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March 20, 2006

Comments

Mark

Two comments, without particularly disagreeing with the thrust of your post:

First, you say "assume you're an average person living today." I presume you mean "assume you're an average person living in the richest culture in human history today," since that's what virtually all of your readers are. (We have computers and internet access, for one thing.) How does this starting point influence your results? Suppose you were a really average person in the world today -- what would that look like? I suspect your conclusions would be the same, but it would be a lot less dramatic. There are lots of people living lives today that are not so different from their ancestors.

Second, I suspect that for me access to hot water and other triumphs of technology are among the most important deciding factors. While they probably wouldn't have been as important to people in antiquity, who didn't depend on them -- going without a hot shower every morning seems like a hardship to me, but I'm not sure an ancient Roman would understand its importance, and Renaissance europeans thought too-frequent bathing was dangerous -- I'm sure we'd all agree on how nice it is to have a refrigerator. But I wonder whether the whole exercise doesn't just illustrate "Maslow's hierarchy of needs", that model we learned in CPE?

Are we making progress in the higher levels too? I imagine we are, to tell the truth, but this thought experiment gets answered at the level of central heating and flush toilets!

D. C.

Mark writes:

I presume you mean "assume you're an average person living in the richest culture in human history today," since that's what virtually all of your readers are.

I intentionally left that vague, Mark. I don't know how to define, on a planetary scale, what an "average" person is. I strongly suspect that no matter how you define it, the thought experiment plays out in much the same way.

Part of my reasoning here is set out in point #2: That even a member of a privileged elite from an earlier era in your ancestral culture would not want to swap with someone earlier yet.

If I read you correctly, we're largely in agreement on that point, in view of your comment:

Suppose you were a really average person in the world today -- what would that look like? I suspect your conclusions would be the same, but it would be a lot less dramatic. There are lots of people living lives today that are not so different from their ancestors.

Absolutely. From time to time I've read of local pockets of people in, say, sub-Saharan Africa, the central Asian steppes, etc., who still live much as their ancestors did a thousand years ago or more. In the main posting, I allude to that in the paragraph about the non-uniformity of human progress.

As to your second point (concerning what people from different eras regarded as important), I stipulated as an initial condition that in our imaginary time-traveling, we know what we know today.

Thanks for stopping by; you raise some thought-provoking points.

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