II. About the Writer
III. About the Cover
Every book has a special relationship with its past, present, and future. This book’s past forms its very subject matter. Its present is the 2010’s, when I am writing it. My world history is very different from Herodotus’ or H.G. Wells’, because they each had their own present frames. Now the book lives on in its future when you read it. As I wrap up the incredible journey of writing TEOH, I would like to conclude by reflecting on my place in this past, present, and future.
A. The Past
A complete picture of the past requires principles as well as happenstance. Principles are the laws of nature like physics, chemistry, and geology. They tell us the rules that the world has been constrained to follow, like the rules of a sport. People go to live sporting events because they want to see the happenstance. It’s the random unfolding of a game, not the rules alone, that determines the final outcomes.
Think of all the happenstance that brought us to where we are today. A nearby supernova triggered the coalescing of our solar system. The Earth ended up in a lucky orbit, the sun’s habitable zone. This book covered an endless series of happenstance. Some of the circumstances that shaped the human mind and body are long forgotten, like the evolution of eyes and arms good for swinging through fruit trees. Yet we wouldn’t be the same without them.
Sometimes, we can’t distinguish between principle and happenstance. In a habitable zone, is ocean chemistry bound to yield up DNA? Or was that a one-off on our planet alone?
I vacillated endlessly about the title of this book. “Evolution” is a hot-button word. Many people, especially the people that I really wish would read this book, will be instantly repelled by that single word in the title (evidence filtering at its purest!) But there’s no way I could write a history of life without evolution, so what’s the point of a “euphemistic” title? Evolution is the most fundamental and overarching principle of all. It can’t predict any of the happenstance, like photosynthesis or feathers or mass extinctions, but it ties them all together into a coherent theory. Evolution draws the connection between past and present. Those with us on Earth today are here for no other reason than that their ancestors were good at surviving and reproducing.
The evolution that we studied in school had to do with genes, but similar principles act on memes, the reproductive units of human culture. From the worship of ancestral spirits to the decision to practice birth control, memes compete for cultural survival. In the end, again, those that are with us today are here not because they are right or true or preordained, but simply because they have been good at surviving and spreading.
B. The Present
As we try to understand the past, we have no choice but to look through the neurological and cultural filters that are with us today.
Two related themes that came up repeatedly in my research were gradualism and categorization. The questions that we ask about history reflect the biases of our human psychology and attention spans. We want to know, “What caused X” and “When did Y first happen?” We like pat, precise answers. We like narratives and direct cause-effect sequences that we’d be able to watch in a movie. Yet when you look closely, you find that transitions were always blurry. Archaeologists once believed that modern human behavior erupted suddenly in Europe 40,000 years ago, because that’s what the available evidence showed. Then they started to find exceptions. Some demonstrations of modernity appeared earlier, and not all were in Europe. Now we must conclude that humans developed a continuum of behavior over 150,000 years and multiple continents. Nature does not progress in fits and starts; only discoveries do.
The origin of modernity now hinges on the definition of “modern”. That’s just a word, but we think in words. We expect the world to fit the word. Nature does not adhere to neat categories; our minds fabricate those.
Education and public knowledge are biased toward the most recent history. Although planetariums and dinosaur exhibits are very popular, the general public knows next to nothing about the “middle” Chapter 4 – 7 time scales. Until the scientific revolution, there was simply no body of knowledge to challenge the written record of the past. As scientists now make amazing new discoveries – written not in words but in fossils, landforms, isotopes, and DNA – they are dismissed with an undue amount of scorn and skepticism. Most likely, one of the reasons that the middle chapters are poorly represented in public discourse is that they contradict religious beliefs. Most people simply “refuse to believe” the emergence of humans from the animal kingdom. Many people also think that without religion there is no meaning. Yet we all want to know where we came from. Ancestor worship was one of the earliest religious practices. It is only natural to trace our ancestors as the generations grow exponentially. That’s where it gets really interesting! We are related to all life on Earth, and the very atoms in our body originated in stars. These profound origins are more transcendental to me than any mythology, and their power lies in their truth.
C. The Future
This book has expressly tried to avoid predictive or normative language. Now that we are right up to the present, I hope you’ll humor me for a few closing paragraphs of contemplating, “Where do we go from here?”
Most institutions handed down to us from the past were not designed to be perfect, fair, true, or efficient for all time. They were simply good at surviving, mostly in environments very different from today. With that realization, we can now question yesterday’s traditions in today’s context and ponder different possibilities for the future.
