, many still being discovered and documented.

Throughout the book, you weave in the intellectual history of geology and explain how we have come to our current understanding. That must be intentional?

Yes! The story of how humans have gradually come to understand the character of our planet and managed to reconstruct its deep history is itself a fascinating evolutionary tale. Calibrating the geologic timescale is arguably one of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements. Yet it is underappreciated because it is not the work of a solitary genius but instead a collaborative effort of people making observations all around the globe over the past two centuries – and it’s still a work in progress. Along the way, there have been scientists, both amateur and professional, who had brilliant insights but were too far ahead of their time for their ideas to be verified by available data. There have also been experts much celebrated in their own day who proved to be completely wrong about the nature of the Earth and who held the science in check during their lifetimes.

So yes, the book is both about the idiosyncratic history of the Earth, and the equally idiosyncratic history of human understanding of the Earth.

Some people find the idea of geologic time terrifying because it makes them feel insignificant. How do you respond to that?

I can understand that reaction and again I think we geologists ourselves are partly to blame for flogging people over the head with the vastness of geologic time. I had a math professor who was fond of pointing out that, “there are many sizes and shapes of infinity.” The same can be said for different points in the geologic past. Some are a long time ago—some are a long, longtime ago. Developing some ‘depth of field’ in thinking about geologic time makes it seem less like a yawning abyss, and then filling it in with the narrative details of Earth’s development transforms it into an awe-inspiring origin story that embraces, rather than excludes, us. I personally find existential comfort in knowing that I am a resident of an ancient, resilient, marvelously complicated planet that has been teeming with life and continuously reinventing itself for 4 billion years.

OK, but can Timefulness really “help save the world?”

First let me emphasize that by “world” I don’t mean the planet; Earth will be fine with or without us and will survive the damage we are currently inflicting on it in the same way that it has endured previous calamities. It’s the stability of the world as we humans define it— the political, economic, social and cultural world— that is in grave peril. And yes, I would argue that Timeful, long-term thinking is essential to saving that. At a time when we urgently need mechanisms in our political and economic systems that encourage long-term planning, our attention spans keep shrinking. The few leaders who aspire to keep the long view in mind find themselves removed from boardrooms and public office by impatient shareholders, voters and corporate interests that benefit from the short-sightedness of the collective. The capacity to think on even decadal timescales—zooming out just enough to recognize our common past and shared destiny as human creatures on a changing planet— may be a way to spring ourselves out of the polarized, antagonistic, segregated mindsets and habits in which we have trapped ourselves.

The narratives of natural history are a heritage we all share as Earthlings, and expanded awareness of that legacy— a little Timefulness—may liberate us from our self-absorbed narcissism and other self-destructive tendencies.  

 

Marcia Bjornerud is professor of geology and environmental studies at Lawrence University. She is the author of Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth and a contributing writer for Elements, the New Yorker’s science and technology blog. She lives in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Chaim Saiman on Halakhah

Chaim Saiman Halakhah book coverThough typically translated as “Jewish law,” the term halakhah is not an easy match for what is usually thought of as law. In his panoramic book Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, Chaim Saiman traces how generations of rabbis have used concepts forged in talmudic disputation to do the work that other societies assign not only to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics but also to art, drama, and literature. Guiding readers across two millennia of richly illuminating perspectives, this book shows how halakhah is not just “law,” but an entire way of thinking, being, and knowing.

What is halakhah and why did you decide to write a book about it?

Literally, halakhah means “the way” or “the path,” though it is typically translated as Jewish law.

I grew up in a home and community where I was expected not only to obey the law, but to study and master complex legal texts in Hebrew and Aramaic.

I was about eight years old when my father proceeded to pull out two massive tomes from the shelf and inform me that I had to learn with him before I could escape to the Nintendo console located in my friend’s basement. We began to study the section of Mishnah (the earliest code of Jewish law, from around the year 200 CE) detailing the responsibilities of different bailees—those who watch over the property belonging to someone else. This book is a grown-up attempt to answer why an eight-year-old should care about bailees and the ancient laws of lost cows.

