The Continuity of Civilization and Natural History

15 December 2009


The number and kind of fossils present at various geological strata give us a quantifiable measure for establishing periodizations in natural history.

Perhaps the central question of the philosophy of history, though it is not often recognized as such, is what we may regard as novelty in history. What is new in history? What can be counted as more of the same, and what must we count as a novelty? This is simply another formulation of the problem of continuity and discontinuity in history. Where there is a discontinuity we can identify the end of one historical period and the beginning of another. Where there is continuity we can confirm that an historical periodization retains its validity.

From a scientific standpoint, we would want to be able to quantify historical continuity and discontinuity. In some cases we can do this, while in other cases the difference between what came before and what came after can be too subtle to show up by any quantifiable measure. Much of the work of paleontology involves the formulation of geological and biological periods based on quantitative measures. Natural history accommodates the scientific standpoint rather well. Human history, however, resists periodization in terms of quantitative measures — not always and invariably, but often enough to be problematic.

In Salmon and Industrial Selection I noted that many evolutionary adaptations are behavioral adaptations. This is a common part of evolutionary theory, but it is easy to forget and to focus on the actual structural changes in organisms that are the result of adaptation. Now, in so far as civilization is entirely the product of a set of behavioral adaptations that have made it possible for human beings to thrive in any habitat, we can view civilization as being continuous with the behavioral adaptations of natural history and therefore as exemplifying no historical novelty whatsoever. Thus the advent of human civilization does not represent historical discontinuity and no historical period is originated with the advent of human history.

On this interpretation there would still be historical periodizations in the natural history of human beings, based on quantifiable measures of things like the emergence of agriculturalism or the Industrial Revolution (and this is what I have attempted to do in my expositions of integral history), but these periodizations would be only indirectly related to civilization. We would retain our place within natural history, and never break out into an independent human history, in so far as the actions that have been taken to build civilization are viewed as behavioral adaptations continuous with earlier behavioral adaptations such as we do no assimilate to civilization.

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William Smith's geological map of England that, according to Simon Winchester, changed the world. Winchester's book on William Smith is well worth reading. Smith was among the first to establish a chronology of geological strata based upon the quantifiable presence of particular fossils in a given stratigraphic level.

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