Wednesday, 12 February 2014

What I think

I would like to be one of those bloggers who says what they think. Mostly I say, look at this book, it's really good. The internet is full of people shouting their thoughts at the planet, so much noise. I have my little corner and sit here writing about books. But I have strong feelings and opinions about just about everything, I just don't put them here. Maybe I should. Today I will pass 100,000 blogviews and it feels quite a milestone. The blog is now averaging over 100 visitors a day. I know it's tiny in the grand scale of the interweb but it's big to me. So welcome and thank you to all of today's visitors.

I recently changed my opinion about the World Bank. When I did my degree thirty years ago they and the IMF were the bugbears of lefty thinking students. And quite rightly. They were mired in the Thatcherist/Reganist economics of the eighties, obsessed with forcing right wing economic policies on developing countries in exchange for meagre loans which really only benefitted the western economies and did nothing for the poor. But I have been doing a Coursera course on 'How to Change the World' and I learned some things (from the now president who used to campaign to have it shut down) about how it is finally working to do some good. I think it's important that education should do that. I learned something new that gave me a different perspective.

Over the autumn I was doing another course entitled 'A Brief History of Humankind' (with the wonderful Dr Harari). It was so completely fascinating that when it is offered again I think you should go and do it (I mean you could just listen to the lectures, it's only a couple of hours a week and they would be well spent. Well, it is quite a commitment, it is 17 weeks long, but he is so utterly engaging, not in a brash, charismatic way, but subtle and low key, in what he talks about not the way that he talks. His book, 'From Animals into Gods', has been translated but is currently out of print.) He recommended to us 'Guns, Germs and Steel' By Jared Diamond which I have been reading very slowly with my breakfast ever since. Both the course and the book are trying to answer the question of why the world is the way it is. How did homo sapiens leave Africa and spread over the planet? Why and how did we move from being hunter-gatherers to being settled farmers? How did complex societies evolve? Why did eurasian societies 'develop' faster and come to conquer and dominate the other continents? It is history but not of the 'who did what and when?' type but of much bigger questions of the nature of human societies and our relationship with our environment.

This book covers much of the same ground as the course so I just thought I would write a bit about things that interested me, some of this taken from the lecture notes I wrote, some from reading. I came to the conclusion that human cultural development is determined by stories. Physically and mentally we are pretty much the same creatures that inhabited the planet 70,000 years ago, so how come our 'society' has changed so much when other animals live now in exactly the same way that they have always done. The thing that marks out human beings from other intelligent animals is not just our language but the way that we use our language. We have what Dr Harari called 'fictive language', that we use to describe things that do not exist, to imagine things outside our own physical world and direct experience. These 'stories' that early humans created about the world were what bonded them together, and it has been stories that continue to guide the way we live our lives. Somehow humans managed to cross a threshold and set up cites of thousands and empires of millions of people. We find that all large scale cooperative groups are rooted in commonly held fictions about the world ;  stories that exist in the collective imaginations of the people. Churches are ultimate example of this, the knowledge that the other person believes the same things that you do means you will work with them. The 'nation state' is another example. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal 'myths' about the laws and what is allowed within the society, in justice and rights. But none of these things exist outside the stories that human beings invent and tell each other. There is no law or justice or gods or countries or money outside the common imagination of the human beings involved and the stories that we tell each other. Money was the really big example of human beings ability to cooperate in large groups. For all the things we disagree on as a species the one thing the entire planet agrees on is money, what it is, what we use it for, wherever you go you can buy and sell things for money. We modern humans like to look back and think that primitive societies were founded on shared crazy beliefs in ghosts or sun gods or whatever that bonded their societies together ... but we fail to see that our own modern societies work in exactly the same way.  Modern lawyers are just like ancient shamans only they tell even more outrageous stories. Modern society is based on things that are founded only in the common human imagination. We can change our stories quite dramatically and thus change our societies. Genetic evolution is very slow, it takes thousands or even millions of years to make a change in the behaviour of animals. This story telling allows humans to bypass this evolution and cultural evolution can make very swift changes in our behaviour and societies. This is how we outstripped all other species in our ability to change. He argues that perhaps homo sapiens outcompeting the Neanderthals was the first incidence of genocide, though interestingly most populations on the planet have some Neanderthal DNA.

