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THROUGH THE EYE OF HISTORY: Does looking back mark the path to a better future?

The world we human beings live in seems to be made up of three primary constituents: matter/energy in all its many forms, time, and space. I say “seems” because the picture of the universe that physicists have constructed over the last 50 years — what has been called “the mighty cathedral of theoretical physics” (Scientific American, May 2014), where space and time are entangled and subatomic particles rule the roost — bears no resemblance to the world in which we mortals spend our lives. Matter/energy, space and time are the foundation of our world.

When matter and energy exist in and move through time and space, history comes into existence. Yesterday, object X was here and today it is found over there. That is a statement of the object’s history, a one-day account of its movement. In our world, every particle, every quantum of energy, every object and every living thing has a history. In an important and fundamental sense, history is basic to the nature of things.

Clearly, the more that is known about some part or all of our world’s history, the better it can be understood. The history of small things tends to be relatively simple; the history of large things made up of many parts, each with its own history, tends to get exceedingly complex. The more complex something is, the greater the complexity of its history. Living organisms are by far the most complex things found. Understanding history tends to lead to increased opportunities for human control.

In a fundamental sense, the genetic code of any organism provides a wondrous summary of that organism’s history, including the opportunities and challenges of survival and reproduction its forebearers faced.

Scientists have recently discovered a lovely example of preservation and use of history in what we think of as a lower form of life. When certain bacteria are attacked by a life-threatening virus, the bacteria incorporate part of the virus’s genetic code into their own genetic material so that the bacterium and its descendants can “remember” the virus and more effectively respond to it should they encounter it in the future. In other words, the bacterium uses the virus’s genetic code to preserve a history of its encounter for future use by it and its descendants. In doing so, the bacteria have a “memory,” in effect a record, a history, of that encounter. This very simple life form uses its own history as a survival aid. (See the New York Times, Science Times section, March 4, 2014.)

A similar although different way of preserving valuable historical information to aid the survival of a species’ offspring and community is found in human beings. Among the animal species of the world, females tend to die not long after they have run out of eggs. Each female is born or hatched with a set number of eggs. When her eggs have been expended, she typically has no further role to play in the continuation of the species and thus dies. The name of the game is reproduction and survival, whether your own or that of other members of your group.

The situation, however, is quite different for human females. Like females of other species, women do run out of eggs. Yet, after running out of eggs, women typically live for many additional years. A woman can live four or five decades after her eggs are gone. One explanation for this lies in the usefulness of her knowledge of history. Every human being is a storehouse of historical information. The longer an individual lives, the further back in time she or he may remember. There is an old saying, when an old person dies, a library dies with him or her.

In earlier times, when society did not change as rapidly as it does today, the memories of older members of the community were important and could be vital in helping one’s offspring and group survive. Although an older woman might be out of eggs, she could play a lifesaving role in knowing how to seize an opportunity or meet a challenge, especially if it had not been seen in 50 or 75 years. Moreover, older women helped raise grandchildren and great-grandchildren, using and passing on to the younger generation knowledge that had previously aided in survival. The idea is that human societies with older women past childbearing age were more likely to prosper and survive, as compared to those without older women, as would be the case if women died when their eggs were gone. Yes! History is important!

As fast-changing modern society grows ever more complex, some might question the need for knowledge of history, including that of older women, in meeting the challenges of the modern world. But I would strongly argue otherwise.

Why Study History?

There are many reasons for the study of history and for incorporating historical knowledge into our thinking as civilization moves forward. First, the study of history is inherently interesting. Learning about the past can be highly enjoyable.

Second, the study of history can enrich the soul. An inscription above the entrance to Norlin Library on the University of Colorado campus, composed by a former president of the university and based on a quotation by Cicero, reads: “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.”

Third, the study of history provides insight regarding how today’s many challenges can and should be met.

Fourth, the study of history, more specifically the history of science, is vital to the development of new scientific knowledge. In my view, the study of history may yet save the human race.


The study and use of history in American society faces a number of challenges. One, the teaching of history in public schools and universities in our country is not a growth discipline. In fact, it is declining. How is history to be used to enrich the soul and help solve humankind’s problems when most people don’t know much about it?

Two, too many of our leaders know too little of history and do not incorporate it into their thinking and problem-solving.

Three, because of their ignorance of history and what all too often amounts to cynical manipulation of historical information, too many of our leaders distort history for their own purposes.

Four, the study of history is highly underfunded. The study of history should be a major endeavor with strong support from all sectors of society. When we study history we learn more about the universe and our place in it.

The Science of History

Like the study of matter, energy, space, and time, the study of history will become more and more science based, using rigorous scientific methods and mathematics to better understand the nature of the universe and human society from the perspective of history. The study of history through science will undoubtedly yield wonderful and unforeseen benefits.

Postscript: After writing this column, I came across two quotations that bring this home:

“It is useful to remember that history is to the nation as memory is to the individual.” — Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

“The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.” — Winston Churchill

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