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  • Human Knowledge of Change September 26, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern, Prehistoric , trackback


    Humanity began its long escape from the seasons about 10000 years ago when the Neolithic Revolution saw a nomadic primate named homo sapiens start to settle, grow plants, drink beer and domesticate animals. Though some of our cousins in the Amazon rainforest and the Pacific still keep up an essentially natural animal existence, most of the species are continuing to enjoy the joys and the horrors of the escape from the natural environment. Whether humanity’s attempt to escape animalhood is a road to hell or a tram ride to the sunlit uplands is besides the point: what matters is from when men and women built houses we have been on a journey, something that could not have been said of paleolithic humans, save in terms of the minute changes in physical evolution. Thanks to two hundred years of scientific history and archaeology we know that, without a shadow of doubt, human capabilities, vulnerabilities and societies have and are changing. But here’s the rub. How many of our ancestors from the days of the first settlement to today could have had the wisdom or the breadth of vision to say the same thing: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. This is not the old chestnut about interest in progress, it is an understanding that our great grandchildren will not live in the same world that we do.

    The technological changes between 8000 BC and 1000 BC, say, were dramatic but those who lived through the Neolithic period and beyond dwelt in a world where natural cycles (lunar, solar, menstrual…) overshadowed historical changes: they were absolutely tied to the land and what the land could produce. They also lived in conservative societies, not necessarily societies that rejected change, but societies certainly that claimed to abhor change. The same is true of almost every ancient and medieval society and, indeed, many modern societies. How could these hide-bound folks possibly get a sense of the bigger picture of the human express en route to extinction or Alpha Centurai? Today it is normal for children, at least in the west, to talk to parents who remember when there were no mobile phones, while this blogger’s grandparents spoke to aunts and uncles who remembered the first cars appearing on dust tracks… Change is so vibrant and evident that it has begun to scratch the drawing paper: the message wrecking the medium. But back beyond about 1800 there are not the same obvious technological jump forwards and intellectual ideas can, of course, be absorbed and glossed over by societies who want to pretend that everything is always and has always been the same. Only a very privileged few (merchants in Italian communes, the buccaneers riding the coast of the New World, peasants pushed into just built factories, the Romani watching their cities emptying in the early fifth century) were able to look behind the curtain and, for a moment, glimpse the cogs and brakes cracking along. What they feel is what we feel and it is both dizzying and exhilarating. Just don’t get your hand caught in the machinery…