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HISTORY OF

KNOWLEDGE

Past, Present, and Future

Charles Van Doren

Ballantine Books • New York

Sale of this book without a front cover may he unauthorized. If this book is coverless, it may hve been reported to the publisher as "unsold or destroyed" and neither the author nor the publisher may have received payment for it.

Copyright© 1991 by Charles Van Doren

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conven­ tions. Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. T his edition published by arrangement with Birch Lane Press/Carol Publishing Group.

Lines from "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats from The Poems of W B. Yeats: A New Edition, edited by Richard J. Finneran. Reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Company. Copyright 1924 by Macmillan Publishing Company, renewed 1952 by Bertha Georgie Yeats.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 91-92141

ISBN: 0-345-37316-2

Cover design by William Geller

Cover art: Raphael, The School of Athens (Scala/ Art Resource, N.Y.) Manufactured in the United States of America

First Ballantine Books Edition: April1992

10 9

To

Gerry, Li;:,, Sally and john

"[AN] AM AZING, ENTERTAINING AND ENLIGHTENING ENCYCLOPEDIC ACHIEVEMENT."

Mortimer J. Adler

·�s comfortable with science as with art, with mathematics as with poetry, Charles Van Doren-in tracing the history of knowledge­ makes us comfortable too. A born teacher, he has a rare gift of catching us up in his own enthusiasms and perhaps more important, of making even the most complex ideas clear, accessible, and compelling."

Joy Gould Boyum Professor of English and Communication Arts New York University

'�t once authoritative and delightful, this engaging explanation of the development of knowledge in the West brings fresh insight even to those matters that are most familiar to well-educated men and women. As for the young, Van Doren's contagious enthusiasm for the Great Ideas will be a welcome alternative to dry and uninspired text books."

James O'Toole T he University Associates' Chair University of Southern California

·� clear, concise, unpretentious survey of all human knowledge-and what remarkable talent Charles Van Doren has exercised in pulling it off so deftly! ... chiefly by insightfully pinpointing those spellbinding and towering breakthroughs, which collectively define that unique human achievement we call knowledge. Each page reveals another enthralling landmark in the history of ideas."

Julian Krainin Producer of the television series Heritage: Civilization and the Jews and The World of James Michener

Contents

Acknowledgments

Author to Reader Progress in Knowledge xv Kinds of Progress in Knowledge Universal History xvi Primitive Man xvm Knowledge of Particulars xix General Knowledge x1x Certain Knowledge xxi Knowledge and Happiness xxiii Outline of the Book xxiii

1. Wisdom of the Ancients Egypt 4 India 6 China 7 Mesopotamia 9 Aztec and Inca I I Human Sacrifice 1 3 Judaism 1 5 Christianity 16

XVI

Judaism and Christianity Compared 18 Islam 19 Judea-Christianity and Islam Compared 20 Buddhism 2 1 Lessons from the Past 23 Alphabets 25 Zero 27

2. The Greek Explosion The Problem of Thales 30 The Invention of Mathematics:

The Pythagoreans 34

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xiii

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29

Vlll Contents

The Discovery of Atomic Theory: Democritus 38

The Problem of Thales: The Ultimate Solution 41

Moral Truth and Political Expediency: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle 42

The Fallacy of the Consequent 44 Greece versus Persia: The Fruitful Conflict 48 The Tragedy of Athens 5 1 Herodotus, Thucydides, and the Invention

of History 53 The Spirit of Greek Thought 56

3. What the Romans Knew 60 Greek Theory, Roman Practice 65 Law, Citizenship, and Roads 67 Lucretius 70 Cicero 72 Seneca 77 Tacitus 8 1 What the Romans Did Not Know 84

4. Light in the Dark Ages 86 The Fall of Rome 86 Post-Roman Europe 88 The Triumph of Christianity:

Constantine the Great 9 1 The Promise of Christianity:

Augustine 92 After the Fall 95

5. The Middle Ages: The Great Experime'lr,t The Struggle for Subsistence 98 A World of Enemies 99 The Problem of God I 00 The Science of Theology I 00 Theology in Other Religions 102 Principles of Theocracy I 03 Empire and Papacy 105 Monasticism I 06 Crusaders I 09 Millennia! Fears, Postmillennial

