Science

The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World – by Andrea Wulf
Date read: 8/18/18. Recommendation: 9/10.

The story of one of the most profound polymaths you've probably never heard of. Humboldt was a Prussian explorer, writer, geographer, and naturalist born in 1769. He revolutionized the way we view the natural world by making connections and framing nature as a unified whole. He viewed everything as reciprocal and interwoven, challenging the human-centered perspective that ruled up until that point in time (i.e. 'nature is made for the sake of man'). Humboldt's fascination with nature brought together art and science, combining exact observation with painterly descriptions, which helped make science far more popular and accessible. His work also influenced generations of scientists and writers including the likes of Charles Darwin, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau. It's easy to see why Humboldt was so influential–the stories Wulf tells of his expeditions and adventures well into old age, are both fascinating and inspiring. 

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews. 

 

My Notes:

Born in 1769 into a wealthy Prussian aristocratic family, discarded a life of privilege to discover for himself how the world worked.

A multidisciplinary approach:
Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world by making connections everywhere. He shaped our modern understanding of nature through his comprehensive/multidisciplined approach. "In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation." AVH

In nature (and in our individual lives) getting the overall conditions right is essential if we want to thrive.
-Neither our lives nor the forces of the natural world are siloed, independent components. Everything is interwoven.

Childhood tendencies:
-Escaped the classroom whenever he could to ramble through the countryside, collecting and sketching plants/animals/rocks.
-Would come back with pockets full of insects and plants, nicknamed 'the little apothecary'

Republic of Letters:
-During the new Age of Enlightenment, scientists around the world started an intellectual community that transcended national boundaries, religion, language. Used letters to pass along new ideas and scientific discoveries. Ruled by reason, not by monarchs.

Relationship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
-Despite Humboldt being 20 years younger, they became scientific sparring partners.
-Not a traditional master/apprentice relationship. One based on mutual respect, admiration, collaboration, and reciprocity.
-Goethe worked more intensely than he had in years after he met Humboldt.
-Goethe encouraged Humboldt to combine art and science.
-Goethe said that a single day with Humboldt brought him further than years on his isolated path.

"Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul." -AVH

Humboldt challenged the human-centered perspective that had ruled humankind's approach to nature for millennia (i.e. Aristotle: "Nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man.") He viewed everything as reciprocal.

Journey through Venezuela in 1800 would change the course of his life. This is where his fascination with the natural world married science and art.

No scientist had referred to nature like this (thanks to Goethe's influence)
Rapids of Orinoco: "Coloured bows shine, vanish, and reappear." Always measured and recorded, but brought the scene to life.

"What speaks to the soul escapes our measurements" AVH

Chimborazo Expedition:
-Snowcapped volcano in Ecuador, 21k feet (believed to be highest mountain in world)
-2,500 mile journey from Cartagena to Lima through harsh landscapes pushed their physical limits
-They were supposed to return home from Quito, but the ship that was supposed to come took a different route than they expected. Rather than despair, became an opportunity with Humboldt's perspective. Allowed them to set out for the volcanoes. 
-"Mountains held a spell over Humboldt. It wasn't just the physical demands or the promise of new knowledge. There was also something more transcendental. Whenever he stood on a summit or a high ridge, he felt so moved by the scenery that his imagination carried him even higher. This imagination, he said, soothed the 'deep wounds' that pure 'reason' sometimes created."

Naturgemälde, a lesson in the importance of the way you present/depict information;
-Drawing of Chimborazo that illustrated nature as a web in which everything was connected.
-By picking a particular height of the mountain, you could trace connections across the table to see temperature, humidity, species of plants/animals at different altitudes.
-No one had shown such data visually before, showed for the first time that nature was a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents. 

Unified Whole:
-He wasn't interested in finding new isolated facts but in connecting them. Less concerned with classifying the world into taxonomic units with a strict hierarchy and categories, like the scientists before him.
-To prove this, he couldn't look at it just as a botanist, geologist, or zoologist. Had to take a multidisciplinary approach and leverage each.

Racial Equality - Reflected his expanded worldview from being well traveled, greater empathy and greater tolerance when you've interacted with different people/societies/cultures. 
-Humboldt believed slavery was a disgrace and the greatest evil.
-All members of the human race were equal, from the same family (much like plants). Humankind just one small part. But nature itself is a republic of freedom (where he differed from Thomas Jefferson).

Location matters:
Returning to Europe after his adventures he chose Paris. Hub of like-minded thinkers, scientific societies, and Europe's publishing center (for fast distribution so he could share his new ideas). 

