Breakthroughs in imagination

When thinking about human history, it’s tempting to see some developments as inevitable.  Some certainly were, but the sheer amount of time before some of them took place seem to make them remarkable.

The human species, narrowly defined as Homo sapiens, is about 200,000 years old.  Some argue that it’s older, around 300,000 years, others that full anatomical modernity didn’t arrive in total until 100,000 years ago.  Whichever definition and time frame we go with, the human species has been around far longer than civilization, spending well more than 90% of its existence in small hunter-gatherer tribes.  (If we broaden the definition of “humanity” to the overall Homo genus, then we’ve spent well over 99% of our history in that mode.)

For tens of thousands of years, no one really seemed to imagine the idea of a settled, sedentary lifestyle, until around 10,000-12,000 years ago in the Middle East.  I’ve often wondered what those first settlers were thinking.  Did they have any idea of the world changing significance of what they were doing?  More than likely, they were solving their own immediate problems and judged the solutions by the immediate payoff.

The earliest sedentary, or semi-sedentary culture appears to have been a group we now call the Natufians.  Living on the east coast of the Mediterranean in what is now Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, they were in a nexus of animal migrations and, in their time, a lush environment.  Life for them was relatively good.  They appear to have gotten a sedentary lifestyle effectively for free, in other words, without having to farm for it.

Then the climate started to change, an event called the Younger Dryas cooled the world for a brief period (brief in geological time, over a millenia in human time), but it was long enough to endanger the easy lifestyles the Natufians had probably become used to.  After centuries or millenia of living in a sedentary environment, they likely had little or no knowledge of how to live the way their ancestors had.

Victims of circumstance, they were forced to innovate, and agriculture emerged.  Maybe.  This is only one possible scenario, but it strikes me as a very plausible one.  The earliest evidence of nascent agriculture reportedly appears in that region in that period.

Early proto-writing from Kish, c. 3500 BC
Image credit: Locutus Borg via Wikipedia

Another development that took a long time was writing.  The oldest settlements arose several thousand years before writing developed.

The traditional view of the development of writing was that it evolved from pictures.  But as Mark Seidenberg points out in his book, Language at the Speed of Sight, picture drawing is far more ancient than writing.  The oldest cave art goes back 40,000 years, but what we call writing only arose about 5000 years ago, in Mesopotamia according to most experts (although some Egyptologists insist the Egyptian system came first).

It appears that the mental jump from pictures to symbols representing concepts was not an easy transition.  What caused it?  Seidenberg presents an interesting theory developed by archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat.

Starting around 8000 BC, people in the Middle East started using small clay figures, called “tokens” today, as an accounting tool.  The tokens were simple shapes such as cones, disks, or shell like forms.  A token of a particular shape represented something like a sheep, or an amount of oil, or some other trade commodity.  Pragmatic limitations in producing the tokens kept their shapes simple, instead of being accurate detailed depictions of what they represented.

A number of tokens were placed in sealed clay containers, presumably one for each actual item.  The container was sent along with a trade shipment so the recipient would know they were receiving the correct items in the correct amounts.  In time, in order to know what kinds of tokens were in a particular container, a 2D impression, a picture of the token, was often made on the container, in essence a label indicating which tokens it contained.

It then gradually dawned on people that they could get by with just the labels, with the token shape and some indicator of quantity.  No container or actual physical tokens required.  According to the theory, written symbolic representation of concepts had arrived.

The earliest proto-writing systems were a mixture of symbols and pictures.  Over time, the picture portions did evolve into symbols, but only after the conceptual breakthrough of the symbols had already happened.

The early Bronze Age writing systems  were difficult, requiring considerable skill to write or read.  Reading and writing was effectively a specialty skill, requiring a class of scribes to do the writing and later reading of messages and accounts.  It took additional millenia for the idea of an alphabet, with a symbol for each language sound, to take hold.

The earliest known alphabet was the Proto-Sinaitic script found in the Sinai peninsula dating to sometime around 1800-1500 BC.  It appears to have been the precursor to the later Canaanite script, which itself was a precursor to the Phoenician and Hebrew alphabets that arose around 1100-1000 BC.  The Phoenicians were sea traders and spread their alphabet around the Mediterranean.  The Greeks would adapt the Phoenician alphabet, add vowels to it (a necessity driven by the fact that Greek was a multi-syllable language, as opposed to the Semitic languages, which were dominated by monosyllable words), and then use it to produce classical Greek civilization.

The development of these alphabets would lead to a relative explosion in ancient literature.  This is why studying Bronze Age societies (3300-1200 BC) is primarily an exercise in archaeology, but studying the later classical ages of Greece and Rome is primarily about studying historical narratives, supplemented by archaeology.

