Sunday, December 13, 2009

Teach Your Children Well

The irrepressible Dan Carlin ( has another great Hardcore History program this week, this time about the history of children and how their role in society has changed throughout history. He makes several interesting points, one of which is: if we are more aware of child abuse than we ever have been (which seems inarguable), why is there still child abuse? Wouldn't we have eliminated something so counter to the health of our species?

You don't need to know anything about history to be aware of the fact that, until shockingly recently, utterly appalling treatment of children (and women, and non white people, too) was completely acceptable behavior. Carlin makes note of these things, and tries to explore some of the reasons why this could be-how could people who came up with so many great ideas (democracy, Hamlet, the printing press) be so daft and stupid in other areas? And you have to agree that child abuse is damaging to the long term health of the adult-and yet, you would think we would see these effects throughout history, wouldn't we? Or do we, and we just can't see it?

Tons of interesting ideas to toss around, especially when you're ignoring Christmas shopping you have to do like I am. Carlin concludes by echoing a thought I have quoted here before. I orginally heard it from baseball historian Bill James-look kindly upon the mistakes of the past, in the hope that future generations will look kindly on yours.

There's another analogy from baseball that fits here. (I, unlike your ordinary mortal blogger, can link everything to baseball.) It is often asked in baseball circles why it is that pitchers could throw 500 or 600 innings per season in baseball's prehistoric era, and even 300 innings in relatively modern times, while the 2009 league leader pitched 233 innings, widely considered to be the maximum for a modern hurler. People with modern training methods and nutrition should be able to exceed the limits of the past, right?

The answer is a complicated one-it is certainly harder to get a modern hitter out, and modern baseball philosophy has changed as well, along with a dozen other factors-but the one I am thinking of is the fact that the 300 inning pitcher of 1969 (league leader Gaylord Perry with 325) is at the summit of a selection bias-the ones who were able to pitch that much were able to survive shoulder and knee and back and elbow problems. There were numerous pitchers who could pitch that well for 9 innings, or 90, but who were injured and never heard from again.

Similarly, the appalling losses of women in childbirth and children themselves, both to infanticide and simple death and disease, create a world where you have to abuse your children-you can't afford to get too attached to them, because they may be gone. The society we have now was somehow built on the survivors of all those dozens of risks that befell women and infants-a horrific, macabre, real life version of Survivor. (Carlin makes this point well. Spider Robinson has a story about this, too, which I wish I had handy, about a woman who is immortal, but has had to follow the roles of women throughout history-burying dozens of children and spouses as the years go by.)

Cheerful, ain't I, on this rainy, gray Sunday?

Anyway, if you're a pod person, go download Dan. He's worth your time.

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