Saturday Commentary and Review #146
Hesitant Hezbollah, The Gilet Jaunes "Achieved Nothing", "Against Safetyism": The Rise of AI and "AI Doomers", The Genomics Revolution, The Great Fire of London Mystery
Every weekend (almost) I share five articles/essays/reports with you. I select these over the course of the week because they are either insightful, informative, interesting, important, or a combination of the above.
While I am writing this latest SCR entry, the IDF has managed to successfully separate the Gaza Strip into two portions: north and south. The northern portion is being slowly and methodically constricted like a boa constrictor would a rodent that it has wrapped itself around on the jungle floor.
Like in any conflict, many assumptions have been made about the participants involved. Some have been proven correct, others have missed the mark. The Israelis indicated that they would slowly and methodically remove Hamas from Gaza once the Americans gave them the green light to to so. This is what they are now doing, an assumption that has been shown to be correct. Others have suggested that Hamas would be springing a trap in Gaza after luring the IDF in via their cross-border raids. As of now, no trap has been sprung.
Assumptions were also being made about who the participants would actually be in this conflict. The global left has hoped to see a “reckoning” take place between Israel and its regional opponents, but so far only Hamas has shown up in full force. Hezbollah has engaged in some light border skirmishing with Israel, while the Houthi rebels have sent a few drones towards Eliat, only to be shot down by the Israelis. Islamic Jihad is involved as well, but their numbers are tiny. Many Arabs, Muslims, and others who side with the Palestinians were hoping that Israel would be swarmed from all sides, or, at the very least, that Hezbollah would move against Israel in force from the north. That has not happened, much to the consternation of many. Iran’s proxies have been quite muted in their response to the Israeli entry into the Gaza Strip. For now, a regional war has been averted, and the conflict has been contained.
Elijah J. Magnier is a Middle Eastern journalist and analyst who I first came across during the Syrian Civil War. He is partial to Hezbollah without being blinded by partisanship. I’m sharing his report on why he believes that Hezbollah has opted to not “declare total war on Israel”:
Hezbollah’s decision not to declare all-out war during the Al-Aqsa Flood appears to have been influenced by a combination of strategic restraint, political calculations, considerations of regional dynamics and operational challenges.
Hezbollah has engaged in strong rhetoric and has an impressive arsenal of offensive weaponry that can cause significant harm to Israel if unleashed. Why hasn’t it done so?
Questions have been raised in Lebanon and the Middle East about Hezbollah’s muted response despite its strong rhetoric and considerable arsenal. Hezbollah, a key player in the “axis of resistance”, had previously articulated its ability and willingness to launch massive attacks on Israeli settlements and the Galilee region as part of the “unity of the theatres”, bringing together Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Gaza in a simultaneous attack against Israel. These statements, coupled with the organisation’s possession of advanced and destructive weapons capable of inflicting significant damage on Israel, have led many in Lebanon and the wider Arab world to expect a more aggressive stance from Hezbollah.
Expectations that have gone unmet:
Reactions to Hezbollah’s restraint in the Arab world were mixed. Many were dissatisfied with Hezbollah’s decision not to launch a full-scale war against Israel at the same time as Hamas. Some of these observers hoped that Israel would suffer a decisive defeat and severe damage, while others expected a significant setback for Hezbollah and its supporters. The motivations for these expectations vary, with some rooted in religious beliefs and others hoping for a decisive blow to Iran’s main ally in the region. These perspectives underline the complexity of regional feelings about Hezbollah’s strategy and actions in the ongoing conflict.
However, these viewpoints may have overlooked other critical considerations. One key question directed to Hamas leadership is whether Hezbollah’s full entry into the war would halt the conflict in Gaza or prevent the establishment of a buffer zone in northern Gaza. Another consideration that was shared with Hamas during an open dialogue is whether Hezbollah’s involvement would lead to more significant destruction in Israel compared to the previous weeks. Unannounced responses from various Hamas officials suggest that the answer to these questions was negative. They believe that Israel and the United States would be able to manage conflicts on both fronts, given the presence and coordination capabilities of American military forces in Israel and inflict considerable destruction on Gaza and Lebanon.
