Steve Farmer, Ph.D.
Palo Alto, California
Segui il tuo corso, e lascia dir le genti!
[Go your own way, and let the people talk!]
Marx, adapting Purgatorio 5:13
This page is currently being revised (6 August 2023)
Much of my early work focused on the links between neurobiology, evolving communications technologies, and the evolution of premodern cultural traditions in general. A number of novel sides of that work, including the design of intelligent agent models of cultural evolution, are discussed in a number of research studies linked below.
In the past decade, I’ve increasingly become involved in studies of the molecular, environmental, and cultural drivers of chronic inflammation and serious diseases of aging. For a brief overview of this work and a brief biography of me at the Systems Biology Group, go here.
Papers recently given or in preparation
Steve Farmer, Ulrich Kutschera, et al. “The inflammatory model of chronic disease: Evolutionary strategies to prevent or reverse diseases of aging and early development.” One key part of the paper describes novel tests of chronic inflammation that can be used to help prevent or reverse major inflammatory diseases from childhood to extreme old age.
Steve Farmer, “Myths of global disaster in the early Anthropocene: Neurobiological, historical, and ecological perspectives.” Talk given at the 12th Annual Conference of the International Association for Comparative Mythology (IACM), held at Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan, in 2011. I’ve served on the Board of Directors of IACM since it was founded at a joint Conference in Beijing sponsored by Harvard University and Peking University in 2006. We’ve held other conferences in Japan, Russia, France, Beijing, Armenia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Scotland, the Netherlands, and the US in the last decade. Our conference in 2023 will be in Ireland.
Steve Farmer, “Ecological collapse and modern myths: A predictive model.” Prepared for a conference at the University of Tartu, Estonia, held in June 2019. The paper makes a number of testable predictions about negative political and cultural impacts expected globally as climate collapse continues to accelerate in the next decade.
Two books-in-progress (working titles)
Evolution and diseases of civilization: Surviving in a world of lethal foods, toxic medicines, and inflammatory lifestyles. A book on the inflammatory model of disease that I’ve helped developed with others over the last decade.
Brains and history: The evolution of thought. Integrates in popular form the conclusions of my early studies of cultural neurobiology. This book has long been on a back burner due to my work in systems biology, but I hope to return to it soon.
Book-length case study of how premodern systems evolved in the manuscript age
Syncretism in the West: Pico’s 900 theses (1486). The book approaches one of the strangest Latin texts ever written as a case study of how premodern religious, philosophical, and cosmological systems evolved in manuscript traditions over vast periods. Important parts of the brain-culture model I developed in later studies can be traced to my early work on this extreme syncretic text. On these links, and suggestions of how the evolution of these systems can be studied in computer models, see the text and notes in that book’s Theoretical Conclusions, pp. 91-6. Links to articles and working papers on this modeling can be found in other sections below.
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One partial list of some of my talks in recent years on the evolution of premodern myth and related topics
“Brain-Culture networks and political mythologies: The rebirth of hypernationalism in biological perspectives.” Lecture at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, 8-10 June 2017.
Steve Farmer, “Yoga Traditions and Comparative Mythologies: Ongoing Revolutions in Yoga History.” (Click for Long Abstract.). Talk given at Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic, 26-28 May 2016.
Steve Farmer, “Talking with the Gods: Neurobiology, Auditory-Visual Hallucinations, and the Evolution of Premodern Myths, Religions, and Philosophies.” (Click for Long Abstract.)Paper delivered at Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń, Poland, 11 June 2015.
Steve Farmer, “Brains, Networks, and the Evolution of Human Thought.” Invited Lecture, University of Miami at Ohio, 21 November 2014.
Steve Farmer, “Brain Research and Global Mythologies.” (Click for Abstract.) Paper given at the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia, Yerevan, Armenia, 25 May 2014.
Invited Lecture at Columbia University, 25 September 2012. Steve Farmer, “Neurobiology and Manuscript Cultures: The Evolution of Premodern Religious and Cosmological Systems.” ( Click for Abstract.)
Lecture at the University of Strasbourg, France, 9 October 2011. Steve Farmer, Twisted Tales: Spurious Claims of Postural Yoga in Ancient India. (Click for long abstract.) Mainly fictional accounts of the origins of yoga are used in the paper to discuss common distortions in studies of comparative mythology in general and premodern India in particular.
