Voynich Decoded?

ETA: apparently everyone thinks this guy’s work is wrong.

I thought his paper was nice and on a good track, but take with appropriate salt.

 

I am tempted to jest that the Voynich manuscript turned out to have been so difficult to decode because it was written by women, but this isn’t quite true.

It was just written in an extinct language of which we have almost no other written examples,
With an alphabet full of unknown characters,
No punctuation,
And full of abbreviations and calligraphic shorthands.

No problem!

If you’re not familiar with the Voynich manuscript, it’s a 240 page book that appears to have been written in Italy in the late 1400s. It’s filled with pictures of things like plants, bathing women, and a rather nice fold-out diagram of a volcano. It came to the world’s attention after Wilfrid Voynich purchased it from an old books dealer in 1912.

voynich_manuscript_2815829
Fold out map of volcanic islands, Voynich manuscript

Because the Voynich manuscript is so weird, (especially the alphabet,) people have struggled for years to decipher it. Is it in code? Is it some non-European language like Chinese? Is it an elaborate hoax?

Given its resistance to all previous attempts at translation, I had written it off as probably a hoax–not a modern one perpetuated by Voynich, but a very old one played on some Medieval personage to sell them a worthless book full of supposed secret, magical knowledge for a handsome sum of money.

But it appears that Voynich has, at long last, been decoded by Gerard Cheshire.

It turns out that this “unknown language” isn’t Finnish, Basque, Navajo or something similarly difficult, but a kind of medieval Italian (or perhaps more accurately, late Latin,) known as proto-Romance. We have plenty of written examples of ancient Italian (otherwise known as Latin) and plenty of modern Italian, but few from the in-between period. It’s a bit like finding something written in Chaucerian English when you’re only familiar with modern English and Beowulf.

voynich_manuscript_recipe_example_107r_crop
Text sample from the Voynich manuscript

With this insight, the authors were able to decipher the strange alphabet, which employs no capitals but several extra symbols for dip- and tripthongs. (Kind of like Sequoia’s syllabary.)

The result is orthographically lovely, but very complicated. You should read the full article for an explanation for what all of the letters mean.

The really interesting thing is that this alphabet is nearly unique. Did the local nuns invent it for the purpose of the book? Were they literate in the regular alphabet used on the mainland, but felt it would be better to develop their own? Or was this commonly used in the area, but the vagaries of time destroyed all other remnants of it?

They found one of the keys to deciphering the manuscript lies in the map of the volcanic islands:

Within the manuscript there is a foldout pictorial map that provides the necessary information to date and locate the origin of the manuscript. It tells the adventurous, and rather inspiring, story of a rescue mission, by ship, to save the victims of a volcanic eruption in the Tyrrhenian Sea that began on the evening of the 4 February 1444 … The manuscript originates from Castello Aragonese, an island castle and citadel off Ischia, and was compiled for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon, (1401–58) who led the rescue mission as regent during the absence of her husband, King Alfonso V of Aragon (1396–1458) who was otherwise occupied, having only recently conquered and then taken control of Naples in February 1443. …

The island of Ischia is historically famous for its hot volcanic spas, which exist to this day. The manuscript has many images of naked women bathing in them, both recreationally and therapeutically. There are also images of Queen Maria and her court conducting trade negotiations whilst bathing. Clearly the spa lifestyle was highly regarded as a form of physical cleansing and spiritual communion, as well as a general means of relaxation and leisure. In many respects it would have been preferable to living in nearby Naples, which was the most important and cosmopolitan of cities in the Mediterranean at the time, but was still potentially dangerous for the spouse of an invading king. For example, in 1448 the barons of Naples launched a failed rebellion against Alfonso to reclaim their city.

In other words, while the menfolk were away, the Queen Maria of Ischia, a lovely little volcanic island off the coast of Naples, (the Wikipedia page is nice and has a couple of pictures of the castle where Queen Maria lived) had to lead the court, negotiate trade deals, and even led a rescue mission to an exploding volcano. She then decided to commission a local nun to write her a book on various matters of importance to the nearly all-female court. The various isolations inherent in island life probably account for several of the manuscripts peculiarities, from language to text.

