Your Greatest Threat Is From Your Own Species: The Science of Animal Murder and Disney Delusions
By Heath Shive
Spring has arrived. The birds are singing. But it isn't peaceful.
Bird song is a declaration of territory, a warning to competitors, an announcement of virility, a call to feeding, a warning of danger, and a cry of anger.
Species can always threaten another species.
But in Nature, the greatest threat comes from your own species.
To the gruesome science of when animals kill their own kind.
In a Disney movie, animals talk to each other. They enjoy profound conversations. They save their friends.
Humans are bad. Humans are sinful and wicked…unless they have animal friends.
Humans have destroyed a lot of animal habitat - forests cleared for farming, rivers dammed for electricity. Humans could – and must – do this constructively.
But the greatest threat to any animal's life (including human life) comes from your own species.
Because you all eat from the same bowl, so to speak.
Red in Tooth and Claw
Researchers up to the 1960s thought that primates (except humans) were benign, social, and harmless.
But the more anthropologists were in the field, the more they witnessed how ultraviolent primates can be. Follow this link to learn more of the Gombe Chimpanzee War.
Infanticide occurs in half of all mammal species. For example, new alpha lions will kill all the cubs of the pride’s predecessor – while the mother lionesses watch.
But among primates, infanticide happens with horrific frequency. Infanticide could be as high as 37% among mountain gorillas, 44% in chacma baboons, 47% in blue monkeys, and 71% among red howler monkeys.
Baby chimps are not killed by leopards or poachers nearly as much as they killed by other chimpanzees.
Adult animals "murder" adults too. For example, a study of 155 wolf corpses in Yellowstone Park over 12 years revealed that 37% of the wolves had been killed by other wolves.
Not all species have these kind of intra-species “homicide” rates – but they are found particularly in social carnivores (packs) and primates.
Now compare these rates with humans. How often do babies die by infanticide? Is it even 1%?
What is the murder rate of human beings? Is it near the 40% mark of wolves?
The Goodness Paradox
Anthropologist Richard Wrangham wrote a remarkable book entitled The Goodness Paradox.
Wrangham points out that humans have a profound capacity for good and compassion, but how do we reconcile that with humanity’s equally profound appetite for destruction?
Wragham argues that there are 2 forms of violence: reactive violence (violence in response to an immediate threat or perceived threat) and proactive violence (planned, strategic, and intentional).
Two men fighting in a bar is reactive violence. Two nations going to war is proactive violence.
Wrangham remarks that humans are unique in the animal world – because humans are phenomenally low in reactive violence while being extremely high in proactive violence.
It’s the exact opposite in the animal world.
Wrangham’s central hypothesis in the book is this: humans evolved uniquely from other primates because we found a way to “self-domesticate.”
Put 300 chimpanzees on an airplane and when the plane lands, you’ll find dead chimps.
But humans ride airplanes all the time without incident. That explains how humans can form large groups, whereas other animal species cannot.
This is how humans can build civilization, whereas primates and wolves cannot.
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Cubaynes, Sarah,Daniel R. MacNulty, Daniel R. Stahler, Kira A. Quimby, Douglas W. Smith, and Tim Coulson. 2014. “Density-dependent intraspecific aggression regulates survival in northern Yellowstone wolves (Canis lupus).” Journal of Animal Ecology 83: 1344-56.
Infanticide data from Watt 1989; Henzi et al. 2003; Butynski 1982; Crockett and Sekulic 1984.
Butynski, T. M. 1982. “Harem-male replacement and infanticide in the blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanni) in the Kibale Forest, Uganda.” American Journal of Primatology 3: 1-22.
Crockett, Caroline M., and Ranka Sekulic. 1984. “Infanticide in red howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus).” In Infanticide: comparative and evolutionary perspectives, edited by G. Hausfater and S. B. Hrdy, pp. 173-91. New York: Aldine.
