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Golf and Evolution: the Missing Link Discovered
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17th green at St. Andrews

In my current Taki’s Magazine column, I mention in passing a minor discovery I made Tuesday morning in the history of evolutionary thought, which is probably the central development of English-language thinkers, such as Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, over the last several hundred years.

For several years, I’ve been wondering if the undesigned evolution of Scottish golf courses over hundreds of years (before Allan Robertson began consciously revising and improving the ancient St. Andrews links around 1840) served as an inspiration for the British thinkers like Smith and Darwin who pointed out that complex functionality could emerge without central planning. (Somebody who has had a similar hunch about some kind of interaction between the Scottish Enlightenment and the Scottish national game is golf course architect Forrest Richardson.)

The pre-history of golf course architecture seems to serve as testament to the virtues of decentralized decisionmaking.

While Continental thinkers tended to look back to the peace and prosperity imposed from Rome, the British tended to search out arguments conducive to why they should be in charge of their own affairs, while still being allowed to participate in trade with the Continent. Paul Johnson calls this “the offshore islanders’ advantage:” that natural sea defenses against the violent chaos of land war allow for a relaxation of political and social controls intended to prevent violence. Shakespeare extolled the islander advantage in Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
— This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

A theme that runs through much of the most interesting advances made by thinkers working in English are the virtues of decentralization, competition, and voluntary cooperation. The idea that liberty does not mean chaos, but that life can self-organize into impressive degrees of complex functionality without a top-down plan from the Continental central authority in Rome or Madrid or Paris or Berlin appealed to the offshore islanders. Of course, it’s all more complicated than that, but that’s a start.

The lack of an original creator is an inevitable problem in thinking about the history of golf course architecture. We have records of golf being played over Scottish linksland going back 600 years, but we don’t know of any golf course architects until less than 200 years ago. And yet, the earliest known architects, who emerged at St. Andrews in the 19th Century in revamping the already ancient Old Course, were highly skilled, with a deep understanding of how different landforms affected the game.

The only explanation that makes sense is that golfers at St. Andrews and elsewhere had been playing and arguing the game for generations over roughly the same ground, picking out classic challenges and subtly altering the emerging links through their decisions to play along one path rather than another.

The links of St. Andrews

For example, St. Andrews has a number of famous old bunkers located most inconveniently in the low spots of the terrain that attract balls rolling anywhere near them. Perhaps sheep sought out these low spots to get out of the wind and cropped the grass down close to the underlying sand. Golfers finding their balls in these depressions would take divots from the grass, exposing the sand, which the wind might blow over the adjoining grass, killing it. Over time, the exact place you’d most want to hit your ball on this customary hole has become a bunker of sand difficult to escape from.

Thus, the Old Course at St. Andrews seems like a testimony to the Smithian/Darwinian world view.

Eventually in the 19th Century, golfers began to design new links courses, improvising on the lessons learned from the study of the old ones like St. Andrews. Around 1900, Scotsman Willie Park started building the first great inland courses in the sandy countryside west of London. Over time, designers learned how to install enough drainage to allow adequate courses to be built on clay and other less than ideal soil, but the ideal remains a sandy base like at Pinehurst, North Carolina, where Donald Ross, who had apprenticed at St. Andrews, designed the No. 2 course from 1901-1948 that’s hosting the U.S. Open today.

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to link any of the major British thinkers to the links. Adam Smith, it is true, often went for long walks over the linksland, but I haven’t found any record of him noticing the customary golfing grounds he probably tromped through.

I have now, however, discovered a minor but influential thinker in this historical chain who was a fanatical devotee of the St. Andrews golf course — even writing a series of sonnets about each hole — who also wrote the most discussed advocacy of evolution in the English-speaking world in the 15 years before Darwin published The Origin of Species. I wrote in Taki’s:

While golf can be an enormously expensive sport today due to extravagant real estate, construction, and greens-keeping budgets, it started out centuries ago in Scotland as merely something cheap to do on coastal sand dunes that couldn’t grow crops.

Golf links evolved as players trampled down the grass on the most topographically interesting targets. Early golf courses emerged like the unplanned free market economy extolled by Scottish philosopher Adam Smith. Despite the similarities between how St. Andrews developed and the central British intellectual interest in theories of self-organization, I’ve never found any evidence that Smith played golf, nor his great successor Charles Darwin, who attended medical school in Edinburgh. (Charles’ grandson Bernard Darwin did become the leading golf architecture critic of his time, though.)

