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Archive for the 'Author Postings' Category

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Robert Boyers on the idea of the “Advanced Idea”

Robert Boyers, The Fate of Ideas

The following post is by Robert Boyers, author of The Fate of Ideas: Seductions, Betrayals, Appraisals:

The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega Y Gasset wrote extensively about what he called “the height of the times.” Unhappy about the backwardness of his country, its parochial tendencies and resistance to liberal ideas, he urged his fellow Spaniards to acquaint themselves with what seemed most demanding and ambitious in the modern art and thought of the early twentieth-century, and to assess their own Spanish culture by measuring it against the achievements of other European societies. There was, of course, no perfectly reliable or objective way of knowing what was genuinely “high” or “advanced,” and Ortega himself sometimes challenged the assumptions and practices associated with high modernism, most notably in his famous book on “The Dehumanization of Art.” But Ortega always believed that there really was a “height of the times,” and that it was important for artists and intellectuals to try to stay abreast of new developments and unfamiliar ideas. He understood that what was new was not therefore, or inevitably, worthy or impressive, and he feared that publicists and journalists might promote tenth-rate artworks and dubious ideas that lacked seriousness and complexity. But he regarded “the height of the times” as at least a useful fiction that might inspire people to take intellectual risks and to try at least to tolerate bold experimentation in the arts.

We have come a long way from the period when someone like Ortega felt he needed to make such a case. In most western countries, certainly in the United States, the new and experimental enjoy a status beyond anything that people of Ortega’s generation might have imagined. When the New Yorker art critic Harold Rosenberg titled a book The Tradition of the New, more than fifty years ago, he was confirming what had become clear to students of modernity. The new had become, in several respects, the one central, indispensable value within the framework of modernist and post-modernist culture. To speak of “the height of the times” was to signal an openness to the unfamiliar and an appetite for anything that seemed to go against the grain of ordinary popular taste and routine consumption.

By now, of course, vast numbers of people, hungry for novelty and spectacle, flock to museum exhibitions and gallery shows featuring varieties of shock and awe. Even writers operating within the framework of conventional narrative fiction are inclined to experimentation—think of J.M. Coetzee’s masterpiece Elizabeth Costello—while demanding thinkers like Slavoj Zizek command large audiences hungry for difficult and sometimes outlandish ideas.

In light of these developments, it may be useful to ask what may now be signified by a term like “the height of the times.” Is there such a thing as “advanced” art and thought, such that it might be differentiated from the “backward” or “traditional” or “reactionary”? Are there ideas we might legitimately classify as “advanced” and others that are clearly not advanced? Certainly we are inclined—most of us, at any rate—to believe that we know the difference between one kind of idea and another. Thus we say that a respect for “difference” is an advanced idea, and that verisimilitude can no longer be regarded as an important criterion of value in the arts. We assume that such judgments, or assumptions, are more or less secure, which is to say broadly if not universally shared.


Thursday, August 27th, 2015

WITMonth 2015: Author/Translator/Author

WITMonth Posts'

In honor of August as Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), we are featuring two very different posts by translators Howard Goldblatt and Esther Allen on women in translation. According to Meytal Radzinski at Bibliobio, only 30% of works translated into English are written by women. WIT Month is simply one effort part of a larger, concerted movement to address sexism in publishing.

Today’s article comes from Howard Goldblatt, the co-translator (with his wife, Sylvia Li Chun Lin) of Li Ang’s The Lost Garden: A Novel, forthcoming in November 2015. Goldblatt’s piece explains the meticulous translation and writing process he undertook to complete Chinese novelist Xiao Hong’s novel Ma Bo-le. He presents a glimpse into the stitching and unstitching of her drafts posthumously for the final installment of her novel.

We hope you enjoy reading!

By Howard Goldblatt

In 1940, Xiao Hong, a novelist from Northeast China who was born in 1911, wrote a novel entitled Ma Bo-le. It was published in Hong Kong the next year, when she wrote and published serially a sequel she called “Book Two.” The final installment appeared in a magazine in November, with the note, “End of Chapter Nine. More to come.” That did not happen. Two months later, shortly after the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, she was dead of a throat infection, a botched operation, and a fragile constitution at the age of 31. She was buried in Repulse Bay. Now, more than half a century later, she is celebrated as one of China’s foremost writers of the Republican era; her childhood home, a stop on the Northeast China tour circuit, is flanked by a museum devoted to her and her work.

In the early 1980s, after a decade of writing and talking about Xiao Hong and translating much of her work, including two novels, I began a translation of Ma Bo-le, taking it slow, since I did not think a Western publishing house would be interested in an unfinished novel by an obscure Chinese writer. I cannot recall when it happened, but at some point I decided that I would write, in English, the third volume of what everyone agreed was planned as a trilogy, to complete the work. It has taken me more than twenty years to get up the nerve to fulfill that promise.

After editing a rough translation of the first two “books,” I picked up the thread of the original story, which ended as the protagonist contemplates traveling to Chongqing, the provisional capital of the Chiang Kai-shek government. As I wrote, I located the narrative in places where Xiao Hong had visited or lived—the Beipei district in Chongqing, Lock Road in Kowloon, Hong Kong—wherever possible, and included actual events and situations, such as her friendship with the three Japanese, the only true-to-life characters in the novel. For a speech Xiao Hong gave in Hong Kong to commemorate her mentor and friend, Lu Xun, who had died four years earlier, I quoted from the actual text. I even had them—author and protagonist—nearly meet on two occasions. I then translated and included snippets from essays and stories Xiao Hong wrote during that time. Beyond that, I had to follow my instincts, since Xiao Hong left no indication of how she planned to end the trilogy.

The novel is absolutely unique, not just to Xiao Hong’s oeuvre, but in the modern history of Chinese fiction, through the twentieth century and up to the present day. It has been reissued several times in Chinese and has been written about extensively. In it the eponymous character travels from Qingdao south to strike out on his own in the days prior to full-blown war with Japan. Once Shanghai is attacked, Ma Bo, whose wife and children have joined him, he follows the route his author took from one besieged city to the next, ending, as she did, in Hong Kong.

Ma Bo-le (pronounced Ma Buo-luh), a picaresque character much in the mold of self-preservationist Yossarian in Catch-22 or the slothful Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, has few peers in the modern Chinese-language tradition. Nobelist Mo Yan’s bumbling “investigator” in The Republic of Wine and Taiwanese pedant Dong Siwen in Wang Chen-ho’s Rose, Rose, I Love You come close. Ma Bo-le anticipates them all by decades.