Magnier agrees with me that this conflict is being successfully managed (and just as importantly, contained) by the Americans, and that Hezbollah has come to this conclusion as well.
This following excerpt is key:
The military commander of the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, Mohammad al-Deiyf, called on the “axis of resistance” in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen to intervene and open all fronts against Israel simultaneously. This call was a pivotal moment that led to a significant response from Washington.
The United States, which interpreted this call to arms as a signal of possible widespread escalation against its closest ally, deployed specialised units to Israel. This deployment included a significant naval presence with aircraft carriers, submarines, other naval forces, and special forces. The rationale behind this robust American military response was the belief that a coordinated operation against Israel could unfold on multiple fronts, as suggested by Muhammad Al-Deif’s announcement. The deployment of American forces in support of Israel in the context of the 7 October operation reflects a strategic decision based on the expectation of a coordinated, multi-front offensive. The US decision to intervene with significant military support suggests a belief in prior coordination between the various factions within the “Axis of Resistance”.
This deployment indicates that the US assessed the situation as potentially escalating into a wider conflict, requiring its involvement to prevent Israel from facing these multiple challenges alone. The presence of American forces was likely a response to the perceived threat of a broad, synchronised campaign against Israel, as suggested by Hamas’s call to arms and subsequent developments.
The Americans immediately sent in the cavalry to support the Israelis, forestalling any new fronts opening up against them. Hezbollah has a great respect for American firepower, just like the rest of the world does.
Hezbollah’s public statement explaining their rationale for not going full out against Israel:
However, Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, stated that the “Axis of Resistance”, including its factions, was not aware of the specific operational plans or timing of the 7 October action, which was a decision taken independently by Hamas. This statement suggests a need for prior coordination within the Axis of Resistance regarding the timing and nature of the operation.
The announcement of a coordinated operation of this scale would require more than a public statement by Hamas military leadership. It would require a comprehensive assessment of each party’s capabilities, circumstances and strategic objectives within the Axis of Resistance. This nuanced approach underlines the complexity of the alliances and individual strategies of the parties involved in the region.
The math didn’t add up:
As for the goal of “eliminating and destroying Israel”, both Hamas and the broader “Axis of Resistance” are aware that such a goal is unrealistic in the current geopolitical circumstances. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call for the elimination of Israel was seen mainly as populist rhetoric rather than a feasible strategic goal.
Israel’s possession of nuclear capabilities and a formidable military force makes the prospect of its elimination highly unlikely. Moreover, the close strategic and military alliance between Israel and the United States further strengthens Israel’s security and regional position. Israel views US military hardware, soldiers and forces in the region as an extension of its defence infrastructure.
In the context of pressuring Israel to abide by international law, cease its military and annexationist activities, and respect Palestinian rights, the dynamics are complex. The influence of the United States as a global superpower and its support for Israel is an essential factor. Without a countervailing force with significant international impact and interests in the Middle East, it is difficult to force Israel to change its policies and abide by the UN resolutions related to the Palestinian’s cause and right of return. Such a force would need to be able to use its influence to persuade Washington to pressure Tel Aviv to comply with international laws and norms to stop building illegal settlements and address the rights and concerns of the Palestinian people.
Pax Americana ensures Israel’s existence in the Middle East, and until the Palestinians can find a partner who can (and who would choose to) stand up to the Americans on their behalf, they’re screwed.
The decision for Hezbollah to not fully engage in the conflict was influenced by a nuanced understanding of the regional dynamics, potential outcomes, and the limitations of their impact on the broader conflict involving Gaza. It reflects a calculated approach, weighing the potential gains against the risks and complexities of a multi-front war in the region.
The prospect of a future conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is the subject of growing tension, particularly among Israeli settlers living near the Lebanese border. These settlers have expressed to Prime Minister Netanyahu their reluctance to return to their homes as long as Al, Ridwan, Hezbollah’s special forces, are positioned along the borders. This sentiment reflects a heightened sense of insecurity and anticipation of potential hostilities.
