A SHORT HISTORY OF MANKIND
Karl Arnold Belser
8 November 2015
| The book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind
by Yuval Noah Harari has helped me put current history into
perspective. This book has a lot of diverse content, some of which I
will summarize here.
The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. There has been life on Earth for about three-fourths of this time and the predecessors of man have been on earth about 200 thousand years. The history of mankind as a cognitive, aware being is about 70 thousand years, which is about one millionth of Earth's life. A cognitive , aware being can make up stories, i.e. fictitious entities that promote trust among members of a large group. Examples are fictions like money, families, clans, cities, empires, corporations, nations and religions. Harari is mostly interested in what happened after man became aware and was able to work in very large groups.
I wondered initially about what happened in the 3.8 billion years before man became aware. This duration comprises 380 thousand human history epochs. Given the rapid change in the last ten thousand years, one might expect similar phenomenal developments to have happened during this time. The article Time line: The Evolution of Life from the New Scientist magazine gives an excellent summary.
In short matter has combined into various life forms, the simplest being individual cells. Over time cells combined into progressively more complex arrangements that adapted to changes in the physical environment and to other life forms. Initially the organisms got larger and larger and developed complex biological subsystems for dealing with the environment. The bigger and more clever entities became the top of the food chain. The bigger life forms ate plants and other life forms. This hierarchical survival capability changed with the advent of the genus homo (stone tools) about 2.5 million years ago,
One must realize that life is very robust and tenacious. Life on Earth experienced many catastrophes such as global warming, changes in the atmosphere and oceans, and collisions of asteroids. Life rebounded every time starting with the life forms that were able to survive.
The genus homo had many variations that managed to hunt to extinction the larger life forms. When homo sapiens came along about 200 thousand years ago they eliminated the other examples of the genus homo, or at least cross bread with them so that they had the cognitive ability of homo Sapiens. The cognitive revolution happened about 70 thousand years ago. Cognitive means that the homo Sapiens were able to leave lasting, historical records and invent fictitious systems in order to unify themselves. One cannot uncover much about the development that happened in early human history because the artifacts were wooden or earthen which disappeared with time.
One must realize that no one today really understands what life is, and that homo Sapiens needed some way to account for the meaning of life. Karen Armstrong points out in her books A History of God and A Case for God that homo Sapiens of most every culture had a creation story involving some sort of god or gods. God is very real to homo Sapiens. God might be the unifying concept for humans even if it should turn out to be fictitious.
A TIPPING POINT
Man (homo Sapiens) lived for some 60 thousand years as cognitive hunter-gatherers until about 10 thousand BC when the agricultural revolution happened. The observation here is that mankind was living in a continuously sustainable steady state that could have gone on forever. However, once man cultivated crops and domesticated animals they started living in communities and having a dramatic increase in population. This growth was a trap from which people could not escape. Population expanded to fill much of the usable land. The life of average people was probably worse than what they had as hunter-gatherers, and huge wealth differences occurred in the population. Some people even became slaves. This process happened starting in the middle east, in China and in Meso- America, all pretty independently.
Religious myths probably started prior to the agricultural revolution because one needed to develop trust between the members of large groups. There is some evidence in Turkey that huge edifices were built before the beginning of the agricultural revolution, which probably means that the development of religions happened over a long period of time. Clearly the invention of religion as a fiction that was universally believed was significant in the development of civilization everywhere in the world.
By 2500 BC the interaction of people via cities, kingdoms and empires was sufficient to require the invention of money and writing in order to promote commerce between peoples. There was also war because some groups found that it was easier to steal from the agricultural communities. Hence, communities developed defense systems to protect their property. They also developed strong religious institutions to make the people within a community psychologically able to defend themselves.
When I read the Old Testament I realized that it was the story of how the belief in one God helped the Jews become an effective wore-like people for their own survival. Of course the Jews were only one of many peoples that discovered this same necessity.
