Today’s economic history: Writing is (and other things are) not “naturally” human

Today’s Economic History: For Homer and his audience, writing is unnatural and un-human: “many deadly signs on a folded tablet…”.

What is natural to humans–what we were back in the environment of evolutionary adaptation when we were in biological equilibrium–is grunting bands of 50 or so making their way across the Horn of Africa with their stone tools. Since then, the language Singularity, the agriculture Singularity, the writing Singularity, and perhaps now a fourth have changed human life in many ways beyond all recognition. “What is natural to humans” almost invariably means “what I expect to happen”, which is roughly the same as “what I learned about how things were, were done, and ‘ought’ to be done back when I was a child”.

Homer: Iliad: “Proetus’ wife, the fair Anteia…

…longed madly for Bellerephon, and begged him to lie with her in secret, but wise Bellerephon was a righteous man and could not be persuaded. So she wove a web of deceit, and said to King Proetus: ‘Kill this Bellerephon, who tried to take me by force, or die in the doing of it.’

The king was angered by her words. He would not kill Bellerephon, as his heart shrank from murder, but he packed him off to Lycia, and scratching many deadly signs on a folded tablet, gave him that fatal token, and told him to hand it to the Lycian king, his father-in-law, so to engineer his death.

Bellerephon went to Lycia escorted by peerless gods, and when he reached the streams of Xanthus the king of great Lycia welcomed him with honour, entertaining him for nine days, and sacrificing nine oxen. But when rosy-fingered Dawn lit the tenth day his host questioned him, and asked what token he brought him from his son-in-law Proetus…

December 29, 2015


Brad DeLong
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