Humanity only has one thing to its name. Every passing moment, day, year lays down more and more onto it, strata, pushing the past further and further down, preserving it in a casing of historic conglomerate. The present is an ephemeral, almost imperceivable second, during which that sediment hasn't yet reached the ground, a second between the two mammoth, immovable infinities of geological time of yesterday and tomorrow. And once that's up, the dust that moment stirred settles and layers back onto the rock-hard bed of the past.
History is all we have. The past is in the annals of humanity, the textbook of mankind, while the future hasn't put down to page yet, and the present is an illegible symbol, half-drawn, only readable once the present has passed.
History, in this sense, goes beyond that of human and animal and organism; it stretches to the creation of the universe and will go on stretching to its end. When that was and when that will be is difficult to say. And here, now, there isn’t much to go on but red light and anxious particles. There was nothing, and then there was something, a speck of some thing smeared on the black, chaos canvas. That mote spread and condensed and cooled during the billions of years since that first moment. We still see it today in the dim, dreamy splash of the Milky Way, the spiralling curve of a nautilus shell, and the setting sun reflecting off a human iris. We see it in the symbols that have come to represent us, the universe, and our place inside it.
But, maybe, there was more. Before the crash of bombs, the clash of swords, the bash of clubs, that foremost Bang. Maybe there was history before our cosmic calendars began, lost beyond the opaque barrier than came crashing down at the moment zero, the universe’s conception. Who is to say; we’ve lost so much history since then. The billions of years of life that arose before man, the unobserved moments as the world looked the other way, the fragments of humanity left neglected. History is imperfect; the cracks start to show with even the slightest investigation. Like the fossil record, only a small proportion of objects can be preserved, most just fade away into the rock. History is a fractured artefact of the past. This incomplete truth, though, is all we’ve got to go on.
Evolution's goal is survival. Adaptation and reproduction move us up and down the sinusoidal curve scrawled in textbooks. We are products of a chain of prototypes never perfect, but successful enough not to lead to a dead end. And we're fine on the reproduction front; we'll have our 7 billion children and they'll have theirs. But, inevitably, we give more to them than just their lives. We bring them into a world we've shaped and tended to, one covering in our markers and symbols and history. What would their lives be without that? How would they know where we came from and where they did too. Our world now seems to be independent of he past. The men and women who conjured theories and thoughts, now discarded and marked as incorrect, they thought then as we do now. They had monuments and museums to societies that seemed anciently distant from their world. But now, that's all they are to us, relics. And we will join their ranks in time. So, maybe, respect for the past will rewards us with some future respect for our present. Maybe, we'll receive a plaque, a memorial, an exhibit, a museum. And how could we ask for more. For what is more human, more animal than self-preservation?
Yesterday, the National Museum of Brazil burned down. 20 million objects, 200 years, too many stories, all back to dust.
I have never visited the museum, or Brazil, myself, but I think I caught glimpse today of what it must feel like to be at the foot of that burnt building, to have dedicated years of work to what is now ash, to have grown up in exploring its halls. I can glimpse that, and it tears me up inside. Standing under Hope the blue whale in Hintze Hall of the Natural History Museum of London today, I imagined inferno, coloured glass shattering, terracotta fauna crumbling, the heavy cetacean billowing into a cloud of smoke. If Philadelphia or Oxford or London lost their museums and their collections, I don't know what that would do to me, just as much as anyone knows what the loss of Brazil's museum and Brazil's collection has done to those who held it close and what it cannot do for those of Brazil’s future. And I just wonder why it couldn't be different. I wonder why these artefacts and specimens weren't given the protection they needed, why someone couldn't see their value.
We, as a society, only have one thing to our name. We, as a society, are the keepers of this sole treasure and the sole reapers of its rewards. We, as a society, choose what we save and what we leave behind, what we value and what we don't. And what could be more value to society than our only inheritance and our only bequeathal? What could be chosen over our right to persist? What is more human than humanity itself?