"Rapid human development only in recent times" (Y/N) and implications

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?

Well, the “collective consciousness” of the world is slowly working its way towards the idea of representative government, as you say, with the usual backsliding here and there, as in Putin over in Russia. The next great rivalry in this area is going to be between China on the authoritarian side and India on the representative side.
As to the feeling that today is definitely different than the past, a few specific examples:

[li]War: horses were the big advantage on the battlefield for whoever had them and had good ones, and swords and bows and arrows were the main weapons in Eurasia for thousands of years. Swords, bows and arrows are all useless as weapons of war today, but that only happened in the last few hundred years, and horses became useless after, and even during, WWI. [/li][/ul][ul]
[li]Transportation: similarly with the above, the fastest thing you could have for a very long time was a good horse. Now, you can travel in the air at hundreds of miles an hour.[/li][/ul][ul]
[li]Communications: only in the past two hundred years have we been able to communicate with each other at speeds faster than that of the fastest mode of transport available, which would have been the horse.[/li][/ul] [ul]
[li]Electricity, plumbing: only widely available in the past 100 years, but in the industrialized world anyway, these are indispensable.[/li][/ul]

Point being, the way we live today is qualitatively different than the way someone lived about two hundred years ago in ways that are vastly greater than the gulf that would have separated that person from someone living two thousand years prior.
What you’re really asking, I think, is whether the second derivative is increasing; that is, whether the rate of change of the rate of change is increasing, and whether that’s discombobulating us all. I’d say yes and yes, but that’s just my gut feeling.

Few people would argue that the progress made in the last 300 years is not astonishingly rapid given previous history. The question is “where do we go from here”?

In this respect, I suggest that one is either a pessimist or an optimist. The pessimist might point to the surprisingly long time we’ve gone on without any kind of global catastrophe (of which there are unnervingly many possibilities, natural or anthropogenic) and consider that there’s probably one just around the corner.

I am an optimist. I think that ultimately, overall, the world is becoming a better place (although there are serious ecological issues which need addressing), with fewer wars (yes, I know) and a gradual, slow rise in health and education standards worldwide.

Indeed, I rejoice that the stardust congregated as “me” at a time and place when I need not fear the disease or war which has killed so many billions throughout history, but when there’s still so much to work out. A sci-fi utopia might be pleasant enough, but surely it’s a lot less exciting!

Well, the Bible Belt in the US is awaiting Armageddon, while the Shiites in the Middle East are expecting their 12th Imam to appear any day now.

The day when we throw the concept of “God or Allah” together with their religions in the dustbin of history, then I’d say there is an acceleration in evolution of human brain.

Meanwhile, we carry this 2000 years old garbage, and we are living in a world where “conservatives” are picking up a “re-born” to run the most powerful and influential country on this planet. So, you think human brain is evolving fast?

I doubt if the individual physiological human brain is changing to any measurable degree.

Christian (and Islamic and so forth) fundamentalism is a perfectly predictable response to the world being in mid-change and therefore upheaval; and, in particular, to the current situation being a mismatch for the slower-changing communally shared “description of moral reality”, which puts religious stuff on the defensive and therefore provokes intensity and extremism as well as anomie and rejection of the old codes without widely-shared & coherent new moral codes (as of yet) taking their place.

  1. I would disagree that the rate of change is illusory. I think it is very real that the rate of change has increased exponentially, if not faster.
  2. I think this is the crux of the issues we face. Our economic models have changed substantially throughout the last 5000 years. Where earlier cultures were extremely constrained due to the nature of their economies. Very conservative, very agricultural, no real liquidity in the economy meant that change was stifled, had to be stifled. Which, according to some, was a function of the religious institutions.

Overall, the modern economic models allow for much more rapid changes in the cultural investments. I.e. We went from the Industrial Age to the Information Age in 200 years or so. Technological change should be credited with providing the basis for the new economic models, and is in return fueled by those very models.

However, culturally, religiously, socially, we are much less adapted to rapid change. Part of the reason may lie in how much we learn in the first few years of our lives. The lessons, and teachings received before the age of five have a tremendous impact on later thought. Even if that earlier teaching is rejected by the person later in life, that person will, in my opinion, have to work a lot harder to keep rejecting that teaching than will someone who learned it much later in life. Particularly, religious and social mores fit in to this.

