I’m interesting in the question how we got here.
That’s not much of a surprise.
So, I’m looking into the very broad strokes of what got us from there to here. Broadly remembered points where if you were to time travel and alter it, a radically different future would emerge.
I understand people will quibble about details. Some, for example, insist that the invention of abstract thought, like a law of gravity, inexorably leads a species towards its ultimate demise. I’m afraid I’m not that pessimistic. Personally, I started this adventure reading the book “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn and believing farming was the source of all evil. I’ve modified that, though, over time, understanding that while that time was a turning point, it wasn’t as simple as picking up a hoe damning the human race.
My current list of what makes us ‘us’ runs like this:
- Commensal Ectosymbiosis by Fire (Birth of the Family of Man)
- Mutualistic Ectosymbiosis (Coevolution) with Wolves (Birth of Homo Sapiens and the rise of Tribes)
- Parasitic Endosymbiosis by Grass (Post traumatic creation of Homo Civitatis)
- Vector-Trasmitted Parasitism (The Rise of ‘Science’ / Industrial Revolution, Homo Civitatis Terminal Phase / birth of an E.L.E.-Extinction Level Event)
Points 1 and 3 on the list recognize that two powerful forces (fire and grass) shaped their respective points in history outside of human control. Without their input, Genera Homo or Homo Civitatis could not exist. The other two turning points mirror each other: the inclusion of a strong relationship (with wolves) and the deliberate exclusion of a set of relationships (with Science).
With that list in mind, it’s time to set the stage.
Past is Prologue
Once upon a time…
There was a group of small apes that were successfully meandering through their homelands. Like many apes then and now, they were curious, omnivorous, agile–especially with their hands. Primitive tools users and social. There were also some nasty things that hunted them, likely birds and large cats, which meant living in groups was essential.
We can intuite these things because of the trajectory of evolution that happened next.
Now, we also know that we were fairly close in behavior to two subsets of its taxanomic Tribe: Pan (chimpanzees and bonobos) and the currently extinct Australopithecines. Taking a look at one of our sister species– Pan– on average, chimpanzees trend towards being violent and hierarchical. Bonobos, who evolved in a more food-rich environment, choose a different path. Overt sexuality and cooperative behaviors.
One thing about sex and cooperation: it tends to break apart when you’re pissed off at one another. If you want a successful society that persists in time (and has kids), you need work-arounds. And that means, practically, that a successful, sexually active community must overwhelmingly select for emotional intelligence. You need to understand whether a potential partner would be receptive to advances and need enough empathy to remain patient if, well, um… you’re third or fourth in line or your partner is currently busy.
Increases in emotional intelligence make group work easier and encourage subtler and more complex communication. That becomes a bonus later, when we had the mental space to start talking.
One small problem with a sexy, sexy society, though.
The chances for pregnancy are relatively larger for a group that gets it on with little infighting. And with that comes the well-known phenomenon of joints loosening around the second trimester. This is so that, during birth, the hips open wide enough to accomadate the child through the birth canal.
However, imagine trying to get away from a predator while everything wobbles in different directions.
Not the easiest thing.
Having a group to run interference helps. And here we get more of that group cooperation that is helped by being sexy sexy.
Somewhere along the line, there was a glitch. A female whose joints didn’t fully tighten after pregnancy. She survived likely because of the group and passed the trait down. Perhaps it wasn’t a banner century for predators, but this odd thing led to behavior that many primates can do (but not for long).
They stood up.
There were advantages. Easier to get that hard-to-reach tidbit of food. Being the early sentry to peer over folks heads and spot something moving in the grass. Soon it went from an X- only trait to spread among everyone and then, we had a species that could walk. Mostly. Still a little ways to go. Being able to stick their heads above water, they became swimmers (something a number of apes can’t do due to distribution of muscle mass).
When their environment changed from trees to savannah, they were the ones to flourish due to these weird changes. Sexually charged, cooperative, bipedal groups, pushing their way out a little bit, enjoying their success. Not there yet. Not human. But at this point in Deeptime, they could rightfully be called Homo Erectus.
(Wo)Man Discovers Fire
At this point in history in Deeptime, we are all still ‘animals’. Apes living in the same sense of the world, existing in no-time, within the cycle of the world’s rhythms and with abandonment.
So what changed?
Well, that would be fire.
