We Are Here, and You Are It. A Summary

[Another extract from my work-in-progress You Are Here. A Travelogue, our common evolutionary story since the big bang. An attempt at a very short summary of our Big History up to this present critical point of evolutionary decision for humanity in the Anthropocene: One World or None. The images chosen for their symbolic resonance are of the Gothic rose window at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and a 9-10th century CE painting of two Buddhist monks in dialogue: a blue-eyed Central Asian and a dark-eyed East Asian.]

We Are Here, and You Are It. A Summary

Here is an attempt at a short summary of our common travelogue together as beings of Matter, Life and Mind since the big bang around fourteen billion years ago.

Three Great Waves of Matter (Atoms, Stars, Planets) and three Great Waves of Life (Cells, Organisms, Ecosphere) have created our present bodies and minds. Fourteen billion years ago there is nothing, no space or time, no universe. Nothing, no-thing, exists. In this nothing we think there occurs an explosion, a ‘singularity’ or ‘big bang’, and within a split second something or other exists and quickly expands until some three hundred thousand years later the first atoms of hydrogen and helium are formed.

Every atom and element within us has come from the unfathomable ocean of energy and matter we call the cosmos. We know we are much re-arranged stardust, the material product of some initial great, high-temperature conflict between the four great forces we postmoderns drily call gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear force (perhaps six if we add our two ‘known unknowns’ of dark energy and dark matter). The first big-bang breaking up these forces and subsequent cosmic cycles of stellar deaths and rebirths have created all the atoms, elements and minerals we know and are. As material beings we are born in cosmic fires, cataclysms, catastrophes, a cascading torrent of breaking unities or ‘symmetries’ self-organizing into new waves of entities. Death and birth, old and new interpenetrate from the word go.

Then, as it all cools and condenses, and tossed off by another exploding star, our sun, about four and half billion years ago we come forth – in the eighth and ninth waves of self-evolving Matter ‒ as the solar system and Planet Earth with its internal nuclear furnace driving its plate tectonics, its water, air, rocks, minerals and soils, all soon self-assembling over time into complex self-reproducing molecules of DNA, RNA, proteins and the miracle of the first Great Wave of sentient living beings, bacterial cells. Biological evolution, the Superwave of Life, has begun. Life, ourselves, are today still predominantly bacteria, these first ones. So now we are bacterial stardust evolving through conflict, cooperation and incorporation, through competition and symbiosis, eating and being eaten.

Our dear Earth travelogue begins.

Nature loves mistakes: biological change, diversification and evolution are only possible because of imperfection and error. New species arise when mistakes are made in DNA copying and these imperfect copies manage to survive and produce descendants. Within our huge oceanic womb, through long processes of development, of catastrophes, mass extinctions, adaptations and creative ecological responses, we get ever more complex, ever more differentiated, ever more interior, ever more relatively free to choose. Every innovation changes and speeds up our evolution. As bacteria we begin to change the Earth to make it ever more suitable for Life and biological evolution. We oxygenate the atmosphere and later form an ozone layer to protect life from harmful ultraviolet rays, making it easier for life to eventually leave the ocean womb and evolve on land. We invent sex to individuate and supercharge the pace of change and diversity, and pay the price of individual death.

In our next great leap in the Cambrian fourth wave of Life around six hundred million years ago, we become larger, complex and cooperative collectives of cells, we become organisms and superorganisms, we differentiate further into co-evolving plants, fungi, animals. As bacterial stardust animals feeding on plants or other animals, i.e. condensed sunlight emitted from the sun’s nuclear furnace, we metabolise and differentiate this chemicalised sunlight into the beautiful complexities of movement, nervous systems, heads and brains. In the fifth wave of Life, as simple plants, fungi, wingless insects and amphibians, we emerge from the great womb of the oceans and colonise the continents, changing them as they change us. We become a planetary web of interdependent populations of organisms-and-environments (or ‘holobionts’) co-evolving together, we become the sixth Great Wave of evolution, a complex superorganism-of-superorganisms we call the Ecosphere.

