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کتاب: انسان خردمند / فصل 13

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13 - The Secret of Success

COMMERCE, EMPIRES AND UNIVERSAL religions eventually brought virtually every Sapiens on every continent into the global world we live in today. Not that this process of expansion and unification was linear or without interruptions. Looking at the bigger picture, though, the transition from many small cultures to a few large cultures and finally to a single global society was probably an inevitable result of the dynamics of human history.

But saying that a global society is inevitable is not the same as saying that the end result had to be the particular kind of global society we now have. We can certainly imagine other outcomes. Why is English so widespread today, and not Danish? Why are there about 2 billion Christians and 1.25 billion Muslims, but only 150,000 Zoroastrians and no Manichaeans? If we could go back in time to 10,000 years ago and set the process going again, time after time, would we always see the rise of monotheism and the decline of dualism?

We can’t do such an experiment, so we don’t really know. But an examination of two crucial characteristics of history can provide us with some clues.

The Hindsight Fallacy

Every point in history is a crossroads. A single travelled road leads from the past to the present, but myriad paths fork off into the future. Some of those paths are wider, smoother and better marked, and are thus more likely to be taken, but sometimes history – or the people who make history – takes unexpected turns.

At the beginning of the fourth century AD, the Roman Empire faced a wide horizon of religious possibilities. It could have stuck to its traditional and variegated polytheism. But its emperor, Constantine, looking back on a fractious century of civil war, seems to have thought that a single religion with a clear doctrine could help unify his ethnically diverse realm. He could have chosen any of a number of contemporary cults to be his national faith – Manichaeism, Mithraism, the cults of Isis or Cybele, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and even Buddhism were all available options. Why did he opt for Jesus? Was there something in Christian theology that attracted him personally, or perhaps an aspect of the faith that made him think it would be easier to use for his purposes? Did he have a religious experience, or did some of his advisers suggest that the Christians were quickly gaining adherents and that it would be best to jump on that wagon? Historians can speculate, but not provide any definitive answer. They can describe how Christianity took over the Roman Empire, but they cannot explain why this particular possibility was realised.

What is the difference between describing ‘how’ and explaining ‘why’? To describe ‘how’ means to reconstruct the series of specific events that led from one point to another. To explain ‘why means to find causal connections that account for the occurrence of this particular series of events to the exclusion of all others.

Some scholars do indeed provide deterministic explanations of events such as the rise of Christianity. They attempt to reduce human history to the workings of biological, ecological or economic forces. They argue that there was something about the geography, genetics or economy of the Roman Mediterranean that made the rise of a monotheist religion inevitable. Yet most historians tend to be sceptical of such deterministic theories. This is one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline – the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another. Those who have only a superficial knowledge of a certain period tend to focus only on the possibility that was eventually realised. They offer a just-so story to explain with hindsight why that outcome was inevitable. Those more deeply informed about the period are much more cognisant of the roads not taken.

In fact, the people who knew the period best – those alive at the time – were the most clueless of all. For the average Roman in Constantine’s time, the future was a fog. It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time. Today is no different. Are we out of the global economic crisis, or is the worst still to come? Will China continue growing until it becomes the leading superpower? Will the United States lose its hegemony? Is the upsurge of monotheistic fundamentalism the wave of the future or a local whirlpool of little long-term significance? Are we heading towards ecological disaster or technological paradise? There are good arguments to be made for all of these outcomes, but no way of knowing for sure. In a few decades, people will look back and think that the answers to all of these questions were obvious.

