Stephen Davies on the Growth of Sympathy

The Wealth Explosion by Stephen Davies is not just about the when and where of that kink in the graphs. It is also a description of what that transformation in human affairs consisted of, not just materially, and in how people thought and felt and behaved. In an early chapter, “The Way We Once Lived and The Way We Live Now”, under the heading “The Growth of Sympathy” (pp. 26-28), Davies describes (in the bibliographical note at the end of the chapter he mentions this book by Stephen Pinker) how people started being nicer to each other:

Another significant change that marks out the cultural and mental world of the modern as compared to what went before is one that attracted much attention from an early date. This was the growth of what eighteenth and early nineteenth century authors termed ‘sympathy’ and ‘sensibility: As defined by authors such as Adam Smith and Lord Kames this meant the capacity to put oneself in the position of another person and feel an intimation of what that person felt or experienced. This was associated with a general ‘softening’ or ‘polishing’ of manners and behaviour. In other words, there was a tendency for people to be gentler, less aggressive, more self-conscious and controlled, less impulsive, more sensitive to the suffering or hardship of others. This was seen as being connected to the growth of trade and commerce and what they called ‘luxury’ and we would call affluence or comfort. In other words, as people became more connected to others, often distant, by the connections of trade and by social intercourse, and as their lives became more comfortable and less harsh so their psychology changed and they became gentler, less violent and aggressive and more controlled and ‘refined’ (to use a key term) in their way of behaving. In the language of the time this meant that the ‘passions’ as they were called, that is strong and natural human desires and feelings, came to be tamed and made milder and less fierce and powerful or even subject to the check of reason and calculation.

This may seem to be simply a reflection of eighteenth century rationalism and optimism but in fact there is a lot of evidence for the view that the modern world has indeed seen such a change. Again, people such as Smith, Hume and Kames thought that the change was gradual (although they were struck by the extent and rapidity of change in their own country and lifetime) but very soon after their own lifetimes the change in this aspect of human life also underwent an abrupt acceleration. At this point, many people will simply find the argument implausible. Given the terrible political events of the last hundred years and the widespread evidence of cruelty, violence and aggression that fill the daily news, how can anyone think that over that period human beings in many parts of the world have become less passionate, gentler and more in sympathy with the suffering of others?

One point to make is that the attention given to such matters and the horror they inspire are because there has been such a change. Things that were seen as unexceptionable and normal in the past, even if regrettable, are now regarded as egregious and horrible precisely because they are less common. Clearly something as intangible yet profound as a widespread or even general shift in the way most people feel or in their psychology is hard to measure or demonstrate. However, there are a number of indicators, some of which can actually be quantified. One is the evidence of delinquent behaviour as captured in the records of the criminal justice system. The evidence here is that over the last two to three hundred years there has been a long term secular decline in interpersonal violence. Three hundred years ago the bulk of the cases brought before criminal courts were crimes of violence. They now make up only a small proportion of the courts’ business. In addition the actual incidence of such crimes on a per capita basis has also declined so that they are a much less frequent part of experience.

There are several other prominent indicators. One is the change in the functioning of the criminal justice system, with a pronounced shift away from harsh and brutal or sadistic physical punishment such as public execution, flogging or branding. Another is the transformation that we can trace in popular attitudes towards children and animals. In very recent times historically what we would regard as brutal and cruel treatment was widespread or even normal for both whereas now this arouses revulsion and disgust. Literature and personal writings such as diaries and correspondence are another kind of evidence, which again shows a significant alteration in popular psychology, at both an individual and a collective level. Finally, there is the evidence of manners, where we can clearly trace what one author calls the ‘civilising process’ by which ways of speaking and behaving become steadily more controlled and moderate. Looking at this evidence we can say firstly that there has been a radical change in what historians call the ‘collective mentality’ of modern men and women, that is the common mental assumptions, habits and ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that they share. The second thing we can say is that this change became much more rapid and widespread among all levels of society at some point in the early nineteenth century. Here we can draw the analogy and connection with trade and economic development. In the case of trade and economic development, we can indeed trace a very gradual process of increasing trade and economic integration between different parts of the world and a slow corresponding rise in the level of economic development and standards of living. After the later eighteenth century, this process becomes so much more rapid and extensive that both it and its effects are wholly different order of magnitude – explosive in fact.

Similarly, there is clearly a long-term trend in the direction just described with respect to human mentality and ways of behaving. Thus, there is a very long term trend for inter-personal violence to decline. Our Stone Age ancestors lived in a society that was unbelievably violent by contemporary standards (as do many more recent hunter-gatherers) and we can trace a decline in levels of violence since that time. However, as with trade, the process while of long standing underwent a dramatic breakthrough or acceleration after the later eighteenth century so that, as in the economic sphere, there was a greater change in popular psychology and ways of behaving between 1800 and 1900 than for several centuries at least before then.

Matt Ridley tells how vaccination became established in England

I have started reading Matt Ridley’s book about How Innovation Works. Here (pages 50-55) is his description of how vaccinating people against smallpox went from being fiercely criticised by the medical experts of the time, to becoming standard medical practice:

In the same year that Thomas Newcomen was building his first steam engine, 1712, and not far away, a more romantic episode was in train, and one that would indirectly save even more lives. It was much higher up the social scale. Lady Mary Pierrepoint, a well-read, headstrong young woman of twenty-three, was preparing to elope in order to escape the prospect of a dull marriage. Her wealthy suitor, Edward Wortley Montagu, with whom she had carried on a voluminous correspondence characterized by furious disagreement as well as outrageous flirtation, had failed to agree a marriage settlement with her even wealthier father, the Earl (later Duke) of Kingston. But the prospect of being forced by her father to marry instead a pecunious dullard, the Honourable Clotworthy Skeffington, persuaded Mary to rekindle the romance with Wortley (as she called him). She proposed elopement, and he, despite thus missing out on her dowry, and in a fit of uncharacteristic impetuosity, agreed. The episode turned to farce: he was late, she set off for the rendezvous alone, he overtook her at an inn but did not realize she was there, but after further mishaps they found each other and married on 15 October 1712 in Salisbury.

