Dan Carlin — What All of History Has in Common

Dan Carlin,

Release Date
April 17, 2017



Does history repeat itself? Dan Carlin, the “political Martian,” says history can’t teach us what to do next, but it can teach us who we are. Watch the full interview here.


  1. A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell (book): For more on the debate about whether there is a “human nature” and how this impacts history, check out this book by Thomas Sowell. 
  2. Mises and Fisher on Theory and History (article): Does history repeat itself? See what Anthony Fisher and Ludwig von Mises thought. 
  3. Capitalism and Human Nature (article): In an attempt to understand what makes capitalism tend to work better than communism, Will Wilkinson turns to evolutionary psychology.

Dan Carlin: I think it was Mark Twain that said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.” It’s not that history is so cyclical, it’s that there’s a constant element in it, and it’s us. It’s human beings. What did Shakespeare say? “All the world’s a stage and all the people are merely players.”
The tapestries change but if you could pull people out of the past, other than the fact that they’re going to seem like different cultures because they were raised in completely different environments, they’re still people. If you measure them with sensory equipment, they’re going to score the same. That’s why it seems similar.
When you look back for example, at the fall of the Roman Republic, you have two things that are similar. One, human beings with the same passions and desires and foibles and all that, and then you have systems. The reason people always look at Rome, the Republic.
Everybody always thinks Empire, it’s the Republic that’s similar, is because when you have a government that is formed, because ours was deliberately modeled on some of those. So, you have a similar system, and then you throw human beings into it, you’re going to see things that are similar because there are patterns that are going to re-emerge.
Does that give you any predictive value? Absolutely not. History doesn’t teach you how, for example, I love the right wing always tells you that Hitler, and Munich, and appeasement taught you you can’t do that. No it doesn’t. It taught you what you could do with Hitler in that situation at that time. The variables mess that up. History doesn’t teach you how to act, but it can tell you a lot about who we are.
Dave Rubin: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, it’s basically, it just humans, really. It’s just humans within the time frame that they happen to live.
Dan Carlin: Systems. Human systems and culture. Because you can take people even now from different cultures. I mean, if you took people from a completely different culture right here, go to Central Africa, and replace all the Americans tomorrow, and take them and put them in Central Africa, and take all the Central Africans and put them in the United States, and say, “Here’s your system, Donald Trump is your president, and you have a mid-term election in two years …”
Dave Rubin: Get going.
Dan Carlin: Do you think there’s going to be differences in the voting patterns? So, you have to factor culture, systems, and us into the equation. That’s why history is important, because it really teaches you about us as a species through cultures and through time.
Dave Rubin: Yeah. I mean that’s a beautiful way to phrase it, but there are historical events you have to know about. But, really what you’re learning about is just sort the nature of being human.
Dan Carlin: That’s an argument. Is there a human nature? Certainly we have parameters within which most of us operate, and whether the culture expands those parameters over time, there’s still … Love is love, hate is hate, sex is sex. There’s certain things we see the similarities in primates when you look at them now. That’s what connects you to an ancient Egyptian, when almost nothing else would. They’re still people.
When you read, for example, the epithets that the ancient Romans wrote, on the equivalent of tombstones, of their children who died, it touches your heart today the way you can relate. The only reason you can relate is because if you took a Roman baby and put him in a time machine and brought him now and raised him as one of us, he would be indistinguishable, and vice versa. You would like watching public executions for entertainment if I took you as a child and raised you in the middle ages.
Dave Rubin: Yeah, I’m pretty sure we’re going to get back to that now. [crosstalk 00:03:28]
Dan Carlin: You can say it’s [crosstalk 00:03:30] we do now.
Dave Rubin: Exactly, we’re not that far from it. We really aren’t. And by the way, there are parts of the world, Saudi Arabia, they’re beheading people on the streets and plenty of people watch and cheer and all that. Are they that much different than us or is their system, and I guess that’s what you would argue, the system around them has just led them to cheering that, right?
Dan Carlin: Culture, maybe culture. Systems lock you in. Like a Republic locks you into certain things. For example, in Rome, the part that just is, you look at it and you go, gosh it looks so similar is campaign contributions, and money, and favors with powerful people. The ability of the powerful to influence. The wonderful part of the Roman Republic history for me is when you read about the attempts, for example, the people who were known as the Gracquei. The Gracques brothers were famous. You would call them the champions of the poor today. Maybe like you would say the Bernie Sanders types or whatever.
What I love about reading the Roman History, and Rome is great because you have so much history that you can actually look at and study, is the people at the time would say, “That’s not what they really believe, they’re just trying to pander …” It sounds so much like-
Dave Rubin: They were being paid off by the Koch brothers.
Dan Carlin: That’s right and when you read it you just go, that’s a systems thing. Their system looks like our system and because of that you throw human beings as they always are into that system. The culture part makes it very different. You can see echos of who we still are today. Is it a predictive tool? Not at all. But, you do look at it and you go, gosh, we are interesting animals and I see it over thousands of years of difference.