The prevailing view in these communities is that a confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel is almost inevitable, making it a matter of timing rather than possibility. The presence of Hezbollah forces along the border, perceived by Israeli settlers as a direct threat, adds to the tension and the likelihood of an eventual clash. It is only a matter of time.
Israel and Hezbollah will go to war with one another again, but that day is not today.
In the meantime, Hamas is getting rocked, Gaza annihilated, and many Palestinians are being maimed and killed. Soon enough the Americans will tell the Israelis to stop. The underlying issue of the conflict remains unchanged, and will not be resolved any time soon.
Do you remember the Gilet Jaunes?
I’m sure that most of you do, but I am also certain that the details of what they were about is a bit fuzzy in your mind. That’s fine, as 1) it involved France, French politics, and French society, and 2) the reporting on them left a lot to be desired.
The Gilet Jaunes were French people, mainly middle class, from the provinces who spontaneously engaged in weekly protests against the French government and ruling elite for leaving them behind. Leaderless, they did not have a party line, and often held contradictory positions, all depending on which person in the yellow vest that you were speaking to. It was a revolt against the ruling elites, but one without direction, that was easily co-opted in places, and resulted in some violence against the state, put down by state security forces.
The Gilet Jaunes and their protests eventually fizzled out, due to a combination of the onset of COVID-19, some clever politicking from Macron, and the fact that the protests themselves were being pulled in all different directions. I’ve been reading John Lichfield on France for some two decades now. He was the French correspondent for the Independent UK, and that was where I first came across his dispatches from that country. In this essay, he explains how the Gilet Jaunes achieved “nothing”:
The protesters quarrelled from the beginning. France would be a better place, they said, if there were no politicians. The people would govern directly through perpetual referenda. Anyone who emerged as a Gilets Jaunes leader was suspected of wanting to be a “politician” and insulted and rejected. They tried to invent a kind of non-ideological anarchism but could never agree what that meant.
Protest became insurrection. At the movement’s peak, in late 2018 and early 2019, the Gilets Jaunes briefly threatened the institutions of the French state. The Elysée Palace was besieged. The Arc de Triomphe was vandalised. A ministry was attacked by a mechanical digger. There was also a rash of attacks on town halls, politicians’ houses and motorway toll stations.
The state responded to their violence — mostly initiated, in my experience, by the militant wing — with violence. Five demonstrators lost hands and 24 lost eyes to police plastic bullets or stun grenades. Some of the victims were peaceful protesters.
This disappointed many of the original Gilets Jaunes supporters. All the same, the movement continued. There were more than 70 actes — or weekend putsches — of decreasing size before the Covid pandemic brought them to an end. At that point, few of the original Gilets Jaunes remained.
Origins and ideological capture:
It had begun as a provincial rejection of Paris, politicians, parties, trades unions, the media and all ideologies of the Left, Right or centre. It was simultaneously Poujadiste, demanding less state and less taxes, and state-interventionist, demanding more services and subsidies for the peripheral France of the countryside and outer-suburbs. By the end, however, it was largely urban and Leftist.
Their profile changed bodily, not just demographically. A typical Gilets Jaunes march in the early days was full of wide-bodied provincials — left-behinds with big behinds. By the end, they were mostly slender, metropolitans in their twenties, thirties and forties. Their slogans were not just anti-Macron but anti-capitalist. A typical banner at one of the last Paris marches read: “Capitalism is organised crime.”
The French media was oddly reluctant to recognise this gradual capture of the movement. It was quicker to seize on the fact that some of the original “personalities” (never say leaders) were connected to the far-Right. They were dismissed as racists. They were portrayed by commentators on the Left as a working-class revolt against globalism, which was brutally suppressed by “Macron’s militias”. They were dismissed by the pro-European, liberal centre as Putin’s poodles, manipulated by lies online. All those portraits are misleading; all contain an element of truth.
