August 8, 2012
August 8, 2012
The era of world struggle between the great secular ideological -isms that began with the French Revolution and lasted through the Cold War (republicanism, anarchism, socialism, fascism, communism, liberalism) is passing on to a religious stage. Across the Middle East and North Africa, religious movements are gaining social and political ground, with election victories by avowedly Islamic parties in Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. As Israel’s National Security Council chief, Gen. Yaakov Amidror (a religious man himself), told me on the eve of Tunisia’s elections last October, “We expect Islamist parties to soon dominate all governments in the region, from Afghanistan to Morocco, except for Israel.”
On a global scale, Protestant evangelical churches (together with Pentacostalists) continue to proliferate, especially in Latin America, but also keep pace with the expansion of fundamentalist Islam in southern Africa and eastern and southern Asia. In Russia, a clear majority of the population remains religious despite decades of forcibly imposed atheism. Even in China, where the government’s commission on atheism has the Sisyphean job of making that country religion-free, religious agitation is on the rise. And in the United States, a majority says it wants less religion in politics, but an equal majority still will not vote for an atheist as president.
But if reams of social scientific analysis have been produced on religion’s less celestial cousins — from the nature of perception and speech to how we rationalize and shop — faith is not a matter that rigorous science has taken seriously. To be sure, social scientists have long studied how religious practices correlate with a wide range of economic, social, and political issues. Yet, for nearly a century after Harvard University psychologist William James’s 1902 masterwork, The Varieties of Religious Experience, there was little serious investigation of the psychological structure or neurological and biological underpinnings of religious belief that determine how religion actually causes behavior. And that’s a problem if science aims to produce knowledge that improves the human condition, including a lessening of cultural conflict and war.
Religion molds a nation in which it thrives, sometimes producing solidarity and sacred causes so powerful that citizens are willing to kill or die for a common good (as when Judea’s Jews around the time of Christ persisted in rebellion unto political annihilation in the face of the Roman Empire’s overwhelmingly military might). But religion can also hinder a society’s ability to work out differences with others, especially if those others don’t understand what religion is all about. That’s the mess we find ourselves in today, not only among different groups of Americans in the so-called culture wars, but between secular and Judeo-Christian America and many Muslim countries.
Time and again, countries go to war without understanding the transcendent drives and dreams of adversaries who see a very different world. Yet we needn’t fly blindly into the storm.
Science can help us understand religion and the sacred just as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe. This, in turn, can make policy better informed.
Fortunately, the last few years show progress in scientific studies of religion and the sacred, though headwinds remain strong. Across history and cultures, religion has often knit communities together under the rule of sentient, but immaterial deities — that is, spiritual beings whose description is logically contradictory and empirically unfalsifiable. Cross-cultural studies pioneered by anthropologist Pascal Boyer show that these miraculous features — talking bushes, horses that leap into the sky — make lasting impressions on people and thereby increase the likelihood that they will be passed down to the next generation. Implausibility also facilitates cultural transmission in a more subtle manner — fostering adaptability of religious beliefs by opening the door to multiple interpretations (as with metaphors or weekly sermons).
And the greater the investment in outlandishness, the better. This is because adherence to apparently absurd beliefs means incurring costs — surviving without electricity, for example, if you are Amish — which help identify members who are committed to the survival of a group and cannot be lured away. The ease of identifying true believers, in turn, builds trust and galvanizes group solidarity for common defense.
To test this hypothesis, anthropologist Richard Sosis and his colleagues studied 200 communes founded in the United States in the 19th century. If shared religious beliefs really did foster loyalty, they reasoned, then communes formed out of religious conviction should survive longer than those motivated by secular ideologies such as socialism. Their findings were striking: Just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning 20 years after their founding, compared with 39 percent of the religious communes.
It is not difficult to see why groups formed for purely rational reasons can be more vulnerable to collapse: Background conditions change, and it might make sense to abandon one group in favor of another. Interestingly, recent research echoes the findings of 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun, who argued that long-term differences among North African Muslim dynasties with comparable military might “have their origin in religion … [and] group feeling [wherein] mutual cooperation and support flourish.” The more religious societies, he argued, endured the longest.
For this reason, even ostensibly secular countries and transnational movements usually contain important quasi-religious rituals and beliefs. Think of sacred songs and ceremonies, or postulations that “providence” or “nature” bestows equality and inalienable rights (though, for about 99.9 percent of our species’ existence, slavery, and oppression of minorities were more standard fare). These sacred values act as moral imperatives that inspire nonrational sacrifices in cooperative endeavors such as war…
Siena’s Financial Fiasco: The world’s oldest bank took five centuries to accumulate its wealth — and three years to gamble it away
August 8, 2012
Valentina still has exactly 22 hours before her future comes to an end. She has to drop off papers at the Italian Football Federation by 6 p.m. tomorrow to register her club in Serie A, Italy’s top soccer league. It would be a triumph, a well-earned conclusion of a season in which the female football team of the Italian city of Siena qualified for promotion into the country’s highest league for the first time.
