The Human Limits of History, Research Time, 17/09/2015

If you want to write a universal history of humanity – and I mean a history that’s genuinely universal – it has to include a good chunk of the evolutionary history of Earth. From the bacterial biosphere to the modern era of animals with ideas above our station. Humanity alone isn’t all that matters.

How we conceive of history is a big part of Francis Fukuyama’s analysis of democracy as utopia. He adopts a conception of history that’s explicitly eschatological. The flow of human history, the narrative of our species and global civilization, has a natural endpoint.

When the world ends, it's an event, like any other. Like
the Doctor said, it's so easy to miss.
More than just an end, though. Everything comes to an end. Ecological thinking wonders about the end of humanity all the time. But that environmentalist frame of mind conceives of the end of humanity as our stumbling toward destruction. 

The pollution and ecological effects of our industry eventually makes our own planet uninhabitable for us, and we’ve neglected the space race for so long that we don’t have the resources to try to get it right on another planet. The end of humanity, in the context of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, is a contingent matter. The fatal mistake of our accidental mass suicide.

I’m very much an environmentalist thinker. I wrote a book on the subject, after all. So it’s a refreshing strangeness to walk into such a humanist world-view as Fukuyama’s. For him, it isn’t just that history at one point will end, but that the human story has a plot, and most importantly, a culmination.

Because the idea that history as a culmination is strange to me. It not that I’ve never encountered it before. I’ve read Georg Hegel, after all, and taken university courses on his work. Fukuyama’s read Hegel, and explicitly positions himself as a follower of Hegel. More on that tomorrow.

I find it strange because I find it ridiculous. Egotistical, even. To those who Hegel has influenced, history is a peculiarly human thing. History is only possible with self-consciousness, the ability to reflect on what’s happened and understand it somehow. 

In other words, the only creatures that can have history are those who can think about the meaning of their pasts. Creatures who are capable of philosophy, basically.

But I’ve spent the last few years getting out of this mode of thinking about history, to the extent that I’ve ever been in it at all. Even if you stick to human self-consciousness, we’ve had self-consciousness for millions of years, long before anything like civilization or the recording of history came along. 

One day, I hope we'll all recognize the special peer-hood
that exists between humanity and elephants. We'll have
a lot to answer for, I think, if we make it to a more
ecologically enlightened future.
The recent discovery of another ancestor species of humanity, homo naledi, was most likely of a graveyard of the species. A species that lived two million years ago. For that long, even before there were hominid species, our biological ancestors were able to understand themselves spiritually, a mind-set that we normally associate with great cognitive advancement.

I see no reason to drop that premise, so I conclude that for at least the last two million years of humanity’s evolutionary history, we’ve been advanced enough to think of the world in spiritual terms. Elephants are another type of creature that has graveyards and ritualistic burial behaviour, indicating spiritual thinking. 

It’s a fairly common, and sensible, idea to consider that whales may have comparable intelligence to humans. Cetacean and ape sign language abilities are at a level of sophistication that I feel more uncomfortable with their suffering than many other species of animal. I’ve even seen demonstrations of octopus intelligence – maze running, puzzle solving – that make me especially queasy of eating them.

If intelligence is so prevalent in our world, it’s a sign that we shouldn’t be so humanist about the nature of history. Even if you do associate history with self-consciousness.

Yet because intelligence seems so frequent in the world, I see more continuity between the human and non-human world. This was a key idea in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. The world is made of many interconnecting processes, a single, continuous flux. Everything that happens is a part of history because everything is continuous.

Don’t think that I’m saying that continuity means the universe as a whole is intelligent. I’m not going that far into pantheism. 

What I mean is, coming up with a conception of history that restricts it to humanity alone isn’t actually legitimate. It makes a categorical distinction that isn’t real: between humanity which has history, and nature to which stuff happens. Accept the continuity, and at least give material causality the dignity of the term “history.”

The whole world is just as real as we are.

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