Thursday, September 30, 2004

As I cannot see the point of a blog if one doesn't blow one's own trumpet from time to time, I'm going to advertise my latest publication. My department at Cambridge has a collection of reading suggestions on various subjects. They have just put my own submission on-line: Reading Suggestions on Medieval and Early Modern Universities. I must admit, though, that this is likely to be of limited interest to most of this blog's readers! However, the Research Methods Guide maintained by the department is an excellent resource all round and strongly recommended to anyone interested in the history and philosophy of science broadly construed.
I promised some further comments about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel so here goes.

The aim of this book is to explain why the denizens of Australasia, the Americas and Africa got colonised by the denizens of Eurasia and not the other way around. But the explanation must not postulate any sort of racial differences between people. This is fine as racial differences are so slight (aside from appearance and disease resistance) that they are very unlikely to have any effect on history. Unfortunately, Diamond himself is a reverse racist who gives some folk-evolutionist reason why he thinks New Guinean hunters are probably cleverer than American couch potatoes. This grates a bit as does his calling Spanish conquistadors "murderous" and guilty of "genocide" while his beloved cannibals get off scot-free. When he reveals in the very last chapter that black Bantu farmers did exactly the same thing to pygmies and Khosian herders as Europeans did in America you can almost see his hands wringing. However, this stuff does not detract from Diamond's arguments.

The interest of this book is that it represents an attempt to actually do what Fernand Braudel only talked about. For those who have not sat a "theory of history" course and don't know about the Annales school, Braudel suggested that the geography of the Mediterranean basin shaped the cultures that live there. So, in his opus The Mediterranean in the Time of Phillip II he begins with a long description of the landscape and topology. However, many critics have felt he failed to link this to the rest of the book and really show how it all affected the cultures and history he was studying. Jared Diamond, however, ably shows how long term biogeographical processes translate into human history. For this he deserves congratulations.

Let me say from the outset that I think he is largely right. His explanation is simply stated: Eurasia had a larger number of wild plants and animals that could be domesticated. This gave rise to a head start and allowed civilisation to develop more quickly. Also, the east/west axis of Eurasia meant ideas could spread easily over a wide area as the climate was similar all along the way. Other areas had no animals to domesticate (because the first humans hunted them to extinction in America and Australia), no useful plants and a north/south axis that made diffusion difficult. Also, domestic animals provided the breeding ground for the epidemics that decimated native populations. Finally, Eurasia is much bigger that other continents which produced more cultures to learn from each other and compete in a way that meant they were encouraged to try new ideas.

For the Americas and Australasia, I find this 100% convincing while for Africa I am slightly less convinced. Diamond also hardly explains why it was the north western corner of Eurasia that did most of the colonising and not India, China or elsewhere. That said, this is a book well worth reading and its ideas should be built on in the future.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Alister McGrath has been causing a few more ripples recently than professors of historical theology from Oxford tend to do. The reason is his recent book, The Twilight of Atheism, which my CADRE colleague Chris Price has commented on over at the CADRE blog. McGrath himself has penned an article for the London Spectator (free registration required) which outlines his ideas while also letting us know his next project is aimed squarely at Richard Dawkins.

The Twilight of Atheism declares the philosophical argument too close to call, but points out that atheism has been losing the propaganda battle due to the failure of avowedly atheistic societies. Furthermore, those who have painted atheism as progressive and rational have found it hard going to give any good reasons for atheism over secularism (where the state is neutral as far as religion goes rather than promoting its lack). Nowadays, western atheists tend to call themselves secularists while trying to subvert secularism to their own ends (witness efforts to outlaw religious schools in the UK or close down ethical debates on science). David Aaronivitch, one of Britain's wisest columnists (although still pretty ignorant about religion), nearly understood this in his article about McGrath in the Observer (ignore the headline which is just editorial).

Still, what I want to know is what McGrath thinks about neuroscience, the subject I'm thinking about at the moment. His opinion is relevant as he has a degree in molecular biology. Perhaps the McGrath's book on Dawkins will tell us this rather than just beating up Dawkins' rather weak philosophical stance. I don't want to be told Dawkins is wrong - I want to see answers to the arguments Dawkins would have made if he had actually understood the issues.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Back from holidays and still madly busy. The job of today is to buy a car so I have a couple of test drives lined up. Unfortunately, I have had to abandon my preference for an Aston Martin in favour of a Ford Focus.

