Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 91

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

There is one thing that futurists have in common: they are very, very often completely wrong in their predictions.

The metaphysics of pregnancy, and why it matters.

Understanding why the Ancient Greeks (culturally) perceived colors differently from us.

The neuroscience of why you need to pick your friends carefully.

The new aspirational class, and what they don’t get.

True altruism seen in chimpanzees, further elucidating the building blocks of human morality.

Why religious identities should not be immune to criticism.

What do we mean when we say that we are “entitled” to our opinions?

Is the world really better than ever? (Yes, but that’s kind of missing the point…)

My contribution to the Beard-Taleb “debate” on Roman history and cultural diversity. Taleb immediately labeled me “Professor of Bullshit,” because that’s how proper academic discourse ought to be conducted, of course.


Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Thanks!


68 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 91

  1. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    That’s fascinating. Are you suggesting that’s a biological difference (highly unlikely)? If not, what about Russian culture may explain it?

    The language, obviously? This is exactly the kind of thing that’s often advanced in favour of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.


  2. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    I regret the “obviously”. I think you’re making the assumption that the fact that they perceive the differences more easily explains why they have different words for blue. But I think it is usually assumed that that causation goes the other way — the language happens to have different words for blue (for no particular reason, just historical accident) and this causes them to distinguish between them more easily.


  3. Robin Herbert

    The complaint about the BBC cartoon seems to have shifted.

    Originally people complained that the BBC were claiming that Romans were black. However it emerged that the person in that position was highly unlikely to have been a Roman and quite likely to have been an African. So the original complaint was wrong.

    Now we have the claim that the person depicted was too dark to have been a North African and that it is unlikely that a person from a more southern region would have risen to the rank where he is supervising the building of fortifications in a cold dangerous corner of the empire. (And, admittedly, I don’t know enough about the uniforms of the Roman army to know what rank was being depicted).

    It does seem to be a more niggly complaint.

    But my reading seems to indicate that the ancient Moorish population of North Africa ranged from quite fair skinned to very dark skinned. Depictions of Moors at various periods of time seem to bear this out. Did darker skinned people have lower rank in the ancient Moorish population? I haven’t seen any evidence put forward for that. And even if that was the case, were there enough people of high social standing to fill all the senior positions throughout the empire? How often did talent or special skills help people rise to higher ranks, especially in cold, remote troublesome corners of provinces that would not necessarily be seen as plum roles?

    I don’t think that any case has been made that it was unlikely that a darker skinned person from North Africa would be in such a role. That it was even a possibility for an officer in the Roman armyto be a dark skinned African would be news to most people. The likelihood that such as officer was African at all would be news to most people. Both these things were news to me. So if the purpose of the BBC was to educate, then I think it worked.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. synred &sa=X&tbm=isch&

    Moorish decent?

    Was Shakespear being PC with orthello?


  5. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    The complaint about the BBC cartoon seems to have shifted.

    No, it hasn’t. The original tweet by Taleb (quoted in Massimo’s article) distinguishes between sub-Sarahan Africans and North Africans. It implicitly accepts that North Africans were senior Roman commanders. That was there from Taleb’s first tweet. Thus pointing out that North Africans were senior Roman commanders does not rebut Taleb.

    Now, if your reply to Taleb is that in your opinion the video does depict a North African, rather than a sub-Saharan African as Taleb assumed, then ok, that is indeed a reply to Taleb, but Taleb’s suggestion that it doesn’t is at least reasonable.


  6. Bunsen Burner


    ‘ but I don’t think this is a good test at all. RGB values are not a measure of skin tone’

    LOL! It was not meant to be taken seriously. It was a whimsical test to satire the kind of scientistic thinking that seems to be common in this debate. Ideally I hoped people would just laugh and move on after realizing how ridiculous the discussion had gotten.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Massimo Post author


    As others have pointed out, it’s rather astounding that you keep doubling down instead of admitting error. Taleb’s position is truly indefensible, and the only reason I can think of for you to insist in defending it is because of the association I made to scientism. Which, frankly, further exposes your a priori ideological commitment to that position.

    “What makes you think I was picking single individuals? Did you click on the links?”

    Yes. I did not say a single individual, I said individuals. As opposed to a statistical distribution. And the point is that there are plenty of North Africans who look like the boy in the video (whose “race,” as Beard commented, isn’t really clear from the video. Oh, and “races” as understood today are also meaningless categories when projected back to Ancient Rome.)

    The fact that Taleb insisted on sub-Saharan Africa is entirely his own fabrication, in his own mind. It was neither in the video nor in anything Beard said. And here is yet another statement from specialists in the field to the effect that Taleb is dead wrong:

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Massimo Post author


    I obviously did not express myself clearly. No, I don’t think for a moment that the different words and perceptions of colors in Russian are the result of a different biology.


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