Patrick and I talk about Enoch Powell

The latest Patrick Crozier/Brian Micklethwait recorded conversation is now up and listenable-to. We talk about Enoch Powell, of whom Patrick writes:

Enoch Powell was a prominent politician in the 1960s and 1970s. He is best known for his views on immigration although he was also friendly towards libertarian ideas especially on economics. While a large part of our chat is inevitably taken up with immigration we also discuss Margaret Thatcher, Steve Baker and the end of Empire.

I embarked upon this conversation fearing that I had not done enough homework. But during Powell’s career itself I was paying attention, and, stimulated by Patrick, I found myself remembering a lot more, of the sort that I had not, so to speak, remembered remembering beforehand.

Also, I wasn’t expecting to notice the Powell/Steve Baker parallels. Both took/take ideas more seriously than they took the mere achievement of office, and both consequently had/have a big Parliamentary impact. Baker also resembles Powell in being extremely clever and extremely industrious. (Baker also resembles Powell in not being a racist.)

This is the biography of Powell that Patrick had been reading.

Happy Easter!

I hope you are having one.

I definitely am, and I will tell you (a big part of) why. This, on YouTube, from Steve Baker MP, no less.

Just over two minutes long, so not a big chunk out of your life it you follow the above link and watch it all.

I’ll surely have more to say about this by way of thanks. But, busy day for me today, and I could hardly postpone at least noticing this here.

Ask, and you shall receive. This exploiting my impending death to achieve a dose of upward social mobility thing is really working out well.

Patrick and I talk about the current state of libertarianism

I’ve had a busy day doing other things, but last Tuesday, Patrick Crozier and I recorded a conversation about the current state of the libertarian movement, and I can at least today report that Patrick has now done the editing and introductory blogging and linkage, and you can listen to it by going here. It lasts, after Patrick had sliced out the pauses (which we discuss at the end), almost exactly an hour.

As the title of Patrick’s posting alludes to, we speak in particular about how libertarians happen to have been divided about recent Big Issues of the Day, like Brexit, Trump and Lockdown. In each of these arguments, libertarians have been on both sides. However, we both express guarded optimism that libertarians will be more united in the argument that will soon be raging about how best to recover from Lockdown. Our voice may not win, but it will at least be more like one voice.

For further clues about the kinds of things we discussed, see the categories list below. Notice that “Education” is not in this list. For some reason we failed to even mention this.

How to win the libertarian argument with hippos

Once again, I am saying a big thank you to Rob Fisher, for doing his bit to make my life and libertarianising echo in eternity. (Commenters, what movie am I quoting there? I liked that phrase the moment I first heard it.)

If you go to the website that Rob is referring to, you will see that right near the top there is a slowly moving clutch of quotes that come from the publications in question. I think this is a good idea. My strong point is probably not essays, or even long explanations. When I attempt any of those, I generally make some mistakes, especially given that when I wrote a lot of this stuff I was, as now, my own editor. Books? forget it. No, my biggest strength is, or was, single sentences, or at the most small clutches of sentences.

I only just saw Rob’s posting, which went up yesterday, but today is my day here for animal stuff, so, is there an animal connection here? I only started really banging on about animals in an animal rights sort of way when scientists started creating semi-affordable artificial meat, which will mean that we humans can now stop being so mean to animals, which we now do by stuffing them full of food and then slicing them up and eating them. When we’re not just keeping them as pets and merely stuffing them full of food.

However, there is an animal link, at any rate as of now, in Rob’s very kind posting. Early manifestations of which included the subject of “Hippos”, in the bit just under the title where it says what the posting is about. “Opinions on liberty” gets a mention, but Rob would appear to have forgotten to scrub Hippos from the list, Hippos being what goes on a Samizdata posting by default if you forget to mention any subjects. Here, it is merely “uncategorized”. But Samizdata Supremo Perry de Havilland likes hippos, and knows how to make things like that happen.

