from the desk of H. Bowie...

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Understanding Human History

Open book with history doodles and lettering
image credit: iStock/Natalie_

When I was in school, history was one of my least favorite subjects: It just seemed like a bunch of arbitrary names and dates and events that I had to memorize.

In hindsight, I realize now, the problem I had with the subject was that it had been “storified.” That is, rather than trying to educate us on grand themes, everything had been turned into a story: certain people did certain things, in a certain sequence, and interacted with other people in certain ways, and ended up with some conclusion.

Part of the problem with teaching history in this manner is that you don’t end up with very satisfying stories. As Shakespeare had MacBeth say, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

(No wonder, then, that I ended up majoring in English, studying Shakespeare and Faulkner. At least there I could come to appreciate the stories and the storytellers on their own terms, without being forced to carry the burden of “teaching history” as part of our shared experience.)

The bigger problem with this storified approach to history, though, is that it inevitably forces historians to pick heroes and villains, and to coerce their narratives into familiar patterns that then highlight these characters in customary ways. No wonder, then, that we have to rewrite our history books every decade or so, as emerging influences demand that different players be featured in novel ways to tell different stories. The problem, though, is not that we told the wrong stories, and picked certain historical figures to play certain roles, but that any attempt to depict human history in this way is bound to be one-sided and incomplete, no matter what choices we make about the stories we tell. For that, after all, is the nature of story (as any English major could tell you).

And so, if all of these historical stories are not the best way to understand human history, then what is?

Hold on. I’m going to tell you.

In broad strokes, all of human history can be seen as a progressive spiral made up of four intertwining strands.

The first strand consists of science and technology. As humanity has progressed, we have learned more and more about how the world works, and what it can be made to do. And that knowledge has accumulated over time, paying dividends along the way.

The second strand consists of the discovery and exploitation of environmental resources.

The third strand consists of communication mechanisms and organizational structures. As humanity has progressed, we have learned new and different ways to communicate with each other and organize ourselves to accomplish increasingly difficult and complex tasks.

The fourth strand consists of human population growth. As humanity has progressed, our numbers have continually increased.

When I say that these four strands are intertwined, what I mean is that they interact with each other in ways that make it difficult for us to neatly separate them. New technology often requires the use of new environmental resources, or use of existing resources in new ways. New technologies and their attendant resources require us to come up with new ways of organizing ourselves. (Any boy scout troop can light a campfire, but it takes more than a small group to build an airliner or an iPhone.) New technology, combined with appropriate resources, and properly harnessed by effective organizational structures, allow us to feed and house ever greater numbers of humans on this planet of ours. But then, as population sizes continue to increase, new technology is required in order to keep up with all of those hungry mouths. And so the cycle continues its progressive spiral. Trying to ask where it starts is like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first.

And so we have these four major forces at work behind all of human history:

  1. New technology;
  2. New uses for environmental resources;
  3. New means of human cooperation;
  4. Increasing human population levels.

And just about all of the stories we tell about human history reflect the interplay of these four different forces in different ways.

Now the sort of approach to human history that I am describing is only important if you want to understand why things happened the way they did. And understanding why things happen the way they do is only important if you want to foresee or – even better – influence the things that might be happening to us in the future.

Which is not to deny the importance of stories. When properly understood within the context of these great forces, stories help us understand the very human impact of these forces on certain individuals and various classes of individuals. And different stories can reveal different perspectives on the same events. And our overall understanding is increased when we can see the same events from multiple valid perspectives. And yes, some stories told well can even help influence future history. And yes, the decisions and actions of particular individuals can make a difference in the course of human events. So stories are still one important lens through which we can view human affairs.

Stories only fail us when we try to pick one story among many as a single and sufficient explanation of what happened to a group of humans in a particular region and during a particular period; and they fail us again when we try to explain broad historical events solely on the basis of the motivations and actions of particular individuals.

So, with that proviso, let us set stories aside for the moment, and return to the discussion of these four great forces that have such a great influence on the unfolding of human history.

Of these four intertwined forces, the most familiar one is science and technology. We all see and hear about new technologies and what they’re doing to us or for us on practically a daily basis. And this is partially because the advertising that is ever present around us is continually singing the praises of the newest products that feature the latest tech. And so people make money by talking to us about technology.

Next most familiar is probably the discovery and novel use of environmental resources. Whether you are a fan of oil, or coal, or nuclear energy, or solar and wind, you probably understand that some environmental resources need to be tapped in order to generate products and services useful to humanity.

Next most familiar might be human population growth, although this is a force that we are rarely encouraged to consider or discuss, because it is regarded as an uninteresting given, something like gravity. You don’t find newspaper headlines screaming out how strong gravity is today, for the same reasons that sunshine in Arizona rarely makes the front page. And in the same way, you don’t see much in the news about the rates of human population growth. This doesn’t mean that human population sizes aren’t critically important to our future – it’s just that we know the stories of birth and death pretty well by now. So unless one of these happens in a particularly new or noteworthy way (Headless Body In Topless Bar!), it doesn’t get much attention.

Which leaves, as the least familiar of these four forces to most of us, the ways in which we humans communicate with one another and organize ourselves.

And this is where storification really gets in the way. Because stories, by their very nature, tend to focus on individuals and their singular actions. Which means that stories tend to obscure or diminish the actions of groups of individuals working together. And so, many of us are not really aware of differing means of social organization, and how these have evolved over time, and how they have influenced history.

But that topic is certainly worth a post of its own, so I’ll leave that subject for another day.

March 24, 2020