After this romantic start the marriage was a disappointment, Wortley proving a cold and unimaginative husband. His bride – learned, eloquent and witty – cut a swathe through literary London, writing eclogues with Alexander Pope in the style of Virgil, and befriending the literary lions and social tigers of the day. Joseph Spence would later write: ‘Lady Mary is one of the most extraordinary shining characters in the world; but she shines like a comet; she is all irregular and always wandering. She is the most wise, most imprudent; loveliest, disagreeablest; best natured, cruellest woman in the world.’

Then smallpox marked her skin and made her reputation. This vicious virus, humankind’s greatest killer, was constantly a threat in early-eighteenth-century London. It had recently killed Queen Mary and her nephew, the young Duke of Gloucester, the last Stuart heir to the throne who was not Catholic; it had almost killed the Electress of Hanover, Sophia, and her son George, destined to be the next king of England instead. It killed Lady Mary’s brother in 1714 and very nearly killed her the next year, leaving her badly scarred and lacking in eyelashes, her beauty cruelly ravaged.

But it was smallpox that would bring her lasting fame, for she became one of the first, and certainly one of the most passionate, champions in the Western world of the innovative practice of inoculation. In 1716 her husband was sent as ambassador to Constantinople and Lady Mary accompanied him with her young son. She did not invent inoculation, she did not even bring the news of it for the first time, but being a woman she was able to witness in detail the practice among women cloistered in Ottoman society, and then to champion it back home among mothers terrified for their children, to the point where it caught on. She was an innovator, not an inventor.

Two reports had reached the Royal Society in London from Constantinople of the practice of ‘engrafting’ as a cure for smallpox. According to the correspondents, Emmanuel Timonius and Giacomo Pylarini, both physicians working in the Ottoman Empire, the pus from a smallpox survivor would be mixed with the blood in a scratch on the arm of a healthy person. The reports were published by the Royal Society but dismissed as dangerous superstition by all the experts in London. More likely to spark an epidemic than prevent it; an unconscionable risk to be running with people’s health; an old wives’ tale; witchcraft. Given the barbaric and unhelpful practices of doctors at the time, such as bloodletting, this was both ironic and perhaps understandable.

It seems the Royal Society had been told of the practice even earlier, in 1700, by two correspondents in China, Martin Lister and Clopton Havers. So there was nothing new about this news. But where these doctors failed to persuade the British, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had better luck. On 1 April 1718 she wrote to her friend Sarah Chiswell from Turkey with a detailed account of inoculation:

The smallpox, so fatal and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless by the invention of engrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of women who make it their business to perform the operation … When they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of smallpox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much venom as can lie upon the head of her needle … There is no example of anyone that has died in it, and you may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of the experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son. I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England.

Lady Mary did indeed engraft her son Edward, anxiously watching his skin erupt in self-inflicted pustules before subsiding into immunized health. It was a brave moment. On her return to London she inoculated her daughter as well, and became infamous for her championing of the somewhat reckless procedure – a sort of version of the trolley problem so beloved of moral philosophers: do you divert a runaway truck from a line where it will kill five people to another line where it will kill one? Do you deliberately take one risk to avoid a greater one? By then, some doctors had joined the cause, notably Charles Maitland. His inoculation of the children of the Prince of Wales in 1722 was a significant moment in the campaign. But even afterwards there was furious denunciation of the barbaric practice. Misogyny and prejudice lay behind some of it, as when Dr William Wagstaffe pronounced: ‘Posterity will scarcely be brought to believe that an experiment practised only by a few ignorant women amongst an illiterate and unthinking people should on a sudden – and upon a slender Experience – so far obtain in one of the politest nations in the world as to be received into the Royal Palace.’

In America, the practice of inoculation arrived around the same time, through the testimony of an African slave named Onesimus, who told the Boston preacher Cotton Mather about it, possibly as early as 1706, who in turn informed the physician Zabdiel Boylston. For trying inoculation on 300 people, Boylston was subject to fierce criticism and life-threatening violence, abetted by rival physicians to the point where he had to hide for fourteen days in a secret closet lest the mob kill him. Innovation often requires courage.

In due course inoculation with smallpox itself – later known as variolation – was replaced by the safer but similar practice of vaccination, that is to say, using a related but less dangerous virus than smallpox, an innovation usually credited to Edward Jenner. In 1796 he deliberately infected an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, with cowpox from blisters on the hands of a milkmaid called Sarah Nelmes, who had caught it from a cow called Blossom. He then tried to infect Phipps with smallpox itself and showed that he was immune to it. This demonstration proof, not the vaccination itself, was his real contribution and the reason he had such an impact. The idea of deliberately giving people cowpox to immunize them against smallpox was by then already thirty years old. It had been tried by a physician named John Fewster in 1768, and by several other doctors in Germany and England in the 1770s. It was already probably in use among farmers before that date.

So, yet again, innovation proves to be gradual and to begin with the unlettered and ordinary people, before the elite takes the credit. That is perhaps a little unfair on Jenner, who, like Lady Mary Wortley, deserves fame for persuading the world to adopt the practice. Napoleon, despite being at war with Britain, had his armies vaccinated, on the strength of Jenner’s advocacy, and awarded Jenner a medal, calling him ‘one of the greatest benefactors of mankind’.

