The musings of Mr Monkeysized


Red Plenty and Cheap Ballet by monkeysized
August 27, 2010, 11:32
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Francis Spufford spoke about his book on the economic contradictions of the Soviet Union, Red Plenty, on the Today Programme this morning.

One aspect that he spoke about with the FT’s Gideon Rachman was the parallel with China of today. Many media observers are slightly too keen on extrapolating towards ever greater and more astounding triumphs. This is dangerous, but an inevitable problem given the number of English literature graduates in journalism.

Put simply, in the 1950s the Soviet Union was on a terrific trajectory (cheap Ballet was mentioned in the interview), powered by the heavy lifting of central planning and the memory of victory in the Great Patriotic War. But of course it didn’t work out like that. Similarly, China is currently on a terrific trajectory, and the straight lines drawn from the present into some future future show that China will soon dominate the world. But of course it’s unlikely to be like that.

It’s often said that journalists need to understand numbers a little bit more. That’s enormously important, but the understanding of numbers also needs to work alongside an understanding of history, of rises and falls and hubris and nemesis.

I listened to a podcast yesterday that dealt with an example of this: one of the world’s great religions, alongside Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Well, it was, at least for century upon century. The religion was Zoroastrianism. It barely exists today – but today is a fairly arbitrary point from which to judge it.

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Beer, evolution and 19th Century racialism by monkeysized
August 18, 2010, 15:27
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The Economist tells us with the help of a splendid map that Asia has become the world’s biggest consumer of beer, as continents go.

As with much, the Asians seem to be cheating here – it’s easy to be the ‘World’s Biggest XXX’ when you have more than half of the world’s population to play with. A quick look at boozing per head figures suggests that Europe still has much to be proud of once the population question is taken into account (bloody hell – the Czechs!).

But on a related note, I wanted to mention a dinner-table subject from my recent honeymoon in Romania. We were in a village where only three properties had access to piped water – the rest all drew their water from wells, either in the street or back yard (and this is very firmly part of the European Union…).

Holding up a delicious pint of frothy beer, one of my fellow diners said that beer was the prefered European method of water-purification: hence beer being the integral liquid element in European diets stretching back centuries and more. The Asians, this chap said, opted for turning dodgy water into tea, boiling water and flavouring with bits of plant. Hence, the argument went, Europeans had evolved a greater tolerance of alcohol over the generations, compared to the namby-pamby tea-drinking Asians. And that explains why our Oriental friends get drunk so quickly.

This all seems sensible and logical to me, especially as I increasingly try to take solace in presumed/hoped for genetic fortitude in combatting the worst effects of the unwise lifestyle choices that I occasionally indulge in. It also fits in, for instance, with the lack of tolerance for drinking milk in many African populations (wasn’t it something to do with the size of holes in one’s stomach lining?) and other peculiarities.

However, there is one question that burns a hole in my brain when pondering these genetic mutations. Yes, I know that however much humans differ in size and shape and detail on the outside, we’re all (barring oddities like the above) the same under the skin. So far so understandable. But when, might I ask, might a particular human population, cut off from the rest of humanity and subject to environmental factors that might force evolutionary adaption, become a separate species? It’s a fascinating question, and a logical one for anybody reading about evolution to pose.

My guess is that it isn’t posed, simply because of the problems of eugenics and 19th century racialism lurking in the background, what with the attendant legacy of genocide and prejudice. That’s a shame, as this seems to be most unmonkeysized – it underlines the human belief that we’ve somehow beaten nature, and ended up in a state of perfection that sits above and separate from the animals. And that, as if I need to remind you, is not good.