Podcast • December 3, 2010

Ian Morris’s East-West History of an Endangered Species: Us

There are a few little things missing in Ian Morris‘ account of human history. People, for starters. Humanity. Ideas. Causes. Nations. Heroes. Monsters, too. Conscious movements of any kind. There’s no Magna Carta, and there ...

There are a few little things missing in Ian Morris‘ account of human history. People, for starters. Humanity. Ideas. Causes. Nations. Heroes. Monsters, too. Conscious movements of any kind. There’s no Magna Carta, and there are no messiahs, no St. Paul and no Shakespeare. No revelations or religions of more than decorative interest. Not much of what we call human agency, since he conceives us rather as “clever chimps.” But don’t let that turn you from Why the West Rules — For Now. The shocking part is: it’s still a fascinating story. It might even be a version of our past to save us from reenacting the worst of it. Call it History 2.0 or maybe 3.0 — nothing like the history I once majored in. It purports, at least, to be a data-driven interdisciplinary sort of science. And it seems to represent that “alliance of geeks and poets” that the Times suggests is taking over the old Humanities.

Morris makes it the story of a species with self-awareness not far above that of spiders, and no sense till recently of the rhythm and rules of our evolutionary road. Morris draws on his first career, scientific archeology, also on biological evolution, to formulate an Index of Social Development (energy use, for example, and destructiveness in war); and then to chart the relative ISD scores, East and West, through roughly 15,000 years since the last Ice Age. One starting point is genomic: we’re one animal the world around, bound by the same imperatives of biology and sociology. It’s geography, as Jared Diamond taught us in Guns, Germs and Steel, that accounts for the differences among us. But then the effective meaning of geography keeps changing as Morris extends the story.

The East, into the middle of the last millenium, took a long lead on the power of China’s ocean-going ships and sure-fire guns. But after 1400, when the West caught up in sea-faring, it mattered decisively that the North Atlantic, on the western periphery of Eurasia, was 3000 miles closer to the great new prize: the Americas. Had sailing distances been equal, it might have been the Chinese who breathed their germs on the Native Americans and colonized the hemisphere. But in fact it was the West that felt the sudden spur to master wind, tides, and astronomy and reap the benefits of a scientific, then an industrial revolution. Thus does the meaning of geography transform itself. And thus did the West come to rule the planet, “for now,” in Morris’s title. What next, Professor Morris? How did the year 2103 pop out of the graphs as the moment when the East nails its comeback? The underlying premise, of course, is that the long, slow upward creep of the Index of Social Development is now an almost vertical rocket — climbing even faster in India and China than in the West.

IM: … The distance in social development between the hunter gatherers who painted the cave walls at Chauvet, say, and us is one quarter of what the index predicts for this century, when the gap between east and west disappears. So the one thing we can be absolutely confident about is that the predictions about the future that say: well, its gonna be basically like now, but shinier and faster and glitzier and China will be richer — those predictions are completely wrong. The 21st century is going to be utterly unlike anything that humanity has seen before. It’s not too much to suggest that the 21st century, the next hundred years, are going to see more change than the last 100,000 years. CL: Is there anything we can do about it, even if we wanted to? You don’t leave much room for inspiration, visionaries, events, movements? IM: The changes we are looking at in the 21st century are very much like the kinds of changes that evolutionary biologists deal with all the time. One way or another, I suggest that the human species is going to change out of all recognition in the next 100 years. And one possibility is that social development does continue to rise to this extraordinary level. The kinds of processes we can already see around us, the partial merging of biological human animals with the machines that they’ve created, these processes will accelerate. By the end of the 21st century, we will have merged carbon based lifeforms with silicon based forms in a way that now seems like utter science fiction. And humanity will basically have ceased to be what we’re familiar with. I think the other other alternative we are looking at in the 21st century is that, thanks to the power of nuclear weapons, we will destroy ourselves completely and once again humanity will not be what we’re used to dealing with.

Man’s oldest paintings at Chauvet. 30,000 years as yesterday.

It is going to be a very different thing after an all out nuclear war. But one way or another, it seems to me that the pattern of history is implying that at some point in the relatively near future we are going to see some sort of great evolutionary transformation, much like the ones we have seen in the earlier history of humanity… over very very long time periods. Or human beings are going to destroy themselves, the environment is going to turn against us either through the process of global climate change or through changing our environment through nuclear wars… in which case this particular branch on the evolutionary tree comes to a dead end.

Stanford Historian Ian Morris with Chris Lydon, November 3, 2010

Not your grandpa’s history, in short. Not your grandpa’s prospects, either.

Podcast • February 26, 2008

Iraq in the Long View: Behnam Abu Al-Souf

Listen to the archeologist Behnam Abu Al-Souf long enough, and you’ll be hearing the Iraqi uncle you never knew you had. Dr. Ben as I call him is a great bear of muscular, hands-on scholarship. ...
Dr Ben

