Saturday, March 16, 2013

It is not enough to say that human action is historical, and that history is an unfolding of unique events. Nothing fundamental separates the course of human history from the course of physical history, whether in the stars or in organic diversity. –Edward O. Wilson

We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding together the sum-total of what is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind fully to command more than a small specialized portion of it. I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true aim be lost for ever) than that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them, and at the risk of making fools of themselves. –Erwin Schrödinger

Volume One Table of Contents

Notes on Usages and Other Matters    vii

Prologue   ix

I. First Things

Introduction    2

The Questions    14

Propositions and Premises    15

How It Looks to Us: The Human Frame of Reference    22

A Species Lost in Both Space and Time    26

The Search: The Existential Dilemma of the Human Being    33

II. Hidden Realities

That Which Is    52

Self-Organization and Emergence     53

The Rules of the Game: Preface     62

The Rules of the Game: The Original Rulebook    64

The Rules of the Game: The New Rulebook     77

Is Mathematics the Real Reality?     104

Randomness, Probability, and Coincidence   112

Chains of Unintended Consequences   121

Synergy and Feedback Loops   128

Patterns, Cycles, and Shapes   137

The World as a Set of Interrelated Systems   145

The World as a Non-Equilibrium System   152

The Worlds of Reality   160

III. The Emergence of Human Consciousness—A Chronology

Condensing the History of the Universe   166

Beginning   167

The First Stars   176

The First Galaxies   182

The Sun   188

The Earth Forms   195

The Earliest Life on Earth   204

The Dominance of the One-Celled Life Forms   226

Life in the Oceans: The Animals Evolve and Begin to Spread   243

The Plant Kingdom Begins to Colonize the Land   258

The Animal Kingdom Begins to Colonize the Land   267

The Reptiles and the Synapsids Evolve  275

The Mammals   282

A Life in the Trees: The Primates Evolve   294

Evolution of the Genus Homo   328

The Diaspora of Modern Consciousness: Homo Sapiens Spreads Throughout the World   356

Human Life Since the Advent of Written Records   391

IV. Humans as Physical Beings

Humans in the Context of Life   396

The Human Animal: A General Survey of Its Composition, Structure, Function, Capacities, and Limitations   405

Aging and the Human Lifespan  436

Appendix 442

Chapter Notes and Sources for Volume One 443

Index to Volume One   478

Sunday, October 10, 2010


To Hailey and Aubrey, Whom I Love More Than I Could Possibly Express, from Grandpa


He was entering what was perhaps the final stretch of a life he had never quite mastered or understood. He had been luckier than most other humans and yet he was immersed in darkness much of the time. Whenever he was able to pull himself out of his tired self-absorption, he looked out onto a reality that was deceptively ordinary, but many decades of living in the world had taught him that life was more complicated than its mundane façade suggested. Everywhere he looked in the larger world, humans grappled with an existence that seemed to be governed by random chance, and what many of them called “fate” or “luck”, as much as it was by human intent. He saw most of his fellow humans clinging to the hope that there was a larger reality beyond their sight, one controlled by a god or gods or spirits, a plane of existence to which they could turn for solace, reassurance, and meaning. In their fondest hopes, most humans wished for some form of eternal survival beyond the inevitable grave that awaited each of them. He could no longer hold such beliefs in his own heart, however much he wanted or needed to. He secretly hoped that he was wrong about the unseen world, but he suspected that he wasn't.

Everywhere the human enterprise seemed to be just barely keeping ahead of disaster. Many times it couldn't even do that. Everything seemed to be at the edge of chaos at any given moment, and yet, remarkably, the human expedition stumbled blindly forward, heading…where? Getting through the day was the business of the vast bulk of his fellow travelers, and his kind had done so, in one form or another, in one setting or another, in  one way or another, on a continuous basis for more centuries than he could comprehend. He had studied a little of the story of the humans, at least those parts that had been written down, and he couldn't see any time in their experience when life hadn't been either at the edge of chaos or swept up in it completely. He thought about the twists and turns of his own uncertain life, the often strange depths of his thoughts and feelings, the kaleidoscopic mixture of associations that the world triggered inside of him, and the diaphanous images and inaudible sounds that floated in the perpetual river running through his head. Standing in the evening quiet, he realized that every one of those of his kind who had ever walked on this tiny, insignificant planet had lived their own unique, unscripted drama, and been the center of their own incomprehensible universe. The history of the humans, he surmised, had been so strange, so filled with unexpected events, so baffling in its complexity, and so difficult to understand because it was a reflection of the interior world of those who had made it and been engulfed by it, people who lived in a physical reality they only vaguely understood, one that shaped them and affected them at every turn.

