Thursday, December 18, 2003

Somebody visited this blog looking for the issue of "conspicuous non-consumption" or what I called a few years ago in an article "simplicity chic".

Here is a relevant article on a similar topic: "voluntary simplicity".

Here is another, acerbic, treatment of "conspicuous non-consumption":

" There’s nothing new about the anti-globalization movement – it’s just another chance for a small self-selected elite to demonstrate its moral superiority over the rest of us, and as usual this latest generation of prigs, saints and busybodies is doing so by demonstrations of conspicuous non-consumption, the ascetic self-indulgence that has persisted through generations of the annoying, from hermits to Savanarola, to early Bolsheviks to the grotesques at the Center for ‘Science’ in the ‘Public Interest' and to far too many others. "

I was interested in his reference to hermits. I have a book at home on loan with a title like "Men of the Caves and Cliffs" that discusses hermits in Chinese history. It was common for disaffected scholar-officials to express their displeasure with the political situation by becoming hermits. Sometimes they would be recalled to office when times changed. Some hermits were genuinely seeking simplicity and solitude; others were really on an extended sulk, which could end in political preferment.


Intellectual Mercenaries

I have mentioned this trend before - Europeans providing aid in terms of adminstrative and technical personnel to help third-world countries. There was the case of the French in the Ivory Coast and the Australians in the Solomon Islands. The latest example is we Australians again in Papua New Guinea. Here is a recent official announcement.

A quote:

" Up to 36 Australian officials will work in key economic, finance, planning and spending agencies to help PNG better utilise the 80 percent of its budgetary resources derived internally. They will also help PNG maintain a focused public sector, boost the efficiency of government spending and improve the funding of services and infrastructure. Australian economic officials will be drawn largely from the Australian Department of Treasury and the Department of Finance and Administration. "

This may be a growing trend in the 21st century.



Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Possible Worlds

An interesting Ph.D thesis on Alexius Meinong, David Lewis and the like. Philosophy that is entertaining and intriguing. Something I found while looking for this, which is an illustration to go with the philosophy.


Short imaginary dialogue on the problem of Free Will

Religious person (who believes in free will): That man stole an orange from that stall - a venial sin.

Typical Determinist: There is no such thing as sin. His action was determined.

Religious person: By what?

Typical Determinist: Enough photons bounced off the orange, hit his retina, were decoded as a noticeable, bright orange and brain processes, determined by his life experiences and heredity, took over and produced an inevitable action of his stealing the orange.

Relgious person: So what was the ultimate cause of the theft?

Typical Determinist: The orange photons.

Religious person: Where did they come from, originally?

Typical Determinist: The sun, although ultimately they had their origin in the Big Bang.

Religious person: But why were those particular, tragic photons ever created, which have given rise to this orange-stealing episode? One photon less and he might have been sinless.

Typical Determinist: That is a meaningless question.

Religious person: I disagree. How do you know that the man does not have an eternally existing soul [see the current Catholic Catechism] and perhaps God aided his exercise of free will in stealing the orange by creating those photons especially for him when the Universe began?

Typical Determinist: You're nuts.

Religious person: Think about it.



Tuesday, December 16, 2003

I just saw an Indian mynah, an introduced bird, bring a cicada up to near our window here in Barton, Canberra. It seemed to be striking it on the ground to "make sure" it was dead and pecking at it to feed. I suppose it was to be expected that these pest birds would feed on native fauna, not just whatever food scraps they can find in suburban backyards and at shopping centres, where I usually see them. It was quite a large cicada.

I once read that a true biologist appreciates all animals, without exception, but I draw the line at rats and Indian mynahs. In fact, Indian mynahs are sometimes called "flying rats".


Asthma, Cleanliness and Birth Order

A report on the news last night that asthma was no longer an increasing problem among Australian children referred to the "cleanliness theory" of asthma. This is that modern children get asthma more frequently than in the past because they do not indulge in the messy, dirty play that they once did. Therefore they don't get exposed to normal environmental matter - "antigens" in dirt and soil like bacteria, for example. Not being exposed in a normal way to such challenges to their immune system, their immunity does not develop normally and asthma is the result.

Australia has the highest rate of childhood asthma in the world.

The report suggested that Australian children may be getting less asthma very recently because they are more likely to be exposed to other children (and diseases) in childcare groups. The number of siblings was also mentioned. However, the increase in childcare is hardly a new phenomenon and the number of siblings has not increased recently - families are not growing in average size.

Nevertheless, if the "cleanliness" theory is correct - and "excessive" cleanliness leads to asthma - one might expect to see that only children are more likely to suffer from asthma than children with siblings. Also, children earlier in the birth order might be expected to show more asthma, since they will have had no or fewer siblings early in their lives.

