"Still the same, baby things are still the same,
Some things never change..."
The old Bob Seger tune comes to mind this morning.
Yesterday afternoon, as the Christmas Day discussion drifted into ideas about religion and culture, someone made reference to cultural evolution, as in "we've evolved more than that." I can't remember the exact reference, but it implied that humans have "evolved" culturally. That is, our understanding of each other and the world around us has become broader, more tolerant, more accepting of others.
One look at your morning news feed should disabuse you of any such Lamarckian notions, but then, most references to cultural evolution tend to be self-referent. That is, "I and most of the people I know have evolved beyond this, that or the other thing, and that if only everyone had my advantages, they too could reach this revelatory plateau."
I don't think so. I tossed the following insight of my own (revealing myself to be a tad more culturally evolved than the rest of the room, but I'm not certain they all bought into it), which I now toss out to you.
We are the same people we have always been.
Here is a list of a few basic human concerns:
How much money should truckers or doctors earn?
What is the liability of a building contractor?
Who is responsible for damage done to property?
Under what circumstances can a couple divorce?
At what age and under what circumstances can one engage in sex?
Who is the rightful heir?
What is to be done if a judge is found to be corrupt?
These are issues with which we wrestle still today. They were also the concerns of the Babylonians, as we learn when we read translations of Hammurabi's Code. Which was written about 4000 years ago. When they had oxen instead of trucks, but whatev's.
Even in Hammurabi's time, and very likely for a few eons before his time, it was perfectly possible for a human being, given good health and a lot of luck, to live to age 60. Sixty years isn't a generation. But it is a lifetime. And 4,000 divided by 60 is 66 and change.
Just under 70 lifetimes stand between us and ancient Babylonia. 70 isn't very many in the historic scheme of things. Neither is 4,000. In 4,000BCE, we were domesticating horses and using the first ploughs. That's 6,000 years back. Divided by 60, it's 100 lifetimes. 100 lifetimes between us and the people inventing the plough.
70 years ago WWII was raging. 100 years ago, 1911 was the year of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the world's first combat aerial bombing mission, and Roald Amundsen's successful journey to the South Pole. Butterfly McQueen and Ronald Reagan were born.
We know these people.
1951 - 60 years ago - we had the bomb. We had racial hatred. We had Broadway plays, the Korean War, and J.D. Salinger.
1891 - 120 years ago - we had Sherlock Holmes, alternating current, an earthquake in Japan.
1831 - 180 years ago - we had Victor Hugo, Nat Turner, and Charles Darwin boarding the Beagle.
Someone who was 60 years old in 1951 (born in 1891) could have known his grandfather who, at 60 in 1891 would have been born in 1831. She could have taken some early steps holding the hand of someone who remembered the Civil War.
History is never as far off as we think it is. Our cultural patina can change, but it remains a patina. Your new-born grandchild knows no more than Hammurabi's tiny heir.
Culture can change, but it doesn't "evolve." It is passed on through our lives, not our genes. Not so far, anyway. We're still arguing over what to pay truck drivers and doctors.