Achievements I I 0 The Dispute about Truth 1 1 2 Boethius 1 1 3 Pseudo-Dionysius 1 1 3 Avicenna 1 1 4

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Peter Abelard 1 1 5

Contents

Bernard of Clairvaux 1 1 6 A verroes I I 7 Thomas Aquinas 1 1 9 The Pyrrhic Victory of Faith over Reason 1 22 Dante's Dance 1 24

6. What Was Reborn in the Renaissance? The New Style in Painting: Perspective 1 28 Man in the Cosmos 1 29 The Revival of Classical Learning: Petrarch 1 30 Inventing the Renaissance: Boccaccio 1 32 The Renaissance Man 1 34 Renaissance Men: Leonardo, Pico, Bacon 137 The Renaissance Man and the Ideal of Liberal

Education 141 Renaissance Humanism 142 Montaigne 144 Shakespeare 146 Cervantes 1 48 The Black Death 1 5 1 Gutenberg's Achievement 1 53 Renaissance Cities 1 55 Nation-States 1 56 The Crisis of the Theocratic State 1 58 Erasmus 1 59 Thomas More 160 Henry VIII 16 1 Martin Luther 163 Tolerance and Intolerance 165 Man at the Center 166

7. Europe Reaches Out Mongol Empires 169 Marco Polo I 70 Voyages of Discovery 1 72 Columbus 1 74 Sailing Around the World i 77 The Birth of World Trade 1 78 Trade in Ideas 1 79 Homage to Columbus 182

8. The Invention of Scientific Method The Meaning of Science 184 Three Characteristics of Science 1 87 Aristotelian Science: Matter 190 Aristotelian Motion 19 1

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168

184

X Contents

The Revolt Against Aristotle 1 92 Copernicus 1 95 Tycho Brahe 1 96 Gilbert 1 97 Kepler 1 98 Galileo 1 99 Descartes 203 Newton 205 Rules of Reason 209 The Galilean-Cartesian Revolution 2 1 1

9. An Age of Revolutions The I ndustrial Revolution 2 1 3 Human Machines and Mechanical Humans 2 1 4 An Age of Reason and Revolution 2 1 6 John Locke and the Revolution of 1688 2 18 Property, Government, and Revolution 220 Two Kinds of Revolution 222 Thomas Jefferson and the Revolution

of 1 776 223 The Declaration of Independence 224 Property in Rights 226 Robespierre, Napoleon, and the Revolution

of 1 789 228 The Rise of Equality 232 Mozart's Don Giovanni 234 Goethe's Faust 238

213

10. The Nineteenth Century: Prelude to Modernity 243 The Difference Money Makes 244 Economic Life Before 1800: The Peasant 245 The Lord 247 The Cleric 248 The King 248 The Merchant 249 The Rise of the Labor Market: Economics 25 1 Faustian Development 255 Marxism: Theory and Practice 257 Marxian Insights 26 1 Economic Facts: Steam Power 264 Equality in the Muzzle of a Gun 266 The Magic of Electricity 269 Magical Mathematics 27 1 New Ways of Seeing 273 The End of Slavery 275 Shocking the Bourgeoisie 278 Darwin and Freud 280

Contents XI

11. The World in 1914 284 Economic Divisions 284 The Study of War 285 Colonialism 287 The Boer War 289 The Powder Keg of Europe 289 Character of the 19 14-1918 War 29 1 Thoughts on War and Death 292 Causes of War 295

12. The Twentieth Century: The Triumph of Democracy 297 The Progress of Democracy 299 Communism 304 Totalitarianism 307 Theocracy in the Twentieth Century 3 1 1 Economic Justice 3 1 3 Why Not World Government? 3 1 4 One World, One Human Race 3 1 7

