Russell Bonduriansky & Troy Day on Extended Heredity

ExtendedFor much of the twentieth century it was assumed that genes alone mediate the transmission of biological information across generations and provide the raw material for natural selection. In Extended Heredity, leading evolutionary biologists Russell Bonduriansky and Troy Day challenge this premise. Drawing on the latest research, they demonstrate that what happens during our lifetimes—and even our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lifetimes—can influence the features of our descendants. On the basis of these discoveries, Bonduriansky and Day develop an extended concept of heredity that upends ideas about how traits can and cannot be transmitted across generations. Extended Heredity reappraises long-held ideas and opens the door to a new understanding of inheritance and evolution.

Why does heredity need to be extended?

We are at an interesting moment in the history of biology. Classical genetics, molecular biology, and genomics have greatly enriched our understanding of how organisms function, why individuals vary, and how biological variation is transmitted from parents to their offspring. But, along the way, biologists have made many discoveries that can’t be shoehorned into the conventional picture. For example, every first-year biology student learns that “acquired traits” can’t be passed on to descendants, but a great deal of evidence now contradicts this conventional wisdom. Taken together, these discoveries strongly suggest that genes are not the whole story, and that heredity needs to be extended to encompass a variety of non-genetic factors that operate alongside genes.

What does extended heredity have to do with evolution?

Heredity is one of the essential ingredients required for evolution to occur. If some individuals have particular features that enable them to produce more surviving offspring, and if those features are heritable, then those features will be represented in a greater proportion of individuals in the next generation. This simple formula is the essence of Darwin’s theory, and it was developed long before the discovery of genes. But, in the 20th century, evolution came to be defined in purely genetic terms because biologists assumed that only genes could be passed on to descendants. So what happens if there’s more to heredity than genes, and if nongenetic hereditary factors operate by very different rules? As we show, extended heredity broadens our understanding of how evolution works and leads to some surprising conclusions.

Weren’t such ideas—so-called “Lamarckian” or “soft” inheritance—refuted long ago?

The history of heredity—in particular, how heredity came to be defined in exclusively genetic terms—is a fascinating story in its own right. A commonly held view is that, after a lengthy scientific debate involving numerous experiments, the evidence ultimately showed that Mendelian genes (which were later recognized as DNA sequences) are the sole bearers of heredity. The actual history is far messier. In fact, the rejection of nongenetic forms of hereditary was never well-justified by evidence or logic, and current efforts to dismiss nongenetic inheritance as irrelevant to evolution don’t fare much better. On the other hand, some of the arguments made by proponents of an “extended evolutionary synthesis” are problematic as well, and so we search for a firm middle-ground.

What would you say to a skeptic?

Many biologists are wary of such unorthodox ideas, and some simply wonder what the fuss is about. After all, evolutionary biology has been wonderfully successful without extended heredity, so why open this can of worms? But science progresses by constantly updating knowledge and reassessing ideas. Not everyone will agree with our concept of extended heredity, but we hope to at least convince skeptics that non-genetic inheritance is real and should no longer be neglected in evolutionary thinking. There is a wealth of intriguing evidence out there that challenges conventional ideas, and we should confront this evidence and see where it leads us.

Is all this just an academic debate or are there practical implications?

Heredity is extremely relevant to health and many other practical concerns. Although our primary focus is on evolution, we also consider some of the practical implications of extended heredity. For example, we are exposed in our daily lives to many substances, such as the BPA found in certain plastic products, that have been shown to affect embryonic development in other animals. Many people are now aware that maternal smoking or obesity can harm a developing foetus, but few know that paternal lifestyle and health can also affect the foetus by reprograming the genes carried in sperm. There’s a disturbing historical dimension to this as well. It’s hard to believe today, but doctors and scientists used to believe so strongly in the exclusive role of genes in heredity that they denied the possibility that toxins ingested by pregnant women—most notably alcohol—could cause congenital abnormalities. We’ve obviously come a long way since then, but the idea that our children’s health and features could be shaped, not only by the genes that we pass to them, but also by our own lifestyle choices is still not widely appreciated.

Russell Bonduriansky is professor of evolutionary biology at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Troy Day is a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and the Department of Biology at Queen’s University in Canada. His books include Biocalculus and A Biologist’s Guide to Mathematical Modeling in Ecology and Evolution (Princeton).

Susan Stewart: National Poetry Month

poetry

In honor of National Poetry Month, PUP author and series editor of the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets Susan Stewart gives an overview of the series and talks about explains why, for a poet, every month is Poetry Month. 

Why did you want to become the editor of Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets?

I was happy to be invited to serve as the editor of the Contemporary Poets series. It meant, and means, a great deal to me, for I enjoy the opportunity to help publish excellent and path-breaking books of poems in such fine editions—especially during a period when it is so difficult for many deserving poets to find venues for their work. And Princeton’s series has a special resonance to me, since my own first book appeared in the series when I was a young poet. 

What do you look for when selecting poetry for the series?

Every May we have an open period of submissions and I try not to have too many preconceptions about what kind of work I might select. From its earliest incarnation under David Wagoner and on to my predecessor Paul Muldoon, the series always has been far-ranging and eclectic. I would like my selections, too, to give a sense of the range of work now available from living poets. Because we are a book series, I also look for strongly-composed volumes that are more than collections of individual poems. I’m drawn to books that reward careful reading.

What struck you about some of the collections in the past few years?

Each of the books we’ve published has its own myriad strengths and, considered as a whole, the series I’ve been trying to build foregrounds many formal approaches and many poetic worlds. Fiona Sze-Lorrain, who is tri-lingual and works in France, writes in her The Ruined Elegance a spare line, rich in imagery, that often addresses themes of individual memory and the consequences of state violence. The philosopher Troy Jollimore’s formally adventurous poems in Syllabus of Errors offer a wry concision. The young poet Niall Campbell’s lyrical book First Nights evokes his childhood in the Outer Hebrides and explores that world to hand, shot through with traditional narrative forms. Eléna Rivera’s book of sonnets, Scaffolding, written in syllabics and linked to specific dates like a diary, is a strikingly original meditation on urban existence. The two books we brought out last year, Myronn Hardy’s Radioactive Starlings and Miller Oberman’s The Unstill Ones, also have bold overall forms. Radioactive Starlings is in part an homage to the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa and in part a study in ecology and globalism informed by Myronn’s nearly ten years of teaching in Morocco and his travels in the United States and the Middle East. Miller, an Anglo-Saxonist by training, has juxtaposed medieval poems in translation to contemporary reflections on gender and metamorphosis.

What did you love most about this Fall’s forthcoming poets, Dora Malech and Austin Smith?

These selections make for an intriguing counter-point in that both are concerned with the outcomes of ways of speaking. Austin Smith’s Flyover Country, written in an immediate but intricately-crafted diction, is a prescient study of life in the rural American mid-west—a “flyover” territory, often misconstrued by those in other regions. The book is a study in ethics as he yokes everyday actions to larger questions about technology and citizenship. Dora Malech’s Stet is a path-breaking formal experiment; the book is based in the constraint of the anagram and asks what it means to occlude, reverse, or otherwise “go back on” one’s speech—above all, she explores what happens when a vow or promise is altered. 

National Poetry Month was only first inaugurated in 1996, what do you make of the recent reinvestment in poetry?

Hmmm….poetry is an art far from material “investments!” And we poets depend on the authenticity of our ancient roots. For us, and for all dedicated poetry readers, every month is Poetry Month. I’m glad Princeton University Press is playing its part.