In the beginning, it was about pump prices. But that fury set ablaze other provincial grievances: the erosion of public services; low wages; the high cost of living; a new tax on some pensions; Macron’s decision to partially abolish a tax on wealth. On top of this came a decision to reduce the speed limit and country people believe that speeding fines are a crafty way of taxing the ploucs or péquenauds — yokels or rednecks — to subsidise the cities.
One of the central beliefs of the Jaune “philosophy” could be summed up as follows: “All politicians are corrupt and they steal our money. We finance the success of the Bobo (Bourgois Bohemenian) elites in the big cities. They do nothing for us.”
A rudderless mess:
There was a triple paradox at the heart of the original Gilets Jaunes movement. The first was that, while it started and spread rapidly online, it also rescued people from the rural-suburban isolation of their homes. It became a social club as well a social movement. The second is that, although the absence of leaders attracted broad early support, the lack of direction allowed the movement to be hijacked by organised forces, initially from the far-Right, finally by the Left. There were street battles in Lyon, Paris and elsewhere in the New Year between hard-Right and hard-Left urban guerrillas, both groups wearing yellow vests. The Left, partly in the nebulous shape of the Black Bloc movement, eventually won.
Then there was the fact that the movement, despite its grandiose threats, never had enough support or any remotely workable plan to bring down the French state. President Macron, after a shaky early response, responded skilfully. His Great National Debate allowed people to express and relieve some of their anger. And €10 billion in tax cuts for low and middle incomes and a boost to the minimum wage blunted the edge of fury in Middle France.
The underlying sentiments that sparked this failed rebellion remain unchanged:
All the same, the movement revealed a profound animosity towards the ruling elite which cannot be easily dismissed and remains unappeased. The origins of that animosity — even hatred — are rooted in a crisis of distrust, disinformation and dislocation that confronts all 21st-century representative democracies. In France, mainstream parties, the media, the church and the trades unions have lost respect.
Lichfield is right that there has been a collapse in the legitimacy of the institutions in western liberal democratic states. France, more than any other major European country, comes closest to seeing rebellion against the system, but always manages to pull back from the brink. It is the most politically dynamic state in Europe that matters.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is making huge leaps and bounds these days (although Scott Locklin may disagree). We are beginning to see its applications become more prevalent in our daily lives, whether from the online news that we digest to the advertising that we are targeted with.
Certain techies/techno-philosophers/etc. have been sounding the alarm on the rapid rise of AI, insisting that without very strict regulation (and even an overall pause in the development of the technology), we are risking human catastrophe by allowing this tech to run wild. This has led to a backlash by some who have rallied around the ‘e/acc’ tag (Effective Accelerationism) that insists that the technological development should remain free, as that it can potentially deliver a much better world than the present one does.
Not being that much of a techie, I am sure that my brief summary will upset a few people who will inform me that I am providing only a surface-level understanding of e/acc, and I urge those who can help us better understand what it is all about to leave a comment in the comments section below. In the meantime, I will spare everyone here from sharing my uninformed thoughts on the debate and will instead present this essay that argues that “safetyism” is a “greater threat to humanity” than either AI, or even climate change:
Among the most extreme sci-fi speculations of AI doomsday are “Roko’s basilisk” and the “paperclip maximizer” thought experiments, which are designed to illustrate the risks of a superintelligent, self-replicating, and constantly self-improving future AGI — one that might become uncontrollable and incomprehensible, even for its creators. But these hypothetical scenarios are built on questionable, and often highly anthropomorphizing assumptions, such as that safety measures can’t be built into these systems, that AI can't be contained, that a future AGI is subject to the selection pressures of natural evolution, or that a superintelligent AI will invariably turn evil.
And a deeper problem with these extreme scenarios is that it’s essentially impossible to predict the medium-term, let alone the long-term impact of emerging technologies. Over the past half-century, even leading AI researchers completely failed in their predictions of AGI timelines. So, instead of worrying about sci-fi paperclips or Terminator scenarios, we should be more concerned, for example, with all the diseases for which we weren’t able to discover a cure or the scientific breakthroughs that won’t materialize because we’ve prematurely banned AI research and development based on the improbable scenario of a sentient AI superintelligence annihilating humanity.
