I have to imagine that once the conceptualization of language and some basic grammar existed, word generation was a much more common thing than it is now. It’s only been since the time of Noah Webster that humans have been actively standardizing things like spelling. If we can use Papua New Guinea as a model of pre-agrarian society and consider that almost 12% of extant languages on the Earth are spoken in an area about the size of Texas (and with about 1/5th the population of Texas too), then modern societies are actually severely limiting language (creation, growth, diversity, creativity, etc.) [cross reference: A World of Languages – and How Many Speak Them (Infographic)]
Consider that the current extinction of languages is about one every 14 weeks, which puts us on a course to loose about half of the 7,100 languages on the planet right now before the end of the century. Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language! In the paper “Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk” the authors indicate that of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.
To help put this exercise into perspective, we can look at the corpus of extant written Latin (a technically dead language):
These numbers become even smaller when considering ancient Greek texts.
Another interesting measurement is the vocabulary of a modern 2 year old who typically has a 50-75 word vocabulary while a 4 year old has 250-500 words, which is about the level of the exercise.
As a contrast, consider the message in this TED Youth Talk from last year by Erin McKean, which students should be able to relate to:
And of course, there’s the dog Chaser, which 60 minutes recently reported has a vocabulary of over 1,000 words. (Are we now destroying variants of “dog language” for English too?!)
Hopefully the evolutionary value of the loss of the multiple languages will be more than balanced out by the power of collective learning in the long run.
I’ll let their site speak for itself below, but they already have an interesting line up of speakers including:
- Erik Verlinde, Professor Theoretical Physics, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Alex Szalay, Alumni Centennial Professor of Astronomy, The Johns Hopkins University, USA
- Gerard ‘t Hooft, Professor Theoretical Physics, University of Utrecht, Netherlands
- Gregory Chaitin, Professor Mathematics and Computer Science, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
- Charley Lineweaver, Professor Astronomy and Astrophysics, Australian National University, Australia
- Lude Franke, Professor System Genetics, University Medical Center Groningen, Netherlands
Conference synopsis from their homepage:
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Stephen Greenblatt provides an interesting synthesis of history and philosophy. Greenblatt’s love of the humanities certainly shines through. This stands as an almost over-exciting commercial for not only reading Lucretius’s “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), but in motivating the reader to actually go out to learn Latin to appreciate it properly.
I would have loved more direct analysis and evidence of the immediate impact of Lucretius in the 1400’s as well as a longer in-depth analysis of the continuing impact through the 1700’s.
The first half of the book is excellent at painting a vivid portrait of the life and times of Poggio Bracciolini which one doesn’t commonly encounter. I’m almost reminded of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, though Greenblatt has far more historical material with which to paint the picture. I may also be biased that I’m more interested in the mechanics of the scholarship of the resurgence of the classics in the Renaissance than I was of that particular political portion of the first century BCE. Though my background on the history of the time periods involved is reasonably advanced, I fear that Greenblatt may be leaving out a tad too much for the broader reading public who may not be so well versed. The fact that he does bring so many clear specifics to the forefront may more than compensate for this however.
In some interesting respects, this could be considered the humanities counterpart to the more science-centric story of Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. Though Simon Winchester is still by far my favorite nonfiction writer, Greenblatt does an exceedingly good job of narrating what isn’t necessarily a very linear story.
Greenblatt includes lots of interesting tidbits and some great history. I wish it had continued on longer… I’d love to have the spare time to lose myself in the extensive bibliography. Though the footnotes, bibliography, and index account for about 40% of the book, the average reader should take a reasonable look at the quarter or so of the footnotes which add some interesting additional background an subtleties to the text as well as to some of the translations that are discussed therein.