Emmanuel Todd on the earthly rewards of aberrant beliefs

I’ve been reading Emmanuel Todd’s book, Lineages of Modernity. For any sort of review of this book by me, you will have to wait. But meanwhile, I did enjoy this snippet, about why people believe the things they do. In it, the historian Rodney Stark is mentioned admiringly, for having written books like A Theory of Religion (co-authored with William Sims Bainbridge).

Here is what Todd says (pp. 95-96):

In this piece of historical anthropology that we are conducting here, it is more reasonable to grasp the dynamics of faith on Earth, and to start from the elementary observation that a religion is not only a personal belief, but above all the sharing of a belief by a group of human beings on Earth. So let us agree that before it rewards us in heaven, a religion rewards us here below. We must understand why sexual asceticism and the love of the poor, extremist and deviant views for Antiquity, gave the individuals constituting the Christian group a positive reward during their lifetime.

To ask the question today, in a Western world that ideologically values sex and wealth, is crucial. For us, sexual asceticism and the love of the poor are now, again, incomprehensible extremist deviations, to be classified perhaps under the rubric of mere masochism. Today, sexual freedom and banking reign. This is where Rodney Stark’s work proves to be essential.

Influenced by the rational choice school, Stark has grasped the fact that the aberrant beliefs and behaviours of religious groups, whether masochistic or not, and the opprobrium that they bring upon their members, can for the individuals concerned be more than compensated by the group cohesion produced by stigmatization. The psychological cost of belonging to a religion, demanding for oneself but ridiculous in the eyes of the outside world, is so high that adherents can be sure that they belong to a group of exceptionally reliable people. The internal loyalty of the group is the true reward of the believing individual. This gratification is immediate, more secure and tangible than the promise of the hereafter. The argument developed by Stark applies to early Christians or Mormons in the United States, but we can see how it can also contribute to a better understanding of the survival of the Jewish people, who no longer appear to have persisted through history despite persecution but because of persecution.

We can reformulate this from a Durkheimian perspective. What the individual finds in the bizarre monotheistic religious groups of Late Antiquity – whether they were circumcised and refused to eat pork, or were disgusted by sexuality and fascinated by the degradation of the body of the poor – is a sense of belonging to a moral human group. In the chaos of the great ancient cities – Alexandria, Antioch and Rome – Judaism and then Christianity were, as Stark says, refuges. Christianity certainly offered, for later on, eternal life, in which its adherents could believe as a group. But what it immediately gave was an end to loneliness, a sense of belonging to a world of solidarity, and – in very concrete terms – psychological and even economic security. The Gospels, if read without prejudice, give the game away: there is a long series of miracles to do with food and health, and these point to a better earthly life rather than to eternal life.

Judaism does not generally promise eternal life, but among its faithful, in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, it fostered a courage and a contempt for death that yield nothing to those of the Christian martyrs. Its enduring power suggests that Homo sapiens is, in the end, more afraid of loneliness than of death.

Trump as Republican Party Reptile

I just did some Thoughts on Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech for Samizdata. Here is the complete speech of Trump’s that I was on about, and to which I linked, twice, because I think the fact that we all now can link directly to it is so very good.

Something else I didn’t complicate my Samizdata piece with did occur to me, while I was reading that same speech, and in particular when I read things like this in it:

We are the country of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass. We are the land of Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody. (Applause.) We are the nation that gave rise to the Wright Brothers, the Tuskegee Airmen – (applause) – Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Jesse Owens, George Patton – General George Patton – the great Louie Armstrong, Alan Shepard, Elvis Presley, and Mohammad Ali. (Applause.) And only America could have produced them all. (Applause.) No other place.

We are the culture that put up the Hoover Dam, laid down the highways, and sculpted the skyline of Manhattan. We are the people who dreamed a spectacular dream – it was called: Las Vegas, in the Nevada desert; who built up Miami from the Florida marsh; and who carved our heroes into the face of Mount Rushmore. (Applause.)

Americans harnessed electricity, split the atom, and gave the world the telephone and the Internet. We settled the Wild West, won two World Wars, landed American astronauts on the Moon – and one day very soon, we will plant our flag on Mars.

We gave the world the poetry of Walt Whitman, the stories of Mark Twain, the songs of Irving Berlin, the voice of Ella Fitzgerald, the style of Frank Sinatra – (applause) – the comedy of Bob Hope, the power of the Saturn V rocket, the toughness of the Ford F-150 – (applause) – and the awesome might of the American aircraft carriers.

I’ve read this before, I thought, or something a hell of a lot like it. Yes, a piece in P. J. O.Rourke’s Republican Party Reptile, which was published in 1987, about an epic car journey O’Rourke made across America, in a Ferrari. I read this book in the late eighties. The Ferrari piece in this book would appear to be a slimmed down version of this piece, which was published in Car and Driver, in 1980.

I wrote a Libertarian Alliance pamphlet in praise of O’Rourke’s essay (also in praise of classical CDs), which included big quotes from the 1987 version of O’Rourke’s piece, including things like this:

… To be in control of our destinies – and there is no more profound feeling of control of one’s destiny that I have ever experienced than to drive a Ferrari down a public road at 130 miles an hour. Only God can make a tree, but only man can drive by one that fast. And if the lowly Italians, the lamest, silliest, least stable of our NATO allies, can build a machine like this, just think what it is that we can do. We can smash the atom. We can cure polio. We can fly to the moon if we like. There is nothing we can’t do. Maybe we don’t happen to build Ferraris, but that’s not because there’s anything wrong with America. We just haven’t turned the full light of our intelligence and ability in that direction. We were, you know, busy elsewhere. We may not have Ferraris but just think what our Polaris-submarines are like. And if it feels like this in a Ferrari at 130, my God, what can it possibly feel like at Mach 2.5 in an F-15? Ferrari 308s and F-15s – these are the conveyances of free men. What do the Bolshevik automatons know of destiny and its control? What have we to fear from the barbarous Red hordes?