When first published, the novel, marked by humor, cynicism, and a number of solipsistic fictional characters, was not well received by many, who thought that only patriotic, incendiary anti-Japanese literature ought to be made available to a public experiencing the violence of war. That she defied such sentiments is remarkable in itself; that she did so on the run, as it were, when her relationships with the men in her life were rapidly deteriorating, and when she was in failing health, is extraordinary. And, we mustn’t forget, the second half was written against a biweekly publishing deadline. No wonder, then, that there are problems with the text. While inconsistencies and minor mistakes exist (now corrected), the greater issues are repetition and instances of redundant descriptions that create unwelcome longueurs. She needed an editor. With perhaps an excessive amount of sangfroid, I have taken on that responsibility. In addition to completing the narrative, I have shortened the work by twenty-five or thirty pages, added needed transitions and clarifications, and moved bits of text around to improve the narrative flow. “Book One” was published without chapter divisions; “Book Two” was divided into nine chapters. I have chosen not to call my seventy-five-page addition “Book Three,” opting instead to unify all three parts into twenty-nine chapters, sandwiched between a “prologue” and “epilogue,” two parts of a fictional dialogue between a member of a Hong Kong cultural society and the grown son of the novel’s protagonist following the discovery of a long-lost, anonymous manuscript—the “work.”

To set the scenes as accurately as possible, I have called upon a number of biographies of Xiao Hong in Chinese, my own among them, and have drawn upon a variety of contemporary reports on China and Hong Kong, including Theodore H. White’s Thunder Out of China (1946); China: After Seven Years of War (1945, Hollington K. Tong, ed.); and Anna Louise Strong’s One-Fifth of Mankind: China Fights for Freedom.

I have spent four decades in the wonderful company—figuratively, intellectually, literarily, and emotionally—of Xiao Hong. I can only hope that, now that she would have found our collaboration acceptable.

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

WITMonth 2015: Lost In Translation

WITMonth Posts'

In honor of August as Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), we are featuring two very different posts by translators Howard Goldblatt and Esther Allen on women in translation. According to Meytal Radzinski at Bibliobio, only 30% of works translated into English are written by women. WIT Month is simply one effort part of a larger, concerted movement to address sexism in publishing.

Today’s article comes from Esther Allen, who is co-editor with Susan Bernofsky of In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What it Means, as well as the translator of a number of works from both Spanish and French. In her post, Allen profiles Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx and first translator of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into English. She argues that Eleanor Marx’s early death is a sobering and urgent example of the importance of recognizing the creative intellectual work of females.

We hope you enjoy reading!

Lost In Translation
By Esther Allen

Few examples of the peril of losing yourself in translation are as powerfully sobering as that of Eleanor Marx. Daughter of Karl, ardent champion of women’s and workers’ rights, Marx was the first translator of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into English and played the role of Nora in the first English staged reading of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

She read both texts as protests against the plight of the 19th-century housewife, which she thought she could escape by entering into an open romantic partnership with a fellow free-thinker, Richard Aveling—alas, an “unprincipled windbag… with a reptilian air” as he’s described in Rachel Holmes’s fascinating recent biography of Marx. On stage and in life, Aveling played the narcissistic Thorvald to Marx’s Nora—except he was, by any measure, far worse than Ibsen’s character. After fourteen extremely difficult years together, Aveling announced to Marx that he’d married someone else. Shortly thereafter, she committed suicide.

Emma Bovary, of course, is a suicide, and Nora thinks a lot about taking her own life. Holmes argues that these more famous literary performances affected Marx less than her rendering into German of Reuben Sachs, an 1888 novel by her friend Amy Levy. No character in it commits suicide, but a year after it was published its 27-year-old author did. These literary antecedents mattered not at all to Eleanor Marx’s friends, who blamed Aveling for her death. But Aveling himself was terminally ill, as Marx knew well, and survived her by only four months. (more…)

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Is “Brontosaurus” Back? Not So Fast! — Donald Prothero

The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

“So before everyone begins the big party for ‘Brontosaurus’ and celebrates this huge diversity of sauropod names, let’s hold our horses.”—Donald R. Prothero

The following post is by Donald Prothero, author of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution:

Earlier this year, there has been a big buzz with the media reaction to a study by Emanuel Tschopp, Octavio Mateus, and Roger B.J. Benson analyzing the diplodocine sauropod dinosaurs and figuring out their classification and relationships. As I discuss in The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, since 1903 most paleontologists have regarded “Brontosaurus” as just another junior name for the dinosaur properly known as Apatosaurus.

The Tschopp et al. study itself is a landmark in careful anatomical work, analyzing the problem specimen by specimen (a total of 81 specimens used) rather than generalizing based on previous clusterings of specimens, and looking at far more anatomical evidence than any previous study. Naturally, the press missed the significance of the study completely, and focused on just one minor point: the idea that “Brontosaurus” is again a valid name. ALL the publicity, and all the reactions of the non-paleontological reporters and readers was focused on this rather trivial issue, which is not important to real paleontologists in any way (except that we always get asked about it by the general public). Most of the reaction by sauropod paleontologists who were interviewed were generally favorable, but others were more cautious. Almost all agreed that is the most thorough work on the subject written to date, and it will be the foundation on which all future analyses will be built. Similar reactions could be found on the SVPOW (“Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week”) website, which is the main forum for discussion by specialists and amateurs about sauropods.


Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: Is Pope Francis Right on the Science?

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“First, the consensus on anthropogenic global warming among publishing scientists exceeds 99.9%. Second, climate scientists do not claim that global warming “caused” a given heat wave, drought, or storm. Rather, they say that global warming has increased the odds of such events and is therefore partly responsible for the broad pattern of extreme weather. The Pope recognizes that global warming is not just something that will happen in the future: it is happening now and we need to respond now.” — James Lawrence Powell

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, James Lawrence Powell takes a close look at the actual science cited by Pope Francis in the encyclical and asks, simply, did the Pope get it right?

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of H. H. Shugart’s book!

Is Pope Francis Right on the Science?
By James Lawrence Powell

When most people read “Catholic Church” and “Science” in the same sentence, they are apt to think of the inquisition of Galileo, who narrowly escaped burning at the stake for espousing the Copernican view of a Sun-centered solar system. But that is old news. In 1992, Pope John Paul II stated his regret for Galileo’s treatment and in 2008, the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first telescopic observations, Pope Benedict XVI praised his pioneering astronomy. The Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno won the 2014 American Astronomical Society’s Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science for his many books.

The Catholic Church has also been forthright in its defense of evolution, Pope John Paul II telling the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 that “…new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” Catholic schools in the U.S. and elsewhere teach evolution both as a fact and as the result of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the updated version of Darwin’s theory.

Though Young-Earth creationists maintain that our planet is only a few thousand years old, the Church has long accepted the antiquity of the Earth and the authenticity of the fossil record as validating the history of life. In 2004, before Cardinal Ratzinger had become Pope Benedict XVI, he endorsed a statement by the International Theological Commission that,

The universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang’ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life.