Here is a study that seems to suggest that having older siblings actually increases the risk of asthma.


The Man Born Blind

Here is an article I published several years ago, together with some comments on Oliver Sacks' remarks on the same topic:

Seeing is Perceiving

by Julian David O'Dea

New Testament miracles of curing may be given naturalistic explanations. It may be argued that conditions were "hysterical" (all in the mind) and therefore subject to cure by suggestion. However, some New Testament cures are harder to explain along these lines [1].

Another possibility is that ordinary physical explanations can be proposed. For example, Tobias' cure of his father's blindness in the Book of Tobit could have been due to the use of a material with appropriate chemical properties to clear the cornea of the eye. Lemon juice has been used as a folk remedy for so-called "cataract", as the writer James Thurber mentioned in his correspondence [2]. Thurber had a lot of eye problems himself and was naturally interested in such matters.

If one takes the account purely at face value, Jesus' cure of "The man born blind" is not in either of the above categories. It was not "all in the mind", nor are the extraordinary and, as far as I am aware, previously unremarked perceptual aspects explicable in natural terms.

John 9, "As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth...We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind...Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind."

This was not a case of "hysterical blindness" because the man was blind from birth. This point is made throughout the Gospel passage and his parents affirm it. It is possible that Jesus used some obscure physical cure (he "made clay of the spittle and anointed the man's eyes with the clay") to restore his sight. What remains extraordinary is the perceptual ability of the man immediately after his vision was restored.

In a classic study [3], Gregory and Wallace provided a detailed description of the aftermath of a vision-restoring operation on a man who had been effectively blind almost from birth and who, at the age of 52, recovered vision as a result of corneal grafting operations. This man had a lot of trouble using his new vision. He found that although he had vision he had little useful perception. This classic, rather sad case underscored what had been noted for some time, namely what Zangwill in his Foreword to Gregory and Wallace's book had called " the slow, laborious and imperfect way in which the perception of form is acquired by these patients [who recover their vision after early and long-standing blindness] and their liability to emotional 'crises' as they come to discover the true extent of their disability as sighted persons."

In marked contrast, there is no suggestion in the Gospel account that the man had any trouble perceiving his environment as soon as he received vision. In the case described by Gregory and Wallace the man after his operation "...did not find faces 'easy' objects. He did not look at a speaker's face, and made nothing of facial expressions." However the man in the New Testament had no problems in his dealings with the Pharisees and seemed very satisfied with his situation. There is no suggestion in the Gospel account that "The man born blind" had any trouble perceiving his environment as soon as he received vision.

Another case, more recent than the one described by Gregory and Wallace, was that of Judy Taylor, an English woman who recovered her vision as an adult thanks to a cataract operation. She had gradually lost her sight until she became blind at nine years of age. She wrote a book [4] in which she describes her experiences before and after the operation. Even though she had had vision in her childhood she still had trouble learning to see properly after her operation. She had trouble with colours and perspective and objects had to be identified by the familiar means of touch before they could be recognised visually.

So there is more to the New Testament case than meets the eye. One could argue that the man's ability to use his sight effectively as soon as he gained it was the greater miracle. The man would have had to receive not only an optical cure but also a mind trained to perceive [5].

Mark 8: 22-26: "And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought him a blind man, and begged him to touch him. And they took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him, 'Do you see anything?' And he looked up and said, 'I see men; but they look like trees, walking.' Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and saw everything clearly."

This case is a lot less clear cut. There is no indication of whether the man was blind from birth or early in his life, or had become blind later in life. Nonetheless the "two stage" nature of the cure is intriguing. What did the man mean when he made the puzzling remark that he saw "...men, but they look like trees, walking"? Was he trying to say that his perception was abnormal, that people looked like trees - that is did not "make sense" visually? In other words, did he mean that they looked like nondescript vertical objects? Or was it simply that they were blurred or unclear? In any case Jesus made a second follow-up attempt at a full cure, "again he laid his hands upon his eyes" and afterwards the man "saw everything clearly".

There is the intriguing possibility that this man was, like Judy Taylor, someone who became blind in early life after having had some experience with vision. Perhaps his initial perceptual problems (seeing "...men, but they look like trees, walking") were like those that Mrs Taylor experienced on regaining her vision. In the Biblical case Jesus may have been able to move on in the second part of the cure to correct the perceptual problem.

In the first miracle discussed there is no question that the cure, as described, would have had to involve a perceptual cure as well as an optical cure. My remarks on the second miracle are much more speculative, but I think worth making.

