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Tens of thousands of years ago, in a cave in southwestern Europe, a shaman clad in bearskin told tales of past and future to his rapt followers. A flickering flame cast moving shadows on the wall. Blood had been spilled; spirits had been invoked. Speaking in a low, hypnotic tone, the shaman made life and death, the seasons of the Earth and the movements of the sky, intelligible to his people. He retold familiar stories of the tribe to which they belonged: its wanderings; the long-ago ancestor from whom they had descended; and the destiny that had been foretold for them.
"Can you do that for us today?" asked the Wall Street hedge-fund manager over a luncheon in midtown Manhattan. He had been told that I was teaching at a university and was challenging me. "Can you tell the story of humanity in the universe and make it whole?"
"Well, actually, yes, I can," I said, "though of course I have to do it in my own way." My way of telling it--though it begins with the creation and multiplication of civilizations, and their lives and deaths--concentrates mostly on the lives that led to the only civilization still surviving, the scientific one of the modern world, and on the prospects before it.
How do you tell the story of Mankind? Oddly, I used to know someone whose job it once had been to answer that question. It was my friend Walter Fairservis, and the reason he had to answer the question was that he was helping to design a new Hall of Asian Man for New York's American Museum of Natural History that would provide a panorama of Asian history.
Walter, who died a few years back, was an anthropologist and archaeologist, but above all an adventurer: a forerunner in real life of the fictitious Indiana Jones. He was a big man, an outdoors type with a weatherbeaten look, rumpled and shaggy. His special field of scholarship was the origin of civilizations. He excavated mainly in Egypt and in Pakistan, but he also roamed the rest of the world, whether on camelback or jet airplane, comparing the beginnings of ancient times in one place with those in another.
Asia is the continent on which human civilization first appeared; its flourishing is a long story, too big to be told comprehensively. Fairservis recognized that the most he could do was to select displays that would get a few of the most important points across to viewers.
Visitors had a choice of two entrances to the exhibition. One took you through chronologically, beginning with the origins of human life and culture. If you followed this path, you came away with a sense of how much material progress the human race has made in its relatively short life span.
The other entrance, as I remember it, displayed a marketplace in central Asia as it might have appeared in the time of Marco Polo (a bit before 1300 a.d.), with goods from an enormous wealth of cultures. From there, you could choose your path to whichever culture most interested you. Viewers came away not only with a sense of the broad range of civilizations contained in Asia alone, but also, it may be assumed, with an idea of the extraordinary variety of human society in the world as a whole.
Material progress, and the variety of cultures: here were two observations about the history of the past that were important and true. Visitors could observe for themselves, and draw their own conclusions. It seemed to me that this was about as much as you could communicate successfully in the course of one visit.
I try to do something similar. I focus on an aspect of human experience: on change, in particular with regard to the way we organize and govern ourselves, and how we deal with the issues of war and peace and survival. I concentrate on some of the turning points in history and look at where they have led, and where they will lead in the future if we continue on the same path. Narrated in such a way, the turns in the life of the human race form a story that can be outlined in no more time than it takes to tell a tale, as a shaman would, around an evening campfire.
Like those who first put their hands and minds to the writing of history, Herodotus and Thucydides, Greeks of the fifth century b.c., I will deal essentially with the high drama of battle and politics. If instead I were surveying the history of art or science, of literature or music, I would work from a different outline and would have a different tale to narrate.
Telling one story necessarily means not telling another. Little will be said in the pages that follow about artistic creation or spiritual wisdom; there are no discussions of Shakespeare or Dante, of Mozart or Beethoven, of Leonardo or Michelangelo. The tale of how human beings have organized themselves in separate independent societies that sometimes cooperate but more often clash with one another, needs to be told on its own if it is to be told at a manageable length.
A glance at the table of contents shows that I conceive of a dozen radical turns as having brought us from the African forests of millions of years ago to the world of the 1990s and beyond. There is nothing special about the number twelve; another historian, organizing matters otherwise, would do it in some other number of headings and permutations. What follows is only a view from one person's perspective.
Perhaps there were, are, or will be other universes, but we can know nothing of them. It is our universe that we speak of as the universe; we look to its birth for the framework of our beliefs and institutions.
The stories of creation told by the shamans of nomad tribes and the priests of earlier civilizations were factually untrue, but they held meaning. In the full sense of the word, they were myths.
