Broken Cities: A Historical Sociology of Ruins

by eea | Tuesday, November 24, 2020 - 5:00 PM

I wrote Broken Cities because I saw that ruins were being used to shape our view of the past and even to create the “pastness” of the past. As you can see by looking at the cover illustrations of any number of Classics monographs (including Broken Cities ), ruins are potent symbols of an antiquity that is at the same time distant from us and, by way of various archaeological methods, reconstructible. I suspected that ruins had picked up these associations pretty recently, and I wondered how they might have signified at other times and places. The answer, it turns out, is “differently,” and that’s one thing that Broken Cities tries to convey. In Augustan literature, for instance, ruination licenses the flight of Aeneas from Troy to Rome, a narrative pattern that Roman writers repeat when describing other ruins and other migrations. In the Qur’an, by contrast, ruins seem to mark the historical dead end of earlier societies that ignored the prophetic call. That’s one contrast among many between the numerous ways of ruin-gazing exposed by the four case studies that I treat in Broken Cities . Athens, Rome, Baghdad and Tenochtitlan:...Read More

Physico-theology: Religion and Science in Europe, 1650-1750

by eea | Monday, November 23, 2020 - 4:00 PM

The drive to reconcile religion and science has a long history that extends to this day. It was especially pressing in the period 1650-1750, when religion was a matter of strong commitment and science was being radically transformed by new mathematical, experimental methods, and mechanistic notions about the functioning of nature and the universe. Even the human body was seen as a ‘machine’ by many who followed the mechanical philosophy of Descartes and others. Physico-theology was a genre of writing that aimed to show how the new science could be harmonized with longstanding Christian beliefs in the providence and benevolence of God. The argument from design is the best known of these arguments, but there were several others that variously offered physical explanations of events described in the Bible or overlaid divine providence onto features of the natural world, from the lives of insects to the movements of the planets, and even to the physical possibility of resurrection. Physico-theology praised God for the regularities and laws of nature rather than the suspension of them in miraculous occurrences. At the same time, physico-theologians defended the role of God in nature against the emerging threats of deism or atheism that would deny...Read More

Saving Endangered Species

by eea | Friday, November 20, 2020 - 3:00 PM

In his now classic 1985 publication, Michael E. Soulé posed a profound question. He asked, “What is conservation biology?” At the time, his article defined this emerging new discipline. Within his answer was an elegant, philosophical assumption. He stated simply, “Diversity of organisms is good.” Now, three and a half decades later, the state of biodiversity on our planet is sobering. About 32,000 species are threatened with extinction. The IUCN Red List notes that 25% of all mammals, more than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. The U.N.’s Sustainable Goals report for 2019 states that the “average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%” over the past century. Eric W. Sanderson, a conservation ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, and his colleagues study the impact of humans on nature. They conclude that “The influence of human beings on the planet has become so pervasive that it is hard to find adults in any country who have not seen the environment around them reduced in natural values during their lifetimes—woodlots...Read More

Humanism and Science as a Window into the Culture Wars in America

by eea | Wednesday, November 18, 2020 - 3:00 PM

America’s relationship to science is fraught with turmoil. Images of science have long held an ambiguous place in our collective psyche: from Frankenstein’s monster to the moon landing, people have characterized it in both nefarious and glowing terms. Our current moment, however, seems unusual. In America, where everything is now subject to political spin, science has become a partisan shibboleth. Consider that President-elect Joe Biden felt compelled to defend the authority of science more than once in his recent acceptance speech. Anyone who follows the news can see why: evolution, climate change, and even public health measures are strongly fought partisan battles. The reason for this conflict around science is clearly something that we need to understand better. In my book, The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism , I look back at the historical roots of this culture war and show where it comes from and why it is so significant. I suggest that the conflict has roots in America’s religious past. While I’m not the first to suggest this, my explanation takes us into some new and revealing areas of American culture, which challenge the common conceptions that we have of both religion and...Read More

Inscriptions of Nature: Geology and the Naturalization of Antiquity

by eea | Monday, November 16, 2020 - 4:00 PM

I wrote Inscriptions of Nature because I felt the need to write a political history of deep time, geohistory, and nature. Deep history, that is the history of the evolution of the earth, is often represented as a purely natural phenomenon; of movements of tectonic plates, earthquakes, the formation of strata and fossils, and in terms of human genomics. This representation is derived entirely from European intellectual traditions from the eighteenth century, which traced the geohistory of the earth. While researching the book, I found the entrenchment of the geohistorical mode of thinking in the Indian subcontinent in both its contemporary politics and its intellectual traditions; for example, in modern Hindu antiquarianism, in debates of sacred geographies, conflicts around mining rights, and in questions of tribal aboriginality. I concluded that these historical processes could not be appreciated or discussed fully within either the naturalistic frame or the Eurocentric intellectual traditions. Therefore, I have tried to define an alternative frame of deep history in this book. The book sees the evolution of the naturalistic account of the history of the earth as a product of European colonialism. Deep history provided Western epistemology and European nations with...Read More