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20201227 – Mind in Motion


The main idea of this book is that human thinking is driven by spatial perception that defines our cognition of both our internal and external worlds. Author formulates 9 cognition laws that define this process, how it happens and eventually how it turns into actions that change the world to better fit our needs.


PROLOGUE Moving in Space: The Foundation of Thought
Here author defines her vision of the link between spatial perception of humans and their thinking. She also provides preview of the structure of this book as it was designed for different special interests:

“For the fundamentals, how perception and action mold thinking about the spaces we inhabit: Chapters One (space of the body), Two (space around the body), Three (space of navigation).

For varieties and transformations of spatial thinking and spatial ability, Chapter Four. For ways gesture reflects and affects thought, Chapter Five.

For talk and thought about space and just about everything else: Chapters Five, Six, and Seven.

For designing and using cognitive tools, maps, diagrams, notation, charts, graphs, visualizations, explanations, comics, sketches, design, and art, Chapters Eight, Nine, and Ten.”

CHAPTER ONE: The Space of the Body: Space Is for Action
The first chapter of this part is about representation of the body in the mind. It stresses that different parts of the body represented very unequally and author provides graph of such representation:

After that author discusses the method of represantation: names vs pictures and then present her conclusion: First General Fact Worth Remembering: Associations to names are more abstract than associations to pictures.” Then she discusses how brain develops links between body parts and their uses and tradeoff it requires. Author formulates it as: First Law of Cognition: There are no benefits without costs.”. Finally author looks at feedback loops that integrate sensation and action into one process and posits: Second Law of Cognition: Action molds perception.”

The remaining part of the chapter discusses mechanisms such as Mirror Newrons, Motor Resonance, Process of Coordinating Bodies and Mids.

CHAPTER TWO: The Bubble Around the Body: People, Places, and Things
Author states objectives of this chapter upfront:” learn how people recognize, categorize, and understand the people, places, and things around us. We note that many everyday categories such as chairs and dogs are bins of common features that differentiate them from the feature bins of even nearby categories, such as carpets and snakes. But not always, and then we need to think harder, about dimensions and the features shared across categories.” She then goes through multiple categories of objects and their organization looking at: Things, Hierarchical organization at basic level, and People. In process author formulates:” Third Law of Cognition: Feeling comes first.”

Next author goes into complexities of Categories and Dimensions referring to work of Hans Rosling on graphic representation of economic and other data that help overcome misconceptions. Finally, author discusses relation between reality and its mental representation, formulation:” Fourth Law of Cognition: The mind can override perception”and then, after discussing confirmation bias: “Fifth Law of Cognition: Cognition mirrors perception.”

CHAPTER THREE: Here and Now and There and Then: The Spaces Around Us
Author’s description of the chapter:” …we examine the ways that the space around the body and the space of navigation are represented in the mind and the brain, providing support for the premise of the entire book, that spatial thinking is the foundation for abstract thought.”

The main points are: “Corollary of Fifth Law of Cognition, Cognition mirrors perception: Spatial mental frameworks can organize ideas.”; “The mind can override perception”

Author then provides examples supporting main points and discusses in details how mind maps not only space around body, but also all kinds of representations including conceptual mapping. This bring us to: “Sixth Law of Cognition: Spatial thinking is the foundation of abstract thought.”

Author also discusses how mind processes these maps including rotation, alignment, setting up hierarchical organization, defining reference points and perspective. Importantly, author also presents “Seventh Law of Cognition: The mind fills in missing information.”

CHAPTER FOUR: Transforming Thought
In this chapter: “we distinguish representations of thought from transformations of thought, then analyze spatial transformations and what they are good for (plenty!) followed by spatial ability and how to get it.”

Author provides examples of mental representations of ideas and their types. Author then discusses actions that she calls transformations or operations. She also provides a shortcut for understanding these ideas:” Just as there are countless real-life actions on real objects, there are countless mental actions on ideas or transformations of representations. Recall the list, a partial one: pull together, raise, toss out, arrange, and so on. Some transformations are loosely tied to domains like arithmetic or cooking or music or language or gene splicing or chess, but many are generic. And so very many of them are based on actions by the body in space, whether actual or imagined. In fact, a useful way to think about mental transformations is as internalized actions. Just as representations can be regarded as internalized perceptions.”

