Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Garden of Skeletons

Skeleton Haven in Paris

Skeleton Haven in Paris.  Photo: Kasper Jacek.
Skeleton Haven in Paris, Galeries de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie comparée. Photographs: Kasper Jacek.
FOCUS: MUSEUM 'EUROPE' - The European landscape is covered with museums. The European culture is a museum culture: We collect, categorize and exhibits in an effort to understand our past, ourselves and the world we live in. Background investigates European museums, history of the museum and the museum culture that has helped to shaping modern Europe.
The natural history collection of skeletons in Paris was born out of a particular spirit that sees nature as an aesthetic object in itself. Professor at the Sorbonne, Justin EH Smith shows around the skeleton garden in Paris.

I stand in the Jardin des Plantes in the fifth arrondissement on the Left Bank of Paris.Here you will find one of the oldest zoologisker gardens ("Menagerie"), various greenhouses and rows of dahlia between statues of Jean Baptiste Lamarck and George Louis Leclerc Buffon. In addition to this you will also adskellige galleries and exhibitions that make up France's natural history imperial museum. Among these, not least 'Galeries de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie comparée', a two-story gallery built for the World Fair in 1900, where skeletons and preserved bone from thousands of species are on display. Among massive jawbone from sperm whales cross section of napoleon cake-like elefantmolarer (molars) and a myriad of miniature skulls from bats in small glass case.
In addition, among the many bones, I have felt drawn since I arrived in the city - as it was Paris' right center. I sometimes have trouble explaining or even understand why I moved there. I, who do not care about fashion, upscale restaurants and short workweeks - who love wine, but is happy as long as it's just red. I love art, but can barely handle 30 minutes in an art museum before my cafeteria-seeking instinct kicks in.
Why do I always come back to the bone the exhibition? What attraction cancer is the skeletons is that the artworks missing? What is it that gives them votes when live animals at the other end of the garden, despite their barking and howling, remain quiet for my ear? I always come back here at every opportunity. I offer tourists guided tours that after dozens of repetitions, approaching excellent quality.
Skeleton Haven in Paris
I have also gone walks alone in the gallery, where I, a little embarrassed to be the only adult without children in tow, breaks the unwritten but undeniable rule - art for adults, of children. Around me are gifted, articulate seven year old children and teach their parents the difference between mammoths and mastodons or explain them that birds really are dinosaurs. Their pride in their share of scientific truths radiate out of them. This love of knowledge moves me not in the same way. I affirm the authority of science, but as such I come here not to learn. Rather, my reason for being here a kind of aesthetic experience - so I reject all the simple distinction between this place and eg Louvre at the other end of town.
The gallery, which has blossomed among the collections of the French naturalism, with works from, inter alia, Buffon, Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, is the result of a perspective on living nature, who see it as closely associated with art. Artists from the 1900s, such as Damien Hirst, with its world famous dead cows and sharks have with irony tried to ridicule the natural history exhibitions.However, this approach to the animals as objects in an aesthetic synthesis is by no means new or revolutionary. On the contrary, the "borrowed" from earlier aging actual attempts to understand nature by rebuilding the exhibitions that highlight its beautiful form.
1800s naturalist George Pouchet, who designed the exhibition for marine mammals, which is roughly half of the entire exhibition, claiming that the location of the little dolphin from the Ganges river next rethvalens massive baleen and opposite narwhal with its Mysterious overgrown tusk, was a carefully considered part of arranging whale species in an "aesthetic and systematic logic." This is also my logic.
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The gallery maintains mostly the style of the 1800s, with beautiful wood cabinets and yellow stickers with names written in elegant calligraphy. There are few signs of new uninvited approaches, and I do my best not to discover them. The worst is touch-screens with educational quizzes. Often runs the children immediately to these, almost desperate, to interconnect with something familiar, so bones real world can be locked out. In recent decades naturmuséer been renewed in connection with the school system, in the hope of stimulating the interest of the academic, who in turn is conditioned by technological advances and an increasing human domination over nature's forces. But as late as the 1800s, the gallery's modern ideas were conceived, those who studied nature, do not forget that their goal of the studies was beauty. A beauty fit for a more relaxed structure rather than the pragmatic learning - beauty as it shows itself through nature's extravagant and complicated size.
Immediately after you enter, you meet a about 50 centimeter tall statue of a man wearing only a fig leaf to show how the muscles and tissue below the skin. The statue, created by Jean-Pancrace Chastel, is with the hedged step apparently the only sign of shame throughout the gallery. Then you see nature openly and uncovered, no matter how strange. To the left of the statue is a glass enclosure with various higher primarter (homo sapiens included) in line for development stage. Seen together with the gorilla and the other works of man skull monstrous and bloated, with teeth drastically reduced from previous stadiers honorable sizes. One wonders what went wrong.
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The overwhelming impression in hovedustillingen is a huge onslaught of animal skeletons. All pointing in the same direction, and hundreds of them on display so it looks like they come running. In the frontline of this formation is several megafauna as hippos, moose and Steller's sea cow, each of which would be impressive enough alone. As we observe the abundance of vertebrate animals, you see breathtaking and incontrovertible summary of the major taxonomic group. The skeletons illustrates something that the live animals in motion can not: All these animals is when all variations of a single theme, built around the same rygknogle.
Many of the skeletons belong to animal celebrities. There is, for example, rhinoceros from Versailles, who was murdered in 1793 by a bunch of angry Sans Culottes'er. Then there is also Stadhouder-giraffe imported from Holland to disprove Madame de Pompadour's claim to a huge femur she possessed from an animal of the same species, belonged to a human giant. And then there's Rock Sand, racing horse who won the British Triple Crown in the 1903rd
