Mark Williams: A look at Irish gods and their legacy

WilliamsAgeless fairies inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves; W. B. Yeats invoked Irish divinities to reimagine the national condition. Why have Ireland’s mythical beings loomed so large in the world’s imagination? In Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Mark Williams weaves together the fascinating stories of some of Ireland’s famous gods and goddesses, from the heroic Lug to the fire goddess Brigit. He explores the religious history in the myths, showing how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era. Recently, Williams took the time to answer some questions about Irish gods and their stories.


Apparently Ireland has a pantheon of native gods?!

MW: Yes! — though in many ways they are unique, and don’t look all that much like the pantheons of other peoples and places. They’re called the Túatha Dé Danann in Irish, or ‘The Peoples of the Goddess Danu,’ as it’s usually translated. They tend to be imagined as immortal, beautiful aristocrats, sumptuously dressed and eternally young. In many stories from medieval Ireland, they live in a kind of parallel world, which can be accessed via the hills and Neolithic passage-graves which dot the Irish landscape. Some of them have vivid personalities: there’s the Morrígan, a battle-goddess who sometimes takes the form of a crow, for instance, or the young and heroic god Lug of the Long Arm. My favorite is Brigit, the goddess of poetry, medicine and blacksmithing who also moonlights as Ireland’s most important female saint — or at least has been thought to.

What is unusual about the Irish gods?

MW: Across Irish literature, in both Irish and English, their major characteristic is ontological ambiguity: the nature of their nature, so to speak, is never wholly fixed. In the first place, it’s hard to simply identify them as gods, as they have only an uncertain and wavering link to the actual deities worshiped by the pre-Christian Irish. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity saw the jettisoning of the vast majority of deities the Irish had once worshiped, while a small number were ‘reincarnated’ as medieval literary characters. This latter process was in no way inevitable, and the Anglo-Saxons did nothing of the sort, for example: you don’t find versions of Woden and Thunor turning up as literary characters in secular story, whereas the Irish constantly worked former gods into their sagas and tales, often worrying about how to place them in a Christian cosmos. Serious suggestions included the idea that they were merciful angels, ‘half-fallen’ angels, demons, or a race of humans who had somehow escaped the Fall and so retained more-than-human powers.

That the old gods were remembered at all was down to the deep respect for the past, which was characteristic of the medieval Irish. The Anglo-Saxons knew that they had arrived from somewhere else in the relatively recent past, but the Irish — around the conversion period, at least — seem to have thought themselves to be indigenous to their land. They were deeply invested in their own nativeness, so that their landscape, culture, and ancestry were all bound up together. (A new story was developed later which asserted that they hailed from Scythia, via Spain). But literature and shaping of a literate culture were in the hands of a clerical intelligentsia, who felt perfectly at liberty to make major changes in the depiction of ancient, once-divine figures. It is very striking how much the multi-talented god Lug (or Lugh) resembles the biblical King David, for example — both are young, handsome, royal figures, both are skilled musicians and poets, and both kill a giant with a slingshot to the head in single combat. Though there is no question that a god named Lug (or Lugus) was part of Irish paganism, one wonders how much of his ancient character actually persists in the literary Lug. This kind of remodeling might have happened to any number of the divine figures in Irish literature; far from representing the ignorant interference of clerics in ancient traditions, it actually reflects an attitude of deep respect on their part, and underscores their investment in the patterns and personages of their island’s ancient past.

The second peculiarity about the gods is that they are often depicted as ‘fairies’ — the not very satisfactory English term for the Irish áes síde, ‘the people of the hollow hills’. It is the second of these two Irish words which was later anglicised as Shee — a term familiar to all aficionados of nineteenth-century Irish literature. Rather than being gods, in this guise they act as humanity’s idealized twin-race. They are beautiful, immortal, and gifted with magic powers, and their lifestyle is largely characterized by graceful ease. In many ways they are the forerunner of Tolkien’s Elves, but they are less solemn and remote. In this guise they balloon in number: they become an imagined people, not a pantheon.

The third factor is that towards the end of the first millennium AD the Irish developed a complex backstory for their island, and a place for the Túatha Dé Danann was found within this elaborate timeline. They were now imagined as only one of a series of invading races who had ruled Ireland in the deep past. The climax of this kind of ‘synthetic history’ (as it is known) came in the late eleventh century, with the creation of ‘The Book of Invasions.’ In this schema, the gods were imagined as human beings who had simply learned how to supercharge their abilities with magical knowledge. They were (the synthetic history tells us) the third or fourth race to rule over Ireland, before they were in turn defeated by the incoming Gaels, the ethnic Irish. This scenario is transparently a creation of the high Middle Ages, but it became the basic imaginative frame for Ireland’s native gods until the nineteenth century.

The upshot of all these variations on the ontology of the Túatha Dé Danann was that it was actually quite difficult for antiquarian writers in modernity — as they combed through the records of the Irish past —to spot that these literary figures had once been Ireland’s native gods. Considerable preparation of the intellectual ground was necessary, and here the newly developed scholarly disciplines of anthropology, philology, and comparative mythology all played important roles. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the idea really took off, and soon it became a cultural and scholarly commonplace.

Why are the Irish gods less famous than the Graeco-Roman and Norse gods?

MW: The classical gods were the divinities of two cultures which were deeply admired by later ages, and were inseparable from the literature of those cultures; the gods of Greece and Rome therefore became part of the universal intellectual and imaginative patrimony of Europe. In the Middle Ages and on into the Early Modern era, Christian intellectuals felt perfectly at liberty to adopt them as symbols, personifications, allegories, and rhetorical tropes. (Dante calls on Apollo, for example, right at the heart of the greatest Christian poem of the Middle Ages). And later, with the Romantic movement, the impulse emerged to take the classical gods down from their niches in literary rhetoric and reclaim them as images of divine power in the natural world, even as living spiritual forces. So the gods of Greece and Rome have never actually been away, and have been naturalized for centuries in literature in English.

It’s worth noting, however, that the classical gods had no specifically national dimension, precisely because they were so universal. The Norse gods were quite different. Like the Irish gods, they were associated with a vernacular northern European language and had starring roles in a splendid medieval literature. In modernity, they could be claimed as the ‘native’ gods of those areas of Europe in which a Germanic language was spoken. This meant Germany, of course, but also — because of the Anglo-Saxon heritage — England, which gave the Norse gods a ready-made audience and a role as the ‘divine machinery’ in many forms of quasi-nationalist creative expression. The classic example is Wagner, whose monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen brought the Northern pantheon to international attention as a family of archetypal figures on a cosmic scale, explicitly paralleled to the gods of Greece. The Gaelic gods, in contrast, were associated only with Ireland and with the poorest and most remote parts of Scotland, and so seemed vague and outlandish in comparison.

Why did someone like W. B. Yeats take an interest?

MW: Yeats, and his friend the mystic George Russell, are really the essential figures in the late nineteenth century recovery of the Irish gods, though they had important precursors. Yeats was well-placed to take advantage of the new scholarship which had retrieved the Túatha Dé Danann as Ireland’s native pantheon. In his early-career siftings of material, he was able to boldly assert the fundamental identity of the fairies of folklore, the Túatha Dé Danann of the medieval literature, and the gods of the ancient Irish. Here the occult acted as a crucial unifying frame; Yeats was deeply invested in occultism as a system of thought, and he used it to give meaning and context to the Irish pantheon. To use anachronistic language, he came to believe, around the turn of the century, that the native gods were the archetypes of the national

unconscious, and that it might be possible to retrieve and reactivate them, creating a system of hermetic ‘images’ with which to reimagine the national condition. To this end he attempted to establish the so-called ‘Celtic Mysteries’ — a hermetic order on specifically national lines which would invoke and stir into life these figures from the depths of the national psyche, persuading them to intervene in a conflicted present. He certainly didn’t succeed in the way that he expected, but—more than a hundred years later—more people have heard of Lug, and Danu, and Brigit than ever before, and indeed the Irish gods are the focus of several forms of renewed and reimagined modern Paganism. So who knows? They are certainly alive now.

Is Ireland’s Immortals meant to be funny?

MW: In places, yes, I hope so; the material seemed to demand it, but in two different ways. On one level, the ferocious weirdness of some of the medieval tales can be laugh-out-loud funny in a way that must have been intentional on the part of the saga-authors. My colleague at Oxford, Heather O’Donoghue — who’s written a wonderful history of Norse mythology — has remarked that myth tends to be the most surreal manifestation of a given culture, and I’ve tried to bring this dimension of the literature out. I dwell, for example, on a scene in a ninth-century saga in which the Dagda, the Falstaffian ‘great father’ of the Irish gods — the rough equivalent of Zeus — takes a very long time to relieve his bowels, before being spanked by a woman he is trying to seduce.

On another level, some of the activities of those involved in the gods’ retrieval in modernity — especially in what might be called the late-Victorian New Age — can’t help but raise a smile in a more cynical era. To me it’s fascinating that a connection can be traced between major political movements that affected the fate of nations on the one hand, and the activities of a clique of irrationalizing intellectuals, fired up by some pretty way-out ideas, on the other. That aspect of things seemed to demand a certain respectful wryness, because the idea of ritually awakening the archetypes of the national unconscious is an astonishing and beautiful one, even if the actual execution could be a bit bonkers. The only such person whom I couldn’t write about respectfully — to start with — was William Sharp, the Scottish writer who posed as a Hebridean seeress he named ‘Fiona Macleod.’ He was a plus-fours wearing six-footer with a big, red face, but he wrote all his most successful ‘Celtic’ work in the guise of this wafty, Enya-like figure. He probably reminds me a bit too closely of my own naïve, teenage forays into things Celtic — all mist-shrouded dolmens and dangly druidical tat — and the act of self-exorcism led me to be unfair to Sharp. I was taken to task — quite rightly — for being too nasty by one of the referees of the book, and in revisions I hope I’ve been more even-handed.

Finally, I have to say that writing about Liam O’Flaherty’s 1930 story The Ecstasy of Angus — a steamy bit of erotica involving the hot-to-trot goddess Fand and the love-god Angus Óg — was an absolute hoot. As the couple get down to it, O’Flaherty actually brings on a chorus of fairies who prance about brandishing dildos. It was impossible to analyze with a straight face, though I hope I’ve made the case that the story does have a dark, politically serious dimension to it.

Why did you write the book, and what influenced it?

MW: I had various aims in mind. First, there was a gap in the scholarship: there was no up-to-date guide to the gods in medieval Irish literature, nor to their recuperation in the modern era. In the two parts of the book I’ve tried to tell both stories in a way that makes one dimension illuminate the other. I’d always wanted to do the project: my undergraduate training was in Classics and English, so I cut my intellectual teeth on reception history, meaning the afterlife and reworking of classical texts by later writers. So we would look, for example, at Milton’s reuse of Virgil and Homer, or at Shakespeare’s allusions to Ovid, or at the links between the end of the tradition of epic poetry and the genesis of the novel. One of the things this gave me was a predisposition to read culture in terms of wholeness and continuity, rather than fracture and disjointedness. But the relationship between Irish literature in English and medieval Irish literature is very different to that between later literature and that of Graeco-Roman antiquity. With the Irish material, ‘reception’ of this sort is problematic because everything is charged with the legacy of a contested and traumatic colonial history, so my impulse towards wholeness needed considerable modification. In 1981 Richard Jenkyns — later to be my Oxford tutor — wrote a splendid book called The Victorians and Ancient Greece, which I actually read at school, and that was a big influence: Part Two could have been subtitled ‘The Victorians and Ancient Ireland.’ Another big influence was the Norse expert Heather O’Donoghue, as — of course — were the works of Roy Foster: one of the greatest pleasures of the process was getting to know him. The biggest influence of all is Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. I read his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles when I was seventeen, and Part One of the book is in one sense a vast expansion of his chapter in that book on the Celts, ‘The People of the Mist.’ He has also written an elegant few pages about Yeats’s and Russell’s astral adventures in his book The Triumph of the Moon, and Part Two of Ireland’s Immortals handles the same material at book length.

