After sixteen generations: gathering some threads

At the risk of labouring the point, sixteen generations is a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. No wonder we humans get so stressed out, and get it wrong so often. We have had a lot to assimilate in a very short time.

We are genetically the same as the generation that came to maturity 350 years ago. What has changed, and what is recognisable in our experience of the world?

Communications change dramatically once we go back sixteen generations. The fastest pace of travel is the speed of a horse, or a sailing ship. Thanks to printing, information does spread – although much more slowly than we are used to today. This has a physical consequence: if you want to take part in exploring the ideas of the time, you have to move to where the people are who are discussing the same subjects. From generation 484 as we go further back, I find myself asking, where is the zeitgeist for this generation? Which city is the exciting place to be?

In large part, this is determined by the whims of the rulers. The ruling elites have much more immediate power over the lives of their subjects (not citizens. Human rights, the rights of the citizen, are elaborated around generation ten). Everyone is subject to the decisions of the king/emperor/pope/elector and members of their circle. A clever young man who wants to make his mark must find a rich patron if he wants to move on.

Which brings us to another thread: gender relations. My gender, the female gender, is almost invisible in the story at this period. I know of only one woman who went to university in generation 484. Anna Maria van Schurman, the so-called learned maid of Utrecht, was instrumental in establishing the University of Utrecht, but was only allowed to attend lectures if she was hidden behind a curtain. She had received an education like her brothers thanks to her open-minded father, and was allowed to attend the university at all thanks to another open-minded man. Such a story makes me very glad to be alive now rather than then.

anna maria van schurman

Here is an image of her with the curtain.

A thread which seems to be replaying itself in our generation is fundamentalist religion. In generation 484 it was roman catholicism versus the multiple varieties of protestantism. People were so convinced that their version of christianity was the only correct one that they would exclude or kill adherents of slightly differing versions, ostensibly for their own good. Tough love indeed. The different protestant sects were also at loggerheads with each other, only coming together when it seemed that they would all be swamped by the catholics. Looking back from now, it seems all so irrelevant. Should a person be baptised soon after birth, or upon reaching adulthood? Is a person predestined from birth, or can they win salvation through what they choose to do in life? A person of our generation might say, does it really matter all that much?

Two ingredients that fanned the flames of such dogmatic views:

First, many believed that the world was coming to an end, and we had to get everything in place to be prepared. Oliver Cromwell let some Jews settle in London in generation 483, because he believed that in the ending times the Jews would convert to Christianity. In England there weren’t any Jews to convert, so he had to invite some in.

Second, the ruling elites found such prejudice a useful tool to get their subjects to go to war with each other. A holy war has the added incentive that the combatants win either way, either by surviving it, or dying and going to heaven.

The religious divide had added poignancy because another world view was making its appearance in this time. A shorthand description would be the animistic versus materialistic world view. Can we understand and measure the forces that cause an apple to fall from a tree? How do we understand the blood system of the human body? Is it pumped around the body from the heart, or is it just there, expressing one or more of the four humours as described by the ancients? The mechanistic perspective was so empowering because we could work it out for ourselves, without the need for a priest, other member of the establishment or long-dead authority to explain it to us. In our generation the mechanistic world view is so pervasive that we think of the entire universe as made of matter, without any reference to the gods, demons, angels and other mysteries that populated the imagination of the human race for most of our story. I wonder if we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater: that the animistic view has a validity that we have lost sight of.

One aspect of life from this time that I mourn is the stillness, the ability to focus. The distractions that we all deal with now (another email/text message/pop-up screen/ invitation to install a toolbar!) were not there. Everything was quieter. When people were able to work, they achieved extraordinary things. Our problem now is to push back all the annoyances that reduce our attention span to seconds or minutes rather than the hours that they could be.


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