Heads, ancient cities, ideas, and ill-considered TV shows: a roundup of things found…
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1. Here’s a thing that happened: after his death in 1809, composer Joseph Haydn’s head was stolen. CRANIOKLEPTY: a national scourge. Why steal his head? Well, it was 1809, and the pair who paid the gravedigger to decapitate the corpse and abscond with Haydn’s noggin were big fans of phrenology. Just coming into intellectual fashion at the time and all the rage at your average ether frolic, the central underpinning of phrenology was a syllogism:
A) Behavioral tendencies and mental abilities owe to differences in brain anatomy;
B) Those brain differences produce noticeable differences in the size, shape, and geography of the skull
C) Conclusion: one’s mental abilities and faculties can be determined by measuring bumps on the skull.
And here we have an object lesson in what happens when deductive logic goes wrong. The phrenology enthusiasts conspired to steal the head—“already quite green, but still completely recognizable” by the time they got their hands on it—then de-brain it, bleach the bones, and make a study of the skull. They reported back that, indeed, the musical genius Haydn’s “bump of music” was “fully developed,” thereby providing valuable confirmatory evidence for their completely wrong theory.
Thus began a decades-long odyssey for the poor disembodied head. It was displayed for more than a decade in a museum-quality shrine at one home of one of the thieves; lost; given to other phrenologists for safe-keeping (meanwhile, when called out on the theft, they had returned a different skull which was placed in Haydn’s tomb); then finally given to a university professor. The university retained possession for 100+ years, until in 1954 a full orchestra played while a funeral procession transported the skull to be reunited with its owner.
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2. In southeastern Turkey, just north of Syria, you can go up on a hill and run across an archaeological excavation that has unearthed hundreds of stone pillars (weighing up to 20 tons each); floors of polished lime; remnants of tools; and abstract shapes and animal reliefs carved into rocks. These features are littered across a range of 22 acres, in a ritual site that has no evidence of people living there, although only about 5% of it has been investigated. That is Göbekli Tepe.
What’s interesting about Göbekli Tepe is not so much the aesthetics but that it’s really, really old. It dates back about 11,000 years, meaning that it was older to the people who built stonehenge than stonehenge is to us. In fact, it’s so old that it challenges some commonly held assumptions about the development of human societies.
A standard narrative holds that major monuments, temples, and religious centers only came about once mass agriculture was developed. Cultivating crops allowed society to transition from bands of active and generally nomadic hunter-gatherers to, in archaeological parlance “sedentary” farming communities that were larger, more stable, and more centralized. In the optimistic view, this allowed enough free time to ponder existence and build religious monuments that had no immediate practical purpose. In the cynical view, it created the situations of enforced scarcity and hoarding that suited the development of organized religion and the priestly class. But in either case, the causality is the same: religion came after agriculture.
But Göbekli Tepe is so old that it almost certainly predates mass agriculture and animal husbandry, suggesting the causality may well be reversed. The main archaeologist excavating the site put it simply: “first came the temple, then the city.” In fact, DNA analysis suggests that modern cultivated wheat derives from wild wheat that grows near the site—which suggests the rather intriguing possibility that not only did the temple predate agriculture, but might have been where mass agriculture began; the seat of the Neolithic revolution.
So, we’ve had it backwards this whole time: humans didn’t build monuments and centralized, complex social structures once agriculture relieved the pressure of subsistence food gathering. It was the development of complex social structures—the kind that would create a huge monument and temple like this one—that was the driving force for the discovery and/or development of grain cultivation and mass agriculture. By one theory, nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers may have joined forces into a larger community simply as a way to protect a major food source—wild grains—from being ravaged by wild animals.
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3. You may be familiar with Thomas Malthus, whose 1798 essay popularized the idea of a Malthusian catastrophe: if population increases geometrically but food sources only linearly, we are doomed to mass starvation once we outstrip our food supply. Malthus, a priest and clearly a reader of Revelations, believed this would be a lesson for living unvirtuously. But no good disastro-seductive idea ever dies, and concern over looming food shortages have been an omnipresent undercurrent in two centuries of doom-saying, from famed chemist William Crookes in the late 1800s to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and Soylent Green in the mid-1900s. (nb: I wrote a bit about how Fritz Haber developed a way to turn “air into bread” and helped stave off Crookes’s vision of world hunger; it’s an interesting story).
Malthus, though, was a few years behind Hong Liangji (1746-1809), a Chinese polymath. When Liangji wasn’t writing essays so critical of the emperor that he was being banished, he was noticing that the population of China had roughly tripled in 150 years—thanks to newer, more productive crops—and that such growth was unsustainable:
“Some people may propose that there would be wild land to cultivate and spare space for housing. But they can only be doubled or tripled, or at most increased five times, whereas the population at the same time could be ten to twenty times larger. Therefore housing and crop fields tend to be in scarcity, while the population tends to be excessive at all time.”
