By “rapid human development only in recent times” I mean the sense that our species acquired technologies and changed how we do things only very slowly for most of our history and then, here in moderm times, all of a sudden things are very different.
I propose a two-fold debate: first, whether or not it is in some sense illusory to describe our change rate in that fashion (an artifact of perspective or scaling, which I will go into a little bit); and, second, if it is indeed a viable and essentially accurate way of describing things, to what extent do many of our shared social and political and economic (and etc.) assumptions and opinions depend on some variation of “it’s always been that way” or “it’s never been that way”, in ways that make less sense if the vast majority of “always/never” occurred before modern changes or have persisted only shakily since those changes have really started kicking in.
OK, first the scaling thing. One way in which you could argue that things are only recently very very different is world population. If you graph it from 10,000 years ago to present with a regular linear y axis for population, you end up with a very slowly rising line way down at the bottom between zero and a million and then it turns a corner and shoots up vertically to the six billion mark in the last tiny slices of time over at the right. The “scaling” counterargument is that you could pick an arbitrary point anywhere on the graph and snip it there, calling that the right-hand edge, and after adjusting the y axis scale to handle only the range of data you’re now working with you again get a slowly rising line that shoots up high right at the end. To an extent, one could use a “scaling” argument about technologies, too — i.e., that their acquisition is a function, at least in part, of world population and has always been taking place at an exploding rate.
Be that as it well may, I don’t regard it as a compelling and conclusive counterargument. Regardless of the curve of rate of change by which it got there, it still strikes me as a qualitative change. I picture some bureaucrat among the Incredibly Ancient Surveyors of Primitive Worlds, reading reports on homo sap and skipping through them at 10,000 year intervals: hmmm, hunter-gathering…hunter-gathering…hunter-gathering, coping with ice age…hunter-gathering, increased range…hunter-gathering…nuclear power and footprints on moon…hey waitaminnit!?!
::flips back to about 10,000 year ago, proceeds more slowly::
lessee…primitive horticulture, early towns here and there, elsewhere hunter-gathering…OK, agriculture, walled cities, declining hunter-gathering, villages and farms…agriculture, cities, villages, farms…agriculture, city-nations and empires, villages, farms…agriculture, nations, village and farms… whoa, industrialized world, much much lower # people and area doing agriculture, nuclear power and footprints on the moon??!
I’ll use the first set of book-flips to make my point, and then make my argument for applying it to the changes evident in the second, more closely spaced set of book-flips. OK, things had been the same for many tens of thousands of years during which we lived as hunter-gatherers. We could concoct a long long list of generalizations about “how things have always been” based only on all those tens of thousands of years, generalizations that would not apply correctly to our current situation. The “weight” of all those millennia during which certain things were “so” is largely irrelevant if our changed circumstances mean they don’t apply.
Now, it is my theory that although individual human conscousness does, of course, exist, most of our opinions and views and perspectives, although they reside locally in our individual heads, are formed and shared and modified in collective social space (translation: most of us don’t form our own uniquely and individually-derived impressions of things, we participate in social dialog, shaping and being shaped by it, and there’s more of it in you than there is you in it, so to speak), and that the rate by which this collective consciousness “changes its mind” about fundamental stuff like how we should do things as a species, morally and organizationally and so on, tends to take place in processes that are longer than typical individual human lifespans. Keeping that notion in mind, here we are, in a world that has (I argue) moved on from the agriculture-based city-nation-village-farmworld almost as dramatically as we moved on from the hunter-gatherer world 10,000 years ago when we settled down to do agriculture and towns in the first place; and yet our opinions, values, thoughts, and perspectives, and perhaps our forms of government and economy and other aspects of how we organize, although they are changing, lag behind, more in some areas than in others.
Onward to specific axes to grind:
•Politics and wars. It is often said that there have always been wars and will always be wars; and that control and power will always go to the ones with the opportunity and means and ruthlessness to seek it, because that’s how it’s always been throughout human history. [It hasn’t always been the case that a single, not astonishly complicated device that could be owned and deployed by even a small angry group, could flatten the largest cities on the planet, though]
• More politics, especially democracy. It is often said that it’s always been true that the few govern and the many are governed with very little, if any input, and that that’s always been the way of politics and power. People once said there will always be kings and queens and emperors, now they are more likely to say representative democracy of either the Parliamentarian sort or the American sort is the most democratic and egalitarian we can expect a government to be and still be effective. [We haven’t always had the efficient communications infrastructures and literacy-rates we have now, though]
•Modern complexity, alienation, religion, & mental health. It is often said that modern life is confusing and alienating, inhuman in some ways, and that we are better suited for the life of simpler times; and that yet things are worsening and will probably continue to worsen, with more crime and violence, less community and sense of belonging, and far less of a sense of understanding how one’s work and the events surrounding one fit into the pattern of a life that makes sense. [But that ignores the possibility that we are in the throes of change, change that started with the industrial revolution and which may finish and leave us in a coherent and stable place, just as the agrarian city-nation world that preceded this one was coherent and stable for centuries. And it discounts the possibility that it makes perfectly good sense, given our immediate situation, that we would find modern life alienating and confusing, without that necessarily implying that society is going to hell]
What else? How do your assumptions and views on “how things are and how things could be” get recast if you consider us to be in the midst of special change? How about the assumptions and views of others apparent to you, around you?
Or, alternatively, do you wish to argue against this notion that we are in “interesting times” and that there’s nothing special, upheaval-wise, about this period in our species’ timeline, that we’re no more in mid-change than were folks of any other era?