Author: mbmckinn

Are Modernity and Revolutionary One in the Same?

Has the West ever been modern? If not, what are the consequences? These are the issues Bruno Latour calls into question. Perhaps the term Revolution has been thrown around to casually. Perhaps, specifically, the West has thrown it around casually out of arrogance or ignorance.


Considering oneself revolutionary, Keith Peterson suggests, is to view oneself as special or different from ones predecessors and contemporaries. The Western World certainly fits this description. Without hesitation, we consider ourselves to differ radically from everyone else; we imagine ourselves to be a qualitatively greater civilization than every other, on the belief that we “mobilize nature as it is known to the sciences”. In other words, the Western World is scientifically backed; medicine, for example, is based on science and research instead of natural remedies or superstitious beliefs. Running with the example of medicine, I will evaluate Latour’s claim.


To say the West has never been modern may be a bit of a stretch, however to say it has never been revolutionary is, I think, a more plausible. The Western World has indeed moved into modernity, at least concerning modernity, because it has been introduced, or created rather, more resistant and hostile diseases and sicknesses. So, its medicine has had to evolve in order to combat the, for example, viruses that it has created through abusing antibiotics. Other parts of the world have not felt the urgency to change their medical practices, on account that the same things do not threaten the West as they do them. This makes them vulnerable to disease, however only if we introduce it to them. Tribes that have made contact with the white man, for instance, have usually been unpleasant encounters, as the diseases we carried ravaged their people. In their everyday life however, their medical practices are probably sufficient enough to deal with the threats that their environment imposes on them. Thus, is it fair to say the West is radically different than other parts of the World? Maybe. But I think the claim that we are qualitatively greater is rather pompous. Are science may be more advanced, but it is also necessary for the conditions we live in. More isolated civilizations do not nearly have the sciences that the West boasts, yet they get by just fine with what they have. In fact, if we were to put Western people into these more remote civilizations, their sciences and technological advancements would probably do them no good for surviving in that particular environment.


Latour’s claim, therefore, is I think a harsh critique of the Western World. The West, I think has been and is modern, due to the advancements it has made and has had to make. However, whether or not it is revolutionary can be debated. It would seem natural for modernity and revolutionary to go hand in hand, but I think it is possible for the West to be one and not the other.

Recognizing the Haitian Revolution

Though the Haitian Revolution is not considered in the same light as the American or French Revolution, fortunately, lack of recognition has no affect on its historical significance. On January 1 1804, the Haitian Revolution came to fruition, as France became the first nation to recognize its independence. Haiti thus emerged as the first black republic in the world, and the second nation in the western hemisphere (after the United States) to win its independence from a European power.


The “silencing” of the Haitian Revolution ultimately undermined the role played by non-whites in forming the Western World and the ideas it stood for; namely that of liberty, freedom, and equality. While such notions are attributed to heroes of the American and French Revolutions, the Haitian Revolution is a reminder that they were not from purely a European descent. In fact, the Haitian Revolution was carried out predominantly by a group of non-white, illiterate men, women, and slaves. Although French Enlightenment ideas are commonly acknowledged as a source of inspiration for the Haitian Revolution, it was actually initiated quite randomly at a religious ceremony at “Bois Caiman”. The significance of this is twofold. First, it attributes further credit to the slaves and native population for having come up with the roots of a Revolution all by themselves. The second point of significance is that what happened at “Bois Caiman” is rather ambiguous. For this reason, the motives behind the Haitian Revolution are not as clear as they could be.


One thing that remains clear is that the Haitian Revolution was as prideful as the American and French. In 1793, the French, for the first time offered freedom to all the slaves of the Sainte-Domingue colony. The offer was rejected. While the slaves wanted their freedom, they had built it in their mind as something that they ought to establish, as opposed to something forced on or offered to them by French tyranny; which sounds to me like a similar concept to those that drove the American and French Revolutions.


