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Our Narrow Slice with English subtitles  
  

Hey, Vsauce. Michael here.

This picture is

about a year and a half old. But the pyramids themselves

are much older than that. How much older? Well, think of it this way.

The Pyramids of Giza were as

old to the ancient Romans as the ancient Romans

are to us. When the pyramids were being built

there were woolly mammoths living on Wrangel Island.

That's pretty old. But don't get too impressed.

We often learn about the past in units, separate

chapters, which distracts from the fact that many chapters aren't

just nearer each other than you might think, they are often

literally written on top of one another. Anne Frank

and Martin Luther King Jr. were born in the exact same year.

By the late 1960s humans had come a long way.

We've become a spacefaring species. But while we were sending

the first probes to the Moon and Venus and Mars,

it was still illegal for a black person and a white person to marry

in 16 states. The guillotine

seems like a macabre artefact from bygone days

but it was last used by France to officially behead a criminal

the year Star Wars came out. While General Custer was fighting

native tribes on the American frontier, the Brooklyn Bridge

was being build. And there were people alive then

who would later watch the Moon landing on television.

We went from Custer's last stand to

Armstrong's first steps within the span

of a single human life.

But all of these stories, from the pyramids to Julius Caesar to

you watching this video right now, belong to an incredibly thin section

in the book

of human history. Compared to what human life has

mainly been like here on earth, our current societies

are weird. Weird is also an acronym used

by Jared Diamond in his new book "The World Until Yesterday."

Jared Diamond wrote "Guns, Germs, and Steel," "Collapse"

and he's here with me to talk about weird.

Weird, w-e-i-r-d,

is an acronym for "western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic."

When we talk about human nature we're really talking about

a narrow slice of society. Traditional societies were

everybody in the world, from the beginning of human evolution

6 million years ago until within the last

10,000 years for the first time we began encountering strangers and then we

developed

writing and then we acquired kings. All of these things that we take for granted

are matter of the last 5,000 - 10,000 years. Or the Internet

or the media, they're a matter of the last few decades.

The relative recency of weird societies in the speed with which

information and knowledge increases means that not that long ago

we thought some pretty strange things. For instance,

in 1903 The New York Times predicted that building a flying machine

would be possible in 1 to 10 million years.

Later that very same year the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.

In 1908 it was said that no flying machine will

ever fly from New York to Paris. Who made that

foolish prediction? One of the Wright brothers.

In 1962 the Decca recording company

passed on a young rock band, saying "we don't like their sound

and guitar music is on the way out." The band in question

was the Beatles. Keith Moon and John Entwistle were said to have remarked

about a band called The New Yardbirds,

"that band so ill-conceived it will sink

like a balloon or a zeppelin made out of lead."

Well, Jimmy Page was not deterred. In fact, he took that phrase

and made it his band's new name. He removed the A, so it wouldn't be pronounced

"lead," and that's where we got Led Zeppelin.

There is evidence the Nazis weren't entirely convinced

Earth was a globe we lived on the outside of.

Instead, they figured the Earth's continents were actually aligning

on the inside of a hollow concave surface with the stars and moon and planets

in the middle. Seriously.

As the story goes, Doctor Heinz Fischer was sent to Rügen Island

to spy on the British. Now, the curvature of the earth would have made this

impossible.

But thinking the earth was shaped like this, they pointed their telescopes

up at a 45 degree angle. Needless to say,

the experiment didn't work. The Eiffel Tower's

inauguration and the Wall Street Journal and "Starry Night"

and Coca-Cola and Nintendo and Adolf Hitler

all began in 1889.

As did a guy named Thomas Midgley Jr.

Celebrated in his time,

Midgley's legacy has since been tarnished by

the negative consequences of his inventions.

His list of contributions to society is

impressively disastrous.

In the late twenties, Midgley synthesized the first chloro-fluorocarbons -

CFC - for which he won the Society of Chemical Industry's

Perkin medal. Only later did we realize

all of those tons of CFCs we were emitting

were eating away 4% of our atmosphere's protective ozone layer

every decade. Like a virus, creating a

wound, unlikely to completely heal until me and you

have long been dead. In the early 1920s

Midgley discovered that by adding Tetraethyllead

to gasoline engine knocking could be reduced.

The American Chemical Society gave him the 1923 Nichols' medal

for the discovery. There were other, safer alternatives but General Motors jointly

owned a patent on Tetraethyllead

with Midgley. They could make a profit on it, so they advertised it as

the best option and almost immediately nearly

every motor vehicle on earth was spewing

lead into our atmosphere

and soil, which put it in our blood,

lead poisoning for decades.

Currently, the reference for healthy children is a blood

lead content of less than 5 micrograms

per decilitre. After the popularization of Midgley's

leaded gasoline, 88% of children

in America had double that amount of lead in their

blood. When leaded gasoline was finally phased out

in the 1970s, that percentage fell

to 9%. Lead is a neuro toxin.

Even light exposure, like that caused by Midgley's invention,

can cause a decrease in intelligence and in increase

in anti-social behaviour. Fordham University found that

in young adults the best predictor of delinquent

and violent behavior is literally the lead content

of their blood. Chillingly, the rise and fall

of violent crimes by juveniles in the 20th century

tracks significantly closely with the rise and fall of lead

in their blood when they were preschoolers - all over the world.

Historian J. R. McNeill remarked that Midgley

had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single

organism in Earth's history. Midgley's

final invention was even worse.

Well, for him. In 1940 he contracted

polio. To help his friends and family lift him from bed

he designed an intricate system of ropes and pulleys.

As was the story of his life, the invention seemed

brilliant at first, but four years later he became

accidentally entangled in the ropes and his own invention

strangled him to death.

Midgley's life took up 0.55%

of human history. And, roughly speaking, yours will too.

To put that in perspective, let's time travel,

starting right now. We begin

100,000 years ago - the beginning of modern humans.

We are moving forward in time an entire millennia,

a thousand years, every second. As you can see,

not much is changing. Our modern world

will briefly flash at the end. That's all it is. That's all it's been.

So be careful not to miss it.

And as always,

thanks for watching.

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