Author: Jeremiah Burns

Are we Revolutionary?

I have to admit that Keith Peterson’s talk regarding Bruno Latour’s notion that being ‘revolutionary’ is a myth of modernity threw me for a bit of a loop. I found his conclusions to be somewhat thought provoking, and the way that he explains Latour’s philosophies were a good challenge for me to wrap my head around, given that I have very little philosophical education besides my W1 course freshman year. Perhaps it is simply the history major side of me that demands more evidence to back up claims, but overall I found Latour’s arguments to be overly authoritative and opinionated, with little evidence to back them up. Peterson’s use of visual aids to help explain the philosophical schools of thought at play in the sphere of Latour’s subject matter were interesting, but ultimately left me a bit bewildered, with not enough time to grasp the full implications of Latour’s point of view, given that the lectures in this course are just around one hour long. Ultimately, while I think Peterson did a good job explaining Latour’s philosophies, I know I am not alone in saying that the subject matter was a bit too esoteric to fully grasp in the span of one hour with no background context beforehand.
I suppose, given the subject of this particular lecture, now would be an appropriate time to reflect on this course. Since there was no course evaluation that I could voice my opinions on, I think a good question to ask would be “Is ST 132 revolutionary?” Overall, my personal opinion would be to answer with “No”. As a student, this course in my opinion did not add anything revolutionary to my educational experience at Colby. For only one credit hour, a once-a-week lecture with a requirement of 10 500-word reflections, for a total of 5,000 words, is far too much work for a class that only gives a single credit hour. I had to take this course concurrently with ST 215 in order to take ST 215, but I did not find that this lecture series significantly aided my understanding of ST 215. If only attendance was required, I would have adopted a much more sympathetic attitude towards this lecture series, but I often found myself dreading the reflection submissions, and the scheduling of the lectures often awkwardly interrupted the studying schedules of both myself and my friends who took the class, especially during midterms and the last few weeks of classes. Additionally, I got the sense that Colby wanted us to take this course because it looks good on their promotional material. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there was a photographer present in every lecture in addition to the televisions in Miller street showing off the course in a spot where pretty much every tour group passes by. Ultimately, while I appreciated the lecturers on an individual basis, I think that the course in general sacrificed too much student time in order to allow the administration to point at this course and claim “Hey look, aren’t we such revolutionaries?”

Climate Revolutions

In recent years, climate science has gone through what could be described as a number of revolutionary developments. In terms of the climate itself, the impact of human made sources of pollution, emissions, and habitat destruction are accelerating the already rapid pace at which our planet is changing. The outcomes of this are many, including global warming, changing weather patterns, more powerful storms, rising sea levels, and mass extinction, and these factors may one day culminate to threaten the very habitability of our planet. Considering all this, it is very important to pay close attention to developments in the science associated with our climate. While there are many troubling developments in regards to our impact on the earth, technological advancements are increasingly improving our ability to assess and act on climate change. Better satellite imaging has improved our ability to measure global climate patterns and other developments like glacier and arctic sea ice loss. Additionally, advancements in green energy continue to aid in our ability to phase out fossil fuels and hopefully one day achieve carbon neutrality or even a carbon negative existence. However, much of these advancements depend on the motivation of the world’s population to address these problems. Much of the world’s governments are heavily influenced by industrial interests that actively work against to adoption of clean energy solutions to tackling our carbon footprint, causing long term damage to the planet in pursuit of short term profits. In the U.S., even more troubling developments are underway. Donald Trump, despite losing the popular vote by millions of votes, secured the electoral college victories necessary to win the presidential election. What many naively assumed to be campaign rhetoric regarding Trump’s climate change denial has now become the official policy of his upcoming administration, including even the CEO of Exxon Mobil as Secretary of State. In addition to the embarrassing nature of these developments, Trump’s administration will have the power to do unprecedented damage to the environment, due to the fact that not only the executive branch, but also the House of Representatives and the Senate are now controlled by a republican majority, many of whom have a history of climate change denialist stances and lobbying connections to the fossil fuel industry. It is clear that in light of the recent political developments in the United States that we need to have a climate change revolution. We need a revolution in the way that individual people think about their role in shaping the future of the planet. In order to counteract the damage that the next four years of the Trump administration will undoubtedly bring, Americans must come together in order to tackle climate change and see it for what it really is: as the greatest threat to humanity of our times, because under a Republican administration, we cannot sit by and trust our government to make the right decisions for us.

