Sunday, October 10, 2010

Introduction, Part Two


When you teach history for enough years, it begins to dawn on you that human life has developed in ways that seem to defy any logical analysis. It also occurs to you that humanity’s life on this planet today is so complex and filled with interrelated variables that no one can really foresee in any detail what might happen in the future, despite the tiresome cliché that humans “learn” from history. (From where I stand, it seems that they have learned very, very little from it.)  Anyone who sees a plan of some sort in all of this is more perceptive than I, because I cannot, for the life of me, discern one. If we were to take the most intellectually gifted human being in the world of 10,000 years ago and show him or her something of the nature of human life today, I am pretty sure that person would have virtually no comprehension of it, and would be completely at a loss to explain how it got that way. If that strikes you as too extreme of a case, let us take a person from the year 1000 CE and carry out the same exercise. Looking at the aftermath of ten centuries of relentless change would leave that person bewildered and shaken. There would be, of course, some institutions he or she, if a European, might recognize—the Roman Catholic Church, for example—but even that would be fantastically different from what it was a thousand years ago. The majority of the Church’s adherents now live in places the person from 1000 CE, if he or she were a European, did not even know existed. And this medieval-era genius would, I am pretty sure, be utterly at a loss to explain what had happened to produce the world of the 21st century. If the most intelligent person in the world of 1000 CE were African, he or she would be shocked at the vast upheavals that ten centuries of change inflicted on Africa (as well as the true immensity of the continent’s landmass).  If he or she were Chinese or Indian, all of the empires and dynasties that comprised the political reality of their worlds would be gone. If the person were a pre-Columbian Native American, the virtual eradication of the multitudinous native cultures of the Americas would probably seem nothing less than an utter catastrophe, the coming of which would have been completely unexpected.

Even  the most brilliant individual from the world of 1900 would have difficulty giving a coherent explanation of how the world of today came to be the way that it is. If he or she had not seen it or studied it themselves, it is unlikely that they would grasp the enormity of the political, scientific, technological, and social changes that have swept across this planet since the last year of the nineteenth century. But we shouldn’t feel a sense of superiority over our hypothetical observers from 10,000, 1,000, or a little over 100 years ago—we’re in exactly the same situation in regard to the future as they are in relation to us. Despite our confident assertions and computer-based prediction models, we have not any more of a clue about what the world will really be like in 100 years than our observer from 1900. And any attempt to predict the nature of the world 1,000 or 10,000 years hence would be laughable, or simply an example of science fiction.

Moreover—and in a more humbling way—we still aren’t sure ourselves of how the past produced the world we have now. In fact, it is my opinion that the world is now so vastly complex that no person, however well educated, keenly informed, and gifted with fluid intelligence, really understands more than a small part of it in detail. The dilemma, as I see it is that humans, possessing a consciousness that only permits them to understand their own situation partially, are forced to act on incomplete information, whether they realize it or not. There are so many variables acting on any one of these situations, so many chains of consequence intersecting each other at each moment, so many synergies at work, and so many unanticipated outcomes being set into motion by them, that no human or even set of humans can predict the ultimate effect of any given action. Obviously, very simple actions (such as the act of picking up a pencil off the floor) are less consequential and less affected by variables, but the more our actions involve other people and the larger physical world around us, the more unpredictable their outcomes will be. Huge events, such as wars, for example, generate incomprehensibly huge and complex consequences, ones far beyond our collective ability to understand.

Given the complexity of their interaction, it was my objective, therefore, to consider as many of the variables that affect human history as I possibly could, examining each in isolation and then attempting to explain its relationships to the others. Individually, these variables are usually explicable. But the combinations in which they act are absolutely bewildering, as I believe you will see.
Humans are, I believe, pretty good at creating realities too complicated for humans to comprehend. I further contend that the innumerable and multivariate interactions of humans (as an entire species) with each other and with the rest of the physical reality around them, over space and time, have created problems that may be too complicated for humans to extricate themselves from. (I emphasize the word may--I am not wholly devoid of hope.)


And then, there is the tragic side of our experience.