And like this:

… And rolling through the desert thus, I worked myself into a great patriotic frenzy, which culminated on the parapets of the Hoover Dam (even if that was kind of a socialistic project and built by the Roosevelt in the wheelchair and not by the good one who killed bears). With the Ferrari parked up atop that orgasmic arc of cement, doors flung open and Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” blasting into the night above the rush of a man-crafted Niagara and the crackle and the hum of mighty dynamos, I was uplifted, transported, ecstatic. A black man in a big, solid Eldorado pulled up next to us and got out to shake our hands. “You passed me this morning down in New Mexico,” he said. “And that sure is a beautiful car. …”.

Note that Mount Rushmore includes, along with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln: the Roosevelt who killed bears, Teddy Roosevelt, but not the Roosevelt in the wheelchair who presided over the Great Depression. No wonder Democrats are now saying they hate it.

I don’t know what P.J. O’Rourke is up to these days, so whether he had any direct input into Trump’s speech I have no idea. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. But I’ll bet you anything that whatever combination of Trump and Trumpsters wrote Trump’s speech at the very least knew all about that O’Rourke piece. I’ll go further. I’ll bet Trump read that O’Rourke piece at some point in the 1980s, and remembered it, and said to his guys: “That’s what I want! Write me something like that!” And they did. Right up to the stuff about cars, and warships, and the Hoover Dam, and about how “there is nothing we can’t do”.

Even if you hate everything about P.J. O’Rourke and everything about Trump and if you especially hate Trump’s speech the other day, you surely may still be agreeing about the O’Rourke echoes I think I heard.

If I’m right, then this is a story which confirms something else I am fond of telling anyone who will listen, which is that all the people alive now will, in thirty or forty years time, either be thirty or forty years older, or dead. You can tell a lot about the world now, by asking what people in their teens and twenties were getting excited about, thirty or forty years ago. There will be more of that.

Of course, I loved Trump’s speech, just as I loved that P.J. O’Rourke Ferrari piece. God is a figment of the human imagination, but setting that quibble aside, may He Bless America.

When Dowding said to Leigh-Mallory that he often couldn’t see beyond his little nose

I’ve just read James Holland’s account of The Battle of Britain. Holland has a very low opinion of Leigh-Mallory, who commanded 12 Group in the Battle in question, and famously tangled with Dowding and Park of 11 Group. Later, in his book about Big Week, Holland mentions Leigh-Mallory’s contribution to the bombing offensive against Germany, and he is again deeply unimpressed.

As Holland notes, Dowding and Park got their London statues, however belatedly, while Leigh-Mallory, in addition to getting himself killed in 1944, got no such recognition. As far as Holland is concerned, justice was, belatedly, done, both positively for Dowding, and negatively to Leigh-Mallory.

But I possess another book entitled The Battle of Britain, the one by John Ray, which tells the story of the battle but which particularly digs into all the feuding that happened on the British side. I only read this book very casually when I first acquired it, so I’ve been having another go, to see if Ray could explain things a little more from Leigh-Mallory’s point of view.

I didn’t have to read long. Here, on page 18, is an episode described by Ray that does quite a bit to illuminate why Leigh-Mallory didn’t get on with Dowding, and in general why it took Dowding so long to get his statue:

There was a general view that Dowding could be prickly and difficult, lacking the golden virtue of tact. Even his obituary in The Times noted that he was not an easy man, and one to whom ‘slackness, hypocrisy and self-seeking were not peccadilloes, but scarlet sins’.” These views have been summarized by Denis Richards, author of the official history of the RAF, in referring to Dowding’s unclubbable and less than co-operative nature, often displayed to those with whom he disagreed. ‘Dowding was really very difficult’, in his opinion and, as several opponents appreciated, ‘tact was not a weapon in Dowding’s armoury’.

The relationship between Dowding and Leigh-Mallory, ADC, No 12 Group, was far from cordial and a factor in the later controversy over tactics. At a conference following an air defence exercise in 1939 Dowding spoke for over an hour on the agenda’s 56 items, then allocated only five minutes each to his two Group Commanders. Worse was to follow when Dowding, in front of several other senior officers said, ‘The trouble with you, Leigh-Mallorv. is that you sometimes cannot see further than the end your little nose’.

Bloody hell.

Ray agrees with Holland that Dowding deserved better than he got in the way of public recognition once the war had ended. But Ray also makes it clear how Dowding got his nickname: “Stuffy”.

Isn’t it one of Macchiavelli’s rules that you shouldn’t insult a powerful adversary unless you also crush them?

I’ve never been anywhere near a battle, but it occurs to me to guess that commanding an airforce could be such a difficult thing to do well because the skill of flying an airplane in a war is so very unlike the job of being a senior commander. You could be wonderfully clubbable, but that wouldn’t make you any better at flying, at killing enemy flyers or at bashing you way to a target and then getting back home again. Likewise, great air warriors could be decidedly eccentric, or worse utter bastards, when back on the ground. No wonder, when some of these guys got older and became commanders, they were often a lot better at instructing their awed subordinates in how to fight, than they were at getting along with each other when grappling with other more subtle and complex dilemmas.

