A History of the Earth
ANNOUNCEMENTS, 16 Nov 2020
A New Freely Downloadable Book
I would like to announce the publication of a new book, in which I have tried to sketch human history, from earliest times until the present, against a cosmic backdrop. The book may be downloaded and circulated free of charge from the following link:
The Place of Humans in Nature
According to modern cosmology, the universe is almost unimaginably vast. It is estimated that there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe. Of these, many stars have planets on which life is likely to have developed. Thus our earth and its life forms are by no means unique.
We cannot claim to be “the center of the universe” with any unique justification. However, the earth is our home. It is important to us. As parents, we wish for and work for the survival of our children and grandchildren, and for all future generations of humans. We must also recognize our responsibility as custodians of the natural world. We have a duty to protect both human civilization and the biosphere. We must work with dedication to guard and protect the future of our precious and beautiful earthly home.
When humans first appeared on earth, they were not very numerous, and not conspicuously different from other animals. Then suddenly, in a brief space of geological time, they exploded in numbers, populating all parts of the world, and even setting foot on the moon. This explosive growth was driven by what might be called an “information explosion”.
All animals and plants pass on information from one generation to the next in the form of DNA, the information-bearing genetic material. Occasionally, mutations occur, and favorable mutations are preserved while the bearers unfavorable mutations die out. Evolution by this genetic mechanism proceeds very slowly. Humans too, evolve by this slow genetic method, but in addition, they have another method of passing information between generations: cultural evolution.
Cultural evolution depends on the non-genetic storage, transmission, diffusion and utilization of information. The development of human speech, the invention of writing, the development of paper and printing, and finally in modern times, mass media, computers and the Internet – all these have been crucial steps in society’s explosive accumulation of information and knowledge. Human cultural evolution proceeds at a constantly-accelerating speed, so great in fact that it threatens to shake society to pieces.
Anachronistic Human Emotions
Today, human greed and folly are destroying the global environment. As if this were not enough, there is a great threat to civilization and the biosphere from an all-destroying thermonuclear war. Both of these severe existential threats are due to faults our inherited emotional nature.
Our emotions have an extremely long evolutionary history. Both lust and rage are emotions that we share with many animals. However, with the rapid advance of human cultural evolution, our ancestors began to live together in progressively larger groups, and in these new societies, our inherited emotional nature was often inappropriate. What once was a survival trait became a sin which needed to be suppressed by morality and law.
Today we live in a world that is entirely different from the one into which our species was born. We face the problems of the 21st century: exploding populations, vanishing resources, and the twin threats of catastrophic climate change and thermonuclear war. We face these severe problems with our poor cave-man’s brain, with an emotional nature that has not changed much since our ancestors lived in small tribes, competing for territory on the grasslands of Africa.
Ethics Can Overwrite Tribalism!
After the invention of agriculture, roughly 10,000 years ago, humans began to live in progressively larger groups, which were sometimes multi-ethnic. In order to make towns, cities and finally nations function without excessive injustice and violence, both ethical and legal systems were needed. Today, in an era of global economic interdependence, instantaneous worldwide communication and all-destroying thermonuclear weapons, we urgently need new global ethical principles and a just and enforcible system of international laws. The very long childhood of humans allows learned behavior to overwrite instinctive behavior.
A newborn antelope is able to stand on its feet and follow the herd almost immediately after birth. By contrast, a newborn human is totally helpless. With cultural evolution, the period of dependence has become progressively longer. Today, advanced education often requires humans to remain dependent on parental or state support until they are in their middle 20’s!
Humans are capable of tribalistic inter-group atrocities such as genocides and wars, but they also have a genius for cooperation. Cultural evolution implies inter-group exchange of ideas and techniques. It is a cooperative enterprise in which all humans participate. It is cultural evolution that has given our special dominance. But cultural evolution depends on overwriting destructive tribalism with the principles of law, ethics and politeness. The success of human cultural evolution demonstrates that this is possible. Ethics can overwrite tribalism!
Ethics for the Future
In the long run, because of the enormously destructive weapons, which have been produced through the misuse of science, the survival of civilization can only be ensured if we are able to abolish the institution of war. We must also stop destroying our planet through unlimited growth of industry and population.
Besides a humane, democratic and just framework of international law and governance, we urgently need a new global ethic, an ethic where loyalty to family, community and nation will be supplemented by a strong sense of the brotherhood of all humans, regardless of race, religion or nationality. Schiller expressed this feeling in his “Ode to Joy”, the text of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Hearing Beethoven’s music and Schiller’s words, most of us experience an emotion of resonance and unity with its message: All humans are brothers and sisters – not just some – all! It is almost a national anthem of humanity. The feelings which the music and words provoke are similar to patriotism, but broader. It is this sense of a universal human family, which we need to cultivate in education, in the mass media, and in religion.
Educational reforms are urgently needed, particularly in the teaching of history. As it is taught today, history is a chronicle of power struggles and war, told from a biased national standpoint. Our own race or religion is superior; our own country is always heroic and in the right.
We urgently need to replace this indoctrination in chauvinism by a reformed view of history, where the slow development of human culture is described, giving adequate credit to all those who have contributed. Our modern civilization is built on the achievements of ancient cultures. China, India, Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, Greece, the Islamic world, Christian Europe, and Jewish intellectual traditions all have contributed. Potatoes, corn and squash are gifts from the American Indians. Human culture, gradually built up over thousands of years by the patient work of millions of hands and minds, should be presented to students of history as a precious heritage: far too precious to be risked in a thermonuclear war.
On our small but beautiful earth, made small by technology, made beautiful by nature, there is room for one group only: the family of humankind.
Other books and articles about global problems are on these links:
I hope that you will circulate the links in this article to friends and contacts who might be interested.
John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf).
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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Nov 2020.
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