In his presumption, he formed an idea about why human history had taken the course it had. The idea was his suspicion that no one really, fully, completely, comprehensively understood themselves, or how they had come to be the way they were, and it did not matter if they thought they did. He decided to follow this suspicion wherever it led him, little realizing that not only would he seek to understand history’s course—he would eventually seek to understand why history had come to be at all.

First Things

Introduction, Part One


This book is my attempt to explain, in as straightforward and comprehensive a way as I can, my ideas about how humans acquired the ability to make and record history, the multitudinous and interconnected variables that have shaped history, why that history has taken such a convoluted and unpredictable course, and why attempts to draw meaning from history and make inferences about its future course are basically acts of futility. In a larger sense, I attempted what surely must have been a Fool’s Errand: I tried to figure out  the place of our species in the vast context of reality itself. I tried to bring together as many salient facts and observations about that reality as I could, always bearing in mind an essential truth: I am inescapably trapped in the prison of human perception and the human frame of reference—and so are you. The challenge I faced was even more overwhelming than I had expected. It was perhaps even essentially paradoxical: I tried to analyze a reality that I can only experience indirectly. Naturally, I approached this task with trepidation and a deep sense of humility. Of course, this whole exercise has, inevitably, fallen short. It did not do all that I wanted it to do. But for my own very personal reasons, I had to attempt it anyway.

This project is, ultimately, an act of synthesis, a synthesis of the largest kind, one in which I attempt to combine, in  a new way, every aspect of the human experience and the factors that affect it. There are many more qualified than I to attempt such a thing, but I wanted to see what I would discover by doing it myself. In writing this book, I was guided by the idea that if I piled up simple things, stated obvious facts, brought together data from people more educated and specialized than I, asked the right questions, and admitted what I did not know as honestly as I could, then I would end up with a picture of reality that at least seemed to be right, even though I knew it would not be complete and would only seem right to me. To put it in another way: I hoped that after I put all the pixels where it seemed like they should go—and by pixels I mean all the individual facts, questions, and observations I brought together in this work—that when I stood back from them, something that made sense would  appear to me. It did, but it was not what I had anticipated or imagined.

In order to create such a picture, I stated much that is absolutely obvious, and in reading this, it will often seem to you that I am wasting your time telling you what you already know. Much of what I said will strike you as common knowledge, and ordinary in the extreme. But there is a reason for this: only by building up layer after layer of simple phenomena could I hope to gain some understanding, however limited, of a larger, more complicated reality. In fact, the entire scheme of this book’s organization has been built around this concept, as I have tried to go from examining that which is most basic to that which is most elaborated. 

Sometimes I investigated ordinary events that are usually hidden from plain view. Sometimes I pointed out phenomena that are not noticed because we tend to screen out from our attention that which seems commonplace or routine. Further, I am of the conviction that even obvious and readily apparent objects or processes, if systematically stripped down to their essentials, can be seen in a new light. In effect, by starting with the most basic and seemingly mundane facts, it may be possible for us to work our way up through the levels of emergent reality. My thinking was that if I said enough ordinary and obvious things in the right way and in the right order, then what would emerge would be extraordinary and surprising, even though our over-all understanding will remain severely limited. Whether I succeeded is, of course, for you to judge. I believe, by the way, that once we have examined reality in this way, we can never go back to our previous way of thinking about it.

Similarly, in trying to trace the origins of our myriad problems as a species, I tried to explain how enormous, incredibly complicated problems emerge from masses of simple ones, like a series of small fires combining to make a conflagration. I also tried to demonstrate that the more variables a problem has, and the more sources of origin from which it springs, the more difficult its solution. Further, I realized the “solution” to a problem may simply tend to engender further problems, some of which may be genuinely intractable. It is as if humans are trapped by their own cognitive limitations in a never-ending game that, as a species, they cannot leave. None of their solutions to the challenges they face is permanent, all of them entail unknown risks and hidden costs,  and all of them generate unforeseen consequences that will compel other sets of humans to attempt their own stop-gap measures, ad infinitum.

