“We are in the most fundamental way, Stone Age people ourselves. From a dietary point of view, the Neolithic period is still with us. We may sprinkle our dishes with bay leaves and chopped fennel, but underneath it is all Stone Age food. And when we get sick it is Stone Age diseases we suffer” – Bill Bryson, At Home, pp. 46-7.
Bill Bryson’s brilliant book At Home, tracing the history of the house and its various rooms, starts with a chapter on how and when people actually started to have homes for the first time – when the first cities arose back around 10,000 BC. He notes that it’s odd that people formed cities and switched to agriculture. Hunter-gatherers had a better diet, were healthier, and the move to agriculture was in some ways a step down. Of course, larger populations could grow and the human need for community was far better achieved when we weren’t simply searching for game in small groups.
He also notes that this happened all around the globe at about the same time – give or take a few thousand years. That may seem like a wide discrepancy to us, but given that humans have been around for almost 200,000 years, it’s pretty amazing that suddenly we developed agriculture. Some foodstuffs like corn (maize) are completely human made, reflecting a remarkable capacity to manufacture new plant species. In a real sense, that was the start of our “age” of humanity.
Sure, there are sub-strata – the iron age, the bronze age, etc. Perhaps from a wider perspective humanity entered the “mechanical age” or the “age of agriculture” about 12,000 years ago, and that age is ending. Civilizations rose and fell in the last 12,000 years, but something happened in Europe to create a whole new reality. The Europeans moved from a traditional view of the world — one with practical knowledge built on core religious beliefs and long held traditions — to a radically new understanding of reality.
With the enlightenment individualism reached a new level. Up until then individuals existed, but identity and core perspectives remained communal, even in Europe. The idea of “individual rights” would have been virtually meaningless in most of human history, individual rights were always part and parcel of community rights and values. Distrust of tradition and an embrace of reason freed the human mind to go places that were either off limits or at least unimagined before. The printing press created the capacity to spread ideas and knowledge, making rapid growth in understanding and science possible. Gunpowder took war and politics to another level, making possible the sovereign state and the conquest of the globe by European imperialists.
Through the industrial revolution, the rise of capitalism – an entirely new mode of production that greatly expanded the capacity of humans to create material wealth – humans came to see the planet as an object to be conquered, exploited and used for whatever humans wanted. The environment was no longer sacred, but there to used as we see fit.
All of this led to the ultimate breakthrough – modernism. If I could label the new era, it would be the quantum era, one where science, knowledge and technology create a dramatic breakthrough in human capacity comparable to the rapid and still inexplicable (at least with any certainty) rise of agriculture and cities 12,000 years ago. If we are still at base Stone Age humans eating Stone Age food and getting Stone Age diseases, we may be at the beginning of not just a new era, but a new age of human development which could last 10,000 or so as well. Looked at in that light, this is an extremely exciting era to be part of!
The new era will see new foods, new diseases, new cures, and probably a completely new way of life. If we could glimpse 5000 years into the future, we might be appalled at how different it would be. The core family structure might give way to something new, the new individualism may mean human culture will be completely remade.
One thing is likely: the new era will have its peaks and valleys, major disasters and eras of plenty and prosperity — even if those terms take on completely different meanings. The glimpses we see are both compelling and frightening: genetic engineering, lack of privacy, borders ineffective, humanity more divorced from nature and community than ever before. Or will we reject that path and try to develop a future more in tune with nature and each other, choosing that over the materialist individualism of the post-enlightenment era?
Where this new era is leading is yet unknown. Our modern physics, genetic discoveries, and ability to manipulate both the planet and life itself is new territory. This brave new world will yield a new kind of human. We’re straddling eras as we dash madly into a future that is almost uncertain to be unlike anything we have yet to imagine.