In yesterday’s post, I noted that it is very hard to put clear dates on the birth of countries like the UK. Indeed, it’s not even entirely straightforward to say when the USA was born. The signing of the Declaration of Independence is a useful watershed, but you might argue for earlier or later dates than that: the establishment of the 13 Colonies, or the end of the Civil War, say.
The point is that this problem, of finding a more or less arbitrary spot to mark a continuum, is a general one. The same questions arise, as noted before in this blog, with languages and species. And this is not a question restricted to lofty academic debate. People genuinely seem to want to know how old their language is compared with others, or when human beings split off from other primates. Not that these questions are exactly unanswerable—scientists have responded to them with very sophisticated dating techniques—it’s just that we need to be very clear what our criteria are, and to accept a really very wide margin either side of any date we apply.
It is a problem that rears its head in all sorts of guises, some of them very hot politically. There has historically been much pointless debate, in discussions of abortion, as to when life begins. Life began a long long time ago;* what we see in pregnancy is the continuation of life, and all we can do is mark points on that continuum. Conception and birth are watersheds, like the moment the first European feet touched American soil, or the moment a primate chipped bits off a block of flint for the first time. Did that make it human?
*Somewhere on a continuum.