Andrew Marr: has history anything useful to teach us?

"We are violent and we are tribal, and we are fated to be that way. Look at the smoking ruins of Syrian suburbs - and shrug in despair"

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Choose fewer than 60 stories to tell the entire span of human history. Sometimes it has felt like the maddest pub game ever. Who’s in, what’s out? Swap you an Inca for a Prussian? Charlemagne or Mansa Musa? Who?

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Television has wonderful punch-in-the-eye immediacy. It’s vivid. Yet its story-telling imposes a ruthless discipline. I had eight hours, which, these days, is a lot of television time. But to let a story properly breathe, in each hour you can fit just seven, sometimes eight, stories.

And TV hates too much abstraction. It wants to know about this person, at this time, doing this. We could have made a different history of the world, with almost completely different stories but this brutal insistence on selection turned out to be – for me at least – a constant source of delight, argument and humour.

I wanted good stories about women. I wanted to cover as much as possible of the major parts of the world. We had to have some of the most famous characters. You need Caesar, and Genghis Khan, and the Austrian corporal (but no, not Catherine the Great, and not Henry VIII either). I also wanted to include some surprises. Above all – where to start?

We left the Big Bang, the evolution of life and even the intricate story of early hominids to the physicists and biologists. Really, the story of mankind’s social advance begins when we cease to be just another piece of biological tumbleweed, at the mercy of bigger predators; and start to dominate and shape the world around us.

That is humankind as a tribal, social and predatory creature, a narrative that begins in Africa with tantalising hints and fragments. When I discovered, however, that every person now alive who is not a sub-Saharan African shares ancestry from a single tribe that left Africa some 70,000 years ago – and that we are all probably from a single female ancestor – well, that felt like a wonderful place to begin.

How can we possibly know? Archaeologists argue, and this is contentious stuff. Some Chinese historians have long insisted that they, at least, have a separate origin. Sorry: a particular DNA marker in women, mitochondrial DNA, has strongly tilted the argument towards the single out of Africa theory. If it seems impossible, remember that by definition we are all, in Richard Dawkins’s words, the children of survivors. Most direct lines eventually die out. So logically, if you push far enough back, we have a common “mother”.

If you’re from Helsinki or Buenos Aires, Shanghai or Cardiff, then you are the fruit of that single, plodding, heroic migration. It is an astonishing thought. But it doesn’t mean we’re all happy, hippy brothers-and-sisters. If it did, there wouldn’t be much history to tell. (The poet Derek Walcott once described history as boredom interrupted by war.) We started as tribal and violent creatures. A tribe, a group larger than simply a family, allowed people to share out jobs, exploit individual skills and work together.

But to bind everyone together, tribal loyalty seems to have meant, as its flipside, suspicion and hostility to other tribes. You don’t get the necessary intense feeling of belonging and group loyalty without glaring at outsiders. Us distinguishes from Them. That goes a long way to explaining the vast number of languages, decorations, clothing styles and weaponry those migrating humans carried with them.

And what follows? Later in the series, I began to examine the politically incorrect truth that violence and war have (while being horrible) also driven many of the key advances in our story, from the spread of alphabets around the Mediterranean, to the notion of there being a single God, or that weirdo Greek idea, democracy.

The endless, dreary list of maniacs who were also emperors and conquerors (Assyrians in oily beards and eyeliner, Ch’in princes, Mongol orphans, goofy-looking Belgians) includes very few who had any idea about the wider changes their wars would provoke.

Did the Babylonians have a clue when they carted a lot of angry Hebrews off to exile what they’d do to the religion of their captives; and how that religion would change the world? Did the Mongol hordes realise that by crushing great Islamic cities, they’d make it easier for a rather muddy, second-rate part of the world, called Europe, to get its big chance? The law of unexpected consequences loves nothing more than the upheavals caused by war.

