A bit over 4,100 years ago, a man named Abram led his family from the city of Ur of the Chaldees to a new home in Canaan. Just two weeks ago, unfailing champion of liberalism Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. died. What's the connection? Nothing. Everything.
In science, a number of metaphors are employed to cast the huge span of deep time into a frame more easily pondered. If the history of life on earth is viewed as the Empire State Building, all of human history is a dime on top. If the life of our planet is viewed as a year, every event in the history books has raced past in the last few seconds of that year.
These images are generally used to demonstrate the impressive seniority of our universe, and the relative position of major cosmic and/or evolutionary events. For those purposes, they're fairly effective. It's certainly easier to wrap a mind used to events measured in minutes and hours around the idea that dinosaurs went extinct the day after Christmas, than it is to come to grips with the term "sixty-five million years."
One thing that all those metaphors should bring home is not just that the universe is old, but that human history is astonishingly short -- and not just in comparison to cosmic events. Whenever anyone with a relatively long life dies, there's a tendency to indulge in a review of all the things they saw in their life. That’s understandable. There's also an inclination toward viewing their life as covering the most important decades of man's story. That's a good bit more dubious. In honor of Mr. Schlesinger's career as a historian, this isn't so much a science Friday, as it is a history Friday.
This is a brief biography of mankind, covering only one twenty-billionth of human diversity, told in reverse.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. died in 2007. He saw the Internet rise to become a new means of communication and worked alongside his son as a blogger. He saw the Soviet Union collapse. He saw the folly of Vietnam and the dangers of an imperial presidency. He saw man walk on the moon. He saw Bobby Kennedy fall, and John. He stood at the pivot point of the Cold War during the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He saw the end of World War II and the beginning of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. He saw television begin, and the first planned subdivisions built. He served his country during World War II, after leaving Harvard without completing his Ph. D. He saw the rise of fascism, not just in Europe, but in the United States. He saw the Great Depression. He saw the dust bowl, and the migration of workers to the west. He was two when the "Black Sox" scandal sent Shoeless Joe Jackson into shadow. That same year, the U.S. Cavalry crossed into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa, the 19th amendment -- women's suffrage -- was passed, millions died in a worldwide flu epidemic, and the first radio station went on the air. Iraq passed from the Ottoman Empire to the British. Schlesinger had not yet celebrated his first birthday when World War I ended. That same year, William Frederick Cody, also know as "Buffalo Bill," died.
William Cody died in a country that had forty eight states, a telephone system, and nearly ten million Ford Model T's. He spent most of his life running a traveling show that exhibited an ideal of a frontier west that was already fading into legend. At the turn of the twentieth century, he was the most recognized celebrity on the globe. He toured London and met the Pope. He saw the last great free nations of Native Americans driven into captivity and had his hand in both the celebration, and degradation, of their culture. He cheered the news of the first plane and incorporated the Spanish-American War into his show. His voice was recorded on phonographs. His image captured in color photographs. The first skyscraper -- ten stories tall -- was built in Chicago when Cody was forty. He read in the newspaper of the first light bulb and the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. He lived through the death of President Lincoln, the surrender at Appomattox, the horrors of the war, and service in the Pony Express. He was born into a United States that had only twenty nine states, and where half those states supported the owning of slaves. In the year of his birth the first commercial steamship service was initiated between the east coast and the west, thousands died in Irish Potato Famine while thousands more fled to America, the first woman doctor in the United States was awarded her degree, and John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, died.
John Quincy Adams didn't retire from politics after his term as president. Instead, he ran for congress and served as an anti-slavery Whig representative for Massachusetts. It was Adams who represented the interest of Africans aboard the Spanish slave ship, Amistad. A few years before that another ship, the H. M. S. Beagle, returned home from a long, fruitful voyage. The first train service began in England. The Creek were removed from their lands in Georgia and forced west into Indian Territory, despite Adam's efforts in nullifying an abusive treaty. Adams saw his father lose a bitter election to Thomas Jefferson in the "Revolution of 1800" after stepping into the impossible role of Washington's successor. When Adams was seven, he witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was born in the colony of Massachusetts in the same year that Daniel Boone first crossed through the Cumberland Gap to reach Kentucky.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., one the United States' great historians, is less than two lifetimes removed from a world where the United States did not exist. Through Mr. Schlesinger, you're no more than three away yourself. That's how short the history of our nation really is.
Not impressed? It's only two more life spans to William Shakespeare. Two more beyond that, and the only Europeans to see America are those who sailed from Greenland. You're ten lifetimes from the occupation of Damietta during the fifth crusade. Twenty from the founding of Great Zimbabwe and the Visigoth sack of Rome. Make it forty, and Theseus, king of Athens, is held captive on Crete by King Minos, the Olmecs are building the first cities in Mexico, and the New Kingdom collapses in Egypt.
Sixty life times ago, a man named Abram left Ur of the Chaldees and took his family into Canaan. Abram is claimed as the founder of three great religions. A few lifetimes before that, and you've come out the bottom of that dime. You're that close to it.
The next time you see an obituary in the paper, go ahead and wonder at all the things that person saw in his or her lifetime, but remember that every lifetimes is filled with events just as momentous. More importantly, the next time you see people struggling with events that took place decades or centuries ago, recall that the dime is very thin.