Thus Pope Francis’s recent encyclical — Laudato Si, or “Praised Be”— is but the latest in a series of statements from the Catholic Church that offer increasingly strong support for science. Pope Francis’s eloquent encyclical not only does that, but it also casts the protection of the environment and the prevention of global warming as predominantly moral issues. He introduces the encyclical as an “Urgent appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” Francis asks for “a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

The question I am addressing is whether the Pope gets the science of global warming right. We should not be surprised if he does, for he was trained as a scientist: before becoming a priest, young Jorge Mario Bergoglio trained and worked as a chemical technician. Just as no one can discredit Francis’s moral standing, neither can anyone discredit his understanding of science.

As would any climate scientist today, Francis regards human responsibility for global warming as an indisputable fact. He does not present a list of arguments designed to persuade his readers that anthropogenic global warming is true, but simply says that it is true:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.

Exactly right. First, the consensus on anthropogenic global warming among publishing scientists exceeds 99.9%. Second, climate scientists do not claim that global warming “caused” a given heat wave, drought, or storm. Rather, they say that global warming has increased the odds of such events and is therefore partly responsible for the broad pattern of extreme weather. The Pope recognizes that global warming is not just something that will happen in the future: it is happening now and we need to respond now.

Further evincing his understanding, the Pope writes:

It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space.

Again, exactly right. Several factors affect global temperature but only one can explain the rise in temperature since the 1970s: the increase in greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustion. A climate scientist might argue that the last sentence of the quotation is an oversimplification in that it does not explain the mechanism by which greenhouse gases increase temperature. But the sentence as it stands is correct and sufficient for a general audience.

The Pope also demonstrates his understanding of the consequences of unchecked global warming:

The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain.

As result [of human activities] some species face extinction.

The effects of climate change will be felt for a long time to come, even if stringent measures are taken now.

As remarkable as Francis’s understanding of science is his powerful and eloquent language:

We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.

The environment is… on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next.

Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.

The Pope ends the encyclical with the moral argument in the form or a prayer, entreating God to,

Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.

The sentence that I will remember most is this one: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” Like climate scientists, the Pope regards global warming as threatening the future of humanity.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: Laudato Si and the Art of Unknowing

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“[T]he Pope is arguing that in light of this context we all need to practice “failure”: or that which disrupts the “business as usual” notion of progress as solely economic and technological. I’m not suggesting this Pope is queer-friendly (or even feminist-friendly), but I am suggesting that the deeply Catholic understandings of the “common good” and “social teachings” are, in the face of the productionist paradigm, queer.” — Whitney Bauman

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, Whitney Bauman does a close reading of the Encyclical and comes to some surprising conclusions about the Pope’s message.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of H. H. Shugart’s book!

Laudato Si and the Art of Unknowing
By Whitney A. Bauman

There is much to be commended in the Pope’s recent Encyclical on “the environment.” He clearly did his doctrinal, historical and philosophical homework on issues of human-earth relations. There is much one would expect to find in the document: such as the use of St. Francis in the title, couching of creation-care in terms of “the common good” and the prominence of catholic social teaching. There are also some surprises—such as his knowledge of the history of the environmental movement and his use of Integral Ecology which understands nature and culture as already and always together. At times it reads like a traditional Papal document while at others it reads more like something that Bruno Latour or leaders of the New Materialism might have written. In this brief piece, I want to focus on two points that I find most poignant in the Encyclical: the critique of modern technological society and the call for a more robust dialogue between religion and science. Both of these points participate in what Judith/Jack Halberstam calls “The Queer Art of Failure” or what Catherine Keller might call “the Art of Unknowing.”

In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam writes: “Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure). The creativity of abject identities, of those who have failed to live up to the norms of hetero-normative, anthropocentric capitalism, is indeed the source of creativity for seeking a different planetary future. In other words, failing is precisely what we need in this day and age if we are to find our way forward through the problems brought about by globalization and climate weirding. Pope Francis identifies this problem as well in his critique of modernity found in the Encyclical. He writes (and here I quote at length):

§107. It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.


Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: A Significant Invitation for Discussion

Reactions to Laudato Si'

Laudato si reaches out to scientists to participate in a shared global problem, the damage that humans have done to their planet and by doing so the harm they have wrought upon one another. Pope Francis directly invites for a new dialogue concerning how we are shaping the planet. Regardless of their religious persuasions, scientists should bring what they have learned from science to the discussion.” — H. H. Shugart

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, we are kicking things off with an essay by H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of Shugart’s book!

The Encyclical Laudato Si’: A Significant Invitation for Discussion
By H. H. Shugart

Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home was released to the public on the May 24th of this year. It is a clearly stated, easily accessed and well-reasoned treatise on the moral position of the Church on the consequences of changes in the global environment. When the pontiff of the one and one-quarter billion member Catholic Church makes any statement, it by definition becomes news. Nevertheless, this encyclical represents something much more than a hamper of news items whirling on the media spin-cycle. The pope structures his encyclical around what the collective “we” are doing to our common home, the planet and its inhabitants. Pollution, climate change, water scarcity, the loss of biodiversity, the decline in well-being of people and of their society ― all are problems needing religious and scientific thinkers to pull in single harness toward solutions. Pope Francis deconstructs the Judaeo-Christian concept of humans as the stewards of the Earth to find a moral obligation to maintain planetary sustainability embedded in biblical scripture as well as in the encyclicals of earlier popes. While he segues around the issue of human population growth, Pope Francis identifies conspicuous (over)consumption, the throw-away economy and human greed as immoral transgressions, often perpetuated by the rich and powerful and whose consequences fall upon the poor and defenseless.

Laudato si’, mi’ Signore (in the original Umbrian Italian “Altissimu, onnipotente bon Signore” and meaning “Praise to you, my Lord”) is the opening of the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon composed in late 1224 by St. Francis of Assisi. Tradition relates that the saint sang it from his death bed. It is a song praising creation, notably, “… our sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.” The pope took his papal name from this same St. Francis, and the Saint’s teachings are woven through the Laudato si narrative. The pope is writing on a topic of obvious personal importance framed in the regnal name that he chose at the beginning of his papacy.

Because it presents multiple facets for consideration, Laudato si’ has inspired many commentaries and it will undoubtedly inspire many more. He is the first Pope Francis, the first non-European pope since 741, the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere and the first from the Western Hemisphere. Laudato si’ identifies greed, particularly when it is at the expense of others, as a sin; it references the ninth-century Sufi mystic, Ali al-Khawas, on the spiritual connection between humans and the natural world; it quotes Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, that “… to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”; it provokes with, “ The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” (more…)

Friday, August 14th, 2015

Evangelicals and Doomsday: Death By Christian Rock?