This could lead you, pretty easily, to a deeply pessimistic view of the human story: we are violent (which is why so many other big beasts disappeared when humans arrived in their part of the world) and we are tribal, and we are fated to be that way. Look at the smoking ruins of Syrian suburbs – and shrug in despair.

Luckily, some relatively recent and important work by historians has demonstrated that humans are becoming less violent, or at least less prone to kill each other.

Really? After the Holocaust? Mao wins the all-time-champion mass-killer award – Stalin and Hitler jostle for silver and bronze.

Well, if you look at global death-counts proportionally (you can only kill people who are there to start with) and if you accept that we are unlikely to see another war of annihilation between Communism and Nazism, and if you analyse how many people died violently in medieval villages, or in hunter-gatherer tribes, then the picture begins to look sunnier.

The US researcher Matthew White, who has totted up comparative atrocities, finds plenty in earlier history that were worse, proportionally, than the Second World War. And in that bloodiest of centuries, the 20th, he says, more than 95 per cent of all deaths were from natural causes.

The other thing to remember, which forcibly struck me as I researched the book and the TV series, was that war has an almost hypnotic effect certainly for men. Go to the history shelves in your local bookshop (if you’re lucky enough still to have one) and look at how much is military history. So I felt it was important to show, alongside the warlords, the people who invented the needle, or writing, or vaccination, or who triumphed peacefully.

Yes, of course, Julius Caesar made the cut and (briefly) Napoleon and China’s terrifying First Emperor. But so did Jenner, Galileo, Margaret Sanger, and that great Uzbek mathematician, al-Khwarizimi.

There is, I confess, a fair amount of gore in the series – sanitised history is bad history – but there are philosophers, peaceful rulers and quietly determined, stroppy women, too.

So, in the end, has history anything useful to teach us? As I struggled with our choices, I came to think that the great dilemma, which history repeatedly reveals, is simply the gap between our technical and scientific advance, and our political wisdom.

Our understanding of the world (and therefore our ability to tinker with it) is extraordinary, and now seems to be moving at warp speed. That’s why there are now seven billion of us on the planet.

Imagine what a paradise Earth would be if we’d made the same kinds of advances in politics as we have in physics. When it comes to our greed, our care for future generations, our preference for gorging ourselves on goods rather than sharing them, then it’s clear that we have some way to go.

Earlier societies have made fatal, or near-fatal, mistakes. The Nazca of Peru, who were excellent engineers and fine artists, chopped down the trees on which their river ecosystems depended, and disappeared from history. Others, like the Japanese three centuries ago, made radical changes in direction and saved themselves. The difference today is that it isn’t a question of losing one culture or another. We are too interconnected for that.

The most successful societies seem to have been those who managed to balance a certain amount of radicalism, or new thinking, with the conservative wisdom of the elders. Too much radicalism – the French Revolution, or 1917 – and disaster follows. Too much dedication to tradition – the later rulers of ancient Egypt, or China’s Manchu dynasty – and stagnation leads to collapse.

The compromising stitch-up between Crown and parliament known as Britain’s Glorious Revolution; the cautious balance of forces after Japan cut herself off from the West; and the US constitution, for all its hypocrisy about slavery, all worked far better.

It’s not, thank the Lord, my job to give anyone political advice. But re-emerging from a couple of years of deep immersion in TV history, I do worry about short-term electoral cycles and a form of political competition that persuades most Western leaders that confronting the rest of us with hard truths is political suicide. We’re not stupid. Not only can we learn from history, we have spent much of the great sweep of history doing just that – farming better, building better, becoming less violent.

But of course, before we can learn from history, we need to know at least the basic facts. That’s where I hope our rather odd pub game, which has evolved into the series, can help.


Andrew Marr’s History of the World eight-part series starts tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1

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The hardback book, A History of the World by Andrew Marr is available for £20 (usually £25) including p&p. Call 01326 569 444 (national rate) quoting RT, or visit www.rtoffer.sparkledirect.com