Whilst my agenda is more meta, more abstract, than most, I have been conscious of many others’ focus on the challenges / crises facing us in the every-day world. Poly-crises, omni-crisis, you name them and have settled recently on the meta-crisis prefix (after Rowson) for obvious reasons. What we call things, the names and terms we use, what we care about, matter far more than any objective definitions.
My abstract / meta interests is therefore deliberate and unashamed – a belief that our whole collective decision-making, individual and social (ie cybernetics or free-democratic governance) operates in an environment dominated by an embedded but misguided worldview. [You just have to look at the fake-furore around our illustrious (UK) PM “rowing back” on environmental commitments (not).]
I think this is why I stopped reading books to concentrate on writing (in theory anyway). A habit I got from my Dad – a cartographer by profession, rest his soul – was a fascination for browsing maps and atlases, old and new, from a very young age, and still to this day at every opportunity. Not just physical atlases, but Google Maps is a regular rabbit-hole for me. Any place reference in any text or news story – yes, even crimes and disasters – I tend to put it into Google Maps and browse around. I’ve been everywhere man – over and above the fact I am fortunately pretty well travelled in reality anyway. [Probably also why I have a topological / architectural view of anything I need to understand generally – but I already digress from my digression.]
Well, I mentioned I was reading Andrea Wulf’s Adventures of (Alexander von) Humboldt, the inventor of nature. Fascinating enough as a story and as a catalogue of people, ideas and historical events as I mentioned already. But the geography is inescapable, partly because it’s obviously the story of an 18th/19th C explorer of the natural world, and partly because of Humboldt’s use of his “Naturgemälde” paintings of geographical / topological views to capture the essence of nature in the world. Ecotopology maybe a word I need to coin?
As well as the Americas an important part of world geography that Humboldt explored was Russia, across Siberia as far west as the Altai mountains bordering Mongolia. That initially rang a bell for me about another book I’d read – which shall remain nameless for now, part of my Mother’s “U3A” Russian literature and culture course (*) – about a 20th C traveller amid the forests and rivers (and religion) of same region – the lower altitudes of the Altai. But it’s an even more tangled rabbit-hole. Wulf’s book has some modern low-detail maps in the front, to represent Humboldt’s travels. As my comment below that post – mentions, I was embarrassed that I didn’t already know how influential Humboldt had been on Darwin, and it turns out one of the points of Humboldt’s first hand experience that intrigued Darwin enough to follow-up and pursue – after he’d met him but couldn’t get a word in edgeways – was the eco-geography relationships either side of the “Obi” river in that region.
Well Obi is an alternate spelling of the “Ob” the major river that runs south to north right across the desolate wastes of Nebraska Siberia from it’s source in those Altai mountains to the Kara Sea of the Arctic Ocean – a subject that Hofstadter has used. But that’s another digression.
The rabbit-hole I went down was browsing Google Maps to “map” the points highlighted by Wulf on her maps of Humboldt’s 1829 itinerary. Useless facts which I now have at my fingertips include:
West from St Petersburg and Moscow, he went via Nizhny Novgorod (a place I have visited myself, and the home of Maxim Gorky)
West of Yekaterinburg (and Miass on his return East) where he travelled without his official government hosts, the only named towns (in 1829) were Tobolsk and Bernaul. The latter is on the Ob, but after he’d already crossed it a little further north – the point of interest to Darwin – which looks almost exactly the location of modern day Novosibirsk?
His last point before turning back was Baty (Barak Batyr) just SW of Ust-Kamenogorsk – both on / close to the Irtysh river, since dammed in the 20th C – and as far as he got into the foothills of the Altai late summer, when there was no chance of getting higher as autumn and winter approached.
Returning via Omsk, leaving the Irtysh to cut across the Kazakh steppes to Miass and then on to Orenburg on the Ural river then crossing to the Volga to reach Astrakhan on the northern Caspian shores (no mention of Volgograd, and no sign of Chelyabinsk either, close to both Yekaterinburg and Miass).
Was it worth it?
Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature – The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science” – is just too interesting to read and review right now. Back onto the shelves of the library of (half) unread books.
(*) The un-named book was Jens Mühling “A Journey Into Russia” (2012) and it also has a map in the front – sadly with all the detail in the glued crack between two pages (!). The key word here is “Taiga” – which just means natural “boreal” (northern) forest, but particularly here between the Steppes and the (Altai) Mountains. Much more cultural & religious focus than the physical geography, even further east beyond the Yenesei river towards Irkutsk. (For map enthusiasts the Lena river is fascinating. Relatively minor river in this southern Siberia region, arising in swampy land west of Lake Baikal, but not connected to that lake like the other larger local rivers, and yet like the Ob a mighty river flowing all the way south to north into the arctic.) Recommended story.
Anyway, I did finish Wulf before passing it on.
