Friday, June 25, 2010

The Experience of our Species – Part I

Ever marvel at the things we humans can do, or the crazy inventions we come up with? Well, I do, and I feel like sharing that wonder with you.

PART I: HOW WE GOT HERE

I’ve been thinking of writing about this for some time now, but have hesitated because it’s not in my typical complaining style. However, I converse with others about it enough, and the thought enters my mind so frequently, that I’ll just have to sit down and commit it to a medium. What is that thought? “I love to be alive today, in this day and age.” What I’ve got to say may not be anything new or exciting to many of you, but it is my opinion, and I want to share. This is quite a large subject I think, so I’ve decided to split it up into segments, so keep an eye out for more soon.

arrowheadSo, “HOW WE GOT HERE”… By this, I am not referring to the Big Bang, “in the beginning…”, or any other origin story floating around out there. Instead, I’m talking about what has happened since, and the process by which we’ve made the world we now know and (sometimes) love. Forget about the Origin of Species or the Great Flood, and think back on the time when we as a human race started making things - when the first stick was used to pick up a measly few ants to eat, or the first stone was hurled at some wild game. Once we got started taking all these little things and making our lives better and easier than they were before, we never stopped. Well, maybe we took a few steps back here and there, but otherwise, our species has been on an upward trend in terms of improving quality of life.

Despite what it might sound like right now, I’m really not a history buff. Rather, I’m very much into science and the invention that comes with it. With that said, I’m not looking up the facts on dates and eras and personal credit, unless I think it’s due or I’m really just too lost to give credible info. If you find any points to nitpick, by all means do so, but try and keep that much in mind.

Back to the Stone Age, or Bronze Age, or Iron Age, or whatever age you decide you want to consider, consider this: all of these eras have been labeled and identified by the tools we were using at the time. That’s not just a coincidence; the point of that is our tools and inventions throughout history have defined who we are and how far we had come at each leg of the race. More importantly, each epoch was built on the one before it. Before we could smelt metal alloys that were actually useful, we had to first learn to do it with pure (more or less) base metals. Before we could have colored robes, we had to first understand how to make the robes and how to make the dyes. The expansion goes on and on, and continues still today. But beyond pure and simple tool invention, there are other things that must be brought up. For example, language, culture, health, math, science and more. Without these potentially non-material creations, the advancement of us as a people would have been severely stymied.

memorial One might say however, that the invention of language may actually be holding us back, since so many languages exist, most people of the world cannot converse with most other people. On the contrary however, this has actually led to further intellectual development and has done so in a number of ways. First, with the physical divergence of different groups of peoples, and subsequently the divergence of language, culture, and technology in many cases, these groups isolated themselves from their ancestral communities. Splits like this lead to more specialized invention, which when brought back to the original group – or any other – could be merged with and improved upon by new people. Take any culture that has remarkable differences in architecture, for example. If you see a building – or a feature of which – recognizable as being from a certain part of the world, such as Greek columns, but out of context, such as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., this case is proven.

Language also has helped rather than hindered by actually making it more difficult to communicate. As a group, we have learned to expand our own languages, grammars, lexicons to be able to work with those that do not speak our language. This means standardization, and non-standard/non-spoken forms of communication. Any challenge or obstacle that has been successfully overcome in this way creates an advantage that may not have previously been present. For an individual, this is even more true, because it works directly on the brain of someone doing the direct learning, who in turn can then pass that information down to another (or many) more easily - and like this, the knowledge spreads.

So as this process continues on and on, the facility to do more increases. Each generation of the world has the knowledge and experience of each and every prior generation to build on and to expand with. Hence, you can read this silly blog on your silly <device> in your silly <location> (apply your own experience here). Would I say that the first inventor of the wheel has led to this? Are they responsible for everything you see around you? Absolutely they are. You have your ancestors to thank, and everyone else’s too, for everything you have and know, for better or worse. Even in many cases what you actually do is influenced by the past.

mushrooms Think about this: when you eat a pizza with pepperoni and mushrooms on it, how do you suppose that got there? How did anyone ever figure out how to make bread, use yeast, put something in an oven to cook it? How did anyone ever learn to convert milk to cheese, and then who thought to put it on pizza? Who first thought to mash up a bunch of tomatoes and mix it with other ingredients to make everything taste better? Who thought first to grind up an animal and stick it in a tube with seasonings to be eaten later? Better yet, how many people of the past died eating various plants, finding out only too late that they were unsafe to eat? Taking that last point specifically, if nobody had ever eaten any kind of fungus before, you wouldn’t be now. Or if you did, you’d unknowingly run the risk of death. At least now we can know not to eat certain types for our safety, we can eat certain types as food, and we can eat certain types for pure entertainment.

There are eons of specifics to cover, but that’s enough for a book on the subject. For now, I’ll assume you get the gist of it and don’t need me to cit additional examples. In part two, we’ll discuss in a little more detail some of what I think are the most exciting of today’s developments. Then, in part three, more about what the future may have in store for us. I can’t wait!

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