Watts, David P. 1989. “Infanticide in mountain gorillas: new cases and a reconsideration of the evidence.” Ethology 81: 1-18.
Wrangham, Richard. The Goodness Paradox. Pantheon Books, 2019.
More than an Easter Bunny: 5 Famous Rabbits From Around the World
By Heath Shive
1) Why do we have an Easter Bunny?
The use of an Easter bunny was formerly credited to the Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre. But the only surviving mention of this goddess is by the medieval historian the Venerable Bede - who doesn't associate a rabbit with her at all!
Ancient and medieval cultures around the world associated rabbits with springtime. Rabbits begin their mating season as early as February and continue to September. The rabbits would chase each other in courtship which - when combined with their large litter sizes - made rabbits a symbol of the growing fertility of the spring season.
The pagan symbolism of the rabbit was vouchsafed by the early Christian church.
But, the use of a rabbit who hides colored eggs for Easter is generally credited to the German Lutherans. Early Protestants - unlike old-school Catholics - didn't abstain from eating eggs during Lent.
Eggs were colored as apropos for the season. But while many ancient cultures decorated their eggs, it was the Germans who created the Osterhase, or what we call the Easter Bunny, a rabbit who brings colored eggs for children. The tradition was brought to America by German immigrants.
Sounds crazy? But rabbits are often thought of as crazy - which is why the British have an expression...
2) ...Mad as a March hare. Rabbits have an infamous fecundity - producing large litters after relatively short gestation periods. This hyperactive fertility can cause males to act strangely - running in circles and hopping vertically. Males can get too aggressive in the their courtship - which is why females often fight to protect themselves. A lawn full of fighting fertile rabbits? Rabbits would look crazy, hence "mad as a March hare."
The most famous March Hare is the character in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Many cultures didn't just think a rabbit was "mad," but instead was...
3) ...a masterful trickster.
The rabbit trickster is very common in Northern Native cultures, but he has a different name wherever you go. The rabbit trickster was called Glosscap by Eastern Native nations and Wisakedjak by the Cree farther west.
Nanabozho was a trickster spirit, a primordial deity born at the beginning of time. He was also a lying, stealing, and manipulative con-man too. Nanabozho could take many forms, but was a rabbit most frequently.
But the trickster rabbit was also famous in western and southern African cultures! The people of Senegal called him Leuk.
4) But we know him better as Br'er Rabbit, or Brother Rabbit.
Br'er Rabbit is the star of many of the Uncle Remus stories of the Old South. He outwits kings and peasants and every predator in the woods with his wits alone. Br'er Rabbit - like all tricksters - is morally ambiguous. He can be larcenous or heroic. But he always proves that even the physically small and weak can win - provided they have the wits.
Br'er Rabbit has fallen into disfavor in the current political climate, but...
5)...the trickster rabbit survives today as Bugs Bunny!
Bugs Bunny is the premier character of the Warner Brothers cartoon classics. Bugs is flippant, insouciant, and confident. Bugs is shown to be able to outsmart any of his antagonists - all of whom are trying to do Bugs harm. But while talking with a Brooklyn accent, and starting his repartee with a "What's up, doc?", Bugs always proves his nonchalant superiority and becomes the very model of cartoon "cool."
According to Guinness World Records, Bugs Bunny is the 9th most portrayed film personality in the world! Bugs even has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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The First Cherry Blossoms of Washington D.C...Were Burned to Protect America from Foreign Invasion?
By Heath Shive
The famous cherry trees of Washington, D.C., will begin blooming on March 20, peaking on April 4th.
The trees are beautiful, iconic, and worthy of an American's bucket list.
And the first batch was destroyed to protect America from foreign invaders.
To the history!
The Food Explorer David Fairchild
In the later 1800s, the U.S. adopted a largely unregulated gold standard which – when combined with mass production – created what economists called “the Long Depression.”
Between 1870 and 1895, the price for a bushel of corn dropped from 43 cents to 30 cents. A bushel of wheat worth $1.06 in 1870 had lost almost 40 percent of its value by 1900.