Lecture at Harvard University, 8 October 2010. Steve Farmer and Michael Witzel, Indus Valley Fantasies: Political Mythologies, Academic Careerism, and the Poverty of Indus Studies. (Click for long abstract.) The title “Indus Valley Fantasies” is reserved for a book on distortions of ancient history promoted by right-wing Indian nationalists and Western archaeologists and Indologists too meek to challenge them. That failure is not innocuous, given the uses these distortions serve in supporting reactionary social structures in India that affect hundreds of millions of so-called Dalits or “untouchables,” etc.
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Link to the Indo-Eurasian_Research List, which covers scholarly research on premodern Eurasia in general
The list is moderated by me, Steve Farmer (comparative history, cultural neurobiology, systems biology), Michael Witzel (Harvard: Indology, comparative mythology, linguistics), Lars Martin Fosse (Oslo: Indology, linguistics), and Benjamin Fleming (University of Pennsylvania: Indology, comparative religion). The List focuses on premodern studies globally. Core members are located in South Asia, Iran, China, Russia, Eastern and Western Europe, Australia, Japan, and the United States. The List is mainly aimed at professional researchers, but lurkers are welcome. My collaborator Michael Witzel and I began the list in 2004.
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Below is a list of some my top article downloads
– Steve Farmer, The neurobiological origins of primitive religion: Implications for comparative mythology (preprint). Just appeared in October 2010 in New Perspectives on Myth (Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Conference of the International Association of Comparative Mythology, Ravenstein, The Netherlands.) Introduces the first testable neurobiological model of the origins of religion and includes an historical overview of earlier naturalistic models.
– S Farmer et al. Simulating the Past and Predicting the Future: Brain-Culture Networks and the Evolution of Thought. The paper deals with how brain-culture networks have been transformed by demographic forces and innovations in communications from the first extensive appearance of external symbols ca. 50,000 years ago through the present information revolution.
– Steve Farmer, Neurobiology, stratified texts, and the evolution of thought: From myths to religions and philosophies (Harvard and Peking University International Conference on Comparative Mythology, Bejing. A slightly revised version of this paper (unfortunately omitting the abstract) appeared in 2009 in Cosmos (Edinburgh, pub. date given as 2006). The paper traces the evolution of my work from traditional comparative history to cultural neurobiology over the last two decades and includes a capsule summary of simulations of how traditional religious and philosophical systems arose over long periods. Tests of the brain-culture model developed in the paper are proposed that include the so-called Indus script and newly discovered Chinese tomb texts.
– Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel, The collapse of the Indus-script thesis: The myth of a literate Harappan civilization. EJVS 11-2 (13 Dec. 2004): 19-57. (Hundreds of thousands of downloads since its publication.) See on the violant international debate this article generated Science 2004 (306): 2026-9. On my collaborators, see Richard Sproat (computational linguistics, then at the University of Illinois and now a Senior Staff Research Scientist at Google, Manhattan) and now at Google, Manhattan) and Michael Witzel (Indology, comparative mythology, and linguistics, Harvard University). Abstract of our original 2004 paper, which has spawned hundreds of newspaper articles and violent reactions from Indian nationalists:
Archaeologists have long claimed the Indus Valley as one of the four literate centers of the early ancient world, complete with long texts written on perishable materials. We demonstrate the impossibility of the lost-manuscript thesis and show that Indus symbols were not even evolving in linguistic directions after at least 600 years of use. Suggestions as to how Indus symbols were used are noted in nonlinguistic symbol systems in the Near East that served key religious, political, and social functions without encoding speech or serving as formal memory aids. Evidence is reviewed that the Harappans’ lack of a true script may have been tied to the role played by their symbols in controlling large multi-linguistic populations; parallels are drawn to the later resistance of Brahmin elites to the literate encoding of Vedic sources and to similar phenomena in esoteric traditions outside South Asia. Discussion is provided on some of the political and academic forces that helped sustain the Indus-script myth for over 130 years and on ways in which our findings transform current views of the Indus Valley and of literacy in the ancient world in general.
On spurious recent claims by Rao et al., see next item.
– Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Wizel, A refutation of the claimed refutation of the nonlinguistic nature of Indus symbols: Invented data sets in the statistical paper of Rao et al. (Science, 2009). See also the technical plots and discussion, with links to other deadly critiques of Rao et al. by leading computational linguists, at more on Rao. Later claims by Rao et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS] that Markov models suggest that Indus symbols were supposedly part of an ancient writing system are similarly trivial to debunk: crude structure in the absurdly short groups of Indus symbols (averaging if all relevant materials were included far under 4.5 signs per supposed “text”) has been known since the 1920s and is a feature of all symbol systems — not as Rao et al. oddly claim only those that encode language. (We discussed this long before Rao’s work in Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel 2004 [pp. 20ff. and n. 5 and passim] and Sproat and Farmer 2006 [esp. p. 8ff]. Cf. also Richard Sproat’s rightly dismissive note on Rao’s claims here). The smoke and mirrors in the work of Rao et al., which via press releases generated lots of attention in the pop press (especially in India), is discussed in further detail in an expanded version of a paper we gave at the critical Indus conference held in Kyoto, Japan, on 29-31 May 2009. For an abstract of that paper (expanded version with other conference papers to appear in early 2010), see Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel, The collapse of the Indus-script thesis, five years later: Massive nonliterate urban civilizations of ancient Eurasia. As the title suggests, the paper discusses implications of the nonlinguistic nature of Indus symbols that reach far beyond India, radically altering our views of ancient urban societies in general. It also responds to polemical attacks on our 2004 paper from Indian nationalists and researchers whose careers have heavily depended on the Indus-script myth. For more on what Indus symbols were (and weren’t), see other materials in the sections below. Back to top of page.
– Steve Farmer, John B. Henderson, and Michael Witzel, Neurobiology, layered texts, and correlative cosmologies: A cross-cultural framework for premodern history, Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 72 (2000 [written and published 2002]): 48-89. The first published paper to seriously link neurobiology and the evolution of religious and philosophical traditions, in a cross-cultural study of so-called correlative systems (in China), bandhus or upanishads (in India), and systems of correspondence (in the West). Hence the collaboration of one Western specialist, one Chinese specialist, and one specialist on premodern India and in writing the paper. The first suggestion that the Indus civilization was not literate was a direct prediction of the model developed in the paper (see the later sections on tests of the model).
– Steve Farmer, John B. Henderson, Michael Witzel, and Peter Robinson, Computer models of the evolution of premodern religious, philosophical, and cosmological systems. (Online adjunct of the article in the Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities noted above, 2002.) Discusses computer simulations of the rise and fall of emergent self-similar structures (multilayered mirroring cosmologies, scholastic hierarchies, Neo-Platonic and Neo-Confucian systems, etc.) that evolved globally in key premodern types of textual traditions. Far more sophisticated intelligent-agent network simulations extending the methods discussed here are being planned using the cultural modeling software developed by the Cultural Modeling Research Group.
– Steve Farmer, John B. Henderson, and Peter Robinson, Commentary traditions and the evolution of premodern religious and philosophical systems: A cross-cultural model. This working paper, updated most recently in 2002, is based on a lecture that the Sinologist John Henderson and I gave at the University of Heidelberg in 1997. The paper presented our earliest theoretical views of how multilayered hierarchies and other scholastic structures were shaped cross-culturally in textual traditions. The framework is provided by mathematical models of nonlinear dissipative systems. Some but not all of the data here show up the two papers noted above. See also from my 1998 book on Pico, theoretical conclusions (especially the notes on those pages), also written in this period.
– Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer, Horseplay in Harappa: The Indus Valley decipherment hoax, [cover story] Frontline 17 (19) (13 Oct. 2000): 4-11. For more links on this infamous story of the connections between the extreme Hindu rightwing (the Hindutva movement) and the myth of the so-called Indus script, see other papers noted below. This paper has been downloaded several million times since its first publication; it is widely used in university classes on modern Indian politics.
– Steve Farmer, The first Harappan forgery: Indus inscriptions in the nineteenth century (2003). A short essay on the origins of the Indus-script thesis, which prominent Western researchers slipped in through the back door (along with a lot of fudged evidence) in the 1870s and 1880s. Must reading for would-be ‘decipherers’.
– Richard Sproat and Steve Farmer, Morphology and the Harappan Gods. In Inquiries into Words, Constraints and Contexts. Festschrift in the Honour of Kimmo Koskenniemi on His 60th Birthday. Preprint bound presentation version, Saarij”vi, Finland, 2005. Online publication CSLI Studies in Computational Linguistics, Stanford University, 2006. See the last part of the article on structure in the so-called Indus script (which is no different from the kinds of structure found in many other types of non-linguistic symbol systems).
