Want to blow your mind? Look at the evolutionary history of whales. Whales are mammals, not fish. As such their ancestors were land animals, specifically the Pakicetus.
Pakicetus was a sort of water-loving goat- or dog-looking critter that hunted alongside lakes and rivers about 50 million years ago. It had massive jaws and was probably a pretty scrappy bar fighter. Scientific renderings resemble a lean, mean hippopotamus, which is appropriate since hippos and whales both descend from Pakicetus.
A long, long time ago, a group of Pakicetus decided that life was better in the water. Over the millennia they evolved into massive creatures that specialized in ocean living. Some became dolphins or orcas, while others grew into the largest animals on earth: whales.
But why? Well, Pakicetus lived in modern-day India back when India was an island. As that land mass shifted toward the Asian continent, traversing the narrowing waterway became lucrative business for Pakicetus and its descendants. Whales be hustlers, yo. Then again, so be we all.
I bring this up to remind that, at least through most of earth’s history, life typically adapts to geography. There’s a reason no human society settled Antarctica (that we know of). Just like there’s a reason no one builds houses on top of abandoned Iron Range mine dumps.
Think of it. You’d have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a road and utilities up the mine dump. Your well might be 500 feet deep. Thus, there’s no real advantage over just building the house in a town with cheaper utilities, or on a country plot with good soil, or along a lake or river. And that’s why you find Iron Range houses where you do. We adapt to our surroundings.
That’s also why the forbidding, constantly-burning mountains surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area remain undeveloped even as housing prices in the city are the highest in the country. The risks and costs outweigh the potential profits.
But what if the reason the world seems so topsy-turvy right now is because we’re all playing by outdated rules for a system that is rapidly changing?
In a fascinating May 11, 2021 essay from his Substack “Unchartered Territories,” author Tomas Pueyo explores the shifting dynamic of geography and history in our present age of technology. The piece is titled “Geography is the Chessboard of History.”
Pueyo begins by saying that much of what is passed off as history in schools is a form of propaganda. One growing understanding of history is that anything that makes you comfortable about what happened in the past is probably just marketing. I’ve been doing historical research for several years and I can tell you the actual past will strip furniture and dissolve nails.
And yet, in his essay, Pueyo identifies a changing dynamic that explains why our shared future today might not follow the same pattern as our past. Oh, the joys and horrors of human behavior will remain, but the incentives and outcomes may transform.
“In the past, Geography ruled History,” writes Pueyo. “Over time, Geography and Technology evolved together to determine History. Now, Technology has taken over. Geography matters less and less. This means Technology is the main determinant of History now. This changes everything we understand about the world.”
Pueyo lists the elements that made a successful nation over the course of human history. They include flat plains, navigable rivers, access to the sea, and mountain defenses. These elements ensured agriculture, trade, sustainable population, military supremacy and eventual industrialization. The abundance of all of these elements in North America neatly explains why our relatively young nation has done so well.
We might list religious or cultural reasons why some societies prevail over others, but these are largely just stories we like to tell. The reason Europe and China produced lasting empires was geographic. These empires produced technology and resistance to germs, which were the reasons European settlers were able to seize land from the indigenous people of North America. It’s not about the morality of what was done (these deeds were horrifying); it’s about the agency to get what you want.
Those geographic elements remain important today but the system has become much more complex. Technology may now overcome all of these advantages. None of the old rules apply. Now stories and cultures really can overcome mountains and rivers.
Conversely, if technology now masters geography, then we humans now adapt to our technology rather than our surroundings. Perhaps 50 million years from now we will have evolved into giant cyborg smartphones floating in a worldwide ocean, communicating entirely by subsonic memes.
Until then, however, we are stuck here as mere humans trying to do right rather than wrong. If technology can overtake geography, maybe one day goodness will prevail over all.