Zoltan Istvan: The Political Philosophy and Radical Science of the Transhumanist Who Would Be President

Futurism, Transhumanism



Zoltan Istvan is running as the Transhumanist Party Candidate for the 2016 Presidential election. A sandy-haired, genial, passionate father, he’s landed at the forefront of the political transhumanist movement here in the United States over the last year or so.  Articulate on the fly, he advocates the leveraging of radical scientific thinking and technological progress to boldly transform both the world in which we live and the bodies we inhabit. He’s seemingly indefatigable, doing interviews, writing essays, and talking to anyone who appears receptive to listening about how we can live forever in a better world, shepherded by artificial intelligence, if only we are bold enough to try for it. He’s a man who enjoys a glass of Laphroaig at the end of the day, is plugged in enough to know how Google’s SEO works, and is practical enough to focus his energies where they will do the most good for transhumanism. He was also kind enough to take some time out of his day to talk with me via Skype. We talked for almost a full hour, though he had only agreed on thirty minutes.

*The following was edited for length and clarity

Thanks for joining me here, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me for a bit.

Glad to be here.

So I’ve read most of your interviews and political writing, and I don’t necessarily want to rehash at length what you’ve said elsewhere. I’ll toss some links up of your recent stuff at Motherboard and Gizmodo and Medium and Esquire so people can check them out. That’ll free me up here to try to fill in the empty spaces, if that’s ok, and will give you the chance to cover some new ground instead of reiterating the same old thing?

Sounds great, yeah, whatever you want.

But let’s start briefly at the beginning. I think one of the challenges that you have faced and will continue to face is that transhumanism evokes so many different notions, and can be hard to encapsulate especially for the person who’s never heard the word before. So when I think about transhumanism—either as a political ideology or philosophical framework—I almost automatically follow Max More and Steve Fuller, and re-characterize adherents and opponents of transhumansim as Proactionaries and Precautionaries, respectively. If you’ll allow me to define them as I understand them quickly: Proactionaries pursue an agenda of calculated risk in using science and technology (via sometimes seemingly drastic methods) to change the basic living standard of humanity for the better, but also pursue extropian goals like virtual reality, or biohacking, or even a post-human future where we radically modify our bodies to live between the stars rather than huddled up next to them. The are, in other words, pro-action. Mistakes are inevitable in such a program, proactionaries argue, and must be accepted as the price of doing business (though we should certainly try to minimize them). Precautionaries, on the other hand—the opponents of transhumanism—seek the minimization of risk and damage (to humans and their social systems, animals, and the Earth) above all else, and stasis as more important than progress, and so see the Proactionary agenda as inherently reckless and probably resulting in the destruction of the world by grey goo. Thus, they advocate precaution. Is that a more or less fair way of thinking about practical Transhumanism and opponents of its agenda, or would you add to or refine or correct it for me?

You know I would say that’s an incredibly accurate way to reflect upon it all, you definitely have those sides and yeah, the way you said it is probably the way I would write it in an article, so yeah, that is perfect.

So why is Transhumanism a viable political ideology for the first time in 2016 and for instance why aren’t we having this conversation in 2004 or 1996?

Well, I think a lot of it has to do with, and if you’ll just permit me to be honest, the personalities that arise in the movement. There have been some enigmatic figures in the last twenty years in the transhumanist movement but they may not have been that savvy in using technology to get out their message, or they may not have been that savvy with social media. Or the social media environment didn’t exist. I think there was always a political element of transhumanism. I don’t think any transhumanist didn’t want to see, for example, a transhumanist president, or a transhumanist congress. But what happened just in the last few years, with Facebook, and Twitter, and all the other social media platforms, is you have actually have a real opportunity to voice an opinion that can get out to the masses without necessarily being, for example, world famous, or having  billion dollars. So I think in many ways what has happened is transhumanism has kind of evolved to where a younger generation of transhumanists has emerged and are using social media to advocate. And that has changed the politics, because all of a sudden instead of just having a couple academics from the Ivory Tower talking you now have a social movement that is online, and it’s powerful. And it can go viral very quickly. So that’s why I think transhumanism has become political in the last year or so, or even two years. But it was always, in my opinion, political to begin with. It’s just nobody was able to get out their voice, and so nobody really tried.

Sure. I actually buy that a hundred percent, and that feeds perfectly into the next question I had for you. One of the things that intrigues me about Transhumanism as a political movement is the potential it has to violently (and in my and probably many other people’s views, necessarily) disrupt the current, entrenched two-party system. It’s been written about as a kind of ninety-degree revolution, from a left-right characterization to up-down one (following, of course, FM-2030’s notion of Upwingers and Downwingers). They say it appeals to people (young people, especially, as you say) because transhumanism talks about issues they find more relevant and pressing in the second decade of the twenty-first century (like open-source issues in economics, or biology, or information) rather than (what they see as) the constant rehash of “stale” issues (like perhaps the legitimacy of the welfare state or marriage laws or immigration or whatever). Would you say this characterization, this ninety-degree revolution—is a facile—if catchy—one, or have they hit upon something profound?

Well, I there’s a number factors here. To begin with they’ve definitely hit upon something more profound. I think (and kind of going more into social media) the younger generation, which is now the majority, I would say, of the transhumanists movement—which potentially could be millions around the world at this point—are sort of fed up with typical issues. They’re not really thinking of marriage laws, or social security—ok maybe they’re thinking about gay marriage laws—but they’re not necessarily thinking about the typical “Let’s have kids, let’s have a two-car garage, let’s have a mortgage.” They’re ready for something much more revolutionary, which is very typical of young people to begin with. They want something that is considerably different. Something that appeals to their youth, and that is something that really can’t be underestimated, because it’s absolutely so pivotal in everything that I’m seeing on a day-to-day basis. And so what’s happening is they just don’t care about social security—it just doesn’t affect them—what they care about it are radical things, like what are going to be the ethics of or morals in virtual reality sex? How is that going to change personal dynamics? What about space exploration? Wwhat about bionics? Can I run a hundred miles per hour when I have a certain type of exoskeleton suit? You know, these are the things that matter to this younger, upcoming generation. And that’s why all of a sudden people are very interested in it from a political point of view and wanting to say “Well, where can we go as a species?” That’s what’s exciting, that’s what’s important. A lot of the older transhumanists don’t see it that way, and are still debating stem cells and still looking at some of the older issues, whereas the younger generation, they just want to go headlong into some crazy things and that could involve all sorts of virtual realities and stuff like that. Which we don’t really have much ethical basis for or experience with; we’re just going down the road. The other day I did an interview with someone and she was telling me about how she had known a person who had some kind of virtual experience and was raped during that virtual experience and I thought “Well, we don’t have any kind of laws for virtual rape yet.” This is the kind of thing that the younger generation is very interested in discovering, and that’s where I think a lot of this kind of new political thought is going. When you compare something like that topic to social security, which most of these people haven’t even paid into, they’re just not interested. So that’s really again what I think is happening with the whole movement; it’s shifting to more exciting things that are happening in the evolution of politics as we [transhumanists] would know it.

So last thing before we move on to your particular stance on the issues. Besides a tendency to take the long view—and I’ve seen this kind of take shape slowly over the last six months or so as you’ve written more essays and articles in various spaces—Transhumanism holds tight to a certain optimism–in people, in technology, and in the future–what do you specifically say to people sets transhumanism apart from other political philosophies?

Well, I think the one thing that really sets transhumanism apart, and again this is entirely my opinion, my campaign opinion—it’s not necessarily the Transhumanist Party’s opinion, but I do believe and I think most people are on board with the idea that we can solve every single problem in the world with science and technology. Now that’s a very bold statement to make, but I do believe it.

Yes, it is.

The example I use is that MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) one of the largest nonprofits in American have been trying to stop drunk driving accident deaths which are tens of thousands every year by telling kids not to drink. But the real way to stop it is to not have people driving at all. And this is a classic technological fix to a very serious problem—I’m a father with two kids—that we’re all grateful for. I believe it’s a sort of metaphor for the entire transhumanist movement that ultimately science and technology can fix everything. Ok, not necessarily “fix,” but at least “make better.” It can at least help every single problem we have and that’s a very different [political] ideology than we’ve ever had before. The idea that we would put all our eggs with science and technology and not some other political ideology. That we would almost hold science and technology as the answer to all our problems. I think that separates political transhumanism from other types of politics that I’m aware of.

