Tag Archives: history

“The Lessons of History” by Will and Ariel Durant

In the 1960’s, the authors wrote a lengthy, multi-volume overview of world history.  This is the conclusion to that effort; ~100 pages of the lessons they believe history has to offer.  Lots of references (eg. to USSR) make it a bit dated, but still seems very applicable, and full of wisdom.

Intro: History doesn’t help us predict future, and it might just be a bunch of stories. We aren’t ever sure what really happened. But maybe we can glean something about human nature.

Biology: Population growth rates determine much of the outcome of international struggle. (long Africa?)  Race does not determine destiny; but culture does.

Human behavior and motivation has not changed. Peoples or individuals who declare the past order dead or obsolete usually struggle to replace it. “No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.”
“So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it – perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race.”
(My thought: so is it a big mistake in jettisoning ethics and morality along with disproven religious beliefs? What motivation with results akin to heaven/hell can we serve up to encourage good behavior?)

Morality: “Probably every vice was once a virtue – ie. a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. Man’s sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.” Current morality is based on agriculture: fidelity, monogamy, anti-birth control.

Religion: Gives hope to the poor. When religion wanes, class war intensifies. Religion originally had no connection with morality, but with fear. Somewhere along the way, this fear was subverted to support the local laws and hierarchy.

Economy: Income inequality has historically been “met by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.”
“History is inflationary, money is the last thing a wise man will hoard.” Societies are always somewhere on spectrum of equality – whenever it gets to be too much, masses revolt; but soon the old or a new class begins accumulating wealth again. Amazing that history of China has seen multiple cycles of capitalism-socialism, eg. Wu Ti, Want Mang, Want An-Shih.

Government: freedom and equality are opposing ends of the same spectrum. “Most governments have been oligarchies – ruled by a minority, chosen either by birth, as in aristocracies, or by a religious organization, as in theocracies, or by wealth, as in democracies. It is unnatural for a majority to rule, for a majority can seldom be organized for United and specific action.”

War is inevitable because of human nature.  History seems to repeat only because human nature changes very slowly.

“History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances.”. History is what makes us what we are. Be grateful for your inheritance, and “gather up as much as you can” of knowledge and art and those things which make life worth living “and transmit it to your children.”


“Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari

This book is well written, and has a certain provocative style that threatens to demolish certain preconceived notions.  It really makes you think.

For starters though, this really is a work of evolutionary psychology masked as an overview of history.  Human ancestors have been around for 2 million years or so, and homo sapiens themselves for about 200,000 years.  For most of that time, change was slow; it’s no wonder that our breakneck race into modernity has been accompanied by some growing pains, which result when our current lifestyle doesn’t match the expectations of our biology, honed by evolution through the millennia prior to the great revolutions that shaped our natures.

The first great turning point was the Cognitive Revolution.  Somehow, homo sapiens developed the use of language, accompanied by the capacity for abstract thinking.  Language is obviously useful for warning the tribe of danger, and for planning the hunt.  Some scholars surmise that the use of language for gossip also played an important role, as it allowed for the shaming and shunning of slackers and wrongdoers who weren’t acting in the interest of tribe.

Also unique in sapiens among all the animals (as far as we know) is a belief and conceptualization of things that aren’t really there.  “Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”  This is a pretty interesting concept — myths as a survival trait and a motivator towards collective goals, rather than just a “bug” in our critical thinking.

Corporations as modern collective myths: “According to the French legislators, if a certified lawyer followed all the proper liturgy and rituals, wrote all the required spells and oaths on a wonderfully decorated piece of paper, and affixed his ornate signature to the bottom of the document, then Hocus pocus – a new company was incorporated.”

Religion is a big part of the collective “myths” we believe in, but which might be useful to drive community to action and as a shared cultural touchstone.  So, are we in trouble if we live in a society which is slowly rejecting religion?  Is religion necessary to compel the masses to be altruistic, and/or to provide hope in the face of death and despair?  Or is it sufficient to supplant religion with other causes, eg. equal rights or social justice?  Although Harari demolishes the idea of special human rights as well.  He points out that belief in humanism takes as much faith as belief in God – indeed, “without recourse to eternal souls and a Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals to explain what is so special about individual Sapiens.”

Anyway, next up is the Agricultural Revolution, or “history’s biggest fraud.”  “What?” you think.  “Agriculture is the foundation of civilization, no??”  Well, Harari contends it actually made individuals worse off, since we were not doing activities we had evolved to do, not eating the diets our bodies were accustomed to, and were more prone to famine due to a less varied, more insecure food source.  HOWEVER, agriculture was better for the species as a whole since it allowed for a population explosion.  Essentially, we went from an idyllic king-of-the-beast, top-of-the-food-chain existence to miserable peasants tending the fields.  Kind of like how lifestyles expand to consume all available income.  It’s a similar story for domesticated animals – they are a resounding success from an evolutionary perspective, but individually they often live short lives of misery.