After that author discusses multiple ways that human mind applies to manipulate representation such as mental rotation, switch of perspectives: insider/outsider, animation, and such. Author also looks at spatial abilities and at the end of chapter presents what she believes is meaning of all this:” Those mental gymnastics transform what we see in the world and what we imagine in our minds into countless ideas, from the elementary and mundane needed to catch a ball, cross the street, or pack a suitcase to the spectacular and arcane used to create magnificent buildings or fantastic football plays or theories of particle physics. Marvelous as they are—and they are marvelous—buildings and football plays and zooming particles have a physical presence of one sort or another. But spatial thinking has even more wonders to reveal. Spatial thinking underlies how we talk and how we think, about space to be sure but also about time, emotions, social relations, and much more.”

CHAPTER FIVE: The Body Speaks a Different Language
Author’s description of this chapter:” In which we consider how actions of the body, especially the hands, turn into gestures that act on thought, our own and others, and provide the social glue underlying cooperation.”

Author reviews here how gestures are drawn by hands, different kinds of gestures, how gestures reveal thoughts, and even help us think and communicate. Author also makes an interesting point that:” Second General Fact Worth Remembering: Representations created by hands and by words are wildly different.”

CHAPTER SIX Points, Lines, and Perspective: Space in Talk and Thought
Author’s description of this chapter:” In which we consider how linear language describes space, using a perspective, either an inside, body-centered perspective or an outside, world-centered perspective. For insider perspectives, we show that surprisingly taking another’s perspective is sometimes easier and more natural than taking your own.” Author makes an important note that different languages provide for different perspectives.

CHAPTER SEVEN Boxes, Lines, and Trees: Talk and Thought About Almost Everything Else

“In which we reflect on the ways simple geometric forms, dots, boxes, lines, and networks, capture thought about space, time, number, perspective, causality, and just about everything else.”

Author discusses here “geometry of minds” use of various forms:

  • Boxes as containers of staff and ideas
  • Trees and Networks: big ideas divided into parts
  • Lines and cycles: ordering ideas and/or time in sequence
  • Orders: who’s on top and who’s at bottom
  • Boundaries: separation by identifying differences
  • Arrows: directionality and causality

Overall, it is all about interconnection between spaces and language.

CHAPTER EIGHT Spaces We Create: Maps, Diagrams, Sketches, Explanations, Comics
“In which we show how thought has been put in the world by arranging marks in space to create meanings that transcend the here and now. We zig and zag between the historical and the contemporary to draw lessons for designing and using thinking tools for thought about space, time, number, events, causality, and stories, highlighting comics, an explosively creative zany mix of storytelling”.

Here author expands into cases when mind is too small:” The Eighth Law of Cognition: When thought overflows the mind, the mind puts it into the world”.

This means creation of maps, writing, math, diagrams, notations: either scientific or musical, dancing, instructions, and all kind of similar staff. Author reviews all these in great detail.

CHAPTER NINE Conversations with a Page: Design, Science, and Art
“In which we join art and science through drawing. We watch people put thought on a page to hold a wordless conversation involving eye and hand and marks to see, to think, to clarify, and to create. We leave the page and return to the mind to reveal the key to creativity.”

Here author expands the same ideas into area of art and design.

CHAPTER TEN The World Is a Diagram

“In which we see that our actions in space design the world, that the designs create abstract patterns that attract the eye and inform the mind, that the actions get abstracted to gestures that act on thought, and the patterns to diagrams that convey thought. Actions in space create abstractions. A spiral we call spraction.” Here author discusses impact of humans on world outside their bodies: buildings, roads, book and other artifacts. This basically means to adjust world to what we want it to be, so author formulates:” Ninth Law of Cognition: We organize the stuff in the world the way we organize the stuff in the mind.”


I find this way of thinking interesting and maybe even useful in understanding how people think and in designing of communications that would effectively impact their own and others thinking. The only small issue I would have with all this is that author seems to be missing category of non-spatial, whether it is idea or some linguistic or even material construction, which kind of imposes limitation on understanding of cognition process, which in all cases involves multiple inputs/outputs both spatial and non-spatial. As example one could use something like color, which is generally non-spatial characteristic as it is normally represented in a mind. It definitely could be converted to spatial representation as the specific part of electromagnetic specter on the graph, but normal use is non-spatial.

Putnam, Robert – The Upswing


The main idea of this book is to demonstrate that American society went through cycle of dominance of individualism in late XIX-early XX century’s “Gilded age” that was pushed out by collectivistic progressive movement and cultural changes that led to dominance of communitarian ideas, which picked up in 1950-60s and then returning back to dominance of individualism and inequality that hit bottom in our time. The additional idea is to find some signs that America will start moving back to communitarian future, obviously preferred by authors, sometime soon.


