Sunday, June 1, 2014
July 6, 2014
History, as it is commonly described in books and shown on television and in films, vastly oversimplifies the course of human endeavor. I suppose it really must do so, or the textbooks beleaguered students carry around would be even more ponderous than they already are. History for public consumption tends to present the progress of our species as a series of long periods of comparative ignorance and torpor (and even regression) punctuated by bursts of profound inspiration, usually by famous individuals or small groups of famous individuals. Recorded history has little to say about the human race as a whole, instead tending to elevate the ideas of a few to such a level that we're given the impression that the rest of us just are just waiting for the next Einstein or Darwin or Newton to show up. That definitely makes for good drama, but doesn't give much credit to the general populace, who are usually ignored except to be depicted as dumbly toiling in the grip of feudalism, peonage, economic depression, postwar healing, mindless consumerism, and so on, depending upon the era. This idea in turn fuels the tendency in Western culture to elevate the accomplishments of individuals over those of the masses. We like to have things summed up for us neatly and representatively, in little bites of print or sound or film.
Of course many of us do just muddle along waiting for things to happen. But it is our needs, our aspirations, and the deficiencies in our daily lives that push history along. As trite as it may sound, necessity is indeed the mother of invention. The problem with a stop-and-go view of history is that it ignores the fact that we are above all a species, not merely a collection of individuals, and that we have always worked together, generation after generation, building on who and what preceded us in order to solve problems and make things happen, instead of waiting for some savior genius to solve them for us. Christianity elevates that latter misapprehension to its apogee by suggesting that one single man, the son of God, is the savior of all mankind. Other religions do much the same thing. Little wonder that we buy into the idea of the brilliant accomplishments of the individual over the collective. If we are encouraged to worship one single dude who saved us all, why wouldn't we tend to venerate individual dudes who, throughout history, have come to exemplify scientific and political and philosophical advances?
And so the great leaps forward (or backwards) are usually represented in history books by the individual Big Thinkers or Doers. For example, we love to believe (and in fact are taught from early childhood) that until fourteen hundred and ninety-two, when this intrepid explorer named Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, people generally thought the earth was flat. Although I'm sure a few people believed that, and still do, the idea that people generally thought so then, or ever, is demonstrably wrong. Long before Copernicus and Keppler and Galileo (the Big Thinkers), the ancients who identified the planets and anyone who looked at the sun and moon could see they were spherical, so it stood to reason that the earth was no exception. People may have quibbled over what revolved around what, but they knew they weren't in a universe of flat cubic chunks. Anyone from the stone age onward could easily deduce, from standing on a mountaintop or at the seashore and looking off into the distance, that eventually the horizon gives way to the sky. Then the next day they could travel to the point where that horizon had been the day before and see a new expanse of land or sea beyond and a new horizon. This wasn't, I daresay, rocket science. Sailors, of all people, must have figured this out as they got farther from home and lost sight of land. From such observations even the dullest of tools could deduce that the earth's surface must continuously curve. Early humans weren't any less intelligent than we are; they simply possessed less cumulative data. Columbus's big contribution wasn't in proving that the earth was round or that you could get to the far east by sailing west (something he didn't quite prove anyway). His accomplishment was to convince the king and queen of Spain to pay for his trip, something which, by the way, they wouldn't have considered doing if they'd really believed the earth was flat. And the Spanish monarchs were a bunch of inbred nitwits compared to the general populace. And if Columbus hadn't made the trip, someone else would have done so very soon, at the behest of a different monarch. What scared people wasn't the idea that they'd fall off the edge of the earth so much as the vast unknown of the ocean. And what prompted them to explore the world was the desire to make money.
Similarly, Darwin didn't "discover" the idea of the origin of species through evolution; he merely observed and documented some fairly obvious things about species that confirmed what he and many of his predecessors suspected already, namely, that species change over time and adapt to their surroundings. The idea has its roots in the ancient thinking of others all over the world--China, the Middle East, and Europe. True, Darwin (and his immediate predecessor Jean-Baptiste Lamarque) had to contend with the opposite theory, promoted by Platonic thinkers and the Christian church, that things are more or less as they have always been in the animal and plant world, having been stuck here by "the creator," whoever that might have been. But had it not been for the absurdity of this "essentialist" theory (now called "creationism" by some), Darwin and his predecessors would not have been at such pains to disprove the theory in a systematic way. So a necessarily dialectical approach to the issue pointed to the answer most of us knew to be the right one. But even "primitive" people the world over have had the opportunity of observing the curious interrelationships of such things as birds and plants, and to see the uncanny similarities and subtle differences between individual members of various groups of animals--primates, ruminants, equines, fish, reptiles, and so on--and understood that they probably had common evolutionary ancestors. Ordinary people, I submit, could grasp these ideas without much trouble. The people who opposed and resisted them were the self-appointed experts who had to protect their theological and pseudoscientific turfs.