Dropping off the papers in Rome on time wouldn’t have been the problem, but the €17,000 ($21,000) registration fee was. The club’s traditional sponsor had backed out, due to “an internal decision,” as had been explained in the fax, written on letterhead with the Monte dei Paschi Foundation’s logo of three beehives at the top.
Valentina Lorenzini is the coach, masseuse and organizer of the soccer club Siena Calcio Femminile. She is a stocky 43-year-old who refuses to believe that it’s over, that something has finally come to an end in her city. “We won and we can’t be promoted,” she says. “How sick is that?”
But there is still time. It’s only 8 p.m. Perhaps she’ll still manage to find someone.
A Happy Exception
This is the way it’s always been in Siena, an idyllic Tuscan city where even the curbstones look as if they’d been chiseled by the sculptor Bernini. It’s a city over which the profits of a major bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS), were distributed year after year like manna. Sometimes it was €150 million, and sometimes it was even €200 million. It’s a lot of money for a city with a population of 55,000 people.
Siena was always considered a happy exception in Italy, a prosperous city with functioning hospitals, recycling and free buses for the schools. And now there isn’t even enough money to register the local women’s soccer club in Serie A. Siena’s coffers are empty, the main bank has to borrow money, the elites have failed and a commissioner has taken control of the city. Siena has gone from being an exception to a reflection of Italy’s general situation.
Most locals don’t perceive that as a compliment.
It is partly to do with the debt crisis, partly with the Italian state and a lot to do with Siena. It also has a lot to do with the fact that now, at 8 p.m., hundreds of Sienese wearing fake Yulia Tymoshenko-style braids and with pacifiers in their mouths are marching across the Piazza del Campo, banging on drums and waving blue-and-white flags.
The Secret of Siena
They are fans celebrating the victory of Onda (“Wave”), the part of the old city just behind the town hall that won the last Palio di Siena, a horse race held in the city twice a year. The race was more than a week ago, but the celebrations and the street-side banquets continue. And because the winning horse was called Ivanov, the women are wearing Tymoshenko’s trademark braids, because the Ukrainian politician’s name sounds Russian to them. The pacifiers are supposed to signify that the entire neighborhood was reborn as a result of the horse’s victory.
Valentina, the soccer coach, is also part of the Onda. She was baptized as “Onda,” and one day in the distant future her body will be laid out in the Onda district’s church. That’s the way things are here.
The 17 districts, or contrade, are regarded as the city’s secret. They have names from the Middle Ages, like Giraffe, Snail and Unicorn, they have their own baptism and death rituals, their own flags, symbols and newspapers, and each has its owncapitano, or leader. The daily Corriere di Siena newspaper devotes an entire page to the contrade.
For some this is an exemplary form of communal democracy, and one of its benefits is that it has ensured that Siena has a very low crime rate. For critics, however, the contrade are little more than interest groups dressed up in traditional garb, their goal being to extract as much money as possible from the bank’s horn of plenty.
The two views are not mutually exclusive. It is undisputed that the contrade would hardly have functioned as well as they do without access to the profits of Italy’s third-largest bank. The city and province of Siena make up the board of directors of the Fondazione Monte dei Paschi di Siena, and the foundation is the majority shareholder in Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena.
A Heretic’s View
“Siena is in the hands of an oligarchy that divides up the key positions,” says Raffaele Ascheri, an angry schoolteacher from an old Onda family. Calling himself the “eretico di Siena,” or heretic of Siena, he writes a blog and, in various self-published books, paints a picture of a city in which politicians from both sides of the political spectrum and contrada captains squander the spoils.
The heretic’s favorite enemy is Guiseppe Mussari, who Ascheri and others consider to be the man who led Siena into its current fiasco. “He doesn’t even understand English properly, not to mention the art of banking,” Ascheri says. Mussari was the chairman of the foundation for many years and, until April, the president of MPS. Now he is the chairman of the Italian Banking Association (ABI).
The city was pleased with Mussari for years — extremely pleased, in fact. Whether it was the breeding of threatened Maremma cattle, providing ambulances or putting on the citizens’ banquet in the Giraffe district, “la banca” always picked up the tab. It spent €233 million on the city in 2008 and €180 million the following year. In 15 years, MPS doled out about €2 billion, in a city of 55,000.
