ALS Topic 24 - Is it possible to go back to where we came from?

Focus questions for Adelaide Lunchtime Seminar, 22 December 2018
Venue: · Adelaide
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Note: About Focus Questions: a) Please read them before you come to the meetup. Think about them so you have more than "instant opinions" to offer. b) Feel free to add more focus questions. c) THE FOCUS QUESTIONS ARE JUST A MENU TO CHOOSE FROM. From this menu we can discuss whatever seems interesting. d) Focus questions are not intended to push one viewpoint! You can adopt any position you wish. We actually like friendly disagreement - it can lead to deeper understanding.


Focus Questions

1. How important are your personal origins to real life outcomes? How much of your respect of other people is influenced by their birth status? Has your DNA been analysed? A lot of people attach importance to their racial / ethnic / cultural / status lineage. There is pride in saying they are descended from nobility, a religious caste (in some cultures), a professor, a general, a famous person, an ethnic group etc ? On the other hand, as individuals the people we really turn into is heavily shaped by living experiences. Even genetically related characteristics are usually diluted away within about three generations.

2. If the past reality of a society cannot be recovered, what elements of it can or should be re-created in a modern context? Think of examples.

3. How well can children understand parents, let alone earlier generations and ways of living? How much of the good and the bad should they be told about, even if they will listen? Think of examples. The marvels of an age, as well as the events or people who were admired, usually stood out because they differed from was normal at the time of their occurrence. These exceptional people, events or creations might seem boring and everyday to people living a generation later.

4. Are we doomed to cultural dementia and misinterpretation? A good novel or film might completely reshape memories of our 'known' world a generation later. It even happens within a lifetime (or a news cycle in an overstimulated world). For example, it is common for adults to return to some childhood location and find it no longer matches the magic of their memory. They are no longer living in a child's world. And this displacement happens geographically. Tourists often visit exotic and picturesque locations. That is, exotic for them. The locals in those places find them very ordinary, even backward, and envy what they see as the glamorous worlds of London, New York and Paris.

5. Are false historical memories harmless and justified as good entertainment for today? Or can they have more negative consequences? Think of examples. For example, theme parks are often miniaturized and romanticized versions of imaginary worlds. Disneyland is an iconic example. Theme parks are popular, but like television, they can create new 'realities' in people's minds. You could call them fake memories. For example, China now has a vast tourist industry based around fake 'ancient villages' (e.g. Dali in Yunan), fake 'traditional city sights' etc. (e.g. Kaifeng in Henan), all tied to a highly sanitized historical story. Most other countries attempt similar historical recreations on a smaller scale. Large numbers of people come to believe that 'this is what the past was like'.

6. How should we interpret the writings and thoughts and actions of people from earlier ages whose behaviour does not fit the template of what present society considers proper? Literary and artistic revisionism for example is very common (especially in universities). Consider Rudyard Kipling, who was an icon of the British Empire. His "Recessional" was sung in school assemblies and memorial services. His poems were widely known and loved among ordinary people. His children's story "The Jungle Book", about Mowgli, a child raised by wolves in India was known to every child. He was a man of his time, and also a superb craftsman with words. Colonialism has become unfashionable. Kipling is now sometimes condemned as a racist. To speak in praise of Kipling today may invite severe criticism. His is not an isolated example. [I strongly recommend this article which deals exactly with the discussion topic" Krzysztof Iwanek (August 06, 2018) "Kipling as Mowgli: One View of The Jungle Book - Both Mowgli and Kim represent Kipling as a child, raised at the intersection of two civilizations". The Diplomat @  ]

7. Each generation lives in its own bubble of memory. If you are 7 years old, 8 years ago is ancient history. If you are 73, 60 years ago is a mere flicker of time. In a traditional village, these differences were not critical. Where major innovations emerge daily, normal cultural lag will cause big stresses, especially (but not only) among the less educated. What are examples of this phenomenon? Are there solutions?

8. Australian cities today are not the Australia I grew up in. There are people still mentally living in something like the Australia I grew up in (In 1945 it was 97% Anglo-Celtic). The further you get from a city centre, the more of them you will find. The cultural and multicultural turbulence of the cities is absolutely foreign to anything many older Australians like or understand. This kind of mental and cultural stress has caused political explosions in other countries. What can be done about this problem? What will happen here?

9. The whole is often greater than the parts. The separated components of an engine cannot behave like an engine, or even predict how an engine will behave. Ditto for a human body, or a weather system, or a stock market, or societies. As systems become complex they create new things behaving in new ways. It is called emergence. If we dismantle a complex system (e.g. say a modern society is stripped of electricity), when will it revert to some earlier, predictable, simpler stable state, and when will the outcome be unpredictable?

10. EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) bombs have been exploded above major Australian cities, destroying all electronic devices. How are you going to rethink your life. More urgently, where will dinner come from?