Haiti had a history of slave rebellions; the slaves were never willing to submit to their status and with their strength in numbers (10 to 1) colonial officials did all that was possible to control them. Eventually, withstanding French power and English reinforcement, Haiti earned their freedom from the French. However, though the French relinquished their control of Saint-Domingue, the impact of French colonization remained in Haiti. For instance, the classes and hierarchical structures were predominantly set by the effect of French colonists breeding with the natives. Their children were the natives who were educated and wealthy once Haiti gained its independence.


In my opinion, whether or not the Haitian Revolution deserves more widespread recognition is not a question. While history classes in the United States will naturally be more inclined to talk about the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution has equal significance.

Destroying Monuments is Destroying History

What happens when a monument outruns its historic epic? Should it be destroyed, altered, or remain unchanged? One of the biggest critics of monument building, Lewis Mumford, said that by allowing architecture that has no meaning for the living, we are paying homage to the dead, and as a result turning our cities into tombstones. However, in my opinion, monuments of outdated significance should not be subjected to destruction. Just because they are no longer compatible with modern views, their historical significance should not be willingly forgotten.


Part of the problem I see with a desire to destroy monuments that represent old and outdated views or ideologies is that they are often monuments that are symbolic of what we consider as “bad”. Thus, whereas we have an inclination to revere monuments we see as “good”, we reject and want to destroy those we see as “bad”. But when we start to pick and choose and discern bad from good for ourselves, we run into a conflict to contradictory views, and while there may be a general consensus as to which one is good and which one is bad, it doesn’t warrant that the “bad” monument should be destroyed. If, as a society we are going to allow a particular view, then we must allow competing views as well or else we are guilty of hypocrisy and censorship. The same holds true for destruction of monuments. In my opinion, we cannot justify the destruction of a monument we perceive as “bad “ with reasons and arguments. While they our arguments may be valid, they are not sufficient causes to revere one monument more than the other. For instance, if a modern community (that is mostly Christian) wants to erect a monument to God or Jesus or one of His Disciples, they are completely within their right to do so. They breach their rights however when they forbid other monuments from being built because they represent conflicting views. Similarly, they too breach their rights when they destroy monuments that represent conflicting views. If, for example, there is a small following of Judaism or Satanism within the predominantly Christian community, they too have the right to have monuments symbolic of their beliefs even though they challenge Christianity.


The Monumento alla Vittoria faces the aforementioned dilemma. Mussolini had it built on an abandoned monument site in Austria to symbolize their victory in World War 1. It became symbolic of the fascist movement, which is no longer fitting with modern Italy.


The solution agreed upon was to alter, not destroy, the monument. In a play on history, a ring was added to one of the monument’s pillars as to poke fun at the idea of Fascism wherein the individual was wedded to the state. What right did the government and organizations that spear-headed the effort have to change the monument? Since it was impossible to confer with Mussolini, they took it upon themselves to determine what the monument would stand for. The monument was changed because of one reason, and that is that the powers at be in Italy did not want anything to associate them to Fascism. However why should this warrant the change (and an ugly change if I do say so myself) to the monument? They had no right to put the ring on the monument. They could have expressed their view by building another monument, or constructing a sign outside the monument that expressed their discontent with what the monument stands for. All of these viable options were disregarded simply because Fascism is outdated.


The historical significance of the Monumento alla Vittoria was smeared, degraded, and vandalized by modern society because its message didn’t coincide with the current views society values. What this is then, is trying to rewrite history. By changing and destroying monuments we consider “bad”, we are literally taking away the physical manifestation of history in exchange for a view that better suits modern society. There are other ways to voice discontent for a certain view or ideology without censoring it or destroying it. Thus, in response to Lewis Mumford, I think that our cities are becoming tombstones because we destroy old monuments. The views they harbor are killed, and replaced with ones we agree with.

The Risks and Rewards of Data

Dating all the way back to the 17th century, during which Robert Hooke recorded the observations he had taken through microscopes and published them in the book Micrographia, information has been visualized and in more recent times quantified, so that a broader range of people have access to information that they are unable to learn about themselves. This explosion of data has indeed revolutionized how we go about inquiry and how we operate. Predictions for instance, whether they be for stock market trends or sport outcomes, are now based on numbers and data. The gut feelings and intuitions humans relied on long ago have now become obsolete. What’s clearer now more than ever is that whenever sufficient information can be quantified, modern statistical methods will outperform an individual or small group of people every time. However at what cost?


