NONZERO  THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY  By  ROBERT WRIGHT
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PART I: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND

PART II: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORGANIC LIFE

PART III: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

ADD TECHNOLOGY AND

BAKE FOR FIVE MILLENNIA

The propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another. . . is common to all men.           —Adam Smith

What is society, whatever its form may be? The product of men's reciprocal action.... Assume a particular state of deveopment in the productive faculties of man and you will get a particular form of commerce and consumption.               Karl Marx

 

When Europeans, beginning with Columbus, entered the New World in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there were a number of things they didn't pause to appreciate before commencing with the pillaging. One is that they had happened upon a rare and precious natural experiment. The ancestors of native Americans had migrated from northeast Asia during the late Stone Age, the "Upper Paleolithic." Then, around 10,000 B.C, with the climate warming, the land they'd walked across was deluged by the Bering Sea. The Old World and the New World were now two distinct petri dishes for cultural evolution. Any basic trends inherent in the process should be evident in both.

The experiment wasn't perfect. Certainly by 2,000 B.C., and possibly earlier, the Eskimos (also known as the Inuit) had boats. Though paddling across the Bering Sea wasn't the kind of thing you would do for weekend recreation, and travel from one Alaskan village to another was often arduous, there now existed the theoretical possibility for innovations to move glacially from Asia into North America. Still, for most of prehistory, cultural change in the New World appears to have been indigenous, and even during the last few thousand years contact with the Old World was tenuous. The two hemispheres, west and east, are the closest things to huge, independent examples of ongoing cultural change that this planet has to offer.

There is one other reason that primitive American cultures are so enlightening. As of Columbus's voyage, they had an advantage over primitive Eurasian societies as objects of study. Namely, they still existed; they had not been steamrolled by the expansion of Old World civilizations. And, though Columbus and other Europeans tried to make up for lost time with their own steamrolling, they were not wholly effective. Observed and recorded in the New World was an unprecedented array of cultures, with diverse technologies and social structures. From this diversity a few basic patterns emerge, patterns that turn out to be consistent with the archaeological remains of those steamrolled Old World cultures. Native American cultures thus offer unique evidence of the universal impetus toward cultural complexity.

Indeed, they virtually show that impetus in action. Snapshots of the different American "cultural fossils" amount to a kind of timelapse sequence in which cultural evolution pushes social complexity beyond the level of the Shoshone, toward the modern world.

[SNIP]

An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright. www.nonzero.org