Natural History and Human History

15 December 2008


The “news” of natural history

The weather is often used as a metaphor for fickleness and unpredictability. To be “as changeable as the weather” is to be capricious indeed. And it is often said, despite the fact that it is not true, that “lightning never strikes twice in the same place.” Though the weather is unpredictable, it does, however, have patterns. In yesterday’s Snow in Portland I discussed the weather patterns of northwestern Oregon in some detail.

we can see it coming all the way across the ocean.

Oregon gets its weather from the Pacific: we can see it coming all the way across the ocean.

Weather is the “news” of natural history. It is the day-to-day eventfulness of natural history, which latter is larger and more comprehensive than the mere weather, but also would not exist without the weather. Natural history is the big picture, the “novel” in contradistinction to the “news” of the weather. In natural history, patterns are even more evident than in the weather. We cannot predict the future of natural history in detail, but we can be pretty clear about the overall outline. For example, we can’t predict the exact outlines of the coastlines of future continents, but we can, on the basis of data available today, project the large scale movements of land masses and how continents will be made and unmade in the ongoing saga of geomorphology.

The possibility of scientific history: iterated structures of nature

A scientific approach to history would quantify regularities, calculate probabilities, and make predictions based on documented empirical data. We have a well-established scientific approach to natural history. In fact, contemporary natural history was essentially created by the efforts of natural science. There is, however, no consensus regarding a scientific approach to human history. But our inquiry, at present, is not a scientific inquiry in the strict sense of the term. We seek understanding rather than prediction, and understanding in terms of laws, principles, structures, and ideas.

There is no sense in which we reject a scientific approach to history or the scientific method generally; rather, ours is at times a complementary undertaking, and at times a more comprehensive undertaking. Scientific laws are one form of understanding – one form among many. A more comprehensive approach to understanding history subsumes the scientific form of understanding through inductively formulated laws under a general schema of laws that includes scientific laws among others.

History itself is, in a sense, a comprehensive grasp of the present. That is to say, history takes in not only the present of the moment, but all presents (in the plural) in their totality.

Humanistic history: iterated structures of human behavior

If there is anything else in the world as unpredictable of the weather, it is human behavior and human history. But, once again, while human beings are fickle and unpredictable, one can nevertheless discover patterns in the life of the individual and in the life of the species. And it may also be that, the more comprehensive our perspective becomes (as with continents above) the clearer the overall outline becomes even while the details become perhaps less clear.

There seems to be a ratio of inverse proportion involved here. We might even suggest a law on this basis: the comprehensivity one’s temporal perspective stands in inverse proportion to clarity of detail and in direct proportion to clarity of structure. The first statement of a law or principle is likely to be awkward, and this off-the-cuff observation of mine is no exception. If I think about it enough, I might arrive at a better formulation (and perhaps even a definitive formulation).

Moreover, the fact that a pattern can be identified does not mean that it always inevitably unfolds in the same way each time. This too is part of the pattern: patterns themselves admit of patterns, and they change over time, just as with the weather. There is a law of principle buried somewhere in this observation too, but I will leave its formulation for another occasion.

There is more than an analogy that holds between human behavior and the weather: natural history now embraces the whole of human history, extending our history into time out of mind, and making both the weather and the daily events of human life equally the passing substance that fills the moments of time and which, by slow and incremental action, come to shape the large scale structures of history, human and natural alike.

History: the synthesis of scientific and humanistic approaches

Here, then, is another use for the philosophy of history in our time: to reconcile the scientific perspective on natural history with the fact that human history is a part of natural history, in light of the fact that the scientific perspective on human history is not always an adequate guide to human history.

What would Socrates do?

What would Socrates do?

In the Republic, Plato has his Socrates suggest that, since it is easier to see justice in the large than in the small, the participants in the discussion should seek to elucidate the just state, so that once justice is seen in the large, they could then move on to elucidate the character of a just man, which is justice seen in miniature. Civilization is the largest scale human institution in time, and therefore perhaps the best structure in which to seek parallels with natural history.

It could be argued that the culture of non-civilized peoples is in fact an older and more durable human institution. It could be said that Neanderthals possessed culture without civilization. And while civilizations have come and gone, culture has remained the abiding possession of human beings, though it may be a possession with its origins in a creature not precisely human, sensu stricto. We will leave this question for another time. This, too, is a problem for the philosophy of history in our time.

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