notes for the continuing world

January 31, 2022

It’s been a while since I’ve written here—so long that I’m starting to feel nervous about it, and that won’t do. This isn’t a project update.

I called this “notes for the continuing world,” because that’s the biggest idea I have, in the sense that it pushes all other ideas out of my head. This world continues, behind me in history and ahead of me into the future, forever. I wasn’t here at the beginning and I won’t be here at the end.

The planet that I walk on coalesced around 4,500,000,000 years ago. In general, the atoms that made up the earth at that time are still the ones that make it up today. At the surface of the planet, below the atmosphere and right on top of the crust, is a really active interface where all the life that we know of comes from.

Our best estimate of when life started is sometime after 4,000,000,000 years ago. The first things that we might want to call life were self-replicating molecules; the first things we definitely would call life were single-celled organisms. Cells are tiny molecular systems that include specialized equipment to either live a life all by themselves or to form a part of a bigger organism. The most important type of cellular equipment is the technique of using long stringy molecules to record plans for all of the different other types of molecules that the cell might need. The most recent version of that technology is called DNA; it partially-replaced an earlier version called RNA, still in use in some places. I’m fairly certain that all of the animals and plants I’ll ever see are DNA-based.

Speaking of animals and plants, things got really complicated really quickly as far as categorizing types of life, so for this sort of timeline-style view we’re going to gloss over most of that detail. Broadly, we see new things emerge (like photosynthesis—the process of converting sunlight into usable calories), we see them unlock new patterns of life (cyanobacteria spread across the globe), and then either a natural disaster or a side-effect of that change causes the balance to shift again (like the supposed great oxidation event). Mostly, in geological time, things are fine. Sometimes things are really bad. Just about the worst that things on earth ever got was the Permian-Triassic extinction event that killed about 90% of all life. We don’t know exactly how that happened, but meteor impacts, volcanic activity, methane release, or more gradual causes all seem plausible. These extinction events each spelled “the end of the world” for many, many organisms. This has been the basic pattern since life appeared; that is, we have to imagine 500,000,000 years of animals and plants living and dying—the lives of things that lived by themselves and in groups, peacefully and in conflict, that lived well and struggled, that woke up and went to sleep. We don’t have enough time to stop and acknowledge each sunrise between that time and this, but they did, and we should respect that.

My species, homo sapiens, appeared around 300,000 years ago. None of the other species in the genus homo that existed at that time continue to exist; I believe that early humans outcompeted them for resources and probably also killed a lot of them directly. The last piece of evidence that might point to living non-human individuals in the genus homo is from 12,000 years ago. Humans are participants in both of the recent and/or ongoing extinction events: the quaternary, which began around 300,000 years ago and has been characterized by the disappearance of megafauna, and the anthropocene, which is the unofficial name for extinctions caused by humans within the last few hundreds of years, and especially since the industrial revolution.

Setting aside the effects of humans on the non-human world, we have around 300,000 years of human culture on which to get up to speed. Or rather, we don’t have most of it. We know that for 295,000 years humans lived and died. They had families and cosmologies. When they were children they learned the ways of their people; they learned in stories how the world began and how it would end. They lived their lives, many of them—most, maybe—comfortably between the beginning and ending of those stories. But cultures and civilizations also end, sometimes gently and sometimes tragically. So we should acknowledge that within these 295,000 years were also many ends of the world—this time, happening to people who were just like us.

Tools are older than homo sapiens; the earliest stone tools are from an earlier species 500,000 years ago (another few hundred millennia of ends of the world). But the story of homo sapiens is the story of our technology, and we have taken it farther than anyone else we know of.

The earliest technology was inherited, as I said. The very first genetically modern humans were born to parents who could teach them how to make tools out of stone. Humans have used and adapted that technology continuously ever since. It’s misleading to dwell on stone tools when we think about prehistory, just as it would be misleading to dwell on injection molding machines when thinking about life during the late industrial revolution, but the stone tools do tell us certain specific things. For instance, many cultures produced stone tools and ceremonial items that would have required many hours of skilled labor, which indicates that those cultures could spare people from survival tasks to do many hours of skilled labor. It’s also probably reasonable to assume certain basic behaviors around tool use and manufacture would have existed—traditions of style and training, preferences about raw materials, details linked to one’s identity. The first minds in which those social patterns emerged probably belonged to a pre-human species.

12,000 years ago in western Asia, and 6,000 years ago in Mesoamerica, humans began to switch to agriculture as a way of life. This meant sedentary populations and changing ideas about the relationship between humans and land. In fertile areas, populations grew. Agriculture represented a new height of efficiency in terms of sustaining the most humans with the smallest outlay of human attention. The societies that used agriculture began to stratify: where before, one person’s-worth of attention was more-or-less required to support one person, now the society as a whole had enough excess materiel that some people could devote themselves full time to things that seem to have no visible effect, or which were ceremonial rather than functional, or which were focused on the organization and well-being of people within the community as opposed to acquiring things from outside it. Since 12,000 years ago in western Asia and 6,000 years ago in Mesoamerica, most people have probably not, strictly speaking, been required. I think about this a lot. I used to have a kind of haughty conceit that it was only in modern times that we have been able to feed all living people, and that in prior times people may have starved because humanity-as-a-whole wasn’t able to provide. I no longer think this is the case in most instances in history. I think the steady state of humanity, for about 12,000 years, is that many people get fed, and more people could’ve gotten fed but didn’t, and the world trundles on. This is important, because it means that when we think of something that will significantly improve the situation, we can either spend our lives trying it out, or we can refer back to the last time it was tried to understand what the challenges are[1].

We have identified two modes of human life: hunter-gatherer and agrarian. These modes help to define a spectrum which more-or-less has a place for every human society that has ever existed. For the last 12,000 years, the efficiency of the agrarian-leaning modes, and our success at saving knowledge intergenerationally, have made them the dominant modes on earth, with the knock-on effect that, since agrarian societies have bigger populations, we probably have more people than can be feasibly sustained in hunter-gatherer modes.

So when we think about the corpus of history, science, and technology—the collection of facts and instructions and stories and principles that make up those subjects—those collections are the do-over notes of humanity since our beginning. For 12,000 years of living in groups organized similarly to how human groups are organized now, from one generation to another—the past 300 years or so not excluded—we have been doing the same thing. Not making progress. Progress would imply something we’re moving toward, but there has never been any goal, officially, except that we try to cater to the needs and comfort of the currently-living. Instead of one story that started 12,000 years ago and is still continuing, we have billions of human-lifetime stories, any of which might have scrawled something in the big log-book we call the world. The human-lifetime stories are not the story of the world. The collection of all of them is not the story of the world. Their endings are not the end of the world. The world is the thing that continues.

  1. It is also important to remember that people-getting-fed is a timeless issue, because a lot of organizations that control a lot of wealth today kinda try to weasel out of the question of “why, if your organization has been around for 2-4,000 years, is this problem not solved yet?” If they say, “because for 1900 years the technology wasn’t there.”—that’s bullshit. In richness or in poverty, humanity has never produced, or seen in nature, a lasting example of a society that produced harmony among its people and between its people and the non-human environment. There’s no way to prove that that goal is achievable, given human emotional limitations. ↩︎