The crux of the issue seems to be “We will lose control of these increasingly powerful tools” vs. “we can control these tools and use them for good”.
Last year, a Google engineer and AI ethicist claimed that Google’s chatbot achieved sentience. And leading AI researchers and others, including Elon Musk, just recently signed a letter calling for a moratorium on AI research — all it will take, in other words, are six months to “flatten the curve” of AI progress (obviously, China’s CCP would be very supportive). Signatories seem to not only fear the shimmering cyborg exoskeletons crushing human skulls — which Terminator 2’s opening scene immortalized — but also the automatization of jobs and, predictably, fake news, propaganda, misinformation, and other “threats to democracy.” But the call for a moratorium on AI — which confuses existential risks with concerns about unemployment — doesn’t define what the risks and their probabilities are, and lacks any criteria for when and how to lift the ban. So, given that regulations for AI applications, such as for autonomous driving and medical diagnostics, already exist, it’s unclear why a ban on basic AI research and development is needed in the first place.
But, as if a temporary ban on AI research isn’t enough, Eliezer Yudkowsky, a leading proponent of AI doomerism — and who expects that humanity will very soon go extinct due to a superhuman intelligence-induced Armageddon — called for a complete shutdown of all large GPU clusters, restricting the computing power anyone is allowed to use in training AI systems, and, if necessary, even destroying data centers by airstrike. The only way to prevent the apocalypse, according to this extreme form of AI safety doomerism, is for America to reserve the right to launch a preemptive strike on a nuclear power to defeat Ernie, the chatbot of Chinese search engine Baidu. (This would be doubly ironic, because China's Great Firewall turns out to be a pioneering effort to censor text at scale, exactly what generative AI companies are being called on to do today.) It’s one thing to generate an infinite number of improbable apocalypse scenarios, but it’s another thing to advocate for nuclear war based on the release of a chatbot and purely speculative sci-fi scenarios involving Skynet.
“Deeply-entrenched risk aversion” as “paralysis”:
Now, while concerns about the safety of emerging technologies might be reasonable in some cases, they are symptoms of a societally deeply-entrenched risk aversion. Over the past decades, we’ve become extremely risk intolerant. It’s not just AI or genetic engineering where this risk aversion manifests. From the abandonment of nuclear energy and the bureaucratization of science to the eternal recurrence of formulaic and generic reboots, sequels, and prequels, this collective risk intolerance has infected and paralyzed society and culture at large (think Marvel Cinematic Universe or startups pitched as “X for Y” where X is something unique and impossible to replicate).
Take nuclear energy. Over the last decades, irrational fear-mongering resulted in the abandonment and demonization of the cleanest, safest, and most reliable energy source available to humanity. Despite an abundance of evidence, which scientifically demonstrates its safety, we abandoned an eternal source of energy, which could have powered civilization indefinitely, for unreliable and dirty substitutes while we simultaneously worry about catastrophic climate change. It’s hard to conceive now but nuclear energy once encapsulated the utopian promise of infinite progress, and nuclear engineering was, up until the 1960s, one of the most prestigious scientific fields. Today, mainly because of Hiroshima, Fukushima, and the pop-culture imagery of a nuclear holocaust though, the narrative has shifted from “alchemy,” “transmutation,” and “renewal” to dystopian imagery of “contamination,” “mutation,” and “destruction.” Although most deaths during the Fukushima incident resulted from evacuation measures — and more people died because of Japan’s shutting down of nuclear reactors than the accident itself — many Western nations, in response to the meltdown, started to obstruct the construction of new reactors or phase out nuclear energy altogether. This resulted in the perverse situation where Germany, which has obsessively focused on green and sustainable energy, now needs to rely on on highly polluting coal for up to 40% of its electricity demand. The rise of irrational nuclear fear illustrates a fundamental problem with safetyism: obsessively attempting to eliminate all visible risks often creates invisible risks that are far more consequential for human flourishing. Just imagine what would have happened, if we hadn’t phased out nuclear reactors — would we now have to obsess over “net-zero” or “2°C targets”?
