Friday, November 30, 2007

Topix: History in the News

From time to time, I have seen traffic come to the World History Blog from a website called Topix. I finally went and checked the site out. It is a news aggregator which allows people to volunteer and select the best stories. The site appears to be very popular.

The About Us page notes, "Topix is the leading news community on the Web, connecting people to the information and discussions that matter to them in every U.S. town and city. A Top 20 online news destination (Hitwise, July 2007), the site links news from 50,000 sources to 360,000 lively user-generated forums. Topix also works with the nation's major media companies to grow and engage their online audiences through forums, classifieds, publishing platforms and RSS feeds."

I like this site. I was particularly attracted to the History in the News page. I often look through news headlines for good history topics to write about. This site easily delivers them up! Quite a few of the articles are false hits and do not seem very history related but others seems good. It looks like a RoboBlogger also posts news stories which probably accounts for some of the false hits.

Anyway, I liked it. I thought I would share as I have found it difficult to get a good source of "history in the news" type of articles without doing a lot of searching through newspaper sites on the Web. Maybe others will find this useful too.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is There a Link Between Autism and Some Historical Figures?

Recently, I have been hearing and reading about many different famous men from history who may have been autistic. Names I have come across include Archimedes, Charles Darwin, Lewis Carrol, Adolph Hitler, and Albert Einstein. Wikipedia has a list of them at People speculated to have been autistic.

A good description of autism can be found at Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. Autistic individuals have difficulties with social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests. These behaviors can range in impact from mild to disabling.

And some are speculating that autism may actually be linked to creativity. Some aspects of autism may help focus the mind on tasks such as language, math, science, and art. The biggest proponent is Michael Fitzgerald in his book from 2004, Autism and Creativity: Is There a Link between Autism in Men and Exceptional Ability? The description of that book reads, "Autism and Creativity is a stimulating study of male creativity and autism, arguing that a major genetic endowment is a prerequisite of genius, and that cultural and environmental factors are less significant than has often been claimed. Chapters on the diagnosis and psychology of autism set the scene for a detailed examination of a number of important historical figures. For example: * In the Indian mathematician Ramanujan, the classic traits of Asperger's syndrome are shown to have coexisted with an extraordinary level of creativity. * More unexpectedly, from the fields of philosophy, politics and literature, scrutiny of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sir Keith Joseph, Eamon de Valera, Lewis Carroll and William Butler Yeats reveals classical autistic features. Autism and Creativity will prove fascinating reading not only for professionals and students in the field of Autism and Asperger's syndrome, but for anyone wanting to know how individuals presenting autistic features have on many occasions changed the way we understand society."

This is interesting. Autism may indeed spark creativity in some people. It is not unreasonable that some of these people are famous in history. However, I do find it hard to give anyone an autism diagnosis long after he is dead. Sure, they may have exhibited autism symptoms but so do people who do not have autism. Social awkwardness is fairly common. Contemporary critics of a person were more likely to focus on negative behaviors and ignore positive ones which may make a person appear to be autistic retrospectively even if they were not. With even the recognition of autism being fairly recent, I think it makes the task even harder.

This is an area that historians (with caution!) may want to explore. Could considering autism when looking at a historical figure's biography be helpful in understanding the person and the events that happened in their lifetime? It will be interesting to see if future historians or doctors want to pursue this research route. More information on autism can be found at the Autism Research Institute, the Autism Society of America, and the Autism Blog.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Texas ghost town is sold on eBay

How would you like to buy a piece of history? How about a historic ghost town in the American south? eBay may be your answer.

The BBC has a report titled Texas ghost town is sold on eBay. The town of Albert, Texas went cheap for a mere three million dollars.

Mind you, there is not a lot to this uninhabited town. The article noted, "He (current owner Bobby Cave) said the town's population consisted of himself and a groundsman at weekends. The winning buyer will take over an icehouse created from the frame of the old general store, a pavilion, an 85-year-old dance hall, a tractor shed and a three-bedroom house, together with peach and pecan orchards."

But still, to buy a whole historic town like this. It is either a great opportunity or a travesty depending on how historians may view it. I would not mind buying a ghost town but I doubt my academic salary will ever allow for it.

I wonder how much my small hometown (still inhabited) would go for? Of course, it is not that historic but give it time...

Monday, November 26, 2007

New Feature: World History Blog Poll

Just for fun, I have added a new feature. I will try to add a new poll weekly asking a question about history. If I get a good response, I will keep it up. If not, I will let the feature die eventually.

