Our Narrow Slice


Hey, Vsauce. Michael here. This picture is about a year and a half old.
But the pyramids themselves are much older than that.
How much older? Well, think of it this way. The Pyramids of Giza were as old to the ancient Romans as the ancient Romans are to us.
When the pyramids were being built there were woolly mammoths living on Wrangel Island. That’s pretty old.
But don’t get too impressed. We often learn about the past in units, separate chapters, which distracts from the fact
that many chapters aren’t just nearer each other than you might think,
they are often literally written on top of one another.
Anne Frank and Martin Luther King Jr. were born
in the exact same year. By the late 1960s humans had come a long way. We’ve become a spacefaring species.
But while we were sending the first probes to the Moon and Venus and Mars, it was still illegal for a black person
and a white person to marry in 16 states.
The guillotine seems like a macabre artefact from bygone days but it was last used by France to
officially behead a criminal the year Star Wars came out.
While General Custer was fighting native tribes on the American frontier,
the Brooklyn Bridge was being build.
And there were people alive then who would later watch the Moon landing on television. We went from Custer’s last stand to Armstrong’s first steps within the span of a single human life. But all of these stories,
from the pyramids to Julius Caesar to you watching this video right now,
belong to an incredibly thin section in the book of human history.
Compared to what human life has mainly been like here on earth, our current societies are weird.
Weird is also an acronym used by Jared Diamond in his new book
“The World Until Yesterday.” Jared Diamond wrote
“Guns, Germs, and Steel,” “Collapse” and he’s here with me to talk about weird. Weird, w-e-i-r-d, is an acronym for “western, educated,
industrial, rich and democratic.” When we talk about human nature
we’re really talking about a narrow slice of society.
Traditional societies were everybody in the world,
from the beginning of human evolution 6 million years ago until within the last 10,000 years for the first time we began
encountering strangers and then we developed writing and then we acquired kings.
All of these things that we take for granted are matter of the last 5,000 – 10,000 years.
Or the Internet or the media, they’re a matter
of the last few decades. The relative recency of weird societies
in the speed with which information and knowledge increases
means that not that long ago we thought some pretty strange things.
For instance, in 1903 The New York Times predicted
that building a flying machine would be possible in 1 to 10 million years. Later that very same year
the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. In 1908 it was said that no flying machine will ever fly from New York to Paris.
Who made that foolish prediction?
One of the Wright brothers. In 1962 the Decca recording company passed on a young rock band, saying
“we don’t like their sound and guitar music is on the way out.”
The band in question was the Beatles. Keith Moon
and John Entwistle were said to have remarked about a band called The New Yardbirds, “that band so ill-conceived it will sink like a balloon or a zeppelin made out of lead.” Well, Jimmy Page was not deterred.
In fact, he took that phrase and made it his band’s new name.
He removed the A, so it wouldn’t be pronounced “lead,” and that’s where we got Led Zeppelin. There is evidence the Nazis weren’t entirely convinced Earth was a globe we lived on the outside of. Instead, they figured the Earth’s
continents were actually aligning on the inside of a hollow concave surface
with the stars and moon and planets in the middle. Seriously. As the story goes, Doctor Heinz Fischer
was sent to Rügen Island to spy on the British.
Now, the curvature of the earth would have made this impossible. But thinking the earth was shaped like
this, they pointed their telescopes up at a 45 degree angle. Needless to say, the experiment didn’t work.
The Eiffel Tower’s inauguration and the Wall Street Journal
and “Starry Night” and Coca-Cola and Nintendo and Adolf Hitler all began in 1889. As did a guy named Thomas Midgley Jr. Celebrated in his time, Midgley’s legacy has since been tarnished by the negative consequences of his inventions. His list of contributions to society is impressively disastrous. In the late twenties, Midgley synthesized
the first chloro-fluorocarbons – CFC – for which he won
the Society of Chemical Industry’s Perkin medal.
Only later did we realize all of those tons of CFCs we were emitting were eating away 4% of our
atmosphere’s protective ozone layer every decade. Like a virus, creating a wound, unlikely to completely heal until me and you have long been dead. In the early 1920s Midgley discovered that by adding Tetraethyllead to gasoline engine knocking could be reduced. The American Chemical Society gave him
the 1923 Nichols’ medal for the discovery. There were other, safer
alternatives but General Motors jointly owned a patent on Tetraethyllead with Midgley.
They could make a profit on it, so they advertised it as the best option and almost immediately nearly every motor vehicle on earth was spewing lead into our atmosphere and soil, which put it in our blood, lead poisoning for decades. Currently, the reference for healthy children is a blood lead content of less than 5 micrograms per decilitre. After the popularization of Midgley’s leaded gasoline, 88% of children in America had double that amount of lead in their blood.
When leaded gasoline was finally phased out in the 1970s, that percentage fell to 9%. Lead is a neuro toxin. Even light exposure,
like that caused by Midgley’s invention, can cause a decrease in intelligence and in increase in anti-social behaviour.
Fordham University found that in young adults the best predictor of delinquent and violent behavior is literally the lead content of their blood.
Chillingly, the rise and fall of violent crimes by juveniles in the 20th century tracks significantly closely with the
rise and fall of lead in their blood when they were
preschoolers – all over the world. Historian J. R. McNeill remarked that Midgley had more impact on the atmosphere
than any other single organism in Earth’s history.
Midgley’s final invention was even worse. Well, for him. In 1940 he contracted polio.
To help his friends and family lift him from bed he designed an intricate system of ropes and pulleys. As was the story of his life, the invention seemed brilliant at first, but four years later he became accidentally entangled in the ropes
and his own invention strangled him to death. Midgley’s life took up 0.55% of human history.
And, roughly speaking, yours will too. To put that in perspective, let’s time travel, starting right now.
We begin 100,000 years ago – the beginning of modern humans. We are moving forward in time an entire millennia, a thousand years, every second.
As you can see, not much is changing.
Our modern world will briefly flash at the end.
That’s all it is. That’s all it’s been. So be careful not to miss it. And as always, thanks for watching.

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