Broad appeal, reaching new audiences:
Scientists and thinkers were impressed by his publications and lectures, fellow writers adored his adventurous stories, while the fashionable world of Parisian society was delighted by his charm and wit.

Personal Narrative:
-Humboldt's book that followed his voyage chronologically to South America.
-First travel book to ever combine exact observation with a painterly description of landscape.
-Previous writers only measured, or collected plants, or gathered economic data from trading centers.
-Took readers onto the crowded streets of Caracas, across the dusty plains of the Llanos, and deep into rainforest along the Orinoco. Capturing imaginations along the way.
-Influenced British literature and poetry with his depictions of South America (Frankenstein, Don Juan).
-This was the book that inspired Charles Darwin to join the Beagle, and he knew it by heart.

Berlin Lectures:
-1827 arrived back to Berlin (reluctantly) after leaving Paris.
-Gave 76 free lectures over the course of 6 months that were unlike anything Berlin had ever seen. 
-Exhilarating, utterly new. By not charging an entry fee, packed audiences ranged from royal family to students, servants, scholars, bricklayers, and half of those attending were women. Democratized science.
-Took his audience on a journey - talked about poetry, astronomy, geology, landscape painting.
-One of his greatest achievements was making science accessible and popular.

Relishing adventure into old age:
-At age 59 on his journey through Russia, rarely showed signs of fatigue. He would walk for hours, crawl into deep shafts, chisel off rocks, scramble up mountains, then set up instruments at night for astronomical observations. *Similar to Ben Franklin, thriving on adventures in old age.

Humboldt's influence on Darwin:
-Showed Darwin how to investigate the natural world from within and without, not just from isolated approach of zoologist, etc.
-Both had the rare ability to focus on smallest detail then pull back to examine global patterns. Flexibility in perspective allowed them both to understand the world in a completely new way.
-Laid the groundwork for his theory of evolution.

Launch point for Darwin:
-Voyage of the Beagle by far the most important event of his life and determined his whole career, as he acknowledged.

Years of dedication:
-Voyage of the Beagle took five years. Much like Humboldt's voyages, these were years of painstaking work. 

Self-awareness:
-When Humboldt began work on his most influential book, Cosmos, he was aware that he didn't and couldn't know everything. Recruited an army of expert scientists, classicists, and historians to help.

Black coffee = "concentrated sunshine" AVH

Cosmos:
-Three sections: 1) Celestial phenomena, 2) Earth (geomagnetism, oceans, earthquakes, geography, meteorology), 3) Organic life (plants, animals, humans).
-Brought together a far greater range of subjects than any other previous book.
-Shaped two generations of American scientists, artists, writers, and poets.

Humboldt's last words at age 89: 
"How glorious these sunbeams are! They seem to call Earth to the Heavens!"

"Voyages on foot, Humboldt said, taught him the poetry of nature. He was feeling nature by moving through it."

"Not only was his life colorful and packed with adventure, but his story gives meaning to why we see nature the way we see it today. In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective, Humboldt's insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary." 

Enlightenment Now – Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now – by Steven Pinker
Date read: 4/28/18. Recommendation: 8/10.

As the title suggests, Pinker makes the argument for reason, science, humanism and progress–the four themes that tie together thinkers of the enlightenment. He focuses on all the ways the world is improving, stating the case for optimism in a similar vein as The Rational Optimist (Matt Ridley) and The Moral Arc (Michael Shermer). It's a refreshing dose of perspective in a world that seems increasingly convinced that the end is near. Using statistics to back his position, Pinker tackles a range of subjects including inequality, political ideology, wealth, happiness, morality, and religion, to name a few. All this is not to suggest that progress is utopia, we should always strive to improve, but we should also appreciate how far we've come. The only drawback to the book is its density, which makes its ideas less accessible than I had hoped.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

 

My Notes:

As a sentient being, you have the potential to flourish. You can refine your faculty of reason itself by learning and debating. You can seek explanations of the natural world through science, and insight into the human condition through the arts and humanities. You can make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction, which allowed your ancestors to thrive and thereby allowed you to exist. You can appreciate the beauty and richness of the natural and cultural world.

Obliviousness to the scope of human progress can lead to symptoms that are worse than existential angst. *Cynicism that institutions of modernity have failed and every aspect of life is in a deepening crisis turns us toward atavistic alternatives.

"Optimism is the theory that all failures–all evils–are due to insufficient knowledge." -David Deutsch

Thinkers of the enlightenment sought a new understanding of the human. Four themes tie them together: reason, science, humanism, and progress.

