Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

28 FEBRUARY, 2012

Wired for Culture: How Language Enabled “Visual Theft,” Sparked Innovation, and Helped Us Evolve

By:

Why remix culture and collaborative creativity are an evolutionary advantage.

Much has been said about what makes us human and what it means to be human. Language, which we’ve previously seen co-evolved with music to separate us from our primal ancestors, is not only one of the defining differentiators of our species, but also a key to our evolutionary success, responsible for the hallmarks of humanity, from art to technology to morality. So argues evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel in Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind — a fascinating new addition to these 5 essential books on language, tracing 80,000 years of evolutionary history to explore how and why we developed a mind hard-wired for culture.

Our cultural inheritance is something we take for granted today, but its invention forever altered the course of evolution and our world. This is because knowledge could accumulate as good ideas were retained, combined, and improved upon, and others were discarded. And, being able to jump from mind to mind granted the elements of culture a pace of change that stood in relation to genetical evolution something like an animal’s behavior does to the more leisurely movement of a plant.

[…]

Having culture means we are the only species that acquires the rules of its daily living from the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors rather than from the genes they pass to us. Our cultures and not our genes supply the solutions we use to survive and prosper in the society of our birth; they provide the instructions for what we eat, how we live, the gods we believe in, the tools we make and use, the language we speak, the people we cooperate with and marry, and whom we fight or even kill in a war.”

But how did “culture” develop, exactly? Language, says Pagel, was instrumental in enabling social learning — our ability to acquire evolutionarily beneficial new behaviors by watching and imitating others, which in turn accelerated our species on a trajectory of what anthropologists call “cumulative cultural evolution,” a bustling of ideas successively building and improving on others. (How’s that for bio-anthropological evidence that everything is indeed a remix?) It enabled what Pagel calls “visual theft” — the practice of stealing the best ideas of others without having to invest the energy and time they did in developing those.

It might seem, then, that protecting our ideas would have been the best evolutionary strategy. Yet that’s not what happened — instead, we embraced this “theft,” a cornerstone of remix culture, and propelled ourselves into a collaboratively crafted future of exponential innovation. Pagel explains:

Social learning is really visual theft, and in a species that has it, it would become positively advantageous for you to hide your best ideas from others, lest they steal them. This not only would bring cumulative cultural adaptation to a halt, but our societies might have collapsed as we strained under the weight of suspicion and rancor.

So, beginning about 200,000 years ago, our fledgling species, newly equipped with the capacity for social learning had to confront two options for managing the conflicts of interest social learning would bring. One is that these new human societies could have fragmented into small family groups so that the benefits of any knowledge would flow only to one’s relatives. Had we adopted this solution we might still be living like the Neanderthals, and the world might not be so different from the way it was 40,000 years ago, when our species first entered Europe. This is because these smaller family groups would have produced fewer ideas to copy and they would have been more vulnerable to chance and bad luck.

The other option was for our species to acquire a system of cooperation that could make our knowledge available to other members of our tribe or society even though they might be people we are not closely related to — in short, to work out the rules that made it possible for us to share goods and ideas cooperatively. Taking this option would mean that a vastly greater fund of accumulated wisdom and talent would become available than any one individual or even family could ever hope to produce. That is the option we followed, and our cultural survival vehicles that we traveled around the the world in were the result.”

“Steal like an artist” might then become “Steal like an early Homo sapiens,” and, as Pagel suggests, it is precisely this “theft” that enabled the origination of art itself.

Sample Wired for Culture with Pagel’s excellent talk from TEDGlobal 2011:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

28 FEBRUARY, 2012

Vintage Posters from the Golden Age of Travel, 1910-1959

By:

Motoring in Germany, hunting in the USSR, beaching in Portugal, and other adventures.

Mid-century graphic design gave us such treasures as Saul Bass, the WPA, and science ads like we haven’t seen since. From the Boston Public Library’s Print Collection comes this stunning collection of vintage travel posters from the Golden Age of Travel, when railways stretched across America and Europe, swanky ocean liners brought elegance to international waters, and the roads swelled with automobiles. Armed with these vibrant visual ephemera, travel agents and ticket salesmen ushered in a new era of excitement about the adventures of travel, channeled through the language of design.

