Saturday, June 8, 2013

The scientific explosion (part 1 of 2)

I'm sure the title won't be clear to everybody. It is a reference to the Cambrian explosion, the phenomenon about 500 million years ago, when lifeforms diversified very quickly and evolution (through natural selection) accelerated. Why this comparison between science and the Cambrian explosion then? Because I feel science has evolved at an increased speed and that it has diversified, specialized, into uncountable domains of knowledge. And that's what I want to talk about. Also, I view the diversification of the fields of knowledge (and inventions) as a tree very similar to the "tree of life". New knowledge does not spring into existence from nothing but rather derives from prior knowledge. As the saying goes: "we're standing on the shoulders of giants".

(This image is © AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY)

For a long time, knowledge has been little. Hunter-gatherers and our older ancestors developed the knowledge of berries, fruits, plants, first aid, clothes, hunting strategies, and weapons: spears, atlatl, rocks, traps. Though the list seems short, it is not to be haughtily discarded as worthless. This knowledge alone has allowed human populations to survive for hundreds of thousands of years. And some of these inventions are impressive. Would YOU have thought of using a stick to artificially increase the length of your arm and therefore be able to throw spears further? I wouldn't. And since I learnt about the spear-thrower in primary school, I've always been amazed by the genius of this invention. But then, it has taken an incredibly long time to come up with these few ideas. If we restrict our description of humans to homo sapiens (and forget that homo habilis made the first tools), we've been around for 200,000 years and we've lived as hunter-gatherers until 12,000 years ago. This might give you an insight into the acceleration I'm talking about.

And then, we discovered agriculture. It allowed us to be sedentary, which has tremendous advantages. It allows groups of humans to gather possessions heavier and larger than what a nomadic group can transport. It allows the construction of habitats, which are safer from animal attacks, tools and devices of great size. It also allows food safety by having a guarantee of the amount of food harvested, while hunter-gatherers could not be sure of what they would find. And this contributed to a much faster rate of invention. It saw the invention of houses, carpentry, the wheel, pottery, kiln, oven, cooking, granary, ore smelting and metalworking. These basic inventions allowed for more evolved inventions metal weapons and metal tools. All of these inventions, up until ~2,000 BC contributed to the building of societies and the dawn of writing. Certainly, these changes, these inventions, are very numerous and changed tremendously the life of people. But before moving on to the next period (which I more or less equate with the Iron age), we must still consider that this period spanned 10,000 years.

Fundamentally, the invention of writing is a consequence of the invention of trade. People needed to record what was bought and what was sold. And with trade came mathematics. Let me notice here, a major difference between these 2 inventions and those of past eras! These are inventions of an intellectual nature, not material (though writing requires a material support). And that is a fundamental change because the intellect is like a new land, a new territory that had never been explored before. And since inventions are often mere tweaks of prior existing things, writing and mathematics opened a whole new field of intellectual exploration and specialization. Writing allowed the invention of formal law and philosophy. It allowed the record of history through the mundane notice of events. It allowed, beyond material inventions, the record of knowledge that could be transmitted through time rather than the ancestral (and limited) parents-children transmission. It allowed the documentation of conflicts and the invention of the military, which had almost world-wide consequences as military equipment, training, and tactics changed the interactions between societies, with the culmination of the Roman domination over Europe, Middle-East and part of Asia. The mathematics allowed the emergence of architecture, astronomy, and physics. Somewhere in Greece, the first scientists arose who, despite the widespread beliefs in gods, hypothesized that the continents were created naturally, that something invisible (air) could exist, that matter was made of tiny elements which they called "atoms", and even that "the Milky Way was an aggregate of the light of numerous faint stars" (quote from Carl Sagan's Cosmos, episode 7, at time 29'06). The field of mathematics was developed with geometry and algebra. Statues and wonders were constructed. The great library of Alexandria and the lighthouse, also, of Alexandria. The Colossus of Rhodes. The hanging gardens of Babylon. And all others among the 7 wonders of the ancient world with the exception of the great pyramid of Giza which predates these. This was a time of peoples, a time of knowledge, a time of profound change of society over 2,400 years, until the fall of the Roman empire, around 400 AD.

And then came the Dark Ages. With the fall of the Roman empire came the advent of the Christian rule over Europe. Following Theodosius' edict in 391, everybody in Europe should be Christian or dead. So happened what I would call a genocide, and so all of Europe became Christian in less than a century. If you're a Christian yourself, I'm sorry to disappoint you but this genocide, rather than the popularity of the idea of Christianity, explains how this religion became prominent and how paganism died. This period saw a stagnation and even a regression of inventions, since the religious authority ordered the massive burning of books and records, which did not fully agree with the religious idea of how the world was created or how historic events took place. Somehow ironically, a lot of the forbidden books were saved by being brought to foreign countries, in the Middle-East, where they were preserved by peoples who would soon embrace a related religion, Islam. The Dark Ages ended (more or less) around 1600 AD, with a terrible record of wars, murders, slavery, etc. The few and most notable inventions and intellectual achievements of this era were gunpowder (thank you China!), compass (thank you China again!), Gutenberg's printing press, and the discovery of the Americas.

Notes:


  • This article being wayyyyyyyyyy longer than I initially envisioned, I decided to split it in 2.
  • Of course, as usual, there's partiality with my account of the different eras. But how could there not be partiality in a blog article that spans all the history of homo sapiens with an eye out for the pace of evolution of knowledge and innovations?
  • At some time around the Roman empire, I noticed how my presentation of history focused on western, European civilizations, leaving aside Asian, African, and Amerindian peoples. Sorry for that, but my knowledge is limited and formatted by my European upbringing.
  • Finally, video games enthusiasts might feel a connection between this article and the "tree of technologies" that is found in such games as Civilization. They're absolutely right.

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