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King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild

lcorhan's picture

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            King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, recounts the events of the African state of Congo being discovered by the Europeans. Although this history is very emotionally difficult to read, unfortunately it is life. This account of Congo happens to touch many topics we discussed in this course. The first topic that stood out to me while reading this book was the theme of homo sapien sapiens fearing the unknown. Not only do we as a species fear the unknown but we also try to overcome the second law of thermodynamics by inflicting control. Through class discussions I also began to realize that a European Congo would truly be an improbably assembly. Nonetheless, the Belgians didn’t seem to think so.

            In class, the question was posed about why humans view death as a negative state. The issue was raised that as a species we tend to fear the unknown and the concept of death to us is truly an unknown phenomenon. Another thought that came up was that due to this fear we are inclined to find an answer; for most people that answer is religion.

            With regards to Congo, the Belgians followed a similar path. The terrain of Congo was unknown, the Congolese people were unknown, and the Congolese culture and language were unknown. One shouldn’t be surprised that the Belgians were extremely uneasy about this and were desperately searching for the answers. Belgian’s answer to Congo was not to learn about its terrain, people, culture and language, but to recreate them as their own. Belgium began the colonization of Congo and the massacre of the Congolese people.

            By colonizing Congo, Belgium was trying to make the unknown known and take control of the region. Through class debate I was able to relate this control to the second law of thermodynamics. In class, we discussed the second law of thermodynamics and how in nature as time increases entropy or chaos also increases. Before the colonization of Congo, the Congolese people themselves lived in a “non-chaotic” state. Congo had its own rulers, government, people, culture, language and much more. However, in the eyes of the Belgians, Congo itself was quite a chaotic state because it was different and unknown; it needed to be “reordered”. The people were savages without proper tools, education, or religion. By “reordering” Congo or colonizing it, I feel that the Belgians actually accomplished the opposite of their goal and threw Congo into a state of unfamiliar chaos and fear.

            Congolese people were being kidnapped right and left and sold into slavery, native clans in the areas of European development were killed without hesitation, and catholic missions brought strange disease to the Congolese people: Congo was in a state of complete chaos. The Belgian chaos and fear inflicted upon the Congolese natives relates strongly to another topic brought up in class: improbable assembly. I believe the Belgian colony of Congo itself is an improbable assembly due to the unnatural culture forced upon it.

            Even though my book wasn’t traditionally about biology, I felt the topics brought up in class related strongly to my reading. I was therefore able to see it through a new lens: biology’s lens. The human species definitely has common natural individual and cultural traits that show up throughout time in every homo sapien sapiens’ society.  Unfortunately the main traits I have found are not very positive and end up increasing entropy in a harmful fashion.  



Paul Grobstein's picture

Imperialism and biology

Its an interesting notion that human efforts to combat the second law of thermodynamics frequently end up making things locally less predictable/secure rather than more so.  Maybe "biology's lens" could help us avoid that kind of mistake in the future, not only in international affairs but in our own lives as well?