Humanity as One

5 September 2010


Global human migration patterns

Joseph Campbell opens up the Foreword to his The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology with this reflection:

“Looking back today over the twelve delightful years that I spent on this richly rewarding enterprise, I find that its main result for me has been its confirmation of a thought I have long and faithfully entertained: of the unity of the race of man, not only in its biology but also in its spiritual history, which has everywhere unfolded in the manner of a single symphony, with its themes announced, developed, amplified and turned about, distorted, reasserted, and, today, in a grand fortissimo of all sections sounding together, irresistibly advancing to some kind of mighty climax, out of which the next great movement will emerge.”

Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Penguin Books, 1981, p. v

We now know scientifically the biological unity of humanity, and have known this for more than a hundred years. More recently, DNA science has cast a whole new light on the human diaspora since it began to spread out of Africa, and whereas we once had many theories of how humanity spread itself across the globe, and with little hope of deciding between these theories, DNA evidence now gives us a vast quantity of new information that has decisively settled most open questions of human migration of global colonization, and which has furnished us, from the material of our own bodies, with a richly documented narrative of how we settled the globe.

And settle the globe we did. Human beings moved through every ecosystem, every biome, and in the process of migration some stayed and settled in every niche in which a living could be had. All of this happened long before recorded history, was lost to us for the better part of our history, and is only now being rediscovered through the work of science.

A map from Wikipedia detailing terrestrial biomes, all colonized in the course of human migration.

Because of the circumstances of human migration, we lost touch with our own history, and the parts of humanity in far flung regions of the globe did not know of each other. George Friedman in his The Next 100 Years commented on this:

“Until the fifteenth century, human lived in self-enclosed, sequestered worlds. Humanity did not know itself as consisting of a single fabric. The Chinese didn’t know of the Aztecs, and the Mayas didn’t know of the Zulus. The Europeans may have heard of the Japanese, but they didn’t really know them — and they certainly didn’t interact with them. The Tower of Babel had done more than make it impossible for people to speak to each other. It made civilizations oblivious to each other.”

George Friedman, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, first Anchor Books edition, p. 19

The unity of the fragmented whole of humanity was occluded by the migration that resulted in the globalization of our species. Today, in an age of rapid worldwide travel and even more rapid telecommunications, we can stay in touch with our point of origin and return to it whenever we like. When the human adventure began, it was a one-way trip. And, once arrived, settlements emerged in isolation and without any knowledge of the world left behind. When populations expanded until they once again touched other previously isolated groups, no memory of the connection remained and such reunions of the human family were rarely happy affairs.

reunions among the various branches of the human family tree were rarely happy affairs. (Claude-Mathieu Fessard, engraver, b.1740, after John Webber, 1752–1793, Mort tragique du Capitaine Cook, le 15 février, 1779, sur la côte d’Owhy-hee, l’une des Isles Sandwich, découverte par ce navigateur)

This points to an important (and hopefully obvious) lesson: humanity can understand itself as a whole, as it is in fact (and which we now know it to be), or some subdivision of humanity can misunderstand itself to be the whole of humanity, so that when it encounters other parts of the human family tree it is incapable of recognizing them for what they are.

The examples of the human diaspora given above focus on the spatial separation of peoples when communications and transportation technology were sufficient to globalize our species but not sufficient to preserve our unity as a species. This can thus be expressed explicitly: humanity can understand itself as a whole in space, as it is in fact, or it can misunderstand some spatially-defined subset of itself as the whole of humanity proper, even though this is not the case in fact. This misunderstanding — really, fallacy — we can call the fallacy of spatial parochialism, and it is well familiar to us in all the stories of outrageous provincialism.

This explicit spatial formulation suggests an equally explicit temporal formulation: humanity can understand itself as a whole through time, as it is in fact, or it can misunderstand some temporally-defined subset of itself as the whole of humanity proper, even though this is not the case in fact. This latter misunderstanding we can call the fallacy of temporal parochialism, which is less familiar than spatial parochialism, but which I have previously discussed in this forum (and is therefore not unknown to my readers).

In so far as the fallacy of spatial parochialism and the fallacy of temporal parochialism are fallacies — we might group them together as fallacies of fragmentation — rigorous reasoning will learn to identify them and to eradicate them. (We might treat them as special cases of the fallacy of composition, but this would require a more detailed treatment that I will not pursue today.) The effort to identify and eradicate these fallacies of human fragmentation could be called the anthropological formulation of the Copernican Principle, which might sound paradoxical (in so far as the Copernican Principle is often explicitly contrasted to the Anthropic Principle), but also might be exactly what we need in order to counter some of the sillier consequences drawn from strong formulations of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle.

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N.B. I have no quarrel with weak formulations of the anthropic principle, which I regard as tautologically true.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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