Why did so much of this take place in the Middle East?  Probably because, for thousands of years, the Middle East lay at the center of the world, a nexus of trading paths and ideas.  It seems entirely possible to me that some of these breakthroughs happened in other lands, but that we first find archaeological evidence for them in the Middle East because they were imported there.  The Middle East only lost this central role in the last 500 or so years, a result of the European Age of Exploration and the moving of world trade to the seas.

So, are there any new ideas, any new basic breakthroughs on the scale of agriculture or writing that are waiting for us, that we simply haven’t conceived of yet?  On the one hand, you could argue that the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, along with the rise of the internet in the last couple of decades, and the dramatically increased collaboration they bring in, have ensured that the low hanging fruit has been picked.

On the other hand, you could also argue that all of these systems are built using our existing paradigms, paradigms that are so ingrained in our cognition that they simply may not point to breakthroughs waiting to happen.  We don’t know what we don’t know.

It’s worth noting that the execution of agriculture and writing are not simple things.  Most of us, if dropped unto an ancient farm, despite the techniques being much simpler than modern farming, would have no idea where to even begin.  Or know how to construct an appropriate alphabet for whatever language was in use at the time.  (Seidenberg points out that not all alphabets are useful for all languages.  The Latin alphabet this post is written may be awkward for ancient Sumerian or Egyptian.)

It may be that the idea of farming or writing did occur to people in the paleolithic, but they simply had no conception of how to make it happen.  In this view, these seeming breakthroughs are really the result of incremental improvements, none of which individually were that profound, that eventually added up to something that was profound.  Consider again the two theories above on how farming and writing came about.  Both seem more plausible than one lone genius developing them out of nothing, primarily because they describe incremental improvements that eventually add up to a major development.

Ideas are important.  They are crucial.  But alone, without competence, without the underlying pragmatic knowledge, they are impotent.  On the other hand, steady improvements in competence often cause us to stumble on profound ideas.  I think that’s an important idea.

Unless of course, I’m missing something?

The problems with ensuring humanity’s survival with space colonies

Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cu...
Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stephen Hawking, as he has done before, expresses a common sentiment, that we need to colonize space in order to survive.

Humans should go and live in space within the next 1,000 years, or it will die out, Stephen Hawking has warned.

“We must continue to go into space for the future of humanity,” Mr Hawking said. “I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.”

…In February, he said that humans should colonise other planets as “life insurance” for the species, and could be the only way of ensuring that humanity lives on.

My first reaction to this is that if we’re looking for space colonies to ensure the survival of the human race, we have a long way to go.  It seems to me that the first goal is simply to create a successful viable long term closed ecological system that can support humans.  As I understand it, every experiment attempting to do this so far has failed.  I think we need to succeed pretty strongly at that before attempting to do it in habitats millions of miles away, like on Mars.  Until we do, any space colony is going to be crucially dependent on a thin and fragile lifeline from Earth’s biosphere.

It’s also worth noting that, once we can create a closed ecological system, we might be better off creating colonies here on Earth.  A closed hardened underground habitat would be a lot easier to build and maintain and would probably do just as much to ensure humanity’s survival.

Anyone who thinks doing off world colonies is a substitute for fixing our environmental and social problems doesn’t understand the obstacles involved in any foreseeable colony.  Mars, the best candidate right now, is cold and desolate in a way that makes Antarctica look like The Garden of Eden.  Add no oxygen, very low air pressure, and we have an environment that humans can’t exist in without spacesuits.  Add radiation exposure from Mar’s lack of a magnetic field, that would force humans to stay underground most of the time, and the idea of consigning humans to live there for the rest of their lives starts to look a bit sadistic.

(None of this is to say that I think we shouldn’t have researchers and scientists on Mars, just as we currently do in Antarctica.  But no one is really tempted to colonize Antarctica.)

Looking at the longer term, people talk about things like terraforming.   But I strongly suspect that, by the time we have the technology and power to actually have a chance at terraforming an environment, we’re going to find that it’s a lot cheaper and easier to modify ourselves for the environment rather than the environment for us.  We will likely colonize other worlds, but doing so will probably force us to give up the evolved forms that are fine tuned for Earth’s biosphere and location.

At the end of the lecture, Hawking encouraged his audience to “look at up at the stars and not down at your feet”.

I’ve written before about the immense difficulties in any foreseeable interstellar travel.  In short, FTL (faster than light) travel, a common plot device in science fiction, would most likely require a new physics.  But before you let that bother you, consider that even getting to an appreciable percentage of the speed of light will require appalling amounts of energy.  (Think in terms of fuel equivalent to the mass of a planet possibly being necessary to accelerate a decent sized manned ship to, say, 10% of the speed of light.)

