Essay 56: Are There Deep Rhythms in History?

Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard wrote a very intriguing book in recent years with the title, This Time Is Different with the implication that fundamental discontinuities (i.e., this time is different) are questionable, if one looks deeply enough.  In the introduction of the book, the author raises the questions of “deep rhythms in history” without answering his own question.  Here’s a potential organizing principle: the world is always a system of violence directed at the weak. Take this entry from the Larousse Dictionary of World History:


The original inhabitants of the Bahamas (Lucayos) and the Greater Antilles (Taínos) who practiced a subsistence agriculture based on seafood, game, maize and cassava using Neolithic technology.  They live mainly in coastal settlements of large villages with caneyes (family houses) and bohios (chiefs’ houses) and had a hierarchical politico-religious structure based on a hereditary ruler, the cacique, who possessed a ceremonial stool (dulho).  A priestly caste-controlled worship of gods of place and nature (zemis) and ceremonies which led to heaven (coyaba). 

They were exterminated as a people by the Spaniards after 1519.

The words maize, tobacco, potato, hammock, canoe and hurricane all derive from the Arawak language.

If we think of the Rohingas of Myanmar, the Yazidis, the Tutsis in Rwanda, and the Darfur people in Sudan, of recent decades, we see a deep rhythm in history: the destruction of the unprotected.  Notice that the first Jewish ghetto in Europe (Venice) was established in 1516 around the time that the Arawak murders begin on a systematic basis.

This never-really-discussed basic rhythm of group violence has been glorified (e.g., The Iliad of Homer, the Aeneid of Virgil, the Old Testament, Scandinavian sagas, Japanese “war tales” such as the Heike Monogatari, etc.)

The omission in all education of this world-violence theme gives students a false sense of “how the world got to now.”

Essay 53: Incomplete One-Field Analysis

Prof. Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago is an outstanding paleontologist/evolutionary theorist and has written marvelous books such as Your Inner Fish:  A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

“Cleverly weaving together adventures in paleontology with very accessible science, Neil Shubin reveals the many surprisingly deep connections between our anatomy and that of fish, reptiles, and other creatures.  You will never look at your body in the same way again—examine, embrace, and exalt Your Inner Fish!”

Prof. Shubin has done outstanding work in trying to understand post-dinosaur mammalian history and timelines.  (Rise of the Mammals was a recent PBS program that is relevant.)

What is inadequate about all such “bones-and-stones” approach to “how we got here” is that the human creature is ultimately downstream from culture as expressed in language (epic poems) and images (e.g., the Lascaux caves in France, say) and fossils, as wonderfully intelligent as the detective work is, are one flashlight and not the system of “searchlights” one really needs to understand anything.

The very first lines of Homer’s great epic, the Odyssey shows you this:

“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer…”

(Quoted from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation.)

Here one sees the cultural soul of the human: the invocation of muses, gods, the telling of stories, the singing of songs, contending and wandering.

All evolution: cosmic, earthbound, whatever, does not capture the essence of humanity as the first words of Homer’s Odyssey where words, songs, stories take us into the human while the fossils and fossil archaeology are fascinating material infrastructure, as Prof. Shubin’s outstanding skeletal digs and “detective work” show us.