Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Mozarabic chant

I have started listening to my CD of Mozarabic chant. I gather that it aims to sound like a Mozarabic rite of mass in Toledo Cathedral in the fifteenth century. It certainly sounds as if the style was influenced by Arabic singing styles. To my inexpert ear, it sounds "oriental".

In an interesting analogy, I noticed in a book I am currently reading on Jews in nineteenth century Egypt that a traveller reporting on Jewish synagogue services remarked that the cantor had picked up vocal habits from the local Arabic culture.

Two examples of inculturation perhaps.



Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Aboriginal people in temperate rainforests

I published a paper several years ago arguing that dark-skinned people living in tropical rainforests (Pygmies, Negritos) become genetically dwarfed because the low levels of ultraviolet light under the canopy of the rainforest will not permit them to produce normal levels of vitamin D to support a normal-sized skeleton.

I measured ultraviolet light levels in tropical rainforest near Cairns and found them to be indeed very low under the canopy. The Aborigines who lived in the rainforests in these areas were the shortest people among the original inhabitants of Australia, and used to be known as "Negritos", although they are not related to the Negritos of Asia.

All this leads to the question of temperate rainforests. Do they have low levels of ultraviolet light under the canopy? Did Australian Aborigines live in these temperate rainforests? On the latter question, it seems that Tasmanian Aborigines did not generally spend much time in the rainforest. They burned rainforest to encourage the growth of more productive country. A question in my mind is, what about Aborigines in places like Gippsland? I gather that they also did some burning of the fringes of the rainforest and burned trails. How much time did they spend in the rainforest itself? One author I have consulted implies that temperate rainforest contains fewer useful resources than tropical rainforest. Perhaps Aborigines would not have inhabited temperate rainforest permanently in the way that some Aborigines did in places like North Queensland. I need to see what I can find on early accounts of Aborigines in areas like Gippsland.

This source tends to suggest that the rainforests were not permanently occupied:

" The original inhabitants of Gippsland were the clans of the Gunai nation. The Gunai lived mainly around lakes, river systems, beaches and estuaries, but probably moved up the rivers into the forests during the winter months. The mountains of the main dividing range were generally avoided because of the harsh climate. In summer, journeys were made to the high country in search of the Bogong Moth. "



Friday, January 23, 2004

Collecting fishing lures

I was stunned by how functional and beautiful some of the fishing lures were that I saw on sale in a department store a while back. The mixture of form and function is delightful.

I am tempted to collect a few, as art objects almost. I gather that people do collect fishing lures, especially antique examples. But old ones don't interest me. It's a bit like the way I feel about old sailing ships - not interested. Give me a modern tanker or freighter, or maybe a racing yacht. None of this "romance of sail" stuff.


Asia Bookroom is quite a good bookshop in Canberra, in one of the "courts" (streets) near Belconnen Mall. They used to sell antiquarian and second-hand books in general but they decided to specialise in Asian material a few year ago. Their definition of Asia is pretty broad: it includes Africa.

They have five women working there. I wonder what they all do since, although it is quite a big shop, it is not packed with customers in my experience. I suspect they spend their time cataloguing, like some of the bookshop workers in the film "84 Charing Cross Road".

One of the books I bought recently is catalogued here: "Jews in Nineteenth Century Egypt" by Jacob Landau. Not a very old book - it was published in 1969 - but not the sort of thing that one would easily find. It fits in with my interest in religious minorities, especially Jews, and joins other books on Jews in China and Jews in Central Asia in my library.

I also bought a book by one GF Walford titled "Arabian Locust Hunter". My copy (there were two in the shop) was the edition published by the Adventurer's Club. Hunting locusts is not the stuff of Hemingway, but it looks like an interesting account of the practicalities of fieldwork in economic entomology. I have actually done fieldwork collecting grasshoppers for scientific purposes - in Australia's high country south of Canberra. Just ordinary grasshoppers for studies on their population genetics, not plague locusts. This was the species.

I am proud of the books I didn't buy. One was a 95 dollar history of chess, all very sumptuous no doubt, but basically just a facsimile reproduction of a 1913 volume. Very probably scholarship has moved on a lot since then. The other was about 75 dollars, if I recall correctly, and was a history of the mapping of South East Asia. A bit of a coffee-table book really and the sort of thing that will probably be available in public libraries.


I noticed this morning that Jacaranda Educational Supplies, at the Jamison Centre here in Canberra, has a sign up that refers to "homeschooling needs". Surely a sign of the times.



