“History won’t get us off the planet…”


Design for a Flying Machine, Leonardo da Vinci, 1488


When I first started my doctoral program, my supervisor and I were commiserating over how disproportionate research funding had gotten in favor of STEM and at the expense of the humanities and social sciences. Partly playing devil’s advocate and partly in earnest, my wife remarked that it was properly so, as “history won’t get us off the planet.” Her point being, of course, that we needed to do all we could to advance our technology to the point where deep space travel would be possible, as eventually, our dear Earth would become uninhabitable.

That was five years ago, and I never came up with a satisfactory rejoinder to that argument until last week. When it hit me, I was on a walk, by myself. I smiled a crooked smile and relished the feeling of being so clever, if belatedly. (I like winning.) When I got home, I warned her that she was going down. But I didn’t get around to it until this morning.

The core purpose of studying history is to understand, as best we can, the experience of people removed from us in time—just as the purpose of anthropology is to understand the experience of people removed from us geographically or culturally but not necessarily temporally. That understanding has intrinsic value, to be sure, but that’s not why we do it. We do it for two reasons. The first is to gain a better perspective on our own experience. To a small child, whatever the subjective experience is constitutes the totality of reality. It never occurs to the child that there is another “normal”—or, in fact, a myriad of other “normals.” If we do not invest ourselves in trying to understand others’ experience, we never develop beyond childhood. We never learn that what is normal to us is not normal for everyone else, that other people’s experiences are different from ours, that other people have different personal realities and different ways of perceiving general reality. Once we gain that perspective, we can perceive our own subjective reality is just that, and actually know it. We can’t define anything—distinguish it from something else—unless we are aware of the something-else. There is no blue without red and yellow and the other colors. Related to that is the reason why relativism, taken too far, is absurd; when a word means everything, it means nothing.

The second reason we study history is so that, having learned about other people’s experiences, we can empathize with them. We can, to a limited but important extent, imagine what their experiences were like, and how those experiences shaped their perspective on personal and general reality. When we empathize with people, they become actual people to us. We fear what we do not understand, and we hate what we fear. That’s how we’re wired. And what we hate, we try to destroy, given the chance.

We study all of the humanities and social sciences to understand ourselves and each other and how we live together, for better or worse. And our minds are not circuit boards; they are living things, able to rewire themselves—able to adapt, in real time, to input changes. Waiting around for evolution is not required. We are train-able, at the very core of our beings.

Right now, we urgently need to be doing that self-training—perhaps more urgently than ever. Our technological prowess has grown with our numbers, and both have placed enormous pressure on our own species and on the rest of this planet. But our development of empathy and the prioritization of understanding and cooperation over alienation and conflict have by no means kept pace with that. Not only is human progress not linear—it is not inevitable. It’s our choice. If we don’t start making some different choices as societies—if we don’t stop thinking it’s ok to know nuclear science and yet still conceive of general reality in basically medieval terms, if we don’t stop, as Vonnegut put it, painting crosses on tanks—then it doesn’t ultimately matter how much we fund STEM, because we will destroy ourselves long before STEM lifts us off this outrageously improbable and wonderful planet for a voyage to the stars. The only way we will ever be able to develop our capabilities that far is to stop investing our passions and energies and resources in short-term, selfish and destructive pursuits and conflicts, and start investing them in the long-term survival and well-being of the human species. Before that happens, our empathic skills have got to get a lot better. We humans have to learn to understand each other better, to help each other understand reality better, or humans will be long gone before the sun ever incinerates our dear Earth.

So that, my dear, is how history can get us off the planet—or at least help, along with the social sciences and arts and letters. History cannot build us an interstellar spacecraft. But it can help us stick around long enough, and better ourselves enough, to build one someday.


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