During the holidays, I had the opportunity to see a really interesting documentary on the story of the earth. Not only did it put things into perspective, it fits rather nicely with some other articles I have written on time. The documentary covered the beginnings of the universe (14billion years) and earth 4-5 billion years ago, all the way to the industrial revolutions (200 years ago). Ok I know you may not understand how you can come up with such a number. You may even question whether it is possible to know exactly how old the Universe really is? But for the lack of a better number or theory I’m willing to go along with the accepted methods from the scientific community. So without getting into the details of the documentary, here is the interesting part. When we talk about billions of years, it is difficult for us to imagine what that looks like. The scale is so large that, without a reference point, we can really make sense of the number. So instead of talking about 14 billion years they converted the scale to a more relevant 14 years, (the average life time of a dog). When we present the information in this way we can now understand the timeframe and relate to it. So if the universe was born 14 years ago then:
– The earth was created 5 years ago; this means that 2/3 of time, as we know it occurred before the earth even existed.
– Complex organisms came into being 7 months ago – (4.17%)
– Dinosaurs were extinguished 3 weeks ago
– The first humans came to be 6 mins ago (0.000 0815%)
– The industrial revolution occurred 3 secs ago. (0.000 000 68% that’s right six zero behind the decimal point)
So as you can see, we humans have existed but a mere 6 mins in a 14-year time frame, and we only can into existence after 99.9999185% of known time has already elapsed. So I guess it’s fair to say we are at the mere beginning of our existence and we should be careful we don’t screw up the world for future generations. We are the only species to have wandered and settled everywhere on earth. But what is most interesting is that each innovation in our evolution has allowed the next step in our evolution.
For example it is estimated that we started to walk on two legs about 6 million years ago. This came about because of a change in the earth’s climate. At the time we lived in forests but climate change forced us to leave the forest for the plains of grass. Since you would be in an advantage if you wandered the plains of grass and could see ahead, we started standing and then walking on two legs and cashed in our advantage over our four legged cousins. So what? you may say! It is exactly this kind of change that enabled us to evolve into what we are today because by walking on our hind legs we freed up our hands. and with our hands we learned how to make things. I would also venture to guess that it is this kind of creative activities, making things, which also spurred the development of our modern brains and also distinguishes us from animals. However at this time in evolution things still move relatively slowly, it still took another 4 million years for us two evolve to Stone Age people. That may seem like a long time but as we have seen it is all relative.
Now that man has learned how to fashion tools, we are different from other mammals, we are using our brains to use create things from our environment that give us an advantage. We make things like clothes to protect us from the cold, fashion weapons out of stones, containers to carry water etc. Our ancestors are hunters and gatherers, with the men hunting in small groups and the women taking care of the dwelling, most probably a cave, and picking fruits in the forest. Then one day someone hits two rocks together and creates a spark. Having seen first hand what lightning does to a tree, he gets this brilliant idea and quickly finds some dry leaves and kindle, and he starts striking the two stones and suddenly smokes starts to rise. From that moment on, roughly 800 thousand years ago, we mastered fire.
Fire is awesome! It keeps our ancestors warm and allows them to take in more energy by consuming cooked foods. Before we could only make things out of wood or stone, with fire we start to use clay to make all kind of things. Fire also opens the way for making use of metals, and latter on oil. Fire also brings us closer as people and about 200 thousand years ago our ancestors emerge as modern man. Living in what is considered to be the first societies. They have mastered speech and language, and can now transfer and share knowledge.
Without fire I would not be here today writing this story, as man we not have survived the ice age in the same way. Because it is estimated that about 100 thousand years ago we started wandering the earth as species and the last great ice age came 65 thousand years ago. And although it is believed that is was the ice age (and therefore the sinking sea levels that exposed the bearing straight land bridge) that allowed people to cross from Asia into North America, how could they have survived without fire? The ice age, interestingly enough, also contributes to creating the conditions for our world today. It does so by leaving behind a system of rivers, the Yangtze, the Yellow river, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Tigris etc. where people would settle and the population would later dramatically increase.