Realizing that American farmers needed more variety than just corn and wheat, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent out "food explorer" David Fairchild to gather seeds and plantings from around the world.
Fairchild is credited with introducing nectarines, avocadoes, mangoes, soybeans, and kale to the U.S.
But Fairchild’s wife Marian loved Japanese flowering cherry trees, and when the Fairchilds finally bought their first home outside D.C. in 1906, Marian ordered over 100 flowering cherry trees.
The Fairchild’s lawn become famous in the capital.
Then-president William Howard Taft had also been to Japan and had loved their flowering cherry trees. But here’s the thing: mainstream America was xenophobic just then. There had been a general ban on all Asian immigrants – especially Chinese – for decades. By 1907, Japanese and Korean immigrants in California were forced into segregated neighborhoods.
And it wasn’t good to make Japan mad. Japan was a rising world power. From 1895 to 1905, Japan had successfully won wars against China and Russia.
Planting beautiful Japanese flowering cherry trees in America's capital carried political importance.
So 300 flowering cherry trees were shipped from Tokyo to Washington, D.C.
There was just one problem. Or rather, thousands of tiny problems.
The Fruit Man vs. the Bug Man
Charles Marlatt was the USDA’s chief entomologist. When California’s crops were being destroyed by the San Jose scale (an invasive insect), it was Marlatt who had saved the day by bringing back the scale’s natural predator - ladybugs.
Yes, Charles Marlatt was the man who introduced ladybugs to the United States! But during the trip to Asia, Marlatt's wife contracted disease and died.
Foreign crops were Fairchild's fame, but Marlatt's pain.
Marlatt inspected the imported cherry trees and found them rife with pestilence: root gall, 2 kinds of scale bugs, a new species of borer, and 6 more dangerous insect species.
Taft had no choice but to burn the entire lot of trees, which newspapers made into a public spectacle.
Taft and the diplomatic corps were afraid of Japan’s reaction, but Japan expressed only shame – shame that they had given so inferior a gift.
New trees were sent, and these trees passed even Marlatt’s scrutiny.
And on March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Taft planted the first tree and the Japanese ambassador’s wife planted the second tree.
A century later, the trees still bloom, and national news networks use the blossoming as a kind of harbinger of spring.
In fact, Americans love the trees so much, that no one cares that these trees don’t make cherries.
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Stone, Daniel. The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats. Dutton, 2018.
The Pee That Set the World on Fire: Phosphorus and the “Last Alchemist”
By Heath Shive
A lot of science has its origins with weird people doing weird things!
The mother mold of all modern penicillin was discovered on a rotten melon by a woman named Mary (“Moldy Mary,” as she was called by her jerk co-workers).
The so-called “last of the alchemists” Hennig Brand discovered the element phosphorus in his urine – a whole lot of urine – in 1669 in Hamburg.
And if “truth is stranger than fiction,” then no wonder science can be pretty weird.
To the science of the pee that set the world on fire!
The Elixir of Life…and Other Stuff
Not much is known of Hennig Brand’s early life, except that he married very well – with a substantial dowry – and then pursued his chemistry research full-time.
Water fascinated alchemists; it is after all the universal solvent. And humans created water in the form of urine. Urine happens to have a golden color, and gold just so happened to fascinate alchemists too.
Brand boiled and condensed thousands of liters of urine. God only knows what his house must have smelled like. Brand noticed a vapor from boiling urine that had a ghostly glow, and that the vapor could be condensed into a waxy white substance that also glowed.
“Phosphorus” means “bringer of light.
Brand showed off his new prize to the courts and scholars of Europe, but he kept the secret of its making to himself. After Brand’s death, it was a generation later before other chemists repeated his success.
The famous scientist Robert Hooke recreated Brand’s work and wrote a recipe – which can be found in Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ book Periodic Tales.