Chapter 1: What’s Past Is Prologue
This chapter begins with Tocqueville’s observation:” the coming together of people for mutual purposes, in both the public and private spheres, and found that a multiplicity of associations formed a kind of check on unbridled individualism. Keenly aware of the dangers of individualism (a term he coined), Tocqueville was inspired by what he saw in America: Its citizens were profoundly protective of their independence, but through associating widely and deeply, they were able to overcome selfish desires, engage in collective problem solving, and work together to build a vibrant and—by comparison to Europe at that time—surprisingly egalitarian society by pursuing what he called “self-interest, rightly understood.”

Then authors move to our time and lament dissolution of associations, pointing out the huge psychological problem that developed in late XX – early XXI century America:” While industries spawned by technological advance have allowed huge corporations to produce unparalleled profits, very little of this wealth has trickled down. The poor may be better off in real terms than their predecessors, but the benefits of economic growth have remained highly concentrated at the top. Extremes of wealth and poverty are everywhere on display. Class segregation in the form of an entrenched elite and a marooned underclass is often a crippling physical, social, and psychological reality for those striving to get ahead. Young people and new immigrants enter the labor force filled with the hope that the American Dream can be theirs through persistence and hard work. But they often become disillusioned to find how great their competitive disadvantage is, and how difficult it is to make the leap to where the other half lives. American idealism increasingly gives way to cynicism about a rigged system.”

After that author moves to the main thesis of this book, which is that America over the last 100+ years went through cycle of decrease in individualism and increase of community reaching the top in 1950s and then went down into dark valley of individualism. It is presented by the general graph:”

Authors stress that community for them somehow means government with its regulations, bureaucracy, and suppression of individuals, while individualism somehow means big corporations, managerial, and financial elite. Then authors present general plan of the book: to go systematically through 6 specific areas and present suport of their main thesis for each of these.

Chapter 2: Economics: The Rise and Fall of Equality
The first such area is economics. At first authors present data on tremendous growth of American wealth:

Authors provide similar graphs and discussion for Income and Wealth, review history of what they call “conversion” of the middle century that was followed by “divergence” of the end of century and beginning of current century. They also look at consequences, such as “deaths of despair”:

Finally authors analyse “how did we get there” by looking at the changes in multiple areas, trying to find causal relation:  

Innovation and education – Education does not keep up with market demands

Unions – decline in support and membership

Policy –  Taxing and spending, with stress on insafficient and not progressive enough taxing, not enough financial regulation, small minimum wage and so on. Authors also stress change in social norms from being too rich somewhat not nice to bragging of being rich.

Chapter 3: Politics: From Tribalism to Comity and Back Again Here authors look at political environment throughout history of the last century and find the same change: deep division during gilded age growing into unification of midcentury and moving to deep division once again. Here is representation of this process:

Authors look at multiple dimensions of political process and political interactions between people and generally find similar picture elsewhere. One outlier is trust in government which jumpted in 1930s – early 40s when people mistakenly saw in government savior from the great depression and correctly saw it as the driving force in winning WWII. After that it consistently went down after government demonstrated it inaptitude in all conceivable ways:

Chapter 4: Society: Between Isolation and Solidarity
Here authors look at people participation and variety of associations: civic, religious, professional, unions, and even marriage. They find the same picture elsewhere: after growing up in early XX century, dramatic decline and even atrophy for many such institutions. It could be summarized in one graph:

Chapter 5: Culture: Individualism vs. Community
Here authors move into special area of American culture: competition between two visions: one centered on individual and another one on the group or community. Authors base this chapter on research in Ngram, which analyses frequency of use of specific words in published texts. They look at Salience of multiple words:

  • Survival of the fittest vs. Social Gospel
  • “Association, Cooperation, and Socialism”
  •  “Common Man”
  •  “Agreement, Compromise, and Unity”
  • “Subversion and Deviance”
  • “Conformity”
  • “Identity”
  • “Responsibility and Rights”

The conclusion across all these multiple points of data presented in the graph:

Chapter 6: Race and the American “We”
The next stop is mandatory discussion of the race relations. Authors go through various inequality parameters: health, wealth, political power, and so on. Unusually for leftists they recognize that black progress to equality was successfully terminated by leftist policies implemented in 1960-70s:

However they stress white guilt – specifically lack of enthusiasm in accepting second class citizenship for themselves among white middle and woring classes.

Chapter 7: Gender and the American “We”
In this chapter authors going through similar exercise for gender equality.

