Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Choosing Now

Some time ago, I read Jared Diamond's explanation of how geography and biogeography, rather than race, led to human history playing out so differently around the world. The thesis is what it says on the tin. 'Guns, Germs & Steel' gave various civilisations a significant advantage at different times. The way we see the world simplifies things somewhat.

I saw South Africa's history as being different from America and Australia because Africa is very much part of the old world. I had heard about Germs doing significant damage in wiping out large chunks of humanity as explorers started sailing into foreign ports after months of being sick at sea. It was in Martin Meredith's 'The Fortunes of Africa' that I learnt how similar the history of the Dutch Cape Colony had been. Originally a trading post, disease had also jumped ship and wiped out chunks of the local Khoi and San people. The original settlements were small and they also got hammered. Setting out for foreign lands was often a last trip with many of the 'colonists' effectively being exiled criminals or poor people.

It wasn't just the Americas, Australasia and Africa either. Disease used to smash all of us. The Black Death killed an estimated 30-60% of the European population 1346-1353. About 75-200 million people. This ranged from about 20% in England to about 80% in Italy. That is the sort of thing that doesn't get forgotten. It must be a frightening World War like experience to have so many people you love get torn from you. I have never had to fight in a War. Most of the people I have lost have been old when they left.

Life is still fragile, but I struggle to imagine how it must have been to have lived in the not to distant past. Global Child Mortality fell from 18.2% in 1960 to 4.3% in 2015 (Our World in Data). Losing a child before they reach their 5th birthday is one of the most tragic things I can imagine. It used to be common place. Every hundredth birth used to result in the death of the mother. That too breaks people, but used to be common. All incredibly harsh experiences that we are conquering.

In 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea', Dennett explains how rather than evolution being 'survival of the strongest', it is more about resilience. We don't know in advance what life is going to throw at us. We just know it is going to throw a lot. Evolution happened through making lots of slightly imperfect copies. All with different imperfections. Mostly the same. Evolution isn't about grand plans of progress, it is about building resilience.

When a new challenge comes out of nowhere, sometimes most of us got wiped out. If 95% of a population fell to a disease, a different 5% may have survived had it been a different disease. No one group can withstand everything.

If history was played again a thousand times, we would have had a thousand different outcomes with different winners and different losers. I am just glad to live in a time where we are working towards the lottery mattering a little less. Where we are smashing poverty, decreasing violence, and getting healthier.

If I had the choice of when to live, I would choose now.

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