|« March 07, 2004 - March 13, 2004 | Main | March 21, 2004 - March 27, 2004 »|
March 20, 2004
More genetic content
Added a great new blog to the blogroll-Genetic Chaos, it's tag-line is, "Using genetic research to study human migration patterns." Great reference for aggregating all these studies....
Stupid strikes again!
Email from a friend:
This of course is the same female that I referred to in The unbearable awkwardness of alienation.
Recently I received a email from Ikram that indicated that “visible minorities” in Canada tend to economically under-perform as a function of their educational level. This is an interesting point in light of the fact that many American intellectuals who argue for reformed immigration policies, George Borjas being an example, have pointed to the Canadian model, which emphasizes educational qualifications over familial connections, as one which might be worthy of emulation. Is it preferable to have holders in advanced degrees performing low level service & menial tasks rather than those who are more usually “accustomed” to such economic roles in society? What implications does it have for the values of a society, the internal social dynamics, and long term prospects, when holders in doctorates might serve you a shot of coffee as you rush off to work in the morning?
Back to first principles. We are basically addressing the issue of what type of community human beings would like be members of, what is good in light of core values, and what is practical for “efficient” functioning. If anthropologist Robin Dunbar is correct, human cognitive functions can instinctively create social models of up to 150 individuals, in other words, this was the upper bound numerically of human groups in the “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness” (EEA). Solutions to the “free rider” problem, such as “tit-for-tat,” are very appropriate in these contexts, where one individual might have some minimal level of familiarity with everyone in their social group. If hunter-gatherer groups of today are any indication, these societies are materially rather egalitarian, and advancement up the social ladder is open to those with some level of ingenuity and capacity. This does not deny the fact that a hierarchy exists within these groups, or blood relationships might count for something in future prospects, but there is nothing that resembles the perception of stasis that would characterize the Indian caste system or the medieval European manorial society. At any given moment each individual can conceive of a mental model, an accurate sociological gestalt, which can be brought bear on everyday social interactions. Though there might be a division of labor down the gender divide, there is relatively little professional specialization, and no great surplus production to support more than a few social specialists, for instance, perhaps a shaman. Though “Every Man a King” would be exaggerating the experience of day to day life, it seems plausible that one’s competency in the task of hunting would correlate well with one’s social positioning for males (in addition to obvious skills at group politics). Some analogy might be made with the dynamics within groups of extended adolescent cliques, though obviously the analogy collapses when fixed socioeconomic differentials are taken into account.
Yet by the time the first cuneiform tablets exist to record life in ancient Sumeria the EEA seems to already have been in decline. In the thousands of years between the rise of agriculture and the emergence of literate city-state culture, village life had become the dominant social norm in much of the “Old World.” Some of these “villages,” such as Catal Huyuk or Jericho, were rather large, on the order of thousands of individuals. But the social module of the human mind did not scale up concomitantly, human beings still remained within the numerical constraints of the EEA, 50-100 individuals. It seems that the processing power for modeling the social interactions of thousands of individuals simply is outside the purview of the human mind, or at least such a capacity is saddled with too many other functional constraints to have been selected for. This does not negate the possibility that these dense coagulations of humanity did have an impact on the optimal psychological profile of a typical human, but whatever changes did occur were likely in response to new challenges, as opposed to a simple scaling up of the EEA social model (ie; little social complexity, interpersonal, as opposed to institutional, relationships being dominant).
Though the world of Mesopotamia was fundamentally alien to the modern sensibility, in many ways it prefigured the basic social institutions that remain central to our lives to this day. The Sumerian city-states had temples, priests, elective kings, armies, merchants, legal codes, and so on. Social specialization, and the intermediary institutions that allow human societies to scale up in size were already in existence at this point. Individuals, families, interacted with separate institutions at distinct points in their life, making their peace with each institution and establishing the modus vivendi. Even if the common man could not understand every detail that allowed the continued “artificial” existence of the city-state, he understood its gross characteristics, and knew how to manipulate its detailed features. One might think of this as a form of proto-reductionism, because early man could not mentally cope with the totality of the city-state social system, it naturally had specialized organs that divided the various functions in a way that was digestible for its clients. In a similar fashion, though humans have an inborn numeracy, to grasp “higher math,” one must often work out details in various regions, blind at that moment to other domains of mathematical knowledge that do not directly build on the task at hand. One could say the same about “folk biology,” or “folk psychology.” To scale up, humans have had to cede gestalt understanding, and trust their general intelligence, and the synergistic potentialities of their mental modules.