Gray Sabbath

“The power of rapture theology (the belief that Jesus will secretly return and sweep born again Christians into Heaven) remains strong for many [evangelicals]. And it often influences political decision or indecision.” — Shawn David Young

This week our featured book is Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, by Shawn David Young. In this, the final post of the week’s feature,

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Gray Sabbath!

Evangelicals and Doomsday: Death By Christian Rock?
By Shawn David Young

Doomsday is always upon us, or so we are told. Belief in the apocalypse informs the way many view time, and it often works against active politics. But this belief has grown diverse, complex. Left-leaning evangelicals such as Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, and Shane Claiborne continue to challenge evangelical policies. For Wallis, “Many American Christians are simply more loyal to a version of American nationalism than they are to the body of Christ.” With sarcasm, McLaren also notes the disconnect: “If the world is about to end…why care for the environment? Why worry about global climate change or peak oil? Who gives a rip for endangered species or sustainable economies or global poverty if God is planning to incinerate the whole planet soon anyway?” His questions tap the core of a belief that continues to affect social activism. “If God has predetermined that the world will get worse until it ends in a cosmic megaconflict between the forces of Light (epitomized most often in the United States) and the forces of Darkness (previously centered in communism, but now, that devil having been vanquished, in Islam), why waste energy on peacemaking, diplomacy, and interreligious dialogue?”

Positions held by McLaren, Wallis, and others on the left indicate a growing trend among evangelicals. Still, conservative Christianity remains a powerhouse. But even when Jesus People USA fully embraced conservative theology, their social activism was unfettered, in spite of evangelicalism’s near-fanatical dedication to the writings of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. The power of rapture theology (the belief that Jesus will secretly return and sweep born again Christians into Heaven) remains strong for many. And it often influences political decision or indecision. (more…)

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Religious Certainty and Decision 2016

Gray Sabbath

“For the life of me I cannot understand how religious certainty continues to translate into political certainty. Yes, the faithful (if true to their belief) will certainly channel their ideas in a way that informs public policy. But when people of faith hold myriad interpretations of matters cosmic, how can they effectively engage matters that have global implications?” — Shawn David Young

This week our featured book is Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, by Shawn David Young. In today’s post, Young looks at the history and the future of the complicated relationship between evangelical Christianity and American politics, paying particular attention to the way that evangelicals will affect the upcoming election cycle.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Gray Sabbath!

Religious Certainty and Decision 2016
By Shawn David Young

An aging hotel looms over a street packed with cars, pedestrians, and sidewalks. A man stands near, asking for spare change. Others hustle by, talking to themselves. Sirens. Car horns. Music blaring from cars. Jaywalkers weaving in and out of cars on the street, eager to make way to the other side. Sporting a blue awning with white lettering, Jesus People USA’s building (quaintly named “Friendly Towers”) conveys a welcoming message, complete with psychedelic images in the windows. The front door opens to a hallway covered by an ornate ceiling—a relic of what was once a hotel—ending at a locked door; people are buzzed in by those holding post at the front desk. Regardless of the time of day, one can expect a mix of old hippies, young punk rockers, “goths,” and senior citizens. While an outsider might write the scene off as chaotic, it is readily apparent that all are members of a tight-knit community dedicated to shouldering the burdens of its members, many of whom display a certain sanguinity one might expect from utopian hopefuls. This community is about Jesus. But it’s also about discovery. (more…)

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Will the New Man Booker International Prize Challenge English’s Dominance in World Literature?

Born Translated, by Rebecca Walkowitz

“Upgrading the status of translators, the prize upgrades the status of multilingualism. It also upgrades the status of translations. No longer merely derivations or adaptations of original works, translated editions will be assessed as works in their own right.”—Rebecca Walkowitz on the new Man Booker Prize for Translated Fiction

The following post is by Rebecca Walkowitz, author of Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature

Earlier this month, the organizers of the Man Booker International Prize announced that they are scrapping the old prize, recognizing the career of a single novelist working in any language, and launching a new prize for a single novel translated into English. So, next year, we’ll have the Man Booker Prize, which celebrates the best novel published in English and also written in English. And we’ll have the Man Booker International Prize, which celebrates the best novel published in English translated from another language. What are the consequences of this change?

The new International Prize is likely to increase the visibility of translated books. All but two of the past International Prize winners have been English-language novelists. That group is no longer eligible, so the Man Booker’s enormous publicity machine will be focused at least half the time on writers who work in other languages. Greater publicity for translated books, it is hoped, will lead to a greater number of readers for those books. Not simply celebrating excellent translations, the Man Booker organizers want to increase the number of foreign-language works contracted by UK publishers.

To be sure, the new Prize is a boon for “foreign” writers, by which they mean writers who use languages other than English. But the organizers also have local readers and local publishing houses in mind. They want English-language readers to have more translations to choose from because they believe that reading books from other languages will help British citizens compete with their more worldly European neighbors. In this sense, the new International Prize, for all its cosmopolitanism, also has nationalist motives: the education of English-only readers. Of course, it may be that reading novels in translation will lead some people to learn additional languages and to think about English as one language among many.

In my view, the new Prize is likely encourage that kind of thinking not because it rewards foreign books but because it rewards translators of foreign books. The prize money (£50,000) will be split evenly between authors and translators, who will share credit for the production of the translated work. Upgrading the status of translators, the prize upgrades the status of multilingualism. It also upgrades the status of translations. No longer merely derivations or adaptations of original works, translated editions will be assessed as works in their own right. Readers will be asked to notice (instead of forget) that the work they are reading was brought from another language.


Friday, July 24th, 2015

On Grief: Poems by Alexandra Butler, author of “Walking the Night Road”

Walking the Night Road

This week our featured book is Walking the Night Road: Coming of Age in Grief, by Alexandra Butler. While Butler has written a wonderful and moving memoir in Walking the Night Road, she is also a published poet, who has written many poems addressing the same stories and themes as Walking the Night Road. In today’s post, the final in our week’s feature of her book, we are happy to present a list of Butler’s poems curated by their author, with short introductions to each poem to help put them into the context of her memoir.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Walking the Night Road!

The author’s memories of her childhood become distorted by grief. Author expresses rage about the promises her beloved mother made to her as a child and could not keep. The promises of Mortals.