13. The Twentieth Century: Science and Technology 321 Greek Atomic Theory 32 1 The Revival of Atomic Theory 323 What Einstein Did 325 What the Bomb Taught Us 327 The Problem of Life 328 The Science of Heredity 329 How DNA Works 330 The Size of the Universe 332 Galaxies 332 The Smallness of Earth 334 The Big Bang and the Primordial Atom 334 Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle 337 Uncertainties of Knowledge 338 One Giant Step 341 Green Rebellion 342 The Terrestrial Greenhouse 343 Digital Computers and Knowledge 345 Turing Machines 348 Technological Dependence 350 Triumphs of Medicine 35 1 Drug Cultures 353 The AIDS Challenge 354

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14. The Twentieth Century: Art and the Media 356 The Media and Their Messages 356 A Visual Revolution: Picasso, Braque, Cubism 359 Pollock, Rothko, and the Hexagonal Room 361 Urban Revolution:

The Bauhaus and Le Corbusier 363 Literary Prophets: Yeats 365 A Passage to India 366 The Castle and the Magician 367 Waiting for Godot 369 Mass Media and Education 370

15. The Next Hundred Years 375 Computers: The Next Stage 377 The Moral Problem of Intelligent Machines 379 Companion Computers 379 The Birth of Thinking Machines 381 Three Worlds: Big, Little, Middle-sized 383 Chaos, a New Science 384 Mining Language: ldeonomy 386 Exploring the Solar System 387 The Message? 390 Man as a Terrestrial Neighbor 392 The Gaia Hypothesis 395 Genetic Engineering 397 Eugenics 398 Mapping the Genome 400 Democracy and Eugenics 402 Speed 403 Addictions 406 War in the Twenty-first Century 408 Computer Revolt 410

Index 413

Acknowledgments

THIS BOOK is the result of a lifetime of reading, thinking, and talking. I ts seeds were planted nearly fifty years ago, when I was a student at St. John's College and was introduced to the world of ideas by Scott Buchanan, Jacob Klein, and Richard Scofield.

I made my first acquaintance with the literature of universal history thirty years ago, when I was writing The Idea of Progress (Praeger, 1967) . My mentor at the time-as he continues to be today-was Mortimer J . Adler. We have discussed many of the themes treated here repeatedly over the years, and he has given me many useful bibliographical suggestions. We have agreed on many points, and differed on others. His intellectual judgments are represented in many places in this book, usually without credit. I offer it here.

Students of the history of knowledge owe much to the work of F. J . Teggart and G. H. Hildebrand, whose carefully chosen collection of classic readings, The Idea of Progress (University ofCalifornia Press, 1949) , is a consistently useful guide to works from three millennia.

For broad interpretations of this literature I am indebted to many philosophical historians, from Ibn Khaldun to Oswald Spengler, from Arnold]. Toynbee to Fernand Braude!. The last, in particular, taught me to pay close attention to the small details of everyday life, which tell us so much about the way people live, whatever they say or write.

For the history of science, I am indebted to various works by James Burke (especially Connections, Little Brown, 1978), Herbert Butterfield (especially The Origins of Modern Science, Macmillan, 195 1 ) , and Erwin Schrodinger (especially Nature and the Greeks, Cambridge, 1954) .

Among anthropologists, I have learned most from Bronislaw Malinow­ ski, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Lord Raglan, author of The Hero (Vintage, 1956) . Robert L. Heilbroner's The Worldly Historians (Simon and Schuster, 1953, 1986) has helped me to understand and utilize a number of works in economics.

Every time I reread Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media (McGraw Hill, 1965) I am again impressed by the power of his insights and the accuracy of his predictions.

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XlV Acknowledgments

No recent book about the worldwide experience of modernity seems to me so thoughtful and provocative as Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts ln­ to Air (Simon & Schuster, 1982) . I havenot met itsauthor, but I have engaged Professor Berman in many silent conversations in the watches of the night.

I t was my brother, john Van Doren, who brought Berman's book to my attention; he also made me read for the first time, many years ago, John Masefield's perfect lyric of world history, "Cargoes." I am grateful for these recommendations, among many others; for his thoughtful comments on parts of the manuscript; and for conversations over five decades, during which I doubtless got more than I gave.

I am grateful, indeed, to all my friends and seminar students over the past six years who, in the course of discussions more or less formal and more or less heated, have given me ideas and helped me to understand points that had baffied or irritated me. They could not have known this at the time, nor could I now more precisely enumerate my debts.

