Saturday, July 23, 2005

A Brief History of Western Culture 

Moved up by reader request...

About fourteen billion years ago, the universe began with a Big Bang, clouds of gas and dust eventually separating out of the expanding fireball. Gravity did its work, drawing the gas and dust together, until nuclear fusion kicked in, stars were born, trapped clouds began to orbit and condense and collide.

Four and a half billion years or so ago, the Earth formed, a rocky planet orbiting third out from an average star. Eventually, monocellular life formed, then learned the tricks of the collective. Eons pass. Life grew more complicated, climbing out of the oceans, taking over the land. Eventually, dinosaurs were the dominant life form, ruling the planet for over a hundred million years. Something eventually happened – possibly an asteroid impact, possibly a super volcano, no one knows yet – and the dinosaurs went bye-bye. Mammals stepped into the niche.

One particular class of mammals, pseudo-bipedal primates with opposable thumbs, slowly grew and evolved. Time passed. The first species of the genus Homo, Homo Habilis, lived for about a million years, up until a million and a half years ago. Various other species of the genus developed, grew bigger brains, slowly changed over time. Then, two hundred thousand years ago, Homo Sapiens – us – figured out stone tools, and language, and walking upright and a whole bunch of other things. Apparently, Homo Neanderthalensis also figured out a lot of the same things around the same time, but they wound up on the short bus of history, apparently extinct.

The end result is still the same. Nearly fourteen billion years after the Big Bang, humankind pops up, a mere eyeblink in the history of the universe from the birth of our kind until now. (The eyeblink is 1/70,000th of the universe’s life span.)

It took about another hundred and ninety thousand years or so before Homo Sapiens crawled into the middle east and suddenly started doing things really differently than every other species. Ten thousand years ago, agriculture was invented. Cities arose. Writing and law and science and art became human occupations. Our species learned more about the workings of the physical world in a few thousand years than in the entire multi-billion year history of that world previous. We learned to predict the seasons by following the moon and planets, when to plant and when to harvest. We took control of nature, and we thrived.

We still had (and still have) trappings of our mammalian past, though, mostly living in hierarchical societies with an Alpha as leader, their Beta enforcers, a whole bunch of underlings relying on them, and the obligatory Omegas, who exist solely to make the underlings feel okay about themselves. Not exactly the best system in the world, but it worked. There were wars and famines, to be sure, but we obviously made it through in one piece. Various major cultures rose and fell. Three thousand years ago, Greece stepped up to the plate and, for seven hundred years, dominated what is now Europe and the Mediterranean. It was a time when science and rational thought predominated – most of our philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, physics, aesthetics and literature are rooted in the developments made by the Greeks.

Greece was followed on her heels by Rome – in fact, in many ways, the Roman Empire is really just an absorption and overlap of the Greek Empire. From Zeus to Jupiter; Ares to Mars. The Romans borrowed everything from the Greeks, and perpetuated the growth of science and art, and etc.

The Roman Empire brought together much of modern Europe and the middle east as one entity. Disparate cultures mixed and mingled, and there were many a place that didn’t need to be conquered because they realized they’d be much better off as part of Rome.

Rome lasted for a thousand years. About a century before her death, its Emperor went a little crazy, adopted a three-hundred year old cult, turned the place into a theocracy, banished all other religions and forced conversion of the people.

Surprise, surprise. The Roman Empire embraced Christianity in 325 CE. In the next century, the Empire split in two (after having been briefly re-united), and the western Roman Empire ceased to exist in 476 CE.

Religion – specifically Christianity – ruled the western world and for nearly a thousand years, nothing of cultural significance happened. Well, not quite true. Nothing good happened. But, a few hundred years later when another theocracy had arisen in the middle east, the Christians decided to launch a Crusade against them, Islam, and embarked on a long series of pointless battles over a small piece of land. For an excellent read on the entire history of the Crusades, check out Dungeon, Fire and Sword by John J. Robinson. Suffice it to say that, when the Pope was the real ruler of the West, stupidity ensued. I won’t even get into the Inquisition here.

The point is, human culture flourished for three and a half millennia, then stopped dead in its tracks when superstition took over. During the Dark Ages, all art, science and culture were warped to religious ends. There were no scientific discoveries because scientific explanations contradicted easy theological answers. The Earth had to be the center of the solar system and the universe because god said so; heaven had to be beyond the plane of stars and hell somewhere underground. God forbid anyone should dig down or shoot a rocket upwards to find out the truth. From the 5th to 13th centuries CE, the west was stuck in a rut. Even as rumblings of the Renaissance began in the 14th century, everything was still subsumed to religion. Dante is considered the first Renaissance poet, but he’s best known for his religious epic The Divine Comedy, and most people are only familiar with the one interesting part of the trilogy, Inferno – Dante’s trip into hell – because that’s where all the cool bits are.