Fire’s a universal feature. As an elemental force it exists in many, many forms, from instant lightning strikes to spontaneous fires to lava bursts. It’s not known, of course, who first decided fire was useful enough to bring home. The ability for homo erectus to stand above the fire probably helped. And that ability to swim. It is obvious that it was discovered and rediscovered many times. So while we may not know who discovered, we absolutely know who figured out how to feed a fire to keep it going.
That would be a mom.
It would be a mother, with that extrordinary active empathy, that would see something in the fire worth nurturing. And she would experiment on how to keep it alive, what to put in it. What would cause it to flare. What would cause it to smolder. She would share that with other females because they were there, and the community was always invested in its children.
At some point, one of the females would have thrown something edible in there. And finding the smell of roasting irresistable, they would have fished it out. Thus, cooking…
Fire Takes Control
One of the prime tenets of animism is that everything is ‘alive’ if it possess a distinct force and an agenda. This is born out by a (proposed) physical law set out by physicist Adrian Bejan:
The constructal law is the law of physics that accounts for the phenomenon of evolution (configuration, form, design) throughout nature, inanimate flow systems and animate systems together.–https://mems.duke.edu/research/energy/bejan-constructal-law
The constructal law was stated by Adrian Bejan, the J.A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University, in 1996 as follows 1,2:
“For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.”
The Constructal Law—Adrian Bejan
The constructal law places the concepts of life, evolution, design and performance in physics, which is in the broadest scientific arena… (It) is the law of physics of life and evolution3-5. The constructal law accounts for the arrow of time6, which is the direction of the evolution of flow organization over time.
Taking this into account, we can work with the premise that systems work towards maximizing their flow. They also exert pressure on other systems in order to facilitate this flow. Sometimes successfully; sometimes not.
This is how motile life developed. A couple of things were caught up in another thing’s flow until they built a resistance against it. Resistance is not always a bad thing and it certainly can lead to symbiotic or multually beneficial relationships. It can lead to the annihilation of something. It can also lead to domestication.
Symbiosis is any type of a close and long-term… interaction… be it mutualistic, commensalistic, or parasitic. Symbiosis can be obligatory, which means that one or more of the symbionts entirely depend on each other for survival, or facultative (optional), when they can generally live independently.— https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbiosis
We nurtured fire when it occurred; in return, it unlocked nourishment. With better nutrients, those brains set already to group, to sex, to curiousity, scaled up. Bark and grasses braided for fun became things to carry food in. Language arose.
“The first cultural device was probably a recipient…. Many theorizers feel that the earliest cultural inventions must have been a container to hold gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier.”
So says Elizabeth Fisher in Women’s Creation (McGraw-Hill, 1975).–https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ursula-k-le-guin-the-carrier-bag-theory-of-fiction
A New Arrangment
Arguments, natural and inevitable, resulted in people leaving their homeland. Love led them to return, with experiences of lands beyond, new and waiting. The People spread out and bands of them left to become multitudes a flowering of the hominid tree.
The Vanguard, Those who Labor, the Flower People, the Skilled Ones, the People of the Bright Mountains, the Seed Crushers, the People of the Morning Star, the New Men, Those who Walk with Wolves, and the Clever Ones. Likely many others now long forgotten.
New foods, new tools. And with curiousity satisfied, there were new adventures. Mushrooms cleaned off and cooked that happened to be psychaedelic. Mushrooms pulled from cow shit promoted new neural connections that gobbled up the nutrients provided by fire, leading to over a million years of culture and exploration.
We could have stopped nurturing fire at any moment and fire would still have still persisted. Still abrupt. Still devestating. But we would no longer be able to travel. To get the nutrients that sustain our intelligence over generations. To make better tools. We would have been lost.
Instead, like the mythological phoenix we rose.
Crack open a textbook and they’ll talk about humans “conquering fire”. About our “mastery of it”.
How silly, when you look at it. How ridiculous when you see Homo Civitatis playing with fire in ways that risk setting the planet ablaze.
We’re not the only ones who are symbionts with an elemental force. It’s likely that dolphins underwent a similar process with water. Corvids, as an emergent intelligence with air. Formicidae as a recent hive intelligence with earth.
The requirements seem to abundant curiousity, the ability to work in a group. And a persistent engagement with the environment due to external factors: dolphins returning to ocean life, birds evolving from a mass extinction event, ants (the slowest) from a reduction in size when atmospheric oxygen was reduced.
And humans? We went along with it because the trees were pulling back. The savannah was coming with its fires and its predators and its strangeness. We’re the most recent but we’re not alone.
There were some other steps that lead us to the Now, though.
The next involved making some new friends.