However, the chief polemic for evolutionary theory in the decade before Darwin’s Origin of Species, the anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation of 1844, a book that much influenced Darwin, turned out to have been penned by the keen golfer Robert Chambers while in St. Andrews.

Chambers is a curious figure in the history of evolutionary thought. Everybody who was anybody read his book, including Abraham Lincoln. Darwin perused it carefully, relieved that Chambers hadn’t hit upon Darwin’s secret mechanism for evolution, natural selection. Alfred Russel Wallace read it with great interest and went on to independently discover natural selection, forcing Darwin to announce natural selection in a joint paper with Wallace in 1858.

Since Chambers didn’t accomplish that leap to natural selection, and since he made a number of errors that were quickly outmoded by the progress of science, his book is of interest primarily because it was the best-known statement in the English-speaking world of the general evolutionary worldview from 1844 to the publication of Darwin’s book in 1859. But Wikipedia’s extensive page on Chambers’ Vestiges shows its impact on the spirit of the age:

Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation is a work of speculative natural history and philosophy published anonymously in England in 1844. It brought together various ideas of stellar evolution with the progressive transmutation of species in an accessible narrative which tied together numerous scientific theories of the age.

Vestiges was initially well received by polite Victorian society and became an international bestseller, but its unorthodox themes contradicted the natural theology fashionable at the time and were reviled by clergymen – and subsequently by scientists who readily found fault with its amateurish deficiencies. The ideas in the book were favoured by Radicals, but its presentation remained popular with a much wider public. Prince Albert read it aloud to Queen Victoria in 1845. Vestiges caused a shift in popular opinion which – Charles Darwin believed – prepared the public mind for the scientific theories of evolution by natural selection which followed from the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.

For decades there was speculation about its authorship. The 12th edition, published in 1884, revealed officially that the author was Robert Chambers, a Scottish journalist, who had written the book in St Andrews between 1841 and 1844 while recovering from a psychiatric illness.[1]

Chambers was a fanatical golfer. His son, also known as Robert Chambers, went on to do some golf course architecture work in the later 19th Century. The younger Chambers, partnering with George Morris, the younger brother of the famous champion and architect Old Tom Morris, laid out the first nine holes at Hoylake (Royal Liverpool), where the British Open will be contested next month. The Royal Liverpool links was famously described by Bernard Darwin as “Hoylake, blown upon by mighty winds, breeder of mighty champions.”

The father and son Robert Chambers co-authored a poem called “The Nine Holes of the Links of St. Andrews” describing in detail each hole. Bunkers that still bedevil superstar golfers in the Open are named in the poem by the Chambers.

The linkage between golf courses and the evolutionary point of view was not unknown to the elder Chambers. J.A. Secord wrote in History, Humanity and Evolution:

Once the nebular hypothesis had led Chambers to contemplate the application of a law of progress to the whole realm of nature, he rapidly began to explore other relevant sciences. … He began to explore not only the earth sciences but zoology and botany as well. … Especially striking was the large number of articles on the origins of races, nations, languages, and civilizations. These elaborated a developmental model almost identical to that found in the chapter of Vestiges on the “Early History of Mankind.” In the essay “Gossip about Golf,” Chambers even applied the model to his favourite sport, which he argued was an inevitable result of the “existence of a certain peculiar waste ground called links.” Similarly, cricket was said to be a natural outcome of village greens in England.

So, our modern evolutionary worldview does indeed owe something to St. Andrews, golf, and psychiatric illness (assuming the later two are not the same thing).

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  1. Glad to see you acknowledge at the end of your missive that evolution is a worldview and not science, Steve.

  2. Only you, Steve, could make a piece on as dull a subject as golf worth reading.

  3. Dahlia says:

    I don’t know, Steve. I see your “golf” and will raise you “roses”. They were famously cultivated by the Chinese at least back to the first millennium and then it went silent until some anonymous Dutchman cultivated the Centifolia during the Renaissance. Again there was quiet until a strong interest in roses started in the the late 1700s with the importation of some Chinas and Teas. An explosion in interest in hybridizing occurred around 1800 that has never abated.
    The main centers were France and England with a nod to Germany and even South Carolina, famously the home of the Noisette class.
    One can make the case, even, that they showed the virtues of decentralization: the discovery and popularity of Bourbon roses, a wild class formed by the crossing of domesticated roses somewhere around Madagascar.