The Scientific Revolution

In Dan Cohen’s lecture regarding the so-called “scientific revolution”, one of the primary questions that he posed was whether or not we can view “revolutions” in scientific thought as revolutionary in their own right. In terms of this question, I would have to say that yes, scientific revolutions, or great breakthroughs in scientific or technological thought can be revolutionary. While they may not be revolutionary beyond the realm of the scientific community on their own, I would argue that revolutions in science and technology often lead to profound changes in the course of human history due to the impact of these “revolutionary” discoveries and breakthroughs. The specific scientific revolution that Mr. Cohen referred to occurred just a few centuries ago, but scientific revolutions – that is, revolutions brought about by scientific and technological breakthroughs – have been going on all throughout the course of human history. Take, for example, Ancient Greece in the 4th century BCE. After his predecessor died in a catastrophic battle that wiped out most of their army, Philip II ascended to the Macedonian throne. Beset on all sides by threats hoping to take advantage of the vulnerable state that Macedon found itself in, Philip quickly set about reforming his army. He equipped his infantry with long, two handed spears called sarissa, and pioneered new tactics for his newly formed army. He also was the first power in Greece besides Sparta to have a significant professionally trained army, whom trained and fought year round for their wage, unlike the other Greek city states, who formed their armies out of citizen militias. Philip was also the first to provide his soldiers with equipment, whereas other Greek city states required their hoplites to buy their own gear. In battle, the sarissa was able to keep enemies from reaching his infantry through a forest of spears, while his cavalry charged the archaic hoplite phalanx of the other Greek city states from behind. With this new army, Philip was able to bring much of Greece under his rule, and after his death, his son Alexander took the same army to the East, conquering Persia and going even as far as the Hydaspes river in India, and earning himself the title of Alexander the Great. In this instance, one can clearly see that while a technological development may not be revolutionary in and of itself, its adoption and effective application can be decisive in determining the course of history. Philip and Alexander were without a doubt effective commanders in their own right, but they would not have been able to achieve victory after victory without the technological innovations pioneered by Philip. Instances like these, in my opinion, show that scientific and technological breakthroughs can, indeed be revolutionary.

The Haitian Revolution

Overall, I enjoyed Mr. Popkin’s lecture on the nuances of the Haitian Revolution, but a few things stood out to me that I thought could have been improved. One thing that I think could have certainly improved the lecture was a bit more explanation about the Haitian Revolution in general and the context in which it took place. Being a history major, I have been briefly acquainted with the events of the Haitian Revolution in some of my other classes. However, not everyone else has. Based on some of the other responses in this forum, it appears that many other students had never heard of the Haitian Revolution and the significance it had in making Haiti into what it is today. Mr. Popkin dove right into the nitty gritty details of the historiography of the event, which gave more time for his in-depth discussion of the topic, but I think it would have been helpful to the students in the audience if there was a bit more context given at the start of the lecture. This brings me to my final observation regarding the Haitian Revolution. Mr. Popkin made the point that often times, the Haitian Revolution is virtually unheard of by the rest of the world. He then went on to further argue that the reason for the lack of education on the Haitian Revolution is due to racially biased curriculum that favors Eurocentric perspectives and historical events, which I would disagree with for a number of reasons. First of all, I would argue that the Haitian Revolution is sometimes taught, primarily because it is an example of a non-white revolution succeeding against European powers. I would also argue that beyond this characteristic of the Haitian Revolution, there is little point teaching it in an American classroom. In my experience, American school curriculum usually tends to focus on the parts of history that are crucial to understanding our country and the world at large, so besides American history, most of the history that is taught pertains to extremely important events, like the birth of civilization or the domestication of agriculture. The Haitian Revolution is neither significant to the course of American history, and outside of the subject of the history of French colonialist endeavors, the Haitian Revolution is fairly insignificant on the global scale. I would also contest the notion that American curriculum does not teach certain subjects due to Eurocentrism or racism because much of the history that I learned even as early as 1st grade was centered around the struggle against slavery and why racism is wrong. Perhaps things are different in the Southern states, but in the schools I attended, there was plenty of awareness for the folly of racist policies.

Remembering the Past

In Jeffrey Schnapp’s lecture, he makes a compelling argument on the subject of curating and revitalizing monuments in the modern age. Throughout the 20th century, the rise of fascism in Europe led to an epidemic of radically different monuments with stark aesthetics that marked an ominous development in world history. With the fall of fascism, the monuments still remained, and the question arose of what to do with these monuments that signified a dark time in history. I found his solution of what to do with the monument in a small town in Italy very interesting. His “wedding ring” addition to the column does exactly what it is meant to: get a conversation going about what the monument means and how we remember the past.