One thing I hope for the book is that it might have the effect of freeing things up a bit for younger scholars in Celtic. Celtic Studies as an academic discipline emerged from various kinds of Romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the legacy of that origin is only now really being assessed by scholars — we’re starting to get superb biographical studies of major figures, for example. But the most obvious consequence has been a massive counter-reaction in scholarship against anything woolly or mystical: Celtic Studies has evolved into a hard-headed and rather inward-looking discipline, focused on the production of critical editions and the analysis of the languages. Unfortunately, the field is currently undergoing a period of contraction: there are fewer places in the world where the languages are taught, and important Professorships—including that at my own institution—are under threat. I hope one thing the book might do is to say, look, as Celticists we can reach out, we can talk to colleagues in English and in intellectual history. People who work on Irish literature in English and those who work on literature in Irish hardly ever seem to talk to one another, with a few noble exceptions such as Declan Kiberd. I hope that one thing the book will do is to underline that there is genuine value in seeing the bigger picture from time to time. (That said — lest any colleagues reading this think me to be encouraging a hermeneutic free-for-all — I must say to any student Celticists out there: make sure you learn your paradigms.) But the literature — extraordinary, uncanny, and beautiful as it is — will languish in neglect until we get in the habit of claiming for ourselves significance and status.

Mark Williams teaches medieval Irish, Welsh and English literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where he is the June Li Fellow in the Humanities and Tutor in English. He has also taught for Cambridge University’s Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic. Williams is the author of Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700–1700.

Cross-Cultural Responses to Discrimination

This post originally appeared at Harvard University’s WCIA Epicenter website and is reproduced with permission.

A Q&A with Michèle Lamont

Racism and discrimination are daily realities for members of marginalized groups. But what does it look like at the ground level, and how do individuals from various groups and countries respond to such experiences? Drawing on more than 400 in-depth interviews with middle class and working class men and women residing in the multi-ethnic suburbs of New York, Rio, and Tel Aviv, and representing five different racial “groups,” a team of sociologists examine how people deal with and make sense of the various forms of exclusion that are ever present in their lives.

Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil & Israel opens up many new perspectives on the comparative analysis of race and identity.

Lamont

© Martha Stewart


Q: What inspired you and your colleagues to write Getting Respect, and how does it connect to your past scholarship?

A: Back in 2000, I published a book called The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration. It was based on interviews with African American and white workers in New York, and native white workers and North African workers in France. I asked questions about what makes people equal and was surprised to discover that in France workers never talked about money making people equal, whereas many white and black American workers believe that “if I can buy a house, and you can buy a house, we’re equal.” There is very little in the literature about “everyday” conceptions of racial inequality. We wanted to get at how people in different parts of the world understand similarities and differences and to learn about what kind of thinking racism is based on.

Q: In writing Getting Respect, what new insights have you learned about racism in the United States?

A: One of the main findings is that African Americans use confrontation (speaking up or calling out someone’s behavior) in response to discrimination more frequently than any of the other groups studied—black Brazilians, and Ethiopian Jews, Mizrahim and Arab Palestinian citizens in Israel. Asking why it is that they confront so readily made us understand African Americans through a different lens. We found that black Brazilians confront as well, but they’re equally as likely to stay silent.

Among African Americans, not responding to a discriminatory incident is half as frequent as confronting. So our question became: What are the conditions that legitimize this confrontation in the United States?

Another finding was that African Americans are more likely to “name” racism than the members of other groups. This speaks to how readily available narratives or scripts about group discrimination are in the United States, compared to Israel and Brazil. In contrast, Brazilians were far more hesitant to say that they experienced racism.

Q: How did you select groups for the study?

A: When we first started, we thought we’d pair black Brazilians, for whom group identity has traditionally been described in the literature as not salient, to a group with strong boundaries, Arab Israelis. We weren’t sure where African Americans would fall yet. Then we added the Mizrahim (Jews whose families immigrated to Israel from Middle Eastern and North African Muslim and Arab countries) and black Ethiopian Jews who are even more recent immigrants. It transformed our project, because now we had two groups who had very strong group identification (African Americans and Arab Israelis, and to some degree, Ethiopian Jews) and two groups with weaker group boundaries (black Brazilians and Mizrahim). So this really brought home the issue of how the sense of ‘groupness’ influences the experience of racism.

We found that, because you belong to a strongly bounded group, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are more confrontational. Although they are “strongly bounded,” Israeli Palestinians living in Israel are not very confrontational because they have little hope of being recognized. They are often viewed as the enemy within, suspected of being allied with Hezbollah or Palestinians living in the occupied territories, and they believe their treatment is ultimately tied to this larger conflict, so are much less likely to speak up, as it would be pointless. After all, they are an unassimilated minority living in conditions of deep segregation within the Jewish state.

As to the weakly bounded group, the Mizrahim, they clearly suffer from underrepresentation in academia, institutions of high culture, top political circles, and so on, while being over represented at the bottom of the social scale. That is, they are clearly discriminated against by all standards. However, in contrast to the other groups, they are the demographic majority in Israel’s Jewish population. They have strong sentiments of belonging to the Jewish state and often downplay discrimination and prefer to tell stories of how well integrated they are.

Q: Your book suggests that black Brazilians differ from African Americans in that they don’t zero in on race as a basis for exclusion, but rather on their presumed low socioeconomic status, or poverty.

A: That’s the traditional observation about concepts of race in both countries. However, our Brazilian collaborators bring a lot of wrinkles to this story. Their respondents identified themselves as being black, and by blackness they point more to skin color than to a shared culture. In part this is because black Brazilians are half the population of Brazil, but also because they don’t think they have a distinctive culture because their culture is the majority culture. So that’s a very big difference from how ‘blackness’ is understood in the United States, where our African American interviewees experience their shared identity as having a strong cultural component. It’s also very different from the Israeli groups we studied.

Q: So, if you want to eliminate segregation based on skin color, wouldn’t the best path be to promote intermarriage? Is this what happened in Brazil?

A: Well, historically that was what happened in Brazil; that’s one of the reasons why group boundaries are so much weaker there. The old ideology of the “moreno,” which was part of the Brazilian national ideology of racial democracy, celebrated intermarriage as the origins of the country. Moreover, spatial segregation in Brazil is based more on socioeconomic class than race. Even if the few upper-middle-class neighborhoods are nearly all white, the working-class and poor neighborhoods are much more racially mixed. In the United States a number of middle-class blacks live in lower-middle-class and working-class black neighborhoods partly out of choice, but also because the spatial racial segregation is extremely strong here.

Q: How did you select for skin color in Brazil?

A: In selecting our black respondents in all three countries we did not take into consideration actual skin color. But we did ask people if they identified themselves as black. In Brazil, we chose people who self-identified as pretos and pardos (black and brown). There are many other words in Brazil that indicate pale blacks (e.g., morenos) and those people were not part of our study. This broad color spectrum is present all over Latin America. They have many categories and words to talk about skin color, many more than we do in the United States, where the ‘one drop’ rule continues to prevail in the minds of many whites. Nevertheless, we found that our Brazilian interviewees increasingly identify with the political term “negro,” especially among the middle-class respondents.

Q: You describe the Arab Palestinians in Israel as being the most “excluded” of the groups you studied. Why is this the case?

A: The situation for the Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel today is problematic because they are so clearly segregated as a group. They are excluded from many job opportunities, have separate schools, housing discrimination is rampant, and most live in segregated villages or towns separate from the larger society. However, we should keep in mind that they are an unassimilated minority. The strong social boundaries between Palestinians and Jews are maintained by both. In other words, we are not talking about a shared civil space where Arab Israelis, the majority of whom are Muslims, are interested in crossing national and religious boundaries. A simple example is that intermarriage is inconceivable on both sides. The Arab Palestinian citizens are not drafted into the military, which is a known path to upward mobility and social integration. There is a growing middle class and upward mobility within the Arab sector, but ultimately they will always be excluded in a state where symbolic belonging to the community depends on whether or not you’re Jewish. This makes it harder for them to respond to stigma and exclusion by focusing on individual self-improvement.

Q: All the groups your team interviewed experienced unfair treatment and responded in different ways. One type of response you label “individualistic.” Can you explain what this means?

A: It means “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “work harder,” “get your education,” “be upwardly mobile,” et cetera. It’s the individual’s behavior that’s considered a determinant for success. A more collectivist response is oriented toward social change, as illustrated by the amazing outcomes of the civil rights movement in the United States, where people agitated and lobbied and actually changed the law. In our interviews, when we asked, “What are the best tools that your group has had at its disposal to improve its situation?” the majority talk about individualistic solutions. And the group that most frequently answered this way was the African Americans, second were Ethiopian Jews, then Mizrahim.

The individualistic response implies: “Don’t blame other people and don’t blame racism. You should do your thing and try to be upwardly mobile.” African Americans all experience discrimination; it’s very much part of their daily lives. But at the same time a large number think the (normative) solution is not necessarily to moan and to decry injustice, but to try to create the conditions for personal advancement. This response is particularly present in the United States, but also among the Mizrahim and Ethiopian Jews, despite neoliberalism being more influential on this side of the pond than in Israel. But it’s also an indication of having a sense of national belonging: it’s easier to feel self-improvement is a viable strategy when you feel like you belong.

Q: Because African Americans have the cultural history of the civil rights movement, wouldn’t you expect them to say collective mobilization is the best tool for their group?

A: There’s a real tension there because the great gains of the 1960s were achieved through collective mobilization and have come to be largely taken for granted, even if some are contested at the level of the United States Supreme Court. But at the same time the generations that we interviewed had a lot of experience being told that to blame racism is to make excuses. And we all know that many white people decry reverse racism. Therefore a number of our African American respondents believed there’s only so much you can gain by denouncing injustice. It’s in line with the American dream, the main tenets of which are if you work hard you will “make it,” and that’s how you gain social membership. So that’s the sacred value of this society—not all societies are organized around the same notions.

In addition, neoliberalism has had a much greater impact in the United States than it has in Israel and Brazil. And by neoliberalism I mean the idea that market mechanisms should guide all forms of social arrangements, government should remove barriers to the circulation of goods and people, limit the impact of unions, et cetera. This is connected to the widespread notion that our value as human beings is tied to how successful or competitive we are. Such views may seem quite absurd outside the United States, whereas here they are largely taken for granted by a huge portion of the American population.

Q: You found that intergroup relationships were quite different in the United States compared to Brazil.