But... the Renaissance was a rediscovery of (surprise, surprise) all that Greek and Roman art and science that had been in hiding for so many centuries, suppressed as pagan by the church. And where had it been hiding? Why, in the Muslim world. This marked the second time that Islam bailed out Christendom, actually. The first was when Marmeluks defeated the Mongols in the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 CE. Had the Muslims not stopped Genghis Khan then, all of Europe would have been absorbed into his empire, and we would be living in a quite different world.

In 1453 CE, the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks, and the Dark Ages ended. In less than fifty years, Christopher Columbus was off to (re)discover the new world, and suddenly European art and science began to flourish again. Just a few of the big names of the 15th and 16th Centuries: DaVinci, Gutenberg, Michelangelo, Thomas More, Martin Luther, Cervantes, Shakespeare, John Donne. The spinning wheel is invented – the first turn of the eventual industrial revolution. And, over these two centuries, independent monarchs arise in Europe – Henry VIII having the royal balls to tell the Pope to get stuffed, thereby starting the Church of England and showing the world that it could be done.

In the 17th century, things really get cooking. Harvard is founded. Torture is outlawed in England. New York and Boston are born. René Descartes cogitates. Locke and Hobbes philosophize. And Isaac Newton takes all the old Greek and Roman science and revolutionizes it, and brings us the first theories and laws that lead directly to all the fancy science we have now. The computer on which you’re reading this, the Internet over which it’s flowing, the space station, and on and on, were all born with the start of classical mechanics.

Which brings us to now, more or less. In the five centuries since theocracy in the west was stomped down, humankind has made more advances than in its entire ten thousand year odd history previous; more advances than in the two hundred thousand years since the birth of Homo Sapiens. And we’ve made more scientific advances in the last fifty years than in all that time previous; more in the last ten years than in the last fifty, and it just keeps getting faster and faster and better.

But... there are still remnants of Dark Age thinking among us, of which I’ll cite but two examples. First is the movement against stem cell research, which would deny breakthroughs that could cure many, many human diseases -- all because of their misguided, uninformed superstitions about where stem cells come from. Second is the push to try to put “creationism” on equal footing with evolution as a theory about the origin of mankind. The latter should sound familiar – it’s exactly what the Catholic Church did when Galileo tried to say that the Earth revolved around the sun. Rather than look at the evidence with their own eyes (and trust that any result would be a part of their god’s plan), they denied that evidence and insisted that things had to be a certain way. They ignored the facts to fit their theory, hardly science at all.

It’s exactly what creationists do now, and if you look at the numbers, you’ll notice something interesting. The more hardline creationists set the date that everything began at October, 4004 BCE – meaning that their universe is a mere 6009 years old. This is a bit younger than human culture but about the same age as recorded human history – if you want to ignore all those ten thousand year old and older cultural artifacts we’ve been finding of late. What’s significant about this is that, like the church’s terracentric universe, it tries to put mankind at the center of everything. It comes out of a deep insecurity, that we aren’t special, that we weren’t put here for a reason. But, dammit, we’re running the planet, we must be special, right? Right...?

How convenient, then, that creationists think of all those fossils as false evidence planted by Satan to trick us. It allows them to ignore what I stated previously. Dinosaurs ruled the Earth for about ten thousand times as long as we’ve been around and, as far as we know, they never developed any sort of culture or technology at all. But they came first and lasted (so far) a lot longer. They put us away from the center of things. (A nice mind-twister, though: could any sort of manufactured artifact survive the sixty-five million years of planetary change that have ensued? What if the dinosaurs killed themselves in a nuclear war? They certainly had the time to evolve to that stage.)

The story of humankind has been a journey of discovery, from that first flint arrowhead right up to the Large Hadron Collider and beyond. See Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for the most brilliant distillation of this fact ever presented onscreen; he tells the entire story in a single cut.

So, we have a choice. We can continue to explore and learn about our universe, to exploit whatever advances we can, to educate ourselves and others. We create our own meaning to the universe. It doesn’t matter whether humankind was “created” with a special position or not. We’ve gotten to a special position, and we can chose to use it.

Or, we can fall prey (pray) to superstition, pretend that we were dropped into this universe to make some invisible cloud being happy, ignore facts and reality and science – and plunge ourselves back into the Dark Ages, where nothing happened for a millennia. Nothing but war and plague and hatred and intolerance.

Kind of ironic, isn’t it? The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are most active when the religious folk are in charge. Once the church got kicked to the curb and secular states took over, the Horsemen were reined in (and/or reigned in) and humankind has again flourished, defeating many diseases and reducing famine. We haven’t gotten rid of War yet (but the current one is, notably, just an extension of the Crusades), but anything is possible. It may seem unlikely that we’ll ever defeat Death but, you never know. Again, some theorists think it can be done.

You never know without science, and you can never appreciate it without art. We have a choice as a species: willful ignorance and subservience to false idols, or investigation and education, a striving toward new ideals. We can go the way of the dinosaurs or the way of the stars, but the only thing that can save us is ourselves.


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A most fine entry there. It doesn't get more simple and straightforward than that. But, it may be the devil talking through you trying to trick us. Heh. Silly superstitions.
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