Jan 22 • 21M

The Past and the Future #169 (P)

A quick look at the whole of history

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Dear subscribers and friends,

after we talked last time about how to predict the effects of technologies, today we want to step back and have a look at time scales. It is easy to lose the right sense of time when one is confronted with geological or evolutionary time. Yet, if we want to peek into the future, we need to have a rough idea about how much time we are actually talking about.

Understanding our future requires understanding the past and the different time-scales on which the universe, Earth, life and ourselves developed.

Let’s dive in!


To get a feeling about how the world might be in 20, 200, or 2,000 years, it is useful to look back to how it was 20, 200 and 2,000 years ago. Then we’ll get a sense for the passage of time and how much time brings what kind of change to our lives.

The time that has passed since the beginning of the universe, or even only since the beginning of life on Earth is so long in comparison to the time that human civilisation has existed that it is impossible to plot everything onto a linear scale. So we will have to create multiple timelines with different scales.

The universe

Let’s begin. Here is our biggest scale timeline:

Look at your hand. You have five fingers. Four of them have three visible segments each. One, your thumb, has only two. Together, your fingers have fourteen segments. This is the same number as the age of the universe in billion years. Each finger segment is a billion years in the past. The base of your thumb is where time begins, the start of the universe. The tip of your little finger is now.

Now fold away the thumb. Nothing at all happened in the first two billion years after the creation of the universe; at least, nothing we know of. Fold away the index and the middle fingers too. Still nothing. Only at 5.5 billion years, that is, halfway through the base of your ring finger, our galaxy takes on its current form. Sun, Earth and Moon form another segment up the ring finger. But the appearance of the first life on Earth is at four billion years, so it comes pretty quick after that, still at the top of your ring finger. Let me repeat that: everything, from the creation of galaxies to the first life on Earth happens on that ring finger.

At three billion years, at the base of your little finger, life learns to use the sunlight for photosynthesis. At the middle segment of your little finger, multiple cells learn to live together as one organism, without eating each other. And then, at the upper third of the top segment of your little finger, we get trees, insects, reptiles, birds, mammals, primates, humans: the whole lot.

Modern humans exist only for about 100,000 years. This is one ten-thousandth of the top segment of your little finger. Imagine dividing that top segment of your little finger into ten thousand parts: the top most of them, and only that one, would contain humans. The time period in which humans exist would be invisible to the naked eye if you tried to mark in on your finger.

Humans on Earth

C. Patrick Doncaster, professor in Ecology at Southampton University, has an excellent, very detailed timeline of the human presence on Earth [1]. We don’t need all that information, so we’ll just look at a few highlights; but do go visit his page if you are interested to see more detail!

It takes another eternity until, at only 40,000 years before now, the first bone flute appears, together with other bone tools. Cave paintings go back only about 30,000 years. The first farming activities begin at 9,500 years before out time. Cattle was domesticated 7,000 years ago, when the world’s population of humans was a mere 5 million people! Think of that: just 7,000 years ago, all humans on Earth, taken together, were fewer than today’s inhabitants of Hong Kong or Athens, Greece.

Five thousand years ago, writing was invented, leading to what we call human culture and history.

Four thousand years ago, someone in China ate the first ice-cream. (I wonder how Professor Doncaster found that one out. You’d think that ice-cream would melt rather than fossilise — but perhaps there’s a written record of some extremely happy imperial kids in the Chinese palace diaries.) At the same time, in Europe they created the first metallic money, which, in hindsight, perhaps wasn’t such a great idea.

About three thousand years ago, humanity passes 50 million. It took us just four thousand years from five million to 50, despite the first records of contraception (3800 years ago).

Only a blink of an eye later, 2600 years ago, we are already at the height of Greek civilisation. Humans have invented democracy, theatre, poetry and philosophy. Merchant fleets are cris-crossing the Mediterranean, carrying wheat and silver, marble and dyes. Buddhism appears around that time, Confucianism, and Euclidean geometry. Islam spreads through Arabia 1400 years ago. Printing, porcelain, astronomical clocks and gunpowder follow about 1000 years ago.

360 years ago, the world’s population passes 500 million.

Modern democracy, the ideas of equality and citizens’ rights become widespread just 250 years or so ago.

And only in the last 200 years of all those 13.8 billion, we have the development of modern technology: steam engines, electricity, telephones, spaceflight, computers. With it comes modern capitalism and, in the last 100 years, its counter-movement, socialism. The Russian revolution, the Soviet Union, two world wars, atomic bombs, genocide, genetic engineering, cloning, Internet, robots, and the exploration of Mars by robotic probes. Global warming, microplastics, massive biodiversity loss, almost permanently polluted air in the world’s metropolitan centres, and a virus that uses our own mobility to its advantage and almost shuts down the entire world within five months.

Time in science fiction worlds

If you look at the future from the perspective of our past, it becomes clear why it’s so hard to see where we might be going.

Historical time is not a river that runs at a constant speed, a linear progression, in which a thousand years contain a fixed amount of progress.

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