Monday, June 16, 2014

Waltzing on the Savanna

A Winston Churchill bon mot: "He has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire." Not long ago I made some conversational remarks about some multilateral negotiations in the news (I don’t really wish to go into the details or politics of them here) by referencing the Congress of Vienna; I recently had perused Kissinger’s dissertation in the subject, so the event was on my mind. My virtuous interlocutor dismissed them as “not culturally relevant.”

Let me suggest that there is no such thing as history that is not culturally relevant. Some, admittedly, may be more directly related to the subject at hand than others. For example, when discussing the US Constitution, the Federalist Papers are more linearly applicable than Aristotle’s Politics, but the latter is still relevant, not least because the classically educated founders took their definitions of political terms from Aristotle. Even if they had never heard of the old Greek, however, what he had to say about constitutions in general would be of interest. So would Confucius, if only as counterpoint. Nor is cultural relevance a matter of one’s own recent genealogical heritage – I’ll return to the word “recent” in a moment. None of my own direct ancestors (so far as I know) was in the Americas at the time of the Revolution or the Early Republic, for example, but Jefferson still matters to me, both for the influence his views still have on American politics and for the way he and other Enlightenment thinkers influenced the world.

Let’s return to that word “recent.” Suppose you come face to face with an ancient Egyptian mummy or one from the Tarim Basin in China. If either of those desiccated personages left an intact line, it almost certainly includes you. In other words, that mummy is a direct ancestor, regardless of where your family “originated.” A decade ago science journalist Steve Olsen with the help of statisticians and computer specialists calculated the interconnections of the human family tree. Due to the doubling of direct ancestors with each generation, every person now living is descended from every person who was alive in the world in 5000 BC who left an intact line. Even a tiny rate of gene infiltration over the steppes, deserts, and seas ensures this - and migration was often anything but tiny. True, people in various regions often bred largely with themselves, and so developed local ethnic characteristics, but never entirely with themselves. There was and is always some fraternization with others and therefore some gene flow.

So, your direct ancestors and mine surely herded cattle on the grasslands of East Africa and washed in the Chang Jiang River; they almost as surely hauled stones at Giza and fought one another beneath the walls of Troy. As for recent times, yes, there are such things as Romanian history and Laotian history, just as two random examples. It may be that you or I have no direct ancestors who came from the Balkans or Southeast Asia within the past few hundred years. One never can be entirely sure about such things, of course. The travels and habits of merchants, sailors, soldiers, and prisoners of war always introduce some uncertainty, but it is possible we personally have no recent ancestor who hailed from either place. Yet, Romanians and Laotians are scarcely more distant than our cousins even so. Accordingly, their national histories are culturally relevant to us as well as to the residents of Bucharest and Vientiane.

I don’t intend some Pollyanna point about being “all brothers and sisters” who in some imagined state of nature would live in peace. We are all family, true enough, but families squabble and break into factions all the time, especially over matters of inheritance; our consanguinity is not always much help in keeping things genial. If anything, our fractious nature contributed to our species’ early success.

If we go further back in time, our predecessors are astonishingly few. Genetic studies indicate that the entire population of fully modern humans 60,000 years ago, most probably occupying a small area of East Africa, was no more than 5000 – fewer people than reside today in the small suburban town where I presently live. Such a small number of people had to be all closely related and very likely spoke a mutually intelligible language. The subgroup of these folks that left Africa around this time seems to have numbered only about 150 – the standard size of a hunter-gatherer band. What prompted the 5000 to radiate across Africa and the world? A good part of the reason apparently is that we never got along very well with each other. Hunter-gatherer societies, despite lacking formal governments and police, are pretty cohesive up to about 150 people, but after that disputes become hard to resolve internally. When population rises, they split into smaller kinship groups, which in turn grow to 150 and split again. They trade, interbreed, and sometimes cooperate, but warfare also is commonplace among them, even when resources are not scarce; unsurprisingly, new groups sometimes simply choose to move away when that is an option. In 60,000 BC it was a planet-sized option. These quarrelsome (and fertile) bands spread out to occupy the world, all because they really didn’t like each other very much.

So, our dual heritage is one of kinship and argumentativeness. Our destiny is not predetermined by our past, fortunately, but it is surely influenced by it. One way to help choose a new path, whether personally or politically, is to learn from the mistakes and successes of very slightly more distant kinfolk. One might even call those mistakes and successes relevant.

Hatred by The Kinks (1993) – an anthropological argument of sorts


  1. A very nice rebuttal to your "interlocutor". I agree with you and think that all history can teach us lessons. Sometimes it is what to do, and sometimes it is what not to do. But our tribal nature does make it hard to determine which is which. The fact that on the internet we all come together and then proceed to fight about electronic vs orchestral movie scores tells me we are far from dropping that tribal nature any time soon.

    1. John Lovett's article in The Atlantic about internet ire is worth a read: . I'm sure if there were another spare temperate continent, subgroups of us would march right over there -- maybe even splitting over matters of music. After all, there are far sillier reasons.