The rise of humanity has been horrible for other forms of life.  Not sure which is worse, those being wiped out by extinction or those domesticated species being exploited by the billions.  “Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity.  Again, it is fueled by indifference….Ironically, the same scientific disciplines which shape our milk machines and egg machines have lately demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that mammals and birds have a complex sensory and emotional make-up.  They not only feel physical pain, but can also suffer from emotional distress.”  (I wonder if Harari is straying into the same contradiction for which he decries humanism — what’s so special about animal lives, or anything really?  Kind of have to pick something, or else why are we here!?)

All right, the rest of this is just going to be a list of some thoughts I liked.

  • Freedom vs equality – these are opposite ends of a spectrum.  Think about that.  We probably need to remember that for the Founders of the USA, equality = equality in eyes of the law and equality of opportunity, not equality of condition or wealth.
  • All cultures have always been in a state if flux.  Religion is a conglomerate: “The average Christian believes in the monotheistic God, but also in the dualist devil (dualism seems solves problem of evil but doesn’t mesh with all-powerful God), in polytheistic saints, and in animist ghosts.”
  • I really like the concept of “empty maps”.  Before the Age of Discovery, maps were often depicted in complete form.  Even though people knew little of lands beyond their backyard, they felt free to fill in the gaps with religious explanations, folklore, or legend.  But then the scientific revolution became concerned with reality and describing things as they actually are; and a big part of that is being honest about what we do not know.  Hence publishing maps with large empty spaces – by its very nature, this provides a goal for us to discover real knowledge.
  • Economies thrive in a world of law and trust.  We wouldn’t be willing to lend money if we didn’t have a reasonable expectation of being paid back.  Furthermore, “the most important economic resource is trust in the future… markets by themselves offer no protection against fraud, theft, and violence.  It is the job of political systems to ensure trust by legislating sanctions against cheats and to establish and support police forces, courts, and jails which will enforce the law.”
  • World is becoming more peaceful: “while the price of war soared [threat of nuclear annihilation], its profits declined [wealth in today’s world is mainly intangible assets like patents and technology, not land and resources]”.  Harari would agree with Michio Kaku that we are moving towards world government.
  • “Amortality” – coming when we conquer death.  Paradoxically, it will bring anger – from those unable to afford the undoubtedly expensive treatments, and anxiety – from those who no longer fear aging, but still are vulnerable to accidents, violence, and the loss of friends and loved ones.
  • “Bioethicists should not only ask ‘What should be forbidden?’ but ‘What should we want?'”  Some biologists assert that happiness is just a product of brain chemicals; if we want to increase happiness we should develop new medicines to alter those chemicals.  Most people are averse to living in a false drug-induced “happiness” – but with any good reason?  Alternatively, there is strong evidence that having meaning in our lives provides happiness.  Medieval peasants lived impoverished lives, but presumably were happy striving for their place in God’s heaven.  But when we lose these “collective delusions” what about the meaning in our lives?  Is any meaning we come up with ultimately just a delusion?  (A very Buddhist thought … maybe we just should let it go…)
  • It seems inevitable that we will create new life beyond humanity.  Whether genetic supermen, or artificial intelligence, or some combination in between, homo sapiens may not be long for this world.  Something else will exist, which may have very alien thinking and motivations.  So much of what we “are” is based on our evolutionary past and hunter-gatherer lineage; with our new children we can change all that.  But to what?  Haunting final line: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

Those last two bullets are what really wrap up the book.  We’ve been on this long journey, more or less guided by chance.  But now seems different – we are able to choose our next step.  Maybe deciding what that should be, and striving for it, is the new cultural (or personal) cause from which we can derive meaning.  There is no meaning to life except what we make of it, so what is the cause for which we should strive next?

(At the risk of destroying my provocative rhetorical, I’ll say that providing an interplanetary insurance policy on humanity’s existence a’la Elon Musk going to Mars seems like a good first start.)

“1491” by Charles C. Mann



An interesting look at what the Americas were like before European contact, somewhat revised from traditional views by recent archaeological theories.