What does all this mean to a modern reader? I think it could mean a number of things depending on one's personal approach to belief. One thing is clear. The account of the miracle of "The man born blind" is an even more extraordinary story than the writer could have realised, because a writer of the time would have had no way of knowing about the impossibility of normal perception following a purely optical cure. Only modern medicine, with its cures for chronic blindness, has disclosed that.


I wish to thank the Revd Peter Mendham and Fr Keating OP for helpful discussions.


1. Leavesley, JH (1990) discusses the issue of cures of "hysterical" conditions in his Potions and Panaceas: Physicians and Prophets, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Crows Nest, New South Wales. He also mentions cases such as the curing of congenital lameness in the New Testament which are particularly impressive because they seem to have been complete cures of genuine, chronic physical disabilities without the lingering problems one would expect and which would require (in modern terms) physiotherapy. Leavesley's book is based on a series of radio talks. There are some fascinating things in the book, including mention of a brilliant and extraordinary medical explanation for Lot's wife being turned into a "pillar of salt".

2. Thurber, H and Weeks, E, eds (1981) Selected Letters of James Thurber, Little, Brown and Company, USA, p.91.

3. Gregory, RL and Wallace, JG (1963) Recovery from Early Blindness: A Case Study, Experimental Psychology Society Monograph No.2, United Kingdom. Professor Richard Gregory is a prominent and effective writer on science. He edited the Oxford Companion to the Mind.

4. Taylor, J (1989) As I See It, Grafton Books, London. A condensed version appeared in Readers Digest of September 1990.

5. Dr John Grigg, an ophthalmologist at the Sydney Eye Hospital, advised me recently that perceptual skills must be developed during the first nine years of life while the brain is still capable of such learning ("plastic"). Functional sight cannot be achieved without this childhood experience.


Some time after I published the above in a journal called "St Mark's Review", I came across Oliver Sacks' essay "To See and Not See" in his book "An Anthropologist on Mars". Discussing cases in which sight is restored after long-term blindness, he writes "What would vision be like in such a patient? Would it be 'normal' from the moment vision was restored? That is what one might think at first. That is the commonsensical notion - that the eyes will be opened, the scales will fall from them, and (in the words of the New Testament) the blind man will 'receive' sight. But could it be that simple? Was not experience necessary to see? Did one not have to learn to see?"

Sacks also provides this footnote: "There is a hint of something stranger, more complex, in Mark's description [in the New Testament] of the miracle at Bethsaida, for here, at first, the blind man saw 'men as trees, walking', and only subsequently was his eyesight fully restored (Mark 8: 22-6)."



Monday, December 15, 2003

The Scouring of the Shire

I believe it was Mary Pride, the American Christian homeschooling mom, who cited a remark that, if you have porn in your house, your children will find it. I certainly found the few items of dubious material my father had in his library, such as the tripey pulp paperback "Carlotta McBride" ("A shocker to beat Lolita", I think it said on the cover.)

So, to prevent my daughter, who is smart enough to ferret out anything, from finding similar tripe I have tossed out two volumes of Sade, "Fanny Hill" by Cleland, and photography books by Helmut Newton, Eric Kroll and their epigones. I have kept four books on Sade, saved by their academic dullness; "Priapeia" by Smithers and Burton because of its scholarship; "Venus and Tannhauser" because of its illustrations by Beardsley; and a few other harmless oddments.


We went to the Belconnen Markets here in Canberra yesterday and wandered into the fish shop, having bought our fruit and vegies. They had eels swimming around in their front tanks. I was reading a book on eels recently, and I had the impression that they were not much appreciated these days, but obviously someone eats them. Perhaps they are an ethnic delicacy. I also saw sea urchins on sale. I assume that the roe is the edible part, though I don't know for certain. I really went into the shop out of zoological curiosity but I kept getting asked if I wanted anything so I thought I'd buy some fish to fry. There was "gummy" [shark] on sale, which I thought would be nice, but I opted for marlin. My daughter accused me of wanting to eat "Nemo". I haven't seen the film so this reference went over my head somewhat.

I wonder where and how the marlin was caught. Perhaps by a longliner.

Later we checked out the pet shop - more fish, this time purely ornamental. I was very taken with a little "sucker catfish", which uses its suckered mouth to clean algae off the glass of the tank - the fish I saw was moving along rapidly from spot to spot, like a nervous hostess doing some last-minute vacuuming.