Professor Hanlon talked about potential risks of quantifying information, such as ambiguity and lack of content. Data represented in binary computation for example is black and white. There is no room for context and no judgment involved. Whereas this is an efficient process, the potential for danger is worth consideration. For when taking the human element out of information, things like emotion, anomalies and other randomness are not accounted for. Let’s consider a bet for example. You and your friend want to make a bet for next Sunday’s football game. We’ll imagine the Raiders are playing the Broncos. Statistical method and computation can account for things like: The teams’ respective head-to-head records in their last 20 games, the number of games won by the home team, the number of games won by the Raiders since signing David Carr, the number of games won by the Broncos since losing Peyton Manning, the number of games won by either teams when the game has been played in snow, and the list can go on like that forever. All of this data can be considered and put into some sort of algorithm that can predict, depending on the certain conditions of the game next Sunday, which team is most likely to win; and this prediction will be fairly accurate and telling. What statistical methods can’t do, however, is consider the fact that the game is taking place on Thanksgiving, and that the center for the Broncos has a tradition where on Thanksgiving he eats a huge breakfast and drinks heavily during lunch. Obviously, this is a fake example, but I think the point is clear. ON Thanksgiving, the Broncos are at a disadvantage because on their key players can’t perform as well due to his holiday traditions. Whereas statistical predictions can’t factor that into their data, humans can consider it and use the information to come to a decision and make the bet.


Looking at the bigger picture, the growing collection of data has made modern day life tremendously easier and more efficient. For the most part, there is little downside to losing context for unimportant things. We can live with for instance, Amazon recommending a movie we hate because the data it had accumulated from our recent purchases thought we might like it. I think up until now the side effects of quantifying information have been minor, but all it takes is one costly error to make us reconsider whether the efficiency of data is worth it.

Dar”Win”ian Revolution

Darwinian Evolution is wrongly depicted, according to Professor Stone, through the iconic image of man’s ladder-like evolution from ape. The theory of evolution, specifically Darwinian Evolution, should instead be viewed as a branching process. If we think of evolution as a tree, then the theory becomes entirely based on contingency. For instance, the root of the tree, we may suppose to be the common ancestor of all life. The fact that today, humans exist, is not accounted for by a predestined path that the earliest life form followed, for throughout evolutionary history there has been potential for species to branch off in different directions. Thus, natural selection, which Darwinian Evolution grounds itself in, is a product of circumstance. For example, natural selection would state that giraffes with long necks survived because all those with short necks died out for being unable to reach the leaves on tall trees. However the fact that the leaves giraffes eat grow on trees that are very tall, or even that giraffes eat leaves at all is contingent. In other words, the desirable trait of long necks rested on the circumstances that giraffes ate leaves and that those leaves grew high up in tall trees. It could have been just as likely that giraffes ate plants that grew on the ground, and then short necks would be a desirable trait.


The point of the scenario I presented is that throughout species there is variation. The traits individuals possess are not inherently good or worse, but more or less agreeable with the environment that they find themselves in. This, as Stone talked about, is what distinguishes evolutionists from mutationists. Mutationists are concerned with the fact that mutations are the source of variation within species, and that natural selection hinges on how well the mutations fare. Whereas evolutionists, in comparison, recognize mutation (inter-species variation) as not so fundamentally different from variation across species. An entire species, that is to say, is made of individuals that are exceptionally different from one another, but linked together by biological classification.


The prior point is where I thought Professor Stone really drove home her argument. If we can think of mutation on the level we think of variation across species, then typological thinking may be overcome. Stereotyping, racial profiling and other types of prejudices would then become obsolete. As is every individual, living creature, humans too are all different. Though we have certain qualities that we classify under homo sapien, each person is his or her own unique individual. Like snow flakes, we all share certain properties, or are made from the same stuff/material, but our structure is unique.

