An Age without a Name, 2: Progress or Digression?

Myths are stories we tell to explain how we see ourselves and our place in the world. One of the dominant myths of the current age is that of progress, which sees the human story as one of continual improvement over time, with that tendency accelerating in recent centuries, particularly the last. (It is worth reminding ourselves that technically ‘progress’ is a neutral descriptive term: it simply means to go forward, or go on; and since that is something we have little choice but to do, you could argue that the positive charge we have given ‘progress’ is a case of making a virtue of necessity).

An illustration of human progress might look like this, presented in the style of a contour profile:

DSCF5149 (1)

C is the beginning of history, which starts with the possibility of written records, some 5,500 years ago – a date that is much the same as our invention of metallurgy. D is the start of the Classical Period in Greece, some 2,500 years ago. The dip about a thousand years later is the Fall of Rome, the beginning of the Dark Ages, though the dotted line reminds us that the Dark Ages were a local phenomenon – the level of civilisation attained in Classical Greece continued in the Eastern Roman Empire and was maintained by the Golden Age of Islam, while Western Europe was in the darkness of ignorance.

Point No.1 at the right is the beginning of the agrarian revolution some three centuries ago, driven very much by notions of ‘improvement’ in agriculture, land management and animal husbandry as age-old practices were superseded by a modern, rational approach born of the Enlightenment.

Point No. 2, some two centuries ago, is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which transformed society, starting in Britain and Western Europe, and spreading worldwide.

Point No.3 is simply the start of the twentieth century, which has eclipsed all others in terms of technical progress and has largely shaped what we consider the modern world. The gradient here should undoubtedly be much steeper: a century that started without heavier-than-air flight, with much sea-cargo still carried by sail, with few motor cars and newspapers the medium of mass communication, cinema and telephone communication in their infancy and gaslighting the norm, has transformed into the extraordinary world of space travel, nuclear power, the world-wide web, social media, mobile phones and all the rest.

Only the right-hand end of my diagram sounds an ominous note, one touched on in the previous article on the Anthropocene, namely the fear that we may be headed for disaster, a precipitous fall as human impact on the environment – particularly biodiversity and climate change – threatens not only our way of life, but all life on the planet.

This is where the limitations of diagrams like the one above become evident: what is the alternative to continued upward progress? The problem is that even to slacken the rate of ascent looks like abandoning the course that has taken us so far so rapidly; to flatten out looks like stagnation, and anything else is pessimistic decline.

Perhaps the time has come to try another map. I would suggest this one:


Version 2

The first thing to note is that the scale here is very different: the span from left to right is 60,000 years. The second thing is that this is not a contour profile, but an aerial plan, much like a conventional map. The blue line is human progress; the green line running parallel to it is the generality of life on earth.

Point B, some 10,000 years ago, is the beginning of a significant divergence between the two lines: it marks the point where we began to live in a new way, in fixed settlements supported by agriculture, instead of the nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life we had followed since the dawn of humanity. This is the beginning of civilisation, and has been suggested as a suitable start for the Anthropocene, the Epoch of Human influence, that was the subject of the previous article. Yet it is worth recalling that we are still in prehistoric times and indeed the Stone Age – we have to get to point C, which also appears on the first diagram, to arrive at the invention of writing – and so the beginning of history – and the discovery of metallurgy, between five and six thousand years ago.

Point D also appears on the first diagram: it marks the start of the classical period in Greece, the point in time when the invention of writing really began to have an impact on human expression. For the first few millennia it has been a useful method of storage, akin to the dehydration of food: it allows unmemorable but useful information to be preserved. Its role in the transmission of culture – all the things people regard as sufficiently important to pass on to succeeding generations – is minimal. It takes about a thousand years from its first invention for anyone to use writing for something that we might call literature.

This tardiness in realising its potential in this respect can best be understood with reference to the point marked A, some 40,000 years ago. This is the date of some cave-paintings, sculpture and musical instruments that we have discovered. It does not, of course, mark a beginning, but rather a continuity – we have every reason to suppose that the aesthetic impulse, the human urge to give external expression to our feelings, dates much further back than that – singing, dancing, storytelling leave no lasting mark on the environment, but we know that, even today, they are human activities strongly associated with gathering round a fire – and current estimates suggest that the controlled use of fire by humankind dates back at least 400,000 years.

The implication of this is that we had evolved distinctive means of transmitting our culture effectively, that did not involve writing but did involve aesthetic expression,  by 40,000 years ago and quite probably ten times longer ago than that. The continuance of our race in itself attests that humans were able to transmit their culture effectively for tens and indeed hundreds of thousands of years before the invention of writing; and the practice of cave-painting seems to have died out about 10,000 years ago, though it survived later in some places. In other words, we were cave painters for two or even three times as long as we consider ourselves to have been civilised. And of course all these means – art, music, poetry, storytelling, dance, theatre – still play a central role in transmitting culture even today – they have never died out, though the conditions under which they operate have altered drastically.