Susan Stewart is the author of five books of poems, including Red Rover and Columbarium, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other books include Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, which won the Christian Gauss and Truman Capote prizes for literary criticism, and The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics. A former MacArthur Fellow, she is the Annan Professor of English at Princeton and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She is the series editor of the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets

John Hulsman on To Dare More Boldly

HulsmanOur baffling new multipolar world grows ever more complex, desperately calling for new ways of thinking, particularly when it comes to political risk. To Dare More Boldly provides those ways, telling the story of the rise of political risk analysis, both as a discipline and a lucrative high-stakes industry that guides the strategic decisions of corporations and governments around the world. It assesses why recent predictions have gone so wrong and boldly puts forward ten analytical commandments that can stand the test of time. To Dare More Boldly creatively explains why political risk analysis is vital for business and political leaders alike, and authoritatively establishes the analytical rules of thumb that practitioners need to do it effectively.

What’s audacious about political risk?
It’s a great and arresting word, isn’t it? It’s also entirely accurate. After the Cold War (though you can actually date it back to the Pythia of Ancient Greece as I do), the political risk industry seemed to spring fully formed out of nowhere, with leading businesses, multinational corporations, and even governments hanging on the words of erudite soothsayers, who in the tradition of the Pythia or Merlin seemed to promise the magic of uniquely understanding the present and the future. As a member of this select fraternity, I wanted to tell the true story of what is actually going on here, in all of our audacity.

Why did the notion of audacity inspire you to write To Dare More Boldly?
The curse of our present age is that despite the omnipresence of communication, no one seems to have very much to say. Certainly I have found this true in my field of global geopolitical analysis, of political risk. Instead, people with precious little to say describe rather than analyze, ape other ‘right-thinking people’ clustering around one safe opinion, so that even if they are wrong, everyone is incorrect together, and there is no accountability, no price to be paid for analytical mediocrity.

I was inspired to do exactly the opposite, due to my impatience with the present very poor state of imagination in the political risk analysis field, and empathy for creative figures like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who in Pet Sounds bravely and audaciously swung for the fences, and in doing so re-made popular music. I want to do nothing less than the same for the global analysis of political risk.

What’s audacious about the book?
As was true of Brian Wilson’s work, it is baroque in structure, with inter-chapters pointing out the principles—our ten commandments of political risk—that apply across time and space and are truly universal, rather than artificially cherry-picked to suit my argument. For example, there is a chapter on the need to know the nature of the world you actually live in, where the power resides, and if such a system is politically stable. I look at the rapid, shocking decline of the Beatles (epitomized by the increasing creative frustrations of George Harrison) as my main example of what I mean. But there is also a fascinating inter-chapter on the rise and surprising durability of the Rolling Stones, a band who in the mid-1960s seemed on their last legs—as another example of how systems can determine outcomes. Emulating Brian Wilson’s baroque structure allows for a creativity, a timelessness, and a richness that a straightforward analysis would not have made possible.

Examples of pop groups are not the usual fare for books focused on political risk analysis or about practical analytical insights for businesses. Is this another example of the book’s audacity?
Absolutely. Along the way, and it is part of the cult of mediocrity which so pervades modern thinking, we have falsely equated being boring with being profound. I have the opposite approach, that Shakespeare is for everyone, that murky writing and thinking are indicative of bad writing and thinking, that the novelist E.M Forster was right and that the key to life as he said at the beginning of Howard’s End is only to connect.

I use examples across all of history, but ones that fascinated me and I hope my audience. The Greco-Persian Wars, the fall of Rome, the Assassins and the Third Crusade, Machiavelli and the Borgias, John Adams and July 4, Napoleon and Venice, Robert E. Lee and Gettysburg, Lord Salisbury and the British Empire, the fall of the Kaiser’s Germany, the Beatles and the Stones, and Harold Macmillan’s friendship with Jack Kennedy are all covered. But so are more immediate topics like Charles Manson, ISIS, Europe’s present crisis, the rise and rise of China, and power ebbing away from the west as the world becomes truly one of many poles of power. We have forgotten the powerful intellectual pull of Homeric storytelling, which this book is entirely based on. I hope my analysis is profound. But I also hope it is fun.

What does To Dare More Boldly put forward to creatively improve this intellectual wasteland you describe?
That’s exactly the right question. For if you are going to tear down the present, you must put something in its place, or otherwise what you are doing is just nihilism. To Dare More Boldly puts forward ten analytical precepts derived from the real world of history—our ten commandments—a ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ list across all of recorded history that makes an analytical understanding of how to master political risk in the world possible. Rather than saying nothing or being laughably wrong (how many of my colleagues called Brexit correctly?) the book underlines that the present and the future in terms of political risk can be mastered for businesses by the following of such principles that have stood the test of time throughout and across history, the real world laboratory we all live in. I hope the book is creative and valuable both for businesses that need to master the confusing new era we find ourselves in, and for the general reader who rightly also wants to understand the times they live in.

John C. Hulsman is president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. His books include Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World (Pantheon), The Godfather Doctrine: A Foreign Policy Parable (Princeton), and To Begin the World Over Again: Lawrence of Arabia from Damascus to Baghdad (St. Martin’s). He lives in Painswick, England.

Mark Serreze on Brave New Arctic

In the 1990s, researchers in the Arctic noticed that floating summer sea ice had begun receding. This was accompanied by shifts in ocean circulation and unexpected changes in weather patterns throughout the world. The Arctic’s perennially frozen ground, known as permafrost, was warming, and treeless tundra was being overtaken by shrubs. What was going on? Brave New Arctic is Mark Serreze’s riveting firsthand account of how scientists from around the globe came together to find answers. A gripping scientific adventure story, Brave New Arctic shows how the Arctic’s extraordinary transformation serves as a harbinger of things to come if we fail to meet the challenge posed by a warming Earth.

Why should we care about what is going on in the Arctic?

The Arctic is raising a red flag. The region is warming twice as fast as the globe as a whole. The Arctic Ocean is quickly losing its summer sea ice cover, permafrost is thawing, glaciers are retreating, and the Greenland ice sheet is beginning to melt down. The Arctic is telling us that climate change is not something out there in some vague future. It is telling us that it is here and now, and in a big way. We long suspected that as the climate warms, the Arctic would be leading the way, and this is exactly what has happened.

There are a lot of books out there on the topic of climate change. What makes this one different and worth reading?

I wanted to get across how science is actually done. Scientists are trained to think like detectives, looking for evidence, tracking down clues, and playing on hunches. We work together to build knowledge, and stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. It a noble enterprise, but a very human one as well. We sometimes make mistakes (I’ve made a few doozies in my time) and get off the rails. Too often, science gets twisted up with politics. I tell it like it is, as a climate scientist who was there back when the Arctic was just beginning to stir, and both watched and participated in the story of the changing north.

You’ve hinted about how growing up in Maine got you interested in snow and ice. Can you tell us a little about this?

I grew up in coastal Maine in the 1960s and 1970s when there were some pretty impressive winters. Winter was my favorite season. I was way into daredevil sledding, and spent countless hours building the iciest, slickest track possible and modifying my sled for maximum speed. I developed a reputation for building tremendous snow forts with five or six rooms connected by tunnels. We’d would go crawling through the tunnels at night and light candles in each room. Then there was the simple primal joy of watching a big Nor’easter snowstorm come through and grind commerce to halt. The craziest winter activity I got into with my sister Mary and friend Dave was riding ice floes on the Kennebunk River. I probably should have drowned several times over, but, in retrospect, I learned a lot about the behavior of floating ice. Now, this was all back in an era when most of us were free-range kids—my mom would say, “get out of the house, I don’t want to see you ‘til dinner.” So you made your own fun and it wasn’t always safe. But it prepared me very well for a career studying snow and ice.

It took you quite a few years to be convinced of a human role in climate change. Why so long?