No trip to Belconnen Markets is complete without checking the discount bookshop. My daughter got a book that won a Children's Book Award called "Hitler's Daughter". Sounds jolly. I bought CS Lewis's diaries from the twenties edited by Walter Hooper. Also, a book of essays from "Outside" magazine - about nature, adventure, huntin', shootin' and fishin'. And, lastly, a biography of footballer, Gary Ablett, who was apparently a star during the years I was not following the footy.

I have dipped into the Lewis diaries already. He was a sharp young academic who seemed to read very widely. He read Russell and Haldane, for example. And his responses were not unlike those of his later life when he had become a Christian. I wonder if his biographers, following his lead, have not made a bit too much of the break in his mind and personality between his pre- and post- Christian years. Some of his instincts were the same before he became a Christian as after - for example, his detestation of Haldane's writing on science and ethics.

I suppose if he had not become a Christian, he would have become a first-rate critic who made literature the centrepiece of his life; sort of like FR Leavis perhaps. But we would not have had the Narnia books, which set the standard in children's fantasy, nor his Christian polemics, which would have to be the most influential and popular in the English-speaking world in the latter part of the last century. There is no sign of his influence waning, and his controversial literary executor, Walter Hooper, continues to release material. I saw a copy of Lewis' poems on sale yesterday, including "Dymer". Bad title - and supposedly a bad poem. In fairness, I have never read it - nor am I likely to.

I remember once reading that many writers only take to novels "after the failure of a slim volume of verse." I suppose that "Dymer" was Lewis' failure in that regard. It's funny, but Lewis could almost be put in a category with other brilliant and serious Christian writers like Belloc, Chesterton - maybe even Swift and Eliot - whose most read work has turned out to be their least serious. In the case of Lewis, his children's books; Belloc, his nonsense verse; Chesterton, his detective stories; Swift, "Gulliver's Travels"; and Eliot, his cat poems, which became the basis for the musical "Cats".

Lewis' diaries are partly of interest as a social portrait of the life and times of a clever young academic living in Oxford in the 1920s. If I ever see a copy of his brother's diaries from the time when the Lewis family were living in The Kilns near Oxford after WWII, that would be an even better chance to get a flavour of middle-class English life. His brother had a more domestic mind I suspect, less interested in the abstractions that led CS Lewis on. But, speaking of domestic, CS Lewis must have done more housework than almost any Englishman of his class and time. He clearly did an enormous amount of what he called "housemaid work". Really strange, especially given his reputation as an anti-feminist. I suspect that very few modern male academics would do one-tenth what Lewis did as a matter of course. But they would talk about what they did ten times as much.



Thursday, December 11, 2003

IQs yet again

Another flurry of interest in intelligence quotient scores and the fact that African-Americans score lower than White Americans:

"Should we renorm IQ tests" at Marginal Revolution and

"The Flynn Effect and the Bell Curve" at John Quiggin's blog.

The Flynn Effect is the increase in recent times in the average IQ of the population. This increase has been observed in both American whites and blacks, for example. However the 15 point IQ gap between the races has not changed - a point that I believe the authors of The Bell Curve allude to.

The continuing disappointing academic performance of American blacks must be troubling to those who discount a major role for innate ability - or IQ. This observation might lead to an argument resembling that made by Australian philosopher David Stove in his paper on the intellectual capacity of women - if women are as smart as men, where is the evidence? Stove claims that, even in the absence of a determined cause, the preponderance of evidence suggests that women are less clever than men. His paper has engendered a reply from Jenny Teichman, cited in this interesting article.

On the matter of the Flynn Effect, there is one possibility that has not received a lot of attention. That is that average IQ in the past was lower because there were more frankly retarded people born in those days. Greater availability of contraception and abortion in more recent years may have meant that fewer retarded children are born. For example, far fewer Down's syndrome children reach full term these days because of prenatal genetic testing. A few years ago there was a notorious study by Donohue and Levitt that claimed that increased availability of abortion among the American underclass had eventually led to less crime because of the birth of fewer at-risk children. The IQ connection may not have been overtly made, but low IQ is known to correlate with criminality. In short, it is possible that average IQ has been rising (the Flynn Effect) for fairly straightforward eugenic reasons.



Wednesday, December 10, 2003

I am still reading Popper's "The Poverty of Historicism" and the Hannay biography of Kierkegaard. The latter does have some tidbits about irony, Christianity and the like, but I still feel that the book misses the mark. I realise that it is fundamentally a biography but the biography of a thinker should give some idea of the importance of his thought.

Popper's book is difficult going - and I am not sure that I am understanding the main thrust of the argument - but there are enough insights on the way to keep me going.



Monday, December 08, 2003

As I understand it, from Bryan Magee's discussion, Kant's great insight was that what we perceive is not reality but only our perception of reality. We cannot therefore ever truly know the whole of reality. I think he also argued that we nevertheless understand the real world to some extent by the use of inborn ideas about reality - about time and space, for example.