A couple of notes:

- It is possible for a person or group of people to rig a poll by voting repeatedly from different IP addresses or computers. There is no promise that any poll result has not been manipulated.

- Polls on blogs are not scientific. They do not represent the views of historians or the general population of the world. They just represent the thoughts of those who saw the poll and voted.

- I will try to ask questions pertaining to different parts of the world and different eras of history. However, I have my preferences and they probably will become apparent over time.

Here is the first question:

Who was the greatest general of antiquity? Possible responses include: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, and Zhuge Liang. I will post the response here next week after the poll closes.

UPDATE:

Alexander won hands down. He got 51%. Hannibal got 18% and Caesar got 17%. Scipio Africanus and Zhuge Liang barely showed with 6%.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend


As I traveled over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was fortunate to have a copy of Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend by Barbara Oakley. I have always found travel to be both rewarding and stressful. A good book always helps to make the experience more rewarding.

I ordered Evil Genes through the interlibrary loan department of my academic library. The subtitle of the book lead me to believe this book might not be that great as it is stuffed with keywords and obviously dealt with personal family gossip. Much to my surprise and delight, I was wrong. This book is worth buying and I shall be doing so after I return my borrowed copy!

A Publishers Weekly review of the book gives a good summary. It notes, "Born out of a quest to understand her sister Carolyn's lifelong sinister behavior (which, systems engineer Oakley suggests, may have been compounded by childhood polio), the author sets out on an exploration of evil, or Machiavellian, individuals. Drawing on the advances in brain imaging that have illuminated the relationship of emotions, genetics and the brain (with accompanying imaging scans), Oakley collects detailed case histories of famed evil geniuses such as Slobodan Milosevic and Mao Zedong, interspersed with a memoir of Carolyn's life. Oakley posits that they all had borderline personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder, a claim she supports with evidence from scientists' genetic and neurological research. All the people she considers, Oakley notes, are charming on the surface but capable of deeply malign behavior (traits similar to those found in some personality disorders), and her analysis attributes these traits to narcissism combined with cognitive and emotional disturbances that lead them to believe they are behaving in a genuinely altruistic way. Disturbing, for sure, but with her own personal story informing her study, Oakley offers an accessible account of a group of psychiatric disorders and those affected by them."

I think Oakley has done a good job presenting a strong case that much of human behavior that is deemed to be evil has a biological connection that can be explained by biology and DNA. She acknowledges the social impact on human behavior as it develops in children but makes a good case that the genetics plays a stronger role. Every other species on earth has behavior influenced by DNA so why not humanity? Yes, that leads to many tricky legal, moral, and religious questions but it does not change anything if it is true. It certainly puts the study of historical figures under a different lens.

One problem I have with Oakley is that she does not understand the philosophy of Machiavelli. She equates Machiavellian behavior with psychopathic behavior throughout the book. This is clearly wrong to anyone who has studied Machiavelli and The Prince. Machiavelli did advocate bad behavior in some circumstances to avoid a greater evil. He postulated the concept of entering into evil. At times, a leader must commit evil acts for the common good. Further, failing to do this will actually result in a greater evil. He believed good men were best suited to this and actually wrote his book aimed at educating good men on the rules of power evil men already knew. Ledeen (1999) wrote in summary, “The problem is to find a suitable leader, a good man willing to enter into evil to accomplish good ends. Such men are in short supply; good men shy from evil, and evil men are not interested in good ends” (p. 178). We may find Machiavelli's message questionable today but he was not advocating psychopathic behavior.

I can hardly fault Oakley. Most people have never read The Prince or have actually spent anytime learning what Machiavelli really meant. Machiavelli means intelligent evil in popular culture and she is just repeating the general perception of Machiavelli's work. I hope she spends some time in the future perusing his work and studying his biography. A future edition of her work may well modify her description of Machiavelli.

Oakley also writes about how "evil" genes may actually benefit the human race. After all, if these genes did not aid in natural selection and human survival, they would not be around in great quantities today. Narcissism and ambition help people advance both good ideas and bad ones. Those with attitude are often the most successful in making an impact on society. Have you noticed how those in academia who trumpet their own horn tend to get ahead? Do "evil" genes help humanity as a whole more than they help? Those obnoxious scientists and politicians who leave behind positive legacies may be worth the damage done by their more sinister counterparts...

Again, this is a good book. Disagree or agree with Oakley, this book will make you think. And it is a joy to read to boot.

Reference

Ledeen, M. A. (1999). Machiavelli on modern leadership. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.