Ideas are a big part of my life, the biggest part probably. Ideas not just in the books of ideas that I read, in particular those that I’m currently reading — but even in what I’ll call the fun books that are are always a welcomed distraction from my usually heavily laden life of ideas, the books of Louis L’Amour, John Macdonald, Georges Simenon, Rex Stout and many others. But even these fun writers are not at all without good ideas, and they are always surprising you with them.
What I call my idea books are books like these — Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Easter; Tamin Ansary, The Invention of Yesterday; Robert Crease, The Workshop and thy World; Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan; Samantha Power,
The Education of an Idealist; Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny; Peter Watson, the Great Divide; and Richard Bernstein, Why Read Hannah Arendt Now?; plus all of Hannah Arendt’s own books…
In my own life the ones, idea books, outnumber by far the others, the fun books. But not always. And then there is this passage I think about often, from the Tufts professor, Daniel Dennert, who wrote: ” I think Darwin’s idea of natural selection is the best idea anybody ever had, ahead of Newton, ahead of Einstein. What it does is it promises to unite the two most disparate features of all of reality. On the one side, purposeless matter and motion, jostling particles; on the other side, meaning, purpose, design.” To that I say WOW! Wish I had thought, and said that myself.
Would it be enough, I asked myself, to just read Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection? Well yes, sometimes I think so. For now I’m well into my eighties, (quatrevingtans) and while ideas are still what’s most important in my life maybe I’ve reached the point where I ought to begin building my own idea wall, keeping new ideas out, finally recognizing that all these new ideas, new thoughts are just too much for me to assimilate, much as Trump would build his wall to keep people out, as new people are just to much for him. The old Whites are what he wants, with perhaps a few new whites from Northern Europe thrown in.
In any case I love new ideas (not all of them of course for there are some that I’d let lie and never wake up). Here’s a couple of new ideas that I’ve just encountered in two of the books mentioned above. Right now I’m at work trying to assimilate them, the only barrier between them and me being my own inadequacy to the task. The one I call Constellations, and the other Black Swans, both good names for these new ideas.
This book takes inter-connectedness as one of the through lines of world history but acknowledges another side to the story. Even as we grow ever more intertwined, we stay ever more resolutely distinct from one another as groups. We live on the same planet but in many different worlds. What any of us humans see as the whole world is just the world as we see it, whoever “we” might be. What we know as the history of the world is actually a socially constructed somebody-centric world historical narrative. There’s a Euro-centric one, an Islamo-centric one, a Sino-centric one, and many more. How many more depends on how many collections of people on Earth think of themselves as a “we” distinct from “others.” Any two world historical narratives might have the same events and yet be different stories because the shape of the narrative depends on the teller of the tale. To say that one of the many possible somebody-centric world histories is the real history of the world is like saying that maps depict the world as it really is.
The shape of the narrative is what it all comes down to in the end. History deals in facts, of course, but in history, those facts fundamentally serve a narrative. When we construct our story, we are inventing ourselves. That’s what we were doing in those caves, long ago, gathered around the fire, passing on to our children what we remembered about our grandparents and reminiscing about life-changing adventures we’d shared and arguing about which of us really killed the bear and drawing conclusions about the meaning of life from the stars we saw above—when ancient folks looked up at the night sky, they didn’t just see stars, they saw constellations. They said, “There’s a bear,” and they said, “Hey look, a mighty hunter,” and their companions nodded, and as long as everybody in the group saw the bear and the mighty hunter, there they were.
It’s all too easy for us modern folks to say the constellations weren’t really there. Yes, it’s true that those constellations existed only in the minds of the people looking, but then, everything we see and know as human beings is in some sense a constellation: it’s there because we see it. We exist as constellations of people. We’re immersed in constellations of ideas. We live in a universe of constellations, which are themselves made up of constellations. In the social universe, constellations are as real as it gets.
Social constellations form intentions and set the agendas of history: countries, families, empires, nations, clans, corporations, tribes, clubs, political parties, societies, neighborhood groups, social movements, mobs, civilizations, high school cliques—they’re all constellations. They do not exist outside culture. The mighty hunter dissolves upon closer examination into random random individual stars. The same is true of social constellations. Clan, country, movement, mob—get up close to any of these and all you see are individual human beings and their ideas.