Comments & Extra Reading

Thor May (2018) "Emergent Systems - An Overview". The Passionate Skeptic website @

Thor May - The Sailing Ship Allanshaw, featured in the meetup photo, carried my great grandfather, Henry William May (age 36) & Julia Pyrke (pregnant) + 4 young children (3 boys, 1 girl) from Plymouth, U.K. to Sydney, Australia as assisted immigrants, arriving 2 May 1883. My paternal grandfather, Rodney May, was born in Sydney, 1883. The Allanshaw was a fast ship, steel hulled and 1600 tons. She could do the Plymouth to Sydney run under sail in about 65 days with 500 passengers. Hmm, we complain about cattle class in planes. It must have been a tough trip for Julia with those kids, but she lived to 91. [ The first fleet of 11 ships from England, mostly carrying convicts and soldiers, arrived in Botany Bay (now a suburb of Sydney) to build a prison settlement in 1788. The journey took 252 days]

Allanshow sailing ship

University of Wisconsin-Madison (December 10, 2018) "Humans may be reversing the climate clock, by 50 million years". Science Daily @ 

Thor May - A very short history of Britain invaded by foreigners (hey, this has happened everywhere..) : I've just discovered (DNA) that I'm mostly a Celt. Who are British Celts? The Celts, Iron Age warriors & farmers from Europe took over Britain from about 600 B.C. from the Beaker People who were Bronze Age farmers, who in turn had taken it over from Neolithic shifting cultivators about 2500 BC. Farming seems to have occurred from about 4000 BC. Apparently the first evidence of human species in Britain goes back 700,00 years, but an Ice Age wiped them out. God knows how many migrations and invasions took place after that. Of course, the Romans invaded England in 55 B.C. then turned it into a mercantile possession of small client kingdoms (like the British in India) from 43 A.D. The last of the Romans straggled out by 45O AD as the Roman Empire collapsed. That coincided with annual Viking raids, then settlement from Scandanavia (my 7% Swedish ancestors). Lacking Roman legions for security, Celtic farmers did a devil’s deal with German Angles and Saxon tribes as mercenaries. The Angles and Saxons promptly stole the best farming land in Britain and pushed the Celts into places like Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. Then of course, the Norman French (gentrified Vikings) invaded in 1066 A.D. and hung around for 300 years, mucking up what had become the English language. The point of this meandering history is that invariably it has been brutal and not overseen by any Declaration of Human Rights. Genocide has been pretty normal, as well as, no doubt, heart warming stories of human kindness and decency. Travel to South Asia or East Asia and you will find the same patterns. Tribalism, or as it is called nowadays, nationalism, has a lot to answer for. Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes decimated the populations of Asia, including China, on an industrial scale (   ). Alongside the ‘glories of civilization’ – the ones that are recorded in history books, were and are ghastly cultural traditions which in some form often continue up to the present day. Rule 1 of Empire: as soon as a country collects a few spare dollars its psychopathic leaders take it into war ...

Thor May - The law constantly takes us back to where we came from. The technical name for that is 'precedent'. The British system of common law is built entirely from the precedent of earlier judgements over centuries. Statute law can override common law, but the interpretation of statute law is also built on precedent. In other words, a judge in the British/Australian system is bound by earlier judgements. He can't just follow his own opinion of the moment. Nor can any politician direct him. That is what makes this system of law so stable and predictable. It is the best guarantee of our liberty, and not many countries have it. A serious problem with Australian law is that to use it as a citizen you have to be rich or penniless. The sheer cost means that ordinary people are likely to lose all their savings paying lawyers (e.g. see  ). The law of the United States of America comes from the same roots, but has been undermined in many ways. For example, the President of the United States, using hundreds of earlier secret "emergency powers" which have never been revoked, can bypass most normal laws, even the Constitution. He can be a dictator. For an account of this (it should be compulsory reading!) see this article in the January/February 2019 issue of The Atlantic: Elizabeth Goitein, "What the President Could Do If He Declares a State of Emergency - From seizing control of the internet to declaring martial law, President Trump may legally do all kinds of extraordinary things" @ 

Conor Friedersdorf (December 2018) "In White Right: Meeting the Enemy, the filmmaker Deeyah Khan, a Muslim woman of color, recounts a television interview she gave during the summer of 2016. “The fact of the matter is that the U.K. is never going to be white again,” she told the BBC. “Similarly, our parents who have left Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and other Muslim countries, for them to think that they can reestablish those countries and the lives that they had there over here—it’s not gonna happen. We’re together going to have to find out: What does it mean to build a society that includes all of us?”" The Atlantic @ 

Thor May (2010) "Cultural Operating Systems – Thoughts on Designing Cultures" @

ian beutler - .. go back ter where we started? well.. Yes AND No. My father, ( B.Sc. 1929, Adelaide, where Marcus Oliphant ws a tutor), told me that Einstein said the universe had the shape comparable to an open ended jam tin. so there's yr answer...