Curiosity to Urgency: Revolutionizing Climate Science

Climate science is first and foremost an old and well-established science, which dates back to the 19th century. It has recently been considered at a revolutionary stage in its lifespan because of emerging climate crises and its efforts to combat them. With a political feud brewing over the world climate in this day and age, Climate Science may very well be the key to addressing the controversy in a way that can get people to accept scientific facts.


Like all sciences, Climate science was born from curiosity. In particular, scientists of the 19th century were driven by their curiosities to inquire about strange phenomena such as “erratics” and the surface temperature of the earth. Sightings of scratch marks in sediment sheets and boulders in unnatural environments were cause for suspicion. The scientists of the time pursued answers and explanations to satisfy their curiosity, ultimately gathering evidence for a historical climate of Earth that included periods in which the planet was covered by large ice sheets. Powerful glaciers were answers for the scratch marks and “erratics” that scientists had observed, however the question of what caused such Ice Ages to occur remained unanswered. Milutin Milankovic was the man who ultimately solved Earth’s drastic climate changes, as he argued that the Ice Ages were a result of the planet’s changing position in relation to the Sun. His theory, now known as Milankovic cycles, is evidence for over 14 glacial cycles in the past six hundred thousand years, as well as a predictor of future glacial cycles.


Curiosities and pursuits of curiosities such as the previous example have occurred as a part of Climate Science since the 19th century. For instance in 1824 Jean Fourier theorized that the temperature of the Earth’s surface is able to sustain life, because heat from the sun passes easily through the atmosphere and heat radiation from the Earth’s core has a hard time leaving the atmosphere. Basically, he proposed that the atmosphere functioned similarly to a greenhouse. John Tyndall serves as another example for good measure. His experiments with gases and the amount of radiation specific ones absorbed yielded very interesting results. He found that oxygen, nitrogen and argon (99% of the atmosphere) are almost totally transparent to solar and terrestrial radiation. Trivial gases like water vapor and carbon dioxide in fact absorbed radiation more radiation, despite the fact they make up a negligible fraction of the Earth’s atmosphere.


Curiosity was the origin of Climate Science, however in such a critical time in the planet’s climate history I don’t think it will suffice as a means to improvement. Earth’s temperatures are rising, sea level is rising, and Climate Science needs to revolutionize from a science of curiosity to an assertive science that people acknowledge as just as legitimate as any other. The Earth’s climate is changing, and it is up to Climate Science to determine the consequences of these changes, and to work with political parties to take appropriate measures to address them. Modern climate changes have been proven to be man made problems. While such a thought is somber, there is also hope, in that man-made problems have man-made solutions.

Darwinian Evolution

The Darwinian Revolution is a particularly interesting revolution because it is still going on today. While Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution in the mid 19th century, it wasn’t until about 100 years later that it started to accumulate credibility. Many scientists accepted evolution as a scientific fact in the 19th century, however they favored competing theories as opposed to the Darwinian model. It wasn’t until the 1940-1950’s that scientists pulled together the “evolutionary synthesis” that broadened the consensus for natural selection as the basic mechanism of evolution.


While today Darwin is recognized as the man who theorized evolution in terms of natural selection, he was not the only evolutionist of his time. In fact, Darwin was one of many. His theories were not pulled from thin air, but inspired by the ideas of other evolutionists such as Herbert Spencer, Robert Chambers, and Alfred Wallace. Specifically, Alfred Wallace sent Darwin an essay that proposed the same evolutionary theory, prompting joint publication of their theories.


Everything about Darwin’s upbringing and lifestyle inevitably led to his work in evolution theory. First off, he was born into a scientific family and undoubtedly grew curious of science at a young age. Darwin also lived an easy-going life. Money was never an issue, and he had enough wealth to do his experiments from home and in his garden. He worked with barnacles, pigeons, expressions of apes and humans, and hybridization and fertilization of plants. Yet even with all the resources to fund and carry out these experiments that led to his work with evolution, he could do nothing about the controversy his theory created.


