Saturday, February 18, 2012

David Christian & Really Big History

This is my year (or two, or three) of reading big history. Iam Morris's Why the West Rules--For Now is probably my biggest, widest angle look so far (and I should mention 1493 and The Better Angels of Our Nature as recent additions), but David Christian dwarfs Morris's tour, which runs from the beginning of humankind to our possible futures. In this TED talk, Christian begins at the Big Bang! Now that's big history! And quite a fascinating tour it is: from the first nanosecond of creation to the present is a story of increasing complexity and "Goldilocks" (just right) circumstances that bring us to our present. Just right--and quite fragile. Anyway, the tour is fascinating. He and some of his colleagues have put together "The Big History Project" at this webpage for use as a high school curriculum. What a great idea and organizing theme to look at our past through both the physical and social sciences, and a great way to learn and teach complexity. Consider the desirability of learning history through this kind of lens, and not as just "one damn thing after another", as it is too often taught. No one remembers disjointed events well, but add a story (narrative) and they'll remember; make it a detective story (as history really is), and you've got them hooked.

P.S. How wonderfully nerdy is this? After initially posting, I found a short talk by Bill Gates on the Big History Project website home page. The ultimate nerd endorsement!

Rick Santorum, Natural Law, & Evangelicals

This thoughtful article caught my eye, and I should give it some brief consideration. Santorum bases much of his thought on concepts of natural law. The natural law tradition is a great and important tradition. Indeed, even the great positivist legal hphilosopher H.L.A. Hart brings it in the back door in his work The Concept of Law. In the Catholic Church, the article notes, naturual law came in recent times (by Church standards!) to serve as a preferred philosophical model. When you think of it, it allows us to consider what is "natural" as the guide to what is moral. Fine, so far. Unfortunately, what is "natural" becomes preferred over what is human (varied cultural practices). Thus, somehow, homosexuality, which seems nearly universal and in many cases perhaps genetic (which is a tricky question in itself, but certainly beyond individual choice), gets defined out of "natural", while celibacy--quite unnatural to my mind--gets defined in. (If God hadn't wanted us to engage in sex, God wouldn't have given us so much ganas (as we high school Spanish students dubbed it). (I will spare you the other colorful terms that we can dub this phenomena--you choose.)

So while natural law gave some good directions, and it proved of use in the Middle Ages (it allowed Aristotle in the back door), it was left behind for a reason, reasons that seem lost on Rick Santorum, among others.

Robert Lustig on Sugar: Sweet Tooths Gone Wild

Thanks to Iowa Guru, I learned the Dr. Robert Lustig appeared on Science Friday with Ira Flatow on our local NPR station, WSUI (a great Iowa resource). Lustig is on the war path against added sugar in our diet. His perspective tracks closely with that of Gary Taubes, and to a lesser extent, Michael Pollan. Put simply, too much fructose in our diet drives metabolic syndrome. We reduced fat in our diet about 30 years ago thinking that fat was clogging our arteries, and to replace the fat, we added more carbs in the form of sugar. In fact, also about this time, high-fructose corn syrup came into existence. So what happened? Obesity (which Lustig says is not the primary problem) and metabolic syndrome (from an over-worked liver) have sky-rocketed. His message--even simpler than Pollen's "eat real food, mostly plants, not too much"--is "eat real food". Whether it's meat or plant, if it's unprocessed, it's okay. (Real fruit has fructose, but it also has fiber, which slows the metabolism enough to give the liver a chance.

The link to NPR, by the way, allows you to listen or to read a transcript of the interview. Do it!

By the way, this is not my first post mentioning Lustig: see here.