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.

Stephen Heard: Write like a scientist

the scientist's guide to writing heardScientific writing should be as clear and impactful as other styles, but the process of producing such writing has its own unique challenges. Stephen Heard, scientist, graduate advisor, and editor speaks from personal experience in his book The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career. Heard’s focus on the writing process emphasizes the pursuit of clarity, and his tips on submissions, coauthorship, citations, and peer reviews are crucial for those starting to seek publication. Recently, Heard agreed to answer a few questions about his book.

What made you decide to write a book about scientific writing?

SH: I think the first spark was when I realized I give the same writing advice to all my students, over and over, and caught myself thinking it would be easier to just write it all down once. That was foolish, of course: writing the book wasn’t easy at all! But before long, my rationale shifted. The book became less about stuff I wanted to tell everyone else, and more about stuff I wished somebody had told me. A lot of us get into science without much writing experience, and without thinking much about how important a role scientific writing plays – and when we start doing it, we discover that doing it well isn’t easy. It took me many years to become a reasonably competent scientific writer, and the book includes a lot of the things I discovered along the way. I was surprised to discover that writing the book made me a better writer. I think reading it can help too.

Surely there a bunch of other scientific-writing books out there? What do you do differently?

SH: Yes – and some of them are quite good! But I wanted to write something different. I’m not sure my book says anything that no one else knows about outlining or paragraph structure or citation formatting (for example). But I thought there was a lot of value in a book that pays attention to the writer as much as the writing: to the way writers behave as they write, and to ways in which some deliberate and scientific attention to our behavior might help us write faster and better. I’ve also discovered that knowing a bit about the history and culture of scientific writing can help us understand the way we write (and why). Just as one example: knowing something about the history of the Methods section, and how it’s changed over the last 350 years as scientists have struggled with the question of how scientific studies gain authority, can help us decide how to write our own Methods sections. I also tackle the question of whether there’s a place in scientific writing for beauty or for humor – something that gets discussed so rarely that it seems almost like a taboo.

Finally, I wanted to write a book that was really engaging: to show that thinking about writing (as we all need to) needn’t be dry and pedantic. So readers might be surprised, in a book about scientific writing, to find mentions of Voltaire’s lover, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the etymology of the word fart. But I hope they’ll also find that there are lessons in all those things – and more – for scientists who want to write better and more quickly.

You also go into a lot of depth about the review and publication process. Why are these things important to cover alongside the writing process?

SH: Well, maybe that isn’t “writing”, strictly speaking – but it’s an essential part of getting one’s scientific writing in the hands of readers. All of us want our scientific writing to be read, and to be cited, and to help move our fields forward. So it’s not enough to write a good manuscript; we have to be able to shepherd it through the process of submission, review, revision, and eventual acceptance. Early in my own career I found this process especially mysterious. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about it – by publishing quite a few papers myself, but also by reviewing hundreds of manuscripts and acting as an Associate Editor for hundreds more. So I have a pretty good overview of the publishing process, from both the writer’s and the journal’s perspective. There’s no particular reason that process has to be mysterious, and I thought it would be helpful to draw back the curtain.

Is scientific writing really that different from other kinds of writing?

SH: Both yes and no! Of course, there are technical issues that matter in scientific writing, like ways of handling text dense with numbers, or ways we handle citations. There are also more cultural ways in which scientific writing is its own thing. One of them is that we’ve developed a writing form that efficiently conveys material to other people who are familiar with that form. Our conventional division of papers into Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion is a piece of that. Our writing (and our publication process) have evolved in many other ways that aren’t quite the same as you’d find in the humanities, or in writing about science for the public. That’s why there are books about scientific writing, not just about writing. But on another level, good scientific writing is like most other good writing: clear, concise, engaging whenever possible, and did I mention clear? Nothing is more important than clarity! As a result of this similarity, people who learn good scientific writing are well positioned for any career that involves writing – which is to say, pretty much any career.

Do you think of yourself as a good writer?

