Summary, video, and podcast: “From the Neolithic Era to the Apocalypse: How to Prepare for the Future By Studying the Past”

For thousands of years, humans have experienced cycles of empire building and retreat, from the neolithic settlers of Levant and the Indus Valley to the ancient Cahokia and Maya civilizations. What can new discoveries teach us about how to plan our next thousand years as a global civilization? Authors Charles C. Mann and Annalee Newitz talk about how ancient civilizations shed light on current problems with urbanization, food security, and environmental change.


Group photo

Moderator Thomas Levenson began by stating that today’s panel provides some dissenting voices to the claim that “the past doesn’t matter.” He started by asking panelist Annalee Newitzto respond to the human tendency to think that the past is irrelevant because “this time it is different.”

Newitz said that the future is neither unique nor certain. To her, history is complicated and people tell multiple versions of it. Therefore, there are probably multiple futures as well, uptopia and dystopia at once. In history, we would love a perfect narrative that starts in one place and moves linearly, but history is not like that and neither is the future. We often predict either an apocalypse or a “slow boom” where everything improves according to ideals of Western democracy because those are simple endings. Newitz believes that this stems from the great struggles historians face in picturing what it was like in another time. People living in other time periods didn’t share our world view, she said, so we have to respect that about the past and the future.

Levenson added that “the past is a foreign country” and then directed a question to Charles C. Mann. Are we living in an exceptional world right now? Futurists of the past would not have recognized our world with its human-machine interactions, reduction in poverty, etc. in a very short time scale. How much weight would you put in the difference of our time?

Mann responded that “every year is different.” To him, the transformation that Europe underwent as colonialism took root was an even more remarkable change than today’s changes. “Suddenly Europe is sitting on top of the world.” Is today “more different” or “more unique?”

Levenson wondered if our perception of the present is solipsistic. It’s easy enough to claim that the past has consequences, but we tend to view the present and the future as unique. For example, Kurzweil’s prediction of a Singularity with runaway artificial intelligence would be unlike anything we’ve seen before. Levenson asked the panelists to explore the tension between that point of view and the social history that contains these technological changes.

But to Mann, the Singularity is reminiscent of the Babylonians’ descriptions of droughts and lightning, or Judeo-Christian descriptions of god. It seems so “culturally blind” in his view to take our uniqueness seriously.

Newitz thinks we’ve fallen victim to a fiction about artificial intelligence that stems from Thoreau’s idea in Walden that “the railroad rides us.” She calls this fiction of AI world domination a “rapture of the nerds” but thinks that the concept is a falsehood. What is more concerning is how humans will use the most advanced technology to enforce ancient human structures like patriarchy or slavery.

Mann played off the idea that ancient human structures live on, citing a World War II veteran he interviewed who said that even today “Hitler won” because the world after WWII is so militarized and discriminatory.

Levenson then asked both panelists about the role cities have played in developing and reorganizing human life, wondering how they would draw a thread from, say, Athens to New York City.

Annalee Newitz,

Annalee Newitz,

For Newitz, it is impossible to separate cities from the agriculture on which they depend. Though often we think of cities as a way to remold nature, cities cannot exist without it.

She also thinks that today’s mega-cities are tied to cities of the past in that they build huge monuments, from Ziggurats to skyscrapers, that are not immediately necessary to survival. She cited a new idea from studies of early settlements in Turkey that the urge to “build big” is response to the crisis of settling down after having been nomadic. These large structures continue to be our symbolic language for settling.

Mann described the giant earthen pyramids known as the Cahokia Mounds near St. Louis, Illinois and argued that they could fill a visitor with respect for the society that lived there. Monuments inspire social solidarity and recruit followers. He jokingly mentioned that after visiting Trump Tower that “I wanted to vote for the guy! Because he made this.”

Levenson noted that Newitz and Mann tended to refer to antiquity, but wondered if other cities come to mind, such as those that transitioned from medieval to modern, like London and Paris. To Levenson, places like London have elicited a cultural response that defines the city as “another place.”

Mann countered that before London and Paris, the big cities that transformed our understanding of urban life were found further south. For example, Constantinople had a very unique organization and means of social structure in which people were assigned crafts to learn.

Newitz seconded Constantinople as a great example, given that it was the center of three different empires.

Levenson asked about whether climate change is unique issue of the modern world or if the panelists knew examples where societies recognized changing climates and either failed or succeed to adapt to them.

Mann could not think of a large scale society that has fell because it failed to adapt to changes in climate. Even during the “Little Ice Age,” when the Ming dynasty collapsed and there was mass starvation in Europe, somehow humanity still made it. This fact made him feel hopeful but he qualified that modern climate change may be the first time that we do fail.

