At New Year, one thinks of what was, what is and what could be. The latter we never can truly predict, I believe, even if in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation science fiction books, there is psychohistory, a kind of unified field theory of how groups of people behave. Something like that, with the capability to predict and control, would be most terrible. Imagine that in the hands of Xi Jinping’s China. A thousand years from now with no historical record left of Islam or Catholicism, and his statue worldwide in all sizes? No!
Patterns and Probabilities
It is a bit of a game of chance with probabilities, a bit of chaos theory with unexpected ripple effects like the fall of communism in the late 1980s or the present authoritarian trend worldwide, echoing a similar worldwide authoritarian trend way back in the 1930s. Possibly it is a bit like with fashions which return in cycles, with variations of old themes. Though I doubt the fashion of men wearing powdered wigs and high heels will return. Especially not such men deciding on matters of state and fighting in duels with fencing.
Probably two major human goals of security and freedom weigh in differently each time. Then of course there are human wants like wealth and power that can drive people. Fears of course play a role too, looking at what drives people to believe authoritarians. Resentments can be mobilized, with certain groups of people as selected as culprits. Beliefs – cultural, religious and political – can be sources of both unity and division. Finally, it can be simple circumstances that make groups of people do certain things.
Resources and Reactions
Resources (available animals, crops, technologies, minerals etc.) also mean a lot. Native Americans had wheels but no carriages – no horses, oxen etc. to pull them. Mongols and Huns on the other hand covered huge distances on horses in Eurasia. What if the originally available animals had been different between the two continents? Mind-boggling to imagine, it goes even beyond my fantasy. What is also clear by now is how important the the heavy plough (link) was to the development of Northern Europe.
What happens when certain technologies come into a place which did not have them? Muskets introduced to the Maori led to the Musket Wars (link) between 1807 and 1845. The most tragic aspect of these wars was the Maori invading the Moriori in 1835 (link). From 1543 onwards, matchlock guns were decisive in Japanese feudal conflicts (link). Cannon technology from the Majapahit era played a certain role in the Philippines (link). Even plants can play a role. Did introducing potatoes help feed Prussia’s armies (link)?
Health and Hygiene
Strolling through the very historical Old Southern Cemetery of Munich, it is surprising to see on some family graves how many kids used to die before adulthood. Within families that had a certain wealth and social status, as only they were buried in that cemetery. Queen Therese of Bavaria (whose marriage celebration on Oct. 12, 1810 became the start of what is the Oktoberfest today) died of cholera in 1854 during a major epidemic. Soon after, Dr. Pettenkofer’s pioneering work on hygiene ended epidemics over here.
Probably it was the scientific tradition established in the 19th century that made Munich a true pioneer in fighting HIV via a policy of information and testing – without stigma, inspite of the generally conservative Catholic tradition in the German state of Bavaria. Contrast that with the Philippines today, with those who opposed reproductive health, the totally irrational Dengvaxia scare, and the rise of HIV which is mainly still ignored. Sarcastically, one might think it is calculation to let many kids die if so many are made.
Mummies and Messages
We can’t fully understand the past, even if the possibilities are increasing – fascinating for example to know that by measuring past air pollution via Arctic ice core samples that the air was very polluted in Roman times, exceeded only since the Industrial Revolution. Or that the highland runners who delivered messages during the Inca empire had the constitution of top level athletes? No horsebound messengers there, llamas too slow. How is this known? Scientists had a look at some mummies. Fortunately not cursed.
How about urgent messages? There were signalling systems (link) in olden days such as flags and signal fires. During my vacation in Sicily, the tour guide told us that the Spanish watchtowers along the coast could send each other signals to warn of pirates. By the time Adalbert von Chamisso visited Manila in December 1817, Corregidor had the capability to telegraph his ship’s arrival (link), possibly by optical telegraph (link) which got started from the mid-18th century onwards, allowing complex messaging.
Learning and Languages
Monkeys, the cousins of human beings, learn by trying out (link) and by watching (link). Experiments show they also imitate techniques that prove effective after a while (link). There are signs that some monkeys have forms of language or at least signalling (link). Enough apparently, like the Spanish signalling towers on Sicily, to warn of danger (link). As for humans, recent theories consider it possible that Homo erectus needed language to cross to Flores island (link) – at least if they crossed the currents there intentionally.
Finally, the capability to describe and imagine things not immediately in front of us allows us humans to learn a lot more. Experiences – and lessons learned – become cultures, essentially best practices for survival based on shared experience of groups. Cultures and languages of course evolve based on the changing realities they confront. Filipinos of 1521 (not called Filipinos yet) knew their leaders and had no elections yet. The word epal, shorthand for one greedy for credit and publicity, was developed later.
Finally, it is good to know that we probably can never create a truly perfect society. Being able to face the challenges of the future is probably hard enough as it is already. Groups of people that use available knowledge and organize properly are advantaged. Stubbornly rejecting knowledge – like the Philippines defunding Project NOAH (link) or thinking of reactivating the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant inspite of well-known risks – may take societies to where Rapa-Nui (old Easter Island society) is now. Gone forever.
Irineo B. R. Salazar
München, New Year’s Day 2019