SH: No! And to loop back to the first question, that’s a big part of why I wrote the book. There are a very few natural writers out there – geniuses – for whom good writing just seems to come naturally. But these are rare. I’m like nearly everyone else: writing is hard work for me. It’s a craft I’ve learned over the years by practicing, by thinking deliberately about how I do it, and by reading advice from books that have gone before mine. It’s still hard work, but that’s OK: I’m willing to put in the effort for my writing product to seem pretty good, even if my writing process is laborious. If I’d understood earlier in my career that most writers are just like me, I would have been less crushed by the discovery that my papers didn’t just write themselves! Every scientific writer can do what I’ve done: practice the craft and improve at it. I hope my book can help.

Stephen B. Heard is professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick in Canada and associate editor of the journal American Naturalist. His most recent book is The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career.

An interview with Tonio Andrade, author of Gunpowder Age

To what degree do times of peace impact military power and precision? In his new book, Gunpowder Age, Tonio Andrade shows how throughout Chinese history, powerful enemies have inspired periods of intense military innovation and technological advancement. Andrade recently took the time to answer some questions about his book, China’s fascinating military past, and its potential emergence a modern day superpower.

Gunpowder AgeChina is fast becoming a military superpower now. Your book claims to find a “pattern to the Chinese military past.” How do current events fit into this pattern?

TA: China under its current leader, Xi Jinping, has become increasingly assertive, for example by building artificial islands in the South China Sea to buttress China’s claims to jurisdiction over the vast majority of the sea. These claims are disputed by many nations, including the USA, and analysts wonder whether China would really go to war to defend them. Some believe that it inevitably will, because rising powers tend to use their muscle to overturn the status quo, while existing powers tend to defend the status quo. Others, however, argue that China has traditionally maintained a defensive perspective on military power and is typically uninterested in waging aggressive wars. If we look at China’s deep history, however, we find numerous occasions when China used its overwhelming military power for aggressive warfare. Intriguingly, many of those occasions occurred at times analogous to today, when the dynasty in question had consolidated power after a difficult period, often spanning generations, and had reached a position of overwhelming regional power.

So you believe that China will likely use military force to assert itself over surrounding areas?

TA: China will use the most effective means to achieve its ends and maintain its security. Xi Jinping has said that war between the USA and China would be disastrous at present for both countries, and I believe China will try to avoid direct confrontation. Typically, in the past, when China has waged aggressive war, its power was overwhelming (or perceived as such) vis-à-vis its enemies. Today, however, China is in a situation less like the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) or Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), in which China was far more powerful than any surrounding country, than like the Song Dynasty (960-1279), which faced enemies that matched it in power, or, indeed, outmatched it. The Song fought many wars, but usually these were defensive wars, not wars of expansion.

You argue that when China faces powerful enemies it tends to be stronger and more innovative, and when it is overwhelmingly powerful its military power tends to atrophy. Is its current military power due to the fact that China faces an unusually strong rival in the USA?

TA: China’s military past seems to follow distinct patterns. We have to be careful to distinguish what we mean by “China,” however, because much Chinese warfare has typically been against other Chinese, and/or against other states occupying parts of what is today China. In any case, for much of its history, China has shuddered between periods of intense warfare and periods of relative peace, and during times of frequent warfare it has tended to have state-of-the-art military technology, techniques, and organization. During periods of extended peace, on the other hand, it has tended to fall behind, simply because it had fewer reasons to invest in military innovation. China’s current military power has been stimulated by more than a century of war and geopolitical insecurity, and there’s no doubt that China’s current military innovation and expansion is stimulated by competition with powerful rivals, most importantly the USA.

What were other periods of strength and weakness in China’s history?

TA: Probably the most significant period of relative weakness was the nineteenth century, when China found itself spectacularly vulnerable to western power, as first made clear in its humiliating loss to Great Britain in the Opium War (1839-42). Many Westerners explained China’s stunning weakness at that time by recourse to its cultural conservatism, to what they felt was a deep resistance to new ways or foreign ideas. These sorts of ideas are still very much around. But in fact, China’s resistance to innovation was a pretty short-lived phenomenon, and it can be explained by looking at the incidence of warfare experienced by China. Starting in the mid-eighteenth century, China’s Qing Dynasty had a position of such overwhelming strength and authority both within and beyond its borders that for nearly a century its inhabitants faced fewer wars (both external and internal) than ever before in the historical records. China was, in a sense, too strong for its own good, because this overwhelming power removed the stimulus for military improvement. Meanwhile, the British and their neighbors were fighting huge wars and innovating furiously. When China and Britain went to war in 1839, the British had military capacities that were far beyond those of China: Congreve rockets; light and powerful cannons; light, mobile howitzers; percussion cap muskets; explosive shells of unprecedented precision; and artillery tables that allowed the calculation of trajectories with extraordinary accuracy.

