paleo Ideofact

Friday, June 07, 2002
 
Choice
This machine rules. And Apple products always give me a warm fuzzy feeling.

My three year old sometimes insists on having a truck or an airplane or one of his toy tools by his side when he goes to bed; I feel the same way about the iBook.

Okay, normal posts will resume tomorrow, I promise...

 
iBook
I probably won't be posting much tonight. I just got an iBook, and I'm still playing around with it, getting it the way I like it. I'll say this much: My three year old was incredibly impressed when I played one of his DVDs on it.

 
Delight
Josh Treviño of the delightful i330 provides some evidence of my suspicion that nonfiction inspires the same sort of passions as fiction (see the 7th of his June 6 posts). And, for what it's worth, I don't think an attachment to Runciman is a sign of pedantry. As recently as the early 1990s, a very smart girlfriend of a very good friend of mine who had been accepted to a very prestigious graduate school intended to make Runicman a very major part of her studies.

Actually, if Josh will share more about the volumes on the Crusades, I'll write more about Runciman's take on the Medieval Manichee.

Incidentally, I found out something else he and I have in common. Josh's wife is much wiser than he is (see his post #6 on the same date for proof).

Thursday, June 06, 2002
 
Digression
Reader S. Worthen is kind enough to share another misconception of the Middle Ages, in an email she entitled "Weblog digression." (Speaking of weblog digressions, I've grown especially fond of one word headlines, and if I ever write a stylebook for Ideofact -- don't hold your breath -- it'll have a section on headwords rather than headlines). In any case, Ms. Worthen writes:
I wanted to respond to a point you weren't making, but did quote Bernard Shaw making. The digression in the title of this email is all mine. Flat Earthers have - to the best of my knowledge - always been a bit of a fluke, certainly since Plato (in the Timaeus) and early discussion of the planetary spheres. The world had to be round since it was perfect, and a sphere is the most perfect of the 5 Platonic solids. Thales (6th century BC, I believe offhand), certainly, was rumored to think the earth was a disc floating on water (David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: 1992), but the dominant astronomical model from the 4th century BC on anyways, in Western Europe, was a spherical one with the earth suspended unmoving at the center of the system. Lindberg's book happened to be the reference book closest to hand on the subject, but he helpfully makes exactly this point. "The sphericity of th earth, thus defended by Aristotle, would never be forgotten or seriously questioned. The widespread myth that medieval people believed in a flat earth is of modern origin." (p. 58)

Early Medieval maps, for example, show Earth as spherical - admittedly, you wouldn't want to venture very far south, since there was issue of whether or no you'd then have to walk upside down on the bottom half. Dante's version of the structure of the world certainly is predicated on the idea of spheres- Lucifer is at the very center of the earth, among ice and complete stillness.
In a subsequent email, Ms. Worthen agreed that she didn't particularly fault Shaw for the Flat Earth reference, since he was using it as an argument (and indeed, he goes on to posit people who believe in an hour-glass shaped earth) to show the credulity of us moderns. Her larger point, that the Middle Ages weren't quite as backwards as those who have used "Medieval" as a synonym for ignorant would have us believe, is well taken -- indeed, it's one of the main themes of Ideofact. I should add that I'm always grateful to those willing to write in and share with me their thoughts on the subject.

 
Frustration
Blogger just ate a fairly long post and has also swallowed the archives again.

 
Reading
Douglas Turnbull of The Beauty of Gray site has a post about reading, in which he says, more or less, that there should be no shame in making pleasure the main criteria for whether one likes a book or doesn't. I wholeheartedly agree, although I think that he may be a bit off in suggesting that non-fiction books and poetry don't provoke the same passion as works of fiction do. I think they do, but the audience for nonfiction or poetry is generally smaller than that for fiction. For those of us who derive not only intellectual but also aesthetic pleasure from a well-reasoned essay, or a lengthy argument that illuminates some obscure question of, say, history or philosophy, there is a certain resignation that comes with such pleasures. Few will share our enthusiasms, but nevertheless we cultivate them.