Culture is a world we invented and keep inventing, a world that would disappear without us. Social constellations are not like rivers or rocks, they do not exist in the physical universe, and yet they have an existence as real as floods or landslides. They must, for they do things in the physical world: build bridges, make wars, invent cars, send rockets to the moon. Any individual human who is part of such a constellation can drop out without the constellation winking out of existence. All the individuals in a social whole can be replaced by other persons without the constellation losing its identity and continuity. Every American who existed one hundred fifty years ago is dead and gone, yet America still exerts clout. Every Muslim alive in 1900 is dead now, but a palpable Islamic entity still influences real events. When we talk about history, we’re talking about events that happened only in the cultural universe, and in that universe, social constellations enact the drama; they’re the characters strutting the stage.
Forty thousand years ago, such social constellations were imagined into existence by small groups of people who knew each other personally and what they saw together was who they were together. We’re not fifty people in a cave anymore; we’re eight billion people spread all over the world. None of us can have the perspective of all eight billion. Each of us is part of some smaller social world and bound to the perspective of our own world. We don’t see the same stars, and even if we did, we wouldn’t see the same constellations: what we see up there reflects who we are down here, and down here we’re not all one group. History keeps happening because of that fact: we’re not all one group.
Ansary, Tamim The Invention of Yesterday . PublicAffairs.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas
Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.* I push one step beyond this philosophical-logical question into an empirical reality, and one that has obsessed me since childhood.† What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes.
First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact (unlike the bird). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.* A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives. Ever since we left the Pleistocene, some ten millennia ago, the effect of these Black Swans has been increasing. It started accelerating during the industrial revolution, as the world started getting more complicated, while ordinary events, the ones we study and discuss and try to predict from reading the newspapers, have become increasingly inconsequential. Just imagine how little your understanding understanding of the world on the eve of the events of 1914 would have helped you guess what was to happen next. (Don’t cheat by using the explanations drilled into your cranium by your dull high school teacher.) How about the rise of Hitler and the subsequent war? How about the precipitous demise of the Soviet bloc? How about the consequences of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? How about the effect of the spread of the Internet? How about the market crash of 1987 (and the more unexpected recovery)? Fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools. All follow these Black Swan dynamics. Literally, just about everything of significance around you might qualify.
This combination of low predictability and large impact makes the Black Swan a great puzzle; but that is not yet the core concern of this book. Add to this phenomenon the fact that we tend to act as if it does not exist! I don’t mean just you, your cousin Joey, and me, but almost all “social scientists” who, for over a century, have operated under the false belief that their tools could measure uncertainty. For the applications of the sciences of uncertainty to real-world problems has had ridiculous effects; I have been privileged to see it in finance and economics. Go ask your portfolio manager for his definition of “risk,” and odds are that he will supply you with a measure that excludes the possibility of the Black Swan—hence one that has no better predictive value for assessing the total risks than astrology (we will see how they dress up the intellectual fraud with mathematics). This problem is endemic in social matters.
The central idea of this book concerns our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly the large deviations: Why do we, scientists or nonscientists, hotshots or regular Joes, tend to see the pennies instead of the dollars? Why do we keep focusing on the minutiae, not the possible significant large events, in spite of the obvious evidence of their huge influence? And, if you follow my argument, why does reading the newspaper actually decrease your knowledge of the world? the possible significant large events, in spite of the obvious evidence of their huge influence? And, if you follow my argument, why does reading the newspaper actually decrease your knowledge of the world? It is easy to see that life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks. It is not so hard to identify the role of Black Swans, from your armchair (or bar stool). Go through the following exercise. Look into your own existence. Count the significant events, the technological changes, and the inventions that have taken place in our environment since you were born and compare them to what was expected before their advent. How many of them came on a schedule? Look into your own personal life, to your choice of profession, say, or meeting your mate, your exile from your country of origin, the betrayals you faced, your sudden enrichment or impoverishment. How often did these things occur according to plan?
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Random House Publishing Group.