A: In Brazil the dominant myth, has been, historically, that of racial democracy. Even if few of our respondents believe Brazil is a racial democracy, there’s a strong emphasis put on racial coexistence. My collaborators found that many of their interviewees believe that being in people’s faces confronting racism all the time is an antisocial behavior that is very destructive to society. They prefer to gently “educate the ignorant.” Even as we were putting our interview schedule together, this affected which questions we could ask. In the United States one of our questions was, “Do you have friends of another racial group?” which is an obvious question to ask. And surveys show that roughly 75 percent of Americans don’t. My Brazilian collaborators argued that we could not ask this very same question in Brazil as our respondents would view it as a deeply insulting question. Most people there claim to have friends from a range of racial groups. This is based not only on preference but is also tied to one’s chances of meeting people from other racial groups in their neighborhood, at work, and in public spaces, especially when you come from a working-class background. Interestingly, however, a few middle-class black Brazilians said most of their friends are white, and point out the small number of blacks in their work and educational environments. This also challenges any absolute understanding of Brazil as racially mixed and the United States as racially segregated. In professional work environments, it seems to be the other way around.

Q: Is there anything in your personal background that drew you to the study of inequality?

A: I am a Québécois, and I grew up during the peak of the nationalist movement there, a time when we saw massive political mobilization, and at the cultural level, assemblies with folk singers and people working to celebrate and transform Québécois identity. And having worked with a number of African American students, I was taken by the many similarities in the quest for equality across national contexts—even though in Québec, of course, the stigma is language and culture, whereas in the United States it’s skin color.

After the English conquest, the French population was controlled by a small French Canadian elite made up of members of the liberal professions (doctors, lawyers, professors). The majority of the French population was not educated—they were farmers and blue collar workers. The English Canadians had a strong sense of their superiority over the colonials, and the French, of course, fed that as well. The Québec movement for independence turned out to be an important and very successful social movement aimed at transforming both intergroup power relations and the meaning associated with being Québécois. I was born in 1957, so my youth was shaped by this social mobilization. It is interesting to me that while anticolonial and antiracist discourse about Latinos and blacks are widely available in the United States, such is not the case for French Québecois identity.

Q: What impact do you hope Getting Respect will have?

A: The book should make it more obvious what stigmatization is about. It argues that stigmatization is a crucial dimension of inequality that is often ignored, as economists and sociologists so often focus on the distribution of resources. People experience stigmatization deeply and it affects their sense of self, certainly as much as being deprived of resources does. I think that claims for recognition should be taken very seriously by policy makers and social scientists. We have yet to understand how inequality and stigmatization articulate with one another.

Policy makers of all kinds should be much more attuned to how the policies (such as welfare) and laws (such as gay marriage) they pass can be stigmatizing or destigmatizing. It’s also important to think carefully about each form of redistribution both in terms of impact on material resources and also in terms of construction of the self. My hope is that by reading this book, white people—and other non-minority members—will gain a much better understanding of the wear and tear that comes with living as the nonmember of the dominant group. It’s important to realize that dealing with this kind of challenge and assault on your worth all the time takes a toll. And if we look at massive racial disparities in health in this country, that foundations like Robert Wood Johnson have documented and addressed, our book is totally in conversation with the agenda they are setting. It’s necessary to look at the daily experience and cost of dealing with exclusion on people’s lives.

Q: Reflecting on your decades of work on inequality, can you draw conclusions about which social or institutional conditions lead to more equitable societies?

A: How do you achieve a society that is equitable? Well, the classic approach has to do with the politics of recognition and redistribution. Take the Nordic response for example—let’s have a strong state that taxes wealthier people and redistributes resources. That works very well for Nordic societies, which have oil money and all kinds of other resources, and historically have had a fairly homogeneous population. But it doesn’t work across the board.

Another response is the politics of recognition. Canada and to a lesser extent the United States do this better than other countries, by proclaiming very loudly that diversity is a strength and resource, and that it is something that we value as a society. Many societies don’t do this as well (France and Israel, to name two examples). Through this message of diversity, those countries have achieved greater equality through the legal process for women, people of color, and other groups. The rapid legalization of gay marriage stands out particularly starkly.

Q: It sounds like you believe collective movements are the most successful way to effect change.

A: In the United States, there’s no doubt that the determinant of social change is the fact that Americans can activate the legal process to redefine rules of coexistence for greater social justice. This is how they have imposed new rules on people who were resistant (e.g., Southerners who refused racial desegregation in schools). And this has been extremely powerful over time, but it also has many limitations.

In the French context there’s been far more resistance to recognizing diversity by the state. In contrast to the United States, France promotes secularism to reject any form of expression of religious identity in public life. The recent incidents with the government’s attempt to ban burkinis (a full body unitard that Muslim women wear at the beach) are constant reminders to minority Muslim groups that they have to lend themselves to the rules of the majority, which is quite different than what we’re experiencing in the United States.

In Canada, the ideology of multiculturalism has had a very positive impact in pushing immigrants to be much more emotionally and cognitively invested in their society, and even to run for political office. Today, Trudeau has a number of Muslims in his cabinet, which is quite different from the American political context.

So, I believe we can create inclusion in the context of the law, through narratives, through social policy, and by using institutional tools and cultural repertoires together to create shared notions of solidarity. In some ways it starts at the top, but then change is also produced by ordinary people responding to racism. Does a country create a climate for people to organize and to be heard? That is the crucial question.

—Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Getting RespectWeatherhead Center Director Michèle Lamont is the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and professor of sociology and of African and African American studies at Harvard University. A cultural and comparative sociologist, Lamont studies culture and inequality, racism and stigma, academia and knowledge, social change and successful societies, and qualitative methods. She is the coauthor of Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel, with Graziella Moraes Silva, Jessica S. Welburn, Joshua Guetzkow, Nissim Mizrachi, Hanna Herzog, and Elisa Reis.

 

Rogers Brubaker on understanding “transracial”

Brubakers Mainstream society has grown increasingly accepting of various ways of reimagining gender. But what about someone who identities as a different race? Is the concept of “ancestry” losing its authority? In Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled IdentitiesRogers Brubaker explores the controversial idea that one can be transracial and the ways ethnoracial boundaries have already blurred. Recently, Brubaker took the time to answer some questions about his book and shed light on what transracial means.

This book has taken you into new territory. What drew you to the subject?

RB: In the summer of 2015 I became fascinated by the intertwined debates about whether Caitlyn Jenner could legitimately identify as a woman and Rachel Dolezal as black. The debates were dominated by efforts to validate or invalidate the identities claimed by Jenner and Dolezal. But at the same time they raised deeper questions about the similarities and differences between gender and race in an age of massively unsettled identities. I had planned to spend the summer months working on a completely different project, but this “trans moment” afforded a unique opportunity to think systematically about sex and gender in relation to race and ethnicity as embodied identities that are increasingly – yet in differing ways and to differing degrees – understood as open to choice and change.

You begin with the pairing of “transgender” and “transracial” in the debates about Jenner and Dolezal. One common trope in the debates was that transracial is “not a thing.” Do you disagree?

RB: Of course transracial is not a “thing” in the same sense as transgender: there’s no socially recognized and legally regulated procedure for changing one’s race or ethnicity comparable to the procedures that are available for changing sex or gender. But I do think the term “transracial” usefully brings into focus the ways in which people do in fact move from one racial or ethnic category to another or position themselves between or beyond existing categories.

The second part of your book is called “thinking with trans.” What do you mean by this?

RB: The idea is that one can use the transgender experience as a lens through which to think about the instability and contestedness of racial identities. I distinguish three forms of the transgender experience, which I call the trans of migration, the trans of between, and the trans of beyond. The trans of migration – the most familiar form – involves moving from one established sex/gender category to another. The trans of between involves defining oneself with reference to both established categories, without belonging entirely or unambiguously to either one. The trans of beyond claims to transcend existing categories or go beyond gender altogether. I argue that each of these can help us think about race and ethnicity in fruitful ways. Racial passing (including “reverse passing” like Dolezal’s) exemplifies the trans of migration, the multiracial movement the trans of between, and indifference or opposition to racial or ethnic categorization the trans of beyond.

Doesn’t sex have a deeper biological basis than race?

RB: Exactly, but this presents us with a paradox. Morphological, physiological, and hormonal differences between the sexes, although not as marked in humans as in many other species, are biologically real and socially consequential. Nothing remotely analogous can be said about racial divisions. Yet as the debates about Jenner and Dolezal showed, it is more socially legitimate to change one’s sex (and gender) than to change one’s race.

How do you explain this?

RB: The distinction between sex and gender – a distinction that has no analogue in the domain of race and ethnicity – has made it possible to think of gender identity as an inner essence that is independent of the sexed body. Yet according to the widespread “born that way” narrative, this inner essence is understood as natural – as unchosen and unchanging. Changing one’s sex or gender does not mean changing one’s identity; it means changing the way one is recognized and classified by others. This usually involves changing one’s self-presentation and may also involve transforming one’s body to bring it into alignment with one’s identity. We have no cultural tools for thinking about racial identity as an inner essence that is independent of the body and knowable only by the individual. A key part of what is understood as constituting racial identity – notably one’s ancestry – is located outside the self and is open to inspection by others. An individual who identifies with an ethnic or racial category to which she is not entitled by ancestry cannot intelligibly make use of the “born in the wrong body” narrative to justify changing her racial classification.

The broad sympathy toward Jenner seemed to suggest that transgender, unlike transracial, had achieved a remarkable degree of mainstream public acceptance. Were you surprised by the more recent controversy over transgender access to bathrooms in schools?

RB: Not really. The shift toward public acceptance of transgender has been astonishingly rapid, but it has been uneven across regions, generations, institutions, and milieux. As transgender claims have moved from insulated settings like liberal arts colleges to mainstream settings like public school systems, and as courts, civil rights agencies, and legislatures have taken action to establish broad transgender rights, it’s unsurprising to see a backlash. Controversy has focused on access to bathrooms and locker rooms, tapping into public anxieties about vulnerable children, sexual predators, and the presence of people with penises in girls’ and women’s spaces. It’s also worth noting that to cultural conservatives, especially religious conservatives, preserving sex and gender boundaries is much more important than maintaining racial and ethnic boundaries. So while Dolezal’s claim to identify as black provoked fiercer opposition than Jenner’s claim to identify as a woman, transgender rights are likely to be far more controversial in the coming years than practices associated with choosing or changing race.

Rogers Brubaker is a sociology professor at the University of of California, Los Angeles. He also is the UCLA Foundation Chair at the University. He focuses on topics such as social theory, ethnicity, citizenship, immigration and nationalism. Brubakers is the author of the books Ethnicity without Groups, Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town and Grounds for DifferenceHis most recent book is Trans: Gender Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities.

An interview with Emrys Westacott on frugality, happiness, and everyday ethics

Westacott

Philosophers from Socrates to Thoreau have associated a happy life with frugality and simple living, but in today’s materialistic society, the simple lifestyle is hard to sustain. Emrys Westacott examines why enlightened philosophers have advocated spending less money… and why so many people have ignored them. In The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less, he takes an unprecedented look at a topic that has come into considerable vogue: simple living. Recently, Westacott answered some questions about his book.

What led a philosopher to write about frugality?