To me, this seems to flow very easily from Darwinism. If we have evolved to function in nature, we will have the perceptual capacities and biases that help us survive in the struggle for existence. We won't have abilities we don't need. For example, unlike bees, we don't see ultraviolet light - because we don't need to for survival. Also, the innate ideas we have - or those perceptual abilities that we develop naturally as babies and children - will be those that help us make sense of the world in a way that helps us survive in the natural world.

From a Darwinian perspective, Kant's conclusions seem much less surprising and revolutionary.


One of the good things about a blog, as people have pointed out, is that the writer can return to his posts, polish them, correct them, add more information - and use posts as notes to himself for further work.

One thing I want to do soon on this blog is review the first issue of "Calodema", the new nature journal for Australasia launched by Dr Trevor Hawkeswood, the noted naturalist.

Another note I want to make is to explore the issue of cultural and technological development in relation to population size and density with reference to "Population and Technology" by Ester Boserup and also the book by Professor Richard Lynn and his colleague that argues that the economic success of nations depends on the average national IQ. (The reason this book has such an austere cover is that it was published by Praeger, a fairly obscure academic publishing house. Not too many publishers want to touch such controversial material. Hence the lack of "production values".)


Since we are getting poorer here in Aranda, what with the Missus taking a few months off work to give the little bloke some special attention, I have renewed my library card. Time to save money by borrowing not buying.

We went to the Belconnen Library on Saturday. One might imagine that the stock would be impoverished, full of textbooks on engineering drawing from 1962 and picture books of WWII that have been used in one too many school projects, and nothing newer than about 1985. In fact, though, the selection is quite good and quite contemporary.

I borrowed Bryan Magee's philosophical autobiography. I have seen it before but I have been able to confirm my impressions of a few of his views: that Oxford linguistic philosophy became a dead end and that Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy" was, in his view, very superficial. Magee says that his treatment of Schopenhauer was clearly inadequate. Magee is very positive about Schopenhauer. And highly positive about Kant. I don't know much about these issues, but I had not realised how highly-regarded Kant really is. Magee says he was the greatest philosopher since Aristotle.

Magee lists Kierkegaard in his group of important philosophers since Kant. The Hannay biography of Kierkegaard is starting to slowly reward my curiosity about his philosophy - there is some interesting discussion about the role of irony in life. This is a subject of great interest to me. I was very struck, while listening to the priest discussing the readings yesterday for the Second Sunday of Advent, by the way in which both John the Baptist and Jesus used irony in dealing with their followers: asking questions rhetorically: " And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. "

This blog is starting to "work" now. As I expected, as I develop a library of posts (including those in the archives) more and more people are finding relevant comments relating to their Google and other Internet searches. I think that - after a few false leads - I have now found the niche for Aranda Blog.

On a lighter note, I got to use the word "Ma'am" for only about the third time in my life recently. What is one to call a woman whom one doesn't know, but whose attention one wishes to attract? With a man, one can call out "Mate" or similar. But with a woman it is trickier. "Love" is out of the question; "Lady" sounds a bit rude. I've tried "Miss" with younger women, salesgirls for example, but this is no good with mature women. That leaves "Ma'am", which sounds delightfully Old World.



Friday, December 05, 2003

Population size and cultural advance

Another interesting case study of the relationship between population size and technological development:

"The sole surviving Aboriginal population inhabiting a temperate Australian island was that living in Tasmania. Tasmania is large enough to support some 5,000 Aborigines living traditional lifestyles. This is some 10 times more than the absolute minimum size necessary for long-term survival. But is a population of 5,000 large enough to maintain a complex material culture? Recent archeological discoveries suggest that it was not.

"When the first reports of the Tasmanian Aborigines reached Europe they created intense interest. Europeans thought that their simple tool kit and lifestyle meant that they were a very primitive people. For a very long time after, it was widely believed that these apparently truly primitive people had survived in their remote corner of the world because they had not had to compete with more advanced races.

"The French savants of the Baudin Expedition, who observed the Tasmanians in 1802, were amazed that even though the Tasmanians lived in an often bitterly cold climate, they lacked clothing. Extraordinarily, they also lacked the ability to make fire. Mannalargenna, one of the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines to live a traditional life, told of what would happen if a group's fire was extinguished. He said that people had no alternative but to eat raw meat while they walked in search of another tribe. Significantly, one of the universal laws among the Tasmanians was that fire must be given whenever requested, even if the asker was a traditional enemy who would be fought after the gift had been given.