Where that alteration begins is shown on the second diagram at D, which marks the point where we began thinking and looking at the world in a different way. That is why I have shown it as a right-angle digression from the course which we had followed from time immemorial, a course that till the advent of civilisation some ten thousand years ago, ran in parallel and in harmony with the rest of life on Earth. That is a supposition, but an entirely reasonable one: we are one among many forms of life on earth, and for most of our time here, we have lived interdependently with nature, relying on its bounty for survival, but also conforming our way of life to its demands, just as every other form of life on Earth has had to do.

I would argue that, rather than adopting the idea of the Anthropocene discussed in the previous article – which finds evidence of human influence in the environment – we should look instead at the points where we ourselves changed our relationship, our attitude, to the environment. While the first of these is arguably our adoption of agriculture, of far greater significance is the change that began some two and a half thousand years ago in Classical Greece. I would say that is the beginning of the Age of Language, which I would contrast with the preceding Age of Expression, which stretches back to the beginning of humanity.

I maintain that Language as we know it, and the way of thinking it makes possible, is of relatively recent origin, the accidental result of the invention of writing and its impact on human expression generally and on speech in particular. That impact could be described as the disintegration of expression and the isolation and elevation of speech to an eminence it had not previously enjoyed.

Prior to the invention of writing, I would argue that human expression was broader in range and integral in character – speech was one mode among many, not the most important, and it was not regarded as distinct from facial expression, gesture, and bodily posture as immediate physical modes of expression, nor were these distinguished from more developed modes of expression such as song, dance, music, painting, sculpture, storytelling, poetry or ritual behaviour combining all or any of these. Where the Age of Language – our current age – is characterised by the intellectual apprehension of the world through the medium of language, specifically words, and could be described as rational, objective and detached; in the former Age, of Expression, people responded to the world made known by the senses through their feelings, which found expression in the range of modes noted above; it could be described as intuitive, subjective and emotionally engaged.

One way to put this is to say that Writing pulls down the edifice of Expression that has stood since time immemorial, but drags Speech out of the wreckage, and the two set up in a new (but unequal) relation (a notion examined here in fable form: Plucked from the Chorus line).

I will lay out the detail of how this revolution was effected in a third article, and will also discuss the different principles or mechanisms by which thought operated in the Age of Expression and our current Age of Language. For the present, I would like to conclude by explaining how I can presume to make claims about how people thought in a different age of the world. My case rests wholly on what is demonstrated by point A on the diagram above, namely the great age of the aesthetic impulse, which is not merely ancient, but primal – and still very much survives.

A key aspect of my theory is that although Language and the characteristic way of thought that goes with it dominate our Age, they do so much as a conquering power rules a country it has colonised: though the old regime is overthrown, and the new one brings in new laws and customs, the old way of doing things does not disappear, but persists in new guises, often in the face of official disapproval, and subject to official control and authority. Everything that we now term Art, in its broadest sense – not simply painting and sculpture, but music, dance, theatre, poetry, storytelling – is a survival of the Age of Expression and works on the same intuitive, subjective and feelings-based principles. These two elements are in tension because one (Language, Reason) claims the whole territory of thought and judgement for itself, yet the other – Art – seems better able to express what people feel is most important to them.

(it might be thought that I am here rehashing CP Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ argument, but although there are superficial similarities, the differences are profound and fundamental. Snow’s argument is essentially one about the content of English education – put crudely, that it gives too much weight to the Humanities, in particular, the Classics, over the Sciences; he cites other systems (e.g. the German) that have a better balance. The argument that I am putting forward here is not about the content but the basis of Education (by which I mean all ‘Western’ Education) – namely that it is, fundamentally, Platonic – by which I mean that it disparages the senses, devalues feelings and vaunts the intellect and language as affording the only ‘correct’ perspective of the world – in effect, substituting an intellectual construct for the Reality that we all experience)

An Age without a Name, 1: adopting the Anthropocene

‘Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!
throughout the sensual world proclaim
one crowded hour of glorious life
is worth an age without a name’

You may have your doubts about the sentiment – a bit juvenile for my taste, but then I am no longer young – but the curious fact is that we currently live in an Age without a name.


The previous Age, the Late Pleistocene, lasted some 120,000 years – give or take a few thousand – and its end, some 11,700 years ago, also marked the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, which lasted some 2.5 million years.