However, while debates surrounding controversial monuments have certainly become a hot button issue in the 20th and 21st centuries, controversial monuments are nothing new to human society. Humans have been creating monuments for as long as recorded human history, and even before recorded history, and monuments in the past could be just as controversial as in modern times. For example, in Ancient Greece, Greeks put up all sorts of monuments for important things. After the Peloponnesian War, which was a series of conflicts between rival Greek city states, mainly Athens and Sparta, hostilities resumed between Sparta, the foremost infantry-based military power of the Greek city states, and their allies, and a coalition of Thebes, a state that had recently rose to prominence, and their allies. In the battle, the Theban commander, Epaminondas, employed a radically different battle formation, which resulted in a decisive Theban victory, and crippled the Spartan’s military abilities to a point from which they never truly recovered. After the battle, the Thebans erected a monument to their victory at Leuctra in the form of a large column with Greek shields carved into it, as well as more complex elements, which have since crumbled into ruins. While it may seem perfectly normal to create a monument to victory, the monument of Leuctra was very controversial at the time, and came under a fair amount of criticism. This was because ancient Greeks typically did not erect permanent monuments for their victories against fellow Greeks due to a tradition of Panhellenic values. They did, however, erect permanent monuments for victories against non-Greek enemies, such as their victories against the Persian Empire at Marathon, Thermopylae, and Plataea. Erecting the monument at Leuctra signaled an erosion of the customs binding Greeks together, which had been stressed to the breaking point during the Peloponnesian War, and would not heal for some time.

Overall, I enjoyed Schnapp’s lecture. I also found that his answers to the questions regarding monuments to colonialists on college campuses very reasonable. It seems that there is a trend on college campuses to erase history without regard for the context in which historical figure lived, and it’s refreshing to hear someone so invested in this field to advocate for having a more open conversation regarding this subject.

The Origins of Data

This week’s talk was presented by Aaron Hanlon, an English professor here at Colby. He spoke on the subject of revolutions involving the way we think about data: What it is, how we visualize it, and what it means for our understanding of data-driven fields of study. He started off by arguing that data is an inherently visual thing. From the first uses of the word data, it has constantly been the goal of the presenter to present data in an easy to digest form, even when data was used in a strictly scriptural context. Theologians argued that to convey the essential “truths” of scripture, one should use simple and precise words. When the concept of data in a scientific, observational capacity developed, people like Francis Bacon of the Royal Society revolutionized the term “data”. The age of enlightenment brought about a revolution in scientific thought, which diverged from esoteric, subjective narratives as seen through the eyes of a human observer, towards a data-driven, more objective style of scientific thought with developments such as Micrography which made science much more accessible to more and more people. This new focus on data and its use as visual evidence also revolutionized scientific accuracy by cutting out the margin for error caused by words, which can be influenced by an author’s opinion or writing style.


Another revolution then occurs as we approach the modern, more technological age in the form of what we call “Big Data”. Usually we think of big data as a unique revolution of the last few years with the advent of massive data collection schemes by corporations and governments, which harness user data to draw all sorts of conclusions. These can range from who to target with advertising on Facebook, to who to target with airstrikes from a drone in the Middle East, either of which can be determined by an individuals web browsing patterns. However, this recent conception of big data is only one version of the issue of big data. Since the advent of exponentially growing computing power in the 1990s, scientists have increasingly had to grapple with how to parse large amounts of computational data, and, with greater difficulty, effectively visualize it in an easily-understandable format.


Overall, I thought that Hanlon’s talk was interesting. I enjoyed his deadpan humor and sarcastic demeanor, and his conclusions were not at all pretentious or preachy. I’d say that his notion of data as visual evidence is indeed a revolutionary development, but it is also certainly an ongoing one, much like the other “revolutions” in this lecture series. As data continues to become increasingly cumbersome and difficult to represent, we will have to pursue subsequent developments in how to effectively parse and represent data that no human could hope to comprehend without visual representation. Hopefully, an increase in the general population’s understanding and awareness of the developments in big data will in turn lead to more concern over the ever growing abuses of big data by corporations and government using data to their advantage.

The Complications of Classification

Judy Stone’s talk on the Unfinished Business of the Darwinian Revolution was an interesting supplement to Janet Browne’s talk on the ongoing Darwinian Revolution. Judy Stone took on a much different tone, however, and addressed many issues that are still prevalent in science today.


Judy Stone’s main points hinge around the misuse of Darwinian scientific developments and misuse of the subsequent developments in biology that came about in part as a result of Darwin’s work. This includes the misuse of genetics, biological classification, and evolutionary theory that put the true nature of science at risk.


