Making Waves

I like having pet ‘theories’ that I find useful for thinking about the world but are exaggerations or ‘caricatures’, as I typically call them. Reading Arnold Kling and Robin Hanson freed me from the need to feel like people should ‘kinda agree with me all around‘ about things.

Here comes another one: “people and politics never matter”

Barry Cunliffe’s Europe Between the Oceans discusses Fernand Braudel‘s division of history into three concepts of time:

(oh, yes, I’m using the french!)

1. l’histoire evenmentielle (“events insitgated by individuals”);

2. conjontures (“collective forces, impersonal and restricted in time to no more than a century”); and,

3. the longue duree (“geographical time”).

Ok, some examples to help explain.

Scott Sumner’s had what I’m sure he would say was a provocative idea:

I seem to be the only person in the world who thinks Al Gore would have led us into Iraq.

I’d rephrase what Scott’s saying as: everyone thinks that the invasion of Iraq was a #1 event (attributable to GWB or Rumsfeld or something), but it was really a #2 event (driven by the will of the people in reaction to 9/11).

Controversial example, to be sure. But it helps illustrate the point that humans have a deep need to attribute actions and consequences to individuals. We aren’t built to think on a societal scale, we’re built to think in terms of tribal units, a mental model that evolved waaaay before societies were of any size.

Now, my caricature of this idea is that NO heroic historical figure is relevant for understanding any historical process: Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Jesus, Charlemagne, Copernicus, Martin Luther, Newton, Geroge Washington, Napoleon, Abe Lincoln, Darwin, Einstein, Hitler, Stalin, Martin Luther King Jr, Jackie Robinson, Ronald Regan, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Sarah Palin or Joe the Plumber.

All extraordinary individuals, to be sure. But I’d say that all of their acts (good or bad) were fundamentally products of their culture. The WHO affects the WHEN (barely), but not the WHY.

The next lesson I take from this is that we attribute #3 effects to #2. Geography builds societies, not culture.

Why did Western Europe develop faster than North America, Africa or Australia? Geography. Why did the Middle East develop first and not Europe? Geography. Why was the Industrial Revolution in England? Geography.

GG&S was the first exposure I had to this idea and it blew me away. Cunliffe’s book is very much in this tradition.

When I hear some grand even attributed to a person, I think about the culture. When I hear something attributed to culture, I think about the geography.