Sunday, January 31, 2016

Great Maps by Jerry Brotton.

In this modern era, we have learned to see maps as directional guides accurately depicting locations of, and distances between, point A and point B. But throughout history, this use has not always been the norm. Jerry Brotton is Professor of Renaissance Studies at London’s Queen Mary University. He discusses maps as “a graphic representation that presents a spatial understanding of things, concepts or events in the human world.” When one looks at Brotton’s chosen maps, one quickly sees his point. A medieval European map, circa 1300 AD, shows Jerusalem at its center, Central Asia as populated by cannibals, and Africa as a significantly smaller continent populated by mythical animals and people. It even provides a physical location for the Garden of Eden, at northernmost point in the world. Christ is represented “At the top of the map, outside terrestrial time and space.” (Brotton, pp. 58-9). This representation reveals a medieval culture where Christianity was central and understanding of other peoples or places outside Europe was limited. Brotton presents a wide array of designs from Europe to China; from Paleolithic petroglyphs knapped onto outcroppings to Google Earth. In each, he examines what the cartographer is trying to say about the world, given her social, political or cultural perspective.

While insights are important, this is a book of visual displays. It is an opportunity for the eye as well as the mind. Both author and publisher reveal an understanding of this in their selected layout. Great Maps is a colorful, high gloss, large format (10 inch by 12 inch) presentation of attractive images. Its sixty-four maps represent the aesthetic values of numerous cultures. There is even a map that hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. (Brotton, p. 232). Individual examples are given a two-page canvas, permitting the widest possible view of the topic. This view is followed by another two-page “visual tour” where Professor Brotton highlights interesting portions on the map and what they reveal. This variety and format encourages a reader to set aside time for the quiet enjoyment of a slow, relaxed perusal.

Brotton’s analysis is socio-politically progressive, as represented by some of his selections. Henry Schenck Tanner’s 1839 “Indian Territory” map was “consulted by the US Congress as they planned the various stages of Native American removal.” Today it is a useful chronicle of stolen land. (Brotton, p. 190). Edwin Hergesheimer, an abolitionist, created a US slave population map, showing the distribution of the United States’ 4 million slaves in 1861. (Brotton, p. 194). Charles Booth’s 1898 cartogram of London contains color-coding which shows income levels in the city’s neighborhoods, designed to reveal the extent of poverty. (Brotton, p. 204). David Livingstone’s 1873 Map of Africa is presented in context of the “Scramble for Africa” by European powers. (Brotton, p. 201). Many exploration maps were commissioned by businesses or governments, intending to exploit the land and resources of others. As beautiful as the maps are, they often represent less-than-beautiful aspects of human behavior.

There are some notable scholarly lapses contained in this volume.  In his discussion of Portolan Charts (illustrations for sailing that show shorelines and ports), Brotton states that it is “almost as though the technique for producing this kind of chart emerged out of nowhere.” (Brotton, p. 53). History is a discipline dedicated to uncovering the trajectory of human development. Saying that a technology appears to have emerged out of nowhere, does not substitute for the responsibility of presenting what we do know about its origins. Later, the author describes surgeon and cartographer John Snow as “pioneering the use of surgical anesthesia.” (Brotton, p. 193). This is a careless statement that leads one to believe that Snow introduced this innovation. Anesthesia has a history that pre-dates Snow by 300 years. Paracelsus first experimented with Ether on animals in 1525. Regarding Snow’s chosen substance, Chloroform, Francis Brodie Imlach was using it on patients six years before our cartographer used it with Queen Victoria. In both the example of Portolan Charts and that of John Snow, more patient research should have been employed.

The area where Brotton excels is as a tour guide for these maps. He has spent a great deal of time examining them quadrant by quadrant. His “visual tour” sections help make sense of complex designs, revealing what is important. Many of the maps do not conform to the style of a modern atlas. These can be disorienting to the novice. Brotton’s expert navigation is useful in such circumstances.


Brotton, Jerry. Great Maps. New York: DK Publishing, 2014.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

From Wiesel to Burundi. Biology and Genocide Prevention.

“People wanted to understand…what had paved the way for Auschwitz. Explanations alternated with theories involving everything from politics to mass psychosis; none proved adequate…Twenty-five years later, after the reckoning, one feels discouragement and shame. The balance sheet is disheartening...Nothing has been learned; Auschwitz has not even served as a warning. For more detailed information, consult your daily newspaper” (Wiesel, pp 6-9).

When I read the above commentary by Elie Wiesel in December of 2015, Burundi had recently devolved into a crisis of ethnic conflict and genocide. Clearly we have not learned as much as we need to, in order to avert such atrocities. Much of our inability to change our approach to these situations results from continuing to believe outdated ideas about human nature. Ideas that existed in 1965 when Elie Wiesel first wrote those, disconsolate words.

In the early 1960s, our approach to human nature was psychological. Behaviorism was the dominant school of thought. The world was understood as alterable through education, cooperation, rational policy and positive reinforcement. Since then, our scientific community has come to respect the force of our own biology. A biology that has permitted us to survive and proliferate by selfishly using, consuming or murdering anything that was not us. We evolved, over millions of years, from a mindless organism with a mouth, to a creature with a complex brain. We used that brain in service to our goal of reproduction: creating tools; creating beliefs and ideologies that explained and supported what we were doing. To those of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose cultures most successfully dominated Western politics and world empires during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, God placed us on this earth and gave us dominion. Nature was to be tamed. Inferior peoples were to be conquered so that we might either eliminate the inferior culture or, if we were feeling benevolent, permit those inferiors to live under our authority and benefit from our superior ways.