The recipe goes something like this: Take a quantity of Urine (not less for one Experiment than 50 or 60 Pails full); let it lie steeping…till it putrify (sic)…in 14 or 15 days. Then…set some to boil…till at last the whole Quantity be reduced to Paste…add thereto some fair Water…boil them together for ¼ of an Hour…strain…boil’d till it come to a Salt…
Incidentally, in Periodic Tales, the author does try to create phosphorus from his own pee.
Don’t judge. After all, some people play golf.
A century later, two Swedes named Carl Scheel and Johan Gahn showed that bones were actually a much better source for phosphorus. About 20 percent of the human skeleton is calcium phosphate. Industrial phosphorus today comes from phosphate rocks, like apatite.
Phosphorus doesn’t just glow with an “inner fire,” it violently combusts on contact with oxygen – which is why phosphorus is usually stored under water.
In July 1943, during World War Two, Brand’s hometown of Hamburg was bombed with 1,900 tonnes of white phosphorus incendiary bombs. On the third night of bombing, a firestorm was created that “melted between forty thousand and fifty thousand people.”
Since then, phosphorus has been a military staple used to create illumination at night or smokescreens. But dropping phosphorus bombs (on civilian targets) has never happened since.
Phosphorus may burn with an inner fire, but so do human beings. Sometimes we burn with eccentric curiosity, like Brand. Sometimes we burn with a violence, like war.
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Aldersey-Williams, Hugh. Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements from Arsenic to Zinc. Viking, 2011.
Stwertka, Albert. A Guide to the Elements. 3rd ed. Oxford, 2012.
Doughnuts, Dishonesty, and What Makes a Holiday Disappointing
By Heath Shive
Holidays started out as “holy days” – a time for rest. But there’s no rest for the wicked - and apparently the wicked steal doughnuts and bagels!
That's how you can judge a holiday.
And people steal more doughnuts around Christmas than any other time of year!
Don’t believe me?
To the science!
The Bagel Man and His Magic Math
Paul Feldman was an economic analyst for years. He then retired and started a bagel/doughnut delivery business. After a few years, he was delivering over 8,000 bagels a week to over 140 companies. Because Feldman used to be an economic analyst, his records are immaculate…and filled to the brim with data to scrutinize.
In an 8-year period, he delivered 1.375 million bagels and over 648 thousand doughnuts.
How often are people honest? Paul Feldman knows the answer. People are honest – on the average – 89% of the time.
What Do Bagels Have To Do With a Bad Holiday?
Because of his mountainous data, Feldman could see all kinds of trends, such as:
People are more likely to steal bagels and doughnuts during Christmas time than any other holiday!
Overall payment rates drop 2 percent (from an 89% honesty rate to 87%) during the week of Christmas. This boost in dishonesty represents an 15% increase in theft!
Thanksgiving is almost as bad. St. Valentine’s Day is “lousy” and so is the week of Tax Day (April 15th).
Here’s another surprise. People were more honest during July 4th, Labor Day, and Columbus Day.
You would think that Christmas would the time of maximum honesty and goodwill. So why the extra bad instead of extra good?
In the acclaimed best-selling book Freakonomics, authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner reviewed this case of bagel theft in the very first chapter of their book.
They compared the holidays. Why are Christmas and St. Valentine’s Day so different from Labor Day and even Columbus Day?
Because holidays like Christmas (and Thanksgiving and St. Valentine’s) represent a major financial setback and an overwhelming increase in anxiety. In contrast, holidays like Labor Day and Columbus Day are basically just a day off of work.
What makes a holiday good – or any day of any week, for that matter – is how much stress and anxiety it creates.
But since Christmas and St. Valentine’s Day are not likely to get any easier to bear in the future, things will look bleak for honesty (and doughnut sales) come the holidays.
So remember, when a high-spending holiday looms, keep an eye on your valuables. People are more willing to steal. ‘Tis the season.