As previously mentioned, Darwinian Evolution was not accepted during Darwin’s time. In fact, it wasn’t until about 100 years after it was published (in 1838) that it started to gain credibility. Why was his view frowned upon though? The main reason is that the theory conflicted with religious views. One of the affects of Darwinian Evolution was that it discredited God as the creator of plants and animals and all life on Earth. It is easy to see why the scientific community of the time would be cautious to embrace such a theory. Even Darwin himself was careful not to describe his work as atheistic. He would have called himself agnostic instead. While people were indeed giving up on church doctrine, many of the scientists were reluctant to give up all religion. Respectable scientists kept themselves as agnostics, as atheism was too radical for the time. Nevertheless, Darwin accomplished the goal of evolution with his theory of natural selection (to explain nature without divine intervention) in a way that kept him out of hot water with religious authority. For even though Darwinian Evolution contradicts religious belief, it doesn’t deny a creator.


Darwin imagined that if people accepted his proposal, big changes would come about. Yet as we look back on the history of the revolution of Darwinian theory, it is clear that his theory was at times in great jeopardy of being suppressed. If the church had taken more extreme measures, it is possible later generations would still not have felt comfortable adopting Darwin’s views.

The Voice of the Voiceless

Revolutions are often behind the scene movements, carried out by a select few who are determined to make their voices heard. However, for some, in their way is an oppressive government that censors their messages. This can come in many forms. Some governments choose to take complete control over news and media, thereby regulating a consist flow of rhetoric to the public. Others, such as many Arab nations, make it difficult for their citizens to obtain visas, and thereby prevent revolutionary messages from leaking to neighboring countries. The Internet has promptly become a means by which revolutionary individuals can share and spread messages. In particular, social media facilitates such a need, as messages are shared and passed from friend to friend until they go viral.


The benefits of using social media as a sort of revolutionary platform, is that it is a very efficient tool. There is very little effort spent on the part of the revolutionary, compared to the massive potential for his or her message to be read or heard. This is primarily the reason why cartoons have become such an attractive option for speaking out against injustices. Through a simple picture, perhaps accompanied by a brief message, an artist can represent something wrong with contemporary society. This is all he or she needs to get the ball rolling. It’s like setting a spark to a fuse. Once the message is on social media, it can very easily blow up.


The aforementioned benefits of the Internet and social media are however some of its shortcomings. As social media is constantly changing and flooding with new stories and messages, there is an unfortunately small window an artist has for his or her message to catch wind and stay relevant. This, I think means I was wrong to say it takes very little effort on the artist’s part. There is actually a lot that a cartoon has to have in order to make an impression in such a small window of opportunity. First off, it has to be relatable to the viewer. If it is not, he or she will not show much interest. Second, it has to be either witty or aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, just having a significant message or cause is not enough to go viral on social media. For a cartoon to be successful people have to be impressed by it, it has to stick in their head and be something that viewers can’t help but share with their friends. And yet, even if it accomplishes all of these things, there is still the possibility that it can be overshadowed or completely forgotten by a bigger and better message. This is the danger of revolutions through social media; there are always more trying to get started. People in this day an age have very short attention spans, and only focus on one thing at a time. Therefore a revolutionary cartoon is almost impossible to make a substantial difference. To keep people interested and engaged with the cause, artists must consistently churn out cartoons and messages. Their work is almost a game of percentages; send out enough cartoons, and the chances one or two of them will go viral significantly increases.

The Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution was, as Professor Cohen explained, not a single, observable moment or occurrence. It was rather, a blurry movement propagated by great philosophers who theorized about the universe based on empirical observations of the world and the heavens. If there was a particular instance that can be identified as a start to the Revolution, historians agree it was the supernova of 1572. Signified by the appearance of a new star in the night sky, the supernova of 1572 caused extreme confusion and interest within the philosophic community. It was a phenomenon that could not be explained, and therefore started a standard of precise record keeping for coming up with better and more accurate theories.


After 1572, progress, or should I say, a change from traditional views to newer views that explained the world with fewer inexplicable phenomena, certainly happened; no question. There is debate however, acknowledged by professor Cohen, of whether this change could be considered scientific and/or revolutionary.


