Wednesday, 3 January 2018


"People are usually afraid of change because they fear the unknown. But the single greatest constant of history is that everything changes."
-Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (London, 2017), p. 78.

An impossible scenario:

centuries and millennia pass;
technology changes;
environments change and are changed;
societies change;
individual human beings remain fundamentally unchanged.

Not only is there nothing unchanging anywhere, especially not inside human genes or brains, but also human beings are differentiated as a species by the fact that they have changed their environment with hands and brain and themselves in the process. Some people deny this in arguments on the Internet.

Sometimes science fiction writers show changes inside people, e.g., Brain Wave by Poul Anderson, although:

"With a few honorable exceptions, writers are all too prone to create either rank impossibilities or minor variations on the Earth and the Western civilization we already know."
-Poul Anderson, Virgin Planet (London, 1966), Author's Note, pp. 150-156 AT p. 150.


"...a story laid some centuries hence must be thought of as a translation, not merely of language but also of personalities and concepts corresponding only approximately to anything we know." (op. cit., p. 151)

So: read a futuristic sf novel, then reflect that the society described has to be different from the way it is described.


S.M. Stirling said...

Historically, it's unusual for the environment to change fast enough to be notable to individuals; the last few centuries are an exception, of course.

Further, most change prior to the modern period was political and institutional, rather than what you might call fundamental. Empires rose and fell, languages and religions changed, but the underlying texture of daily life changed very slowly indeed.

Someone once remarked that before the rise of the Roman Empire, Europe was an area of thatched huts and wooden plows, during the Roman Empire it was a land of thatched huts and wooden plows, and after the fall of the Roman Empire it was a land of thatched huts and wooden plows.

This is why, until the Renaissance, there was little "historical consciousness". If medieval people depicted events in Antiquity or Biblical times, they showed the people as dressed in the clothes of their own time and acting more or less as they did; popular myth associated Judah the Macabee as a "knight" like the legendary paladins of Charlemagne. They were aware of some changes -- that the Romans hadn't been Christians originally -- but assumed that the overall fabric of life was constant.

They weren't -as- right about that as they thought -- Judah hadn't been a knight -- but fundamentally they were fairly accurate. The basic technologies were quite constant, with very slow incremental changes over time, and most people were poor primary producers engaged in muscle-powered agriculture and handicrafts.

This was true for thousands upon thousands of years. I'd argue that without some very unlikely clutches of circumstances, it would still be true and would have continued indefinitely until some cosmic catastrophe -- an asteroid impact or something of that nature -- killed us all.

There were global trends; the cities-written-language-metallurgy complex spread, agriculture and herding spread at the expense of hunter-gatherers, and so forth, but they were incremental and not really 'revolutionary'; they were changes in scale, not essence.

S.M. Stirling said...

Poul presented a number of futures like that; the one in "Delenda Est", which manages to get as far as steam engines without any real science at all, or "In The House of Sorrows".

That sort of world is, I think, the "maximum probability". If you rewound human history back to, say, 0 CE and let it run forward again, you'd get something like that about 999.999 times out of a thousand.

We're living in a fantastically unlikely alternate history!

Paul Shackley said...

That does make me wonder whether there might be more going on than we think.

S.M. Stirling said...

This is part of my solution to the Fermi Paradox; planets are common (we know now), but life is rare, multicellular life is rare on planets with life, and so on down the line to the extreme unlikelihood of the emergence of a genuine science and the associated technological revolution. And then technological civilizations that survive are equally unlikely... so that we may be the only one in the galaxy at present.

That leads into the fact that the emergence of life -- or even of matter as we know it -- requires a very precise set of cosmological constants, about 20 of them (speed of light, strength of nuclear binding forces, etc.). Having them all be exactly the ones required to allow us to exist is vanishingly unlikely, according to all our current understanding of physics and cosmology. Hence the "anthropic principle".

Paul Shackley said...

Hence also revived arguments for theism, of course.