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Another list of lectures on a some of the topics mentioned above
– Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto, Japan, 31 May 2009. “The collapse of the Indus-script thesis, five years later: Massive nonliterate urban civilizations of ancient Eurasia. (With Michael Witzel and Richard Sproat.) Paper abstract. Paper to appear in early 2010. Slides available on a limited basis (email me).
– Kokugakuin University, Tokyo, Japan, May 2009. “The future of religious education: Neurobiological, historical, and computational approaches to comparative mythology and religion.”
– University of Edinburgh, Scotland, 28-30 August 2007. “Methodological problems in studies of the global distribution of myths.” Paper abstract.
– Stanford University, 11 July 2007. “The strange case of the so-called Indus script: Distinguishing writing from non-linguistic symbols.” Paper abstract. The paper was given at an international conference on my work with Richard Sproat (now of Oregon Health and Science University) and Michael Witzel (Harvard) beginning in 1999 debunking the so-called “Indus script” myth.
– University of California at Berkeley, 29 March 2007. Society of Ethnobiology. Steve Weber, Dorian Fuller, and Steve Farmer (Presenter: Steve Farmer). “Seed, Plant, and Farming Signs in the Indus Symbol System: New Methods for Studying Harappan Civilization.” Paper Abstract. A major paper on this, which describes how Indus symbols were used, is still in the works.
Public discussion in the popular press (often quoting people whose whole careers or nationalist views are intimately entwined with the Indus-script myth) has been so distorted, in 2004-5 we added the links in the box below for fun. Our “One Sentence Refutation” is totally valid, but it is only one of a dozen or so arguments, others far more formal, that can be used to debunk the script myth. (No one will ever collect our $10,000 prize, which one of these days we’ll raise to $100,000 or more without losing sleep):
– A feature story on the original Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel paper (Collapse of the Indus-script thesis) appeared in the 17 Dec. 2004 issue of Science. See A. Lawler, “The Indus Script: Write or Wrong?” Science 2004 (306): 2026-9 (there is also a strange Italian version based on a bad translation). There are numerous errors in Lawler’s story, but it does faithfully reflect the fierce debate generated by our paper, which criticizes all the script adherents cited in the article by name. For those criticisms, see our original paper. Another article on our paper appeared in Facts magazine (Switzerland) on 17 February 2005 (PDF, 600 K, Die Saubermaenner vom Indus). Another appeared in Der Tagesspiegel (Germany) on 21 February (Wer die Zeichen zu deuten weiss). An abbreviated version of the latter appeared in Der Standard (Austria) on 18 February 2005. A big-budget documentary for German public TV (predicably sensationalistic and including annoying faked evidence, including a huge Indus seal many times its real size being protected by a (hmm) cobra about to strike. On the extremely tiny size of all Indus seals, see Size Matters! — where it is compared to a proto-Elamite inscription (which too doesn’t quite contain “writing” in the linguistic sense)
– Talk given at the joint Harvard-Kyoto Roundtable in Kyoto, Japan, on 6-8 June 2005. Steve Farmer, Steven A. Weber, Tim Barela, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel. Temporal and Regional Variations in the Use of Indus Symbols: New Methods for Studying Harappan Civilization. Abstract. See also our more recent Kyoto talk, above.
– Sixth Harvard University Indology Roundtable, 8 May 2004. The mythological functions of Indus inscriptions: Eight conclusions arising from the nonlinguistic model of Indus symbols. 3.6 meg pdf including many slides. Introduces new data, some still unpublished, on the magical origins, later ritual, administrative, and political uses, and sudden disappearance of the Indus symbols. Also gives prima facie evidence of human sacrifice in the Indus Valley. (We know for sure it was there but know little yet of its scale. I’ve repeatedly made suggestions at conferences, most recently this past May, as to where to dig, but no one has taken those suggestions up yet, in part because of security problems at the Harappan site [in Pakistan]).
– University of Bologna, 15 January 2004: Harappiani analfabeti: Implicazioni teoriche delle ultime ricerche sulla più antica civiltà indiana. 3.5 meg pdf. An English adaptation of parts of this Italian slide lecture, which I gave in one of my favorite Italian cities (I was a research fellow at Harvard’s Villa I Tatti in Firenze at one time) is found in the next slide set.
– The illiterate Harappans: Theoretical implications of recent studies of the first Indian civilization. 4.2 meg pdf. A superset of slides made up for talks at Washington State University at Vancouver on 19-20 February 2004, combining materials from earlier lectures. Put together a bit hastily, but it contains a lot of still unpublished materials as to what the Indus symbols were and were not used for.
