For a savvy buyer of horses in the 19th century, looking at the teeth was like reading rings on a tree stump. Though the horse might have been treated well in preparation for market, all the seasons of scarcity and abuse before would be evident.
The outer hair and skin can be tweaked, trimmed, polished, and flattered in countless ways.
The teeth however, reveal age, diet, an entire life history.
The 19th century horse buyer probably didn’t fully understand all the exact reasons why examining the mouth was so important.
But the incentives were correctly aligned: he had a direct self interest in purchasing the best horse possible.
Let’s suppose this man who bought the horse also ran a stagecoach business in which his horses were worked every day.
It was in his interests to keep his profit margins up by taking care of his money-generating horses as best as possible.
Now let’s consider a similar type of professional whose specialty is members of his own species: a slave driver.
Let’s take an overseer from the Ancient Mediterannean, the American South… you get the idea.
Obviously if the market was saturated in the aftermath of a conquest, slaves were probably treated brutally and worked to death with little care for their livelihood.
But let’s assume we’re looking at some time period where the supply of slaves was mainly determined by the slow human rate of human reproduction and their value was high.
Now let’s pretend for a moment that we’re an overseer.
Not only does our boss have a certain amount of work he wants done, we’re in direct competition with other overseers even if we’re meeting all the quotas. If the people we’re responsible for are sick and unproductive, the master isn’t likely to listen to our excuses if someone else consistently outperforms us.
All the incentives point to finding out what works, no matter what it takes.
If there isn’t any obvious way to meet our goals, we have to find a way.
Thus for anything short of advanced surgery, I’ve often wondered:
If I became ill, might a taskmaster do a better job of restoring me to health than a modern MD?
After all, a doctor doesn’t lose their job if they fail to solve the problem. They can just chalk it up to ‘natural causes’ and move on to the next patient.
I’m not suggesting that the doctor is wrong or that he’s performed any kind of
Rather, beyond a certain level of inconvenience and difficulty, he will let nature take its course. The incentives for him to perform well are relatively weak.
The overseer doesn’t have this option. He’s forced to find clever ways to prevent natural causes from taking an undesirable course.
The overseer has an opportunity to observe and interact with his subjects across a period of time. He can get to know all the important patterns and try out different solutions.
Meanwhile, a doctor usually gets called in when possibly preventable problems have snowballed into an emergency situation. There’s little time for experimentation. The doctor is forced to rely on a set of procedures taught to him by his guild. The patient is a stranger. He often has to make decisions with very little knowledge of the patient’s personal history.
A modern doctor usually just has to patch people up well enough that they can work a desk job. Short cut medications that result in drowsiness and lethargy are acceptable solutions.
The taskmaster has to get his sick people back to physical labor at 100% capacity as quickly as possible.
A doctor’s job is done when his treatments have been applied.
The taskmaster has to always be looking ways to sharpen his game. Even when his charges
are in perfect health and behaving well, it still behooves him to look for ways to get an
edge over his competitors. Always room to improve.
It’s occurred to me that in the dark recesses of historical libraries there must be
elaborate texts on the health and care of slaves. If we were to dig up some of these documents, might we not find valuable knowledge?
Previously, I mentioned a curious dentist who noticed an important pattern during his worldwide travels: that crooked teeth and poorly formed skeletal structure correlated with nutrient poor modern diets and especially with a lack of vitamins A and K.
Ought we to be surprised, then if an overseer from thousands of years ago looked into the mouths of modern children with braces and retainers and recognized instantly both the nature of the problem and how it could have been prevented?
Though the overseer would not have the remotest clue what a vitamin is, perhaps self interest might have pushed him to acquire an understanding of human health and physiology in some ways beyond that of modern health professionals.
If we were to compile the knowledge of ancient taskmasters into a modern health book, hide the nature of the original sources by publishing it under a single nondescript pseudonym, give it a faddish title, furnish it with a charismatic spokesperson… might it be a bestseller? A bestseller that would crash overnight if fans ever discovered where all that useful information really came from?