The Fallacy of Primacy

October 2, 2006 History, Interpretation Comments Off on The Fallacy of Primacy 1257

Another in an ongoing series aimed at upsetting traditional notions of heritage – which is fake – in favor of history – which is less so.

This year in China, a collector found an 18th century maps purported to be an exact copy of a 15th century map that Admiral Hen We completed after his circumnavigation of the globe. It apparently influenced later European maps. This added another piece of evidence to the very justifiable claim that the Chinese explored most of the world in the early 15th century, 70 years before Christopher Columbus. Last year a guy called Gavin Menzies had a popular book called 1421 that detailed this voyage and tried to find artifactual evidence for Chinese landings in North and South America. He naturally trumpets the new discovery verifying his thesis.

So, is all of our history wrong? Do we have to rewrite it now? Of course not.

In our simple. literal way of looking at things, this information might seem stunning. But to the historian, it is quite the opposite. Yes, you have to rewrite any history that says Columbus was the first to find America from across the ocean (assuming you don’t have Lief Ericson in your text). But that’s all you have to rewrite. The Chinese didn’t stay. they didn’t massacre or enslave the natives and they didn’t colonize. The rest of the history stays the same, because the Chinese went through one of their periodic inward-looking phases and essentially did nothing with the information Hen We gathered. The Europeans took care of exploiting the Western Hemisphere for the next 500 years, which is the real history. That history is unchanged.

This fact was something The Economist noted in an article on the find. Being the first one doesn’t always mean a lot, especially in regards to the idea of “discovery.” If I discover a cure for cancer this afternoon and then get hit by a bus, well, I didn’t do squat. Bill Gates didn’t invent much, but he structured the hell out of other people’s “firsts.”  Edison invented like the 83rd working light bulb, but the first practical one.

Discovery and “firsts” were quite big in the 20th century, trekking and flying to the North and South Poles, setting land speed records, landing on the moon. “Firsts” like Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight have a significant kind of marketing effect, boosting interest in later commercial or scientific ventures. They also serve as a useful benchmark: there were no transatlantic flights before 1927.

But “firsts” and “heroes” can also obscure the real history. Transatlantic commercial air travel took another 30 years to reach the upper middle class. Microwave ovens were invented in the 1940s but don’t make an impact on most people’s lives for another 40 years. Digital cameras have been common for over a decade but they have only achieved the quality of film cameras within the last year. The latest energy technology of the 21st century? Windmills. Start tilting.

And then there are the false starts – like Hen We’s unprecedented journey or Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter. You read now about who killed the electric car but the fact is lotsa car companies a hundred years ago made electric cars – they were common in the first decade of commercial production. Gasoline took over thanks to a combination of Spindletop in 1905 and the Brickyard in 1912. Cars ceased to be medical necessities and turned into the Progressive Era version of Viagra, and oil companies threatened by electric lights fought back and internal combustion became the order of the century.

Around the year 2000 there was a TV program about the most important discoveries of the previous millennium and the winner was Gutenberg’s printing press. This was a reasonable assumption from the vantage point of our Information Explosion that is all about the ease of communication and widespread dissemination (another word for broadcast – both having their roots in agriculture) of information. In a way, Gutenberg started that. You could argue about whether he was first with the invention– the Koreans had mechanical printing before and the Chinese had Gutenberg’s more important innovation: movable type. But they didn’t have a global network to advertise it.

The contextual environment of a time and place is the key to innovation and invention. Thus, calculus is nearly simultaneously invented – separately – in Europe in the 18th century, and Darwin has to hurry his 19th century book because evolution has just become obvious to an entire European scientific community. What combination of social, financial and cultural factors made Chicago the “birthplace” of the skyscraper? It wasn’t just bolts of lightning hitting Louis Sullivan – it was a small downtown, a big fire, investors who didn’t want to waste money on ornament, a tradition-free culture and a whole bunch of architects banging around and bouncing off each other. Was it really Leroy Buffington in Minneapolis?

Doesn’t matter. Hell, maybe Hen We developed calculus off the coast of Peru while Massacio was still figuring out perspective. He might even have developed a theory about those finches on the nearby islands. Doesn’t matter.

Recently they rewrote astronomy by demoting Pluto from planet status. But it only had that status for less than 70 years. You go into the Adler Planetarium today (built 1930) and there is a wonderful sculptural relief by Alfonso Iannelli with allegorical figures representing the eight planets. Turns out he was right.

Just remember you heard it here first.