The vast sweep of human history

Photo credit: news.nationalgeographic.com

Photo credit: news.nationalgeographic.com

I’m reading a book right now (Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill) that at one point compares the spread of early humans out of Africa to a disease. He has a good argument, saying that the ability of humans to use technology allowed them to mutate, in effect, faster than local wildlife could respond and comparing human expansion to a pandemic. I might have used an invasive species as a metaphor rather than a disease because in this case it wouldn’t really be a metaphor – humans were at the time an invasive species. But in a book about pathogenesis in humans, such a comparison is apt.

So here is the question: to what extent is our history as a species inevitable?

In his novelĀ Foundation, Isaac Asimov suggested that if human civilization persisted for a long enough span of years (e.g. 12,000), then experts may be able to record and process sufficient data on human behavior to predict the future history of any group of people. In the imagined world of the novel, humanity is highly predictable and human actions are inevitable, given the sophistication of the mathematical models created by Asimov’s physchohistorians. There will always be at least one person who will try to turn any given situation to his advantage at the expense of others, and there will always be at least one person, practical or idealistic, who will work to stop him and to protect the greater good. The powerful can be manipulated by the intelligent, and most people cling to the beliefs of their cultures and follow their leaders wherever those leaders go.

But what about free will? It’s possible that 12,000 years is enough time to hide the effects of individual choices. In a large enough group of people and a long enough history, those choices become inconsequential. Or perhaps it is not the choice that no longer matters but who made it. Asimov’s psychohistory predicts that there will always be someone in a given population willing to make a certain set of choices, and it doesn’t matter who. In that sense, free will becomes not the decision to stage a military uprising or to launch the spread of an intergalactic religion but the decision to be or not to be the person who will do that.

Neither does free will play a role in the expansion of early humans across the globe. Again, the time and population sizes involved meant that humans as a whole behaved as any species which has suddenly developed an unprecedented ability to create and take over new niches may be expected to do. But this began 80,000 years ago. Has enough time now passed, have we collected enough evidence from fossils and archaeological sites and written records to begin to exert some kind of conscious control over our future?

Photo credit: wonderfulengineering.com

Photo credit: wonderfulengineering.com

InĀ Foundation, the psychohistorians used their knowledge to shape the future not by altering human behavior but by engineering a situation where human nature made the desired outcome inevitable. Might we do the same with climate change mitigation? Global food distribution? Women’s rights?

Perhaps our scale is yet too small. Perhaps we must first forge an interstellar empire. In that case, we have a very long way to go.