The procedure resembled the way things work in the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. Citizens merely had to submit their applications, and in most cases their dreams came true. Those dreams have included Siena Biotech, a pharmacological research center, an expressway to Florence, a reliquary by Francesco di Vannuccio, a Donatello exhibition, school buses and a swimming pool — all of them important and worthwhile projects…
History as science: Advocates of ‘cliodynamics’ say that they can use scientific methods to illuminate the past. But historians are not so sure.
August 8, 2012
Sometimes, history really does seem to repeat itself. After the US Civil War, for example, a wave of urban violence fuelled by ethnic and class resentment swept across the country, peaking in about 1870. Internal strife spiked again in around 1920, when race riots, workers’ strikes and a surge of anti-Communist feeling led many people to think that revolution was imminent. And in around 1970, unrest crested once more, with violent student demonstrations, political assassinations, riots and terrorism (see ‘Cycles of violence’).
To Peter Turchin, who studies population dynamics at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the appearance of three peaks of political instability at roughly 50-year intervals is not a coincidence. For the past 15 years, Turchin has been taking the mathematical techniques that once allowed him to track predator–prey cycles in forest ecosystems, and applying them to human history. He has analysed historical records on economic activity, demographic trends and outbursts of violence in the United States, and has come to the conclusion that a new wave of internal strife is already on its way1. The peak should occur in about 2020, he says, and will probably be at least as high as the one in around 1970. “I hope it won’t be as bad as 1870,” he adds.
Turchin’s approach — which he calls cliodynamics after Clio, the ancient Greek muse of history — is part of a groundswell of efforts to apply scientific methods to history by identifying and modelling the broad social forces that Turchin and his colleagues say shape all human societies. It is an attempt to show that “history is not ‘just one damn thing after another’”, says Turchin, paraphrasing a saying often attributed to the late British historian Arnold Toynbee.
Cliodynamics is viewed with deep scepticism by most academic historians, who tend to see history as a complex stew of chance, individual foibles and one-of-a-kind situations that no broad-brush ‘science of history’ will ever capture. “After a century of grand theory, from Marxism and social Darwinism to structuralism and postmodernism, most historians have abandoned the belief in general laws,” said Robert Darnton, a cultural historian at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a column written in 1999.
Most think that phenomena such as political instability should be understood by constructing detailed narratives of what actually happened — always looking for patterns and regularities, but never forgetting that each outbreak emerged from a particular time and place. “We’re doing what can be done, as opposed to aspiring after what can’t,” says Daniel Szechi, who studies early-modern history at the University of Manchester, UK. “We’re just too ignorant” to identify meaningful cycles, he adds.
But Turchin and his allies contend that the time is ripe to revisit general laws, thanks to tools such as nonlinear mathematics, simulations that can model the interactions of thousands or millions of individuals at once, and informatics technologies for gathering and analysing huge databases of historical information. And for some academics, at least, cliodynamics can’t come a moment too soon. “Historians need to abandon the habit of thinking that it’s enough to informally point to a sample of cases and to claim that observations generalize,” says Joseph Bulbulia, who studies the evolution of religion at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
From ecology to history
Turchin conceived cliodynamics during what he jokingly calls a midlife crisis: it was 1997, he was 40 years old, and he had come to feel that all the major ecological questions about population dynamics had been answered. History seemed to be the next frontier — perhaps because his father, the Russian computer scientist Valentin Turchin, had also wondered about the existence of general laws governing societies. (The elder Turchin’s dissident writings about the origins of totalitarianism were among the reasons that the Soviet Union exiled him in 1977, after which he moved his family to the United States.)
What is new about cliodynamics isn’t the search for patterns, Turchin explains. Historians have done valuable work correlating phenomena such as political instability with political, economic and demographic variables. What is different is the scale — Turchin and his colleagues are systematically collecting historical data that span centuries or even millennia — and the mathematical analysis of how the variables interact.
In their analysis of long-term social trends, advocates of cliodynamics focus on four main variables: population numbers, social structure, state strength and political instability. Each variable is measured in several ways. Social structure, for example, relies on factors such as health inequality — measured using proxies including quantitative data on life expectancies — and wealth inequality, measured by the ratio of the largest fortune to the median wage. Choosing appropriate proxies can be a challenge, because relevant data are often hard to find. No proxy is perfect, the researchers concede. But they try to minimize the problem by choosing at least two proxies for each variable.
Then, drawing on all the sources they can find — historical databases, newspaper archives, ethnographic studies — Turchin and his colleagues plot these proxies over time and look for trends, hoping to identify historical patterns and markers of future events. For example, it seems that indicators of corruption increase and political cooperation unravels when a period of instability or violence is imminent. Such analysis also allows the researchers to track the order in which the changes occur, so that they can tease out useful correlations that might lead to cause–effect explanations…