  4. coolhandle:”Glad to see you acknowledge at the end of your missive that evolution is a worldview and not science, Steve.”

    The correct worldview allows science to flourish. The Greeks, haunted by the idea of essences, could never have discovered natural selection. The Anglo worldview, in contrast, is drawn to it.

  5. RE:Abraham Lincoln and Chambers:

    “The following is an excerpt from a letter of Herndon to John E. Remsburg, and bears in an important way on Lincoln’s use of Vestiges of Creation:
    “I had an excellent private library, probably the best in the city for admired books. To this library Mr. Lincoln had, as a matter of course, full and free access at all times. I purchased such books as Locke, Kant, Fichte, Lewes; Sir William Hamilton’s Discussions of Philosophy; Spencer’s First Principles, Social Studies, etc.; Buckle’s History of Civilization, and Lecky’s History of Rationalism. I also possessed the works of Parker, Paine, Emerson and Strauss; Gregg’s Creed of Christendom, McNaught on Inspiration, Volney’s Ruins, Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, and other works on Infidelity. Mr. Lincoln read some of these works. About the year 1843 1 he borrowed the Vestiges of Creation of Mr. James W. Keys, of this city, and read it carefully. He subsequently read the sixth edition of this work, which I loaned him. He adopted the progressive and development theory as taught more or less directly in that work. He despised speculation, especially in the metaphysical world. He was purely a practical man.”—Remsburg: Six Historic Americans, pp. 114-15.”

  6. Dahlia says:

    The story of those breeding is very much a story of British-French rivalry, just as with evolution theory. The Germans didn’t really come on until the 20th century.
    *The original Noisette rose was accidentally crossed in South Carolina c. 1800-1810 by a farmer, John Champneys, with a rose given to him by his neighbor, Philippe Noisette, and was perhaps the most important development in the history of roses and the opening up of possibilities. The Frenchman immediately recognized its importance and sent it to his brother, and nursey man, in France.
    *The Bourbon roses are discovered by, again, the French, about 10-15 years later.

  7. Weren’t all popular modern sports invented by Brits and their descendants? Some of these developed organically over centuries and others (like basketball) were invented from scratch according to a deliberate plan. Soccer is somewhere in the middle. Football was played for centuries in many forms, but the thing that everyone would now recognize as soccer was brought to life by a rules-making committee.

    It seems that Brits are simply more into competition than continentals. And not just the athletic kind. They’re also more into betting, quiz shows, etc. I remember reading once about a couple of English toffs betting a huge amount of money 200 years ago on the future direction of a rain drop dripping down a window of their club. This seems very characteristic. And without looking it up I would bet real money that there’s more sports-betting per capita in Britain than in other major Euro countries.

    So they invented all of these games because they were naturally more into betting and competition than Germans, French or any of the other industrialized peoples.

    And some of these games were developed by them more organically than others. If you wanted to extoll the virtues of rule by committee (more precisely by an association), you could have picked soccer as an example. If you wanted to extol one-man rule, you could have picked basketball. You got it into your head to extol organic development, so you picked golf. It seems a bit arbitrary.

    I’m a language nerd, so if I wanted to decry the horrors of organic development as done by Brits, I’d pick the English language, seemingly the only language among humanity’s top 100 that is not managed by an academy or a government. As a consequence it has the messiest, least logical, most difficult for children to learn spelling system this side of China.

    As for politics, on the one hand the English parliament’s role and procedures developed organically. On the other hand it’s rule by committee over an essentially unitary state in which all power, media and money is gathered in one city. Germany, for example, almost always had more local autonomy, more self-government, more local political peculiarities and less centralization than England. For many centuries this was done through the Holy Roman Empire and now it survives through federalism.

  8. Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
    The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
    A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
    And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
    A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
    The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

    I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
    And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
    But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
    To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
    Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
    The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

    His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
    Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
    The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
    But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
    God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
    The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

    My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
    Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
    But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
    And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
    For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
    Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

    G. K. Chesterton

  9. “The Greeks, haunted by the idea of essences, could never have discovered natural selection. The Anglo worldview, in contrast, is drawn to it.”

