HUMAN LIFE SINCE THE ADVENT OF WRITTEN RECORDS
FROM ABOUT 11:59:49 PM, 31 DECEMBER; ABOUT 999,999.6 METERS UP THE LINE
And so the whole of our recorded experience since record keeping began in Mesopotamia can now be seen in its proper perspective. Everything we have gone through in the last 5,000 years or so is contained within this appallingly brief moment, the last 11 seconds of our metaphorical Universal Year. Everything I discuss in the rest of this book is essentially a description or an analysis of aspects of this moment, or a description of its inhabitants, or an account of the events and broader phenomena that contributed to its characteristic features. Of course, it is important to remember that the majority of the estimated 100,000,000,000 members of the genus Homo that have lived did so (or do so) in this time period, and so it is hardly insignificant when considering the breadth of the human story. The majority of all human experience and human consciousness is therefore to be found here. Certainly, the epic advances of human technology, human learning, human social organization, and overall human numerical growth make this the most significant period, in many ways, in our genus’s history. But it came only after 99.9996% of all that had happened since the Big Bang’s eruption had occurred.
Within this eleven seconds the population of the human community grew from a few tens of millions, perhaps, to more than 7,000,000,000. Within this eleven seconds empires rose and fell in every region of the world. Within this eleven seconds hundreds of major wars and thousands of minor ones raged at various times, in all corners of the world. During this eleven seconds humans went from moving slowly on foot across endless expanses to sending vehicles past the orbits of the most distant planet in the Solar System. In this eleven seconds, humans moved from being the center of the Universe to being a forgotten backwater. In this eleven seconds, whole peoples migrated across the surface of the Earth, whole cultures rose and disappeared, thousands upon thousands of languages were spoken, quadrillions of hours of work were done, tens of billions of people were born and died, thousands of gods and spirits were worshipped, and countless prayers were offered up. Religions rose and fell and spread and evolved and transformed themselves and touched tens of billions of lives. Billions of stories were told, tens of millions of books were written, billions of drawings, sketches, paintings, and carvings were done, treasures were made and lost, and millions upon millions of buildings were raised and then destroyed. Every physical sensation from searing agony to glorious ecstasy was experienced. Every kind of crime and vile sin was committed, and every kind of ordinary good deed lifted someone up. There were oceans of tears wept, and trillions of laughs sounded. There was more grief than there should have been and more suffering than there should have been and more hunger and fear and hatred and cruelty than there ever should have been and more joy than has ever been imagined and more celebrations than anyone can count and more love and love-making than anyone can conceive of. Humans looked out on every imaginable landscape and seascape, and lived their lives wrapped in a mystery they could sense but not necessarily express. In the last 11 seconds, they have attempted all things, transformed entire continents, built ways of life of bewildering complexity, suffered every defeat, won every victory, and lived every kind of life. They have known the day and the Sun, the night and the stars, the wind and the rain—and, for better or worse, each other.
Over the last 11 seconds billions of members of the genus Homo have walked across the stage of the world anonymously, their names forever lost, many of whom—so many—died as children. Most humans have lived the quiet drama of ordinary life in ordinary places and times. On occasion they have been swept up in the tsunami of events about which they understood nothing. As a species, they were on a long journey, headed…where? Despite the narratives of Promised Lands and Nirvanas they devised in their heads, no one really knew for sure. They kept going, ultimately, because…what else could they do? They survived because… they had to. No one knew, really, what, if anything, it all meant or why it had happened at all. But in the last 11 seconds of the cosmic year, the sum total of their actions and words helped build the world we were born into and inherited, and we became the ones who sought to survive because…we had to. The long journey continued. Its ultimate duration and destination? Unknown, and unknowable.
In this section, we have traced the sequence of events that brought about the rise and spread of human consciousness. We have seen that the basic forces of the Universe and the fundamental units of energy-matter came into existence in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, and how these units formed (and still form) the substructure of physical reality. We saw in succession the synthesis of the first elements, the aggregations of simple gases that formed the earliest stars, the nucleosynthesis within stars and supernova events that created the remainder of the elements, the formation of galaxies, the formation of “our” galaxy, the origin and nature of “our” star, the creation of the Earth, the physical processes that drive the Earth’s operations, the origin and evolution of the first simple replicating molecules (possibly preceded by metabolic processes) and then replicating carbon-based molecules, and then, in succession, the origins and evolution of the multitudinous life forms that make up the biological reality that exists in the thin layer that sticks like a film to the outer crust of the Earth. We have seen the development of life in the ocean, then the colonization of the land, and all the intermediate steps (of which we are aware) that led finally to the evolution of the primate line. With the advent of the primates, there now existed an advanced order of animals nimble in both body and mind, its members using the powerful tools of prehensile appendages, vision that allowed a fuller examination of the physical world, and brains more advanced than the reptilians who so often threatened them. And from the primate line we saw the emergence of the primate with the most advanced brain of them all, one capable of conceiving every great, ordinary, and terrible thing, the one that came to dominate the planet’s surface.
It is important for us not to give this sequence the attribute of inevitability. The long unfolding of physical reality from the Big Bang until now did not, by necessity, have to bring forth us. At each stage there was an increase in the possibility that something like human consciousness would come to be, nothing more. Even when advanced consciousness evolved and began to spread around the globe, there was no guarantee that it would survive. In the early history of our genus, any number of events could have snuffed it out. We can look back on the long sequence of circumstances and events that led to the evolution of humans and conclude that the process was completely the result of natural phenomena. At no point was any supernatural intervention necessary. The sciences have not, by any means, explained everything about the multi-billion year history of the Universe and the life it brought forth. But there is the dawning sense among many humans that if everything has not yet been explained, it is at least ultimately explicable. There is no need to seek answers to our questions about the unfolding of physical reality outside the realms of empiricism and mathematical deduction.
Of course, none of this eliminates the philosophical possibility that there is indeed an intelligence governing reality, the motives and methods of which are as far above our understanding as the mind of Albert Einstein would be to an ant. And yet, one gets a sense that if such an intelligence is indeed overlooking the great epic of physical reality, that it is not actively causing anything specific to occur within it. The Deistic conception of a creator initiating the processes of the Universe and then letting them take their course seems to be the most credible picture of such an intelligence that we can have. Most humans have a sense that something beyond themselves exists, and in the last 11 seconds of the cosmic year they have evolved elaborate belief systems both to express this conviction in concrete form and to establish some kind of connection with this perceived hidden plane of reality. These conceptions may yet be proven right, and such an intelligence may yet reveal itself to us and enfold us within itself. But there is no certain way to prove that any such events, however much the promise of them gives us hope, will ever occur.
So we will narrow our focus now, away from the vast story of the evolving Universe, and examine the being that was one of the byproducts of its inconceivably ancient and complex processes. It is, after all, the human animal that experiences and shapes history. We will try to assess this animal’s place in the web of life, its features, its vulnerabilities, and the ephemeral nature of its existence. We will hold up a mirror to ourselves as physical beings, and in so doing perhaps gain a more realistic conception of who we are. We will not always be comforted by this picture, but that in no way will change the reflection we see.