You and I lug around a giant brain, a three pounder, packed with a hundred billion neurons, tens of trillions of synapses. Like language, it uses these vast but finite resources for infinite purposes. It is inexhaustibly creative – but only if given free rein, as happened, finally, in the 15th century with the invention of the printing press. Then it was off to the races. Here’s a fun overview of our brain’s power – set up banking, which made money our servant in the 16th century, mathematized gravity and the dynamics of our solar system in the 17th, changed the world with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th, brought the inexpressible comfort of anesthesia in the 19th, achieved mastery of solid-state physics in the 20th, then assembled computers magnitudes more complex than steam engines, models of inventiveness a mere few hundred years ago. In fact, from the printing press to my voice-activated computerized “secretary” took only 600 years. Suppose we give the Greeks the honor of firing up the brain. That’s two or three thousand years ago, a mere blink compared with the thousands of centuries of the Pleistocene.
What is the problem we are trying to solve? It’s a tough one. Except for the last 10,000 years, there is no written history of us hominids, so there goes 990,000 years, poof! gone and lost forever. Then how can we ever know, reliably, the conditions under which we evolved? How can we understand the history of prehistory, an oxymoron?
There is a way! You will need to make only one assumption and connect one dot. If you do, you will find yourself not looking through a “glass darkly,” but through a clear window, seeing the life of our remote ancestors. That window comes with a Time Machine attached. No longer than it takes you to read this post, 2000 centuries will roll by. Here’s the assumption:
We are much more human than otherwise.
The blond folks in Spitzbergen are much more like the black-haired folks in Tierra del Fuego than they are different. The same is true of hunter-gathers. They were much more like us than otherwise. They had the same giant brain, certainly for the last 200,000 years, or more than likely the last 500,000. Now roll the thousands of centuries of the Pleistocene through our “Window of Time.” Endless sameness! You’ve seen one tribe you’ve seen ’em all. Not a hint of change. Not a glimmer of originality. Same tool kit. Same miserable stone tools. What turned off the power of that gigantic brain that in only six hundred years went from the printing press to computers?
The Moral Sense.
In my last post I wrote, “For a million years, this unique biologic structure protected us puny individuals by herding us into one of two groups – Home Sweet Home and The Enemy, that is, all the rest. However, an enemy lurked also on the home turf – the individual. A group’s success required utter conformity from each member, tolerating only what was necessary for survival. For tens of thousands of generations,the Moral Sense hammered the individual into submission; through one million years of the Pleistocene, there is no trace of originality. Obviously, it succeeded at its one mission – survival.The Moral Sense kept everyone in line at home and, generation after generation, battled The Enemy out there, potentially all other groups.”
Now connect one dot.
The political structure of the Republican Right, since Obama became president, is more hunter-gatherer than otherwise.