In the physical world, a mass of simple things, interacting and interconnected with each other, can cause new kinds of physical reality to emerge. The ultimate physical basis of reality as humans perceive it is a collection of utterly simple units of energy-matter, totally basic in both their nature and their operation. They follow unbelievably simple rules, and do unbelievably simple things in a completely unremarkable way. But allow enough of these operations to go forward in space-time, and the seemingly chaotic nature of their interactions resolves itself into a new level of organization.

In the human world, the basic features of the human psyche and its interactions with external reality can be very simple in nature. But a mass of simplicities interacting and interconnecting can cause a complex psychology to emerge. When a large number of these complex psychologies interact with each other, a phenomenon called social life emerges. And as patterns of social life grow and merge with patterns from other regions of the planet’s surface, a new kind of world emerges.

And I followed this approach of piling up simplicities for another reason: as far as I can tell, this is how the Universe itself, and all the amazing phenomena within it, came to be.

It’s simply how reality works.


In the writing of this work, I made myself follow some rules.

For one thing, I tried to get my facts straight. I’m sure I did not always succeed, but I tried. I do not like getting things wrong, but I have to admit that a lot of times I do. I did the best I could.

I tried to be honest with both you and myself. I admitted when I did not understand something. I admitted when I could not find all the facts. I admitted when my own feelings were getting in the way of telling you something. I admitted when people smarter than I am and more educated than I am disagreed on some issue that seem to be pretty important. I did not try to hide anything from you. I did not deliberately try to mislead you. (I might have done that accidentally, though; given my absurdly ambitious goals, it could not be helped.) I did not stop myself from saying something I thought needed to be said, even if I did not like it and if you do not like it or anyone else does not like it. I said it anyway.

In using words, I tried to avoid doing the following things:

I tried very hard to not use words that deliberately conceal meaning rather than reveal it. I did not say someone “expired” or “passed away” when I was trying to say they are dead now or they’ve died. In other words, I dislike euphemisms, and I did not use them, even if they would have made what I am saying less hurtful or not so blunt. I also tried to avoid using “colorful” language, expressions that might mean something to people who speak my language but would mean nothing to people who do not. You might call these figures of speech or idioms or figurative language. I did my best to not let such expressions get in the way of what I was trying to say. I tried to avoid using too many metaphors and similes, which can often be ambiguous, but I used some.

There are some other rules I tried to make myself follow. I tried really hard to never use the same term to describe every person in a given situation or place or time. I also tried  to avoid using some big, sweeping term to try to describe everything that happened in a given era, or some term I thought applied to every situation that seemed to be similar to others. In other words, I tried to avoid generalization. I tried not to judge people who have gone through experiences I have not had, although I am sure my judgments were pretty obvious sometimes, anyway. And I tried to never talk as if I have all the answers, have everything figured out, and am always right. I am too old to lie to myself in those ways.

There are other rules I followed, but I can’t think of them now.

Because I consider most of what we believe we know to be tentative, after you have read this book you may conclude that I never took a direct stand about anything, that I used language that was not definite, was not confident in its tone, or which did not seem to assert that a thing is absolutely true. This may be your thinking because I tried to avoid the error of speaking with too much certainty. By speaking with certainty I mean making a statement that something is absolutely true beyond any doubt, and which no being, however intelligent and all-knowing, could say was wrong. Because I used this definition, I was pretty strict about what I would admit is certain.

It  may seem to you, therefore, that I could not decide anything once and for all. I can only say that no question ever seems to be fully explained, and that we must always—always—leave room for the possibility that we are wrong, and that things aren’t what they seem to be.

You may sense that I have repeated myself in places. This cannot be helped. In my opinion, everything tells us something about everything else. And certain things that seem to be true in one subject seem to be true in others, so they bear mentioning in all of them. I hope you will be patient with me in this respect.

I think that the way we divide the study of reality into different parts is necessary, in one way, because reality is such a big subject, and our senses and our deductive reasoning have acquired an enormous amount of information that relates to it. But in another way, the divisions between subjects can lead us to focus too narrowly and ignore subjects we either aren’t interested in or aren’t very knowledgeable about. If we really want to form in our heads some kind of coherent idea of reality, we have to try to touch on every area that humans have learned something about. I really do not see how it could be otherwise. Although I spent most of my professional life teaching history and the social sciences, I am a generalist. I certainly do not claim to have anything like comprehensive knowledge in all areas (I am not delusional!) but I tried to incorporate everything I could that seems to tell us something important about the situation we seem to find ourselves in. I made a lot of mistakes, and I left a lot of important things out, without doubt. Any errors in the book are my responsibility alone.