Chapter 8: The Arc of the Twentieth Century
This is kind of summary chapter:” In this chapter we aim to see the forest, not merely the trees and leaves. We begin with a summary of the broad changes that have animated the four thematic chapters—economics (Chapter 2), politics (Chapter 3), society (Chapter 4), and culture (Chapter 5). We step back from detailed narratives of specific topics, specific variables, and specific decades to ask how America changed over the last 125 years in terms of the balance between the individual and the community.”

Authors provide combined graph:

Authors then discuss their search for driver of these changes and conclude that it is cultural development, rather then economic or political. However they admit that such causial relationship has very week support in data and they have no solid explanation for I-WE-I cycles. However they note an interesting anomaly: cycle temporary interruption in 1920s when increase of movement from Gilden age “I” to massive “WE” was paused and resumed only after beginning of Great Depression. Authors also go into somewhat detailed discussion of causation in science and refer to work of Robert Shiller about narrative economics in which he claims that economic changes often preceed by changes in generally accepted narratives. Eventually authors give up on causal explanaitons reviewing a number of them and finding all of them lacking. They also look in details at 1960s as turning point period that changed direction from WE to I.

Chapter 9: Drift and Mastery

In the last chapter authors look at the overall development of last 113 years, taking as starting point Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward 2000-1887” and comparing predictions with reality. They go through bios of a number of personalities of Progressive Era in early XX century trying to find analogs in our time in hope to find indicator of similar movement from “I” to “WE” that occurred between 1929 and 1960.  At the end they come with this conclusion:” Throughout this book we have argued that although America’s “we” had gradually become more capacious during the first half of the twentieth century, and as we continued the long historical task of redressing racial and gender inequities, we were in 1960 (and still are) very far from perfection on those dimensions. Americans could have and should have pushed further toward greater equality. Therefore the lessons of history that we glean from the I-we-I century are two-sided: We learn that once before Americans have gotten ourselves out of a mess like the one we’re in now, but we also learn that in that first Progressive Era and the decades that followed we didn’t set our sights high enough for what the “we” could really be, and we didn’t take seriously enough the challenge of full inclusion. Therefore, the question we face today is not whether we can or should turn back the tide of history, but whether we can resurrect the earlier communitarian virtues in a way that does not reverse the progress we’ve made in terms of individual liberties. Both values are American, and we require a balance and integration of both.


It is an interesting collection of data and I pretty much agree with authors’ framework of economic, cultural, and political developments of the last 100+ years. The only difference I have is that I see no problem with causal explanation of these developments. From my point of view there is always tension that arises from dual character of human nature: individualistic need to take care of self without which survival of individual is not possible and similarly strong need to take care of a group one belongs to because destruction of the group makes chances of individual survival close to nil. The early XX century for America meant practical absence of any external thread to existence of main group – nation, but multiple threads to individual subgroups – farmers, workers, small businessmen, college graduates with skills not commensurate with ambitions, and so on, all threatened by big corporation and superrich individuals that undermined these groups’ viability. The initial advancement of collectivism during the Great Depression was linked to use of political power to compensate for their market failure via political means: unions, wealth redistribution and multitude of economic support government programs, creation of multitude of sinecures in government, and so on. All this was welded into one huge communal entity by WWII, which put the very survival of group – America into question. After victory in WWII, which made America superpower for which any thread was mainly unthinkable and even individual survival pretty much assured, the other driver of human action – individualism start moving to dominance. It brought in all kind of group weakening actions from buying cheap foreign products to moving manufacturing offshore. The main focus of struggle shifted from survival of America to prospering more than neighbor, even if it means denying prosperity to this neighbor. It also included moving to gated community to separate oneself from this former neighbor. The good/bad news is that this period is coming to the end because there is real threat of external domination once again – China and its communist / expansionist direction of development. Similarly, to the past we will probably have powerful consolidation of internal interest groups and increasing dominance of collectivistic approach, at least for a while. And, since unlike mid XX century current American elite is tightly linked to global elite and it seems does not mind to be subordinate to Chinese communist leadership, the change could include destruction of the part of this elite that will fail to awake their sleeping internal patriotism. It would be interesting to watch how American collectivism of masses will clash with Socialist / Globalist / Chinese collectivism of elite.  

20201213 – Plagues and People


Author defined very nicely and briefly the main idea this way:” This book aims to bring the history of infectious disease into the realm of historical explanation by showing how varying patterns of disease circulation have affected human affairs in ancient as well as in modern times.”