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Levitt, Steven D. and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything. William Morrow (HarperCollins imprint), 2005.
Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt (June 6, 2004). "What The Bagel Man Saw". The New York Times.
30 Days Hath November: The Ancient Magic (and Modern Math) of 60
By Heath Shive
“Thirty days hath September/April, June, and November/All the rest have thirty-one/Except February.”
As a poem, this stinks. As a way to remember numbers, it’s helpful.
Math doesn’t have to be profound, poetic, or even comprehensible. Math only needs to be helpful.
As science author Brian Clegg writes in his book Are Numbers Real?: “Math, in the end, provides nothing more or less than a set of rules that are used to get from a starting point to an outcome.”
And if we have problems with numbers today, imagine what it was like for humanity in the Bronze Age?!
How did the ancients get along with numbers?
They used the magic of the number 60! And we still do today, sometimes.
To the math!
The Magic of 60
The modern metric system is brilliantly based on the number 10. And yet in Bronze Age Babylon, the base number used was 60. Why? The number 10 makes sense (10 fingers, 10 toes, etc), right?
But 10 is awful for fractions. In the year 2000 B.C., you do not need fractions. Fractions are so abstract, and the real world uses whole numbers. Ancient merchants didn’t sell 1/3 of a camel or 2/7 of a jug of wine.
And yet they still needed to be able to divide things up.
So they used 60. The number 10 is divisible only by 1, 2, 5, and 10. But the number 60 can be divided by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60. So 60 is just so much more useful!
And ancient Babylon did use it. Twelve months to a year. Each month has 30 days. A total of 360 days.
Hey, you say, there are 364.25 days in a year!
That’s right! That is why ancient calendars threw in extra days with intercalation (or epagomenal days in Ancient Egypt).
Where Is the 60?
We see 60-base numbers pop up in strange ways: ancient pantheons had 12 gods, 12 signs to a zodiac, 12 tribes in Ancient Israel, 12 apostles, 12 months a year, 30 days a month, 4 seasons, 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes an hour, etc.
But you say: Hey, I see more 12 than 60!
That’s right. You would almost believe that the number system was based on 12. But no. The number 12 is just the most common (and most accessible for the illiterate) factor of 60!
The ancient world used 60 in other ways, especially with money. The talent was a large denomination of money used by Babylonians, Sumerians, and Hebrews. Originally, a talent was divided into 60 minas, and each mina was divided into 60 shekels. Jesus was betrayed by Judas for “30 pieces of silver,” or 30 shekels.
And of course, November still has 30 days.
No one ever invented geometry, algebra, or calculus for fun. Math in all its forms and numeric glory must - in the end - serve a purpose.
And after a while, 60 wasn’t useful anymore and was left behind. Ten is the new base number for our society.
But back when there was no such thing as a calculator, abacus, slide rule, algebra, or geometry – not even a public school system to teach fundamentals – the number 60 was the world’s math teacher.
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Clegg, Brian. Are Numbers Real? The Uncanny Relationship of Mathematics and the Physical World. St. Martin’s Press, 2016.
Canada’s Stone Cold Success with Immigration
By Heath Shive
Natives versus newcomers! It’s an ancient dynamic. Immigration usually meant invasion, in the Old Days. And in the Modern Age, some still feel that way, all over the world.
But one country found “the sweet spot.”
Jonathon Tepperman wrote a book entitled The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World of Decline.
In the book, Tepperman uses Canada’s immigration policy as an example to the world. But he is not shy about why Canada adopted its policy – which had a lot less to do with political enlightenment and much more to do with cold, hard political engineering.
To the fix!
A Cold Truth of the Great White North
More than a half century ago, Canada was experiencing economic growth, but it had problems filling the jobs.
At that time, Canada was economically healthy, but politically the nation seemed to be falling apart. The separatist movement for an independent Quebec was stronger than ever. And regionally, Canadians were affiliating almost as strongly with their American neighbors – “Nova Scotians with New Englanders, Manitobans with Minnesotans, Alberta cowboys with Montana ranchers” – as they did with fellow Canadians.