Nevertheless, the EEA has still left its stamp upon us. In the 5,000 years of written history, one can recount many “social experiments” that have failed because they operate outside the constraints imposed by the EEA. As I have noted before, the most successful political culture the world has known so far, that of Imperial China, perpetuated itself with the mythology of its basic essence as an extended family, using the natural propensities of humans and abstracting them to a totally alien context. Even less successful models such the Roman Empire did the same, the pagan God-Emperors were the fathers of empire, while the Christian Emperors were the vice-regent of God the Father on earth. Highly utopian social-political movements that brought to bear general rational intellect divorced from our social psychology tended to fail, or regress back to man’s natural state in practice, though maintaining the utopian fiction outwardly.
The gross features of modern political ideologies can be traced back to the tensions in the EEA. For instance, many human societies have egalitarian movements, and the tendency has often been countenanced from the elite levels. The Jubilee years in the Roman Catholic tradition, or the policy of early Chinese dynasties to break the power of local oligarchs in favor the free peasantry, echo a yearning for a more socially egalitarian world shorn of the baroque ornamentalism of intermediary institutions and multiple social grades that manifest themselves in a professionally specialized world. In contrast, the human quest for material goods, and social esteem in the eyes for others, reflects the dynamics of the early tribe to evince a spectrum of status and achievement. As designers of role playing games have noted, any system that enforces material egalitarianism is unpopular, rather, individuals wish to ascend the ranks and dominate others. So just as many Chinese dynasties began with land redistribution that skewed toward the free peasantry, some of these peasants always became wealthier over the generations and crystallized into the new local oligarchs, and in the next cycle of redistribution would be dispossessed.
Social mobility has been a constant throughout human history. The thousands of knights listed in the Doomsday Book during the reign of William the Conqueror have left not one direct paternal descendent that can claim a noble title. Augustus Caesar had to legislate in favor of the sons of Senators who had fallen below the asset level needed to qualify, and against equestrians who had become so wealthy that they aspired to the purple toga. The semi-permeability of the Chinese mandarinate during some periods lent truth to the phrase, “three generations up, three generations down.”
But formalized, ritualized, and often sanctified hierarchy has also been the rule for thousands of years. This sort of thinking can find its apotheosis in the Divine Right of Kings or the Indian caste system, where at least the appearance of social stasis squelches the aspirations of many who would want to attain higher social status. When these societies, and they are likely the majority of human societies since the rise of Sumer, are in equilibrium, social mobility is mitigated. It is during times of stress, transition and chaos that openings are available for a reconstitution of the subsequent order of things. Octavianus’ (Augustus) birth father was an obscure (but wealthy) plebian. The founder of the Han dynasty was a nobody. Diocletian, the initiator of Roman Imperial revival in the late the 3rd century began as a military clerk. As institutions crack, founder and collapse, human societies regress back to atomic units, often bands of hundreds or fewer. Within these bands, new men can rise as high as their ingenuity and cleverness takes them, and one of these competing bands of ambitious men will establish itself at the apex of the social pyramid as it reconstitutes itself.
And so there we have it. Scratch beneath the hyper-complexity of civilization, and you still have competing bands, men and women striving to “make it to the top.” A stable and powerful civilization attempts to impose stasis on the current order, the new men of the new order soon become the old men of the old order, jealous of their privileges and suspicious of competition. Embedded within the masses of humanity that exist underneath the apex of the social pyramid there still remain individuals who would strive to be “King.” These are men and women who are still very much the socially ambitious hunter-gatherers of their forbears. Their general intellectual capacities understand that the social order is as it is, that their striving will yield only so much, but their primeval instincts, shaped in a smaller and more unstable cauldron, drives them on. This tendency is fortuitous when an established order is overturned.
