Wednesday, July 03, 2002

A stereotype is timeless-sort of Send this entry to: Spurl Ma.gnolia Digg Newsvine Reddit

A stereotype is timeless-sort of I'm re-reading The Oxford Illustrated History of the Roman World. Pretty readable-it's more of a cultural history. Here's a section that amused me in the beginning (From the chapter Hellenism in Rome page 57):
One must not exaggerate the depth of Greek influence at this period. There is evidence that Greek medicine was regarded with suspicion still, and in general the Romans were intellectually, as also artistically, clumsy and immature. Poetry was more developed than prose, though even poetry was crude, as Horace complained. Cicero thought that it was only toward the end of the century that orators really profited form the study of rhetoric, which taught one how to organize and argue, as well as ornament, a speech. What we know of prose literature suggests that the Romans, like many primitive peoples, found generalization and abstraction hard. It was only from about 100 BC, too, that they began to use traditional Greek logical structure in treatises, with explicitly definitions of a the subject and all key concepts, and careful division of the material into parts or aspects, instead of piling up information hugger-mugger.... [my emphasis]
If you changed "Romans" to say Zulus in the 20th century this would sound extremely patronizing and racist. The implication would be clear-blacks needed to learn the basics of logic and linear thinking from whites. Of course, since Romans and Greeks are both white, this subject can be approached and addressed without excessive political controversy (though I'm sure this is open to academic contention). But a second point is that do we today imagine Italians as inarticulate fools incapable of forming cogent arguments? Of course not, our perception of Italians has changed, and by the 15th century they became to other Europeans what the Greeks had been to them, an ancient civilized people fallen into anarchy and chaos. They were disputatious and violent-bent on faction and politically ineffectual. The Italians of the Renaissance were the pioneers in the arts and sciences, and yet they had little to teach Europe politically (one can make the argument that Machiavelli and the Italian plurality of polities had some influence on the balance of power theory that commenced with the Peace of Westphalia). The analogy to the ancient Greeks is striking. And yet in ancient times, Greeks like Polybius lionized the mixed political structure of the Roman Republic (somewhat like Montesquieu admired the checks and balances in the British monarchy). Throughout antiquity, the Romans, later to become Latin speakers, and Greeks, never truly gave up their differences that seemed to run deeper than language. As the emperors became progressively less focused on a Roman as opposed to imperial identity (In 306 Constantine was elevated to the purple in York in northern England, his father was Illyrian and his mother was Bithynian [southern Anatolia])-they still tended to be Latin in speech and therefore culture. Though there were a few exotic emperors in the mid-3rd century from the east of the Empire (I doubt any could be termed Greek except in the broadest of definitions)-the emperor Anastasius was the first true Hellene to wear the purple, in the early 6th century! Yet the Greek dominated east was not marginal economically or culturally. The scientists Ptolemy, the philosopher Plotinus and the most brilliant of the early Christian theologians Origen, were from the Greek east (think of Alexandria as New York, Athens as Boston and Rome as Washington D.C.). Ideas still tended to proceed from the east to the west-whether it be religious or philosophical. Christianity itself was rooted in the east of the Empire, not the west. Sixty years after Constantine's death during a succession battle the pagan west even reverted to the old religion! (the Senators in Rome and much of the western military remained pagan until their final defeat late in the 4th century at the hands of Theodosius, who himself was from Spain). Even the character of the Church fathers was different-Origen was basically a philosopher who was also a pious Christian, while Latin-speaking Tertullian declared "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" (another Latin-speaker, Augustine turned the west away from Tertullian's thinking and cemented the position of Greek philosophy in the Western Church). Now the intellectual brilliance of Greece is a memory and Italy is a byword for political mess. Italian fathers are far more likely to let their 40 year old son live at home rather than execute him for sloth. History changes everyone. It is a cautionary lesson for those of us who pay close attention to presumably immutable properties such as genetics (who can say what 2,000 years has done? Perhaps we'll never know). Even without genetic engineering-perhaps peoples who today display little propensity for formal logic and math could become the technical pioneers of the future. Anything is possible. On the other hand, anyone care to take a bet? godless is always up for a good wager. And I wonder, was the Lynn-Flynn effect operative on the ancient Romans when they conquered the city-states of Magna Graecia in southern Italy and were exposed to a welter of new ideas? Something to ponder.

Principles of Population Genetics
Genetics of Populations
Molecular Evolution
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Evolutionary Genetics
Molecular Markers, Natural History, and Evolution
The Genetics of Human Populations
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Epistasis and Evolutionary Process
Evolutionary Human Genetics
Mathematical Models in Biology
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Narrow Roads of Gene Land 1
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Narrow Roads of Gene Land 3
Statistical Methods in Molecular Evolution
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Population Genetics and Microevolutionary Theory
Population Genetics, Molecular Evolution, and the Neutral Theory
Genetical Theory of Natural Selection
Evolution and the Genetics of Populations
Genetics and Origins of Species
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Causes of Evolution
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Natural Selection and Social Theory
Journey of Man
Mapping Human History
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Evolution for Everyone
Why Sex Matters
Mother Nature
Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language
R.A. Fisher, the Life of a Scientist
Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology
Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics
A Reason for Everything
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Dragon Bone Hill
Endless Forms Most Beautiful
The Selfish Gene
Adaptation and Natural Selection
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Out of Thin Air
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No Two Alike
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Keepers of the Keys of Heaven
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Europe After Rome
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God's War
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From Plato to Nato
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Children of the Revolution
When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World
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After Tamerlane
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Power and Plenty
A Splendid Exchange
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Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations
A Farewell to Alms
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What Hath God Wrought
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