I am definitely very interested in the science behind textual preservation which is presented as the underlying motivation for the action in this book. I wish that Greenblatt had covered some of these aspects in the same vivid detail he exhibited for other portions of the story. Perhaps summarizing some more of the relevant scholarship involved in transmitting and restoring old texts as presented in Bart Ehrman and Bruce Metzter’s The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption & Restoration would have been a welcome addition given the audience of the book. It might also have presented a more nuanced picture of the character of the Church and their predicament presented in the text as well.
Though I only caught one small reference to modern day politics (a prison statistic for America which was obscured in a footnote), I find myself wishing that Greenblatt had spent at least a few paragraphs or even a short chapter drawing direct parallels to our present-day political landscape. I understand why he didn’t broach the subject as it would tend to date an otherwise timeless feeling text and generally serve to dissuade a portion of his readership and in particular, the portion which most needs to read such a book. I can certainly see a strong need for having another short burst of popularity for “On the Nature of Things” to assist with the anti-science and overly pro-religion climate we’re facing in American politics.
For those interested in the topic, I might suggest that this text has some flavor of Big History in its DNA. It covers not only a fairly significant chunk of recorded human history, but has some broader influential philosophical themes that underlie a potential change in the direction of history which we’ve been living for the past 300 years. There’s also an intriguing overlap of multidisciplinary studies going on in terms of the history, science, philosophy, and technology involved in the multiple time periods discussed.
This review was originally posted on GoodReads.com on 7/8/2014. View all my reviews
I’ve previously written a brief review of John Hawks’ (in collaboration with Anthony Martin) “Major Transitions in Evolution” course from The Learning Company as part of their Great Courses series of lectures. Given my interest in the MOOC revolution in higher education, I’ll also mention that Dr. Hawks has recently begun a free Coursera class entitled “Human Evolution: Past and Future“. I’m sure his current course focuses more on the area of human evolution compared with the prior course which only dedicated a short segment on this time period. Given Hawks’ excellent prior teaching work, I’m sure this will be of general interest to readers interested in information theory as it relates to evolution, biology, and big history.
I’d love to hear from others in the area of anthropology who are interested in information theoretical applications.
This is handily one of the best, most interesting, and (to me at least) the most useful popularly written science books I’ve yet to come across. Most popular science books usually bore me to tears and end up being only pedantic for their historical backgrounds, but this one is very succinct with some interesting viewpoints (some of which I agree with and some of which my intuition says are terribly wrong) on the overall structure presented.
For those interested in a general and easily readable high-level overview of some of the areas of research I’ve been interested in (information theory, thermodynamics, entropy, microbiology, evolution, genetics, along with computation, dynamics, chaos, complexity, genetic algorithms, cellular automata, etc.) for the past two decades, this is really a lovely and thought-provoking book.
At the start I was disappointed that there were almost no equations in the book to speak of – and perhaps this is why I had purchased it when it came out and it’s subsequently been sitting on my shelf for so long. The other factor that prevented me from reading it was the depth and breadth of other more technical material I’ve read which covers the majority of topics in the book. I ultimately found myself not minding so much that there weren’t any/many supporting equations aside from a few hidden in the notes at the end of the text in most part because Dr. Mitchell does a fantastic job of pointing out some great subtleties within the various subjects which comprise the broader concept of complexity which one generally would take several years to come to on one’s own and at far greater expense of their time. Here she provides a much stronger picture of the overall subjects covered and this far outweighed the lack of specificity. I honestly wished I had read the book when it was released and it may have helped me to me more specific in my own research. Fortunately she does bring up several areas I will need to delve more deeply into and raised several questions which will significantly inform my future work.
In general, I wish there were more references I hadn’t read or been aware of yet, but towards the end there were a handful of topics relating to fractals, chaos, computer science, and cellular automata which I have been either ignorant of or which are further down my reading lists and may need to move closer to the top. I look forward to delving into many of these shortly. As a simple example, I’ve seen Zipf’s law separately from the perspectives of information theory, linguistics, and even evolution, but this is the first time I’ve seen it related to power laws and fractals.
