Placing Modern Life in Perspective

We live in interesting times – the most interesting ever. And things get more interesting every day. We are living in a time of rapidly accelerating change. We are living in the midst of an explosion of new knowledge and technology. Our modern lives are busy. We are so busy we rarely take the time to think about what all this change really means in our lives. This blog is an invitation to slow down and have that conversation.

But first, let’s step back and get some perspective.

Our evolution diverged from the evolution of chimpanzees about 6 million years ago. The first species considered “human” arose about 2 to 3 million years ago. But the bodies of the earliest humans differed from ours in significant ways. And their daily lives were profoundly different from how we live today. Humans with bodies like ours did not evolve until about 200,000 years ago. By 60,000 years ago, a small population of humans had acquired a set of behavioral abilities that are now the foundation of our modern lives. This population had become anatomically and behaviorally modern humans. They had become us.  

Abstract thought is fundamental to the behaviors that characterize modern humans. Abstract thought involves mentally creating ideas, concepts, words, meanings, theories, and mental models. Abstract thought helps us understand our world. And it helps us plan, invent, and communicate complex strategies for living.

The brain of a human child is an immense vessel waiting to be filled with abstract thought. By the time a child is about 2 years old, they are learning the symbolic system of abstract thought that their culture uses to define and communicate meaning and ideas. They are learning language.

Prior to the development of modern languages, our learning occurred mostly from our direct observations and experiences within a small tribe and its territory. But modern human language allowed learning not only from personal experiences and direct observations but also from a vast store of cultural knowledge. Language allowed innovations and discoveries to be accumulated, preserved, shared, and perpetuated far into the future. Language allowed a vast expansion of human learning and knowledge.

Throughout almost all of the millions of years of human evolution, we lived as hunter-gatherers. Our bodies and minds evolved primarily for foraging and hunting food. But by 10,000 years ago, people were leaving our ancient way of life and becoming farmers.

Agriculture created the potential for food surpluses that could be traded for goods and services. That led to opportunities for some people to develop specialized crafts, skills, and knowledge. It led to the growth of larger social groups living in villages, towns, and cities connected by trade networks.

By 7,000 years ago, people had begun to develop systems of writing. Initially, writing was used primarily to maintain records for trade, commerce, and governance. But writing rapidly spread to other uses and gradually allowed cultural knowledge to accumulate and spread in far more powerful ways than had ever been possible. Eventually, libraries and schools were created to collect and teach this knowledge. By 3,000 years ago, there were libraries and schools in many parts of the world. But until the last few centuries, very few people could read and write.

An increase in the number of people who could read was made possible by the development of the printing press. The printing press resulted in a dramatic increase in the availability of books. Prior to the printing press, scribes laboriously hand-copied each book. Books were extremely expensive and only the very wealthy could afford them. The printing press changed that. The first book printed with movable metal type was a Korean Buddhist text printed in 1377. The widespread use of the printing press began in Europe with technology developed by Johannes Gutenberg and others. The printing of the Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s marked the beginning of a revolution in the availability of books – and of knowledge. For the first time, books could be produced in large numbers, quickly, and inexpensively.

By 1500, there were about 1000 printing presses operating in Europe and they were producing millions of books. In the same era, explorers like Vasco da Gama were pioneering new maritime trade routes from Europe to the rest of the world. Books and the ability to mass produce books rapidly spread along trade routes. The wide availability of relatively inexpensive books, in many languages, gradually made it possible for more and more people to learn to read. The availability of books and the ability to read opened up a world of knowledge to millions of people. It changed life in remarkable ways. That change is still unfolding as you read these printed words.

 

From writing flowed math, engineering, medicine, science, and the many wonderful things they bring to our lives. While agriculture brought tremendous change, the Industrial Revolution and the science and technology of the current Information Age have created exponential change. 

Knowledge is power. And there is vastly more knowledge available to us now than even a generation ago. Many of us constantly carry a handheld device that allows us to instantly search the world’s accumulating knowledge. But we only have time and attention for a tiny sliver of the knowledge that is available.

Each of us makes our own choices about what we pay attention to and what we learn during our lives. But if we wish to live better lives, it’s worth dedicating some of our time and attention to a better understanding of ourselves.

In recent decades, there has been an astonishing increase in knowledge about how our mind works, how we learn, how we perceive, how we find meaning, and how we interact with each other. Understanding this new knowledge can help us make fundamental changes to our habits and ways of being. And that can lead to more satisfying and productive lives.

Many of the posts on this blog will explore new – and sometimes ancient – knowledge about life.

We invite you to join this conversation. Please leave a comment below.

You can read more about this topic on Our Blog About Life and in Scott’s book. 

We also recommend Martin Jones’ book, Unlocking the Past: How Archaeologists Are Rewriting Human History with Ancient DNA.

 

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