Fair Game
o happy childhood
for I did not know
that all my life approached
that old sit down that had been had
so many times
so many beasts in that same brine

how could she ever think
that this cup would not be mine

what we had
what did we have
as transparent now as air
as easy and as casual and as
natural as a yawn
as every day as anything
I found her there but gone
my hand felt for my heart
as if to turn the thing back on

that which she had wiped away
with a mother’s furtive hand
had written its name back
on every surface everywhere
leaning forward through the walls
its halos of fiery hair
its red breath melting the paint
that went rolling down like peels
royal purple at its heels

how easy it had been for it to hide
heartless so no worry
of a beating from inside
while I slept it had swept in
calmly to prepare its feast
sitting down at what had always been its place
at the head of our family table
in the centre of our safe and sacred house

I awoke to find my mother there
smoking at the window
a bright green apple
shoved deep inside her mouth

just like that
she’d been made gone

in what
as a child I had reduced
to a simple ray of light
did I not see the storm within
of countless particles in flight
ditto did I not see in her
the simple beast
she always was despite
elaborate fantasies

an animal—a jungle—and a reign
a wild one who had managed
to convince me she was tame
and that she and I were chosen
two of life’s beloved pets
instead of just two more
among the countless hunted game (more…)

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

No Matter Who’s Elected, We Need the Hillary Doctrine

The Hillary Doctrine

“If Realpolitik implies being “realistic” about the world in which we live, then the Hillary Doctrine is potentially one of most transformative policy changes this nation has ever seen, capable of rendering our foreign policy far more effective than it has been to date.” — Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl

This week our featured book is The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy, by Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl, with a foreword by Swanee Hunt. Today, we have an article by Hudson and Leidl arguing that regardless of who wins the 2016 presidential election, U.S. policymakers should take the Hillary Doctrine seriously.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Hillary Doctrine!

No Matter Who’s Elected, We Need the Hillary Doctrine
By Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl

President Barack Obama must be feeling a sense of relief: after being stymied by Congress at every turn, he can now exit the presidency with two major political triumphs to his credit courtesy of the Supreme Court—Obamacare and the legalization of gay marriage.

For even as the champagne bottles pop and long-time same-sex companions rush to tie the knot, the female half of the human population has a good reason to be less than sanguine about the Obama administration’s performance. Although the outgoing president can be credited with a number of high-level female appointments—Janet Yellen and Sonia Sotomayor to name but two—and has fought for the Paycheck Fairness Act and signed the Lily Ledbetter Act, there is one area where his administration has notably lagged: women and foreign policy.

Far from taking a strong stand to affirm the UN resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, the administration has been worse than anemic with regard to ensuring that women in Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan and other fragile states take part in negotiations where their participation could mean the difference between war and peace, poverty and prosperity.

And while Obama was quick to condemn Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin on his stance on gay rights, he was completely mute on Putin’s tolerance of open, coerced polygyny and harshly enforced female dress code in Chechnya. So why the disconnect? Are not the rights of one half the population as worth fighting for as those of same-sex couples? (more…)

Monday, July 13th, 2015

My Killer Recipes for Two Sangrias — Natalie Berkowitz

The Winemaker's Hand

Now that we’re fully into summer what could be more timely than a recipe for sangria? And, who better to provide it than Natalie Berkowitz, author of The Winemaker’s Hand: Conversations on Talent, Technique, and Terroir. Here you go:

A Victorian summer dinner was a formal affair offering a plethora of substantial courses. When heat and humidity strikes, modern palates cry out for lighter fare. It’s time to throw out antediluvian constraints of white wine with fish and red with meat and step up to new ideas. Opting for grilled meats, salads, fish, paella, and shore dinners of lobster and raw crustaceans. Red and white Sangria are refreshing additions to the pantheon of summer beverages.

Sangrias of all stripes are delightfully refreshing. Its latitude of no-fail ingredients is its great appeal because there is no definitive recipe. I’ve tinkered with choices for years, adding a dollop of this and a soupçon.

My special recipe for red sangria starts with pouring a bottle of a full-bodied red into a large pitcher: A Côtes de Rhone, Chianti, or classic Spanish Rioja works. In fact, any hearty red wine fills the bill. The addition of a substantial dash of orange juice, a cup of good, inexpensive brandy such as E & J or Christian Brothers adds a special kick. To build up additional flavors, add a tablespoon or two of sugar, (don’t make it sweet), and 6 ounces of club soda for sparkle. Fruit is an indispensable requirement. Slices of stone fruit, like peaches, nectarines, and plums together with cantaloupe and/or honeydew soak up the wine. and make a great stand-alone treat or topping on vanilla ice-cream. Allow the ingredients at to meld least an hour before serving.

White Sangria is an equally delicious, if less well-known alternative to its bolder red sibling. It’s so cool and enticing in a clear glass pitcher that it practically lowers the surrounding temperature. Start with a Sancerre, a fruity Sauvignon Blanc from Chile or Napa, a Vouvray from the France’s Loire Valley, or an Auslese Riesling from Germany or Alsace. (Chardonnay is too heavy for my tastebuds.) Add a cup of brandy, (see above), two or three tablespoons of Grand Marnier, a slug of peach nectar, club soda, green grapes and diced honeydew melon or cantaloupe. Serve over ice cubes as an aperitif or as a divine complement to sushi, sashimi, and grilled fish.

Use your imagination to make these inventive wines suit your taste.

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

The Father-Daughter Relationship in Early China

Exemplary Women of Early China

“Referring to the prevailing concept of the ruler as fulfilling a parental role, ‘How indeed,’ [the Emperor] asked when contemplating the cruelty of corporal punishment, ‘can I be called the father and mother of the people?’ He then declared, ‘Let the corporal punishments be abolished!’” — Anne Behnke Kinney

The following is a guest post from Anne Behnke Kinney, author of Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü zhuan of Liu Xiang:

If Fathers’ Day cards are any indication of how Americans idealize the father-daughter bond, we honor our fathers as wise, strong, and encouraging, extolling these virtues in verses set against images of golf clubs, neckties, and for some reason, mallard ducks. The cards are purchased by sons and daughters alike. But in early China, daughters were afforded a status well beneath their brothers because, as females, they could not carry on the family line or the sacrifices necessary to nurture ancestors in the other world. (more…)

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

Sheldon Krimsky on the Use of Dialogue in “Stem Cell Dialogues”

Stem Cell Dialogues, Sheldon Krimsky

The following post is by Sheldon Krimsky, author of Stem Cell Dialogues: A Philosophical and Scientific Inquiry Into Medical Frontiers

In 1998 cell biology and medical research had entered a new stage of development. James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin isolated and cultured the first human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) from donated early stage human embryos. These cells have the potentiality of becoming differentiated into any other cells in the human body. The implications of this discovery are profound. ESCs could be harvested to regenerate damaged tissue, which cannot repair itself. Strokes, heart attacks, spinal cord damage, brain injury, and Alzheimer’s are but a few medical conditions that could potentially be treated with ESCs.

