Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Morris Theorem and Beyond

Ian Morris presents an entertaining, informative, and in some ways provocative interpretation of the past several millennia of human history, recent stuff in the grand scheme of things. I finished his new book on the subject last week. It is well worth the read even though I don’t agree with Professor Morris on some key points.

His metaphysical narrative can be simplistically summarized as follows: the driving force in human history is the unique capacity for the social development of our species. Chiefly, our species has adapted and mastered its environment through “the Morris Theorem”. Morris writes: “Greedy, lazy, and frightened people seek their own preferred balance among being comfortable, working as little as possible, and being safe.” (page 28)

In conjunction with these three forces in human history there must be mixed other hyper-factors beyond the effects of direct social development; namely, famine, migration, disease, and climate change. These factors, working chaotically but sometimes simultaneously, essentially transform the physical “geography” (Morris’ term) in which social development takes place on Earth.

From this distilled perspective there is much to admire and commend. Certainly, history can be viewed in this way, though it is obviously a prejudiced perspective filled with its own easily accepted assumptions about truth. In this way it is most like every human perspective on Being. Nevertheless, I find what Morris has to say thought-provoking.

As we saw in my January 9 post, Morris believes all these factors (plus Genghis Khan) blended together to change the human geography of China just at the critical time when it was about to express the First Industrial Revolution. Instead, Chinese social development was stunted for a few centuries and the “backward” West eventually experienced the Revolution, resulting in the world’s first global consumer culture about 1750. London was the center of the human universe.

The tale is a fascinating one for me, based largely on archeological and written evidence. Morris doesn’t offer much in the way of interpretation beyond what I mention above. The actual unfolding of events, of moments of famine, disease, climate change, and migration as humanity continued to rise to higher levels of greed, fear and laziness are more or less historical facts. You might not agree with the way Morris frames events but all these events did happen. He mentions the near simultaneous spread of Christianity in the West mirrored by China’s adoption of Buddhism, for example. This happened.

Among these forces and facts, the one that perhaps surprised me most was the frequency of climate change over the last 12,000 years and, in particular, the last 3,000 years or so. The climate rarely stays steady for more than 6 or 7 centuries at most. Change is not slow nor is it rare. This is, perhaps, a paradigm changing fact for me in consideration of global warming, though we are currently experiencing greater global warmth than at any time in the last 1,000 years. Climate variability happens frequently though it seems both slow and rare among a given series of human generations.

The other thing that grabbed me about this book was its conclusion. For years I have had an interest in something called The Singularity. I was motivated to study and apply some longevity techniques over the last 12 years or so of my life because of an intense faith I recently held that The Singularity would occur in my old age. Morris puts the date all over the place but 2045 is one year thrown around. I have seen some guesses are as early as 2030. Unfortunately, I now consider these predictions too optimistic, if The Singularity is even possible. Obviously this is just a faith. Nevertheless, I’ll continue with my longevity approach to health. What harm can it do? Maybe I still believe.

I will be 86 in 2045, if I can live that long. I hope to be in reasonably decent health (but for the inevitable aches and pains and other minor deteriorations perhaps) with a sound mind. But that’s a crap shoot, obviously. My grandparents and their parents mostly died in their late-eighties. There were some exceptions. The ones that managed to live longer had unclear minds toward the end, so perhaps that is my fate too. I’m doing the best I can. At any rate, should The Singularity occur then I want to have slowed down my aging process as much as possible. So, my memories and experiences can be uploaded into a digital housing. At that point I will have entered a posthuman world.

This sounds like science fiction, but there is a tremendous amont of actual science devoted to The Singularity. Whether it happens or not, however, I was shocked to find Morris writing about it as one possible future course for humanity. This book is academically written and its approach is far more traditional than some of its “fringe” perspectives might suggest. But, in the end, Morris goes for the extremes and that makes him provoking and entertaining in that regard.

The book contrasts the possibility of The Singularity with Nightfall, so named after a great short story by Isaac Asimov. Nightfall is “a cataclysm that overwhelms all responses, destroying civilization and hurling humanity back to square one.” (page 577) Morris mentions our still very real capacity for nuclear self-destruction as an example. But, equally, the human capacity for war in general is an argument for Nightfall. What if al Qaeda had the bomb?

