Everything New is Old Again

Humankind has never changed, and it never will.

The essential misapprehension under which individuals labor –generation after generation– is that we are on some endless collective journey that will take our species from weak-chinned, flint-chipping anthropoid misery to an exalted state wherein our lives will pass with the elegance of a new-age celebrity wedding in Tahiti. People imagine we’re about three-fifths of the way along this evolutionary trek. They have always imagined this, and they have always been wrong. Nothing ever changes, and nothing ever will.

Which is not to say that nothing ever changes. Change is the only constant in this universe. It’s just that the changes that occur around us (and within us) have all happened before, but on a quantum scale. The human curse –and our greatest blessing– is that man’s intersection with the world (and most women’s, excepting Marie Antoinette, who crops up in past-life regressions approximately six in ten times) is limited to one lifetime. Look at history, we surmise, and avoid the obvious mistakes recorded there, and progress will be made. All we have to do is internalize the idea that “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

Clever-boots know that this statement is attributed to George Santayana, which shows they’re very well informed and aren’t likely to repeat the mistakes of the past. Except for always. George, now armed with such insight into the brevity of human existence as being dead provides, would probably agree that history is inescapable. We are all doomed to repeat it, regardless of what we learn of mankind’s errant peregrination along its course. There are two obstacles to genuine progress: first, we are hard-wired to repeat behaviors; and second, history is rubbish.

It would be nice to think that our species, which after all has come to rely on its brain power more than its physical prowess (I am living proof of this, or proof that inertia trumps both attributes), could innovate its collective way out of the situation. But it can’t. History is primarily the glorification of murderers as told by liars to idiots. What we can learn from the past by studying history is much like what we can learn about a 1963 Chateau d’Yquem 1er Cru Superieur Bordeaux by studying chip vinegar.

Even if history could be relied upon, it wouldn’t change the human desire to do the same goddamn things, over and over and over again, because these things worked for our stoatish proto-ancestor Morganucodon Watsoni 225 million years ago, they worked for Siamopithecus back in the day, and in terms of DNA-swapping (which is the purpose of organic life) these behaviors still work for humans today.

Ah, but Morganucodon Watsoni couldn’t fly, you say (although Volaticotherium antiquus could glide pretty handily, 150 million years ago); we modern man types have made progress!


The fossil record demonstrates that genus Homo was always on the go, cropping up in Africa first, then toddling off to Asia and points north the minute he got the hang of ambulating on his back legs. We started off walking, then figured out riding; when the wheel came along I’ll bet everybody scoffed at their ancestors for dragging things around. Then they scoffed at their ancestors for relying on animal power, and scoffed again at steam, and anybody that isn’t scoffing at internal combustion today should be taken out back of the woodshed and beaten soundly. The means of getting about has changed, but our desire to do so, on a species-wide scale, is absolutely constant. We simply mistake innovation for transformation. Despite twenty thousand technological solutions, the best mousetrap remains the cat.

It makes no difference if hauling ourselves and our goods from place to place is destroying the ozone layer and ruining the landscape and causing the North Atlantic Current to reverse itself. We gotta keep moving. Another example might be our desire to live above-ground. Would it make sense for us to dig down, instead of building up? Of course it would. Manhattan could be two hundred stories deep, and Central Park could cover the entire island, and it would be just like in Popular Science. But humans like to live above the root line. People that prefer subterranean dwellings are still considered weirdos. Ah, but didn’t we once favor the cave as a desirable address? Sure, as long as it was on a slope. It’s living below the horizon that bugs us. So we continue to pile up massive edifices that, from a historical perspective, are 100% guaranteed to collapse. The caves, it is worth noting, are still around.

A thousand years ago, there was an industrial revolution no less impressive than the recent version that brought us the Eiffel Tower and World War One. Huge numbers of able-bodied men –belligerent, religion-crazed nitwits– marched off to the crusades, leaving behind the cleverer fellows and a dearth of ready manpower (I’m paraphrasing a vast, complex stretch of history for my own purposes here, although the basic arc of the thing is correct, so keep a grain of salt handy). What was needed was a way to turn crops into portable food with a minimum of human effort. The main innovation was harnessing free energy– wind, water, and so forth. With this power our forebears could turn grain into flour at a terrific clip, which meant that enormous amounts of food energy could be accumulated for later use. Which led to a revolution in agriculture, because now one could grind as much grain as one could grow– so science came into play and brilliant new growing techniques were developed. This, combined in devious ways with advances in metallurgy, war-making, and the number of babies that survived past their first year, paved the way for explosive growth in urbanization and non-agricultural trades and industries. By the 14th Century people were worried about pollution and mineral rights, there were unions, strikes, miserable conditions in cloth factories, and the great cathedrals of Europe were being erected. Gosh, it sounds just like the 18th and 19th Centuries. But haven’t we made progress?

Not really. We’re still operating sweatshops and mines as miserable as anything they had in the Dark Ages, although we’ve innovated transportation so much that we can use serfs in distant countries to do the grunt work. We’ve revolutionized pollution, but not in the better sense of the idea. We’ve only figured out how to make more of it that’s more poisonous. Just as the people of medieval Europe eventually self-destructed, so are we doing. There are many more parallels throughout history to the sort of state we’re in today: the rise and fall of superstition, the building up and tearing down of secular and religious states (ask the Greeks, ask the Romans), the ebb and flow of knowledge, art, and innovation.