There has been a bit of movement on the amulet used by Freke and Gandy which I exposed as a likely fake a few months ago. Now someone at Infidels' discussion board has dug up the original article I saw referred to and a team effort has helped with the German. It seems that the amulet was denounced as a fake as long ago as the 1920s and that it comes from Italy which was a common source of such things. Needless to say, this amulet should now never be used as evidence for anything and anyone who does not mention it is suspect (unless they honestly don't know) is being dishonest.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Thanks for the comments Jack. I agree with much of what you said about Byzantium and think we may be saying the same thing about external enemies. As you say, after the initial conflict, Islam didn´t have any, but there were plenty in the West. And what is a succesive invader but a successful external enemy? So we seem to be saying the same thing about the contrast between Islam in the East and the invaders of the Western Empire. I also agree that the Spainish Moors received their civilisation from the East so I don´t think the damage to Spain by the Vandals and Goths effected them so much.

What I have learnt from Jared Diamond is to avoid arguments about the traits of specific cultures (such as the Romans being too practical to bother with philosophy) because you can pick holes in them and they are almost always ad hoc anyway. Besides, I am not sure I agree that the Romans had less interest in philosophy - they simply used Greek as the language for it. This only had consequences once Greek speakers were no longer available as teachers, as Boethius foresaw.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Time for a quick note from sunny Spain: Seville to be precise.

The major sights here in Andalusia are the remaining great Islamic buildings such as the Alhambra, Mesquita and Giralda in Granada, Cordoba and Seville respectively. There is no question that these are masterpieces of architecture and that the Moorish civilisation that built them was advanced and cultured. Add to that the philosophers such as Moses Maimonides and Averroes, who both hailed from Cordoba, and one wonders how it was all lost. The answer is that the Moors split into a patchwork of small states and the more united Christians could pick them off one by one. Once Aragon and Castille joined together under Ferdinand and Isabella, even Granada could hold out no longer, falling in 1492.

But the question that I found myself asking is why was it that the Islamic invaders of the Eastern Roman Empire could immediately form an advanced civilisation while the invaders of the Western Empire, such as the Goths, Franks and Saxons took five hundred years before they achieved a comparable level. After all, both sets of invaders had started off as nomads on the fringes of the Empire. The silly but traditional answer is that Islam was somehow more "enlightened" than the Christianity of the western invaders whose religion left them in the Dark Ages. Clearly this is rubbish as the Christian states were eventually able to overtake the Caliphate in both technology and culture. But the fact remains that Islamic civilisation got a head start. Why?

I´ve been reading Jared Diamond´s Guns, Germs and Steel over the holidays. I´ll have some critical comments to make about it later but inspired by him, I think I can answer the problem I set out above. Two answers present themselves.

First, the Western invaders were made up a of several tribes that each over ran the same area. This meant that individual cities were often sacked many times as the Vandals, then the Goths, then the Franks and finally the Huns all arrived from the East. It meant the damage to infrastructure and society was much greater than in the East. There, Islamic invaders were united so there was only a single invasion that was able to capture territory with its infrastructure intact. The Arabs just supplied a new ruling class. This had initially happened in the West too where Theodoric the Goth ruled over Roman senators, but further invaders destroyed this.

Second, the cultural heart of the Roman Empire was the East and not the West. All academic work, maths, philosophy and medicine was available only in Greek. It was the Greek speaking part of the Empire that the Arabs took over and hence it was easy to find Greek speakers to transmit knowledge to them. In the West, the language was Latin which had no scientific tradition and so the invaders were not going to be exposed to classical learning. Even the Western church was Latin based and so it could only preserve literature in that language.

Thus, the combination of the Arab invaders taking over in one fell swoop, combined with their occupation of the intellectual heartland of the Roman Empire, including Alexandria, meant they were much more able to continue a high level of civilisation than the warring tribes flooding piecemeal into the west.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Back from Italy but have been involved in finding a new home, organising a wedding (my own!) and leaving for a holiday in Spain with my fiancee this afternoon. That means there hasn't been much time to post here and I hope normal service will resume in a couple of weeks.