Proto-Romance is thought to be ancestral not only to modern Italian, but to the various other romance languages, as well. It was a kind of lingua franca in the Mediterranean before modern political borders forced Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc., to fully differentiate. From the paper:

So, we have proto-Romance words surviving in the Mediterranean from Portugal, in the west, to Turkey, in the east. Clearly, it was a cosmopolitan lingua franca until the late Medieval period, when the political map began to inhibit meme flow, so that cultural isolation caused the modern languages to begin evolving. As a result, proto-Romance survived by vestigial fragmentation of its lexicon into the languages we see today. As such, manuscript MS408 is immensely important, because it is the only documentation of a language that was once ubiquitous over the Mediterranean and subsequently became the foundation for southern European linguistics in the present day.

Interestingly:

There is another manuscript to introduce here, because it has similarity in calligraphic style and similarly combined letterforms. It is a memoire written by Loise De Rosa (1385–1475), who lived and worked in the court of Naples. It is titled De Regno di Napoli (The Kingdom of Naples) …

We can see that the calligraphic forms are quite legible and familiar to the modern eye and also noticeably different from those shared by manuscript MS408 and De Rosa. …

De Rosa’s work thus provides documentation of a writing system and a language akin to those of manuscript MS408, demonstrating that both evolved from the same naïve linguistic rootstock: i.e. both had emerged from Vulgar Latin, but in different ways due to their geographical and cultural separation. …

In fact we know, from De Rosa’s manuscript, that he fled to the safety of Castello Aragonese in 1441–42, when Alfonso was busy conquering Naples: He writes: ‘The patron said to me: “Son of mine, go to Ischia, for the great of age the place is safe”. I went to the marina and took a boat that travelled to the Castello di Ischia’. As incredible as it may seem, the chances are that De Rosa actually met the author of manuscript MS408 during his stay at the citadel.

So de Rosa met Maria and probably the nun who wrote the Voynich herself. It’s a really incredible story, both in the manuscript’s creation and the efforts it took to decaode it, and I encourage you to read the full article.

 

Angola and Atomization

Quick excerpt from God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana’s Angola Prison:

Before the rodeo [Terry Hawkins] had graduated out of the fields to the position of fry cook. It was better than being A.D.H.D. (A Dude with a Hoe and a Ditch)–after stirring fried rice or flipping hotcakes on a sove ten feet long, he could grill hamburgers, bag them, and stuff them down his pants to sell in the dorm. Sometimes he snuck out with fried chicken under his shirt and cuts of cheese in his socks. Payment came in cigarettes, the prison’s currency. Later he would stand outside the canteen, and trade a few packs for shampoo or soap or deoderant, or “zoo-zos”–snacks of candy bars or sardines. He knew which guards would allow the stealing, the selling. He made sure to send them plates of fried chicken.

While reading this I thought, “This man has, at least, something to offer his neighbors. He can sell them food, something they’re grateful for. The guy with cheese in his socks and hamburgers in his pants is probably a respected member of his community.”

What do I have to offer my neighbors? I have skills, but they’re only of interest to a corporate employer, my boss. I don’t make anything for sale. I can’t raise a barn or train a horse, and even if I could, my neighbors don’t need these services. Even if I had milk for sale from my personal cow, my neighbors would still prefer to buy their milk at the grocery store.

All of these needs that we used to fill by interacting with our neighbors are now routed through multinational corporations that build their products in immense sweatshops in foreign countries.

I don’t even have to go to the store to buy things if I don’t want to–I can order things online, even groceries.

Beyond the economic, modern prosperity has also eliminated many of the ways (and places) people used to interact. As Lewis Mumford recounts (H/T Wrath of Gnon):

The Bible would have been different without public wells

To sum up the medieval dwelling house, one may say that it was characterized by lack of differentiated space and differentiated function. In the cities, however, this lack of internal differentiation was offset by a completer development of domestic functions in public institutions. Though the house might lack a private bake-oven, there was a public one at the baker’s or the cook-shop. Though it might lack a private bathroom, there was a municipal bath-house. Thought it might lack facilities for isolating and nursing a diseased member, there were numerous public hospitals. … As long as the conditions were rude–when people lived in the open, pissed freely in the garden or the street, bought and sold outdoors, opened their shutters and let in full sunlight–the defects of the house were far less serious than they were under a more refined regime.

Without all of the little, daily things that naturally brought people into contact with each other and knit them into communities, we simply have far fewer reasons to talk. We might think that people could simply make up for these changes by inventing new, leisure-oriented reasons to interact with each other, but so far, they’re struggling:

Americans’ circle of confidants has shrunk dramatically in the past two decades and the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more than doubled, according to a new study by sociologists at DukeUniversity and the University of Arizona.

