Book Review: The Invention of Yesterday by Tamim Ansary


For anyone who wants to understand the past and how it has shaped the present, The Invention of Yesterday is a must read.

Tamim Ansary traces human history back to the invention of true language. Other animals, such a dogs and apes can, if taught, associate words with objects, but, according to Ansary, “True language begins when words can join with other words to form an infinite variety of meaningful combinations. Language is vocabulary embedded in grammar and syntax.” No other animal can form narratives or grasp such concepts as “god,” “freedom,” or “intelligence.” True language must have developed before Homo sapiens wandered out of Africa, because it is universal in the human species. True language allowed humans, beginning around 50,000, years ago to develop art, music and dancing. It also made possible our rapid and accelerating advances in technology.

Humans left Africa about 50,000 years ago and migrated all over the planet. About ten thousand years ago they began, in some places to grow their own food, rather than rely upon hunting and gathering. Ansary points out that there were several places where environmental conditions were conducive to the development of civilizations, and these were the Nile basin in Egypt, the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the Indus River in India, and the Huang He River in China. Each of these civilizations developed more or less separately with their own narrative, world view and culture. Eventually agriculture spread to other places and civilization followed in its wake. Between the nodes of civilization there were still populations of hunter-gatherers, migratory herders, and barbarians practicing low-level agriculture. These populations interacted with the various civilizations by facilitating trade between civilizations and sometimes became an organized force that overthrew the civilization and established their rule in its stead. For example, the Hittites, the Huns, the Mongols, etc.

Early in the book Ansary brings up the concept of “bleshing,” a combination of blending and meshing. Quite often in human history two cultures would confront each other and a new culture would develop, distinct from either parent culture due to “bleshing.” (When I studied anthropology fifty years ago this was termed “cultural diffusion,” but, as the ancient Spartans would have said, “Why use two long words when one short one will do?”) Bleshing generally happens when two cultures meet and interact, but in some cases, if the two cultures are too far apart in their narratives, they cannot blend and mesh and remain distinct, as with the Muslims and Hindus in India.

Each of the mega civilizations that developed had its own narrative. The Chinese saw their history as cycles. The Mesopotamians conceived of history as a struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil and eventual apocalypse, the Indians thought of the world as illusory. Much later in history, Western Europeans developed the notion of “progress.”

Ansary offers excellent explanations of how and why the monotheistic religions spread. One of the main themes in the book is the interconnectedness of these civilizations. The Chinese invented paper, printing and gunpowder. The west ultimately took these inventions and ran with them. The Islamic world excelled in mathematics and medicine. The west also took these areas of endeavor and ran with them. Western Europe, with its notions of “progress,” became a hotbed of invention. These inventions, particularly military devices, allowed Europeans to colonize most of the world, at least for a time.

What of the future of mankind?

Ansary says: “Human beings now have the power to destroy planet Earth, and we seem to be headed that way. It’s puzzling though. We have the technological prowess to give up fossil fuels, stop polluting, feed everyone alive, bring our runaway population growth under control—we could solve all the problems facing our species if we could all sign onto a single plan of action. Why is it so hard? Why is it so hard for us to operate as a single, integrated human community, given that everyone can now communicate instantly with anyone else?

“To my mind, the answer is clear: anyone with anyone is not the same as everyone with everyone. Technology can give us anyone with anyone, but everyone with everyone is a different kind of problem. We have trouble making decisions as one whole species because we live in a great many different worlds of meaning, and that’s a problem that exists in the realm of language, not technology.”

Personally, I believe that if we don’t find a way to act in concert, we will perish.

Ansary’s writing is chatty and informal and he makes difficult concepts easy to understand. (His high school English teacher would probably be appalled, but she is long since either retired or passed on.) I think that for anyone who wants to understand history and how things came to be the way they are, this book is well worth reading. In fact, it is worth reading twice.



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