A Scholar of Sorts

I will be so bold as to don the robes of a scholar. I do not meet one of the defining characteristics of scholars: I have not published any work in the scholarly press. That’s because the scholarly press is identical with the academic press, and the academic press publishes the work of academics, and I am not an academic.

Of course, the vast majority of scholars are academics. Indeed, I know of nobody other than myself whom I would identify as a scholar who is not an academic. I have read of a few such people, but they are so rare as to be easily dismissable in the larger scheme of things. I accept that, and I have no desire or need for recognition as a scholar. If the entire world rejects my claim as arrogant, well, that’s fine with me; I don’t care.

But there is an important point here of broader interest. As a scholar, I am orthogonal to most other scholars: I pursue breadth of scholarship where they pursue depth of scholarship. Nobody can get a doctorate without a thesis project that delves deeply into an academically rigorous subject. And nobody can get an academic position without pursuing some subject to great depth. One must truly be an expert on some subject to survive as an academic. And nobody becomes a world-class expert on any subject without devoting the bulk of their life to that subject.

This is one reason why I chose not to pursue a doctorate in physics. I had done very well in grad school; indeed, I had aced the test grad students take to confirm their status. I have no doubt that I could have gotten a doctorate had I chosen that path. But I bailed out with a master’s because I had lost respect for the professors whom I had once idolized. I realized that these people, while quite expert in their chosen fields, knew almost nothing about anything else. They had a basic education, but were genuinely ignorant of the larger world. If one thinks in terms of “the life of the mind”, their lives were narrow and crabbed. I didn’t want to end up like that. My curiosity was too big, too greedy to settle for such a confined existence. I wanted to know everything

I have spent the last 40 years chasing that ideal, and I think that I have now reached a level of education that qualifies me as a scholar. I do not say this based on the number of books I have read, but on my ability to integrate ideas from many different fields to reach conclusions otherwise outside the reach of conventional scholars. 

The experience that triggered my realization involved an email interchange with a professor of archaeology. Now, this fellow is a genuine world-class scholar. He has won many awards and can fairly be called one of the World’s Leading Authorities on a number of topics. I had objected to something he had written in a book and he was gracious (and patient) enough to respond to my objection. I was certainly taken aback that a man of that importance would respond to my pathetic comment. 

The issue in question concerned the causes of the collapse of civilizations in the Near East at the end of the Late Bronze Age (LBA). In the period between about 1225 BCE and 1150 BCE, a lot of people died and a lot of cities were destroyed. Scholars used to blame it all on a mysterious group of barbarians called “The Sea Peoples”, who definitely attacked Egypt and wreaked much damage. But there were other factors at work. After all, the Hittite Empire and the Mycenaean civilization were both wiped out, the Aegean islands and littoral were depopulated, and a lot of cities along the eastern coast of the Mediterraean were destroyed.

It’s certainly tempting and easy to believe that this was all the work of rampaging hordes of barbarians, but this archaeologist pointed out that many archaeological excavations had demonstrated that some of this cities were not destroyed by outside attacks; some of them were destroyed by earthquakes, some by what seem to have been civil disturbances, and some by simple abandonment. But what could have caused so many cities to disappear in so short a time?

The professor’s answer is a confluence of multiple factors, and there’s no question that his evidence demonstrates that the old “barbarian hordes” hypothesis doesn’t explain all the evidence. Clearly, there were multiple factors at work. 

But there is one factor that the professor included to which I objected. He had claimed that the economies of these civilizations were weakened by the loss of trade due to the depredations of the Sea Peoples. This I flatly rejected. 

What’s important here is the reasoning I brought to bear to reach that conclusion: it relied on evidence from other fields. My first observation was that agricultural production constituted the great bulk of economic output right up until the Industrial Revolution. The fractional part of agricultural output was well over 95% for most of history. To put it another (somewhat different) way, at least 19 out of 20 people in every civilization until recent times worked on a farm. This is well-known among economic historians; I don’t know if archaeologists are aware of this fact; it’s not something you can find by digging. But I knew it to be true. 

The next point is something that our professor knows much better than I do: that the ships of that time were too small to carry economically significant amounts of grain. Most of the ships of the Late Bronze Age could carry 10 to 20 tons of cargo. When you remember that grain has to be stored in heavy pottery, you realize that one ship couldn’t carry much food. And what little we know of shipping from those times suggests that their cargos consisted of high-value items: metals, precious stones, oils and spices, and so forth. Probably the lowest value-to-weight ratios in their cargos was held by the cedar timber shipped from Lebanon to Egypt.

The conclusion should now be obvious: if seaborne trade did not carry agricultural products, then it could not effect more than a tiny fraction of the economic output of these societies. That means that the loss of shipping could not have contributed significantly to an economic collapse. This factor, at least, was NOT part of the constellation of factors leading to the collapse of the LBA. 

My point here is nothing so juvenile as a boast about having outsmarted an eminent archaeologist. He still knows far more about the LBA than I will ever know. My point is that a background based on breadth of knowledge gave me an advantage over the professor on one tiny point. That observation applies broadly. If you look at my History of Thinking hyper-document, you’ll see that the whole thing is based on an integration of information from many fields: biology, evolution, physics, electronics, computers, law, economics, history, and archaeology, to name a few. No specialist from any field could have integrated all those ideas into a single hypothesis; in this case, breadth, not depth, was the key factor.

What’s exciting about this is that my base of knowledge has now reached such a size that I am increasingly experiencing new insights into a wide variety of fields. Cross-connections between ideas spark more frequently now. In my reading of a book on the Industrial Revolution, I saw many similarities to the Personal Computer Revolution. I am now reading a history of sea travel, and again I am noticing connections to other fields that would not be immediately apparent. 

My breadth-before-depth approach has been slow to produce results; for forty years I have been living the life of the mind and only in the last decade or two has it started to pay off in terms of new ideas. But having taken the long, slow route to a different summit, I can see things nobody has ever seen before.