Parshall and Tully (and Slim) on why Japan lost

I recently watched the 2019 movie about the Battle of Midway. Wanting to make a bit more sense of what I had just watched, I then purchased Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully. This seems to be a much respected volume, and now that I have started dipping into it, I find that, just as was promised, it is especially illuminating about the approach adopted by the Japanese side in this battle. Here is how the chapter entitled “Why Did Japan Lose?” ends (pp. 413-415):

British Field Marshal William Slim, who had been defeated in Burma by the Japanese in early 1942, but who would later return the favor by crushing them in the same theater in 1944, beautifully captured the spirit of his enemies in an excerpt written about the Japanese Army. He remarked:

The Japanese were ruthless and bold as ants while their designs went well, but if their plans were disturbed or thrown out – ant-like again – they fell into confusion, were slow to re-adjust themselves, and invariably clung too long to their original schemes. This, to commanders with their unquenchable military optimism, which rarely allowed in their narrow administrative margins for any setback or delay, was particularly dangerous. The fundamental fault of their generalship was a lack of moral, as distinct from physical, courage. They were not prepared to admit that they had made a mistake, that their plans had misfired and needed recasting. … Rather than confess that, they passed on to their subordinates, unchanged, the order that they themselves had received, well knowing that with the resources available the tasks demanded were impossible. Time and again, this blind passing of responsibility ran down a chain of disaster. … They scored highly by determination; they paid heavily for lack of flexibility.

This passage might just as easily have been written about Midway, as it perfectly encapsulates the problems the Japanese had when it came to altering their battle plans. In the matter of lack of moral courage, Yamamoto, Nagumo, and Yamaguchi were all quite clearly guilty as charged. Equally perceptive is Slim’s insight that sticking with a plan, even a bad plan, was a mechanism whereby the Japanese individual could personally absolve himself of responsibility for a defeat. Too often, though, the price for doing so was needless casualties, or even the outright destruction of one’s force, typically followed by the atoning suicide of the commander in question. All in all, this was not an effective model for winning a war against a numerically superior opponent.

By the same token, it is clear from many of the failures of learning and adaptation just discussed that the Japanese entered the Battle of Midway wearing doctrinal handcuffs, the effect of which was to retard still further their ability to innovate. Whereas American doctrine is generally presented to a commander as a codification of guidelines concerning the effective conduct of combat, the very nature of the Japanese military culture made its own doctrine far more rigid with regards to interpretation. This manifested itself in Nagumo and Genda’s disinclination to augment their tactical scouting assets with carrier strike assets, even in the face of accumulating evidence that the Americans were more alert than they ought to have been.

In the same way, the apparent unwillingness of First Air Fleet staff to even consider splitting the attacking power of Kido Butai after discovering the Americans later in the morning originated in doctrinal imperatives. Launching a quick attack against the Americans with CarDiv 2’s kanbaku before Tomonaga’s recovery, difficult though this would have been to implement, might have given the Japanese their best possibility to inflict more harm on their opponent than they actually managed. Yet, Japanese doctrine prescribed massed airpower as the correct answer to any tactical problem that arose, and Nagumo and his staff dogmatically stuck to that formula.

Likewise, Nagumo’s doctrinaire decision to close directly on the Americans had the effect of leaving his fleet positioned between two hostile forces (Midway and the American carriers). A decision to maneuver more freely, either to the north or northwest, could have mitigated some of the advantages that the Americans had accrued by virtue of the superior (and wholly intentional) initial positioning. Despite the Japanese love of indirect approaches at a strategic level, their love of closing directly to knife-fighting range at the tactical level was never better demonstrated than at Midway.

Some of these problems stemmed from the simple fact that in early 1942 the aircraft carrier was still a brand-new weapon system. As such, the body of doctrinal thinking in all the carrier navies was relatively small and still maturing. Other navies might have viewed an immature doctrine as being a tacit admission that some degree of interpretation by unit commanders would be required during the course of battle. The Japanese apparently did not see things this way – they stuck to the playbook, small as it might be. When improvisation was called for, they answered with the most expedient, and transparent tactic available-charging the enemy. Thus, in the critical matter of adaptation, the Japanese likewise failed abysmally.

Taken as a whole, the inescapable conclusion that emerges from a careful examination of the battle is the fact that the Japanese defeat was not the result of some solitary, crucial breakdown in Japanese designs. It was not the result of Victory Disease, nor of a few crucial personal mistakes. Rather, what appears is a complex, and comprehensive web of failures stretching across every level of the battle – strategic, operational, and tactical. Every aspect of the enterprise was tainted in some way. The surface manifestations of these deeper failures may ultimately have been a host of mistakes committed by individuals. And some of those mistakes were clearly more important that others. But the vast majority of them were in some way symptomatic of larger failures within the Japanese military and within the Navy’s cultural fabric, its doctrine, and its preferred modes of combat. They were the end products of an organization that failed to learn correctly from its past, failed to plan correctly for its future, and then failed to adapt correctly to circumstances once those plans were shown to be flawed.

Intriguingly, the seeds of many of these errors had been planted some forty years before, through the initial teachings of the Japanese Naval Staff College, and from the flower of Japan’s greatest victory – the Battle of Tsushima. They had lain unnoticed all that time, growing unchecked, waiting for the right time, place, and individuals to give them expression. Instead of culling these warped seedlings, the Japanese Navy had fostered their growth in the 1930s. The twin pressures of a violent nationalism, combined with the sure knowledge that they would be the underdog in any war with America, had conspired to skew Japan’s naval policies and doctrine still further during that time period. As a result, by the time the Pacific war began, and despite its undoubted tactical prowess, the Navy’s ability to mentally fight the war at a strategic and operational level was already fatally damaged. It was at Midway that the breadth of these shortcomings finally revealed themselves, with catastrophic results for both the Imperial Navy and the Japanese nation. Of course, in the larger context of the war, the Battle of Midway was just one of the first of a much greater harvest of bitter fruit that would fall from the poisoned tree of Japanese militarism.

