January 10th, 2006

[BRIEF NOTE] Interfertility in the human diaspora

Reading up about the Stargate universe, that the various human cultures encountered by Stargate SG-1 in the Milky Way Galaxy and Stargate Atlantis in the Perseus Galaxy are of relatively recent Earth stock, the ancestors of these offshoot races having been removed only tens of thousands of years ago. While fans of the shows may well know otherwise (schizmatic? of_evangeline?), it does seem safe to conclude that these offshoot human races are capable of producing children with we Tau'ri of Earth without external intervention, that they aren't new species. Given the states of some of the worlds I've seen on the show, in fact, probably the only thing preventing a mass influx of human refugees to Earth and their biological assimilation into the Tau'ri population is the shock of revealing, to all and sundry, that a vastly ancient and broadly superior civilization capable of intergalactic travel had been enslaving human beings for millennia.

Compare this to the situation in the Traveller role-playing game, where humans are ubiquitous. In the game's present, scientists have identified at least forty different human subspecies, all but the Solomani of Earth deposited carelessly on dozens of different worlds by the Ancients three hundred thousand years ago before Grandfather began hunting down his children. Most of these human subspecies are classified as minor human races, never having developed into proper independent faster-than-light-capable civilizations. The three major human races--the Vilani, the Zhodani, and we Solomani--are overwhelmingly dominant, each of the major races having done its best to assimilate the dependent minor races littering the space near their empires.

The only problem with the Traveller scenario is that it can't work. Stargate's humans were separated from Earth tens of thousands of years ago at most, with a good deal of intercourse--literally and otherwise--between the different human populations into Earth-historical times. Going back thirty thousand years into human evolutionary history, we find the Neanderthal, a human subspecies that only became extinct at the end of the most recent Ice Age. Could Neanderthals have interbred with humans? Preliminary DNA tests suggest that they didn't leave a trace in the human gene pool. Traveller's human subspecies, most unlike those of Stargate, did not maintain a tenuous genetic intermingling before the dawn of the modern empires. Thus, there should be no Solomani/Vilani mixed populations.

Traveller was a game of the late 1970. This, and perhaps the McGuffin of genetic engineering of some kind by the Ancients, explains these anomalies. There's no excuse for 21st century types who take Traveller's assumptions at face value, though.
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[LINK] Porcelain, the 18th century's plastic

lord_whimsy's very readable account of his interest in Sèvres porcelain brought to mind my memories of my April 2003 visit to the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art. The exhibits concentrated on exploring the sheer novelty of porcelain in the 18th century context, as a superior Asian technology initially beyond European manufacturing skills, even after massive government-sponsored research-and-development projects in England, France, and the larger German states. Once porcelain technology was cracked, goods made of the durable and easy-to-clean material became ubiquitous. If many porcelain goods tended to be artistically naive and mawkish, well, what did we do with plastic?
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    Gwen Stefani, "The Real Thing"

[BRIEF NOTE] Islam's not the problem; public religion, now ...

I find myself frustrated by the flaw in neoconjames' logic occasioned by his referencing of Spengler's latest Asia Times article, this one on the alleged implausibility of an Islamic Reformation. The fault isn't his alone, mind, since the whole lazy rhetoric about Islam's need for a Protestant Reformation ignores completely the intensification of religious violence that followed the Reformation, culminating in the deaths of a third of the central European population. Do we really want to depopulate the Middle East?

A thought: The Middle East's problem isn't Islam, not nearly so much as it is the region's lack of democratically-responsible secular states, those marvellous entities pioneered by modern France which kept preventing relgiious conservatives, traditionalists, and neo-traditionalists from dominating the public sphere in such a way as to deny individuals free choice. It isn't the Middle East's particular Abrahamic religion, in other words, so much as it is the totalitarian tendencies of religions ensconced in positions of power. Forget about messing with the theology and just set about to preventing that theology's dominance.


[REVIEW] Roger Howard, Iran in Crisis? Nuclear Ambitions and the American Response

Roger Howard's Iran in Crisis? Nuclear Ambitions and the American Response, excerpted here at The Iranian, is a very readable critical overview of the Iranian situation, apart from some embarrassing proofreading errors. That said, the readability can't correspond to any sort of comforting appraisal of the likely outcomes in Iran. The political system may be increasingly unrepresentative and unresponsive to democratic oversight, the economic system dominated by inefficient capital-intensive state sector that contributes to growing mass emigration, and Iran's nuclear ambitions impossible to counteract, but Howard makes the case that enough things are going well for the Islamic Republic for it to continue to remain in power. Current American strategies of confrontation just can't exert enough pressure on Iran, while more aggressive strategies like a direct military confrontation or support for the Mujahedeen e-Khalq would just inflame Iranian nationalism and discredit the United States. The only hope that Howard holds out is in the sort of realpolitik that has let the Islamic Republic be selectively pragmatic in its choice of foreign partners, as when it hired Israeli technicians to maintain its air force in the Iran-Iraq War or when it bought advanced military technology from the Soviet Union, or indeed with its constructive support for post-invasion Afghanistan and Iraq. If not, Howard suggests that things could easily spiral out of control.

[REVIEW} Mark Abley, Spoken Here

Mark Abley's Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages is an interesting counterpoint to Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word. Ostler explored the winners in the global competition between languages, the ways in which a language's association with cultural prestige or economic acumen or political-military might encourage or discouraged its spread. Abley is concerned with the losers of this contest, the ones faced with more-or-less imminent language death.

Abley's survey of some of the more prominent of the world's threatened languages, their prospects, and their supporters got a good deal of attention when it was first published. This is plausible enough, given how the 20th century is the century in which the monolithic mass nationalisms and empires of the world broke down to reveal the minority cultures long hidden under an artificially homogenized political façade, when anthropologists and linguists demonstrated the continued value of disvalued languages. By the time that people came to this realization, though, the processes of language death were well-advanced. Throughout his travels, Abley comes across language activists--speakers of Provençal, Welsh, Mohawk, Manx, Yiddish, other languages--who are faced with the legacies a shift of a language's community of speakers to the locally dominant language. The prospects of full-fledged language revival are, too frequently, rare.

Spoken Here is quite right to conclude by noting the importance of minority languages' continued vitality, as a measure of cultural and political diversity. What Abley doesn't note is that the languages which have experienced a revival or expansion in use--Hebrew and Welsh described in his book, Catalan and Québécois French outside--have done so only because they have adopted the model of language planning traditional to the nation-state: demarcating a territory, making the language's use mandatory, encouraging mass education in and through this language in the territory's population. The inability of a Montréal Yiddishist to note that French in Québec is retaining its current speakers and acquiring new ones only because of an active and popular government policy, even as she bemoans the decline of Yiddish as a vernacular language among the Jews of that most active Diaspora Yiddish community, is telling. Languages can only thrive when people make them thrive. If you can't, as Abley documents, then they will die.
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