One could argue that improvements in technology and advances in the human condition have allowed us to go from maybe 200 million people on earth in the time of that guy Christ, to 6.5 billion people today. Tell that to the trilobites, for example, that kicked so much ass with their little expodite legs they ran to 15,000 species before the inevitable end came. Or the dimetrodons, critters that ran the show for 30 million years. You don’t see them around any more. In fact, ingenious as humans consider themselves (no trilobite ever figured out how to build even the simplest four-stroke rotary engine) we are on the same road to extinction that marks all highly successful species, the terminus of which appears again and again in the fossil record. It’s tough titty for us, that’s all. None of this ought to be particularly upsetting, unless you take the vast cycles of creation and destruction personally. Species come and go, merely another manifestation of the transfer of energy (force operating on matter), or in layman’s terms:
W = int mathbf{F} cdot mathrm{d}mathbf{s}
I don’t know about you, but I find that comforting. On the other hand, just as I once believed in the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus (college cured me of that), and just as millions of people still believe in those magical fellows Jesus, Yaweh, and Mohammed today, an enormous number of people believe that mankind is going to sort it all out, head off into a vaguely Romanesque future with flying cars and charabanc tours to Venus, and beat entropy once and for all. That new-age celebrity wedding in Tahiti is never going to happen, however. As long as there is somebody getting something right, there will be someone else killing him and running off with it. As long as we’re succeeding in one area, we’re dooming ourselves in another. We can study history all we want; the real tale of human non-progress has been artfully concealed by every single teller of tales since the species first took on latent memory as a specialization.

Our species has never changed, it is true. And never will, regardless of the guaranteed pan-fatal consequences. This being, however, the early 21st Century, a time when people require an uplifting coda at the end of any depressing narrative, just as the ancient Greeks required a god to descend from the heavens and thwack somebody at the end of their plays, I will provide an uplifting coda. A real one, at that.

If mankind has a single talent above all others, it is a knack for acceleration. Paleontologists go back and forth about what adaptation let hominids, and especially our ancestors, take off like blazes up the evolutionary ladder. Anybody that has ever been menaced by a big dog on a lonely road knows the correct answer. It’s not the opposable thumb, an upright stance, or a large brain. It’s the simple ability to throw a rock with accuracy.

Hitting a sabretooth cat on the head with a rock in hand might be good enough for some hominids; apparently not, though, because they’re extinct. The throw is the thing. It doesn’t matter if you have the biggest fangs or the sharpest claws if there’s a dent in your forehead with brains leaking out of it and your quarry is still thirty feet away. That opposable thumb makes it easier to put a wicked topspin on the rock, walking upright frees the hands for hurling, and that big brain can do some lightning calculations that will get the missile from fingers to enemy cranium every time. It’s all part of the throw. Problem is, other bands of us could throw, too. And then nobody has an advantage.

So someone comes up with the throwing stick, which allows even a runty specimen to hurl a stone with formidable power over long distances. Someone else comes up with the spear, which allows a point to be thrown with accuracy; this is the difference between a bruise and a sucking chest wound. The next gink develops the bow and arrow, or in other words a miniature long-distance spear. This stuff is going faster and faster, accelerating. And the violence is accelerating. Twenty thousand years later the spear has become the ICBM and instead of arrows we’re launching air-to-ground missiles from F-22 Raptor jet fighters. Faster and faster, accelerating. Repeating the same behavior again and again. So far this doesn’t sound like good news. But it is good news.

Even as the consequences of our actions come hurtling up at us (say the North Atlantic Current really does reverse itself– Europe could be in for an ice age in 200 years) we are getting faster and faster at coming up with antidotes. Populations have figured out how to move fast. We’ve gotten better at insulating our dwellings. Hell, we can move stuff all over the world, including our lifestyles. Religious end-times fervor has gripped the United States again, and it looks like the government may finally drop its pro-democratic posture in favor of corporate fascism. But as fast as these things occur, new things rise up to take their places. Expect another age of enlightenment. Expect a chastened mankind (after a few decades of extremely shitty weather) to start taking environmentalism and conservation seriously. No matter how bad we make things, we’re unlikely to have such an unsalutary effect as the volcanism that precipitated the Permian extinction (95% of species wiped out), or the K-T extinction that ended the age of large leathery non-mammal creatures.

Imagining that the consequences of our unwillingness to change will somehow cause everything else to change is probably hubris. Things will change regardless. It’s just that the changes in the world are now subject to man’s accelerating influence. As I said, the human grasp of things extends not more than a lifetime; historians are trained to extend their grasp of time, but their heads are filled with nonsense made up by long-dead bullshitters, so it hardly matters. Our great-great-great-great grandchildren will look on our works and scoff, like everybody has scoffed through the ages. But they probably won’t get upset that the jungles, elephants, polar bears, arctic ice, rhinos, low-lying coastal communities, sources of potable water, predictable winters, rivers, islands, and fish are all gone. We don’t miss the mastodons, the woolly rhinoceroses, the Neanderthals, or being able to walk across a land bridge from China to Australia. Hell, we don’t even miss ox carts.

The faster things change, the more we have to remember that it is our short-sighted experience of change that makes us think things are getting worse– or worser than usual, to coin a phrase. in fact things have always been getting worse, unless you’re of a mind that they’re getting better, in which case they’ve always been doing that; but in actuality things are moving through immense cycles we cannot comprehend, let alone have any impact upon, except to create a little turbulence at the very end of the Holocene epoch.

That said, I will miss the elephants.

BEN TRIPP, author of Square in the Nuts, is a hack in many mediums. He may be reached at credel@earthlink.net.


Ben Tripp is America’s leading pseudo-intellectual. His most recent book is The Fifth House of the Heart.