As mentioned, scientists are detectives, and we are always weighing the evidence. For me, it was never a question of if we would eventually see the human imprint of climate change in the Arctic—the basic physics behind greenhouse warming had been understood as far back as the late 19th century. Rather, it was a question of whether the evidence was solid enough to say that the imprint had actually emerged. The challenge we were up against is that natural variability is quite strong in the Arctic, the system is very complex, and most of the climate records we had were rather short. By the late 1990s, it was clear that we were seeing big changes, but at least to me, a lot of it still looked like natural variability. It was around the year 2002 or 2003 that the evidence became so overwhelming that I had to turn. So, I was a fence sitter for a long time on the issue of climate change, but that is how science should work. We are trained to be skeptical.

What happened in the year 2007?  Can you summarize?   

In the early summer of 2007, sea ice extent was below average, but this didn’t really grab anyone’s attention. That quickly changed when ice started disappearing at a pace never seen before. Through July and August, it seemed that the entire Arctic sea ice community was watching the daily satellite images with a growing sense of awe and foreboding. Huge chunks of the ice were getting eaten away. By the middle of September, when it was all over, the old record low for sea ice hadn’t just been beaten, it had been blown away. There was no longer any doubt that a Brave New Arctic was upon us. Arctic climate science was never really the same after that.

We keep hearing about how science tends to be a male-dominated field. But the impression that one gets from your book is that this isn’t really the case in climate research. Can you comment?

I don’t know what the actual numbers look like in climate science versus, say, computer science, but in my experience,  when it comes climate research, nobody really cares about your gender. What’s important is what you know and what you can contribute. What you do see, certainly, is more female graduate students now coming through the system in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Education, Mathematics).

Are you frustrated by the general inaction, at least in the United States, to deal with climate change? 

I’m constantly amazed that we don’t take the issue of climate change more seriously in this country. We are adding greenhouse gases to the air. The climate is warming as a result. The physics are well understood. Just as expected, the Arctic is leading the way. Sure, there are uncertainties regarding just how warm it well get,  how much sea level will rise, and changes in extreme events, but we know plenty about what is happening and where we are headed. The costs of inaction are going to far outweigh the costs of addressing this issue.

Mark C. Serreze is director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, professor of geography, and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the coauthor of The Arctic Climate System. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Erin Monroe on Gorey’s Worlds

The illustrator, designer, and writer Edward Gorey (1925–2000) is beloved for his droll, surreal, and slightly sinister drawings. While he is perhaps best known for his fanciful, macabre books, such as The Doubtful Guest and The Gashlycrumb Tinies, his instantly recognizable imagery can be seen everywhere from the New Yorker to the opening title sequence of the television series Mystery! on PBS. Gorey’s Worlds delves into the numerous and surprising cultural and artistic sources that influenced Gorey’s unique visual language.

The book accompanies an exhibition, curated by Erin Monroe, that runs through May 6, 2018, at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut.

What was the motivation behind Gorey’s Worlds?

This book was inspired by Edward Gorey’s personal art collection, which he left to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art upon his death in 2000. This is the first project to closely examine the artists he collected and admired. The book coincides with an exhibition of the same name, Gorey’s Worlds (on view through May 6, 2018), but the content goes beyond the scope of the exhibition. The plural of “worlds” is meant to reflect the richness of Gorey’s life and the imaginative texts and illustrations he created.

What are some the artists Gorey collected? What are some of the more prevalent themes and ideas?

I asked those very same questions when I began my research in 2014. In short, it’s eclectic and slightly peculiar, which should come as no surprise given Gorey’s aesthetic. There are 73 works of art that represent a wide range of makers. The content is primarily works on paper—prints, drawings and photographs—a few oil paintings, and a few small textiles. The artwork spans nineteenth-century drawings to contemporary art of the 1970s and 1980s. The familiar names include Eugène Atget, Charles Burchfield, and Manet. There are lesser-known contemporaries of Gorey’s, such as Albert York, and unidentified folk artists. In terms of technique, much of the work resembles Gorey’s densely cross-hatched drawings. The artwork is predominantly black and white and small-scale, again echoing Gorey’s own work.

I expect the collection to be macabre and gothic. Is it?

Some of it, while others were quite humorous and whimsical. There are many strong affinities with Gorey’s illustrations, but there are also big distinctions.

For example?

Well, for one, there are no images of children in any of the artwork he collected, whereas the majority of his stories involve children or invented animals/creatures acting like children.

How did that distinction inform your research? Did it change your approach?

It was critical, to me, to not be too literal and only look for visual connections, for example. It helped deepen my understanding of his work and accept that the relationships might be entirely impossible for someone like me to detect. Gorey layered ideas and concepts so densely that peeling away those layers isn’t easy.

Another example is how the ballet is literally absent from the bequest. It isn’t as if his art collection is filled with Degas ballerinas, yet Gorey watched nearly 160 performances a season for almost 30 years under the direction of George Balanchine. His ballet-watching, to me, helped shape his figures that are posed “just so,” deliberate, expressive, like a dancer. His drawings are typically horizontal, stage-like. Beyond that, Gorey knew of the museum’s early history with the ballet in 1930s, and this in part inspired his gift to us.

How did you learn about Gorey’s ballet obsession?

One of the writers for Gorey’s Worlds is Robert Greskovic, a dance critic and friend of Gorey’s. Robert’s essay is a touching remembrance of Gorey’s reactions to various productions, costumes, etc., and revealed the degree to which he noted every single detail that contributed to mood of the performance.

Who else wrote for the catalogue?

Given Gorey’s ties to many different cultural arenas, I felt it was important to engage different perspectives on his work. Arnie Arluke, a specialist in human-animal studies, discusses animals in Gorey’s work, and Professor Kevin Shortsleeve delves into Gorey’s connections to nonsense literature and surrealism. My essay presents principal groupings that emerge in the artwork Gorey collected, such as French art and American art, for example.

Was either of the other authors familiar with Gorey’s work before the project?

Yes and no. Kevin studied Gorey’s work for his master’s thesis, but this project presented a new angle on Gorey for him. Similarly, Arnie knew of Gorey’s work, but freely admitted that applying his knowledge to visual art was far different than the scientific research and papers to which he was accustomed.

Were you a Gorey fan before this project?

I wasn’t familiar with his work until this project. When I look back at my childhood and even teenage years, I realize I liked “Goreyeseque” books growing up.

Such as?

I loved Roald Dahl, and since my mom was Canadian, I read the funny (slightly dark) stories of Dennis Lee, a Canadian children’s author and poet; years later, I read the Lemony Snicket series. I love murder mysteries, and my favorite movie in high school was Clue. Turns out Gorey loved Tim Curry, too….

Going back to your research, what was different about this project?

Trying to get to know Gorey as a person and how he lived with his collections was a departure from my normal approach. I tracked down photographs of his New York City apartment, to look at what artwork hung where, for example. I also spent time at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, on Cape Cod. The staff has many of the curiosities Gorey collected, such as vintage objects, rocks from the beach, tarot cards, etc. They also let me spend the night in the house, in Gorey’s bedroom! I can attest there are no bats or menacing creatures lurking about, at least none that I witnessed.

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

For the first time, readers will have a chance to step into his artistic mindset, to look at the artists that sparked his imagination. Edward Gorey is more complicated than people realize. Many assume because his work is moody and dark that he, too, was reclusive and weird. I found far more humor, more absurdity, than anything.

Erin Monroe is the Robert H. Schutz Jr. Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. She is the author of Andrew Wyeth: Looking Beyond.

Keith Oatley on Our Minds, Our Selves: A Brief History of Psychology

OatleyAdvances in psychology have revolutionized our understanding of the human mind. Imaging technology allows researchers to monitor brain activity, letting us see what happens when we perceive, think, and feel. But technology is only part of how ideas about the mind and brain have developed over the past century and a half. In Our Minds, Our Selves, distinguished psychologist and writer Keith Oatley provides an engaging, original, and authoritative history of modern psychology told through the stories of its most important breakthroughs and the men and women who made them.

