A Lesson from History

As readers of my “Short History of Evolution” know, I like to take a long view of the evolution of our curious species. When you use a very wide angle lens, and think in terms of centuries not years, patterns come into focus that are invisible from closer up. The downside is that when you try to describe those patterns, people inevitably point out a myriad ways that familiar facts on the ground contradict the trends you have described. But that’s the price you play for using a very broad brush to stroke in a caricature of what we are and how we got here. 

When I look at the history of Europe during the past two millennia, I see some gross similarities between major evolutionary changes between the Roman era and what the Middle East in general and the Arab world in particular are going through currently. The time scale is very different, but that’s because technology has put us into a kind of time warp, where we see changes in a few years that took centuries or more in earlier times. So please cut me a little slack, and bear with me.

I see the Roman Empire as an extraordinarily successful and early manifestation of the increasing capacity of small-scale societies to aggregate functionally into larger units. The Romans themselves, and their agents, were unusually able when it came to organizing for both war and peace. They were less capable when it came to technological innovation and their inability to get much beyond slave and wind power eventually did them in; their enterprise collapsed and governance reverted to smaller groups, based on regional, ethnic, or sectarian loyalties. It took the survivors of Rome’s collapse forty-odd generations, or upwards of a thousand years, to claw their way back onto an evolutionary track that led to genuine progress.

What happened during that thousand dark years? People all through the former empire shook off their old imperial loyalties and attitudes like a snake shedding its skin. Governance reverted to groups that had enough group identity to allow them to be governed in the old familiar ways. War became endemic and almost constant. Kingdoms and tribes held together though some sense of shared ethnicity, whether its was a regional thing, or a common language, or a religion that differed from a neighbor’s. Both Christianity and Islam had aspirations for inclusiveness that exceeded the possibilities of the day, and split into a bewildering variety of sects. The Middle Ages were not a good time to be alive. 

There are some parallels here between the Middle Ages in Europe and todays’s Middle East. People in the Middle East are getting too modern to continue to live under imperial governance imposed from outside. Something similar happened to the tribes in Northern Europe when they began to tear up the old empire. And make no mistake, the present state system in the region is something imposed on the people in the Middle East every bit as much as what the Romans imposed on the people that lived then. Now people sense, correctly, that the old imperial system, if not over, is at least losing its punch. But while they sense change is in the wind, they are clueless as to how to catch that wind and help it get them to some different shore.

Aren’t we all? I suspect “cluelessness” describes our view of the muddle in the Middle East as well as anything. Can this long view I’ve sketched help us establish a general sense of direction at least? What can it teach us?

The first lesson I draw is that getting through the present turmoil is going to take a while, even though as I’ve noted the pace of history has speeded up. Let’s say it will take decades in our case, whereas medieval Europe took centuries to do the job. And since we cannot see the future, there will be many mistakes and wrong turnings along the way. We can predict that progress will be achieved only when there have been enough wrong turnings to provide a cafeteria of options, and over the course of time the worst of these options will be discarded in favor of the less bad ones. There is likely to be a lot of suffering, and quite possibly a drastic reduction in global population, along the way.

The second lesson is about imperial overreach. Rome’s troubles began in the outback, not at the core, where centuries of practice had enabled the populace to accept the value of being Roman as opposed to regional loyalties. Farther from home base, people were subjugated more than assimilated, and when they finally overthrew the regime, the old loyalties came back to life and the empire fell apart. It’s interesting to speculate about what would have happened if Rome had limited the size of the empire it tried to control to more modest proportions.

The third lesson I draw is that you can’t build a house from the top down. A nation that has evolved its own ways of establishing internal unity isn’t going to welcome some foreigner coming in and telling it to adopt a different approach. Children don’t just get grow up because their parents tell them to, they have to go through a protracted period of adolescence first. You build a house from the bottom up, and with evolved cultures that can take several generations.

The current foreign policies of our government show little if any sign that we understand any of these caveats. The analogy of the bull in the china shop seems apt. All we can say is that we are stocking that cafeteria our species confronts with a variety of bad options. As an exemplar we are a failure, but if well intentioned people can learn from our mistakes and avoid them in the future, humanity is more likely to find a better path to that future. Eventually, that is. If there are any short cuts I am unaware of them.

Carl Coon

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