I love that example that you give because the first thing I think in terms of a technological fix to drunk driving is “let’s put a breathalyzer into every car,” but in fact one of the things that you can do is eliminate the driver as an entity from the get-go and that precludes all these other issues that have been plaguing us for decades and decades. So I wanted to move onto some shorter questions if that’s ok with you and hit some particular political stances and issues. I think another of the challenges you’ve faced and will continue to face over the next 18 months is that you’re advancing a political philosophy you want to become a viable party perhaps in 2020 or 2024, but you’re also an individual with particular beliefs. I imagine when you get questions about specific policy issues you’ve got to think for the Transhumanist Party but also yourself as a candidate. As you just said. Additionally, I know you’ve written that you don’t really expect to win a year from November. So feel free to punt on any of the following if you simply haven’t had a chance to formulate a political position yet. The first thing I wanted to turn to was this question of a jobless future. Easily one of the most often-repeated fear of a technologically driven future is that as machines get smarter and more capable, human jobs will inevitable be destroyed by the tens of thousands. You see this argument made about the auto industry—both in manufacturing and truck driving (most recently at Medium and Gizmodo)—but regarding other industries as well. Indeed, there’s a robot named Baxter developed by Rethink Robotics who recently worked 2,160 straight hours on an assembly line in Pennsylvania. It only cost $25,000 to implement, meaning it works for $11.57/hour. What do you say to folks who attack the optimism of the Transhumanist agenda by pointing to this potentially jobless future?

Well, you know my entire program with this is I’m trying to change the culture of how people view themselves and view the world. There’s no question that we’re going to have to change this idea that we all go to work at 9-5. It doesn’t really matter who you are—whether you’re a journalist or doctor or truck driver or a waitress—all jobs will be replaced. Probably the President’s job at some point will be replaced. The idea is we need to find a way to enjoy living a different kind of perspective, we need to accept that human beings are no longer going to work, that there’s a standard of living that’s going to be acceptable—you know this is why I ultimately endorse a universal basic income, I also endorse universal preschool and a universal college education. People need to become educated in a culture that wants these things so they can see a bigger future than just this 9-5 grind, which at least in America and many other countries we’ve sort of been programmed to accept. That’s not going to be the program in 20 years; the program is going to be “What can I do with my lifespan that makes me satisfied that is creative, that is artistic, that is culturally relevant?” To be honest with you I don’t have all the answers regarding what that future is going to hold and how people are going to be different, but one thing I know for sure is that people must absolutely change. And when I say “change” I mean they’re going to have to accept a new standard of living, a new standard of how they view themselves that has to be outside of their paid profession. So it’s totally critical that people start to take that step down that path. It’s very possible we just end up being ten billion people who meditate half the time, or ten billion artists. I don’t know what the future’s going to hold but it’s inevitable and it’s going to take a complete revolution in our cultural outlook to make sense of that and to be happy with that. But I think once we accepted it life is going to be far happier and far more fulfilling.

That sounds like a radical shift. You’re talking about a whole new ethos for living, a new set of morals and values that are no longer defined by what we do for a living. I think it’s an exciting prospect for the future. Let’s build on that formulation of a new cultural framework for a moment. Much of your writing and speaking inevitably turns to radically extended or indefinite life spans. When death becomes an unusual state of being, will it be easier to abolish the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment, and for that matter what happens to lifetime prison sentences for those who are prone to recidivism when we’re living a thousand or ten thousand years? What do we do with those people?

So there are two things here. In general, and in theory, I have been a supporter of the death penalty under certain circumstances. However, I’m no longer a supporter of it under the transhumanist agenda, and so when it comes down to my policy I’m not supporting that anymore. It’s very difficult to support the death penalty in a world where everyone’s going to eventually be living indefinitely. Realistically, in ten or fifteen years we’re probably going to have cranial implant technologies that will be able to change the basis of personality, so these criminal things that people want to do might easily be either taken out via some kind of behavior-modification technology or re-engineered through some type of genetics. Additionally, we’ll probably going to be able to have this kind of setup where you’re constantly being monitored. We’re already moving to a surveillance society. You’re just not going to be able to commit the same crimes you once wanted to do because you’re going to be observed at every single moment of your life when you want it or not. So this whole idea of crime is going to change radically over the next ten to fifteen years. And I advocate for using technology to do that, because I believe every human being—even those that are the most evil or criminal—can be changed into something that is much more useful to society. Now of course, if they don’t want that change maybe there needs to be some type of place where we could leave them. In fact in my novel [The Transhumanist Wager], there was one section that I took out of the book—it just was kind of a little too controversial—was creating nations where criminals would just be left.

Sure. Parts of Australia started their life like that.

Yeah. It’s not a punishment in a sense. The only thing is you just can’t come back. You can forge your own life, within the system. So at this point in time I don’t support the death penalty anymore. What I support is using technology to rehabilitate people and modify the things in them that don’t work well in society. Obviously if you have murderers that can’t be something that’s allowed. So people will have to accept that either you will have to be changed through some type of chip or some type of genetic engineering or you need to be withdrawn from society and put on an island. The one thing we can’t do is spend as much money as we’re spending on prisons. That’s absolutely insane. We should be spending that money on education or life-extension research. If we took just a fraction of some of the money spent on the prison system in America and put it towards life extension science we would literally triple the amount of money that’s going towards the industry right now. And that’s just from the prisons. In the age of unlimited life spans I think we need to rid ourselves of criminal intent and acts through technology.

Well that actually sets me up perfectly for the next question. So science and technology research in the United States saw federal funding somewhere in the realm of 135 billion dollars and change in 2015, with much earmarked for defense-related activities. What should that number really be?

Well, look, the defense industry is a multi-trillion-dollar industry. And I think the amount of money that is going directly into the life-extension industry is in the realm of about eight billion, and half goes to Alzheimer’s anyways. And not that I would consider Alzheimer’s research “life extension” research—it’s good that we’re spending money on it, but if I were to look at a billion dollars going into Google’s “Calico” program then I could say it’s going directly into life-extension research. The United States has got a GDP, and the numbers fluctuate, but at any given moment the number is seventeen or eighteen trillion dollars, and we [in my campaign] feel that we should spend one trillion dollars over a ten-year period directly into the life-extension industry. Nothing like that has ever been done. This would be a hundred, two hundred, three hundred times more than anything that’s every taken place. And it would completely revolutionize medicine in the United States. Sort of like Obama’s brain initiative, which is awesome, but it’s only three billion dollars, and honestly that’s pretty small when you consider that the Iraq war cost approximately six trillion [counting interest over the next four decades]. So what we’d like to do is take about a three or four percent of the annual GDP and spread it over ten years—so it’s really a fraction of a percent, and we could revolutionize health care. If America values itself at around 40 trillion dollars, to spend two to three percent of our net worth over a decade to give our citizenry a solid chance to discover the very best life extension we can come up with with that money, we should. Most experts say that even with the few billion going into life-extension research now we’re probably going to reach some type of ongoing sentience in the next twenty or twenty-five years. A trillion would funnel a hundred times that commitment into it. We could at least speed up the progress, and find ways for humans to overcome their biological boundaries like dying. And I’ll tell you about this though I haven’t written about it again: the one thing that I’m going to advocate for at great expense to my libertarian base—not that I’m libertarian, but I have a lot of libertarian friends—is something that I’ve written an article about that I call the “Jethro Knights Life-Extension Tax”. And what I had suggested and what we’re going to campaign on was that everybody in the world donate one percent of their net worth one time. One percent, so if you’re worth ten thousand dollars you’d donate a hundred dollars one time, and so one, and that would contribute many, many trillions to this research. We as a world would come up with very quickly the resources to overcome biological death. I’ll send you a link to that article. When I released that article about a year ago people sort of freaked out. It’s so difficult to campaign on taxes at all, and it’s not something I necessarily think would ever get passed, but it’s very illustrative of how such a small portion of who we are as people—just one percent of one’s net worth and we could change the fate of seven billion people. And the great thing is it’s really favorable for those who don’t have much money—even at minimum wage you could contribute your one percent in one day’s work, and guarantee your immortality. This is a tax that’s going to upset the rich more.

I appreciate the link, I’ll include it. I know we’re running up a bit on time here, but I wanted to ask you quickly: You’ve mentioned in the past that at the state level there are some transhumanists running for office. Are there any, in your eyes, “closet” (or semi-open) transhumanists in Congress right now (and perhaps they don’t even know it yet) that you see as potential allies should you win the White House? Al Gore seems the closest and most obvious mainstream politician of the last ten years I can think of.

