Ran across one of my favorite little pieces of writing the other day: Sixty Men from Ur by Mark Sumner. It’s about how short recorded human history really is. The piece starts out by asking you to imagine if you view the history of life as the Empire State Building, all of human history is a dime on top.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., one the United States’ great historians, is less than two lifetimes removed from a world where the United States did not exist. Through Mr. Schlesinger, you’re no more than three away yourself. That’s how short the history of our nation really is.
Not impressed? It’s only two more life spans to William Shakespeare. Two more beyond that, and the only Europeans to see America are those who sailed from Greenland. You’re ten lifetimes from the occupation of Damietta during the fifth crusade. Twenty from the founding of Great Zimbabwe and the Visigoth sack of Rome. Make it forty, and Theseus, king of Athens, is held captive on Crete by King Minos, the Olmecs are building the first cities in Mexico, and the New Kingdom collapses in Egypt.
Sixty life times ago, a man named Abram left Ur of the Chaldees and took his family into Canaan. Abram is claimed as the founder of three great religions. A few lifetimes before that, and you’ve come out the bottom of that dime. You’re that close to it.
Update: From Wired last year, Sam Arbesman writes about Kevin Kelly’s concept of touch generations.
I was recently listening to a lecture by Kevin Kelly where he introduces the concept of touch generations, the idea of a list of people based on when one person died and when the next was born: one person is in the next touch generation of someone else if they were born when the other person died. So Galileo and Newton, while unrelated, are in successive touch generations because Newton was born the year that Galileo died. Essentially, it’s a way of connecting lifetimes across the years.