Thursday, January 22, 2004

Boys and Girls and Adoption

Marginal Revolution reports that marriages last better if boys are born rather than girls. But people tend to choose girls rather than boys when they adopt (See: "Why do parents adopt so many girls?"):

" Numbers vary, but it's pretty safe to say that somewhere between 70 percent and 90 percent of parents looking to adopt register some preference for a girl with an agency. It doesn't matter if they're adopting from China, where girls far outnumber boys; from Russia, where the numbers are about even; or from Cambodia, where there is typically a glut of orphan boys and a paucity of girls. Everywhere, demand tends to favor the feminine. "

A few possible explanations are canvassed at Marginal Revolution but I would suggest another line of thought. It has also been reported that agencies seeking money to support disadvantaged children overseas tend to portray their children as female in their advertisements. As I recall, Warren Farrell queried the agencies, who said that people are more willing to give money to foreign girls than foreign boys. Foreign boys are simply less appealing. I wonder if the preference among parents to adopt girls rather than boys could have a similar basis: fear of unknown (especially foreign) masculinity. Perhaps there is even a little sociobiology kicking in here. Certainly the image might be that a little foreign girl will grow into a charming ladylike creature whereas a little foreign boy may grow into some kind of gunman or hoodlum. Not very rational, perhaps, but people aren't all that rational.



Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Rainbow effects in a parrot's plumage

I have sometimes wondered why it is that macaws like these show the colours of the rainbow in order. That is, not only do the parrots have "all the colours of the rainbow" but they are in the same order on the body of the bird as the colours in a rainbow. It suggests some kind of structural cause for the coloration rather than individual pigments that just happen to be present in the bird's plumage in the order of a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue ...

This paper "The Chemical Structure of the Pigments in Ara macao Plumage" by Stradi et al. suggests that something structural is indeed going on. Note this quote:

" We expect to demonstrate that the brilliant colors of the parrot plumage are principally due to such interactions, and that parrots construct their rainbow of color simply by modulating the interaction of a few endogenous yellow pigments with the plumage keratin. "

That is, there may be a single basic pigment that is converted "structurally" to produce other colours. What is interesting is that the structural modulation seems to vary in such a way that the plumage shades change in the same order as a rainbow, at least in the case of Ara macao, the scarlet macaw. Here is another picture.



Saturday, January 17, 2004

Stephen Jay Gould's concept of "spandrels" has generated a lot of discussion among people interested in evolution and human psychology. As I understand it, Gould argued that sometimes evolution produces features that may be exploited in interesting ways - but that the interesting exploitations were not themselves selected for. Not everything is strictly an adaptation. I gather that he thinks that the human capacity for mental activities like music and mathematics, for example, may be a happy consequence of the evolution of more evolutionarily important forms of practical intelligence.

It occurred to me that another way of looking at things like play, art, music, fashion, intellectual recreation, is that they are the result of temporarily unused mental capacity. Boredom is notoriously a stimulus to creative, playful and mischievous behaviour. In general, unused mental capacity may lead to creativity.

I was watching my daughter's new kitten today, playing around, and I thought that it might have been so active because - as a juvenile - it has nothing to seriously occupy its attention. Adults often don't play because they simply don't have the time and mental energy. Music, ritual and games occur in hunter-gatherer societies like the Bushmen and Pygmies when the day's "work" is done.

It is sometimes essential for survival that the brain be operating at its full capacity. A man hunting may be fully focussed on his task; all senses alert, thinking hard. Or a woman in a social situation in a small human band may be using all her social skills of bonding, gossiping, reading of non-verbal cues and alliance-making. But this kind of activity, engaging the full power of the brain, is not necessary all the time. Sometimes the brain runs on idle - it is then that creativity may come into play.

So, are creativity and culture made possible by a powerful brain being occasionally turned to activities that are not as urgent for survival because - temporarily - there are no survival issues to engage it?



Friday, January 16, 2004

Mozarabic Chant

Some time ago I bought a book on the Mozarabic liturgical office (Graham Woolfenden's "Daily Prayer in Christian Spain"). Now I have been lucky enough to find a CD of Mozarabic chant. This is not easy music to obtain. In fact I have had some Mozarabic chant on order at the most "serious" music shop in Canberra for months and months now. Today I happened to pop into the shop and found a CD just like that ...