Our most likely path to the stars will be microscopic probes, with enough intelligence to bootstrap an infrastructure at the destination solar system using local resources, and to transmit their findings back to us.  It’s hard to see human interstellar travel being anything but the most extravagant of vanity projects, unless mind uploading of some type or another becomes possible.

Stephen Hawking has repeatedly warned of the danger that humanity finds itself in, as a result of the rise of artificial intelligence and the dangers of human aggression and barbarity.

I’ve written repeatedly about why I think the dangers of AI, although real to some degree, are vastly overblown.  I won’t reopen that debate here.  The only thing I’ll point out is that if AIs are a danger on Earth, they’d also be a danger in a space colony, or anywhere else we’d go and be tempted to use them.

On the dangers of human aggression and barbarity, if we did solve the problems of closed ecosystems and had colonies around the solar system, and humanity reached a point where it destroyed Earth’s biosphere in a war, it’s not clear to me why such a war would stop there.  It’s extremely difficult to protect yourself from a space based attack.  The attacker can always go further out to accelerate an asteroid or something similar at you, allowing kinetic energy to wrought destruction.  Space colonies might slightly increase the probability that humanity survives such a war, but not nearly as much as people like to think.

None of this is to say that I think humans shouldn’t colonize space, in the long term.  But thinking that we are doing it to preserve the species is misguided, except in the very broadest of terms and time scales.  (Think human intelligence, in one form or another, surviving the evolution and eventual death of the Sun.)

In the mean time, our best chance of survival, it seems to me, is to address the real issues we have here, because we’re a lot more likely to destroy ourselves than to have nature do it to us.  The threats of nuclear war or terrorism, global warming, biological warfare, or overall overpopulation, worry me a lot more than a species ending asteroid strike or other mass extinction event, which only happens once every 50-100 million years.  (Not that we shouldn’t do what we can to protect against asteroid strikes.  Even one that doesn’t endanger the whole world can cause a lot of devastation.)

I think the best way to protect against the threats of us destroying ourselves, indeed the only way over the long term, is to give as much of humanity as possible a stake in the success of human civilization.  This involves fighting poverty worldwide, and promoting women’s rights, which will help with the population problem, which in turn helps with just about every other problem.

If we really want to maximize humanity’s long term survivability, that’s where we should start.  The good news is that, when viewed through the broad sweep of history, things are moving in the right direction.  The only question is whether that movement will be fast enough.

Are you alone? (In the universe)

This a cool video on what we are and where we came from.  We are, each of us, a temporary intersection of matter and energy that is part of the overall whole of the universe, patterns of elementary particles that have, at least for a while, achieved self awareness.

via Are You Alone? In The Universe – YouTube.

The ages of communication

I think I’ve mentioned before that I only recently came the realization that the scientific revolution was more a matter of increased communication than necessarily a breakthrough in method.  Along the lines of this realization, I have a few thoughts about communication and its effects on human history.

Humans are social animals.  Communication between and among us are a vital aspect of the human condition.  With each major advance in our ability to communicate, progress on the human condition has accelerated.  Each advance, each age of communication, has built on the past advances.

Lascaux II - Diverticule Axial
Lascaux II – Diverticule Axial (Photo credit: Adibu456)

The age of language

The first age of communication began with spoken language.  All intelligent social animals, such as chimpanzees, elephants, or dolphins, have culture to one degree or another, but without language, their cultures are far simpler than anything that happens in human societies.  Language allows us to communicate the state of our minds with each other, to pass along knowledge, and for societies to organize in larger groups than anything seen in other primates or social animals.

When exactly language began is unknown.  Some archaeologists and linguists believe it happened in the relatively recent past around 50,000 years ago or just before the migrations out of Africa, perhaps as a result of some genetic mutation.  These scientists point to the sudden appearance in the archaeological record of evidence of behavioral modernity, including symbolic thought in art and refined tools, and posit that language could have been the reason for the change.

However, most scholars and scientists now believe that language developed gradually over time, starting perhaps with the alarm signals and calls made by many primates.  It now appears that Neanderthals had the required  physiological adaptations for speech, putting the development of such adaptations, and possibly of language, before our evolutionary lines separated hundreds of thousands of years ago.  Although, if we could hear it, we would probably regard the early language of Homo heidelbergensis, the common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, as more proto-language than language itself.

Whenever language did start, it’s an attribute that every human society possesses, no matter how primitive that society.  Along with other cultural universals such as art, religion, music, and cooking, it is a significant attribute that separates us from other animals.  Indeed, it may be necessary for some or all of the other attributes to exist.  There’s no doubt that language has given humans a major evolutionary advantage over other species.

mesopotamia, iraq - sumerian figure
mesopotamia, iraq – sumerian figure (Photo credit: Xuan Che)

The age of writing

The second age of communication began with writing.  The earliest known writing may turn out to be symbols found in paleolithic art dating back tens of thousands of years, although whether or not these early symbols communicate information in the manner usually ascribed to writing remains speculative.

