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Thread: Debunking Romantic Ideas About the Past

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    Default Re: Debunking Romantic Ideas About the Past

    Myth of pristine Amazon rainforest busted as old cities reappear

    Fred Pearce New Scientist
    Thu, 23 Jul 2015 00:00 UTC


    Dreamscape: the Amazon was once lined with fields and plazas © Mario Tama/Getty

    The first Europeans to penetrate the Amazon rainforests reported cities, roads and fertile fields along the banks of its major rivers. "There was one town that stretched for 15 miles without any space from house to house, which was a marvellous thing to behold," wrote Gaspar de Carvajal, chronicler of explorer and conquistador Francisco de Orellana in 1542. "The land is as fertile and as normal in appearance as our Spain."

    Such tales were long dismissed as fantasies, not least because teeming cities were never seen or talked about again. But it now seems the chroniclers were right all along. It is our modern vision of a pristine rainforest wilderness that turns out to be the dream.

    What is today one of the largest tracts of rainforest in the world was, until little more than 500 years ago, a landscape dominated by human activity, according to a review of the evidence by Charles Clement of Brazil's National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, and his colleagues.

    After Europeans showed up, the inhabitants were decimated by disease and superior weaponry, and retreated into the bush, while the jungle reclaimed their fields and plazas. But, thanks to a combination of deforestation and remote sensing, what's left of their civilisation is now re-emerging.

    They reveal an anthropogenically modified Amazonia before the European conquest. "Few if any pristine landscapes remained in 1492," says Clement. "Many present Amazon forests, while seemingly natural, are domesticated."

    Amazon domesticity
    The evidence for this radical rethink has been stacking up for some time. Archaeologists have uncovered dense urban centres that would have been home to up to 10,000 inhabitants along riverbanks, with fields and cultivated orchards of Brazil nuts, palm and fruit trees stretching for tens of kilometres. Remote sensing has revealed extensive earthworks, including cities, causeways, canals, graveyards and huge areas of ridged fields that kept crops like manioc, maize and squash clear of floods and frosts.

    Meanwhile, agriculturalists have discovered that many forest soils have been mulched and composted with waste. These fertile "dark earths", or terra preta, may cover 150,000 square kilometres, much of it now reclaimed by rainforests. Before the arrival of Europeans, the region's population may have reached 50 million.

    The remains date back 3000 years or more, say the authors, who include geographer William Denevan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and anthropologist Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida at Gainesville - both pioneers of the idea that the Amazon has long been modified by humans.

    Not everyone agrees. Dolores Piperno of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama recently argued that "recent investigations of soils in parts of the western Amazon... found little vegetation disturbance."

    Clement and his co-authors agree that
    "the idea of a domesticated Amazonia... contrasts strongly with reports of empty forests, which continue to captivate scientific and popular media".
    But the idea of a domesticated Amazon complements research in other rainforest regions, including the Congo basin and South-East Asia, that also suggest that much of what seems pristine is actually regrowth after dense human occupation. Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, says such evidence suggests that we should be dating the start of the Anthropocene - the era of human domination of the planet - to thousands of years ago rather than in the middle of 20th century.

    Journal reference: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2015.0813

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    Default Re: Debunking Romantic Ideas About the Past

    I’m not sure if this is a “romantic” idea of the past but it does concern the skewed modern idea of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and our wrong ideas about science, philosophy, magic and religion.

    Quote A Categorical Mistake: ‘Science’, ‘Magic’ and ‘Religion’ in the Middle Ages.
    By Joanne Edge
    August 13, 2019

    Dr. Joanne Edge specialises in late-medieval and early modern European social and cultural history, with an emphasis on medicine and the ‘occult’ sciences: divination, magic and astrology. She did her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at the University of London, and held a four-year postdoctoral position as Assistant Editor on the Casebooks Project at the University of Cambridge. She is currently Latin Manuscripts Cataloguer at the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester.

    The last two decades have seen the rise of the Irritating STEM Bro.™ Two well-known examples are Neil deGrasse Tyson and Steven Pinker: Great Men from Important Science Backgrounds who blithely talk and write about the history of their topic as if they are expertly qualified polymaths. Both use the word ‘medieval’ pejoratively, and see the history of science as an inexorable, teleological march of progress from the fantastic Classical Period to the Terrible Medieval Dark Ages and then woo Renaissance! And then things gradually getting better and better until hurrah! We are enlightened and clever in the 21st century!

