Sense of History: an unfinished draft of an undergraduate history textbook by Robert C. Binkley, 1939-40. This transcription is not yet fully corrected.
Table of Contents
To most of the people in the world the persons who are nearest are the other members of their families.
In one sense your family is your household, the group of people with whom you live. In another sense it is the series of ancestors and descendants through whom property passes by inheritance. In this sense we speak of property "passing out of the family". In still another sense it may be the whole number of ancestors who have made you, biologically, what you are.
The household family is something with a short period life cycle: you are for some twenty years a child in one household, and then for some twenty years a parent in another,―such is the normal rhythm. In the long period―the five hundred year "age", there is normally such a mixing and diffusion of blood that one must speak rather of race and caste than of family. The inheritance family or dynasty is something with a life span longer than a household, but seldom as long as five centuries.
If you would contemplate the lines of ancestors who through the long period of five centuries were making your life possible, you will do well to resort to certain mathematical calculations. These will show that most of the relatives whose common ancestors were living five hundred years ago are total strangers to each other today.
There are very few people who can really trace their whole ancestry back through a whole age. If you knew the names of all your ancestors for five hundred years back, then (apart from doubling up due to inbreeding), you would have to be familiar with upwards of a hundred thousand names,―perhaps a quarter of a million. No more than seventeen of the bearers of these names would be the male ancestors who hove transmitted your surname to you.
Family names, transmitted in the male line, appeared in Europe in the late feudal age. Sixteen generations back, at the beginning of the modern age, there were at a maximum thirty-two thousand male ancestors of yours, each your progenitor in equal degree. Your surname comes from one only of those thirty-two thousand. Since there are only thirty or forty thousand English surnames, it would be mathematically possible for a man to have every English surname represented in a family tree that traced all his ancestors back five hundred years.
Intermarriage between relatives may have permitted a smaller number of remote ancestors to account for you, but even when allowance is made for inbreeding, it still remains true that your surname, which may be a very significant index to your biological inheritance in the short period which connects you with your father, has no such significance over the long period.
The same mathematics applies if you contemplate the future of your descendants. If your own blood maintains itself (and again without intermarriage of kin) for sixteen generations, each of your sixty-four thousand descendants will need to have sixty-four thousand other ancestors in equal degree with yourself and your mate. But such a perpetuation of blood without intermarriage of kin would be mathematically possible only if the world had a present population of four billion instead of two billion.
Some people are proud of their ability to trace their descent from Charlemagne. If Charlemagne's descendants had merely maintained themselves through the two ages, the feudal age and the modern age, each descendant marrying someone not his kin, and bringing two children to maturity, everybody in the world would now be descended from Charlemagne.
It is evident that only the most intensive in-breeding could preserve a recognisable family strain through five hundred years. It is therefore as caste and race, and not as family, that the unity of a stream at blood is most accurately identified over the long period.
Yet we cannot ignore the families of the world when we contemplate the five centuries of the modern age. For the most Important event in this age took place within these families. This was the increase In the world's population.
[p.016] Five hundred years ago there were probably no more than fifty million people in Western Europe. Today there are four hundred million in the same area.
In the middle of the modern age, about 1700, there were probably five hundred million people In the whole world. Now there are two billion.
The increase of population in modern times, especially in the Era of Nationalism, has been common to Europe and Asia. Most of the net excess of the present population over that of two centuries ago is living in the Old World; the population of the New World is an additional increment, over and above the increased population of the Old.
If the rate of increase that has obtained in the late modern age had been constant through previous centuries, a single village in the time of Christ could have generated the whole present population of the world. But we know that the population of the Roman Empire at that time was about fifty millions. If that population had constantly expanded at the recent rate, there would now be fifty trillion of their descendants alive. This would populate every acre of land in the world, including Greenland and the Sahara, four times as densely as the most densely peopled part of New York City. Clearly the rate of population expansion of the Era of Nationalism is a temporary thing. It has not been long continued in the past, and could not be long continued in the future.
The burst of population expansion in the Modern Age, and especially in the Era of Nationalism, is something unprecedented and unexplained. It was not due to peace, to industry, to medicine. The civil wars in China in the nineteenth century were widespread and devastating; there were no technical improvements to increase food production in that country at that time; far from there being any conquest of disease, then was actually a disease, Asiatic cholera from India, introduced into China in the 19th century. And yet the population of China mounted like that of Europe.
The increase in population must be taken into account in comparing the past with the present. [p.017] There are more than twice as many people in the United States as there were in the Roman Empire. In the year 1066, when William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel, all England did not contain enough people to fill out the present population of the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens in New York City.
Why this great change in population came about we do not know, but where it happened we are certain. It took place within the hundreds of millions of families which happened to be, through these particular sixteen generations, the bearers of the eternal stream of blood and germ plasm.
The rate of increase is now slowing down. Nothing that any one of us can do will materially affect it. And yet the part that each of us will play in carrying on the human blood stream, either by having children or by not having them, will be for each of us one of the decisive events in our individual lives.
The slowing down of the rate of increase has another kind of importance. Western Europeans during the Long Armistice worried about their long-term future because they feared there would not be enough land for their rising populations. They need not have worried. Their increasing population was the after-effect of births in the Bismarck and Pre-War period. At the end of the Long Armistice western and northern Europeans were replacing only 75% of themselves by birth. When the people born in the Long Armistice are old the effect of this birth rate will be felt, and populations in Western Europe will be definitely declining. Unless there is a reversal of this trend, Western Europe will not be worrying about getting space for its people, but about getting people to fill its space.