My post Future Politics describes what happened in Western Civilization after 2500 BC. It appears that people have been changing their organizations (culture) rather than changing their genome as what happened in the distant past. Richard Dawkins points out that human culture (organizations of people) are governed by what he calls memes. Here is a short quote from Wikipedia about memes.
A meme is "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture". A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.
ANOTHER TIPPING POINT
The growth of the Gross World Product (GWP) was extremely small until the scientific revolution happened after about 1500 AD. During this low growth period people explained the things that they did not know with scripture or God.. They believed that the gods caused what was happening. Prior to the scientific revolution the economy of the world was in a steady state called the dark ages, just as the hunter gathers had been in a steady state prior to agriculture.
During the Renaissance, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries theologians, who were the majority of the educated people, discovered ignorance. They began to believe that God wanted them to do experiments and expose the beauty of the structure that God had created. Soon the scientific discoveries got translated into practical technology such as steam engines and electric power. Economic growth was ignited.
Adam Smith expounded on capitalism (a human created fiction) as the method to promote growth of GWP in which a wealthy person would invest his new money in more production. New jobs would be created and hence, the standard of living would be raised for everyone.
This growth in fact happened over the past 500 years or so because of science. Nations harnessed science for military dominance and unions of people formed to make sure that average standards of living rose. Women benefitted from science in that they became integrated into modern society. Women had a choice about bearing children and had a voice in government. A rising economic tide raised all ships and governments (western civilization) adopted the social contract whose evolution I describe in my post Future Politics. The world is now the most affluent and peaceful in all of history as Steven Pinker describes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Will this positive trend continue? The scientific method might be viewed as a technology for understanding how to harness the energy and materials found on earth. In this case there may well be an S-Curve Technology Life Cycle in which as some point science will provide diminishing returns in some areas of development. For example, the technology for feeding people and in turn providing a higher standard of living appears to have stalled since the 1970s. There are probably too many people on earth for all of these people to have a reasonable life style. Further the climate appears to be changing and the earths resources appear to be getting scarce in certain areas.
Today, corporations are not following Adams Smith's principle of re-investment. Many corporations are using their profits to buy back shares, which in effect makes the companies smaller with less need for employment. It looks to me like the positive effects of capitalism are dissipating.
My observation throughout this blog has been that the world appears to be returning to a steady state economy, like that before 1500, in which the growth of GWP will be low. However, not all technology has ceased. The Internet, Computers, Robots, and artificial intelligence appear to be at the beginning of another S-Curve growth process.
IS ANOTHER TIPPING POINT COMING?
It is most likely that the world civilizations will muddle through their current issues and adjust to a low growth, steady state environment. This future would put enormous stress on the environment since the body mass of human beings and their domesticated animals is about ten times that of all of the other animals on earth. Another extinction seems inevitable if mankind continues on its current course.
Human beings might also become extinct if the clash of civilizations currently rearing its ugly head ends in a nuclear war. Human extinction I think is highly unlikely. But if it did occur, life would certainly re-emerge.
Harari discusses what he thinks might happen in the distant future based on his view as a historian. He suggests that there are three possibilities and each would constitute a tipping point and start its evolution over again.
One is that human beings will modify their own genome to optimize performance in some particular area. This suggests that human society might divide itself in a way similar to what happened in Brave New World. See my post Genetic Engineering 2014. There also appears to be a reasonable chance that wealthy people will be able to extend their lives significantly with biological intervention. See my post Longevity and Wealth. The occurrence of longevity by dint of money is likely to cause civil strife.
A second possibility is that human beings might augment themselves using technology. This augmentation is starting to happen with cell phones as I describe in The Conversational Interface. Harari suggests that brain implants might make cyborgs possible. Again it will probably be wealthy people that can afford to by and implement the cyborg mechanisms.
The last remote possibility is that humans are replaced by intelligent robots. The conjecture is that life and consciousness is an emergent property of computer complexity. Uploading oneself into a robot would be the ultimate test of what wealth might do.
My conclusion is that the future really is uncertain, and it looks like wealth will be a key determinant in how the future unfolds.
Last updated November 10, 2015
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