What was forgotten in the Great Forgetting was not that humans had evolved from other species. There isn’t the slightest reason to think that Paleolithic humans or Mesolithic humans guessed that they had evolved. What was forgotten in the Great Forgetting was the fact that, before the advent of agriculture and village life, humans had lived in a profoundly different way.
This explains why the Great Forgetting was not exposed by the development of evolutionary theory.
Evolution in fact had nothing to do with it. It was paleontology that exposed the Great Forgetting (and would have done so even if no theory of evolution had ever been proposed). It did so by making it unarguably clear that humans had been around long, long, long before any conceivable date for the planting of the first crop and the beginning of civilization.
Paleontology made untenable the idea that humanity, agriculture, and civilization all began at roughly the same time. History and archaeology had put it beyond doubt that agriculture and civilization were just a few thousand years old, but paleontology put it beyond doubt that humanity was millions of years old. Paleontology made it impossible to believe that Man had been born an agriculturalist and a civilization-builder. Paleontology forced us to conclude that Man had been born something else entirely—a forager and a homeless nomad—and this is what had been forgotten in the Great Forgetting.
It staggers the imagination to wonder what the foundation thinkers of our culture would have written if they’d known that humans had lived perfectly well on this planet for millions of years without agriculture or civilization, if they’d known that agriculture and civilization are not remotely innate to humans. I can only conclude that the entire course of our intellectual history would have been unthinkably different from what we find in our libraries today.
But here is one of the most amazing occurrences in all of human history. When the thinkers of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries were finally compelled to admit that the entire structure of thought in our culture had been built on a profoundly important error, absolutely nothing happened.
It’s hard to notice nothing happening. Everyone knows that. Readers of Sherlock Holmes will remember that the remarkable thing the dog did in the night was . . . nothing. And this is the remarkable thing that these thinkers did: nothing. Obviously they didn’t care to do anything. They didn’t care to go back to all the foundation thinkers of our culture and ask how their work would have changed if they’d known the truth about our origins. I fear the truth is that they wanted to leave things as they were. They wanted to go on forgetting . . . and that’s exactly what they did.
Of course they were forced to make some concessions. They couldn’t go on teaching that humans had been born farming. They had to deal with the fact that farming was a very recent development. They said to themselves, “Well, let’s call it a revolution—the Agricultural Revolution.” This was slovenly thinking at its worst, but who was going to argue about it? The whole thing was an embarrassment, and they were glad to dismiss it with a label. So it became the Agricultural Revolution, a new lie to be perpetuated down through the ages.
Historians were sickened to learn the true extent of the human story. Their whole discipline, their whole worldview, had been shaped by people who thought that everything had begun just a few thousand years ago when people appeared on the earth and started immediately to farm and to build civilization. This was history, this story of farmers turning up just a few thousand years ago, turning farming communes into villages, villages into towns, towns into kingdoms. This was the stuff, it seemed to them. This was what counted, and the millions of years that came before deserved to be forgotten.
Historians wouldn’t touch this other stuff, and here’s the excuse they fashioned for themselves. They didn’t have to touch it . . . because it wasn’t history. It was some newfangled thing called prehistory. That was the ticket. Let some inferior breed handle it—not real historians, but rather prehistorians. In this way, modern historians put their stamp of approval on the Great Forgetting. What was forgotten in the Great Forgetting was not something important, it was just prehistory. Something not worth looking at. A huge, long period of nothing happening.
The Great Remembering was in this way turned into a nonevent. The intellectual guardians of our culture—the historians, the philosophers, the theologians—didn’t want to hear about it. The foundations of all their disciplines had been laid during the Great Forgetting, and they didn’t want to reexamine those foundations. They were perfectly content to have the Great Forgetting go on—and, for all practical purposes, it did exactly that. The worldview we transmit to our children today is fundamentally the same as the worldview transmitted to children four hundred years ago. The differences are superficial. Instead of teaching our children that humanity began just a few thousand years ago (and didn’t exist before that), we teach them that human history began just a few thousand years ago (and didn’t exist before that). Instead of teaching our children that civilization is what humanity is all about, we teach them that civilization is what history is all about. But everyone knows that it comes to the same thing.
In this way human history is reduced to the period exactly corresponding to the history of our culture, with the other ninety-nine-point-seven percent of the human story discarded as a mere prelude.