Archive for the ‘ History ’ Category

What Made Us so Successful

Our closest relatives are the Great Apes, who we resemble in many ways. But they are still limited to the tropical forests – and we have spread everywhere, except Antarctica.

How did this happen?

We grew a larger brain, and one that is better organized. It is now the most complex structure in the universe – and we are only beginning to understand how it works. And how it doesn’t work, sometimes.

This large brain enabled our most important advantage – language. This, coupled with our social behavior, made us very successful. We were smart, millions of years ago.

And the large predators, that would have made a meal of us – learned to hunt easier prey. We were always in groups, and always on the lookout for danger. If one spotted danger, we all ran off, at top speed.

And we could run – half our body length consists of our long, powerful legs.

Our upright posture placed our eyes, with their color vision, and depth perception, up in the air, where we could see further.

We had no body hair – and could easily dissipate the heat caused by running. And we had sweat glands in our skin, that could cool us off even more. We could easily outrun any other animal. And by banding together, could kill any other animal we wanted to.

We developed frontal sexual intercourse, that no other animal has. Males developed a large penis, and females a clitorus – that made sex very pleasurable, so we did it a lot. And this produced more people – that gave is the incentive to spread out, and occupy more territory.

We could eat nearly anything, and it didn’t take us long to find new sources of food in our new territories. Life was easy then, and we only had to spend four hours a day looking for food. The rest of the time we could socialize – and we developed many ways of doing this.

We discovered how to use fire – that no other animal came close to using. We could now cook our food, which made the food we had more nutritious – and made other sources of food available. No doubt we learned to flavor our food also. We also made containers to cook our food in – and to carry our belongings in.

All this happened when we were hunter-gatherers, living in small bands of less than a hundred people each – speaking hundreds of different languages.

We knew about our neighboring tribes – and intermarried with them. Warfare in some tribes was common – but generally we were peaceful, because this was easier. We soon occupied all of Africa (a huge continent in itself) – still as a minor species, thinly spread out. But we were there.

We moved north, into Eurasia, a huge landmass – and soon occupied all of it – including the Arctic!  Then across the Bering Straits into the Western Hemisphere, and occupied all of it!

We were the most successful species in the world – and we had yet to discover Agriculture and Civilization!

America and the Americans

This distinction appeared early in the 19th Century, when America become urban and industrialized. Before, there had been only one type of American – farmer, although, in the South there were slave-owning Planters that produced tobacco for, and bought manufactured goods from, an overseas market – mainly English.

This distinction was personified by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. George Washington tried to moderate between them – but eventually presided over the American Constitutional Convention that made the United States happen.

Thomas Jefferson, who was in France at the time – came back, became involved in American politics – thereby making himself powerful, and fathered children by one of his slaves, at the same time.

The new kind of American was typified by Andrew Jackson, very much a self-made man – who, without knowing it – made possible the formation of many new kinds of Americans. He made them respectable by his own example.

And this new respectability was celebrated by Walt Whitman. Who made the Common Man not only respectable – but almost divine.

This was a new idea – but one Americans (all kinds of Americans) took as their own. I might as well state it here:

No matter how incompetent you are, you are basically perfect!

To this day, Americans believe this – and believe this completely. When I was working in Silicon Valley, in the Nineties – I saw all kinds of destructive craziness going on. But everyone was saying “Nothing bad is going on!”

Nothing bad could happen, because they were so good!

Longfellow Compared to Whitman

Poetry Foundation – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

As you know, I have been reading Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. And I have been surprised to discover that these two lived and wrote at the same time.

Whitman is now considered (along with Dickinson) as one of the founders of American poetry. Why?

Because, I think – Whitman was more American.

Longfellow was from New England, but more was happening, in Antebellum America, further South, centered in New York City. Whitman was part of that scene. He didn’t like it, especially – but he could not resist it.

This scene was dirty – to speak plainly – and Whitman covered himself in this mud. First, as a journalist – and then as a poet.

He thought he refined it in his writing – and perhaps he did. But Americans loved sensational writing – and he was full of it.

Antebellum America

This was America in the decades leading up to the Civil War. A period we can no longer remember – but one that had a decisive effect on the future of America.

We can no longer remember it, because it was so complicated. And because it illustrated so well the social incompetence of America – an incompetence it shared with every other nation of the period – and which continues to this day.