My trip to Italy finished off with Florence and Parma. While there are some great sights in Florence (I got to look through Galileo's telescope) it is the smaller cities like Ferrara and Parma which are the more charming. They are quiet, clean and without tourists. The only queue I had to join was at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence - even in that city all the other stuff was uncrowded. But in Parma and Ferrara I was the only person in the room, if not the whole building, a lot of the time.

My writing project for October (a part from school stuff) will be to comment on the materialist theories of the mind and I have Steven Pinker packed in my bag for Spain. Some people have become worried that science has not only killed the soul, but even killed our capacity for freewill and hence good. Needless to say, I am far from convinced but will wait to see what Professor Pinker has to say on the matter.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Here I am in Florence, pounding the sidewalk from Botticelli to Caravaggio via Michaelangelo. Frankly, this city is somewhat overendowed with art treasures and it might be better if they were spread around a bit.

The most interesting sight so far, from my point of view, is a fresco by Botticelli of Saint Augustine of Hippo in the Ognissanti Church. In it, Augustine is portrayed reading and writing at a desk with various books and instruments on the shelf behind him. These include a armillary sphere, mechanical clock and an open book on geometry. In all, Augustine is shown not as a theologian but as a mathematician. This must reflect the view of his genius in the fifteenth century where maths was seen as a road to philosophy so, of course, Augustine would be good at it. We should also remember that he did urge people to study science in as much as it was necessary to understand the bible and not look foolish. Given Augustine is often portrayed as the archetypical close minded theologian, I thought this picture of him as a man of science was an interesting corrective.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Well, now I am in Ferrara fresh from admiring the late Renaissance frescos that adorn the ceilings in the enormous Este Castle, as well as shuddering in the dungeon. Tomorrow I will either look around the other sites in this charming city, or else head for a day in Ravenna. This was the final outpost of Byzantium in Italy and holds an unmatched collection of early churches containing stunning mosaics.

What of Bologna being the first university as Jack queries? Well, it is true that other educational institutions such as the museum in Alexandria, the Madrasa in Cairo and the School of Athens have been called universities but in fact they were not. A true university is a self governing corporate institution with a separate legal personality. In fact, "univeritas" in Latin means "corporation" and not "place of higher education" (that would be "studium generale") and the term has become synonymous educational establishments. Why is this so important? Because with newly developed corporate law, medieval universities could enjoy unparalleled freedom to run their own affairs. They skillfully played church off against state to guard their privileges and rapidly became so influential and powerful that they could pronounce on the running of kingdoms. The Parisian theology faculty in the late Middle Ages was where even popes turned to have their questions answered. They set their own syllabus and exams but their qualifications were recognised all over.

None of the other so-called universities enjoyed this freedom. The museum in Alexandria existed on the will of the Ptolemies who chased them out more than once. It also had no central administrative structure. It was just a club for individual scholars. So was the School in Athens that depended on the prestige of the men teaching there. And Islamic madrasas were highly restricted in what they could teach. Medicine, science, secular philosophy, civil law and even theology were all ruled out in favour of religious law. But European universities taught all these things and more.

For a great deal more on all this see my essay Medieval Science, the Church and Universities.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

I'm on holiday in Bologna, first stop in a week long tour of northern Italian renaissance city states. Ferrara, Parma, Florence and Ravenna to go (it is a bit of a whistle stop tour). Oddities of formating should be put down to the computer in the hotel lobby.

The most interesting thing about Bologna is that the world's first university began here to study law in about 1150. The university is still going strong and it looks like term has started as the university quarter is flocking with keen young things. The old centre for the university was extensively bombed in the Second World War (by us or them, I do not know) but the anatomy theatre has been lovingly reconstructed and is quite a site. The professors throne is flanked by two naked flayed figures and the whole room is full of the busts of great physicians - even stuck to the ceiling.

Jack Perry has just started a new blog here: . He is a Catholic from America and his writings look well worth a look not least because he appears to be very well read.