Have you ever seen a car up on blocks in someone’s yard? Have you had opportunity to see that car deteriorate over time? It doesn’t take long, does it? Since metal is pretty durable, it ends up being the last of what remains. Years before it dissolves to so much drifting dust, that metal has lost structural stability to the point of virtual uselessness. One lifetime might not be long enough to watch a car turn to nothing in your driveway, but in the big scheme of things it doesn’t take much time at all.
Oh, did you think we’d be talking about the fact that losing armies never write history books, and that the winning armies often destroy the ones that existed before they came along?
Don’t worry; we’ll get to that, too.
Whenever an argument about whether or not advanced civilizations may have existed on our planet tens of thousands of years ago gets started, someone generally thinks they can derail it by stating the obvious question: If there were cultures with iPhones, or something better, twenty thousand years ago…where are the iPhones?
You can do a real experiment, or you can do what scientists often do and conduct a thought experiment. How long would an iPhone survive outside, exposed to the elements, with no network? How long before it turned to so much dust, and blew away? Even if the only thing that happened was an increase or decrease in temperature that made the planet uninhabitable for humans, nearly everything we leave behind would be so much dust in a few thousand years. With the global catastrophes that often accompany such temperature shifts, you could say that mother nature has a wrecking crew like no other. When she teams up with father time, nothing is left standing in their wake.
Ancient philosophers talked about Atlantis like it was a real place, and modern science is beginning to consider the possibility that they weren’t speaking in parables. It’s likely a little late to start looking for flotsam and jetsam with their company logo on it, though; after thousands of years at the ocean bottom, it probably isn’t real any more.
If it ever was.
Maybe future philosophers will talk about America like ancient ones talked about Atlantis, while the common future folk write us off as so much myth. All it takes is one giant asteroid, or a supervolcano, or solar radiation…all of which have happened to our planet, and all of which support the possibility that civilization may have risen and fallen at least once before. How many people would survive even our own great self-made catastrophes, in the event of nuclear war or a few nuclear power plants malfunctioning? And what kind of story would they tell, about the ones who didn’t make it?
See? I told you we’d get to it.
After you invade a village or a nation, you kill or imprison or enslave all the people. I mean, I wouldn’t; but the folks who practice invasion almost always do. Then you burn the books. There are some other steps in between, but they’re pretty gruesome. We’ll cringe about the destruction of the written word, instead of the other types of destruction that take place when you’re trying to claim a land and subjugate its people. It’s definitely cringe-worthy, since part of the reason we write things down is so that they outlast us. Our version of the way things went down might be personal, but at least it is an account; when you gather enough personal accounts, if they weren’t written at spearpoint, you can pull together a pretty good history about a place.
If you burn all the books, though…well, you can pretty much tell the story any way you want to. This has been the case more often than one might suppose, and it’s hard to learn anything about history without taking into account the possibility that some of this stuff is either exaggerated or just plain made up. Even the things that can’t be denied are surrounded in mystery or secrecy or confusion. Everyone knows we still can’t figure out how the pyramids in Egypt were built; but many people still think they are around two thousand years old. That’s because historians are human, and they all don’t get a huge bang out of admitting when they’re wrong.
Once you feel certain about something, your mind does a strange thing. Instead of being open to all possibilities, like it might have been before you drew your conclusion, the mind tends to take that conclusion you have drawn as fact now. It’s not a fact, of course…it’s a belief; but beliefs can be way harder to undo than false facts, and the human mind operates largely on belief. As a survival mechanism, jumping to conclusions and then defending your beliefs to the bitter end may be hugely advantageous; but as a teaching technique, it leaves a lot to be desired. Rather than keep up on all the news in history, teachers tend to repeat ‘facts’ from outdated text books that haven’t taken recent discoveries into account.
Did I say ‘news in history’?
Yeah. Yeah, I did.
See, people keep learning new stuff. Between developing new technology that can tell us more about the things they have than the old could, and digging into new sites or deeper into old ones…history is an ever-changing thing, better viewed in most cases as fluid ideas rather than solid facts. And that’s just what happens to the honest and informed ideas about history. Others are deliberately manufactured or altered, to make whoever was in charge of making history look better in hindsight. Still others are just wrong, ill-informed teachers parroting some complete and total lie simply because that’s the way they learned it.
Examples of this abound. Roughly half of Americans are taught in school that Eli Whitney was black, while the other half are told he was white. A quick internet search brings up paintings and drawings of a white dude, but how reliable is that? For all I know, Eli Whitney was a lizard man who could breathe fire. All he had to do was convince all the artists to portray him as a white dude for the good of mankind, and we would inherit the lies they chose to tell instead of the history they lived through. Maybe we have actually hit on the truth of the matter here. Perhaps everyone is being taught lies about Eli Whitney, to throw us off the trail of discovering that he wasn’t even human.
When I was in school, we were taught that modern humans have only existed in our present form for about ten thousand years. Since that time, I have read articles in scientific journals and books with slightly less credibility that throw all kinds of doubt around this number. We’re now up to forty thousand years, according to the scientific community; but that’s not to say we’re not still counting. Archeologists are notorious for being constantly low on funds, and that slows progress considerably. They have way more sites they’d like to excavate than they have resources to pull it off, so we’re going to have to keep being patient.
In the meantime, let’s not draw too many conclusions.
It might be better to exist in a state of openness, where no new information surprises us so much that we have to deny it or ignore it. History should perhaps be taught in this state, and maybe every sentence every teacher begins in the field should start with the words ‘we believe…’ or ‘historians tell us…’ or something more open to the possibility that they are wrong about what they assume. Again. That way, when the next batch of beliefs come along it won’t be so hard to supplant the old ones.
Science has always been of great interest to me, but the sciences are too much like sports for me to fully engage in either activity. Professional sports get ruined by the rules and the refs, and science is really no different. Once we realize that these people are all human beings following their own personal selfish desires, it gets easier to accept these professions as they are while remembering not to take them too seriously. The only way to move forward in a game or a field of study is to draw certain conclusions, and carry on as if they were true. It doesn’t matter if others disagree, or even if you’re wrong about your conclusion; moving on is far more important than truth in sports and science.
Some of us remember a time when we had to draw conclusions a lot more often, with a lot less information. The internet has done some very good things, as far as blowing common misconceptions out of the water. Twenty years ago, the title of next week’s post would have shocked a lot of people; now it’s much more common knowledge. Nonetheless, it definitely qualifies as a thought that hurts to think..so we’re going to talk about it.
It will be called…
‘The Federal Reserve is privately owned!’
Thanks for reading!
All the best,