Human Kind in a Cosmic Perspective

Human development is accelerating exponentially: 10 million years of human existence enabled us to develop societies; 10 thousand years of living i societies enabled us to discover science; 100 years of science enabled us to make weapons that can wipe us all out in seconds.

The forces of these weapons far exceed our ability to control them. Thus, humanity cannot save itself, and the end is very close.

In a cosmic perspective this does not really matter. Compared to Earth’s 4.6 billion year existence, the existence of human societies is like a short rash on the surface of the Earth. Once human kind disappears, Earth will go on as before, slowly developing new life forms,  just as it did once before, 251 million years ago …

The Earth is 4.6 billion years old. Some unicellular life emerged 3.8 billion years ago, but remained unicellular for the next 3.2 billion years, until the first multicellular organisms appeared as aquatic organisms about 600 million years ago. About 450 million years ago, organisms on land emerged in the form of plants and fungi followed by arthropods. Amphibians appeared 360 million years ago.

A notable event happened at the close of the Permian period 251 million years ago: 90 % of all life on the planet was wiped out. That did not prevent life from reappearing – within 10 million years, life proliferated again  during the Triassic period (the dinosaurs). Birds appeared around 150 million years ago, mammals around 130 million years ago, homininae about 10 million years ago, developing into humans.

Humans have two characteristics that separate them from all other beings:

  • They walk upright on two legs
  • The thumb enables a firm grip and hold.

Moving around on two legs freed the remaining two extremities – the arms – to use for other purposes than moving the body, and the grip enabled humans to handle objects. These physical differences enabled man to develop two abilities unavailable to other species:

  • The ability to make, use and improve tools
  • The ability to start and control fire

These developments took some time: Walking on two legs started 2.8 million years ago, the use of stone tools has been dated to 2.6 million years ago. Both of these were in place before the thumb developed about 1.8 million years ago.

From the earliest times, homo erectus was a flock animal, living in small groups and families. During 1.7 million years following the appearance of the thumb, humans developed into homo habilis by slowly improving their ability to utilise their hand grips and their tool use, without any particular breakthroughs. Then, about 400,000 years ago, a three-phase development started:

Phase I started with man acquiring the ability to control fire.

That led to changes in human behaviour: Fire provided warmth, which made it possible for man to compensate for low temperatures, and light, no longer limiting human activity to daylight hours. Thus, fire permitted humans to move down from the trees to the ground, made them less dependent on climate and on daylight.

Humans took to living mainly in caves; however, the process of changing abilities and behaviour took about 150,000 years. There followed another 100,000 years, during which humans continued to develop their tools and their use of fire. This gradually led to further changes: the use of heat to process protein-rich food made it easier to digest, changing the human diet. Also, over time, the use of fire for heating led to humans developing much less body hair.

Phase II started about 130 000 years before our time.

Humans became more mobile, developed means of expression other than sounds, like cave paintings, they moved out of caves, gradually transforming into the nomadic life of hunters/gatherers. They developed more advanced tools and ways to use them. The diet change by heat treatment of food led to the teeth of homo habilis becoming smaller. Man developed more organised ways of living, in the form of extended families and tribes.

Phase III started about 15 000 years ago.

By then, man had been able to control fire for nearly 400,000 years, to use advanced tools for about 300,000 years, and had been largely nomadic for 100,000 years. In the third phase, man started to band together in larger groups, establishing large tribes, and started keeping some animals in controlled herds.At this time, man further developed means of communicating – like carved signs.

About 10,000 years ago, man commenced cultivation and improvement of food plants – agriculture –  and expansion of the husbanding of the most important animal types. This form of food production gradually replaced hunting and gathering, and led to allocation of defined areas for growing food and raising animals, and building of dwellings in groups. Means of communicating developed into stored writing. Man developed forms of distributing tasks between specialised groups of people,

This led to territorial claims of ownership of certain areas and their products. Since man’s propensity for seizing the products of other peoples’ labour is as old as mankind itself, it became necessary to guard and defend such assets against unwanted intrusion. Consequently, groups and tribes started to pool their areas and interests, creating states.

The driving force during this last phase was the increasing recognition of the fact that humans were strongest when many acted together, and of how working in specialised groups led to much more efficient production methods and techniques. These greatly increased efficiencies led to two forms of surplus:

  • Quantities of food and other necessities were produced in excess of what was needed for own use
  • Work capacity became available for other purposes.

Surplus of some goods led to their exchange against goods which were needed, with others groups who had different surplus goods – that is how trade started. A natural consequence of trade was the ensuing need for transport and for means of transport.

Part of the surplus work capacity went into defence: Erection of walls, gates and moats to protect against attacks – some such defense structures are known from prehistoric times.  As time went on, building techniques improved and made it possible to build structures for other purposes.

One would think that primitive societies would use their surplus work capacity to improve their material well being. Not so: spiritual well being overrode the need for creature comfort, so that until as recently as 300 years ago, public structures – apart from pure defense works – consisted mostly of temples, mausoleums and places of worship: Abstract purposes – gods, worship and the dead (with the notable exception of the Roman Empire), It took science and technology and the ensuing rapid economic expansion to force the focus over to practical purposes.

Considering that it took
  • 4 billion years from planet Earth came into being (4.6 billion m.y.a.) before multi-celled organisms appeared, followed by another
  • 600 million years of life crawling around in the seas, subsequently proceeding to crawl up on dry land, before the first signs appear of Hominidiae, and then
  • 5 million years of Hominidiae developing through several primitive forms until one type (Homo erectus) started walking on two legs, subsequently developing the thumb, then
  • 4 million years living with two extremities freed to use for other purposes and a thumb permitting a firm grip (separating humans from all other species) until humans managed to make and control fire, then
  • 400 000 years, using fire and developing tools until they commenced managing plants and animals, thereby creating  Agriculture and extracting metals from ore and soil, then
  • 9500 years of using metals and tools and organising into societies before they invented Gunpowder, and
  • 500 years of using gunpowder until they managed to create the Nuclear Bomb,
  • 30 years using nuclear energy until Electronic Data Processing was universally available, and
  • less than 20 years of universal use of electronic data processing until we have reached today’s Total Electronic Communication and surveillance,

a picture appears of an exponentially accelerating pace of development.

Which leads to the conclusion that total self destruction is very, very near – and that there is no indication that the human race will manage to save itself. The cause is clear indeed: The human race has developed materials and technology that can totally destroy mankind in the blink of an eye (not environment or ecology, but explosives and radioactivity). These forces far exceed the ability of humanity to control them.

If you present the Earth’s 4.6 billion year existence as compressed into one year, the 10 million years of hominiae existence on earth would show up as the last 19 minutes of that year, and the existence of human societies as one minute and 9 seconds: a one minute rash on the surface of the Earth.
After the disappearance of hominiae – human kind – the Earth will go on as before, slowly developing new (and different) life forms, entering a new cycle of generation of life  – just as it did 251 million years ago …