All things end; all civilizations crumble or change beyond recognition; there is nothing permanent, it would seem, to which to cling with certitude. Death will come for all of us. Nothing built by humans will ultimately last. These are the inescapable tragedies of our existence, and they are likely always to be. But there are tragedies more intimate, more immediate, and more palpable, that have weighed on us since our genus’s emergence.

I do not want to exaggerate the difficulties humans have experienced in their centuries on this tiny speck of a planet. Most lives have their share of laughter, their times of celebration, their everyday joys and satisfactions. And the point must be made repeatedly: the vast majority of the human experience has been marked by the routine, the ordinary, the commonplace, and the unremarkable.

However, we need to ask ourselves, “has human life been a good experience for most people throughout our journey from 2.5 million years ago to the present?” As I see it, the answer must be this: most humans have survived on this planet only with tremendous difficulty. The lot of humanity has been hardship, to an appalling degree. Humans, as animals, are subject to physical suffering of all kinds, and our story has been filled with disease, hunger, frequent pain, disfigurement, and premature decline. The unluckiest among us are tormented by illnesses, physical or mental, every single hour of their lives. Most humans have worked or still work like pack animals every day. Most of their lives are or have been scarred, at least part of the time, by material deprivation, fear, and uncertainty. Natural disasters have drowned, sundered, crushed, buried, starved, or burned countless humans through the ages.

But the most tragic part of our story has been what we do to each other—and to ourselves. No part of our history is more difficult for me to deal with than the terrible story of what we are capable of doing when we deny or ignore the humanity of other people—and ignore our own humanity as well.

War has been depressingly common in the history of Homo sapiens. Despite human attempts to glamorize it or glorify it, it has always been what it is today—gruesome, horrible, stupid, and destructive of both body and mind, however necessary it might sometimes be.  Over the last 5,000 years there has scarcely been a time when there was no major war raging somewhere on this planet, a damning indictment of human failure. These wars have frequently involved the mass killing of whole civilian populations, and our ability to slaughter non-combatants has risen to the point where we now, as a species, possess the means to exterminate ourselves completely. Mass killing, in fact, is arguably the greatest of all human skills. And the resources squandered in wars represent perhaps the greatest of all examples of human waste.

Uncounted humans have been swallowed up in the grim world of slavery, a world that still exists today, despite all international efforts to abolish it. Torture, the most terrible and depraved of all human actions, has a long and hideous history. Both physical and mental torture are still widely practiced, and governments are still good at rationalizing them. Prisoners are often kept in the most barbaric of conditions, and justice for the poorest among us is usually harsh. And ordinary people everywhere have groaned under the weight of political systems designed to serve a small handful of power-intoxicated tyrants while treating the lower orders as expendable sub-humans.

The way many of our species’ children have been treated is further cause for a sense of shame and outrage in any decent person. Infanticide has a long and terrible history. Small children have been used for brutally heavy labor throughout human existence. Children have been physically and mentally abused, sexually assaulted, neglected and abandoned so frequently in the story of our species that most of us turn away from thinking about it, lest we fall into utter despair.

Just as sadly, abuse does not cease after childhood. Interpersonal violence of all kinds has marked human life, as individuals have shown themselves capable of the most terrible cruelty imaginable. Women have often been treated as property and subjected to the most degrading and humiliating treatment, kept ignorant, and generally denied the fullness of the human experience. People have cheated one another in every possible way, have stolen without conscience, have lied to, betrayed, and deceived each other, and ruined each other’s prospects with such regularity that we have come to see these actions as simply part of the fabric of life itself. People in desperate need, who could have easily been helped, have been allowed to starve, go without shelter, die of treatable illness, or wander the streets in madness and squalor, victims of malice and indifference.

Humans have participated in unspeakable horrors based solely on factors such as the victim’s appearance or religious affiliation. Persecutions, riots, pogroms, massacres, and lynchings directed against unpopular minorities among us have been so common that we grow numb reading about them. Even apart from these, there remains prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, and routine injustice of every kind, often backed by the power of law or religious custom.