The reviews at the above site seem generally positive and I am hopeful that this will be a good addition to my modest collection of liturgical music; joining the Gregorian and Orthodox chant CDs. I have an old vinyl record of Serbian Orthodox music by the composer Stevan St Mokranjac, but - while marvellously atmospheric - its playing quality is not too good these days.



Thursday, January 15, 2004

Blaming the Victim?

John Derbyshire manages to be unpleasant about two groups of people at once. The gravamen of his article is that the Arabs are like the Irish - historical failures who blame others for their failure. I suppose it depends on one's definition of failure. The Irish seem to be doing well at present; they are generally well-liked internationally; and they have always excelled in areas like literature and music and religious faith. The Irish diaspora is immensely influential around the world.

It is a bit cheeky of Derbyshire to more-or-less accept that the English repressed the Irish for hundreds of years and then blame them for feeling repressed. Is it decent to have deprived men of the means of earning their livelihood and then complain that they were destitute?

Derbyshire, like many of us, is a piece of the flotsam and jetsam of the British Empire. There is no harm in that - we can't help our ancestry. But sourness about having lost an empire and repressed shame at what that empire sometimes did make unpleasant reading.

Generally it is the Left that disgusts me. It is good to be reminded that the Right has its ugliness as well.


PS This seems relevant: "Racist war of the loyalist street gangs."


Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Traditionalist critique of one of the Pope's documents

For two decades I have tried to make sense of John Paul II's document Mulieris Dignitatem , with only limited success. This article by Robert Sungenis confirms some of my suspicions that the Pope's arguments don't hold water.

Another interesting article by Sungenis on cognate issues.


Indian mynah eating Christmas beetle

The Christmas beetle is a large shiny golden insect common around Canberra this time of year. The Indian mynah (Acridotheres tristis) is an introduced bird. Here is a good site on its local presence.

Anyway, I just saw an Indian mynah toying with and then eating a Christmas beetle on the concrete ledge outside my window here in Barton, a suburb of Canberra. They seem to handle large insects well - I have reported on one eating a cicada on this blog previously.



Monday, January 12, 2004

Review Essay

[As published in Oriens]

Julian O’Dea

The Idea of Decline in Western History; Arthur Herman; The Free Press, New York, 1997.

Is the world getting better or worse? It is a perennial question. To take one example, in 1616 Godfrey Goodman (an Englishman, and secretly a Catholic) wrote “The Fall of Man, Or the Corruption of Nature Proved by the Light of our Natural Reason”. In 1627 he was answered by the optimist George Hakewill’s “Apology of the Power and Providence of God in the Government of the World. Or an Examination and Censure of the Common Error Touching Nature’s Perpetual and Universal Decay”. The world has moved on since these two gentlemen put pen to paper, but the debate continues.

Arthur Herman thinks he has the answer to this age-old debate in his The Idea of Decline in Western History. Although he has also written a sympathetic biography of Senator Joe McCarthy, I think it is fair to describe Herman as a “modern liberal”, subscribing to “the liberal humanist image of man and society”. He concludes that there have always been prophets of decline and that they have mostly been wrong, and often they have done actual damage. But he has a faith in the creativity of liberalism that transcends fears of decline.

We may turn to Herman’s work in an attempt to understand the history of the Catholic Church, including her recent apparent decline. But we immediately strike a theological objection. If, believing as we do that the Church is a divine institution, guided by the Holy Spirit, it cannot simply obey any “laws of history”. Indeed, the remarkable survival of the Church over two millennia has often been seen as a great miracle in itself and proof that the Church is not subject to the ordinary processes of human decline. Like the body of Our Lady it will never experience final decay.

But while remembering that "the gates of hell shall not prevail”, we may still derive benefit from an essentially secular work like Herman’s. In fact, we can critique it from a privileged position as contemporary Catholics. When he quotes Edward Gibbon, writing in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to the effect that “No people, unless the face of nature is changed, will relapse into their original barbarism”, we may think of partial-birth abortion and the growing support for infanticide of the disabled. But Herman is a true believer in the inevitability and desirability of modernity, with liberalism, individualism and free market capitalism as “the unshakable pillars of the modern global outlook”.

Herman does not discuss religious traditionalism, but I imagine that he would be unsympathetic, given that he can only see the Gothic Revival in architecture as a “melancholy obsession.” Are Catholic Traditionalists merely reacting against progress, indulging in “reactionary chic” or what Herman would call conservative romanticism? He refers to Romanticism’s reaction against the Enlightenment and its new respect for the Catholic Church, and to how its “loss of confidence in the future was matched by a growing nostalgia for the premodern past.” He also writes of “Romanticism’s most enduring legacy: its alienation from its own time and era.” But what the Traditionalist seeks is not old or new, but timeless and eternal. Whatever is timeless will necessarily be alienated from its own time and era. And retaining the best from the past is not mere nostalgia. Mr Herman presumably has no elegiac moments.

