Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Deep History of the Scottish Highlands

The many Darwin celebrations remind us that this is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's ORIGIN OF SPECIES. But there's another 150th anniversary in the history of evolutionary science. In the spring of 1859, John Evans and Joseph Prestwich announced in England that they had verified the discovery of some human-made flint tools in association with the fossil remains of some extinct animals. Although others had presented similar evidence in earlier years, this was the first generally recognized evidence of the antiquity of human beings. Previously, the Western world was dominated by the Biblical chronology of Bishop James Ussher that dated the origin of the world to 4004 B.C. The scientific world in the early 19th century came to agree that the earth was much older than 6,000 years. But it was still widely believed that the human species appeared for the first time no sooner than 6,000 years ago. But beginning in 1859, more and more scientists began to accept the conclusion that human beings had existed in deep time along with extinct species of other animals.

And yet even today political scientists--and social scientists generally--don't study the deep evolutionary history of human beings as stretching back for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. What difference would it make for the study of politics if social scientists were to study human politics against the background of such deep history?

I have been thinking about this while travelling in England and Scotland. Today, my wife and I and our niece are in Inverness, Scotland, which is the ancient capital city of the Scottish Highlands. We visited the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, which has a remarkable exhibit on the natural history of the Highlands over 3 billion years. I have never seen a museum exhibit that so broadly surveys the geological, social, and political history of life for a particular region. This is the kind of deep history of politics that began in the Scottish Enlightenment and that was carried forward by Darwin and then by later evolutionary studies. This is the kind of deep political history that I would like to develop.

The museum exhibit reflects the work of John Horne, an important Scottish geologist who wrote THE GEOLOGICAL STRUCTURE OF THE NORTH-WEST HIGHLANDS OF SCOTLAND in 1907. Some of the material in the museum was originally collected by Horne, who devoted his life to studying the archaeology, geology, natural and social history in and around Inverness.

The museum exhibit begins with the first 3 billion years of the Highlands in earth histoy. It then turns to the arrival of the first Highlanders in the Mesolithic 9,000years ago with the beginning of the forgaging way of life, followed by the start of metalworking in the Bronze Age.

The exhibit then turns to the emergence of a warrior society among the Picts in the Iron Age, which is represented by Pictish symbol stones from the Highlands.

The exhibit then surveys the foundations of modern Scotland through the history of the Scots, Vikings, and Normans, the history of medieval Inverness, and complex mixture of factors that constituted Gaelic language and culture. The exhibit also covers the ecological conditions of Highland life.

Next, the exhibit narrates the wars with England, the Reformation, and the civil wars. A large part of the exhibit is devoted to the Jacobite revolution, when the Highlanders sought to restore the Stuart dynasty to the British throne.

The broad cultural and economic influence of the Highlands on Scottish history up to the end of the twentieth century is a big part of the end of the exhibit.

What difference does it make to political science to take such a broad view of human political history?

I would be interested to hear from anyone who knows of other museum exhibits that show the kind of deep evolutionary history of human politics and culture that I saw at the Inverness Museum.

1 comment:

Sensible Knave said...

Dr. Arnhart-

I know I tend to promote C. Taylor a lot, but in chapter 9 of A Secular Age, 'The Dark Abyss of Time,' he talks about the shift from a sense of an old earth being one that started in 4004 BC to the endless, and almost unfathomable age as discovered by Scottish fellows like Lyell (The geologist). It might not exactly be what you're looking for but he does discuss how this consciousness of great time affects how we understand ourselves.

As far as museum exhibits go, I found Dartmoor (sadly, much to the south of your current location... it's in Devon) to be very interesting. There you can learn about the effect of the land and climate on Neolithic, then Bronze age, and then medieval and later industrial cultures. (It was a great source of granite and tin) As a bonus, it is a national park and you can actually view what's left of these various areas and walk the ground. It was definitely one of the most informative experiences I ever had in England. (though you tend not to go past the neolithic into deep evolutionary time... save for the actual formation of the moors which occurred during an ice age.)


A abandoned pre historic site: (you can walk through it, no fences, and nothing but wilderness around it, save a tiny access road)


Or, closer to where you are now there is in Orkney what I think is one of the oldest and best preserved settlement sites in Europe.


Though it may not have the sweep of history you are looking for.

These are the best suggestions I could come up with off the top of my head.