The Latitudes of Time

One of the pleasures of researching and writing a book is the discovery of topics that (1) are new and pertinent to one’s work-in-progress and (2) inspire exploration beyond the scope of the book. One such topic that I encountered and later pursued, in the writing of There Are No Foreign Lands, is “the latitudes of time.”

I first learned about the latitudes of time when I read The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin. In Boorstin’s terms, this means that similar thoughts, edifices, events, and other creations of the human mind and muscle are taking place at roughly (this is geologic time, so “roughly” can mean as long as a few hundred or even thousand years) the same time but in different geographical locations that have no contact with one another. Walter Benjamin, in his book entitled Illuminations, discusses the same concept, but refers to it as “empty, homogeneous time.” Because I like the reference to latitude, which is important to an understanding of the idea, I prefer Boorstin’s terminology, but in a pinch I would not be averse to Benjamin’s.

The concept of the latitudes of time immediately appealed to me because it supported my book’s hypothesis, namely that we are all related at a profound level because we are all children of the same “mitochondrial Eve” and therefore have evolved over time in roughly the same ways at roughly the same rate. There is, therefore, no superior people or ethnicity. We have the same fundamental genes, although we make different superficial choices (religion, custom, language) that obscure the similarities. Samuel J. Huntington, in my view, doesn’t understand this and The Clash of Civilizations missed the boat.

I will give you an easy but little-known example to illustrate the concept: the design and construction of Notre Dame in Paris, France and Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia were both started at exactly the same time (the middle of the 12th century CE).

Another of the latitudes of time to which I refer in my book concerns the origins of writing. Speech (like all sound) is evanescent. Except for echoes, which last a bit longer, all sound disappears for good – forever – in the instant after it is created. Since human memories are limited in their ability to catalog everything they hear, this means that most of the sound that was ever created has been lost. What’s a human to do? Well, we write it down, that’s what we do. But when and how did this first happen? Who had this idea that changed everything?

In my research for There Are No Foreign Lands, I learned that there are some differences of opinion about who first created writing and how it came about. One school of thought, now a smaller school than it used to be, holds that the Mesopotamians were the first to come up with writing, and all other writing derives from theirs. Another school of thought, now a bigger school than when it started, says that, in addition to Mesopotamia, humans in Egypt, Mesoamerica, and China also independently came up with the idea of writing — at very roughly the same time but at different latitudes of the world. Boorstin finds it remarkable that writing appeared in so many (four is his idea of “so many”) sites at roughly the same time, an outcome that is nevertheless largely predictable if one has confidence in the existence of the latitudes of time. Jared Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, looking at the same facts, finds that the paucity, rather than the profusion, of sites at which writing was created is what is remarkable. This was as far as I took the contesting arguments in my book, but I made a mental note to continue my inquiry later.

As she explains in her wonderful book The Greatest Invention, Silvia Ferrara contends that there are two parts to the “creation” of writing. One, the easier part, is invention. Once you have understood what an alphabet is, you can readily invent your own. This has happened many times in world history. The other, more difficult part, is having the flash of inspiration – the light bulb suddenly going on – to create a written script from scratch, without ever having seen one. Just imagine how difficult this would have been. Without getting into the details of how this happens, I can report that Professor Ferrara is an enthusiastic member of the multiplicity camp, but she goes beyond Boorstin in asserting that “One of our goals is to discover just how many times writing has been invented throughout history, since the precise number of inventions has not yet been clearly established” (page 58).

Professor Ferrara does not mention Boorstin or Benjamin, but she clearly if unwittingly understands and propagates the concept of the latitudes of time. She uses, among others, the example of Rongorongo, the script discovered on Easter Island, and asks whether it should be added to the list of original creations of the human mind. “Four inventions, now all but proven. Though could there be others still? We have no definitive answer, but it’s likely that there are” (page 96). Her conclusion: “It’s therefore not only possible that writing has been invented many times throughout human history, it’s also highly probable” (page 97).

I was excited to read Professor Ferrara’s book because her deep research into the topic of the latitudes of time, as expressed through writing, indirectly but substantively supported the thesis of my book. If I publish a second edition or a sequel, I will no doubt explore this matter in more detail as a consequence of having the good fortune to come across another scholar who was looking at the vertical axis of a topic on which I was studying the horizontal axis. Lucky for me that the two lines intersected.


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