Sunday, October 10, 2010
Introduction, Part One
This book is my attempt to explain, in as straightforward and comprehensive a way as I can, my ideas about how humans acquired the ability to make and record history, the multitudinous and interconnected variables that have shaped history, why that history has taken such a convoluted and unpredictable course, and why attempts to draw meaning from history and make inferences about its future course are basically acts of futility. In a larger sense, I attempted what surely must have been a Fool’s Errand: I tried to figure out the place of our species in the vast context of reality itself. I tried to bring together as many salient facts and observations about that reality as I could, always bearing in mind an essential truth: I am inescapably trapped in the prison of human perception and the human frame of reference—and so are you. The challenge I faced was even more overwhelming than I had expected. It was perhaps even essentially paradoxical: I tried to analyze a reality that I can only experience indirectly. Naturally, I approached this task with trepidation and a deep sense of humility. Of course, this whole exercise has, inevitably, fallen short. It did not do all that I wanted it to do. But for my own very personal reasons, I had to attempt it anyway.
This project is, ultimately, an act of synthesis, a synthesis of the largest kind, one in which I attempt to combine, in a new way, every aspect of the human experience and the factors that affect it. There are many more qualified than I to attempt such a thing, but I wanted to see what I would discover by doing it myself. In writing this book, I was guided by the idea that if I piled up simple things, stated obvious facts, brought together data from people more educated and specialized than I, asked the right questions, and admitted what I did not know as honestly as I could, then I would end up with a picture of reality that at least seemed to be right, even though I knew it would not be complete and would only seem right to me. To put it in another way: I hoped that after I put all the pixels where it seemed like they should go—and by pixels I mean all the individual facts, questions, and observations I brought together in this work—that when I stood back from them, something that made sense would appear to me. It did, but it was not what I had anticipated or imagined.
In order to create such a picture, I stated much that is absolutely obvious, and in reading this, it will often seem to you that I am wasting your time telling you what you already know. Much of what I said will strike you as common knowledge, and ordinary in the extreme. But there is a reason for this: only by building up layer after layer of simple phenomena could I hope to gain some understanding, however limited, of a larger, more complicated reality. In fact, the entire scheme of this book’s organization has been built around this concept, as I have tried to go from examining that which is most basic to that which is most elaborated.
Sometimes I investigated ordinary events that are usually hidden from plain view. Sometimes I pointed out phenomena that are not noticed because we tend to screen out from our attention that which seems commonplace or routine. Further, I am of the conviction that even obvious and readily apparent objects or processes, if systematically stripped down to their essentials, can be seen in a new light. In effect, by starting with the most basic and seemingly mundane facts, it may be possible for us to work our way up through the levels of emergent reality. My thinking was that if I said enough ordinary and obvious things in the right way and in the right order, then what would emerge would be extraordinary and surprising, even though our over-all understanding will remain severely limited. Whether I succeeded is, of course, for you to judge. I believe, by the way, that once we have examined reality in this way, we can never go back to our previous way of thinking about it.
Similarly, in trying to trace the origins of our myriad problems as a species, I tried to explain how enormous, incredibly complicated problems emerge from masses of simple ones, like a series of small fires combining to make a conflagration. I also tried to demonstrate that the more variables a problem has, and the more sources of origin from which it springs, the more difficult its solution. Further, I realized the “solution” to a problem may simply tend to engender further problems, some of which may be genuinely intractable. It is as if humans are trapped by their own cognitive limitations in a never-ending game that, as a species, they cannot leave. None of their solutions to the challenges they face is permanent, all of them entail unknown risks and hidden costs, and all of them generate unforeseen consequences that will compel other sets of humans to attempt their own stop-gap measures, ad infinitum.
In the physical world, a mass of simple things, interacting and interconnected with each other, can cause new kinds of physical reality to emerge. The ultimate physical basis of reality as humans perceive it is a collection of utterly simple units of energy-matter, totally basic in both their nature and their operation. They follow unbelievably simple rules, and do unbelievably simple things in a completely unremarkable way. But allow enough of these operations to go forward in space-time, and the seemingly chaotic nature of their interactions resolves itself into a new level of organization.
In the human world, the basic features of the human psyche and its interactions with external reality can be very simple in nature. But a mass of simplicities interacting and interconnecting can cause a complex psychology to emerge. When a large number of these complex psychologies interact with each other, a phenomenon called social life emerges. And as patterns of social life grow and merge with patterns from other regions of the planet’s surface, a new kind of world emerges.
And I followed this approach of piling up simplicities for another reason: as far as I can tell, this is how the Universe itself, and all the amazing phenomena within it, came to be.
It’s simply how reality works.
In the writing of this work, I made myself follow some rules.
For one thing, I tried to get my facts straight. I’m sure I did not always succeed, but I tried. I do not like getting things wrong, but I have to admit that a lot of times I do. I did the best I could.
I tried to be honest with both you and myself. I admitted when I did not understand something. I admitted when I could not find all the facts. I admitted when my own feelings were getting in the way of telling you something. I admitted when people smarter than I am and more educated than I am disagreed on some issue that seem to be pretty important. I did not try to hide anything from you. I did not deliberately try to mislead you. (I might have done that accidentally, though; given my absurdly ambitious goals, it could not be helped.) I did not stop myself from saying something I thought needed to be said, even if I did not like it and if you do not like it or anyone else does not like it. I said it anyway.