I first became aware of the promise of stem cell research in a class I co-taught with a colleague from the Tufts medical school who had been using stem cells to produce healthy skin. The class focused on the possibilities of human enhancement—covering the science as well as the social and ethical implications. The more I read about the science, the more I realized that medical research and therapy had embarked on a new voyage with new signposts of moral cautions. I did not have to wait very long before stem cells became an issue for presidential politics, feminist politics, right to life politics and even gender politics.

By the first decade of the millennium there were already dozens of books on the market. I could of course have taken a standard approach to combining a scientific narrative with ethical questions and bringing the issues up to date, that is, to 2015. By that point my wife had been immersed in playwriting. I also had been attending some of the plays performed in Cambridge at the Central Square Theater—a collaboration between MIT and two theater companies—that addressed scientific themes. I began thinking of an alternative way to investigate ideas in science and ethics for general readers. The works of Plato and Galileo, which I had read as a student of philosophy of science, came to mind. Could I present the complex issues of stem cell research and therapeutic applications as a set of dialogues?


Friday, June 26th, 2015

Same-Sex Marriage – Game Over?

Between a Man and a Woman?

“Romantic love is thus not only a widely shared cultural idea, from Disney to Honey Maid commercials. It is a political idea: the freedom to chose one’s life-partner echoes and reinforces the freedom to bond together as a nation of equals, despite the fissures of class, race, or ethnic background.” – Ludger Viefhues-Bailey

Following today’s Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution of the United States guarantees a right to same-sex marriage, Professor Ludger Viefhues-Bailey, author of Between a Man and a Woman?: Why Conservatives Oppose Same-Sex Marriage, offers his thoughts on the decision and discusses where he thinks public debates about marriage equality go from here.

Same-Sex Marriage – Game Over?
By Ludger Viefhues-Bailey

The Supreme Court has ruled and marriage equality is now the law of the land. Yet I doubt that we have the luxury of sitting back, toasting our entry into the marriage industry, and delegating conversations about religion, marriage, and the law to the uncomfortable privacy of the Thanksgiving table.

American Evangelicals and their rumblings on marriage equality will stay with us. This resilience is not simply because of the impact of their networks and numbers but because their resistance reflects a general uneasiness with the value of equality, one that is profoundly embedded in American political culture. Evangelical marriage theology only highlights and baptizes a wider American desire for a complicated mixture of both equality and inequality in shaping our body politic.

The history of marriage in the U.S. is indeed an excellent place to study this complicated union of equality and hierarchy.

In its history and in popular culture, marriage is in fact an institution allowing for the fulfillment of romantic equality while simultaneously promoting a stratified society. On the one hand we tell the story of romantic love by imagining that we could just marry anyone and that love is blind to status, class, or race. On the other hand, we police what counts as respectable marriages and who is allowed to have them. If anyone wishes to promote marriage as a particularly traditional American institution, they would need to focus on this tension between equality and inequality. (more…)

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

Why Henry George Matters in This Second Gilded Age — Edward T. O’Donnell

Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality

The following post is by Edward T. O’Donnell, author of Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age:

What value does the story of Henry George, a self-taught economist from the late nineteenth century, hold for Americans living in the early 21st century? Quite a lot, if we stop to consider the ways in which contemporary American society has come to resemble America in the late-nineteenth century, a period popularly known as the Gilded Age. As in our times, that era was marked by a dramatic increase in income inequality. It also witnessed a sharp and disturbing rise in the numbers of Americans living in poverty, even as Wall Street boomed and overall productivity soared. The Gilded Age was also marked by a surge in the size and power—and political influence—of large corporations and banks. And the politics of late-nineteenth century American society were characterized by extreme partisanship and paralysis. Indeed, the parallels between then and now are so striking that many contemporary progressive reformers, activists, and commentators have taken to referring to the era in which we now live as the Second Gilded Age.

If we are indeed living in a Second Gilded Age, then we can gain important insights into potential solutions to our economic, social, and political problems by taking a close look at the first Gilded Age. In particular, it is instructive to examine the people who emerged in this period to demand reforms—many of which were enacted in the subsequent Progressive Era. Henry George was one of these figures and he gained an enormous following among a wide cross section of American society.

George was a little-known journalist living in California in the 1870s when, moved by the aforementioned troubling trends of the Gilded Age, he began to study economics and history with an eye toward writing a book. The result of this effort was a book published in 1879 titled Progress and Poverty. The book is still in print and available in many languages. As its title suggests, George focused on a vexing question: why amidst so much material and technological progress was poverty increasing? This was, George warned, “the riddle which the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization, and which not to answer is to be destroyed.”

The book became a best seller and launched George as one of the era’s best-known and most influential reformers. The solution George proposed—a “single-tax” on land values—appealed to some of his followers. But far more were drawn to and inspired by the broad claims he made regarding American’s republican heritage and values. And here we see where George speaks to the concerns of our age.


Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 2

Excellent Beauty

“Over the years, I’ve talk to many psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers about consciousness, and almost none of them think that consciousness is beyond explaining, none regard it as an enduring mystery. Pressed for why they should think such a thing in the face of our abject ignorance, they shrug and fall back on what is clearly faith—faith that our science will be one day explain everything.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s post, Dietrich discusses the continuing existence of “excellent beauties” (currently unsolved and possibly unsolvable mysteries).

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 2
By Eric Dietrich

In yesterday’s post, we saw what happens when science confronts religion, now we will what happens when science confronts the cosmos.

The grandest example of an excellent beauty is consciousness. I don’t mean anything unusual or strange by the word “consciousness”. Consciousness—or being conscious—is the most ordinary thing in your life . . . so ordinary, you rarely note it or think of it. Consciousness is the way the world seems to you, the way you experience it, feel it. Taste an apple, see a sunset, smell a rose or an angry skunk, stub your toe on the foot of the bed frame at 4:00 am, hear your dog breathe or a baby gurgle and coo. Introspect and consider your belief that there are an infinite number of numbers. These are all conscious experiences. We have experiences because we are conscious. Or, rather, our having them constitutes our being conscious. Being conscious is what makes it fun or horrible or merely boring to be a human (or anything else that is conscious). Using a phrase that the philosopher Thomas Nagel made famous (apparently only among philosophers), we can say that a being is conscious when there is something it is like to be that being. (See Nagel’s oft-cited paper, “What is it like to be a bat?”).

Consciousness has so thoroughly eluded scientific explanation that we have no idea what an explanatory theory of consciousness would even look like. This runs deep. Given an explanatory theory of conscious by, say, friendly, advanced, visiting space aliens, we couldn’t even begin to tell if it was correct or not. Consciousness somehow exists only inside our minds (not, note, inside our brains), while science can only tackle what is on the outside, what is public and measurable. But why should this be the case? Why should there be anything it is like to be a dog or an octopus or a lobster? Why should there be “insides” to our minds, beyond the reach of public, measuring science? A famous quote (apparently only among consciousness researchers) by Stuart Sutherland is apropos here: “Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it,” (from the International Dictionary of Psychology).