If you have an argument with a hippo, about anything never mind about libertarianism, chances are you’ll lose, especially if it thinks you are in its way.

Paperbacks

I only watch a few of the videos that the Quotulator likes to put up at his excellent blog, but I just watched this one and enjoyed it greatly:

What I find so entertaining about this chunk of history is how this new way of selling and consuming books oscillated wildly between Very Low Art (“Penny Dreadfuls”) and Very High Art (classic (hence out of copyright) novels, Shakespeare, etc.). Low Art created the format. High Art discovered that it could use the format.

My Dad collected Penguins before and after WW2, and probably also during. I still have some of those. None of them were Penny Dreadfuls.

Also interesting was the claim that paperbacks are now thriving, better than ebooks are. My suspicion about that one: give it time.

Steve Stewart-Williams on the evolution of the Breton fishing boat

I finished reading The Ape That Understood The Universe about a week ago now, but there is one further bit from this book that I want to scan into this blog, because I think it is my absolute favourite.

At the beginning of the second half of the book devoted to Man, “The Cutural Animal”, SS-W offers six examples of cultural evolution in action. These are: Breton Boats, Conditioned Behavior, Language, Teddy Bears, Businesses, and Science. I have already copied the bits on Teddy Bears, and on Language. Here is the bit about Breton Boats (p. 224):

The first example concerns the fishing boats used by Breton fisherman in the Île de Groix. Where did these boats come from? At first glance, it looks like a no-brainer: If anything’s a product of intelligent design, it’s a boat. On closer inspection, though, it turns out it really is a no-brainer … or at least a partial-brainer, in the sense that human brains played a more modest role in crafting the boats than we normally assume. This possibility was first mooted by the French philosopher Emile-Auguste Chartier (aka Alain), who in 1908, took a Darwinian hatchet to the common sense view. “Every boat,” he observed,

is copied from another boat … Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied … One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

If a boat returns, the boat makers may copy it. If it doesn’t, they definitely won’t. The boats that are most likely to be copied are therefore those that survive the longest. As Daniel Dennett points out, no one needs to know why these particular boats survive. To make a good boat, you don’t need to understand what makes a boat good; you only need to be able to copy another boat. How do you know you ‘re copying a good boat? Well, you don’t need to know, because the sea automatically culls the not-good ones from the boat population. Meanwhile, any especially good boats get copied at a faster rate. Over time, this process of culling and copying fashions more and more seaworthy boats.

Now maybe each and every step in the gradual evolution of the boat was a product of intelligent design: of a thousand forgotten boat makers figuring out a thousand different ways to make their boats more sea-worthy. But maybe not. Maybe many steps along the path were simply fortuitous accidents, which were automatically preserved and propagated. To the extent that this is so, the design evident in Breton boats comes from blind, mindless selection, rather than the machinations of intelligent minds.

Language and Teddy Bears are a bit off the beaten tracks I like to beat. But with this discussion of the design of a quite big physical object, in this case a boat, SS-W’s core agenda, and one of my obsessions over the years and decades ever since I was a failed architecture student, overlap in a very big way. As I said at the end of the language posting linked to above, I have long been thinking along the same lines as SS-W, about “mindless” design. And as I said at the end of another recent posting here, about Facadism, Keeping Up Appearances and so on, it is my earnest hope that I will, by and by, be able to pull such thoughts together in a bigger piece for Samizdata.

The Modern Movement in Architecture was, when it started out, shot through with the idea that you should not “mindlessly” copy an established design, even if it worked well, unless you knew why it worked well. Wrong.

Equally and oppositely, the first lot of Architectural Modernists said that you should turn your back on “mindless tradition” and design anew, from “first principles”. Very dangerous, as a design technique. Sometimes necessary, provided you choose good “first principles”, but never without extreme hazard. Architectural Modernism only worked well, and in a country like Britain has only started to work well, when Modernism itself became a tradition, embodying the experience of what worked and what works, and what did not work and what does not work.