And I realize something both obvious and easy to overlook: there is nothing I could write that would in any way replicate the actual experience of being alive in the totality of life. After all, reading about the world and moving through it are two somewhat dissimilar activities, even allowing for the fact that reading is a way of moving through the world. Further, any systematic analysis of the world seems, to many people at least, somewhat bloodless, devoid of the feeling with which life is suffused, a dry exercise lacking in the sensory  realness of waking existence. For this, I apologize in advance, as I acknowledge another deep challenge I faced: all attempts to analyze and classify the characteristics of messy, complicated, warm-blooded life must inevitably be misleading, or at best, incomplete.


This book is not about me, but I have to tell you about why I needed (yes, needed) to write it.

I suppose that I became interested in history because I found it easy, at least at first. I’ve always been drawn to stories, and the deeper I went into it, the more awe-inspiring the story of the humans seemed to me. In fact, I came to see it as simply The Story, the biggest one of them all, the biggest one there could be. Naturally, like so many boys, I was drawn to depictions of war because they seemed so exciting and dramatic to me, removed as I was from any actual experience with their subject matter. I would grow to know better later on, even though I was spared from the terrors and drudgery of combat. I matured; my perspective changed.

Later, in college, history was one of my academic specialties, and I was immersed in its disciplines in a serious way for the first time. I found its sheer complexity, the intricacy of the human relationships it described, and the story of the sweep of human events over space and time deeply compelling, even though the often mind-numbing details of human life sometimes overwhelmed me.  I began to wonder why the story of our species was so strange, why it took so many unexpected turns, and why human affairs so often came to disastrous ends.

I became a high school teacher, and plunged into the challenges of trying to educate often distracted and disinterested teenagers. Somewhat to my own surprise, one of the subjects I became interested in early in my career was physical anthropology. Although I had been trained as a history and political science teacher, I found that my research had left me without answers to some of my most pressing questions. Since I passionately wanted to know why human history had turned out as it did, it occurred to me that I needed to know what kind of animal had made and been affected by this history, suspecting that the two questions were deeply interconnected. From that time onward my anthropological studies affected my interpretation of human history. I studied the basics of human evolution, taught both physical and cultural anthropology for a while (although I did not acquire a formal degree in those subjects) and went on to complete a master’s degree in history. I also taught sociology, government and politics, early American history, and various aspects of European and general world history, And as I grew and matured in my academic work, I became more and more convinced that I could not know where we were and how we had gotten there without knowing what we were.  Little did I know the many avenues down which the pursuit of answers to these questions would lead me 

Introduction, Part Two


When you teach history for enough years, it begins to dawn on you that human life has developed in ways that seem to defy any logical analysis. It also occurs to you that humanity’s life on this planet today is so complex and filled with interrelated variables that no one can really foresee in any detail what might happen in the future, despite the tiresome cliché that humans “learn” from history. (From where I stand, it seems that they have learned very, very little from it.)  Anyone who sees a plan of some sort in all of this is more perceptive than I, because I cannot, for the life of me, discern one. If we were to take the most intellectually gifted human being in the world of 10,000 years ago and show him or her something of the nature of human life today, I am pretty sure that person would have virtually no comprehension of it, and would be completely at a loss to explain how it got that way. If that strikes you as too extreme of a case, let us take a person from the year 1000 CE and carry out the same exercise. Looking at the aftermath of ten centuries of relentless change would leave that person bewildered and shaken. There would be, of course, some institutions he or she, if a European, might recognize—the Roman Catholic Church, for example—but even that would be fantastically different from what it was a thousand years ago. The majority of the Church’s adherents now live in places the person from 1000 CE, if he or she were a European, did not even know existed. And this medieval-era genius would, I am pretty sure, be utterly at a loss to explain what had happened to produce the world of the 21st century. If the most intelligent person in the world of 1000 CE were African, he or she would be shocked at the vast upheavals that ten centuries of change inflicted on Africa (as well as the true immensity of the continent’s landmass).  If he or she were Chinese or Indian, all of the empires and dynasties that comprised the political reality of their worlds would be gone. If the person were a pre-Columbian Native American, the virtual eradication of the multitudinous native cultures of the Americas would probably seem nothing less than an utter catastrophe, the coming of which would have been completely unexpected.

