A favorite thought experiment of mine is pondering the how and why of the world. Alas, there are mountains of geological and archeological information to consider. Happily, a lifetime of reflection seems to be paying off. I can see outlines of the ‘big picture’ now.
The constant difficulty is that mountains of detail easily obscure the view. You know the problem… ‘We can’t see the forest for the trees’. All the same, this current era appears to me to be overwhelmingly unique in human evolution.
The political advisor James Carville referring to politics once said, “It’s the economy, stupid”. I wonder if he realized how deeply primal that is? Observing this ‘forest’ from 50,000 feet, economic realities obviously shape everything. Not just for humans, but for all life. After all, economics is just an emergent property (p.121) of the survival-based relationships that determine our overall level of comfort and security. Anyway, here is the story as I see it so far…
Which Came First, Language, Music, or Fire? The Egg, of Course
Once upon a time, our distant ancestors harnessed what was a fearsome natural phenomenon — fire! On the other hand, harnessing fire could have followed the development of language, or more likely, with music that laid the foundation for language. Indeed, there is growing evidence for this. Google Language, Music, and the Brain: A Mysterious Relationship. Not music like the kind we hear on the radio, mind you. It would be more like the music elephants and whales use to communicate. Okay, that takes care of the first one or two million years, maybe more. Now I’ll move on to firmer ground..
The age of fire, began around 500,000+ years ago (1) when people figured out how to make and manage that fearsome ‘spirit’ that terrifies other animals. This made life much easier. Hunters fire-hardened their spear tips, which brought home more bacon. Fire allowed them to cook food making various nutrients more digestible, and freed up some ‘chewing time’ as well. Finally, fire allowed us to leave the warm climate of the tropics and settle the whole planet, nearly pole to frigid pole.
Agriculture and Primitive Metallurgy
Granaries excavated in Jordan indicate that people stored large quantities of wild cereals by about 11,300 years ago, a practice that led to the cultivation of domesticated plants. This radical shift in human lifestyle, the Neolithic Revolution of around 10,000 years ago, saw the transition from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals. Only a few thousand years later, around 5,000 years ago, came metallurgy.
The first utilitarian metal was bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. Tin alloyed with copper makes copper much stronger. At around this same time the first writing appears in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Harappa (a major city in the ancient Indus Valley civilization). Not surprisingly, the first writing clearly refers to trade… re: “It’s the economy stupid”. Do you see how human progress is proceeding hand in hand with civilization? In the countless eons preceding civilization, progress was incremental. ‘All of a sudden’, post-civilization, progress became increasingly exponential. Now, progress mushrooms at a truly mind-blowing pace.
About 3,000 years ago saw the beginning of a widespread use of iron. Being profoundly stronger, cheaper and easier to produce than bronze, the use of iron became available to the masses. This technological leap forward was the fulcrum to catapult humanity fully out of the stone-age. With this came the introduction of all the major religious paradigms of today. Coincidence you say?… No way! These were just essential ‘religion upgrades’ to help people cope with the momentous economic and cultural changes brought about by iron.
The Electricity Age, as I call it, beginning a little over 100 years ago has allowed a quantum leap in industrial and scientific innovation (2). This era is as momentous to human evolution as the harnessing of fire itself. Indeed, you could say electrical energy is a purer form of fire. Yet, being in the midst of it all, it’s difficult to see with a proper eon-spanning perspective. One way to appreciate the impact of the harnessing of electricity is to imagine how life would be without it. There would be no machines except for those driven by animal, water, or steam. All modern science and medicine depend entirely upon electricity. Without electricity, there could be no computers, and without them, none of the momentous medical breakthroughs we are just beginning to see.
The Age of Wisdom… of sorts
Medical breakthroughs are probably the profoundest finale of these Ages. From the dawn of civilization 10,000+ years ago, life expectancy along with birthrate has kept the median age of human populations in the 20’s, and even younger at times. History shows one result of this is that populations have behaved as you’d expect energetic youthful people to behave. The dawning of the Electricity Age has seen this median-age gradually increase. Now, it stands at about 37 years old in developed nations. It’s lower elsewhere… temporarily to be sure.
What we are now seeing is a gradual increase in this median-age of population, accompanied by a decreasing birth rate. In fact, birth rate is beginning to fall below replacement in the world’s wealthier technological cultures now.
Down the road, perhaps a few centuries to be conservative, the planet will be inhabited by cultures whose median age will almost certainly be above 100 years. Even in that distant day, the impact on a person in their 20’s to 40’s wouldn’t be much different than today. Coming into one’s 70’s and beyond, however, one begins to see through the idealistic and simplistic ‘solutions’ culture offers. Live long enough and one has an increasing opportunity to experience the inherent emptiness in the promises leaders of society (artistic, religious, political… you name it) offer.
Simply put, living is life’s classroom; the more time spent in class, the greater the potential we have to see through our blind spot. True, you and I are not going to be around to see this, but isn’t it uplifting to know we are at least evolving (circumstance-wise anyway) in a beneficial direction? Hallelujah!
Humanity’s rash actions leading to ominous results (#16) began with either fire or language. The stimulus triggering this, and which we share with all animals, was the innate urge to overcome any obstacle to comfort and security. Problems arose as we over-succeeded via our incessant desire and capability to invent ways of continuously increasing comfort and security. Buddha summed it up well, “pleasures are the bait, the result is pain”. Chapter 29 agrees, With desire choosing anything, of doing I see no satisfied end.
Alas, our solutions always seem to present us with even graver problems, culminating in an ability to wipe out life on earth through a nuclear war. As D.C. Lau says in chapter 16, Woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant.
Young minds are less capable of envisioning the unintended, often adverse, consequences of ‘progress’. Experiencing a long life replete with losses and errors helps to appreciate viscerally how true ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. The most important thing in life is health. That is the essence of survival. Everything else is simply icing on the cake, indulging our daily desires. What began with fire as a tool for survival will end with a vital advancement for the sake of survival… health and long life! With long life usually comes increasing mental health and deeper wisdom. This, more than any other factor, should enable us to return to living in greater harmony with the rest of life on earth. I feel human history has a happy conclusion despite all its thrilling ups-and-downs midway.
(1) About Archaeology says:
The controlled use of fire was an invention of the Early Stone Age (or Lower Paleolithic). The earliest evidence for controlled use of fire is at the Lower Paleolithic site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel, where charred wood and seeds were recovered from a site dated 790,000 years ago.
Not everybody believes that; the next oldest site is at Zhoukoudian, a Lower Paleolithic site in China dated to about 400,000 BP, and at Qesem Cave (Israel), between about 200,000-400,000 years ago.
In a paper published in Nature in March 2011, Roebroeks and Villa report their examinations of the available data for European sites and conclude that habitual use of fire wasn’t part of the human (meaning early modern and Neanderthal both) suite of behaviors until ca. 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. They argue that the earlier sites are representative of opportunistic use of natural fires.
(2) The introduction of game-changing technology, be it fire, iron, or electricity, disrupts society, both culturally and economically. Anthropology offers evidence of this when iron tools were introduced to primitive people. Similarly, the widespread use of electricity and the automobile, along with the other technological innovations, may have been a partial cause of the Great Depression and the two World Wars. I see similar disruption now brought about or amplified by the widespread use of the computer. I’d wager that humanity is in for one heck of a ride over the next few hundred years as religious and cultural norms fall by the wayside and are replaced by some that speak more effectively to the chaos and confusion of current times.