EW: A few years ago I taught an honors class at my university titled, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Tightwaddery: The Good Life on a Dollar a Day.”  The theme was suggested by friends who knew of my own tightwaddish tendencies.  These honors classes meet for one evening a week, and are often experimental and a little quirky.  My Tightwaddery course made it into several lists of bizarre college courses, and some people who didn’t know anything about it assumed it was a perfect example of silliness passing for education.  If they’d bothered to look at the syllabus, though, they’d have seen that the course had plenty of respectable content.  We studied canonical philosophers like Epicurus, Epictetus, and Thoreau, as well as contemporary culture critics such as Sut Jhally and Judith Schor on issues such as consumerism, advertising, poverty, and the nature of work.  There were also practical components to the course, a few of which were admittedly not so serious.  Students were required to keep track of all their expenditures; they learned about matters such as unit pricing and dollar cost averaging; they had a go at cutting one another’s hair; and the course ended with a class banquet consisting of super cheap dishes that the students concocted.

Although the specific focus of the course was on frugality, the broader questions being asked really had to do with clarifying our most important values and our ideas about the good life–questions that have been central to philosophy ever since Socrates.  I’ve taught the course on frugality several times since. More recently I began teaching classes on Happiness, a topic which also obviously relates to questions about the good life.  And for many years now I’ve been writing about everyday ethics.  My last book, The Virtues of Our Vices, included essays on topics such as gossiping, rudeness, snobbery, and humor.

These overlapping interests in frugality, happiness and everyday ethics came together in a set of questions I found myself asking.  E.g. Why has frugality been praised down the ages as a moral virtue?  Are those who praise it right?  Is it possible that today, when the opportunities for consumption of all kinds are so much greater than in the past, and when our economy depends on millions of people constantly getting and spending, that thrift is an outmoded virtue, rather like chastity?  Should it even, perhaps, be included among what David Hume called the “monkish virtues”?

Once I started thinking about these questions, I realized that it was very difficult to keep separate the notions of frugality and simple living.  The concepts overlap, and so do the various arguments that have been put forward in favor of living a life of frugal simplicity.

Was the class popular?  Is simple living a topic that engages students today?

EW: Yes, the class was popular. (I might add that parents I spoke to were also enthusiastic about their offspring learning how to be frugal!) We hear in the news that the most popular undergraduate major in the US these days is Business, and that many graduates from Harvard and similar institutions head straight for Wall Street, following the money.  But I think there is clearly another movement, perhaps especially among young people, in the opposite direction.  A lot of people are critical of the prevailing consumerist culture, concerned about the environment, and interested in voluntarily structuring their lives around values like frugality, simplicity, and self-sufficiency. The recession of 2008 encouraged this trend since it made the frugal lifestyle a practical necessity for many who might not otherwise have been inclined to embrace it.

There are plenty of books out there about how we can and why we should live frugally or simply.  How is this one different?

EW: In several ways.

First, it’s not a self-help book or a compendium of practical advice.  If you want to learn how to make toilet brush holders out of used milk cartons, you should buy a book like Amy Dacyczyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette.

Second, it’s a philosophically informed study that focuses throughout on the arguments that have been (or can be) given both for and against simple living.  There is a rich philosophical tradition going back to ancient times in which these arguments are advanced and debated.  One of the things I try to do is identify what I take to be the main arguments within this tradition and examine them in an orderly way.

Third, it’s not a polemic.  The message of the book is not: Your must change your life!  I certainly am sympathetic to the views and values of those I call “the frugal sages” (a group that includes, among others, the Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Epicureans, Cynics, Stoics, Jesus, St. Francis, Boethius, More, Rousseau, and Thoreau). And in the last two chapters I offer reasons why it would be good for our society to facilitate and encourage simple living.  But I also recognize that there are some powerful arguments on the other side, arguments in favor of luxury and extravagance.  A failing of the frugal sages is that, for the most part, they don’t pay any attention to these arguments.  I try to correct this omission and to recognize that there really are cogent reasons for questioning the idea that the good life is the simple life.

What would you say is the guiding question of the book?

EW: There are actually three guiding questions:  Why do most philosophers advocate simple living?  Why do most people ignore them?  And who’s right?

What, exactly is meant by “simple living”?

EW: It turns out, when you think hard about it, that simple living is a complex notion.  It could include, or refer to, any of the following ideas:

  • fiscal prudence (as advocated by Ben Franklin)
  • living cheaply (using little money and few resources)
  • self-sufficiency (doing things for yourself; also not depending on others for favors or patronage)
  • living close to nature (like Thoreau at Walden)
  • being content with simple pleasures
  • asceticism, or self-denial (as practiced, for instance, by monks and hermits)
  • physical or spiritual purity
  • living according to a strict routine
  • aesthetic simplicity (e.g. shunning ornamentation, or preferring the rustic)

Some of these senses of simplicity overlap or support one another.  E.g. tending a vegetable garden is a simple pleasure that saves you money, makes you more self-sufficient, and brings you closer to nature.  But they can also conflict.  Diogenes the Cynic undoubtedly lived cheaply; his home was a large ceramic jar, and he kept all his possessions in a small bag.  But since he was a beggar he could hardly be described as self-sufficient.

Why do so many philosophers advocate simple living?

EW: Most of the reasons they give can be classified as either moral or prudential.

The moral reasons typically associate frugal simplicity with various virtues, such as hardiness, fortitude, unpretentiousness, temperance, and wisdom.  We still make this connection.   When the present pope was selected, lots of people pointed out that as a cardinal in Buenos Aries he had chosen to live in a small downtown apartment rather than the palace put at his disposal.  This was taken to be a sign of his integrity.

The prudential reasons are those that connect simple living with happiness.  The basic argument is that if you embrace frugal simplicity you’ll experience fewer negative emotions like anxiety, envy, frustration, or disappointment, and you will be more content with life.  You’ll need to work less, for instance, so you’ll have more leisure time in which to do as you please.  Once you get off the hamster wheel pursuing false goods such as money, possessions, status, fame, or power, you’ll find it much easier to achieve peace of mind.  You won’t be dissatisfied over what you lack, nor anxious about losing what you have.  You’ll realize that satisfying your basic needs is quite sufficient in order to be happy.  In fact, doing without luxuries can even enhance your capacity for enjoying both luxuries, when you occasionally experience them, and the humbler, everyday pleasures of life as well.  Epicurus champions this outlook on life as persuasively as anyone; in his view, nothing much more was needed for happiness than a cup of wine, a bowl of cheese, and a few good friends with whom to share the feast.

So why do so many people ignore the “frugal sages”?

EW: Well, there are quite a few reasons, and some of them make good sense.  One argument is that a serious commitment to frugality can have a morally objectionable aspect. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, for instance.  An ingrained habit of penny-pinching can lead to parsimoniousness, ungenerosity, and pointless self-denial. Another fairly obvious point is that having a certain amount of wealth offers a degree of security, and hence peace of mind.  Even the bible–which tells us not to toil after wealth–says that “a rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall protecting him.”

More interesting, though, in my view, are the arguments that can be given in favor of what the frugal sages would view as extravagance–that is, getting and spending far more than is needed for a life of simple contentment.   Extravagance generally gets a bad rap from thinkers like Ben Franklin because they automatically think of it as imprudent.  And it often is, of course.  Look at the hundreds of billions of dollars in credit card debt that Americans carry over from month to month, paying exorbitant rates of interest.   But what about affordable extravagance?  Here, I think the situation is complicated, and I find that my own attitude is ambivalent.

On the one hand, like many people, I’m inclined to criticize the self-indulgence of the super-rich when they spend vast sums on tasteless parties where ice sculptures of Michaelangelo’s David pee vodka, or on satisfying ridiculous whims, like Paris Hilton building a replica of her own mansion for her dog at a cost of $325,000.  Given how much more usefully the money might be spent, this sort of expenditure seems callously wasteful–although, truth be told, most of us who are comfortably off quite often indulge ourselves in a similar way; we just do it more cheaply.

On the other hand, one has to admit that extravagance has its pluses.  Think about where tourists go.  They go to see the Taj Mahal, the palace at Versailles, the stately homes of England, the art and architecture of Florence, and countless other cultural treasures that the extravagance of long dead fat cats has bequeathed to us.  The fact is, extravagance fuels culture.  How many of us could honestly wish that the Medicis had been more frugal, or that the aristocratic patrons of Haydn and Mozart had dispensed with their court orchestras?

And there’s another problem.  If I ask my students whether they would like to live the good life as described by the likes of Socrates and Epicurus–the life of frugal simplicity, humble pleasures, and conversation with friends–some find it appealing, but many don’t.  And the reason is simple: they find this ideal boring.  They want to go places, see things, do stuff, have adventures, and make their mark.  From this point of view, the frugal sages fail to squeeze all they could out of life.  They content themselves with too little.  That attitude perhaps made sense throughout most of human history, when  life was terribly insecure for almost everyone, and both vocational and recreational opportunities were very limited.  But things are different today.  The quintessentially modern attitude is that of Faust in Goethe’s drama: he wants to experience everything the whole of life to the full.  So here is another reason for being extravagant: done right, it makes life more interesting and exciting.

Does this imply that the philosophy of frugal simplicity, the outlook championed by Epicurus, Thoreau, and the rest, is past its sell by date?  Or is it still relevant today?

EW: These are the questions I take up in the final two chapters of the book.  My answer is that there is still plenty of wisdom in the frugal tradition that we can apply today, but that we also have to recognize its limitations, given how dramatically the world has changed over the past two centuries.

Two changes in particular present us with issues that the frugal sages of the past never really considered: the size and complexity of modern economies; and the environmental problems engendered by the industrial revolution and the subsequent growth in human population.

Anyone who advocates a return to frugal simplicity has to deal with the problem that if enough people took this path over a short period of time, there would be a massive decline in demand for goods and services that one pays for.  But many people’s livelihood depends on this demand remaining high.  A modern economy stays buoyant because enough people are running around getting and spending.  So the question is whether we can simplify our lives in desirable ways without impoverishing ourselves and creating depression-era levels of unemployment.  I think we can.  But it requires government policies that positively support simple living. If, for instance, people enjoyed free universal health care, adequate state pensions, cheap public transport, and affordable housing, they could feel assured of a decent quality of life without the need to make lots of money.  In that situation, the prospect of working fewer hours and having longer holidays–the obvious solution to the problem of unemployment– becomes more inviting.

The way our material standard of living is tied to consumer activity poses a difficulty for the philosophy of frugality.  But the environmentalist problems we face suggest new arguments in favor of this philosophy.  Limiting consumption, cutting out waste, downsizing, and simplifying will, in most circumstances, reduce one’s ecological footprint.  Here, too, there are complexities and legitimate grounds for disagreement.  On the whole, though, the environmentalist arguments in favor of simple living are strong, for the need to combat problems like global warming and pollution is urgent.   And a shift toward simpler living might also be useful in helping us handle the social disruption and ethical challenges thrown up by constant rapid technological change with greater wisdom than we have managed to date.

Emrys Westacott is a professor of philosophy at Alfred University in Alfred, New York and the author of The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less and The Virtues of Our Vices (Princeton). Westacott’s work has been featured in the New York Times and has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Philosopher’s Magazine and Philosophy Now, to name a few.

