A Really Useful Interpretive Lens
Sherry’s new artwork on our wall.
What I’m Reading
I finally finished The Secret of Our Success, Joseph Henrich’s explanation of his theory about, well, the secret of our success as a species. As I understood it, his argument is essentially that:
- Humans are uniquely evolved to be a cultural species (we learn from other humans, and these learnings persist across generations).
- The success of cultural learning has driven genetic evolution, by increasing the size of our brains and so on, and not the other way around.
- Culture itself evolves.
All of which does sound, well, obvious when you lay it out. But when laid out like Henrich does, it really becomes a useful interpretive lens. Why does menopause exist? Why do some people like spicy food and others don’t, and why is spicy food more common in tropical countries? Taboos? Pair bonding? The evolution of language? It also brings together some of my favorite anthropological ideas, namely that technology, institutions, and culture are all “really” the same thing and that it’s possible for them to be maladaptive or even lost. (As a side note, I first came across this idea in a scholarly monograph called Giving Up The Gun, which studied the history of firearms in Japan and how the techniques to produce them were almost completely lost after a brief period of intense popularity in the late sengoku and early Tokugawa periods, then suggested it would be possible to intentionally lose nuclear weapons technology in a similar way… which has, in fact, started to happen. Anyway, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with this idea ever since??)
In terms of a capsule review, I would note that though I found it mind-expanding, in the very best way, it’s also rather long and in some places boring—his arguments can be somewhat repetitive and aren’t always structured very elegantly. But I think it’s well worth almost anybody checking out—it’s easily one of my favourite books of the year so far.
Also these past two weeks was the critically acclaimed Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, by Camilla Townsend. I found I didn’t like it as well as I wanted to—it’s definitely very good, but it also felt very short (I think I read the whole thing in less than four hours?). To my surprise, it in many ways didn’t seem to have much to say from the Aztec perspective, since (as the appendix makes clear) there are very few sources from the time of the conquest. Of course, it’s not helped that the author jumps around through time and (to my disappointment) still focused primarily on the conquest, rather than the society being conquered; and her florid prose is ofttimes beautiful but just as often confusing. That being said, there are some interesting hooks here—Townsend places Malintzin, interpreter extraordinaire, front and center, promoting her as perhaps the most influential single person in the conquest, more so even than Cortes (come to think of it, is Malintzin the Iida to Cortes’ Marie Kondo???), as well as situating Nahutl (or, more specifically, Mexica) politics as hinging critically on polygny and the relative status of wives. (Actually, this ties somewhat to The Secret of Our Success, which points out that pair-bonding and relatively strict monogamy is essentially the modern global norm, and polygny is widely stigmatized and exotified, despite the fact that the vast majority of recorded human societies allowed polygny, at least for elites. The point he makes with this is that pair-bonding leads to stronger kin relationships, since fathers can identify their children and vice versa and children thus have kin relationships with both paternal and maternal relatives, which thus allows for larger social groupings and a higher degree of cultural evolution, not to mention it “domesticates” fathers and removes the high degree of intra-family competition seen in the Aztec case, and thus pair-bonding is arguably adaptive, hence why it’s taken over the world.) But on the other hand, she mostly sidelines Tlacaelel, who I had understood to be the principal architect of the Triple Alliance (aka the Aztec Empire)? But on the other other hand, she also lavishes time on figures like Chimalpahin and, with only a 4ish hour investment, I can’t say I didn’t get anything of value.
What I’m Listening To
This week (or maybe last week, I can’t remember) Flow State recommended a pair of albums collecting works by Michelle Mercure. They sound strangely modern to my ears, given they’re from the mid-80s—perfect little slices of dark, surreal electronica, like the Knife traveled back in time and jammed with YMO.
Related to the book of the week, I listened to Fall of Civilizations’ episode on the conquest of the Aztec empire. At 4 hours (!) it’s about as long as just reading Fifth Sun, but it’s interesting to compare and contrast what they each focus on (needless to say, Malintzin plays a much smaller role in his telling of the story).
An authentic fake 13th century Tuscan castle, complete with emus!