As the Ecosphere evolving through mass extinctions and mass adaptations driven by cosmos, planet and our own ecological adaptations as Life itself, we evolve ever brainier, more complexly sensitive and reflective animal selves, amphibian, insect and reptile to bird, mammal and primate. In this self-organizing process we thus open up new worlds within the Ecosphere which evolve their own higher-deeper codes, principles, rules: evolution itself evolves. Thus we reveal ever new ex- and internal dimensions of reality: ever new perceptual and cognitive realms of flight, binocular colour vision, grasping and sensitive hands, motherhood and nurture, childhood and play, cultural learning, the primal emotions of fear, anger, jealousy, grief and joy, ever more prominent individual personalities within the mammal and primate packs of the eighth and ninth waves of Life.

As birds, mammals and primates, within material and biological interdependence, we are individuating, and the next leap from Ecosphere and Life to Mind, to culture and self, is emerging.

Nudged by ice ages, changing climates, grassfires and the spread of savannahs, in Africa perhaps seven to four million years ago we gradually raise ourselves from the ground, stand upright and walk on two legs, look up to the stars and out to new horizons. Bacterial stardust has become preverbal Premodern Mind, the first hominins. Now the human journey, both incorporating and transcending cosmos and Ecosphere, Matter and Life, has begun. We gradually embody, transform and transcend our animal and primate roots into sociality, ritual and custom, biology into culture and Mind. Our brains, hands, tools, group interactions, reproductive success and environmental pressures interact in ever widening and deepening feedback loops, further differentiating and accelerating evolution.

Over hundreds of thousands of years in Africa we move from scavenging to hunting, get more cooperative in order to do so, work and caring splits more into male and female forms, the first great gender division of labour. As homo, our real breakthrough to Mind comes with our development of verbal language and symbolic representation within the context of our extreme sociality, social learning and cultural teaching. We branch out into many adaptive experiments of the genus homo until homo sapiens wins out by fair means and foul. We are pushed by material, reproductive, climatic and ecological constraints and pulled by curiosity towards the unknown. Already as homo erectus around a million years ago we have walked out of Africa and into southern Eurasia. As homo sapiens we later also move beyond Eurasia to Australia and the Americas. Unlike most other species, we are globalisers from the word go. Our unknown trajectory is One World. But before we can know this there are the myriad differentiations, conflicts, regressions and circumlocutions of human history first to be absolved.

As the first great cosmic fire leapt into six successive Great Waves of Atoms, Stars, Planets, and then into Cells, Organisms and Ecospheres, the fire of Mind leaps out of Matter and Life as human speech, body ornamentation and cave art, as dance, chant, ritual and ceremony, trance and magic. Animals use tools, build shelters, communicate, feel, but we are the only animals to represent, symbolize, imagine, worship. Our interiority is becoming ever more differentiated and complex. We are creating another world within the world, a cultural and symbolic dimension of reality within and beyond the biological Ecosphere, an imaginative and infinitely differentiated new world of internal and external representations and images, of meaning and metaphor, of thought and beauty.

Yet the achievement and promise of such new differentiations of Mind cannot be had without loss and the possible perils of new dissociations and pathologies. Becoming more complex and dominant, we also become ever more vulnerable. We celebrate and we fear our immersion in a marvellous and frightening world. Assailed by the potential sensory and cognitive chaos of an overwhelming world and of the spirits of our own subconscious fears, dreams, nightmares, we create our first cultural order and law in ritual and ceremony. We stabilize our world and social group by chanting and dancing together, by imitating and celebrating, and thus we gain a first feint sense of cultural (or ‘magic’) power over both the invisible and the wild creatures that feed us and frighten us. Leaping, shuddering shamans, we create both white and black magic. The mysterious powers of the female over birth, nurture, death fills men with awe and fear.