What prompted you to write this book?

There didn’t seem to be a book about the mind that people could read and say, “Oh, that’s why I see a certain person in this way, but feel myself to be rather different,” or “So that’s what goes on in a conversation.” I wanted to write a book on psychology that throws light on everyday human life, that gives the reader a sense of important turning points in research, and that focuses on the deeper principles of how the mind works, principles that help us think about our selves and others.

We like to think that we’re in direct touch with reality, but you say that’s not quite how it is.

In a way we are in touch with reality, but the mind isn’t a place into which reality can enter through eyes and ears. It’s the other way round: we project what we know from our inner understandings onto what comes in from the senses. Think of reading. If you did not know how to read, what you would see on a page would be black bits and white spaces. But since you can read, you project meanings onto these bits and spaces. With people it’s the same. You can read other people’s minds, project your understandings onto them.

You start with the problem of consciousness. Isn’t that a bit difficult?

Consciousness may seem difficult and people have argued about it for centuries, but the basic idea is straightforward. The brain contains some 86 billion nerve cells, each of which has connections to hundreds or thousands of others. We couldn’t possibly be aware of everything that goes on as these neurons interact with each other. The brain gives us a set of conclusions from these processes. This was the theory that Helmholtz proposed. Not many people know it, but really he was the main founder of our understanding of mind. The conclusions the mind offers are what we become conscious of: “That’s what it’s like out there in the world, laid out in space, with people to meet, objects to use, places to go.” From physics we might get a different depiction, perhaps of protons and electrons and waves, but that wouldn’t be of much help to us, in our ordinary lives. The conclusions the brain offers come into our conscious awareness, from sampling patterns of light and sound, to tell us: “That’s what this person means.” Or looking back to something remembered: “That’s what happened.” Or looking forward, with a plan: “Here’s what I might do.”

You say the book is about the principles of mind. What do you mean?

The deepest principle is that the mind offers us conclusions by being able to make models of the world, and even of our own self. A clock is a model of the rotation of the earth. We use it to get up in the morning, or to go and meet a friend. With some kinds of models, we can do more: we can see what would happen if we make alterations to the model, because models are things we can change. We translate an idea, or an aspiration, into our model of the world. Then we can manipulate the model, change it, to create new states. We call this thinking. Then we translate back again, from the resulting model-states into terms of the world again, to see something in a particular way, or to say this, or to do that.

You said there are other principles, too. What’s another one?

The characteristic of our human species that separates from other animals is our ability to cooperate. From an early age, human children, but not chimpanzees, can recognize when someone is trying to do something, but isn’t quite able to, and can know how to help. A two-year-old child, for instance, can see an adult with her hands full of books who seems to be wanting to put the books into a cupboard, but because her hands are full can’t open the door. The two-year-old will open the cupboard door for this person. And children of this age start to make joint plans, for instance when they play. They don’t just play on their own, they play together. Even a simple game like hide-and-seek requires cooperation. Plans that involve goals and activities shared with others become more important than anything else for us: how to join with another in living together, how to raise a family, how to cooperate with others at our place of work for ends that are useful. This principle widens so that we humans form communities and cultures, in which what goes for the whole group becomes important. So we try to be helpful, we are upset by injustice, we don’t want to tolerate people who are destructive. This is called morality. We strive to make the world a better place, not just for our selves, individually, but for everyone.

Is human intelligence going to be overtaken by artificial intelligence?

The most recent kinds of artificial intelligence are starting to think in ways similar to how we humans think, by forming intuitions from many examples, and projecting meanings from these intuitions onto new inputs. Often, when we humans have encountered a new group of people, or a new situation, we have become antagonistic; we have reacted as if the situation is one of conflict. With newer forms of artificial intelligence, we will need to think hard, to take on what is known from psychology, history, and social science, to fashion not conflict but cooperation with these new forms.

Keith Oatley is a distinguished academic researcher and teacher, as well as a prize-winning novelist. He has written for scientific journals, the New York Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, and Scientific American Mind. He is the author of many books, including Such Stuff as Dreams and The Passionate Muse, and a coauthor of the leading textbook on emotion. He is professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto and lives in Toronto.

Hanna Gray on An Academic Life

GrayHanna Holborn Gray has lived her entire life in the world of higher education. The daughter of academics, she fled Hitler’s Germany with her parents in the 1930s, emigrating to New Haven, where her father was a professor at Yale University. She has studied and taught at some of the world’s most prestigious universities. She was the first woman to serve as provost of Yale. In 1978, she became the first woman president of a major research university when she was appointed to lead the University of Chicago, a position she held for fifteen years. In 1991, Gray was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of her extraordinary contributions to education. An Academic Life is a candid self-portrait by one of academia’s most respected trailblazers. It speaks to the fundamental issues of purpose, academic freedom, and governance that arise time and again in higher education and that pose sharp challenges to the independence and scholarly integrity of each new generation.

Why did you decide to write a memoir?

In part because a number of people suggested that I write something about my experience as president of a research university and about my time more generally in higher education, given my long involvement in the academic world. I began teaching some 65 years ago and had grown up as a faculty child, my grandfathers and aunt were also academics. My parents were refugees from the Hitler regime, and I was interested in memorializing them and their exiled colleagues and in analyzing the difference the exiles had made in the American academic environment. I was interested also in reflecting on what it had been like to be raised in and to be the beneficiary of two cultures.

What is important about the Central European academic refugees?

The refugees from Hitler’s Germany, who began to arrive in 1933, represented very different fields of scholarship and science, and their considerable influence on the disciplines of learning in America varied accordingly. The impact was greatest where the ground had been prepared for their introduction of intellectual approaches and subjects that had not been widely adopted in the U.S. but which scholars and their universities were anxious to take up and incorporate into their programs. What the academic refugees as a group, however varying their academic offerings and specializations, brought to American higher education, was a cosmopolitan intellectual outlook, a breadth of culture and scholarly background, that helped transform a somewhat parochial academic world into a deprovincialized outlook and to international leadership in higher education. The European professors were models of a broadened and deepened culture to their students; their research opened new vistas in the fields they studied. At the same time, the European professors and the work they pursued were themselves greatly influenced by their new environment.

How was your life shaped by your parents’ immigration?

I was lucky in countless ways. My family’s early escape from Germany in 1933, my father’s already finding a position at Yale University in 1934 and receiving tenure there after a few years, meant that my family was more settled and my childhood more stable than was the case with many of the exiles. At the same time, I observed my parents confronting the inescapable difficulties of exile—understanding and adapting to a new culture, managing life in a new language (my father had to learn immediately to lecture with his imperfect English in an undergraduate setting foreign to his experience), establishing some financial security while never regaining a former prosperity, adapting to a changed social status and social environment, overcoming homesickness and separation from extended family, caught in anxiety over what was happening in their home country and to the people they cared about. My parents worried about their children being drawn to American popular culture, which they found difficult to tolerate (although they liked just about everything else in America). They encouraged our learning English even while sometimes saddened by hearing us chatter away in our new language, and they ensured that we would retain our German. So we lived in a German-speaking household with German cuisine and an emphasis on high European culture, on educational achievement, and on the priority of intellectual pursuits. To live in two cultures while wanting to be as like one’s American schoolmates as possible could be a source of tension, but it was an extraordinary gift that, as I came increasingly to see, enriched my life and my perspective. To be a little bit different was not a bad thing, given the slightly unusual path I ultimately chose.

Why did you become an academic?

