Looking forward to looking back in the future

LEP Columnist Barry Freeman

LEP Columnist Barry Freeman

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History is not what actually happened; it is a story about what actually happened. Forget this at your peril.

Consider, if you can muster energy, the history of life on Earth. Stories we are told about the ascent of humanity, from piffling microbes in warm prehistoric soup to the upright uptight apes of our present tepid broth.

Less than two centuries ago the stories of how and where and when we progressed from X to Y were entirely different from those of today. So different, in fact, there even used to be a ‘why’ in that list of questions to be addressed, right at the top.

Changes in patterns of belief and scientific advance conspired to render those old histories nonsensical to all but the most fundamentalist fool. And yet our post-Darwinian stories are themselves built on sand, a product of this moment and no more.

Five years ago we told stories of how humanity arose in Africa. Discoveries in Spain and China threw these stories into doubt.

Comparatively recent stories described how one set of early humans (Cro-Magnons) annihilated another (Neanderthals). The unravelling of human DNA now tells a story in which no such extermination happened. The two co-existed, mated, have descendents running around to this day.

Two centuries hence, will technological progress and the research it enables conspire to render our stories nonsensical? Maybe. Certainly ill-informed and inaccurate.

But histories change for other reasons. Much of this past year has been spent reflecting on stories of a specific sequence of events more recent than our journey from lungfish to bipedal moron.

There are many histories of the First World War. Competing histories, and in the past six months we have been part of their struggle.

Was the war a just cause, to thwart evil empire-builders or an inbred Royal spat which paved the way for a continent-wide cull of the lower orders? Were those millions of lives given, each an act of noble sacrifice, or taken, each a victim of mindless waste?

Who initiated the Christmas Truce of 1914? Us? Them? Who won the football? Did we really give them all our chocolate? Aren’t we kind? Aren’t they, the foreigners, even the nice ones, just a little bit selfish?

This latter example reminding us, of course, that if you want to understand the present read the stories we tell ourselves about our past.