Here’s the full table of contents:
Part I. Departure : emerging ideas. Beginnings ; Imagination and nature : Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Humboldt ; In search of a destination
Part II. Arrival : collecting ideas. South America ; The llanos and the Orinoco ; Across the Andes ; Chimborazo ; Politics and nature : Thomas Jefferson and Humboldt
Part III. Return : sorting Ideas. Europe ; Berlin ; Paris ; Revolutions and nature : Simón Bolívar and Humboldt ; London ; Going in circles : maladie centrifuge
Part IV. Influence : spreading ideas. Return to Berlin ; Russia ; Evolution and nature : Charles Darwin and Humboldt ; Humboldt’s Cosmos ; Poetry, science and nature : Henry David Thoreau and Humboldt
Part V. New worlds : evolving ideas. The greatest man since the deluge ; Man and nature : George Perkins Marsh and Humboldt ; Art, ecology and nature : Ernst Haeckel and Humboldt ; Preservation and nature : John Muir and Humboldt.
Loved the sections on Emerson and Thoreau and on Humboldt’s Cosmos. Sadly Part V Man and Nature, on Marsh, Haeckel and Muir and the Epilogue were just a bit too 21st C “green activist” politically motivated for me.
Humboldt obviously very important and influential and no mystery why “modern” western science has (wrongly) chosen to to forget him – too holistic and transcendentally enlightened for the reductionist rationalist fashion. More grist to my mill.
It’s long been on my unread library list, in fact it’s one of the books that made me start that list a few years ago. Clearly an important book – but there are a lot of those and I can’t read them all – Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature – The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science”
One reason I practically stopped reading (books) was because I (now) have 3 (or 4) distinct (but entangled) writing projects and the last thing I need is more material. The prescription of Robert Pirsig’s psychotherapist, “Just write something!” was echoing in my head. But the entanglement has effectively stalled my writing (again) so I needed a break. A good read.
I recalled, as well as the excellent reviews, Wulf’s book had a beautiful cover, so 8 years after publication I got a good used “as new” copy of the original hardback. I’m glad I did.
So this is (as usual) a pre-review at about 1/3 through reading it.
Only negative thought so far is the heroic stylistic aspect. Clearly Wulf and her publisher had a fairly explicit 21st C green environmental political agenda in mind, so a lot of the summary statements are a little breathless hero-worship motivated to that end.
That said, he probably does deserve that valuation. A man ahead of his times. And the story, his story and the history, is full of fascinating detail – Europe before, during and after Napoleon, and the Americas before during and after Jefferson and Bolivar – all well told, readable and unputdownable. It actually has 135 pages of notes, references and index too, but the decision to use the non-intrusive page-numbered end-notes preserves the readability. The kind of book that will deserve multiple reads and referencing.
What do I think of it so far?
Unputdownable, but I’ve gone for the “reading sessions in public bars and cafes” so far. As ever, already three interruptions of the “what are you reading?” followed by “why?”. Two knew they knew the name Humboldt, and one knew his name is associated with several things – the University in Berlin, many biological species and many geographical features and locations. In fact one of the earliest things in the book is that fact, that his name has been given to many more things than any other person.
Mind-boggling list of people influenced by him in person and in his writings. Too many to list. I’ve mentioned two politicians already, but for now let’s add Verne, Goethe, Schelling, Thoreau, Emerson (say) and Darwin, the latter on whom Humboldt’s writings were formative, much referenced before, during and after his Voyages on the Beagle, including natural selection itself.
Empiricism Plus. The sense that knowing something, anything, involved one’s direct emotional subjective reaction to it as well as acquaintance with the objectively observable facts recurs in both Humboldt and his admirers. Count me in. The poetic, romantic language associated with this, together with the Prussian Napoleonic & Parisian people, places & events, put me in mind of the Russian classics, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and more.
One more feature, for this early pre-review, because whilst being a regular theme here, it has become very topical recently. A picture paints ten thousand words, or does it? [from 2002 & 1921]
Firstly, Humboldt’s work in several places actually uses “systems” language and the concept of “multiple views” of the same system, ontologies with multiple different kinds of taxonomies rather than a definitive taxonomy. Together with the Latin American revolutionary Bolivar connection this instantly put me in mind of Stafford Beer and his Cybersyn “Santiago Boys” … and I suspect this will become a bigger topic in later reviews.
But for now – the pictures?
Humboldt is famous for his “Naturgemälde” – nature paintings – embodying the alternative view(s) idea above, the most famous version being his placing the different forms of vegetation in zones from fluvial plains to mountain ice-caps, mapping the parallel between the (now) Ecuadorian volcano Chimborazo and other known landscapes around the world. A picture which paints a thousand words you might think?
