The eyes didn’t have it

A satellite image of the area (Wikipedia)

A satellite image of the area (Wikipedia)

OK. Here comes some weird stuff. Now you may say history is full of strange things, many of them also horrible. And you’d be right. But in this instance I have prehistory in mind.

Don’t think I can’t count when I then allude to the discovery on August 30 1909 of the Burgess Shale in southeastern B.C. by Charles Walcott. I realize 19-09 is not prehistory and Walcott is not a trilobite. But here’s an interesting bit. For reasons best known to rocks, the Burgess Shale formation was exceptionally good at preserving the soft bits of fossils normally lost (think how much we know about dinosaur skeletons and how little about their skin, feathers or ears if they even had any).

In fact the Burgess Shale is one of the oldest formations yet found with soft fossils, dating back a mind-bogging half billion years. And so Walcott found a bunch of odd critters, so many that he spent 15 more years there, collecting and struggling to categorize more than 65,000 fossils and fossil fragments.


No, wait. It gets weirder. You see, the rather linear, even plodding vision of them evolutions at that point didn’t have much room for mass extinctions of entire kinds of animals.

Dinosaurs, you cry? But no. They were held to be big lumbering inferior lizards well into the 1960s, as my beloved childhood How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs could testify if it too had not gone extinct. Since evolution kept improving things, it wasn’t meant to have gigantic dead ends. So Walcott tried to fit his finds into existing taxa.

Taxa is the plural of taxum, which isn’t what governments do to everybody. It’s one of those categories in the evolutionary tree, the kingdom phylum class order family genus species business that scientists still insist everything must fit into in an orderly mathematical way. But whatever the validity of this arrangement, one thing is sure. Not every little turtle makes it to the ocean and not every taxum makes it to the 20th century.

By the 1960s this idea was becoming widely accepted, along with a more dynamic, even chaotic vision of evolution, with long periods of quiet and bursts of innovation (“punctuated equilibrium”) and specialization that took a good thing too far and went thud. And thus in 1962 someone took another look at Walcott’s actual stuff instead of descriptions and analyses of things that didn’t seem to fit well into extant taxa.

I should note here that I’m not sneering. Virtually every significant museum has huge storerooms full of stuff that has piled up over the years that they don’t have space to display or time to examine. And when someone does examine it they often find surprises.

That was certainly true when Alberto Simonetta went into the dusty Burgess Shale boxes and found a great deal of really strange stuff including so-called “hopeful monsters” like Opabina, with five eyes and an aardvark-type schnozzle, and the famous or infamous Hallucigenia, well-suited to convincing scientists that they or Mother Nature had been taking banned substances.

Scientists have been quarreling over them ever since, with varying degrees of good and ill humour. But I’ll tell you what. I’m very glad Walcott dug them up and then Simonetta dug them out of storage. Because there’s some wonderfully weird beasties in it.

Not that I would have wanted to meet one for real. Even a small one. Too many spines. Too many eyes. Fascinating, yes. And wonderful. But a bit horrible as well. There are some things about nature you want to admire from behind a sheet of glass a few hundred million years thick.


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Not even a Red Cross package?

An Australian POW, Sgt. Leonard Siffleet, captured in New Guinea, about to be beheaded by a Japanese officer with a guntō, 1943. (Wikipedia)

An Australian POW, Sgt. Leonard Siffleet, captured in New Guinea, about to be beheaded by a Japanese officer with a guntō, 1943. (Wikipedia)

The line between good and evil may as Solzhenitsyn said run through every human heart. But some systems do tend to encourage the former and others the latter. For instance what is one to make, even three quarters of a century later, of the fact that on August 29 of 1942 the Red Cross was obliged to reveal that the Japanese government had refused to allow free passage of food, medicine and other supplies for American POWs in its custody?

Even the Nazis allowed supplies in through Switzerland to POWs. And they were guilty of enormous evil of every sort. Yet after enormous local efforts by the American Red Cross to collect blood, food, bandages and so on, the Japanese flatly refused to allow neutral ships to bring it in.

The weird thing is you could just have killed POWs. The Japanese were certainly known to behead captives and worse. Yet in their treatment of, for instance, the Canadians seized when Hong Kong fell, or Filipinos, Americans and others on the “Bataan Death March” had an extra streak of malevolent cruelty.

The purpose clearly was not just to kill, but to inflict suffering. And not for any instrumental reason, to intimidate or to extort. Nor was it done reluctantly by most of the guards and others involved, at the behest of a small sinister group who would torture and kill their families if they did not cooperate.

As with the Holocaust, there was a surprising degree of popular enthusiasm. Yet such things do not, with rare and appalling exceptions, break out spontaneously. Somehow or other a system is created that exacerbates the tendency toward cruelty in such a way that superiors press it on subordinates who in turn eagerly engage in such practices and push superiors toward greater cruelty. And even if it begins with some sense of purpose, to create discipline, frighten enemies or punish opponents, it eventually gains a kind of momentum of its own that is staggering in its wanton cruelty, and often baffling in retrospect even to those who were enthusiastically part of it at the time.

