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 • March 31, 2010

Nell Painter’s History of White People: it’s coming to an end

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Nell Irvin Painter. (27 minutes, 16 mb mp3) Nell Painter and I seem to have opposite takes on the great Ralph Waldo Emerson. In The History of White ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Nell Irvin Painter. (27 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

Nell Painter and I seem to have opposite takes on the great Ralph Waldo Emerson. In The History of White People, she makes Emerson “the philosopher king of American white race theory.” On the contrary, I say he was one of the inventors of transnational, transracial America. Before there was a “melting pot,” Emerson coined the phrase “smelting pot.” Granted: he prized inconsistency. But in his Journal in 1845, Emerson wrote resoundingly:

I hate the narrowness of the Native American Party. It is the dog in the manger. It is precisely opposite to all the dictates of love and magnanimity; and therefore, of course, opposite to true wisdom… Man is the most composite of all creatures… Well, as in the old burning of the Temple at Corinth, by the melting and intermixture of silver and gold and other metals a new compound more precious than any, called Corinthian brass, was formed; so in this continent – asylum of all nations — the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Cossacks, and all the European tribes – of the Africans and of the Polynesians — will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages, or that which earlier emerged from Pelasgic and Etruscan barbarism. ‘La Nature aime les croisements’ [Or: ‘Nature loves hybrids’].

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Journal, 1845.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, we are having a cordial time here. A prolific historian recently emerita at Princeton, now pursuing an MFA in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, Ms. Painter in this big new book flips the ethnographic mirror on white America. Now that we are all supposed to have absorbed the genomics of it — that “race” is a social concept, not a scientific one; a construction, not a fact — she is asking: who invented “whiteness” as a human category? (Answer: Germans thought up the theory. Brits refined the practice.) Who expanded and shrank that slice of the species over the years? It’s old news, of course, that “white” came to be code for Anglo-Saxon beauty, intelligence and power. But in 2010 the icons of American beauty, intelligence and power are our radiant brown President and his darker-skinned wife, First Lady Michelle Obama.

The gift in Barack Obama’s rise, Nell Painter suggests, is not least the affirmation that “mixed ancestry is an old story in America.” It is Nell Painter’s story, too. “People like Barack Obama have always been with us; we haven’t always been able to see them as bi-racial people.” Now we do.

It interests me that unlike Henry Louis Gates in his Faces of America PBS series, Nell Painter has not tested her DNA and finds that “roots” inquiry meaningless. It tells her only that “we’re all related, but I knew that… What I am is what my parents made me, and what I have made of myself. I am not my biology. Your biology is not you.”

The species, she says, is breeding its way to another history and another understanding.

NP: Anybody can be racialized. We have manifold choices in human difference. So we could build a race on the shape of the nose; in the nineteenth and century century, races were built on the shape of the head. So you can use anything. And whether it’s what we see as a big difference or what we now see as a small difference, the point is to show that the people who are at the bottom, who do the dirty work—paid, unpaid—are there because of something inside them, intrinsic in them, and permanent.

CL: Phrenology, of course, the shapes of heads, has been exploded many times. We come to the age of the genome, and a realization, which I think is pretty common now, that we’re all almost exactly the same stuff, and the human brain is almost everywhere the same thing. I think of it as a kind of universal carburetor that was tested and proven, evolved and improved, and then sent out from East Africa — what, 50 or 75 thousand years ago.

NP: And the point is that they kept walking, and they kept migrating. People have not stopped moving. People are still moving, they’re still meeting, they’re still having sex, and they’re still having babies. And their babies are growing up and having more sex…

Nell Irvin Painter in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 29, 2010.

In our children and grandchildren, it seems, The History of White People is dissolving.