Gradualism: An Historical Consideration

For a long time historians have unfolded their narratives without worrying about setting up a chronological punctuation, without the need of pausing at a major stopping point.  When the concept of medaevalism was imposed on general consciousness–it has only been a century–the dogma of evolution, of the continual and slow transformation of nature and of humanity made it difficult to understand the fact of discontinuity.  The indubitable result of this is that the primary differences between the period to which it fits to reserve the term of "Antiquity" and the following times continued to be misunderstood without the need of inserting breaks in the historical narrative for teaching purposes.  Unfortunately these chronological curriculum-driven divisions were made clumsily, or frequently the subject of ridicule, and they compromised the whole proposition of division between Antiquity and the Middle Age.

This separation nevertheless corresponds to a reality and it is dangerous not to apply it.  Even if it’s true that the river of Time glides in an continuous movement, it is also true that its course does not flow at an even rate.  Sometimes it slows down to the point that its movement is hardly perceptible, and the description of several centuries seems to be able to be contained in a few pages.  ‘At other points it tumbles over a waterfall, boils up and races away, and the historian, crushed by the abundance of important and tumultuous events, spends a lifetime retracing several revolutionary days.  (Ferdinand Lot, La fin du monde antique and the début du moyen âge (The end of the ancient world and the beginning of the middle ages) Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 1968, pp. 11-12 (originally published 1926)

One of the main assumptions of current evolutionary dogma (to use the phrase of Ferdinand Lot, a French historian cited here earlier) is that of gradualism, that all changes in the structure of species took place gradually over long period of time.  This, of course, is taught as court-enforced fact in our schools, in spite of the warnings of creationists (even old-earth ones like myself) and some secular evolutionists that certain things just can’t be explained by anything else than cataclysmic events.

Although biologists would probably object, some correspondence can be made between the study of history and the study of the "prehistory" that is the subject of so much controversy.  After all, aren’t both the recounting of living organisms interacting in a geological/marine environment?  In human history the decision making capacity of people is further thrown into the mix (which in turn has some correspondence with Intelligent Design, but I’ll leave that for another time.)

Lot’s statement should be a caution for all those who would impose a scientific dogma without recourse to further study, and (to add injury to insult) impose it on disciplines which have some relation but also have significant differences.  The imposition of an evolutionary/gradualistic world view not only blinds us to the importance of cataclysmic events of all kinds, but also to the role of human volition and decision making processes in the course of events.  Too much history is written–and this translates into how current events are seen–with the idea that it’s driven by impersonal "forces," with the result that we slide all too often into historical determinism.  The end result is that we don’t learn anything applicable from history other than the idea that we can’t change it.

This quote also should warn us of the effects of how we teach subjects on how we view the knowledge they contain.  Anyone who has taught knows that there are ways of arranging the course content that make it easier for the students to learn, but in the long run may have to be "unlearned" for fuller understanding.

Trapped between fanatic gradualists and the demands of the curriculum, sometimes it’s a wonder anyone learns anything.

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