    The failure of humanity to develop the theory of evolution had nothing to do with essences. Parents and farmers always knew how inheritance works. But until very shortly before Darwin no one knew how old the Earth is. The observed rate of change due to breeding on the farm or in an upper-class family is too slow to make a man out of a fish in 7,000 years.

    Once the true age of the Earth was determined by geologists, the theory of evolution was no biggy. You just had to apply the observed rate of change to a new, vastly longer, time frame.

  10. This whole view that the messy allows parts of human nature to shine thwarted by rationalism and excessive order, has a long lineage going back to the dispute between Plato and Aristotle.

    Checks and balances, common sense, experience v. ordained order from “above.”

    In the British context I find John Ruskin, probably the most influential British art critic of the 19th Century, very illuminating.

    He loved and touted Gothic art and architecture (against Renaissance perfectionism) precisely because it was “savage, “disordered,” and unplanned. This allows room for the human spirit to shine. He was a strong advocate for artisans working in the apprentice tradition, against the emerging industrial revolution.

    Check out his Chapter “On the Nature of Gothic,” in his three volume study “The Stones of Venice.”

  11. Steve, the history of Britain from before the Romans to basically to the Tudors was one of constant threat or outright invasion by the sea by hostile peoples: the Romans, the Angles/Saxons/Jutes, the Vikings, the Normans, coupled with periodic bouts of supreme isolation. For example, Britain had no coins in circulation nor any appreciable Christians left in much of it until Alfred the Great converted to Christianity and got assistance from the Pope in minting his own coins.

    So you had outside threats, which were real, and generally constant, and no central authority. Sheltering ones self from the Vikings, or the Saxons, took place without much influence from the Emperor or the King, be he Celtic or Norman. Even the Normans were unable to curb much the power and independence of the barons as John found out, not the least of which they were needed against continual threats from Vikings and then converted to Christianity Norsemen who coveted a land with a big coastline that was ill-defended.

    Oddly enough for an Island nation, Britain/England lacked a navy until Henry VIII.

    You might argue that the turnover in central authority: the Roman Emperor, the Celtic Kings, the Saxon Kings, the Viking Kings, the Norman Kings, the various dynasties, all left the higher gentry population with a dim view of any real succor or need to defer to the central court in conducting their own affairs. In Austen’s novels for example London is seen as an irrelevant cesspit, with the robustness of the rural towns and halls much preferred.

    To further push your argument, not only was England isolated from the power of Rome, but it faced periodic threats that required its own native initiative to deal with, not the appeal to a central power. If Vikings were raiding your neighbors, no use in sending for London. They’d be of no help — you had to raise your own men to go and fight them.

  12. All farmers may believe in inheritance, but it is a big leap to the power of selection. In particular, Romans only learned of selective breeding from the Greeks.

  13. Priss Factor [AKA "Cloudcastler"] says:

    Gorf is better

  14. Priss Factor [AKA "Cloudcastler"] says:

    If golf was played near the sea, maybe it had something to do with clam digging.

    One thing for sure, golf sounds about the kind of game for a society obsessed with cannon work and artillery. All about measuring distance of how far the ball will travel. What won the naval wars for the British.

  15. Priss Factor [AKA "Cloudcastler"] says:

    I think what made the British different wasn’t so much the distance from the continent but its combination of the Germanic/Teutonic and the Latin/Romantic.

    Though England is an island nation, it was conquered more than Scandinavia by outside forces.

    Though Anglos are a Germanic people and English is a Germanic language, what sets them apart from other Germanic peoples?
    The British came under greater influence of the French who were just across the Channel. As a result, English lost the hardness and heaviness of other Germanic tongues and became more graceful and stylish. Also, the English vocab came to be filled with French words.
    English has a Germanic shell but French filling.

    So, UK should be understood as the place where the Germanic and the French/Latin influences came together in the most special way.

    And prior to the rise of Britain as a naval power, it had been invaded by foreign invaders from both Germanic and Latin places so many times.

  16. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Interesting theory Steve, but I really don’t think that ‘laissez-faire’, the word you were groping for but never actually used was or is an exclusively British concept.
    The basic principle of English common law namely that a freeborn individual is free to do anything unless it is specifically prohibited was, strangely enough, more or less accepted everywhere on continental Europe, before the advent of totalitarianism in the 20th century. With the devlopment of capitalism in the 18th century, Britain had a head start in that certain technological advances originated in Britain. Of course, it was the musings of Malthus that were the real inspiration for Darwin, musings that really came from the enlightenment and the promotion of rational and mathematical thought as the basis of science – all Darwin did was to expand Malthus to the non-human world out there, and knowing a bit about dog breeding…..