I was also reminded, regarding fiction, of two wise passages from Borges, one from a lecture about poetry, the other from a capsule biography of Virginia Woolf.
I have been a professor of English literature in the College of Philosopy and Letters at the Univeristy of Buenos Aires, and I have tried to disregard as much as possible the history of literature. When my students asked me for a bibliography, I told them, "A bibliography is unimportant--after all, Shakespeare knew nothing of Shakespearean criticism. Why not study the texts directly? If you like the book, fine; if you don't, don't read it. The idea of compulsory reading is absurd; it's only worthwhile to speak of compulsory happiness. I believe that poetry is something one feels. If you don't feel poetry, if you have no sense of beauty, if a story doesn't make you want to know what happened next, then the author hasn't written for you. Put it aside. Literature is rich enough to offer you some other author worthy of your attention -- or one today unworthy of your attention whom you will read tomorrow."

This is how I have taught, relying on the aesthetic event, which does not need to be defined. The aesthetic event is something as evident, as immediate, as indefinable as love, the taste of fruit, of water. We feel poetry as we feel the closeness of a woman, or as we feel a mountain or a bay. If we feel it immediately, why dilute it with other works which no doubt will be weaker than our feelings?
In this lecture, Borges goes on with an observation that reminds me of a friend's experience as an English grad student. He hated studying literature at the graduate level, because he never had any time to actually read a work of fiction. Borges said,
There are people who barely feel poetry, and they are generally dedicated to teaching it.
The second text relates somewhat to the idea of a canon, or a hierarchy of texts:
Virginia Woolf has been considered the leading English novelist. An exact ranking is not important, as literature is not a contest...


 
Misreading
Avram Grumar of Pigs and Fishes was kind enough to point out a couple of flaws in my post below, and I suppose Iain Murray can be thankful I'm not his editor (although I'm generally more circumspect when I'm getting paid to edit). Avram points out that Murray is responding to Behe in that paragraph, and Behe is arguing in essence that an analogy he offers is enough to refute evolutionary theory. Murray, by positing a series of occurrences, shows that the analogy isn't proof. Well, I'm getting tongue tied -- here's Avram's quote:
On the matter of Murray's article, you complain about his starting a paragraph with a definitive assertion, "This is a false conclusion, however", and then following it with a bunch of conjectures. I don't see this is a problem, because the conclusion he's refuting, his characterization of a claim of Behe's that certain molecular systems "must have" been designed, is an absolute statement. If Behe claims that something must have been so, and Murray comes up with a hypothetical case that shows a plausible alternative, then he has indeed refuting the claim that it must have been so.
To be honest, I think I made the mistake in part because in what little I've read of Behe's work and about Behe's work, I didn't get the idea that he was making conclusive arguments, but rather, was using the "mousetrap" analogy as an illustration of a thesis. But this was probably more a case of me making assumptions, and as I said, I'm not an apologist for intelligent design, merely someone who finds the whole discussion of interest.

Avram also says that I misstate the eye example, arguing that each successive adaptation from, say, light-sensitive skin to the full-blown eye would have successively greater levels of functionality. Again, it's the time element that's really decisive here, but I still feel, vaguely, like I'm in the room full of monkeys who eventually type out the complete works of William Shakespeare. This doesn't mean I'm ready to throw up my hands and declare the earth was created in 4004 b.c. (or whatever the date was). For whatever reason (perhaps because I studied it in school), hominid evolution always seemed more plausible to me than the transition from, say, fish to amphibian to reptile. In any case, thanks again to Avram for his email, and I suppose that, so far, the answer to the initial question is yes.


