In Works and Days, the ancient Greek poet Hesiod wrote that history began with a golden age, which was followed by a silver age, a bronze age, and finally the miserable iron age of his own time. He recognised that technological progress had occurred, but nevertheless believed that humanity's finest times lay in the past.
James Lovelock has called this grandfather's law, the belief that the old days were the best.
Yet there may be more at stake here than simple prejudice.
Suppose the world's population were asked to choose just one iconic building to stand for the whole of human architectural achievement. What would they vote for? The Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, the US Capitol, The Forbidden City, the Parthenon, the Coliseum?
I think there is a good chance, when all is said and done, that they might settle on the Great Pyramid of Cheops. It is only within the last century that significantly taller buildings have appeared, and, while these may be more sophisticated than the Great Pyramid, they do not have its simplicity, nor are they likely to last as long.
That the Pyramid of Cheops should remain one of the world's largest and most iconic structures might seem extraordinary, considering it was built by people who were still using stone tools, but it illustrates a general principle: in many areas of human endeavour, first efforts are often the best.
The Apollo 11 landing, for example, will probably stand for all time as a highpoint of space exploration. People will one day return to the moon, and will eventually reach other planets and the stars beyond, and they will use technologies of unimaginably greater sophistication than those of Apollo. Yet whatever they do, the Apollo achievement will in some ways never be equalled -- going from a standing start to landing a series of crews on the moon within the decade, in the most primitive craft, and then returning them to earth without a single fatality.
Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 team member who remained in orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, has revealed that his biggest fear was that the lunar module ascent stage, which had never previously been tested under lunar conditions, would fail to fire, and he would have to return to earth alone. President Nixon had a speech prepared for this eventuality, in which he would have said that while Armstrong and Aldrin knew there was no hope of rescue they also knew their sacrifice would not be in vain. The speech was never needed, for the ascent stage performed flawlessly, and the mission was in every respect a triumph.
The observation that earliest examples are the best is encountered in all sorts of cultural phenomena.
- The peak of Egyptian sculpture was achieved in the fifth dynasty, around the time the pyramids were being built (c. 2680 BC). This was never surpassed in the remaining two-and-a-half millennia of Egyptian history, though there was something of a renaissance in the eighteenth dynasty.
- Experts on Mayan ceramics tend to note that the earliest designs are the most aesthetically pleasing and technically accomplished.
- Drama in the modern sense began to develop in England from the mid-sixteenth century. Within forty years, it had already produced William Shakespeare, whose fame extends around the world. (A German friend once told me how he was shocked, when he was growing up, to discover that Shakespeare was not German.) In later centuries, Britain has produced other great dramatists, such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, but they are not in the same league.
- The earliest known cave paintings, at Chauvet Cave in southern France (see right) have been described as "the best we know of Palaeolithic art...a confident peak from which later cave painting could only go downhill." (S. Oppenheimer, Out of Eden: The peopling of the world, [London, 2004], p. 121).
There are several possible reasons why the earliest examples of a given cultural activity should be superior to those that come later.
- People have a need for mastery, to prove that they can do something. Once they have mastered whatever it is, their interest wanes. To land on the moon is a fantastic challenge that can inspire people to heights of daring and ingenuity, pushing contemporary technology to its limit. To land on it again is a humdrum task that people will get round to in due course when technology has advanced to the point that they can scarcely avoid it. Once people had built the Great Pyramid, they had proved their point. They would never build quite so ambitious a pyramid again, and before long they would stop building pyramids altogether.
- The first patrons of a new cultural product are elites, who can afford to pay for quality. As time goes on, people ever lower down the social scale seek their own versions of the product, in imitation of their betters, and this demand is satisfied by mass production, skimping on materials and cutting corners. The earliest Mayan ceramics were rare items destined for royal usage. Later ones were cheap imitations to be found in every peasant home.
- The first geographers to explore a new continent will be the ones to discover the biggest mountains, widest rivers and most spectacular views. Their successors can only fill in the details and will inevitably seem lesser folk. Similarly, the first people to explore a new cultural medium will access its finest opportunities, leaving only lesser achievements for those that come later.
- In attempting to assert their own creative individuality, people distance themselves from the cultural forms of the past. When what was achieved in the past was perfection, cultural products that seek to be different and distant will end up looking flamboyant, bizarre or degraded.
The 'first-is-best' rule does not always apply, but even when it does not, the peak of achievement in a cultural activity often comes in a short burst, and involves a cluster of exceptional individuals. This was the finding of the anthropologist A L Kroeber in his book Configurations of Culture Growth, where he investigated cultural 'efflorescences' in fields such as painting, sculpture, philosophy and science, and in societies ranging from Greece and Rome to China and Japan.
- The peak sometimes comes early in the efflorescence, and sometimes late. It is less common for the peak to come in the middle.
- Wherever the peak comes, the people who are responsible for the peak, i.e. the highest achievers in the given field, tend to be contemporaries or nearly so. An outstanding example is the Italian Renaissance, where Raphael (1483-1520), Titian (1490-1576), Michelangelo (1475-1564)) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) were all active in each other's lifetimes.
As Kroeber argued, the clustering of talent shows that high cultural achievement is a sociological phenomenon, with a dynamic of its own, and is not dependent on the chance appearance of individual geniuses. In other words, phases of great brilliance, rather than being random occurrences, have sociological causes and are susceptible to sociological explanations. This means that they can and should be accommodated and accounted for in a theory of history.
In addition, the fact that humans' earliest cultural products can surpass their more recent ones teaches us something about our own situation: it is not because we are cleverer than ancient Egyptians or stone age hunters that we are more technically advanced. It is because we live at the latest moment in history, and are the beneficiaries of these ancient peoples' achievements. Rather than being in every way superior to those who inhabited the planet before us, we are in some respects their degenerate and less accomplished grandchildren.