Why History isn’t Just for humans

“On the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man – for precisely the same reasons.”

– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (London, Pan Books: 1979)

It is not uncommon for historians to dismiss, or even scoff at, the notion that pigs, dandelions, or bacteria could be capable of changing the course of history as humanity does. Indeed, in a previous article I myself wrote that “History is only important to humans, it is a humanity after all. If no humans are affected, aware of, or record something, then surely it cannot be history.” In retrospect those words speak volumes toward my fatal ignorance about the reality of our planet’s complex ecosystems, a reality I will seek to illustrate herein. Furthermore, they reveal a sentiment born of a culture that deifies the human as the sole source of meaningful action and casts the rest of the biosphere as mere clay waiting to be moulded by others’ hands. In this article I will seek to put right these mistakes and to demonstrate the importance of all nature in affecting historical events, including as agents independent of human involvement.

Initially, let us take the most obvious manner in which the natural world outside of humanity has affected history: as a resource to be consumed or manipulated. A human “survives biologically or not at all”, and ultimately it has been the desire to acquire food, shelter, and prosperity from the surrounding ecosystem that has driven the development of human societies. Historical epochs are defined by humanity’s exploitation of the natural world: Who would the Mongols have been without horses? What would the slave trade have been without sugar? Human action is fundamentally entwined with the rest of the natural world; where, when, and how other life survives has shaped our decision making as both individuals and groups throughout time, this much is generally accepted. What has proved more controversial is the idea that these historical relationships have often been more a story of “interspecies cooperation” than of dominance of one over the other. If we examine these histories from an ecological perspective, we will soon find that the story is not as unidimensional as commonly perceived.

To return to our aforementioned hypotheticals, beginning first with the Mongol-horse relationship. Certainly, for the Mongols themselves their bond with the horse was as close to symbiosis as could be achieved; this extended as far so that horse and rider would be buried together upon death. According to Mongolian shamanic tradition your soul, referred to as the ‘wind horse’, would then be protected by the equestrian deity Kisaya Tngri. Horses were the centre of this culture and were valued creatures of status and importance, their cooperation with the Mongols was what allowed the successes of that empire, and the Mongols knew it. Sugarcane too, although traditionally seen as “a domesticated essence and nothing more”, has been as much a benefactor of its interactions with humans as vice versa, if not more so. The slave trade is an example of how far humankind will go to satisfy the desires of the plant, wilfully destroying the lives of many members of its own species in order to rapidly spread and cultivate it at the expense of all other competition. From the sugar’s perspective it appears like it is humanity that has been taken advantage of, spending huge amounts of labour to propagate the plant on an industrial scale whilst the sugar does little to help human propagation in return. Only this small change in perspective, to consider how other living things are being benefited or impeded by historical events, reveals the centrality they hold to them. It must not be lost sight of that all the social, political, and economic systems of civilisation are completely reliant on the ecosystem which supports them. To view nature simply as a resource is “to render it dead”, when it is very much alive.

We have established that in cooperation with humans other living things are affecters of historical change, but what can we say to the notion that the native biota of our planet can be defined as historically significant for actions they take independently of humans? The question of whether cotton, cattle, or cholera has agency in affecting such things will be dealt with later, but with agency or without the literature increasingly concludes that living things other than humans can independently affect historical events. The most explored example of this in the field of environmental history is that pioneered by Alfred Crosby in texts such as The Columbian Exchange and Ecological Imperialism; Crosby brings to the fore the biological element of European imperialism, highlighting the spread, sometimes intentional and other times not, of flora, fauna, and microbes across the world alongside humanity. The ‘successes’ of imperialism, previously ascribed to solely human action, have been re-evaluated. The European “portmanteau biota” of rats, cattle, dandelions, and many others have been acknowledged for the intense disruption of local ecosystems upon their introduction to colonial targets such as the Americas, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Many indigenous plants and animals were overwhelmed and began to recede in the face of the invaders, undermining the ecological foundations of native societies and causing economic, political, and social instability, an instability which the Europeans took advantage of. Even more crucial than this however was the role of imported European diseases which ravaged populations, smallpox alone causing demographic decline in some regions of up to 90%. In some instances the spread of this portmanteau biota was orchestrated and controlled by humanity, but in many others these organisms spread and propagated untempered, like an ecological tsunami, across those lands unfortunate enough to be targeted. From this independent action, many of the victories of colonialism were allowed, and thus history was profoundly changed in the process.

This is by no means the only example of independent ecological action profoundly affecting historical events, often against the will of Homo sapiens. Disease particularly has provided a multitude of examples to point toward, given the difficulty humans find in influencing microbes. Infamous plagues such as the 14th century black death, 1918 Spanish flu, and the contemporary HIV/AIDS pandemic have all killed millions of people and absorbed incalculable amounts of human time, energy, and resources. In these situations the bacteria has used humanity as a resource to further its own ends. For plants and animals we can look to the recent jellyfish invasions of the Mediterranean and the black sea, completely unwanted by humans attempting to avoid “ecosystem collapse”. We could also look at the battle for water and oil taking place in Kazakhstan between human and cotton, currently being won by the latter. All such examples demonstrate that the natural world does not sit statically waiting to be interacted with and will change history with humanity’s permission or not.