Thoughts on giving away the ending … or not giving it away

I am a lazy person. And I just sent an email to my niece Roz Watkins, who writes of crime fiction. Some of this email was personal and private, but a couple of bits seem to me to be worth recycling here, to save me the bother of having to think of something else to put here today:

I do so very much admire the writing you have been doing. The reason I don’t write about it more admiringly, and more often, is that in my part of the internet, we don’t fret about giving away endings! For instance, I am now reading a book about human evolution, to what extent human mental habits are genetically evolved, what sex differences are and are not, and so on. When writing about this book, I do not hesitate to quote any of the author’s conclusions that strike me as interesting. But if I reviewed a book of yours by discussing the convincingness of who finally turns out to have done the deed, naming the murderer, well, … that’s not allowed! So I need to learn a whole different way of writing about books like yours. Basically, I guess, you concentrate on the state of affairs at the beginning, and from then on keep it vague.

And, I realise that writing about famous books from the past is also not like writing about your books when they have only just come out. I’m not going to be denounced if I discuss the details of how Mr Darcy finally marries Elizabeth Bennet, because almost everyone who cares already knows what happened. If you don’t know how Pride and Prejudice ends and don’t want to until you’ve read it for the first time, then it’s up to you to avoid being told.

I think that the Pride and Prejudice point there is an especially good one. Great works of literature, almost by definition, are things we are allowed to discuss all aspects of, including the endings, without being accused of giving anything away. If I tell you the ending of Roz’s latest Meg Dalton book (that’s her lead detective), I’m breaking the rules. But if I reveal that Hamlet dies at the end of Hamlet, that’s okay. If you did not know this and wanted to be surprised by how Hamlet ends, that is entirely your problem. Which means that works of Great Literature become like some of the great facts of our culture, not that different from real events or real arguments about real events. We can freely discuss all aspect of the great works of literature with one another, definitely including the endings. And thorough discussions of great facts, especially how these facts turned out or ended, are, for me, one of life’s great pleasures.

This is one of the reasons I do like (some) great literature. It enables me to have thorough conversations with strangers. I think the social benefits of shared cultural objects are often missed. See also, sport and celebrities. It’s the universality of these experiences that bind us together as a society, however we may disagree about many other things, and for that matter about sport or celebrities.

Great literature is books that are celebrity books.

What Steve Stewart-Williams said

When I first discovered Steve Stewart-Williams, I simultaneously started reading his book, The Ape That Understood The Universe: How The Mind and Culture Evolve, and enjoying his Twitter feed. I regularly link to the latter on Fridays, my day of the week for writing about and linking to stories and videos featuring non-human animals. But for some reason, I got interrupted when reading this book, and have only now got around to reading it properly. I am about half way through it, as I write this.

I am enjoying it because it says everything I already believe about how my species evolved into what it now is, but much better than I could say it. I am finding out, you might say, all the things I believe about evolution, and about the evolution of the human species in particular. I can summarise what I think of this book in the modern phrase: What he said. Or, even more briefly: That.

The central and recurring argument Stewart-Williams deploys, to explain why the contents of the human mind are just as much a product of evolution as the attributes of the human body, is the fact that all the other animals clearly have mental habits that must have evolved, so why should we humans, who are also animals, be any different?

Were we humans the entirely separate creations, quite unlike mere animals, that old-school Christians used to say we were, then for our minds to be entirely different from those of animals might make more sense. As it is, given that we are products of the same evolutionary process that made all the other animals, the “blank slate” notion of the human mind makes no sense at all.