The main “new revelation” is that Europeans hardly got to know America before it was almost unrecognizably changed. Some of the very early explorers (such as Orellana) mention countless numbers of American settlements and cities, but only a few short decades later there was almost nothing left. When the bulk of European colonists arrived, the Americas seemed like a virgin land of plenty – sparsely populated by only a few “miserable” bands of “savages.” They assumed that it had always been that way. Mann calls this “Holmberg’s Mistake” after Allan Holmberg, who described primitive populations in the Amazon in the 1940’s. Because the natives (in the Amazon and in the Americas as a whole) seemed entrenched in the Stone Age when Europeans really began studying them, Holmberg and other researchers assumed that they probably had never left it in the first place. But, evidence seems to suggest that American populations were as large and sophisticated (or more so) than European ones, but then were devastated by a calamity which wiped out 95%+ of the population in a short time and destroyed most American “civilization.”

The reason was a massive die-off from so-called zoonotic diseases (influenza, smallpox, etc) for which Americans had no immunity. The epidemics started right away; if some poor Spanish sailor wasn’t suffering from some virulent disease on Columbus’s first voyage (pop. about 90) then surely there was someone on his second (pop. about 1500). And they kept on coming. The American civilizations were more connected than one may think; even without direct European involvement, disease spread and wiped the land clean before Europeans even got there, in some cases. For example, one reason why the mighty Inca empire were such pushovers to Pizarro’s handful of soldiers was that they had been suffering through a smallpox epidemic followed by resultant political instability and civil war.

A question arises as to why wasn’t the disease transmittal a two-way path? There may be a handful of examples where it was (maybe syphillis) but generally it was European->American. The reason could be due to the availability of large stock animals and customs — Europeans and Asians living in close contact with cows, pigs, and sheep sometimes got their diseases; Americans didn’t really have any large animal analogues, except maybe llamas.

The second “revelation” was how extensively the Americans had modified their environment. Mann cites evidence of the Amazon as a giant garden, and North America being shaped by deliberate and extensive use of fire to clear old forest and encourage new growth and animal activity (for good hunting). When the Americans were killed off by disease, the stewards were gone and ecological release ensued – millions-strong herd of bison and flocks of passenger pigeons were but a few results.

Although one can hardly fault Europeans for transmitting disease to Americans (though maybe you can fault them for follow-on “hit ’em while they’re down” subjugation…), Mann still highlights the great tragedy to humankind when it lost so much knowledge and culture. One reason why we don’t know much about pre-Columbian America in the first place is because so few survivors were left to tell the tale. There was lots of just different stuff which surely would have inspired new thinking and inventions. How about the Inca knot “language”? Or, just how did Mesoamericans domesticate maize?  Mann brings up the great advances brought about by European-Asian connections; imagine what it would have been like to add a vibrant, healthy America into the mix as well.

A final thought regarding the Book of Mormon . . . a preponderance of archaeological and genetic evidence  does seems to refute a “recent” Israelite origin of Americans in favor of a trans-Bering Asian origin 20,000+ years ago.  But I think that both views can co-exist, if you think of the Lehites as a small group alongside a larger pre-existing population (which were all eventually lumped into “Lamanites”).  Fairmormon has some good info.

“A History of the World in 100 Objects” by Neil MacGregor


The concept sounds way cool, but actually the book is kind of boring to read all the way through.  The author tries hard, but the groupings of different objects do not yield a free-flowing narrative at all.  It also suffers from being (I suppose) basically a transcription of an audio broadcast.  If you have interest, I would recommend surfing through the British Museum website about the series rather than slogging through the book.

I read through to the end though, because several of the objects were kind of interesting and off the beaten path of a typical Western history of the world.

But then again, my short list of cool objects (below) is solely from that Western history… West is Best, I guess?  (don’t hate me)

  • Rhind Mathematical Papyrus – I just like the idea of Egyptian math.
  • Rosetta Stone – pretty much the crown jewel of the British Museum.  (Wait, unless the have the actual Crown Jewels?  Nah, I think that’s the Tower of London…)
  • Sutton Hoo Helmet – just looks cool!
  • Pieces of Eight – the first global currency, beloved by pirates and parrots alike.  Never heard of the Potosi silver mines before … guess they were pretty important!

Main takeaway: The world has always been surprisingly connected.  Lots of objects could only have been made with materials found far away from where the object was created/used/found.

“California Saints” by Richard O. Cowan and William E. Homer

I thought I should learn some more about my newly adopted state.

Mormons were key players in the early history of California (the history of U.S. California, that is), primarily via the Mormon Battalion and the immigrants from the ship Brooklyn.  During the 1850’s however, official activities all but ceased until the twentieth century.  The lack of emphasis on California settlement was partly due to the Gold Rush.  There was a lot of interest in California and thousands were flocking to the state; the Mormons could never be a majority and control their own destiny like they could in Utah.  Another reason was the fallout due to polygamy, announced in 1852, and the subsequent Utah War – the Church had more pressing concerns at the time than trying to encourage California growth.  Indeed, the official policy everywhere, up until around the turn of the century, was that of gathering – missionaries went out into the world, but always encouraged their converts to emigrate to Utah.