This idea, part myth, part fact, is a central element in the identity of the United States of America. Other nations also partake of it, especially England’s “settler colonies,” where land was plentiful and people were few and far between. Change is the new stasis! Within the general framework of a meritocratic society, nepotism, socioeconomic status and class snobbery still exist, but they have far less legitimacy than in more “traditional” societies. In the United States, and many other nations, the idea of equality before the law, and differentials in material and social outcome, coexist within the framework of equality of opportunity. Just as equality of opportunity was not absolute in the EEA, it is not absolute in the United States of America, but one can see some resemblance between these post-industrial democratic republics and the EEA. Intermediary institutions, church, guild and clan, have been marginalized in comparison to their past primacy. With the advances in the natural and human sciences, surplus economic production has allowed individualism to flower as professional specialists no longer need to be supported by masses of peasant farmers. The rising educational meritocracy means that young people of lesser means can aspire to becoming a professional, if they have the capacities and work ethic, while the children of affluence may over the generations decline toward mediocrity. A proliferation of information, and its cheapness, are likely reasons that the great thinkers of today need not be men of the leisured or professional classes in origin. Of course, the logical end point of this meritocracy might be a new stasis, one of fixed blood lineages as inborn talent associates with inborn talent, but that possibility is still in our future, and not the present.
The vision above, of a meritocracy of talent, has not always been the ascendant model. Thinkers who are genuinely “conservative” aim for a more “organic” society, where individual competition is mitigated in favor of social stability, order and coexistence. A logical end-point of this might be the Indian caste system, where one’s birth putatively dictates one’s occupation, though in practice this is not so. Thinkers like Gandhi did praise caste as a salve against the hyper-competition that they perceived as the raison d’etre of the “modern” West. In the Far East, clan lineages, blood ties, have mixed with Western economic models to produce what we term “crony capitalism.” Contracts may be awarded on social connections rather than the lowest bid, operating on the latter principle might be seen as crass and classless. There is obviously no binary dualism between an organic class oriented society and a meritocratic law oriented one. But there certainly exists a spectrum.
In the modern West, and narrowly interpreted North America, I think it is plausible that most individuals would prefer the latter over the former, that equality of opportunity is worth any minor cost in social anomie that might result from the consistent churn between generations. And so I get back to the Ikram’s point, about the phenomena of non-whites (often immigrants) of high educational qualifications who occupy lower professional grades than might be expected. There are many hypothesis one could forward to explain this occurrence, from racism, to lack of social networks, differentials in educational quality between Canada and nations of origin. This is not a Canadian issue alone, immigrants who have educational qualifications but are lacking in employment prospects in their professions are known in the United States, Israel and many European countries.
But, because of Canada’s peculiar system of immigration, which favors those with skills and education, the phenomena is perhaps more acute and noticeable than in the United States, which also has a large stream of less skilled and educated immigrants entering the country based on family reunification criteria. In many places like California you have new immigrants, often of Mexican origin, who do much of the back breaking and menial tasks for a relative pittance, and are happy to do it. Their work ethic is legendary, and the first generation is satisfied with the monetary return that their work provides. From the perspective of an organically defined society, “to each according to their abilities” is satisfied. In contrast, the Canadian system might entail a more resentful class of immigrants, who in their home countries were part of the educated elite, and saw the move as concurrent with a decline in socioeconomic status.
It is in the next generation though that our thought experiment is going to bear fruit, who will fair better, the children of agricultural workers in the Central Valley whose forbears for generations have performed in such a role, or the children of highly over-educated construction workers and baristas in Toronto whose parents have shown them evidence that education does not always equal success? If one is an optimistic organically oriented conservative (paradox?), one would assert that the children of the agricultural workers will take their “natural” roles in society, and continue to work in the same profession as their parents, their grandparents, and great-grandparents. The same organicist would look to the children of the immigrants in Toronto, and not know what to make of them, their social expectations from their parents are mixed, for they are aware of their elite origins, but exist in reduced circumstances. From the perspective of the meritocrat, one could see hope in the children of both groups, with the more cheerful attitude of the less skilled parents balancing out the rage of the more educated immigrant generation.
