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I feel like I’ve been consistently coming back to the same idea in my studies this term, obsessively inserting it wherever I can, because I have come to believe that it is a common distortion implicit in our telling of history. Distortions always occur because history is a story, but this one just kept pinching me: this idea is that humanity has not changed through history. That said, it would do me some good to explain exactly what I mean by this.
To start, I want to explain what I don’t mean. I do not mean that humanity has not progressed. I do not mean that humanity has not innovated technologies, created institutions to improve our health and safety, or investigated new complex ideas of morality and ethics. Progress does indeed exist, but it exists outside of us, and much less so within.
Evolution typically involves a continual process of species emerging and dispersing into sects distinct enough to evolve on their own into new species. The dispersal is key here, because it is what modern humans lack to a large extent. The traditional process of natural selection, and significant changes in anatomy and brain structure, took tens of thousands of millennia if not more to develop, and in comparison, recorded human history only exists for 5,000 years.
I think the fact that most of us grow up amidst libraries chock-full of knowledge and, for us zoomers, a seemingly boundless internet, blinds us to the fact that the largest part of our human history had no record. Our fellow people living prehistorically looked and were built just like us, even if they maybe needed a shower, had no notion of table manners and would balk on an IQ test. They felt their highs as high as anyone, and their lows just as low as anyone.
History is like a diary you keep your whole life. Early on, there’s so little going on, but bit by bit the human maturity and potential that has always been there shines through. Languages and writing systems are organized and standardized by populations just like how you learn the alphabet in kindergarten. The fact is, if you were born in 5000 BCE, you’d be as incapable of writing as anyone else.
In a world full of countless things to have words for, few things were agreed upon at that point. Now, even as languages are dying fast, we still have countless different words in this world for the same things. We are born learning alphabets and languages, because we’ve kept an innate sense of education and oral tradition, which has led to written traditions, so we can remember what we’ve agreed about. Knowledge demands honest agreement, which is why at our worst and most desperate moments, we can turn to lying and confrontation.
Something that separates us in the present day from our prehistoric siblings is that we know who all the players are. We’ve mapped Earth’s surface and have impressive, even if imperfect, estimates of our global population. Traditional evolution was caused through rough separation and dispersal over thousands of millennia, but we’ve nowhere left to disperse to. Even with pipe dreams of colonizing Mars, I think we’re undoubtedly a long way off from having anywhere but this green earth that will be optimal to independently live off of.
The fact is that we are not evolving, but coalescing. We are progressing, but not growing. It’s hard to know whether the future holds doom and apocalypse (the ultimate form of lying and confrontation) or transcendence (the ultimate form of honest agreement), but the fact is that we’re in the process of figuring something out, not carrying anything out in terms of what it means to be human. Countless humans still die to conflict rather than age, and if we wipe ourselves out to nuclear war or some similar apocalyptic scenario, then we contemporary humans could never claim to be greater than the first homo sapien to walk the Earth. We’d be just another failed species, unable to exist in spite of ourselves.