Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Longue Duree in the United States

New research from around the world has begun to reveal a picture of humans today that is so different from what it was in the past that scientists say they are startled. Over the past 100 years, says one researcher, Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, humans in the industrialized world have undergone a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth.

The difference does not involve changes in genes, as far as is known, but changes in the human form. It shows up in several ways, from those that are well known and almost taken for granted, like greater heights and longer lives, to ones that are emerging only from comparisons of health records.

The biggest surprise emerging from the new studies is that many chronic ailments like heart disease, lung disease and arthritis are occurring an average of 10 to 25 years later than they used to. There is also less disability among older people today, according to a federal study that directly measures it. And that is not just because medical treatments like cataract surgery keep people functioning. Human bodies are simply not breaking down the way they did before.

GINA KOLATA, So Big and Healthy Grandpa Wouldn't Even Know You, New York Times 7/28/206

It is a little strange that this fascinating article is written by a health/science reporter. Scientific and health measurements form the basis of the facts in this article, but it is about much more than science.

History is often seen as analyzing events, but for forty years now, historians have been interested in social phenomena that remain the same or change very slowly. This longue duree [long duration] addresses the sorts of issues raised in the NY Times' article, and claims that such transitions are needed to understand the past as the much more studied "changes."

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