Thursday, January 6, 2011

A global human history

I just finished reading Steven Mithen's After the Ice (sorry, out of print), and while I enjoyed learning a multitude of things I never knew about the prehistory of humanity (did you know pottery developed independently in Japan thousands of years before it appeared anywhere else?), what caught my eye was the concluding paragraphs:
So what about the 'blessings of civilisation'? Are the delights of the microscope, the thoughts of Darwin, the poetry of Shakespeare and the advances of medical science, sufficient recompense for the environmental degradation, social conflict and human suffering that ultimately derive from the origin of farming 10,000 years ago? Would it have been better if we had remained as Stone Age hunter-gatherers forsaking the development of literature and science? The answer is in our hands; it depends upon what we choose to do during the next hundred years of global warming - our future, that of planet earth, remains within our control.
He concludes by quoting John Lubbock, Victorian polymath and archaeologist:
Even in our own time we may hope to see some improvement, but the unselfish mind will find its highest gratification in the belief that, whatever may be the case with ourselves, our descendants will understand many things which are hidden from us now, will better appreciate the beautiful world in which we live, avoid much of the suffering to which we are subject, enjoy many blessings of which we are not yet worthy, and escape many of those temptations which we deplore, but cannot wholly resist.


  1. What's your POV on this? I suspect that most of us are not so cerebral as we plunge forth through our days. My guess is, we plod along, eat good grub, have some sex, and yes, our intellectual curiosity propels us forward to a degree. But I can't imagine that I'll be on my deathbed thinking about what fascinating problems the kids of the future will be tackling.

    (Perhaps that is why I am not a PhD in astrophysics?! :))

  2. Anittah, I suppose you're right. This kind of philosophical questioning tends to be far removed from the practicality of daily life. But perhaps that's a problem - maybe we need to start honestly considering the larger future consequences of our present decisions. That would be my opinion, anyway... that we can't let our fleeting personal concerns outweigh the long-term concerns regarding the world and the "greater human good."

  3. To paraphrase someone's prophetic words on environmental issues: "We are faced with a series of problems, unprecedented in the history of our planet, our reaction to which has the potential to make us (in retrospect) the most despised generation in human history."


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