"The French were also struck by the fact that the Tasmanians did not eat fish, even though they were abundant in Tasmania's coastal waters. Francois Peron records that when members of the Baudin Expedition offered some fish which they had caught, the Tasmanians expressed amazement and horror. This was not an isolated instance, for earlier, in 1777, members of Cook's third expedition recorded that Tasmanians reacted with horror or ran away when fish were offered to them.

"There are some other quite extraordinary features of Tasmanian culture. The Tasmanians, for example, had no hafted implements (such as axes), no implements made of bone, no boomerangs or spear throwers, no dingos and no microlithic stone tools. Indeed, their entire tool kit seems to have consisted of about two dozen kinds of objects."

"It is easy to see how the limited material culture of the Tasmanians could seduce the savants of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into classifying the Tasmanians as the world's most primitive people. Not surprisingly, the anatomists of the day had an almost insatiable demand for corpses. Through dissection, they hoped to find additional evidence supporting the idea that the Tasmanians were primitive; maybe even a kind of living, missing link. Needless to say, these anatomical studies yielded no such evidence."

"Until very recently, many people found no reason to doubt the conclusions of nineteenth century science concerning the Tasmanians. But detailed archeological research, much undertaken only in the last few decades, has now shown conclusively that there was nothing primitive about the Tasmanians at all. They were, instead, a highly specialized offshoot of the Australian Aborigines, whose culture evolved under the extraordinary constraints that 10,000 years of solitude would place on any small band of humans.

"The most striking evidence concerning the evolution of the culture of the Tasmanians has come from the study of campsites occupied over the last 7,000 years. Deposits that date to 7,000 years ago or more are full of bone tools, including awls, reamers and needles. There seems to be little doubt that these implements were used for sewing, probably to make skin cloaks similar to those used by the Aborigines of southern Australia right up until the nineteenth century.

"The variety of bone tools found in Tasmanian middens dwindles with time, until eventually, about 3,500 years ago, the last of them disappear from the archaeological record. This suggests that stitched clothing was lost from the material culture of the Tasmanians at about this time.

"Interestingly, the older archaeological sites show that fish--although despised as a food in historic times--once formed an important part of the Tasmanians' diet. Evidence from some sites suggests that fish made up about 10 percent of their diet in the past. . . . Then suddenly, about 3,500 years ago, the remains of fish cease to appear in refuse dumps."

"The most plausible explanation [for the simplification of the material culture of the Tasmanians] seems to lie in the unique isolation and small population size of the Tasmanians. The theory goes something like this. A small group of people are less likely to come up with technological innovations than a larger group. If the group is completely isolated, then new ideas cannot reach it. Because of this, innovation in material culture is slowed. Because the population is small, activities and knowledge may be lost simple through the early death of skilled people before they can pass their skills to the next generation.

"Losses such as that of clothing and the ability to make fire may have resulted from rare, early deaths occurring over a long period of time. The 5,000 Tasmanians lived scattered in small groups. It may be that only one or two people in any one group had all the skills necessary to make bone needles and prepare skins. Over 12,000 years there is a high chance that the few such specialists in any one area would, at some stage, die before they could pass their skills on. Repeated chance events like this might have led to the loss of many skills that require specialized knowledge.

"If the population is small enough, there may be strong evolutionary pressure to dispense with high-risk activities. This is because risks that are acceptable for larger populations can threaten the very survival of smaller ones. The loss of fish from the Tasmanian diet may be an example of a high-risk activity that is strongly selected against and thus lost, in small populations."

"Eating fish can be a risky business, because occasionally a dinoflagellate bloom known as a 'red tide' can lead to mass poisonings. The simultaneous death of hundreds of people in a large human population is a great personal tragedy, but it poses no threat to the survival of that society because the statistical chance of losing all members of one age group or sex is tiny. Such a poisoning in a small population, however, can be a disaster for the entire group. This is because, through chance, it may kill a significant proportion of the women of child-bearing age, or all of the older and more knowledgeable individuals. In order to avoid such catastrophic events, extreme conservatism may be selected for in small societies. This is because in evolutionary terms it may be better to forego the benefit gained from eating such 'dangerous' food as fish, rather than risk an extremely rare but catastrophic poisoning event."

A point I find interesting is that the author implies that a human population of about 500 is a minimum requirement for survival as a viable breeding population. I seem to remember another estimate of about 300.

Another point is that fewer people means less cultural development and may even cause cultural decline, or at least simplification. I wonder to what extent this insight could be pushed. Could one argue that cultural development has been faster in Europe and China than in, say, Africa or Australia simply because there have been more people in the former places? More people implies more ideas, and more ideas implies faster cultural and technological development. Civilisation is associated especially with the development of cities. Denser, larger populations are more likely to see the development and easy spread of new ideas.

