Things take time. Other than the big bang, which for some inexplicable reason created an expanding universe out of a near infinite mass of matter contained in a tiny area of space. That was very very quick. Everything else takes time.
We as a species are beginning to stumble from one disaster to another at a quickening pace. For billions of years, not much happened. Then things started to pick-up a bit of speed. It wasn’t much speed, but it was a lot faster than the pace in the previous billion or so years. This continued along for hundreds of millions of years with only slightly more than nothing happening. There was another increase in the speed of change, still slow by big bang standards, but it was faster. This incremental pace of increases continued along for hundreds of millions and probably billions of years.
Not everything went at this snail’s pace. There were moments of dramatic action followed by slightly longer periods of time when the planet would experiences the physical consequences to that moment before things slowed right down again. These moments are more or less completely made-up of the times when large objects that had been travelling through space crashed into the earth. Like that time when a massive asteroid / early planet joined the earth with such force that the resulting debris eventually all coalesced to form the moon. Or that other time when an asteroid slammed into the water just off the coast of what is now Mexico and the ensuing chaos killed 98% of the land dwelling creatures – basically all of the ones that were not able to take shelter a few inches below the surface. The consequences from this one took a lot less time to materialize than the moon maker; estimates range from less than 6 hours to a couple of years.
Then effectively nothing for an unimaginably long time.
Except this time was a little different. The culling of most surface life created a space for a different type of animal (or classification) to get an opportunity to live without too many predators. This classification was the warm blood, live birth giving creates that are collectively known as mammals. Some of the most famous animals that are not dinosaurs fall into this category – panda bears, the cute as anything kola bears, sloths, wild dogs, wild cats, and human beings. It took a while for each one of these species to come to be but what is important is that it happened. The land was safe enough for early mammals to live, breed, and naturally select or mutate a high level of diversity into this class of beings. Sometime between 50 thousand and half a millions years ago homo-sapiens came into existence. This was the beginning of something entirely new, a species of life that would eventually develop the capability to manufacture natural disasters and other slow moving events that that nature used to have a monopoly on causing.
I’m not going to suggest that human beings are great, because we are kind of flawed in very fundamental ways, but we appear to be the first species to ever exist on the planet that is able to engage in complex interactions with other members of the species, and of considering abstract ideas and stuff that doesn’t exist. There is reason to believe that many other species are capable of at least rudimentary abstraction, but none of them have the capacity to communicate these ideas to others nor do they have the ability to look at what is going on at one moment and figure out what will happen in the next, at least not to any substantial degree. Some can learn through observation and understand concepts like fairness and reciprocity, many more are capable of the abstraction that is object permanence, and all of them are incapable of communicating these things to other members of the species – all learning was the result of direct observation or direct experience.
Welcome to the beginning of the end, thank you for coming!
In fairness to early man, they were practically useless. Sure they had an advanced brain that ran much of the same programming of the mammal species that came before it and it functioned in effectively the same way (neurons that alter their electrical charge slightly to be “on” vs “off” and collections of them interacting to form neural networks to respond to and make things happen), but out of the box, there wasn’t much more to this version than the one that came before it, but there was potential. The newer version had a huge capacity for storage and the capability to process more information faster, and in a way that was new. This brain was also coded to grow a larger prefrontal cortex than any that came before, although it was programmed to do most of this growth beginning around the time puberty.
This late growth stage is an argument against intelligent design. No one with a fully developed and functioning prefrontal cortex could miss the inherent problems with having one part of the brain lag 15 years behind the rest of it. This will not go as well as having a brain that grows at the same pace.
It’s also an occurrence that supports the theory of evolution that a new species will arise from what came before. Whatever mutation triggered the brain to grow an exceptionally large prefrontal cortex also coded for it to grow later in life. Take what is already there, let it run its course, and when it’s done, start growing the new stuff.
This of course changes nothing about the eventual outcome of having human beings evolve into existence. These consequence will take time but the moment the genetic code mutated to program for a human brain, the count down was started.
