Rain Dancing

Sometimes there is nothing you can do, but everybody expects you to do something. That is the time for the rain dance. Put on a good show, create a lot of sound & fury to keep people occupied so that they will keep you around long enough for things to improve, so you get credit. Politicians are master rain dancers, butt all of us have done a few. Sometimes you just have to be seen to be doing something.

I have been reading a book about real rain dances, called Floods, Famines and Emperors:  El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations.  The author talks about the various times when climate change caused civilizations to thrive and crash.   One chapter talks about the Pueblo of the Southwest.  (I think that is where the term “rain dance” comes from, BTW.)  Their population expanded during relatively wet times and then their populations starved and dispersed during when the same Medieval warm period that brought prosperity to Western Europe brought droughts to Southwestern North America that lasted decades or centuries.  Changes always bring winners and losers.

The author Brian Fagan says that a lot of early civilizations were based in part on the implication that priests and rulers could control the weather. Their activities to do this ranged from the merely wasteful to the downright gruesome.  A lot of complicated rituals and ceremonies were designed to do things like make the Nile flow or bring on the season rains.  The ancient Maya seem to have based their belief system on the need to capture, humiliate, torture and kill people from neighboring areas in order to sacrifice them and appease bloodthirsty gods who otherwise would bring drought and destruction.  They left some nice pyramids, but living through in those times must have been like being a minor character in a endless horror movie.   Unfortunately, these kinds of superstitions were the rule and not the exception in pre-scientific societies.

At our safe distance, we sometimes think of these superstitions in the benign fairy-tale sense of an enchanted forest full of fairies, elves etc. But think of how horrible it would be if you really believed it. The pre-scientific world must have been a frightening place. Everything you did could offend some spirit or nymph, so you needed to turn to shaman, witch or priest to protect you from capricious nature, which they (and you) attributed to benign or malevolent intelligence that had to be mollified.  

Some ritual had to be performed, but nobody was ever was sure if they worked.  Of course, they didn’t work but sometimes they might look like they did. If I do ceremonies to make it rain, and it eventually rains, I take credit.  A smart shaman probably had an intuitive sense of probability, so he did his rituals at times when things were moving in the right direction. You can see how the shaman might have added some value by his experience, on balance, however not. 

I suppose superstition is a step toward science. Alchemy led to some real discoveries about chemistry and physics. Astrology gave us some of the tools later needed by astronomers. 

Superstitions are an attempt to put some planning and order into an unpredictable world.   The problem is mostly based on mistaking correlation for causality, poor record keeping and the evidently natural human propensity to see patterns that don’t exist. Superstitions are a kind of distortion of reason, but they can be ostensibly reasonable.    

Of course, we still do rain dances too. The world is still an unpredictable place.

Anyway, I recommend Floods, Famines and Emperors. A lot of his ideas seemed very familiar, but I didn’t put it together until I started writing this that I had read one of his earlier books called The Long Summer.  It is still sitting on my bookshelf. These books help put the climate change debate in its historical perspective. We have been here before and maybe some perspective on how earlier climate changes affected earlier people may help us in the future.