Wednesday, June 05, 2002
 
Evolution
Can one question a prevailing scientific theory without being regarded as a potential theocrat? I began asking myself that question this afternoon after reading this post from the great Glenn Reynolds, the American Prospect article by Iain Murray he references, and the subsequent discussions from Pigs and Fishes, who further links a post by Rand Simberg, among others. It's not my intention to offer an apologia for intelligent design, beyond this one. When confronted with the mathematical work one of intelligent design's proponents, William A. Dembski -- who for a time ran the Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor University -- a handful of biologists and evolutionary scientists took the time to examine and, some argue, refute the work. The vast majority screamed like the Aristotelians confronted with Galileo's heliocentric universe, demanding that the opposing theory be not refuted, but suppressed. I do not mean to say it should be taught at schools as an alternative, but certainly giving a few mathematicians and theologists office space in a university to refine their ideas does not entail the end of Western Civilization.

The value of theories like intelligent design (as opposed to creationism, which is a different kettle of fish altogether) is that they challenge basic assumptions. Wrong ideas are every bit as valuable as right ideas if they stimulate debate, and make researchers ask new questions. This is because no human scientific system -- whether we're talking physics, biology, mathematics, whatever -- has exhausted its subject matter. We learn all the time, and we learn mostly from our mistakes. Further, I tend to agree with -- here he comes again -- Borges, who wrote in the essay The Analytical Language of John Wilkins:
...obviously there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural. The reason is very simple: we do not know what the universe is...

But the impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe cannot dissuade us from outlining human schemes, even though we are aware they are provisional.
Evolution is certainly a provisional science, and -- although I took my share of evolutionary anthropology courses at the University of Pennsylvania, and did tolerably well at them as far as I can recall -- I cannot escape the feeling that its conjectures and elaborate theories have far more in common with theology than with science. Consider this passage from Murray's Prospect article (with my own emphases added):
Most traits of living things that arise by natural selection are advantageous but not essential -- or at least not at first. However, successive traits can then develop that are especially advantageous in combination with a previous trait, in the end making one or both of them essential. An example might be the air-breathing advantage of lungs. At first, this would have benefited an amphibious creature whose habitat was extended by the ability to stray from water onto dry land. But when paired with the extra mobility gained from legs evolved for walking, lungs might have become essential in order to allow the evolving organism to fully thrive in a land habitat.
I count four conjectures in a paragraph with begins with the rather definitive sentence,
This is a false conclusion, however.
In my day job, I work as an editor, and if a writer turned in such a paragraph I'd tell him that either he change the first sentence to, "This may be a false conclusion," or follow up with declarative sentences.

The hyperlinked sentence that ends this paragraph, supposedly providing more evidence to back up the initial declarative sentence, references the evolution of the eye; here is the paragraph that I think Murray refers to, again, with my emphasis added:
For instance, it is theoretically possible for an eye to spring into being, in a single lucky step, from nothing: from bare skin, let's say. It is theoretically possible in the sense that a recipe could be written out in the form of a large number of mutations. If all these mutations happened simultaneously, a complete eye could, indeed, spring from nothing. But although it is theoretically possible, it is in practice inconceivable. The quantity of luck involved is much too large. The "correct" recipe involves changes in a huge number of genes simultaneously. The correct recipe is one particular combination of changes out of trillions of equally probable combinations of chances. We can certainly rule out such a miraculous coincidence. But it is perfectly plausible that the modern eye could have sprung from something almost the same as the modern eye but not quite: a very slightly less elaborate eye. By the same argument, this slightly less elaborate eye sprang from a slightly less elaborate eye still, and so on. If you assume a sufficiently large number of sufficiently small differences between each evolutionary stage and its predecessor, you are bound to be able to derive a full, complex, working eye from bare skin. How many intermediate stages are we allowed to postulate? That depends on how much time we have to play with. Has there been enough time for eyes to evolve by little steps from nothing?
The difficulty that evolutionists run into, it seems to me, is that while they have all the qualifications of scientists, their subject does not necessarily lend itself to the application of the scientific method. It is very hard, for example, to experimentally reproduce in a laboratory a process that required tens if not hundreds of millions of years to play out. Further, the early returns, as it were, from genetics haven't bolstered the evolutionary argument: mutations that would result in speciation -- the creation of one species from another -- don't seem to occur in nature; indeed, most mutations are maladaptive, and result in the death of the carrier of the mutated gene. Species that show a great deal of morphological variation -- dogs, for example, or Darwin's famous moths -- seem to carry that potential for that variation as part of their genetic make-up; it's not so much evolution as a species-specific adaptability that explains the variation. But I'm digressing from my main point.