The military defeats that began with the Battle of Midway stem from the harsh reality that, far from being the truly modern, progressive institution that it fondly imagined itself to be, the Imperial Navy was in fact possessed of the most parochial of outlooks. Instead of the quick, limited war Japan’s military leadership envisioned, the Pacific war soon revealed itself to be all encompassing and all consuming. In a shockingly short time, America had begun waging war against Japan across every strategic dimension available to a great industrial power – military, political, economic, and scientific. Japan was assaulted on the ground, through the air, and on and under the sea. Ultimately, it was beaten decisively in every one of these arenas. In this sense, Midway was merely symptomatic of the Imperial military’s larger failings. Most obvious was their fatally misguided decision to launch a war of aggression against the most powerful nation on earth. Having done so, moreover, they found themselves engaged in a conflict whose scope and complexity forced its participants to evolve at a frenetic pace. As it developed, for the Japanese this was a particularly daunting challenge. Despite the amazing speed with which they had modernized their fighting forces after 1848, they were still bound by thought patterns linked to an earlier military and cultural era, as well as the warped legacy of Tsushima. In the final analysis, it is no exaggeration to say that the conflict the Japanese military instigated in 1941 was not only beyond its resources, but also beyond its understanding.

Howard Goodall on the world’s first recording star

I’ve been dipping into Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs, which is a book (based on a BBC TV show), whose subtitle is “The Story of Five Discoveries That Changed Musical History”. I have started at the end, with Bang Number Five, which was when Edison recorded sound. Here’s what Goodall says about the impact of the nascent sound recording industry on the life and career of Enrico Caruso (pp. 218-220):

Enrico Caruso was one of seven children born to a working-class Neapolitan family living in the Via San Giovanello. He received his first singing instruction as a choirboy in a local church, and as a teenager he made a few lire every night singing favourite Neapolitan songs for the cafe customers on the harbour waterfront. He began work in a factory, but eventually he was able to turn professional with his outstanding voice. After a shaky debut in Naples – he vowed never to perform there again – he was invited to sing at the holiest of all opera’s shrines, La Scala, Milan. It was here in March 1902 that Fred Gaisberg, the Gramophone Company’s European representative, heard Caruso performing in Franchetti’s popular opera Germania. Gaisberg offered the young unknown a deal to record ten arias for £100; Caruso duly accepted the offer, to the horror of Gaisberg’s London office, which tried to forbid the spending of ‘this exorbitant sum’. Gaisberg, however, backed his hunch, using his own money. That April, in Suite 301 in the Grand Hotel, Milan, the ten records were cut, beginning with ‘Studenti, Udite’ from Germania. Gaisberg went on to recoup his investment thousands of times over – and the records earned his company a fortune.

Most of the ten masters made on that occasion remain in perfect condition to this day. After their release, Caruso’s fame spread dramatically throughout Europe and America. He made two recordings, in 1902 and 1907, of the aria ‘Vesti la giubba’, from Leoncavallo’s opera I Pagliacci, which between them sold over a million copies. I Pagliacci was at this time a relatively new opera (it was given its first stage performance in 1892), based on a recent real-life criminal case. It’s hard to find a modern equivalent for this – a modern opera being as commercially successful as I Pagliacci. Even the hit records released from the shows of Andrew Lloyd Webber are based on stories from the past (Evita is probably his most contemporary non-fiction subject). As for the work of contemporary ‘classical’ composers, the thought of Harrison Birtwistle writing an opera which included a million-selling song is, let’s face it, laughable.

Caruso was to the early gramophone what Frank Sinatra or Maria Callas were to the LP, what Elvis Presley and the Beatles were to the 45-rpm ‘single’, and what Dire Straits and George Michael were to the compact disc: the ‘software’ of the music that drew listeners to the ‘hardware’ of the machines and materials. He was the first recording megastar, as much a household name in his day as Charlie Chaplin, prodigal son of another medium also in its infancy. Caruso’s voice had a timbre and range that perfectly suited the limitations of the medium, it could soar and tremble with such strength and depth that the background hiss and the indistinct accompaniment were all but forgotten. To many people, hearing him scale the summits of high opera was both miraculous and moving and this was not just their first experience of the true potential of the gramophone but also a gateway to the whole classical repertoire.

Edison’s humble contraption was to become a universal gift with the popularity of Caruso, catapulting classical music out of the small, exclusive world it had hitherto known.

The Gramophone and Victor Companies were buoyed by Caruso’s success. What’s more, all the other top singers now wanted a piece of the action, hurriedly dropping their objections to the quality of the medium once they realised that it could make them rich. The female equivalent of Caruso was Nellie Melba, an Australian soprano with a peach of a voice, and a good head for business, who held out until she got £1,000 – and her own label in passionate mauve.

John Lewis Gaddis on the failure of the Spanish Armada

Stephen Davies, seeking to explain Europe’s technological and economic breakthrough into modernity, and John Lewis Gaddis reflecting on the emergence of the USA as the world’s current superpower, both identify the defeat of the Spanish Armada as a key moment. Davies says that the failure of Catholic Spain to subdue Protestant England meant that Europe, unlike all the other great civilisations of the world, remained disunited and hence internally competitive.

And Gaddis argues, in his book On Grand Strategy, argues, at the beginning of his chapter entitled “New Worlds” (pp. 151-152) that the defeat of the Armada “made possible the creation of the United States” as we now know it:

It’s not counterfactual to claim that the real events of 1588 in the English Channel echoed loudly and long enough “to shake a hemisphere.” The previous century had seen the Portuguese and the Spanish, neither hitherto seismically significant, exploiting a new understanding of ships, sails, winds, and currents to explore and conquer immensities of strange new things.’ “NON SUFFICIT ORBIS,” Philip II’s motto for his Iberian kingdoms and the empire they’d acquired, was eloquently apt: Eurasia, the old world into which all earlier empires had fit, had indeed not been enough. As the Armada left Lisbon that summer, few from whom it faded from sight would have anticipated anything other than enduring Catholic monarchies throughout what had become known as America.