At this point, I will let the reader draw their own conclusions. My personal opinion, at least judging from the success of Canadian Japanese, is that diminished circumstances in the first generation does not drag down the success of the children and grandchildren of these people, who have time to form the social networks and culturally attuned interpersonal skills necessary for success in their new homeland. In contrast, I believe that the children of farm laborers will be more resentful, lacking the social capital to leverage the public school system from their parents, but immersed in the mythology of the perfect meritocracy. The situation in Canada I believe is closer to the EEA, in that the social and intellectual capital that an educated immigrant brings passes on to the children, and these children can potentially compete in a modern dynamic economy. In contrast, illiterate peasant farmers have limited possibilities in the United States, though greater ones than might be had in their homelands, and they often pass on these narrow horizons to their children.
March 18, 2004
Dominance hierarchies -- based on the relationship of domination and submission -- are characteristic of all non-human hominid societies (an extreme example being the tiny-testicled, alpha-male gorilla lording it over his band of mates) and are found in many other species of animal -- as in the proverbial pecking order among chickens, dogs, horses, etc.
Likewise, dominance hierarchies are a defining characteristic -- in fact, an overwhelming feature -- of every known civilization before modern times.
It is a curious fact, therefore, that dominance hierarchies are rare in the ethnographic literature describing hunting-and-gathering societies -- and thus, presumably, also rare in hunting-and-gathering societies as they existed during much of our common evolutionary past.
To account for this fact, an anthropologist at UCLA named Christopher Boehm proposed a couple of years ago the idea of a reverse dominance heirarchy.
The gist of his idea is that a love of dominance was so bred into the human species (males above all) during their long, shared hominid past, that they developed an innate distaste of being dominated by others. Thus armed with a motive, and using the cooperative skills which language and their big brains conferred upon them, all the lesser males in a group who were in danger of being dominated by an alpha male, would band together (form a reverse dominance hierarchy) to put the would-be tyrant in his place. In this way, dominance behavior, while not eliminated entirely, could be moderated and dispersed. (To learn more, Google reverse dominance hierarchy or read Boehm's book Heirarchy in the Forest
Boehm's idea is interesting as a concept in evolutionary psychology, quite obviously, to say nothing of the contribution it might make, if it holds up, to the theory of democracy. But the question that I want to ask is different:
Given the presumed rarity of dominance hierarchies during the Paleolithic, and their well-documented universality in all civilized societies that emerged from the Neolithic (when agriculture was developed) what was the actual mechanism that led to the demise of "reverse dominance hierarchies" at the dawn of history: not only in Sumeria and Egypt, but in India, China, Mexico and Peru? (These should probably be treated as independent phenomena, I think, certainly in the case of Mexico and Peru.) Can anyone come up with a reasonably precise and coherent explanation that makes intuitive sense, something we can really understand?
Or do we settle for the grey mush in all the textbooks: that agriculture made it possible to grow a surplus of food, populations built up, societies became more complex, and people gradually lost control?
Just a heads up-my dial up connection here in florida at the hotel is crap, so I might not respond to emails until I find a good wi-fi spot.
March 16, 2004
The middle-class & free markets
I don't know who this guy is, but he mounts an interesting challenge to the libertarian point of view, with some pertinant historical observations. If American living standards continue to erode, it's the sort of thinking that's bound to gain traction in the period ahead.
Only, thanks to the IT revolution, there are better tools than high tariffs & the progressive income tax to deal with the situation.
Brian Greene is being interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air in preperation for his new book, and the host tried to insert the thought that String Theory and Religion/Spirituality might be related-he rejected that conflation rather forcefully. Greene did concede that some of the ideas that have emerged out of physics resemble those of certain religious & philosophical schools, but, this is inevitable when considered in light of the reality that the analogies physicists use to communicate their theories to the public are often taken from the same mental universe that religious thinkers have always had to draw from. Therefore, a certain intersection linguistically between these two fields is inevitable.
Math for the masses?