I continue to read Walt Whitman’s America – that describes this period very well. And its effect on his Leaves of Grass – that Americans are still fond of, although few have read it.

America was transitioning from an Agricultural economy to an Industrial economy – and doing a poor job of it.

This transition was still happening a century later – and Americans were still unaware of it.

The Bosses at Sheaffer Pen

I grew up in Ft. Madison, Iowa – a typical Midwestern Industrial town in the late Forties and early Fifties – with the Santa Fe Railroad in the West End of town – and the Sheaffer Pen Company in the East End of town. There is nothing in Ft. Madison now, and its buildings stand vacant.

But I want to talk about back then – from information I have to piece together myself, since no one else wants to talk about that time.

Sheaffer Pen was formed – to capitalize on a new invention – the Fountain Pen.You could fill the pen with ink, using a collapsible bladder, and write with it for a long time, before you had to refill it again. Everyone had to have one, and a factory was build to manufacture them.

And a new social organization was utilized to do this – the Bosses, that ran the plant.

The workers did Piece Work – they made a piece of the Pen. These workers did routine work, the same thing, over and over – supervised by a Boss – later to be called a Manager. The Bosses were organized in a hierarchical manner – and everyone knew the importance of each Boss.

Two things appeared at the same time – Piece Work and the Bosses – and the Corporate Culture that accepted this as inevitable. Workers were not to think on their own – someone else would do that for them.They just showed up for work – and were shown what to do.

They functioned as robots, in effect, easily trained and – after a Century of Labor Bargaining – were decently paid.

The factories are now gone, but the hierarchical management system still exists. Although it is being challenged as inefficient, compared to Computer-Controlled systems.

The people that write the software that controls these systems – do have to think, and think very accurately. For which, they are very well paid.

People Smarts is being replace by Software Smarts – called Artificial Intelligence – or AI.

We Were Not To Criticize Our Betters

In this posting, I am referring to what we were told, as children, in the middle of the last century, in the Midwest of America. We were not to question our parents about money matters.

I am reading Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography – about the economic difficulties Whitman’s family had in the opening years of the 19th Century. As the people on Long Island and Brooklyn were changing from Farmers to Industrial workers. Those were hard times that no one wants to remember now.

There are parallels between the two families and the two times. In this posting, I will concentrate on my own family, and my own Father. He had hard times too, but as children – we were not supposed to notice them.

Dad owned a photography studio in Ft. Madison, Iowa – and made a lot of money during WWII, since it was the only studio in town. After the War, returning Veterans set up their own photography studios, and drove Dad out of business – since their prices were lower.

Dad was always a small businessman, and could never work for anyone else. This was not a problem in the Forties, because small businesses (including family farms) were everywhere – easy to start, and profitable. But times were changing, and fifty years later, small businesses were rare. Dad was bucking this trend.

Dad made the decision, in 1950, to manufacture stone ground whole wheat flour – in my Mother’s home town of Nauvoo, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from Ft. Madison. A company had just made the machinery to do this, in small quantities.

Dad thought there would be a good market for this flour – but he was wrong. The market never developed. So he built a bakery to make whole wheat bread, and whole wheat pastries. This had problems also, and never made much money.

But Dad and Mom solved all their problems by selling the house – making a lot of money from this – and retiring to Mexico.

They were lucky, darn lucky. Their economic failures – due to no fault of their own, could be forgotten.

A World That is Not Good for People

This is the world I was born into, in Ft. Madison, Iowa, in 1936 – and which kept getting worse. This period, the last half of the 20th Century to whenever, will no doubt be remembered as unusual, even by human standards.

It will end – when things could not possibly get any worse.

This can be understood using the process of addiction:

  1. We discovered something new that made us feel wonderful, that we could not resist – but was addictive.
  2. This something was some kind of techno-social development – probably what we refer to as Industrialization. But whatever it was, it made us feel superhuman – like demigods.
  3. And as demigods we were superior to ordinary human beings – and could exploit them as we pleased.

History buffs will recognize that this has happened many times before – most notably with the Roman Empire. That kept getting better (for the Romans) but worse for everyone else.

All this results in two classes of people – the exploiters and the exploited. And one more class – those that serve the exploiters, that they cannot get along without.

This analysis makes it possible to predict what will happen, in general terms. Those at the top, the exploiters (and their sycophants) will keep getting more and more – until there is no more to get.

When there will be an abrupt collapse.