Rob Wiblin asks about historical contingency

by on January 24, 2013 at 7:47 am in History, Philosophy | Permalink

A while ago I suggested this question for the MR readers,
  • What could a very clever person in 1500 (not a monarch) have done if they wanted to make the future better and help people living today?
Here’s an alternative you might like to ask
  • Which avoidable/contingent event in history did the greatest harm? (e.g. the burning of the library of Alexandria)
Or
  • If you wanted to push history in a positive direction, which contingent event from the past would be best to be a participant in, and what could you have done? (e.g. support Deng Xiaoping inside the Chinese Communist Party in the 70s)

It’s tough to have an impact from 1500, but better monetary policy in the 1930s — across the world — would be one place to start for the second part of the question.  Yet I worry that any pre-Manhattan Project intervention could end up upsetting the order in which various countries come to obtain nuclear weapons.  What if a non-Hitlerized Germany built them first?  How does that turn out relative to the status quo?  Does avoiding 9/11 mean we are victimized by a larger and more serious attack later on?  Safe bets in this game are hard to find.

JWatts January 24, 2013 at 5:49 pm

In 1500,
1) Canning of food
2) high grade (multiple cycle) distilled alcohol, first as a drink, then as an antiseptic.

errorr January 24, 2013 at 5:55 pm

In the other direction if Genghis hadn’t died when he did the mongols continue westward sacking Vienna, obliterating the all the German principalities in their way, perhaps all the way to France and parts of Italy would have delayed the renaissance. Heck the successor states would have unified earlier under different Khanates although after that all bets are off. The mongols were the 13th century equivalent of the blitzkrieg and just as effective.

Islam January 24, 2013 at 6:12 pm

If Suleiman hadn’t conspired to kill off Mustafa

Foobarista January 24, 2013 at 7:31 pm

One interesting one: giving Shandong to China instead of Japan at the Treaty of Versailles. The 1919 movement this event kicked off sparked the Maoist faction within the Guomindang and destabilized China for a couple of decades. If China is better organized, Japan may not get into WWII, and the history of East Asia is quite different.

This could be good – maybe East Asia avoids world war – or possibly Very Bad. China itself may have ended up being the third Axis power as Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) was every bit as much a fascist as anyone in Europe, and was trying to warm up to Hitler in the 1930s. If China has a competent military that can overrun (or simply cut off) Siberia while Adolf attacks from the west, he quite likely beats Stalin, and Eurasia is fascist from sea to shining sea.

curcuas January 24, 2013 at 9:24 pm

Have the Ottoman Empire not close the Straights in 1914 and not enter the war. The decision was historically a close one, made by a just one or two of a clique of ruling officers. Had the Dardanelles stayed open, the Entente could’ve shipped grain and arms to the Russians, thereby preventing starvation in 1914, and allowing Russia to export grain in the following years, helping to prevent the immiseration that accompanied WWI in much of Russia. The arms would’ve certainly helped in 1916, and if the Brits and the Russians hadn’t spent hundreds of thousands of men on the Near Eastern and Caucasian fronts, the war would’ve ended much sooner, with landings in the Balkans, to reinforce Serbia.

In short, a consideraly shorter WWI with a decisive Entente victory, and no Soviet revolution.

Minority Bolshevism January 24, 2013 at 9:59 pm

1./ Abra(ha)m not having sex with Hagar

2./ Herbert Hoover not rescuing the Bolsheviks from the consuquences of the famine they created

There are a couple of excellent books on this subject (counter-factual history) called “What If?”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_If%3F_(essays)

Minority Bolshevism January 24, 2013 at 10:48 pm

1./ Abra(ha)m not having sex with Hagar.
2./ Herbert Hoover not rescuing the Bolsheviki from the consequences of the famine they had created.

There are a couple of ver good books on counterfactual history:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_If%3F_(essays)

Cicero January 24, 2013 at 11:14 pm

Plague kills 99% of Europeans and the two dominant civilizations that rise are China and Islam:

http://www.amazon.com/Years-Rice-Salt-Stanley-Robinson/dp/0553580078/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1359087115&sr=8-1&keywords=the+years+of+rice+and+salt

Steko January 25, 2013 at 12:00 am

Open first rate primary, secondary and higher education institutions for women, minorities and children of the poor. Make them extremely focused on science and completely secular. Open them in as many countries as possible and fund them for centuries via trusts.

Prakash January 25, 2013 at 1:25 am

Possible suggestions from Indian history

Prevent the destruction of Takshashila and Nalanda. The amount of knowledge lost there is unknown.