The earliest writing is usually said to be in Mesopotamia during the period from 3500-3100 B.C., although long before true writing appeared, pictograms and numeric notations were in use in both Mesopotamia, Egypt, and other regions.  Indeed, the first writing appears to have been motivated to keep tax records and other mundane tasks.  The first historical or mythological narratives didn’t appear for several centuries afterward.

Writing in these early centuries was difficult, both to do and to learn, with reading and writing usually left to a class of scribes.  Still, writing enabled the formation of the first civilizations, kingdoms, and empires.

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...
Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second age of writing

I think what I’m calling the second age of writing began with the development of the Canaanite and Phonetic alphabet in the later 2nd millennium and early first millennium B.C.  These alphabets probably made reading and writing easier.  The Phoenecia trading expeditions carried the Phonetic alphabet far and wide.  The influence of these alphabets also spread and influenced writing systems throughout the Mediterranean and southern Asia.

It’s probably no coincidence that the centuries after the spread of this alphabet, from roughly 800 B.C. to 300 B.C., became a period that some scholars now refer to as the Axial Age, the period where much of the philosophical and spiritual foundations of modern civilization were established.  Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Greek philosophy, and many other intellectual and spiritual movements began during this time.

History is usually said to have begun with written records around 3000 B.C., but our knowledge of these early times (3000-500 B.C.) is sketchy and often based more on archaeology than on the skimpy historical narratives from then.  The actual field of history begins in the fifth century B.C, with Herodotus and especially Thucydides.  From this period forward, our knowledge of events, at least in literate societies, becomes progressively more detailed.

The Axial Age is a controversial concept, but to whatever extent it was a pivotal age, it was probably due to the spread of writing throughout the ancient world, for the first time enabling the thoughts of prophets, philosophers, and other thinkers to be recorded for the ages.  Many of the most sacred scriptures, and the most influential philosophical treatises, date from this period.

At left in the foreground, a printer removes a...
At left in the foreground, a printer removes a printed page from the press. The printer at right is inking the plate. In the background, compositors are using cast type. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The age of print

Writing enabled the detailed thoughts of previous times to be preserved accurately for future generations.  Scholars of one generation could read the thoughts of scholars of previous generations and build on their ideas.  Progress in human thought could be made.  But reading the work of previous scholars was not easy.  It was often necessary to visit libraries, monasteries, or other centers of learning in order to read that writing.

This was because every manuscript had to be laboriously copied by hand, making manuscripts very expensive and of widely varying accuracy and quality.  The transmission of ideas was slow and uncertain.

Then, in the 15th century, a German blacksmith and goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg invented the most pivotal technology of the second millenium, the printing press.  Suddenly manuscripts could be copied on a mass scale, with greater accuracy, speed, and with far less labor.  The rate at which ideas could be shared, debated, and built upon increased dramatically.

It’s no coincidence that, in the centuries after the printing revolution, the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the European Age of Discovery all took place.  The modern world was forged in the aftermath of the printing revolution.

Internet Splat Map
Internet Splat Map (Photo credit: jurvetson)

The age of the internet

The internet is the culmination of many different technologies, from computing which has roots in the 19th century with Charles Babbage‘s analytical engine, to electronics and both wired and wireless communications.  As a computer nerd in the early 80s, I participated in network services like Compuserve and BBSs (bulletin board systems), but those were isolated toy-like pockets of connectivity compared to the distributed network of networks that is the modern internet.

Those of us old enough to remember the world prior to the internet can see the profound effect it has already had on society, and that it is continuing to have.  The world today is more connected than ever.  The fact that you are reading this blog post, probably within a few hours of it being published, likely in a different region of the world from the author, speaks to the ease and speed of modern communications and collaboration.

As profound as the change has been so far, the history of the previous ages of communication show that this is most likely only the beginning, that we are just laying the foundations of this new age.  What new intellectual movements will be begun as a result of this new medium of communication?  What ancient philosophies will be altered, dispensed with, or enhanced?  How different will humanity be after a couple of centuries in this new age of communication?

Only time will tell.  Our perspective at this point may be far too limited to make any prediction that will be anything but amusing to future generations.

The psychology of your future self

Somewhat related to Zach Weiner’s cartoon on our continuing death, this TED talk looks at how transitory the self actually is.  We seem to have no problem recognizing our transitory our self from ten years ago was, but not how much our current self is.  This has big implications for how we make, or should make, life decisions.