Yes, Al Gore is absolutely a transhumanist, he’s used the word transhumanist numerous times in his books, he helped launch Jason Silva’s career. But we have not recognized anyone else. It’s funny, my advisors and I just had this discussion about a month ago—there are a number of Congresspeople who are very pro-science, but I think if you asked people most would admit to being pro-science. One of the things is that a lot of the democrats that are pro-science mean it from an environmental perspective, and of course that’s great because we want to save the world too and want the earth to be pristine. But I don’t know if they’re pro-science in the way that I am trying to advocate for, as in trying to advocate that we replace human hearts with robotic hearts so we can eliminate heart disease in America. That’s the pro-science attitude I’m looking for in politicians, and I have not yet seen anyone. What I have seen is people putting more money into science and more money into technology, which is wonderful, but they haven’t thought through what that means when it comes to upgrading human beings into something very, very different. And part of the reason is as soon as you talk about these concepts that comprise transhumanism, you bring up these major other issues like overpopulation and social security, which are just such land mines for any politician. As soon as you advocate for an indefinite life span without trying to also counter the other people who are going to say “Well, great, how are we going to pay for an entire generation of people who are never work again.”


This is one of the reasons that transhumanism faces a real challenge and uphill battle in politics, because while the idea of it is probably appealing to most people who would say “Yeah, I want to be perfectly healthy and I want to live longer,” when you point out that everyone on the planet wants to do that giving you twenty billion people with a large chuck potentially on social security, most politicians are reluctant to talk about it. I do have a campaign coming up here beginning at the Huffington Post where I will start saying things like “Hey, Hilary Clinton—are you a transhumanist?” Or something like that, and hopefully it’ll get people to say “Well, what does that mean? How far are you willing to go on these kinds of issues?” And eventually, if we end up conceding, the small group of transhumanists will probably end up supporting some democratic candidate where we can pursue science and technology issues in a secular-minded way. So unfortunately I can’t answer your question and say there’s anyone out there right now. The problem is all the great people who should be running for politics are scientists and they just don’t want to be bothered with this stuff. And that’s another sad thing. I recently wrote an article saying that we should make it a law that you can’t have so many attorneys in office. You must have a complete, broad, representative population.

That’s an interesting idea.

Yeah. If you have 15% scientists in the world, then you should have 15% representation by them. If you have 15% engineers in the world, we need 15% of Congress to be engineers. Right now it’s skewed towards attorneys and the kinds of professions that, you know, generally aren’t pro-science or pro-technology but pro-legal things. And that has also been very disruptive to society.

I haven’t seen it anywhere specific, but for some reason this strikes me as a very FM-2030 notion. A neat, proportional representation I would not see as out of place in either Optimism One or Up-Wingers

Yeah, and you know I wrote about a related idea in my novel and it just amazes me that this isn’t already the case. There also needs to be a law that the female-male distribution in Congress should be pretty even, with incentives for females to run if it becomes unbalanced. I find it crazy that we have a Congress that’s still dominated by mostly white older males. Times are changing too quickly and it’s not able to keep up. The biggest problem about politics is that science and technology are making those same old white males live longer and longer and hold onto their power longer and longer, even if they don’t support the science and technology. It’s absolutely critical that we bring in diversity, and it’s absolutely critical that if we want democracy to work we do our best so that everyone is represented according to their numbers. Not just the same people who have kind of been in power since the [nineteen] fifties and are basically advocating for almost identical policies. The only difference is they’re doing through their iPhones and pretty soon they’ll be doing it through they’re cranial implants. And something is different because technology should force ethics to change; that’s what we were talking about in terms of making the death penalty illegal. At one point I did support it—if someone had murdered my entire family, sure, that person deserves the death penalty. However now I understand that, because if we have but withhold the technology to change that person then that would be me murdering that person. So, again, this kind of goes back to when you were asking what’s the difference between transhumanism and other political parties. It’s that we honestly believe that science and technology can literally solve all these problems. But we can’t get stuck in these old ethics, with cultural baggage, as I often refer to it. We need to let the technology and science lead the way. We need to listen to it.

And let science and technology drive a new ethical framework rather than recapitulating the old one and perpetuating it to infinity. Hmm. Well, thanks for answering those questions. I was wondering if I could take just a couple minutes here at the end to just indulge a little with some questions you might not regularly get asked, and so feel free to take a pass on any of them. You said recently you think there are at least 150k and perhaps a few million transhumanists in the United States right now. Your campaign has been slowly gaining attention over the last few months as well. How many hits is zoltanforamerica.com getting these days?

You know, the main website is zoltanistvan.com/. To be honest, we’re not getting that many hits—I haven’t looked at the numbers for zoltanistvan.com recently. But I can tell you that—and people ask me this all the time—they say hey, your website’s kind of old and not as savvy-looking, and part of the reason for that is my campaign doesn’t get as much funding as even other third-party campaigns. Transhumanists, because they’re so young, they don’t have that much money, so we’re just dealing with it as well as we can. But I can tell you last week, that between the interviews and articles I did I thought we were somewhere between three and four hundred thousand views of my stuff between a Popular Science article and an Esquire one, and something I had at Vice, even if the website might have only been a few thousand. Now obviously that doesn’t necessarily translate into supporters. But it translates hopefully into recognition. At the end of the day I’m not expecting in any way to win. What we’re really trying to do with my campaign, at least in 2016, is to spread transhumanism. We generally do one to two million views of our campaign every month.

I think that’s pretty good.

Yes, no, it’s great! It’s fascinating. I worked it out last year, and this was before my presidential campaign, and it was pretty disappointing to my wife. She said, “Ok, in 2014 you had approximately twenty to thirty million views.” There were a couple of articles that just went completely viral, they were picked up I think by seven of the top ten Chinese sites. There was the one on ectogenesis. But we were asking ourselves, in terms of finances, “How many ads did I sell for other people?” and we came up with something like probably seven hundred thousand dollars. Of course I made a small fraction of that from my writing—so I was making some other people very wealthy. But the idea is that the message is getting out more broadly. You can see through my columns that the transhumanism movement is changing. People are hearing the word again and again and again, and once they hear it they start using it. It’s not of course necessarily only associated with me in any way. But that’s how we’ve been measuring our success, as opposed to donations which have generally remained small. We’ve been much more concerned with determining how the media is handling it all, because at the end of the day what’s most important for myself and transhumanists is that we build a culture that welcomes transhumanism as opposed to a culture that welcomes dying and going and meeting Jesus or something. We’re trying to make it so that transhumanism can work within the culture already established here in America. And if the culture’s there then people will begin to say “Well, why don’t we have more robotic body parts to end heart disease and why don’t we have exoskeleton suits to end disability?” And if we encourage this culture and get people onboard to embrace it, then pretty soon you’ll see us go back to your question about congresspeople who say “Yeah, I’m also a transhumanist”—or, actually, they’ll probably say something like “I support transhumanist technology for the better health of Americans.” And that’s a very important thing, so we spend almost all our time trying to make an impact in the media in the hopes of effecting change on that framework for Americans. And we think in two or three years if the movement continues transhumanism will be a household word. One of the things I’ve been totally impressed with is that in Europe they’re totally throwing the word around like it’s normal now. And I can tell you two or three years ago it was not a normal.

Well, I think it’ll be exciting to see how it grows as the election cycle begins to ramp up. Ok. Last question for you. I’m reading Kim Stanley Robsinson’s Green Mars right now. It’s pretty great, though Red Mars was better. What’s the last book you read purely for enjoyment, and what did you think of it?  

You know, I’ve got to be honest. If Ray Kurzweil asked me to read his book I wouldn’t right now. I check my email at two, four, six in the morning, and we also have an infant so it’s just been all coming together at once. Plus, I’m reading and writing all day every day, so it just takes too much of a toll. But one thing I still manage to do is watch a documentary every single night, or most of one. I used to be a documentary filmmaker. I worked for National Geographic, doing mini-documentaries.

Oh yeah, I read that actually.

Yeah, so usually around eleven or so I’ll get to sit down with a glass of scotch and that’s how I unwind. And the one I just watched that was great was called The Singing Revolution. It’s about how Estonia was born. Essentially, they made use of a nonviolent way to cause a revolution, and they gave birth to a nation by singing. I didn’t know this story at all. And when you get a million people singing in front of an army, you can’t do anything. It’s a very powerful documentary. I usually get up around seven in the morning and work through to ten or so at night, so I really look forward to that time where I can enjoy someone else’s ideas and explore what they’re thinking.

Zoltan Istvan on Twitter

Zoltan Istvan’s personal website

Transhumanist Party’s website


The Unbearable Lightness of Bee-ing.

Environmental History, Reading and Writing, United States History



That was a pun. This is a post about bees.