The problem has to do with the human ability to learn quickly and without having to observe or directly experience something. Consider wild dogs for comparison and contrast. When they are born, their genetic code contains instructions that will ensure that the reward centers of their brains will release reward chemicals in response to particular things. If these things never happen, the animal will never become conditioned to take particular action. Their motivation will be fueled only by punishment and thus be exclusively avoidant. However, if the animal happens to experience one of the things for which the reward chemicals will get released, their future will immediately transform to include repeating the experience. Through this mechanism, wild pack dogs can learn a number of things and act in very specific ways that can very easily be mistakenly to be group behaviours that were communicated. Wolf packs can track down prey and perform some highly coordinated attacks including flanking maneuvers by pack members that are invisible to the rest of the pack. But all of it is simply the result of gene expression and behaviour shaping based on reinforcement. It is fantastic, but all of it was determined by the millions of years of life that led to the emergence of the wolf species.
Human beings are not like that. Well, they are not JUST like that. Gene expression and behaviour shaping through reward and punishment are at work within each one of us, but we also have the ability for abstract thought and remarkably robust communication abilities. The addition of these later two means that we are capable of out of context learning merely by hearing them. E.g. we learn many things at school that we later apply to work and the day to day living of adult life. Factor into this the ability to learn fantastic amounts of information and to then work with and reprocess this information and the floodgates to knowledge and wisdom swing wide open.
It might be important to consider the fact that very little advanced knowledge exists in isolation – advanced ideas build upon less advanced ideas, which were themselves built upon less advanced ideas. When we figure a fact out, it gives our species a big hand in accumulating knowledge. As the collection of knowledge grows to include more advanced concepts, we have the ability to fill-in the gaps or the missing steps in our knowledge. For example, if we teach someone fact A and then teach them fact B and then just to fact G, the human brain will be able to make a guess about steps C, D, E and F and will be able to manufacture compatible and congruent knowledge based on knowing the starting point and knowing the ending point.
That wasn’t a big deal for early man, which we accept as being mostly clueless. But it didn’t take very long before they began to develop technology that was based on this progressive model of knowledge organization. Shelters, fires, weapons, tools, tribes, leaders, education, division of labour, hunting, gathering, farming, domestication of animals, specialization of labour, government, schools, etc…. While not necessarily in chronological order, each one of these technological advancements / discoveries had the effect of improving production and security and of reducing the need to teach young people EVERY lesson that came before. If you work on a farm, what is important is that someone knows how to hunt well enough so that you don’t have to know how to hunt and that you know how to farm well enough so that they don’t have to know. This will free-up a lot of energy to learn or discover more about farming or hunting. When the first working animals were domesticated, farmers no longer needed to know how to plow the fields by hand, they just needed to know how to connect the animal to the plow and how to walk it in a straight line while it drags it. Learning how to do this, however, also meant that you could easily figure-out how to do it by hand by reverse engineering the process.
The rate of change began to accelerate. Sure, it took a very long time for the first pieces of homo-sapien discovered technology to surface, but as soon as they did, they could be shared. This gave the technology staying power and it allowed other human beings to improve upon it. Things advanced slightly and slowly, but within a couple of generations, early man was capable of doing things that pre-man had no concept of. Give it a few hundred generations and what the people consider to be common knowledge would have seemed like magic to early man.
This is the point at which the fate of the species and possibly the planet was sealed. We began to assimilate ever increasing amounts of the physical environment into the collection of matter that is implicated into the life of humanity. Whereas early man would eat animal and plant life in order to convert it into energy and building material, use other plants to build and heat shelters, and use other various materials to form primitive tools, tens of thousands of years later we had developed the ability to build complex tools and machines out of molecules that were themselves processed into usable form by other complex tools and technologies. Sand was turned into glass, iron ore was processed into the iron, the stored energy of the sun was harnessed through the use of mills on rivers and dams, the movement of electrons that is triggered when a magnetic field moves across a copper wire becomes electricity, etc….
A lot of these things were just novel ways to use or take advantage of what had always existed, many were just an industrial scale increase in the assimilation of existing things, but some of the technology caused the formation of completely new combinations of molecules that had never existed in nature before. These useful yet Frankenstein creations and the increase in availability of the preexisting ones are problematic for a similar reason. Life evolved in the presence and concentration of the preexisting elements and compounds meaning anything that is alive either used the molecules or was unharmed by them. Changing the availability of them, and adding new ones, can interfere with the normal biological functioning.