To solve the shortage of labor in the country, Canada formally abandoned ethnicity as a basis for evaluating immigrants in 1962 – becoming the becoming the first country in the world to do so!
But the audacious Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau went a few steps farther with a new super-charged immigration policy. Trudeau thought that immigrants were key to Canada’s future…and unity.
Unity…by immigrants? How? Immigrants – once integrated – were more likely to identify with the central government, and greater national identity meant a weaker regional identity (e.g., a separatist Quebecois).
And a large flow of immigrants meant a much needed population surge for the 2nd-largest country on earth!
There’s a Catch
“Open arms” did not mean “open border.” Immigration was given a greater governmental focus, but that meant greater stringency for a greater number of regulations.
Only certain immigrants would be let in. As Tepperman writes, “Henceforth, all independent applicants for residency – regardless of birthplace or race – would be assessed by assigning them points on the basis of nine criteria, such as education, age, fluency in English or French, and whether or not their skills fit Canada’s economic needs.”
Only immigrants who were fluent, educated, and skilled were allowed.
No fluency in English or French? No skills? Criminal record? Stay out.
Even in Canada, there's no "free lunch."
In a speech in October 1971, Trudeau promised that his government would support all cultures – small or strong. But immigrants had to demonstrate “a desire and effort…to contribute to Canada.”
National integration did not have to mean cultural assimilation – and thus cultural pluralism is born.
And in Canada, it works great. Tepperman mentions that, today, over 20 percent of Canada’s citizens are foreign-born – more than twice the number in the United States.
(Note: Only 6% of Canada's immigrants are undocumented, whereas around 1/3 of America's immigrants are undocumented. This is the result more of geographic isolation than utopian success.)
Canada's policy was not about being “nice.” This was a practical and successful way to make Canada bigger and better than ever by making sure that the better and stronger immigrants went north…instead of somewhere else.
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Tepperman, Jonathon. The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline. Tim Duggan Books, 2016.
War: The Beneficial History of Conquest(?)
By Heath Shive
The only constants in life are death and taxes. And nothing quite blends these two constants better than war.
War is always expensive (and thus needs taxes) and always lethal (and thus requires death).
There seem to be 2 dominant emotions about war. War is either a grotesque evil or a glorious expression of ideals.
But is war good for anything?
And according to nationally renowned history professor Ian Morris, the answer is yes – as long as the war accomplishes one thing.
What thing is that?
To the history of war!
Savage Past, Peaceful Present
In the 1990s, anthropologist Lawrence Keeley (author of War Before Civilization) showed that the Stone Age societies that still existed in the 20th century were shockingly violent. Feuding and raiding typically carried off 1 person in 10 or even 1 in 5.
Ian Morris cites that by most estimates 10 to 20 percent of all people living in Stone Age societies died at the hands of other humans!
Primitive humanity was ultraviolent!
Ian Morris makes this comparison. After World War Two, between 1950 and 1974, just 1 Scandinavian in 5,000 and 1 Briton in 4,000 died violently, and while the American homicide rate – 1 in 700 – remained higher than Europe’s, it had still fallen 50 percent since the 1930s.
How did humanity decrease its violent death rate by 99% over the course of a few thousand years?!!
The answer: War.
Conquest Is Good?
Ian Morris wrote the fascinating book War! What Is It Good For? The book is over 400 pages long, so it’s hard to summarize his theory in a blog article. But here it is.
In the ancient past, humanity was comprised of hundreds of tribes – each with a territory defined by a border.
Since war is overwhelming fought along borders against external foes, the more borders that exist the greater the number of wars.
But a funny thing happens when your tribe is conquered by an empire! Your tiny wars stop, the tribes are overwhelmed by a new over-arching political identity, tranquility is enforced, and the society becomes more prosperous.