Our brain has not evolved much in the last 50,000 to 100,000 years or so, but we have managed to create tertiary information that allow us to access the knowledge of previous generations and thus providing a stepping stone beyond their knowledge, without having to re-learn everything from scratch.

FordPrefect is on target. It’s the assemblage of past information as a contextual and structural reality that we are born into, and encouraged to wade through and plunge into as children, that allows us to easily bob along with high rates of change. It’s natural for us.

Beyond this, and this IMO is the real core issue relating to your question, because of the nature of the wetware mechanics of the human brain, man is a unique creature in terms of his ontological relationship to his environment. Unlike any other animal man lives a good deal of his experiental life in a variable and flexible virtual time space. The past and the present are virtually as real to us as the immediate context. We effectively live in 4 dimensions. This expanded consciousness allows us to integrate vast amounts of change into our specific personal gestalt(s).

It would seem that advancement has been very fast from humble beginnings 10,000 years ago but you are ignoring the advanced civilizations of that time, like Atlantis and Mu. Humans of that time had technologies, such as interplanetary space flight, which we have not managed, settling as we have for faked landings on the Moon and Mars. Going to times before that we have the civilization that arose surrounding Cthulu and the other Old Gods, which was about 50,000 years ago. So you see that there have been peaks all through human history. What is, instead, interesting is the speed of our recovery from the catastrophes that followed these peaks, for which I credit beings from Canus Major. Humans alone are too stupid and lazy to survive, much less flourish, without alien intervention.

dropzone, I think you have mistakenly submitted a post intended for the National Enquirer message board here on the Straight Dope. I would hate to think that we are attracting attention and content that is rightfully for the attention of David Icke.

I still can’t think of him as anything other than the bloke introducing the snooker on telly.

I’ve lived in the bible belt for a considerable portion of my life and I haven’t noticed that most of us believe armageddon is coming any time soon.


Wasn’t he Clinton’s deputy chief of staff? (googling) No, that was Harold Ickes. David Icke was Ross Perot’s deputy chief of staff.

David Icke is a former BBC sports presenter who went bonkers and started to believe in all kinds of utter nonsense. If you believe that humans used to have interplanetary spaceflight, you two might get on like a veritable turquoise shellsuit on fire.

So he didn’t work for Ross Perot? That reptilian vibe I caught off him wasn’t real?

Just in case, I, for one, welcome our new reptilian overlords.

Did it surprise/bug anyone but me that there was such a dearth of serious “pause and look back” evaluations in or around the turn of the century & millennium (or at least of any that were brought to public attention)? Lookbacks over the millennium were particularly rare. The last thousand years has been a phenomenal millennium compared with previous millennia.

Anyway, to elaborate on my OP, I happen to be of the opinion that certain aspects of our political and economic structures and practices — in particular those that make no real effort to provide a fair and level playing field for all players such as the Security Council on the UN (feel welcome to propose other examples, btw) —that many folks consider to be inevitable oucomes of human nature or “the way it’s always been” are not only not inevitably part of our future but would probably be lethal to us if we tried to continue to use them for a whole lot longer.

I can’t imagine future manifestations of power except as (to an ever-greater extent) the ability to “PR” and slickly market your concepts and proposals so as to obtain the cooperation and participation of the rest of the world. Raw coercion will, I’m sure, continue to exist, but not so much as the primary way of doing international politics and business. If you piss off and disenfranchise enough people (or simply leave them with the strong impression that they’ve been disenfranchised), you get terrorism and violence and lots of regional support for it. Ergo, the Superpower(s) of the future will not and cannot piss off and disenfranchise people (or cannot do so in such a way as to leave them with the strong impression that they’ve been disenfranchised, at any rate).

Ultimately, although an electoral democracy such as is popular in western nations today would be a step up in much of the world, I don’t see a “Which of these nominated idiots do you select to make your decisions for you until next election?” system as the epitome of possible democracy, and not sufficient to avoid pissing off and disenfranchising people. (And never mind that we’ve never had a more democratic modality up and running to any significant extent).

The market economy looks awfully long in the tooth (both in the sense of outdatedness and in the sense of resembling something carnivorous and menacing) also; and while I think the 20th Century has effectively lowered the manhole cover on the well of communist-marxist aspirations, the fact remains that the market economy also notably leaves folks feeling pissed off, left out, and disenfranchised.

