Rethinking history and picturing deep time

Louis Figuier’s 1863 book The World Before the Deluge was a time machine between two covers.  By the mid-nineteenth century, geologists knew that different rock layers and the fossils entombed in them corresponded to distinct periods of time, ages when animals and plants unlike any known to modern man had populated the globe.  Figuier took his readers on a grand tour of these geologic periods—or rather, he did so with the assistance of Édouard Riou, whose evocative engravings brought these extinct environments back to life.

Each engraving showed readers a primordial landscape characteristic of a phase of prehistory.  The result was a sort of highlights reel of earth history, a sequential arrangement of what the historian of science Martin J.S. Rudwick calls “scenes from deep time.”

Riou’s illustrations have long since lost their scientific value, but they still pack a visual wallop.  In this image, torrential rains hammer the surface of a newborn globe:

Trilobites and other marine invertebrates wash up on the shore of the Silurian sea:

The forests of the Carboniferous:

Two dinosaurs, depicted as the stocky and elephantine reptiles that early Victorians assumed they were, engage in mortal combat:

The emergence of large mammals:

A primeval flood inundates northern Europe:

The appearance of (notably white and European) humans:

And finally, a later, “Asiatic” flood, perhaps the one described in Genesis and other ancient texts:

If you’ve ever read a paleontology textbook, visited a natural history museum, watched a documentary on evolution, or stepped into a science classroom, you’ve probably seen a modern variation of these sequential deep time scenes.  Paintings in books, dioramas in museums, and CGI clips on TV often take the form of the “prehistoric highlights reel” that Figuier and Riou helped popularize.

And although the science of paleontology has changed a great deal since the 1860s, the organisms that populate our own scenes from deep time tend to correspond with those Riou associated with specific periods.  The dates assigned to the scenes have changed (and in the case of he dinosaurs, the physiology of the animals has changed, too), but the cast has remained much the same.  The scenes start out with marine invertebrates, then move on to primitive chordates and fish, then amphibians and early terrestrial organisms, then dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles, then mammalian megafauna, and finally humans.  I had a lot of books on prehistoric life when I was a kid, and the sequence of illustrations was pretty consistent across most of them: marine invertebrates, jawless fish, jawed fish, amphibians, dinosaurs, mammals, and Homo sapiens.

This sequence may seem inevitable; after all, it’s the order in which the major groups of organisms appeared.  But there’s a sense in which it’s misleading.  The illustrations tend to be much better at highlighting when groups of organisms appeared or were especially prominent than they are at indicating how long they flourished.

Take reptiles, for example. Many illustrators will throw one in around the late Carboniferous to mark the emergence of the first reptiles, or perhaps include a picture of the sail-backed Dimetrodon in the Permian. Pictures of reptiles then dominate the Mesozoic, and then tend to disappear from pictorial sequences and time charts altogether after the age of dinosaurs.

But reptiles didn’t go extinct 65 million years ago.  Nor, for that matter, did the dinosaurs themselves.  Birds are advanced theropod dinosaurs, and living bird species outnumber mammals species by two to one.  Extant reptile species outnumber mammal species, too.  But you wouldn’t know this from looking at pictorial deep time sequences and geologic time scales.  Illustrators are keen on reptiles and birds when they first appear, or when they’re the biggest terrestrial animals going.  Once you hit the end of the Cretaceous Period, however, it’s as if we assume that reptiles and their descendants ceased to exist, or at least ceased to be relevant.  Indeed, we call our own time the “Age of Mammals,” but it would be just as accurate to keep calling it the “Age of Reptiles.”

The artificiality of deep time imagery is even more apparent when you look at fish.  Illustrators highlight fish when they’re the only vertebrates around, but once amphibians show up and start colonizing the land, fish more or less vanish from the pictures.  Likewise, you don’t see many amphibians in illustrations of scenes dating from after the first appearance of reptiles.  And invertebrates tend to disappear entirely once animals with backbones evolve, even though they make up more than 95% of all extant species described so far.

These charts and sequential images also tend to favor terrestrial over aquatic life.  Marine organisms are plentiful in scenes of early eras, when there’s no life on land.  But once terrestrial animals appear, many geologic time scales omit marine life altogether, except for the occasional aquatic reptile from the Mesozoic (presumably included because they look really cool).

