Overweening Generalist

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Historical Consciousness and Deep Time: A Ramble

In my towers and stalagmite-like piles of books - I have over 30 out from the library as I write, as if I hadn't already had owned too many unread books! - and my horribly promiscuous reading in them, I recently realized how utterly different our perception of history and time has changed over the last mere 150 years.

In Stephen Jay Gould's Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time, he says the slowly-growing acceptance of "deep time" since 1860 (in the West, the Chinese and Hindus had much deeper conceptions than the world being around 6000 years old!) was of Galilean significance. I can "see" that now, but for most of my life I knew that historians and other intellectuals in the West had held to a very (relatively) recent timescale for history...even when fish fossils had been found at the top of mountains. The Flood, the Deluge had done it. It's all in the Bible.

I wasn't brought up on the Bible. That never made sense to me. I had to try to make sense of it by studying Western Civ textbooks, which I now realized just put the Garden of Eden in present-day Iraq, or Mesopotamia. And then I read many books like "C.W. Ceram"'s Gods, Graves and Scholars.

But what about all those Leaky findings...and "Lucy"? How to close the millions-year gap in my personal consciousness about the First Humans and...Barack Obama?

So I studied paleoanthropology, sociobiology, archaeology. What a difference between "history" and these disciplines!

A still-common notion, one I find personally hard to shake, is that "real" history only begins with writing. That just made so much stark sense to me for so long...and it made it easier to compartmentalize, say 3500BCE to now as One Thing, pre-writing humankind Another Thing.

Lately, coming back around to Gould's assertion about our consciousness of "deep time" since Lyell and Darwin, et.al, circa 1860: it still took a long time for college textbooks to incorporate anything about the Paleolithic humans. Even into the first decade of the 20th century, often a mere footnote in a 700 page book mentioned geological time and Paleolithic humans. Then, weirdly, history started with the Germanic hordes running roughshod over Europe!

I remember vividly going to a small bookshop in a smoggy little corner of the San Gabriel Valley, and the owner, knowing I thirsted for knowledge of such things, sold me a used two-volume copy of H.G. Wells's Outline of History. Now here was a history book that made sense to me. Finally! What a tremendous relief! Wells - one of the great Generalists of all time - takes up the first 50 pages with "The World Before Man." How long has Earth been around? (The book first arrived in 1919.) What about fossils and rocks? Climate, the Age of the Reptiles, the rise of mammals...he doesn't get to Neolithic Man until page 82! I still read these two volumes every five years or so. Now I have updated versions, like Jared Diamond.

                                    H.G. Wells, autodidact extraordinaire, seer, generalist, wrote for non-academics,
                                               which pissed the professors off, because he de-emphasized the 
                                               Great Man theory of history. We are here because of biology!

H.G. Wells. This was my first taste of deep time. Like an addictive drug, ever since my "first taste," all I want is more. To get a relatively short narrative about the time of humans before writing was fine, even thrilling at first, but after awhile, I realized there were huge expanses of time in which my imagination was urgently needed to fill in the gaps. And what gaps!

Still: like the Necker Cube, when I looked at it all in a different way, I was in awe of what we don't know, how long our great, great, great, great, great, great, great...grandfathers had been around, dealing with the elements, walking through unfathomably vast expanses of forest and savannah, using fire, communicating with each other in some way. I loved the psychological space! The great expanse of what we have only an inkling of, this feeling of immensity, of the abyss, or the sheer Long Shadow of time, even on the human scale, was vertiginous and thrilling. (I think the idea that others don't like that sort of "buzz" - not at all! - explains a lot about predispositions against a certain number of these types of ideas...)

Vico deals with this by telling his history based on the then-suddenly fashionable catastrophism of the Deluge. It's a clean break with ALL that went before; now: let us deal with history in that truncated period.

Or it was truncated to me. There seem some occult reasons why Vico would want to do this: first: as he lived and studied the reports of the New World were still exciting and it was pretty "wild" stuff. And the earliest writing that was available to him was paltry compared to what anyone can access in a well-stocked public library today. At least Vico tried to explain how language arose. And it's thrilling, but both Vico and I digress, literally.

But quite a lot of knowledge has accreted about our Paleolithic forebears over the last 150 years. Not writing, but, since around 1925, the idea that for all that Paleolithic time there was no absolute stasis, as was supposed by those who wished to hold to the metaphor of paying for being Fallen. No: the idea that self-consciousness arose then! A true, human theory of mind! ("I know that you know that I think that she's desirable, and I wonder what you are going to think if I do or say X?") But how? Some sort of catalyzing event, or series of events that happened over some period of time...made us...different.

A mutation? Accident of birth? A dietary change? Mating with exotic peoples from far over those hills? A relatively quick climate change? Obviously writing changed us: culture became Lamarckian. But before writing? What?

I like Terence McKenna's idea that we stumbled upon psilocybin mushrooms and it catalyzed human consciousness. Academic experts don't lend the idea much credence. But it's an interesting idea, and plausible, and some day I'll blogspew on it in more detail.

In only 500 years we've gone from the Earth being the center of the universe to the idea that we are in a universe that is not 6000 years old but about 13.7 billion years old, it had a beginning, it's expanding, presumably our local universe will undergo heat death when the energy is spread out enough, and there may be billions of other universes, branes, Dark Matter, strings...I think it says something basic about a person when I find out 1.) If they are conversant with these ideas, and 2.) If they tend to embrace them. 3.) If they don't embrace them, why not?

And I like to ask, when the time is right, "What do you think happened to give us a true human theory of mind?"

Here's 6 minutes of the spellbinding Terence McKenna on how we might have obtained a second-order theory of mind. I wish the sound was a little better:

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