Here author describes what prompted him to write this book: the story of conquest of America when a few hundred conquistadors overcame millions of indigenous people organized in Aztec empire. Author rejects the usual explanations such as firearms, horses, mistaken identification of white Spaniards as gods, and such. He sees the key to this conquest in biological weapons unwittingly unleashed on population without immunity that not only killed millions, but also undermined morals by convincing people that gods on the side of conquistadors because they do not get inflicted by disease.  

Author also defines a few key concepts such as microparasites such as bacteria and viruses that gets people sick or even kills them and macroparasites such as big predatory animals, but also great warriors and aristocrats, foreign and domestic, that rob, enslave, and kill people.  Author is looking at interaction between victims and parasites as complex process with wide range of system equilibria in the range from deadly parasite, either micro and macro, which kills, consumes, and then have to find the next victim or die, all the way to coexistence parasite, which just consume some share of victim’s resources, allowing it staying alive and even being well. Author then discusses some specific microparasites and how they interact with human body.

I: Man, the Hunter
In this chapter author looks at the humans as hunters with powerful information processing tool – brain that allow practically eliminate all other large predators that could compete with humans for food and other resources. Author reviews parallel evolutionary development of humans and their parasites and how superior communication and organization skills allowed humans establish dominance over predators. Then something unusually author uses different reference point: “Looked at from the point of view of other organisms, humankind therefore resembles an acute epidemic disease, whose occasional lapses into less virulent forms of behavior have never yet sufficed to permit any really stable, chronic relationship to establish itself.” Author also makes here a very important point that coevolution of humans and their microparasites in Africa led to establishment of equilibria when human grow was limited by diseases well adjusted to humans. Author also notes that limited amount of naturally produced resources also limited human macroparasites. Finally, author discusses breakthrough that occurred between 40,000 and 10,000 BC when humans moved out of Africa, in process leaving behind their natural microparasites as limitation of their growth, and expanded all over the earth eliminating other humanoids and big predators. Once again worldwide equilibrium was established with human numbers limited by availability of resources with humans divided into huge diversity of types well-adjusted to the huge diversity of environments.

II: Breakthrough to History
Author begins this chapter with discussion of practical elimination of large-body animals that occurred everywhere where humans expanded their habitat. Only domesticated big-body animals expanded their presence. The overall impact was shortening of food chains and decrease in diversity of environment. Then came agriculture, which took out huge amount of space away from natural development into artificially limited diversity of plants and animals. Author discusses in some details agricultural processes and how their impacted various parasites, both micro and macro. Author also looks at cultural patterns that sometimes limit, but sometimes expand vulnerability, such as communal baths. Here is how author presents established equilibrium:” Eventually agricultural populations became dense enough to sustain bacterial and viral infections indefinitely, even without benefit of an intermediate nonhuman host. This cannot ordinarily happen in small communities, since unlike multicelled parasites, bacterial and viral invasions provoke immunity reactions within the human body. Immunity reactions impose drastic alternatives upon the host-parasite relationship. Whenever they dominate the interaction of host and parasite, either speedy death of the infected person or full recovery and banishment of the invading organism from the host’s body tissues ensues—at least for a period of time of months or years until the immunizing antibodies fade from the bloodstream so as to permit reinfection.”

Author then reviews transmission of infection either direct or via animals and provides this nice table for number of diseases shared with animals:

Finally, author discusses interactions within civilization, its balance between cities and rural areas that supplied constant flow of new people to compensate for losses from proximity of people – necessary condition for both high economic opportunity and high infection diseases vulnerability.

III: Confluence of the Civilized Disease Pools of Eurasia: 500 B.C. to A.D. 1200
In this chapter begins with estimate that by 500 BC macroparasitic balances were established in several civilized areas. Similarly microparasitic balances specific to agriculture were established in older cites, but author notes that:” By contrast, greater instability prevailed in fringe areas where three different natural environments—the Yellow River flood plain, the monsoon lands of the Ganges Valley, and the Mediterranean coastlands—had all become capable of supporting civilized social structures much more recently than was the case in the Middle East. Accordingly, in 500 B.C. ecological balances were still precarious in these regions, and there is reason to suppose that disease patterns were far less firmly fixed than in the Middle East.”  Author methodically goes through such areas estimating microparasitic conditions around 500 B.C. After that for some 1700 years these civilized centers where preparing surrounding populations for expansion by developing their immunity via intermittent interactions. Here is how author describes this process:” The conquests and ethnic encroachments which Turks and Mongols achieved before, and more spectacularly after, A.D. 1000 simply could not have occurred had these peoples not achieved and maintained a level of immunity to civilized diseases almost equivalent to that prevailing in the major civilized centers themselves. Everything known of the trade patterns and political structures of the steppe make this seem likely, indeed all but certain. Frequent movement across long distances, and occasional assembly into large gatherings for raids or (with the Mongols) for a great annual hunt, provided ample opportunity for infectious diseases to be exchanged and propagated among the nomads, and even, as Chinese records attest, to be sometimes communicated to less mobile civilized populations.”