It is worth examining, I think, as David Wootton does, that this is perhaps a sticky issue, because the language has changed from then until now. What was considered science back then, included things such as natural philosophy and logical reasoning. So indeed, if we could ask someone like Aristotle or Galileo, or even Newton, if they thought the Scientific Revolution was scientific, their answer would most likely be different than ours, because there interpretation of the word scientific was different than ours. The same can also be said of revolution. Thus, our perception of how scientific the Scientific Revolution was has no definite answer. However, I do think there is agreement that the Scientific Revolution was revolutionary. For one thing, we have labeled it as such. As Professor Cohen suggested, perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Scientific Revolution was that we acknowledged it as a revolution. The prominent scientists and philosophers of the time understood that their work was on the cusp of something big, and for that to come to fruition is, in my opinion, certainly revolutionary. To be clear, they didn’t know exactly what was to become, nor did they set out to achieve any specific goal, but they did theorize about phenomena and establish laws that are the basis of science to this day, such as those of gravity and heliocentrism.


Ultimately, the Scientific Revolution highlighted the ability of human reasoning, specifically supporting the idea that it is sufficient enough to learn the ways of nature. Part of this included an effort to rid teleological explanations, i.e. Aristotle’s final cause, from explanations of the ways of nature. In this way they made a radical break from the medieval worldview, and gave precedent to modern ideas. And although technology and modern science has drastically increased since the 16th and 17th centuries, the ideas generated by during the Scientific Revolution are still the foundation of ideas we hold today. Ideas such as human inquiry through empiricism and rationality, as well as the idea that progress is always achievable, and there are always things to be learned and discovered.


History on the Verge of Repeating Itslef

The resilience, ingenuity, and morality of the human race were all tested in 1816 when Mount Tambora erupted. Severe climate change caused widespread famine, disease, crop failure, and economic collapse. It was a legitimate world crisis. People were desperate for a solution, but were hard-pressed to trump Mother Nature. With the climate in turmoil, crops failed from lack of warmth and sunlight, bread prices soared throughout Europe, riots flooded the streets, and suddenly, man’s fight against nature evolved into a fight against each other. Bitter rivalries and competitions bloomed over rights to land and food; killing had become a means to survival. Even mothers who saw no way out of this crisis elected to kill their children rather than see them starve to death. Indeed, the Tambora Revolution put European civilizations on the brink of existence.


Today, global climate is at a comparably dangerous stage as it was in the early 19th century. The world we currently live in, however, is vastly different than it was two centuries ago. Human civilization has advanced to, what back in 1816, would have been incomprehensible. We have technology, equipment, and intelligence that can help prevent another crisis from occurring, but only if we are willing to make and follow through on tough choices with regards to climate control and regulation. If we fail to make the aforementioned decisions, humanity may very well fall into a crisis similar to that of the Tambora Revolution. The only difference will be is that this time, it will have been our own fault.


If in fact another climate crisis is blooming, I fear for humanity. Historically, our species does not have a great track record with co-existence and getting along with other people. The Tambora eruption revealed this. However, in the modern era, I would argue this would only be exemplified more. As we have become dependent on technology, I’m afraid that we have become less equipped to deal with a crisis in which our technology has no value. Pitted against each other in a fight for food with no technology, and a much higher population than 1816, the result would, in my opinion be grim. Desperation brings out the worst in us, and I think if in the face of a Tamboran-like crisis we somehow manage to work together and keep our moral code, it would be a miracle.


What then, is the course of action humanity need take in order to prevent global climate from becoming too dangerous? Already, global warming has affected sea levels as polar ice caps and glaciers melt away. Carbon levels have risen as trees are getting cut down and CO2 is being pumped into the atmosphere. Things are not on a good path. Yet, it is not too late to change our ways and fix the problems we have created. Our future will ultimately be decided by how humans tackle climate change. If we are ready to make tough choices, as in cutting back on energy consumption, deforestation and other environmentally harmful practices, we can salvage our world. However, as history has shown, if we let our climate get out of hand, the consequences will be devastating.