On the Shoulders of Giants

– By J Michael

In 1676 Isaac Newton wrote in a letter, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton was referring to his contributions to the progression of science, where each new discovery comes as a result of the progress made by those before. Each small discovery contributes in some way to later breakthroughs. All of human progress occurs through individual effort, even when such progress occurs through the action of many individuals. Each person does his part, overcomes his limitations, and contributes to the end result. Human progress has been marked by great cultural progress, scientific achievements, and humanitarian triumphs. It has also seen serious regression through the loss of great bodies of knowledge, failures of civilizations, and great tragedies. The future is equally at risk from both natural and man-made disasters. In our day-to-day lives we give little thought to the long term impact our lives have on the world. However, just like those incremental discoveries in science, subtle inputs can have profound effects on the future and on those who follow.

Anthropologists tell us that Man has roamed the Earth for some four million years. Only in the last few thousand has a written record existed. Petroglyphs, cave paintings, and other imagery preceded writing by a significant period. What we know about prehistoric cultures is largely due to the painstaking analysis of artifacts and art left by those cultures. Much better understanding of cultures occurred once writing was invented, when records of historians’ own or other cultures began to be documented. Cultures in modern times may be observed directly. The written word is now supplemented by photographs as well as audio and video recordings. Analytical tools enable tremendous insight that was inaccessible only a few years ago. Social media is beginning to facilitate group efforts in analysis and classification. We can examine our own lives from an anthropological perspective. We often think of anthropology as the study of other cultures but place little value in studying our own. Those who look back from the future to analyze the customs, rituals, beliefs, and other cultural attributes will rely on artifacts, writings, and other media in order to gain insight. We can help by being cognizant of the many facets of our culture and writing about those, as well as preserving and documenting the interesting artifacts of our time.

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