Why read the Hebrew Bible? An interview with John Barton

barton the hebrew bible jacketUnderstanding the Hebrew Bible is crucial to understanding Western literature, human nature, covenant, creation narratives, ethics, ritual and purity. In The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion, an invaluable reference book for students and teachers, John Barton outlines the endless reasons, beyond the religious, for studying The Hebrew Bible. Recently, Barton shared why this is the perfect starting place for anyone seeking a user-friendly introduction to the Old Testament.

Why should anyone be interested in the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Many Jews or Christians have encountered it as all or part of their Bible, and are intrigued by it—it is, after all, a very long and complex work to have as one’s Scriptures. But the Hebrew Bible is part of Western culture, especially through its many translations—first into Greek and Latin, and then in more modern times into all European languages and, eventually, almost all the languages in the world. Western literature can’t be understood without knowing it, and it has stimulated and inspired huge numbers of people over many centuries, and infuriated others. No one can afford to ignore it.

How did you get interested in the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Like many biblical scholars, I came to the Bible from a religious interest. I was planning to be ordained in the Church of England, and that meant studying theology; and at that time (in the 1960s) theology courses all involved the Hebrew Bible. But of all the subjects I studied, it was this that caught my interest most strongly, because of its mixture of literary, theological, historical, archaeological, and geographical themes, and its relation to other ancient literature from the classical and ancient Near Eastern world. A rabbi in ancient times said ‘Everything is in it’, and I have found that chimes with my own experience.

What is the difference between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament?

JB: In terms of content there is no difference—the books are the same, though Jews and Christians arrange them in a different way. Christians call them the Old Testament, since for them there is also a New Testament, and the Old Testament books preceded that. Jews generally call them simply ‘the Bible’, but sometimes the ‘Tanakh’, which is an acronym based on the initial letters of the three sections of the Bible: Law, Prophets, and Writings (Torah, Nebiim, Ketuvim in Hebrew). Nowadays there is a suspicion that the Christian term ‘Old Testament’ could encourage anti-Semitism by implying that these books are ‘old’ in a derogatory sense, so the term ‘Hebrew Bible’ has been developed as a more neutral description that everyone can use.

How can I start reading the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Preferably not by beginning with Genesis and simply pressing on, since parts of the text are more accessible than others. I would distinguish prose from verse: in prose, I would read the books of Samuel, which contain much of the best prose narrative, followed by Genesis; and, in verse, the Psalms, Job, and Lamentations, which are both stylistically excellent and religiously profound.

Isn’t the Hebrew Bible a barbaric and brutal work?

JB: Parts of it describe brutalities—Joshua is probably the book most readers find chilling. But this is because it is the literature of a nation, not of a religious community, and it describes the history of that nation without glossing over its brutal aspects. The God who is encountered in the text is also sometimes presented as brutal and violent. On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible also presents a monotheistic idea of God, for the first time in world history; and it has a developed and humane social morality in which the underprivileged are meant to be cared for, and rulers are encouraged to rule justly and generously. The brutal episodes are a problem if we think that we are bound to approve of everything in the Bible, but if not, then we can see them as reflection on the whole of life, good and bad alike.

How can a work from such a remote culture still have anything to say to us today?

JB: Great texts speak across the centuries: think of Greek tragedy, Dante’s Comedy, Shakespeare. A lot of effort, and some background knowledge, are needed to get into an ancient text, and this book is meant to provide some of that knowledge. But most, at least, of the books of the Hebrew Bible repay the effort by having important things to say about human life, whether we agree with them or not. In the process we encounter an ancient culture that was in many ways highly distinctive in its world, and where people had thoughts, especially about God, that no one had had before.

How were the books of the Hebrew Bible selected?

JB: They weren’t. No one ever ruled on what was to be in the Bible until long after it was all settled anyway. We don’t know whether the books we have represent the majority of those that existed in ancient Israel, but they are the only ones that have survived (with a few exceptions, such as the books sometimes called the Apocrypha). The Hebrew Bible consists of all the literature we know of from Israel up till the second century BCE. There are many later books (various books of Enoch, the book of Jubilees), but they were never part of the Hebrew Bible.

How do we know that the Hebrew Bible really goes back to such ancient times—might it not have been totally corrupted over such a long time?

JB: We have no complete manuscript of the whole Hebrew Bible before the eleventh century CE (the ‘Leningrad Codex’). But among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written between the second century BCE and the first century CE, there are substantial parts of almost all the biblical books. These differ from the Leningrad Codex in many points of detail, but they are quite obviously the same books, and hardly diverge in any major ways. This confirms that the Bible was transmitted carefully by scribes, at least from the second century BCE onwards. There is every reason to think that such care goes back even before that.

John Barton is the Oriel and Laing Professor Emeritus of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. His many books include Reading the Old Testament; Oracles of God: Perceptions of Ancient Prophecy in Israel after the Exile; and The Nature of Biblical Criticism. His most recent book is The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion.

Katharine Dow on the complex ethics of assisted reproduction

making the good life jacket dowAlthough many don’t know the full scope of current reproductive technologies, opinions and judgments on the ethics involved abound. Katharine Dow explains the intrigue and controversy in Making a Good Life: An Ethnography of Nature, Ethics, and Reproduction. Touching on fears about environmental degradation and the rise of the biotechnology industry, the book offers a new approach to researching and writing about nature, ethics, and reproduction technologies, from IVF to surrogacy. Dow recently agreed to answer a few questions on understanding the impact these technologies have had on our culture.

How did you first become interested in assisted reproductive technologies?

KD: It’s funny because when I first started looking at these issues, during my doctoral studies, a lot of people in my cohort were studying things that they had some personal connection to, and I had no personal experience of IVF, surrogacy or egg or sperm donation. Though, as I discuss in the book, I do have experience of having some rather complicated family relationships like my father’s adoption and discovery of long-lost sisters! I first became interested in assisted reproduction when I was an undergraduate and I had a few lectures on it. I found the thorny philosophical and ethical issues that they raise completely fascinating and so when I came to think about what I would like to research myself, my thoughts turned to assisted reproduction.

Initially, I was particularly interested in surrogacy and I think the reason for that was firstly that it is so obviously to do with gender, which is a perennial interest of mine, and secondly, that it touches on so many taboos and I suppose I’ve always been fascinated with those kinds of things that set off people’s ethical antennae, because then you know you’ve really hit a cultural nerve. I think these sort of taboo subjects can be a great way of digging deeper into how people think. But, as you can tell from the book, I’ve also come to realise that reproduction is often treated as being marginal, yet it is absolutely fundamental to how we think, whether or not we have children – it’s so closely linked with ideas about life, the future, ethical values and even complex concepts like nature, and that’s really one of the overarching points I want to make with the book.

Making a Good Life is unusual in that it looks at what people who are not using assisted reproductive technologies themselves think about these technologies. What do you think that brings to our understanding of assisted reproduction?

KD: Well, first of all, I should make it clear that I think there is enormous value to all the clinic-based ethnographies of assisted reproductive technologies out there, which were instigated early on by feminist theorists wanting to better understand what it was like for people – mostly women – to undergo IVF and so on. That is so important.

Having said that, I am also very aware that most people aren’t personally involved in assisted reproduction, but they are frequently exposed to it through media coverage and public debates and so I felt like a really important part of the puzzle was missing – which is what people think about assisted reproduction and how they respond to it as an ethical ‘problem’. As I say in the book, it’s not that I think patients aren’t objective enough or anything like that, but it’s about recognising that reproduction has very important effects and implications for life more generally and that asking people to really discuss in detail what they think the ethics of assisted reproduction are is a way of getting at some deeper cultural assumptions, which might well be different if you’re not personally invested in the technologies.

So, from an empirical point of view, it’s about filling in a gap in our understanding of these technologies, which are actually crucial to the time we’re living in, in terms of how IVF has provided the platform for a whole biotech industry and what that has done to forms of labour and medical treatments, how they’ve opened up parenthood to gay, lesbian and single parents and so on. But also, it’s questioning the received wisdom about how we social scientists learn about medical technologies. So, I was also interested in playing with the ethnographic method and trying something different.

A sense of place seems to be an important aspect of your book. Can you describe what it was like to do ethnographic research in Spey Bay, this small village in northeast Scotland?

KD: Oh, I often think about Spey Bay, even though it’s quite a few years since I left now. What immediately comes to mind when I think of the place is the look and feel of it – the crunch of pebbles underfoot, the feel of the wind in your face. I think of shared laughter, the scent of woodsmoke and the scrunching sound that Gore-Tex jackets make while you walk. It’s certainly quite different from London, which is where I lived before fieldwork and where I live now.

I started fieldwork as a shy 23-year-old and constantly worried that I wasn’t doing it right. I thought I would hate fieldwork, because it would mean having to be obtrusive and not worrying about whether I looked like a fool if I asked the wrong questions. And of course there were moments like that, but I found an incredibly warm and open group of people there who never seemed to mind me asking them questions or challenged my right to live amongst them. Of course the close – and genuine – friendships I cultivated with people in Spey Bay meant that it was quite difficult to write about them afterwards and I wonder whether they will object to how I’ve represented them, but thanks to them, I really enjoyed fieldwork in the end.

Do you think we are in an age of heightened attention to ethics?

KD: Yes and no. I think we are currently in the midst of a really exciting repoliticisation of public life. I particularly see it amongst students and especially in relation to questions of gender, race and sexuality. In the book, I am writing about people who explicitly think about ethics every day, especially in relation to the environment and I think the ethical living movement has been a really important way of mainstreaming environmental concerns. I accept the criticisms about it not doing enough to challenge capitalism, which is what is really required if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change (as well as ameliorating the myriad inequalities that capitalism is responsible for). But, I also think that there is an ideological move at stake in assuming that a movement or campaign that presents itself as primarily ethical has nothing to do with politics. So I am wary of the idea that an ethical turn is necessarily a turn away from politics. Also, while I’m all for overturning the central assumptions of neoliberal capitalism, I think climate change is tricky because, pragmatically, it requires a global effort and so radicals do have to bring more conservative and moderate people on board and framing the argument in terms of ethics can be a really powerful way of doing that.

So, what’s next for you after completing Making a Good Life?

KD: I’ve been at the University of Cambridge for a couple of years now, where I work in a fantastic research group of people who all work on reproduction and assisted reproductive technologies. In terms of my current research, I’ve been taking some of the themes from Making a Good Life in two different directions. Firstly, I am in the middle of a research project on how the British media represented IVF, particularly focusing on the 1970s and ’80s. It’s been really rewarding to broaden my experience by doing research from more of a cultural studies angle and to do historical and archival research. The public debates about assisted reproduction were a very important backdrop to Making a Good Life, so it’s great to get the chance to look at them in more depth. Secondly, I am working on a new collaborative project with my colleague Janelle Lamoreaux, which looks further at connections between reproduction and the environment. Related to that, I’m currently developing a new multi-sited ethnographic project that looks at informal seed saving and seed swapping in the UK, which I’m really excited about pursuing over the next few years.

Katharine Dow is a research associate in the Reproductive Sociology Research Group at the University of Cambridge. She has written Making a Good Life: An Ethnography of Nature, Ethics, and Reproduction.