    As for golf ‘being evolutionary’, I don’t know. Methinks it really took off following the example of leisured Victorian gentle folk and their love of ‘sportsmanship’ combined with a love of ‘country air’ and outdoor pursuits – what is golf but outdoor billiards? – this combined witha Victorian Scotish fetish and an excuse to enjoy the fresh air combined with a contest.

  17. Well. I think that satisfies your golf architecture quota for the month. Now on to more watersheds!

  18. By extension I suppose you’ll blame Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq on NFL? I can see the case but don’t find it persuasive.

  19. A plausible theory. I’m assuming you accounted for the violence and chaos of the several hundred year period when England was continuously marauded by various Saxons, Danes, Vikings, et al, as well as the internecine struggles between the seven sub-kingdoms (Wessex, Essex, Northumbria, et al) before they were unified by Alfred the Great. Is it plausible, apart from the Norman conquest, that the 800 years before Smith and Darwin theorized their theories were enough time of relative peace for this unique “island” perspective to take root? If so, that bolster’s Cochran and Harpending’s theory of rapid evolutionary change. But since the marauding Scandis interbred with the native Romano-Brit-Celt-Scot-Pict population which merged into the Anglo-Saxons and modern “Scots”, maybe this uniquely island thought perspective percolated in from that admixture? Maybe the smallish, self-organizing clans and mini-kingdoms of pagan Scandinavia are the original roots of this perspective? Either way, I enjoyed your tying this together with how golf and golf courses evolved.

  20. Glossy:”The failure of humanity to develop the theory of evolution had nothing to do with essences.”

    A good many historians of science disagree with you on that one.

    Glossy:” Parents and farmers always knew how inheritance works.”

    Not quite; the folk conception of parentage involves the idea of traits blending together in offspring.Indeed, this commonsense understanding bedeviled Darwin himself, and posed serious problems for the acceptance of natural selection (cf. the eclipse of Darwinism in the late-19th century).We had to wait for men like Mendel and Thomas Hunt Morgan for a better understanding of inheritance.

    Glossy:” But until very shortly before Darwin no one knew how old the Earth is. ”

    True, which also means that they* could have assumed that it was infinitely old (cf the Hindus with their days of Brahma , each lasting 4,320,000,000 years). For example, Aristotle assumed that the Earth was infinitely old.

    Glossy:”The observed rate of change due to breeding on the farm or in an upper-class family is too slow to make a man out of a fish in 7,000 years.”

    Again, as noted previously, Aristotle thought that the Earth was infinitely old, but he failed to come up with natural selection.

    Glossy:”Once the true age of the Earth was determined by geologists, the theory of evolution was no biggy.You just had to apply the observed rate of change to a new, vastly longer, time frame.”

    Believing/knowing that the Earth is very old old is necessary for the discovery of natural selection. But,as both the Hindus and Aristotle demonstrate, it is not sufficient.

    * Obviously, such an assumption would have been difficult in the West after the spread of Christianity, with its very short Biblical timeline. That’s one of the reasons why I am discussing the Hindus and the Greeks.

  21. While I can’t say whether or not Charles Darwin played golf, it seems that he was fond of another ball (puck) and stick game:

    One thing he enjoyed thinking about were the good old days. Days that included playing hockey with his school chums on a frozen river in Shrewsbury in the 1820s, a passion Mr. Darwin recalled with gusto in a letter to his son, William Erasmus Darwin, dated March 1, 1853.

    “My dear old Willy,” the naturalist wrote. “Have you got a pretty good pond to skate on? I used to be very fond of playing Hocky on the ice in skates…

    “Your affectionate father, Charles Darwin.”


  22. I think all the support for statist economic planning, redistribution of wealth, high taxes, generous entitlements, etc is based in the belief that there will be a little more swag for oneself under such a system. The rich have so much, we can all use a little slice of theirs.

