Deep Time

Consider the Earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history. –McPhee

How can we apply the concept of “deep time” to the practice of history?

Over what period of time do we consider change? Does our interpretation of the consequence of events change based on expansion or contraction of an imposed timeframe?

Example: Consider the history of DDT. Discovered in 1874, DDT was hailed as a wonder chemical during World War Two and used to control mosquito populations that carried malaria. Its public health benefits seemed obvious. In 1948, Paul Hermann Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on DDT. After WWII, the use of DDT was expanded to include managing insect populations for agricultural reasons. Public relations campaigns demonstrated the “safety” of DDT by spraying people with the chemical. This appeared to cause no immediate health impacts.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring,” which highlighted the environmental impact of DDT. In 1972, DDT was banned in the United States and world wide by the Stockholm Convention.

Looking at DDT from 1940-1962, we might say that it received positive press. From 1962-1972, it was heavily criticized. Since 1972, DDT has generally been characterized as a harmful chemical, but its effectiveness in controlling insect populations remains.

As time changes our understanding of a particular idea, event or substance, how do we tell the story while managing for subjective bias? Are the generations of scholars born after “Silent Spring” predisposed to write the story of DDT in a negative light?

We are always standing at the crossroads of objective analysis and subjective composition.


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