Columbus and Darwin are just two examples of how we tend to elevate gradual forward movement in human thought to something akin to a Cult of Personality. Most people will latch onto a concept more readily when they can see an individual as its prime mover. But look closer at any person who is considered "the father of" or "the inventor of" just about anything, and you'll find that no, they didn't actually invent it. Perhaps they improved on it, or worked out a kink or two, or made a better or cheaper or more understandable version of it, but they didn't invent it from whole cloth, as it were. People like to say that the Einsteins and Edisons and Teslas and Marconis of this world arrived at their conclusions riding on the shoulders of giants. But even that is an exaggeration, and elevates the accomplishments of a few over those of many. And it still encourages us to consider that, with respect to any great idea--in medicine, mechanics, political thought, whatever--before that great idea was promulgated and personified by some Great Thinker the rest of us didn't know jack shit about it. You know the drill: "For thousands of years people believed [fill in the blank] was caused by evil spirits, and then suddenly [fill in the blank] discovered [fill in the blank]" The problem with this paradigm is that it makes one wonder upon what stroke of oddball inspiration the great Fill in the Blank ever conceived the idea of wondering about Fill in the Blank, much less "discovering" it. The question we should be asking is not something like, "What would we ever have done without Thomas Edison?" Rather, it is, "Who gave Thomas Edison the idea that he could do what he did, and who in turn gave those persons the ideas they had?" And so on.
My point is that the world as we know it is the sum total of all knowledge we've gathered up to this point. Some ideas, of course, have been more important than others, and some have indeed had to be discarded in favor of better ones. Some, like astronomical discoveries beyond our immediate atmosphere, have been mere theoretical musings, little removed from theology. What difference does it make to us how many solar systems are out there just like ours? Ultimately, who gives a damn how the universe was created except the merely curious? Far too much time and energy is spent on such speculation, giving rise to phrases like, "They can put a man on the moon, so why can't they [fill in the blank]? The people who ask that question are right in a very practical way. Take the time and energy and money devoted to putting men on the moon and put it to better use here on earth. And get over this preoccupation with life on other planets. Of course there's life on other planets. But so what, unless you write science fiction stories for a living?
Some ideas, like the progressive development of mechanical and electronic devices, have been very useful on a day-to-day basis. Using a big rock to bash your prey to death was crude, but it worked, if you could get close enough. But bashing gave way to throwing, and then to throwing with precision, and then to shooting. The basic idea was there all along: hit your prey hard enough or deep enough in the right place and it will die or be stunned so you can eat it. The rest was just a matter of improving on existing techniques. They call weapons "arms" for a reason: they are things that are extensions of our own arms--allow us to extent our immediate reach. Likewise in food production, running out of food might originally have led to wandering around to another place to find more food, but eventually people began to settle down and let the food come to them, leading to domestication of farm animals and plants. It was all gradual, prompted by necessity and the need for convenience, and ultimately creating enough leisure time to muse on other problems.
The greatest "invention" in the history of the human race has simply been our evolution into modern homo sapiens, and that didn't happen because some Great Thinker figured out it was time for us to come out of the trees and walk upright. It happened out of a combination of necessity, luck, trial and error, and millions of years of very gradual change. Because we're humans and quite fond of ourselves, we love to see ourselves as the most highly evolved animals on the planet. And we are pretty damned clever and adaptable, at least superficially. We're always puzzled by how early people could have created things like Stonehenge and the Pyramids, and we like to assume they couldn't possibly have done so without some divine or extraterrestrial help. But hell, moving big stones from one place to another isn't really such a technological miracle. Get some logs or some rivers or canals and a bunch of beasts of burden and slaves and you're basically in business.
The world of great ideas and great accomplishments isn't a world separate from ours; rather it is going on around us incrementally as we speak. Its prime movers are all of us and all of our needs and ideas and struggles. We as a species make it happen. The only obstacles in our way are the ones we've always had to contend with: religion, entrenched interests, and a longing for a simpler and somehow purer past. Those things, and the belief that we must wait for someone to come along and solve our problems for us.