I’m currently reading Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies on my Kindle to and from work. It has little to do directly with finance, but I often find that there are trickle down effects of knowledge and insight to gain from different disciplines that are very helpful when thinking about finance. It helps you build better mental models to deal with complexity. A passage I read this morning got me thinking about our tendency to warp the past, usually for the better.
The general concept I find extremely useful from Diamond’s book is the idea that there are many things traditional societies did and/or still do that can be very helpful in the modern world. That is, we should extract the most helpful and useful thoughts and practices from these “traditional-primitive” societies to help tackle issues we have in the modern world.
This sounds reasonable. These are societies that have had thousands and thousands of years developing practices that serve useful functions in their culture and society – if they weren’t useful, it wouldn’t have helped humans in these traditional societies survive and prosper. Ergo, it would make sense to analyze these practices, discard ones that aren’t useful today, but explore those that have potential to help in modern societies.
However, sometimes, we have a tendency to take this a little too far. I like to call it the fallacy of romanticizing the past. One very vivid memory of this was during my time in university. I was in a class focused on climate change. Being a class on climate change, a large proportion of the class was comprised of very left-leaning enviro-hippies. In all seriousness, this group tended to espouse the belief that by going back to traditional ways of living, we could literally solve climate change. I couldn’t really believe what I was hearing. There was a persistent view that the past was like The Garden of Eden, and if we were to only go back to the ways humans lived in the distant past, we could solve our ecological issues.
The Paleo Diet is another example of the fallacy of romanticizing the past. The premise sounds entirely feasible: humans evolved on a certain diet, therefore, the optimal diet is to eat like what a caveman would have eaten. However, once you apply some critical thinking, the idea starts to crumble. There definitely are health benefits for people moving away from a heavily processed diet loaded with sugar, salt, and fat to a diet that consists primarily of whole, unprocessed foods. But it’s a huge fallacy to associate that health gain to the premise of the Paleo Diet itself: the health gains are coming from eating healthier foods, not because you are eating like a caveman, which if you think about it, is completely absurd if you are not out in the wild foraging and hunting food like a supposed caveman would.
One more example of this fallacy – to stay hip and with the times – is Trump’s election slogan:
Anyways, my point is that there is this massive assumption made that the past was some innocent, unadulterated, and perfect place where humans achieved perfection and the modern world has completely ruined it. It reminds me of Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory.
This is so laughable and false that I will leave you with these two links here and here to go understand just how fortunate and lucky we are to be living at this moment in history. Yes, we have problems, big problems, that we need to solve, but I find it highly implausible that going back entirely to a primitive lifestyle will fix any of our problems.
This fallacy to romanticize the past leaves us susceptible to looking at things in the past exclusively like The School of Athens or The Death of General Wolfe and forget large swaths of it that look like the Guernica.
The past contains our best and our worst. When we forget about some of the uglier aspects of our past and exclusively romanticize the best, we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. To understand the present and attempt to peek at where we can go, it helps to understand our potential and limitations.
History teaches vicariously what has worked, what doesn’t work, and what might work. Jared Diamond advocates that there are useful thoughts, practices, and wisdom we can apply from lessons learned in the past in the present. However, this means that we need to uncomfortably wade through the good and ugly to really understand what might work and what might not. Diamond is asking us to think of the past critically: to courageously look at history accurately in order to extract truly useful wisdom for the present and the future.