Author: Ben Theyerl

Changing the Outlook on Life: The Darwinian Revolution

The theory of evolution is one of those rare ideas that changes completely the way that the world worked when it came into being.  It not only resonated in the field of biology, but changed philosophy, and politics as well.  It was the biggest single revolution in thought that has happened in the modern era.    And it all came from a one guy named Darwin…or so we thought.

Because one of Prof. Browne’s main points is that the Darwinian Revolution was much more than “The Origin of Species”.  That that books was simply the manifestation of many ideas that all pointed to essitianlly the same thing.  The way this manifestation was and is treated today points to how a true revolutionary idea works.

Because the Darwinian Revolution did not just change the way that Biology operated.  It did do this, but it also resonated beyond science to have real human consequences for the way human society operated.  No longer was the church the authority on where we as a species came from, science could all of a sudden do that.  Science had appeal power and if it could dare to question something like where we came from it could question just about anything.  That was the Darwinian Revolution, a revolution that synthesized version of the same world changing idea into a single form, spread it to the world, and watched it’s repercussions fundamentally change the way that science and society interacted.

On Knowing What the Weather’s Like

The most interesting aspect of Prof. Emanuel’s lecture on the way that climate has been studied the last one-hundred and fifty years is the relatively naive way we take our current understanding of what climate and the weather is like.  Mainly, that we have an understanding at all is astonishing, it’s a quiet revolution.  It’s one that isn’t controversial or loud-mouthed because it benefits us all that today we can simply ask what the weather is going to be like tomorrow and have a certainty about it.  It’s benefitted us all so much that we have taken it for granted.

Emanuel painted a picture of the revolutionaries and their discoveries that is very congruent with this idea of the climate revolution.  It was done by scientists who were not be lauded as the great scientific saviors of their day.  They weren’t trying to find the meaning of life in biology, or the laws that govern the ways of the universe in Chemistry.  They were simply concerned about the weather.  Yet their work has let us come miles further along in our understanding of that very topic.

Because up until recently, the weather was a phenomena that everyone dealt with but no one understood.  It was also sort of dangerous to try and comprehend, because it required not just studying blue skies and sunshine but also bad weather, high winds, rain, blizzards.  But alas it was studied, and once it was understood the daily could be extenuated into the long term and that is how a genuine understanding of climate, and what makes it happened occurred.

And what Prof. Emanuel’s lecture sought to do is to best describe the importance of this revolution.  That we can now actually understand what is natural and unnatural about climate and that because of the work done on climate by scientists centuries ago we can understand the problem today of a climate that is being straying from the natural phenomena described.  Simply, he gives the essence of any Scientific revolution, Connecting past observations with foresight to change the understanding of that we currently have on the world.

What’s In a Revolutionary

In one way or another, we are all revolutionaries.  It is the certain degree that we act on our revolutionary that determines what becomes thought of as revolution, and who gets thought of as a revolutionary.

This notion operates on principles of human behavior.  To begin a revolution one must start with the individual.  It is certainly universal that we all want change to some aspect of society.  We all think like this, and it manifests itself in conversation in the classroom, around the dining room table, and in the angry comments we write on Facebook.  To be human is to imagine how human life could be optimized.

The second step to revolution than, is the spread of one person’s individual notion of change to others.  The ideas that make for revolutions are the ones that are universal, that other people think as well.  They can be sold by an individual or may be so pressing as to be recognized easily by a broad swath of humans.  This spread can require lots of work or may be seamless. The more seamless it spreads, the easier revolution comes about.

The final step to revolution then is the action.  This is where ideas of a revolution become a revolution.  Where by a growing social consciousness a government is toppled, old ideas are replaced with new ones, and the world moves closer to change.  It is worth noting that not all ideas that spread and reach this stage are good, but that also is a part of the revolution process, trying and failing with revolutionary ideas.  The ones that do succeed are destined to become recognized as revolutions, the kind that get read about in history books.

That is what is in a revolutionary, the ability to complete this process of invention of ideas for change, organizing, and putting those ideas into action.  It is this that makes a revolutionary and it only takes a few to cause such a revolution.

Just What Was That

That’s the question I had after I sat in on K.P’s lecture.  It was one that I perhaps lacked the philosophical background to deal with, but it left me with the impression that it’s message was that we, as humans will the idea of revolution into being, and therefore can will it out again.

And I do think this is a valid point.  For there are periods in every individual life, and in larger social movements where we get to the end and simply have to define it-ask “What was that?”  When something appears different than it was before we call it a revolution, and therefore the idea of revolution is not definable in a moment, but as a hindsight.  And therefore it is all in our heads.

