Sometimes on this show, we talk about the news. This episode is about the diametric opposite of the news. It’s about thinking deeply about human history and trying to appreciate the awesome length of time and the finitude of our lives. It’s an interview with Tim Urban, a blogger at the mind-expanding site Wait but Why, and the author of a new book, What’s Our Problem: A Self-Help Book for Societies. If you don’t know Tim and his work, I would sum up his thing this way: Tim is a kind of alien. He has an incredible talent for seeing our world as if from the perspective of a goofy but smart extraterrestrial, who takes not the 30,000-foot view on life, but the 300,000-foot view of life, and history, and human nature. In this show, we talk about … you know what. I’m not even going to try to sum up the hour. Just enjoy.
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In the following excerpt, Derek talks to Tim Urban about the “1,000-page book of human history” and the remarkable changes that have happened in the last 250 years.
Derek Thompson: I am so excited to talk to you about this book. I feel like I was vaguely and sometimes specifically aware of the book being in progress for many, many years. And the fact of its arrival really filled me with joy. There is so much going on here, and we only have about an hour. So let me start with what might be the most mind-expanding image in a book filled with mind-expanding images. You have a graph at the beginning entitled “If Human History Were a 1,000-Page Book.” Just tell me, what does the 1,000-page history of humanity look like?
Tim Urban: Yeah. So I first would say, OK, how long is human history? And it’s not like there was a day when it started. But historians go back or evolutionary biologists go back to 250,000, 300,000, 200,000 years ago. So I said, “OK, let’s go with 250 as a rough number.” And then if we wrote down everything that happened between 250,000 years ago and today in the world of humans, and we made that into a 1,000-page book, every page would cover 250 years. A quarter millennium, a long time, but 1,000 of those pages. So I was like, “OK, so what does that look like?” If you’re reading that book, picturing an alien anthropologist, a cosmic anthropologist who is reading about primitive species out there—and we definitely would qualify for a primitive species for an alien who can read about other species—what would it be like to read this book?
And the answer is that it would be incredibly boring. This would get a one-star review on Amazon—on alien Amazon—because 950 of the 1,000 pages have almost nothing going on. It is hunter-gatherers. And of course, some things happen, humans migrate across continents, but it takes about 180 pages to get through one migration. You hear about migrations, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, humans went across the Bering Strait and moved down from North America into South America.” It’s like, “No. No human did that.” Humans, probably, for 10 generations stayed in the same spot and then got forced out by some flood or some other tribe coming in, so then they migrated for 15 miles and found a new spot, and that’s where they lived for 1,000 years. And at some point, just all by accident, humans end up in all of the different places.
So anyway, they’d be reading about that. They’d be reading about, “OK, well, look, the species is maybe getting a little bit better, a little bit more clever with how to use fire, and maybe their language capabilities are getting a little bit better, and maybe they’re innovating. Oh, look, this one tribe developed a better bow and arrow.” But nothing’s happening. So now you might get to 950, 960, it’s basically the epilogue of the book. It would be “Epilogue: Civilization.” So now you have 40 pages, and even that’s pretty generous because 10, 12,000 years ago, there’s not much going on in civilization for a while.
Even the really ancient Sumerians, they first came down from the mountains of what’s modern-day Turkey and Iran in, like, 6,500 BC. So that wasn’t even until, I don’t know, Page 970, 975. And then writing starts around Page 975. And so when we talk about history, the definition of history is recorded history, when we have writing. Apparently there’s stories that there was a messenger of the king that needed to go and take a bunch of the king’s orders and bring them somewhere, but he couldn’t keep it all in his head. So he made markings on a clay tablet, and this is the beginning of writing. Things like this. And they started making really basic writing. And so that’s the boundary between prehistory and history.
So anyway, I’m looking at this 1,000-page book, and we get to page 975, and everything we call history happens after that. Things like Buddha, which we think of as so long ago, that’s Page 989. Christianity starts at Page 993. I think this is just interesting in general, but the thing that stuck out at me, the reason I put it in the intro to my book, which is about society, is because when you look at it this way, you realize it emphasizes this point that it seems naive for humans to think that they are special. Any generation thinks they’re special. So many different generations have thought these were the end of days, this is the climax of the big movie. And most times it wasn’t.
But if you look at Page 1,000—which, in this metaphor, Page 1,000 is the page that ends with today, so that goes from the early 1770s to today—that is nothing like any other page. It is completely an anomaly in the book. If you’re reading, if you’re this alien, this suddenly got incredibly interesting in the last 10 pages, but especially on this page. The alien is thinking, “OK, shit is going down.” Suddenly, out of nowhere, every page is advancing in this crazy way. And we get to Page 1,000, and suddenly it looks nothing like the other pages. And that should be this moment when you override this instinct to think, “Oh, it’s naive …” Basically, there’s the instinct that every generation thinks they’re so important. Then there’s the thing that overrides that thing, “No, no, no, that’s naive because every generation thinks that.” And then I think this 1,000-page book should override that and have you say, “Actually, no, this really is different and special.”
This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Tim Urban
Producer: Devon Manze