After the Opium War, why did it take so long for China to catch up with the west?

TA: Actually, Chinese officials, military and civil, carried out quite a bit of innovation right after the Opium War, studying Western guns, steamships, and sailing ships, and that innovation sped up during the intense military conflagrations that beset China starting in the 1850s. Many historians (I am one) now believe that from a technical standpoint the Qing were catching up quite effectively by the late 1860s and early 1870s. Indeed, it seems likely that up to that point their modernization attempts were even more effective than than those of Japan. But by the late 1880s, the trajectory changed, with Japan’s innovations becoming more effective. The reason is not technological or cultural but political. Japan’s old regime fell in 1867, replaced by a newer, centralized government that modernized its political structures. The Qing, however, held on, and its political structures failed to adapt. In fact, it’s a curious coincidence of history that the Qing and Japan’s old regime lasted exactly the same number of years. It’s just that the Japanese regime, which was founded first, also fell first. Japan had a clean slate and could sweep away old, unproductive aspects of its old regime. China couldn’t, so the Qing, although it effectively added new military structures – huge factories, innovative new armies, powerful new navies – couldn’t get rid of old ones, and so it was burdened and inflexible.

Your book starts with the invention of gunpowder and traces the evolution of the gun in the period 900-1280 or so, but one of the great questions of world history is why, if the Chinese invented the gun, they didn’t use it as effectively as the West?

TA: Most people know next to nothing about early gunpowder weapons, and I was no different when I started writing the book. In fact, even experts in China’s military history knew very little about early guns until recently, but what we’re learning is causing us to question some deep narratives in world history. Guns were tremendously important in China, used highly effectively. By the mid- to late-1300s, some 10% or so of Chinese infantry soldiers were armed with guns, meaning there were probably more gunners in Chinese armies than there were troops of all kinds in Western Europe (excluding Iberia). By the mid-1400s, the proportion of gunners in China had reached 30% or so of infantry forces, a level Europeans didn’t reach until the mid-1500s. And Chinese soldiers used guns more effectively as well, deploying them in advanced and highly-disciplined formations by the mid-1300s. Similar disciplinary techniques and formations didn’t spread in Europe until the 1500s. So you can see that Chinese gunners were highly effective, more effective than westerners during this period. This early history of Chinese gunnery is almost entirely unknown, but it is a key part of world history.

That’s very interesting, but of course Europeans did eventually get better at gunpowder technology. When and why did this happen?

TA: During the early gunpowder Age, from around 900 or so (when the first gunpowder weapons were used in battle) to around 1450, East Asians led the world in gunpowder warfare. Starting around 1450, however, Europeans pulled ahead. Why? I believe the answer has to do with levels of warfare. From 1450 or so, the Ming dynasty entered into a period of relatively low warfare, which contrasted with the previous century of intense warfare. This period of relative peace (emphasis on the word relative) in China contrasted with a period of tremendous warfare in Europe. So Europeans, fighting frequently, developed new types of guns – longer, thinner, lighter, and more accurate – whereas Chinese guncraft stagnated. This period lasted only a short time, however. By the early 1500s, Chinese were innovating furiously again, and the period from 1550 to 1700 or so was a time of tremendous warfare in China. China stayed caught up with the west from a military perspective – ahead in certain respects, behind in others – until the mid-1700s when, as I said before, it entered into a great period of relative peace (again, emphasis on the word relative), during which it fell behind, a situation that lasted until the Opium War.

Tonio Andrade is professor of history at Emory University and the author of Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West (Princeton) and How Taiwan Became Chinese. His most recent book is Gunpowder Age.

