We need to look at the big picture to see what is actually going on, bringing in factors which the historical actors themselves were unaware off. Systems thinking should change the way we tell our history and a holistic view yield some fresh insights. What insights and what are the political implications of their telling?
This is not a world history. Professional historians can supply those, and lots of compelling accounts going into what we know in detail for any period. Here I am trying to capture the salient factors that give shape and context to our shared human story.This is what history teaches me when I look at the big picture and take a step back.
Human beings are new to the earth and in a very short time have completely populated it. We are in danger of being overwhelmed by our success. The rate at which development is taking place is outstripping the ways of coping with it and transmitting knowledge that we learned through our evolution. We are inquisitive social primates, we are not going to stop inventing. Since we cannot stop we must learn control. This means we need new institutions, a new political economy that fits in with our evolutionary heritage but is capable of dealing with the challenges we face. A new political economy needs to be inclusive (we are all citizens and share the same fate) and it must be capable of much faster adaption. The current political-economy is just not delivering.
The long timeline
The striking thing about deep time is how recent and little human endeavour is.
Human beings are insignificant in the context of the age and scale of the universe. What we are able to do using our self-consciousness is look for meaning. We are, as well as being primates, bundles of energy (stable systems far from equilibrium) resisting entropy and we are fated to succeed individually for a remarkably short time. Realising just how short a period should instil a little humility if nothing else. (Something like the “total perspective vortex” in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy)
Looking at the long timeline it is possible to identify eight periods of time that make up the framework for our human story, these are;
- The age of the universe
- The age of the earth in relation to it
- The time there has been life on earth
- The time there have been hominids, human like rather more than ape like
- The time there have been “modern” humans
- The time from which we started living in settlements
- The time from which we started living in states
- The time from which we started industrialising
Pictorially it is possible to represent the whole in a picture, but only with a massive time/scale shift when hominids emerge, like this;
The development of our thinking begins about 3000 years ago. I wonder if it was in part a response to (justify or support?) the existence of the state, see Part 1 Review, The Human System, Knowledge and its Acquisition - Acquiring Knowledge
All history has this context whether we acknowledge it or not; our achievements are fragile and less significant than we like to think.
Life and evolution
There is a lot we do not know about the emergence of life and its evolution and plenty of ongoing research and debate:
- Some scientists think that life itself may be an emergent property (of matter under certain conditions) but so it has not been possible to reproduce this experimentally from the basic building blocks of matter e.g. by trying to create a primordial soup and then bombarding it with simulated lightening
- The processes governing evolution are still not fully understood and hotly debated, this is especially the case when considering mechanisms governing the speed of change. Running the process of evolution again from the start would not necessarily result in humans but one thing does stand out, co-operation is also a driver of evolutionary change, perhaps even the main one.
- That at some point in evolution a change or series of changes took place that led to self-reflective consciousness in the brain which endowed us with the ability to engage in abstract (logical) reasoning and therefore the passing on of knowledge – the human system came into existence.
Human Pre-history and history
Once the human system begins to operate things change:
- One of the ways we use our self-reflective consciousness is to interpret and give meaning to our existence (even though the universe itself may be indifferent).
- The varieties of culture in the past were many and various (Hartley op.cit.). Although human nature and physiology are givens the behaviour that actually emerges (and is observable) is altered (moderated) by what people believe (the products of mind) and their culture at that specific time and in that specific set of circumstances. It is also interpreted by the knowledge and beliefs of the observer (i.e. the historian) however much objectivity is strive for.
- The accretion of knowledge and scientific methods has been long, slow and tentative. The story old of progress based on a succession of civilisations each one better than the last, implicitly leading to our triumph (still being taught when I was at school), is very misleading because it is based on the availability of evidence, and a highly western bias. At the very beginnings of states it is only in physical remains (e.g. of cities) that our view of pre-history was established, as Scott points out most people lived elsewhere and could try to run away Scott op.cit., see also (Morris: West)
All history has to be read with critical faculties switched on, it is impossible to remove all current sensibilities from history, see Part 2 Assess, Timeline, Using the present to explain the past
The Human Condition
Whether or not we have free will, how we act has consequences. When these consequences are the result of the laws of an indifferent universe that we do not full understand but cannot escape we should perhaps be a little bit more careful. The warning signs are there, as the Irish President said recently "if we were miners, we'd be up to our knees in dead canaries" (Higgins)
The Recent Past
When it comes to written history it is the winners version that becomes the dominant story; we do well to remember that it only looks inevitable with hindsight. What seems to have happened is this;
- After bumbling along for centuries eventually there is a critical mass of knowledge and we start to accelerate, this is about knowledge and inventions but it is not just that
- Our new found, transmitted knowledge, includes public health and medicine, that allowed a bigger population to survive and the number of brains on the subject accelerated knowledge discovery
- We are confronted by an explosion of people and possibilities with little chance to understand what is happening or how to control it in the normal way. (Note; Transmitting Knowledge the Normal Way)
- It is quite possible that we could be overwhelmed; fault is beside the point up to a point. The point when the warnings are clear and we chose not to learn and act then there is fault. (Davos and Giridharadas)
Once written history begins, a feedback is established, knowledge is not just passed on orally, it can skip generations and be rediscovered. Writing followed by printing and then by modern communications and data storage all act as accelerators to the transmission of both knowledge and the affirmative stories we use (which don't have to be true). It appears that geography and chance are also major contributors; when these coincide with human invention the knowledge becomes recorded and can be passed on. In many cases it fails. Printing itself is an example. Printing was invented 4 centuries before it succeeded in Europe and its invention was lost, it was then invented again independently. (Printing)
The present is dominated by a snowballing effect of both the use of, and the accumulation of knowledge. So much so that we are ignorant of much of what is being learned and how much progress is actually being made – fixing this is necessary for a realistic appreciation of what can be improved upon. Two sources are especially useful for this (Rosling) and (Pinker, Enlightenment) We keep being surprised by unintended consequences – because of our sheer numbers, the accelerating rate of technology adoption and speed of communication - these have all been ramping up through industrialisation - on or around doubling curves in the 20th century and as a result we have been subject to shocks. (Future shock?)
