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“Challenging change” – extract from A Foot in the River

We are not the only species to have a culture. However, the speed at which human culture changes is extremely rapid and can lead to baffling and dislocating effects. How, then, can people make sense of these changes? Felipe Fernández-Armesto offers a radical answer to this fundamental question of human history – and speculates on what it might mean for our future. The following extract describes the importance of change in developing human culture.

If we want to understand what is special about our planet and about our own species, we have to begin by confronting an even deeper problem: the problem of change. Why do we not live in a stable—or at least a more stable—world? Why do we have change—or at least so much more of it than other worlds?

These are questions so big and daunting that, in spite of their importance, philosophy has given up trying to deal with them. We hardly ever even crack them open nowadays for close examination. Some questions are hard to answer: all interesting questions, I think, are of that kind. And others—like those that fill the pages that follow—are almost too hard to ask. Change is a difficult subject to address, because everything we say about it is observed from the inside, trapped by a form of uncertainty principle. Change grips us as we try to grasp it. It is almost unimaginably hard to conceive of life without it.

Yet people have tried.

The earliest evidence of their efforts is visible in Ice Age art. The painters of the cave art of northern Spain and southern France, between about twenty- and thirty-thousand years ago, felt drawn to deep, dark places in barely accessible caverns, in the most unchanging environment they could penetrate—made of unyielding rocks. They decorated some of the innermost spaces of the caves with images so enduring that many of them are intact to this day, despite the corruptions of the atmosphere caused in the meantime by natural disasters and the corrosive exhalations of human bodies and breath. No one knows why Ice Age artists made their paintings in such adverse conditions, with painful labour, coarse tools, and limited pigments, in the gloom of flickering torchlight—but only an enterprise of supreme importance can have been worth so much commitment.

The best explanation we have connects their efforts with a need to escape evanescence by reaching for the undying world of gods or spirits or ancestors, locked inside the stone, where shamans could travel imaginatively, on spiritual journeys, propelled by rites and drugs. You can almost see, almost touch those efforts in the hand-prints that smother some of their stones. The attempt to reach the world inside the rock was part of a widespread quest to escape change, perhaps because change is inseparable from mortality. Worshippers have always been drawn, for the same reasons, to mountains, which seem to resist change by outlasting life, or trees, which evade mortality by impressive longevity and incalculable self-renewals.

Change was and is something to fear or flee. We still have a love–hate relationship with it, sometimes embracing it in the hope of improvement, sometimes eschewing it in a spirit of scepticism or despair. Perhaps, if we understood change better, we would cease to fear it. Yet for thousands of years we have been short of new thoughts, almost bereft of new theories about it—so much so that we have pretty much given up on the job.

For an account of systematic enquiry about change in general—rather than about particular changes—we have to go back about two-and-a half millennia.

There was a time, towards the middle of the millennium before Christ, when the question ‘why does change happen?’ was the subject of intense debate among schools and sages in the eastern Mediterranean. Thinkers we usually call the pre-Socratics, whose work informed Socrates’s thinking (and, therefore, the whole Western tradition ever since) came up with two, mutually contradictory, answers.

Change puzzled the philosophers because it is an apparently universal law—the most obvious feature of how we humans experience the world; but change only makes sense in distinction from a previous, unchanged state against which to recognize it. In that case, what can set it going? Moreover, if something changes, it is different from what it previously was, so how can we continue to speak of it? ‘You cannot step twice into the same river’ is the aphorism Heraclitus coined around the turn of the fifth and sixth centuries BCE to express this troubling insight. By the time one foot follows another, the stream will have borne its own self away.

Featured image credit: “Cueva de las Manos (Spanish for Cave of the Hands) in the Santa Cruz province in Argentina” by Mariano. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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