Newitz explained how, in the Indus Valley Civilization (Harappa), there were many satellite cities and big road systems fed by many rivers. When the rivers changed course, which she clarified is not exactly the same as climate change, the civilization didn’t fall but immigrated instead. By following their signature blue glass beadwork, historians traced how the Harappa blended into other civilizations. In our future, maybe “cities will evaporate suddenly” but perhaps they will just transform.

Levenson suggested that one way to understand modern day natural “disasters” is to acknowledge that natural variation in climate has always been there, but now there is so much vulnerable human infrastructure that wasn’t there before.

Charles C. Mann, Keck Award-winner

Charles C. Mann, Keck Award-winner

Mann provided a counterexample. The “Maya were the most urban society ever,” he said, explaining that they just had one city connected to another with a very elaborate system of canals and reservoirs. Even their windows faced inward, toward the city rather than toward the outside. After they went to war, there were no engineers to keep up the infrastructure. This problem radically changed the civilization, but had nothing to do with climate.

Levenson remarked that immigration is most historical human experience but today, in Syria, there’s an immigration crisis. He asked if there was a way to construct a historical narrative of immigration that includes Syria as similar or different.

Newitz said that Syria is part of an old pattern. However, she thinks very positively about immigration over all. For example, she said that the Silk Road was largely built on immigration, not just trade. People didn’t think of it as a trade route but as the “way to the next city.” And with this movement, people learned new languages, science, technology, and religions. There were even letters (for example, Sogdian letters) along the road, such as Newitz’s favorite of “an angry woman called her husband a dog” for leaving her. Overall, she thinks immigrants enrich the cultures they travel to.

Mann agreed with Newitz in general. The only outlier is when the Europeans came over, and disease and war annihilated the native populations. Newitz clarified that “Imperialism sucked, but that is not always the way it goes?” Some would argue that such invasions do not fall in the category of immigration.

Levenson asked the panelists what it says about humans that we erroneously think as if we’re facing a future with no precedent.

Mann recounted one of his favorite false alarms in history—the Guano Crisis of 1902—in which there was a scare that the unprecedented prosperity was going to vanish since farms required guano as fertilizer and the guano sources were being depleted. He then generalized this pattern across history. “I can’t tell you the number of unprecedented precipices we’ve been on,” he said, adding that these supposedly cataclysmic events arise every seven years throughout history and yet we don’t learn from it.

Newitz mentioned the scare of several decades ago that television was going to destroy our minds. But now “television is artisanal,” she joked. “It’s the longest narrative you’ve ever seen.” Every generation faces this kind of crisis, and the arguments are similar.

Mann added that the national guano crisis yielded the Haber process, a real game changer in fertilizer production. Fertilizers currently generated this way cause environmental problems. Problems drive solutions, which create new problems.

The panel was then opened to audience Q+A.

An audience member asked what the panelists thought about the shortened timescales of modern life, for example, the ability to travel anywhere or to communicate instantly using cell phones.

Mann recommended The Victorian Internet, a book about the telegraph, as an historical precedent. He also noted that today, even though we’re traveling more, different places are becoming more and more similar.

To Levenson, though it may seem very different that a single farm in 1998 could access nearly instantaneous markets around the world, there have still been connections across space for a long time, just not as fast.

Newitz wondered how “clocking in” at work makes us think about time differently, perhaps forcing us to consider how best to use our time.

However, Mann reminded us that today’s technology isn’t that exceptional in either speed or volume. There are examples of tube systems in the Paris Opera House for sending letters quickly. There still exist 40,000 of the estimated 100,000 letters written by a single Opera House director.

Matt, an audience member from California, built on Newitz’s ideas about monuments, saying that he is reminded of how people will seek to physically anchor themselves in moments of pain or crisis by reaching out to lean on something. He also asked Mann about his plans to celebrate Columbus Day.

Mann remarked how crazy it is that Cabral didn’t accidentally get blown across the Atlantic to Brazil first. Instead, this “madman with crazy ideas about the earth” made it first. “What an accident!”

Cara Giamo, a writer for Atlas Obscura, said that she gets stuck thinking about the small groups of people that “get screwed over” in history while the rest are doing okay. She asks how the speakers’ broad knowledge help them understand the plight of such people.

Newitz said she likes “thinking about the people that get screwed over” and people who are doing well, considering that they lead incredibly different lives simultaneously at any given time in history.

Mann opened with the example that more people were living in the Mayan Empire than are living in the same physical place now. Yet, peoples to the north endured beyond the fall of the Maya. As spelled out in the book Why Nations Fail, he thinks that societies fail when elites profit from the larger downfall of the society. That pattern is something to watch out for.

