22 March 2008

On The Eve Of Greatness

Tomorrow people across the world are going to greet the day by recalling an event that was supposed to have happened 1973 years ago, give or take a few years, to a guy about my age. Like me, this guy's religious beliefs weren't mainstream for the time. Millions of people have wished they could have been there.

I'm quite glad to be living right now, instead. There are all sorts of romantic notions about the greatness of our ancestors, the stories of Cibola (the city of gold), Atlantis, the Da Vinci Code, the wonders of Egyptian and Mayan civilization and so on. But I'm convinced that there has never been a more fantastic era of human history than right now.

Our engineering marvels are unsurpassed. Our scientific achievements make even decade old understandings outdated. Our powers to heal the human body are unparalleled in human history and illness after illness is in retreat. Our understanding of the history and pre-history of the world has never been more comprehensive or rigorous. While it isn't universal worldwide, there are more enclave of tolerance that are more widely encompassing than at any other time in the history of the world. The wealth of the average person has never been greater. Women have never had a better lot in life than now. Slavery has never been more scarce.

The use of the death penalty has never been more rare. A couple of centuries ago there were more executions in Vatican City, at which the Pope presided, than there are now in all but a handful of countries in the world -- the Pope is now a leading world force against the death penalty. The Catholic Church once condemned Galileo; the modern Catholic church played a part in developing Big Bang cosmology and accepts some form of evolutionary theory.

Our dramatic works are as grand as any Italian Opera, as inscrutable and mythic as Kabuki theater, as profound as Greek tragedies, and as prolix as epic poems.

The human race was far worse off when the Egyptians built the pyramids, the Chinese build the Great Wall, the Greeks enjoyed their Golden Age, the Roman peace reigned supreme, the Arabic empire stretched from Spain to Indonesia, the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment took hold in Europe, and when the Industrial revolution sprang into being in England.

The late Arthur C. Clarke's fame, more than anything else is based upon 2001: A Space Odyssey, and sequels to it. The premise of those novels is that humanity was preceded by a vast extraterrestrial intelligence that helped make us what we are today. This premise and similar tales involving first contact with advanced alien civilizations are staples of the genre. But it is much more likely that we will be the advanced civilization that discovers some more primative civilization on another world. Indeed, that first contact scenario has played out again and again in human history. We have reached the point where only a tiny percentage of all humanity, perhaps a few million people out of six billion can in any meaningful way be said to not be a part of the modern world. There are a few small civilizations deep in the Amazon, deep in the Congo, in Papua New Guinea, and in distant mountain villages and desolate African deserts that still live more or less as their ancestors have for dozens of centuries, but even they know the outside world exists, even if they don't fully comprehend it and are not meaningfully a part of it.

This is not to say that I agree that we have reached the End of History, except to the extent that this is always tautologically true. Our civilization has poeple tasked to identify and look for solutions to anything which might be considered a societal problem. The big problems, like war, receive lots of attention. The smaller problems, like the fact that I can't buy liquor on Sunday in Colorado, have smaller, but effective groups of people attending to them.

Modern mixed capitalism and the scientific method, along with hte values associated with Western liberal government have put in place engines of change that are continually working in excruciating detail, to remake our world to better fit our highest visions of what it could become.

My daughter is studying the Middle Ages in school right now. I was a history minor in college and spent a lot of time covering the same territory. There is an argument, not as perfectly true as early understanding would have had us believe, but not without respectible support either, that the Middle Ages, from the fall of Rome around 532 CE, to the Renaissance in the late 15th century, marked a millenium in which civilization slipped below its previous heights in Europe, making the era one of the most epic setbacks in recorded human history.

No setbacks of that scale have befallen humanity since then, and I'm not at all convinced that even an apocolyptic disaster that caused civilization to collapse and killed the vast majority of the population (another science fiction staple) could set us back that far again. We might be set back a few generations, a century or two maybe, but the knowledge and thought processes of our era are too widely disseminated t obe lost for good.

Humanity can no more forget the basics of genetics, physics, chemistry, geology, biology and medicine at this point in time, than it could have forgotten how to raise domesticated animals and cultivate wheat after the fall of Rome. A single small town or high school library contains enough information to allow our descendants to reclaim almost every breakthough made in science and in culture to date, with the leads provided, in half a century or so. If a single university library survived, that timeline could be trimmed to a couple of decades. Building the industrial base and some of the more obscure trade secrets (like the manufacturing standards necessary to build computer chips like the ones we have today) necessary to actually carry out what we knew how to do might take longer, while populations levels stuggled to catch up. But the knowledge would not be lost, even if 99.9% of us did not survive and only 6 million people were tasked with rebuilding and starting over.

While many deadly threats stalk the human prospect, I'm not convinced that any of them could be 99.9% lethal. Certainly not peak oil, or global warming, and probably not even a modern plague or a global nuclear war. The only comparably catastrophic events in natural history appear to have been asteroid/comet impacts with Earth, and the forms of life living at each of those points in time lacked the brain powe we have to predict the coming of such an event and to mitigate its effects on humanity. We have a one way ticket to progress, even if we might hit some small bumps in the road or take a deteur or two on the way.

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