History and prehistory

The textbook assigned for my history classes occasionally made references to groups of people who had lived in various places for many thousands of years or of people who arrived in certain places many thousands of years ago. I promised my students that they would not be required to learn those time spans, and I assured them they would not be tested on those numbers.

Right after explaining to the class what the textbook means by “BCE and “CE,” I gave them that assurance. “This class is a class about history,” I told them. Those few sentences in the book are about prehistory. We are not studying prehistory in this class; if it comes up in other classes, you can learn about it there. I used the opportunity to teach the students that, when it comes to prehistory, more than two theories are available. The reduction of debates and disagreements to two choices can be a problem in many areas—particularly in the study of history. I reminded the students that often prehistory is approached as if there are only two positions: Evolution, in which the world has changed and developed over millions of years, and Creation, in which the world was made by an Almighty God less than ten thousand years ago. I pointed out that there are other theories. Some people believe that an Almighty God created over millions of years, gradually shaping the world and life in it into what we know today. Others see God as a Spirit of the Universe, evolving with the worlds and with the life living on those worlds. Still others view the universe as passing through stages, gradually building to a high point, then crashing into destruction and beginning again the process of building. Some versions of Hinduism regard the physical world as a place in which building and destruction and rebuilding has been the pattern, repeated many times through the long course of history.

Evolution did not begin with Charles Darwin. When we reach the nineteenth century and talk about Darwin, I point out that his writings were heavily footnoted. None of his ideas were new; he was merely a successful writer who brought those ideas together and expressed them in a popular fashion. One might say that Darwin had a better press agent than other scientists of his generation—just as one might say that Guttenberg had a better press agent than other inventers of his time. Guttenberg was selected as the most influential man of the millennium (1000-2000) because of his printing invention; but printing was invented in China centuries before Guttenberg was born. Even movable type had been devised before Guttenberg came along. His printing business was more successful than those of his competitors, and he ended up taking credit for the new technology, but he scarcely deserves credit for changing the world by inventing printing or any facet of printing technology.

And don’t let me even start talking about Thomas Edison….

But I digress. I also tell my students that if Charles Darwin were transported into a biology class taking place in our time and were given an examination on evolution, Darwin would fail the test. The theory of evolution has changed (some would say it has evolved) since Darwin wrote his famous books. Darwin believed in slow, gradual change continually occurring in nature. Scientists today teach about long periods of stability and sudden changes—often climate change brought about by meteorite strikes or other cataclysmic events. Darwin believed that all surviving adaptations were improvements—“survival of the fittest”—but scientists today insist that many surviving adaptations are not the best possible results of change—“survival of the survivors.”

In any case, human beings at the beginning of recorded history were essentially like human beings today. They had the same intellectual capability, the same ability to learn, and the same ability to remember that people have today. They had less to learn and less to remember—not only history, but science and literature and other classes would also have been greatly abbreviated from what students learn today. Their bodies were smaller, on the average, and their lives were shorter, but that was due more to nutrition and other health-related issues than to any evolutionary change over the past few thousand years. No, when we think of the earliest people who lived at the beginning of history, those people were very much like ourselves.

Poor people. J.