Levenson said that history provides natural experiments where you can ask questions. Sometimes it’s nice “change focal length” by going for fine-grained accounts with which to populate a narrative. This is a great way to gauge whether something has historical significance.

An audience member noted that the conversation had remained very anthropocentric, and he wondered if natural history could also add to our understanding like social history does.

Newitz thinks that there are even biological precedents for humans. She cites cyanobacteria completely transforming the atmosphere in a way that destroyed much anaerobic life. She has also read some suggestions that the Devonian mass extinction was caused in part by huge invasive sharks. The difference between today and those examples are that humans are relatively intelligent. We know that we’re invasive and that we’re having that effect on the biosphere. “That weirdly gives me a little bit of hope,” she said.

Lucas Yoquinto, a research associate at the MIT Age Lab, wondered what the panel knows about large drops in human numbers across history. Mann listed several reforestation events that followed great wars. He also noted that, in many of those instances, the survivors were richer. For example, after the Black Plague, so many people died that wages went up because there was a labor shortage.

Levenson considered that event a critical step in the history of capitalism and Newitz considered it a critical step in the labor movement.

Phil Garrett from MIT’s Sloan School of Management wondered if history ever helps us predict “black swan” events, specifically those that only seem predictable with a retrospective lens.

Mann joked that he’s not that old, but he has already witnessed multiple business cycles in which someone writes a bestseller about how “this time it’s different.” He says that the moment that book comes out is when you should get out of that market.

Jessica asked the speakers to think of random things from history that have a legacy in our modern lives.

Mann cited Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker’s research on human violence. Despite finding a dramatic decrease in violent acts, Pinker also notes that there is evidence that a lot of Neolithic violence may extend into our past. Mann wondered what that aspect of history tells us about who we are.

Newitz said that she often thinks about how humans evolved in a state of immigration. She wonders “if there is something in us that wants to wander” while culture is currently keeping us rooted to one spot.

Levenson warned that in history, it’s so easy to make “just so” stories in which “history proves what I want to prove.” He is always skeptical of them. Newitz agreed that that tendency is dangerous. We might think humans are just “that way,” but actually we can change. Levenson added that anything you could think of humans doing, they have probably done. This “huge decision space” further undermines the “just so” stories.

Another audience member was struck by the idea that the most radical form of difference is historical difference, but also that history is unified by certain similarities mentioned earlier in the talk. She wondered if there were particular times in the panelists research in which they were able to strike a balance between that alterity and similarity.

Mann spoke of the time he went to Peru, near Lake Titicaca, where the men would boastfully show off their knitting and make claims about the size of their penis based on said knitting. He laughed at how the “familiar and the strange” came hand in hand in this culture.

Newitz imagined how, in old abandoned ruins in Turkey, people cooked soup in their fireplace and threw their garbage in the alley “just like now.” However, some cultures buried their ancestors under their beds. We should respect those complete differences from which we can learn.

Levenson shared that his father was an historian of China, and that he always used to distinguish between the “history that people make and the history that people write.” Levenson learned from this that historians always ask their own questions that are particular to their time, not the time they study. This is also important to keep in mind when reading about history.

An audience member asked Newitz to say more about whether people drive technology or if it’s the other way around.

Newitz said that it is dialectical. Technology shapes our thinking and our economy, but there is a temptation to oversimplify and say that we are shaped by technology. To Newitz, the important question is “who is behind the technology? Who’s interest does it serve? Really it’s people riding people!”

A final audience member asked if the panel sees humans in the hands of artificial intelligence in the future.

Mann admitted he was baffled when he spent time in artificial intelligence labs. All the lab members there said that AI would take over before 2000. But Mann has only seen AI get really good at a narrow number of things. He also repeated that people are notoriously bad at making predictions, especially academic elites. He noted too that, so far, these predictions have always been wrong.

Newitz drew a parallel between this and the language of religious apocalypse. To her it’s the same as the most ancient of human stories and it is born of the myth that the technology rides us. To her, it’s always the humans that are the problem.

Eben Bein

About Eben Bein

In twelfth grade, Eben’s high school studio arts teacher named him a “Renaissance man,” a title he strives to embody to this day. Eben labors, learns and revels in the miraculous interplay of science, writing, education, environmentalism and the arts. A science writer, high school biology teacher, frontman for two rock bands, grassroots environmental activist, once classically trained ballet dancer and poetry enthusiast, Eben seeks projects of all sorts that draw on and blend these diverse interests. Eben grew up in a cohousing community in Acton, MA, studied biology, French and dance at Dartmouth College and currently lives in Somerville, MA.


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