    Who would favor non-economic decisions for people being made by the collective? Subject who you date and marry to the political decision process. Where you live. What you study and what your occupation will be. The content of your diet. Your entertainment choices. (don’t laugh Mao prescribed the content of operas and public entertainments, many communist regimes dictated where you lived) Most people don’t think they will get more attractive mates, or better environs or more sought after jobs under such a system, so they do not favor it.

  23. Priss Factor [AKA "Skyislander"] says: • Website

    Golf is a deceptive game.

    If one knew nothing about it and saw a golf course, one might think it’s a peaceable and relaxing game with plenty of places to run around in.
    But most of the course isn’t even in use. It’s just to fool the eyes. The only thing that matters is the tiny little holes, and the game can get very frustrating and teeth-grinding. Not a relaxing game at all.

    Maybe there’s a lesson to be learnt about ‘quality’ vs ‘quantity’, focus vs lack of focus.

    Paradoxically, the secret to golf is to block out most of the golf architecture. A golfer, as he’s about to hit the ball, must concentrate only on himself and the hole. He mustn’t allow anything else about or on the course to distract him.

    Thus, even though the golf course may impress the eyes(of some), the players must learn to block out most of it. It’s different from soccer where all the field is in use and relevant to the game. In golf, most of the ‘course’ is not relevant to the game. Indeed, even less than in baseball where the batter can hit the ball anywhere into the park as long as it’s not caught. (The difference between golf and baseball is the golfer tries to make the ball ‘caught’ in the hole whereas the batter tries to make the ball ‘miss’ anyone’s mitt.)

    This is why Eskimozis win. While conservatives focus on quantity–numbers of masses and how they feel–, the Eskimozis focus on the ‘holes’ that really matter. Why did the Bolsheviks win and Whites lose? Whites captured huge swaths of the ‘golf course’, but Reds captured the central ‘holes’, the big cities with concentration of population, talent, and wealth.

    In America, GOP has huge areas of rural areas but the Dems have the ‘holes’, the big cities where most people and most talent are. When one looks at the map, it looks like GOP has most of America. But they have the areas with more cows and sheep than people.

    It’s like chess. Even if you have captured more of the opponent’s pieces and have more pawns on the table, you lose IF your opponent is better positioned to checkmate your king.

    You don’t win in chess by playing the entire board. You win by focusing on the right moves that will lead to checkmate. In this sense, American conservatives have it all wrong by neglecting the core centers of power. They keep relying on Bubba with Bible and guns.
    It used to work when there were lots of Bubbas. But there are lots of Bubbezes and Bub-wongs who don’t vote like the Bubbas.

  24. Glossy: the English language, seemingly the only language among humanity’s top 100 that is not managed by an academy or a government. As a consequence it has the messiest, least logical, most difficult for children to learn spelling system this side of China.

    While English is not “managed”, its spelling isn’t actually worse than its nearest neighbors. Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, and French all have atrocious spelling, too. French (and presumably Breton) are at least easy to figure out pronunciation from written words, but the reverse is as bad, or worse, than English. While the Celts may not have language academies, the French most famously do, yet it’s impossible to tell which 1 to 3 random letters need to be added at the end of any word you’ve heard in order to spell it correctly.

  25. Guess who wrote the 3 volume, Flore française, in 1778? (actually you probably know)

    I was just challenging you a little, but I’m about to talk myself into the “rose love” impetus-to-evolution theory, lol!

  26. “Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, and French all have atrocious spelling, too.”

    You are correct to imply that French pronunciation is far more predictable from French spelling than English pronunciation is from English spelling and that neither French nor English spelling is predictable from pronunciation. Advantage: French. And it’s a pretty big advantage.

    And French spelling is far less logical than the spelling of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German or of any of the Slavic languages. I’ve seen it claimed that Irish Gaelic spelling is as bad as English spelling, but not knowing any Gaelic I can’t confirm this.

  27. off topic: interesting that FT states that the Soros foundation plans to study the White working class “just as it studied Muslims…..” somehow I don’t find that reassuring…..

  28. Whiskey – “Britain had no coins in circulation nor any appreciable Christians left in much of it until Alfred the Great converted to Christianity and got assistance from the Pope in minting his own coins.”

    A hundred years before Alfred, Offa of Mercia had gold coinage copied from Abbasid dinars.

    The coins had “Offa Rex” on one side and the original Arabic script on the other – “there is no God but Allah” !

    Some Muslims have claimed from this evidence that Offa himself was a Muslim. Seems unlikely.

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