From “rolling stone” to World’s Best Dad: Richard Bribiescas on fathers

How Men Age jacketWhy is paternal investment so rare in the animal world? Why do some human fathers choose the caring route, while others don’t? Biological anthropologist Richard Bribiescas, author of How Men Age: What Evolution Reveals About Male Health and Mortality, reveals how many of the physical and behavioral changes that we negatively associate with male aging may have actually facilitated the emergence of positive traits. These traits, including how we parent, have been crucial to our success as a species. We caught up with Richard for a special Father’s Day Q&A.

Many in the animal kingdom aren’t noted for being the best fathers. What’s the evolutionary significance?

Chimps aren’t very good fathers. They just aren’t. They don’t care for their offspring, provide food, or offer any assistance to moms. Don’t get me wrong, chimpanzees are noble creatures who merit our stewardship as well as the common courtesy of not destroying their forests. They’re just not the fatherly type. In fairness to our great ape cousins, most males in the natural world won’t be earning waffles in bed. With a few exceptions such as certain South American monkeys 1, most mammalian males are unlikely to earn a “World’s Best Dad” coffee mug on Father’s Day. Men however can be terrific dads with paternal care being one of the hallmarks of our species. Human males often invest significant amounts of time and resources in their offspring. This is true in modern industrialized societies as well as hunter/gatherer groups. Pass the butter and maple syrup.

Why is paternal investment so rare in the animal world? There are several evolutionary reasons but one especially salient explanation is that caring for offspring requires knowing who your offspring are. This is known as paternal uncertainty and is evident in all species that have internal fertilization. In humans, estimates of paternal misidentification when asking individuals to identify their fathers and then testing that assumption genetically ranges from one to around ten percent, depending on the study and population 2. Conservatively that means for every hundred readers, at least one of you was fathered by a man who is not the recipient of your Father’s Day card. But don’t freak out. This simply means that women are just as likely as men to evolve a range of reproductive strategies. Plus the odds are still in your favor of being correct so there’s no need to forward the mail.

A recent finding that illustrates the evolutionary significance of paternal investment is the capacity for men to display different reproductive states. This has long been observed in women since non-pregnant, pregnant, and lactating states are readily visible with numerous associated hormone changes. In men, different reproductive states are less obvious but evident when you look at reproductive hormones such as testosterone. Anthropologists Peter Gray and Lee Gettler have demonstrated this in numerous cross-cultural studies that show testosterone declines in response to fatherhood 3,4. This is more evident when men are in paired relationships with women.

Then what about male/male relationships and gay fathers?

Good question. We’ll get to that in a bit. So what is the significance of lower testosterone in association with fatherhood? It is still unclear but declines in testosterone may have behavioral, immunological, or metabolic effects that promote paternal investment. Stay tuned.

But fathering children is not the same as being fatherly. Again, hormones provide a spiffy way of getting at this subtle but important point. Anthropologist Martin Muller and colleagues looked at testosterone levels in association with fatherhood in two African societies, the Datoga who are cattle herding people in which the men do not commonly engage in childcare and the Hadza, an adjacent population of hunter/gatherers in which the men regularly hold and care for their children. Testosterone levels were not significantly different between the two populations even when looking at paternal status. But when Muller and colleagues looked at within group testosterone levels in association with having their children close by, interesting differences emerged. When their children were around, Hadza men were much more engaged with them compared to Datoga men who do not pay much attention to their children. Among the Hadza testosterone levels were significantly lower when children were in their household compared to when they were not around. The presence or absence of children among the Datoga had no influence on testosterone levels 5. This suggests that paternal engagement is important to any changes in testosterone. Caring and engagement makes a difference.

What does it mean to be a good father?

While human males are unique in their potential to be doting fathers, they also exhibit a much broader spectrum of paternal behaviors compared to other primates and mammals. Men can be extremely caring to simply providing food to being infanticidal. As a boy growing up in the Watts area of south central Los Angeles in the ‘60’s and 70’s, my friends and I listened to a lot of The Temptations. Among their hits was “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, a song that tells the story of children asking their mother about their estranged, wandering father. “Papa was never much on thinkin’, spent much of his time chasing women and drinkin’…” Why some men choose the caring route while others do not is unclear. Evolutionary theory suggests that in environments with lots of hazards and a low probability of living a long life, caring for offspring may take a backseat to more risky reproductive strategies such as seeking out additional mates in lieu of investing in family. This is true of both men and women 6. Since humans have evolved the ability to thrive in a broad range of ecological and social settings, it makes sense that behavioral biology of fatherhood would be broad and malleable7,8.

Let’s go back to the question of gay dads. There is no reason to assume that caring for children should be limited to straight men but adding the variable of sexual orientation is an interesting question given the range of variability in reproductive behavior in humans. Researchers examined brain scans of gay men in association with interactions with their children. They found that areas of the brain that are commonly activated in mothers and heterosexual fathers in response to children were also evident in gay fathers suggesting that the neurobiological mechanisms associated with childcare transcend gender or sexual orientation 9. Compared to other mammals and certainly other great apes, humans seem to be biologically predisposed to care for children. Do gay fathers exhibit the same hormonal changes as heterosexual dads? We don’t know yet although Yale anthropology Ph.D. candidate Erin Burke, Dr. Pasquale Patrizio of Yale Medical School and I are hot on the trail of this question 10. There are many ways to be a dad and we’re only beginning to understand that fatherhood is as varied as the colors and patterns on a homemade necktie.

Richard G. Bribiescas is professor of anthropology and ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, where he also serves as deputy provost for faculty development and diversity. He is the author of Men: Evolutionary and Life History. He lives in Hamden, Connecticut.

References and Endnotes

 

1          Fernandez-Duque, E., Valeggia, C. R. & Mendoza, S. P. The biology of paternal care in human and nonhuman primates. Annual Review of Anthropology 38, 115–130, doi:10.1146/annurev-anthro-091908-164334 (2009).

2          Anderson, K. G. How well does paternity confidence match actual paternity? Evidence from worldwide nonpaternity rates. Curr Anthropol 47, 513-520, doi:Doi 10.1086/504167 (2006).

3          Gray, P. B. & Anderson, K. G. Fatherhood : evolution and human paternal behavior. (Harvard University Press, 2010).

4          Gettler, L. T., McDade, T. W., Feranil, A. B. & Kuzawa, C. W. Longitudinal evidence that fatherhood decreases testosterone in human males. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 108, 16194-16199, doi:10.1073/pnas.1105403108 (2011).

5          Muller, M. N., Marlow, F. W., Bugumba, R. & Ellison, P. T. Testosterone and paternal care in East African foragers and pastoralists. Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences 276, 347-354 (2009).

6          Quinlan, R. J. Human parental effort and environmental risk. Proc Biol Sci 274, 121-125, doi:10.1098/rspb.2006.3690 (2007).

7          Bribiescas, R. G. Men: Evolutionary and Life History. (Harvard University Press, 2006).

8          Bribiescas, R. G. How Men Age: What Evolution Reveals about Male Health and Mortality. (Princeton University Press, 2016).

9          Abraham, E. et al. Father’s brain is sensitive to childcare experiences. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111, 9792-9797, doi:10.1073/pnas.1402569111 (2014).

10        Burke, E. E. & Bribiescas, R. G. Hormones and behavior in same-sex male parents: implications for the evolution of paternal care in humans. Am J Phys Anthropol 159, 105 (2016).

 

Tom Jones on Alexander Pope’s “original vision of humankind”

PopeHighly regarded as one of the most important and controversial works of the Enlightenment, Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man” was a way to “vindicate the ways of God to man” in terms of the existence of evil, man’s place in the universe, and how humankind should behave in the world. Tom Jones has provided a comprehensive introduction in his accessible, reader-friendly new edition of the famous poem, An Essay on Man. Recently, Jones answered some questions about the poem, its reception, moral lessons, and distinctive contribution to ethical theory:

What does Pope say about ‘man’ in his essay?

TJ: (I’ll talk about ‘people’ in this interview, to avoid suggesting that the Essay on Man is about men rather than men and women.) Pope says some contrasting things about people in this poem, and one of the pleasures of reading it is working out how they do or don’t fit together. The poem is divided into four epistles, or letters, to Pope’s friend, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Each of the epistles considers man from a different perspective: as one link in a chain of creatures; as an individual; in society; with respect to what makes people happy. Each epistle has a different feel or dominant tone. The first emphasises that people can only know a part of what is going on in the universe. The second, that we are a confusion of antagonistic psychological principles. The third, that self-love and social instincts turn out to support one another very fully. And the fourth, that human happiness rests in learning that individual goods always tend to be goods for others too, and that we ought to widen our perspective to consider other people’s good. So the tone of the fourth epistle is really quite different from the first. Rather than being contradictory, however, I would suggest that the poem is partly a story, the story of how we get from knowing only a part and not the whole, to how we start to consider perspectives above and beyond our own – truly social and more truly human perspectives. The poem is an encouragement to adopt these higher social perspectives.

Why is this essay in verse?

TJ: The kind of moral lessons Pope was trying to make available were, he thought, best communicated and memorized when written in verse. The fact that fragments and couplets from this poem (and others by Pope) have achieved proverbial status (‘For Forms of Government let fools contest; / Whate’er is best administer’d is best’, III.303-4, is amongst the most famous from this poem) is good evidence for that claim. Pope also claimed he could be more concise in expressing these thoughts in rhymed verse. He probably meant that he could communicate exactly what he wanted to in exactly the right number of words, with the slightest possible chance of misinterpretation. But since Pope’s time we have tended also to value poetry not for saying just enough, but for saying too little or too much, and leaving us some work to do with what is missing or what is left over. As well as the memorable quality of its maxims, the poem also gives us this pleasure, as we work out that time frames have been compressed in a single sentence, or that a particularly knotty sentence refers back to an earlier subject, or that the implications of a metaphor or comparison are much more disturbing that we would have thought. The compression and economy Pope was aiming at for the sake of clarity can also produce revealing complexities.

Does Pope make a distinctive contribution to ethical theory or to philosophy more broadly?

TJ: Reason and the passions were often put in opposition to one another in the philosophy of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. Pope was one of the writers who rehabilitated the passions, even saying that passions could become virtues if they had a tendency towards social goods (II.97-100). Pope also has a view that passions emerge over the course of time and tend to reinforce themselves in daily behavior, so he was a philosopher of custom who edges towards what we might anachronistically call a description of the formation of neural pathways (II.128ff). And, moving from the individual to the species, he had a view that social practices and virtues emerge over the course of human history (III.169ff). So in some ways he is an early instance of, even an inspiration to, philosophers of custom of the later Enlightenment – philosophers like David Hume.

That leads on to another question: Who read the poem and what were their reactions to it?

TJ: It’s hard to overstate how widely and enthusiastically this poem was read. Originally published anonymously, it was positively received for its philosophical and religious views. There were critical responses too, some of which accused Pope of denying free will and of identifying God as the soul of the material world. But the poem was widely echoed and imitated in English poetry, and philosophers with interests in politics, cosmology, metaphysics, social norms and many other topics picked up on phrases, images and arguments from the poem in their published work. I find it particularly interesting to trace the connections between Pope’s writing on the problem of limited human perception in a potentially limitless universe and Immanuel Kant’s work on cosmology and the sublime. Kant cited Pope’s poem in an early work, and his distinction between the mind’s limited capacity empirically to conceive of particular numbers, and its simultaneously existing purely rational capacity to conceive of the infinite may count Pope amongst its inspirations.

