I was listening to “Science in Action” pod cast from the BBC (just love the BBC. Just as biased and snarky as American media, but so subtle and polite about it. Informative and makes you pay attention in order to catch the digs at the US. Delightful!) where they featured a laboratory in France that had created a self-healing rubber. That’s right. Self repairing. Tear the rubber in half, then put the broken ends back into contact and within an hour the atomic bonds between them will repair (totally simplified, just trust me) to nearly the same strength as before. Holy Science Fiction Batman, that’s cool! That got me thinking about the world we live in and how amazed our ancestors would be at the world that we live in. But then I paused. I think we constantly underestimate those who came before, that we somehow think their lack of technology makes them inferior, less clever, less sophisticated than we are with our technological majesty. The achievements of those who came before us should not be lightly dismissed. Their accomplishments, especially in light of continual revelations of their relative technological sophistication, should be all the more impressive because of their lack of technology. Not just the monuments we all know and love, though they are not to be discarded either, but as well their forms of government, methods of trade and travel and even the nearly modern cosmopolitan of their cities. I think a traveler from the past would, with minimal instruction, recognize and understand a great deal more than we might think they would. Any notions of their belief in us as gods I think would be quickly dispelled simply by watching us interact with our world. If you think their lack of education would be an impediment, consider for a moment how specific our education is to the systems and technologies of the world we live in. While the math we learn helps in the development of logical thinking, the majority of it beyond the simple maths we use for our finances becomes very specialized towards modern engineering and scientific theory; in truth, the overwhelming majority of us barely use any of the math we know, much less even have a conceptual grasp of the mathematics that govern our technologies and directions of research. Person for person, this isn’t all that different from someone who doesn’t know any math other than that needed to count sheep for barter. Uneducated doesn’t equal unsophisticated ( I mean in terms of reason, intellectual capacity and critical thinking skills. The other use deals with coarseness of tastes and I don’t think anyone can argue that we’re all that better than our ancestors. We have access to our entire civilization’s and our history’s art, science and literature, yet sex, violence, voyeurism and meaningless competitions wildly dominate our free time. The only real difference between the Roman bread and circuses and today is that we pay for them.)
My list of 10 things they would and 5 they wouldn’t be amazed at:
#10: The extent to which we take care of our handicapped
Not just those wounded in accidents but birth defects as well. The amount of resources we can and do expend making mobility, communication and quality of life possible might boggle the mind of someone who simply couldn’t afford to care for the wounded or deformed. The fact that a blind person can lead a normal and quite productive and quality life on their own without depending on alms or family might seem an amazing kindness. How much we can communicate even with the most severely mentally handicapped might just astound them just as much as the fact that we “suffer” them to live at all. I think our ancestors thought someone deformed and mentally handicapped was broken and unfixable, and considering the times and abilities as little as 100 years ago, one can’t really blame ancient peoples for this worldview. Introducing an ancient to an autistic child who can only communicate via a computer and quite eloquently at that might astound them, not just that we invested the time and resources to do so, but also the discovery that the disabled have been valuable human beings all along.
We constantly bemoan how our world, via communications, population and travel, is always growing smaller. An historical time traveler would most likely have the opposite view. Think on the wide, empty spaces between cities in the ancient world. While they seemed immense, how big are they really when compared to the sprawl of London or New York? And not just in two dimensions, but three!!! Modern buildings are gigantic compared to ancient ones, spacious nearly to excess. Not only that but many urban cities extend underground. The greatest ancient cities were no slouches in the large department, some coming very close to a million inhabitants, but even so, the amount of sheer 3 dimensional volume our cities take up and the number of inhabitants they support is unprecedented. The very ability to cross the globe offers horizons undreamt of by even the worldliest of ancient traveler. Add to that the dimensions of the very small, the microscopic and quantum, then pitch into the pile the unplumbed depths of the ocean and the world is suddenly filled with layers of space previously unknown. Put this world of vast oceans, continents and cities in perspective with the universe itself and even the staunchest of ancestors might tremble in awe at its mind boggling grandeur. Lord know we do, or should.
I doubt the whys and hows of most of our methods of transportation would much interest most peoples of the past. We live with them and are blissfully ignorant of the infrastructure elements concerning fuel, routing and maintenance, though the intricacies of any of them; railroad, shipping, commercial trucking, commercial and passenger air travel, are worthy of admiration considering the effort, planning thought and manpower needed to make them all reasonably safe and efficient, much less work at all. The fact of them, however, would cause ancients’ jaws to drop. The size of ships, the speed of trains and rail and the very ability to fly, much less carry people and freight, would challenge the very notions of human ability in one used to wooden barges and ox-drawn carts, with all the limits on speed and cargo capacity they imply. How much stuff we move and how quickly is pretty impressive. I also think they would be surprised at how generally safe our travel is, not just from accidents, but from piracy as well.