For how could God not be on the side of the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon that had, in the single year 1492, expelled their Muslim neighbors, ejected their Jews, and almost as an aside expanded the size of the earth? Or, in the year that followed, gained title to the new territories, together with Portugal, by papal edict? Or, as Spain, required only three years to conquer Mexico and not many more to control Peru, thereby ensuring apparently endless supplies of gold and silver? Or, using these riches, imposed administrative and even architectural uniformity on two unfamiliar continents? Or mapped out, for their diverse inhabitants, a single path to salvation? Accomplishments on this scale require more than self-confidence: they presume knowledge of, and correspondence with, God’s will.

Two hundred and thirty-five years after the Armada sailed, however, a staunchly Protestant statesman, in the swampy new capital of a secular state, was drafting an equally presumptuous proclamation for his republican sovereign: “that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” When Secretary of State John Quincy Adams made the Monroe Doctrine a motto for the “United States of America” in 1823, that country lacked the means of securing the “new world” against its “old” masters. It had the self-confidence, though, of Spain in its prime, and that, Adams saw, would suffice.

“The failure of the Spanish Armada,” Geoffrey Parker has argued, “laid the American continent open to invasion and colonization by northern Europeans, and thus made possible the creation of the United States.” If that’s right, then the future pivoted on a single evening – August 7, 1588 – owing to a favorable wind, a clever lord admiral, and a few fiery ships. Had he succeeded, Philip would have required Elizabeth to end all English voyages to America.’ But from the moment his captains cut their anchor cables, Spain began a slow decline, and a new world order its gradual ascendancy.

This book (which I have just ordered from Amazon) presumably being one of the places where Geoffrey Parker (a new name to me) makes this argument.

“Every educated person in the land knew of the Eder and the Möhne dams …”

I have been reading James Holland’s book about the Dam Busters, which contains some illuminating pages concerning the history of the dams that got busted. These pages (pp. 242-247 of my paperback edition) are interesting in their own right, and they also explain why busting the dams was more than just a materially very damaging blow to the German war effort; it was also deeply demoralising for the German people:

There was another very good reason why the dams were a good target, however, one that was touched upon by Barnes Wallis during his second meeting with Gibson on 29 March. ‘The Germans,’ he said of the Möhne, ‘are very proud of this dam.’ In fact, they were proud of all their dams, although of the Möhne and Eder in particular; they were among the best-known structures in the Reich. Dams, of course, were as old as the hills. It was a German, Georg Steinfurth, who discovered the world’s oldest in 1885 – the Kafara Dam south of Cairo. In Spain, the Roman dam at Cornalvo had been standing for the best part of two millennia. However, although these were ancient structures, they had not been built on the kind of scale that the Germans began building them in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Although Germany was a new nation, just seventy years old, there was nonetheless a tradition among the German people over the previous 200 years of transforming their landscape, or conquering nature. Germany by the beginning of the war was a quite different place from how it had been just a couple of hundred years earlier, especially its lowlands. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, it was a wild place, full of low-lying marsh and fenland. Travellers likened it to Amazonia and the New World. Wild animals like boar and wolves roamed, while the Rhine, Germany’s greatest river, snaked its way north through hundreds of separate channels, which were divided by endless little islands, sandbars and gravel banks. Along long stretches of its banks were damp forests, not lush farmland and industry. And because this river was so wild, because its flow of water so unpredictable and its depth so varied, it was for large parts completely impassable.

Yet as Prussia’s strength grew, so did its prosperity, and with it the increased need for mobility. What a difference it would make if this wild part of north-west Germany could be tamed. One German engineer, Iohann Tulla, believed he could, and so began one of the most extraordinary engineering feats the world had ever known. Quite simply, Tulla straightened the Upper Rhine. Not only was it an extraordinary achievement, it was also one of the world’s biggest engineering feats. By carving out new channels and damming up the twists and turns, the flow of water improved. The Rhine took on a completely different appearance, and was now shorter by some fifty miles. Moreover, the water now flowed deep enough and fast enough to allow large-scale navigation. The Rhine, by the early part of the nineteenth century, had become one of Germany’s most important arteries.

Now that the Rhine was properly navigable, the population along it rose rapidly. Further to the east, in the Ruhr area, coal seams were developed and through the nineteenth century the area grew with industrial plants springing up all around it. More and more water was needed: for the rising population to drink, and for the rapidly increasing industrial processes. Canals were built, and so too were railways, providing a network that enabled all this industry to be spread around the country.

Suddenly, there was no longer enough water consistently feeding into these rapidly growing areas. The natural cycle of water flow running into the Möhne, Wupper, Ruhr and Eder followed an irregular pattern – heavier in winter, less so in summer, but one that had become more extreme through deforestation and cultivation in their upper reaches.

Dams were the solution, although, as the Germans were discovering, by upsetting one of nature’s rhythms, they were being forced to alter another. Constructing large dams had begun in Alsace as a means of building up a mass of water from the inconsistent flow of rivers running down from the Vosges Mountains. These dams, comparatively small, were so effective they paved the way for the golden decade of dam building in Germany. In the 1890s, dams were the solution to the booming industrial region of Rhineland- Westphalia.

The first large dam was the Eschbach, which provided drinking water for the growing population of Remsheid. This had been designed by the greatest of German dam builders, Otto Intze, and his stamp would be all over many of those that followed: by his death in 1904, he had built no fewer than twelve.

A regular flow of water may have been needed in the rapidly growing area of Rhineland-Westphalia, but it was even more essential a little further north in the Ruhr Valley. The annual flow of water into the Ruhr was heavy, but deforestation in the Sauerland, the mountainous region east of the Ruhr, had intensified the extremes of seasonal variation. These were also exacerbated enormously by the huge amounts of water being pumped from the lower reaches. Water was needed for drinking, not just by the populations of towns on the Ruhr, but by those on the now polluted Wupper, Emscher and Lipper. Water was also needed by the mining, metallurgical and chemical industries, for cooling, cleaning and processing. The Krupps Works in Essen, alone, were responsible for using vast amounts of water both for their manufacturing processes and for their hordes of thirsty workers.