Did you really start a book on Jewish law with Jesus?

Yes. I take Jesus and the Apostle Paul as some of the earliest in a long line of halakhah’s critics. Both lived before the tradition crystallized in the form of the Mishnah. Yet even at this early stage, Jesus pokes fun at the Mishnah’s forebears for obsessing over legal rules and formalities at the expense of true spiritual growth. Jesus would have most likely considered it a bad idea to initiate young children into religious life by analyzing the laws of bailments.  But whereas Jesus saw the law as a set of regulations and restrictions, the Talmudic rabbis understood it as a domain of exploration and study, a process they called Talmud Torah.

 What is Talmud Torah?

It is hard to translate, mainly because the idea does not exist in Western or American culture. Word-for-word it means the “study of Torah,” but its impact extends beyond what is usually thought of as “study.” Talmud Torah means that Torah is not studied merely for pre-professional reasons, and not (only) to know the rules relevant to living a Jewish life, but because it is a primary religious activity, an intimate spiritual act that brings the learner into God’s embrace.

The closest analogy in general culture is the idea once practiced at elite universities when the curriculum was focused on Greek, Latin, philosophy, ancient civilization, and classical literature. Unlike today, the goal was not to make students more attractive to employers, but to educate them into ennobled citizens who would fully realize their humanity. The rabbis had a similar idea, but rather than literature or philosophy, study was grounded in the divine word of the Torah, and especially the legal regulations set forth in the Mishnah and Talmud.

What does Talmud Torah have to do with law?

Though Talmud Torah arguably applies to any area of Jewish law and thought, longstanding tradition places special emphasis on the areas that correspond to contract, tort, property and business law—the very topics covered by secular legal systems.  According to the Talmudic rabbis, the subjects taught in law schools across the country become a spiritual practice when learned in the halakhic setting. Lawyers get many adjectives thrown their way, but godly is rarely one of them. The book aims to understand what it means to hold that legal study is a path to the divine, and what are the implications of this idea for a legal system.

Is halakhah the law of any country?

Not really. One of the unusual aspects of halakhah is that it first becomes visible in the Mishnah several generations after the independent Jewish state was dismantled by the Romans. Further, the most fertile periods of halakhic development took place when Jews did not govern any territory but lived as a minority under non-Jewish rule. This is the opposite from how legal systems typically develop.

From at least the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, Jews tended to live in tight communities whose internal legal affairs were heavily influenced by rabbis and halakhah. But even here, close investigation shows that the civil laws that applied often deviated from Talmudic rules studied under the rubric of Talmud Torah. In the case of civil law there were effectively two systems of Jewish law. One used by tribunals when disputes arose in practice, and the other that lived mainly on the pages of the Talmud and realized though Torah study.  The relationship between these two forms of halakhah is a central theme of the book.

What about the state of Israel?

One of the ironies of modern Jewish life is that while Judaism historically defined itself through devotion to law, when the state of Israel was established there was little consensus about the role of halakhah in the state. Israel’s Socialist Zionist founders saw halakhah as a relic of the outmoded European Judaism that had to be overcome before a modern, Zionist, and self-determined Judaism could take hold. Most observant Jews by contrast, viewed secular Zionism as religiously invalid, if not dangerous. Since their primary concern was maintaining halakhah’s integrity in a secularizing world, they had little interest in adapting it for use in the modern state. Hence with the exception of marriage and divorce law, halakhah was not reflected in early Israeli law.

But the ground has shifted in the intervening years. Though Israeli law remains distinct from halakhah, there is a much wider constituency today that looks to define Israel as a Jewish state where concepts and norms inspired by halakhah find expression in state law. The book’s final chapter discusses the possibilities and pitfalls of infusing state law with halakhah.

Chaim N. Saiman is professor in the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.