In using words, I tried to avoid doing the following things:
I tried very hard to not use words that deliberately conceal meaning rather than reveal it. I did not say someone “expired” or “passed away” when I was trying to say they are dead now or they’ve died. In other words, I dislike euphemisms, and I did not use them, even if they would have made what I am saying less hurtful or not so blunt. I also tried to avoid using “colorful” language, expressions that might mean something to people who speak my language but would mean nothing to people who do not. You might call these figures of speech or idioms or figurative language. I did my best to not let such expressions get in the way of what I was trying to say. I tried to avoid using too many metaphors and similes, which can often be ambiguous, but I used some.
There are some other rules I tried to make myself follow. I tried really hard to never use the same term to describe every person in a given situation or place or time. I also tried to avoid using some big, sweeping term to try to describe everything that happened in a given era, or some term I thought applied to every situation that seemed to be similar to others. In other words, I tried to avoid generalization. I tried not to judge people who have gone through experiences I have not had, although I am sure my judgments were pretty obvious sometimes, anyway. And I tried to never talk as if I have all the answers, have everything figured out, and am always right. I am too old to lie to myself in those ways.
There are other rules I followed, but I can’t think of them now.
Because I consider most of what we believe we know to be tentative, after you have read this book you may conclude that I never took a direct stand about anything, that I used language that was not definite, was not confident in its tone, or which did not seem to assert that a thing is absolutely true. This may be your thinking because I tried to avoid the error of speaking with too much certainty. By speaking with certainty I mean making a statement that something is absolutely true beyond any doubt, and which no being, however intelligent and all-knowing, could say was wrong. Because I used this definition, I was pretty strict about what I would admit is certain.
It may seem to you, therefore, that I could not decide anything once and for all. I can only say that no question ever seems to be fully explained, and that we must always—always—leave room for the possibility that we are wrong, and that things aren’t what they seem to be.
You may sense that I have repeated myself in places. This cannot be helped. In my opinion, everything tells us something about everything else. And certain things that seem to be true in one subject seem to be true in others, so they bear mentioning in all of them. I hope you will be patient with me in this respect.
I think that the way we divide the study of reality into different parts is necessary, in one way, because reality is such a big subject, and our senses and our deductive reasoning have acquired an enormous amount of information that relates to it. But in another way, the divisions between subjects can lead us to focus too narrowly and ignore subjects we either aren’t interested in or aren’t very knowledgeable about. If we really want to form in our heads some kind of coherent idea of reality, we have to try to touch on every area that humans have learned something about. I really do not see how it could be otherwise. Although I spent most of my professional life teaching history and the social sciences, I am a generalist. I certainly do not claim to have anything like comprehensive knowledge in all areas (I am not delusional!) but I tried to incorporate everything I could that seems to tell us something important about the situation we seem to find ourselves in. I made a lot of mistakes, and I left a lot of important things out, without doubt. Any errors in the book are my responsibility alone.
And I realize something both obvious and easy to overlook: there is nothing I could write that would in any way replicate the actual experience of being alive in the totality of life. After all, reading about the world and moving through it are two somewhat dissimilar activities, even allowing for the fact that reading is a way of moving through the world. Further, any systematic analysis of the world seems, to many people at least, somewhat bloodless, devoid of the feeling with which life is suffused, a dry exercise lacking in the sensory realness of waking existence. For this, I apologize in advance, as I acknowledge another deep challenge I faced: all attempts to analyze and classify the characteristics of messy, complicated, warm-blooded life must inevitably be misleading, or at best, incomplete.
This book is not about me, but I have to tell you about why I needed (yes, needed) to write it.
I suppose that I became interested in history because I found it easy, at least at first. I’ve always been drawn to stories, and the deeper I went into it, the more awe-inspiring the story of the humans seemed to me. In fact, I came to see it as simply The Story, the biggest one of them all, the biggest one there could be. Naturally, like so many boys, I was drawn to depictions of war because they seemed so exciting and dramatic to me, removed as I was from any actual experience with their subject matter. I would grow to know better later on, even though I was spared from the terrors and drudgery of combat. I matured; my perspective changed.
Later, in college, history was one of my academic specialties, and I was immersed in its disciplines in a serious way for the first time. I found its sheer complexity, the intricacy of the human relationships it described, and the story of the sweep of human events over space and time deeply compelling, even though the often mind-numbing details of human life sometimes overwhelmed me. I began to wonder why the story of our species was so strange, why it took so many unexpected turns, and why human affairs so often came to disastrous ends.
I became a high school teacher, and plunged into the challenges of trying to educate often distracted and disinterested teenagers. Somewhat to my own surprise, one of the subjects I became interested in early in my career was physical anthropology. Although I had been trained as a history and political science teacher, I found that my research had left me without answers to some of my most pressing questions. Since I passionately wanted to know why human history had turned out as it did, it occurred to me that I needed to know what kind of animal had made and been affected by this history, suspecting that the two questions were deeply interconnected. From that time onward my anthropological studies affected my interpretation of human history. I studied the basics of human evolution, taught both physical and cultural anthropology for a while (although I did not acquire a formal degree in those subjects) and went on to complete a master’s degree in history. I also taught sociology, government and politics, early American history, and various aspects of European and general world history, And as I grew and matured in my academic work, I became more and more convinced that I could not know where we were and how we had gotten there without knowing what we were. Little did I know the many avenues down which the pursuit of answers to these questions would lead me