I was inspired to write about this today by this image that came in my news feed yesterday (and that is a brilliant website) that shows a 900 year old viking rune that apparently says 'kiss me'. I have been reading the chapters on writing and it is an example of human ingenuity it is the best. It is one of the few aspects of human evolution that has been shown to have arisen in only very few places independently (most notably Sumerian cuneiform) and that most writing systems are adaptations and developments of these:

"We know that the development of Sumerian writing took at least hundreds, probably thousands, of years. As we shall see, the prerequisites for those developments consisted of several features of human society that determined whether a society would find writing useful, and whether the society would support the necessary specialist scribes. Many other human societies besides those of the Sumerians and the early Mexicans - such as those in ancient India, Crete, and Ethiopia - evolved these prerequisites. However, the Sumerian and early Mexicans happened to have been the first to evolve them in the Old World and the New World respectively. Once the Sumerians and early Mexicans had invented writing, the details or principles of their writing spread rapidly to other societies, before they could go through the necessary centuries or millennia of independent experimentation with writing themselves. Thus, that potential for other, independent experiments was preempted or aborted." (p.224)

Diamond describes two ways in which writing spread; 'blueprint copying', where the system of writing was copied and adapted directly, and 'idea diffusion', where the concept of 'writing' was known as a basic that then encouraged people to come up with new systems of their own. Similar debates have been had about the spread of other human inventions, including wheels, gunpowder and pyramids.
He then goes on to argue:

"A related limitation is that few people ever learned to write these early scripts. Knowledge of writing was confined to professional scribes in the employ of the king or temple. For instance, there is no hint that Linear B was used or understood by any Mycenaean Greek beyond small cadres of palace bureaucrats. Since individual Linear B scribes can be distinguished by their handwriting on preserved documents, we can say that all preserved Linear B documents from the palaces of Knossos and Pylos are the work of a mere 75 and 40 scribes, respectively.
The uses of these telegraphic, clumsy, ambiguous early scripts were as restricted as the numbers of their users. Anyone hoping to discover how Sumerians of 3000BC thought and felt is in for a disappointment. Instead, the first Sumerian texts are emotionless accounts of palace and temple bureaucrats. About 90% of the tablets in the earliest known Sumerian archives, from the city of Uruk, are clerical records of goods paid in, workers given rations, and agricultural products distributed. Only later, as Sumerians progressed beyond logograms to phonetic writing, did they begin to write prose narratives, such as propaganda and myths." (p.234)
"The kings and priests of ancient Sumer wanted writing to be used by professionals scribes to record the number of sheep owed in taxes, not by the masses to write poetry and hatch plots. As the anthropologist claude Lévi-Strauss put it, ancient writing's main function was to 'facilitate the enslavement of other human beings.' Personal uses of writing by nonprofessionals come only much later, as writing systems grew simpler and more expressive." (p.135)

It is like the perfect example of the maxim 'knowledge is power'. The storing and transmission of accurate information gave elites control. But the way that the Vikings used runes, as in the image, shows that you can't keep control of such a powerful idea as writing and that in the end people will use it for things that matter to them. I read out to Dunk the wonderful story that is given in the book of Sequoyah, a Cherokee, who, armed with the mere knowledge that writing was something useful to white people, went about creating a writing system for his own language using a combination of letter symbols from other languages. It is an amazing and inspiring story though the wiki page does not say if his writing system is still in use.

This was just to give you a taste of the fascinating stuff I have been learning. It has all been very thought provoking and I haven't even touched on the complex relationships between geography, climate and the domestication of plants and animals or role played by the 'germs' - the 'conquering' of the New World had nothing to do with superiority over 'savages', little to do with European weaponry, and everything to do with the diseases they bought with them that wiped out vast swathes of the indigenous populations. The only trouble with such books (and the course as well) is that they raise as many questions as they answer and the reading list the Dr Harari gives with the syllabus would take you a decade of serious study to get through. Knowing one thing just prompts you to want to know the next thing, so Dunk and I have just been reading about Gondwana and Sahul Shelf which, during the last ice age, allowed homo sapiens to cross to Australia. Am off back to Coursera now to do my lectures for 'The Moralities of Everyday Life'. 

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