Who were Pope’s great inspirations?

TJ: Broadly, those philosophers and theologians who see that the world in front of them is sufficiently bad for the existence of a divine providence to require serious explanation, but who nonetheless believe that such explanations can be given. That’s a very diverse group, and some of the most tempting candidates include people we can’t be certain Pope had read – Plotinus and Leibniz, for example. Amongst the people we know Pope read there are philosophical poets like Lucretius, whose atomism and naturalism might have appealed to Pope, but whose assertion of the indifference or non-existence of the gods was unacceptable to most of Pope’s audience. There are also French essayists of different kinds, many of whom responded antagonistically to one another, such as Montaigne and Pascal. Pope is close to both these writers – to Montaigne on the narrow distinction between animal instinct and human reason, for example, and to Pascal on the pragmatic value of superficial social distinctions such as rank – but Pascal had reacted very strongly to Montaigne’s more moderate form of Christian skepticism: Pascal wanted to reassert the divine reason behind what could appear to be merely arbitrary custom. So like many great writers Pope draws on his predecessors and contemporaries for ideas and images, but his real work is in the imaginative transformation of those sources in the construction of an original vision of humankind, whose natural sociability emerges through a particular institutional history, whose reason and passions are sometimes collaborators in the production of distinctively human virtues, who recognize their limits but nonetheless always aim to broaden the scope of what is contained by them.

Tom Jones teaches English at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. He is the author of Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present and Pope and Berkeley: The Language of Poetry and Philosophy.

Calling all bee hunters: Thomas Seeley on Following the Wild Bees

following the wild bees seeleyLooking for a new outdoor experience? Are you interested in honeybees but hesitant to invest in full-fledged beekeeping? Perhaps you should consider bee hunting. Once a popular pastime, it’s fair to say the practice has fallen into obscurity, but Thomas Seeley’s new book, Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting seeks to change all that. According to Seeley, (who has been enjoying the thrill of the chase for 40 years without a single sting), bee hunting is an exhilarating experience that can be practiced in the forest or the big city, by people of all ages. Read on for the inside scoop on the craft and science of bee hunting.

What exactly is bee hunting?

TS: Bee hunting is a fascinating outdoor sport in which you locate a wild colony of honey bees living in a hollow tree, old building, or abandoned bee hive. It is a form of treasure hunting. What makes it so intriguing? It involves closely observing a small group of foraging bees and using simple but clever techniques to trail them to their home. You start by catching honey bees from flowers, providing them with sugar syrup in a small square of beeswax comb, and labeling them with dots of paint. Once you have a bunch of bees “hooked” on your free lunch and labeled for individual identification, you determine the direction to their home from the compass bearings of their homeward flights. You also estimate the distance to their home by seeing how many minutes individual bees need to fly home, unload their valuable cargoes, and zip back to your feeder. Next, you move your sugar-syrup feeder and the bees in a series of steps down their flight line home, each time updating the information about direction and distance. Once you know you are close to the bees’ home address, you examine every tree or structure in the area, and eventually you spy your bees diving into their nest’s entrance opening. Success!!! Sometimes the bees’ dwelling place is close to where you started and the hunt takes only an hour or so, but other times it is farther away (a half mile or more) and then the hunt is longer and more challenging. Either way, you will have great fun with these wonderful little creatures as you work with them to discover their secret residence.

What is the appeal of bee hunting?

TS: The allure of bee hunting lies in the “chase”, not in a “kill”. But this is new. For thousands of years, humans living in hunter-gatherer groups hunted wild colonies of honey bees and robbed them of brood and honey for food, as some hunter-gatherer peoples in Africa and Asia still do. Bee/honey hunting was also practiced in Europe and North America for centuries. However, I urge my readers to not pursue bee hunting to get honey because this involves stealing from the bees and usually destroying their nest. I explain that the attraction of bee hunting these days is that it is a lovely way to observe honey bees close up as they feed on your sugar syrup bait and perform flights to and from your feeder comb. The bee hunter learns so much about how these marvelous little creatures behave while gathering food: how they orient to your feeder, land there, imbibe your food, tolerate being bumped by nest mates, groom themselves before taking off, and finally launch into flight and steer a course home. Furthermore, while watching how these little wonders work harmoniously at the feeder and recruit their nest mates to the site, you are struck by how these bees cooperate closely to acquire food for their colony. So for many who go bee hunting, the greatest reward will be that it causes them to stop, watch, and ponder the marvelous six-legged beauties that help keep our planet flowering and fruitful. For others, the greatest appeal of bee hunting will be that it is a great way to get outdoors and enjoy the natural world. I should also mention that finding the one tree among the thousands in a forest that is the bees’ home is a huge thrill! I always feel soaring feelings of success, even triumph, when I discover the home of a wild colony of honey bees.

Do you need a forest or other wild place to go bee hunting?

TS: No. You don’t need a forest. You can even do it in a city. For example, this summer, I will lead a bee hunt in Central Park to begin to map out the wild colonies living in the heart of New York City. Central Park covers 843 acres, and much of it is wooded, so I am sure that there are bees living in it. Some years ago I had fun conducting an urban bee hunt in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in Harvard Yard. One April, I noticed bees collecting pollen from crocuses in front of Memorial Church, and I wondered where these bees were living. I was keen to determine their “home address.” Using my bee hunting skills, I found that these bees were from a colony living right in Harvard Yard, in the west wall of Emerson Hall. So you can see, you can have fun bee hunting essentially anywhere: city, suburb, or wild area. Wherever you can find honey bees on flowers, you can have fun following these bees to their home.

Is bee hunting a sport that’s equally enjoyable for everyone, even kids?

TS: Yes, definitely! Throughout my book, and in this interview, I refer to the bee hunter as “he,” but this is done merely for simplicity. Every “he” and “him” also encompasses a “she” and “her.” Older children fascinated by nature will definitely enjoy this open-air activity, especially if they have an iPhone that they can use to plot their location, record the bees’ flight directions as they fly home, and track their progress as they zero in on the bees’ home.

Is there any danger of being stung while bee hunting?

TS: Bees will be buzzing around the bee hunter while he is keeping track of their comings and goings from his feeder, but I can honestly state that there is little or no chance of being stung while bee hunting. The reason is that bees are entirely friendly to the human who is providing them with delicious food. They will fight off a yellow jacket wasp if she discovers the feeder and starts to help herself to the goodies. But the bees have no reason to sting the bee hunter, and I’ve never been stung in my nearly 40 years of bee hunting. It may seem incredible, but unless you accidentally put a bare arm down on a bee resting on a knee, or you thoughtlessly slap at a bee flying near your face, you don’t need to worry about being stung while bee hunting.

Why did you write this book?

TS: The popularity of honey bees has skyrocketed recently, but not everyone can become a beekeeper, so I figured it would be good to show honey bee enthusiasts another way—beside beekeeping—to have fun with these delightful little creatures. A beekeeper manages colonies of honey bees that are living in hives he (or she) has provided, so beekeeping requires having a fair amount of equipment and space for the hives. A bee hunter, however, searches for colonies of honey bees that are living in tree cavities and other living quarters that they have found for themselves, so there is no need for complicated equipment. In my book, I describe the simple and inexpensive tools used in bee hunting, and I point out that “The complete toolkit of a bee hunter fits easily into a knapsack in the field and a shoebox back at home.”

My second reason for writing this book is to inform people that the honey bee (Apis mellifera) is still an essentially wild animal. Wherever there are honey bees, there exist both managed colonies living in beekeepers’ hive and wild colonies living in tree cavities, rock clefts, and the walls of buildings. And even though humans have been keeping honey bees in hives for at least 9,000 years, starting in the Middle East, because humans do not control the matings of queen bees and drone bees, the bees residing in beekeeepers’ hives look and behave the same as their wild counterparts. The honey bees living in the wild are no longer super important to us as honey makers, but they do remain valuable for their pollination services. After all, it is not just the bees flying from beekeepers’ hives that pollinate our apple orchards, tomato fields, cranberry bogs, and other croplands. Honey bees from wild colonies—together with bumble bees, solitary bees, and diverse non-bee pollinators—also contribute hugely to the business of agriculture.

My third reason is to attract young people to study the behavior, social life, and ecology of honey bees. To do so, I end each chapter in the book with a “Biology Box” section in which I explain briefly what biologists have learned about the behavioral skills of honey bees that the bee hunter observes when he induces them to lead him to their home. For example, he sees bees guide their hive mates to his little feeder, which can be a mile or more from their home. How on earth does this happen? I hope these Biology Boxes will give my readers an intoxicating taste of what biologists have revealed about how honey bees do all the amazing things that they do!

Are there any websites that have more information on bee hunting, such as videos that demonstrate the hunting techniques?

TS: Yes, indeed. Check out beehunting.com. There you will find three beautiful videos that show the methods of collecting bees, marking bees, and following bees. These videos are excellent accompaniments to the written descriptions found in the book.

Thomas D. Seeley is the Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University. He is the author of Honeybee Democracy and Honeybee Ecology (both Princeton) and The Wisdom of the Hive. He lives in Ithaca, New York and his most recent book is Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting.

An interview with John Stillwell on Elements of Mathematics

elements of mathematics jacketNot all topics that are part of today’s elementary mathematics were always considered as such, and great mathematical advances and discoveries had to occur in order for certain subjects to become “elementary.” Elements of Mathematics: From Euclid to Gödel, by John Stillwell gives readers, from high school students to professional mathematicians, the highlights of elementary mathematics and glimpses of the parts of math beyond its boundaries.

You’ve been writing math books for a long time now. What do you think is special about this one?

JS: In some ways it is a synthesis of ideas that occur fleetingly in some of my previous books: the interplay between numbers, geometry, algebra, infinity, and logic. In all my books I try to show the interaction between different fields of mathematics, but this is one more unified than any of the others. It covers some fields I have not covered before, such as probability, but also makes many connections I have not made before. I would say that it is also more reflective and philosophical—it really sums up all my experience in mathematics.

Who do you expect will enjoy reading this book?

JS: Well I hope my previous readers will still be interested! But for anyone who has not read my previous work, this might be the best place to start. It should suit anyone who is broadly interested in math, from high school to professional level. For the high school students, the book is a guide to the math they will meet in the future—they may understand only parts of it, but I think it will plant seeds for their future mathematical development. For the professors—I believe there will be many parts that are new and enlightening, judging from the number of times I have often heard “I never knew that!” when speaking on parts of the book to academic audiences.

Does the “Elements” in the title indicate that this book is elementary?

JS: I have tried to make it as simple as possible but, as Einstein is supposed to have said, “not simpler”. So, even though it is mainly about elementary mathematics it is not entirely elementary. It can’t be, because I also want to describe the limits of elementary mathematics—where and why mathematics becomes difficult. To get a realistic appreciation of math, it helps to know that some difficulties are unavoidable. Of course, for mathematicians, the difficulty of math is a big attraction.

What is novel about your approach?