Norman Levitt destroys Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science-from the Babylonians to the Maya in Skeptic magazine by focusing on the misrepresentations of the history of mathematics, in particular, the shaft given to the classical Greeks and the modern West. Levitt concludes:
I have noted on this blog that I believe that the vast majority of the human race is rooted in concerns of religion, race and place, that tradition, custom and the ties that bind of generations past are undeniable parameters that govern human existence. "Everyman" has little interest in the material presented in Skeptic, and the established wisdom of his genetic forebears is enough for the fulfilled life. But...this is a world where there is a place for others, those who break out of ancient bonds, who dwell in a land of axioms, propositions, inference and evidence. These individuals do not cement ties through the cohering glues of blood & faith, but via the common vision of the paramount grandeur & allure of cognition, of the singular beauty of ideas. This new tribe does exist, the elder ones need to acknowledge its legitimacy, and in return, the tribe of the mind needs to realize cold clean reason will never seduce all of mankind.
This bit from Levitt's review caught my eye:
But to speak of mathematics in Greek antiquity or in early modern Europe without conceding that a kind of collective cultural genius must have been at work is to assert, when you get down to it, that the brightest minds on the Western rim of Eurasia must simply have been individually brighter than their counterparts on its Southern or Eastern rims. This is palpably silly. The internationalization of mathematics over the past century demonstrates just how silly it is.
Did anyone else notice this bit? He limits the area of consideration to Eurasia. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but Levitt does *NOT* say what I thought he would say, i.e., that "it is palpably silly to think any group is smarter than any other group". He relies instead on a claim for which there is substantial empirical evidence - namely, that substantial numbers of East & South Asians have proven themselves to be good at mathematics.
Levitt's wiggle caught my attention, because really this is what the whole piece was about: a question of whether you can debunk multiculturalist idiocy without violating the "Axiom of Equality". That is, it is well nigh impossible to talk about the geographical distribution of mathematics research without talking about intelligence and whether it is unevenly distributed among the earth's geographically/reproductively semi-isolated human populations.
Levitt finessed this issue indeed. Crude racism is wrong, but so is crude "antiracism" (namely the proposition that all human groups are equal in distribution of mathematical ability). Of course there are outliers and exceptions as this is a distributional statement, but that hardly needs to be reiterated...
 One can of course argue about what "substantial" is, and this is *not* intended to denigrate people with ancestry outside these areas who are good at mathematics. Nevertheless it will be impossible to put enough qualifiers on this point to satisfy everyone.
On the waterfront
I'll be in Fort Lauderdale from the 17th to the 21st. I'll check out the beach scene to see if the tales of "pretty girls in bikinis" are more than just legend (this is my first foray to the sunshine state). If anyone knows of free wi-fi spots, please email me (razibk-at-gnxp-dot-com). FYI, after the 21st I'll be in Chicago, and I'm going have some beers with old buds in Evanston, after which (first week of April) I'll be in the NYC area....
March 15, 2004
Defense of family
I see homosexuality as a "canary in the coal mine" issue. The order above applies to only those UN employees whose own countries provide similar benefit programs, yet nonetheless, a group of nations seems to be demanding that the world operate according to the lowest common denominator. This article from The Washington Times indicates that the Vatican and a few African nations are also objecting.
Babbleologists & biologists
I like alliteration, so I just changed "linguists" to "babbleologists." In any case, Nick Wade has done a nice write-up titled A Biological Dig for the Roots of Language. Seeing as how Nick is normally on the genetics beat he tends to give the biologists a better hearing, and makes the linguists seem a bit spiteful. The central topic of the article is the recent research on the phylogeny of the Indo-European langauges. The only conclusion I came to after reading the article is that both "camps" need to talk to each other a little more....
Let's talk about sex....
Interesting cookie cutter piece in The New York Times about male & female reactions to sex, love and all that jazz. There is the standard pap about men being "visual," but some interesting neurological findings are added that indicate the amygdala plays a crucial role in this rapid-fire reaction. Then it proceeds to the standard evolutionary reasons behind these functional differences, and ends with a caution from a psychiatrist who asserts, ""Differences between genders are boring," Dr. Tiefer said. "The big differences are within the sexes...." Well, boring if you are a shrink who deals with individual head-cases, but not so boring for the average American if books like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus are any indicator.
