No, this isn’t a post about economics or Occupy Wall Street. It’s a post about human history. I’ve begun to read the book At Home by Bill Bryson, which is a history of “private life,” going through the development of homes, kitchens, food, etc.
He makes a point in the book that gives me pause. The history that we know as recorded history — starting with the early development of agriculture and cities — is less than 1% of human history. The first homo sapiens appeared 250,000 years ago, our history is at best 6000 years, though only the last 2500 has reasonably reliable records (albeit only from parts of the planet). That means that 99% of history is hidden from us. Humans with the same cognitive abilities have been inhabiting the earth for a long time, but we have few clues as to how they lived. Humanoids with high levels of intelligence have been around millions of years.
That raises two contradictory puzzles. First, what the heck happened during that “pre-history”? Were we simply hunter-gatherers eeking out survival in a world buffeted by ice ages and difficult conditions? Or were there civilizations and relatively advanced societies that rose and fell? Second, why did we develop so quickly so fast in the last 5000 years?
There are other oddities. Apparently the foodstuffs we’ve inherited from those past civilizations, such as corn, required a tremendous amount of genetic engineering. Not in the lab like the stuff Mansanto does, but through trial and error, cross breeding, and who knows what else. Corn is not natural, it was a human creation. This means that past civilizations must have been very good at dealing with crops and foodstuffs. The fact we cannot “recreate” their processes (Bryson informs that a conference designed to determine the origin of corn disintegrated into acrimony and disagreement) shows that at least in those cases our knowledge may fall short of theirs.
We currently define development and civilization in terms of materialism and consumption. We’re “civilized” because we have a lot of stuff. We have high definition TV’s, XBox’s, cars, highways, airplanes, computers, and grocery stores loaded with everything one could possibly imagine eating. We eat animals, but not in the way of our ancestors. Rather, we turn animals into objects we construct — genetically engineered and fed a particular way solely to get them to market quicker and with more meat. A product that just happens to be a biological life form.
We’re so immersed in this materialist/consumption oriented view of progress and civilization that it’s hard to imagine societal development along a different path. We see 99% of human history as being a waste land where savages roamed the earth eeking out an existence with no meaning – mere animals (and don’t forget how we treat animals!) Only the last 6000 years have had meaningful existence, and the first 5000 of those are iffy.
On it’s face that’s an absurd way to look at human existence and history, yet unless we take the time to shake ourselves out of the cultural fog that causes us to keep our eyes shut and simply reproduce the world we see around us, it seems natural to look at progress and development in purely material terms. Once we recognize that our materialist/secular rational western point of view is a cultural construct that programs us to value certain things over others it’s like we’re sleep walking, oblivious to other ways to understand and appreciate life. We may enjoy a walk through nature and feel a smidgen of something deeper — but how often to thoughts and stresses of the modern world even invade those moments? As Rousseau once put it: “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” We just don’t recognize the chains.
So to borrow from Plato, what if we were to wake up, to be led out of cave and see reality — in this case to view the expanse of the human history we do not know because it was not recorded? The only way we can attempt that is through imagination.
What if a society developed with sophisticated knowledge of plants, animals and nature, but without using the same lens of science that we use? Rather than breaking things down into chemicals and reducing knowledge to general processes, what if that knowledge was holistic, based on how things interact and what works in the world? What if all of the world was taken as valuable and not subdivided and treated as disposable, or a means to an end?
Humans might be able to build sophisticated cities with plumbing, comfort and utility without having electricity or a major power source other than water and sun. Animals would be part of the community. People would still eat them, but in a way that respects the cycles of life and the animal’s role in nature. The same with plants – they would be used fully seen as valuable life forms in and of themselves. Knowledge about them would be prized and humans might know more about agriculture than we now know even with science.
A sense of oneness between humans and nature could have yielded strong civilizations that persisted millennia without leaving a trace for us to find. Sophisticated oral histories and other forms of communication may have been developed. Perhaps they disintegrated, perhaps we don’t understand them. Imagine if our civilization collapsed — most electronic information would dissipate as the grid went down, if someone happened on a CD or DVD in the future it would be a bizarre shinny metal object, certainly not something bearing knowledge!
In fact, if you think about it the idea that creatures as intelligent and sophisticated in thinking as we are roamed the planet for 247,000 years and then only recently discovered a path out of a primitive state is absurd. Moreover, our current lifestyle works against who we are — our bodies, nervous system and psychology is not geared for the modern stresses and pressures of the consumption oriented competitive world we’ve created. Our misguided approach to food is creating massive levels of obesity, diabetes and disease. We have constructed a world out of synch with the kind of creatures we are, and one that disconnects us from both nature and each other.
Yet we are to believe that we are the pinnacle of civilization, that everything before us was primitive or savage. I find it more likely to believe that humans have lived in meaningful advanced civilizations throughout much of human history. As fallible humans in a changing world those civilizations have risen and fallen, and no doubt some were better and more successful than others. Looked at this way, I can’t help but wonder if the path we’ve chosen in the last one or two thousand years might not be one of destruction and decay rather than progress and development.