Bernard Shaw (I'm grateful for blogging because it reminds me of books I've neglected for too long) wrote in his prefece to Androcles and the Lion,
And here I must remind you that our credulity is not to be measured by the truth of what we believe. When men believed the earth was flat, they were not credulous: they were using their common sense, and if asked to prove that the earth was flat, would have said simply, "Look at it." Those who refuse to believe that it is round are exercising a wholesome scepticism. The modern man who believes that the earth is round is grossly credulous. Flat Earth men drive him to fury by confuting him with the greatest ease when he tries to argue about it. Confront him with a theory that the earth is cylindrical, or annular, or hour-glass shaped, and he is lost. The thing he believes may be true, but that is not why he believes it: he believes it because in some mysterious way it appeals to his imagination. If you ask him why he believes that the sun is ninety-odd million miles off, either he will have to confess that he doesnt know, or he will say that Newton proved it. But he has not read the treatise in which Newton proved it, and does not even know that it was written in Latin. If you press an Ulster Protestant as to why he regards Newton as an infallible authority, and St Thomas Aquinas or the Pope as superstitious liars whom, after his death, he will have the pleasure of watching from his place in heaven whilst they roast in eternal flame, or if you ask me why I take into serious consideration Colonel Sir Almroth Wright's estimates of the number of streptococci contained in a given volume of serum whilst I can only laugh at earlier estimates of the number of angels that can be accommodated on the point of a needle, no reasonable reply is possible except that somehow sevens and angels are out of fashion, and billions of streptococci are all the rage.
And so it is, I would argue, with evolution. Even though the plausibility of a non-eye-bearing creature developing, through successive generations, a series of non-visual eyes and the mental capacity to receive images from them, until finally a working eye is produced -- and all of this in a blind world -- strikes me as a little far-fetched, in polite company it's necessary to bow to fashion. I wouldn't go to a Mormon Church service solely to point out deficiencies in that religion's founding documents; and I wouldn't point out the story-telling that's so much a part of evolutionary theory to people who take this sort of thing as a matter of faith.

So, finally, while I may not be an apologist for Intelligent Design, I think the attitude that some ideas are unworthy of discussion, that theologists or philosophers have no place in evaluating scientific theory, are short-sighted, and I think that scientists react in a rather unscientific manner when they're asked provocative questions. In The Land of Ulro, Czeslaw Milosz told a story I can't verify, but believe nevertheless, because few men of the twentieth century were as devoted to truth as Milosz. He explained William Blake's reaction to the mechanistic, Newtonian view of the universe:
Hence Blake's attack on the very foundations of the "scientific world-view." How that attack was pressed is not within my power to document. The task is made the more arduous because it would take us, as I said, outside the purely literary realm. A literary critic engaged with any of the Romantic poets hardly runs the risk of antagonizing the scientific community. The fact is that today Blake still manages to provoke and antagonize; I know of an instance in the United States where a Blakean was denied a professorship because of opposition mounted by the physics faculty, who were protective not of their theorems so much as of the language of their formulation.
Scientists are not always dispassionate seekers of the truth; they sometimes prefer to attack critics rather than defend their own premises. If evolutionary theory were on firm footing, Intelligent Design would have been ignored like Flat Earth theories. The vituperation directed against the theory proves, at least to me, that evolutionists aren't particularly confident that they can verify what they are saying, something, unless I'm mistaken, which is central to the scientific method.


