Dan Carlin on the Doomsdays of the Past

The podcaster Dan Carlin’s new (and first, congratz!) book, is a book of questions. It deals with humanity’s Big Picture questions, using ancient and almost exclusively military history to ask them. The title is, of course, too good to be true

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Each of the eight chapters are front-loaded with questions, and questions are the grammatical device Carlin uses to get his message across. In a sense, it’s the classic inquisitive historian’s tale retelling the riddles of the past and attempt to answer them given the often very scant historical data.

Carlin doesn’t do much answering, however; he’s mostly just asking. Don’t get me wrong — that’s all very valuable! His questions point to the inherent limitation in our data sources and constantly remind us of the several competing possible — and plausible — interpretations they support.

They serve the very useful function of emphasizing uncertainty in history. Questions of what could have been and questions that force readers to imagine some historical figure’s challenges make history come alive in a way textbooks don’t.

It also indicates humility in research, something many more scholars — and people generally — ought to admit.

Then why am I annoyed by Carlin’s many questions? Because there are 222 of them (yes, I counted); the book’s preface begins with a question (“Do you think that modern civilization will ever fall and our cities will ever lie in ruins?”) and the second-to-last sentence of the afterword is a question — even the acknowledgement ends with a question!

Before reading Carlin, I never knew that I minded the use of questions as rhetorical devices. However impactful, at some point rhetorical or even Socratic questions become tiresome. Yes, they convey uncertainty and plant ideas in the minds of readers, but come on — 222 is too much. Especially when they don’t come evenly spread out, but often all at once — and sometimes in entire paragraphs (p. 170, p. 175, p. 245…). Nothing but speculative questions.

Once in a while = nice rhetorical device.
All the bloody time = just annoying.

Content

As for the actual substance of the book, I’m much less opposed to it. I was, however, somewhat surprised to find almost exclusively military history. Having listened to the Hardcore History podcast, what did I expect? If I buy tickets to a heavy metal concert, I can’t really be complaining about the absence of classical music, can I…?

But I did long for some “real” history, ie. economic, social & financial history (yes, I just opened that can of worms). The warriors, conquests, battles, aircrafts and nuclear weapons was a bit too heavy for me — so much so that I admit to briefly did putting the book down. Also: almost ten pages on DeMause’s History of Childhood?! I guess I’m being inconsistent now, since that’s social history right there, but still. 10 pages out of 250 on one fairly inconsequential book. Hm.

I admit that the military route to consider civilizational decline makes sense: the rise-and-fall of various empires in The End Is Always Near serve to ask precisely those critical questions, the “X-risk events,” as made famous by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom.

Powers of nuclear bomb, risk to society and how close we really were in the 20th century. My favorite part was the moral (immoral?) decline in the face of Total War, and how fast WWI and WWII made leaders and populations numb to the value of (enemy) human life. As I’ve been fascinated by Steven Pinker and his ‘decline of violence’-thesis for the last ~18 months or so, Carlin’s (brief) discussion on the human question of the Long Peace (“have we seen the last of the big wars?”, p. 150) was absolutely great.

Endlessly asking question did serve to convey one of the main take-away lessons from Carlin’s book: history is forever a study under construction; everything we believe about the past is up for grabs, subject to reinterpretation in the light of new discoveries. The novice historian, and most students or amateur observers of history generally read history as an almost straightforward route to the present — a development that couldn’t have happened any other way. That’s a huge mistake, as Matt Ridley taught me many years ago.

Simple perspectives forget that history doesn’t rhyme, that “The history we observed was but one outcome of many that could have happened.”

In sum, I loved Carlin’s easy and accessible writing, his pertinent (though excessive) questions and his investigation into X-risk events of the past. Taking a step back and considering the great empires of the past gives us some perspective regarding the histrionics of our own times:

  • No, the world isn’t ending just yet.
  • it takes a lot more than some inequality numbers changing, supply chains shifting, or CO2 concentration intensifying.
  • Past civilizations did collapse, but they did so gradually and for many interacting reasons.

Let me end with some wonderful quotes, both from Carlin himself and those that he diligently dug up from statesmens, like Eisenhower and JFK on nuclear weapons (p. 206):

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or poor Nixon, his boasting about the power of #potus merely related to a footnote:

“I can go back into my office and pick up the telephone and in twenty-five minutes seventy million people will be dead.” (p. 201)

Or what Carlin amusingly calls “Atrocity laundering” — the moral relativism of various ways to exterminate human beings (p. 213):

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And finally how the RAF physicist Freeman Dyson, sat in his office “carefully calculating how to murder most economically another hundred thousand people.” (p. 234)

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I guess, all things considered, that I actually liked Dan Carlin’s book, The End is Always Near.

This was originally written and formatted as a tweetstorm.

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Writer, editor, and student of money past and present. Here: mostly off-topic stories, personal finance-musings, worldly observations and Reykjavík reflections.

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