Even  the most brilliant individual from the world of 1900 would have difficulty giving a coherent explanation of how the world of today came to be the way that it is. If he or she had not seen it or studied it themselves, it is unlikely that they would grasp the enormity of the political, scientific, technological, and social changes that have swept across this planet since the last year of the nineteenth century. But we shouldn’t feel a sense of superiority over our hypothetical observers from 10,000, 1,000, or a little over 100 years ago—we’re in exactly the same situation in regard to the future as they are in relation to us. Despite our confident assertions and computer-based prediction models, we have not any more of a clue about what the world will really be like in 100 years than our observer from 1900. And any attempt to predict the nature of the world 1,000 or 10,000 years hence would be laughable, or simply an example of science fiction.

Moreover—and in a more humbling way—we still aren’t sure ourselves of how the past produced the world we have now. In fact, it is my opinion that the world is now so vastly complex that no person, however well educated, keenly informed, and gifted with fluid intelligence, really understands more than a small part of it in detail. The dilemma, as I see it is that humans, possessing a consciousness that only permits them to understand their own situation partially, are forced to act on incomplete information, whether they realize it or not. There are so many variables acting on any one of these situations, so many chains of consequence intersecting each other at each moment, so many synergies at work, and so many unanticipated outcomes being set into motion by them, that no human or even set of humans can predict the ultimate effect of any given action. Obviously, very simple actions (such as the act of picking up a pencil off the floor) are less consequential and less affected by variables, but the more our actions involve other people and the larger physical world around us, the more unpredictable their outcomes will be. Huge events, such as wars, for example, generate incomprehensibly huge and complex consequences, ones far beyond our collective ability to understand.

Given the complexity of their interaction, it was my objective, therefore, to consider as many of the variables that affect human history as I possibly could, examining each in isolation and then attempting to explain its relationships to the others. Individually, these variables are usually explicable. But the combinations in which they act are absolutely bewildering, as I believe you will see.
Humans are, I believe, pretty good at creating realities too complicated for humans to comprehend. I further contend that the innumerable and multivariate interactions of humans (as an entire species) with each other and with the rest of the physical reality around them, over space and time, have created problems that may be too complicated for humans to extricate themselves from. (I emphasize the word may--I am not wholly devoid of hope.)


And then, there is the tragic side of our experience.

All things end; all civilizations crumble or change beyond recognition; there is nothing permanent, it would seem, to which to cling with certitude. Death will come for all of us. Nothing built by humans will ultimately last. These are the inescapable tragedies of our existence, and they are likely always to be. But there are tragedies more intimate, more immediate, and more palpable, that have weighed on us since our genus’s emergence.

I do not want to exaggerate the difficulties humans have experienced in their centuries on this tiny speck of a planet. Most lives have their share of laughter, their times of celebration, their everyday joys and satisfactions. And the point must be made repeatedly: the vast majority of the human experience has been marked by the routine, the ordinary, the commonplace, and the unremarkable.

However, we need to ask ourselves, “has human life been a good experience for most people throughout our journey from 2.5 million years ago to the present?” As I see it, the answer must be this: most humans have survived on this planet only with tremendous difficulty. The lot of humanity has been hardship, to an appalling degree. Humans, as animals, are subject to physical suffering of all kinds, and our story has been filled with disease, hunger, frequent pain, disfigurement, and premature decline. The unluckiest among us are tormented by illnesses, physical or mental, every single hour of their lives. Most humans have worked or still work like pack animals every day. Most of their lives are or have been scarred, at least part of the time, by material deprivation, fear, and uncertainty. Natural disasters have drowned, sundered, crushed, buried, starved, or burned countless humans through the ages.

But the most tragic part of our story has been what we do to each other—and to ourselves. No part of our history is more difficult for me to deal with than the terrible story of what we are capable of doing when we deny or ignore the humanity of other people—and ignore our own humanity as well.

War has been depressingly common in the history of Homo sapiens. Despite human attempts to glamorize it or glorify it, it has always been what it is today—gruesome, horrible, stupid, and destructive of both body and mind, however necessary it might sometimes be.  Over the last 5,000 years there has scarcely been a time when there was no major war raging somewhere on this planet, a damning indictment of human failure. These wars have frequently involved the mass killing of whole civilian populations, and our ability to slaughter non-combatants has risen to the point where we now, as a species, possess the means to exterminate ourselves completely. Mass killing, in fact, is arguably the greatest of all human skills. And the resources squandered in wars represent perhaps the greatest of all examples of human waste.

