A Short History of Humanity

During the twentieth century the physical sciences converged with biology in transforming the Newtonian world machine governed by eternal, universal, and mathematical laws into an evolving—indeed exploding—cosmos where uncertainty prevails, and human efforts at observation affect what is observed. This brings the mathematical sciences closer to the social sciences, and turns history into another kind of black hole from which no branch of knowledge can now escape.

Few historians have so far paid attention to this extraordinary intellectual transformation, but surely it is time for the historical profession to broaden its inherited aspiration to achieve “scientific” history through criticism of sources and the like, and try to connect human affairs with this revised scientific portrait of evolving reality by fitting the human career on earth into its cosmic, biological, and social context. My own ideas of how this might be done are unlikely to carry very far, but let me sketch them anyhow in hope of provoking others to do better.

What makes us different from other forms of life is our capacity to invent a world of shared feelings and symbolic meanings and then act upon them in concert. Across the millennia of human life on earth, cooperative effort among larger and larger numbers of human beings proved capable of getting desired results more or less dependably. Moreover, agreed-upon meanings associated with any new skill or idea that worked better than previous ones tended to spread and alter the way humans did things. Shared meanings, in other words, were capable of rapid evolution, radically outpacing older biological processes of genetic mutation and selective survival. But the process of symbolic evolution does not appear to be fundamentally very different from biological evolution any more than biological evolution was fundamentally very different from the physical and chemical evolution of the cosmos that preceded and sustained it.

How did symbols arise and acquire such powers? How is agreement on symbolic meanings sustained among groups of human beings? And how do agreed-upon meanings that provoke unusually satisfactory actions cross cultural boundaries between different human societies? These are the critical questions for a satisfactorily scientific human history; or so it seems to me. Let me recklessly suggest a few tentative answers.

First, how did we acquire our strange—I am tempted to say magical—powers and learn to live within a symbolic universe of our own invention? I start by assuming that the processes propelling organic evolution apply to the human species as much as to any other life form. Accordingly, before fully human societies arose, I imagine that effective cooperation among a large number of individuals was a critical factor promoting the survival of our ancestors on the savannas of Africa, where human evolution seems to have centered. I also believe that the first notable innovation allowing large bands to stick together, which started proto-humans along an evolutionary path that diverged from the one followed by our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, was the invention of rhythmic voicing and dance.

As I …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.