I have come across an argument that a supposedly lower intelligence in Amerindians and Australian Aborigines is due to their relatively small populations having relatively few intelligence-raising mutations occurring in the overall population. However what I am wondering is if a smaller population might not make fewer inventions, which would be an alternative cause of a lower level of technological development.

Of course this is what Malthus forgot. More people means more mouths to feed - but also more heads with ideas.


The Australian Arts Industry

Here is another dig at the Australian "arts industry" from Frank Devine.

Here in Canberra, a city of about 300,000 people, we have something like 10,000 "artsworkers". Or so I read once.

I wish Alexander Pope were alive and living in Australia to write another "Dunciad", on the Australian "arts community". He would have no shortage of material; no shortage of ninnies, poseurs, nudniks, lackwits, dimbulbs, timeservers, dopes, trendies, dills, timewasters, nonentities, tryers, losers, drones, bumchums, dumbdumbs, numbbums, drips, wimps, wasters, druggies, grantgrubbers, scribblers, zanies, crackpots, fashionistas, facilitators, mimes, mummers, crazies, desperadoes and factotums in the local arts scene - not to mention their hangers-on and "partners". Plenty of dunces for a new Dunciad.

The reason that the Australian film industry is a wasteland is that the films are dull. Like Frank Devine, I avoid the Australian movies section of the video shop. I recently quite enjoyed The Castle, although even it had some rough-looking editing. And, ever watched the first two "Mad Max" movies, before Hollywood really got to the franchise? Very poor production values, especially the first one with its confused editing and poor quality sound.

Too many Australian films are simply depressing "Hills hoist dramas", with moronic sexual and other politics and unpleasant overtones. "Quirky" in the worst way; "cutting-edge" in the wrong direction.

Government largesse launched the career of Canadian director David Cronenberg; but the Australian scene remains a featureless wasteland.


This deservedly forgotten book put me off philosophy for years. In his philosophical autobiography, the editor, Bryan Magee, admitted that he hoped it would serve to demonstrate the bankruptcy of Oxford linguistic philosophy. To this end, he interviewed some crashing Oxford bores who maundered on about language thereby giving the impression that philosophy was about clubby gentlemen theorising in their armchairs about things like "perception" while knowing not the first thing about the relevant science.

I suppose my copy did have two things going for it: a pleasant Escher engraving on the cover and a marvellous group interview in which Karl Popper macerates some Oxford philosophers.

Magee was apparently less than reverential about Bertrand Russell's The History of Western Philosophy. Well, it's very readable, but pretty wobbly on a lot of topics. He is hopelessly unfair and inadequate in his chapter on Nietzsche, for example.


The problem with the Hannay biography of Kierkegaard is that it gives a reasonable overview of the philosopher's life but never hints why what he wrote has any larger significance than any of the writings of numerous other 19th century men of letters.

A reviewer said that the book was charmingly written but I don't think it is anything special in that respect.

I have ordered this on Kant. I hope that it will say something about Kant on biology, for example. I would like to have ordered this. But it is way too expensive. I suppose it is a purely academic edition. Pity, since it sounds fascinating: Kant's Critique of Teleology in Biological Explanation: Antimony and Teleology (Studies in the History of Philosophy, Vol 16) by Peter McLaughlin.

I became aware of the latter book through John Landon, who has written this.



Thursday, December 04, 2003

Freud-Bashing for Fun and Profit

Well, I've settled down with that fat biography of Kierkegaard by Hannay but it's just not working out. It may be time for the book and I to have a trial separation. I'd hate to have to leave the biography on the shelf, but it's not looking promising. I've tried; I really have. But the magic just isn't there.

So, I returned to an old love: Janet Malcolm's "In the Freud Archives" - about the lives and loves of Freud scholars. Main characters include Peter Swales, freelance scholar, and his arch-enemy Jeffrey Masson, another critic of Freud. Of course, these days Freud has critics like dogs got fleas; but these two were two of the first. Janet Malcolm writes very well indeed.

Here is something more on Swales, who must be a real character. I notice that he is writing a book on the psychiatric troubles of Beat writer, William S Burroughs. I knew he was a drug addict, who put his fantasies of sex with half-dead boys into his writing, but I didn't realise that there was something wrong with him. Gee.

