Today we were going to be starting a 4-day backpacking trip into the area near Sandpoint. Backpacking is in some ways a step backwards to reconnect with our caveman past. We don’t quite live off the land, but we do live on it, and we go to sleep listening to the sounds of nature and not the sounds of cars. Being completely away from any kind of schedules, telephones, email, etc. has its relaxing effect, and we forget about our cares and responsibilities surprisingly quickly. Paradoxically, although we are returning in some sense to past ways, the freedom also lends us perspective and leads us to think about the future.
For example consider the human race itself. Some people think our future is going to be all about rockets, maybe conquering the speed of light, and spreading out into the wild black yonder. While that’s romantic in a seafaring sort of way and makes for fun science fiction (and I’m certainly all in favor of it), I don’t think that’s it. First of all, it’s not even a future really, it’s just more of the same – making man out to be little more than a colony of bacteria spreading beyond its Petri dish. Second of all we’re not really going in that direction right now anyway. Since Apollo, the U.S. has spent a pittance on space, and other nations have followed suit. Our resources are going into other areas. And third and most important, the conventional spacefarer conception completely ignores rather significant trends in the history of life. So today we’ll consider that for a bit.
Let’s go through a brief summary. 4.6 billion years ago, Earth formed. Just 700 million years later, life started. It took until 3 BILLION years after that for multicellular life to get its start. That was 800 million years ago. It took another 400 million, give or take, for vertebrates to emerge. Dinosaurs and mammals came on the scene within another 200 million. The pace is starting to quicken after a slow start. But now things really start to happen. Chronozoom doesn’t show it, but apes originated somewhere around 30 million years ago. That’s around 170 million from the dinosaurs. From there to primitive humans (small brains, but upright walking) takes only around another 26 million, roughly one-sixth as long. From primitive to modern humans (homo sapiens) again takes one-sixth as long – just 3.8 million years. From there to the earliest dawnings of civilization we can detect – evidence of cities – about 190 thousand years – now only one-twentieth.
Now we are just 10,000 years ago, around 8,000 BC. Writing and the Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations emerge within around five thousand years of that (one fortieth!), and the Mohenjo-Daro civilization in India – the first meditators and yoga practitioners. Another 5,000 years brings us to 0 A.D., and cultural flowerings have occurred in the Mediterranean, the Subcontinent, and the Far East. Modern religion, literature, mathematics, and science are all here. Specialization is the norm rather than the exception. 1,500 years more bring us the printing press and wide use of maps, and 300 years after that, the mechanical age with factories and industry, and chemical energy sources are beginning to supplant the harnessing of animals. Another 100 years and engines are commonplace, electrical power is generated and delivered, and we begin to transform the face of the planet. This is 1900.
Just 50 more years, and we are in the “tele” age: telegraph, telephone, and television are new, electronic means of transmitting information rapidly over a distance. And finally, 50 more years, the merest fraction of a fraction of the length of the whole story, and microprocessors are invented, computing machines process information. Physical distance begins to dissolve, as humans interact on a daily basis with others thousands of miles away, practically any place on the planet. Mobile computers called “smart phones” become the rule, and more and more of our lives are either mediated by electronic representations, or outright lived virtually.
So what is happening here? In the moves from single-cellular to multicellular life, from life to intelligence, from intelligence to writing and recorded culture, from recorded culture to electronic representation and transmission, from representation and transmission to processing, a new pattern of organization is emerging each time. Consider multicellular life for example. Single cells that used to all do the same thing begin doing different things from one another, working together – and in fact unable to survive on their own. But now a larger-scale organism exists and interacts at a new level. Ultimately such organisms can perceive patterns of light and sound and act in complex ways in response, whereas individual cells could at most detect the brightness of light falling on them, and perhaps move towards or away from it. But notice that the timescale of interaction for whole organisms is not necesssarily any faster than for cells, but in fact a good deal slower. Action-reaction, development, reproduction – it’s all slowed down relative to the underlying level.
The origin of life, and the origin of human culture (in the sense of patterns of behavior transmitted over space and time), are both similar, in that something begins to happen at the higher level that is of a completely different order than the lower level. Underlying life there are molecules engaging in chemical reactions according to fixed laws, but the delicate systems of hundreds of types of molecules, dividing membranes, codes, and transcribing machinery that interact with each the environment and each other, and reproduce, are another thing entirely. Similarly, a style of building houses, a way of communicating with sounds, a method of preparing food are all things of a different nature than the humans who give rise to them. Just as all the molecules in a cell may be changed out for new ones and still it is the same cell, individual humans are irrelevant to cultural patterns. And again in both cases, the timescales expand at the emergent level.
In the grand scheme of things, life originated quite a while ago, while culture is relatively recent. What is interesting is that these emergences seem to be occurring more frequently as time goes on. And of course the unavoidable question is, “What comes next?” There’s no reason to believe that human intelligence or even human culture is the end state of this whole evolutionary process. Can we infer anything about what is to come by looking at the preceding series?
This entry has already grown too long, however, so we’ll have to come back to this later.
Anyway, the hike. On the first day, we all met up in the town of Sandpoint, Idaho and then headed off in two vehicles to the trailhead. There were nine of us, knowing each other mostly from graduate school, and some having seen each other more recently than others. Most of us had been down to Baja Mexico together on some occasions, and some had gone on hikes or canoeing trips as well. It was a good group – conversations were usually stimulating, spirits were invariably positive, and trip planning was suitably inspired on the overall scale and suitably vague in the particulars.
In this case we were visiting a little-known part of the Rockies on the northern Idaho – Montana border, and the rough plan was to leave a car at each of two trailheads, and hike from one to the other partially along trail and partially bushwhacking. We got a bit of a late start in the morning and then had some trouble with finding the other trailhead and getting the cars situated, with the result that we ended up actually starting out around 3 in the afternoon. This was still OK though, it just meant we’d have more of our work cut out for us on the second day.
The trail started out through an unlogged forest made up of giant cedars along with some pine and spruce not much smaller. We associate big trees in the U.S. primarily with out west, especially California, but, although some of the species out here did grow bigger, this is primarily because exploitation was slower to arrive here, and conservationism had time to catch up. The east had its great trees as well, from the pines and hemlock of Pennsylvania to the stately elms and towering oaks of other states. If any of us today were able to walk around the forests that once stood here we would spend until our last breath exhorting the men of that time to leave at least some of these woodlands untouched.
We made our way through this forest, feeling very small, until we rejoined the stream we’d last seen at the trailhead. We pitched camp beside its rocky bed and cooked and ate in falling light. There were grizzlies here, and those of us without bear canisters hastened to hang our food while we could still see it.