IV: The Impact of the Mongol Empire on Shifting Disease Balances, 1200—1500
Here is how author describes situation before development of Mongol empire: “Two systematic instabilities remained. One was the persistent and cumulatively massive growth of human population in the Far East and Far West, resulting from the way in which the Chinese and Europeans had broken through older epidemiological and technological barriers shortly before A.D. 900. Eventually this development affected the macro-balances of the Old World in emphatic fashion, making first China and then western Europe critically influential in military, economic, and cultural matters. The other source of systematic instability within the Eurasian world balance, as defined between 900 and 1200, was the possibility of further altering communications patterns, both by sea and land.”

Expansion of Mongol led to increase of communication and their shift up North. “From an epidemiological point of view, this northward extension of the caravan trade net had one very significant consequence. Wild rodents of the steppelands came into touch with carriers of new diseases, among them, in all probability, bubonic plague. In later centuries, some of these rodents became chronically infected with Pasteurella pestis. Their burrows provided a microclimate suited to the survival of the plague bacillus winter and summer, despite the severities of the Siberian and Manchurian winters. As a result, the animals and insects inhabiting such burrows came to constitute a complex community among which the plague infection could and did survive indefinitely.” Then author discusses the history of raise and fall of the most important disease that emerged from this situation – plague. After the plague other epidemic diseases became prevalent and author connects it to development of textile industries that provided warm closing in cooling European climate, creating simultaneously good conditions for lice. The final evaluation of this period goes like this:” What we see, then, as the over-all response to the changed communications pattern created in the thirteenth century by the Mongols is a recapitulation of what we saw happening in the first Christian centuries. That is to say, massive epidemics and attendant military and political upheavals in Europe and (less clearly) also in China led both in the early Christian centuries and in the fourteenth century to sharp diminution of population in the Far East and in the Far West; but in the regions between, both epidemic history and population history are difficult or impossible to discern. In the earlier instance, several diseases were probably at work, and it took a longer time for population to recover, especially in Europe. In the fourteenth century, on the contrary, a single infection was probably responsible for most of Europe’s population decay, and recovery both in Europe and in China was swifter, so that by the second half of the fifteenth century unmistakable population growth again set in at each extreme of the Old World ecumene. Even in Muscovy and the Ottoman empire, lands lying close by the steppe focus of plague infection, population growth became unmistakable in the sixteenth century, perhaps beginning even earlier.”

V: Transoceanic Exchanges, 1500—1700
This chapter is about globalization of humanity during period 1500-1700 when Euro-Asian civilization clashed wit independently developing Amerindian civilizations and crashed it do significant extent via epidemic defenselessness of the latter. It was not one sided, but European diseases were much more virulent than American. The result was forfeiture by Amerindians of their culture and believes because their gods failed, leaving them without ideological power to resist. Author, however describes not only European epidemiological conquest, but also European defeats by local microparasites in such places and Africa and Amazonia. Author also describes exchanges of plants and animals, which to significant extent changed both environment and peoples, eventually resulting in decrease of diversity. Author also discusses a parallel process when macroparasitic development led to dominance of countries with superior military equipment and tactics. Author concludes the chapter by stating that these:” … factors continue to affect the conditions of human life in the twentieth century. Indeed, the world’s biosphere may be described as still reverberating to the series of shocks inaugurated by the new permeability of ocean barriers that resulted from the manifold movement of ships across the high seas after 1492. Yet almost as soon as the initial and most drastic readjustments of the new pattern of transoceanic movements had subsided, other factors—scientific and technological for the most part—inaugurated still further and almost equally drastic changes in the world’s biological and human balance.”