Tuesday, June 04, 2002
 
Runciman
I wanted to write a little more on Steven Runciman, who's mentioned in the post below; I recall reading somewhere on the Web a piece that criticized this U.S. News & World Report article for citing this from Runciman:
When the Crusaders arrived in the Holy Land, they looked like one undifferentiated barbaric mess to their Muslim foes, who called them all Franks. But the unsophisticated Franks were tough. In 1099 they surrounded Jerusalem, assaulting the well-defended city for weeks. Finally, Godfrey and Tancred broke through, and the Crusaders poured in. Bloodthirsty after their fiercely fought siege, they swarmed over the walls and set upon the city's inhabitants–Muslim, Jewish, and even Christian. Later they boasted of wading through the city's holy sites knee deep in blood. Their brutality horrified the Muslim world. "Amongst the Moslems, who had been ready hitherto to accept the Franks as another factor in the tangled politics of the time, there was henceforward a clear determination that the Franks must be driven out," writes British historian Steven Runciman. "When later, wiser Latins in the East sought to find some basis on which Christian and Moslem could work together, the memory of the massacre stood always in the way."
I think someone has noted that Runciman's work on the Crusades has been superceded by the work of others; elsewhere I've read a rather gory post proving fairly conclusively that, given the area of the streets of Jerusalem in 1099, it would have been physically impossible to massacre enough people -- even assuming all their blood would have drained from their bodies -- to flood the those streets to "knee deep," but I couldn't find that post either. The Internet is becoming a bit like Borges' Library of Babel, an endless labyrinth of information.

Borges -- I should give his full name, Jorge Luis Borges -- is someone I refer to fairly frequently. He begins his short story Three Versions of Judas this way:
In Asia Minor or Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished with the burning of the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund.
Reading that, I can't help feeling that Runeberg -- the protagonist of Borges' story -- was cheated, and that life in a university town is far more impoverished than life among the second century Gnostics.

I am embarrassed to imitate Borges, but God afforded Steven Runciman the twentieth century as well. A rather too short obituary of him can be read here. Of his work on the Crusades, it says
Runciman's three-volume work, published between 1951 and 1954, became a standard for professional scholars and history lovers. He drew on Muslim, Greek and Armenian sources to show how Islam and Constantinople viewed the religious conquest, instead of focusing on the popular Western viewpoint that crusaders were heroes fighting barbarians.

"High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a sin against the Holy Ghost," Runciman wrote.
An early work of his, the only one of his I've read from cover to cover (I admit this with some embarrassment), which the Associated Press obituary fails to mention, was The Medieval Manichee: A study of the Christian dualist heresy. I was thinking of it when I commented below that I enjoyed his prose; here is a short sample, describing the attitude of the early Catholic Church toward orthodoxy:
...orthodox doctrine is complex and difficult, and it is tempting to make some simplification here or there--tempting, but not to be endured. For the vast superstructure that orthodox theologians have built over the fundamental Christian revelation is not the baroque expression of the whims of a few pedants and eccentrics, but the attempt of the best brains of a great intellectual era to display all the implications of that revelation. Sceptical historians might mock at the passion over which early Christian ecclesiastics would fight over some tiny doctrinal delicacy; but even an iota might clarify or might mar an essential aspect of the Faith. In Islam the tendency to heresy is smaller; for the revelation of Islam is a simpler thing, contained in the word of Mahomet. A logical and historical exegesis of the Koran should explain it all. Nevertheless, in Islam divergencies could not be kept down. The Christian revelation is far harder to fit into simple language; the room for error is infinitely greater.
I'm not sure I entirely agree with Runciman's conclusion regarding Islam; from what I've read of the Qur'an, I've found it to be a fairly complex work; the first few Surahs seem to lend themselves to multiple interpretations. But Runciman is almost certainly right when he writes:
The Church was narrow-minded because the true Path is narrow, and it knew that for Christians no other path led to Salvation.