I was about ready to scream “sic semper eurocentrism!” and jump from the balcony, but the Liangji/Malthus affair demonstrates two common phenomena in the history of knowledge. The first is Stigler’s Law, which holds that no scientific discovery is named for its original discoverer. Venn diagrams, for example, are named for Joseph Venn but were used decades earlier by Euler. And here’s a real mindbender: the Playfair cipher is named for Lord Playfair, but was actually created by Charles Wheatstone; the Wheatstone bridge was invented by Samuel Christie but named for Charles Wheatstone. Wikipedia has a whole list of examples of Stigler’s law.
Stigler actually cited Robert Merton as the discoverer of Stigler’s law (making the law an example of itself). Merton wrote a seminal 1960 paper (pdf here, it’s a good read) on the idea of “multiple independent discoveries.” For much of the 19th and early 20th century, the “heroic theory” of development held sway. Closely tied to the “great man” theory of history, it proposed that great leaps forward in science and technology owe to the work of singularly unique geniuses; that great ideas drop “down from heaven through the agency of star-touched genius.” Indeed, according to Carlyle, “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” (all previous and future sexism in this section is [sic]). Darwin thought of evolution, Newton calculus, and Einstein relativity; we give Nobel prizes to towering geniuses and without them, who knows where we’d be.
A common counterargument is that people are products of time and place and context; that new ideas require some element of “right place, right time”; that Newton knew he was standing on the shoulders of giants; that the steamboat was perhaps the inevitable endpoint once the boat and the steam engine already existed. In his paper, Merton pointed out that ideas discovered independently by multiple people are actually the “dominant pattern” of science, not the outliers. The “singletons” (new ideas solely from a single person) are vanishingly rare. Newton and Leibniz invented calculus; Wallace and Darwin came up with evolution (and maybe stole it from an arborist?); the invention of the telephone involved a literal race to the patent office. In his census of multiples, Merton found two discoveries that could be attributed to nine separate individuals. The list goes on and on—and because if you patent something I’m working on, there’s little reason for me to keep plugging away, we are probably undercounting multiples.
As a sort of retroactive proof of its own thesis, even the idea of multiple discoveries, Merton notes, has come up time and again since the 19th century. Perhaps the most influential was a 1922 paper—provocatively titled Are Inventions Inevitable—which ends with a list of some 150 ideas and inventions discovered multiple times, including: the planet neptune, sun spots (four times, all in 1611), the telescope, decimals, logarithms, calculus, the microscope, photography, the thermometer, the laws of inertia, the telegraph, microphone, telephone, phonograph, light bulb, the function of the pancreas, mendelian genetic inheritance, sewing machine, steam boats, the typewriter, and gas engines.
To some, the “sociological” theory of invention implies that inventions and ideas are foreordained, leaving no place for people of outstanding abilities. One total wiener, in a paper I found hilarious, attempted to individually debunk every multiple discovery, ending his too-short paper with the too-bold claim “The great man theory is vindicated” (he earlier says, with no apparent irony: “Sexual natural selection is simply the preference of a male for a pretty wife. It seems odd they took so long to think of this!”). Merton suggests this is a false dichotomy: Lord Kelvin, of the temperature, was involved in at least thirty-two multiple discoveries. “The greatest men of science,” Merton says, “have been involved in a multiplicity of multiples.” Wikipedia again has a good list of multiple discoveries.
Side note: Am I the only one that thought Soylent Green would have been way more powerful if the final shot were Charlton Heston being made into soylent, thereby demonstrating his own futile attempts to save humanity?
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4. As I refine raw trivium ore into human-safe trivia nuggets (a complex process involving distillation, dephlogisticated air, mandrake root, unobtainium, x-ray crystallography, and hot extrusion), I am wary of becoming Robert Ripley, distributing incurious, Flintstones-chewable factoids without care for context or background. I proclaim this even after spending three hours reading about HR Pufnstuf two weeks ago, but I contain multitudes.
However middling and transient my success, I feel better after stumbling across the episode list for the History Channel series History’s Lost and Found. Each episode features the search for three lost objects from history, with apparently zero consideration of and/or total apathy to which objects are jammed together, producing some truly mesmerizing and deeply troubling juxtapositions. The episode listings read like the world’s worst game of Tri-Bond:
- Episode 8: Eva Braun’s home movies; King Herold’s Alabaster Bathtub; the first issue of Mad
- Episode 12: Stonewall Jackson’s Raincoat; the first Monopoly game; the car Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in
- Episode 15: the hollywood sign; Gandhi’s bloodstained dhoti; the first gas mask
- Episode 38: Hitler’s skull; the original la-z boy recliner; duke kahanamoku’s surfboard
- Episode 48: Lockheed P38 Glacier Girl WWII fighter; original Uncle Tom’s Cabin manuscript; Ty Cobb’s dentures (Cobb was so virulently racist that he stood out for being racist in the deep south in 1900)
- Episode 57: Malcolm X’s diary; belmont’s subway car; ronald reagan’s favorite restaurant booth