So I’ve got this fascination with bees. Not up-close, because I’m afraid they’ll sting me and I’ll die. I got stung fairly regularly as a wee one (as one would expect growing up in the country in Minnesota) but also more than you’d think as both a teenager and young adult (no real satisfactory explanation for this). Three I remember vividly. Stepped on a nest while mowing the lawn, which wouldn’t have been that big a deal but I’d accidentally just run it over and was mowing barefoot at the time. They were pissed, and I rightly got hit about half a dozen times. Then once when I was older in the face, which was as initially terrifying as you’d expect but faded pretty quickly, and then finally once in the arm which (because of the latter) I figured would be no big deal until it swelled up so much I couldn’t bend my wrist for most of a day. So I keep my distance these days, and admire them from afar.

Bees are infinitely interesting. They’ve been around for millions of years, and navigated potentially cladogenetic environmental changes time and again by positively selecting advantageous traits very rapidly. Darwin was fascinated by them. They confounded human ingenuity for hundreds of years. I wrote about how they can help us be smarter in designing elections a while back. I guess, to me, they represent some ultimate form of crowdsourcing the decision-making apparatus, and serve in so many cases of the power of collective intelligence.

beekeeper's lament

So recently, I picked up Hannah Nordhaus’ The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed the World. To be completely honest, I wasn’t expecting that much from it. Some overly dramatic language on how global warming/pesticide use/habitat loss has and continues to decimate bee populations and that’s going to lead to the end of life as we know it. Recent years have seen staggering bee losses in the United States, as any non-sequestered individual knows, and I assumed that would be the tent pole of the book. As a reader, such treatments bore me to tears. As an animal lover, I wasn’t really looking forward to a couple hundred pages about here’s another way I need to be ashamed of my species. As an historian of science and (in some ways) strict Darwinian, I knew it would probably be overwrought. Nature, for good and ill, finds a way. Species adapt, or they don’t, and the world keeps on turning. If humanity accidentally nukes itself a thousand times over, one or a hundred or a thousand million years from now life will emerge and start again.

Thankfully, refreshingly, astonishingly, even, Nordhaus manages to eschew that caricatured narrative which so plagues other science and nature writing (even by people who should know better). Certainly at times The Beekeeper’s Lament is a paean to a simpler time. Alternately, too, it might strike some occasionally as a hand holding a megaphone prophesying a looming Armageddon. Here and there, heartbreakingly, it is unavoidably Sinclairean in its portrayal of the honey-producing industry and the life of the average bee in America. It is, in fact, more than most a many-faceted narrative of hardship, loss, hope, triumph, tranquility, anxiety, sacrifice, community, loneliness, and stubbornness. It is, in other words, a narrative of the American beekeeper.

If that kind of exploration interests you, and you have an appreciation for consistently clear writing marked by a strong authorial voice, you’ll love The Beekeeper’s Lament. Nordhaus demonstrates a talent for making her characters come to life, which is quite the feat given how boring we know most of our fellow humans to be. John Miller, a beekeeper from California who also spends time in the northern plains, is the simultaneously irascible, gregarious, obsessive, laissez-faire, and above all committed central thread of the narrative. This is a book that, as I’m sure Nordhaus would admit, is as much his as it is hers. And he is, if not always likable, certainly insightful and interesting.

It’s a book filled with the minutiae (and history) of beekeeping, bee physiology, bee habitats and ecosystems, and the honey marketplace. The two most compelling points of the narrative are at once simple and revealing of the past, current, and future prospects for bees and all of the constituent ways in which their lives intersect our own.

The first is that the beekeeper hangs on by a thread. Varroa mites and pesticides contributing to colony collapse disorder (CCD), trade pressures (and laundered honey from China), disappearing habitats, the monoculture pursued by farmers, and labor shortages—in addition to what is at times an astonishing dearth of knowledge about the basic needs and lives of bees on the part of zoologists and biologists—all ensure that the beekeeper, more than most, lives a precarious existence. Beekeeping is an occupation, a way of life, really, that requires one to expect just as many bad years as good years. Pollination (of almonds, oranges, etc.) would be a much more hassle-free, lucrative way to put their bees to work. One doesn’t go into the bee business to make money, as the current demographic trends of the industry in the last two decades reflect. Beekeepers are getting older, and many are finding it difficult to find individuals to continue the work in the next generation.

The second is that for bees (both individuals and as a collective) life is an intensely focused affair that for all but a few will be almost certainly violently cut short. For some only recently understood (but many more often hidden) reasons, as a species their existence is a continual massacre. Nordhaus reiterates the common point that those who have in recent years followed the saga of the bee already know: that without the honey industry, the bee would virtually disappear from our daily lives. John Miller has about ten thousand hives holding around eighty thousand bees apiece, for a total population of three quarters of a billion bees. But in 2004 he lost thirty million bees when a truck transporting hives crashed. In 2008 he lost twenty five percent of his hives to CCD. Acceptable yearly loss before 2007 was fifteen percent, which is a lot when you consider there are some two trillion honey bees in the United States. Now, it’s thirty percent. Hundreds of millions of bees die every year, and will continue to do so. Oftentimes, honey bee outfits only survive because Miller and others raise queens and ship them around the country especially for repopulation after a colony collapse (in fact, it’s become an industry in its own right). This remains one of the most powerful lessons of the book, and speaks not only to the stubborn resilience of the American beekeeper but to the horror of an industry which views millions of deaths as part of a cycle that constitutes the new normal.

What would happen if we put the brakes on it all? Some conservationists would argue (usually the same ones that claim we need to keep eating beef or the cow would go extinct, so we’re really doing them a favor) that the honey bee would go the way of the dodo, the golden toad, the zanzibar leopard, or the javan tiger if we no longer acted as shepherd in the cruel, modern world. Varroa would prove their demise, or habitat loss would finish them off. Yet as Nordhaus also ably relates, bees remain, more than most, a resilient species. Some few variants would undoubtedly show adaptations which would allow them to survive and even flourish in an otherwise bee-less world. Whether we’d have honey for our consumables (or honey we’d want to use) or the two hundred billion dollars’ worth of crops bees pollinate each year remains a far less relevant story, evolutionarily speaking (except, of course, to the beekeeper). Or maybe there’s a third way, where we decide responsible cohabitation of the land with other species doesn’t automatically constitute endorsement of some anti-human narrative. Or that this is an either/or proposition. If that means I pay ten or twelve of fifteen bucks an ounce for honey, then I guess that’s what I’ll do.

And in spite of the endless cycles which seem to govern the life of the honey bee as a species, they are, as I’m sure Miller or any other beekeeper will tell you, unique and distinctive in their lives. Peel back the superficial, peer into the microcosmic, and you’ll find the moods, the whims, the predilections of the individual honey bee. And that, friends, is why Kundera serves as a better title for this post. That, and Nietschze has always seemed a gloomy bastard to me.

*Header image from http://japers.deviantart.com/

slorlorisblog image cloud April 2015

A New Year, a New Look


slorlorisblog image cloud April 2015

No, google. No I did not mean that.

I started this blog in March 2014, and it is almost unbelievable to me that it’s been a full year since its inception. Borne out of the desperate depths of a mind being slowly torn apart by the process of writing a dissertation in history, it served as a stopcock, a relief valve, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I half expected it to fade away into the pebble-strewn, rotting basement of the internet like so many others after a few weeks of no one noticing its existence or because I got bored or mad when people disagreed with me in public. I turned to it when I couldn’t imagine writing even one more word on the history of eugenics on the southern plains, cracking one more book or PDF open, shft+alt+f-ing one more footnote. I wondered, as too few of the rest of the internet seems to do, if I’d have anything useful or interesting to say about the topics and items that penetrate the fog inside of which we all walk around on a daily bases. And, as was inevitable, when there were days or weeks where this place took a distant backseat to other things going on in life, I wondered if it was dead to me.

In other words, I had very few expectations going into this. I wrote a dozen or so posts before going live so that, worst-case scenario, there’d be something here. But I remained unsure exactly who I intended my audience to be, and if they’d be interested anyway. Of course in many ways this place is a still a work in progress, both internally for me and externally as it appears to you. But I’ve settled into a comfortable rhythm here, and if it’s ok with you I think I’ll keep it around for the foreseeable future. Google seems to like it, enough people are dropping by on a daily basis, and I find I still enjoy putting down the words and the pictures. slowlorisblog has been visited a little more than five thousand times in the last year, which is plenty good enough for me. The essay with the highest number of views remains, unsurprisingly, Dark Ecology as the Higher Mysanthropy, by Steve Fuller. The pieces on the humanities getting their collective shit together, eschewing open-access for one’s dissertation, and letting evolution and math teach us how to vote remain other popular ones, along with a book review I wrote of Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature. Strangely, this review garners consistent hits no matter the time of day or day of the week, I have no explanation for this, except that I got it up before others and now it remains sustained by the algorithmic teat of the google machine. So popular is it, in fact, that it remains the number one search result, even higher than the book’s own website, republicofnature.com.


fiege search results april 2015

You’re welcome Dr. Fiege. Maybe you remember this if I apply for a position at Colorado State?