VI: The Ecological Impact of Medical Science and Organization Since 1700

In the final chapter author reviews how medical development such as inoculation and then vaccination changed human interaction with microparasitic environment providing new patterns of human development all over the world. Here is how author concludes this book:” In view of the truly extraordinary record of the past few centuries, no one can say for sure that new and unexpected breakthroughs will not occur, expanding the range of the possible beyond anything easily conceived of now. Birth control may in time catch up with death control. Something like a stable balance between human numbers and resources may then begin to define itself. But for the present and short-range future, it remains obvious that humanity is in course of one of the most massive and extraordinary ecological upheavals the planet has ever known. Not stability but a sequence of sharp alterations and abrupt oscillations in existing balances between microparasitism and macroparasitism can therefore be expected in the near future as in the recent past. In any effort to understand what lies ahead, as much as what lies behind, the role of infectious disease cannot properly be left out of consideration. Ingenuity, knowledge, and organization alter but cannot cancel humanity’s vulnerability to invasion by parasitic forms of life. Infectious disease which antedated the emergence of humankind will last as long as humanity itself, and will surely remain, as it has been hitherto, one of the fundamental parameters and determinants of human history.”


I really like author’s approach of looking in parallel at micro and macro parasitic phenomenon.  Usually it is separated into two different areas: epidemiological and military / state histories, but in reality it makes a lot of sense looking at them together because it is pretty obvious that epidemic deceases worked hand in hand with military endeavors sometime bringing unrealistically huge benefits to attackers as was the case with conquistadors, but sometimes protecting locals against superior military power, as was the case with Napoleon’s troops on Haiti. Granted, bioweapons were used unconsciously, but they were highly effective anyway. This brings me to recognition that what we usually consider as conscious actions leading to some expected result in reality is much more dependent on poorly understood environmental circumstances, which makes great leaders and conquerors only slightly more effectual driving force of change than some completely unconscious bacteria.    

20201206 – Through the Language Glass


The main idea of this book is to present history and contemporary state of understanding of linguistics and language influence not only on communications between people, but also on human thinking and understanding of the world.


PROLOGUE: Language, Culture, and Thought
Author starts with the statement that languages are different in their usefulness: “There are four tongues worthy of the world’s use,” says the Talmud: “Greek for song, Latin for war, Syriac for lamentation, and Hebrew for ordinary speech.” Then he proceeds to present examples of these differences for some European languages. After that author defines objective of these book:” In the pages to follow, however, I will try to convince you, probably against your initial intuition, and certainly against the fashionable academic view of today, that the answer to the questions above is—yes. In this plaidoyer for culture, I will argue that cultural differences are reflected in language in profound ways, and that a growing body of reliable scientific research provides solid evidence that our mother tongue can affect how we think and how we perceive the world.”

1. Naming the Rainbow
Here author discusses work of Gladstone on Homer and how colors were presented in Odyssey via analogies rather than via direct designation. Here are 5 main points:

The author presents Gladstone’s idea that sencitivity to color developed only recently in history. This correlates with the fact that words for different colors are created over the time and in more or less similar sequence in different languages.

2. A Long-Wave Herring
In this chapter retells the story of Lazarus Geiger who expanded on Gladstone ideas:” Mankind’s perception of color, he says, increased “according to the schema of the color spectrum”: first came the sensitivity to red, then to yellow, then to green, and only finally to blue and violet. The most remarkable thing about it all, he adds, is that this development seems to have occurred in exactly the same order in different cultures all over the world.”

This followed by discussion of reasons for that: whether it was physiological development of human vision or linguistic development. Two directions were competing: Lamarckian promoted by Hugo Magnus and Darwinian.  For the letter author cites Franz Delitzsch who wrote in 1878 that “we see in essence not with two eyes but with three: with the two eyes of the body and with the eye of the mind that is behind them. And it is in this eye of the mind in which the cultural-historical progressive development of the color sense takes place.”

3. The Rude Populations Inhabiting Foreign Lands
Here author reviews result of explosion of anthropological research at the end of XIX century. He looks at research and experiments of W.H.R. Rivers who worked with tribes in New Guinea and convincingly demonstrated that local have the same color vision as Europeans, even if their languages did not have specific words for many colors.  

4. Those Who Said Our Things Before Us

Here author first pontificates on development of anthropology from contempt to savages to nearly worshipping them or at least claiming that all cultures are equal. Then he discusses and important book from 1969 by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay and their finding: “What were those two amazing findings? First, Berlin and Kay discovered that color terms were not so arbitrary after all. Although there are considerable variations between the color systems of different languages, some ways of dividing the spectrum are still far more natural than others: some are adopted by many unrelated languages while others are not adopted by any. It was their second discovery, however, that left the academic community reeling. This was the revelation, which Berlin and Kay themselves termed a “totally unexpected finding,” that languages acquire the names for colors in a predictable order. To be more precise, Berlin and Kay discovered the sequence that Lazarus Geiger had postulated 101 years before and that in Magnus’s hands turned into the subject of intense and protracted debate in the last decades of the nineteenth century.”