I guess this doesn’t surprise me.  “Revolution” is a noun that doesn’t fit the person, place or thing definition.  It’s an idea.  And because of that it carries a lot of ambiguity to what it means to a person.  Thus the person can define it for themselves, they can make it what they want it to be.  The idea that we have never been revolutionaries then is possible.

But yet, there must have been revolutions.  What do we as a society call those moments where we changed.  That’s why I think that we are all, in contrary to the assertion of this lecture revolutionaries.  We to a certain extent comment on how life could be better and some of us act on it.  It is in our nature to question.  To want to change.  To be revolutionary.

So where the idea of revolution might be one that is malleable it is one that exists as a part of our nature.  Therefore we have not never been revolutionaries but instead have always and still are revolutionaries.

Revolution in Retrospect: The Haitian Revolution

The most interesting aspect of Mr. Popkin’s lecture to me was that it was being presented as a revolution that the Haitian Revolution was now being studied.  Because for all of my previous studies of history in secondary school the Haitian Revolution was a part of the World History cirriculum.  It was in my textbook, and on the AP test I took.  I took it for granted.  Popkins lecture though was more about how the revolution of the small island nation came to be be viewed in the way it is today, as the major turning point where democracy went from the idealistic approach of the American and French Revolutions to a real form of revolution that aimed at much more human causes.

In Haiti this specifically was the oppressive manner in which it was governed by France.  It was a slave colony.  What the Haitian revolution arose from was the logical notion that a majority of a population having no control over their own lives was not an ideal, and just plain wrong.  It was a reaction against colonialism, the first of it’s kind, that would set the precedent for how the next two centuries of world history would end up unfolding.  This is the consensus amongst modern historians.  What Popkin’s lecture sought to point out is that this was not always the case.  That the way history is thought of is up to the same bias’ as politics or government.

For the Haitian revolution this was a consequence of it being on the opposite side of history as the historians.  For historians have primarily worked in the West in the great empires of old.  To celebrate or acknowledge a revolution that worked to destroy their very notion of how history worked would be a tough pill to swallow.  Yet it was, and the inclusion of the Haitian Revolution in modern curriculum is a sound defeat of this notion.

This is all to say that revolutions are defined as much by those that view them as the people involved in them.  That the Haitian revolution occurred is historically an interesting tale.  That this tale didn’t reach a mainstream western audience until recently is as interesting.  It’s an exploration into how we define the phenomena that have shaped human kind-of which revolution is a marker of.

The Past: On Display for all the World to See

The past has a tendency to viewed in two ways.  One; nostalgia, an imagining that the past was perfect, based in the reality it was probably ok.  Two; with shame-the product of a complicated and rough time that doesn’t beg like it’s contrast to be exaggerated.  Monuments capture one of these pasts for the onlooker.  However, they refuse much of the time to reveal which way they wane, and it is in this case that the case is made-we should bend that dichotomy between nostalgia and shame to create what the past should be viewed with-reverence.


The example used in lecture was that of a monument to Italian facism that still stands in a plaza of a border town in Northern Italy.  It is an impressive structure, and it’s belonging to a past, inspired by an even farther back past based on it’s neoclassical design, makes it a indicative case study in how a past can be shaped.  The structure itself is a archetictural marvel, exhibiting a sort of grandiose neoclassicism that could only be the result of a someone powerful being willing to say that it need be that way to reflect their own grandiose and lust for the Greek and Roman.  It is this very point that makes the monument so controversial, as the man who built it was of course Benito Mussolini.  The conflict between hiding that history of shame but saving the monument  itself is then a good way to view how we can shape the past.


For this monument the curator decided to give it second life as a museum.  The goal of a museum being to achieve a state of reverence for the past, not celebrating it but acknowledging it and pointing to the future.  To do this he kept the monument the same, a testament to it’s original unique form.  However, the addition of a modern scrolling ring around the base of one of the legs is a step toward change, a nod that this past, of facism and hate is not worth preserving in it’s original state.  It’s a reminder that we have tried to move past that.  The museum beneath the monument however celebrates the form of the monument and pays testament to the victims of the ideas it originally meant to celebrate.

It’s most telling message is however how it looks to the future.  In a chamber inscribed with the verses of a failed Italian fascist state, projections of hopeful messages for the future urge the reader to reach his/her’s conclusion about the past-because it’s time to move onto the future.


It is true that forgetting the past can lead to a terrible future.  Striving for balance in this exercise is as crucial as the exercise itself.  That is what the monument discussed in this lecture strives to do; give us the attendee a peace of mind about the past we know may have been horrible.  That is after all, what art, even in our most public forums should do-make the pain of a time apparent to the whole world.

