Monday, November 26, 2012

Why They Built The Pyramids... And What It Means For You!

By Glenn Campbell in Istanbul

When looking at the great monuments of prehistory, like the Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Egypt or the monoliths of Easter Island, the first question people ask is, "How were they built?" How did such a technologically primitive people, who hadn't even discovered the wheel, manage to cut and haul those huge stones? Apart from the techniques used, how did a society of farmers find the manpower for the job?

The second question people ask is, "Why were they built?" For this answer, we usually look to religion. Perhaps these monuments honor the society's gods or were vessels to carry the king to the Afterlife. We feel a little smug about it because we obviously don't believe the same things, but we still look to the society's religious beliefs for the motivation behind the monuments.

If a society left no written record, those two questions may be impossible to answer, but they may be the wrong questions anyway. The how and why of Egyptian pyramids don't explain why similar massive monuments turn up everywhere, in every era, whenever a society or individual has excess resources at their disposal. The Aztecs and Mayans, separated from the Egyptians by an ocean, also built pyramids, while Polynesians and Druids seemed to have similar inclinations, just not the same building materials.

Even in the modern world, you see monuments everywhere you go, from the Eiffel Tower to the hopelessly non-utilitarian mansions of the rich. It seems like every old town in Europe has its massive cathedral, sometimes dwarfing the town itself. In these cases, we don't ask, "How were they built?" because we have the written records to show us exactly how it was done. When we ask "Why were they built?" we usually cite some combination of spirituality, patriotism and art appreciate, all of which are well documented by the builders at the time. But the sentiments expressed at the unveiling ceremony may not tell the whole story.  Why does every successful society or individual eventually turn its attention to massive building projects of limited practicality?

This question applies not just to the ancients but to you and me. Admit it: You've got the monument building urge within you, just below the surface. If you win millions of dollars in the lottery tomorrow, you could give it all to charity, but more likely you'd soon be building your own version of a pyramid. At the least, you'd buy yourself a big house far in excess of your needs, and if you had boatloads of cash you'd probably employ architects and contractors to build a specially designed home to your own specifications, a project that could take years. That's not much different than a Pharaoh building a pyramid. But why? Why do we all have the urge to build?

The simple answer: People build monuments to use up their excess resources. In both societies and individuals, resources in excess of ones needs create instabilities and anxieties that seem to be relieved by neutralizing or fully committing the resources. In a nutshell, the main purpose of the Pyramids, Stonehenge and the Easter Island monoliths was to burn off the resource surplus that might otherwise cause instability in the society and anxiety in its leaders.

This idea could be called "Resource Absorption Theory". People engage in big long-term projects to absorb excess resources that might otherwise destabilize their internal economy. The builders always have nobler sounding explanations for what they do, expressed eloquently at the unveiling ceremony, but when you look at all the monuments of human history, you see a more basic motivation that the builders themselves may not acknowledge: Excess resources generate tensions that are most easily relieved by massive long-term resource-zapping projects.

Let's go back to ancient Egypt. The Nile Valley was uncommonly fertile, producing more food than its people needed to survive. This is a good thing, right? Wrong! An excess of resources must have been a great crisis for Egypt's rulers—a source of social instability that was eventually resolved by building ever-bigger pyramids to absorb and neutralize the surplus.

Throughout history, human societies have faced two great problems: a lack of resources and an excess of them. It is easy to understand how a lack of resources can be distressing. People starve, and their desperate struggle for food could make a society unmanageable. But an excess of resources can be even more disruptive. It gives people free time and the opportunity to ask questions, which every ancient ruler knows is bad news. People with too much time on their hands inevitably start challenging the power structure and scheming against their leaders. Excess resources also present a natural temptation to whoever controls them. Money "burning a hole in ones pocket" is a universal human weakness. When you have resources, you are under psychological pressure to spend them, even if you have to make up a meaningless project to do it.