Thor May - This topic carries some risk of excessive self-concern, or even narcissism. Anyway, here goes: the story linked here includes photos of me at 9 and 19. I have some trouble recognizing them as 'me'. No doubt you have similar photos from an earlier life. The story itself is also an account of those earlier lives, and again I have a bit of trouble identifying with the earlier versions of Thor May. Given the same movie script I'd probably run it in a different way (we are all heroes in our own movie ..) . Maybe we can't go back to where we came from. Thor May (2018 ) "The Ambiguity of Courage" @ 

Harun Resit Aydin, Lover of India "What is the unluckiest country throughout the whole of history? - If we put aside a few small countries and vanished civilizations, the world's most unlucky country is definitely: India". Quora @  [Thor: Every country's people have narratives about where they came from, the fortunes of the journey, and how all that is past constrains the present. However, occasional Golden Age delusions apart, few actually want to go back to where they came from.]

The Economist (Dec 22nd 2018) "The world is fixated on the past - How to get the best from an outbreak of nostalgia". The Economist @  [ quote: "Politicians have always exploited the past. But just now, rich countries and emerging economies are experiencing an outbreak of nostalgia. Right and left, democracies and autocracies, all are harking back to the glories of yesteryear. Even as President Donald Trump vows to “Make America great again”, President Xi Jinping is using his “Chinese dream” to banish a century of humiliation and return China to its golden age. Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has a mission to withstand global capitalism and restore his country’s economic sovereignty. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the most powerful politician in Poland, wants to purge the last traces of Soviet communism to bring about a renaissance of old-fashioned Polish values... In emerging markets past glories are often a foretaste of future triumphs. China, which has enjoyed 40 years of transformative growth, senses that it is on the threshold of something great. Under Narendra Modi, India has been celebrating its growing geopolitical heft with a Hindu-nationalist revival. In the rich world, by contrast, nostalgia usually stems from what an omnipresent, menacing feeling of decline. Almost two-thirds of Britons think that life used to be better. A similar share of the French do not feel at home in the present. This year’s un World Happiness Report found that Americans are becoming less content. Large majorities in rich and developing countries believe that robots and automation will increase inequality and harm employment. "Vaults full of research attest to how emerging-market optimism is more soundly based than rich-country pessimism. People around the world are living longer, healthier lives; fewer fall victim to war and famine; as education spreads, discrimination and prejudice are waning. Similarly, the summers were rarely as idyllic or the nation as glorious as sentiment would have it. But to reject pessimism and nostalgia as simply inaccurate misses the point. They are powerful forces that are shaping politics. To harness them, you must first understand them... "

Thor May - Here is a reality check on ancestral DNA testing: Ashik Siddique (Mar 7, 2013) "DNA Ancestry Tests Are 'Meaningless' for Your Historical Genealogy Search". Medical Daily @  [Quote: "In general, ... DNA genealogy is far more useful for population geneticists who are trying to learn about past human migrations than it is for individuals trying to learn their specific relation to Genghis Khan... To answer a specific question about individual ancestry, you need to supplement your mtDNA or Y chromosome genetic information with reliable historical records... the individual's genetic data is compared to the DNA of people for whom there is specific information about ethnicity and geographic location, and different ancestry tests look at different types of DNA:

- Y chromosome DNA, which is inherited along the male line and only found in men
- Mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited along the female line and found in both men and women
- Autosomal DNA, which can come from any ancestor and makes up 98% of your DNA

Each of us has just only one ancestral lineage for mtDNA, and each man has just one for Y chromosome DNA; each type of DNA is passed down through generations as an individual unit. Autosomal DNA, however, is made up of thousands of sections of DNA, each with its own history. Since all humans share the large majority of our DNA through far removed common ancestors, each of us has very little DNA that is directly inherited from a specific ancestor - even one who lived only a few generations ago. The more steps you take up a family tree, the more negligible the DNA connection gets compared to the enormous amount we all share, and the less an ancestry test can reliably reveal. Even genetic connections to historical ethnic groups like "Viking" or "Zulu" are vague. People's genetics do not reflect specific groups, since the high degree of genetic mixing over centuries means that even cultures with strong cultural boundaries do not have noticeable genetic differences... DNA is an assortment of genetic sequences that have been inherited from many different ancestors. You double your number of ancestors with every generation, because everyone has two parents. Going back only ten generations (between 200 and 300 years) in your genealogy, you have 1024 ancestors. Going back far enough, each of us has more ancestors than we have sections of DNA - which means that there are many ancestors from whom we have inherited no DNA, and that ultimately there will be many sequences of DNA that most people share. On a long trudge through history - two parents, four great-grandparents, and so on - very soon everyone runs out of ancestors and has to share them,"

ian beutler - these are themes that have haunted me all my life, Thor, even before I first heard those vague & ghostly stories about the origins of my paternal line. I've not yet explored DNA analysis. My historical research however seems to have explained much of what I have tried to do, which is, again, very spooky. Congrats on another great topic. and b.t.w. my ref to the jam-tin, as I ought to have mentioned, was intended to be a graphical model and to suggest there was a limit to the number of permutations.

Thor's own websites:

1. articles at ;

2. legacy site: .


Is it possible to go back to where we came from? (c) Thor May 2018 return to Ddiscussion