Whereas Janet Browne’s talk discussed the ongoing Darwinian Revolution by primarily examining crucial developments that took place during and in the decades following Darwin’s life, Judy Stone’s lecture took on a much wider scope going both backward and forward in the timeline of scientific thought. She discussed early precursors of evolutionary theory, including Plato’s theory of forms, which asserts that every object or quality has an idealized essence of sorts, and she also touched on Aristotle’s musings regarding biological classification. She argued that the iconic image of an ape gradually evolving into man in a sort of march of evolutionary progress was misleading. This is one point where I actually disagreed with her conclusions. Her argument regarding the evolutionary artwork was that the progression of evolution was much more complicated than a linear pathway shown in the graphic, and that depicting humans as a more “progressive” version of apes didn’t make sense. I would actually counter by arguing that this graphic was never intended to be an accurate portrayal of evolution. It merely portrays one pathway of evolution, specifically, the pathway that led from apes and eventually to humans. While I agree that it is misleading to portray one species as more “progressive” than another, anyone who has studying the theory of evolution knows that one species evolving out of another does not make it necessarily better, but rather, it is simply adapting to survive in a different set of environmental circumstances, and is not by default a better organism because a better organism is an entirely subjective designation.


One quite compelling point that I thought Judy Stone made was on the subject of classification. She cautioned against using genetics as a way of over-classifying organisms to the point of over-simplifying science. The pitfalls of this are plentiful. She showed a number of articles with misleading headlines suggesting a genetic explanation for human traits ranging from drinking coffee to developing schizophrenia. In the scientific world, we are predisposed towards this type of thinking because it makes things simpler. Explaining something like an illness or personal trait in terms of easily quantifiable genetic data is attractive to scientists because it is an easier to understand explanation than the slew of other factors ranging from environmental stimuli to parental upbringing. The true danger of relying on types, however, manifests when we categorize people based on race, which leads to all sorts of problems because it takes a reputable theory like Darwin’s evolutionary theory and twists it into an inaccurate justification for racial hierarchies, which can lead to all sorts of problems that history has shown us that we must avoid at all costs.

Revolutionary Cartoons

Before Khalid Ali’s lecture on his artwork, I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical about how a political cartoon can have potency in a revolutionary context. However, after listening to Mr. Ali’s talk, I gained a newfound appreciation for the medium of political cartoons as vehicles for change, and I learned a lot about the history of the Arab Spring revolutions as well.


What was great about Mr. Ali’s work was that it was not artistically overdone, pretentiously intellectual, or needlessly complicated in any way. Each piece of his political cartoons were simple, straightforward, easy to understand, and had a self-contained message that was simple to digest. Artistically, they were simple enough for other revolutionaries to recreate. For example, his piece depicting the Egyptian president was easy enough to reproduce and had a punchy, potent message. This led to his work getting picked up by other protestors, and eventually spray-painted in Tahrir Square in Cairo.


I think Mr. Ali’s perspective as a cartoonist also gives him an interesting point of view regarding his own role in revolutions. His work blurs the line between propaganda, art, intellectualism, and politics. Part of why his works were so successful during the Arab spring was because it was one of the first large-scale popular uprisings that took place over social media and used viral media tactics to spread its message. For a political cartoonist like Ali, this is a unique opportunity, because the revolutionary medium through which the uprising took place was one already saturated with the traits of a uniquely technological environment. In an internet medium like facebook or twitter, a slew of content is constantly vying for a users’ attention, and content like political cartoons are perfect for it because cartoons can convey a simple yet potent message in a visual medium, which allows them to keep the users’ attention long enough to deliver a revolutionary message in a short span of time.


One point that Khalid made about the Arab Spring in particular stuck out to me as insightful. He was asked the question, “Has the Arab Spring failed?” which he responded to by saying that revolutions take time. I thought this was particularly insightful in light of the many pessimistic interpretations of the Arab Spring uprisings. In our modern age of instant gratification and fast-paced lives, it is easy to assume that because the Arab Spring did not achieve its proponents most lofty goals, it was a failure, but I would agree with Mr. Ali in stating that in order to have a revolution, you must also have patience. Expecting a revolution to be easy and quick is almost always unrealistic, especially when things are made messier with violence from opposing regimes. Instead, I view each positive change of the Arab Spring as a small success in and of itself.


Overall, I think that political cartoons are a uniquely powerful way of expressing revolutionary thought. They may not have the intellectual depth of a revolutionary speech or manifesto, but their easily digestible messages are potent tools for spreading ideas and allowing revolutions to go viral in the new age of internet-fueled activism.