Some where in the world, at this very moment, is someone rescued from or who has fled from some relatively undeveloped area of the world, someone who has lived a life of privation, who is walking into a grocery store for the first time. Their reaction is likely to be the exact same as anyone plucked from the general pool of our history. The amount and quality of food available in the developed world is…at worst, a well earned reprieve from the norm of history. Malnutrition is waning on earth as the norm for mankind. The cleanliness and abundance of drinkable water would only be half as astounding as how much clean, drinkable water we use to bath, launder our garments and even wash our cars with! While the smells we regard as “clean” smells might seem bizarre to our intrepid ancestor, I don’t think it would be long before they noticed the abundance of cleanliness and perfume in our world. We (rightly so) shake our heads at roadside litter and moan about how dirty our homes are, yet to an ancestor, how immaculate, how free of dirt and refuse our lives are. And lastly, the abundance of knowledge, if we took our friend to even a small library. Repositories of knowledge were nearly legendary in former times due to their scarcity. A small library holds more tomes than at times were in existence for a 1000 years at a time.
Perhaps this is a bit subjective on my part. I think an overall increase in human beauty, while in the eye of the beholder, would be noticeable to a time traveler. Advanced (even just existing at all) dental care, clean, groomed hair and flattering clothes coupled with general good health and a more romantic and attractive view of coupling over the last few centuries has produced a generally more attractive population. This is my opinion, to be sure, but even the least (subjectively) attractive among us has the benefit of grooming, wardrobe, makeup, diet and exercise. It is these things I believe that our ancestors both lacked and had no time or need for that contributes most to this assertion, with genetics as a lesser, but nonetheless important factor. Controversial, no?
Few are the places in our world that have no artificial light. While even our ancestors had artificial illumination (except those poor nuns making lace) think on how much forethought and effort had to go into having light even briefly in the night. Collecting wood and tinder or vessels and oil( and just think on that!!! Killing a beast and rendering its fat!) or making candles (again…beef tallow anyone?) and even when you had it, the threat of fire was ever-present. We just flick a switch. How simple. How easy. This might be second only to flight in the more god-like powers we posses: the ability to light up the night, and what’s more, bejewel it with color, sparkle and beams of radiance. Not only are we no longer afraid of the night, we make the most of it. How much has progress been stymied and slowed by the ancient fact the only productive thing to do at night was sleep? Think on it.
#4The lack of Kings
And warlords for that matter. It would have to be explained to our visitor how (in theory at least) the most successful nations of historical late have had a largely self-governing populace. I’m sure all isn’t what it seems, but it will do for this demonstration. While there are still wars, fought with weapons of terrible scope and potency and some nations still bully others, just as much we might be learning to talk our differences out and manage our resources a bit more responsibly in order to prevent war. Maybe what I’m trying to say is how surprised they might be that our leaders didn’t fight to be where they are, weren’t born into the position or anointed by priests (usually after one of the preceding two) but were appointed for the most part by the public and that their stays in office are limited by consent in order to minimize the temptations of power that humans are so susceptible to. Who in the past got to CHOOSE their king?
#3 Free Time
I don’t think our intrepid visitor would much understand what we do with our free time, at least in regards to how we entertain ourselves electronically, though sports, music, and sex would be familiar. What would floor them is how much of it during each day we have, as opposed to former times when most every minute of their short, brutish lives was spent on the business of survival.
#2 Our Abilities at Prediction
Weather, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, volcanoes and even unto identifying and at the least mitigating the spread of infectious diseases among other natural disasters would seem, up there with flight, pretty darn godlike. The principles behind these phenomenon are not difficult to understand, they just require observation. Now our visitor would know what we do with some of our spare time. (someone from as little as a century ago would be impressed by this one.)
And #1 Our Music
One has to admit that there’s been a lot of innovation since Apollo first plucked at a lyre. Music is second to none as a thread of continuity in our species. The quality and diversity of our music is only the tip of the iceberg for our friend from ages past: the sheer quantity we’ve accumulated in the last few centuries outstrips the number of ditties in the previous entirety of our species. This too is another one of our free time pursuits they’d totally get. The invention of instruments and the time to practice! Without denigrating the music of villagers paying flute and drums outside of Babylon, think of their reaction upon hearing an orchestra play Beethoven (Or John Williams for that matter!)
What they would NOT be impressed by…
#1 Television and other electronic media. I might be wrong, but while they would think it amazing, the sights and sounds and duplication of human visage, the actual content would utterly baffle them, as it requires such long term immersion in the culture to grasp the references and even the point.
#2 Landing on the Moon. Impressive as first, I fear their first question would be upon learning it’s a dead planet would be, “You went back?” I think they’d find things here on Earth far more impressive than a lump of rock.
#3 Our Weapons. Other than explosives, because they are impressive, all the rest are easily grasped as fancy, more efficient versions of clubs and stones that keep our hands a bit cleaning while staining our souls just as effectively.
#4 Our Modern Art. They wouldn’t get it either.
#5 Our attitudes: With such power to shape our world (without the human cost of slavery at last) and amidst such abundance, they might be terribly puzzled that we still fight at all. To someone from the distant past, we live lives of luxury, plenty and security that would choke the greatest Pharaoh with envy. How we live is almost exclusively reserved for descriptions of a very rewarding afterlife, and our complaints about these lives would probably fall on incredulous ears and the ideological and religious wars we fight in the name of nation (a relatively new concept historically) would seem a waste of such precious treasure and lives. In fact, you don’t have to bend space and time and see with eyes of the past to feel that exact same way.
So, just my opinion; something for you to ponder. I am in love with history, not a teacher of it, so any mistakes are my own, as are my interpretations. Many thanks to Dan Carlin and his “Hardcore History” pod cast for the inspiration to 1) admit how much I love history and 2) think of history outside the box and outside the book.