Introduce soap and other disinfectants. No one knows how the caste system might have evolved if peasants could actually smell ok, despite the hard work.

Andy McGill January 25, 2013 at 3:03 am

Hands down winner. Inventing toilet paper. Do you people realize that there was not any toilet paper before the late 1800s? Think about that.

I am only half way kidding.

Anon January 25, 2013 at 7:19 am

Instead on of concentrating on the ignition point of WW1, try concentrating on the “great Person” theory.

It is humbling to speculate that if I had attended the birth of the future kaiser as an obstetrician, perhaps even with only contemporary technology, he might not have been born with the withered arm ( which was a birth injury) and the blistering inferiority complex that came with it.

gktscrk January 25, 2013 at 9:16 pm

To be fair, I think that one of the best chances of avoiding WWI would be to ensure that Friedrich Wilhelm outlives Wilhelm II, and that his liberal rule would last long enough to guarantee an amicable relationship between the Great Powers. Russia would still be defeated by Japan and fall into great internal disorder with a potential revolution coming up at some point, but it would probably not be as strong.

Another option on nearly the same line is having a single person with the actual common sense in a high enough position to confront the Taisho cabinets so that war with the United States and reliance on nationalism without basis (in other words, without taking psychological factors and assuming that wars can be won without the material ones) could be avoided or downscaled.

Doug January 25, 2013 at 11:35 pm

I’m late to the game, but my answer is prevent the rise of English as the lingua franca. 1500 is still early enough that even the English nobility is pretty much still speaking French. The horribly malformed, confusing, inconsistent mess we call English is still an inconsequential peasant language.

Instead either pick a very consistent easy to learn existing language, maybe Latin, or create Esperanto early, and push it on the English nobility and peasants.

Relatively small chance of unexpected historical surprises. European history would still be probably be pretty much the same regardless of whether Jefferson spoke English or Esperanto.

But by the time you get to globalization, when English becomes a perquisite for participation in the international economy, you have a much easier to learn language instead. Allowing much more people to integrate into highly productive multinationals instead of stuck in local inefficient firms because of they can’t learn the crazy intricacies of English.

In addition international trade, migration and intellectual collaboration picks up accelerating growth rates. The great stagnation never happens as the West benefits from the economies of scale brought about by the easy integration of billions of Asians.

Tom Davies January 26, 2013 at 6:25 am

That should be “many more people” — how do you expect us to take you seriously if you can’t use English correctly?

A_m January 26, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Several comments re: slavery show the need for an honest analysis of what Africa and the Americas would now look like without the slave trade …and what life would look like for descendents of never transported slaves?
One could argue that a slave trade out of the Mid East or the British Indization of the Mid East Northern Africa would have been beneficial to many and prevented later tragedies.

jtf February 5, 2013 at 12:12 pm

My votes for things to change in the past:

Preventing the 4th crusade from sacking Constantinople. In the same vein, possibly reversing the outcome of the Battle of Manzikert or possibly more significantly the Battle of Yarmouk. In the first instance, a successful Byzantine empire might have been able to survive and forestall the economic decline of the Balkans and Greece under the Ottomans, as well as preserve much knowledge, art, and history now lost. For Manzikert, it might have done the same as reversing the fourth crusade except managed to preserve the Thematic system and thus an unmilitarized, non-feudal, freeholding economy in Europe. Basically the same for Yarmouk, with the bonus that cultural contact between east and west would have continued.

In the grand scheme of things preventing the sack of the library of Alexandria would not have accomplished much. Many of the writings were already destroyed by religious purges and the climate was so unstable that something was bound to happen, if not through conquest than through controversy. Perhaps something better would have been the distribution of the library’s contents to branches such as the ones that survive today.

Preventing the crusades altogether would probably have been a positive development.

Another positive development I think would have been Gaius Marius successfully convincing the Roman Senate to take up the responsibility of paying and pensioning legionaries. More than anything else, despite the inherent instability of the social system, that one move destabilized the Roman Republic by making the armies beholden to the generals rather than to the Roman state.

And lest I forget, the introduction of germ theory and/or antibiotics to prevent the Black Death or Plague of Justinian would have definitively altered the course of history for the better in terms of total utility, though my suspicion is that economic development would have come later had the plagues been avoided.

Gran Danés February 21, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Magnificent post

Tigre de Tasmania February 22, 2013 at 5:08 am

Very, very post. Excellent

John

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