We homo sapiens have existed for about 300,000 years, but we have made more progress in understanding and controlling the world in which we live in the past 200 years than we have made in the rest of our existence put together. Why? Why did we let so much time pass before we learned how to control diseases, harness energy in order to improve our lives, and to put men on the moon? What set off the avalanche of understanding and progress that has given us the world we live in today?
Has our intellectual capacity dramatically increased lately – that is, in the last few hundred years? That seems unlikely since we know that the evolution of our species has been an extremely slow process. We also know it because we have written records from various societies stretching back to the time of the ancient Greeks. Plato and Socrates, for instance, had the ability to reason in the same way that we reason today. And many cultures around the world were practicing medicine, and discovering mathematical principals long before Plato and Socrates were born.
Many years ago I was in a Great Books discussion group. I gave a talk at a church one time in which I mentioned that my Great Books group discusses all sorts of works even going back to the plays written during the Golden Age of Greece. A young man in the front row asked me why we would read and discuss anything written so long ago. After all, he contended, ancient Greek plays have no relevance to life today. In fact, those plays plainly show that the “human condition” has not changed in the thousands of years since they were written.
So, what’s the answer? Why have we made so much progress in the past few hundred years? My answer is that I don’t know. Perhaps the explosion of knowledge began during the Age of Enlightenment. The exact period of that Age is debated by scholars, but it can be defined as the time in which we began to be ruled by reason rather than by superstition and custom. We began to understand that our world is controlled by natural laws rather than the whims of supernatural beings or by chance, and we began to search for the causes of the things we observed. Lightning doesn’t occur because Zeus is hurling thunderbolts and people aren’t getting sick because they failed to properly propitiate some angry god with sacrifices or because of an imbalance of the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm).
Regardless of the cause (or causes), during a brief period of our long existence we began to discover things that explained our world and, to some extent, allowed us to control it. It’s as though there was a nearly instantaneous change – a case of “punctuated equilibrium” in the vernacular of the popular writer and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould – that altered human beings forever.
Discovering how our world works and then learning how to control it has not been a simple process. Things have occurred that almost seem miraculous. For instance consider the discovery of the treatment for rabies. The great French researcher Louis Pasteur thought he had found a way to save the lives of people who had been bitten by rabid animals, but he wasn’t sure. Until his discovery, the death rate of such people was almost certain. Yet somehow Pasteur was able to discover the virus that caused rabies, learned how to isolate and weaken it, and then how to use it to destroy the virus in lab animals. Even then he didn’t know if he could use the weakened virus to save the lives of rabies-infected people. He didn’t know if his injections would arrest the disease in people or cause it to act even more quickly than usual. Think about the questions that faced him: How soon after being bitten must the vaccine be administered? How many doses would be required? How much of the vaccine should be in each injection? What is the optimal time interval between doses?
His reluctance to actually use the vaccine on humans finally ended when a grieving mother brought her son to Pasteur on July 6, 1885. The 9-year-old boy had been bitten by a rabid dog and his mother, who had heard of Pasteur’s work, begged him to save her son’s life. After pondering over the situation, Pasteur reluctantly decided on a dosage, a treatment schedule, and the number of injections that he thought would be required to arrest the disease. In each case he guessed, since no one had used his vaccine on a human before, and he guessed right. Had his guesses been wrong he probably would have been considered a murderer rather than a hero. But somehow – almost unbelievably – he guessed right.
The history of our advancement is overflowing with cases similar to that of Pasteur’s treatment for rabies where guesses or hunches lead to some of our greatest advancements. Someone discovered that steam could be used to create an engine. Someone else discovered a way to transplant organs from one person to another. A research group discovered that a piece of silicon “dosed” with certain carefully introduced impurities (about one non-silicon impurity atom per 100 million silicon atoms) would become what we know as a “transistor.” And other researchers discovered DNA and how to map it. The list, thankfully, is endless.
Again I’ll state that I don’t know what has caused the monumental growth of knowledge over the last few hundred years. However, that shouldn’t stop us from hailing the progress that’s been made and musing over the potential discoveries that may further enrich our lives during the next few hundred years. Let’s celebrate. After about 300,000 years of existence we’ve finally come of age.