The denialism here is thick. Over the years, I’ve talk to many psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers about consciousness, and almost none of them think that consciousness is beyond explaining, none regard it as an enduring mystery. Pressed for why they should think such a thing in the face of our abject ignorance, they shrug and fall back on what is clearly faith—faith that our science will be one day explain everything.

Here, briefly, and minus explanations, is a short list of other excellent beauties. We begin with the most well-known: Basically all of quantum mechanics. Next, the infinity of numbers comes in sizes—that’s right: some infinities are bigger than others, by rather a lot, it turns out. No one knows why, yet the proof for this fact is relatively easy to follow. Logic contains some of the strangest mysteries. First, classical logic is completely unable to represent its fundamental notion, the inference from one sentence to another, say from “X is a prime number bigger than 2”, to “X is an odd number.” Second, there exist logics that allow some statements to be both true and false at the same time. More shockingly, some philosophers argue that such “true contradictions” are required to correctly describe completely ordinary things like walking into a room or blinking your eyes. Thirdly, any logical system that contains numbers and operations like addition produces truths that are obviously true, but which cannot be proven; here truth extends beyond proof. There are more logic mysteries, but let’s move on.

Here is a mystery involving something more ordinary: Did you know that there is a very old, currently undecipherable text complete with detailed colored drawings sitting in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library? The author, purpose, and meaning of the text are unknown. Attempts to decode it or translate it defy all modern techniques used by linguists and cryptologists (going clear back to World War I). It’s called the Voynich Manuscript. Most scholars believe it was written sometime in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, but no one is sure (recent carbon-14 dating does put the date of the vellum in the fifteenth century). The language the manuscript is written in, if indeed it is a language, is completely baffling. Detailed statistical analysis of the symbols making up the manuscript, however, leads most scholars to believe that it is in fact written in some language, just not one used by any known culture or people. Here’s a final example. Recently it has been discovered that science itself, in its quest to find and explain all that can be found and explained, produces paradoxes that completely undo all the assumptions science has to make to be science. Science, it turns out, must assume what it wants to prove. (All the references to the above mysteries can be found in Excellent Beauty, except the last one; that one can be found in the paper “Science generates limit paradoxes.”)

What does the existence of enduring mysteries, of excellent beauties, mean? We have seen that in a sense, religion and science are co-conspirators—they conspire to create a world that is flatly natural. The supernatural bits of religions are not real, being only the products of our over-active imaginations fixed by group membership. But the excellent beauties are real, they are waiting there for any one to find and marvel at, and they are not the products of over-active imaginations. What are they the products of? That is itself the final excellent beauty: how is it that we inhabit a world that contains so many foundational paradoxes, so many enduring mysteries? How is it that some of our science and knowledge-seeking provides us with fulfilling and affirming explanations, while other parts of it shock us with strange enigmas that cause us to question the very core of what we think we know? It appears that what our science is telling us, with increasing urgency, is that the universe is not fully open to our comprehension. But it is fully open to our sense of beauty. And in the end, that’s better.

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 1

Excellent Beauty

“Every time a virus is found, a particle is discovered, an element is produced, some DNA is sequenced, or a planet’s unusual orbit is explained, our deeply held enlightenment ideal is affirmed: Yes! We inhabit an understandable world.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s post, Dietrich delves into our innate attraction to mystery, our nature as metaphysical realists, and the war between science and religion.

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 1
By Eric Dietrich

Everybody loves a good mystery . . . as long as it gets solved. But if a mystery persists in spite of our best efforts to solve it, our love wanes. In fact, very few among us can tolerate an enduring mystery. Why is that? Why are enduring mysteries so upsetting? The answer cuts to the heart of what it means to be a human being and explains the enormous impact dodging enduring mysteries has played in human history. Science and religion owe their existence to such dodging. Excellent Beauty is the story of these three, science, religion, and enduring mysteries. The title of the book comes from a quote by Francis Bacon, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” The book also closely examines several such mysteries, revealing their excellent beauty, why they are enduring, and what this upsetting fact means.

Of course, most of the mysteries we encounter in our daily lives are upsetting not because they are mysteries, but rather because of what they are about. If someone you love has fainting spells, but six months of medical tests have revealed nothing, then you are confronted with an upsetting mystery. It is upsetting because someone you love is suffering, and experts cannot tell you why and so cannot fix the problem.

The mysteries we love are not like this. They occur at some remove from us. Murder mystery novels are a billion dollar a year industry for precisely this reason. Sir Charles Baskerville has died, apparently of natural causes, yet the footprints of an unknown and enormous hound were found near where he perished. This fact has a pressing and dark relevance because the Baskerville family has been living under an old curse, apparently involving a hound from Hell. . . . All good fun. And in the end, Sherlock Holmes solves this mystery nicely. Of course, mysteries such as these are at such a remove from us that they aren’t real. Consider a real mystery that is nevertheless something we can love: Why did the dinosaurs go extinct? We now know the answer to this mystery, or at least there is wide agreement on what the answer is: Earth was hit by a massive asteroid or comet, the smoking gun of which is the Chicxulub crater off the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. (For a recent definitive treatment, see “The Chicxulub Asteroid Impact and Mass Extinction at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary” in Science, 5 March 2010: 1214-1218.) Before this explanation was discovered, the mystery of the missing dinosaurs was compelling and intensely investigated. (It is still being investigated since there is only “wide agreement” among scientists on the asteroid theory.)

There is a great affirmation for humankind in solving any deep, real mystery. This affirmation extends beyond the utility of any solution. The discovery of the virus responsible for AIDS was a tremendous advance in human health care and in the treatment of the disease itself. But the discovery of HIV goes deeper than human health. Two human properties explain this going-beyond aspect of the affirmation. Humans are, quite naturally, realists, in the metaphysical sense: we all think that there is a mind-independent world out there. We don’t know, except roughly, how many dogs there are in the world now, but we all think there is some definite number of them. And we think this number is what it is independently of our minds, independently of what we want it to be or what we wish it was. We are also all children of the Enlightenment at least in the sense that we carry around with us an Enlightenment ideal: we think we live in a rational universe, and we think that problems can be solved, at least in principle, by rational discourse or by some application of rationality. Putting these two together, we all think that there are answers out there and rationality can in principle reveal them. Every time a virus is found, a particle is discovered, an element is produced, some DNA is sequenced, or a planet’s unusual orbit is explained, our deeply held enlightenment ideal is affirmed: Yes! We inhabit an understandable world.