Justin E. H. Smith on six types of philosophers

Smith jacketThe Natural Philosopher, the Sage, the Gadfly, the Ascetic, the Mandarin, and the Courtier. What would the global history of philosophy look like if it were told as a series of job descriptions—ones that might have been used to fill the position of philosopher at different times and places over the past 2,500 years? The Philosopher: A History in Six Types by Justin E. H. Smith does just that, providing a new way of looking at the history of philosophy. Why six types? Are some types superior to others? Recently, Smith took the time to answer these questions and more about his latest book.

This book doesn’t have a conventional structure or approach. In addition to straightforward scholarly exposition, it also contains autobiographical elements, as well as what appear to be fictional excursuses, written from the perspective of invented historical figures who represent different philosophical types. What are the reasons for this experimental approach?

JS: When I began speaking with my editor at Princeton University Press, what intrigued him most were some reflections of mine on the relationship between the activity of a philosopher and the practical need we all have to earn money and pay the bills. I had recently moved to Paris, was having trouble making ends meet with my modest French university salary, and so had begun experimenting with some ‘freelance’ philosophical dialogues with people willing to pay—mostly Anglo tourists who were looking to experience the frisson of sitting in a Parisian café and talking about love and death and stuff just like Sartre and De Beauvoir. So when I began writing, that personal experience served as the point of departure for reflecting on the long history of the problematic relationship between money and philosophy—after all, one of the most common foundation myths of the tradition is that it began when Socrates refused remuneration, thus liberating whatever it is we’re doing qua philosophers from whatever it is the Sophists had been doing. This approach then sort of expanded to other parts of the book: launching into an investigation of some aspect of the definition of philosophy by revealing something about my own personal engagement with it.

As for the fictional elements, I suppose this is just an irrepressible symptom of the sort of writing I’ve come to believe can best get across what I’m trying to do philosophically. I’m with Margaret Cavendish, who explicitly lays out at the beginning of her delirious 1666 novel, Blazing World, how it is that fantasy can be harnessed and utilized for the exploration of philosophical questions in ways for which the faculty of reason alone might be less ideally suited. I faced some resistance to these portions of the book from some readers of drafts. They wanted me to more clearly mark off and explain what I was doing in them, somewhat as Martha Nussbaum does when she introduces a fictional figure in one of her books to guide as through the exposition of arguments that follow. But I didn’t want my characters to serve simply as didactic aides. I wanted rather for the work to be, at least in part, a work of fiction, a product, like Cavendish’s, of the literary imagination.

Is this book philosophy, or is it about philosophy?

JS: I don’t know that there can really be a valid distinction here. By the same token, I’ve never understood what people mean when they talk about ‘metaphilosophy’. We’re all just trying to come to a clearer understanding of the nature of this activity we’re engaged in, in order, in part, to better engage in it. Philosophy is peculiar in that a great deal of effort is expended, by those who profess to practice it, in seeking to determine where its boundaries are, and what falls outside of them. This is a problem sedimentologists, say, don’t have, and one might easily suspect that philosophy is essentially constituted by this activity, that there’s not much left over to do once philosophers have stopped trying to determine what philosophy is not. I think my approach, the transregional and wide-focused historical survey of the very different ways people we think of as philosophers have themselves conceived what they were doing, helps to establish this point: ‘philosophy’ is said in many ways, to paraphrase Aristotle. I’m sure some critics who have some stake in portraying philosophy as essentially thus rather than so, or vice versa, will be quick to say that this book is ‘not philosophy’. But I think I can survive that, and in fact I think they’ll be helping to support my thesis.

Why six types? Is this list exhaustive or arbitrary?

JS: I make it very clear in the book that there has been no transcendental deduction of all possible types of philosopher, or anything like that. My approach is more like the one Kant accused Aristotle of taking in his elaboration of the ten categories: his listing of them continued until he grew tired. I also make clear that what we usually see when we look at actual philosophers is hybrids of two or more of the types, or different dimensions of the types becoming apparent at different moments in their work. The point of thinking in terms of types is to help reveal the degree to which the expectations placed on a person occupying the social role of the philosopher will determine in part the range of questions or problems that philosopher considers worthy of attention. I think of types as social categories, and for this reason certain social circumstances need to obtain in order for a given type of philosopher to make an appearance. Is an amateur observer of the way snails copulate in Central Park in 2015 a philosopher? No, but someone who was doing the same thing in the Jardin des Plantes in 1665 probably was.