My twenty years as an editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica taught me much about many things. In particular I grew to have a profound respect not only for my colleagues but also for the work that they produce. Hardly a day has passed when I have not consulted the Britannica on some matter, major or minor. I am well aware that the editors of Britannica have been engaged for more than two centuries in the same task that I have here undertaken for myself-that is, the preparation of a history of the knowledge of the human race. They have, of course, gone about it in a very different way.

It is my pleasure to record here three other debts. The first is to Patrick Gunkel, the inventor of ideonomy and my friend of two decades. In a hundred lengthy conversations over the years Pat has brought me to understand that there is a history of the future as well as the past. I have ' shamelessly employed some of his insights, including the idea of compan­ ion computers (CCs) . The most valuable thing he has taught me is that the future has a hard substantiality and may be even more intelligible than the past. It is, of course, the present that is hardest to understand.

I owe a large debt to my editors, Hillel Black and Donald J. Davidson, who insisted ruthlessly on clarity and demanded that I write, rewrite, and rewrite until they were satisfied I had said what I intended. If the book has merit, they deserve much of the credit. I ts faults are mine alone.

My wife, Geraldine, read every page of the manuscript twice and made a thousand suggestions, most of which I adopted. More important, she allowed me to experiment with ideas, as I proposed theses that either outraged, delighted, or amused her. The book could not have existed without her help.

Cornwall, Connecticut August 1991

Autlwr to Reader

THE VOLUMINOUS LITERATURE dealing with the idea of human progress is decidedly a mixed bag. While some of these writings are impressive and even inspiring, many of them are superficial, perhaps even ridiculous, in their reiteration (especially during the nineteenth century) of the comforting prospect that every day in every way we are growing better and better.

This kind of foolishness is manifested especially in discussions of such matters as economic, political, and moral progress, and of progress in art. In fact, it is hard to argue effectively for the proposition that progress in mankind's overall wealth, in general governance, in the average or typical behavior of human beings, or in the production of great works of art has occurred over the entire history of the human race on earth.

From time to time, there seems to be real and measurable improvement in these areas. At other times the opposite seems equally to be the case. Thus the fervent belief of writers like the French sociophilosopher Auguste Comte in the inevitability of progress in all fields of human endeavor must be viewed as insupportable. We cannot accept it any longer, even if we once thought it was true.

Progress in Knowledge

Progress in human knowledge is another matter. Here it is possible to argue cogently that progress is in the nature of things. "Not only does each individual progress from day to day," wrote the French philosopher, mathematician, and mystic Blaise Pascal, "but mankind as a whole con­ stantly progresses ... in proportion as the universe grows older." The es­ sence of man as a rational being, as a later historian would put it, is that he develops his potential capacities by accumulating the experience of past generations.

Just as in our individual lives we learn more and more from day to day and from year to year because we remember some at least of what we have learned and add our new knowledge to it, so in the history of the race the

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collective memory retains at least some knowledge from the past to which is added every new discovery.

The memories of individuals fail and the persons die, but the memory of the race is eternal, or at least it can be expected to endure as long as human beings continue to write books and read them, or-which becomes more and more common-store up their knowledge in other mediums for the use of future generations.

The rate at which the totality of human knowledge increases varies from age to age; sometimes the rate is very fast (as, for example, it is today or it was during the fifth century BC) , while at other times it is very slow (as, for example, it was during the Dark Ages) . Nevertheless, this progress essentially never ceases and, most probably, never can cease as long as man IS man.

Kinds of Progress in Knowledge

The knowledge that thus expands and accumulates is of several kinds. We know more today about how nature works than we knew a hundred years ago, or a thousand, and we can expect to know even more a hundred years hence. It is easy to understand and accept the idea of progress in know­ how, or technology, and to be optimistic about its continuing in the foreseeable future.

Progress in other kinds of knowledge may have occurred . For example, as long as historians are free to write about the past, and readers are free to read their books (neither has always been true, as the Roman historian Tacitus reminds us) , we will never forget the new ideas about just govern­ ment that were advanced and fought for during the revolutions of the eighteenth century in England, America, and France. This does not mean that better governance is inevitable; the time may come when we look back with a sigh to those happy days when democracy flourished through­ out much of the globe. But even then we will know more about governance than we once did.