Well no, firstly a topological / geographical graphic may indeed be better than a taxonomic tree (say) for the classification of vegetation in context. All models are wrong, but some are more useful than others. But secondly, when he came to publish his Naturgemälde in his major work “Views of Nature” which included the essay “On the Geography of Plants“, not only does the picture itself contain many hundreds of small-print words of names within the content and annotations within the geographical / altitudinal / latitudinal keys, it was also:
“underpinned [by thousands more words] with more details and explanations, adding page after page of tables, statistics and sources.”
The picture needed many words to be understood and (as I’ve opined many times before) the picture only symbolically conjures up those thousand words after they’ve been understood. (Equally well the picture conjures up any outstanding misunderstandings too. The picture says what you understand it says.)
Views are about organisationof presentation of information and Humboldt’s work includes many impressive illustrations of many kinds.
Some of you will know that a lot of my current writing is directed at framing the “systems thinking” problem / solution as more formal research, but notwithstanding that, the thinking and writing continues.
Recently I framed this as “Where Next With Iain McGilchrist?” Iain has characterised the situation as well as anyone, but stopped frustratingly short of the “so what” does a world-scale solution / improvement look like?
“Prefixing the World –
why the polycrisis is a permacrisis, which is actually a metacrisis, which is not really a crisis at all.”
I’ve not digested the whole, but I did respond to his direct questions:
Q1: Do the world’s problems have an underlying/overarching/inherent cause that we might do something about?
A1: YES, one underlying problem – to do with our (individual and collective) decision-making rationality – but as you suggest more meta than specifically relatable to each “crisis”.
Q2: Do the main ways that those with political and economic power currently try to solve problems (policy, regulation, trade, technology, economic growth) tend to make those problems worse?
A2: YES (and no) – the problem above – we including our political executive peers are held to account by us and by our press suffering the same meta-problem above, it’s the knowledge ecosystem in which we (all) operate. – (even if we / they individually have more creative flair).
Q3: Is there reason to think our historical moment is qualitatively distinct from other historical moments in a way that calls for a fundamental shift in our relationship to reality?
A3: NO – more a matter of degree with the multiplying factor of mass (ubiquitous and instant) electronic communications. Same problem really existed since “the enlightenment” but much slower / mediated dialogue. But YES- we therefore have to take issue with the meta-problem, adopt the better world-view directly, head-on rather than assume / hope common sense will automatically prevail (it won’t).
Q4: Should we take care to ensure that the terminology we choose to distil the essence of our global situation is as accurate and edifying as it possibly can be?
A4: YES – but this is more to do with “care” than tight “definitions” – we won’t simply be able to create neologisms or new definitions of old words that automatically escapes the baggage of old thinking. It’s why I see the solution more like evolving a better knowledge (and communications) ecosystem.
Q5: Is there something about the very idea of crisis that militates against the kinds of transformation we now need?
A5: OH YES! – I think this is key. The reason for Douglas Adams “Don’t Panic”. I’ve made myself unpopular with some “activist” groups by suggesting that their making everything critically urgent is a major part of the problem. If we rush to perceived solutions in this world of here and now, we miss out the meta-level where the real problem lies. And make THAT problem even more intractable.
Although I’ve not digested the whole of Jonathan’s thoughts, do have a read yourself and answer his questions, and give him/us any other feedback.
He does (as he has before) also mention the influence of Robert Pirsig’s thoughts on his work too.
Wonderful short dialogue between Iain McGilchrist and Hilary Lawson recorded at the spring 2023 “How The Light Gets In” in Hay on Wye earlier this year. Seen and listened to (and talked with) them both at previous HTLGI’s but was unable to attend this year’s. So glad this 17 minutes was recorded for us all.
So good I don’t want to summarise it, but wonderful honest confluence of what it is that we “know” and the idea of something “sacred” and real beyond naïve objective reductionism. Wonderful.
Left or right brain, we must be sceptical, but not to the point of paralysis.
I should add – “The Sacred” has already become the core new issue in McGilchrist’s recent TMWT, over and above his original hemispheric thesis in TMAHE. I pulled “The Sacred” out of this very explicitly a year ago. As Iain notes early in the dialogue above (and has acknowledged in many conversations since publication) he was advised by his scientific “friends” NOT to include this chapter, but of course chose to retain it precisely because of its central significance. As he says, most pushback has come from Christians, not scientists.
And from the same event above, the 30 minute dialogue between Iain McGilchrist and Rowan Williams. They’ve interacted many times before – on the nature of reality, as the scientist said to the archbishop – also worth a listen, especially if you’re sceptical of the possible presence (or not) of a (Christian) God-shaped hole in proceedings.
“Active” processes and “Inference” in multivariate “systems” context. And “affordances” and “interfaces”. All the words if not the specific “Act-Inf” topic.