These prior examples have shown us that non-human living things have the capability to independently change the course of human history, but must we be so focussed on history as a human domain? Must our definition of ‘historical events’ be one that assumes the involvement of the human at all? If other life forms can influence human history then they must be capable of influencing their own; a simple change in the value historians place on the importance of natural history is all that is required to view the discipline as something that lives beyond a singular species. For some particularly intelligent animals this line of argument is considerably easier to argue than for others, as there is an increasing volume of evidence arguing that humans are by no means the only species on the planet capable of understanding the concept of history. Most spectacularly, Elephants have been observed to travel to the bone sites of their ancestors with their calves, seemingly in order to pay homage to them and pass on a shared history to their children. Similar behaviour has also been seen in dolphins, giraffes, Siamese cats, and even ducks. If other creatures have a concept of history then the notion of ‘historical events’ as uniquely human quickly appears an anthropocentric egotistical falsity.

However, even beyond those wonderfully intelligent creatures that can conceive of the concept of history, humans included, we must still admit the presence of historical events. All living things have a history, and one that is important to their own future and all the life about them whether they know it or not. Would we seriously deny the extinction of the dinosaurs the status of ‘historical event’, given its significance in affecting the evolution of all life on this planet since? We see human historical events as significant because they satisfy human values of significance, humanity is the most advanced species on Earth only by its own parameters of what it has considered advanced. As Michael Pollan notes: “plants have been evolving much, much longer than we have… perfecting their designs for so long that to say one of us is the more “advanced” really depends on how you define that term”. Inherent in environmental history as a discipline is a certain amount of deflation of the human ego, to note that humanity does not always command its environment in the manner it imagines it is able to. Indeed, were the bees or the ants or the grasses of earth to die out tomorrow their demise would have a far more devastating effect upon the biosphere than if humans were to do the same. These life forms are so evolutionarily advanced that they have made themselves indispensable, their very existence tied to almost all other life on earth.   

But why must so much time be spent demonstrating that humans are not at the centre of historical events? Because the principles of such an argument often run directly counter to many of the principles on which contemporary human society has been built; principles of human exceptionalism and the myth of a species that wields ultimate power over the others. Our modern economists, politicians, mathematicians, and historians have been educated within a system “designed to further the conquest of nature and the industrialisation of the planet”. In a contemporary context, the complete domination and control over the natural world is a defining concept of humanity itself and thus the notion of non-human living things affecting historical change has come to be seen as a far more radical concept than it deserves credit for. This has not always been the case however, indeed the 18th century ‘age of enlightenment’ is generally accepted as the period of time where an evolution in attitude took place between humankind and the rest of nature. In this environment of increasing urbanisation, invention, and belief in the power of man (woman coming roughly 200 years later) the academic and the populous view of nature shifted from seeing it as a force to be worked with, toward something to be worked against.

Only over recent decades has the increasing awareness of the threat of climate change, the “historical event of our times”, begun to reintroduce narratives that place greater emphasis on the role of the natural world in affecting human affairs. This has occurred almost simultaneously in many fields including anthropology, geography, and sociology alongside history. The inherently interdisciplinary nature of ecological study has also led to vital increasing influence from the sciences on the academics of the humanities and social sciences in this sector. Donald Worster’s lamentations of 1993 that “Evolution and history remain… separate realms of discourse” are beginning to be addressed. For many years most of our historical canon has been telling us that humanity has been the controlling factor in all historical events, which has ill-prepared us for the present threats we face from outside the anthroposphere. Environmental factors have been denied importance in history in a similar fashion to how other historical minorities have been; swept under the rug in favour of tales which affirm baseless assumptions about whose history is more important than others. Environmental history is the next stage in the movement of ‘history from below’, bringing to light new interpretations of past events through the lens of a demographic that has been historically underrepresented.

In this field of study, the question of agency in history is often brought up and has proved a complicated affair for historians to discuss. William Sewell concluded that agency “implies consciousness, intention and judgement” and is therefore “limited exclusively to humans”. Amanda Rees, conversely, criticized this view, claiming that modern notions of agency have been tied to ideas of a “rational, liberal, individual self” that omits the possibility of agency through group action or unintended consequence. Ewa Domańska respects non-human agency so far as to call for a “multi-species co-authorship” of history. The central problem, which many acknowledge, is the loose nature with which the term ‘agency’ can be defined, to the extent that much of this debate has spilled over into the realms of philosophy, where even the notion that humans possess agency has been called into question. Andria Pooley-Ebert perhaps makes the best compromise when she concludes that “giving an animal historical agency is not necessarily implying that the animal acted independently, but rather that it was an integral component in a complex relationship”. The only change needed to this statement is to include all living things under that definition, not just animals. Ultimately, however, the question of agency is less important than the question of importance, whether we place value on historical events which are not our own or otherwise.

The famous adage which asks: ‘if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ is a rather presumptuous one. It assumes that we should struggle to consider whether anything really occurs outside of our own narrow perceptive field. In actuality, all we need do is consult the creatures of the forest to know it made a sound. Non-human living things are not only integral to affecting historical events from a human perspective, they are essential to the histories of their own species which exist, at various points throughout history, in either independence of, or symbiosis with, our own.

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

Date of Publication: 13th of March 2019

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