Similarly, the glowing examples of Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to name only a few, will not be lost while we can read or otherwise recall the stories of their lives and realize how they challenge us to live like them. This does not mean we will necessarily be better human beings, but we will know more about what human excellence is and can be.

Universal History

Progress in knowledge was painfully slow as long as the racial memory was transmitted only by oral traditions. For example, some primitive man

Author to Reader xvn

or woman discovered long ago that the great enemy, fire, could be forced to obey and to make life better. Without any organized means of commu­ nication, it may have taken many generations for this new knowledge to become universal. With the invention of writing, the process of building up a body of knowledge available, essentially, to all human beings acceler­ ated. Today, devices for storing and recalling the accumulated knowledge of the human race, such as computers, are themselves subject to progressive efforts to improve them.

These things being so, the history of mankind is the history of the progress and development of human knowledge. Universal history, at least, which deals not so much with the deeds of individuals or even of nations as with the accomplishments and the failures of the race as a whole, is no other than an account of how mankind's knowledge has grown and changed over the ages.

Universal history, thus conceived as the history of knowledge, is not a chronology of every discovery and invention ever made. Many of them­ perhaps most-are ultimately of little value. Instead, it is and must be the story, told in the broadest and most general terms, of the significant new knowledge that humanity has acquired at various epochs and added to the growing store. I t is also the story of how, at certain times, knowledge has changed more than it has grown, and how at other times major elements of knowledge have been given up or lost completely, because these seemed irrelevant to a succeeding age.

For example, the fall of the Roman empire was a nearly universal cataclysm, resulting in misery and suffering everywhere in the European world . Despite that, or perhaps even because of it, new kinds of knowledge emerged in the following centuries. Most of that new knowledge has not endured, but it remains as an example of a remarkable way of life that we have discarded, but to which it is possible that we may some day return. And when the classical Greek and Roman knowledge, which had been forgotten, was rediscovered during the Renaissance it had an energizing effect and helped to create the world in which we live today.

For another example, the seventeenth century saw more than its share of war and conquest, in both East and West, as well as a great number of relatively minor inventions and discoveries that led to increases in human comfort. Yet all those pale to insignificance when compared to that age's discovery of scientific method, which has proved to be the key to enor­ mous progress in many kinds of knowledge in the past three centuries.

Finally, the "knowledge explosion" of our own time is a phenomenon that it is futile to try to define if the attempt is made to describe every bit and piece of new knowledge. But our century has seen a number of very significant advances in knowledge that will probably continue to affect the way human beings live (not necessarily for the better) for generations to

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come. Most of these advances build on progressive developments of knowledge in the past; they are significant primarily because that is so. They are therefore part of universal history.

These great advances, changes and, perhaps, temporary losses of knowledge are the subject matter of this book. It is a general history of man's accumulation of knowledge about the world he lives in and about himself-and, sometimes, his failure to understand either or both. Since that accumulation reveals perceptible patterns over the centuries, the book can also attempt a forecast of future progress in knowledge. The more clearly we see how knowledge has changed and grown in the past, particularly the recent past, the more accurately we can predict the changes that are likely to occur in the future-at least the near future.

The far future, a century or more away, is another matter. Here, one can only guess what will happen. I shall dffer some guesses that I believe are plausible in the last chapter.

Primitive Man

Other animals have physical advantages over human beings: they see, hear, and smell better, they run faster, they bite harder. Neither animals nor plants need houses to live in or schools to go to, where they must be taught what they have to know to survive in an unfriendly world . Man, unadorned, is a naked ape, shivering in the cold blast, suffering pangs of hunger and thirst, and the pain of fear and loneliness.

But he has knowledge. With it he has conquered the earth. The rest of the universe awaits his coming with, I suspect, some trepidation.

I t is very difficult to reach into and understand someone else's mind, even someone you know well, someone you live or work with, someone you see every day. I t is even more difficult to reach into and understand the minds of a pair of naked apes, the first man and woman, who may have lived as much as a quarter of a million years ago. But it is worth trying, if only in imagination.