Uniquely, the civilization to which we belong at the end of the twentieth century tells a tale of creation that is true--which is to say, unlike all others, it is based upon evidence. But the story changes all the time, as new evidence comes to light. Moreover, it is incomplete, and in its incompleteness it cannot tell us what--if anything--creation signifies. Our scientists tell us what happened, but they haven't a clue as to how or why. Is the universe a cosmic accident or the result of a cosmic design? Science doesn't know; so we may believe whatever we choose.
A peculiarity of the modern world, as regards our account of genesis, is that only the relative few who are scientifically literate know and understand what "we" believe. Few are conversant with today's cosmogony--our story of creation--or cosmology, our knowledge of how the universe functions. More than half the adults in the United States do not know that every year the Earth orbits around the sun. Yet a scientific elite is expanding the frontiers of their own knowledge to an extent that seems almost miraculous. Recently, The New York Times reported that scientists have looked back 11 billion years into space and have photographed the universe as it was then--"some 85 percent of the way back to the beginning of time." Since then astronomers have peered even further.
The age-old vision of life and creation that would have emerged from a shaman's songs and tales in times past would have been familiar to the tribesmen to whom he chanted. The modern vision, when occasionally we catch sight of it, comes to most of us as surprising news. Of course scientists themselves disagree, even about fundamental issues. Some of them take the view that the universe holds to an essentially cyclical course and therefore had no beginning and will have no end. Others believe it was brought into existence by a Creator, who had no beginning. The most striking current theory, however, is that there was a beginning, and that it came with a Big Bang.
Billions of years ago--astronomers continue to disagree about the date but most place it somewhere between 11 billion and 15 billion b.c.--our universe exploded into existence. From the detonation came space, time, matter, and energy.
In its first second, the universe began to expand and it continues to do so. For all we know, it may go on expanding forever. Its size today can be described but not imagined. Our estimates of it have to be enlarged repeatedly. At last count there were perhaps a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Early in 1996 we learned that there are fifty billion such galaxies in the sky; previously we had thought there were "only" ten billion. And more space is being created all the time.
Our tiny corner of the universe--the corner dominated by our local star, the Sun--took shape long after Creation. The solar system, the Sun and all that revolves around it, emerged less than five billion years ago.
The Earth is an assemblage of waste materials left over from the creation of the solar system: bits of debris that whirled about aimlessly in space, and then collided, smashing into one another and merging, like so many lumps of scrap metal crushed together by a compactor. The Earth came into being 4.6 billion years ago, just after the birth of the Sun.
Life on our planet seems to have sprung up from the then-molten Earth somewhere between 3 and 4.2 billion years ago. We think that it took the form of single-celled microbes, organisms without a nucleus, that lived in a kind of "primeval soup." One of these was able to replicate, becoming the germ of all future life; from it all else followed.
But, again, we don't quite know how. For although we believe that this simple germ of life spawned many species, we haven't yet solved the riddle of how cells with a true nucleus came into being. We do have some clues, however.
New evidence suggests that the minute organisms from which the animal kingdom emerged may have "crawled or slithered between grains of mud or sand in primordial waters." Eventually they may have reached out to make use of the light of the sun and would have split water--and released oxygen. It was not until nearly 600 million b.c. that they developed the beginnings of skeletons and enough substance to leave fossil remains for us to find, vestigial remnants of what came before us.
Upheavals continued to alter the Earth's geography radically. Continents were on the move. Life's existence was jeopardized on at least five occasions by mysterious catastrophes, "extinction events" as they are called, such as the one that is widely believed to have brought an end to the dinosaurs. These events occasioned a proliferation of species that could adapt to the changes. It was not until long afterwards--after the last catastrophe, and billions of years after life began--that primates appeared, and then, much later still, took the first steps in the direction that eventually led to humanity.
So it isn't the case, as traditional cosmogonies would have it, that human beings were created "in the beginning." On the contrary, the first humans, and even their immediate forebears, entered a universe well into its prime, and a solar system in its middle years. Almost all of time past was over before the human story started. In terms of the billions of years since the universe began, the human race has only just barely made its appearance.
For a scientist, that can be disappointing. "We are living . . . long after most of the exciting things have happened," an astronomer wrote recently, in terms that could be construed as expressing a complaint, or at least a regret. But for those who are drawn to the drama of changing times and places in which people were both remarkably the same as, and fascinatingly different from, ourselves, all of history's excitements, its trumpets, banners, and pageantry, were yet to come.