“The evidence shows that Americans have fewer confidants and those ties are also more family-based than they used to be,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, Robert L. Wilson Professor of Sociology at Duke University and one of the authors of “ Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades.” …

It compared data from 1985 and 2004 and found that the mean number of people with whom Americans can discuss matters important to them dropped by nearly one-third, from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.

Researchers also found that the number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent. The survey found that both family and non-family confidants dropped, with the loss greatest in non-family connections.

I don’t know about you, but I just don’t trust most people, and most people have given me no reason to trust them.

The Recent Development of High European IQ

You know what’s kind of awesome? Understanding the economic development level of virtually every country on earth becomes much easier as soon as you realize the massive correlation between per capita and IQ–and it gets even better if you focus on verbal IQ or “smart fraction” vebal IQs:

Oh, there you are, correlation
Lifted gratefully from La Griffe du Lion‘s Smart Fraction II article
I do wonder why he made the graph so much bigger than the relevant part
Lifted gratefully from La Griffe du Lion‘s Smart Fraction II article

La Griffe du Lion has a lot of great articles explaining phenomena via math, so if you haven’t read them already, I strongly recommend that you do.

One wonders what this data would look like if we looked backwards, at per capita GDP in, say, the 15 to 1800s.

I really hope I can find a better graph
I really hope I can find a better graph (this one’s from Wikimedia)

 

Well, that's slightly better
Also from Wikimedia

According to the Guardian article about the paper British Economic Growth 1270-1870, “estimates that per capita income in England in the late middle ages was about $1,000 or £634 a year when compared with currency values in 1990.

“According to the World Bank, countries which had a per capita income of less than $1,000 last year included Ghana ($700), Cambodia ($650), Tanzania ($500), Ethiopia ($300) and Burundi ($150), while in India – one of the BRIC emerging economies – the gross income per capita stands only just above medieval levels at $1,180.”

Ah, here’s a decent graph:

I am so not digging the scale on this graph
From the Wikipedia page on India-EU relations

From the description of the graph:

“The %GDP of Western Europe in the chart is the region in Europe that includes the following modern countries – UK, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and other smaller states in the Western part of Europe.

The %GDP of Middle East in the chart is the region in West Asia and Northeast Africa that includes the following modern countries – Egypt, Israel, Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Yemen, Iran, Iraq and other regions in the Arabian region.”

The problem with doing the graph this way is that it doesn’t control for population growth. Obviously the US expanded greatly in population between 1700 and 1950, crushing the rest of the world’s GDP by comparison, without anyone else necessarily getting any poorer. It would be nice if the graph included Africa, because I wonder how things like Mansa Musa’s gold mines would show up.

At any rate, here is my impression, which this graph basically seems to back up:

Around the time of the Romans, “Europe” and the Middle East had similar levels of development, integration into global economy, etc. The fall of the Roman Empire coincided with the Middle East pulling ahead in math, science, and nice-looking buildings.

Meanwhile, India and China were doing quite well for themselves, though it’s not clear from the graph how much of that is population. I would not be surprised to find similar numbers for per capita GDP at that time, though.

Then around 1000, Europe starts to improve while the Middle East falls behind and stays there. I suspect this is in part because cousin marriage became more common in the Middle East between 0 and 1000 while simultaneously becoming less common in Europe, and because the Middle East probably didn’t have much arable land left to expand into and so population couldn’t increase very much, whereas the Germans started their big eastward migration about then, (The Ostsiedlung–goodness, it took me a while to figure out how that’s spelled.) increasing the number of Europeans in our cohort and spurring growth.

(BTW…

One of my earlier theories was "I suspect Eastern Germany must was settled after western Germany, due to pesonalities," which turns out to be true
Click for the bigger version )

India, meanwhile, went downhill for a long time, for I have no idea why reasons. China was doing great until quite recently, when it apparently went capootie. Why? I don’t know, but I think part of the effect is just Europe (and the US) suddenly pulling ahead, making China look less significant by comparison.

So. Extrapolating backwards from what we know about the correlation between GDP and verbal IQ, I suspect Western Europe experienced a massive increase in IQ between 1000 and 1900.

A large chunk of this increase was probably driven by the German eastward expansion, a rather major migration you’ve probably never heard of. (As HBD Chick says, “from a sociobiological point-of-view, probably the most underappreciated event in recent western european history. that and the reconquest of spain.”) Another large chunk was probably driven by various cultural factors unique to manorialism and Christianity.

