History is a Mess

The very idea of an Anthropocene suggests that the world is changing faster than ever before.  And a growing number of historians, archeologists, and geologists are looking at our modern world in the context of deep time to place the rapid changes in their proper context.  In today’s show, Ian Morris discusses how societies have developed through all of human history – from Neanderthals to iPhones – and points out some trends we can extract and investigate from archeological data.  Specifically, Morris explains how geography drives human social development, but development changes the very meaning of geography.  If that sounds a little complicated… well, it is. But we speak with Ronan Arthur about the Native American Navajo as a sort of case study of this geography/social development concept.

This episode was produced by Leslie Chang, Mike Osborne, and Miles Traer.
Additional music by Kevin MacLeod (License available here)

by Miles Traer

The fact that we are even talking about the Anthropocene suggests that the world is changing quickly – maybe more quickly than ever before. Our cities are growing into mega metropolises, carbon emissions are forcing warming at an unprecedented rate, and humans all over the planet are leaving an unmistakable footprint by altering Earth’s surface geology. At the heart of this accelerated change is social development: our capacity to create networked structures, and to extract what we want and need from the Earth.

But are things really changing faster than at any other time in history? A growing number of historians, archaeologists, and geologists are here to explore this very idea. They provide context and a window into deep time. It’s one thing for us to feel like things are changing faster than before. It’s quite another when the deep time scholars look back in time and confirm that things actually are changing faster than ever before.

Ian Morris is one such scholar. A professor of history and archaeology at Stanford, Morris analyses human cultures from the end of the last ice age to the modern day. Basically, from Neanderthals to iPhones. He first described the “shape” of human history in his book Why the West Rules…For Now.

“About 10 years ago, I started to get very interested in this big debate people were having about why a pretty small group of nations around the shores of the North Atlantic had come to dominate the planet in the last 200 years in a way that the world’s never really seen before,” said Morris. “We’re comparing Eastern and Western history across thousands of years, to see was the modern West domination of the world determined back thousands of years ago? Something that happened in very early times, or is this just some very recent accidental thing that came along?”

To answer this question, Morris looked at four elements measurable in all human societies that historians and archeologists could glean from the human record: 1) the energy capture per person, 2) urbanization (the size of the largest community), 3) information technology, and 4) war-making capacity. These four variables combine to offer a master metric by which Morris could plot his Social Development Index over the entirety of history. The index essentially attempts to quantify the complexity of a culture and the ability of that culture to expand its influence across the globe. As to the question of why the West currently rules, Morris offers a one word answer: geography. (Actually he says a lot more than just “geography,” but that’s the simple version).

In this interview with producer Mike Osborne, Morris discusses ancient human societies, the exponential rise in the Social Development Index following the Industrial Revolution, and when the East will surpass the West (spoiler: he actually projects a specific year). Morris also explains how geography determines social development, but social development changes the meaning of geography. And as we look forward into a world increasingly dominated by technology, what will geography mean in the 21st century?

Ronan Arthur, a former student of geographer and best-selling author Jared Diamond, then discusses a case study of the relationship between geography and social development by looking at the Native American Navajo tribe. Today, there are more native Navajo speakers than ever before – an indication, says Ronan, of cultural retention. This rise in native Navajo speakers has occurred despite the tremendous hardships faced by Native American tribes following European colonization. Ronan explains the research he and Jared Diamond undertook to explain how important geographical and cultural elements enabled the native Navajo speakers to grow in population.

“They were close enough to the Spanish to acquire [important technologies], close enough to other Pueblos to acquire their technologies and their ways as well, but they weren’t so close as to develop a dependency on the Spanish or other governments,” Ronan explains. He proceeds to describe how the relationships between geography, environment, and cultural development are seldom simple, and the tremendous difficulties associated with untangling motivation and causation in the historical record.

Yet, despite these complications, researchers like Ian Morris and Ronan Arthur are still able to illuminate intriguing connections between our cultures and the natural world. As our social development continues to accelerate, we continue to change the meaning of geography in the Anthropocene.