' In addition to this, Mr. Swales has just begun a book about the psychiatric experiences of novelist William S. Burroughs, beginning with his confinement in the Payne Whitney Clinic for a month in 1940. "During hypno- and narco-analysis, he had these episodes he called 'routines' in which he would become a Chinese peasant on the Yangtse, or a redneck farmer in Texas, or a Hungarian dowager duchess," Mr. Swales said. Mr. Burroughs is cooperating with the book and has given Mr. Swales access to his Payne Whitney medical file, which includes notes from his psychoanalysis. '

The Beat movement was predicated on the discovery that some bums, layabouts, perverts and cadgers could write rather well. Of course they tended to write about being a bum, layabout, pervert and cadger.



Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Traditional Catholic Liturgy

Here is Alice Von Hildebrand on tradition in Catholic liturgy.

Here is another piece by the same author, which commends various traditional practices at Mass. I have cited this article before but the link has changed.

And here is an excellent site I have never seen before on the contemporary movement to restore the Classical Roman Rite (the Latin Mass) in the Church.

Fr Harrison writes contra women in the sanctuary.



Monday, December 01, 2003

Thoughts of a Radical Typewriter

The fine blogger Dyspeptic Mutterings really doesn't like Ayn Rand one little bit, no not at all.

Me, I put Rand in the category of thinkers who are worth reading for their ideas, but one must remember not to take them seriously. I got a lot out of "Atlas Shrugged". It contains some marvellous rants and she was a mistress of invective. She makes some good points. But the book is medicine, not food. You can't make a life philosophy out of her thinking, the way some people try to.

I do think that Rand is probably the most influential female thinker of the twentieth century. Perhaps that is not, as they say on The Footy Show, a "big wrap", but it is something to ponder.

I think she belongs in the Bad Noms-de-Plume Club too. "Ayn Rand" is uncertain of pronunciation, not euphonious at all, and gives no hint as to her sex or anything else. Apparently she got the "Rand" bit from her brand of typewriter. (And isn't there something a bit Hollywood and phoney about that?)

My only other Rand comment is that she seems to be very familiar to the writers of The Simpsons and Futurama. Both these cartoons have contained Ayn Rand references, with her books being subjected to various indignities, such as being flushed down the toilet. I think that's about right: flush her books down the toilet, but read them first ...

From a Futurama script:

" Raoul: Well if he got flushed down the toilet he probably came through here. Everything always does. Follow me. [He opens an umbrella and Fry, Leela and Bender follow him, covering themselves.] All that is ours was once flushed down your toilets. Over there is our aquarium...[He points at a fish tank with eight fish and a yellow bird floating dead on the top.]...this is our library.

[The library is just a shelf. Bender looks at what is on offer.]

Bender: Nothing but crumpled porno and Ayn Rand.

[He holds up Atlas Shrugged.]

PS Note to Dyspeptic Mutterings guy. The lady with the puppets was not Sherry Lewis, but Shari Lewis. I was besotted with her as a lad, and her first name was almost as magical as "Lambchop" himself. Shari is a Hungarian name, I believe.


Julie Burchill earns her last paycheque at The Guardian with a nice article on Jews:

" I can't help noticing that, over the years, a disproportionate number of attractive, kind, clever people are drawn to Jews; those who express hostility to them, however, from Hitler to Hamza, are often as not repulsive freaks. "

Two topics I find fraught with difficulty: my interest in and respect for Jews and Judaism and how this relates to traditional Catholic dogma; and how to reconcile my belief in evolution with the Church's teachings over time on Genesis.

It certainly seems that the Jews are still special to God and have some particular part yet to play in His providence.


I have decided to redirect this blog more towards the discussion of ideas in various fields and spend less time on contentious - and largely ephemeral - commentary.

I find that when I visit bookshops I often do not buy the books I see the first time. I go away unsure and maybe later I go back and actually purchase. But first I need to firm up my thoughts on whether particular purchases are worthwhile or not. In that spirit, I returned to Dymock's Bookshop at Belconnen Mall here in Canberra on the weekend and acquired a biography of Kierkegaard (author Alastair Hannay) and a book called "Footy in the 1960s: Six Games on Saturday".

As noted in the Kierkegaard book, the man's philosophy is hard to separate from his life so a biographical approach seems a good idea. There is some good stuff on Kierkegaard, including his pattern of pseudonymous authorship, on the Internet. However that is not as good as a book. The book about Australian Rules relates to a period in my life when I followed the footy very keenly - as a boy. To me that era was truly "footy"; the modern game is some new-fangled version. I suppose I shall burble on one day about Bob Skilton, Alan Aylett, Teddy Whitten, Billy Goggin and Polly Farmer in the same way as generations before burbled on about John Coleman, Bob Pratt, Roy Cazaly and Haydn Bunton.



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