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Before I became a doctor, I did a degree in English. Although I didn’t notice it at the time, the basic assumption among all my literature teachers was that human intelligence and sensibility in Europe had peaked at around the turn of the seventeenth century, and had been bumping steadily downhill ever since. There was an agreement that no-one had ever managed to equal the sophistication of thought and expression shown by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. There was also an implicit acceptance of the link between language and humanity. Few of the lecturers would have taken seriously, for example, the idea that the discovery of penicillin showed as much evidence of human imagination or dignity as King Lear, or one of Montaigne’s essays. However, they might possibly have conceded their case to some of their classicist colleagues, who felt that things had never been quite as good as they had been in Athens during the time of Plato and Sophocles, or even to their archaeologist friends who looked back longingly at early Mesopotamia.
When I changed direction and went to medical school, I discovered that not everyone thought in this way. In fact, all the people I met there held the opposite assumption—also unexpressed and largely unchallenged. They believed that human progress always moved forward chronologically. They shared a perception that we were terribly …
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