For the Japanese to accept Red Cross contributions to POWs would even have helped their own war effort by reducing the already limited diversion of food and medicine to POWs that were at least temporarily being kept alive. And so even as we examine our own conduct and thoughts carefully at all times and in all situations, so we must also keep a wary eye on our own institutions and those elsewhere that can, indeed, exacerbate the problem of evil in the human heart.


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A bitter triumph

illustration from the book: The Black Man's Lament, or, how to make sugar by Amelia Opie. (London, 1826) (Wikipedia)

illustration from the book: The Black Man’s Lament, or, how to make sugar by Amelia Opie. (London, 1826) (Wikipedia)

August 28 is a day to celebrate bitterly. Which might seem odd but remember we are talking about human beings here and we are an odd bunch. And what’s on my mind for this date is Royal Assent to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 which finally got rid of this blight through the British Empire (except Ceylon, Saint Helena and East India Company territories, where it was abolished in 1843).

On the one hand, it is of course much to be applauded that slavery was abolished. But how can it have taken so long. August 28 is also the anniversary of the discovery of Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus, some 500 kilometers in diameter. In 1789. How can it have taken longer to discover that slavery is evil, that racial slavery is even more evil and that the obvious answer to Josiah Wedgewood’s abolitionist pottery “Am I not a man and a brother?” is yes?

Various glib answers can be given. But it is not the sort of topic where glibness will suffice. It is not surprising that humans should have invented slavery. Hitting someone hard on the head, dragging them off and making them do your bidding is an incredibly simple wrong idea and humans have a gift for wrong ideas, simple or complicated.

What is surprising is that a people dedicated to liberty should have overlooked that slavery was wrong. And that it should have been more or less eliminated in medieval Europe, especially the north and west, only to reappear in an unprecedented and unprecedentedly ghastly form, based on race, in the Enlightenment.

One might perhaps not be surprised that slavery persisted in primitive societies where it seems to have been an almost universal institution, periodic prattle about noble savages notwithstanding. One might not be surprised that it persisted in large empires built on denial of human dignity in various parts of the world. Even the Romans were oddly blind to its essential wrongness, and even the coming of Christianity was slow in opening their eyes.

In the modern world one might even find it unsurprising in, say, Imperial Spain, whose acknowledgement of human dignity was more than a little grudging and far more evident in theory than practice. But Britain? And in Britain’s proudly free colonies that became the United States?

It did exist in what became Canada. It was rare, as much for geographic and economic reasons as anything else; it just didn’t make sense as a means of production here. But then the determined action of reformers, including those in high places, abolished it because whether or not it paid it was wrong. It should have happened anywhere.

Now to be fair, Britain gets credit for abolishing it long before other places did. Some still have not, though they are at least sufficiently shamed to lie about it except the maniacs of ISIL. And others were dragged slowly and reluctantly into following the British example, sometimes with the active encouragement of Royal Navy guns. And yet to give credit for doing so in 1833 is to admit that for some reason what we see today with such clarity was hard to see.

Especially in the United States, which really was a land of liberty and an inspiration to the world. And yet also the most important, and in a certain perverted sense successful, slave society of modern times or indeed of any times. Even as the United States navy was helping the British stamp out the oceanic slave trade worldwide (I am not making this up, a squadron of American warships was engaged in an admittedly largely ineffective patrol around Africa that only stopped about 100 slave ships despite continuing for 42 years, from 1819 to 1861), the “peculiar institution” was flourishing domestically.

To attribute it to hypocrisy has some merit. But to start tying that hypocrisy to some particular set of socioeconomic arrangements one dislikes on other grounds is glib. And if it were pure hypocrisy it would have vanished sooner. There was a genuine element of delusion about it, a conviction that it was somehow inevitable, natural, even right.

Whatever explanation one devises, taking into account the facts of the case including the greater suitability of the southern United States and Caribbean islands to slave agriculture than, say, New England or Nova Scotia, we must in the end surely admit that the jagged dividing line between good and evil that runs through every human heart is responsible both for it being abolished so late, and for it being abolished at all.


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Wish I’d said that – August 28, 2016

William James “discovered among those who had experienced the most profound religious states a virtually universal tendency toward what he called ‘monism’ and ‘optimism.’ Fundamental bedrock reality is both unified and good.”

William Bennett The Book of Virtues


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I vant to annex your province

One hundred years ago today Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary and entered World War I on the Allied side. I know. I know. Have you ever heard an ant fart in a windstorm?

No. Sorry. That was FDR’s reaction when Romania joined the Axis in the Second World War. But you might think it applied in 1916 as well. Instead it proved to be a significant boost… to the Central Powers. Poor Romania.

