We’re not sure exactly how it started, this world we have now. Archaeologists and other scientists are still figuring that out, and they’ve got theories. Some of the latest at the time of this writing can be found in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, if you want to dive into it.
So far, the story of our past has been revealed as far as our origins and migration from what is now the Southern part of the continent of Africa. Were we hunters and gatherers? Were we tribes? Probably, though the tribes were most likely opportunistic in what we ate. The world provided. Migration was part of the survival of our ancestors, since we didn’t cultivate things.
While theories may vary, our ancestors wandered around, ate, and procreated. We figured out communication, and while we likely communicated about that saber-toothed tiger at the watering hole nearby, it’s also likely we communicated about what was happening in the tribe. “Biff is out hunting, so Alana is entertaining Atouk in the cave.”, perhaps with a knowing wink. Gossip, which supported the social organization of the tribe.
The Internet shows not that much has changed in that regard. In reading updates on Twitter today, in the middle of all the things about Ukraine, troubles of democracy in the United States and the United Kingdom, Russian propaganda and the latest things escaping China’s iron firewall, there was some silly article about someone I don’t care about wearing Versace. That it showed up in my feed is likely because other people I know found it popular enough that Twitter offered it up as something I might be interested in. It’s gossip about what people are wearing. Nevermind the odd fetish with Elon Musk’s every bit of reverse flatulence.
The point here is not what we talk about, but that we do. While times have changed and every now and then the metaphorical saber-toothed tiger pops up, most of the time it’s about other people. The technologies have shifted, from our discovery of writing, to radio, to television, to the Internet. We communicate about things that are important to us as individuals even though they may not be important at all, at least on the surface.
Let’s go back to those tribes migrating from what we know as the southern part of the African continent. Certainly, some left because other tribes were eating their own food, perhaps even establishing territories. Some may have left because they wanted to see what was over there, the part of us that enjoys exploring. Or maybe Biff caught wind of Atouk and Alana and, in an early version of a romance novel, they eloped and made their own way up north without Biff, forming their own tribe. Nobody really knows how that all went, and the likelihood is good we will never know.
This continued, trekking across land bridges, going here and there. Of course, Homo Sapiens weren’t Homo Sapiens yet, and we encountered variations of ourselves. We’re not sure what happened there, whether they integrated or not, but as an example neanderthal DNA has shown up in some people. We were busy eating and having sex in the caravan of life, scattering across the world for whatever reasons we had.
We would later figure out agriculture and form societies in place. This required more structure, and our language evolved as our structure did. Everywhere there were people, people did things at least a little bit differently, and having moved beyond basic twig technology, we built cities. Some of us built early ships to fish, or to see what was over there, or to trade. Trade likely happened before our societies became stationary, but it truly evolved when we stayed in one place. Some places had some things, other places had other things, and so societies traded. Currencies became a part of this.
Other things happened. We developed nations with borders that were usually demarcated by what we thought were permanent landmarks. Water was a great boundary, or so we thought. The border of Guyana and Venezuela proves that this is not so even to this day. Other boundaries were negotiated, agreed upon.
Borders are fictions we created to keep us from them. It’s territorial, and while a fiction it’s an agreed upon fiction. It’s real in that regard, but the concept of borders themselves is something we just made up so that the influence of the fictions of one nation don’t overlap into another. What’s more, it became recursive with personal property, where there are borders between properties, with associated drama. Currencies are much the same thing.
The laws societies chose to live by were also agreed upon fictions. Some would say that there was morality involved in these laws. Some theologians claim that the morality came from some omnipotent being that no one has evidence of other than someone millennia ago scribbled something down, and work from that faith – which is perfectly fine. I’m of the camp that morality is based on empathy, and theology reinforced it. Fighting over that doesn’t seem productive so I don’t bother. The point is that we found ways to live in larger groups rather than splitting off all the time into tribes that wandered off to find somewhere else to be – though that does continue to happen, albeit rarely and not in a while. The Mayflower comes to mind.
Our societies are based on mutual agreements, social contracts, that are mutually agreed upon fictions. We see this now as Russia’s unprovoked aggression continues to cost lives in Ukraine of not just Ukrainians, but people from around the world who answered the call for the ideals of democracy. Maybe it was too much Sesame Street. Maybe it was too much Disney. Maybe it was too much about how good democracy is when it’s just the best choice we’ve come up with, and we haven’t figured out how to institute it homogeneously. Where wars of the past have been less clear, the war for Ukrainian sovereignty has a ring to it that we find right, whereas the actions of Russia – unless you have a steady intake of Russian propaganda – are wrong.
This is an interesting example not because it’s happening now, or because I’m solidly in the camp of supporting Ukraine. It’s because for at least a hundred years, Russia has written the history of those within it’s empire which, unlike most European empires, was landlocked. Rather than going to visit old relatives and subjugating them, as European empires did, Russia’s history is one of picking on the people it could get to once the Tsardom of Russia gained prominence after the influence of the various Khanates that were derived from the Golden Horde were defeated or waned. The Tsardom was that of war and expansionism, Imperial in nature, and was brutal as most empires were at the time. What Spain was doing in South America in the 1500s against indigenous peoples, the Tsardom did to it’s neighbors to expand. This is a simplification. To get into it completely, I offer you should read any history about Eastern Europe not written by someone from Russia.
Empire is about getting rid of those that disagree with the empire, or subjugating them. Language, religion… all of these things are a part of colonialism that a large portion of nations suffer a hangover from to this day, with borders drawn by former empires that those who lived there had no say in. The history of Eastern Europe is largely overlooked in this context because the rest of Europe was busy fighting with their neighbors over lands far from their shores.
That colonialism extends to this day, though it’s more popular to talk about hegemonies now. Most of the world has moved on from colonialism though former colonies, their riches depleted by former empires, have not done as well – which is understatement.
There is something awkward about some humans using sailing technology to go visit old relatives and subjugate them, but then at the same time people were still figuring out that the world was not flat despite the protestations of religion. You’d think that might have made it into a religious text. Perhaps there will be updates on the religious texts soon, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
With all of this going on, people were forced to look at the world through the eyes of those that ruled them, and if you decided to go back to nomadic roots, you had to pick the place with the fictions you liked or, if you were lucky, go start your own somewhere – as happened with the United States.
Then we have the ideologies of government, with Communism, Socialism, and Democracy. Democracy, while imperfect and hardly standardized around the world, has been adopted by the majority of nations on the planet not because it’s the best but because it’s the best we have. Yet even in a democracy, the systems are gamed.
All of these things are, at their core, things we agreed upon to an extent. One may be better off having been born into a democracy by accident of geography, but that hardly means that what that nation does is something the individual agrees with because there are gaps in representation.
A lot of this is at least appears broken right now as the world, which doesn’t agree to any of our fictions, dances across borders with pandemics and climate change. When there should be more work as a global society, we see more isolationism. When our species could be considered an organism living in an ecosystem, we hardly act it.
Maybe it’s time to revise some fictions.