Countless human tragedies have been brought about by bad judgment, faulty reasoning, incompetence, misinterpreted information, faulty communications, and plain old garden-variety stupidity. Humans have misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted, misrembered, and wrongly estimated virtually everything imaginable. They have sold themselves to every sort of swindle, grasping at wildly illogical hopes. They have fervently embraced ludicrous superstitions and held beliefs so absurd one would have thought no one capable of believing them. They have started terrible fights over simple misunderstandings, broken off personal relationships of great emotional value over trivialities, lost contact with loved ones over old grudges, and generally quite often acted to ruin every chance at personal happiness that came their way. Family members have tormented, abused, and emotionally destroyed each other so frequently that we have come to see these things as “normal” And there are the innumerable small, petty injuries and insults so many people heap upon non-family members in the course of daily life, embittering and eroding the lives of all who must endure them.

Humans have, with appalling frequency, destroyed their own homes, denuded landscapes, fouled bodies of water, made the air stink with choking pollutants, killed off animals on which they relied, and made their environments disaster areas. In some ways, it’s kind of surprising we’re still here, and if we had possessed more advanced weapons during some of the more savage eras of human history, I doubt that we would be.

No wonder the study of humanity has broken so many hearts and caused so many hopes to die. Finding out what our fellow humans are capable of is, in my view, the point at which any childhood innocence that might still remain in us vanishes forever.


At this juncture, you are probably tempted to interject that humans have frequently, very frequently, acted in ways the exact opposite of those I have just mentioned. You could argue—and you would be right—that humans have shown each other countless acts of love, kindness, mercy, considerateness, compassion, and empathy. You could point to innumerable examples of self-sacrifice, bravery in the face of terrible evil, and a thousand forms of everyday heroism. You could point to the good humor in the face of the world so many have shown. You could argue that the catalogue of human decency overflows with examples—and it does. You could hold up many, many happy families. And you could urge us to consider the glorious crown of human creativity in the arts, as well. All of this needs to be remembered.  

There are also the everyday miracles of forgiveness, reconciliation, repentance, and renewal that occur again and again and again in the course of human life. These small graces are just as real as any of our sins, and they do more to keep the human enterprise going than many of us suspect. In these acts, ties that were severed or damaged are healed, and new lives are made possible. We need to remember that, too.

Further, there has been some progress in the larger course of human life. Children, on the whole, are somewhat better off now than they have ever been, and they are certainly more widely educated than ever. Women have improved their status in many parts of the world and have now reached social equality in some areas. Slavery has been greatly reduced; the more gruesome forms of torture have been made less common; and human rights are more widely respected now than at any time in history. Health care has made huge strides, material wealth has spread very widely (albeit unevenly), political freedom has made genuine gains, scientific and technical knowledge have vastly expanded, and the majority of humanity is reasonably well fed, although many still die of malnutrition and diseases related to it. Humans in all parts of the world have been responsible for these victories, and countless people today experience a dignity they once could not have imagined.

And yet, this progress has been achieved only by the most excruciating and exhausting effort, often at the cost of innumerable lives along the way. We may well ask ourselves: Why has it taken so long to improve things? Why was it so hard for us to get to where we are? Why have the ancient sins persisted so stubbornly? And why have our worst instincts and tendencies so often triumphed over our best ones? Those are good questions to bear in mind, because there are no guarantees that any of our achievements will be lasting.

When I look over the broad course of human history, I see the human species lumbering on through the centuries, gathering new knowledge and acquiring new skills, and yet  still lurching from crisis to crisis, suffering catastrophic setbacks, and often losing ground that was bought at a fearful price. Quite frankly, I see no pattern at all in any of this. I have studied human history for more than 40 years, and I find no great sweeping cycles in it, I find no instance in which history has “repeated itself”, and I find no “scientific” principles that would allow us to make predictions about it. Above all, I see a species that evolved just enough intelligence to survive and flourish in every region of the planet, but not enough to deal with the consequences of its own ignorance, malice, and, in all honesty, delusional thinking. All of our progress is threatened at every moment by these persistent realities.

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