In other you-probably-don’t-care-but-I-do news, slowlorisblog has seen some excitement. We got retweeted by that great obfuscatory compendium of thoughts that is Nein Quarterly, interacted with historians of note like Nathaniel Comfort and Jim Grossman, showed up at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, and pinged by the eminently well-informed Karen Kelsky over at theprofessorisin.

As I say, I started this blog almost coetaneous to the moment I put the dissertation into high gear. For the curious, I went from looking like this.


To looking like this.

old man image

I added a twitter account which is followed by more than a handful of individuals I genuinely admire. As time permits I’ll be adding the audio files for conference talks I’ve given in the immediate past and going forward.

I also continue to believe that it’s absolutely vital for historians to engage the public and each other in places like this, and I’m convinced over the next decade a larger and larger percentage of new generations of historians will see such activities not as the kind of liminal, hipster space it is currently viewed as but a regular part of their daily praxis. So, onto 2015. I’ve got some scribblings in the pipeline on a myriad of subjects, including transhumanism, the hot-button issue in the profession right now that is The History Manifesto, and other assorted things that catch my fancy. So thanks for coming by today, and feel free always to drop me a line on twitter @slowlorisblog or via email at slowlorisblog[dot]gmail[dot]com.


How Not to Fix Health Care: Steven Brill’s Time Magazine Piece is Disappointing, Uncomplicated, and Naïve

Bad Arguments, Bad Writing


Steven Brill, the author of the well-known Time piece “America’s Bitter Pill” (now a book), recently published something of a follow-up story in the magazine called “What I Learned from My $190,000 Surgery.” Aside from a title indicative of a print world attempting desperately to stay relevant in an increasingly digital, clickbait-ridden universe, it’s not a terribly written article. If I were still teaching comp-lit to freshmen, I’d point out the mish-mash of ethos and pathos in that title as well, as if simply receiving a surgery approaching a quarter million dollars confers some type of authority, and how we’re supposed to empathize with this journey of Brill’s as it becomes clear that this shocking sum of money is something each of us could easily fall under the aegis of in the current medical therapeutics landscape. But cheap tricks aside, it’s generally readable and full of some useful statistics, like the astonishing sum the U.S. spends on healthcare each year—$3 trillion.

And yet, at the end of this piece which employs the age-old rhetorical trick of calling something broken and suggesting the best way to fix it is, inconceivably (at first…), to let events run their course, I found myself just mostly disappointed. Dramatic fixes to the desperate problems of health care in America are a dime a dozen these days, and this essay—despite my hopes—offers nothing really very new.

Brill’s argument, seemingly one the reader should intimate during the course of the piece is that those we look up to to fix these fragile meat-sacks we call bodies (doctors) are also in some places increasingly those we have been conditioned to loathe in this “capitalist” world (health insurers, and large corporations, and the avaricious), and rather than a harbinger of the coming Armageddon this is in fact A Good Thing. These doctor-entrepreneurs, the author suggests, who (the historically uninformed among us assume) revolutionarily step across the traditional divide between treating disease and paying for that treatment, are not in fact indicative of a system in deterioration, but rather in rebirth. We only need to help it along. In this way we can cut costs while simultaneously ensuring an excellent standard of care in our clinics, hospitals, and emergency rooms. By letting hospitals offer insurance, he declares, we cut out a middleman who remains at a distance from the act of medicine as it takes place. Doctors would no longer inflate the costs of the medical care they provide, because they’re the ones paying for it. Seems commonsensical, right?

And yet, like so many other simple solutions to complex answers, Brill’s falls apart once it’s removed from the neat and uncomplicated place where thought experiments are conducted.

Brill assures us his solution would elegantly solve many of our current woes, and yet from the outset I’m suspicious of anyone who looks at a bad situation getting worse and suggests that the best solution is to lean into it. He does nothing to allay those anxieties.

The piece is remarkably absent of any sense of how, for instance, medical care costs for regular people have fallen in the area served by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center—one of these revolutionary new systems headed by Jeffrey Romoff, who’s managed to buy up a significant percentage of doctor’s practices, clinics, and hospitals in the region and extend his hospital’s health insurance division’s market share at the expense of traditional insurance.

It treats not at all geographic disparities in both income and quality of care in the United States—one of, in my eyes, the single things nationally penetrating insurance companies can offset to some degree by shifting costs from those who can’t afford to pay to those who can, and offering networks of knowledge and expertise so that patients can go to where the best treatment is.

Brill assures us competition, that magical force of the free market, would ensure the best medicine at the best price. How? Regulation, of course, that magical, opposite force of the social welfare state! Contradictory? Not necessarily, but I’ve never met a federal regulatory agency doing its job well, so it’s an uphill case to be made for that being the sole line of defense between us and them.

Similarly confounding is Brill’s argument that at least two of these entities in a given market would prevent monopolistic practices, with naught to help but a little government oversight. Right. In an industry worth $3 trillion. By comparison, the cable industry (Comcast-TWC-etc) is maybe a tenth as big, and we all know the FCC and Congress do an excellent job of keeping things equitable, consumer-friendly, and above-board.

I have no solutions for you here, but I do have a suggestion: let’s stop pretending health care is something that can be fixed with simple economics. Health and wellness are schemas that are way too complicated to be quantified that easily, and echo across all the registers of a modern society. They’re ineluctably rooted in what we imagine good health to be, as well as what it’s not. Their theorization, definition, and enactment necessitate acknowledging all of the multifarious economic, cultural, social, and psychological forces of three hundred million people who don’t want to be sick at the lowest possible cost but then will spend anything to stave off death for a few more days, weeks, months, and years. If we stop pretending the solution can neglect all these things, maybe we can get somewhere.


The Best Books I Read in 2014

Reading and Writing

Jesus, it’s been 6 weeks since my last post. I do apologize for that. But the dissertation is done and defended, so I’ll use that as an excuse. I’ve been moving some revised and edited versions of previous posts over to my other home at slowloris.scienceblog.com as well, so that’s taken some time.

2014 was a weak year for me, book-wise. I don’t really know what it was. Both quantity (52 books and 18.5k pages) and quality. I lost the whole months of November and December, historically a good time as the semester wraps up and I finally pick up the books that have been burning a hole in my Amazon cart for months. Blame it on Stephen King. I started the unabridged version of King’s The Last Stand, finally, at the beginning of November, and it sucked the life out of me for a good three weeks until I stopped reading at page 782. Then I had to spend a week recovering from it and moving on. I get it, King is beloved. But I prefer my clashes between good and evil to be a little less stilted, a more complicated. It wasn’t a bad book, but it certainly demonstrates the good work an editor does in saying “cut this shit down.”

The Martian was my favorite book of the year. It won the Goodread’s Choice Award for best new author too, which it richly deserved. Ready Player One was a close second. That Ernest Cline, he can write a good yarn. I had extremely high hopes for the Kollin brothers’ second book after The Unincorporated Man, but damn me if it wasn’t just horrible. Hate when that happens. Thus, my top ten:


1/17/2014 Ramez Nam- Crux 512 A
1/29/2014 Charles Stross Wilson- Spin 366 B+
2/25/2014 Kollin bros.- The Unincorporated Man 496 A-
4/8/2014 Ernest Cline- Ready Player One 384 A
5/10/2014 Andy Weir- The Martian 384 A
6/3/2014 Jim Butcher- Skin Game 454 A
6/18/2014 Hannu Rajaniemi- The Quantum Thief 330 B
6/28/2014 Paolo Bacigalupi- The Windup Girl 359 B+
9/14/2014 Richard Kadrey- Butcher Bird 256 B+
9/21/2014 Richard Kadrey- Devil in the Dollhouse 100 B+
10/21/2014 Larry Niven- The Draco Tavern 340 A


Here’s the rest of the list, if you’re so inclined:


1/4/2014 John Scalzi- Ghost Brigades 347 A
1/8/2014 John Scalzi- The Last Colony 324 A
1/11/2014 Jon Spiro- Defending the Master Race 390 NA
1/13/2014 Alexandra Stern- Telling Genes 74 NA
1/14/2014 Ramez Nam- Nexus 460 B
1/17/2014 Ramez Nam- Crux 512 A
1/29/2014 Charles Stross Wilson- Spin 366 B+
2/3/2014 Max Brooks- World War Z 110 C
2/5/2014 John Coe- Executable 406 C
2/11/2014 Wes Chu- The Lives of Tao 460 B
2/14/2014 Wes Chu- The Deaths of Tao 462 B
2/18/2014 Myke Cole- Shadow Ops: Control Point 400 C
2/25/2014 Kollin bros.- The Unincorporated Man 496 A-
3/9/2014 Jim Butcher- Grave Peril 378 A
3/18/2014 Jim Butcher- Death Masks 464 A
3/21/2014 Jim Butcher- Blood Rites 372 A
3/24/2014 Jim Butcher- Dead Beat 528 A
4/8/2014 Ernest Cline- Ready Player One 384 A
4/19/2014 Emma Tanner Wood- Too Fit for the Unfit 122 NA
5/2/2014 Kollin bros.- The Unincorporated War 300 F
5/7/2014 Chuck Wendig- Blackbirds 381 B-
5/10/2014 Andy Weir- The Martian 384 A
5/11/2014 Garcia and Stohl- Beautiful Creatures 564 D
5/27/2014 Mark Fiege- Republic of Nature 357 NA
6/3/2014 Jim Butcher- Skin Game 454 A
6/10/2014 Jeff Vandermeer– Annihilation 195 B
6/18/2013 Hannu Rajaniemi- The Quantum Thief 330 B
6/28/2014 Paolo Bacigalupi- The Windup Girl 359 B+
7/6/2014 William Gibson- All Tomorrow’s Parties 352 B
7/10/2014 John Conroe- God Touched 164 C+
7/11/2014 Jon Conroe- Demon Driven 252 B
7/13/2014 Jon Conroe- Brutal Asset 200 B
7/15/2014 Jon Conroe- Dual Nature 334 B+
7/16/2014 Jon Conroe- Fallen Stars 373 B+
7/18/2014 Jon Conroe- Executable 442 B-
7/19/2014 Jon Conroe- Forced Assent 387 C
7/26/2014 Kevin Hearne- Hounded 304 A
7/31/2014 Kevin Hearne- Hexed 307 A
8/7/2014 Kevin Hearne- Hammered 326 A
8/12/2014 Kevin Hearne- Tricked 370 B+
8/17/2014 Kevin Hearne- Trapped 322 A
8/25/2014 Kevin Hearne- Hunted 325 A
8/31/2014 Kevin Hearne- Shattered 353 A
9/14/2014 Richard Kadrey- Butcher Bird 256 B+
9/21/2014 Richard Kadrey- Devil in theDollhouse 100 B+
10/1/2014 Chuck Wendig- Under the Empyrean Sky 370 B+
10/15/2014 Chuck Wendig- Blightborn 528 B
10/21/2014 Larry Niven- The Draco Tavern 340 A
10/23/2014 Jim Butcher- Spiderman: Darkest Hours 399 B+
11/11/2014 Stephen King- The Stand 782 B
12/17/2014 Sandra Pollard- Puget Sound Whales for Sale 190 NA
12/22/2014 Robert Jackson Bennett- Mr. Shivers 374 B

On a more positive note, I’ve got some good items on the way here TBR. Corey’s Cibola Burn, Scalzi’s Lock In, William’s Happy Hour in Hell, Kadrey’s Kill City Blues and Grossman’s The Magician’s Land. So the beginning of 2015 is looking good. Here’s to hoping the rest of the year is better than this one was.

slowlorisblog Goes Big League, Other News, and Then Finally Some Writing

Environmental History, United States History

scienceblog logo

Two items of note today before we jump into things.

First, some exciting news. I’ve joined the team over at ScienceBlog, which is, if you’re unfamiliar, a compendium of (sometimes) acerbic and (always) insightful scientists, researchers, professors, postdoctoral fellows, and science journalists bringing more (good) science writing to the public. I first encountered them through Nathanial Comfort’s excellent Genotopia a few years ago. I’m honored to join them. My digital scribblings will find a home over there will be at slowloris.scienceblog.com. The walls and the ceiling are up, it’s mostly painted, and I’ve said hello. Subscribe if you’re of a mind, and feel free to share with anyone you think might be interested.

Do not fret, however, because I will remain active here as well! ScienceBlogs focuses more on timely issues and in addition has a readership with a little thicker glasses. So while I will be posting there once a month, with those essays focusing on current items of interest in the history of science, technology, and medicine, here I will continue to write about the same stuff as always. From here out, just think of the slowlorisblog as having a split personality, only the chiseled-jawed academic persona here will be aware of about the even more chiseled-jawed, and also mustachioed, self-effacing purveyor of recondite facts over there.

Second, starting August 1st posts are going to slow down for a bit. I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the dissertation tunnel, so from here until the end of September I’m going to scale back here and ramp up there. Expect just a few posts between now and then, as my schedule and sleep levels allow, as opposed to once a week. I will still be updating the READ ME and Neat History pages regularly, so go there for your fix if you can’t find anyone else to play with. Don’t cry. I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can.

It’s going to be an exciting second half of 2014. So let’s get on with it, already.

 Indian and European Land Use in Colonial and Pre-Colonial America


I’ve always been fascinated by environmental histories. Something about demoting humanity from its traditional place (in our discourse and all too often, histories) in the order of things and just treating it as another force for change on the landscape is liberating and, in my experience, makes for an excellent read.

Today I’d like to visit pre-colonial and newly-colonial New England and talk a bit about what happened to the land—in all its interconnected glory—when Western Europeans arrived, what it looked like before, and what that means for the way the larger narrative (economic, cultural, and agentive) gets taught in our high schools and survey courses. Understanding local ecosystems and the larger environment of New England from a pre-colonial standpoint and tracing the transformations that occurred during the prolonged and staggered arrival of various Europeans peoples on the shores of North America provides, for those of us living today, remarkable insight into not only how Europeans and Indians defined their respective relationships with the land, but allows for a more nuanced awareness of their interactions with each other. In the case of the former, the relationship Europeans had with the land—their characterizations of it in written texts, conceptualizations and abstractions of its meaning, and their uses of it in everyday activities—and subsequently the changes that occured after their arrival can be attributed largely, though not solely, to a capitalist mindset. This probably takes you by surprise not at all. Yet Indians too had a dynamic relationship with the ecology of their world, and it would be a mistake to describe their own activities, despite what the popular media and high-school history has taught us—as harmonious with the land without acknowledging that they were active agents in its transformation for their benefit.

How do we learn about European encounters with the land, and how they fit it into their particularized worldview? Primary sources! Of course, any consideration of the primary texts in which Europeans described New England must bear in mind three things: first, that they viewed, and thus described, the New World in terms of commodities—emphasizing exportable, fungible, saleable goods, and in effect telling the reader at least as much about where they came from as where they currently were. For example, the shortage of wood back home and other immediately and recognizably marketable goods like sassafras led chroniclers to focus more on those resources than other aspects of the land. And though “permanent” settlers were less likely than merchants to write of the countryside as a catalog of commodities, all, to some extent or another, engaged in organizing the land according to the use they had, or imagined, for it.

Secondly, any text describing New England was inherently disingenuous—even if unintentionally—in two ways. In describing the bounty they encounter, explorers, settlers, and boosters by and large never failed to inflate the degree of abundance. Aided by the likes of Richard Halkuyt and others back home who saw the New World as a great opportunity for the English, diaries and journals often contained gross exaggerations and outright lies. In addition to this, such writings also failed to mark—even when what they were saying was faithful to their experience—that the bounty they “saw” may not necessarily always be there. This led new settlers to the region to expect, as an example, that bushes would be heavy with strawberries year-round, leading first generations of settlers to neglect to lay in a proper store of food for the winter simply because they expected to, like they supposed the Indians did, survive by gathering whatever they needed. Of such notions they were quickly disabused.

Lest we talk only about white settlers, it’s important to note that the latter fact also requires clarification. Northern and southern Indians had (sometimes vastly) different relationships with their respective ecosystems, and neither can be characterized as having had no impact on the land. In the north, low population densities allowed for a hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence and led to a stable relationship governed by the life cycles of a natural food supply. Indian tribes moved from place to place in accordance with what was plentiful at that time—crabs, clams, and fish on the coast, alewives and other fish at certain places on the rivers during spawning time, nuts and berries in the spring and summer, and pigeon, turkey, and meat of the four-legged variety during the winter, when the latter was easiest to track. The relationship the southern tribes had with the land was more complicated, because added to the hunting-gathering cycles were planting cycles, which allowed for higher populations but also concentrated calorie base and more intensely affected the land.