I definitely appreciated the fact that Dr. Mitchell took the time to point out her own personal feelings on several topics and more so that she explicitly pointed them out as her own gut instincts instead of mentioning them passingly as if they were provable science which is what far too many other authors would have likely done. There are many viewpoints she takes which I certainly don’t agree with, but I suspect that it’s because I’m coming at things from the viewpoint of an electrical engineer with a stronger background in information theory and microbiology while hers is closer to that of computer science. She does mention that her undergraduate background was in mathematics, but I’m curious what areas she specifically studied to have a better understanding of her specific viewpoints.
Her final chapter looking at some of the pros and cons of the topic(s) was very welcome, particularly in light of previous philosophic attempts like cybernetics and general systems theory which I (also) think failed because of their lack of specificity. These caveats certainly help to place the scientific philosophy of complexity into a much larger context. I will generally heartily agree with her viewpoint (and that of others) that there needs to be a more rigorous mathematical theory underpinning the overall effort. I’m sure we’re all wondering “Where is our Newton?” or to use her clever aphorism that we’re “waiting for Carnot.” (Sounds like it should be a Tom Stoppard play title, doesn’t it?)
I might question her brief inclusion of her own Ph.D. thesis work in the text, but it did actually provide a nice specific and self-contained example within the broader context and also helped to tie several of the chapters together.
My one slight criticism of the work would be the lack of better footnoting within the text. Though many feel that footnote numbers within the text or inclusion at the bottom of the pages detracts from the “flow” of the work, I found myself wishing that she had done so here, particularly as I’m one of the few who actually cares about the footnotes and wants to know the specific references as I read. I hope that Oxford eventually publishes an e-book version that includes cross-linked footnotes in the future for the benefit of others.
I can heartily recommend this book to any fan of science, but I would specifically recommend it to any undergraduate science or engineering major who is unsure of what they’d specifically like to study and might need some interesting areas to take a look at. I will mention that one of the tough parts of the concept of complexity is that it is so broad and general that it encompasses over a dozen other fields of study each of which one could get a Ph.D. in without completely knowing the full depth of just one of them much less the full depth of all of them. The book is so well written that I’d even recommend it to senior researchers in any of the above mentioned fields as it is certainly sure to provide not only some excellent overview history of each, but it is sure to bring up questions and thoughts that they’ll want to include in their future researches in their own specific sub-areas of expertise.
I personally don’t think that it is as significant as Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies was, though perhaps it should be just as (if not more) ground shaking for modern society. As a long-time student of evolutionary biology and other fields related to this work, I’m not as impressed with the effort as I might otherwise be since most of the overarching thesis is second nature to me. It does however have some superb anecdotes and broad reviews of large areas of literature to provide some excellent motivation that I might not otherwise have spent the time to find thus giving it some excellent value to me.
As for others in the general public, I highly recommend it for it’s simple and clear examples and the ultimate thesis which are exceptionally worth reading (and implementing) into one’s life as well as into broader areas of modern society. If nothing else, it points out how drastically life has changed for human societies even in the last 150 years, much less the last 10,000.
For those in the field or with an interest in Big History, this is certainly a must-read and possibly an excellent place to start for those without any background at all.
Based on my own personal background, I’d give this 3 stars (in terms of it’s direct value to me), but for the general public it’s easily a 5 star work. I do wish that it had been more traditionally and extensively footnoted, but for a broader audience I certainly understand Dr. Diamond’s reasons for publishing it as he did.
I especially loved the philosophical conceptualization of “deep time” (in analogy with “deep space”) particularly as one considers the even broader idea of “Big History“. Though the professors here don’t delve into Big History directly, they’re covering a large portion of the cross-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary studies which underpin a large portion of the field. More specifically taking the general viewpoint of “transitions” in evolution underlines this conceptualization.