Around ten thousand years ago, under various pressures of climate, food availability and population growth, we gradually move from foraging the wild to domesticating it. We store our food energy surpluses, have more children to help us with our now greater labour, and settle down in villages, towns, city states. Life is becoming more complex and hierarchical. We radically simplify our nutrition and lose our intimate knowledge of, and respect for, the wild. Insecure, fearful, thankful, we feel we must sacrifice life to keep life flowing into us, that there can be no birth and re-birth of plants and animals and humans without death. We sacrifice humans and animals to the Great Mother Goddess of Life-and-Death and the gods we create in fear and gratitude. Matrilinear and matrilocal, we live in egalitarian and fairly peaceful villages for thousands of years. Yet over time, some of our warriors or herders become ‘big men’, chiefs.

Big men become chiefs, chiefs become kings, kings become emperors. Now having grain surpluses and property to hoard and covet, we split into exploiters and exploited, order-givers and order-takers, the literate and illiterate, enslaved and free, hosts and macro-parasites sucking off their tributes and taxes. In our first agrarian civilisations about five thousand years ago, we invent numbers and writing to track the stars and keep accounts, our scribes and priests living off our siphoned surplus grain. We begin to despair, and to hope. We become ‘civilised’ and create the first mass labour machines, organized religions, armies and warfare. We both build great new monuments and engage in mass slaughter. We learn to kowtow and to rebel. As women we are made men’s property, chattel slaves, birth machines. Yet both war and trade link us into ever greater webs of exchange of matter and mind. Within the Premodern, we have now moved from a planet of isolated few worlds to one of many, often linked, worlds.

In our agrarian civilisations and empires over the millennia we are always still tossed by climate, weather, animal competitors, micro-parasites, our own overpopulation, sudden invasions, mass atrocities and massacres, plunder and slavery, taxes and tributes, by abundance and famine, population growth and crash. Premodern (and later modern) empires, linking several worlds, rise and spread, contract and fall like species, like waves, like individual lives. We continue the degradation and destruction of soils and forests, and we also find many different ways of sustainably adapting to local ecological constraints and challenges.

Finally, perhaps eight hundred and fifty years ago in Europe, we begin to first enter the Modern: taking up some of the cognitive achievements of the premodern Classical Age, we break through into the modern individual and new humanistic and secular horizons beyond the closed world of the Medieval and premodern Mind. About five hundred years ago, our continents of Afro-Eurasia and the Americas come together for the first time through European exploration, exploitation and trade, and we thus create the first truly global system of exchange, one based on plunder, slavery, spices, sugar, cotton. We begin to erect the purely secular reign of quantity, of science, of increasing commodification and the market society, the machine, and at the same time the emancipatory notions of social progress, potential human liberation and universal human rights. We develop a secular, mechanical, ‘disenchanted’ worldview and learn to harness the stored energies of ancient forests compressed into coal, gas and oil.

About two hundred years ago we use these fossil fuel technologies and build the first industrial factories, organize and apply science, begin to envisage the possibility of a material good life for all. In the nineteenth century we finally create One World, a global economic and industrial system under the domination, and for the benefit of, European imperialism. We engage in the first global wars. We split the unsplittable atom and have learned to use the explosive power present in the Big Bang to potentially annihilate civilisation or the Earth. Culturally, we collapse into the industrialised inhumanity of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

And thus we have arrived in the present, the Postmodern, the Human Age, the Anthropocene.

We are now ever more objectively One World, but we do not yet consciously know it. We are now objectively hybridising and merging into One Human Family, but we do not consciously know it. We are now objectively in charge of evolution, but we do not yet consciously know it. It is now objectively possible to create a sufficient material standard of living for all within the planet’s ecological limits, but we do not consciously know it.

On a deep level of our being, ‘within our bones’, we do know all this, however. Can we let this deep, intuitive knowledge, this wisdom we all share, rise up into our consciousness? Can we let this consciousness inform all our individual and collective actions? Has all our fourteen billion year evolution been leading to this present moment of decision, a decision to realise our true common humanity on One Earth?

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on August 16, 2018.

2 Responses to “We Are Here, and You Are It. A Summary”

  1. “Has all our fourteen billion year evolution been leading to this present moment of decision, a decision to realise our true common humanity on One Earth?”
    I certainly hope so…the alternatives are not so rosy…
    Thanks Peter, looking forward to more!

  2. Always very kind of you, thanks Kristi. Hope you’re well too.

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