This irritation led to intolerance and at length to persecution.
Runciman, incidentally, gives an interesting history of heresy in Bosnia, where Latin and Greek Christianity competed with the Patarene heresy, a variant of the Bogomil doctrine, sometimes simply referred to as the Bosnian church. Pope Urban V, in 1387, called Bosnia the "cesspool of heresy of all parts of the world." I know all the arguments in favor of the Catholic Church, but as someone born a Protestant and someone who intends to die one, I feel a certain affinity for the plucky Bosnians who rejected both the East and the West, preferring their own reading of scripture. Runciman traces their history up to the period of the Ottoman conquest:
The Sultan Mohammed the Conqueror awaited his opportunity. In 1463 he invaded Bosnia. The key fortress of Bobovats was held by an officer called Radak who had been forcibly converted from Patarenism to Catholicism. He surrendered it at once, from hatred of the Catholic king. Within a few days all Bosnia was in the Sultan's hands.

....The Patarenes rejoiced in the fall of the Catholic kings; but Turkish rule was to prove their ruin. According to the Sultan's orders, only such nobles as would embrace Islam could keep their estates. A large number of the Patarene nobility, men who had undergone exile rather than become Catholic, hastened to join their new master's creed. Possibly its Puritanism and its simple fatalism appealed to them. But the more obvious conclusion is that their religious fervor had only been disguised patriotism....By the end of the fifteenth century Bosnia was a predominantly Mohammedan province.
Of course, none of this gets me any closer to answering the Mongol question -- see the post immediately below -- but I'm still thinking about it.

Monday, June 03, 2002
 
Mongols
Reader Judith Weiss was kind enough to suggest a starting point for trying to answer the dreaded Mongol question:
I don't have any historian's explanation for the Mongols, but if you want a savvy historical novelist's view, try Cecelia Holland's Until the Sun Falls. (Her earliest 10-12 novels are amazing, then she began to wander into bodice-ripper territory and lost her edge a bit.)
Ah, losing one's edge. A very good friend of mine used to fret over losing her edge. Somehow, I think Ideofact would be a much more popular site if I shifted to bodice-rippers. Seriously, though, I have been thinking about the Mongols, without getting very far in my ideas. What prompted this discussion is this post below. Judith adds in a subsequent email,
Holland cites her sources in the intro - she relies heavily on the work of British historian Sir Stephen Runciman, whose specialty seems to be the medieval Mediterranean.

In any case, it's one of those books I reread every 2-3 years just because it's so good. I don't know of anyone else who has had the imaginative audacity to write a novel about the Mongols from their POV.
She adds that she doesn't consider herself a historical expert by any means, and hasn't read Runciman. Of course, I'm not a historical expert either, but I have read Runciman, and while I enjoy his prose, I have to confess that some of his writing is a bit out of date--at least as far as the Crusades are concerned. Maybe true Medievalists like H.D. Miller or the Cranky Professor can back me up on this.

Of course, that doesn't mean that Runciman's scholarship on the Mongols has been superceded. I also note that the reader reviews on Amazon.com are both quite positive. Here's an excerpt:
The Mongols, when they poured onto the plains of Hungary and Poland in the 13th century, were pure nomadic warriors. From Temujin, Genghis Khan, they had totally absorbed the concept that it was their destiny to conquer the world. Indeed, by the time of his death in 1227, they had already overrun a good part of it. By 1237 their armies stood poised on the Volga, looking westward. Their military leaders were Sabotai, Temujin's veteran general, and Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde, a grandson of Genghis Khan. Those armies consisted of one hundred and fifty thousand horsemen, each with remounts and armed with compound bows that could kill at three hundred yards, the finest light cavalry in the world. Opposing them in the west were squabbling armies of armored knights mounted on enormous horses, whose tactics were to charge an enemy headlong and close with him. They would soon find themselves utterly unable to cope with the tactics of the Mongols. Temujin had instilled in his warriors what no other nomadic horsemen have ever had -- iron discipline and a marvelous system of communications. They were, for the time, invincible, and all of Europe lay at their feet.