Mitigating risk creates risk:
Now, whether we think that an AI apocalypse is imminent or the lab-leak hypothesis is correct or not, by mitigating or suppressing visible risks, safetyism is often creating invisible or hidden risks that are far more consequential or impactful than the risks it attempts to mitigate. In a way, this makes sense: creating a new technology and deploying it widely entails a definite vision for the future. But a focus on the risks means a definite vision of the past, and a more stochastic model of what the future might hold. Given time’s annoying habit of only moving in one direction, we have no choice but to live in somebody’s future — the question is whether it’s somebody with a plan or somebody with a neurosis.
Click here to read the rest and hopefully this spurs a debate in the comments section below.
In keeping with this weekend’s quasi-tech theme,has written a very, very broad (and very good) look at the world of genomics i.e. the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes.
Genomics is a hobby of mine, and many of you have previously come across me detail how I have happily submitted to DNA testing via several competing services. For me, it’s not only a scientific curiosity that has driven me to do so, but there are also historical and genealogical reasons for doing so (and no, zero concerns about paternity, haha).
Genomics has undergone a technological revolution these past two decades, so without further ado I will select a few choice excerpts to tempt you to read the whole article on this fascinating subject:
On June 26, 2000, President Bill Clinton announced the completion of the draft of the human genome at a press conference with the two project leads, Francis Collins and J. Craig Venter. A genome is all the genetic information of an organism. Scientists had conceived of the Human Genome Project in the 1980s, and, in the first half of the 1990s, expected it to be an endeavor that would go on for decades. But an unexpected technological revolution of faster computers and better chemistry accelerated the ten-year effort toward the finish line, just as the 20th century came to a close.
The American-led international effort cost more than $3 billion dollars and involved thousands of people. Since then, the last 23 years of the 21st century have seen a sea change in the landscape of genomics, from blue-sky basic science to mass-market consumer products. Companies like Nebula now provide entire genome sequences that are medical-grade quality for $200; down from a price point of $20,000 just 13 years ago. We’ve gone from a single mapped genome—that of humanity—to more than a million genomes. This is a case where quantity has a quality all its own; the commoditization of genomic sequencing has radically transformed how we do genetics.
Mendel and ‘factors’:
Our naïve assumption is that the characteristics blend together, resulting in a child who is a synthesis of the traits of the parents e.g. a short parent and a tall parent will produce medium-height offspring. But the implication of this model is that, over the generations, all human variation should be blended away as each generation is the average of the previous one. That simply does not occur. Humans remain as variable as they have been in the past. The insight of Mendelian genetics is that inheritance does not proceed through blending, but through the rearrangement of discrete units of variation.
At about the same time that Charles Darwin was revolutionizing our understanding of the tree of life with his theory of evolutionary change through natural selection, an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel stumbled upon the framework that would later be called genetics. Between 1856 and 1863, he realized that inheritance seemed to be mediated by particular units of inheritance he called “factors,” and would later be called genes. Mendel hypothesized complex organisms had two copies of many factors, discrete bundles of information that were rearranged every generation through the law of segregation—that you inherit one copy of a gene from each parent—and the law of independent assortment, that you inherit factors independently from each other.
Mendel came to these insights through a famous set of experiments where he crossed lines of peas with distinct characteristics and noted that some traits bred true and others did not. Two short pea plants always produced short pea plants. But two tall pea plants sometimes also produced short pea plants. A model of blending inheritance cannot explain recessive traits, but a Mendelian framework can. Whereas intuitive blendings of inheritance take the visible traits as the only variables of interest in understanding intergenerational change in characteristics, Mendelian genetics implies that phenotypes emerge from the interactions of underlying genotypes.
