I’ve always found pondering the how’s and why’s of life and the world to be irresistible. The mountain of historical and scientific information available certainly makes this challenging. Happily, a lifetime of inquiry may be paying off. I can see outlines of the big picture now.
The constant difficulty lies in how mountains of detail 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.
A political advisor referring to politics once said, “It’s the economy, stupid”. I wonder if he realized how deeply primordial that is? Observing this forest from high up reveals how economic realities clearly shape everything. Not just for humans, but for all life. After all, economics is simply an emergent property (p.121) of the survival-based relationships that determine our overall level of comfort and security. Anyway, here is what I see 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, a form of 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 now, but more like a 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.
Granaries excavated in Jordan indicate that people stored large quantities of wild cereals by about 11,000 years ago, a practice that led to the cultivation of domesticated plants. This radical shift in human lifestyle—the Neolithic Revolution—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… i.e., “It’s the economy stupid”. Note how human progress proceeded hand in hand with civilization. In the countless eons preceding civilization, progress advanced at a glacial pace. Then 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. Even so, living in the midst of all this makes it difficult to see from an epoch-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. We are indeed at the beginning of an Electricity Revolution.
The Age of Wisdom… of sorts
Medical breakthroughs are likely the most profound culmination of these preceding 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 that appealed early on. 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 realize and accept our own inherent ignorance. True, we are not going to be around to see the results of this, but it is happier to know that evolving circumstances are heading in a beneficial direction.
Chapter 16’s Rash actions lead to ominous results explains a destructive result of harnessing fire. The stimulus prompting this, and which we share with all animals, was the innate urge to overcome any obstacle to our comfort and security. Problems arose as we over-succeeded by means of our unique capacity to create ways of continuously increasing our 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.
Our innovative solutions always deliver us with ever more serious problems, culminating in an ability to wipe out life on earth through 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 adverse consequences of progress. Experiencing a long life replete with losses and errors helps to appreciate viscerally the truth of the saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. The most vital matter in life is health… it’s the essence of survival. Everything else is simply icing on the cake of indulging our daily desires. What began with fire as a tool for survival will end with a fundamental advancement for survival… health and long life! With long life usually comes increasing mental health and 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 long-term human story 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.