Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld II’: Chapters 12 & 13

In the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of The Science of Discworld II, we talk selection and changing history. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.

So, there are a few uncomfortable sections here with outdated terminology, but as a whole, I found it interesting to think of human behavior through the lens of selection. It’s not something I really gave much thought about, at least not since I studied the effect of Social Darwinism on populations back in college. That was a terrifying glimpse at human history and the ways that people utilized elements of evolutionary theory to grossly and violently discriminate against other people who were not white, who were not men, who were not able-bodied, and so on. So there’s always gonna be a part of me that braces myself when we talk about the intersection of science and race because of the history of it.

But aside from the use of the g-slur, I feel like this chapter addressed the actual cool shit! Like, so often you get scientific analyses that really do boil down to the “elvish viewpoint” of humans being all the same, and it’s used as a watered-down means of dismissing racism, but not here. Stewart and Cohen are very direct about how “physically and culturally,” we remain diverse as a species. And thinking about the Out of Africa theory only makes our development of a species more fascinating; humanity adapted to all sorts of environments, climates, cuisines, locales. We radiated out from a “central” point and LOOK AT HOW COOL IT IS THAT WE BECAME SO DIFFERENT, IT’S GREAT. 

And I do appreciate that the authors acknowledge that there are other means by which those changes happened. I wouldn’t say they consider every possible option or perspective because that would be damn near impossible to do so. But culture and the development of it plays such a huge part in all this, and there are numerous examples of them addressing it on the page. Human culture allowed for various types of selection, and I bet most of us participated in selection rituals growing up. Those of us who were religious probably had to deal with them. (Though I think the footnote about religion is a little reductive and harsh, and I say that as an atheist.) There’s a whole phenomenon that I think counts as selection that isn’t mentioned here, either: bullying. It doesn’t always fit the rubric laid out here, but a great deal of bullying involves identifying who is different in a cultural/social group. And I certainly experienced bullying that made other people more “attractive” to potential mates, you know? Which is such an absurd notion, of course, but things people do to seem “cool” are pretty absurd anyway. 

I also wanted to touch on something I brought up on video that relates to the story of the Cohens, which was not something I’d known about prior to this chapter. It had been a long, long time since I’d even heard about Dinah, either, though I wonder if that’s partially due to having a not-so-great education from the nuns at my church. There were so many stories and parables that I simply did not learn about until I was much, much older! So, here, the text draws parallels between the story of Dinah, the use of Cohen the Barbarian in the Discworld books, and the Cohanim, the story of all Cohens being “the lineal descendants of Aaron.” I won’t speak to this part of Jewish tradition and would prefer that people from this community do so, but I did want to say that there’s always been a part of me that wishes I could trace my lineage. I love reading about this sort of stuff, and plenty of my friends have fascinating family trees. But since so much of my own lineage is a mystery due to both adoption and a biological father who seemingly disappeared not long after I was born, this is virtually impossible. And I do wonder! Do I have other siblings out there, or is it just the three of us? My biological mom said she never had any other children after my younger sister was born, but the last contact with my father was over thirty years ago. Where does that branch of the family go? The stories I’ve heard link him to Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala, but it’s just that: a story. 

Sometimes, those stories are all we have.

Anyway, just a little introspective reaction to the text. This is a really dense chapter, so I’m interested in other people’s response to it. Plus, the wizards are… not making much progress? I feel like their current theory—stopping themselves from stopping the elves—is not a particularly good plan. Won’t that still create the initial problem they were dealing it? Or just compound it all ANYWAY? It’s gonna get more chaotic, I know it.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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