'Australia. Great Barrier Reef, Queensland,' Gert Sellheim, 1930-1939

'Orient Calls,' Mune Satomi, 1936

'Palestine Line,' T. Trepkowski, 1935

'Hunting in the USSR,' 1910-1959 (approximate)

'Italy,' Michahelles, 1910-1959 (approximate)

'La Syrie et le Liban,' Dabo, 1910-1959 (approximate)

'Visit Palestine,' Franz Krausz, 1930-1939 (approximate)

'Tasmania. The anglers' paradise,' 1910-1959 (approximate)

'Come and see Netherland India,' 1910-1959 (approximate)

'No rain in Portugal but tourists pour in,' Nuno Costa, 1954)

'Cote d'Azur,' Pierre Fix-Masseau, 1988)

'Klosters. Graubnden, Schweiz,' J. C. Müller, 1910-1959 (approximate)

'Japan,' Mune Satomi, 1937

'Varmland, Sweden. An unspoiled mecca for tourists,' Beckman, 1936

'Alaska via Canadian Pacific, Taku Glacier,' Greenwood, 1910-1959 (approximate)

'By train for seaside holidays! Take a Kodak,' Gert Sellheim, 1910-1959 (approximate)

'Motoring in Germany,' Ludwig Hohlwein, 1910-1959 (approximate)

'Where the deer and the antelope play. National Parks,' Dorothy Waugh, 1930-1939 (approximate)

'The adventures of today are the memories of tomorrow National Parks,' Dorothy Waugh, 1930-1939 (approximate)

'Eat more fruit. Put pep in your step' (Victorian Railways) by Dibdin and Brown, 1910-1959 (approximate)

For more delicious vintage design from the Golden Age of Travel, dig into 20th Century Travel: 100 Years Of Globe-Trotting Ads.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

28 FEBRUARY, 2012

From Invisible Ink to Cryptography, How the American Revolution Did Spycraft and Privacy-Hacking

By:

What personal data has to do with George Washington’s dabbles in chemistry.

Our personal data is among today’s most valuable information currency. It’s often hard to determine what part companies own, what part the government owns, and what part, if any, is entirely our own — provided a third party hasn’t already sold it to someone else.

These intrusions of privacy aren’t new. For centuries, the post office had every intention of reading your mail. Beginning in 16th-century France, the “black chamber” or cabinet noir was set up in governments throughout Europe to scan incoming mail for traitorous or politically useful correspondence. The “black chambers” were run by the government and hidden from the public, even though their presence was obvious to all: letters were opened, copied, their seals re-waxed by specialists.

“In the eighteenth century, there was no expectation of privacy when the postal system was used,” writes John Nagy in Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution — a fascinating lens on the Revolutionary War as a war of information, where no correspondence could be sent that wasn’t first encrypted and whichever side hid theirs the best would come out on top. Here are five key ways the British and the Americans duped each other:

INVISIBLE INK

Invisible ink, far from the magical compound pop culture has made it out to be, has been around for ages — a book on invisible writing was published in 1653. Invisible ink involves any acid which will weaken the paper, causing it to darken and burn if heated. Benedict Arnold used it in his traitorous correspondence with the British, and the Americans used it just as often.

Instead of heat, George Washington used a chemical form of agent and reagent, and he was quite often on the verge of running out of one or the other as he moved from camp to camp. When he would write to his supplier requesting more, he would always refer to the solution as “medicine.” Eventually, a lab was set up for the express purpose of making invisible ink for the general.

An invisible ink letter treated with a chemical reagent from British spy Benjamin Thompson, 1775 (From the Collection of the Clements Library)

ENCRYPTION

Codes were perhaps the most common form of encryption, and they ranged from the simple substitution of one letter for one number, or a shifted alphabet, to the diplomatic ciphers practiced by Benjamin Franklin, who chose for his cipher text an appropriately obscure snippet of French prose. Washington used at least four cipher alphabets: one transposition, one substitution, and two varieties of the pigpen cipher, which was derived from Freemasonry. (At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson even used a special cipher just for the Lewis and Clark expedition.)

Four ciphers used by Washington, the pigpen cipher is on the bottom. (Library of Congress)

MASKING

For his personal correspondence, British General Henry Clinton would handwrite a regular letter and then create a mask for it, a cutout either in the shape of an hourglass or a paper with little windows in it, which would fit over the original letter to reveal the secret message. Presumably sent separately, the mask, or “cypher paper,” would sometimes not make it to the recipient, causing one friend in England to muddle through a letter from Clinton for “some time, and not until several readings, ere I found there was a secret centre.”

A masked letter sent by General Henry Clinton, 1777

THE DICTIONARY

The most popular mode of encipherment was something both sides had access to: Entick’s Spelling Dictionary. Diplomat John Jay used it heavily to creative elaborate codes with page numbers, dots, and substitutions. With thirteen editions in existence at the time of the war, it was essential that both parties have the same version. Sometimes, the key reference book was less well known: Benedict Arnold used the first volume of the fifth Oxford edition of the Commentaries on the Laws of England for his coded correspondence.

An 1802 edition of Entick's Spelling Dictionary, which was also pocket-sized

DECEPTION

Washington couldn’t spend as much money on spies as the British, but he could at least trick any spy that might report on the American army: he would ship sand and pretend it was gunpowder, he prepared inflated troop returns to hand off to double agents, he famously had his troops dress as Indians.

George Washington, 1772

In addition to offering a fascinating slice of history, Invisible Ink is also a reminder that access to information was, and remains, a game-changing bargaining chip of power.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.