In ancient cultures, excess resources naturally lead to another very simple source of instability: a population explosion. Without any outside controls, an excess of resources naturally results in an increase in population and the classic Malthusian Dilemma: Population expands to absorb all the resources available and the benefits of the surplus are lost. Before birth control technology, the only answer to Malthus was to quickly drain away any excess resources that would lead to a higher population. Starvation is the original form of birth control. In the ancient world, a society couldn't afford to make life too easy for its lower classes or they would procreate wildly. There had to be physical hardship or the population would explode, wiping out all the advantages of prosperity to the upper classes.

If the Nile Valley is producing too much grain, you can't just let the people keep it. You have to take the excess away from the producers and keep them semi-starving so they don't over-procreate. This was accomplished in ancient Egypt with a system of taxation, a technology we all understand. If a farmer is producing twice as much grain as he needs, Pharaoh arranges to take half of it away. This keeps the farmer poor and reduced his family size. It also enriches the Pharaoh and makes him stronger, which is something every leader seems to want.

An ancient king worth his salt is going to want to transfer the excess wealth of the countryside into his own coffers. Pharaoh's only problem, then, is that his granaries are soon overflowing. Grain doesn't keep forever. If it isn't used for something it eventually goes bad or gets eaten by vermin. How is Pharaoh going to use it up before the expiration date?

Many ancient leaders solved this problem by using the grain to raise armies and go to war. War is a handy sink for excess resources that mankind has been using since the dawn of time. But the Egyptians may not have had this option. Perhaps, during Egypt's heyday, there was no nearby culture worth conquering, or maybe they just didn't have the technology for distant campaigns. If war wasn't an option for burning off resources, then the Pharaoh had to turn inward for a solution to his ever-growing surplus.

Huge pyramids did not appear instantly on the Egyptian landscape. They evolved over several millennia, starting no doubt with a pile of stones marking a leaders grave. There are plenty of smaller and older pyramids in Egypt that show us how the artform evolved. Pyramids were like the giant neon signs of Las Vegas. Each new leader tried to outdo his predecessor in gaudy excess. It was an ultimately meaningless competition, but humans have a long history of getting caught up in that sort of nonsense. (See our modern spectator sports for examples.) Give people a race to run, and they'll run it, without asking why.

It may be wrong to assume the Pyramids were built in response to a preexisting religious belief. Instead, the religious beliefs may have evolved alongside each project, helping to justify its existence. Remember that the Pharaoh was the worldly head of his religion. The beliefs were whatever he said they were. Without much written record to refer back to, the convenience of the ruler could easily mold religious teachings.

How were the largest Pyramids built? What were the secret stone moving techniques? We may never know the specifics, but it is safe to assume the greatest engineering minds of Egypt were focused on the problem for thousands of years. Egypt probably had its Einsteins and da Vincis; we just have no record of them. Ancient Egyptians were genetically identical to us, so they probably had a few smart ones among them, along with countless sheep willing to follow the herd.

Why didn't those smart Egyptians also invent the wheel? Maybe they did, but the society as a whole was not open to innovation. In a strictly top-down hierarchy like this, each bureaucrat was probably suspicious of change, which would have been a threat to his own fiefdom. No one had an interest in making life easier for the general population by lightening their load, so the wheel could have been invented many times by many clever people and just never caught on (except, perhaps, in certain aspects of pyramid construction).

Whatever the financial and technological resources were, there was a limit to them. The Egyptian Pyramids grew to a certain height and no further. At that point, all of the excess resources of the society were used up and no bigger pyramids could be constructed. Perhaps we can judge the resources of the whole society by the size of their monuments, just like rings on a tree. They don't seem quite so impressive if we figure Egyptian society was completely focused on this project and nothing else. We can ask "how" about individual projects and might be amazed by their ingenious technology, but the bottom line is that people build gaudy monuments when they have excess resources and stop building when those resources run out. When the system is set in motion, the gaudiness is going expand until all the surplus is absorbed.