JS: It tries to say something precise and rigorous about the boundaries of elementary math. There is now a field called “reverse mathematics” which aims to find exactly the right axioms to prove important theorems. For example, it has been known for a long time—possibly since Euclid—that the parallel axiom is the “right” axiom to prove the Pythagorean theorem. Much more recently, reverse mathematics has found that certain assumptions about infinity are the right axioms to prove basic theorems of analysis. This research, which has only appeared in specialist publications until now, helps explain why infinity appears so often at the boundaries of elementary math.

Does your book have real world applications?

JS: Someone always asks that question. I would say that if even one person understands mathematics better because of my book, then that is a net benefit to the world. The modern world runs on mathematics, so understanding math is necessary for anyone who wants to understand the world.

John Stillwell is professor of mathematics at the University of San Francisco. His many books include Mathematics and Its History and Roads to Infinity. His most recent book is Elements of Mathematics: From Euclid to Gödel.

An interview with Biancamaria Fontana, author of Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait

Germaine de StaelGermaine de Staël (1766–1817) is perhaps best known today as a novelist, literary critic, and outspoken and independent thinker. Yet she was also a prominent figure in politics during the French Revolution. In her new book, Germaine de Staël: A Political PortraitBiancamaria Fontana sheds new light on this often overlooked aspect of Staël’s life and work, bringing to life her unique experience as a political actor in a world where women had no place. Recently, Fontana took the time to answer some questions about her book.

Though she is probably better known in France than in the English-speaking world, Germaine de Staël is already the subject of various biographies and literary studies. Why write another book about her?

BF: Staël’s reputation is indeed very high in her capacity as a novelist and literary critic; but her political activities and ideas are not so well known. Only her reputation as Napoleon’s vocal opponent has survived. But during the French Revolution, when she was in her early twenties, she was a very prominent political actor who tried to unite political factions and to promote the cause of modern representative government, though of course she could not sit in the National Assembly, except as a spectator; she was also barred from becoming a minister like some of her (male) political friends who owed their positions in government to her. As to her works on political theory, they are more original than it is generally assumed: she addressed novel issues such as the role of public opinion in modern society, the character of national cultures and the prospects of European unification.

She seems to have led a very glamorous life, frequenting castes and royal courts, associating with the high aristocracy, dining with monarchs…or is this just a modern fantasy?

BF: No doubt wealth was a very important factor in Staël’s life: her father, Jacques Necker, was a Swiss banker who became minister of the king of France; when she married at nineteen in 1786 she had one of the largest dowries in Europe, and, unusually, she remained in control of her own fortune even after her marriage. Her social position was also the source of much hostility: aristocrats despised her, as the daughter of a rich parvenu, while radical revolutionaries assumed she must necessarily be an agent of reaction. Although she did live in castles and palaces, she herself did not care much about high life; what mattered to her was being independent, and especially being able to associate with the people she regarded as politically and intellectually interesting, including some sovereigns old and new. One must not forget that hers was an age of extraordinary social mobility (think of Napoleon!), in which personal qualities proved often more important than rank and social status.

To what extent was her intellectual reputation conditioned by her gender? Can she be described as a feminist?

BF: The fact that she was a woman has certainly led even serious historians to assume that her political views were derivative and echoed those of the men close to her (while the reverse was often true). Similarly commentators tend to describe her as an over-active salon hostess and to regard her political canvassing as backstage intrigue. She was very conscious of the fact that being a woman made her more vulnerable to public attacks (indeed she was often the target of sexual insults and calumnies), and took great care to avoid any occasion for scandal. But she did not spend much time complaining about such limitations: she was very pragmatic and took them in stride, making the most of the opportunities offered to her. She was not a militant feminist like, say, Mary Wollstonecraft, but she gave an extraordinary demonstration of what a politically minded woman was capable of.

We tend to consider celebrity as an essentially contemporary phenomenon. Yet in the book you describe Staël as uneasy about her own celebrity. Was this really already an issue in the 18th century?

BF: The development and greater freedom of the press in the 18th century, and especially during the French Revolution, did promote the phenomenon of celebrity, as writers and artists, generals and politicians competed for public attention. Indeed some contemporary observers were very worried by what they saw as the replacement of true moral and intellectual distinction with ephemeral fame. Staël was especially concerned with the decline of aesthetic and moral standards, as she considered the quality of public discourse an essential precondition for the political development of modern societies. She was also embarrassed by the fact that her unusual situation made her famous, before she had the opportunity to “deserve” to be known by the wider public. All her life she tried very hard to merit the status she finally achieved, that of a major international intellectual figure.

What, if anything, can we learn from her views on politics?

BF: Staël is generally described as a “liberal” thinker, someone who supported the values of freedom, moderate government and the limitation of power against the authoritarianism of both monarchical and popular regimes. This of course is broadly speaking true; however what is really interesting about her views is not the fact that she defended a set of abstract values, but that she showed how difficult it was, in any real context, to put them into practice: how can you be a liberal when faced with political instability, international economic crisis, terrorism or military conquest? What I find especially prophetic about her writings is the fact that she saw popular opinion as the true source of the stability and legitimacy of any political system. The question she could not stop asking herself was: what does really give shape to collective mentalities and sentiments? Is it education, cultural or religious identities, or simply the ephemeral influence of fashionable views and ideologies?

This is probably a bit far fetched, but while preparing this book you must have spent some time trying to get inside her world; what would have been like, in your view, to be in her company, as a friend or social acquaintance?

BF: She was, by all accounts a fascinating conversationalist, a great flatterer, but also impossibly overbearing if you had anything to do with her at close range. Her energy, her relentless activity and appetite for company could be exhausting. However she was an extremely loyal friend, especially to women. She was very generous, did not take offence easily, and during the difficult years of the Revolution helped and supported the less fortunate of her acquaintances, including some who had never been especially nice to her. When Marie Antoinette was on trial, she took the risk of publishing a pamphlet in her defense, in spite of the fact that the queen had always treated her with disdain. Even in the writings of those contemporaries who disliked her, you cannot find a single episode in which she acted in a mean or resentful manner.

Biancamaria Fontana is professor of the history of political ideas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Her books include Montaigne’s Politics (Princeton), Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind, and Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society. Most recently she has written Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait.

Q&A with Sara Lewis, author of Silent Sparks

silent sparks jacketThere is something undeniably captivating and alluring about fireflies. In Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, author Sara Lewis talks about the lives and surprising secrets of these creatures that light up the night skies. You’ll learn, for instance, that fireflies’ lives can be rather brief and gruesome. Lewis has spent over thirty years studying fireflies and has participated in a popular TED talk about the insects. This Q&A offers insights into why Lewis became so attracted to the idea of researching fireflies and what readers can expect to be surprised by in Silent Sparks.

What inspired you to write a book about fireflies?

SL: Ah, this book had quite a long gestation period! I’ve been doing research on fireflies for about 30 years. Whenever people hear about my job, “ Oh, I love fireflies!” is their nearly universal response. And so many people are curious, quite eager to learn more. But there really hasn’t been much accessible information out there. Even though we’ve learned a tremendous amount about fireflies over the past few decades, all these new discoveries lay hidden away in the technical literature. Scientists write primarily for other scientists, so these papers are chock full of technical jargon. Also, they can be difficult to access because they’re located behind paywalls. Knowing how many people would enjoy celebrating the science and the wonder of fireflies – that’s really what inspired me.

Who is the audience for this book, and what do you hope people will get from it?

SL: As I write in the preface: “If you love fireflies, then I wrote this book for you.” My goal is to escort people behind the scenes to explore the science behind the spectacle. How do these creatures make light? And what’s with all that flashing – are they talking to one another? What do baby fireflies look like? Are fireflies really disappearing?

One thing I hope people will take away from Silent Sparks is the immense beauty that emerges when you look at fireflies in the light of evolution. And they’ll get to glimpse the scientific process that helps us collectively accumulate knowledge. Of the few hundred scientists who’ve dedicated their days and nights to uncovering fireflies’ secrets, I’m lucky to count many of them among my mentors and friends. The book introduces quite a few of these firefly scientists – for me, their stories help the science come alive.

What’s most the surprising thing your book reveals about fireflies?

SL: Most people think there’s just one type of firefly, so the Most Surprising Revelation Award would likely go to the fact that there are over 2000 different firefly species sprinkled across the globe. And they’ve evolved remarkably different courtship styles. In North America, our most familiar fireflies are lightning bugs, which use quick, bright flashes to find mates. Northern Europe has mainly glow-worm fireflies: plump and wingless, these females climb up onto perches at night and glow for hours to attract their flying males. The western US has mainly dark fireflies. These fly during daytime and they don’t light up – instead males use their fancy antennae to sniff out perfumes given off by their females.

Any other surprises?

SL: Yes, lots! Without revealing too much, I think most people will be surprised by fireflies’ gory and gluttonous childhood, for instance.

Do you have a favorite firefly?

SL: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that! It’s so hard to pick just one, because fireflies have so many different lifestyles and I find each one fascinating. I guess my current favorite would have to be the blue ghost firefly, Phausis reticulata. I fell under the spell of these mysterious fireflies a few years back when I first encountered them in the southern Appalachians. Flying ankle-high above the forest floor, blue ghost males give off eerie, long-lasting glows as they search for females. Meanwhile, the blue ghost females are tiny and wingless, and they’re very hard to find. They’re nestled down in the leaf litter, their transparent bodies studded with glowspots that shine like gemstones.

Another reason I like them is that they hold so many secrets just waiting to be uncovered – we still know very little these blue ghost fireflies.

silent sparks firefly

In blue ghost fireflies, the males can fly but the wingless females cannot. (photo by Raphael De Cock)

What got you started studying fireflies?

SL: I got hooked on life’s diversity early on, but it wasn’t until I completed my PhD that I started paying close attention to fireflies. One evening I was sitting out in my backyard in North Carolina, and suddenly these silent sparks rose up all around me. It was a magical moment – anyone who’s seen them knows exactly what I mean! And when I started reading about them, I realized these creatures would make perfect subjects to better understand sexual selection. This evolutionary process is responsible for the many bizarre and unusual features that help males improve their reproductive prospects: the peacock’s tail, the rhinoceros beetle’s horns, the bowerbird’s displays, the wood thrushes’ song and, as it turns out, the firefly’s flashes.

What did you learn while writing this book?

In terms of my personal growth, I learned to love writing again. For this book project, I really wanted to make the science accessible. Yet scientific writing uses a highly precise, concise shorthand; jargon works really well when scientists are communicating with one another, but this language can be difficult for others to understand. It took a few months, but finally I remembered how much fun it is to write in plain English! Adjectives, punctuation…the possibilities were thrilling!

silent sparks firefly

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

As I researched the book, I also learned a lot about the many interconnections between humans and fireflies. Around the world, fireflies elicit a nearly mystical reverence. But nowhere on Earth are fireflies more intricately woven into the cultural fabric than in Japan. As I describe in Silent Sparks, the Japanese people have enjoyed a profound love affair with fireflies for more than a thousand years. But I hadn’t realized how narrowly these beloved insects escaped being extinguished from the Japanese countryside during the twentieth century. Now, through research and widespread restoration efforts, Japanese fireflies have made a remarkable come-back to become a symbol of national pride and environmentalism.

Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Lincoln, Massachusetts.