    Quite simply, though, this is insulting, ahistorical nonsense. The problem, which Irritating STEM Bros™ don’t understand – or more likely don’t want to acknowledge – is that our modern categories of ‘science’, ‘religion’, and ‘magic’ do not map in any meaningful way onto the medieval period. So let’s first examine this problem of categories.

    Anachronistic Misnomers

    ‘Scientia’ in medieval Latin simply meant ‘knowledge’: the investigation of the material world and its properties was called ‘natural philosophy’. So ‘medieval science’ is a difficult concept for starters. To be ‘religious’ in the Middle Ages was to be a member of a monastic order, and the opposite of this was ‘secular’. The very idea of being religious in the modern sense was only really conceived of when there was a widespread idea of not being religious ­–we have the 19th century to thank for this meaning of the word.

    Moreover, ‘theology’ and ‘philosophy’ were not separate disciplines at this time. The framework of Western European thought in the Middle Ages was largely one of Christianity combined with ancient philosophy (Aristotle being the most significant), which had been transmitted to the Middle Ages largely via the Greco-Arabic translations of the 12th century. So: medieval thinkers did not conceive of what we call ‘religion’ and what we call ‘science’ as separate, mutually exclusive categories.

    Let’s move on then, to ‘magic’. If there was ever a ‘Humpty Dumpty’ word, magic would be it:
    “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass).
    So what did it mean? It depends who you ask. Medieval thinkers and writers used several Latin words to mean the sort of practices we might deem occult – sortilege, superstitio, magia and more. But those practising such impermissible arts might think they were acting as perfectly pious Christians, and magic rituals often included invocations to God or angels. How were these invocations different to orthodox prayers to God? I could spend hours trying to define medieval magic without getting anywhere: not one definition is completely satisfactory.

    There are also significant overlaps between ‘magic’ and ‘science’ in the Middle Ages – a good example being astrology. Was this legitimate science based on logical principles of the observation of the heavens, or an illicit act of divination that operated via the meddling of demons? Again, it would depend who you asked.

    So: what we call ‘religion’, ‘magic’ and ‘science’ were not separate categories (or even necessarily concepts) in the Middle Ages.

    Let’s now take a look at where the Irritating STEM Bros™ get it – probably wilfully – wrong.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ‘Alternative History’

    Tyson notoriously likes to refer to the irrational, religious, superstitious ‘Dark Ages’ as a counterpoint to the rational, scientific, logical world of modern science. Here’s one example: in January 2016, Tyson tweeted that the idea of a round earth was “lost to the Dark Ages”:



    This is categorically untrue. But even if medieval thinkers had thought the earth was flat, that would have been OK: the idea that we only value what people in the past ‘got right’ is part of the same problem. In fact, the medievals-as-flat-earthers idea was one of the many myths started and perpetuated in the 19th century: medieval philosophers generally conceived of a round earth. There’s even a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to this exact topic which is broadly accurate. But something tells me Tyson chooses to ignore it because it this doesn’t fit with his narrative of irrational, superstitious Middle Ages.

    The Middle Ages didn’t espouse one monolithic set of values or ideas (as I often tell my students, medieval people didn’t share a brain). The word ‘medieval’ itself is anachronistic: a term applied retrospectively by Renaissance thinkers onwards to indicate a time that was neither ‘Classical’ nor ‘Renaissance’ but ‘in the middle’ – a time where ‘progress’ ended and the ‘discoveries’ of the Classical world could be continued after a time of stagnation. How Renaissance and later thinkers conceived of and used the Middle Ages, as a contrast to their own time is interesting in terms of what it says about them and their own times. But it’s not something appropriate for Tyson and his contemporaries to do.

    On the other hand, it is jaw-droppingly arrogant to assume that modern science has everything sorted out, just fine, and that we’re heading for further, linear progress. That’s not to say that as a disabled person I’m not glad for the medication and therapy that I’ve been able to access thanks to evidence-based medicine and randomised double-blind trials: just that we must place ourselves in our own context just as we must those in the past. Tyson does himself and his subject no favours by continuing to represent what is complex as simple.

    Steven Pinker’s Religion of Progress

    Psychologist Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined has as its central thesis the idea that violence has declined over time, and that we now live in the most peaceful era yet. This is, he tells us, due to five main developments: the monopolisation on the use of force by the judiciary stemming from the rise of the modern nation-state (as expressed in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan of the mid-17th century); commerce, feminisation, cosmopolitanism and the ‘escalator of reason’.

