Thursday, October 03, 2013

My Current Guru

I have taken some flack for arguing that the direction of history is to unification of culture. Like many arguments, a lot of this comes to definition of terms. I have been accused of a simple-minded Americanism in this attitude. Perhaps, but what I'm trying to communicate is the vision of an Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, the teacher of the A Brief History of Humankind MOOC. If my critics wish to understand the power of his arguments, they should probably just view the lectures.

The central argument of the current lectures is that the world has essentially been unified. Ten thousand years ago there were tens of thousands of essentially autonomous cultures. Today there are none. 500 years ago there was one big meta-culture, Afro-Asia, and four medium sized ones, (Andean, Meso-American, Pacific, and Australian), and hundreds of very small and isolated cultures.

He likes cuisine as an example. 515 years ago there were no chili peppers in Indian Cusisine, no tomatoes in Italian cooking, no chocolate in Switzerland, and no potatoes in Ireland. A thousand years ago, there was little notion of the nation state, but now everybody lives in one.

What produced this change? Technology is obviously one factor, but he selects three: money, empire, and universal religions (especially Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam).

One point he makes is that the scale on which unification is best observed is millenia, not centuries. It's obvious that local differences in culture still exist of course, but they seem minor to me, and I think to him. Other cultural unity examples exist in economics, medicine, and technology.