Human civilization = chance, lots and lots of tinkering, and a bit of inspiration

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I was browsing a few forum threads the other day when I came across this quote from Robert Green Ingersoll:

Our civilization is not Christian. It does not come from the skies. It is not a result of “inspiration.” It is the child of invention, of discovery, of applied knowledge — that is to say, of science. When man becomes great and grand enough to admit that all have equal rights; when thought is untrammeled; when worship shall consist in doing useful things; when religion means the discharge of obligations to our fellow-men, then, and not until then, will the world be civilized.
The religious part aside, I have to disagree on what makes up civilization. Human societies are built mostly by chance and a ton of tinkering, and what we live in is by and large just the result of this...and we by and large are loath to change it. Consider the number 60. Why are there sixty seconds in a minute and sixty minutes in an hour? Why, that's from the Babylonian number system, over 5000 years old. We haven't bothered to change that.

What about seven days in a week? Seven is an extremely awkward number to have for a workplace. Many complain that five days of work followed by just two days of rest is too much, but then again the only other real option is 4/3, which is already approaching a 50/50 split. Nine days would make much more sense: six days on and three days off per week, with multiplication and division much easier (it's not a prime number).

Ever notice that the Latin days of the month don't match up with their numbers? September = 7th month, October = 8th month. Why does February have 28 days? Because Augustus is no less great than Julius and his month needed 31 days too, so February got the shaft.

Why do people still believe that incentives are good for business even though the evidence shows that they have the opposite effect? Because 'common wisdom' doesn't agree, and the actual evidence just feels wrong.

Why doesn't English have a pronoun for both he and she? Because language is inherited and few are interested in actually looking at the inheritance itself and making a change or two. They would prefer to write out the awkward he or she every time.


Just about anything one can think of is a result of this - chance and a certain amount of tinkering, but very rarely does one find anything that is completely original. When something is completely original there is usually a great deal of opposition. Korean Hangul was created by a king (well, he gave the orders to his scribes to create it), but even he couldn't get people to use it as the common script during his lifetime and it wasn't until after WWII that it really became the one and only script used in both Koreas.


In the end, however, I'm glad that we have this resistance to change, as frustrating as it may be from time to time when trying to promote a new idea. If humans had a tendency to always go with the most efficient, sleek and original designs we would have a much harder time following our own history and languages, as change would just be far too rapid to accurately trace. It's nice to look at Proto-Indo-European and see many characteristics of modern languages even there, and to have candles in the house to light every once in a while even though their practical use in most cases has long since expired.

But perhaps the best thing about this stubbornness is that even it is open to change in some cases, and once such a change has taken place (hopefully a change for the better) it is liable to last for a long time. Those that understand this and are able to enact the change they want to see end up with a legacy. And then of course sometimes there's just a lot of luck where one taps into this without even realizing it: Wikipedia began kind of as a fluke, and now the idea of a world without it is unthinkable. Imagine going back to Encarta now -- it would never happen.

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