Although I was determined in my youth not to follow in the footsteps of my parents and other relatives, not to become a teacher or an academic, I found already in my sophomore year in college that I wanted to be a historian, that the study of the past and understanding the present through the ways in which it had historically developed seemed my natural way of thinking, and  also the most interesting study imaginable. I think I was influenced in my decision to some degree by the models of my teachers at Bryn Mawr College.  My historian father never pushed or encouraged this direction, but of course he was a model also. To become a historian was to become an academic, and I was increasingly engaged in coming to know and becoming involved in the academic institutions in which I studied and taught, in their missions and in the powerful need to strengthen and preserve those as they were threatened or distorted in times of crisis or complacency.

What have been the principal changes and continuities for higher education you describe over the course of your career?

There have been very large changes since the thirties and especially since the end of World War II. The war saw the emergence of the essential partnership between government and the universities for the purposes of conducting major research, above all in the sciences. The end of the war saw the G.I. Bill of Rights. The first created  basis for the federal government’s support of areas that require both major investments of resources and highly trained experts in science and in other fields deemed to meet major public needs and the national interest. The G. I. Bill represented the beginnings of the greater democratization of higher education and of broadened access to its institutions; with that came a demographic change in the makeup of its student bodies and the backgrounds of the faculty. The end of the war saw a new international outlook on the part of American higher education and an explosion of growth in every part of the university world that brought American universities to the forefront of accomplishment and prestige. Higher education underwent a period of immense expansion and unprecedented prosperity. All this rested on a faith, pervasive in the postwar world, in the potential for education to create a better world and to produce both social mobility and a meritocratic society that would realize the true promise of democracy. That faith in education began to ebb as resources for its support began to decline and to be shifted toward other priorities, including those of elementary and secondary education. At the same time, as Increasing numbers of women entered higher education, and coeducation increased.  The burgeoning civil rights movement drew attention also to the need to bring minority students and faculty into higher education as well as to improve opportunities for women and lower income students. As the federal government entered this area of policy with its affirmative action requirements, as happened earlier in the areas of student and project support, new conflicts arose in university-government relation over the dangers of political intrusion into university affairs. The sixties saw an outburst of student radicalism and demands for higher education to become more “relevant” in addressing social problems and for students to obtain a strong voice in university governance; the time saw also a proliferation of curricular developments that focused on new areas of study such as women’s  and African-American and non-Western studies. The following decades witnessed periods of economic expansion and contraction and of an increasingly intense and not always healthy competition among its different institutions. As the costs of higher education grew, and as questions of educational quality and outcome and even of the worth of higher education came more and more to be raised, the public’s attitude toward universities became more skeptical and critical. Universities adopted a more consumerist style as they sought to satisfy their constituents and to recruit students in a highly competitive environment.  At the same time, they were being asked to prepare students for the world of work and to design programs more oriented toward that end. In the wake of these concerns, the traditional liberal arts have come increasingly under siege.

But the continuities that have marked higher education over the years are equally striking. The history of universities is a history of recurrence: the same basic questions and dilemmas re-emerge for reconsideration and debate over and over again, but in new contexts. The issues of academic freedom, its definition and sustenance, of free expression and discussion, of the university’s role in political and social matters, of its institutional autonomies and their limits may take new forms as they occur, but they are the same basic issues that have dominated the lives of universities forever. Today’s disputes over academic freedom and over free speech and its limits on our campuses represent one, and a highly significant, version of that. On the international front, too, we continue to witness countries in which the repressive treatment of universities by authoritarian regimes threaten their existence. For universities, too, the age-old issues of their role in both teaching and research and the balance between those missions continue to provoke fierce debate as the institutions seek understanding of their larger purposes and their contributions to the social order.

Hanna Holborn Gray is the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Early Modern European History at the University of Chicago, where she served as president from 1978 to 1993. She is the author of Searching for Utopia: Universities and Their Histories. She lives in Chicago.

Jane Hurwitz on Butterfly Gardening

Butterflies are regarded by many as canaries in our ecological coal mine: they provide visual signals indicating the relative health and diversity of a habitat. Improving our local fragmented and degraded habitats in order to promote butterflies may seem like an onerous task, but in Butterfly Gardening: The North American Butterfly Association Guide, Jane Hurwitz presents simple steps to create more vibrant and dynamic environments that encourage wild butterflies to flourish—and provide gardeners of all levels with inspiration and pleasure.

Why did you write this book?

I am a life-long gardener who has had the good fortune to work for an organization that actively promotes gardening for butterflies. During the years I directed the North American Butterfly Association’s Butterfly Garden and Habitat Program,  I was exposed to a wealth of information on butterfly gardening that changed the way I view all aspects of gardening. A large part of my work with the program involved daily communication with people of all skill levels concerning their NABA certified gardens. In fact, the second half of the book revolves around specific butterfly gardeners living in different regions of the United States; there is so much to be learned from other gardeners regardless of their location or garden size.

Writing this book allowed me to explore the connection between how we take care of our landscapes, whether our private gardens or public spaces, and how those choices impact butterflies. Very little is static in a garden, a fact that is accentuated when butterflies—or any insects, for that matter—become part of the garden’s focus. Butterfly gardening is a gardening method that allows the interplay between the natural world and human-made habitats to expand in ways that allow wildlife to flourish. Learning the interconnections between plants and butterflies is fascinating and works as a catalyst to deepen our connection to our natural surroundings. The creation of habitats for butterflies is an ongoing process, not a fixed point that will ever be perfectly attained; as such, butterfly gardening provides an open ended opportunity for constant experimentation and learning.

Who is this book for?

Anyone with an interest in butterflies and gardening—even if they’re only mildly curious! Gardening books are often quite prescriptive, providing chapter after chapter on how to grow specific plants or how to achieve a particular garden style. Butterfly Gardening takes a more flexible approach, imparting basic information on butterfly and plant biology, butterfly watching, and plant selection in an accessible way that allows the reader to make their own informed choices on how best to create a habitat for butterflies within the constraints of their location and budget. Whether one’s focus is on creating habitat for monarchs, installing a school garden, or simply making a suburban yard more butterfly-friendly, once equipped with the essential information it is easy to implement changes that will lure these beautiful and fascinating creatures into our lives.

What are some of the first steps in creating a great butterfly garden?

Eliminating the use of pesticides, particularly those in the class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids, is the first item on any butterfly gardening checklist. Of course, there may need to be exceptions; if my home has termites, for example, I am probably going to need to use pesticides, but as a general rule they are best avoided. In fact, taking pesticides out of our garden toolkits is one of the very few things we must do in order to provide a habitat for butterflies.

Identifying the butterflies that are common to your locale and learning their names would be a second step to consider. There are many ways to accomplish this; some people start with a butterfly guide book and work from their own observations, while others find information through local sources such as nature centers, NABA chapters, or the Extension Service.

Learning the names of butterflies will enable you to communicate better with other butterfly gardeners and will also inform you about which caterpillar food plants to install. Many butterfly gardeners, however, skip this step, at least in the early stages. For many, butterfly gardening begins with the plants (and there are so many good ones!); rather than identify possible butterfly visitors to their garden and plan specifically for that group, they jump right into planting nectar sources, and see what comes to visit. As I emphasize throughout the book, there are no rules about how to start or organize a butterfly garden, but most gardeners do eventually become interested in naming their butterfly visitors and learning about their life cycles.

What would you say is the benefit of butterfly gardening?

A garden represents different things to different people. By using the methods detailed in Butterfly Gardening, a layer of ecological relevance can be added to a pleasurable and revitalizing activity. We can make our gardens a refuge for butterflies as well as ourselves.

 

Jane Hurwitz  is the editor of Butterfly Gardener magazine and the former director of the Butterfly Garden and Habitat Program for the North American Butterfly Association. She lives in northern New Jersey.

