To begin the new year we are taking a look back at the incredible journey which humanity has made — the end result of which is the modern age, in which we may have a reasonable hope for almost any type of positive change.
In order to understand the miraculous pace of current change, it is necessary to look at the history of evolution. The earth itself probably came into being about 4,600 million years ago (that’s 4,600 multiplied by one million). Around 570 million years ago the first multicelled organisms came into existence. Plants began appearing about 430 million years ago, with land-based animals following 30 million years later. Dinosaurs roamed the earth between 200 and 65 million years ago. Animals that we would recognize today, such as monkeys, horses, and elephants came into being about 50 million years ago.
The earliest ancestors of man, apes living in East Africa, came into being about 25 million years ago. Humans first used stone tools about 2.5 million years ago. The first signs of civilization, the earliest cities in Mesopotamia, appeared some time in the years 5,000 to 4,000 B.C., approximately 60 to 70 centuries ago, or 6,000 to 7,000 years ago.
Thus, it took over 4,000 million years from the time earth began until any animals more complex than amoeba existed. One hundred and seventy million years later the first animals began to live on land. Then it took 350 million years for “modern” animals to come into being. Another 325 million years later man first appeared, and it took over 20 million years for him to learn how to use tools. (Think about it — 22.5 million years to learn how to use crude stone tools!) Another 2.5 million years later the first cities came into existence.
Carl Sagan was fond of using the phrase “billions and billions” to describe the number of stars in the universe — an almost incomprehensible number. And in the same way, one must use the term “millions and millions” to describe the evolution of man on earth.
Yet, only 200 years ago, people did not see the world as subject to very much change. In this regard it is very interesting to study colonial America. In 1801, the entire United States contained just over five million people (as compared to 260 million today). Two-thirds of those people lived within 50 miles of navigable water.
The pace of movement was extremely slow. With the exception of natural phenomena like lightning and sound and a few man-made objects like bullets, nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse. People, mail, information, you-name-it, all moved no faster than the speed of a man on horseback. But more important than the actual rate of movement of physical things, as well as ideas, was the general perception of stability. Because nothing moved very fast, nothing changed very fast. Although, in fact, man had been evolving for a very long period of time, people of this period simply saw things as they were. They did not see that man had ever changed to any radical extent over time, and thus they saw the future as essentially unchanging.
Looking back with rose-colored glasses it might seem that an unchanging world would be very comforting and stable, at least for the colonial gentry. Life was not too comfortable, of course, for the one million black slaves, who toiled day after day under the hot sun. Nor was it very comforting for women who often bore families of more than ten children. Nor was life very comfortable for the poor, or the sick — who had no hope of surviving then incurable diseases.
But even for those gentry, life, though stable, was no paradise. Infant mortality was very high (only two of Thomas Jefferson’s six children survived into adolescence). Medical care was non-existent (George Washington died of a cold). There was no central heating and, of course, no air conditioning. There was no electricity, or any the modern luxuries electricity has made possible — no electric lights, no movies, no recorded music, no television, and of course, no computers.
The sheer difficulty of moving physical objects, including people, from one point to another was huge. The only power sources, even as recently as the colonial period, were beast, human muscle, water, and wind. It took three full days to make the 175 mile trip between two of colonial America’s most densely populated cites, Boston and New York. It took Thomas Jefferson ten days of traveling to go from his home in Virginia to Philadelphia. And the traveling was hard and uncomfortable. (For more on the conditions of earlier America visit our index of historical perspectives).
The world of constant change in which we live provides something even more important than modern physical conveniences and comforts. Change provides hope. Stability tends to be underappreciated when life is stably miserable. The earth has existed for 4,600 million years, human-type beings for around 25 million years, and civilization for about 7,000 years.
But only very, very recently, within memory of our grandparents, could many people realistically have thought that if they lived in a country of oppression they could, very quickly, emigrate to another. Few would have thought that if they were injured, fast and effective medical relief would be available. Even fewer could have imagined that that if they needed information on almost any subject, they would be able to find it on the Internet or at their local bookstore. As for the poor of times past, the Horatio Alger myth was just that — a myth. Nor could the oppressed peoples of the world have dreamed only a short while ago that radical change might be possible without bloodshed, as the fall of the iron curtain proved.
Today’s dreams may be tomorrow’s reality. Yes, the world today is not easy, but the quickly accelerating rate of change makes a vision, which might have seemed like a delusion at any other time in history, a realistic possibility today. Humanity’s history has been a story of accepting the fate of the gods — no more. Today, if you don’t like your world, you can create a new one, not just in your head, but in real life.
“Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West,” by Stephen Ambrose
“Timelines of the Ancient World,” by Chris Scarre
“The Timetables of History,” by Bernard Grun