Fast-forward to today. Aren't we all afflicted with the Egyptian disease? Don't we all feel the urge to engage in big, open-ended projects whenever we have excess resources? Even a garden is a pyramid of sorts: You commit yourself to tending it every day, and soon all of your free time is gone. You may have a beautiful garden by the end of the season, but think of all the better things you could have done with the time.

It is interesting to watch what modern people do when the come into relative wealth. If you don't have much money, you fantasize about all the amazing things you would do if you had it, but in practice most wealthy people just build gaudy monuments not unlike those of the pharaohs. To see them, drive through the upper class suburbs of any big city. Once you have wealth, the market gives you plenty of ways to squander it. Instead of spending $20 on clothing, you can spend $2000 on a supposedly finer grade of clothing. Instead of living in a 500-square-foot area, you can live in 5000 square feet with an ocean view. People always have a rational-sounding explanation for the additional expenditure, but a more primitive motivation comes first: the urge to neutralize ones excess resources.

Wealthy people do not have a population they are trying to control like the pharaohs, but excess resources still cause internal tensions. If you win the lottery and suddenly find yourself with a million dollars in the bank, those dollars are crying out to you every day, "Spend me!" This sounds like a happy problem, but it isn't. Once you pay off all your debts, having extra money in the bank is a real emotional crisis. If people know you won the lottery, they're going to hit you up for money, offering you countless "investment opportunities". You know there are noble charities you could give to, but which one? You know you could go anywhere, do anything, but where and what? These are stresses you face only when you have excess resources.

Once you have plenty of resources, you discover a dilemma of the wealthy since the beginning of time: Wealth doesn't give your life meaning. In fact, when you are relieved of survival burdens, sudden access to wealth just emphasizes how meaningless your life really is. If you don't have to go work anymore and now have the resources to do anything you want, what are you supposed to do with yourself? You can do all the hedonistic things money is know for—buying luxury goods and traveling First Class to expensive resorts—but these things feel empty and don't last long.

Unless you are uncommonly self-contained and self-directed, excess resources usually lead you to Pharaoh's solution: engaging yourself in some long-term monumental project that seems to offer a spiritual payout far in the future. Your immediate tensions would be resolved if you, say, committed the remaining years of your life and all your available resources to building a massive vessel for your journey into the Afterlife. Barring that, how about building a dream home or having children? Suddenly, all your resources are committed, so you no longer have to worry about how to spend them. You seem to be engaged in a meaningful project and all of your nagging surplus is absorbed.

The only sticking point is whether this vessel you are constructing will actually work as advertised, transporting you to a higher place. That's where faith comes in. The main role of religion throughout the ages is to justify the emotional investments people have already made. We can try to decode the hieroglyphics to figure out how the Egyptian faith worked, but basically it was a set of expedient beliefs evolved over time to reduce the leaders' private anxiety and justify their massive personal projects.

If you don't happen to have faith, maybe a monumental project isn't such a good idea. Maybe you should invest yourself in smaller projects that can be modified more easily. That way, when new information comes to you—about the Afterlife or your role on Earth—you aren't already committed to a big project leading you in a different direction.

No one really knows if the pharaohs ever got to that special Afterlife they were seeking or if their pyramid helped them get there. None have reported back so far. But if we look at these projects on purely earthly terms, they were a tragic waste. You can't say that the Egyptians made any huge contributions to world civilization along the lines of, say, the Romans. If all of their resources were focused on these simplistic projects, nothing else could get done and no real internal growth could take place.

The same can be said about modern humans and their self-imposed monumental projects. Building a dream home with your lottery winnings may seem like a happy undertaking until you realize all the better things you could have done with the resources. Money isn't the most valuable resource, especially when you have enough of it. Time is. Time is non-renewable, and there is no lottery to give you more. If you devote three years to building your dream home, is the dream really worth the three years you have lost?

You're already three years closer to the Afterlife. Shouldn't you be worrying about that instead?