Hi everyone! I’m going to kick-off season 1 of Please Expand with a thought that was inspired by “The Boundless Sea”.
The first section of the book, “The Oldest Ocean” might be my favourite and I think it’s because it has a sheen of mystery because of the sheer difficulty of knowing anything with certainty about the Pacific Islanders. We are all fascinated by those huge heads on Easter Island but it never sunk in just how complicated it was for that island to be found until I read David Abulafia’s chapter on it. Looking at the map of the region, the trips to Easter Island and New Zealand look madly improbable, with a special mention to Hawaii which required the navigators to sail under an entirely new night sky (leaving the southern hemisphere of the Polynesian islands and entering the northern hemisphere). But I don’t just want to bang on about how incredible this is.
What interested me was the tension between two kinds of historical explanation that this section brought out. Let’s call the one kind “materialist explanations”, and it relies on shards of pottery, evidence of building structures, weapons and tools, and other such material objects. Let’s call the other kind “spiritualist explanations”, and that would be more focused on things that have to do with the inner world of the agents involved: things like wishes, desires, hopes, intentions, etc.
I think the tension is that materialist explanations are much easier to come by than spiritualist ones: there is an inverse relationship the more one goes back in time. What this means is that historical explanations for why things happened in the distant past necessarily lean more heavily on materialist explanations because that’s all there really is. For example, one mystery is: Why did the Hawaiians stop trading with their Polynesian kin and turn their back to oceanic navigation? A plausible answer is because ‘the new territory offered the resources the settlers needed, without the shortages of vital goods that would stimulate trade’ (p.39). Now, there is nothing wrong with this explanation, indeed, it offers a very good reason to explain a very odd phenomenon. Why did Pacific Islanders cease navigating the oceans, an activity that seems to have been an essential aspect of their identity, within a few generations of colonising Hawaii? Because going out into the ocean was a way for them to find more resources and Hawaii provided them with all the resources they needed, thus, they stopped going out into the ocean.
I want to stress that this is a good explanation. But I also want to stress a potential danger that is implied by such materialist explanations. Because we are reliant on materialist explanations to make sense of events in the distant past, the agents that we are talking about lose all subjectivity and individuality and become parts within a larger mechanical whole. I say “mechanical” because there is something mechanistic about the cause-effect explanation offered above: they go out to the ocean to find resources, they find resources, therefore, they stop going out to the ocean. But as we know from more recent history, and indeed our subjective experience, things happen for all kinds of reasons that are not easily discerned in archaeological evidence. Indeed, David Abulafia notes as much on pg.19.
This is not to say that we should respond to materialistic explanations by positing all kinds of fanciful theories about why something happened. History is an empirical field and it should remain so. But we might balance the materialistic explanation by recalling that human history is not natural history, and that we are thinking, self-conscious beings that are capable of doing something for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes we stop navigating because we no longer have to search for food, and sometimes we stop navigating because we believe we have found our homeland and have reached some kind of harmony with our being. We should not ignore empirical evidence in exchange for an unproven theory, but we might accept the empirical evidence with the caveat that we have a good reason to believe that it might not be the whole story.