And there are more skeletons of mummified animals brought to France by Geoffroy in 1802 from the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt. Natura list had hoped to use the animals as confirmations of his version of evolution, according to which species can develop new morphological variations on an underlying consistency of form (s).(Geoffroy was an advocate of evolution, like many, it was in the century before Darwin. Darwin's addition was an insight about evolutionary mechanisms, most known is the mechanism called natural selection). Unfortunately for the French naturalist, and in favor of his anti-evolutionist opponent Cuvier, did the Egyptian skeletons (one Dorcas gazelle, one peregrine falcon and a beef) no different from their modern counterparts, despite being thousands of years old. It was obviously naive to look at animals in a lifetime relatively close to the naturalistic list own time instead of digging deeper in the sediments. However, it is this kind of naivety that in a sense throw indubitable signs of genius by itself.
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Cuvier and Geoffroy so both have a clear economy of the animal kingdom structure, especially among vertebrates. Whatever it was that brought these creatures to life, it was not necessary to start from scratch every time. Extend the spine, reduce lower jaw or shorten forelegs and potentially you can get any kind of a second. Already in 1680, the English anatomist Edward Tyson shown that the fin of a porpoise is modified hooves, yet two decades later, in his anatomical study of a chimpanzee, he refused to conclude that the striking resemblance between the chimpanzee and human anatomy indicates a actually parentage.
Through the 1700s came the evolution of fashion, but the question of man's place in the evolutionary scheme was a problem. Animal studies made it possible to think our way into a relationship of kinship of all living species before we were quite ready to see ourselves as part of this context. Even whales had small basins with no connection to the rest of the skeleton, with what looked like traces of hind legs. What on earth did they do that? One was for sure: God, or nature, smith not because the sketches away and started from scratch with each species. Quaggaen Okapi and the various marsupial all testify to an elegant, aesthetic and systematic order.
This system is reflected around the walls of the exhibition, where more than a hundred glass cabinets showing skeletons of small creatures (Indri, pacaer and echidna among others) and countless jars containing softer parts of animals preserved in formaldehyde in now more than a hundred years. Tissues from animals can not be maintained for long. A windpipe from a seed stored in a jar with harsh liquids in a hundred years will be over time, while the jar sticker fade transformed into something quite unnatural, ash gray and nasty. This is the gallery's kind of aesthetic counterweight to the large mammals sharp osteology. Bones presents an elegant order that feels ageless, despite the fact that we know it develops. Tissue reminds us that the bones belonged to mortal beings who once jumped lively around the countryside with their muscles, organs and joints.
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The farther you move around in a clockwise direction, the more macabre the glass Cabinets' content. In the back right corner is teratology section - dedicated to the science of what once was called "monsters", now "anomalies". Here are deformed fetuses of various people and animals ranked by the criteria that have been long forgotten. There is a pig fetus with an eye that are labeled: "Simple monster" and there are two goats that are linked at the chest.
Geoffroy had worked for a shift in the perception of teratologiens history. From the Renaissance conception of monsters as heralds of God's anger (self word "monster" means, after all, that something is being displayed - "de-monsters-right") to the normalization phase, which was already under way in his early collections of malformed fetuses , culminating in the great work "Traité de teratologie" (treatise on teratology), published by his son Isidore in 1837. Malformations seen today as opportunities to better understand organic development - as exceptions to the rule.However, the idea is easy to Geoffroy was equally inclined to wonder at the sight of these freaks, like any other village clerk looking for God's wrath would have been it.The so-called exceptions are amazing and outrageous for anyone who sees them. They make us admire the rule after all often hold true - that you, I and almost everyone else we know came shapely to the world.
We continue along the glass cabinets at the gallery's exterior wall and now even the hardiest delicate: Dried small arms from a gorilla, caeca from an alpaca and lungs from a Jaguarundi is loosely in jars. What oddity! What content world, however, has!And yet, as the content presented here in a single gallery's small universe, we see uvtivlsomt that all this marvelous belongs to a fantastic and great whole, of which the paltry contents in an art museum is at most a gray shade.
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Why do we want to be the places we want to be is often inexplicable, incomprehensible. When I try to explain why I want to be in Paris, the only thing resembling a reason that I would like to be close to the Jardin des Plantes. Close to madoquaerne and ostrich in the garden, close to the greenhouses with prehistoric ferns and, most importantly, close to 'Galeries de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie comparée'. It's not that I'm going to live the rest of my days here. Nor is it because that dusty old exhibitions of natural history is something unique to this city. Rather, it is because this particular location contains a very special and elusive spirit that was once naturally connected and associated with Paris.
Buffon, Cuvier and the other showed not only curious details like Madame de Pompadour with her giant's femur. Similarly, they tried not to trump nature, like Hirst with his shark, via a claim that their art is worth more than the creatures that art takes shape after. Spirit who understand the true relationship between art and nature, aroused this gallery to life. This spirit is not afraid to see nature as an aesthetic object in itself.
In this spirit, it is one of the main purposes of a capital city that is a center of science, that it gives access to nature as a whole, access to a portal between high culture and nature that is around it. The skeletons are "living" evidence of this structure. It would be a huge mistake to think of them as dead.
Justin EH Smith is a professor of history and philosophy of science at the Sorbonne University in Paris and author of the latest "Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy". The text is a translation of "The Skeleton Garden of Paris".
Translated by Morten Gustenhoff.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Two Experts Look at the Syrian Civil War