The Romans were militant and aggressive, but after the Romans conquered your smaller state, you were part of the empire. The Romans conquered you…then protected you. War moved away from you to the new border and peace followed – the Pax Romana.
In ancient China, there was the classical period of the Seven Warring States. All of these States were conquered by the Han Dynasty, which imposed peace and created a Pax Sinica (Morris’ words).
Once India was a jumble of dozens of competing rajah states. Then the British Raj conquered the entire subcontinent. Death rituals from suttee to thuggee were abolished. Following the last War of Indian Independence (or Sepoy Mutiny, depending on whom you ask), the subcontinent had 80 non-war years – time enough to form a comprehensive national identity. The British Empire disintegrated…but India did not, and remains one united nation to this day.
The Roman Empire, the Han dynasty, and the British Raj were no paradise – but they were considerably less violent than their predecessors.
This is Morris’ theory: War only becomes a net positive if it results in the expansion of the nation-state.
So according to Morris' theory, any war or conflict that does not expand the nation-state is a loss. Death and taxes are a constant. It's bad enough to lose tax revenue to war. To lose the lives of your people too...
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Morris, Ian. War! What Is It Good For? : Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.
Keeley, Lawrence. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Oxford University Press (New York), 1996.
Fifteen Pretty Cool Facts About Pumpkins
By Heath Shive
America is pretty pumpkin-crazy from September through November. In 2012, American Studies Professor Cindy Ott wrote an exhaustive book entitled Pumpkins: The Curious History of an American Icon - which details how the pumpkin went from poor people's food to an autumn idol of Americana.
From her book, here are some facts for your pumpkin “fix.”
1. The word pumpkin is a derivation of the French pompion, which comes from the Latin pepo, meaning to ripen, or “cook by the sun.” Before Europeans colonized the Americas, a pompion connoted a large fruit, melon or gourd – basically, anything round in a garden.
2. Although Americans today commonly refer to the pumpkin as a vegetable, it is by definition a fruit! It is a seed packet encased in flesh and develops from a flower, like apples and berries.
3. The pumpkin is probably the oldest domesticated plant in the Western Hemisphere! Archaeologists discovered the oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds in a cave at Guilá Naquitz, Oaxaca, Mexico. The seeds date from 10,000 to 8,000 years ago, which is 2,000 years earlier than the oldest corn or bean seeds yet found!
4. What we call a “Pumpkin” today was domesticated by American Indians living in eastern North American about 5,000 years ago. Their yellow and green squashes were the source for the species Cucurbita pepo. The modern field pumpkin (your jack-o’-lantern) is born from the species Cucurbita pepo!
5. Here’s where it gets a little weird. The orange field pumpkin is derived from species Cucurbita pepo – and so is the zucchini! Zucchini, acorn squash, patty pan squash, and the classic orange field pumpkin are all the same species! They’re just different varieties (cultivars).
6. But there’s more than one species of pumpkin! The other great pumpkin species is Cucurbita moschata. From C. moschata, we also get butternut squash, winter crookneck, and the famous Dickinson pumpkin (the best pumpkin for pies). C. moschata dates date back to 6,900 years ago and was born in Mexico. The pumpkin species C. moschata is the pumpkin you touch more often, because it’s the pumpkin you eat – not the pumpkin you carve.
7. That’s right! Your jack-o’-lantern and your pumpkin pie are made from two different kinds of pumpkin! Your jack-o’-lantern is made from Cucurbita pepo, but your pumpkin pie is made from Cucurbita moschata. This fact is often overlooked so that some people believe that pumpkin pie is actually made from squash. No, no, no! Pumpkin pie is made from pumpkins - just a different species of pumpkin, the Dickinson pumpkin of Cucurbita moschata!
8. To be more precise, about 90% of the pumpkin eaten in the United States is made from the Dickinson pumpkin, a pumpkin variety of C. moschata. Dickinson pumpkins are famous for having the most flesh and the best taste. Libby’s – the most popular brand of canned pumpkin – makes all of its canned pumpkin from a variety of the Dickinson called “Libby’s Select.”