One thing I did – not “learn” exactly – but hear for the first time from a scientist of human evolution, concerned the aggressiveness of the human male. Many human masculine characteristics have evolved not so much because human females like them, but more because other human males are intimidated by them. Males who defeat other males in competition achieve high status, and high status and the resources that accompany it are what human females especially like, rather than necessarily liking the particular characteristics that achieve that high status. Male aggressive characteristics are, metaphorically speaking, deer antlers more than they are peacock tails. They are at least as much for making human males into top dogs, so to speak, as they are for directly impressing the ladies. I can’t help noticing that some human females are impressed, directly, by male aggression. They like to watch men fighting, for instance. But others are very put off by such behaviour, and especially, of course, if it is ever directed against them.

Just about every lesson Stewart-Williams is trying to teach his readers is a lesson I had either worked out for myself, or something I had sort-of worked out, or something I understood the point of as soon as he said it. The above lesson, about how human male aggressiveness is more like antlers than like peacock tails falls into category three. I hadn’t worked that one out properly, but yes, as soon as I read this I knew it had to be right.

Patrick and I finally did our Industrial Revolution podcast

In this posting here just over a week ago, I showed you all a pile of books, and said that if all went well I’d be recording a conversation with Patrick Crozier in which I’d speak about these books (plus the writings of Anton Howes). I had in mind how each writer provided a piece in the puzzle of how the Industrial Revolution came about, and that I was going to fit all these pieces together. Mass literacy, ideology, revolution, both political and industrial.

Well, last week, Patrick and I finally did manage to record this discussion, which was mostly a monologue by me with occasional queries from Patrick, and now you can listen to it, and read Patrick’s commentary and notes with more links, by going here.

The recording was a definite success in one way, which is that my voice functioned really well, better than I thought, about one month ago, that it ever would again.

The heart of my claim is that the Industrial Revolution had a lot more in common with the “other” revolutions, in places like France, Russia and China than is now usually supposed, in the following sense: The Industrial Revolution was also an ideological event. It happened because starry-eyed ideologists had a glorious plan for the betterment of mankind. Very long story very short: The plan worked, magnificently. But this is not a story which intelligent and educated people nowadays can compute. Revolution equals blood, chaos and a world that is the opposite of what the starry-eyed ideologists said it would be. What most educated people now seem to believe is that the Industrial Revolution happened by mistake, when selfish go-getters pursuing only the narrowest idea of their own selfish interests happened to have a huge but unintended collective consequence. I say that industrial improvement, even if not exactly the “revolution” that happened, was deliberate.

Between them, the writers I assembled and talked about explained all this, although it takes me to fit the various pieces of the story together, to tell it in full. Said he modestly.

And so on and forth, for over an hour. When this unbalanced “conversation” ended, I was disappointed, because of what I hadn’t managed to say. Basically I outlined a theory, but the way I told it, it was severely lacking in illustrative detail, as Patrick’s questions forced me to acknowledge. But listening again this afternoon, I was comforted by the fact that although that criticism stands, I did at least say some interesting things. I didn’t illustrate them, still less go any way towards proving them. But at least I said them, as best I could. Which is to say, I tried to.

LATER: I can’t make the comments system at Croziervision work, so I will have to put my embarrassing apology for saying that John Lilburne was executed here instead. I’m embarrassed. Sorry.

My problem was that I read all the books in the pile quite a while ago, remembered the broad outlines that I concluded from them and forgot most of the illustrative details and backup evidence. In this respect the delay doing this was unhelpful. I hope to be writing out, for Samizdata, the thesis I merely presented in this podcast and will then at least try to allude to rather more evidence than I did in this. But I promise nothing.

The books I’ll be talking about this afternoon with Patrick Crozier

This afternoon, all being well, Patrick Crozier and I will finally get around to doing our podcast on the Industrial Revolution: Good Thing and here’s why it happened.

I will be making the running and Patrick will be heckling me, seeking clarification, etc.

Here are the books I intend to refer to:

I also intend referring to the recent writings of Anton Howes.

The reason we are able to do this is that my voice has got a lot better lately, thanks to the magic pills. I still cough a bit (so apologies in advance if that happens), but nowhere near the ghastliness of about three weeks ago.