Though the transitional viewpoint seems to be a very natural and highly illustrative one to take, I would be curious in seeing alternate presentations of evolution from a pedagogical standpoint. It was nice to hear a bit of alternate discussion in the final lecture as well as discussion of where things might “go from here.”
I do wish that there were additional follow-on lectures that covered additional material in more depth. It would also have been nice to have included a handful of lectures from a microbiologist’s viewpoint and background to give some additional rounding out of the material and this could have been done either in the early parts of the material or certainly around the discussions of primate evolution. Overall all though, these are wonderfully self-contained and don’t require a huge prior background in material to understand well.
It’s always great to see lecturers who truly love their fields and have the ability to relate that through their lectures and infect their students.
From a purely technical standpoint, I’m glad to see that The Teaching Company only offers a video version of (as opposed to their usual additional offering of audio-only) as having pictures of the fossils and organisms under discussion and their relative physiological structures was very helpful. Additionally having the recurring timecharts of the portions of geological time under discussion was very useful and generally reinforcing of the chronology. Somewhat monotonous from a visual perspective was the almost programmatic back and forth pacing between two cameras during the lectures which at times became distracting in and of itself. Certainly including a third camera would have added some variety as would having had camera operators to zoom in or move the camera around while the lecturers stand relatively stationary. (Though the production value here is exceptionally high, small details like this over the span of several hours of watching become important. As an example of better execution, I prefer Glenn Holland’s “Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World” as a model – though there wasn’t as much additional visual material there, the lectures were simply more “watchable” because of the camera work.)
I’m sure that all of these researchers are onto something in terms of trying to better quantify our historical perspectives in using science and applying it to history. I think the process might be likened to the ways in which methods of computed tomography, P.E.T., S.P.E.C.T, et al have been applied to the areas of psychology since the late 70’s to create the field of cognitive neuropsychology which has now grown much more closely to the more concrete areas of neurophysiology within biology, chemistry, and medicine.
I can see both sides of the “controversy” which is mentioned in the articles as well as in the comments in all of the articles, but I have a very visceral gut feeling that they can be ironed out over time. I say this as areas like behavioral economics which have grown out of the psychology work mentioned in Kahneman’s book become more concrete. The data available for application with relation to history will be much more useful as people’s psychological interactions with their surroundings are better understood. People in general are exceptionally poor at extrapolating statistical knowledge of the world around them and putting it into the best use. For example, although one can make an accurate calculation of the time-value of money, most people who know it won’t use it to determine the best way of taking a large lottery payout (either a lump sum or paid out over time), and this doesn’t even take into consideration the phenomenal odds against even playing the lottery in the first place. Kahneman’s system 1 and system 2 structures in conjunction with more historical data and analysis of the two in conjunction may be a far better method than either that of historians’ previous attempts or that of the quantitative method separately. Put into mathematical terms, it’s much more likely the case that human interactions follow a smaller local min-max curve/equation on a limited horizon, but do not necessarily follow the global maxima and minima that are currently being viewed at the larger scales of big history. We’ll need to do a better job of sifting through the data and coming up with a better interpretation of it on the correct historical scales for the problem at hand.
Perhaps, by analogy, we might look at this disconnect between the two camps as the same type of disconnect seen in the areas of Newtonian and quantum physics. They’re both interlinked somehow and do a generally good job of providing accurate viewpoints and predictions of their own sub-areas, but haven’t been put together coherently into one larger catch-all theory encompassing both. Without the encouragement of work in the quantitative areas of history, we’ll certainly be at a great disadvantage.
Aside from the breadth of topics he covers while telling the story of one man’s life’s work, he writes about and discusses topics which should be part of everyone’s personal cultural knowledge. As a small example, he makes mention of one of the real life archaeologists who served as a model for Indiana Jones – though sadly he only makes the direct connection in a footnote which many may not likely read.