Does anyone know much about the evolutionary factors that have resulted in the prevalence of wisdom teeth? It seems that they would impose a cost on individuals who suffer their eruption. Trying to look it up on google tends to result in finding Creationist websites....
March 14, 2004
Acceptance of South Asian immigrants
This should probably be a comment, but since I can't figure out how to make comments, I'll make it an entry.
As a native born wasp living in the South, I have a few observations about the acceptance of south Asians, of which we have a few . . .
First off, though I move and work among working-class whites, I've witnessed absolutely no signs of negative feelings towards South Asians, unless you count parodies of the sing-song English some of them use, which is done in good fun. Racist and anti-Semitic remarks, btw, are almost unheard of nowadays, which was certainly not the case 50 years ago.
As for myself personally, I've really only become aware of the South Indian presence in America during the last 10 to 15 years.
One thing that did it for me was the medical team I had for head-and-neck surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering seven years ago. I joked to my friends that there were three guys around the operating table -- a Jew, a Muslim, and a Hindu -- though it was definitely the Hindu who was in charge, a guy named Jatin Shah, whom I was fortunate to find, and grateful for finding. So that has definitely colored my views.
Then, in the last few years -- I think I mentioned this to razib -- I've become increasingly aware of the verbal contributions the South Indians are beginning to make to our English speaking culture. (This is in marked contrast to East Asians, btw, if someone would like to explain.) For example, Fareed Zachariah's book on liberalism and democracy was easily the best piece of political writing to come along in years -- so good, in fact, that it seems to have made Robert Kagan (of Paradise and Power) green with envy, to judge by the ridiculously ill-tempered review he penned for The New Republic.
Another eye opener was the film "Monsoon Wedding" by the woman who's name I should know because she is obviously one of the three of four best auteurs in the world right now, and maybe the best woman ever. The thing that impressed me most about that film was how amazingly "like us" the upper-middle class family in Bombay (or was it Delhi?) was. Of course the cultural differences are easy to see, but emotionally, economically, sexually, and technically we're living in the same civilization.
By contrast, when I bummed through that part of the world in 1963, it was the most exotic place I had ever seen -- I thought I was on another planet. (Of course, now we've got nose rings, piercings, and body tatoos too, so the influences move both ways.)
I close with a cautionary note. As some of you may or may not know, I'm worried about what free-trade with China and India is going to do -- is already doing -- to American wages and living standards. Both theory and commonsense predict that it's going to lower them considerably, maybe even drastically. It is potentially an explosive political issue. (We can argue this separately if you don't believe me)
Now back during the Nafta and Gatt debates, I researched a magazine article on the subject, in the course of which I talked to most of the leading trade theorists in this country. One of them was Jagdish Bahgwati. In private conversation, he admitted to me that there was a real problem here, pointing out that it's not enough to say that it is theoretically possible to compensate the losers under free trade (in this case American wage and salary workers) by taxing the winners (American capital holders) if steps are not taken to actually do the compensation.
But in public he remained silent on this controversial issue, as did the other two leading spokesmen for free trade, Paul Krugman and Paul Samuelson. (Samuelson actually made a speech in the East Wing of the White House on the eve of the Nafta vote , in which he made the disengenuous observation that protectionism had never caused real wages to rise. (Disengenuous because he wrote a famous paper showing that protectionism could keep real wages from falling.)
My point is that here we have the three leading trade theorists of their generation -- one South Asian and two Ashkenazie Jews -- who are taking an essentially cosmopolitan view on the issue of free trade, which involves sacrificing the welfare of the overwhelming majority (80%+ minimum )of the American people.
This bothers me a lot. I think it is potentially dangerous for the future of ethnic relations in this country. Or to put it another way: I think it is important that the talented minorities who come to this country, when they decide to become citizens, take seriously the "We" part in the phrase "We the people" that begins the Preamble to the Constitution.