Is Bashar al-Assad Finished, for Real, This Time, Again?
A conversation with two of the country’s best Syria experts on what the rebel gains actually mean.
MAY 1, 2015

The rumors and assessments are flying. Analysts and experts are starting to wonder whether recent rebel gains in the north of Syria don’t constitute some potential tipping point that could signal a fundamental weakening of the regime. Is Bashar al-Assad on his way out?

Of course, this is the same question we’ve been asking ourselvesrepeatedly for the past five years now. Indeed, in 2011, the conventional wisdom on this matter had all but declared that Assad couldn’t possibly survive his Arab Spring and that he would eventually go the way of the dodo (see: Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, and Qaddafi.)

So here we are almost five years on. Is it going to be different this time? Could it be that President Barack Obama’s August 2011declaration that Assad must step aside is actually going to be realized — largely as a result of a better organized Islamist opposition, fractures within the security establishment, and the difficulty of recruiting Alawites to fight? Could this really be the end?

The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. And it’s really hard to divine tipping points or moments when there really is a significant change in any situation, particularly in a case like Syria when you’re reduced to reading tea leaves and goat entrails for insights into the Assad regime. So, in search of answers and some clarity on what could be one of the most potentially consequential developments in regional politics in the past five years, 

I decided to ask the experts, the University of Oklahoma’s Joshua Landis and the Atlantic Council’s Fred Hof (formerly Obama’s special advisor for the Syrian transition), two of the finest analysts of Syrian politics I know. Here’s what they told me:

Aaron David Miller: Rebel gains in Idlib and Jisr al-Shagour suggest the insurgency is now stronger than ever. Have we reached some sort of tipping point that signals the beginning of the end for Bashar?

Fred Hof: The beginning of the end for Bashar commenced in March 2011, when he elected to respond to peaceful protest against police brutality with lethal violence. There is no doubt his army is now tired, depleted, and demoralized. The army’s backbone — Assad’s own Alawite community — is weary of sacrificing its children for the sake of a clan that (even before 2011) did precious little for the community or for Syria, more generally. Yet Alawites and others grudgingly stick with the regime because of the perceived absence of a recognizable, desirable alternative and because of existential fears stoked by the regime. As for the current tactical developments on the ground, they do not necessarily presage the fall of Damascus or the disappearance of the regime. There is ebb and flow in this conflict, and Iran may again (as it did in 2013) find ways to reverse regime losses with foreign fighters.

