The Effect of History

It is fascinating how history influences the way we do things. For example, did you know that it is a stringent rule that you only mount a horse from the left hand side?

Getting on the left side of a horse is a rule so deeply ingrained in the culture of horsemanship that it approaches the level of law.  Riding instructors drill it into their pupils.  It is the expected form of mounting/dismounting in a group.  You can even be disqualified from some competitive events if you mount from the right side.

There’s all kinds of explanations for how such a trivial behavior became such an ingrained component of horseback riding.  Some of these even suppose a behavioral foundation, claiming that horses best respond to conditioning and training when it is done on the left side.

Of course, such complicated explanations are wrong.

The real reason stems from the middle ages. Back in the day, people wore swords on their left hips. This was done so that they could draw them with their right hands (seeing as most people are right-handed).  Because of the long slashy thing hanging from your left side, it was all but impossible to mount a horse from the right, which would require you kick your left leg (and said cutting object) over the back of the animal.  It was much easier to mount from the left side and avoid problems entirely.

Yet, even though the rationale for mounting on the left side stems from an obsolete practice (carrying swords), we still do it.  Getting on the left side of a horse has become a part of horsemanship culture.  And because you always approach a horse from the left side, and mount a horse from the left side, and condition a horse from the left side, it’s gotten reinforced and some people think that it’s the only way to get on a horse.  That’s what they tell their students, children, or friends; and those people then propagate the behavior even further, even though there isn’t a compelling reason to continue doing so. The right side works just as well.

“Well, that’s nice,” I can hear you saying, “But so what?  Who cares about which side you get on a horse?  In case you hadn’t noticed, most people will never ride a horse.  It’s a hobby!”

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But that’s the point!  The side that you mount a horse from is only a single example of how history can influence behavior, even in absurdly trivial ways.

History influences everything that we do.  From the way we talk, to the clothes we wear, to how we think about things.  It shapes and moulds in profoundly powerful ways, often without our realizing it.  Nor is it always by design.  For example, think about how many modern typesetting conventions were influenced by the typewriter.

At one time, it was the only thing available for creating documents.  So people learned all sorts of little tricks to get around their limitations.  Underlining, for example, which was little more than overstriking with the underscore (“_”) character, became a common way to emphasize text.  It was easy and convenient, and it still forms an integral part of how we work with documents – even though there is an entire generation of people who have never used a typewriter and despite the fact there are better ways of emphasizing text including both italicized or boldfaced typefaces.

Yet, you’ll still find an underline option amongst the font controls of every text processing program.  What was literally a workaround (a kludge) became a standard component of typesetting, and now it’s so deeply ingrained that it would be painful to try and remove it.  Even with phenomenally good alternatives at our disposal, we instead default to what is historically comfortable.

Tom Baker: Leader of the Baker Clan in the infamous Howard-Baker blood feud of Clay County, Kentucky.Think about the implications of this idea for a moment!  Because we default to what is historically comfortable, our habits and tendency toward self-reinforcing behavior can create markets and even monopolies.  Nor do the trends need to be the result of centuries.  As you ponder this idea, ask yourself this question: Why do most people use Microsoft Windows?

Of course, the answer is rather obvious.  It’s because that’s what comes with their computer and there is no good reason to change.  Due to efforts in the 1980s and early 1990s, Microsoft came to dominate desktop operating systems.  As a result, Windows is installed on nearly every computer that is sold in the world.  It’s reached a state so far beyond monopoly that the only possible label that applies is “cultural”.

This doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried to unseat Microsoft from this position, though.  Apple, IBM, Novell, Canonical, Amiga and a host of others have spent billions developing, deploying and advertising alternatives.  And for the better part of twenty years, the cause of alternative operating systems has been a huge, enormous, and futile battle.  Even with years of effort and billions in investment, all other desktop operating systems combined hold a paltry market share of less than 6%; and it’s all because of historical comfort.