You can see the same sequence of organisms in illustrated charts and tables of geologic time.  Take a look at this one produced by CliffsNotes.  Invertebrates for the earliest periods populate the oldest periods at the bottom, and then it’s fish, terrestrial animals, dinosaurs, and mammals.  Not a single invertebrate after the first appearance of insects.

Here’s another one from a professional development site for teachers.  It’s pretty consistent with the one above.  Invertebrates, fish, plants, amphibians, dinosaurs, large mammals, and finally man up at the top.

The point I’m belaboring here is that pictorial sequences of earth history and illustrated geologic time charts are as notable for their omissions as they are for what they include.  There’s a sort of implicit narrative thrust at work here, focused on organisms that are vertebrate, terrestrial, and warm-blooded.  Organisms, in other words, that seem most relevant to our own origins.

Now, I’ve never needed an excuse to discuss extinct organisms here before, but this post isn’t one of my gratuitous prehistoric indulgences.  I raise the issue of scenes from deep time because it offers insights into the ways we think about the more recent, human past.

We might compare the treatment of some historical subjects in textbooks and survey courses to depictions of organisms in pictorial sequences of deep time.  Just as illustrators render some animal groups invisible once a more recent group arrives on the scene, so we tend to render Indians invisible after, say, King Philip’s War, Jacksonian removal, or Wounded Knee.  But Native Americans didn’t vanish after these important turning points.  They might have ended up in a different location, but they didn’t become extinct or irrelevant, any more than amphibians became extinct once animals started laying amniotic eggs.

And the descendants of Spanish colonists in the American Southwest didn’t cease to exist after the mid-1800s, when Anglophone Americans took political control of the region.  They were there the whole time, just as birds kept fluttering along through the mass extinction of 65 million years ago and the emergence of large mammals afterward.

In the same way, just as it’s misleading to ignore marine life and focus exclusively on terrestrial life after the movement of the first organisms into land, it’s also misleading for history books and courses to ignore the Southwest after the passage of the “frontier” era, or to be attentive to southern history only during the Civil War, New South, and civil rights eras.  And our discussions of such important changes as the Industrial Revolution shouldn’t blind us to the fact that most Americans remained tied to agriculture long after the first steam engines started puttering, just as most organisms remained invertebrates long after the first backbones appeared.

Our selective memory of history suffers from the same problems as our selective memory of the story of the life on this planet.  We need to remind ourselves to step away from selective scenes of the past to take in the sweep of the whole drama.  And we need to stop thinking of history in terms of a “highlights reel” of status scenes, and start thinking of it as a totality.

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Monday Night Massacre?

UPDATE: Check out this HNN piece by David Shorten, who notes the problems inherent in interpreting current events with simple historical analogies.  He urges us to “give up on historical comparisons and replace them with historicism—to quit analogizing and start contextualizing.”

Well, look on the bright side.  This administration is going to be a freaking bonanza for historians looking to get on the talking head circuit.  The Lincoln folks had all the fun for eight years, but now we’re less than two weeks into the new regime and the Jacksonian scholars are already passing the mic to the Nixon experts.

U.S. President Donald Trump fired the federal government’s top lawyer Sally Yates on Monday after she took the extraordinarily rare step of defying the White House and saying the Justice Department would not defend his new travel restrictions targeting seven Muslim-majority nations.

The White House said on Twitter that Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, would replace Yates, an appointee of former Democratic President Barack Obama, as acting U.S. attorney general.

…There have been only a handful of instances in U.S. history of top Justice Department officials publicly breaking with the White House. The most famous example was in 1973, when then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.

And it looks like things are only gonna keep spiraling down from here.  If society totally breaks down, maybe us backcountry Rev War guys will get our fifteen minutes on C-SPAN.

NSFW but apropos and amusing:

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And killing IMLS is a terrible idea, too

Check out that whole thread of tweets, if you haven’t already.  If you care about history—and since you’re reading this blog, I assume you do—this should terrify you.

Eliminating the Institute of Museum and Library Services would be devastating to institutions that preserve the past and make it accessible.  These grants are critical to the maintenance of important historical collections, the technology that ensures their availability, and the programs that allow us to share them.

Now would be a very good time to contact your representative.