This is a splendid, unforgettable work. Its scope sweeps across half the world. The Mongols ruled the largest land empire the world has ever known. How many people today realize that amazing fact? Holland's research is very impressive. She has stood on the ground she describes. The wind of the steppes has blown in her face, and she has walked among the descendants of those terrible horsemen. If you like historical novels, don't miss this book. You will probably never find a better one.
I should probably read this book, and read up on the Mongols in general.

Sunday, June 02, 2002
 
Spengler
Sorry about the lack of posts the last few days -- I was in San Francisco, attending a conference for my day job. I'll be posting again soon.

In the meantime, you might want to read this prescient email from blogger Doug Turnball of The Beauty of Grey site, on my Jean Gimpel series:
I've only read the third part of your Gimpel series, so forgive me if you drew the parallel earlier, but it sounds to me like his work is simple an echo of Spengler's Decline of the West. Spengler too sought to cram all civilizations into patterns and to connect them with each other by analogy (I think he called it cultural morphology or some such.) And like Gimpel, Spengler (as the title might clue you into) saw the West as entering its final decline. I don't recall, but believe that Spengler saw Russia as the most likely next dominant power. Since he was writing around WWI, his ideas about the collapse of western society were picked up and celebrated by that pessimistic period. Plus, while Spengler may have gotten the big picture remarkably wrong, he had lots of interesting and imaginiative insights into historical societies.

It was also interesting to see his tremendous pessimism circa 1975. I noticed the same thing in the third volume of Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism (The Wheels of Commerce I think it was called), in which he more or less predicted that the world was on the brink of a long economic decline, heralded by the oil shocks and the 70's inflation. Since I was a wee tot at the time I don't know how widespread this idea was--perhaps it was a bit of common world-weary cynicism among historians at that time?

On the subject of windmills, while the issue of labor supply could be critical, it also occurs to me that one possible clue could be provided by the mention of plentiful water power in Europe. Could it be that the plentiful water supply there (which I'm guessing is a lot more abundant than in the Middle East -- if I'm wrong the whole argument is shot) encouraged the development of the technology for milling -- things like drive shafts, gearing, etc. And that it was only after that was developed that the possiblity of wind power was either recognized or that the machinery could be made to take advantage of it?

Anyway, I just stumbled upon your blog today and found it fascinating. I'm not a professional historian but am an interested amateur. Keep up the good work.
For the record, even though H.D. Miller was kind enough to call me a medievalist, I'm not a professional historian by any means, just a similarly interested amateur, and thanks for both the praise and the link.

As for Spengler, I've read much less of his writing than writing about his writing (Gimpel, it seems, knew him well, as Doug deduced). The idea that Gimpel's pessimism for the future of Western civilization was rooted in the 1970s tailspin is also on-target, which will be the subject of the fourth part of the Gimpel series. But both points are nicely combined in Gimpel's preface to The Medieval Machine, where he writes:
The recent international energy crisis, which precipitated the present economic and financial depression, has made many people deeply apprehensive that our Western technological society could be doomed to decline and preish like all the world's previous civilizations. It is hardly surprising that there is a revival of interest in the works of Oswald Spengler. In 1931, in an essay entitled, "Man and Technics," Spengler suggested that perhaps the "machine-technics" of our civilization would one day "lie in fragments, forgotten -- our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins like old Memphis and Babylon. The history of this technics is fast drawing to its inevitable close. It will be eaten up from within, like the grand forms of any Culture." He observed, too, that "where there is coal, or oil, or water-power, there a new weapon can be forged against the heart fo the Faustian Civilization. The exploited world is beginning to take its revenge on its lords."