Religion is a great participator in this affirmation. And in this important sense, religion and science are compatible. Religious mysteries run deep. How can Jesus’s death redeem sinners today? How can their faith in him activate that redemption? Why is there evil if God is all-good and all-powerful? Why are there so many religions? (This bears a short digression. Conservative estimates put the number of religions today well into the tens of thousands. This estimate includes sects or denominations of the twenty or so major religions, which can be defined as religions with at least half a million adherents. Often, these sects or sub-religions differ almost as much from each other as the major religions differ from each other. So, for example, some experts estimate that there are over 30,000 versions of Christianity (see, for example the World Christian Encyclopedia or this list). Arguably all these versions worship some version of Jesus Christ, but beyond that, they differ significantly. For example, some see Jesus Christ as a sort of warrior against sin; some see the Christ as a god of love, unconcerned about sin; still others regard Jesus as a male human being who managed to live the perfect life and should therefore be emulated.)

The answers to all religious mysteries are commonly believed to be out there and fixed (realism), the understanding of which awaits our final fate. If our fate is good enough, the answers will be revealed to us, and such revelation will, at that time, finally make perfect sense (the Enlightenment ideal).
From this perspective, there is no war between science and religion, not really, and the world we live in, while troubled and dangerous, is, at least in principle, law-like and understandable.

Excellent Beauty argues that the above view of us and the universe we inhabit is Panglossian. There is a fierce war between science and religion. Science is winning—by a lot (this war is examined in detail in Excellent Beauty). Realism is at best an ineluctable metaphysical position. And most importantly, holding the Enlightenment ideal depends crucially on self-deception. Soberly considered, our universe contains only islands of understandability, islands where rationality is the dominant force, islands where our explanations work. Beyond these islands there is a vast, bizarre world consisting almost exclusively of enduring mysteries at which we can marvel, but can never explain or explain away.

Let’s take these points in turn.

Stephen Jay Gould is the avatar of the view that science and religion are not at war. He proposed what he called nonoverlapping magisteria for the proper relationship between science and religion (see his Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life). Gould said that science and religion are in fact so different that they can easily coexist, respecting each other’s dominion (i.e., magisterium; a magisterium is “a domain of authority in teaching” (p. 5)). Gould says:

I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict. Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. (p. 4)

If anyone other than Gould had written that, I would have thought that person irremediably naïve. But Gould is not naïve. So, I can only assume this suggestion of his results from some level of desperation. He so wanted to halt the war between science and religion that he fabricated this idea of separate but equal domains. A moment’s reflection, however, reveals that religion and science are not separate magisteria at all—they are profoundly overlapping magisteria. All religions make factual claims about the world: Jehovah created it in six days, Changing Woman created it and the Navajo who live on it, ghosts roam the world, magic can heal the sick, prayer is talking to Yahweh (or Jesus or Allah or Zeus, etc.), living beings reincarnate, and on and on. In fact, it is because all religions make factual claims that they are able to supply purpose, meaning, and values. Going the other direction, religion is not the sole provider of purposes, meanings, and values. There are plenty of atheists and agnostics whose lives hum with meaning. They get meaning from the traditional places: their families, their jobs, their hobbies—from doing science, making art and music, climbing mountains, learning to juggle, raising children, working on their marriage, and so forth. Oddly, and disturbingly, in flatly denying the obvious truth that religions make factual claims, and in denying that religion and science are at war, Gould is behaving exquisitely religiously: he is changing the “evidence” to fit his beliefs, rather than letting the evidence change his beliefs. The nonoverlapping magisteria idea is simply false. Science and religion are at war.

Science has arguably already won this war, and in the best way possible: by explaining why we are religious. Evolutionary theory explains both why we humans are religious and why there are tens of thousands of religions. Being religious, or having the propensity to be religious is an evolutionary adaptation. What advantage do religions bestow? They help knit groups together, among other things. The details of such an evolutionary explanation are complex and still being worked out by anthropologists, biologists, philosophers, and psychologists. In broad outline, most of these nascent theories are similar, and contribute to a large emerging explanation. In Excellent Beauty, I combine two of the most well-known and well-received theories, David Wilson’s group selection theory and Daniel Dennett’s hyperactive agent detection device (see, respectively, Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral, and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell). In brief, I argue that religions help bind groups together via shared magical thinking. We like being in a group that shares our beliefs about the weird, disturbing stuff we’ve experienced. And we like belonging to a group that offers and promotes compelling explanations of the stuff we experience. Both Wilson and Dennett’s theories are needed: Only Dennett’s theory can explain the universal existence of belief in the supernatural in the world’s religions, and only Wilson’s theory can explain why there are thousands of religions instead of billions of them.

Tomorrow we turn to the excellent beauties themselves.

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

What History Can Tell Us About Food Allergy — Matthew Smith

Another Person's Poison, Matthew Smith

“If we want to know anything about the health issues that face us today and will face us in future, the very first thing we should do is turn to the history of such issues.”—Matthew Smith

The following post is by Matthew Smith, author of Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy:

What can the history of medicine tell us about food allergy and other medical conditions?

An awful lot. History is essentially about why things change over time. None of our ideas about health or medicine simply spring out of the ground. They evolve over time, adapting to various social, political, economic, technological, and cultural factors. If we want to know anything about the health issues that face us today and will face us in future, the very first thing we should do is turn to the history of such issues. This is particularly important if we are dissatisfied with current ways of thinking about and treating particular conditions (as I have argued in the past with respect to ADHD or hyperactivity) or if we are bamboozled by the causes and deeper meaning of other conditions, such as food allergy. Otherwise, we are uninformed and highly likely to repeat the mistakes of the past.

A few weeks ago, my 16-month-old daughter broke out in spots. As the parents of two remarkably healthy children, my wife and I were bemused. Our first thought was that she may have come down with chicken pox, a real pain, but not the worst thing in the world. We looked up some of the early symptoms of chicken pox online, which appeared to confirm our suspicions and steeled ourselves for a week of scratching and crying.

The following morning however, the spots had disappeared. We were flummoxed. Could chicken pox be a 24-hour thing? No such luck. Then, I remembered that I was the author of a book on food allergy. Could it have been something she ate? I tried to think about what she had been eating and then it struck me: strawberries.

Scottish people are often maligned for never eating fruits or vegetables. While this is true for some people, the traditional Scottish diet is actually chock-full of healthy foods. The cold and rainy climate allows us to grow plenty of neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), for instance, and there is also a thriving berry industry in places such as Perthshire, and strawberries are central to this. Every year, when the sun shows its face and the buds begin to emerge, the first punnets of strawberries emerge in supermarkets. And we dutifully buy them up, gobbling up strawberries as fast as we can.