“Illusionism” in the “not in this illusory sense” sense. Not suggesting it (free-will, say) is not real, just that some of our perceptions of it are illusory. Exactly like Dennett in fact, Kevin 🙂
“Care” and “Trust”. The former being the topic of this event.
Individual choice as part of wider socio-political cybernetics.
Processes, relations and relational-properties rather than substance-object metaphysics / ontology. (Mike Levin is a Whiteheadian.)
Flow of time in fuzzy “quantum” in-/under-determinate futureand fixed “classical” past– with the present as the just-in-time reality of nowin “interaction” – Bergsson and Whitehead >>> Madness? (In the realisation of none-substance-reality – a pathology – eg in smug / militant atheism. Also – genetics of psychiatric illness related too.)
Reductive, mechanistic, substantive science has held sway 1920’s to 202o’s, but process (holistic systems) view including the “subjectivity” is coming back. Systems level tools and computations now available to scientists.
I’ve been a fan of Iain’s since his “The Master and His Emissary” (in 2011) and meeting him at How The Light Gets In (in 2014). Weirdly I never actually wrote a review of TMAHE despite frequently referring to his thesis throughout that period until the very useful RSA video summary was created (in 2012).
Later when “The Matter With Things” came out (in 2021) there was much more public excitement, not just the book itself, but discussion groups (official and unofficial), and a regular string of speaking (podcast) engagements for Iain, which continues to this day.
What regularly amazes is me is how few of his interviewers have actually read (the whole of) TMWT and yet already feel an affinity with their own agendas. Many have maybe only seen the RSA Animation and not even read TMAHE. They always start with the obligatory – “Why don’t you give us the (long) elevator pitch version of your thesis, Iain?” So we have many versions of that.
Despite / except for the efforts of Perspectiva, the publishers of TMTW, to host creative sessions – “attention as a moral act” & “the McGilchrist manouvre” for example – so few activities around Iain’s work get to the so what … should we doing differently in the wider real world? Simply lots of reinforcement of Iain’s problem description converging with the agendas and analyses of so many others. #NothingNewUnderTheSun as I often disparagingly remark – this is ancient wisdom backed by modern neuroscience. We know already – but so what – is the frustration. Mine anyway.
This latest podcast from Nate Hagans is no different. I haven’t captured many others in the past year or so, for the reasons above, but it serves to illustrate the genre – illustration, not a recommendation notice.
[Hold that thought – If I had to guess, I’d say it’s the sacred / god bit that has stalled things. There’s an American religious conservatism that is simply comfortable with the fit between their religious sensitivities – a magisterium – and a distinct, otherwise scientific, worldview. I still see natural philosophy unifying the whole, with the magisteria simply being views. Stalled because generally scientists without that religious or theological sensibility are steering clear of the so-what.]
We saw The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh on Friday night at the Duke of York in London’s West End. Was originally intrigued by the plaudits (*) that Lily Allen was getting – already a long-term fan of hers – and noted Steve Pemberton and Paul Kaye in the cast. What’s not to like?
Tweeted these two thoughts so far:
“Saw this at the weekend. Fantastic production, dynamic sets, light and sound. Enormous role for @lilyallen on stage throughout, narrating other parts as well as her own, written originally for male lead. Gruesome plot played for laughs. Awesome.”
“Only criticism – of the play itself – long final scene of the first half, as dialogue between the lead and brother to fill the audience in on the real back-story felt a bit clumsy, unnecessarily explicit and shouty. But overall plenty of twists between good and evil.”
And the “horror B-movie” aesthetic is obviously complemented by the “Number 9” allusion of having Steve Pemberton playing the least deranged cast member (or is he?), as well as the set, sound & light design.
The exaggeration for laughs includes Lily / K.K.Katurian very obviously stressing “little boy” when narrating her own earlier life scenes, a child cast tableau member made-up to look like a grinning, early blonde version of Lily. Full of knowing references – the good-cop / bad-cop routine, the Pied Piper of Hamelin, etc, some more explicit than others.
And more spoiler, as that review suggests, the exaggerated non-PC stereo-typing includes references to “jew-boy” and “spastic / retard” and the like in the authoritarian police-state context. All adds to the discomfort of what is already a disturbing multiple child-abuse and murder story line. Well done, but not for the faint-hearted.
Not just the obvious life imitating art thread, but being able to distinguish between the point, the moral, the author’s intention in any given tale and the evil content explicitly depicted and described, and the fact that children, police and dimwits (and theatre critics) might not spot the difference. (Topical in our times of woke cancellation et al?)
Run ends in about a week, but worth looking out for in future.
(*) I say personal “plaudits” because that’s what I saw, but it’s clear some of the negative press reaction was to the play itself – per Theatre News above – and to the whole “cynical” idea of a production with a “pop-star” instead of a “qualified” actress. Not perfect, but very good, I say. I admire Lily for her smarts – I barely knew her as an artist until after I’d heard her speak.