You seem to be more sympathetic to some types than to others. Why?

JS: My training as a scholar, and so to speak my spiritual home base, is in the 17th century, which I see as a brief period of tremendous openness, of liberality and of true love of knowledge, inserted in the middle of what has generally been, philosophically speaking, a long, dark history of tedious scholasticism, provincialism, and submission to authority. Not coincidentally, this is also the period in which most of the philosophical action was going on outside of universities.

While I didn’t mean to structure things in this way when I began writing, as it turned out the chapters, each of which focuses on a particular type, move from my most to my least favorite. The first chapter is on what I call the ‘Curiosa’ (or, masculine, ‘Curiosus’), and the fictional personnage is inspired by none other than Margaret Cavendish. She represents the intellectual virtue that I believe is most lacking in university-based philosophy since at least the moment, sometime around the end of the 18th century, when the natural sciences broke off from philosophy and ‘natural philosophy’ ceased to be a vital and central concern of philosophers. My least favorite figure is the Courtier, whose fictional representative is based loosely on Jan Sten, the Soviet philosopher who was called in to tutor Stalin on Hegel and dialectical materialism and whatever other profound things the dictator was having trouble understanding, and who was eventually purged in the Moscow show trials. Serves that groveling worm right, we’re inclined to say at our safe distance, but the truth is many of us are doing something somewhat similar when we bend ourselves to the reigning ideology of market-driven university research, and pretend to ourselves and others that that’s still philosophy.

You draw on many sources that are not traditionally considered philosophy in the narrow sense. What is the purpose of this?

JS: I just don’t know how one could possibly coherently define the corpus of texts that deserve to be included in, as it were, the imaginary library of the history of philosophy. Recently (too recently to be included in the book) I’ve been thinking a great deal about the philosophical problem of the concept of ‘world’, as it developed in the 17th century, and the way in which this development is central for our understanding of the metaphysics of possibility, counterfactuals, one of Kant’s three transcendental Ideas, and so on. I’ve learned a great deal about the history of this concept from the work, in French, of Édouard Mehl. One thing I’ve come to appreciate is that this concept simply cannot be adequately understood without reading early modern novels, particularly the ones we might call ‘proto-science fiction’, such as Cyrano de Bergerac’s Les états et empires de la Lune. Am I supposed to exclude that just because it’s not a treatise? But then I will fail to adequately understand the philosophical problem that interests me, and that would be bad.

Often we are willing to pay attention to things that canonical philosophers say that are, quite frankly, no less fantastical than 17th-century lunar fantasy novels, simply because they are already categorized as canonical philosophers and therefore, we presume, everything they say is of interest. So Leibniz says that every drop of water in a pond is a world full of beings, and that is poetic and wonderful, but is it any more worthy of our attention as philosophers than when, say, Walt Whitman finds that he incorporates “gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss”? Both capture something profound about nature and our place in it. Whitman says it better, in my view, and there’s no reason not to pay attention to it, as philosophers, on the grounds that Whitman didn’t also come up with the principle of sufficient reason or the infinitesimal calculus.

In the end you describe the work as ‘aporetic’? Does this indicate a failure?

JS: No, it’s philosophy’s fault.

Justin E. H. Smith is university professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot—Paris VII. He is also the author of Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy and Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (both Princeton). He writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Cabinet Magazine, and other publications.

 

One Day in the Life of the English Language

In an age of text messages, tweets, and all manner of shorthand, do correct grammar and usage matter anymore? According to Frank L. Cioffi, author of One Day in the Life of the English Language, they do indeed matter, but what today’s writing students need is an “anti-handbook”. In just such a book, Cioffi examines everything from the most serious newspaper articles to celebrity gossip magazines. Drawing his examples over the course of a single day, he illustrates the importance of applying grammatical principles to “real world” writing.

In this newly released video, learn more about Cioffi’s One Day in the Life of the English Language, including his stance on the changes in language owed to technology.

One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook by Frank L. Cioffi from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

One Day in the Life jacketFrank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana universities and at Bard and Scripps colleges. He is also the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.