Lastly, and this is the one that will find most readers exposed to the common narrative a little uncomfortable, is that it would be a huge mistake to conclude that pre-contact Indians lived in perfect harmony with the land, leaving no trace behind them. Certainly the northern tribes had less of an impact on the ecology of their environment than the southern, agrarian tribes did. But the latter made extensive use of burning, removing individual trees by setting a small fire at their base to strip away its bark, and starting wide-ranging burns to clear fields for planting or drive game during hunts. What resulted was what environmental historian William Cronon calls, eloquently, a “mosaic . . . of New England ecosystems, [with] forests in many different states of ecological succession.”[1]

What, then, can we say about the differences between arriving colonists and the Indian tribes they encountered? Perhaps the most important cultural conception that differentiated the Indians of New England from the European colonists arriving on its shores—and the one that in turn influenced how each interacted with the ecosystems they inhabited—was their respective concepts of what it meant to “bound the land.”[2] This goes far beyond the reductivist notion that Indians didn’t believe you could own land, while Europeans did. Rather, it was—for both—predicated in complex social institutions, cultural norms, and legal precedent.

Let’s look, for example, at the tribes of northern New England that subsisted by moving to specific locations at certain times of the year. While the arriving colonists saw land as a parcel with finite boundaries and an inherent transferable (almost fungible) nature, Indians emphatically did not. What resulted was confusion when colonists engaged in activities they thought, in some cases very commonsensically, were seen by all as “buying” the land. While it appeared to the Europeans that a sachem or group of sachems agreed to exchange the land itself for whatever goods were being offered, to the Indians’ point of view the land as a concrete, reified notion of ownership was a mostly foreign concept, not a part of their cultural lens.

In such exchanges they were trading only the rights to specific uses of the land during certain times of the year—such as the fishing or gathering they engaged in alternating seasons. This is called “usufruct” rights. Not, as the colonists thought, to own with vertical infinitude any landscape bounded by the terms of the agreement. Trouble resulted when tribes or sachems traded the same rights on one piece of land to different groups of Europeans—an act practiced with regularity amongst themselves and one with which they did not imagine the colonists would have a problem. For the colonists it was a completely different matter. Merely one among the myriad examples of how this different mindset operated for the Europeans was the granting to Massachusetts Bay Colony.

As more Europeans settled in New England populated areas became more crowded, and colonists spread outward onto land Indians had abandoned (because they could no longer practice the subsistence hunting and gathering or farming they had before) and forced disease-thinned tribes to move farther inland. What resulted over the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries was a series of changes that brought about radical changes to the land on which both the colonists and Indian tribes hunted, built, worked and played, and loved, laughed, lived, and died over the next century.

Excellent environmental histories of colonial America abound. Easily among the best is William Cronon’s Changes in the Land, from which I pull liberally here. It’s short, well-written, and incisive. But you can also check out Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature (which I reviewed not too long ago here) or J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires, both of which are also excellent.

[1] Cronin, 51.

[2] Cronin, 54.

*image by jjpeabody over at deviantart:

The Case for Elv and Unqua: Why We Should be Counting in Dozens

42STABW, Futurism, History of Technology, Math

dozenal header

Welcome to PART 3 of our ongoing series here at the slowlorisblog, 42 STEPS TO A BETTER WORLD. That time, it sure is flying. To think we’re already 1/14th done! At this rate, we’re looking at a finish date of 2019, and that’s way ahead of schedule. Today, we offer a radical proposal (accompanied by perhaps as many links as we’ve ever had in a single post): that we’ve been counting in a count(ha)er-productive way for millennia, and to offer an alternative way to do it and make the whole world a better place.

Here’s how most of us count:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Here’s how dozenalists (also called duodecimalists) propose we should be counting. It is also the official sponsored counting system of the slowlorisblog from here onward:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, X, E, 10

(many dozenalists represent the X as an upside down 2, and the E as a backwards 3)

Both the Dozenal Societies of America and Great Britain propose that we should be counting not in base-10, but in base-12. Phonetically, they’d sound like this:

one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, elv, unqua

(It is, in my opinion, a massive failing of the movement that most of them insist on forcing us to replace, conceptually, the Roman number 10 in their number line with a set of numbers that is in fact “12-large,” while phonetically retaining “ten” for the numeral X. Others have suggested calling the numeral X do. Whatever the case, it’s obvious that one of the largest obstacles to adoption is going to be pronunciation. Especially when it comes to large numbers.[1] But if we can put this problem aside for just a moment, we’ll see many potential benefits).

Historically, the way we count is more or less based on the number of fingers and toes we have. Other societies have counted differently: the Babylonians counted in base-60, the Mayans in base-20, the people of Papua New Guinea are said to count in base-6, the Umbu-Ungu in base-24, and various positional and other computational systems favor base-36. So counting in tens isn’t some kind of incarnation of Natural Law. It just happened, and we stuck with it.

Proposing any kind of change like this is sure to ruffle some feathers. It would cost a good deal to do, in addition to annoying parents who thought they knew how to count, Especially when little Umlaut comes home asking why mommy didn’t teach her about the number elv.

There are really two, not necessarily mutually exclusive, cases to be made here: that switching to the dozenal system would be a beneficent move in terms of everyday convenience, and that it provides mathematical benefits with larger impacts in that field of praxis. The former of these is the easier one to make, but it’s also much less convincing to the average reader. Convincing one generation to re-learn how to count so as to (mostly) benefit the succeeding ones rarely works. This phenomena affects not only knowledge systems, but technology. Look at the arguments to be made for switching to the Dvorak (or other alternative) typing systems. The latter of these, the mathematical benefits, are murkier, but still titillating. Let’s dive in!

Mathematical benefits

  1. Fractional representation: Fractions, in total number, digit-length, and common-use ones are, I think, inarguably simplified when it comes to dozenal math. Compare them for yourself below. The big takeaway for me is that 1/3 stops being a mess, and most of the other common fractions go from two or three digits to one. The only real backward step is that 1/5 goes from .2 to 0.24972497 (recurring).
1/2 0.6 .5
1/3 0.4 .333 (repeating)
1/4 0.3 .25
1/5 0.24 (repeating) .2
1/6 0.2 .1666 (repeating)
1/7 0.1714285 (repeating) .142857 (repeating)
1/8 0.15 .125
1/9 0.1333 (repeating) .111 (repeating)
  1. Recurring digits: In the real world, problems with factors of 5 come up far less than problems with factors of 3, and the the dozenal system brings with it a host of inherent properties making it superior to the decimal system.[2] That means recurring digits (and the rounding inexactitude they often require) come up less often. Nevertheless, the real benefit that in the dozenal system when recurring digits do come up, they tend to be much shorter than in the decimal system. This is because 12 sits in the middle of two prime numbers (11, 13) rather than, as 10 does, next to a composite number (9).[3] It also is the result of their respective factorizations (the process of breaking numbers down into all the small numbers which, when multiplied together, get you to the large number), where dozenal offers further benefits. The prime number 2 shows up twice in the factorization of 12 (as opposed to once in 10), and the prime number 3 shows up once instead of not at all. Basically, more primes = good, less = bad.[4]
  2. Superior highly composite numbers are those which have a greater number of divisors relative to the number itself. 12 is one of these. 10 isn’t even a highly composite number (those positive numbers with more divisors than every smaller positive number). This means the math, including but not limited to the two cases above, gets cleaner all the way around.

Everyday benefits

Basically, it makes counting better all the way around, in terms of weights (pharmacists and jewelers use a 12-ounce pound), measures (a circle has 12 divisions of 30 degrees, there are 2 sets of 12 hours in a day, 12 months in a year, 12 inches in a foot for carpenters) or money (the British pound system, but also American financial markets as they are based around a 12-month year). There are a host of others, that if you are curious about you can check out at the American Dozenal Society Education Resources Page[5]

Thus, for children, it makes math easier to conceptualize and understand. For those of us raised on the decimal system, we can just use a calculator.

What a Dozenal World Would Look Like





Fans can join the movement and its (only semi-facetious) legislative proposal, the Dozenal Establishment Act.

