Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Time changes things

One thing I get the feeling Europeans, and maybe Asians and others, who are my age, seem to do better than I do is appreciate the value of time.  I just read a comment that only time will give us a full picture of something or other.  I see that the passage of time does things that we probably cannot hurry or shortcut with pills or treatments or graphics or spells.

When I was visiting the grounds of a castle in Europe, I was shown a dungeon where the lord of the manor could have those he didn't like imprisoned.  Then, just outside, I was shown a trap door on the ground.  Our guide said that for minor infractions, not deemed to require a long imprisonment or torture, the punishment might be having to stay in the underground chamber until released.  The chamber was deep underground and the tunnel to it was curved so that there was no light or sense of connection to the outside.  I immediately thought that if I were put in such a place for several days or weeks, I might be so angry and vengeful that I would require myself to find a way to assassinate the person who made that happen to me or die trying.  I might not be able to think of anything else or believe in any other goal.  My life might be essentially over.  Yet over time, such a punishment might be something I can accept and live with.

I felt that same question again when listening to Lies My Teacher Told Me and heard about the handling of the natives by Columbus and his men.  Similarly, when I read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, set in medieval England about the year 1000, I realized that then and before and since, really nasty things have been done to people by other people for no reason, for understandable reasons, and for evil reasons. But given enough time, maybe generations, outrages, evil acts can be recognized with less rancor, rage and upset.

Physical time is a big and important subject.  But, evolutionary time, historical time and psychological time also matter in our lives very basically and powerfully.  Take a look at the first portrait of The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes, professor of genetics at Oxford University.  In the back of his book, he sketches out portraits that fit what is known about conditions and life in previous times.  This one is from 45,000 years ago:

Ursula was born into a world very different from our own. Forty-five thousand years ago it was a lot colder than it is today, and would get colder still in the millennia to come leading up to the Great Ice Age. Ursula was born in a shallow cave cut into the cliffs at the foot of what is now Mount Parnassus, close to what was to become the ancient Greek classical site of Delphi. The cave mouth looked out across a wide plain a thousand feet below which led away to the sea twenty miles off to the south. Today this same plain is filled with the dark green of ancient olive groves; then it was a landscape of scattered woodland pressed up close against the mountain slopes with open grassland beyond. The coastline was several miles further from the cave than it is today. This was a consequence of the lower sea level that prevailed when more of the oceans' water was locked into the ice and snow of the polar ice caps and enormous glaciers filled the valleys of the great mountain ranges. Temperatures would carry on falling for another twenty-five thousand years as part of the regular climatic cycle that has been going on for at least four hundred thousand years and will no doubt continue far into the future. Of course, Ursula was completely oblivious to these long-term changes – much as we are today in our everyday lives. What mattered to her and her band of twenty-five was the here and now. Ursula was her mother's second child. The first had been taken by a leopard when he was only two, in a raid on a temporary camp one dark night. This was a tragic but not uncommon occurrence in Ursula's world. Many children, and occasionally adults too, were hunted and killed for food by lions, leopards and hyenas. Though it was a sad and serious blow for Ursula's mother to lose her only child, it did at least mean she could get pregnant again. While she was nursing her son her periods had stopped, she no longer ovulated and could not conceive. This was a deliberate evolutionary adaptation to space out the children. Only when one child could walk well enough to keep pace with the seasonal migrations of the band would another be conceived. And that could take three or even four years. So, a year after she lost her son, she gave birth to Ursula. It was March, the days were getting longer and the band had moved up from the coast where they had spent the winter. It was a good time of year; Ursula's mother always looked forward to the spring. The coast in winter was damp and miserable. There were no caves to shelter in and she had to do the best she could in crude shelters of wood and animal skins. It wasn't much of a home, and the living was difficult and uncomfortable to say the least. But they had to come down from the mountains: it was too cold up there, and in any case all the game on which they depended had retreated to the lower ground. There was plenty of it, but it was hard to catch. Her particular favourite was bison, which congregated on the plain in reasonable numbers at that time of year. But they were practically impossible to hunt down on foot and in the open. It was difficult and dangerous work. They were wary, hungry themselves and very bad-tempered. Only the year before two young men had been trampled to death in a stampede; since then, everyone had decided that it was just not worth it, and bison hunting in the winter was off limits. The loss of two hunters from the small band was a serious business, because it meant that there were extra mouths to feed in the shape of the bereaved women and their children. But the band only survived by co-operation, and there was no question of abandoning the dependants to their fate....

Sykes, Bryan (2010-12-20). The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry (pp. 203-204). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

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