Joshua Landis: It is far from over. But the losses at Idlib and Jisr al-Shagour demonstrate much greater rebel organization and strength. It is definitely worrying Assad’s people. What accounts for this new rebel strength and coordination? Jabhat al-Nusra’s two main rebel competitors have been neutralized. The United States has significantly weakened the Islamic State. Nusra destroyed the “moderate” militias that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia supported. This forced the Islamic Front and other militias to accept Nusra as the dominant force and to coordinate with it.

[In Saudi Arabia], the new king has prioritized weakening Iran over weakening the Muslim Brotherhood, reversing the strategic goals of his predecessor. This means that Saudi Arabia is not on the same page as Turkey and Qatar, which promoted the Islamist militias to the chagrin of Riyadh and the United States. But Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham seem to have consolidated their leadership over the rebel forces [under the banner of the Army of Conquest] and have found a way to work effectively together. That is big. There could be a King Salman effect — increased Saudi aid and cooperation with Turkey and Qatar. That may be an important part of recent rebel strength.

Assad will have to improve his military and defenses. He still owns some 65 percent of the Syrian people. There are many reports of his men wanting to avoid military service, however, which will make it hard for him to reverse this blow to morale.

All the same, Assad’s strategy has been to maintain regime outposts in all corners of Syria, in the belief that he could reconquer all [of] Syria. The outpost in Idlib and the salient reaching up to it, which contained Jisr al-Shagour, was weak. It is not certain if the opposition conquest of this vulnerable region dog-legging up into enemy territory is the beginning of the end, or whether it will force Assad to change strategies — retreating from distant outposts to the part of Syria that he believes he can hold. This may force Assad to work for a de facto partition of the country, rather than maintaining his “all corners” strategy.

ADM: Do you buy the idea that there are acceptable Alawites in the military who are either part of the current regime or outside who could speak for their community and emerge as credible interlocutors in a political solution?

JL: I do not believe that a political solution will be found. The Islamist rebels are intent on retaking all of Syria. Assad, so far, is equally intent on taking all of Syria. Assad has demonstrated over four years that he is capable of contracting the land he rules, but not reforming politically. His regime and rule is dependent of the political structure of family rule and traditional loyalties that his father established 45 years ago.

FH: I believe that Alawites must be full partners in a Syria featuring self-rule by empowered citizens. Surely there are plenty of Alawites in the regime-directed military who have served with honor and who have refused to engage in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Syrian opposition should make it clear that the term “Assad regime” refers to a clan and a relatively small circle of criminal enablers, and that all others will be welcome to participate in the politics and defense of a united, post-regime Syria.

ADM: If the Islamist insurgency actually took Damascus, what would unfold for the Alawites and Christian minorities?

FH: Damascus is a large city and the rebellion against Assad’s rule involves many different groups whose leaders represent a range of political opinions and sectarian attitudes. The Islamic State (IS) isnot part of the anti-Assad insurgency: it is an Iraq-derived phenomenon working often in tandem with the Assad regime to defeat Syrian nationalist alternatives to it and to the regime. Should IS change its target and go after the regime there would be a spirited and effective defense of Damascus — with or without Assad — because IS’ reputation for sectarian slaughter is well-established.

Should Damascus fall to an alignment of forces similar to that which recently took Idlib — an unlikely development in my view — surely there will be fear within the Damascene populace, and yes there will be incidents of violence. The war unleashed by the regime will not be easily contained or forgotten. But a general, systematic pogrom? Maybe not, but the threat itself ought to inspire Washington to get serious about supporting non-jihadist, nationalist regime opponents. The regime has, after all, gone out of its way over the past four years to implicate minorities and supportive Sunni Arabs in its own crime spree. Washington needs to exercise total control over who gets what from regional powers to the Syrian opposition.

JL: The “great sorting out” that I have argued is taking place in the region would continue. Christians have largely left Syria. They probably account for less than 3 percent of the population today. Alawites would be subject to revenge and their towns looted. There is no reason that the rebels would show mercy to them. Many Alawites would flee to Lebanon rather than find out what awaited them should Islamist militias take their towns. The Islamist leaders consider Alawites unbelievers and apostates. Even the more moderate Islamic Front leaders state that Shiites should be ethnically cleansed from Syria.

