History is peculiar
Adrian Currie (Cambridge University)

part of: Science & the Deep Past
March 20, 2019, 4:15pm - 5:45pm
Department of Philosophy, University of Tartu

Jakobi 2; Vanemuise 46
Tartu 50090

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  • European Regional Development Fund, University of Tartu ASTRA Project PER ASPERA


University of Tartu

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The Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution was a critical event shaping the modern world, seeing radiations in mammals, squamate lizards, snakes, birds and (maybe) dinosaurs, as well as the emergence of flowering plants (angiosperms) and their accompanying menagerie of pollinating insects. The revolution is at least in part thought to be related to the contemporaneous final breakup of Pangea into smaller continents, and the new angiosperm-insect alliance likely drove radiations in other lineages.

It is often thought that historical explanation is in some sense narrative explanation, or at least that history is particularly well-suited to narrative. Perhaps geographical changes from the relatively homogenous Pangea to the more heterogeneous modern continents led to a wider variety of habitats with more haphazardly distributed taxa, thus opening the door to diversification in the mid-Cretaceous. The earlier event (continental breakup) gains significance in terms of its downstream consequences, and a narrative explanation captures both link and significance. This connection between narrative and history has led some to ask whether there is some logic or essential property to narratives, others to draw links between the literary and the historical, and others to question whether narrative structures are discovered or constructed.

I have a hunch about what makes narratives powerful answers to historical questions, which emerges from a hunch about why history matters for knowledge. History, I want to argue, matters when it generates ‘peculiarity’. Some target is peculiar to the extent that its modal profile is sensitive to the diversity-boosting or dampening features of the processes which produce or maintain it. Some processes are diversity-boosting rather than dampening, more likely to produce heterogeneous products than homogenous products. A single supercontinent is potentially diversity-dampening, as environments are homogenized and populations are less isolated: Pangea’s breakup then, could be diversity-boosting. The outcomes of these processes might themselves be robust or fragile, but what matters for peculiarity is that this robustness or fragility is explained as being the result of structures emerging from a diversity-boosting, or being maintained by a diversity-dampening, process. The insect-angiosperm alliance has proven remarkably stable and robust through the Cenozoic, yet is (perhaps) the result of a diversity-boosting process like the Cretaceous tectonic shifts. Because narratives are able to accommodate sequential changes over time, they are particularly well suited to capturing peculiarity. In addition to capturing narrative, this view accommodates a (relatively humble) realism about narratives: insofar as they describe peculiarity, historical narratives are discovered rather than invented. It also helps explain the localness of historical knowledge: history’s peculiarity often restricts regularities and patterns to within relatively narrow trajectories.

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