Its government entered the war for the noble and elevated reason that the Allies had promised them Transylvania if they won. Which prompts a sardonic question what they might have got if they’d lost but apparently they wanted it. And Dracula is kind of cool as a tourist thing. (Not only that, but the iconic Dracula actor Bela Lugosi fought with some distinction for the Austro-Hungarians in the Carpathian Mountains that extend into Transylvania. So did Erwin Rommel for the Germans. And with all due respect to Lugosi, I think the Germans did better in military terms.)

The problem is, the Romanians didn’t win. Initially it looked pretty good; the Russians in the Brusilov Offensive were laying a rare beating on the Austro-Hungarians, which doesn’t sound that hard but to the Tsar’s armies it was. In combination with the underappreciated British attack on the Somme the Germans were reeling so badly a panicky Kaiser blurted out to close associates “The war is lost” before realizing it wasn’t, at least not yet. And while the Battle of the Somme did in fact inflict a major, generally unappreciated defeat on the Germans, the tactically innovative and initially successful Brusilov Offensive wound up backfiring.

Once the Germans had managed to bail out the Austro-Hungarians and the Russians reeled backward having lost a horrifying 1.4 million men killed, wounded or captured, the entry of Romania into the war turned out to create a cavernous weakness, a much greater stretch of front for their remaining demoralized forces to try to defend.

In that sense the addition of Romania to the Allied cause, and arguably Italy, ended up causing more problems than it solved, just as the Germans were probably worse off for luring the Ottoman Empire in and even Austria-Hungary. The Romanians actually fought valiantly until the Russian Revolution and disappearance of that ally forced them to surrender.

In the final days of the war, Nov. 10 1918 to be precise, Romania managed to stagger back into the conflict following the defeat of Bulgaria. And it got Transylvania and kept it through various vicissitudes including a 1919 war with Hungary that shows just what futile bloodshed humans can get up to even in the shadow of something like World War I.

In which both sides were too prone to accumulate allies useful on paper without having a sufficiently hard look at the situation on the ground.


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Bathing suit brouhaha

So there’s this story out of France where the “top court”, the Council of State, has suspended various bans on the burkini, an arguably excessively modest form of swimwear popular among some Muslims. In a characteristic leading paragraph, NBC said “France’s top court on Friday suspended a controversial ban on full-body burkini swimsuits that has sparked heated debate both inside the country and abroad.” And I wonder: Why so much attention to this one?

Now I could write at some length about the way “controversial” is used in the press to mean “thing you should disapprove of”. Or the logic of the ban itself. Or the extraordinary French way of doing things, including that freedom of association is a largely foreign concept as opposed, in the English-speaking world, to a core right that is fast disappearing. (To give another remarkable example, this “top court” of which stories speak, the Conseil d’État, is at once the supreme court for administrative law, that is, for settling disputes about the behaviour of executive agencies, and the legal advisor to the executive branch. In the Anglosphere such an arrangement would be an unthinkable conflict of interest; in France it is seen as commendably efficient in empowering the state to run people’s lives for them.) But for now I want to ask a different question.

Why all this hoo-hah about the French ban, and not a peep about the legal and social restrictions on “immodest” swimwear and indeed clothing generally in much of the Muslim world, including extralegal violence to enforce it? Why are so many people calling the French intolerant on this issue and saying nothing about what goes on elsewhere? Where’s the “heated debate” on bans on infidel attire?

To ask this question is not to suggest that the French ban should not be debated, or that there are not reasonable arguments on both sides. Quite the reverse. And for what it’s worth, as I’ve written elsewhere, I favour considerable freedom of dress provided it isn’t obscene or likely to cause justified public alarm. But I also favour, and indeed regard as inseparable from the former, freedom of association; if I do not like how you are dressed I should be free to shun you personally and, yes, professionally. Especially if you cover your face on the grounds that if I see you, one or both of us will be soiled, which I find deeply offensive. But again, that’s not really the point here.

The point is that we seem to be holding France and the French to a much higher standard than, say, Jordan and Jordanians, let alone Iran and Iranians. For instance, a recent Daily Telegraph Travel/Advice piece said that in Jordan generally, “Women should wear loose fitting clothes, covering the arms, legs and chest area, while T-shirts are best avoided for both sexes. Women’s hair should be dry, as wet hair is said to suggest sexual availability…” What? Are you kidding me?

Obviously I would not want to be judged by that standard. I think we can do better. And the French, for all their foibles and fondness for state direction, generally do better. But for the sake of perspective about such things I also think we should be clear, in going after the French for responding to the menace of radical Islam in their own characteristic way and sometimes getting it wrong, that we are holding them to a higher standard. We might even want to fumble toward an explanation of why.

See, they’re a Western country. And while it’s politically correct to despise Western arrogance, cultural imperialism and so forth, just about everybody knows deep down that… that… that public policy in Western countries is broadly rational and tolerant whereas elsewhere it too often isn’t.

If that’s a “controversial” thing to say, well, I said it anyway.


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