It is particularly important to stress that possibilities which seem very unlikely to contemporaries often get realised. When Constantine assumed the throne in 306, Christianity was little more than an esoteric Eastern sect. If you were to suggest then that it was about to become the Roman state religion, you’d have been laughed out of the room just as you would be today if you were to suggest that by the year 2050 Hare Krishna would be the state religion of the USA. In October 1913, the Bolsheviks were a small radical Russian faction. No reasonable person would have predicted that within a mere four years they would take over the country. In AD 600, the notion that a band of desert-dwelling Arabs would soon conquer an expanse stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India was even more preposterous. Indeed, had the Byzantine army been able to repel the initial onslaught, Islam would probably have remained an obscure cult of which only a handful of cognoscenti were aware. Scholars would then have a very easy job explaining why a faith based on a revelation to a middle-aged Meccan merchant could never have caught on.

Not that everything is possible. Geographical, biological and economic forces create constraints. Yet these constraints leave ample room for surprising developments, which do not seem bound by any deterministic laws.

This conclusion disappoints many people, who prefer history to be deterministic. Determinism is appealing because it implies that our world and our beliefs are a natural and inevitable product of history. It is natural and inevitable that we live in nation states, organise our economy along capitalist principles, and fervently believe in human rights. To acknowledge that history is not deterministic is to acknowledge that it is just a coincidence that most people today believe in nationalism, capitalism and human rights.

History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic. So many forces are at work and their interactions are so complex that extremely small variations in the strength of the forces and the way they interact produce huge differences in outcomes. Not only that, but history is what is called a ‘level two’ chaotic system. Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. The weather, for example, is a level one chaotic system. Though it is influenced by myriad factors, we can build computer models that take more and more of them into consideration, and produce better and better weather forecasts.

Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Markets, for example, are a level two chaotic system. What will happen if we develop a computer program that forecasts with 100 per cent accuracy the price of oil tomorrow? The price of oil will immediately react to the forecast, which would consequently fail to materialise. If the current price of oil is $90 a barrel, and the infallible computer program predicts that tomorrow it will be $100, traders will rush to buy oil so that they can profit from the predicted price rise. As a result, the price will shoot up to $100 a barrel today rather than tomorrow. Then what will happen tomorrow? Nobody knows.

Politics, too, is a second-order chaotic system. Many people criticise Sovietologists for failing to predict the 1989 revolutions and castigate Middle East experts for not anticipating the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. This is unfair. Revolutions are, by definition, unpredictable. A predictable revolution never erupts.

Why not? Imagine that it’s 2010 and some genius political scientists in cahoots with a computer wizard have developed an infallible algorithm that, incorporated into an attractive interface, can be marketed as a revolution predictor. They offer their services to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and, in return for a generous down payment, tell Mubarak that according to their forecasts a revolution would certainly break out in Egypt during the course of the following year. How would Mubarak react? Most likely, he would immediately lower taxes, distribute billions of dollars in handouts to the citizenry – and also beef up his secret police force, just in case. The pre-emptive measures work. The year comes and goes and, surprise, there is no revolution. Mubarak demands his money back. ‘Your algorithm is worthless!’ he shouts at the scientists. ‘In the end I could have built another palace instead of giving all that money away!’ ‘But the reason the revolution didn’t happen is because we predicted it,’ the scientists say in their defence. ‘Prophets who predict things that don’t happen?’ Mubarak remarks as he motions his guards to grab them. ‘I could have picked up a dozen of those for next to nothing in the Cairo marketplace.’ So why study history? Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine. For example, studying how Europeans came to dominate Africans enables us to realise that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the racial hierarchy, and that the world might well be arranged differently.

Blind Clio

We cannot explain the choices that history makes, but we can say something very important about them: history’s choices are not made for the benefit of humans. There is absolutely no proof that human well-being inevitably improves as history rolls along. There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures disappear. There is no proof that Christianity was a better choice than Manichaeism, or that the Arab Empire was more beneficial than that of the Sassanid Persians.