With all that in mind, it is no wonder that Brigham Young didn’t think too highly of California.  (Although, interestingly, he did call several on “gold missions” early in the Gold Rush to get money for the struggling Church.)  When Sam Brannan excitedly told Brigham Young about the wonders of California in 1847, Brigham said, “Let us go to California, and we cannot stay there over five years; but let us stay in the mountains, and we can raise our potatoes and eat them; and I calculate to stay here.”  Even though the climate and terrain was tougher, there wasn’t competition in Utah from other immigrants.  The Church had found its place of refuge.  I get the impression that Brannan probably never understood why Brigham wanted to stay in Utah.  But then again Brannan seems to have had other motives at heart than furthering the success of the Church.  He’s an interesting character.

Some more from Brigham: “Our feelings are in favor of that Policy <encouraging settlement in “Western California” (vs “Eastern California” = Utah) >unless, all the offscouring of Hell has been let loose upon that dejected land, in which case we would advise you to gather up all that is worth saving and come hither with all speed.” (after beginning of Gold Rush and the unsavory characters it drew to California)

“…hell reigns there, and that it is just as much as any ‘Mormon’ can do to live there, and that it is about time for him and every true Saint to leave that land.” (1857)

I haven’t written much yet about the twentieth century history that this book covers…  “The church in California grew and grew.”  There we go.  Really, there is just too much going on to coherently follow anything in the ~100 pages of this book devoted to the time period.  Some interesting snippets, but I didn’t get any impressions beyond growth.

“Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz

I initially thought the photo on the cover was a Civil War soldier, but actually he’s Robert Lee Hodge, a particularly “super hardcore” (vs “farb-y”) reenactor — or “living historian,” if you will. These guys spend lots of time and money getting period-specific gear, down to the correct stitching on shirts and semi-edible rations of slightly rancid pork-belly. They camp out in open fields in freezing weather and revel in tick bites and going hungry, all to achieve the “period high,” a sort of communion with what their forebears (usually, but not always) endured during the Civil War. (They don’t usually participate in actual battle reenactments though; it’s kind of hard to be authentic in that regard without real bullets.)

Why the Civil War fosters such devotion, and how the War is remembered today, are the focus of this book.  Tony travels throughout much of the South looking for answers.  As one individual he meets states, “The North has forgotten the War but the South is still fighting it.”  The book is a good 15 years old or so now; but I think a lot of the reporting is still true.

The controversy over displaying the Confederate battle flag seems to embody a lot of the attitudes surrounding the remembrance of the war. Some white southerners rightly regard it as a symbol of their heritage. Even more often, though, it seems to have become a symbol of continued rebellion against the system: “The banner seemed instead to have floated free from its moorings in time and place and become a generalized ‘F You,’ a middle finger raised with ulceric fury in the face of blacks, school officials, authority in general – anyone or anything that could shoulder some blame for [their] difficult lives.”

In 1995, 19-year-old Michael Westerman was shot by a group of black teenagers after displaying the flag on his truck. Flag supporters and white supremacist groups hailed him as “the last Civil War martyr,” dying for honoring the Cause of his great-grandfathers.  But really, as Tony found out from his girlfriend, he just thought the flag looked good on his red truck.  The shooter didn’t know anything about the War either; just that for some reason whites knew that blacks hated the “Dukes of Hazzard” flag and like to rub it in their faces. Funny, but sad.

White and black Southern history has yet to be integrated.  “You Wear Your X, I’ll Wear Mine” — meaning the Confederate battle flag “X” and the “X” symbolizing Malcolm X.  However, ironically enough, each group honors more or less the same ideals of sacrifice, courage, and honor.  At a Civil Rights memorial, the speaker “urged the audience to remember the martyrs and the ’cause for which they fought.’ I realized I’d heard all this before…Almost every sentence began to carry familiar echoes…marching all day and sleeping in the fields between Selma and Montgomery – just as rebel soldiers had done in Virginia. She recalled other hallowed fields of battle – Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Little Rock – which resonated with her audience as powerfully as Sharpsburg and Shiloh did for many white Southerners.”

The passages on Civil War reenactors are a bit more lighthearted:

“Casualties are a problem. Nobody wants to drive three hours to get here, then go down in the first five minutes and spend the day lying on cowpies.”

“Suddenly, drums began banging to our rear. I turned and saw about a hundred tourists marching behind us, evidently inspired by our example….’Sir, the Tourists of Northern Virginia are close on our rear.'”