Oral History

How have entire lives been so reduced?

“Written records are more reliable than oral tradition, by a disconcerting margin. You might think that each generation of children, knowing their parents as well as most children do, would listen to their detailed reminiscences and relay them to the next generation. Five generations on, a voluminous oral tradition should, one might think, have survived. I remember my four grandparents clearly, but of my eight great-grandparents I know a handful of fragmentary anecdotes. One great-grandfather habitually sang a certain nonsense rhyme (which I can sing), but only while lacing his boots. Another was greedy for cream, and would knock the chess board over when losing. A third was a country doctor. That is about my limit. How have eight entire lives been so reduced? How, when the chain of informants connecting us back to the eyewitnesses seems so short, and human conversation so rich, could all those thousands of personal details that made up the lifetimes of eight human individuals be so fast forgotten?”

— Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale

Standard