Essay 29: Overview Strengthening: Using Meta-Intelligence to Orient Oneself

Let’s do an exercise in “overview building,” one of the key purposes of an education that is meaningful and not just an obstacle course or a maze governed by exams.

Think of the PBS miniseries of a few years ago: Guns, Germs, and Steel. It was a decent overview of history based on Jared Diamond’s famous book by the same name. Guns presumably encapsulates coercion, whether by armies, police or criminals. Germs stand for illness and disease in a germ-based view of sicknesses. Steel is the modern building material that allows skyscrapers, etc.

The viewer of the series might have felt a bit uncomfortable since humans with their “rage to belong, and rage to believe” (to paraphrase William James) make ideas into beliefs and doctrines and are not reducible to material factors like the Jared Diamond trio of guns, germs and steel.

The brilliant 20th century sociologist Ernest Gellner had a more inclusive encapsulation of human experience or world history when he entitled his own book of this type, Plough, Book, and Sword.

Plough” gives you settled agriculture (farming, roughly speaking) (i.e., food production not based on hunting). Gellner’s “Book” gives you ideas, doctrines, bibles, epics, stories, collections of documents and speeches, record-keeping beyond clay tablets, and so on. “Sword” gives you coercion à la Jared Diamond’s “guns.”

While Diamond omits “books.” Gellner omits “germs.” Books implies some level of reading and writing.

Ask yourself if you have an improved trio of mega-dimensions to explain human historical pathways or perhaps a quartet. Another trio might be: “Gods, Flags and Families.”

Tolstoy emphasizes the capriciousness of world history and accidents or “random walks” might then well be a plausible candidate for inclusion in our own version of a Diamond/Gellner-type title, as accident or accidentality or randomness.