To illustrate with one quick example, we could ask, “Why are there so many dictators?” 2 Consider that governments originally evolved as belligerent monarchies to outlast one another. The European holy wars ended in stalemate, locking in “national sovereignty”, an ideal that became almost sacred and then globalized by the UN. 3 These are explanations, but they’re not good reasons to tolerate autocracy anymore. Maybe we can find innovative solutions to make all nations free.
How liberating! How terrifying! Social self-realization is already starting to blossom, and the world is changing quickly. It’s changing too rapidly for many people; we must balance the competing needs of progress and stability. That’s why liberals and conservatives need to communicate instead of trying to run each other off the road.
Beyond specific policy decisions, we must more broadly decide how to view the world and each other. Humans evolved to be politico-religious thinkers in small communities. This mindset survives. The problem is that it leads to an endless series of untruths, some of which become toxic. (If you need any convincing of mass delusion, just remember that most people don’t believe your religion or political party. They’re all fools! 😉) We are not programmed to care about people in different “categories”. We can filter evidence to justify any ideology.
Now that we live in a global information age, our politico-religious intuitions sometimes do more harm than good. Is it time to start thinking about the global greater good? How about policy based less on politics, false narratives, and emotional impulses and more on a brutally honest approach to truth?
Logic and science are the only mental tools designed to dig for truth. Unfortunately, they’ve been a hard sell. They are upstarts among the ancient paradigms, and they are not instinctive. Everyone who’s suffered through high school math knows that our brains didn’t evolve for it. Most people still turn to politics and religion for the comfortable illusions that they are enlightened about the world and they occupy a special place within it. Science instead presents indifferent laws of nature. But there is comfort in that too. The laws of nature are eternal; we can rely on them. They are universal, binding us all together. They teach us about ourselves.
I think that religious people and I share the faith that the world is 90% beautiful, 9% imperfect, and 1% terrible. We have the wherewithal to address the imperfect and the terrible, especially if we cooperate to meet nature on its own terms. In this millennium, change need not come from gods or world leaders. It may be up to ordinary people to think critically, raise their children well, and forge friendships across borders.
I’ll hand it over to you now, future reader. We’re counting on you!
II. About The Writer
Scot Fagerland is a Los Angeles based tutorney, a rare breed of entrepreneur. He is a professional tutor (sometimes to the rich or famous). He tutors most academic subjects, specializing in math, science, and standardized exams for high school, college, and graduate students. This follows two decades as an adjunct instructor of mathematics at several two- and four-year colleges. He was twice nominated for General Studies Instructor of the Year at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, where he taught statistics and economics. Scot describes his educational approach as subjective-based learning. That is, beyond the objective content, he is especially interested in observing how his students perceive, understand, misunderstand, and learn. Scot is also a small-business attorney specializing in patents. He holds a BS in Applied Mathematics from the California Institute of Technology, an MS in Engineering Science from the University of California at San Diego, and a JD from the UCLA School of Law. An amateur writer, Scot wrote TEoH in a decade’s worth of weekends. He is also an active amateur genealogist on a lifelong quest to find and visit as many of his ancestors’ graves as possible.
III. About The Cover
It is much easier to visualize astronomical scales of time three-dimensionally (with an hourglass) than with clock, timeline, or calendar models. The hourglass motif is used throughout the book and prominently on the cover. Within the glass, human civilization emerges from particles and time. The cast of onlookers represents the diversity of living humans and our ancestors from multiple time scales. Did you notice the small man standing on the hourglass base? At his scale, the glass has enough sand to last a century.
The back cover shows a geometric sequence of hourglasses, each of which (ignoring perspective) measures ten times the volume of the next one. This arrangement mirrors the chapters of the book. The first glass would last a million times as long as the seventh one.
Concept by Scot Fagerland, final design by Andy Meaden.
Email Scot at ScotFagerland@gmail.com
Stay up to date with Chapter 0: The Last Few Years (blog posts)
Scot’s other blog posts on topics such as philosophy, education, and writing / publishing.
Up to TEOH Home
- www.AshleighCahnPhotography.com ↩
- World Population Review, “Dictatorship Countries”, http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/dictatorship-countries/ (updated regularly; accessed and archived 2/14/20). ↩
- Henry Kissinger, World Order, Penguin Books (Kindle eBook edition, 2014), location 204. ↩
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