Thursday, January 10, 2013

Empathy and Error: What I Learned from 1493

1491 by Charles Mann is an eye-opening work of history. Using relatively recent archaeological data and written from the perspective that maybe contemporary European conquerors wouldn't have the most subjective opinion, it argues that there was a lot more civilization in the Western Hemisphere before Europeans arrived than we've always believed. The essential point is that European viruses traveled through native civilizations faster than European observes, and so, often, what the Europeans encountered were not typical native cities and villages, but societies on the brink of collapse from epidemics. 1493 looks forward from the moment of contact, again with the goal of telling the stories neglected by previous histories. Much like the work of Howard Zinn, Mann writes with the understanding that all history is written from a perspective, and that, in order to approach the truth of history, different perspectives must be considered. Here are a few of the things I learned from 1493.

Chili in it's natural state.
Weeds Are Plants We Don't Know How to Use: One of the first assumptions Europeans made when they first landed in the Western Hemisphere was that the land was uncultivated and the inhabitants were hunter gathers. From that assumption a whole bunch of others followed drawn from strict definitions and evaluations of “civilization.” That assumption, though, was based on a lack of information. Quite often, the fields and forests Europeans thought were wild, were just differently cultivated. A quick example is the “three sisters;” maize, beans, and squash. In a traditional field, the beans would grow up the maize stalks and the squash would grow along the ground amongst the rows. To Europeans used to clean rows of wheat and grain, a “three sisters” field would have looked, at best, like a badly weeded garden, and more likely, a wild field. In other words, even though they crossed an ocean and entered an entirely different climate, they held on to their definitions of cultivation. When what they saw did not match those definitions, they assumed what they saw was not cultivated. “Except for defensive palisades, Powhatan farmers had no fences around their fields...The English, by contrast, regarded well-tended fences as hallmarks of civilization...The lack of physical property demarcation signified to the English that Indians truly didn't occupy the land—it was, so to speak, unimproved.” (p61)

Of course, this myopia extends far beyond agriculture. European Christians couldn't fathom Indians had good reasons to reject Christianity and so they had to develop theories that explained why some Indians refused to assimilate. Racial inferiority is one of them. They couldn't grasp why their African slaves wouldn't want to work as hard as possible for them, so they needed a theory to explain slow downs, sabotage, and escapes. They decided Africans were lazy and treacherous. Perhaps the most radical display of this myopia is European attitudes towards the cities and colonies of escaped slaves that surrounded all the slave owning societies; many more in the Amazon and South America, fewer in North America and the United States. The point is not that there was constant conflict between the maroon cities or quilombos and Europeans, but that, at least as quoted and presented by Mann, the Europeans seemed to have no awareness of their role in the existence of maroons in the first place. Somehow, from the European perspective, maroons were an independent problem, only incidentally connected to African slavery.

Humans evolved a self-centered myopia because for most of human history we only saw ourselves and our societal extensions. We never needed to understand the experience of distant others in order to survive and so we never evolved the skill. Furthermore, for most of our history, all “others” were either food (edible animals), not-food (docile but inedible animals) or threats (dangerous animals and competing humans). As societies grew, more people encountered more “others.” Sometimes our evolved myopia dominated the interactions and sometimes humanity took a step towards a more diverse and empathic perspective. In some ways, the conflict at the heart of human progress has been against that myopia, not just directly, but in all of its invisible tendrils throughout our culture and mindsets. Another way to describe the bend toward justice the arc of history is supposedly taking, is as the step by step, culture by culture, group by group, person by person, extension of human empathy; not just our extension of knowledge, but an extension of the awareness that weeds are just plants we don't know how to use.

The “Scientific Method” is a Fancy Name for “Trial and Error Plus Writing the Trials and Errors Down:” Few problem solving techniques are as effective as hundred of years of trial and error. From that you get the Wacho or furrowed technique of growing potatoes in the Andes, which had its own expression in Ireland as the “lazy-bed” technique. Refined over thousands and hundreds of years, this technique had benefits beyond the observation of contemporary science, so contemporary science assumed it had no benefits. The result of scientific attempts to improve these techniques were disastrous.

The big mistake we made in humanity's scientific revolution is not realizing that we had always used the scientific method of trial and error. Every time we tried a new seed, a new technique, a new plot of land, a new couple of animals, we experimented just as we do today. The only difference was the lack of formal structure and recording technology made the pace of advancement much slower. But advance we did. The Enlightenment Mistake was to reject the data of lived technique. In a way, it goes back to the issue of myopia. Because the generations that preceded them did not have the same perspective on the physical world, Enlightenment thinkers assumed all of the previous ways were to be discarded.

Of course, the “Enlightenment Mistake” isn't limited to the historical Enlightenment. We saw the exact same thing happen in the early to mid 20th century in America. By the 1900s, Americans had been farming on this land for hundreds of years and had developed techniques for handling pests and managing soil and irrigation. Furthermore, because the techniques had developed over time, they were relatively incorporated into and with the landscape, and so had reached a relative balance with the environment. But once chemical pesticides and fertilizers were invented, it was assumed that none of the older techniques had any value. The result is the massively destructive industrial agricultural complex that we have today. (Oh, and the Dust Bowl that contributed to the Great Depression.) We knew how to grow food in America, and the addition of new substances and new techniques to that stable of knowledge could have certainly increased yield, but discarding the old techniques as worthless and replacing them en masse with new techniques that had not gone through hundreds of years of experimentation lead to ecological disaster.

And that, I think is the key to the “Enlightenment Mistake;” it's that not the old ways shouldn't be changed or improved, but that we should assume some value in those old ways, even if we do not understand what those specific values are, and introduce changes to those ways, rather than suddenly replacing them. Whether it was the introduction of a new technique or a new species, sudden change resulted in disaster; sometimes the disaster hit right away, as with the planting of maize in China and sometimes the disaster was displaced to, well, about now.

This is why you shouldn't complain about winter.
The Most Important Beings in Human Society Are Invisible: Absolutely everything would have been different if malaria could live in Europe.

Samurai in Mexico: Visual Approximation
There Were Samurai in Mexico: I don't have any thoughts about this except: “Fucking Awesome! Wait, someone call Quentin Tarantino. No, wait, that'd be derivative of himself. Call the Cohen Brothers!” I know, I know. Citation. “The Spaniards made an exception for samurai, allowing them to wield their katanas and tantos to protect their silver shipments against the escaped-slaves-turned-highwaymen in the hills.” (p414) Original source: Slack, E.R. 2009 “The Chinos in New Spain: A Corrective Lens for a Distorted Image.” JWH 20:35-67.

1 comment:

  1. The most unappreciated factor in history is disease. The great equalizer.