The industrial revolution lead to the creation of the chemical industry and from that moment on, there was a no holds bar assault on the environment. The levels of everything increased, and creatures that had never been exposed to particular chemicals began to assimilate them into their bodies. These chemicals then began to change how cells function.
Some of these changes were health promoting – various medicines, vitamins, and nutritional compounds supply something that predictably alters physiological functioning in the direction of better. Some of them helpful because of the very specific way in which they are incompatible with life – antibiotics, cancer drugs. But many of them have effects on life that are neither helpful nor compatible with the ongoing flourishment of human kind – PVC and asbestos cause cancer, while bacteria adapt to become resistant to antibiotics.
This brings us to where we find ourselves today. The slow change over billions of years has been transformed by human technology into a lightening pace of change. The carbon that has been locked and stored in various places in being released at an ever growing rate as we our technologies break apart the molecules to release the stored energy. The energy is useful, the resulting molecules is less so. It is a matter of scale here. Seasonal fires used to trigger the release of large amount of CO2, but the fires would go out and the land would quickly begin to recapture the carbon as the forest started to regrow. Over millions of years, a balance had been struck that effectively negated any of the positive or negative consequences of releasing this stored carbon. Human beings and the technology they have created since the beginning of the industrial revolution has eliminate the seasonal aspect of release and recapture, replacing it with constant release and a decreasing partial recapturing.
We have entered a no man’s land of chemical diversity and availability. Plastic is everywhere. Carbon dioxide levels are higher than they have been in a very long time and have increased at a rate that is faster than any time in the past except for the moments of impact with asteroids or volcanic explosions.
This is where the mutation that caused the human brain to come into existence is no longer something that is improving our chances of surviving. Specifically, the ability to think in abstract terms, to learn through listening vs. direct experience or the observation of real experience, and to build upon existing knowledge in ever more complex ways, means that we have no experience and little awareness with the consequences of our technology. Unlike the dinosaur killing asteroid which was a near instant released of 1.3 – 58 yottajoules of energy into the environment, the rate of human caused energy release is much slower. This slow burn delays the impact and consequences from less than a few hours to years, decades or even generations, which is the exact recipe for imperceivable and denial. For example, an earth quake, forest fire, or volcano will reveal consequences almost immediately or within days, the effects of moderate radiation or moderate toxic chemical exposures can take twenty years or more for come to pass. This causes humans to make the incorrect assumption that these technologies are only acute harmful in high doses given the quick onset and death in these circumstance. Smoking was harmless until the 1950’s when doctors began to notice a big increase in cancer deaths, particular lung cancer, and other respiratory diseases. Those who were getting sick had been smoking for decades so the temporal relationship between cause and effect was too wide for most people to perceive the existence of a relationship at all. Nonetheless, there is a strong link between smoking and disease, and there is a correlation between the amount of exposure, both in terms of concentration and duration, and negative health outcomes.
There are worse things for humanity than global warming. Not to trivialize the direct impact on millions of people so far, and the billions of people who will be impacted by rising sea levels, but there will be enough well above sea level land that those effected will be able to move. It will suck and it will be expensive, but they will still be alive and healthy. Although by the time it happens, there may not be a lot of people left to be impacted.
Pollution is a bigger problem. Antibiotic resistance is a bigger problem. Bad ideas about differences between groups of people is a bigger problem. A lack of diversity in terms of crops and livestock farming is a bigger problem. Obesity is a bigger problem. The fact that very few people know how to make any of the things that we use is a bigger problem. Our collective ignorance about how exactly we got here is a bigger problem.
And yet, very few people are talking about these things because they are too busy talking about the latest stupid tweet, reality tv show, fashion trend, or the absolute vileness of anyone who doesn’t agree with them. We are talking about what doesn’t matter because it feels more real than the things that do matter. We’ll wear our ignorance like a badge of honour instead of it triggering shame and motivating us to learn something.
There’s a slow-motion car crash happening but we’re not noticing it. We only see the shiny, new, and the fast moving. None of us have seen an extinction level event first hand and since the last one created the clearing that allowed human beings to evolve into existence, we have nothing to fear, especially given that we are the ones steering the car.