Our ancestors would have looked like us. The male would have been small, the female even smaller, both of them less than five feet tall. Imagine them standing before you. Imagine looking into their eyes. What would you see there? What would they see in you?

Leave aside the fear you would probably feel, and they surely would. Suppose you can overcome this mutual fear; imagine that you are free

to try to know one another. Do not assume you could talk to them; they might not have language as you understand it. Even so, they can commu­ nicate with one another, as you can see. Watch them do things, and let them watch you. That way, you might arrive at some notion of what they know.

Author to Reader XIX

As you imagine them standing before you, as you imagine them mov­ ing, gesturing, communicating; catching, killing, or gathering their food, preparing it, eating it; cleaning themselves; covering themselves against the cold; caressing one another and making love-as you imagine all this, you would have to conclude that they know a great deal.

Some of what you know, these creatures must know, too. But they must know other things that you do not know, unless you are an experienced survivalist. As you come to this conclusion, you realize that a large part of the things you know, you know the way they would. The great majority of what you know, furthermore, is like what they know.

Knowledge of Particulars

They know where they are, well enough to get around and to survive; and if they do not have names for the places they know, like West Fourth or Downtown, they must recognize markers both in things and in their memories that allow them to know where they are at any time. They also know there are other beings beside themselves, and they must have invented signs or markers of them as well.

In fact, as you think about it, they must possess innumerable bits of knowledge of this kind: A squirrel has a nest in that tree; tigers come to drink in this spring in the evening, but it is safe to draw water in the morning; the stones in that stream make good arrowheads. We all know innumerable things of this kind. They are what mostly fill our minds and memories.

That kind of thing is what mostly, and perhaps exclusively, fills the minds and memories of animals, too. Animals know where they are; they resist being lost, the tales being legion of how they came home through unfamiliar territory. My black dog knows many things about her environment-which men and vehicles are safe and which are not, where the deer and the woodchucks are likely to be found, that breakfast is always followed by one or two pieces of toast for her, with butter and jelly. My cat also has many bits of particular knowledge in her mind, and I am sure the birds in our yard, the foxes that cross our field in the night, and the mice that inhabit the barns know a vast number of things about the world around them. For the mice certainly, and probably for the cat and perhaps for the dog, all the things they know are particular things.

General Knowledge

There is another kind of thing that we know and they do not. We know that the sun rises in the morning, crosses the sky, and sets in the evening; we know that the sun does this every day, even when clouds obscure its

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passage, and always will as long as the world exists. We know that winter follows summer, and summer winter. We know that all living things were born and will also die, sooner or later. In short, we know the causes of things-at least some things.

Those and others like them are bits of general knowledge, which we state in language that is different from the language we use when divulg­ ing our knowledge of particulars.

A squirrel has a nest in that tree.

All living things are born and also die.

How different, in their weight and beauty, are those statements! The first, ordinarily of no account, might be important if you were hungry. But it requires such particular circumstances. The second is majestic and true at all times and places.

I have said that animals do not possess general knowledge-concepts, as they are called-and we do. Personally, I am not certain of that, in the case of some animals-for example, my dog; but I cannot prove she does possess that kind of knowledge, for she cannot speak and tell me so. She is a dumb animal-all animals are dumb--and therefore we can never rightly know what is in their minds apart from what we can deduce must be there because of the way they behave.

We can easily deduce that they have many bits of particular knowledge, but we cannot say that they possess general knowledge. We have sup­ posed that we could not talk to our imaginary pair of naked apes. We could only stare at them and watch them act. Watching them, can we deduce that they know the sun always rises in the morning and sets in the evening? Do they know that all living things are born and also die? Do they, too, know the causes of some things?

If they do not, there is a simple explanation: We have gone back too far in time. Move the clock forward, quickly. Sooner or later we will come upon primitive men and women who know in both the ways we do, who are fully human because they know as we know.

They may still be naked, they may still be fearful, they may still try to flee from us or, alternatively, try to kill us. But they will be like us in the only way that is really essential. And probably, very soon, they will be able to speak and tell us so.

When this first …