The Stats to Back it Up: Living in the New World of Data

For almost a year and one half now, every morning for me has consisted of a somewhat odd routine.  Odd in that it includes at least one activity that all Americans could not ten years ago have done.  Each morning I wake up, I shower, get dressed, eat breakfast and then check my phone for one thing; the polls.  Perhaps, a sign of insanity, perhaps a simple act of intrigue, my mornings have included looking at fivethirtyeight, the statistical news site, for much of the last two years.  My main focus; the U.S. election. Primaries, Democrats, Republicans, Clinton, Sanders, Cruz, and of course Mr. Trump.   Specifically, searching that the latter of these won’t actually be elected, and frequently being reassured by the numbers that pop up on the screen.

The fact that these poll numbers are a comfort as of late in this political climate is a phenomena unique to our modern age.  It’s data; hardcore evidence processed not by humans but by machines which couldn’t have any subjectivity.  It’s a new language, as the emergence of the term within a language-english-can chart.  That is what Professor Hanlon explored in his lecture,  in what was a compelling argument for the fact that recently, humans have looked for proof of things and ideas in very different places than we used too.


The main shift Hanlon points out is the historical change from proof in science being displayed to the public on a purely qualitative platform, such as in Microscopia, to a more empirical quantitative manner.  As science advanced this sort of proof, “data”,  became the primary way that we as humans chose to back our ideas up, even if not in science.  Hanlon argues that the increased usage of the word data is evidence of this, and that it has had consequences on how we live our lives as individuals and societies; right up to how we elect a president.  And so it is today that we live in a world where evidence is synonomous with data, and statistics are given precedent over other forms of rhetoric.  We therefore live in a world where logos is valued over pathos  and ethos, something that is a new and presents itself in many forms.

The most evident of which is Nate Silver’s media giant, fivethirtyeight.  In the current political climate it is given precedent over the media, the objectivity of a newscaster, because in a world where computers can completely eliminate objectivity, the newscasters objectivity is now subject.  Hence we have found comfort in data as a means of supporting our ideas, which is a new idea in itself.  We live then in a world undergoing a revolution of data.


The Perfect Political Revolutionary: Khalid Albaih and How Revolutions can Actually Work

One month into being on a college campus, and I can already tell that one of the trendiest topics in higher education these days is the Arab Spring. I’m sure that played a role in the arts and humanities theme for the year here being literally “revolutions”, and it’s no doubt the reason why the fellow at the Oak Institute played a key role. I should start again. I’m not writing a declamation of this, rather I’m giving props to Colby and higher education for recognizing that the “Arab Spring” was important, for one, and really just outright cool to study.

Of course I find it cool to study though. Me, who owns a sizable vinyl collection in which is included a few sex pistols and clash records, whose roommate proudly hangs a poster depicting the famous “black power” salute at the 1966 Mexico City Summer Olympics, and who attended multiple Bernie Sanders rallies this spring, finds a real life political revolutionary in Khalid Albaih. He’s just so cool. I think Khalid is living the dream of every angsty teenager whose complained about how bad their lunch food is at the local high school. He’s an artist, who is not self-righteous but is righteous, his art is poignant and looks at the worst situations in the world with cock-eyed honesty. What I actually admire about him though, is his ability to keep his head level.

His part in the Arab Spring revolution can’t be understated. Art is the means to the end of political revolution. That’s why the 60’s in America can be defined by a series of Bob Dylan protest songs. Khalid knows this is his role in the chaos that spread across the middle east in 2011. He doesn’t necessarily boast about it, or recognize it explicitly. Rather, he shows the true face of revolution, he is able to say that yes, that cartoon pissed off the dictator of Egypt, but that’s what I was looking to do cause he pisses me off. Only, he would say it way more articulately. Through this intention, this conscious knowing of purpose, Khalid is the epitome of what a good political revolutionary looks like. He is Therou’s Civil Disobedience, Martain Luther King Jr.’s sermons put into action, and his results are impressive.

That is then what all sixty of us enrolled in the continuing revolutions course learned from observing him in conversation. That the role of revolutionary is not filled by people who are clear in intent and ruthless in action for their goals, but articulate, talented, and above all smart people, who act only on the notion that they know what they want is right. That’s what Khalid was teaching us by his conversation, that if want to change the world start by being smart, and being creative.