Uncounted humans have been swallowed up in the grim world of slavery, a world that still exists today, despite all international efforts to abolish it. Torture, the most terrible and depraved of all human actions, has a long and hideous history. Both physical and mental torture are still widely practiced, and governments are still good at rationalizing them. Prisoners are often kept in the most barbaric of conditions, and justice for the poorest among us is usually harsh. And ordinary people everywhere have groaned under the weight of political systems designed to serve a small handful of power-intoxicated tyrants while treating the lower orders as expendable sub-humans.

The way many of our species’ children have been treated is further cause for a sense of shame and outrage in any decent person. Infanticide has a long and terrible history. Small children have been used for brutally heavy labor throughout human existence. Children have been physically and mentally abused, sexually assaulted, neglected and abandoned so frequently in the story of our species that most of us turn away from thinking about it, lest we fall into utter despair.

Just as sadly, abuse does not cease after childhood. Interpersonal violence of all kinds has marked human life, as individuals have shown themselves capable of the most terrible cruelty imaginable. Women have often been treated as property and subjected to the most degrading and humiliating treatment, kept ignorant, and generally denied the fullness of the human experience. People have cheated one another in every possible way, have stolen without conscience, have lied to, betrayed, and deceived each other, and ruined each other’s prospects with such regularity that we have come to see these actions as simply part of the fabric of life itself. People in desperate need, who could have easily been helped, have been allowed to starve, go without shelter, die of treatable illness, or wander the streets in madness and squalor, victims of malice and indifference.

Humans have participated in unspeakable horrors based solely on factors such as the victim’s appearance or religious affiliation. Persecutions, riots, pogroms, massacres, and lynchings directed against unpopular minorities among us have been so common that we grow numb reading about them. Even apart from these, there remains prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, and routine injustice of every kind, often backed by the power of law or religious custom.

Countless human tragedies have been brought about by bad judgment, faulty reasoning, incompetence, misinterpreted information, faulty communications, and plain old garden-variety stupidity. Humans have misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted, misrembered, and wrongly estimated virtually everything imaginable. They have sold themselves to every sort of swindle, grasping at wildly illogical hopes. They have fervently embraced ludicrous superstitions and held beliefs so absurd one would have thought no one capable of believing them. They have started terrible fights over simple misunderstandings, broken off personal relationships of great emotional value over trivialities, lost contact with loved ones over old grudges, and generally quite often acted to ruin every chance at personal happiness that came their way. Family members have tormented, abused, and emotionally destroyed each other so frequently that we have come to see these things as “normal” And there are the innumerable small, petty injuries and insults so many people heap upon non-family members in the course of daily life, embittering and eroding the lives of all who must endure them.

Humans have, with appalling frequency, destroyed their own homes, denuded landscapes, fouled bodies of water, made the air stink with choking pollutants, killed off animals on which they relied, and made their environments disaster areas. In some ways, it’s kind of surprising we’re still here, and if we had possessed more advanced weapons during some of the more savage eras of human history, I doubt that we would be.

No wonder the study of humanity has broken so many hearts and caused so many hopes to die. Finding out what our fellow humans are capable of is, in my view, the point at which any childhood innocence that might still remain in us vanishes forever.


At this juncture, you are probably tempted to interject that humans have frequently, very frequently, acted in ways the exact opposite of those I have just mentioned. You could argue—and you would be right—that humans have shown each other countless acts of love, kindness, mercy, considerateness, compassion, and empathy. You could point to innumerable examples of self-sacrifice, bravery in the face of terrible evil, and a thousand forms of everyday heroism. You could point to the good humor in the face of the world so many have shown. You could argue that the catalogue of human decency overflows with examples—and it does. You could hold up many, many happy families. And you could urge us to consider the glorious crown of human creativity in the arts, as well. All of this needs to be remembered.  

There are also the everyday miracles of forgiveness, reconciliation, repentance, and renewal that occur again and again and again in the course of human life. These small graces are just as real as any of our sins, and they do more to keep the human enterprise going than many of us suspect. In these acts, ties that were severed or damaged are healed, and new lives are made possible. We need to remember that, too.