    It’s this last factor, which is of most interest here, this ‘escalator of reason’ which says that we now apply ‘rationality’ to human affairs. This, Pinker tells us, means there’s less violence in modern society than there was because we’re more rational. And he’s not shy to use the Awful Irrational Medieval Dark Ages as a counterpoint to the Brilliant Post-Enlightenment Modern Times of Awesome.

    But are we more rational than our medieval counterparts? What does ‘rational’ even mean?

    People in the past were in general no less ‘stupid’ or ‘clever’ than we are. Medieval thinkers were certainly as rational as modern ones, if we consider that they worked from a different set of assumptions from our own.

    For example, let’s return to astrology, in the later Middle Ages widely considered to be a sophisticated way of making sense of the cosmos and of mundane life. If you accept the central tenet of astrology – that the position of the heavens has an effect on worldly matters – then astrology is perfectly ‘rational’. It works according to its own internal, very complex rules. Of course not every medieval thinker believed fully in astrology and there were several contemporary sceptics including John of Salisbury (c. 1115-1180) and Nicole Oresme (c. 1320-1382). Seeing the effect the moon had on the tides, and apparently on menstruation, was very visible, tangible evidence of the effect of the planets on the mundane world.


    Astronomical tables for working out the best times for bloodletting from a folding almanac. BL Harley 5311, leaf H (made in 1406): (f. 5r here). Image credit: British Library, London.

    And what about medieval medicine, often reduced in the media to dung poultices, leeches and witchcraft? The orthodox medicine of the Middle Ages was basically the orthodox medicine of antiquity, based on the teachings of Hippocrates and Galen. And while it certainly doesn’t resemble anything that we might think would ‘work’ for our ailments today, it was based on the notion of humoral theory, which followed logical principles: that the body’s four ‘humours’ – blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile – all had to be kept in balance for the body to be healthy.

    This is why bloodletting and laxatives were such common treatments for illness and not in fact the irrational practices of superstitious people. So, if you accept the basic humoral framework, then humoral medicine is ‘rational’. Many medieval writers and practitioners followed a range of medical practice alongside humoral theory, as evidenced from surviving manuscripts. These ranged from tried and tested remedies to occult magic. Humoral theory was just one mode of thought, though the dominant one among educated elites.


    A physician letting blood. BL Sloane 2435 f. 11v, (produced in northern France c. 1285). Image credit: British Library, London.

    Pinker’s entire book is a case for the modern era, a panegyric to what he sees as ‘progress’, and a build up to his 2016 work, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress which of course follows the same thesis: the Enlightenment was brilliant and everything is better now than it was before. But this is simplistic rubbish. Pinker does exactly what he accuses medieval thinkers of – not relying on rigorous evidence. He cherry picks evidence, which suits his thesis and quotes historians of the Enlightenment out of context to back his over-simplistic teleological narrative.

    Pinker and Tyson see ‘science’ and ‘religion’ (which they seem to conflate with ‘magic’) as immutable, separate categories that can never intertwine. But as I hope I’ve shown, the truth is far more complex than that, and we do our medieval ancestors a profound disservice by blanketly dismissing them and their practices as ‘irrational’ and ‘superstitious’.

    What is interesting about the Middle Ages is precisely how different it was to our own time yet also how similar. And it is finding the familiar in the alien – the internal logic of astrology, for example – that makes this topic endlessly fascinating. Tyson and Pinker take what is interesting and ask all the wrong questions. Was there science in the Middle Ages? No, not as we would know it today. But many medieval modes of thinking conformed to their own internal logic: a logic based on quite a different framework to our own.

    © 2019 Joanne Edge
    From: https://www.forbiddenhistories.com/j..._vs_stem_bros/
    *I have loved the stars too dearly to be fearful of the night*

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    Default Re: Debunking Romantic Ideas About the Past

    Pinker and tyson are just one of a long line of historical commentators who view the past through a modern world view. As pointed out terms such as "science" and "occult" become meaningless when applied to pre modernistic cultures. They are the invention of a society obsessed with taking inventories and making classifications.

    I was lucky to study this and similar topics under professor John Brooke of Lancaster University in the UK. For those interested his work "Science and Religion some historical perspectives" Cambridge press is the definitive work on the subject.

    Kind Regards
    Gerard

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    Default Re: Debunking Romantic Ideas About the Past

    Quick caveat, Professor Brooke's work dispels the myth that science and religion are, and have always been in conflict. On the contrary science and religion have always shared a dynamic mutually enriching relationship. It was the late 19th centuary western belief systems that created and retrospectively projected an interpretation of conflict.

    Kind regards
    Gerard

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