"If triangles had a god they would give him three sides." -Montesquieu

[Enlightement] was an escape not just from ignorance but from terror. The sociologist Robert Scott notes that in the Middle Ages "the belief that an external force controlled daily life contributed to a kind of collective paranoia."

The invention of farming around ten thousand years ago multiplied the availability of calories from cultivated plants and domesticated animals, freed a portion of the population from the demands of hunting and gathering, and eventually gave them the luxury of writing, thinking, and accumulating their ideas.

Axial Age: Around 500 BCE, several widely separated cultures pivoted from systems of ritual and sacrifice that merely warded off misfortune to systems of philosophical and religious belief...It was not an aura of spirituality that descended on the planet but something more prosaic: energy capture. *Agricultural and economic advances provided more calories per person and shifted focus from short-term survival to long-term harmony. 

To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason.

Political ideology undermines reason and science. It scrambles people's judgment, inflames a primitive tribal mindset, and distracts them from a sounder understanding of how to improve the world.

Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind. *Why news distorts people's view of the world.

Two other illusions mislead us into thinking that things ain't what they used to be: we mistake the growing burdens of maturity and parenthood for a less innocent world, and we mistake a decline in our own faculties for a decline in the times. As the columnist Franklin Pierce Adams pointed out, "Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory."

*American journalism defines "serious news" as "what's going wrong" which has led millions to quit believing in incremental system change and instead seek revolutionary, smash-the-machine change.

In the mid-18th century, life expectancy in Europe and the Americas was around 35, where it had been parked for the 225 previous years...By 1950, it had grown to around 60 in Europe and the Americas.

For an American woman, being pregnant a century ago was almost as dangerous as having breast cancer today.

For most of human history, the strongest force of death was infectious disease...but starting in the late 18th century with the invention of vaccination and accelerating in the 19th with the acceptance of germ theory of disease, the tide of the battle began to turn. Handwashing, midwifery, mosquito control, and especially the protection of drinking water by public sewerage and chlorinated tap water would come to save billions of lives.

"We are led to forget the dominating misery of other times in part by the grace of literature, poetry, romance, and legend, which celebrate those who lived well and forget those who lived in the silence of poverty. The eras of misery have been mythologized and may even be remembered as golden ages of pastoral simplicity. They were not." -Nathan Rosenberg

In two hundred years the rate of extreme poverty in the world has tanked from 90 percent to 10, with almost half that decline occurring in the last thirty-five years.

National income correlates with every indicator of human flourishing...*longevity, health, nutrition, peace, freedom, human rights, and tolerance.

Not surprisingly, as countries get richer they get happier; more surprisingly, as countries get richer they get smarter.

"From the point of view of morality, it is not important everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough." -Harry Frankfurt

The confusion of inequality with poverty comes straight out of the lump fallacy–the mindset in which wealth is a finite resource...which has to be divided up in zero-sum fashion. [But] since the Industrial Revolution, it has expanded exponentially. That means when the rich get richer, the poor can get richer too.

In 2011, more than 95 percent of American households below the poverty line had electricity, running water, flush toilets, a refrigerator, a stove, and a color TV. (A century and a half before, the Rothschilds, Astors, and Vanderbilts had none of these things.) *50% had a dishwasher, 60% computer, 66% washing machine, 80% air conditioner and cell phone.

Inequality is not the same as poverty, and it is not a fundamental dimension of human flourishing. In comparisons of well-being across countries, it pales in importance next to overall wealth.

In some ways the world has become less equal, but in more ways the world's people have become better off.

Ecomodernism:
-Some degree of pollution is an inescapable consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. When people use energy...they must increase entropy somewhere in the environment in the form of waste, pollution, and other forms of disorder.
-Industrialization has been good for humanity. It has fed billions, doubled life spans, slashed extreme poverty.
-The tradeoff that pits human well-being against environmental damage can be renegotiated by technology. 

Dematerialization: Progress in technology allows us to do more with less...forty consumer products replaced by a single smartphone...the sharing economy.

Half of the world's homicides are committed in just twenty-three countries containing about a tenth of humanity, and a quarter are committed in just four: Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela...The lopsidedness continues down the fractal scale. Within a country, most of the homicides cluster in a few cities...Within cities, the homicides cluster in a few neighborhoods; within neighborhoods, they cluster in a few blocks; and within blocks, many are carried out by a few individuals. 

Horse-drawn era: The engine of city mayhem was the horse....hose-associated fatality rate was ten times the car-associated rate of modern times.

As indefensible or unworkable ideas fall by the wayside, they are removed from the pool of thinkable options, the political fringe is dragged forward despite itself. That's why even in the most regressive political movement in recent American history there were no calls for reinstating Jim Crow laws, ending women's suffrage, or recriminalizing homosexuality. 

