Life in the Holocene Epoch

9 January 2010


Recent climatological history can be divided many different ways, into glacials, interglacials, stadials, and interstadials, into marine isotope stages (MIS), it can be divided according to methodologies employed (ice cores, dendrochronology, etc.), and no doubt in other ways as well. If we adopt the terminology of interglacials, the present inter-glacial, or warming period within an ice age, is called the Holocene Epoch. The Holocene itself is subdivided into Preboreal, Boreal, Atlantic, Subboreal and Subatlantic stages of the Blytt-Sernander time scale.

When we refer to the last ice age we are not simply referring to the climatic fluctuation prior to the Holocene, but to the Quaternary glaciation, which extends back about two and a half million years, and admits of many interglacial warming periods, of which the Holocene is one, and the most recent one. Thus during the past three million years or so we have virtually had a “snowball earth” in which glaciation has been the rule and interglacials the exception. This period of time includes virtually the entire history of human evolution; we have never known anything other than ice ages with occasional warming periods.

It has been the work of science since the Scientific Revolution, and most especially since the twentieth century, to recover our own lost natural history. As we have seen above, climatologically speaking, this history has been a history in the Quaternary glaciation. It is difficult to attempt to recapture, from vantage of the present interglacial, the feeling of the world as it has been through most of our history as a species. It requires a real effort to try to sympathetically understand a world in which Europe was mostly covered in ice and snow for almost a hundred thousand years.

There was a remarkable photograph on the BBC, Frozen Britain seen from above, that showed Britain in a satellite photo taken by Nasa’s Terra satellite on 07 January 2010 during the current cold snap. The British isles are here as white as the snow and ice that covers them. This image can give us a mental picture of England before the Holocene warming. It is a dramatic imagine, and it is not too difficult to extrapolate from this point to something more dramatic yet.

If the landscape of northern Europe can be so rapidly transformed in the space of a few weeks of a cold spell, as we see in this picture, it becomes easier to imagine the cold spell lasting longer, getting a little more severe each year, until the ground stays covered by snow and ice at all times and glaciers begin to grow, advancing toward the equator from the poles.

Several times in this forum (for example, in The End of the End of the World) I have had occasion to mention Collingwood’s conception of the a priori imagination and its role in understanding history. While Collingwood’s own idealist preconceptions prevented him from seeing human history as a part of natural history (natural history, Collingwood contended, has no “inside” and can thus never be history in the way that human history is history, for events in human history have an “inside” to them), the photograph above offers the perfect pretext for exercising our a priori imagination in the understanding of natural history, and, it should be added, natural history at precisely the point in time when human history was emerging and beginning to differentiate itself from natural history.

It was during the previous glacial period (between ten thousand and one hundred thousand years ago) that anatomically modern man (homo sapiens sapiens) emerged from Africa and began his global diaspora, and it is midway in this life of man we’re bound upon (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, as Dante put it) that we begin to see the astonishing cave art of Europe at Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira, as well as the earliest surviving sculptures and musical instruments such as flutes made of bone. All of these, like the photograph above, provide ample stimulation for the a priori imagination, thus, “bridging the gaps between what our authorities tell us, gives the historical narrative or description its continuity.” (according to Collingwood)

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2 Responses to “Life in the Holocene Epoch”

  1. Let us assume that I am speaking to my students about the importance of continuing self education, what satisfaction could you cite from your life that I could point to as a benefit of your long studies?
    James Pilant

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear JP,

      This is an excellent question, but also a difficult one to answer, or, at least, it would be difficult to really do justice to your question. It suggests a theme upon which I could elaborate for some time, so I will write an answer here now, but I will continue to think about your question, and may add more in the future.

      What are the satisfactions of continuing self-education? Students are likely to be in the prime of their physical health, in which the peak experiences in their lives to date have been physical experiences. Joseph Campbell mentioned somewhere the peak experiences he had while running in college, if memory serves. The gnawing tooth of time will soon take its toll on this physical vitality, however, and if one does not cultivate some area of achievement that is unrelated to physical prowess, one is in danger of viewing the bulk of one’s life as a downhill trend, with worse and more of it the longer it goes on.

      I don’t know if it is the exception or not, but I can say with complete sincerity that my life at age 45 is far better than my life at age 25. Perhaps some of this is due to continuing self-education. Not all of us can be Jack LaLanne, continuing to pursue new feats of endurance into later life. But the mind can not only be kept sharp, it can be improved considerably with age. The more one learns, the more one is able to learn. Having a basic framework of knowledge means that each new item of knowledge is not a mere piece of trivia, but something that can be added to one’s overall structure of knowledge, which grows with each passing day.

      If an individual systematically cultivates what Bacon called the good things of the mind (“Seek ye first the good things of the mind, and the rest will either be supplied or its loss will not be felt.”), one’s knowledge over a lifetime can grow to something truly prodigious. And, once again to cite Bacon, if knowledge is power, prodigious knowledge means prodigious power. And one will find as one’s knowledge grows that one’s ability to accomplish and achieve things in the world increases with the increase in knowledge. To employ a term from contemporary psychology, one’s self-efficacy increases with age and the pursuit of knowledge.

      Nothing is more powerful than becoming a careful student of human nature, even if, like Sartre, one denies that there is any such thing as human nature. With life experience systematically extended by the acquisition of knowledge, patterns in one’s experience begin to emerge, and the actions and inactions of others become more comprehensible, even if no more palatable. We may not be particularly pleased to learn how the world actually works, but like the Freudian transition from neurotic misery to ordinary human unhappiness, the intellectual transition from comforting illusions to a thoroughly disillusioned insight into the way things are must be reckoned as an improvement in life.

      Knowledge, experience, and confidence come together in a cumulative synthesis that exceeds the sum of its parts. There is a supreme sense of satisfaction that comes from this self-knowledge of one’s own capabilities. Moreover, it gets better with time, but it does not come without effort. One must consciously cultivate the life the mind, relentlessly challenging oneself at every turn. As Nietzsche wrote, what we need is not the courage of our convictions, but the courage for an attack on our convictions.

      Best wishes,


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