Further Reading

Interview with Dozenal Society of American Don Goodman

The Dozenal Society of America

The Dozenal Society of Great Britain

A nice video introduction to base-12

Some other stuff

[1] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db4b20a_0.pdf

[2] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db27309_0.pdf

[3] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db4b109_0.pdf

[4] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db4b211_0.pdf

[5] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/leech_thomas_dozens_tens.pdf

Exorcising the Demons of our Past: Why Eugenics Wasn’t What You Think It Was, and Why That Matters

Book Review, History of Medicine, History of science, United States History

Science of human perfection

BOOK REVIEW: Comfort, Nathaniel. The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

With for-profit companies offering genetic testing at prices approaching the commercially viable for the first time since the sequencing of the human genome ($1,000), eugenics as a topic of discussion in academic circles and in the popular news cycle alike will increase dramatically in frequency over the course of the next decade. In fact, it will likely be one of the conversational signposts of the twenty first century.  Designer babies, three-parent children, genomic medical therapeutics, and the stubborn persistence of racism and poor arguments disguised as science, like an eye booger clinging crustily on and just generally being a pain in the ass for everyone.

What was eugenics? For those unfamiliar, eugenics was a wildly popular scientific, cultural, social, and political movement in America (most popular) during the first half of the twentieth century. Spurred by advances in genetics after the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s famous work with pea plants in 1900, it developed simultaneously to medical genetics (i.e. using knowledge about genes to improve medical care). Both stretch all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century (though most histories of medical genetics really begin in the 1950s).

So eugenics developed alongside humanity’s first stumbling investigations about what, how, and why traits get passed along from generation to generation. Eye color, physical build, demeanor, mental ability, susceptibility to disease—these are the types of qualities a new breed of scientists called geneticists initially sought out in the base material responsible for the direction taken by human evolution. Naturally, many quickly (and early on) suggested that now that humanity had access to the “germ plasm” (as they called DNA, which wouldn’t be discovered until the 1920s) we could take a conscious hand in directing the future of human evolution.

What does this have to do with Nathaniel Comfort’s Science of Human Perfection? Everything! This book is an attempt by Comfort, an historian of genetics and medicine at Johns Hopkins University, to do two things: 1) recover the thread of “medical genetics” from the history of eugenics, and 2) Demonstrate how the larger eugenics movement, reviled in the popular mind as the twisted progeny of the Nazis unleashed upon Europe’s non-Aryan ethnicities, was in fact a far more complex phenomena that, at its heart, was about “human improvement and the relief of suffering” (x). Now “human improvement” sounds an awful lot like the superman programs of the Third Reich, but, as Comfort shows clearly, the larger aim of the movement saw “improvement” as eliminating disease, inherited disorders, as well as increased intelligence and a stronger constitution.

Comfort traces this thread of medical genetics as it gradually thickened from 1910-1930. He notes the abandonment of most geneticists of eugenics by the 1930s as two obstacles appeared: first, the complexity of designing reliable experiments that could account for the complicated milieu going on inside the “germ plasm” as it was affected by environment (this is the classic nature vs. nurture dichotomy), and second, the ethical boundaries to carrying out those experiments on human beings. Instead, scientists like Michael F. Guyer at places like the University of Wisconsin occupied themselves with mice, fruit flies, and corn.

During this process, Comfort introduces another welcome formulation of distinguishing the strands of eugenic thought: Galtonian vs. Garrodian. The former settles its gaze on the population, whilst the latter emphasizes the individual. This opens up a whole new framework for understanding American eugenics that moves beyond the positive-negative dichotomy and adds nuance without sacrificing the accomplishments of previous scholarship.

Comfort follows the narrative into the 1950s and the advent of heredity clinics (which we still have today in the form of marriage counseling as it pertains to heredity), and shows how geneticists, with the onset of the Cold War and worries about the effects of radiation on the human genome, and also now bolstered by a quarter century of advances in knowledge and technique, re-approached medical genetics in the 1950s. There, The Science of Human Perfection ends.

This is a monograph that is, importantly, thoroughly researched and convincingly argued. Despite seeing increasing popularity in the scholarship during the last twenty years or so, eugenics still remains something of the bastard stepchild of history of science in academia. To blame this trend solely on the uncomfortableness the subject tends to engender (being tied so closely with the (bio-)political) seems to come, at least in part, from a public that wishes to forget the United States ever had an active movement for forced sterilization  and a larger history of science community of scholars who have gone along with that. At the same time, this is something of a copout and a cliché all at once. American eugenics was not Nazi eugenics: in intellectual grounding, structure (both in terms of the individuals proponents and organization), praxis, or even mostly time. And the threads of American eugenics, as we can see in Comfort’s excellent treatment (and elsewhere), certainly didn’t die with Hitler in that underground bunker in April of 1945. Comfort, thankfully, elaborates with nuance and persuasiveness on both realities.

Even more welcome by those of us in the history of science who are too used to slogging through interminably boring prose, is that The Science of Human Perfection is incredibly well-written.Comfort has a wonderful way with words, and an ability to render primary sources into a compelling narrative. It is, aside from being one of the more important revisions of the historical literature on eugenics, one of the best-written studies in any sub-discipline of history I have had the pleasure of reading.

For anyone interested, Comfort runs the excellent Genotopia over at scienceblogs.

Book Review- Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature

Book Review, Environmental History, United States History

It’s a strange day when a book arrives in your mailbox to review and on the back are laudatory quotations from scholarly giants William Cronon and Richard White. Snagging one of these guys is the equivalent to scoring over a million points in Donkey Kong. Getting both is like achieving the latter upside down. It just doesn’t happen.

So I was excited to crack open Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature and see what it had to offer. I’m technically not an environmental historian, but alot of the stuff I get to read and write about intersects with notions about the natural and landscape. But this book has it’s own website. Which is kind of a Big Deal.

The short version of this review is Fiege nails it. Absolutely nails it. For the long version, read onward, oh denizens of the internet.

The best examples of historical scholarship usually do one of two things: either they open up, in dramatic fashion, new areas of exploration via methodological tools or theoretical frameworks, or they cut across the bounds of time and the scores of texts which the history profession produces to synthesize scholarship and show that what we thought was many was actually one. Mark Fiege accomplishes the latter of these in The Republic of Nature.

This is, as the author acknowledges from the outset, something of a peculiar book. It does not propose to be a radical or alternate history, refuting the claims of previous surveys of American history. And yet the narrative it weaves uncovers a tapestry of experiences and interconnections that will be striking and new to most. Indeed, it is not a comprehensive survey at all, but instead chooses nine moments of experience in American life, from the Salem witch trials, to the American Revolution, King Cotton, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, the transcontinental railroad, the Manhattan project, Brown v. Board of Education, and the oil crisis of 1973-4, to excavate the place of environment and relocate it from the borders of American history to its center.

Chapters 3 (King Cotton), 5 (Gettysburg), 7 (the Manhattan Project), and 8 (Brown v. Board) are the strongest of the book. Of these, I was most pleasantly surprised by the latter two. Throughout, Fiege marshals an impressive understanding of the secondary literature, supplemented by select primary sources, to delve into the rhizomatic. Collectively, these chapters demonstrate best what seems obvious by the end of the study: that American history is environmental history. The individual human experience remains ineluctably rooted in the demographic, the topographical, the geological, the biological, and the ecological. The cycles that govern nature equally govern human lives—work and play, love and hate, life and death. The forces that shape, equally, the countryside and the city, also influence profoundly human industry, politics, conflict, interaction, and scientific and technological inquiry. Fortunes wax and wane interchangeably according to the degree with which the natural is transported, transformed, and traversed.

To single the above out is not to suggest the rest of the text falls short. Indeed, there are moments in the chapters below that will, even to seasoned scholars, offer novel interpretations useful in constructing with more fidelity the penumbra of experience in American life. Chapter 2 (By the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God) remains the weakest, locating republican fervor in the shift from divine law to natural law and presenting the opportunity for revolution at the same time it portended trouble down the road for slavery. Fiege’s analytical framework seems the most stretched here, and has trouble accounting for the totality of experience with little information presented that does not already exist elsewhere. Chapter 4 (Nature’s Nobleman) is somewhat less thin, locating the inception and maturation of Lincoln’s particular antislavery ideology in his formative experiences as a child and young man working the land and coming up against the harsh realities of free market labor. In places, it struggles to connect this experience with the political expediencies of war and the decisions that they necessitated. Other chapters, like the first (Satan in the Land), do not suffer from analytical flaws but rather see somewhat more compelling treatment elsewhere (in this case David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder (1989)).

That this review enumerates these fuzzier moments in The Republic of Nature should emphatically not to suggest to potential readers that Fiege’s narrative is one worth passing over. Indeed the opposite—the above moments merely shine slightly less in a study that is as a whole a stunning and beautifully treated reconceptualization of the those moments in American history which survey courses have taught us to dread.