Although the world remains highly unequal, every region has been improving, and the worst-off parts of the world are better off than the best-off parts not long ago.

"The entire concept of retirement is unique to the last five decades. It wasn't long ago that the average American man had two stages of life: work and death...Think of it this way: The average American now retires at age 62. One hundred years ago, the average American died at age 51." -Morgan Housel

Mindless consumerism? Not when you remember that food, clothing, and shelter are the three necessities of life, that entropy degrades all three, and that the time it takes to keep them usable is time that could be devoted to other pursuits. 
*Housework fell almost fourfold from 58 hours a week in 1900 to 15.5 hours in 2011. Laundry alone fell from 11.5 hours in 1920 to 1.5 in 2015.

In 1929 Americans spent more than 60 percent of their disposable income on necessities; by 2016 that had fallen to a third.

Happiness is the output of an ancient biological feedback system that tracks our progress in pursuing auspicious signs of fitness in a natural environment. We are happier, in general, when we are healthy, comfortable, safe, provisioned, socially connected, sexual, and loved.

Goal of progress cannot be to increase happiness indefinitely...but there is plenty of unhappiness that can be reduced, and no limit as to how meaningful our lives can become. 

We now know that richer people within a country are happier, that richer countries are happier, and that people get happier as their countries get richer. 
*But none of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become.

Not every problem is a crisis, a plague, or an epidemic, and among the things that happen in the world is that people solve the problems confronting them.

[AI] advances have not come from a better understanding of the workings of intelligence but from the brute-force power of faster chips and bigger data, which allow the programs to be trained on millions of examples and generalize to similar new ones. 

Progress it not utopia...there is room–indeed, an imperative–for us to continue that progress.

"We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and with just as much apparent reason...On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?" -Thomas Macaulay, 1830

Populism comes in left-wing and right-wing varieties, which share a folk theory of economics as a zero-sum competition: between economic classes in the case of the left, between nations or ethnic groups in the case of the right. Problems are seen not as challenges that are inevitable in an indifferent universe but as the malevolent designs of insidious elites, minorities, or foreigners. 

Education instills a respect for vetted fact and reasoned argument, and so inoculates people against conspiracy theories, reasoning by anecdotes, and emotional demagoguery. 

We are a cognitive species that depends on explanations of the world. Since the world is the way it is regardless of what people believe about it, there is a strong selection pressure for an ability to develop explanations that are true. Reasoning thus has deep evolutionary roots. 

Certain beliefs (i.e. climate change) become symbols of cultural allegiance. People affirm or deny these beliefs to express not what they know but who they are. We all identify with particular tribes or subcultures...make an enormous difference to the respect the person commands in his or her social circle.

Engagement with politics is like sports fandom in another way: people seek and consume news to enhance the fan experience, not to make their opinions more accurate.

A challenge of our era is how to foster intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than tribalism and mutual reaction.

Philosophy grows out of the recognition that clarity and logic don't come easily to us and that we're better off when our thinking is refined and deepened. The arts are one of the things that make life worth living, enriching human experience with beauty and insight.

Historical scholarship has amply demonstrated that holy scriptures are all-too-human products of their historical eras, including internal contradictions, factual errors, plagiarism from neighboring civilizations, and scientific absurdities.

Today, of course, enlightened believers cherry-pick the humane injunctions while allegorizing, spin-doctoring, or ignoring the vicious ones, and that's just the point: they read the Bible through the lens of Enlightenment humanism.

Atheism is not a moral system. It's just the absence of a supernatural belief, like an unwillingness to believe in Zeus or Vishnu. The moral alternative to theism is humanism.

People are vulnerable to cognitive illusions that lead to supernatural beliefs, and they certainly need to belong to a community.

The problem begins with the fact that many of the precepts of Islamic doctrine, taken literally, are floridly antihumanistic...Of course many of the passages in the Bible are floridly antihumanistic too. One needn't debate which is worse; what matters is how literally the adherents take them.

The stranglehold of the Islamic religion over governmental institutions and civil society in Muslim countries has impeded their economic, political, and social progress.

Islam is not a race...Religions are just ideas and don't have rights. Criticizing the ideas of Islam is no more bigoted than criticizing the ideas of neoliberalism or the Republican Party platform.

Remember your math: an anecdote is not a trend. Remember your history: the fact that something is bad today doesn't mean it was better in the past. Remember your philosophy: one cannot reason that there's no such thing as reason, or that something is true or good because God said it is. And remember your psychology: much of what we know isn't so, especially when our comrades know it too.

Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is the End of this, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era.