Arnold Toynbee, a philosopher of history to whom Herman gives a lot of negative attention, wrote of the “spiritual inadequacies of the Enlightenment”. He also concluded that “it looks as if the movement of civilizations may be cyclic and recurrent, while the movement of religion may be on a single continuous upward line.” There are actually some hard data that support this claim. Referring to the construction of Gothic cathedrals, the systems analyst Cesare Marchetti recently concluded “it is remarkable how such a process remained self-consistent over such a long period of time, with wars, pestilences, and political reorganizations taking place. It seems clear that the mechanisms of the system dominate over historical contingency …”

But Herman relies on man to ensure society’s well-being, having demoted God. He is a man of the Enlightenment, applauding the abolition of the natural order upheld by the Church. So he can have no answer to the most radical advocate of women’s or children’s rights. Nor has he any final answer to the radical environmentalist’s question as to why animals or trees should not have rights equal to humans. And yet he sees doctrinaire feminism and environmentalism as unhealthy “cultural pessimism”.

Perhaps even worse for his argument, he has forgotten an essential feature of the West – its continuing Christianity. His own “Enlightenment” civilisation, America, is, paradoxically, one of the most Christian countries on earth. Herman wants to conclude that America is a success because it is liberal; but maybe it is a success because it is Christian.

Herman frets about the current pervasiveness of what he calls “pop pessimism”. He accuses both the Left and the Right of indulging in “declinism”, writing that “perhaps the most salient feature of the twentieth century has been the tremendous upsurge of … cultural pessimism …” But he also contends that “the most characteristic product of the Western humanist tradition … the free and autonomous individual … is also the cultural pessimist’s worst enemy”. But, if this is true, why do these free individuals continue to succumb to pessimism? Why are today’s young people, with more riches and freedom than ever before, so miserable?

In an irony that Herman fails to analyse, it is precisely liberalism and modernity that have given birth to the post-modern world. Enlightenment values have not proved palatable. The better off people are, the worse they seem to feel. Rather than enjoying their freedom and enlightenment, they adopt post-modern attitudes of alienation; they celebrate irrationality and illiberalism.

The prophet of post-modernism, Nietzsche, identified a central “will to power” in human affairs. Herman quotes him thus: “life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker”. For Nietzsche, morality is merely an invention of the weak. The Catholic Church is in the curious position of seeking to prevail through weakness, of using a “will to love” instead of a “will to power”. This is especially the case in the modern Church, which is inclined to apologise for its past Crusades against its world-historical rival, Islam. It will be instructive to see how successful Herman’s liberal America is in its current struggle with Islamism.


The Peacock' Tail: the Aftermath of an Arms Race?

JD O'Dea, Canberra, Australia

Petrie et al. (1991) provided evidence of a correlation between the number of eye-spots (ocelli) a peacock has on his tail and his mating success.

Manning and Hartley (1991) referred to these data and suggested that females are assessing symmetry, which they indicate is related to number of ocelli, rather than "counting ocelli" for example.

I wish to suggest that the data of Petrie et al. (1991) are most readily interpreted along the lines that female birds are stimulated by viewing eye-spots on the male's train, and that once sufficient of this visual stimulus has been continually available the female is ready to mate. Normally, this will be with a male which is effective at providing eye-spots to the female's visual field: that is, a male bird which has an array of ocelli over as large an area of her visual field as possible. A bigger train (with more ocelli) will cover more of her visual field and is more likely to maintain the stimulus of an eye-spot wherever the focus of her visual attention may wander.

Perhaps there is no need to invoke Zahavi-type hypotheses of indications of fitness, which have been advanced at times to explain the evolution of the peacock's huge tail (eg. Diamond, 1990). Simple competition among males to increase the size of the tail to maximise the effect of the eye-spot stimulus by covering as much as possible of the female's angle of vision may be sufficient explanation.

As Ridley (1981) notes, the eye, or an imitation eye, seems to be important as a behavioural releaser in a range of animals. The same author suggests that the train of the peacock serves merely as a vehicle for the ocelli, and that the effect of female preference is achieved through the form of stimulation or "hypnosis" exerted by the most perfect array of "eyes" on the expanded fan. The "eyes", he suggests, are carefully "designed" to have the maximum psychological effect on the peahen. Ridley (1981) refers to the power of the peacock's train lying in its supernormal mimicry of the obsessive fascination of real eyes.