Jan Assmann on The Invention of Religion

ReligionThe Book of Exodus may be the most consequential story ever told. But its spectacular moments of heaven-sent plagues and parting seas overshadow its true significance, says Jan Assmann, a leading historian of ancient religion. The story of Moses guiding the enslaved children of Israel out of captivity to become God’s chosen people is the foundation of an entirely new idea of religion, one that lives on today in many of the world’s faiths. The Invention of Religion sheds new light on ancient scriptures to show how Exodus has shaped fundamental understandings of monotheistic practice and belief. It is a powerful account of how ideas of faith, revelation, and covenant, first introduced in Exodus, shaped Judaism and were later adopted by Christianity and Islam to form the bedrock of the world’s Abrahamic religions.

The title of your book is The Invention of Religion. How is this to be understood? Aren’t there many religions? And have they all been invented?

This is correct. Primal, tribal, and ancient religions go back to time immemorial. We may call them “primary religions.” They are based on experience and are equivalent to general culture; there is no way to conceive of them as an independent system based on rules and values of its own. In my book, I am dealing with “secondary religion” that does not go back to time immemorial but has a definite date in history when it was founded or “invented.” Religion in this new sense is not based on experience but revelation; it is set off from the older primary religion and therefore from general culture, forming a system of its own. The first secondary religion is Second Temple Judaism as it developed during the Babylonian Exile and as it was established around 520 BCE. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam followed its model, as does our concept of “religion.”

If revelation is the distinctive feature of “secondary religion,” how do you explain that all religions know of ways by which the gods reveal their intentions to humankind, such as prodigies, oracles, dreams, etc.?

We must distinguish between occasional and singular revelations. Occasional revelations occur once in a while, refer to specific situations, and address specific recipients. Singular revelations occur once and for all time, encompass the entirety of human—individual, social, political—existence, and address a whole people or group of believers such as Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc. Revelation in this sense is an act of foundation, establishing a “covenant“ between God and men. Whereas primary religions need rituals, attention, diligence in order not to miss the divine intimations and to interpret them correctly—and this is exactly what the Latin term religio means according to Cicero—religions of the new type need memory, codification, canonization of the revealed texts, and faith in the revealed truth, i.e. the covenant. For this reason, Lactance, a Christian, derived the word religio not from relegere, or “to diligently observe,” but from religari, or “to bind oneself.”

“Faith“ is another category that one would assume to be necessary for all religions, not only for Second Temple Judaism and the religions based on or following this model.

In a general sense, yes. But religion based on revelation requires faith in a specific and much stronger sense. Faith in the general, weak sense is based on experience and evidence, i.e. immanent, this-worldly truth. Faith in the new, strong sense is based on revealed truth, which is transcendent and extramundane. This is a truth that cannot be verified by experience and researched, but can only be attested by staying true to the covenant and its laws, even under conditions of suffering. The term “martyr” comes from Greek martys “witness” and means him who by his violent death testifies to the truth of God’s covenant. Faith, truthfulness, and loyalty mean the same (aemunah in Hebrew). This kind of faith does not exist in primary religions and is the exclusive innovation of Biblical monotheism in its post-exilic form of Second Temple Judaism.

The main topic of the book of Exodus, however, seems still to be the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (yitzi’at mitzra’im) and not “revelation” for which there is not even a word in Hebrew.

That “revelation” is the main topic of 2.Mose becomes clear by a careful thematic analysis of the book. The book comprises three parts. Part one (chapters 1-15a) contains God’s revelation to Moses in the Burning Bush, the 10 plagues, and the Miracle of the Sea, revealing his overwhelming power. Part 2 (chapters 15b-24) contains the revelation of the covenant and the closing ceremony. The last part (chapters 25-40) contains the revelation and construction of the Tabernacle, interrupted by the scene of the Golden Calf. Each of these parts contains scenes of revelation, which is thus shown to be the overarching theme. That there is no word for “revelation” in Hebrew is the reason why this new and revolutionary concept is unfolded in form of a lengthy narrative.

Being an Egyptologist, what brought you to venture into the field of Biblical studies and how does your approach as an outsider differ from that of professional Biblical scholars who wrote on the book of Exodus?

My “egyptological” approach to the Bible focuses on the triad of culture, identity, and memory that is typical of Cultural Studies, whereas the approach of Biblical Studies mostly focuses on textual criticism, the distinction of different layers of redaction and composition. According to the Bible, the Israelites fled from Egypt and not from any other country of the Ancient World. This fact alone constitutes a challenge for Egyptology. Egypt seems to stand for something that the Torah is opposing with particular vehemence. A closer reading of the book of Exodus reveals that it is not religion—the Egyptian cult—what is rejected, but the political system of sacral kingship, the king as god and the deification of the state. All the ancient oriental kingdoms share this idea in a greater or lesser degree, but Egypt is the most extreme realization of this idea. Egypt, therefore, represents the world which Israel was to exit—or to be liberated from—in order to enter a new paradigm for which Flavius Josephus coined the term “theocracy,” meaning “God is king” instead of “The king is god,” the principle of sacral kingship. This originally political idea gradually evolved into what we now understand as “religion.”

The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is commonly taken as a historical fact, unlike the events that you subsume under the concept “revelation“ and consequently interpret as religious imagination.

Egyptology tells us that there is no archaeological, epigraphical, or literary evidence of any Hebrew mass emigration from Egypt in the Late Bronze Age, the narrated time. The book of Exodus is not a historical account but a foundational myth, though replete with historical reminiscences and experiences such as the expulsion of the Hyksos, the oppression of Palestine by Egyptian colonization, the Solomonic oppression of his people through heavy corvée—leading to the separation of the Northern Tribes—and finally the annihilation of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians in 722 and of the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians 597/87. What is decisive is not the narrated time—”What may really have happened in the 13th ct. BCE?”—but the various times of narration when this myth was first formed and became eventually codified and canonized as the foundational story of Second Temple Judaism. As a foundational myth, the Exodus belongs within the same sphere of religious imagination as the scenes of revelation.

And Moses? The name, Egyptologists tell us, is Egyptian. This seems to be historical evidence after all.

This is true, Moses (Moshe) is an Egyptian name, meaning “born of” like the Greek –genes. Hermogenes would be Thut-mose. There are many attempts at identifying Moses with Egyptian figures bearing the element –mose in their names, none of them convincing. Sigmund Freud made of Moses a follower of Akhenaten, the heretic king, who after this king’s death emigrated from Egypt to Canaan and took the Hebrews along, because Akhenaten’s monotheistic cult of the Sun (Aten) was persecuted and abolished in Egypt. Some even identify Moses with Akhenaten. All this is pure fancy. There is not the least link between Akenaten’s monotheism, which is just a new cosmology, deducing every life and existence from the sun, and the religion founded and proclaimed by Moses, that has nothing to do with cosmology but is based on the political idea of covenant, an alliance between God and his people. The ideas of revelation, covenant, and faith have no correspondents in Egypt nor in any other ancient religion.

In your book you characterize the new religion as a “monotheism of loyalty,” based on the distinction between loyalty and betrayal, and distinct from a “monotheism of truth,” based on the distinction between true and false, which is also typical of the new religion. How do these two forms of monotheism go together?

In my book Moses the Egyptian (1997), I defined Biblical monotheism as based on the distinction of true and false, which I dubbed the “Mosaic Distinction” and described as an innovation that “secondary religions” introduced into the ancient world, where this distinction between true God and false gods, true religion and false religions, was totally alien. After a close reading of the Torah I realized that this distinction only occurs with the later prophets (Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel and others), whereas the Torah, i.e. the books that are truly “Mosaic,” is about the distinction between loyalty and betrayal. This distinction is linked to the concept of a covenant between a “jealous” God, the liberator from Egyptian slavery, who requires absolute fidelity, and his Chosen People that has constantly to be admonished not to “murmur” and not to turn to other gods. The ideas of covenant, loyalty, and faith remain always, even in Christianity and Islam, the cantus firmus in the polyphony of the sacred scriptures and merge perfectly well with the idea of the One true God, the creator of heaven and earth, which is to be found in the prophetic scriptures. The first, particularist distinction concerns the chosen people whose gratitude and loyalty is requested for their liberator, and the second, universalist distinction concerns the idea of God the creator who cares for all human beings and all life on earth.