Though I had originally picked up the book out of general curiosity (not to diminish the fact that I’m on a quest to read every word Winchester has written), I find that it also neatly fits into providing some spectacular background on the concept of “Big History” (see Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History) as it relates to China’s place in the world. In particular “Needham’s question” (briefly: Why, given China’s illustrious past, did modern science not develop there after the 1500’s?) turned around becomes a interesting illustration on the course of human history and the rises and falls of cultures and societies since the Holocene.
For those who may miss the significance, I was particularly impressed with the overall literary power imbued to the book by the use of the book-ended contrasts of Needham’s Chongqing at the opening of the work and modern day Chongqing at the close. This is one of the few times that the mechanics behind how Winchester, the master of telling often non-linear stories, has been patently obvious to me. I hope one day to unravel all of his other secrets. I can only imagine that in his heavy research of his topics, he somehow internally sees the ultimately magical ways in which he will present the information.
I will note that, in contrast to some of his past works, this one had some better physical maps and photos to go along with the text, although I was highly disappointed in their unusable presentation in the e-book version of the book. (Higher dpi versions would have gone a long way, particularly with the ability to zoom in on them in most e-readers.) For those unfortunate enough to have the e-book copy, I commend picking up a physical copy of the book for better interpretations of the photos and maps included.
Finally, perhaps for Winchester’s benefit, I’ll note that typically I would give this book a full five stars in comparing it will all others, but I’m comparing it only with Winchester’s other works and, so it stands at four, and that only because there isn’t the ability to give tenths or hundredths.
- 12/17/09 marked as: want to read; “Purchased copy from Amazon.com.”
- 12/27/09 Purchased copy from Amazon.com.
- 02/05/10 started reading
- 04/24/10 started reading again
- 04/24/2010 8.81% done or on page 31 of 316; “Simon Winchester has such a lovely writing style and grasp of language. I’m depressed that I’ve finished reading most of his works.”
- 12/03/12 started reading again from the beginning
- 12/03/2012 09.0% done
- 12/10/2012 20.0% done
- 12/17/2012 30.0% done
- 12/20/2012 40.0% done
- 12/31/12 Finished book
Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia
John Hay, America’s secretary of state at the turn of the twentieth century, remarked in 1899 that China was now the “storm center of the world,” and that whoever took the time and trouble to understand “this mighty empire” would have “a key to politics for the next five centuries.”
Guide to highlight colors
Yellow–general highlights and highlights which don’t fit under another category below
Orange–Vocabulary word; interesting and/or rare word
Green–Reference to read
Red–Example to work through
David Christian, a trained historian, is one of the leading proponents of the relatively new concept of Big History, which I view as a sea-change in the way humans will begin to view not only the world but our place in it and what we might expect to come in the future. His work presents a truly monumental and profound thesis and a drastically new framework for where humankind fits into the universe. Of the broad variety of works I’ve read in the past several decades, it is simply one of the most interesting and cohesive theses I’ve come across, and I highly and unreservedly recommend it to everyone I know. I’d put it on par or above works like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist among others for its broad impact on how I now view the world. For scientists and researchers it has the potential to be the philosophical equivalent of The Bible and in fact, like many religious texts, it is in effect a modern day “creation myth,” albeit one with a scientific underpinning.
Christian’s work was initially brought to my attention by an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Jeffrey R. Young in which he mentioned that Bill Gates was a big fan of Christian’s work and had recommended it himself at a TED conference. (Gates is now also a financial supporter of Christian’s Big History Project.) I myself was aware of the Learning Company’s generally excellent coursework offerings and within a few weeks got an audio copy of the course of forty-eight lectures to listen to on my daily commute.
I’ve now devoured both his rather large text on the subject as well as a lecture series he created for a course on the subject. Below are brief reviews of the two works.The magnum written opus Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History is an interesting change of reference from a historical perspective combining the disciplines of physics, cosmology, astronomy, geology, chemistry, microbiology, evolutionary theory, archaeology, politics, religion, economics, sociology, and history into one big area of contiguous study based upon much larger timescales than those traditionally taken in the study of historical time periods. Though it takes pieces from many disciplines, it provides for an interesting, fresh, and much needed perspective on who humans are and their place in not only the world, but the entire universe.