Behnam Abu Al-Souf

Listen to the archeologist Behnam Abu Al-Souf long enough, and you’ll be hearing the Iraqi uncle you never knew you had. Dr. Ben as I call him is a great bear of muscular, hands-on scholarship. For half a century he has been an eminence in the excavation and preservation of neolithic Northern Iraq. By now he is a sort of Father Time from Mesopotamia, a man with ten or fifteen thousand years of historical memory in his head, about the land for which archeology was invented. He is at Brown this winter, a “scholar at risk.” And we have been having this long, free-ranging conversation about the recent and ancient past of Iraq, about the Baghdad he finally escaped (“I came out of Hell”), and sometimes about the future of his country. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in the sixth century B.C. can sound like the recent past in Dr. Ben’s telling. The really ancient Sumerian past introduces giants like Sargon, the king of Mesopotamia in the third millenium B.C. And then there’s the king and legend Gilgamesh, Ben’s “hero of heroes, the best of men.” In the Sumerian epic and “creation myth,” the oldest work in literature, Gilgamesh was the proto-giant who (around 2700 B.C.) wrestled with the shepherd Enkidu on a symbolic line between civilization and wilderness. “Gilgamesh won, and they were friends thereafter,” as Dr. Ben puts it. These were the romantic “idylls of the king” in which Dr. Ben grew up. The Iraq of his youth in the 1940s was a “golden age,” as he recalls it, in a safe and sane British-built constitutional monarchy under the Hashemite King Faisal II. Dr. Ben came of a Chaldean Catholic family in the old, religiously mixed and tolerant city of Mosul — opposite the ancient city of Nineveh on the Tigris River. Ben was a body-builder in his youth, and a swimming star. A 40-kilometer swim in the Tigris was an afternoon’s good exercise. His orientation to strongmen and heroes was his introduction to classical history, which he studied with the first generation of homegrown archeologists in Iraq, and then at Cambridge, where he got his Ph.D.

Ten thousand years is… an open book. I read it, because I lived it. Not only I study it, but I lived those events. I don’t practice archeology as a government employee or official. I practice archeology as a lover. You understand? More than admirer, a lover. That is why I make good progress in archeology. When I used to talk on the television, I don’t need to have a paper with numbers and names. All are written here, on my chest, on my mind — ten thousand years or more of events in my memory. I just talk, and they enjoy it. Even Saddam used to like my talk on the television. He used to tell Tariq Aziz [his foreign minister]: ‘Look at your friend.’ He used to call me Ashurbanipal — the famous Assyrian king whose library was found at Nineveh — because I resemble the Assyrian and so he used to tell the people: ‘Ashurbanipal is talking.’ I mean: Saddam I don’t think loved anybody, or liked anybody. Only himself perhaps. But he enjoyed watching me, and he used to tell Tariq Aziz: ‘look at this man — I like him. He talks without fear. He’s bold. I wish there are many Christians like him in Iraq…’

Dr. Behnam Abu Al-Souf, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, Brown University, February, 2008
Doc Ben

(Photo by Frederick Fullerton.)

The recent history of Dr. Ben’s Iraq — starting with the war with Iran through the 1980s — is a nightmare spiraling downward to insanity and the unspeakable. The Iran-Iraq War was a monstrous bloodletting for which Ben holds Saddam mainly responsible. The invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was a worse mistake that brought disaster to his country. What you hear in Ben’s account of the last years is a man fending off the absurdity of what he himself has just experienced.

On the Voice of America I heard it myself from Dick Cheney: ‘we could have toppled Saddam Hussein, but we were afraid we’d bring chaos to the country.’ It was wise of Bush, the father, not to come to Baghdad at that time… Ahmed Chalabi [the expatriate Iraqi advocate and point-man of the US invasion in 2003] was living abroad for 40 years, not living and suffering under the regime. Reading Paul Bremer’s book, My Year in Iraq, I realize even the Americans didn’t like Chalabi… [On the night of ‘shock and awe,’ the start of the American invasion on March 20, 2003] I was asleep in my house in East Baghdad. I said to my wife: ‘My God, they did it again.’ The Americans! And I said to myself: ‘Saddam, you are to be blamed…’ It was as if he wanted to be attacked. As if he asked for it. We asked for it… The invasion for many Iraqis was a relief. They were suffering under Saddam Hussein. What happened later, after months of chaos… people started to think: at least there was security under Saddam Hussein… When we realized that antiquities were in danger in the National Museum, I heard an American army officer say, ‘it is not our job to be policemen.’ … But they protected the Ministry of Oil… The first job of a conquering army is to protect. I cannot forgive them for that. [Of the pillaging of the National Museum — in the period when Donald Rumsfeld said: “stuff happens”] Four unique Sumerian pieces were taken. Luckily they came back after 10 days… There is a great loss of smaller pieces: a loss but not a great tragedy… The rest of the figurines could be compensated by more excavation… We could go into the field and bring back ten times what we lost… It is easy to talk, sitting 8000 kilometers away. But as an archeologist and scientist and intellectual who loves his country: we don’t need democracy. It is too early to have ‘democracy’ after 40 years without a parliamentary process… I wish they [the Americans] had left Ayad Allawi in charge — a ‘good Baathist,’ against Saddam… a shrewd, tough, clever Arab nationalist before Shia sectarianism and the politics of revenge took over… We missed the Allawi opportunity… We need severe martial law, and to stop this parliamentary system which is not benefitting anyone.

Dr. Behnam Abu Al-Souf, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, Brown University, February, 2008

There may be as much anecdotage and argument as analysis here. Certainly there are more questions than answers. I still want to know how we Americans thought we could contribute to a new Iraq by a war of humiliation and occupation. I still wonder who is going to help large-spirited Iraqis like Dr. Ben get their country and their heritage back. We will continue the conversation in a public session at the Watson Institute on April 10, and with your help on these pages. Talk to your Uncle Ben.