12 thousand years ago people make the next big step in our evolution; the start of humans mastering crops. Where as until now our forefathers were counting on hunting to feed themselves, they now learn to domesticate animals and start planting crops. This opens the door for a population explosion. You see a hunter needs roughly 15 square kilometers to sustainably feed his family, as a farmer he only needs 1.5square kilometers, or 10 times less. This big gain in productivity was not immediately translated in a population explosion is just made it possible. Another ingredient was necessary, trade. With the domestication of animals, man now had found a new means of transportation, donkeys, horses and camels. These animals enabled the first long distance freight transportation; and as people settled along the navigable rivers left behind by the ice age, goods could now be moved without too much human effort. Farmers, now capable of producing more food than they could consume, could sell their extra production in exchange for other types of foods or goods. Then people in the settlements along the rivers became the first merchants and wholesalers.
But farming, even with the help of animals to pull the plough, is hard physical work. So necessity, being the mother of invention, spurred man to discover the wheel about 6 thousand years ago. I don’t think I need to explain what kind of and impact the wheel had on our evolution. I think it is fair to say that the wheel is what enabled all machines and itself was a revolution in energy use. With the wheel started his journey to liberate himself of manual effort. This is also the time when the first civilizations start to emerge, the Sumerians, Egyptians and Chinese.
About 1500 years ago we enter the Iron Age. We now master the art of metallurgy and although we could make all kinds of things out of metal, we concentrate on weapons. This is also the era when the world’s religions and Emporiums are born. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all rooted here. They would emerge individually as religions latter, Christianity 300 A.D., Islam 600 A.D. With the invention of gun powder, 800 A.D. in china, came the next step in our evolution. By mixing different elements we created an unnatural substance with tremendous energy potential; chemistry was born. And although we used this new technology primarily to kill one another, it would later serve as the basis for modern medicine and pharmaceutical products.
500 years ago Christopher Columbus reunited the human species. By discovering America, he reunited our lost cousins that had wandered over the bearing straight during the ice age after 15 thousand years. Unfortunately for them Columbus also brought with him countless diseases that the natives had never been exposed too and together with the bullets of the conquistadors nearly wiped them out! Nevertheless the planet is now one. We have by now mastered the seas and with reached every corners of the earth. There are now an estimated 400 million people on earth, and in just 300 more years we will have more than doubled that number and reach a population of over 900 million people. Just when we start to stretch the productivity gains afforded by the farming revolution, the steam engine is invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen. Ironically the engine was developed to help pump water from underground coalmines. I guess Newcomen did not think at the time that his invention would be just the kind of thing that would drive up demand for the very same product he was trying to extract. The steam engine opened the way for the next big step in our evolution. Up until now the energy needed to survive consisted of 70% human muscle effort and 30% animal (not to talk about before the domestication of animals when it was 100% human muscle effort). With the steam engine we got a huge boast in productivity. By getting machines to do our work we freed up time for other things, just like when we freed up our hands 6 million years ago, this is another similar event. With more time on our hands we can think up new machines and make things faster and cheaper, the creativity of man is suddenly released. It now takes only less than 200 years the see the next big step in evolution, the “Otto” motor, the telegraph, electricity and ultimately the telephone. We are now in 1900 and roughly 1.6 billion people roam the earth.
I guess there is no real need to get into the last century, as you are probably well aware it’s development. So to conclude I have put together this little table to shows you the time between the milestones in our evolution.
It is quite plain to see that the rate of evolution has exponentially increased over time. Many predict the coming of a synchronicity event in the near future that will again create a huge boast in productivity. When machine outsmart people and robotics open up new possibilities. Who knows what the future hold, one thing is for sure, we are living in the most exciting time in our history. The evolutionary steps that before took millions or thousands of years now only take decades. Change is truly all-round us these days, there is no sense in resisting, let’s just go along with the flow and embrace it when it comes our way.
Written by Francis Lambert, Zabok January 5th 2012