In some of your previous books you stated a connection between monotheism and violence as implied in the distinction between true and false in religion. Does this connection appear in a different light when the issue is not truth but loyalty?

All “secondary religions” are intolerant, because they arise in opposition to the primary religions before and around them. The “monotheism of truth,” therefore, is incompatible with religions excluded as “false.” This is a matter of logic and cognition. The “monotheism of loyalty,” on the other hand, based on the distinction between loyalty and betrayal, implies a form of violence that is mainly directed against members of the own group who are viewed as apostates or transgressors, as is shown by the “primal scene” of this form of violence, the scene of the Golden Calf. It is this form of violence with which we are mostly confronted today. It is only directed against outsiders if the distinction between inner and outer, apostates and strangers is blurred and all human beings are requested to enter the covenant and obey to its laws, as is the case with certain radical islamist and evangelist groups.

Then intolerance and violence are necessary implications of the Exodus tradition?

Nothing could be more alien to the theology of Exodus. The distinction between Israel and the “nations” (goyîm) that is drawn here has no violent and antagonistic implications. That the nations observe other laws and worship other gods is perfectly in order, because they are not called into the covenant. The only exception is made for the “Canaanites,” the indigenous population of the Promised Land, who must be expelled and exterminated and who are obviously no other that those Hebrews who do not live according to the laws of the covenant. These “Canaanites,” however, are but a symbol for the “primary religion” that Second Temple Judaism, especially the Puritan radicalism of the Deuteronomic tradition, is opposing. We must not forget, however, that it is not hatred and violence, but love that forms the center of the idea of covenant. The leading metaphor of the covenant is matrimonial love and the “megillah” (scroll) that is read during the feast of Passover is the Song of Songs, a collection of fervent love songs. God’s “jealousy” is part of his love.

Jan Assmann is honorary professor of cultural studies at the University of Konstanz and professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught for nearly three decades. He is the author of many books on ancient history and religion, including From Akhenaten to Moses, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization, and Moses the Egyptian.

Julian Zelizer on The Presidency of Barack Obama

ZelizerBarack Obama’s election as the first African American president seemed to usher in a new era, and he took office in 2009 with great expectations. But by his second term, Republicans controlled Congress, and, after the 2016 presidential election, Obama’s legacy and the health of the Democratic Party itself appeared in doubt. In The Presidency of Barack Obama, Julian Zelizer gathers leading American historians to put President Obama and his administration into political and historical context. Engaging and deeply informed, The Presidency of Barack Obama is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand Obama and the uncertain aftermath of his presidency.

What was your vision for this book? What kind of story are you trying to tell?

My goal with this book is to provide an original account of the Barack Obama that places his presidency in broader historical context. Rather than grading or ranking the president, my hope is to bring together the nation’s finest historians to analyze the different key issues of his presidency and connect them to a longer trajectory of political history. Some of the issues that we examined had to do with health care, inequality, partisan polarization, energy, international relations, and race.

How did you approach compiling the essays that make up this book? What criteria did you use when choosing contributors?

The key criteria was to find historians who are comfortable writing for the general public and who are interested in the presidency—without necessarily thinking of the president as the center of their analysis. I wanted smart historians who can figure out how to connect the presidency to other elements of society—ranging from the news media to race relations to national security institutions.

What do you see as the future of Obama’s legacy?

Legacies change over time. There will be more appreciation of aspects of his presidency that are today considered less significant, but which in time will be understood to have a big impact. Our authors, for instance, reveal some of the policy accomplishments in areas like the environment and the economy that were underappreciated during the time he was in the White House.  In other ways, we will see how some parts of the presidency that at the time were considered “transformative” or “path-breaking”—such as his policies on counterterrorism—were in fact extensions and continuations of political developments from the era.

How did the political landscape of the country change during Obama’s tenure?

While we obtained many new government programs, from climate change, to ACA, to the Iran Nuclear Deal, we also saw the hardening of a new generation of conservatism who were more rightward in their policies and more aggressive, if not ruthless, in their political practices. Some of his biggest victories, such as the Affordable Care Act, pushed the Republican Party even further to the right and inspired them to be even more radical in their approach to legislative obstruction.

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

I hope that they will have a better sense of where this presidency came from, some of the accomplishments that we saw during these eight years, and some of the ways that Obama was limited by the political and institutional context within which he governed. I want readers to get outside the world of journalistic accounts and come away understanding how Obama’s presidency was a product of the post-1960s era in political history.

Julian E. Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a CNN Political Analyst. He is the author and editor of eighteen books on American political history, has written hundreds of op-eds, and appears regularly on television as a news commentator.

Michael Brenner explains why a Jewish State is “not like any other state”

BrennerIs Israel a state like any other or is it unique? As Michael Brenner argues in In Search of Israel, the Zionists attempted to put an end to the millennia-old history of the Jews as the archetypical “other” by creating a Jewish state that would be just like any other state, but today, Israel is regarded as anything but a “normal” state. Instead of overcoming the Jewish fate of otherness, Israel has in fact become the “Jew among the nations.” Israel ranks as 148th of the 196 independent states in terms of geographical area, and as 97th in terms of population, which is somewhere between Belize and Djibouti. However, the international attention it attracts is exponentially greater than that of either. Considering only the volume of media attention it attracts, one might reasonably assume that the Jewish state is in the same league as the United States, Russia, and China. In the United States, Israel has figured more prominently over the last three decades than almost any other country in foreign policy debates; in polls across Europe, Israel is considered to be the greatest danger to world peace; and in Islamic societies it has become routine to burn Israeli flags and argue for Israel’s demise. No other country has been the target of as many UN resolutions as Israel. At the same time, many people around the world credit Israel with a unique role in the future course of world history. Evangelical Christians regard the Jewish state as a major player in their eschatological model of the world. Their convictions have influenced US policies in the Middle East and the opinions of some political leaders in other parts of the world.

Why does Israel attract so much attention?

The answer lies in history. Many people call Israel “the holy land” for a reason: it is here where the origins of their religions were shaped. The Jewish people too are regarded as special: they played a crucial role in the theological framework of the world’s dominant religions. In Christianity and in Islam, Jews were both seen as a people especially close to God and at the same time uniquely rejected by God. While over the last two hundred years these ideas have become secularized, many stereotypes have remained. That the Jews became victims of the most systematic genocide in modern history lent them yet another mark of uniqueness. After two thousand years in exile, the fact that Jews returned to their ancient homeland to build a sovereign state again surrounded the people and place with additional mystique.

Did the Zionists view themselves as unique?

The irony is that the Zionist movement was established at the end of the 19th century precisely in order to overcome this mark of difference and uniqueness. Many Zionists claimed that they just wanted to be like anyone else. Chaim Weizmann, longtime leader of the Zionist movement and Israel’s first president, was quoted with saying: “We just want to be another Albania,” meaning a small state that nobody really cares about. Even Israel’s founding document, the declaration of independence, says that Israel has the right to be “like all other nations.” But at the same time the notion of being different, perhaps being special, was internalized by Zionists as well. Many of its leaders argued that a Jewish state has a special responsibility. Even the most secular among them regarded Israel’s serving as “a light unto the nations” as a crucial part of a prophetic tradition.

Does this mean that Zionism was a religious movement?

