The Magic of History

Last year, I spoke at a TEDx Youth conference — to an audience of smart, motivated high school students. My topic was the magic of history. I told the students many of my favorite short stories from past times. I wanted to reveal history’s endless well of fun, excitement, and humor, and to explain how reading history might enrich the kids’ lives. The message applies with equal force to adults and to younger kids. Check it out:

(Don’t be confused by use of the name “David Carthage” on the screen. It’s a former pen name.)


© 2013 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

Punctuated Equilibrium: Natural History’s Pattern, and History’s Too

Biologists no longer consider evolution a steady or gradual process. New traits often spread suddenly, and a new species may crop up in tens of millennia or less. These “punctuated” or fast evolutions happen when a population faces a new stress or opportunity, particularly when a group stumbles into a new environment and gets isolated from the rest of the species. (I’ve blogged about a couple examples: the abrupt Stone Age appearance of a new subspecies of wolf, the dog, as well as the even faster rise of dog-like domestic foxes during the late 20th Century.) Biologists disagree about what happens between these bursts of evolution — how much the species changes — but they agree that any change then is slow, often noticeable only after millions of years. The resulting theory is punctuated equilibrium: the idea that evolution alternates between sudden change and stability. I think history works the same way. Continue reading “Punctuated Equilibrium: Natural History’s Pattern, and History’s Too”

The Least Violent Time Ever? Now.

This post’s title alone will offend many readers. And I’ll make it worse by telling you that the 20th was history’s least violent century, and the 21st is on track to do even better. “But modern man is the most depraved and murderous creature ever,” the critics will argue. “Look at the carnage of the two world wars, the atomic attacks on Japan, and the reigns of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot!” (A few will throw in George W. Bush too.) Continue reading “The Least Violent Time Ever? Now.”

Cities, Creativity, and Why the World Will Never Be Flat

How have cities thrived and spread for the last five thousand years when they labor under such heavy burdens? In historic societies, city-dwellers lived shorter, less healthy lives than country-folk and produced too few children to maintain urban populations, requiring a flow of immigrants from the country. That’s because urban crowding produces filth, disease, and stress. Many modern cities have solved the hygiene problem (though some haven’t), but they still suffer from traffic, noise pollution, high rents, crime, and awful schools, leading millions to flee to the suburbs.  Many in the 1990’s thought the Internet would be the death of cities, as virtual commuting freed workers to live among the trees and flowers. Instead, cities have continued the expansion they’ve enjoyed since ancient Sumer. Continue reading “Cities, Creativity, and Why the World Will Never Be Flat”

Why Did so Many of History’s Kings Marry their Sisters?

Why did kings marry their sisters in so many historic societies, like ancient Egypt, Hawaii, the Inca kingdoms, pre-industrial Thailand, and several African realms? Why is royal incest so common?

  1. Incest sets the king above society. If a king can break society’s most basic rules, he stands above everyone else. Plus, a truly lofty king has no peer other than his sister, since only she shares his exalted birth. A noblewoman couldn’t stand beside him as his queen and near equal, and neither could a princess from a lesser dynasty. So the propaganda of mighty kingship sometimes demands incest. Continue reading “Why Did so Many of History’s Kings Marry their Sisters?”

History’s Worst Governments Had the Most Ideology

Ideology is great stuff. It topples tyrants and fires up the citizens to achieve momentous things. But when a government adopts an ideology, it’s grim tidings for those who disagree — and for anyone suspected of disagreeing. Plus, fiercely held ideologies tie governments’ hands and lead to irrational policy choices. Ideology, in other words, is a prescription for bad government. Continue reading “History’s Worst Governments Had the Most Ideology”