By looking at history from a much broader viewpoint (billions of years versus the more common decades or even just a few centuries) one comes away with a drastically different perspective on the universe and life.
I’d highly recommend this to any general reader as early as they can find time to read through it, particularly because it provides such an excellent base for a variety of disciplines thereby better framing their future studies. I wish I had been able to read this book in the ninth or tenth grade or certainly at the latest by my freshman year in college – alas the general conception of the topic itself didn’t exist until after I had graduated from university.
Although I have significant backgrounds in most, if not all, of the disciplines which comprise the tapestry of big history, the background included in the book is more than adequate to give the general reader the requisite introductions to these subjects to make big history a coherent subject on its own.
This could be an extremely fundamental and life-changing book for common summer reading programs of incoming college freshman. If I could, I would make it required reading for all students at the high school level. Fortunately Bill Gates and others are helping to fund David Christian’s work to help introduce it more broadly at the high school and other educational levels.
Within David Christian’s opus, there is also a collection of audio lectures produced by The Learning Company as part of their Great Courses series which I listened to as well. The collection of forty-eight lectures is entitled Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity (Great Courses, Course No. 8050). It provides a much quicker philosophical overview of the subject and doesn’t delve as deeply into the individual disciplines as the text does, but still provides a very cohesive presentation of the overall thesis. In fact, for me, the introduction to the topic was much better in these audio lectures than it was in the written book. Christian’s lecture style is fantastic and even better than his already excellent writing style.
In the audio lectures Christian highlights eight major thresholds which he uses as a framework by which to view the 13.4 billion years of history which the Universe has presently traversed. Then within those he uses the conceptualization of disparities in power/energy as the major driving forces/factors in history in a unique and enlightening way which provides a wealth of perspective on almost every topic (scientific or historical) one can consider. This allows one to see parallels and connections between seemingly disparate topics like the creations of stars and the first building of cities or how the big bang is similar to the invention of agriculture.
I can easily say that David Christian’s works on big history are some of the most influential works I’ve ever come across – and having experienced them, I can never see our universe in the same naive way again.
For those interested in taking a short and immediate look at Christian’s work, I can recommend his Ted Talk “The History of Our World in 18 Minutes” which only begins to scratch the surface of his much deeper and profound thesis: [ted id=1118]
Given how profound the topic of big history is, I’m sure I’ll be writing about and referring to it often. Posts in relation to it can be found here with the tag: “big history“.
- 03/11/2011 marked as: want to read after reading Bill Gates Promotes Professor’s Online Course at TED by Jeffrey R. Young in The Chronicle of Higher Education
- 08/26/11 started reading
- 03/01/12 “Reread some of the beginning this morning as I get back into David Christian’s audio lectures.”
- 06/17/12 ; “Technically finished reading, but need to still go through the endnotes.”
Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia
Guide to highlight colors
Yellow–general highlights and highlights which don’t fit under another category below
Orange–Vocabulary word; interesting and/or rare word
Green–Reference to read
Red–Example to work through
Editor’s Note: Data relating to reading progress was added to this post on 10/21/16. Data relating to highlights, quotes, and marginalia added on 10/23/16.
I am now going to recommend it to everyone that I meet and have already begun proselytizing its thesis. Certainly worth a second, third, and a successive rereads given the broad array of topics it covers in such a cohesive way. Simply and truly SPECTACULAR!
Dare to be an optimist…
For those interested in short tangential video related to the broader thesis take a look at Matt Ridley’s related TedX talk: [ted id=915]
- 06/05/11 marked as: currently reading
- 06/06/11 10:37 pm Page 98 22.0% “I love the thought of ideas having sex! Evolution in a whole different framework…”
- Finished book on 07/05/11