This week it was my turn to ask the Friday Five Question. Man was it long-winded:
I’ve just thought of this question, and perhaps it will be torturously difficult to answer, but… I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, a stunning alternate history that raises many questions about history, religion, culture, meaning (and how humans make or find it)… and offers some beautifully thought-out answers or possibilities to these questions. It’s a wonderfully crafted novel, and I highly recommend it.
On a more literal level, the novel asks the question: What would have happened if the Black Death had been so virulent, and so alien to Westerners, that it had wiped out 99% of humans in Europe instead of only the mere third of Europe it killed off? The result is a stunning weaving of speculation, understanding of human nature (for European colonialism could possibly have been carried out, differently, by other empires, and surely something comparable would have been if the West had been thus destroyed). I think it’s a powerful way of looking at our myths about the goods and bads of Westerners, by examining a human history absent of Westerners.
In any case, I want to save that for my review of the novel. But I will say that it has gotten me thinking about questions of historical inevitability. Consider the printing press: while movable type was a stunning idea and the key to the success of the Gutenberg printing press, the Chinese had already invented a kind of print press with movable print blocks. It’s even sometimes suggested that the Western printing press traces back to the Chinese, in the genealogy of technologies. I think it’s reasonable to say that, given paper and alphabetical language, someone would have figured out this movable-type print concept eventually. Maybe not for a long time (though we have no reason to think so), but eventually.
To your mind, which five other innovations in history are those which were basically inevitable? Which events do you think were simply bound to happen, and if they’d not happened as they did in our history, would eventually have happened elsewhere or elsewhen, even in the face of something like one of the major world civilizations (along with its technical contributions to the long and intercultural ferment of the development of technologies) having been completely wiped out?
(Please note that these could be technical, philosophical, religious, social, or other innovations. I don’t only mean technologies.)
Here’s my attempt at an answer to this question:
- Contraception. Most cultures had some kind of contraceptive technique, even when it consisted only of leaving infants exposed to the wilderness in a kind of post-natal abortion. I think that because of our general tendency to multiply at an alarming rate and develop resistance to diseases over millennia, eventually humans would have necessarily figured out the mechanisms of reproduction and done what we have done in our world, that is, take (sometimes haphazard, usually incomplete) control of the process. Perhaps herbs might have be used more, or perhaps males would have been the subject of the treatment instead of women (though women have been the subject most of the time). But I think that some sort of advanced contraceptive technology would have developed.
- A philosophy or ideology of resistance to ubiquitous human inequalities. Robinson’s novel has a wonderful passage where a Sino-Arabic scholar writes the equivalent of an Islamic-Buddhist Ecumenical Marxian analysis of class in his world. One of the most important points he makes is that certain kinds of inequality, such as male above women and children, inequality of wealth, and inequal wealth of different peoples, are universal in the human world. Like Marx he ties the narrative of history strongly to the decency of humans, which can be measured by their ability to address and dismantle these inequalities as much as possible.
- Advanced weapons of all sorts. I don’t know whether the development of nuclear weapons was inevitable, but I do think that humans are endlessly fascinated with, and beset by, warfare. Often, whether or not they have wished to comply, the brightest minds alive have been commanded to further the reach and force of the arsenal of the state in which they lived.
- Sewage systems. People settled into cities as time passed and agriculture developed; it’s something that it seems humans tended to do worldwide, even despite being cut off from major technological advances, like on the West Coast of North America and in Central and South America. As they did so, the problems presented by city life expanded. Sewage, waste from domesticated animals (in Eurasia and North Africa at least), and the resultant problems of disease (not to mention smell) would have prompted people to think seriously of a way to move sewage quickly and efficiently. I’m not sure whether running water would necessarily have been inevitableperhaps not in many placesbut I do think that the development of sewage management systems was inevitable.
- The development of sensuous luxuries like fine fabrics and perfumes. I think that the fact of inequalities being universal, combined with the fact that humans are embodied animals with a great interest in sensuous experience, makes it safe to say that fine (and costly) fabrics and scents would have eventually been developed almost no matter what course was taken in human history. They may never have become a common as they are now in some parts of the world, but I think they would inevitably have appeared. Not only are we a very warlike species, but we are also a very sensual one, and one that wishes always to make the everyday world a place of comfort and pleasure… we savour our fabrics and the sweetest of our scents almost as much as we dread our enemies… both human enemies and our dreaded enemy diseases alike.
There are so many more possible answers, but I think these are perhaps the most interesting to my mind. I am curious to see what others have to say, as I suppose answering this question is, in a way, a sort of method of saying something about what one thinks the human condition is, or what humans are at their core, at least. (This topic is an obsession of mine…)
If you are curious too, the other Friday Fivers are listed in the Friday Fivers slidedown menu in the right sidebar. I’m hoping the new interface is clear and intuitive…