By the turn of the century, the Ruhr Valley was in crisis. In high summer, water levels were so low, it was possible to walk across the river without getting barely wet at all. Dams were clearly the only solution. Intze built two across a couple of small tributaries, but it was not enough. After long arguments about whose responsibility it was to resolve the crisis – after all, building dams was not cheap – the Ruhr Valley Reservoirs Associaton, or Ruhrtalsperrenverein – was formed in 1899. This collection of interested parties collectively funded the programme of dam building that now hurriedly got under way. Seven were built by 1906 – all by Intze – but then came a move to build substantially larger dams. The first was the Lister, which, by 1912, when it opened, had a capacity of 22 million cubic metres.

Its supremacy lasted just a year, for in 1913 a new, even bigger dam, designed by Intze’s star pupil, Ernst Link, was opened. It held a staggering 130 million cubic metres of water – more than the combined capacity of all of the dams built previously in the Ruhr and Wupper region. This vast edifice was the Möhne Dam.

But the Möhne was also about to be eclipsed. Forty-five miles to the south-east, an even taller, though not wider, dam was being built across the River Eder, one that would have the capacity to hold a mind-boggling 200 million cubic metres of water, ten times the amount of the Lister, which when it had been inaugurated had been the largest of its kind. The Eder Dam, when it was completed in that fateful month of August 1914, was the largest dam in Europe. Its waters stretched for seventeen miles, covering a lush, fertile valley where villages and many farmsteads had once stood. Its construction was considered such a profoundly incredible achievement, the Kaiser and his wife had been due to attend its inauguration. That had been planned for 15 August 1914. War had scuppered that plan, but during its construction, the Kaiser had visited the rapidly growing dam wall, as had his daughter, Princess Victoria.

It was no wonder these structures attracted so much attention. They personified the German conquest of nature and were symbols of German identity. Every educated person in the land knew of the Eder and the Möhne dams, as familiar as the Empire State Building became to Americans. They symbolized the emergence of a great and unified power. The Book of Famous Engineers was a popular book aimed as much at a youth market of aspiring young Germans as anyone, and contained a whole chapter on dam builders. Men like Otto Intze were household names in Germany, held as champions of a bright new dawn and an age of technological wonder. On no fewer than three occasions he gave private lectures to the Kaiser, who was, like most of his subjects, fascinated by technological innovations and developments.

Another popular, post-First World War tome was In the Wonderland of Technology: Masterpieces and New Achievements That Our Youth Should Know. And most of them did: radios, Zeppelins, Mercedes-Benz motor cars and the Eder and Möhne dams were all written about, feats from Germany’s proud era of technology.

The large lakes behind the dams became huge tourist attractions. Tens of thousands of visitors travelled to the Möhne, Eder and other dams every year. Hikers walked around the shores, anglers fished, sailors sailed, or rowed on pleasure dinghies, or took steamer trips. Others just stood at the foot of the vast walls of granite and masonry and marvelled at the wonder of such enormous constructions – constructions that looked so solid, so thick. So impregnable.

It is possible that there may be objections to me reproducing such a long excerpt from this book. If there are any objections, either from the author or the publisher, this posting will immediately be removed.

Steve Stewart-Williams on how looking at other animals helps us understand why the Nurture Only view can’t be right to explain human sexual differences

The Nurture Only view being, in this case, the claim that all the differences in behaviour and attitude – with regard to such things as casual sex, attaching importance to physical sexual allure, and so on – between human males and human females are all caused by societal pressure.

Says SS-W (on page 90 of The Ape That Understood The Universe):

Arguably, though, the most persuasive argument against the Nurture Only view is that sex differences in sexual inclinations and choosiness can be found in many individuals who have no gender norms, no socialization, and little in the way of culture: that rather sizeable group, so often overlooked by psychologists, known as other animals. The differences aren’t found in all other species, but they are found in many, including most birds, mammals, and reptiles. And when we find the differences in other animals, evolution is the only reasonable explanation. Why should humans be different? It’s logically possible, of course, that the differences are products of evolution in squirrels, turkeys, and frogs, but of learning and culture in Homo sapiens. But it hardly seems likely. In other species, the differences appear when the ceiling number of offspring for males is higher than that for females. Humans meet this condition, and our species presumably evolved from earlier species that displayed the normal sex differences. As such, what the Nurture Only theory asks us to believe is that, in our lineage and ours alone, natural selection eliminated the normal sex differences, despite the fact that the selection pressure that initially created them was still operative. Why would it do that? It’s particularly perplexing given that, when we look around the world, we still find the sex differences that selection supposedly eliminated. Thus, the Nurture Only theory asks us to believe not only that selection eliminated the differences for reasons unknown, but that learning and culture then coincidentally reproduced exactly the same differences in every culture on record. This is not a compelling thesis. Cultural forces clearly influence people’s willingness to engage in casual sex, and to some extent their desire to do so as well. But the idea that culture creates these sex differences out of nothing not only clashes with the available evidence, it clashes with everything we know about how evolution works.

This comes in the middle of the chapter entitled “The SeXX/XY Animal”. Right at the beginning of this chapter, just below the subheading “An Academic Culture War”, appears this academic wisecrack:

“Everyone knows that men and women are different … except social scientists.”

Which doesn’t mean that everyone who knows that men and women are different also knows exactly what those differences consist of. And don’t consist of.

The “Other creatures” category at this blog usually means other creatures besides cats and kittens. But for this posting “Other creatures” means other creatures besides the particular creatures that are humans.