The Legacy of Tambora

The Tambora volcano eruption of 1815 is in many respects an extraordinary event in human history. On a small island in Southeast Asia, a volcanic eruption occurred on a scale unrivaled in recent history. It wiped out entire populations for miles around and spewed unimaginable amounts of ash into the atmosphere. This resulted in what Europeans came to call the “year without a Summer,” and caused a three-year cooling period across the globe in which crop yields declined, famine and strife became widespread, and humans the world over struggled to deal with the crisis that fell upon them.


While reflecting on the Tambora eruption and the events in Europe that overlapped with it, the early 19th century takes on an almost apocalyptic tone, with all four mythical Horsemen of the Apocalypse represented in some sort of historical parallel over the course of just a few years. Just after the Tambora eruption, Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo, finally bringing an end to years of Warfare and Conquest at the hands of Napoleon and the French military. Just as these two horsemen of the apocalypse faded from Europe, Famine and Death came in the form of the Tambora eruption and the subsequent crop failures over the next few years. It is almost surprising that we do not see more of this theme take hold of accounts coming from Christian Europe at this time. Instead of biblical horrors, we see the first inklings of science fiction in the form of Frankenstein’s monster, a macabre parallel for the despised refugees seeking food at the time.


One thing that I found very interesting about the Tambora eruption was the far-reaching impacts on governmental policy in Europe. While it seems like a world away from the volcano, Europe was devastated by the crop failures caused by the volcanic ash in the atmosphere, forcing governments to respond to the starving masses begging for food. Would these relief measures have occurred without a Tambora-like event? If not, what would Europe have looked like today without Tambora and the subsequent social reforms?


In summary, I think the Tambora eruption is an extremely important reminder of our connection with the natural world around us. We may think ourselves safe from the forces of nature inside our climate-controlled rooms and built-up urban areas, but this is nothing if not a false sense of security. If anything, Tambora should teach us to take better care of the environment. Who is to say what kind of devastation would occur if Tambora were to happen today? I would dare say it would probably be even worse than in 1815. We are more reliant on a globalized network of human industry for our daily needs than ever before, and the planet is under an unprecedented amount of environmental stress due to human activity. Perhaps a Tambora-like event will be what we need to finally open our eyes to this reality, and bring about revolutions in policy that will address the pressing realities of the human connection with our environment.

Darwinian Revolution: The Evolution of his Legacy

When thinking about the Darwinian Revolution, I find myself wondering whether Charles Darwin realized the gravity of his scientific discoveries when he first published his famous tome “On the Origin of Species”. Often times, visionaries and groundbreaking thinkers like Darwin are just as likely to think that their work will change the world as they are to believe that they will have little impact at all. Thankfully for Darwin and the scientific community as a whole, his legacy is that of a true revolutionary – one who forever transformed the science of not just biology, but other fields as well. The Darwinian Revolution as it has come to be known was a groundbreaking shift in scientific thought throughout the world, but according to Janet Browne, it is much more than that.


Traditionally, the Darwinian Revolution was a revolution in scientific thought that took place in the years following the publication of Darwin’s findings on evolution. In this revolution, evolutionary concepts gradually took hold in the field of biology, challenging traditional concept on the origin of life, the very nature of life itself, and humanity’s place within nature on Earth. However, this interpretation is a very limited one according to Browne, and ignores some of the other fundamental changes that Darwinist thought brought onto the western world and the world as a whole. In England, there was relatively little noise regarding Darwin’s atheism, his theories’ implications for religious doctrine, and the social implications of his works, but in other places across the world, the opposite was true. In the United States, the much more religious populations rejected Darwin’s teachings, favoring the gospel of Christianity that espoused that the Earth and all life on it was created by God over the course of a week a few thousand years ago. In 1925, the Scopes Trial, in which a high-profile trial of a school teacher who tried to teach evolution to American children, illustrated that even decades after Darwin’s work had become widely accepted within much of the scientific community, there were still many who wholly rejected the idea of evolution in favor of traditional religious interpretations of the origin of life. Darwin’s work also led to changes in social policy, and not necessarily in good ways. In the late 19th and early 20th century, many new pseudoscientific theories regarding subjects like “biological racism” and “social Darwinism” bastardized Darwin’s work in an attempt to apply his concepts of evolution to different races and cultures in order to justify colonialism and European imperialism.


Overall, the Darwinian Revolution, like other revolutions, has a wider sphere of impact than traditionally recognized. While Darwin’s work certainly revolutionized scientific thought in the decades after his publishing, the implications of his theories inspired other schools of thought. His enlightening observations on evolution reached the entire world and are now taught in classrooms all over the planet. Perhaps the Darwinian Revolution is still not over, and will only come to an end when all believe in the scientific method over religious dogma, but until then, Darwin’s legacy will continue to inspire rationality and scientific thought all over the world.