Not at all. Most of its early leaders were strictly secular. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, knew no Hebrew and in fact very little about Jewish traditions. But he wanted to establish a model state for humanity, and saw the formation of Israel as an example for the liberation of African-Americans. Long before any other state granted voting rights for women, he let women be active participants in the Zionist congresses. He drew a flag for the future Jewish state that had seven stars, symbolizing a seven-hour-workday for everyone. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, was a Socialist and rejected organized religion. But just like Herzl, he believed in the mission of a model state that could spread the prophetic ideals of universal peace and equality among the nations.

Why then is Israel seen by many today not as a model state but as a pariah state?

Herzl discussed other potential destinations, such as Argentina and British East Africa, as refuge for the persecuted European Jews. But the only place Jews had an emotional connection with was the territory they had originated from. Over centuries, Jews prayed for their return to the land of Israel. But it was not an empty land. The Arab Palestinians soon developed their own ideas of nationhood and rejected the growing Jewish immigration. In the meantime, antisemitism increased in Europe and other countries closed their doors to Jewish refugees. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 came too late to save the lives of millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. But by then, most of the world recognized the Jews’ right to their own state in their ancient homeland, as reflected in the 1947 UN partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Yet the Arab world did not see why they should pay the price for the sins of the Europeans. The situation reflected the parable of a person (the Jews) jumping out of the window of a burning house (Europe) and hitting another person (the Palestinians) on the street in order to save his own life. The ongoing conflict of two peoples over the same land, combined with the special significance of this land in the eyes of the world, led to a situation where even outsiders have strong opinions. For Evangelical Christians, Israel fulfills a divine mission, while for others, especially in the Arab world, Israel is regarded as a foreign intruder in the tradition of the medieval Crusaders and modern Imperialists.

So, can Israel one day become just a “normal state?”

To begin with, let me qualify this question. The idea of a “normal state” is a fiction altogether. Every state sees itself as special. But it is true that some states receive more attention from the rest of the world than others. Can Israel just be another Albania in the eyes of the world, or relegated in our attention to its place among the nations between Djibouti and Belize? I do not believe so. The history of Jerusalem is different from that of Tirana (Albania’s capital), and the Jews have attracted so much more attention than nations of comparable size. Thus, Israel will most likely always remain in the limelight of media attention. However, let us not forget: The people in Israel live their everyday lives just like everywhere else. They worry about their jobs and about their sports teams, they want their children to be safe and successful in school, and they dream of a peaceful future. In this deeply personal sense, Israel has become a state just like any other.

Michael Brenner is the Seymour and Lilian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies and director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University and Professor of Jewish History and Culture at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. His many books include A Short History of the Jews.

Robert Irwin on Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography

IrwinIbn Khaldun (1332–1406) is generally regarded as the greatest intellectual ever to have appeared in the Arab world—a genius who ranks as one of the world’s great minds. Yet the author of the Muqaddima, the most important study of history ever produced in the Islamic world, is not as well known as he should be, and his ideas are widely misunderstood. In this groundbreaking intellectual biography, Robert Irwin provides an engaging and authoritative account of Ibn Khaldun’s extraordinary life, times, writings, and ideas.

Who was Ibn Khaldun?
Wali al-Din Ibn Khaldun was born in 1332 in Tunis. In his youth he was tutored by some of finest scholars of the age before going on to occupy high offices at various North African courts and at the court of Granada in Muslim Spain. He became, among other things, a diplomat and a specialist in negotiating with the Arab and Berber tribesmen of the North African interior and on occasion he led the tribesmen in battle. Later he moved to Cairo where he was to occupy various senior judicial and teaching posts under the Mamluk Sultans. In 1401 he had a famous meeting with the Turco-Mongol would-be world conqueror Timur (also known as Tamerlane), outside the walls of Damascus which was under siege by Timur. Having escaped becoming Timur’s honored captive, he returned to Egypt. In 1406 he died and was buried in a Sufi cemetery in Cairo. Despite his active career in politics, law, diplomacy, and teaching, he is chiefly famous for his great book, the Muqaddima, (the translation of which is currently published in three volumes by Princeton University Press, as well in a single-volume abridgment).

Why is Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima so important?
This big book asked big questions. The Muqaddima started out as a study of the laws of history and it has gone on to win great praise from modern historians. Arnold Toynbee described it as ‘undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place.’ Hugh Trevor-Roper agreed; ‘It is a wonderful experience to read those great volumes, as rich and various, as subtle, deep and formless as the Ocean, and to fish up from them ideas old and new.’ The Muqaddima has attracted similar praise from philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, economists and Islamicists.

Ibn Khaldun began by asking how do historians make mistakes in their interpretation of events and what kinds of information should be recognized by historians as good evidence or bad evidence. Then he set out to understand the origins of civilization and the causes of the rise and fall of dynasties. As he continued his investigations, his book broadened out to become what was effectively an encyclopedia of Muslim society and culture.

Given his importance, there are already quite a few books on Ibn Khaldun. What is new about yours?
There are indeed so many translations of Ibn Khaldun and books about him that something like half the history of Orientalism can be deduced from the contrasting readings of the Muqaddima produced by such scholars as Silvestre de Sacy, Quatremère, Von Kremer, Monteil, Gibb, Hodgson, Hourani and Gellner. Some of the books by my predecessors are pretty good and I owe debts to those who have gone before me. Nevertheless many of their readings of the Muqaddima have been selective and have stressed and, I think, overstressed the logicality of Ibn Khaldun’s admittedly powerful mind and in doing so they have neglected the inconsistencies, ambiguities, and eccentricities that make the Muqaddima such a fascinating text. Mine is the first book to focus closely on the importance of the occult in Ibn Khaldun’s thought and his intense interest in methods of predicting the future. It is also the first to bring out the importance of North African ruins and the moralizing messages that he took from them. Although he was an outstanding thinker, he was also a man of his time and there has been a tendency to underplay the North African and strictly Muslim context of the Muqaddima. I have also sought to bring out the distinctive quality of Ibn Khaldun’s writing by contrasting it with famous texts by Froissart, Machiavelli, Vico, Montesquieu, Spengler, and others.

His ideas have been described as anticipating those of Montesquieu, Comte, Darwin, Marx, and Toynbee, among others. So was he a ‘modern’ thinker?
As new disciplines evolved in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their leading scholars frequently sought to create intellectual lineages for their chosen subjects and so Ibn Khaldun came to be hailed as ‘the world’s first anthropologist’ or ‘the first ever cultural historian’ or as a ‘proto-Marxist.’ Though there is some justice in such tributes, the quest for relevance can be a dangerous thing, as an overemphasis on similarities may conceal or distort past ways of thinking and living. As the novelist L.P. Hartley observed, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Ibn Khaldun’s remarkable ability to formulate general laws based on the close observation of discrete phenomena gives his thinking the delusive appearance of modernity, but he wrote in the service of fourteenth-century Islam. Moreover there is no evidence that he influenced Montesquieu, there is no continuity between Ibn Khaldun’s sociological formulations and those of Comte and there is no indication that Ibn Khaldun had anticipated Darwin’s ideas about the survival of the fittest.

Why did you write this book?
It feels as though I have been living with Ibn Khaldun since I first read the Muqaddima as a student in the 1960s. So it was high time that I took a close look at the assumptions and vocabulary that underpinned his thinking. To spend so much time with a polymathic genius has been both demanding and exhilarating. But there is also something else. As already noted, his Muqaddima is encyclopedic in scope. It not only covers history and philosophy, but also religion, social studies, administrative structures and title-holding, geography, economics, literature, pedagogy, jurisprudence, magic, treasure hunting, diet, dream interpretation, and much else. So a study of his masterpiece can serve as a panoptic guide to Muslim thought and life in the Middle Ages. There is nothing to match it either in the Islamic world or in medieval Christendom.

Robert Irwin is senior research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a former lecturer at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. His many books include Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents and Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics, and the Sixties, as well as seven novels. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.