 

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Killing the NEH is still a terrible idea

A horribly misguided proposal from 2014 now rears its head again.  From The Hill:

Staffers for the Trump transition team have been meeting with career staff at the White House ahead of Friday’s presidential inauguration to outline their plans for shrinking the federal bureaucracy, The Hill has learned.…

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely.

Overall, the blueprint being used by Trump’s team would reduce federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years.

The proposed cuts hew closely to a blueprint published last year by the conservative Heritage Foundation, a think tank that has helped staff the Trump transition.

You’d think an organization called “The Heritage Foundation” would be more serious about programs that protect and interpret our, y’know, heritage.

Look, I don’t like extravagant federal spending any more than the next guy.  But killing the NEH to reduce the federal budget is like cutting out a Tic Tac because you want to lose weight.  Last year the NEH requested a budget of $148 million.  That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s only 0.003% of federal spending.  The NEA’s budget for last year was about the same, so eliminating both agencies would’ve saved a whopping 0.006% out of the $3.9 trillion the government spent in 2016.

And that 0.003% isn’t just for ivory tower academics.  It benefits everyone.  Ever read a popular history book?  Watched a Ken Burns documentary?  Used the Internet or microfilm for genealogical research?  Visited a museum or historic site?  If the answer to any of those questions is “yes,” I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve benefited from an NEH grant.

Contact your representative and tell them the humanities are worth 0.003%.

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Upcoming talk on Eugene Debs at UTK

Here’s a timely event for those of you in the Knoxville area as we move closer to the centennial of America’s entry into the First World War.  On Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 6:00 P.M., Ernest Freeberg will present “Eugene V. Debs and the Fight For Free Speech in World War One” in UT’s Hodges Library, room 212.

Dr. Freeberg, head of the Department of History at UT, is the author of a prize-winning book on Debs and civil liberties in wartime titled Democracy’s Prisoner.  His other works include The Age of Edison and The Education of Laura Bridgman, which won the AHA’s Dunning Prize.

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It’s up to Theodore Roosevelt to save Queen Victoria

Steven Wilson, my pal and former boss at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, just published a new historical thriller.  Roosevelt’s Jubilee pits TR against a group of assassins in Victorian London:

Future president Theodore Roosevelt and his new wife, Edith, travel to London on their honeymoon in 1887. After a chance encounter with the Prince of Wales, they uncover a plot to assassinate Queen Victoria. When the criminals kidnap Edith to use as leverage, Theodore teams up with Inspector Frederick Abberline of Scotland Yard.

Roosevelt discovers that Abberline’s boss is one of the conspirators and that an Irish separatist group is behind the evil scheme. Roosevelt and Abberline learn that the would-be assassins are planning a deadly, explosive spectacle during the queen’s Golden Jubilee celebration in hopes of destroying the British monarchy.

Author Steven Wilson weaves fact and fiction together in this suspenseful historical novel set right before the turn of the century, when the British government is struggling to remain relevant. This is London just before Jack the Ripper terrorizes the city, as social classes battle and war looms on the horizon.

As Theodore and Edith discover, it’s a place where no one can be trusted and everyone has a second trick up his or her sleeve. And unless they can outwit the tricksters, the sun will be setting on the British Empire.

And while you’re at it, check out Steven’s earlier novels set on the high seas during World War II and the realm of Civil War espionage.

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UTK historians on the 2016 election

Pundits like to toss around the word “historic” when referring to presidential elections, and the last election in particular stirred up a lot of talk about historical parallels.  But if you’re in the Knoxville area and you’d like to hear some actual historians weigh in, the University of Tennessee is hosting an Inauguration Eve symposium that might be of interest.  On Thursday, Jan. 19 these folks from UT’s Department of History will discuss the significance of the 2016 election, provide some historical perspective, and use the past to shed light on its implications:

  • Joshua Hodge, doctoral student specializing in nineteenth-century land use in the South
  • Bob Hutton, senior lecturer and authority on Appalachia
  • Max Matherne, doctoral student specializing in Jacksonian political thought
  • Brad Nichols, lecturer and specialist in Nazism and genocide
  • Tore Olsson, assistant professor and expert on the history of food, agriculture, the environment, and politics in the U.S. and Latin America
  • Julie Reed, assistant professor and authority on Cherokee social policy and education

This event will be in the Lindsay Young Auditorium of Hodges Library, 5:00-6:30 p.m.  It’s free and open to the public.  (And the panelists are some of my favorite people!)

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