The way I see it is that our population growth has enabled progress; more people, less needed to grow food for survival, more brains on problems, eventually this snowballed. Technology makes massive leaps but our cultural habits of thought are slow to keep up and at some point these come into sharp (violent) collision (the red stars on the diagram).
I see the following examples of these collisions (my hypothesis) of a repeating pattern;
- The impressionist and others represent an explosion of artistic creativity between c. 1860-1920 CE largely in response to the camera.
- The musical explosion of the 60-70’s is surely the musical equivalent of what impressionism was for art, the new technology added electronics to the mix. My young hairdresser regards Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd as classic bands. Impressionist art can look, and 70’s music can sound as fresh today as it did then, or it can become the new normal.
In both of these next two examples cultural thinking was lagging behind reality;
- The mass slaughter of World War 1 came from a culture accepting war as normal, even desirable under some conditions combined with a process of industrialisation that made Interstate Industrial War both total and deadly (Smith op.cit, p29-105) and (Note; Speed of change). When flesh and blood collided with the new technology of killing (artillery and machine guns) the offensive proved obsolete under the prevailing conditions on the western front. There had been some earlier signs but the old ways of war were culturally embedded and the speed of change was accelerating.
- The Twitter storm is, perhaps, the collision of the ever-present danger of the mob amplified and given new form by technology. Anonymous abusive and threatening social media posts are a the technologically boosted equivalent of the hidden faces of the Inquisition or KKK usually without the attendant butchery but frightening enough nevertheless.
In the first case soldiers were told to walk to preserve order, in the second bullying tweets and comments masquerade in the stolen clothes of free speech. Despite the explosion of knowledge that has accompanied technological progress the battle against superstition and wrongheadedness is far from over.
Our success is also our greatest danger – our numbers have exploded and in conjunction with our inventiveness we have in the last 100 years been subject to a number of shocks, which we urgently need to understand and respond to. By taking an overall systems view of history we are able to see emergent patterns, which enable us to gains some perspective.
The picture above shows a line going straight up, this is unlikely to continue, see Part 2 Assess, Timeline, Possible Futures - Using the projection of trends
In the day to day hurly burly of our lives we forget that we are short-lived beings. Remembering these timelines is sobering. So what does sober look like? Well for me it is simple; we are here temporarily and what we pass on to future generations matters, the self-aggrandisement that is routine within politics is at best hubris.
The long pre-history without humans reinforces the case for humility. In addition it gives us evidence for co-operation (social animals on all scales work together, from ants to wolves). On top of that we struggle with the language. The biological meaning of competition is simply a demand for the same limited resources, it does not (unless we bring our political baggage to it) map onto the cultural meaning of competition, which carries intent with it. An accidental mutation, which bestows an advantage, is far different to deliberately seeking to put down an opponent and claiming superiority as a result.
Far from being inevitable the emergence of the state and the control of previously free resources by a minority, which came with it, has been resisted throughout history. The rule of law is often a retrospective protection, legalising the possession of what was taken. Just knowing this should provide a re-framing that makes repossession using changes to the law a justifiable position. As an example, inherited land ownership can come under scrutiny and the peculiarity of leasehold be challenged. Some foundational work is being done on Land Ownership in England. It needs to climb back up the political agenda.
So whilst we have undoubtedly made massive progress, so far we have been lucky. As we have seen we also face massive challenges from growing population, scarcity of resources, climate change, risks of pandemic, and increasing power block competition. These were outlined in Timeline, Political Challenges. So we do not have a (god given) right to exploit and subjugate the world – that was a story we told ourselves when we did not know any better and our numbers were very small. It just will not do anymore.
We need to heed the warning signs and start looking after the place – it’s the only one we have. Peaceful change happens, things have improved massively – we can surely increase the rate of progress if we concentrate on what works rather than what is broken. Nothing built by man is permanent and all tyrannies eventually fall. We should be more ready to question what gives us the right (and supposed duty) to wage war when time and pressure will do the work for us.
We have to cultivate the belief in cooperation and maintain the alternative narrative. We have to fight a battle against implicit social Darwinism and not cave in to "there is no alternative” if we are to stand any chance of building a future that is more cooperative and develops holistic policies.
This is both a matter of emergent behaviour and a matter of choice
- When I say it is a matter of emergent behaviour I am going back to Part 1. How we behave is a matter of our knowledge, physiology, natures, culture and beliefs. We can continue to cultivate a set of beliefs based on competition, and hope for the best (we continue to get lucky) or
- Alternatively, we can chose to embrace our social natures, tell ourselves a different true story about co-operation and develop a culture that builds on our successes and brings out the best in people, and we had better do it fast.
If we chose the latter we have to find a realistic political way of dealing with those who cling to competition, and use power for self-aggrandisement. Thinking about this in terms of our primate natures we seem to have invented a set of beliefs and a culture that allows the silverbacks to get out of control and run amok, its time we brought them back into the service of the tribe. This is what the practical application of HoPE requires so in Part 3 I look at this in relation to both change and power.