Modern and preshistoric human genetic mapping:
The first modern human genetic map was published one hundred years after the founding of the field, but the first prehistoric human genetic map was published ten years after that, when Pääbo’s group released the draft of the Neanderthal genome in May 2010. The team then unveiled the genome of a new human species, Denisovans. Named after the Denisova cave in Siberia, where a broken finger bone and a single molar yielded their genome, they are a whole additional branch of humanity distinct from but closer to Neanderthals than modern humans. While Neanderthals are well-known from paleontology and archaeology, Denisovans were novel because they have been identified only from their distinct genetic markers. Genomics was resurrecting the DNA of literally vanished species of humans that were totally unknown to science.
Disappearing humans and replacement populations:
But did the Denisovans and Neanderthals disappear into the loving arms of humans migrating out of Africa, or was there capture and coercion involved? The data to answer this question does not exist for these early encounters, but is more copious for later prehistoric epochs. Premodern humans clearly made love, but they also made war. Earlier generations of paleoanthropologists believed that modern populations descend from groups that diverged and settled down 50,000 years ago and turned into what we now know as regional populations: Europeans, Africans, East Asians, and South Asians. The ancestors of modern Europeans were thought to be the Cro-Magnons that arrived 45,000 years ago and replaced the Neanderthals.
Ancient DNA and genomics make it clear that this idea is wrong. The Cro-Magnons left no descendants; they’re totally unrelated to other modern populations. Rather, about 38,000 years ago, they were replaced by another group of humans from the southeast who eventually gave rise to the Gravettian culture, notable for producing small ivory sculptures. Then, 20,000 years ago, another culture arrived that gave rise to the cave-painting Magdalenians, replacing the earlier populations. Then, 15,000 years ago, more waves of foragers migrated out from the Middle East, again mostly replacing the earlier populations.
Farmers arrived 8000 years ago with the Neolithic Revolution, only to be replaced 4500 years ago by Indo-Europeans from the steppe. The story of Europe is the story of the world; humans are always on the move, and one group replaces another, over and over. Unlike many other organisms, humans are not sessile and geographically concentrated. Our demographic equilibrium is inevitably shocked by radical transformations. For modern humans, all is change.
There are too many potential excerpts to share with you, so I encourage all of you to read the entire thing.
We end this weekend’s SCR with a mystery: who was the man who first found the flames that began the 1666 “Great Fire of London”?
Two types of official investigation into the fire’s causes were carried out in 1666: a parliamentary enquiry and the trial of Robert Hubert, a Frenchman who had falsely confessed to starting the blaze. While you might think Londoners would have a keen interest in who was there at the start of the fire, the surviving accounts of exactly who was present are fragmentary.
Full reports from the enquiries were not published. Meanwhile, most writers at the time were, understandably, much more concerned with the fire’s destructive power than describing its beginnings.
As a result, the clearest account of events in the bakery is in a letter from an MP, Sir Edward Harley, reporting what he had heard. It’s now in the British Library, and was written in October 1666, when the two investigations into the fire were underway:
The Baker of Pudding Lane in whose hous ye Fire began, makes it evident that no Fire was left in his Oven … that his daughter was in ye Bakehous at 12 of ye clock, that between one and two His man was waked with ye choak of ye Smoke, the fire begun remote from ye chimney and Oven, His mayd was burnt in ye Hous not adventuring to Escape as He, his daughter who was much scorched, and his man did out of ye Windore [window] and Gutter.
Narrowing down the suspects
Other details in Harley’s letter suggested he was reliably reporting what he’d learned. The letter provides a list of bakery residents: Thomas Farriner, his unmarried daughter (Hanna), his “man” (meaning trained workman, aka journeyman) and his maid, who died. Other reports don’t mention the “man” or maid, but put Farriner’s son in the bakery.
A document in the London Metropolitan Archives provided more clues. This records the charges against Robert Hubert and – crucially – the names of seven witnesses against him. At the end were: “Thomas Farriner senior, Hanna Farriner, Thomas Dagger, Thomas Farriner Junior”.
Click here to read the rest.
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