Enquist and Arak (1993) have considered the concept that perceptual bias may play a role in sexual selection with resultant signal exaggeration.

I am suggesting here that the data of Petrie et al. (1991), the possibility of signal exaggeration (Enquist and Arak, 1993), and a variant of the ideas of Ridley (1981) may be getting us closer to a simple hypothesis to explain the evolution of the peacock's tail. This simple hypothesis does not require the peahen to count eye-spots, assess symmetry or be "hypnotised" by appreciation of a complex pattern (cf. Ridley, 1981) but merely to respond to her experience of a single releaser, the eye-spot.

In summary, the present suggestion is that the peahen is stimulated by the supernormal stimulus provided by the presentation of "eyes" in a large part of her visual field giving her a persistent form of stimulation. Male birds with the most coverage of the visual field (the largest trains with the most spots) will be the most sexually successful.


Diamond, J. 1990. Kung Fu kerosene drinking. Natural History, (7), 20-24.

Enquist, M., and Arak, A. (1993) Selection of exaggerated male traits by female aesthetic senses. Nature 361:446-448.

Manning, J.T. & Hartley, M.A. 1991. Symmetry and ornamentation are correlated in the peacock's train. Anim. Behav., 42, 1020-1021.

Petrie, M., Halliday, T.R. & Sanders, C. 1991. Peahens prefer peacocks with elaborate trains. Anim. Behav., 41, 323-331.

Ridley, M. 1981. How the peacock got his tail. New. Sci., 91, (1266), 398-401.



Thursday, January 08, 2004

Plants as Doctors?

For some time, I have toyed with the idea that plants might provide substances of medical value to animals that perform useful services for them. For example, do fruiting plants provide medically useful chemicals to monkeys that eat their fruit and help spread their seeds? Could plants provide some curative products to animals that eat their foliage? That is, could a plant's leaves or fruit provide chemicals designed to help prevent or cure animals' diseases?

Certainly plants frequently secrete materials that are intended to stop animals from feeding on them; but could they do the opposite and encourage the health and survival of animals that render them services - such as spreading their seeds or fertilising them with their droppings - by providing them with useful medications?

Is it possible that some of the useful drugs that are derived from plants have their origin in keeping wild animals healthy - for the mutual benefit of the plants and animals? Is this one reason why fruit seems to be so valuable in the human diet?

There is one case that appears to show "proof-of-concept". For an account see "New Scientist" (UK) - the issue of 30 May 1998, p.27. The note is short so I'll quote it in full:

" A Beautiful Way to Keep Bees Healthy

This flower [illustrated], which is native to South and Central America, lavishes an unexpected gift on the wild trigona bees that pollinate it - a coat of resin spiked with powerful antibiotics that probably help keep their nests free of harmful bacteria.

John Loquvam of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks exposed bacteria known to infest the hives of honey bees to the resin of the flower, *Clusia grandiflora*. The resin was almost as effective at killing the bacteria as conventional antibiotics. 'It's the first time this has been shown in any plant as a pollinator reward', says Loquvam.

Resin from the female plants was far more potent than extracts from male plants. Loquvam suspects the females are compensating for the fact that males produce 15 times as many flowers. "

It seems likely that this principle - of plants providing useful animals with medicinal rewards - will be found to apply in other cases as well. It would certainly be in the interests of plants to ensure that useful animals remain free from illness and able to continue to serve the plants' purposes.



Monday, January 05, 2004

A couple of ideas to follow up - maybe:

My wife asked me if gumtrees drop bark in summer to encourage bushfires. I understand that eucalypts are adapted to encourage fire, which is part of their life strategy. It certainly would make sense to have a whole lot of combustible bark lying around the tree if this were the aim. I must check what has been written on this.

Also I was watching a BBC TV documentary last night on "the abyss", which was good - if a little breathless. Most deep sea bony fish (teleosts) have small skeletons, which may be due to a lack of available calcium. It occurred to me that the reason that sharks and related groups (elasmobranchs) might be relatively common and large in the deep sea could be that they might not need as much calcium as other fish because they have cartilage skeletons not bone. I have a feeling that I might have read this suggestion somewhere, but I can't find it in the references I have checked so far. It's an interesting thought.



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