“Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. It was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of world history, but nevertheless only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star cooled and solidified, and the clever beasts had to die. The time had come too, for although they boasted of how much they understood, in the end they discovered to their great annoyance that they had understood everything falsely.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Pathos of Truth” (1874)
My sister is part of a team of botanists who are trying to save the fuzzy kiwis of New Zealand. As you may or may not already know, kiwifruit exports are a central feature of the New Zealand economy (worth about NZ$1.5 billion), and these kiwis are dying at an alarming rate. Researchers initially suspected that the plant pathogen attacking the fuzzy kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa) were domestic in origin, but they soon realized that the answers they were looking for couldn’t be found in New Zealand. They were going to have to go to China. Why? Because kiwifruit are relatively new to New Zealand: they were only introduced in the early twentieth century. The ancestors of the domesticated kiwifruit are native to the mountainous regions of north-central and eastern China. And it seems that the pathogen killing the kiwis is a domesticated version of a rather ancient foe.
I can’t help but think about the study of history when I contemplate this fascinating case. Although human beings have been walking the Earth in our present form for about 200,000 years, human history imperfectly chronicles the last few thousand years. Due to a paucity of sources (especially written sources), human history doesn’t really know very much about human history. The best historians are, in my experience, aware of this problem, but they deal with it the way most of us deal with death: namely, by studiously avoiding the subject. I used to be able to do this too. But I find myself less and less able to do so these days. I can’t help but suspect that the vast majority of what passes for historical truth is in fact bullshit.
When we’re trying to recreate an intellectual milieu, even one that’s relatively recent, we invariably discover that the vast majority of the sources we need to do such a thing have been swallowed up by oblivion and lost forever. Sometimes those that remain—e.g., Plato’s dialogues—remain because they were the best of the best, works of great importance. But this isn’t always (or even usually) the case. Sources often survive for largely accidental reasons. Regardless, the temptation to exaggerate the significance of what we have has proven irresistible for generations of intellectual historians. As the philosopher Aaron Haspel puts it in Everything (2015): “The parable of the drunk looking for his keys under the street lamp, where the light is better, explains vast swaths of intellectual history.”
On our way home from Felicity’s house last night, we came across a giggling bachelorette party. The drunken bride-to-be was scantily clad in a hilarious outfit that included penis goggles, a stripper-chic spoof of a wedding dress, and a sign that read “TOUCH THEM, THEY’RE REAL”. The bachelorette party made me smile. And I’m sure they all had a fun night. But if you were to draw conclusions about this young bride-to-be based on observations derived from last night’s events, you would in all likelihood be dead wrong about her. Last night was a strange and atypical night. The judgments historians formulate about us are probably little better than the judgments someone might formulate about that bride-to-be based upon last night’s events. Historians regularly come to conclusions about who we are based on a ridiculously small slice of our evolutionary past.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)