We live on a restless planet. We wouldn’t be here otherwise. Our lineage, Homo sapien, began its social conquest of the planet some 200,000-year ago. Throughout the dramatic rise of our common ancestors, climates have changed.
As ice ages advanced, enormous glaciers extending down from the poles sucked up the oceans of our planet turning them into mile-deep rivers of moving ice that sculpt the contours of continents. As the ice ages receded, the melting water refilled our planetary bathtubs. Since the last glacial maximum some 20,000 years ago, ocean levels rose some 150 meters to today’s levels. All of human civilization flourished in a brief 10,000-year period known as the Holocene. The Earth wobbles and as a result the ice ages come and go with irregular regularity. This is our new Big History, a history of the universe, the planet, and humanity.
A single supervolcano can ruin your whole day, dumping volcanic ash meters deep over entire continents, causing widespread earthquakes and tsunamis, so mucking up the upper atmosphere as to create a “nuclear winter,” and the onset of an instant ice age. Similar results are affected on Earth when large asteroids and comets periodically smash into our backyard barbeques. The Holocene, we now know, won’t last forever.
We are the first generation to know this about our past and future planet. Most of the details were only discovered over the last fifty years by scientists working in diverse disciplines. Perhaps our panic about anthropogenic climate change can be understood as a way of channeling and denying this larger and more unsettling truth. We delude ourselves into thinking that by merely reducing greenhouse gases, we can control our restless planet. The new geology is simply too frightening to face head on. Climates do change. We don’t know when it will happen, only that it will — sooner or later, fast or slow, hot or cold, wet or dry — this card will eventually be dealt — again and again throughout our Big Future.
Our common ancestors survived such catastrophes in the past. Mount Toba, a supervolcano in Sumatra, exploded 74,000 years ago with intensity 1,000-times greater than that of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Oregon. By this time in our wanderings out-of-Africa, our ancestors had followed the coastlines along the Middle East and South Asia, settling as far as Southeast Asia and Australia. With their fire mastery, language, and collective learning, the tribal social units managed to survive and thrive in diverse ecosystems. They lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes, harvesting abundant food from the sea and the land. The social unit was probably never much more than 150 and in total our species numbered probably less than a million. They grew, they split, they mixed, and they kept moving across Eurasia, evolving into different languages and races, adapting to different environments.
The Mount Toba supervolcano changed everything overnight for our ancestors. It dumped six meters of volcanic ash over much of South Asia. The massive eruption also brought on an instant ice age. Humanity was reduced to a mere 10,000 individuals, a story written in our mitochondrial DNA. And yet, we, and the other flora and fauna, survived. And as the sky cleared and ice slowly retreated over millennia, we resumed our migrations and expansions. Our common ancestors passed through the eye of a needle. Our common descendants will do so again in our Big Future.
We were all doomed to die from the day we were born. What continues through us across generations from past into the future is collective learning. We are all the beneficiaries of a great stream of accumulating knowledge and know-how. Symbolic language, spoken and later written, allows humans to pass on and accumulate the accomplishments of each generation to the next. This is no-longer Darwinian evolution. Instead we have an “unnatural” selection guided by intentionality, deductive tinkering, creative expression, all transmitted and accumulated across generations and between cultures in our now global, techno-scientific civilization.
Let Wikipedia serve an icon for this vast accomplishment of human civilization. If the English language Wikipedia were printed and bound like the Encyclopedia Britannica, it would require 2150 volumes, not including all the reference links across the Internet. Collective learning is the main engine of our scientific, economic, and cultural success. Because of collective learning, cultural evolution is a win-win over the long arc of human history, even though economic markets, ethnic conflicts, and political disputes frequently involve win-lose tradeoffs.
Children are a tradeoff. If we have children, then we also pass on genes along with our cultures. Continued evolution after all requires an unbroken chain of babies into the future. And while collective learning may be our species greatest asset, it carries with it a great vulnerability. Every child must be taught anew, if stored knowledge and know-how is to be passed on across generations. In future evolutionary bottlenecks, we don’t get to choose when and where. And we don’t get to choose who survives and what is passed on through the eye of that needle. Much could be lost and forgotten. The best way to preserve 10,000-years of human civilization and pass it through a future bottleneck is to distribute this new Big History as broadly as possible across the planet.
Of all the large mammals, humans are most likely to survive future climatic disasters. Much of the flora and fauna may also require our help to survive and thrive on the other side of catastrophe.
We may soon develop the space technology to detect and potentially deflect future Earth-shattering impact events. It is less clear what we can do about the Yellowstone caldera and other supervolcano sites around the world that will explode again some fateful day. Nor is a grassroots movement to “Stop Earth Wobbles” likely to succeed, no matter how sincerely felt.
Milankovitch Cycle: Source: Global Warming Art
The Sun will be a reliable partner for the complexification of life on Earth, including human life, for two billion or more years. That is an inconceivably Big Future for our descendants, whatever they choose to call themselves. They will, however, surely face more earth-shattering events. Perhaps our kind will be reduced again to a mere 10,000 individuals. Much could be lost in those future climatic events.
Big History is a dramatic epic adventure, one in which the universe seems to repeatedly err on the side of elegant improbabilities. May it always be so in the long arc of our Big Future! The most important knowledge that humans have gained in the 10,000-year march of civilization is the combined history of the universe, our planet, and ourselves. If our descendants, the survivors of the next great evolutionary bottleneck, had only this Big History, they would have an enormous head start on the challenges of rebuilding.
This new Big History can also helps to orient humanity toward pragmatic problem-solving in dealing with our contemporary challenges of war and peace, economics and the environment, education and innovation, health and happiness, community and self, freedom and responsibility. We may not be able to prevent the next supervolcano, but we can certainly prevent the many evils and stupidities that we inflict on each other and the planet. Distributing this knowledge as broadly as possible throughout the world today is also the key to solving our 21st century problems.
May that day of disaster not be in our lifetimes, or our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren’s lifetimes, but someday it will be so. Knowledge of the epic of evolution would vastly accelerate the rediscovery of science, the reinvention of technologies, and the recovery of civilization. Our descendants would understand the remarkable cultural achievements of past civilizations and be inspired to create their own, resuming and exceeding us in our quest to return to the stars.
Rebuilding human civilization may well take thousands or tens of thousands of years in this post-cataclysmic world, but our descendants have a really Big Future in which to do so. We would be able to take comfort in knowing that we have passed on this hard won knowledge and know-how. Our descendants in turn will remember us always with gratitude for having bequeathed them this great gift. Their gift back to us from the future will be more meaning and purpose in our lives today. The challenge then is to distribute that gift as broadly as possible today, and, in so doing, perhaps also help solve the great anthropogenic challenges of the 21st century.
There is no enduring balance of nature, no harmony of nature ever really meant to persist. Sustainability is not the right rhetoric to employ in light of this Big History. Instead we need resilience built into the structure of our global civilization. We need the ability to bounce back from adversity more adapted and adept than we were before. In order to be resilient, we cannot forget what we have most recently learned, this progressively true and extremely practical story of the universe, the planet, and ourselves. The solution is always evolution.