But seriously, folks…

First, I don’t see as much bad in “folks feeling pissed off, left out, and disenfranchised” as you do. Complacency is the bugaboo of progress and if people are pissed they are inspired to act. The problem humans have had in the more recent past (18th century on) is that the gulf between the haves and the have nots is so gaping that many go beyond pissed off. A gap between what is and what can be will always be necessary to piss off some enough to act for change and if that gap is not too big their changes are more likely to be peaceful. This is the situation in the US and Western Europe: things aren’t perfect and many people are working to improve things but the gulf between the poor and the rich, while seeming vast from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with conditions in the Third World, is not really all that great. All but the very poorest have a comfortable-enough life with a roof and electricity and food. People will talk of changes they want, whether political or economic, but relatively few feel pressured to force change and those who do are mostly working within the system, a system of change that includes activities as disparate as peaceful protest and furthering ones education to get a better job. You can already see deceleration of social change in the US, where we haven’t had an enormous shift since the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

The fight for a “comfortable enough life” has been going on for millenia and in America and Europe and large parts of Asia the tide has been turning for the past several centuries. As food production increased while fewer people farmed more people could concentrate on pushing the bounds of technology. Each technological advance made the next advance possible, often making for even more food production or effective medical treatments and this caused the population rise you noted. That rise will not go unchecked, though. People will stop reproducing so rapidly as they realize large families are no longer needed. Energy will be put into improving the lives of fewer children, or the parents themselves, and that will put more people to work creating technological change in the countries that are currently poorer while complacency in richer countries will cause change to slow there.

I have a simple hypothesis: the rate of innovation is proportional to the number of people.

I’m sure it won’t hold for any specific circumstances, but looking on a large scale (the whole earth) and a long time (centuries), I expect it to be a good approximation. It captures basic fact: people invent technology (obviously) and technology allows more people to exist (via better food production, longer lifespan, efficient transportation, etc). This is a positive feedback loop (again, think large scales, long timespans).

Given this hypothesis, I think it means we are in interesting times. The pace of development and rate of increase of development is higher now than it’s ever been before. My hypothesis also implies this has always been true. The real question is, is there a fundamental limit to how quickly our culture (and notice my hypothesis is about cultures and not people) can innovate?

More than just proportional, I’d say, since innovation is more related to the number of really innovative and smart people. Assuming that they have a Gaussian distribution, the more people the more those will be several standard deviations out, and the more of these will be born into circumstances where they can make a big contribution. Unfortunately, this also means it is more likely to get an evil genius too. So, rapid development comes from more brilliant people doing the development, not from any average increase in intelligence.

A lot of our social environment, especially our national attention deficit disorder, is a result, I think, of our rapidly growing set of things to do (magazines, tv channels, internet, CD, DVD, …) and the non-growth of time to do them in. A lot of us just shut down inputs. I shut down TV, others shut down newspapers. Even a small sampling of things is enough to drive us nuts. When I was a kid there were 7 tv channels (in NY we had more than anyone) a few AM radio stations, plenty of books, and no way of seeing movies besides going to the few one-screen per theater movies or watching them on TV.

There have been behavioral economics experiments that indicate that people with too many choices choose nothing. This might be the big implication of our society - people frozen into habits because of too much choice. It’s scary.

IMHO, the answer is NO-- there is no limit. Because we have a say in the outcome of things by the objectives we set, the decisions we make, and the resulting actions we embark to implement our goals. Don’t forget, we have the final say in what our culture can or cannot do. Our culture is NOT on autopilot.

If we do not want our culture to innovate quickly, then it won’t. An example is stem cell research. If we have a bunch of religious morons (e.g. the Bushites) who want to stick to praying to Jesus, and are threatened by innovation, then we decide to vote for Bush and slow down how quickly our culture can innovate. Rather than Jesus and his dad, if we take Allah, we can even go back further to stone ages, like the Talibans and the Islamic Republic of Iran, or the rich but backward Saudis. There you are – a fundamental limit to how slowly a culture can innovate – by design.

On the other hand, we can decide to allocate a larger portion of the national/international budgets to innovative research projects, giving grants and tax incentives for people to conceptualize and develop innovative solutions to our current and forthcoming problems, and encourage them by putting our money where our mind is – then I see no limitation to how quickly our culture can innovate.

Heck, even if we reach the outer reaches of our brain capacity and human ability to innovate due to the limitations of our culture, we can always create prosthetic devices that can take over from us and go forward quicker than we humanoids can muster (as long as the atheist Rabbi can unplug the device if it decides to go too wild :rolleyes: ).