Chaos, Art, and Other Thoughts on Observing a Volcano

Some years are more important than others.  That’s just the way history works. 1945AD, 0AD, the ones where something so monumental to the way humans after will live happens that it gets put into a multiple choice test as the right answer in some high school kids history class.  1816, is not one of those years.  However it’s a fascinating year to look at for study as it seems to offer 200 years on a remarkably similar situation in which the world was and currently is in environmental, societal, political, and historical contexts.  Why is this?

Well as professor Wood pointed out the parallels between the world two hundred years ago and the world today is remarkable.  The biggest threat to the way we live is environmental today, as it was in 1816 with the eruption of a volcano.  Because of this, peoples have been displaced and threatened, find themselves refugees, and largely the political and intellectual debates of the time surround this.  In 1816 a volcano erupted causing global temperatures to plunge and crop yields to plummet.  In 2016, the industrial world set up by humans is causing global temperatures to rise, and extreme weather events, directly impacting the industrial world have caused destruction across the world.  People, which is what these events really have to do with each other, are effected in the same way.  The most vulnerable to these events, often the working class and impoverished suddenly have their lifestyle’s attacked; they are victims, forced from living their way into the life of refugees.  Thus, the parallel is there, prof Wood urges us to learn from 1816 to try and handle our present day better.

Wood infers that the art of the day is our key to this.  He examined Frankenstein as being perhaps the tale of a monster created by society.  He pointed out the parallels between the way the monster is viewed in Shelly’s novel and the way refugees are looked at by people.  He argues that the fear of otherness is what’s relevant about the story.  His example is very well articulated and brings to thought a question for today.  What does the art and rhetoric of this time say about the climate and the people affected by it?  That is ultimately what Wood questioned.

This is a tough question for someone living in the year 2016 to answer completely.  Certainly the upcoming election will tell us a great deal about what the collective mass feels about global warming and the refugees of war and weather.  We can look at art, but it’s worth mentioning that it has taken a considerable amount of time for Shelley and Lord Byrons works to have been read critically like Wood does.  Perhaps, a good place to start would be here on Mayflower Hill, or slightly down it more specifically with the Oak Fellow, Khalid Albaih, and his political art.  The point is that the environment changes the course of human lives, and the place where we show that is in our art.  Ultimately that is what taking a analytical look at the eruption of Tambora in 1816 tells us about today-that’s why it is a “Revolution”.

Shoot the Messenger: Not the Science

The history of science was throughout my primary and secondary schooling, the unit I hated.  I just didn’t and still to some degree don’t really care about the so called “brilliantly designed” experiments and “great discoveries” made by some guy that’s been dead for hundreds of years and probably wore a wig when he was alive.  That’s always been my view on the Scientific Revolution.  So I was delighted when I saw the title of the first lecture, “How Scientific was the Scientific Revolution”.  “Finally”, I thought, “someone’s going to actually criticize the view that Newton, Galileo, Descartes, and company are to be revered as some sort of Mt. Olympus of science”.   The lecture didn’t actually take down the scientific-man in the closest form to a punk rock anthem I can imagine a philosophy professor getting, instead it recognized but didn’t mythologize, the figures of the scientific revolution.


That is to say that yes, Professor Cohen did like to name drop a lot during his lecture, but it wasn’t to say that the men of the scientific revolution were extraordinary in their motives for change.  His examination for the motives behind the revolution as a whole basically came down to that the partakers in the scientific revolution weren’t trying to forge something new, but instead were trying to capture a classical spirit for knowledge about the natural world.  In short, they were trying to be Aristotle.  I don’t necessarily think this gives men like Newton and Descartes enough credit, it makes them sound like fanboys, or imitators.  They weren’t I don’t think, trying to be Aristotle, but were I think grounded in the same spirit as him, one of curiosity for the natural world.  Curiosity, not classical studies, is what made the scientific revolution revolutionary.  Cohen concluded with the notion that the scientific revolution resulted in a greater of variety of voices in intellectualism for Western culture.  Where once there was just Aristotle there was then Descartes for philosophy, Newton for physics, Galileo for Astronomy, and everyone who followed them.  That is what was revolutionary about the scientific revolution, it was the moment western culture stopped obsessing over the Greeks and Romans and started to find that it had voices who were just as curious.


As far as the scientific revolution being scientific then, it doesn’t by modern senses.  Newton’s most famous works weren’t empirical, scientific method-driven, peer reviewed journal entries into investigating the natural world.  Yes, they employed some of each but in large part they were original inquiries into the stuff around him using logic.  He would have been a star pupil in a philosophy department. By modern standards no the scientific revolution was not scientific but that is because it wasn’t about a shift in science, it was a shift in ideas which led to the scientific method, scientific publishing, and modern science itself.