The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice. —Mark Twain
Humans like to think we’re the smartest beings that have ever inhabited this planet. We may be correct. History indicates that whatever preceded us didn’t have a great deal of luck when it came to surviving what the universe threw at them. We, on the other hand, are pretty sure we’re different. We are convinced that we have everything under control and can almost certainly mitigate any natural disasters. Confident beings, we are.
However, given the choices we’re making, history may judge us no more intelligent than the dinosaurs. We gleefully ignore science. We intentionally pollute our air and water, the very things we need to survive. Our planet is over-populated beyond its ability to sustain life. Yet, we refuse to use genetically modified foods that could feed the planet. We love war. Not only that, humanity has a long history of people not getting along with their closest neighbors. Anyone looking at us in retrospect would consider our violent tendencies a negative character trait.
Humans, however, are focused on the here and now. We pay attention to us. The past is the past. Let the future worry about itself. The earth is slowly baking? Meh, it’s just a periodic thing that happens. Humanity may be in the process of committing one of the biggest fuck-ups in the history of the planet. Yet, does history actually care? Looking beyond our meager existence as a species, we are as easily forgettable as Australopithecus afarensis. The fact you don’t know whether I just made up that name proves my point.
How We Look At History
Humans are the latest, but most likely not the last, in a long evolutionary line of hominids. Our earliest bipedal ancestors existed some six- to eight-million years ago and were considerably smaller than we are now. Our best connection with this time is a single skeleton from about three million years ago. Scientists named the skeleton Lucy because she was, in a very real way, a person. Lucy’s skeleton was found in 1974 in a shallow Ethiopian stream bed. Researchers announced this week that we finally know how Lucy died. She fell, feet first, from a high distance, most likely a tree.
Studies of Lucy’s skeleton take a lot of time. She is the only one of her species we have encountered. She is the only one of her species we are likely to ever encounter. Therefore, while anthropologists study her remains at the microscopic level they try to make conclusions not only about Lucy’s life but her entire species. Did Lucy live or sleep in the trees? When she fell, why was no one around to save her? Each question answered raises a dozen more.
Inevitably, someone asks about the accuracies of these findings. We’re using the best CSI-like technology available. We’re drawing conclusions and making discoveries about Lucy’s time period that would have been unthinkable 40 years ago. Yet, we have no way of knowing exactly how accurate the findings are. No one from that period in history, nothing written, no form of communication still exists. Lucy’s life matters because it is the only glimpse we have into her species. Without her, we wouldn’t have a clue. History wouldn’t care.
How History Looks At Us
Back in 2011, geologists and other scientists who study history in large time frames declared that we have entered the Anthropocene—Age of Man. They all agreed that the impact of humans on this planet was significant enough to deserve its own epoch. In a National Geographic article on the topic, writer Elizabeth Kolbert relates an experience she had with stratigrapher Jan Zalasiewicz. As they were examining an outcropping of rock in the Scottish Highlands, Zalasiewicz pointed toward a particularly dark-colored stratum about three feet wide and said, “Bad things happened in here.”
By “bad things,” Zalasiewicz was referring to mass extinctions, a global calamity of some sort that was so severe as to change the color of the sediment left behind. Known as the end-Ordovician, this was one of the biggest earth-shaping extinction events in the last half-million years. The event is significant because, without those changes, humans might never have evolved on this planet. Even if they did, we would have been very different creatures.
Flash forward 100,000 or even a million years now, and realize that the way in which Zalasiewicz views that stratum of rock is exactly how future scientists will view the sedimentary remains of the Anthropocene. At some point all that will remain of us, of our society, of our technology, of our philosophies, our quarrels, our wars, and our politics is sediment. Our means and methods of communication might give researchers more insight into us than we have into Lucy’s time period. Ultimately, however, it’s all just a giant slab of rock underneath other giant slabs of rock.
History Isn’t Detail Oriented
I’m going to be blunt: History doesn’t give a shit about the petty details of our lives. We don’t’ give a shit about the petty details of Lucy’s life. Future inhabitants of this planet, whatever they may be, won’t give a shit about the petty details of our lives. Even if they are somehow able to access and decode this strange mess we call social media, they won’t care. They have no reason to care. What future species want to know about us is the same thing we want to know about Lucy: How did her species affect our species?
Lucy’s Australopithecus afarensis species represents a link in an evolutionary chain. We are another link in that same chain. What matters to the ultimate course of history is whether we make that evolutionary chain stronger or weaker. We’re arrogant bastards sure that we are strengthening that chain, but our estimations may be biased. Where we stand now, we can either start paying attention to our planet and focus on preserving both it and us or we can fuck it all up and end up being the weak link in our evolutionary chain. This is how history ultimately views our species.
When you ask yourself whether your life matters, consider this context of history. Does your life make us stronger, weaker, or indifferent? If your life is represented by a stratum of rock, do you change the color or do you blend in with those around you? If we, collectively, fuck up this evolutionary chain, history is not going to be kind in its view of us. They’ll look back and, regardless of the details of our lives, consider our whole species imbecilic.
So yeah, history cares if we fuck up. Maybe we should as well.