hope

Humanity’s problem: Time and its perception


We are at a crossroads, but I don’t know how long we have been here and how long we are going to stay here. And is it really a crossroads or are we water flowing through the veins of the Amazon basin?

Most children die within months of being born, and most mothers die in childbirth. If you survive your infancy, you might be welcomed by a whole host of horrible diseases that you don’t the name of, but know that most people who got it are dead. You blame it on the devil, you blame it on the heathen, you blame on the witches, you seeks answers that are easy. If you make it out of childhood alive, you are greeted with a life of agony and hardship, you have to exhaust your bones just to stay alive, and a lot of the people you love keep dying around you.

Grim picture I just painted, yet not an unfamiliar one. Most people know and understand that it was the way of life for people in the past. What most people don’t think about is what past really means. Let me rewind just a little and repaint that picture:

Most children die within months of being born, and most mothers die in childbirth. If you survive your infancy, you might be welcomed by a whole host of horrible diseases that you don’t know anything about. You don’t know how to articulate your thoughts, you are at the mercy of context. If you make it out of childhood alive, you are greeted with a life of agony and hardship, you have to fight the elements, outsiders and insiders alike just to stay alive, and a lot of the people you love keep dying around you.

There isn’t much of a difference between the two pictures, other than the fact that the first one could be applied to humans only, and the second one to any animal at all. It was our condition as well a little while back, but then we all know that we are just another animal. What most people don’t realize is how recent that animal is.

Humans in their general sense came to be around 2.5 million years ago. The man we recognize today, that happened around half a million years ago. And our civilizations, language, art, science, progress– all of that is less than 20000 years old. To put that in context, the “around” I used a couple sentences back, could contain all of very modern day humanity.

Now, I understand that progress is very much logarithmic rather than linear, and one breakthrough provides a stable base for a wider range of breakthroughs. However, progress is also volatile, it isn’t a monotonically increasing curve, it sometimes has little bumps that set it back, sometimes massive ones. And although those bumps look like a tiny time on a million year scale (and they are), from a human lifetime perspective, they are entire eternities.

The reason I talk about this is because I want to understand and reframe the notion of progress through this lens. There are clearly nations, races and ethnicities that are in general more developed compared to others. The problem is that we often mistake the reason behind this progress to something that is intrinsic rather than just a super tiny setback on the gargantuan scale of humanity’s evolution- we are quick to attribute this to genetic, ethnic, cultural or racial superiority despite tons of literature showing that such claims are ambiguous at best and completely incorrect in general.

If we were to look at how far behind Africa is compared to say India, the difference at most would be half a century. And I would say it is the same if you compare India to the US or OECD. Even if you were to completely forget the recent historical context and not rely on that to explain the differences in development, 50 years is pretty much a rounding error on the scale we just described, even if we consider logarithmic progress.

Humans have a hard time understanding timescales that far exceed their lifespans, and slow moving changes are often not even considered changes by your average human (think global warming). Humanity’s progress towards a longer healthier happier life is one such change as well, although there has been a crazy amount of improvement in the last century (freely available and usable energy seems to be the key). This accelerated growth makes the progress look distorted, like viewing a car race through a wide angle lens or looking in your rear view mirror.

What is comforting is that through the same chain of logic, I can convince myself that our alarm at inequality and injustice that seems to be on the rise in the world right now is also not warranted, as this fear stems from nothing but a temporary blip, one so small that history might not even remember it on the perfectly zoomed out curve that would be the progress of humanity in the last “few” years.

Let’s hope that this reads well 10 years from now.

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