Suggested readings, #113

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

How to think clearly. By learning to question and clarify your thoughts, you’ll improve your self-knowledge and become a better communicator. (Psyche)

‘How to Tell a Joke’: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The Roman politician and orator Cicero used humor to charm audiences—and humiliate opponents. (Wall Street Journal)

Stoicism isn’t and never was (merely) a rich white man’s philosophy. (APA blog)

How to make sense of contradictory science papers. Published research is less about conclusions than science at play. (Nautilus)

What IS the Problem of Akrasia? Opening up a whole can of interconnected worms. (Medium)

How equality slipped away. For 97 per cent of human history, all people had about the same power and access to goods. How did inequality ratchet up? (Aeon)

The audacity of nope. An epic (and safe) post-pandemic summer depends on your ability to make “no” your favorite word. (Medium)

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Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

8 thoughts on “Suggested readings, #113”

  1. Aeon piece is wrong at worst, simplistic at best. I used to think that way, too, but burials from pre-agricultural revolution hunter-gatherer societies indicate that at least some of them were decidedly inegalitarian, and certainly that “stronger” leadership existed than this piece presents. And, the implied smooth, one-way transition of an agricultural revolution is also not true. Generally, the newest in anthropology and related sciences follows insights like this:

    Nautilus piece didn’t totally impress me, either. I think it both downplayed the amount of Avi Loeb’s overselling, and in things like the red wine stuff, didn’t even talk about “who funds some research.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, treatment of Loeb was far too charitable.

      I’m going to reserve judgment on Sterelny’s piece. He’s a very thoughtful philosopher of biology.


  2. I was getting ready to do a second comment on the Aeon. I’ve read a couple of books on the subject in the past few years. (And, I hadn’t checked the author on the Aeon; I have read other stuff by Sterelny myself, and yes, generally good.)

    One of my relatively recent readings was a book whose thesis was that we should talk about the agriculture EVOlution rather than REVOlution. (Author did not use those terms, but that was the gist.) The main ideas were that:
    1. Before circa 4000 BC (Old World, later in the New), people “checked back out” of agriculturalism as much as they “checked in.”
    1A. This was for a variety of reasons, including dynastic termination (happened often in the ancient world after 3-5 generations); raids by early pastoral nomadists, esp. after first domestications of horse and ox (itself used as a riding animal as well as beast of burden and meat animal at times), or ongoing drought or other short-term climate issues.
    2. We should speak of village states, not city states. That is, 1-4 villages, each no bigger than, oh, 700 or so people, controlling a total population no more than 10,000.
    3. These people were generally NOT totally settled agriculturalists. Instead, crops were generally part ofa total food project, and gathering and hunting alike were practiced along with them. This is especially true in areas where game might be in nearby mountains.

    This book:

    In short, in light of a book like this, talk of an agricultural REVOlution seems to sound the bells of “progress” too much, just like misinterpretations of evolution.

    Now, at some point, circa 4000 BCE or a bit later, that evolution did accelerate, of course. We had village states becoming city states. We had the First Dynasty in Egypt and Sargon of Assad. Scott doesn’t touch on that part of the transition in his book, but even then, from what the archaeological record shows, it wasn’t seamless.

    To also be honest, Sterelny seems to pitch a semi-stereotyped view of women as upholders of egalitarianism. It’s nowhere near as bad as New Agey takes on Venus of Willendorf and “goddess culture,” but it could be seen as headed a small degree in that direction. It’s possible that women are, on average, somewhat more egalitarian, yes. But, guaranteed? No.

    Now, pre-gunpowder, women’s violence was less deadly than men’s, of course. But, they were also violent. And, violence is not the same thing as inegalitarianism.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Can’t edit to add this, but as a separate note? You mentioned Kim Sterelny is an evolutionary biologist. Indeed, and a good one, as well as a philosopher, mainly a philosopher of science. That said, the actual science being involved here is … well, it’s cultural anthropology, not evolutionary biology, and anthropology is James Scott’s background (as is political science);

      If you’ll note, in talking about things like peasant farmers and anarchy today, not only looking at early archaeology, but where we’re at today, is part of Scott’s big picture, per his other books.

      I am, per the book I just read about language, by Corballis, interested in his take there, that is, Sterelny’s. Looking at its precis, I think Sterelny/Planer are probably in the same broad territory as Corballis.

      Also speaking of, I’m assuming that this material in Aeon is an extract from, or summary of, Sterenly’s other new book listed in the sidebar. I’m curious if he incorporates any of the new research in anthropology (or not).


  3. One final note, if you’ll indulge me? People like Scott on an agricultural EVOlution, Corballis and likely Sterelny on language, and (I think you agree with me on this), the NON-existence of memes as a direct analogy to genes, show that cultural evolution is generally much, nay, MUCH less saltationist than biological evolution.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I appreciate the APA article on Stoicism’s origins (I forwarded it to a Stoic friend of mine who is always looking for info on female Stoics), but I’m afraid the authors are playing on the wrong field. I don’t think it is important whether Stoicism was started by, used by, or perpetuated by rich white men or poor green bacteria. I can’t think of any reason to suppose that it would function (or not function) in a person’s life only based on levels and types of skin pigmentation, genitalia shape, or bank account balances. If it works, then anyone who derides it as a rich white man’s philosophy would likely be discouraging non-rich, non-white, non-men from using it, to their detriment.

    To me, that is a more important point/argument to make, rather than getting stuck trying to portray its origins in a particular way.

    It reminds me of the people who get caught up defending the character of Rousseau, or Hume, or Washington, or Jefferson, or Lincoln, or MLK, rather than focusing on the quality and importance of their ideas.

    Sadly (to me), it seems like this is the world we are now living in.


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