Windmills began popping up in Western Europe in the late 1100s (given that they seem to have started in France, England, and Flanders, rather than in areas geographically closer to the Middle East, it seems unlikely that the European windmills were inspired by earlier Middle Eastern windmills, but were instead a fairly independent invention.

Watermills were an earlier invention–the Classical Romans and Greeks had them. The Chinese and Middle Easterners had them, too, at that time. I don’t know how many mills they all had, but Europeans really took to them:

“At the time of the compilation of the Domesday Book (1086), there were 5,624 watermills in England alone, only 2% of which have not been located by modern archeological surveys. Later research estimates a less conservative number of 6,082, and it has been pointed out that this should be considered a minimum as the northern reaches of England were never properly recorded. In 1300, this number had risen to between 10,000 and 15,000. [Bold mine.]By the early 7th century, watermills were well established in Ireland, and began to spread from the former territory of the empire into the non-romanized parts of Germany a century later. Ship mills and tide mill were introduced in the 6th century.” (Wikipedia page on Watermills.)

In short, by the 1300s, Europe was well on its way toward industrialization.

IMO, these things combined to produce a land where the clever could get ahead and have more children than the non-clever, where those who could figure out a new use or more efficient milling design could profit.

Oh, look, here’s something relevant from HBD Chick, quoting Daniel Hannan’s article in the Telegraph:

“‘By 1200 Western Europe has a GDP per capita higher than most parts of the world, but (with two exceptions) by 1500 this number stops increasing. In both data sets the two exceptions are Netherlands and Great Britain. These North Sea economies experienced sustained GDP per capita growth for six straight centuries. The North Sea begins to diverge from the rest of Europe long before the “West” begins its more famous split from “the rest”. [W]e can pin point the beginning of this “little divergence” with greater detail. In 1348 Holland’s GDP per capita was $876. England’s was $777. In less than 60 years time Holland’s jumps to $1,245 and England’s to 1090. The North Sea’s revolutionary divergence started at this time.’

The result, I suspect, was an increase in average IQs of about 10 to 15 points–perhaps 20 points in specific sub-groups, eg Ashkenazi Jews–with an overall widening of the spread toward the top end.

Christianity and the Rise of the Art Instinct

I think there’s a book by the title of “The Art Instinct.” I haven’t read it.If anyone knows of any good sources re human genetics, art, and history, I’d be grateful.

As far as I know, some kind of art exists in all human populations–even Neanderthals and other non-AM primates like homo Erectus, I think, appear to have had occasional instances of some form of art. (I am skeptical of claims that dolphins, elephants, and chimps have any real ability to do art, as they do not to my knowledge produce art on their own in their natural habitats; you can also teach a gorilla to speak in sign language, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that this is something that gorillas naturally do.)

However, artistic production is clearly not evenly distributed throughout the planet. Even when we only consider societies that had good access to other societies’ inventions and climates that didn’t destroy the majority of art within a few years of creation, there’s still a big difference in output. Europe and China are an obvious comparison; both regions have created a ton of beautiful art over the years, and we are lucky enough that much of it has been preserved. But near as I can tell, Europeans have produced more. (People in the Americas, Australia, etc., did not have historical access to Eurasian trade routes and so had no access to the pigments and paints Europeans were using, but people in the Middle East and China did.)

Europeans did not start out with a lot of talent; Medieval art is pretty shitty. European art was dominated by pictures of Jesus and Mary to an extent that whole centuries of it are boring as fuck. Even so, they produced a lot of it–far more than the arguably more advanced cultures of the Middle East, where drawing people was frowned upon, and so painting and sculpture had a difficult time getting a foothold.

I speculate that during this thousand years or so of shitty art, the Catholic Church and other buyers of religious paintings effectively created a market that otherwise wouldn’t have existed otherwise (especially via their extensive taxation scheme that meant all of Europe was paying for the Pope to have more paintings. The (apparently insatiable) demand for religious paintings meant employment for a lot of artists, which in turn meant the propagation of whatever genes make people good at art (as well as whatever cultural traits.) After 700 or a thousand years or so, we finally see the development of art that is actually good–art that suggests some extraordinary talent on the part of the artist.

I further speculate that Chinese art has been through a similar but slightly less extensive process, due to less historical demand, due to the historical absence of an enormous organization with lots of money interested in buying lots of art. Modern life may provide very different incentives, of course.

Thus the long period of tons of boring art may have been a necessary precursor to the development of actually good art.