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There is another aspect of the interaction between history and behavior that it is very interesting.  Put briefly, it’s this: historical behaviors and legacies can be inherited and passed on as surely as DNA.  Additionally, in many instances, the people doing so might not even realize what’s happening.  In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses one example that I find particularly interesting: the blood-feuds and honor killings of the Southern Appalachians (primarily Kentucky and West Virginia).

Amongst the narrow valleys of Appalachia, and particularly in the stretch of land known as the Cumberland plateau, honor killings were a significant problem.  Gladwell describes nearly a dozen family feuds (often started for trivial slights) that resulted in decades worth of violence and thousands worth of dead.  As just one example, consider the Baker-Howard feud of Clay County, Kentucky.

The fight began in 1806 with an elk-hunting party that decided to go cattle raiding.  Though they weren’t successful in taking any livestock, their actions angered the neighbors.  The issues and perceived sleights wouldn’t be solved until the 1930s when several Howards killed three Bakers in an ambush.  You read that right.  A failed cattle raid resulted in 130 years of warfare.  Hundreds of people and at least one mule were killed in the fighting, with many more people being displaced due to the violence.

At one point, the feuding of Clay County and the Cumberland plateau got so bad that there nearly one thousand murder indictments, stretching from the end of the Civil War (1865) to the beginning of the twentieth century, in just one circuit judge’s office in Clay County.  As impressive as that sounds, keep in mind that Clay County that the population of Clay County never numbered more than fifteen thousand people.  And as Gladwell notes, many murders never made it to the indictment stage (see Outliers, page 165).  Their killers quietly disappeared as the highly efficient “clan justice system” worked in the background.

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Boys and men stand around George Baker’s dead mule in front of the Oneida Baptist Institute.  The mule was killed when two men on opposite sides of the Baker-Howard feud clashed and opened fire.  Charlie Roberts intended to shoot George Baker, but missed and shot George’s mule instead.  Bystanders are dressed for Commencement at the Oneida Institute in 1915.

So, in addition to determining what side of a horse to get on and a default choice of operating systems, historical patterns also seem to encode for ritual systems of slaughter.  Gladwell describes it this way:

What was the cause of the Appalachian pattern? Over the years, the consensus appears to be that the region was plagued by a particularly virulent strain of what sociologists call a culture of honor.

Cultures of honor take root in highlands and other marginally fertile areas … If you live on some rocky mountainside, the explanation goes, you can’t farm.  You probably raise goats or sheep, and the kind of culture that grows up around being a herdsman is very different from the culture that grows up around growing crops.  The survival of a farmer depends on the cooperation of others in the community.  But a herdsman is off by himself.  Farmers don’t have to worry that their livelihood will be stolen in the night, because crops can’t be easily stolen unless the theif wants to go to the trouble of harvesting an entire field on his own.

But a herdsman does have to worry.  He’s under constant threat of ruin through the loss of his animals.  He has to be aggressive: he has to make it clear, through word and action, that he is not weak.  he has to be willing to fight in response to even the slightest challenge to his reputation – and that’s what a “culture of honor” means.  It’s a world where a man’s reputation is at the center of his livelihood and self worth.

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While the blood feuds of Kentucky may be a striking example of how culture and the history of our forebears influences behavior, it is hardly a singular.   In the book Albion’s Seed (available online from Google Books), David Fischer chronicles dozens of additional examples of how the cultural legacies of immigrants influence their children for generations.  His examples include choices of occupation, dress, degree of litigiousness and even the tendency to prosecute witchcraft (see Albion’s Seed, page 128).

In many instances, the behaviors and cultural legacies are still in effect to this day and can be seen in every major group of immigrants that have come to America.  Which just goes to show, history and legacy cast an extraordinarily long shadow.  They are indelible to identity and highly resistant to change, just like the phenotype encoded by our DNA.  And they can even be inherited and passed along, which I find to be a fascinating notion.

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