In Geochronology, an Age is the smallest unit; next comes the Epoch, then Period, Era, and ultimately Eon. Their length is not precisely defined: Ages can span millions of years, Epochs tens of millions, Periods up to a hundred million, Eras several hundred million, Eons half a billion years or more (I presume the short scale billion 10⁹ is meant, rather than the long scale 10¹²) – so the present Epoch, the Holocene, at a mere 11,700 years, is barely under way, so perhaps it is no surprise that its first Age has not been named yet.

Stripped of their Greek, the impressive-sounding names are rather dull. (As a child, coloured depictions of layers of rock coupled with the name led me to confuse ‘Pleistocene’ and ‘Plasticene’). Holocene – ‘wholly new’ – effectively means ‘recent’; Pleistocene (a touch confusingly) is ‘most new’ or ‘newest’ and succeeded the Pl(e)iocene, the ‘newer’ – from which I gather that they started naming from the oldest first, then had to squeeze in various distinctions as they reached more recent geological times.

For all its short existence, there is a body of thought that suggests that the Holocene should be superseded by a new Epoch, the Anthropocene, defined as the period when human activities started to have a significant impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems.

(The etymology requires some explanation – the ‘-cene’ ending is common to all the Epochs that make up the Cenozoic Era and means ‘New’. Cenozoic means ‘New Life’ and marks the period, beginning some 66 million years ago, when mammals superseded reptiles as the dominant form of life on Earth. The ‘Anthropocene’, then, is the ‘New Human’ Epoch – suggesting dominance not by a class of animals, but a single species – our own)

Where the Anthropocene should start is a matter for illuminating discussion. Some, following the standard geological model of an impact left on the rocks of the Earth itself, would start as recently as seventy odd years ago, when the first use of nuclear weapons left a signature that will remain legible for as long as the Earth lasts. Others, taking their cue from human impact on ecosystems, point to the Industrial Revolution, begun between two and three hundred years ago, or perhaps the Agrarian revolution that immediately preceded it and made it possible; while others trace a line all the way back to the beginnings of civilisation, around ten thousand years ago, when our species made the fundamental shift from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to living in settled communities supported by agriculture, which left its mark on the Earth not only in the form of our fields and settlements, but also in a rapid expansion of the human population.

While that last start point would effectively rub out the Holocene altogether – or reduce it to a mere 1700 years, the span from the end of the last Ice Age to the beginning of ‘civilisation’ – even the most recent option, dating it from the first nuclear explosions, would still leave it as little more than a blip on the Geological time scale.

The argument for the Anthropocene is interesting and shows a significant shift in thought. Had the Victorians – who are largely responsible for the geochronology we use today – chosen to call the latest Epoch after our own species, it would be seen as an expression of Human triumphalism; this was, after all, the time when the advent of steam power and industry had seen a small nation on the fringes of Europe establish an Empire which by 1922 held sway over one-fifth of the world’s population and one quarter of its territory.

Now, however, the urge to characterise the latest Epoch as one shaped by the human race is a warning rather than a boast: it is driven by concerns over the negative impact of our activity on biodiversity and climate change. And this is a significant shift in attitude. The motto of the Victorian geologists was ‘the present is the key to the past’, which contradicted the prevailing catastrophist view that Earth’s geology had been shaped, in a relatively short span of time, by a series of violent, widespread events, such as floods. The uniformitarian or gradualist school argued that far slower-acting processes, still in operation today – such as erosion – were the main shaping influences, so that the age of the earth must be far greater than had been previously calculated.

(I think it important to add here that no-one ever believed that the world was other than very ancient; what they had not done was quantify what being very ancient amounted to. The 5,646 years proposed by Archbishop Ussher in 1642 as the span from the moment of Creation to the present would have seemed as unimaginably distant in his day as the 4.53 billion years currently estimated to be the age of our planet does to us; it is only comparison that makes one seem absurdly short. And it is probably true to say that we have very little sense of time, for all our skill in measuring it – what, for instance, does half an hour feel like? Does it always feel the same?)

The Victorians felt secure in their position as detached observers, reading the Great Book of Nature with rational objectivity, a tradition inherited from the Greeks and reflected in their choice of Greek nomenclature for naming the Ages, Epochs, Periods, Eras and Eons of the Earth; but what has now been brought home to us is the realisation that the observers are themselves the key agents of change in what they observe, and the question that now exercises our minds is not how far back the process began, but where and how it might end; and bound up with that is another, which is ‘how should we act?’

Adopting the Anthropocene as a label for our age is a signal that detached observation is no longer a tenable position: we cannot be content to stand by and watch. The time is ripe, I think, to consider a fresh way of looking at ourselves in relation to the world; I will consider what that might be in a separate article.