Events have proved that Spengler's view was an oversimplification, but while one may disagree with his scholarship, his dogmatism, and his metaphysical theories, he nevertheless projected some astonishing insights into the future of Western civilization.
I was going to leave things here, but I thought I'd run a google search to see if I could link an online version of Spengler's "Man and Technics" essay, which is long but not nearly as long as the Decline of the West. I didn't find the text online, but I came across this link -- which I advise my readers to avoid -- where you can order it. Here's how the site describes it:
This short work is in many ways a compression of Spengler's longer work, Decline of the West. Spengler's theory is that cultures, like individuals, are born, then mature, decline, and die. White, Western culture is, he feels, no exception. He tells us, "The unassailable privileges of the White races have been thrown away, squandered, betrayed." Non-Whites may use our technology, but they lack the spirit that gave birth to it. "Our giant cities and skyscrapers (will lie) in ruins like old Memphis and Babylon," he said at a time when skyscrapers where just beginning to be widely built. However, true to the Aryan spirit, instead of advocating passivity in the face of the inevitable, he advocated heroism: "Better a short life, full of deeds and glory, than a long life without content."
Now, understand, I hate to link to the site, and I despise with a white hot hatred its viewpoint -- neo-Naziism in its purest (and unapologetic) form. I take quite literally the words of Jefferson: "That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with CERTAIN inalienbable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness..." Furthermore, I celebrate the mechanical and technical achievements of medieval Europe only because these achievements have universal value and application. Like the rights Jefferson enumerates, the greatness and benefits of Western technology are open to all, and, I believe, are central to providing life and the pursuit of happiness, and can be fully enjoyed only with the blessings of liberty.

Gimpel's short summation of Spengler, the capsule review that the crackpots offer of Spengler's essay, remind me of another passage from another crackpot, one I read long ago and almost screamed in horror as I read it:
...we must face the fact that our demands on life ordinarily rise even more rapidly than the number of the population. Man's requirements with regard to food and clothing increase from year to year, and even now, for example, stand in no relation to the requirements of our ancesotrs, say a hundred years ago. It is, therefore, insane to believe that every rise in production provides the basis for an increase in population: no; this is true only up to a certain degree, since at least a part of the increased production of the soil is spent in satisfying the needs of men. But even with the greatest limitation on the one hand and the ustmost industry on the other, here again a limit will one day be reached, created by the soil itself. With the utmost toil it will not be possible to attain any more from it, and then, though postponed for a certain time, catastrophe manifests ifself. First, there will be hunger from time to time, when there is famine, etc. As the population increases, this will happen more and more often, so that finally it will only be absent when rare years of great abundance fill the granaries. But at length when the time approaches when even then it will not be possible to satisfy men's needs, and hunger has become the eternal companion of such a people. Then Nature must help again and make a chose among those whom she has chosen for life; but again man helps himself; that is, he turns to artificial restriction of his increase with all the above-indicated dire consequences for race and species...
What we have here, I would argue, is something antithetical to the spirit of modernity, to the spirit of the Middle Ages, and for that matter, to the spirit of man. It is the idea of the limited earth. It is Malthus. It is also Hitlerian: the passage quoted immediately above comes from Mein Kampf. Hitler then writes that, given that Man's technological adaptability cannot overcome the limits imposed on it by the earth's limited resources, it is necessary...well, to kill six million Jews, to slaughter Poles and Russians -- in short, to inflict on humanity all the horrors of the Nazi regime.

And all for an idea that was utterly, absolutely wrong. There are two resources we have yet to scrape the surface of, let alone to reach to reach the bottom of: One is the earth's resources (see, for example, this post from actual medievalist H.D. Miller).

The other, gentle readers, is mankind -- you and me. And thank God for all of us, and let there be many more.