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The History of History

by Henry Robert Burke
April 2, 2004

As Man developed skills in communication, so did the practice of recording history. Now, scientists are studying DNA to learn about our history.

I am sometimes described as a "storyteller." Truth is I don't view myself as a storyteller. I sometimes use "oral history" to give me direction in searching for documented history and genealogy. I am skeptical of most stories I hear or read. I sometimes tell stories to get an audience's attention. I do not intend to merely entertain, but to educate. My hope is that I am able to make my history research enjoyable!

Documenting history has evolved over time. Concerning pre-written human history, archeologists have had to interpret history from artifacts and use various other techniques, because these are the only evidence they had to work with. Oral history began when man' s brain evolved enough to gain the ability to speak and remember spoken words. Then for countless centuries history was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Eventually, by recognizing the limitations of oral history, individual cultures developed rituals to help document their histories. Over time, distortions and manipulations rendered rituals more important than the history they were created to document. The further back oral history goes, the less reliable it becomes. This is not to say that oral history is negative, but oral history has its limitations.

As time progressed, paintings on cave walls improved the documenting of human history. Finally the invention of the written languages: cuneiform and hieroglyphics. Cuneiform is the mode of writing using wedge-shaped strokes, inscribed mainly on clay but also on stone, metals, wax, and other materials. The ancient peoples of western Asia produced the earliest texts in cuneiform script in about 3000 BC. Cuneiform writing, which originated in southern Mesopotamia, was invented probably by the Sumerians. It was subsequently adapted for writing the Assyro-Babylonian language, known as Akkadian. Because Akkadian became the language of international communication in the ancient Middle East, cuneiform spread to Asia Minor, Syria, and Persia.

Hieroglyphics were used by both ancient Egyptian culture in the Old World and Native American Mayan culture created hieroglyphics in the New World. This form of writing was adequate enough to keep certain business records, astronomical information and agricultural production. As writing advanced into Hebrew, Greek and Latin, the record of historical facts improved greatly. Regard should also be given to complex written languages that evolved in Asia, especially in China, India and Japan. In the United States today, we rely mainly on history written in European languages. Also media and computers make it possible to document history to a high degree of accuracy.

Recently we have discovered history written in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid); a very elaborate language that has been with us since life on earth began. So recent is this discovery, that presently only a few specialized scientists are able to decipher parts of the DNA codes that construct this language. Both simple and intricate, DNA complexity comes from the infinite number of combinations its components are arranged in. So far DNA is recognized as a nucleic acid that carries the genetic information imbedded in cells that are capable of self-replication and synthesis of RNA (ribonucleic acid.). DNA consists of two long chains of nucleotides twisted into a double helix and joined by hydrogen bonds between the complementary bases adenine and thymine or cytosine and guanine. The sequence of nucleotides determines individual hereditary characteristics.

With the use of computers, scientists have just completed the Human Genome Project (HGP). The HGP has generated a catalog describing 50,000 to 100,000 human genes at some level of detail; high-resolution maps of the chromosomes; and billions of base pairs of DNA sequence information. Genes associated with some hereditary diseases have already been identified resulting in better genetic screening tests, new drugs, and genetic therapies that give doctors the ability to fight illnesses and disease not dreamed of a few year ago. To scientists, historians, genealogist, jurists and to some extent, every aspect of life on earth, DNA technology is of tremendous importance. I believe DNA is God's way of telling us how he created life on Earth and possibly how he created the Universe!

The person most responsible for the discovery of DNA was a Czech monk named Gregor Mendel (1822-1884). From 1854 through 1863, Mendel crossbred peas in his monastery garden. He carefully charted the appearance of seven plant and pea traits, but his published findings were ignored for decades. Rediscovered in 1900, those findings earned Mendel recognition as the father of genetics. Mendel initiated the scientific revolution that made cloning and genetic engineering possible.

When Mendel began experimenting, scientists could not explain how children inherited features like hair color. Some believed in blending--that a child born to a dark-haired woman and a blond-haired man would have light brown hair. But Mendel proved otherwise. He crossbred plants that produced green peas with those that produced yellow ones, and the offspring were always green or yellow, not a blend. Mendel also found that traits appeared with a predictable three-to-one frequency: three yellow peas, for instance, for every one green pea. Mendel called the more common trait "dominant" and the less common one "recessive." He could not explain the 3:1 ratio, however.

Once scientists discovered genes, the ratio made sense. Traits are determined by pairs of genes arranged in four possible combinations: 1) a gene for a dominant trait from both parents, 2) a dominant from the father and a recessive from the mother, 3) a recessive from the father and a dominant from the mother, or 4) a recessive from both parents. Dominants suppress recessives, so three combinations produce a dominant trait, while one produces a recessive trait. Mendel had found the underlying pattern of heredity.

Historians can only guess why Mendel's contemporaries overlooked his work. Some speculate that, as an amateur scientist who was uncomfortable promoting his findings, Mendel did not have the "clout" to gain recognition for ideas so far ahead of their time. Whatever the reason, Mendel died in 1884 without ever seeing the significance of his pea experiments acknowledged.

The knowledge of DNA proves that racism is a sham. There is but one human species. We all share a common beginning and in the end we all share a common destiny. I do not find anything about DNA technology that is contrary to the teaching of Jesus Christ. It is simply an extension of knowledge, which I believe Jesus sanctions. When the knowledge that DNA contains is understood and properly used to improve the quality of life for everyone on Earth, that is positive. If DNA technology is misunderstood and/or misused the price may be too negative to contemplate.

- Henry Robert Burke

Henry Robert Burke is an author and historian with an emphasis on multicultural history. You may visit Mr. Burke online at http://americanodyssey.net

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