– Long Beach State International Conference on the Beginnings of Civilization on the Indian Subcontinent, 18 October 2003: ‘Writing’ or non-linguistic symbols? The myth of the literate Indus Valley. 3.5 meg pdf. Most materials in this invited talk are now incorporated, in updated form, in the slides above. I’m quite fond of the “Mr. Symbol Head” artifact from Harappa, which I first discussed in this lecture.
2.5. Fifth Harvard University Indology Roundtable, 10 May 2003. Five cases of ‘dubious writing’ in Indus inscriptions (1.6 megs). Working paper that presents the first detailed evidence that the Indus symbols did not encode speech. The statistical arguments developed here are now superceded by materials presented in Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel 2004; but much of the data here even now remains unpublished.
Additional background materials on the so-called Indus script
– Walter Fairservis and the Indus Symbol Problem (webpage). In the late 1960s, the great archaeologist Walter Fairservis nearly became the first researcher to reject the old Indus-script myth, but then went through an odd conversion due to unfortunate timing (Parpola and his Finnish colleagues claimed they had “cracked” the supposed “Indus code” in 1969) and spent the last 20 years of his life trying to decipher the undecipherable. A cautionary tale to archaeologists and would-be decipherers who mistake crude structure in symbols for evidence of “language encoding.”
– Working files from online discussions between 2002-2006 of the Indus question. Parts but not all of these materials are incorporated in the articles and slide lectures noted above.
- Recently discovered signs from Umm el-Marra: Linguistic or nonlinguistic? (Added 27 October 2006).
- Perishable Indus “texts”? Another case of spurious evidence (vs. Bryan Wells)
- What do highway signs have in common with the ‘Dravidian’ Indus-script model? A reductio ad absurdum (obviously made tongue-in-cheek, though many journalists have apparently missed that) of the most famous argument advanced by Indus-script adherents (small pdf file).
- Statistical predictions concerning unique Indus signs (makes predictions concerning findings in the still unpublished third volume of the Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions). From 2003, with minor update in 2009. All indications by 2009, reinforced by each new dig, confirm that “Sproat’s Smoking Gun” (first discussed at Harvard in 2003) holds.
- Odd (pseudo)reconstructions of Indus inscriptions (reviews a strange ‘reconstruction’ of some Indus inscriptions by Fairservis that illustrates one way in which those inscriptions are commonly distorted).
- More odd (pseudo)reconstructions (looks at three different ‘reconstructions’ [not so labeled] of a single inscription by Mackay, Parpola, and Mahadevan as another example of such distortions).
The following papers on extreme Hindu nationalist manipulations of ancient history are all related to the famous ‘Horseplay in Harappa’ incident (2000)
– Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer, Horseplay in Harappa: The Indus Valley Decipherment Hoax, [cover story] Frontline 17 (19) (13 Oct. 2000): 4-11. Widely read in university classes. At the time Michael and I wrote this, we hadn’t yet entirely rejected the old script model; hence the discussion of the “direction of writing”in a sidebar story. On that topic, which we know now is a non-issue (nonlinguistic symbols don’t necessarily have a fixed “reading” order), see the important and often overlooked footnote 5 in our 2004 paper (Collapse of the Indus-script thesis).
– Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer, New evidence on the ‘Piltdown Horse’ hoax, Frontline 17 (23) (24 Nov. 2000): 126-129. See also articles on pp. 122-26, collectively entitled A Tale of Two Horses. Hindutva black humor at its finest.
– Hindi translation of Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer, Horseplay in Harappa, with a supporting editorial by Romila Thapar (New Delhi, 2001).
Miscellaneous (Renaissance studies)
A biography (in French) of Pico’s nephew-editor Gianfrancesco Pico, an extreme anti-syncretist who collaborated (with Girolamo Savonarola) in the posthumous doctoring of Pico’s works, has been published as Steve Farmer and Steven Vanden Broecke, Jean-Francois Pic de la Mirandole (c. 1470-1533), in Centuriae latinae II. Cent une figures humanistes de la Renaissance (Geneva, 2006). We originally wrote the paper in 2000: so it goes with academic publishers.
I have an informal English translation of the work (in a PDF) that I will eventually publish; email me if you want a copy.
Feb 2023 format changes from web server migration.