At the end of chapter author presents his conclusion:” Different cultures certainly are not at liberty to carve up the world entirely at whim, as they are bound by the constraints set by nature—both the nature of the human brain and the nature of the world outside. The more decisive nature has been in staking out its boundaries, the less leeway there is for culture.” He also briefly discusses theory of parameters and points our that diversity of languages and methods of their use is way too wide to cover it with a few parameters.

5. Plato and the Macedonian Swineherd
In the last chapter of this part author makes a very reasonable point that there are no primitive languages as there are no primitive people. There is poor understanding of other people’s environment and consequently complexities of languages that allow survival in this environment, which makes it very difficult for outside observer to understand these complexities. However, it does not mean that all languages equally complex. As everything else languages evolutionary developed to meet communication requirements for survival. Then author provides brief comparative analysis of features of various languages: Morphology, Sound System, and Subordination. At the end of chapter author presents his conclusion:” The results of this research have already revealed some significant statistical correlations. Some of these, such as the tendency of smaller societies to have more complex word structure, may seem surprising at first sight, but look plausible on closer examination. Other connections, such as the greater reliance on subordination in complex societies, still require detailed statistical surveys, but nevertheless seem intuitively convincing. And finally, the relation between the complexity of the sound system and the structure of society awaits a satisfactory explanation.”

6. Crying Whorf
Here author briefly retells the story of rise and fall of theory of linguistic relativity promoted by Edward Sapir. Author starts with overall history of linguistics in Europe, specifically paying attention to work of Wilhelm Humboldt, details of Sapir’s relativity, and finally works of Franz Boas and Roman Jacobson. The main understanding is that all languages allow express any thought, but:” If different languages influence their speakers’ minds in varying ways, this is not because of what each language allows people to think but rather because of the kinds of information each language habitually obliges people to think about. When a language forces its speakers to pay attention to certain aspects of the world each time, they open their mouths or prick up their ears, such habits of speech can eventually settle into habits of mind with consequences for memory, or perception, or associations, or even practical skills.”  Author provides a few very interesting examples to demonstrate this point.

7. Where the Sun Doesn’t Rise in the East
Here author presents a number of linguistic curiosities from misunderstanding of naming kangaroo to use of egocentric vs. geocentric coordinates in speech by some aboriginal tribes in Australia. Author provides interesting example of object manipulation when the same change expressed differently in different languages. This raised another question: correlation and/or causation of spatial thinking depending of linguistic coordinates.

8. Sex and Syntax
In this chapter author explores another linguistic curiosity: use of sex in designation of non-animate objects. As example author uses poem of Heine when pine tree (male) dreams about palm tree(female), which is difficult to translate into English in which trees do not have sex. Author them provides charming example of similar confusion, especially between languages with different sex designation for the same object.

9. Russian Blues
Here author returns to linguistic division of color spectrum which is different in different languages, for example Russian using 2 blue colors.

EPILOGUE: Forgive Us Our Ignorance

In summary author repeat his main point:” Language has two lives. In its public role, it is a system of conventions agreed upon by a speech community for the purpose of effective communication. But language also has another, private existence, as a system of knowledge that each speaker has internalized in his or her own mind. If language is to serve as an effective means of communication, then the private systems of knowledge in speakers’ minds must closely correspond with the public system of linguistic conventions. And it is because of this correspondence that the public conventions of language can mirror what goes on in the most fascinating and most elusive object in the entire universe, our mind. This book set out to show, through the evidence supplied by language, that fundamental aspects of our thought are influenced by the cultural conventions of our society, to a much greater extent than is fashionable to admit today.”


I like ideas presented in this book and I agree that language has serious impact on the way of person’s thinking. However, I believe that author slightly overstating this case. I think that language is only one part of overall cultural environment that has impact and not necessarily the most important. My own experience of being native Russian speaker and nearly completely switching to English in midlife definitely was accompanied by switch in way of thinking about quite a few things. It is, however, all but impossible to separate changes caused by switch of language from changes causes by behavior of surrounding people, communications with them, and overall cultural environment of America, which is quite different from USSR. Nevertheless, I would assign to language lower level of causality in thinking and behavior changes comparing to logic of interactions and methods of setting and achieving objectives, which are quite different in these different cultures.