The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years by Bernard Lewis. Among much useful information, this book contains the interesting snippet that the name Palestine was imposed by the Romans after crushing the Jewish revolt of about 70CE and referred to the long-departed Philistines, and the claim that the first state religion, incorporating heresy hunts, persecution of unbelievers and so on, was Zoroastrianism in Persia.
I’m also rereading Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins. I agree with Dawkins on a lot on the issues he disputes with, for example, Stephen Jay Gould. Nevertheless, and particularly in relation to human society, he reminds me of those economists who have been so dazzled by their exposure to the powers of the market mechanism that they are unwilling to recognise either defects in the mechanism or the possibility that many phenomena are better explained in other ways. The most obvious example, in Dawkins’ case, is the attempt to model the development of culture in terms of memes. As with, for example, public choice theory or the economics of the family, there’s enough going for the idea that it can’t be demolished in a sentence. But, again as with these examples, and depending on way in which it is applied, it either:
- explains only relatively trivial instances of cultural evolution, like jokes and catchphrases
- is rendered vacuous through the use of redifinitions that render the theory irrefutable, for example by making ‘memes’ synonymous with ‘ideas’; or
- provides an account of important phenomena that is obviously wrong, for example by failing to observe that political ideologies like, say, Marxism or political sociobiology owe more to conscious design than to selection and recombination
The relative absence of this kind of stuff is one reason I prefer Climbing Mount Improbable to much of Dawkins’ other work.