BTW, I don't think it is too late. If guys like Bhagwadi would step forward and take the lead in turning the situation around -- not by coming out in opposition to free trade, but by using their authority to emphasize the importance of the principle of compensation in the theory of free trade -- then I predict that would do wonders towards cementing their acceptance by the white majority. They'd really appreciate it, I'm sure.
Mickeys & "Pre-Indo-European savages"
Uh, I lived in an area with a lot of Basques (there is a node in the Imbler-Idaho-Nevada confluence that radiates out), but I've never heard a Basque slur, so that explains the title. But speaking of racial profiling, both Spain & the UK have dealt with decades of terrorism from persons of a particular ethnic profile. How do they deal with it? Obviously the last non-Indo-European speaking people of Western Europe have not been purged, in fact, they are more affluent than the typical Spaniard, while Irishmen seem to be a fixture on BBC America.
Madrid now, what next?
I don't like to comment about current politics/affairs much because I don't know jack shit more than the average blogger about this stuff, frankly less since I tend to tune it out. But...in this case, I'm going to go out on a limb and make a few projections.
Next: watch for Sicily or southern Italy.
As people have noted, Osama bin Laden has spoken of Al-Andalus, Spain, before. Wahabbis sometimes recall in Al-Andalus' relatively cosmopolitan culture of Christians, Jews and Muslims the lack of Islamic piety that leads to decline and defeat at the hands of infidels. Other Muslims see in Al-Andalus a model for the future, a beacon of light that echoes down through the ages, a remembrance of a time when a Muslim polity left the dhimmi on a loose leash.
Today Islamic Spain is remembered as crucial interface between classical learning and the scholastic renaissance (see Aristotle's Children). I recall a moment years ago when my father was drinking tea with a few friends of his, all educated South Asian Muslims from the eastern edge of the Dar-al-Islam, and a cardiologist wondered out loud, "What happened to Islam that we must make our living here in the West?" The common answer was, "Ah, but we lost Spain!" There was little analysis of this reason given, these were chemists, doctors and engineers, who had no great interest in the details of Al-Andalus' intellectual life, the prominence of Jews, the relative marginality of figures such as Ibn Rushid (Averroes) in Muslim thought after the victory of Al-Ghazali. Al-Andalus is a magic word, a treasure of causative power that explains the great paradox, why does God give material prosperity to unbelievers? They stole it! The details, the realities, of Muslim Spain do not matter, it is rather a potent symbol in Islamic collective mythology on the popular level.
Moving beyond historical memories, the targeting of Spain for atrocity seems peculiar to me insofar as England is the most loyal vassal of the "Great Satan." Perhaps there were security concerns, it seems that England has a far larger Muslim community than Spain, which could cut either way. One can not truly know what lurks in the minds of terrorists, but it seems that this hammer-blow against one of the reconquested areas of the Dar-al-Islam was done with purpose.
Islam has retreated in particular locales in the past 1400 years. Russia
On the other hand, Al-Andalus and northern India, were thriving Muslim civilizations that evoke memories of grandeur. The irony about the creation of "Pakistan" in 1947 was that it excluded the precious hearth of Muslim South Asian civilization, the region of the upper Gangentic plain where Moghul poetry and architecture thrived. Islamic militants already engage in jihad against India through Kashmir. A third target that I think might be possible, in light of the attacks on Spain and the reasons given concerning support for the Iraq invasion, are Sicily & southern Italy, which like Spain were centers of Muslim civilization, before their conquest by Norman warlords.
But we must remember about Al Qaeda and its members is that though they might display the appearence of historical memory, what they espouse is a very modern day mythology, rooted in a few basic facts. Note above that the Muslims I have heard speak of Spain did not envision a reconquest, or imagine that if a land was once part of the Dar-al-Islam, it always was, rather, they mourned the passing of the dominance of the civilization that they associate themselves with. Nevertheless, they understand that the "magic" of the days of old can not be recaptured by conquest of the lands where that magic manifested itself most gloriously 1000 years ago. The paradox still exists, why did Allah decree plentitude for non-Muslims, but various groups will come to different conclusions. The resolution and emergence of a dominant model will have ramifications for us all.