One Book To Save Them

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

William Grassie has a fuzzy-headed far view on surviving a catastrophe like a super-volcano eruption that wipes out most of the US:

Stockpiling food and weapons in the mountains of Idaho would be a silly and small-minded emergency plan for the scenario I am describing, in the first order because anywhere in North America would be the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead of focusing on the survival of my tribe, my family, or myself, we need to focus on the survival of civilization, of what is most precious and useful to future generations. And the only way to do this with assurance is to distribute the most valuable and practical knowledge as widely as possible across the planet today in anticipation that unfortunate day. How do we give the survivors a head start? What information would be most useful in rebuilding human civilization in the event of such a horrible collapse? Remember the best and the brightest, the most privileged and most educated, are not likely to survive in any great numbers. You get to choose one book for the survivors to help them rebuild civilization.

The book I would chose is Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, by David Christian (2004). There are other books in this genre. I can imagine even better books in the future, but for now David Christian does a remarkable job in putting ‘it’ all together. It is the combined history of the universe, our creative planet, and our restless species. I want to argue that the most useful information for the long-term survival of our species is this macrohistory from the Big Bang to today. It goes by different names — the New Cosmology, the History of Nature, the Epic of Evolution, and Big History. Whatever we call it, it spans some 13.7 billion years from the primordial flaring forth of the early universe to the rapid flaring forth of our global civilization in the last century. I like to call it Our Common Story, because for the first time we have a progressively factual account of the universe and ourselves that encompasses all religions, all tribes, and all times. This grand history is perhaps the most remarkable achievement of human civilization.

The scientific metanarrative is quite new and still evolving. In brief outline, this omnicentric universe began some 13 billion years ago as infinite heat, infinite density, and total symmetry. The universe expanded and evolved into more differentiated and complex structures — forces, quarks, hydrogen, helium, galaxies, stars, heavier elements, complex chemistry, planetary systems. Some 3.5 billion years ago, in a small second or third generation solar system, the intricate processes called “life” began on at least one small planet. Animate matter-energy on Earth presented itself as a marvelous new intensification of the creative dynamic at work in the universe. Then some 2 million years ago, as if yesterday in the enormous timescales of the universe, proto-humans emerged on the savanna of Africa with their enormously heightened capacities for conscious self-reflection, language, and tool making. Ten thousand years ago agriculture begins and with it growing populations of humans living in ever larger and more complex societies. And this unfolding leads us all the way to today, six billion of us collectively transforming the planet and ourselves. The wonder of it all is that each of us is a collection of transient atoms, recycled stardust become conscious beings, engaged in this global conversation, brought to you by ephemeral electrons cascading through the Internet and bouncing off of satellites.

Maps of Time provides this overview in six parts, fifteen chapters, eight different timelines, nine maps, thirty-nine charts, two appendices, over six hundred references, all bound in one big book. The story of the universe and the evolution of life are covered in the first hundred and forty pages. The remaining four hundred some pages detail the evolution of humans, the rise of agriculture and agrarian civilizations, and the great acceleration of the modern era. That seems like the right balance for a survival manual for human civilization. David Christian is a skilled historian and storyteller. He provides not only the macrohistory, but explains the evidence for why we know it to be so and when the evidence might be inconclusive.

Robin Hanson finds this amazingly wrong-headed:

  1. The reason to stockpile is not to save “my family” but to ensure that our species survives at all. A disaster that kills all but a thousand couples could nearly as easily have killed everyone. Well-chosen stockpiles could easily make the difference between survival and extinction.
  2. You either preserve literacy or you don’t. A literate culture needs a lot more than one book to function. Readers would quickly forget what the words in that one book meant unless those concepts were commonly used in many other books and in their lives.
  3. It would take a huge effort to maintain even a small literate subculture, that read regularly, and passed this habit on to thier kids. This won’t last unless some very practical advantages accrue to readers. Impressing friends by quoting fascinating cosmology facts just won’t do.
  4. Yes knowledge is key, but survivors would face an immediate need to know about how to survive as foragers. It is far from easy to forage well, and with effective foraging they’ll die. If you want distribute copies of a book to ensure our species survives, it should a book on how to forage. You might also pack those books with some simple foraging tools (like knives).

I’ve long been fascinated by the challenge of bootstrapping society — and the question of what tight canon of books might help — and I agree that Grassie’s answer is terribly disappointing. He transparently wants to replace “outdated” religious cosmologies with the New Cosmology, which has very little to do with economic growth.

I think we can agree, per point 1, that well-chosen stockpiles could make the difference between survival and extinction — so they are vital — but they don’t directly address the issue of advancing beyond hunting and gathering.

I think points 2 and 3 are soundly refuted by the Bible, Koran, etc. Many, many people have learned to read specifically to read one religious text, and many, many households throughout history owned exactly one book, that religious text. (For a time, I believe, millions of American households owned two books: the Bible and Ben Hur.)

Would we want to craft our bootstrapping text as a religious text? That’s an interesting question that raises an even more interesting question: Can you craft a religious text that meets the religious needs of ordinary pre-modern folk that does not contradict the tenets held sacred by overcomingbias readers?

As for point 4, would books full of successful folkways, like the Foxfire books, retain any value after a generation? Again, we certainly want to see humanity survive in the first place, but would such books help beyond that? Would they even be a force for retaining literacy, once everyone in that society had been raised using such practical skills on a daily basis?

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