But Wiesel was a memoir writer and a philosopher, not a biologist. He did not see that we are two prehensile toes away from being that baboon-like ancestor who climbed down from the trees, evolved to stand and began to use its hands to fight for its life. Though our biology is not all that we are, in the context of genocide it is the best explanation I have found for our behavior. Our failure to come to terms with our animal nature, a discomfort we have felt since Darwin took us out of Eden and placed us on a continuum of mammals, has permitted genocide to occur many times before and since the Holocaust. We keep thinking that we can civilize ourselves beyond a biological impulse that existed far before civilization. When we learn of an attempt to eradicate a people, our response is to educate and communicate sensitive plans for rehabilitation. But it happens again because the one thing we don’t do is face what we are. If we could add knowledge about our biological nature to our understanding of ourselves, we would have one more piece of information with which to work.

Perhaps then the world would be willing to take measures to tame our inner animal. Endless dialogue with murderers, or carrot-and-stick diplomacy, might take a second place to immediate protective action. Perhaps the UN would authorize the creation of a rapid response force that could go anywhere in the world it was necessary to defend a threatened people.

We are both our intellectual and our biological natures. Education has worked wonders in Germany concerning the Holocaust and cultural sensitivity, but this is after the fact of genocide. Asking the Khmer Rouge of the 1970s to hold hands around a campfire with urban Cambodians for a sing-along would not have worked. What did work was the violent intervention of the Vietnamese Army. Education can come afterward.

A UN force dedicated to such a tactic in Burundi could have halted their genocidal course. But can we overcome our own selfish genes enough to agree on this approach? A majority of world nations would have to agree to spend a great deal of time, resources and money on such a project. Additionally, this project would endanger the lives of individuals (soldiers) within one’s own primate troop to save the lives of those in another. The question is: Are we up to such a challenge?


Wiesel, Elie. One Generation After. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Proud Tower. A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890-1914 by Barbara Tuchman.

The Proud Tower is Barbara Tuchman’s depiction of the western world between 1890 and World War I. In her introduction, the author claims that “The Great War of 1914-18 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours…we have been misled by the people of the time themselves who, looking back across the gulf of the War, see that earlier half of their lives misted over by a lovely sunset haze of peace and security. It did not seem so golden when they were in it. Their memories and their nostalgia have conditioned our view” (Tuchman, pp. xv-xvi).  Instead, we should see this period less romantically; as a time like any other, with its conflicts and its optimism existing side by side.

Tuchman’s chapter topics are highly selective, magnified and engrossing. The chapter list is brief and enigmatic enough that it should be displayed so the reader may see if she is interested: 1) “The Patricians,” is about the British aristocracy which continued to rule that country between 1895 and 1902. 2) “The Idea and the Deed,” is about the anarchists of Europe and the USA between 1890 and 1914. 3) “The End of a Dream,” discusses the change in US foreign policy from one that promoted worldwide democracy as an alternative to old world colonialism, to one that militaristically promoted US imperialism in the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific. 4) “Give Me Combat,” is about France’s internal division over the Dreyfus Affair. 5) “The Steady Drummer” is pervaded by humor and irony as the worlds militaristic powers meet for two Peace Conferences, where the goal is to show the public their commitment to peace while accomplishing nothing that might restrict their militaries. 6) “Neroism is in the Air,” presents Germany as an advanced culture in terms of art (especially music), science and industrial progress, but hints at the qualities that lead to the Great War. 7) “Transfer of Power,” portrays the political triumph of the Liberals and the commoners over the Patricians in Britain between 1902 and 1911. 8) “The Death of Jaures,” compares the hope of Socialism, (that workers would preserve world peace by refusing to fight a world war), against the reality of Nationalism.

These topics are interesting unto themselves, but hardly form a cohesive narrative of the period or even offer a summation. Tuchman is aware of this discord. In explanation, she states “I realize that what follows offers no over-all conclusion, but to draw some tidy generalization from the heterogeneity of the age would be invalid. I also know that what follows is far from the whole picture. It is not false modesty which prompts me to say so but simply an acute awareness of what I have not included. The faces and voices of all that I have left out crowd around me as I reach the end” (Tuchman, p. xviii).

Despite faults one may find with this book’s selection or cohesion, one will see a rare open-mindedness. Barbara Tuchman had a talent for presenting a balanced historical view. She was able to write sympathetically about people and groups with whom she felt no political or cultural affinity. In The Proud Tower, she depicts, with equal non-judgmental insight, both the British aristocracy and the western anarchists (two groups whose values she did not share). Her dispassionate portrayals permit readers an unprejudiced access to worldviews and cultures, that appear as if they are written by an insider of the milieu described. While Tuchman’s contribution to the study of this period is far from comprehensive, it is delightfully insightful and impartial.


Tuchman, Barbara. The Proud Tower.  A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890-1914. New York: Bantam Books, 1989.