ADM: How important is Assad and Syria to Iran, and what are they prepared to do to save him?

JL: Alawite rule and Assad’s regime is very important to Iran. Tehran may spend more money [to support the regime], but I find it hard to believe that it would send brigades of Iranian soldiers to fight in Syria.

FH: During two years’ worth of track two discussions with influential, non-official Iranians, I’ve been consistently told that preserving Assad personally is a top Iranian national security priority. Iran sees him as utterly compliant in supporting Iranian efforts to keep Hezbollah’s anti-Israel missile and rocket force at a high state of combat readiness. Although the domination of Syria is, on its own merits, a hegemonic feather in Tehran’s cap, the Assad-Hezbollah connection is deemed by Iran to be vital in a practical sense. The Iranians fear — perhaps with good reason — that with Bashar Al-Assad gone the regime will collapse, and that no successor would subordinate Syria to Iran in the way Assad has.

ADM: If Assad fell, what would the impact be on Hezbollah?

FH: Unless Iran were able to replace Assad with a similarly compliant and effective funnel to Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese militia leader would become the equivalent of a well-armed military commander who knows he has no prospect of effective resupply. This could have an operationally inhibiting effect on Iran and its Lebanon-based strategic force. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and [Hezbollah chief] Hassan Nasrallah would both know that the employment of the rocket and missile force would be a one-time event. And the force itself would deteriorate over time without steady resupply and upgrading.

JL: Hezbollah would be cut off from its source of heavy weapon supply. Israel and the United States can police sea and air deliveries, but not the overland routes that Assad uses to deliver Iranian arms to Hezbollah.

ADM: Is there an Islamist insurgency capable of ruling the country?

JL: I presume the Islamist forces would find a way to rule Syria.

FH: “Islamist” is a very broad term. Can Syria be ruled legitimately by people who think that sectarian minorities have a lower grade of citizenship than the majority? No. Is it admissible for there to be a political trend in a constitutional republic advocating the position that law should be derived from the moral teachings of the Quran and the Hadith? Yes. But Syria is an ethnic and sectarian mosaic, one that can enjoy the consent of the governed — required for true legitimacy and stability — only if citizenship trumps everything else politically. Is there in the opposition a ready-for-prime-time government? No. Yet neither is the Assad regime fit to govern, unless one is comfortable with mass murder, industrial strength corruption, and tacit cooperation with the Islamic State.

ADM: What would Assad’s fall mean for IS?

FH: IS wants to be one of two parties left standing in Syria. It wants the other to be the Assad regime. IS fears Assad being replaced by an alternative attractive to the Syrians it currently tries to rule. With Assad still in the saddle, IS has the face of sectarian-driven war crimes and crimes against humanity for a powerful recruiting poster as it seeks to draw to Syria the damaged, disaffected, and deranged of the Sunni Muslim world. There is a solid, practical reason why IS points its weapons at alternatives to it and the Assad regime, not at the regime itself.

JL: If Nusra and the Islamic Front were to weaken Assad’s control of Syria’s major cities, IS would have to make a concerted effort to take them. It could lead to significant defections from IS to Nusra, just as initial IS victories led to Nusra and Islamist military defections to IS.

ADM: If you had to guess, where will Syria be a year from now?

JL: Assad will still remain in control of Damascus and the coastal regions, but the city of Hama will either have fallen or be engulfed in war. This, of course, is wild speculation. Much depends on whether Iran and Iraq up the ante to meet greater Turkish and Saudi aid to Syria’s Sunni rebels, as it depends on how much the region’s Sunni powers want to defeat Iran and Assad in Syria.

FH: If Washington maintains an arm’s-length approach to protection of civilians and political-military support of Syrian nationalists, one year from now the humanitarian abomination will have deepened significantly and the country will be uneasily and unofficially partitioned between IS and the regime as it hemorrhages people. There would, I think, continue to be an unstable live-and-let live relationship between the two parties left standing: Iran will not waste its Lebanese assets on recapturing an eastern Syria it deems largely worthless; and IS will want to concentrate on consolidating its presence in eastern Syria to facilitate operations in Iraq.

The key variable, however, will be American policy. If the United States elects to protect civilians, to replace an anemic train-and-equip initiative with the building of an all-Syrian National Stabilization Force, and recruits regional powers to provide ground forces to sweep IS from Syria so that a governmental alternative to the Assad clan can be established, then the pessimist scenario can be avoided. And then Syrians can have a shot at a negotiated settlement leading ultimately to legitimate governance.