There is no proof that history is working for the benefit of humans because we lack an objective scale on which to measure such benefit. Different cultures define the good differently, and we have no objective yardstick by which to judge between them. The victors, of course, always believe that their definition is correct. But why should we believe the victors? Christians believe that the victory of Christianity over Manichaeism was beneficial to humankind, but if we do not accept the Christian world view then there is no reason to agree with them. Muslims believe that the fall of the Sassanid Empire into Muslim hands was beneficial to humankind. But these benefits are evident only if we accept the Muslim world view. It may well be that we’d all be better off if Christianity and Islam had been forgotten or defeated.

Ever more scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host. Organic parasites, such as viruses, live inside the body of their hosts. They multiply and spread from one host to the other, feeding off their hosts, weakening them, and sometimes even killing them. As long as the hosts live long enough to pass along the parasite, it cares little about the condition of its host. In just this fashion, cultural ideas live inside the minds of humans. They multiply and spread from one host to another, occasionally weakening the hosts and sometimes even killing them. A cultural idea – such as belief in Christian heaven above the clouds or Communist paradise here on earth – can compel a human to dedicate his or her life to spreading that idea, even at the price of death. The human dies, but the idea spreads. According to this approach, cultures are not conspiracies concocted by some people in order to take advantage of others (as Marxists tend to think). Rather, cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them.

This approach is sometimes called memetics. It assumes that, just as organic evolution is based on the replication of organic information units called ‘genes’, so cultural evolution is based on the replication of cultural information units called ‘memes’.1 Successful cultures are those that excel in reproducing their memes, irrespective of the costs and benefits to their human hosts.

Most scholars in the humanities disdain memetics, seeing it as an amateurish attempt to explain cultural processes with crude biological analogies. But many of these same scholars adhere to memetics’ twin sister – postmodernism. Postmodernist thinkers speak about discourses rather than memes as the building blocks of culture. Yet they too see cultures as propagating themselves with little regard for the benefit of humankind. For example, postmodernist thinkers describe nationalism as a deadly plague that spread throughout the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, causing wars, oppression, hate and genocide. The moment people in one country were infected with it, those in neighbouring countries were also likely to catch the virus. The nationalist virus presented itself as being beneficial for humans, yet it has been beneficial mainly to itself.

Similar arguments are common in the social sciences, under the aegis of game theory. Game theory explains how in multi-player systems, views and behaviour patterns that harm all players nevertheless manage to take root and spread. Arms races are a famous example. Many arms races bankrupt all those who take part in them, without really changing the military balance of power. When Pakistan buys advanced aeroplanes, India responds in kind. When India develops nuclear bombs, Pakistan follows suit. When Pakistan enlarges its navy, India counters. At the end of the process, the balance of power may remain much as it was, but meanwhile billions of dollars that could have been invested in education or health are spent on weapons. Yet the arms race dynamic is hard to resist. ‘Arms racing’ is a pattern of behaviour that spreads itself like a virus from one country to another, harming everyone, but benefiting itself, under the evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction. (Keep in mind that an arms race, like a gene, has no awareness – it does not consciously seek to survive and reproduce. Its spread is the unintended result of a powerful dynamic.) No matter what you call it – game theory, postmodernism or memetics – the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being. There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens. Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms. And individual humans, for their part, are usually far too ignorant and weak to influence the course of history to their own advantage.

History proceeds from one junction to the next, choosing for some mysterious reason to follow first this path, then another. Around AD 1500, history made its most momentous choice, changing not only the fate of humankind, but arguably the fate of all life on earth. We call it the Scientific Revolution. It began in western Europe, a large peninsula on the western tip of Afro-Asia, which up till then played no important role in history. Why did the Scientific Revolution begin there of all places, and not in China or India? Why did it begin at the midpoint of the second millennium AD rather than two centuries before or three centuries later? We don’t know. Scholars have proposed dozens of theories, but none of them is particularly convincing.

History has a very wide horizon of possibilities, and many possibilities are never realised. It is conceivable to imagine history going on for generations upon generations while bypassing the Scientific Revolution, just as it is conceivable to imagine history without Christianity, without a Roman Empire, and without gold coins.

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