Saturday, August 17, 2013

Antiquity and Teaching us about the Future

Long time readers have heard me mention that studying history helps us understand the future and under my blog title it says “The future has already happened”. I believe that human behavior repeats itself generation after generation, as we can easily see if we go back and look.

The philosopher Santayana put it differently when he said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I disagree. History repeats itself because of the character of man, not his neglect of history, and no matter how diligent we might be at studying the past, we still can’t escape from ourselves.

The study of antiquity becomes more interesting when we realize that people have always acted the same. We see these behaviors repeat in cycles and can compare them to what’s happening in the world today. Even though we have developed a brain capable of taking us beyond what mere “animalness” can accomplish, we’re still animals. Yes, we developed civilization quickly –  the pottery wheel, agriculture, trade, cities, metallurgy, armies, political systems – all between 4000 B.C. and 500 B.C, but we remain jealous, hateful, militant, distrustful, power hungry, and greedy.

I recently came across a paper by Ian Morris, professor of Antiquity at Stanford. The paper, “The Collapse and Regeneration of Complex Society in Greece, 1500-500 B.C”, was written in 2005. I plan to discuss this paper in a future post but for now I would like to discuss Professor Morris himself. Not being familiar with his work, I looked him up and discovered his recent book, “Why the West Rules for Now.” I read a review where it was mentioned that Morris was summoned to CIA headquarters to talk about his book.

Spooks into antiquity? Go figure! Reminds me of the FBI interrogation of Indiana Jones when they were trying to understand Hitler’s interest in the occult.

So what is it this time?

Why the West Rules tells the history of the world and then reduces the accomplishments of societies to an equation. Morris believes that history moves forward as a giant amorphous mass and is only minimally influenced by individuals or ideas. To him, there are three main forces acting on society: geography, climate, and the paradox of development. The latter refers to the fact that societal development is accompanied by forces which tend to undermine its progress.

And people are the problem. “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they’re doing.”

Morris has developed a theorem which claims that by mathematics one can determine which is the dominant culture on earth at any one time, and further, the formula can be used to predict the future. An index derived from the theorem is calculated using four characteristics of a society: energy capture per capita, social organization, the capacity to wage war, and the level of information technology. Each of these factors is assigned a value up to 250 so when we add them together we get a maximum index value of 1000.

The book compares the score of the Eastern world against the Western world throughout history and concludes that the East will regain superiority in 2103.

By the way, what did the spooks want? They wanted to understand Morris’ theories so they could incorporate them into a National Intelligence Council report documenting global trends, to be used to guide the next administration. I wonder how they validated his theory? Did they just accept it as the truth coming out of research by an expert in history? Who knows.

I have two large problems with Morris’ book and the reception to it. Let’s start with the latter. To quote one of the reviews of the book,

Morris's success at finding an audience for that big story comes at a time of anxiety about the waning influence of historians, whose work is often hyper-specialized. Kenneth Pomeranz, president of the American Historical Association, recently lamented that "our space in the public sphere has been diminished to the benefit of fields like economics."

The reviewer plays this game – “Look history is relevant again. It’s useful”, as if he had a clue about the subject. And then we have the following:

“Why the West Rules won praise in publications like The Economist and the Financial Times, which called it "the first history of the world that really makes use of what modern technology can offer to the interpretation of the historical process."

Which brings me to my second problem. I don’t buy the notion that history has to create some way to be relevant in order to impart value. It doesn’t need a technological methodology at all, because it’s one of the subjects of the Humanities, not the computer science department.

Morris reminds me of what’s wrong with the progressive movement. Its adherents have substituted science for God, and worse, they believe their science. Remember that FDR intended to appoint a board of economists who were going to dictate policy to all American corporations as part of an industrial plan. Funny to think anyone thought something as complicated as our economy could be reduced to a set of equations.

But here we have Morris trying to do the same with history. Who said there are four factors that influence the accomplishments of a society? Who says they should be equally weighted? Why go through the exercise when the assumptions are faulty? Now I’m not ready to condemn the factors and trends Morris cites. He is a well-respected historian. But when you quantify something, people assume the numbers are useful for comparison purposes, and they parse them up way beyond their relevance.

And I have do have a complaint about the foundation ideas of the theorem and index. Morris is materialistic – a little bit Marxian. His theorem gives no credit to ideas as contributors to the success of societies, like no one ever thought of something that really mattered. Huh?

I guess if it sells books and gets the spooks interested it has value. We trust the spooks, don’t we?


Anonymous said...

This post was all sorts of incredibly great. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

The market analyst Mike Farrell put it best, "History doesn't repeat; behavior does."

Kissinger commented that he had originally subscribed to the Tolstoy vision of history shaped by anonymous forces but came to realize that individuals shaped events.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. The more one learns history, the more one realizes that "new data" is as useful to us as the latest " boy band" was to the advancement of the music industry. There's no better example of this than the medical community. I literally read two opposing "facts" on the benefits/harm of anti-inflammatory drugs. Both were based on scientific data.