time I think of a landmark event in the development of man or human
culture, it turns out to have occurred in the very last part of the period
since the previous landmark event. Such as: Homo Sapiens has
been around for a quarter of a million years, but it was only about 10,000
years ago that we changed from hunter-gatherers to tillers of the field,
an event which signaled our escape from the animal world.
I made a list of these milestones, to see
how general this phenomenon is. Here's the list:
- Creation of the Universe – about
12.5 billion years ago. The universe is expanding. If we extrapolate
backwards, we get to a point in time where everything in the known universe
was at the same place at the same time – the “big bang.”
Definitely a major milestone.
- Formation of Planet Earth – about
4.6 billion years ago. This occurred shortly after our sun, a second-generation
star, was created.
- The First Life on Earth apparently developed
shortly after the oceans were formed, about 3.5 billion years ago. Bacteria
and blue-green algae followed soon after.
- The Cambrian period, about 500 million years ago, started
with a dramatic increase in the Diversity and Complexity of
- Mammals appeared on earth about 200
million years ago.
- The species Homo Sapiens seems to have
been born about 250,000 years ago.
- Man discovered Agriculture and Herding
about 10,000 years ago. This allowed him to escape from the ecological
“large predator” niche that he'd previously occupied as
a hunter-gatherer, and which dramatically limited his numbers.
- Writing was invented about 5000 years
ago, giving rise to civilization.
- The Industrial Revolution allowed man
to build machines to do his work on a large scale, and fostered the
development of larger and more integrated cultures. I've dated the industrial
revolution from the first public railroad in Britain, in 1825.
- The Information Age is doing the same
for man's thinking that the industrial revolution did for his physical
powers. I've dated the information age from the first electronic computer,
developed in 1940.
There's an exponential speedup here: our planet came into
being in the last third of the life (so far) of the universe. Complex
life developed during the last ninth of the life of the planet. The race
of men In the last twentieth of a percent of the period of complex life.
And we've had writing and civilization for only the last four percent
of our time on earth.
If we extrapolate this exponential series,
we find critical events getting closer and closer together, until they
happen ten minutes apart, then one minute apart, then six seconds apart,
and so on. This point where an infinite number of major events happen
at essentially the same time has been called the singularity
by a number of writers, and it should be happening around now, give or
take a few decades. What is its significance? Raymond Kurzweil, in his
on the singularity, sees it as the speeding up of technical innovation
and acquisition of knowledge to the point where human beings can no longer
understand what's going on.
Another possibility is total cataclysm;
we have the technical means to destroy higher life on earth and it's clear
that some of our leaders wouldn't hesitate to risk this to obtain the
temporary advantage of one group over another. Such a cataclysm would
be proof of a design flaw in the mind of Homo Sapiens, proving him to
be the wrong building block for an advanced society. We might conceivably
kill all the humans in a nuclear war, or by developing some horrible super-virus,
but I doubt we could kill all the mammals; evolution wouldn't be set back
more than a hundred million years, just a moment in earth's overall time
scale. Maybe higher life capable of serving as the basis for civilized
society will evolve repeatedly, ending catastrophically each time until
a stable design develops. We should take comfort that we're the first
iteration, according to the fossil records. It would be depressing to
be the hundreth because that would make cataclysm a near certainty.
The singularity might mean we've reached
or are about to reach a major turning point in the development of mankind,
where this entire series of events ends and another one begins, on a different
level or in another dimension. I don't mean that the focus will shift
from the biological evolution of humans and other animals to the cultural
evolution of societies; this happened already thousands of years ago as
part of the developmental history listed above; the development of a single
cell capable of serving as a building block for larger, more complicated
organisms is also part of this history. I can't envision this new level
on which development might occur, or what form it might take, but I'm
convinced that, because of the recent or imminent ending of man's series
of milestones, the next century of human history will be tremendously