Personally, I think this futuristic prognosis is too limited. Morris offers us either a wonder-world where the forces of trans-humanity take our species to the next level of evolution. Or, the fundamental demise of civilization as we know it. Sure, either of these is possible and there are strong cases to be made for both. But, as with most things, it seems to me the most likely scenario is a muddling through of our problems and an inability of science to reach its potential.

Which is why I’m afraid I won’t live to see The Singularity.

In fact, Morris notes throughout the book that humankind has “bumped” its head against some invisible ceiling in social development numerous times in the last five thousand years. Why he fails to ponder this possibility in the context of the present and future is a mystery to me. Nevertheless, he boldly states: “We are approaching the greatest discontinuity in history.” (page 592) In this regard I believe he is correct, though obviously this perspective has its prejudiced nature. I am as prejudiced as Morris on this point.

“...the next forty years will be the most important in history.” (page 608) Once again, I agree. But then, I guess you could have said that about any 25-100 year span of history back when it was the Now. There are “most important” aspects to every level of human social development; our present experience is not unique in that fact. But, of course, for the first time we as a species have the power to affect vast matters of global implications. That has been the case only recently. Cro-Magnons did not dent the globe much.

This global nature of human expression on Earth as a species has transformed itself many times through past generations. Morris shows this through his “social development” perspective. A major transformation occurred around 1750 in London. London was the largest city of a new type of social development on Earth. A “new class” of people was growing in London, much to the dislike of the aristocracy. Ordinary persons of great entrepreneurial spirit were emerging through business growth and success.

“Consumer culture” has always existed. Morris shows this through the trading habits of human cultures, particularly after they adopted sea exploration, which is more of a western thing than and eastern thing. This is a fundamental reason why China’s social development practically ceased for awhile (“Nightfall”) before advancing again. But, in London it was a new, truly global human force. It was (and is) so complex that it could survive almost any migration or disease or famine or, hopefully, climate change.

Most nations of the Earth organize themselves in a western way economically. According to Morris, China’s social development will surpass America’s at some point in the near future; within the next century, almost certainly. But, when that happens it will be an economic measurement. This is a prejudice of the perspective. When China’s manufacturing and service productivity exceeds that of the United States it will mark the day America becomes the next Great Britain, a former global power with a strong navy. Great Britain was perhaps the first instance of this in history. America will be the second. Even the great Spanish, Portuguese, and Ming Empires were not genuinely global given that they were not driven by vigorous modern industries.

Among the what-ifs of the book, Morris discusses how the Industrial Revolution almost originated in France instead of England. But, as it turned out, the British got the jump by a few decades before the French fully adopted the social transformation into their culture. The difference of a few decades was significant.

Due the fact the British had the most powerful navy on Earth, British industry became the first gigantic global business forces in history. Feeding our instincts for “consumer culture” and, in turn, transforming humanity in terms of social development. Our modern consumer culture (based, once more, according to Morris, on greed and laziness and fear) is more diverse and reaches geographically farther than any in the past. It can withstand almost any Nightfall scenario, as far as I can see. So, I guess I’m a muddling optimist, an agnostic of The Singularity. But hopeful.

This idea illustriates how the book stimulates me. When you come down to it this is why I prefer fact to fiction, biography to characterization. Physical historic human experience interests me more than the human imagination, though – of course – our imagination is our most honest intimacy of Being. But, this is an honesty that sometimes cheats and deceives because it knows itself and wishes to Be seen in a certain way. I guess the imagination is more prejudiced than the collective silence of historical facts, though we often perceive facts dimly.

Physical history (archeology and geology), however, doesn’t deceive very well. It may, as I say, be interpreted many ways but the evidence that is batted back and forth is real. It actually happened and, therefore, is completely honest with us if we can but fix a read on it. There is a force to this and Morris captures the force that history speaks so clearly. Morris writes a worthy successor to Jared Diamond’s brilliant Guns, Germs, and Steel, another book I highly recommend. We cannot deny the existence of historical forces nor trivialize their importance. History is equal to any (and every) human intimacy and it fascinates my own.

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