9. Incidentally, the word squash is derived from the Algonquian language of Native America. Squash and pumpkins were called isquoutersquash or askutasquash, summer squash and winter squash respectively. Squash means “to eat raw.” Pumpkins were included with askutasquash.
10. One of the greatest assets of pumpkin and winter squash was their ability to be preserved over the winter, when other food was scarce. Memoirs of French voyageurs describe how American Natives would cut the pumpkin into slices and string them up to dry. It would last for months and was eaten like beef jerky.
11. All colonial farms had pumpkin patches by the 1700s. The pumpkins were famous for bearing a large number of large fruits that could last all winter. Pumpkins were crucial to colonial survival. As Cindy Ott describes, “When people had no apples for pies, barley for beer, or meat for supper, they could substitute the prolific pumpkin.”
12. In the early 1800s, pumpkins were derided as a “poor people’s food.” By this time, pumpkins were used principally as food for cows and pigs.
13. As squashes acquired respectability as a food and commodity, they became a part of the modern world. The pumpkin was different. Because the pumpkin – the field pumpkin in particular –retained its association with the subsistence farm economy, it remained a powerful symbol of nature.
14. By the late 1800s, the only time most people ate pumpkin was for Thanksgiving. The pumpkin pie became a Northern tradition – and so its symbolic power increased.
15. The pumpkin became more and more powerful as a symbol - for the harvest season, from Halloween to Thanksgiving. By 2007, 87 percent of pumpkins were not even eaten but were put on display as Halloween and autumn decorations. The pumpkin is now an American icon.
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Ott, Cindy. Pumpkins: The Curious History of an American Icon. University of Washington Press, 2012.
Everyone on Earth Is Your Cousin?
By Heath Shive
I was watching an episode of the TV show 30 Rock. On the episode “The Head and the Hair,” Liz Lemon meets a handsome man…only to find out that they are distant cousins. Lemon promptly breaks up with him.
But here’s something weird someone told me.
Technically, everyone on Earth is your cousin – your 30th cousin at least.
To the logic!
Cousins by Number
Imagine this. Your mom takes you to see your grandmother. While she’s there, your mom meets her sister. Your mother’s sister is your aunt, of course. Your aunt’s children are your 1st cousins. You are “1st” cousins because only 1 generation separates you and your cousins from your common ancestor (your grandmother in this scenario).
This is the cousin system of degree and removal.
Your children and your cousin’s children will be 2nd cousins, because 2 generations will separate them from a common ancestor.
(Incidentally, your 1st cousin’s children would be your 1st cousins-once-removed.)
Cousins to the Nth Power!
Every human on Earth needs 2 biological parents. That means every human has 4 biological grandparents, and 8 great-grandparents, and so on.
Follow the math? 2 times 2 times 2…
If you want to go back 30 generations, then you have to figure out the math of 2 taken to the 30th power.
If 2 is taken to the 30th power, then the number is 1,073,741,824.
That’s over 1 billion people!
But here’s the problem: 1 billion people did not exist 30 generations ago!
It has been estimated that the world human population did not reach 1 billion until around the year 1804.
So that means, sooner or later, everyone on Earth must share at least 1 common ancestor in the last 30 generations!
By this logic, everyone on Earth is at least a 30th cousin!
We Are Family
It hard to believe that you are a cousin to Oprah Winfrey, Jackie Chan, and Emilia Clarke. And you are a cousin to Presidents Barack Obama…and Donald Trump!
But, of course, that doesn’t mean that every marriage is an act of incest. Genetic variation distances our bloodlines pretty quickly!
So, for example, there’s no reason Emilia Clarke and I cannot get married (and I wonder if that’s why she’s not returning my phone calls).
But the human family is more well-connected than we like to think.
And doesn’t this put war in a weird perspective?
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Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.