Books, Film, Music

A History of Humanity

In the latest book by Tamim Ansary ’70, he focuses on the narratives that unite civilizations.

By Ty Bannerman | December 12, 2019

The Invention of Yesterday, the new book by Destiny Disrupted author Tamim Ansary ’70, offers a goal both noble and intriguing: Tamim sets out to write a history of humanity that focuses on the connections between civilizations and the ideas that flow through them. To that end, his guiding metaphor is the constellation, individual points of light representing human ideas, narratives, and understandings that form into a guiding myth for a “people,” but are also seen as different constellations/guiding myths by other cultures. With sky chart in hand, then, he takes the reader on a journey through the human timeline of multiple civilizations and explores the ways that universal factors of environment, tools, and language play into the interpretations of these same “stars.”

This makes for a fascinating thesis propelled by Tamim’s breezy surveys of those cultures themselves. The Invention reads like an enjoyably written world history course book that takes steps to emphasize the connections between the various civilizations of the world rather than their differences. The reader is taken through our collective greatest hits—humans spread out from Africa, philosophy flourishes in Greece, the Chinese construct the Great Wall—but each one is now seen as a line formed between the universal factors of tool use, language, and environment, and how they take different shapes depending on the culture and time from which they are viewed.

The reader, then, may expect to see new interpretations of our shared development emerging. Tamim makes sure to expand our perspective to include cultures too-often neglected by mainstream works of history: the Nok culture of sub-Saharan Africa, the flourishing Olmec, Toltec, and Mayan empires of Central America.

As the book proceeds through the timeline to the 20th and 21st centuries, this surveyor’s approach to world history continues, but now in service to the idea that humankind is rushing toward a “singularity” through our rapidly accelerating invention of, use of, and dependence on tools. As we hurtle from steam engines to computers, Tamim argues that our tools will eventually become self-aware and form environments and ideological constellations of their own. The thesis, again, is rife with potential, and explored through the mileposts of the Cold War, the Gulf War, and 9/11. By the end, it is unclear how a singularity would factor into Tamim’s schema, a fact he owns up to and ascribes to our living in an  “era of worldwide incoherence.”

Tamim offers a conclusion consistent with the guiding principles of the book: he appeals for us to understand the full context of human development—to view this “sky” as our shared heritage—and use it to navigate to understanding, and therefore future peace.

Sometimes, the hurtling pace of the book comes across as more suited to introducing these ideas than delving deeply into them. But there are certainly many insights to be found in these pages, and the casual style Tamim uses to lead us through his star chart of human history makes for an easy-going and conversational read and much to consider when the book is closed.

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