Further, there has been some progress in the larger course of human life. Children, on the whole, are somewhat better off now than they have ever been, and they are certainly more widely educated than ever. Women have improved their status in many parts of the world and have now reached social equality in some areas. Slavery has been greatly reduced; the more gruesome forms of torture have been made less common; and human rights are more widely respected now than at any time in history. Health care has made huge strides, material wealth has spread very widely (albeit unevenly), political freedom has made genuine gains, scientific and technical knowledge have vastly expanded, and the majority of humanity is reasonably well fed, although many still die of malnutrition and diseases related to it. Humans in all parts of the world have been responsible for these victories, and countless people today experience a dignity they once could not have imagined.

And yet, this progress has been achieved only by the most excruciating and exhausting effort, often at the cost of innumerable lives along the way. We may well ask ourselves: Why has it taken so long to improve things? Why was it so hard for us to get to where we are? Why have the ancient sins persisted so stubbornly? And why have our worst instincts and tendencies so often triumphed over our best ones? Those are good questions to bear in mind, because there are no guarantees that any of our achievements will be lasting.

When I look over the broad course of human history, I see the human species lumbering on through the centuries, gathering new knowledge and acquiring new skills, and yet  still lurching from crisis to crisis, suffering catastrophic setbacks, and often losing ground that was bought at a fearful price. Quite frankly, I see no pattern at all in any of this. I have studied human history for more than 40 years, and I find no great sweeping cycles in it, I find no instance in which history has “repeated itself”, and I find no “scientific” principles that would allow us to make predictions about it. Above all, I see a species that evolved just enough intelligence to survive and flourish in every region of the planet, but not enough to deal with the consequences of its own ignorance, malice, and, in all honesty, delusional thinking. All of our progress is threatened at every moment by these persistent realities.

Introduction, Part Three


So what is the root cause of our extraordinary abilities, our conflicts, our achievements, our confusion, and our inability to understand ourselves and our own motives? The fundamental fact of human history (and prehistory, for that matter) as I see it is that some of the species within the primate order began to evolve consciousness, and in some of the hominids this proved so biologically useful as a survival mechanism that its development accelerated almost exponentially. Humans, therefore, had this amazing capability, one that set them above all other animals. But they didn't realize they had it, and they didn’t know what it was. (And in truth, how could they have?) They didn't realize for countless millennia that what they automatically considered to be reality was actually a version of reality, that the information pouring into their senses was being filtered and organized by the most complex organic phenomenon in the known Universe, our brains. Only now are we beginning to grasp something of the almost frightening complexity of human consciousness. We still have difficulty even defining the term consciousness, much less understanding more than a fraction of its ramifications.

Our consciousness's complexity and intricacy are the sources of much of our ideology, major components of our psychology, the origin of our faiths (perhaps), our philosophies, what we believe we understand about the world, and much (though not all) of our behavior. Since humans do not fully grasp their own minds, they are less in control of events than they believe they are. I contend that people do not completely understand their own motives. I further contend that this poorly understood and inadequately controlled mental reality accounts for the bizarre, tortuous ways in which human society has developed and in which human history has unfolded. The unbelievable complexity of the human world and the daunting problems we face are exactly what we might have expected from a species whose members are more at the mercy of randomness than they would like to admit, a species whose members are inherently incapable of grasping the wholeness of their own reality, and a species whose members are driven by internal thoughts and instincts that they cannot fully understand.

So as I see it, human social reality at any given moment is the sum total of all the consequences of all the incompletely understood actions of all the humans who have ever acted, combined with the effects, throughout our time on this planet, of the forces, influences, events, and unconscious actions of the natural world. This reality has been shaped in many ways by laws of probability and quantum uncertainty that are as yet only partially grasped.

Therefore, I see history as the story of how the genus Homo has grappled with the nature of consciousness. We have tended (in general) to assume that we know what we're doing and where we're going.

We don’t.


So I wonder if we can hold this moment, the eternal present, in our hands. And I want to know a great many other things as well.

Can we see at least the faint outlines of that which truly is, or can we see only its reflections?

Can we know our origins …

our place …

our future…


Can we understand that all that has been has made all that is now?

Can we hope to know, at least in part, how we have come to be where we are in the story of our time on this planet?

Can we accept cosmic anonymity, irrelevance, and insignificance?

Can we bear the possibility that we are orphans in the Universe?

Can we reconcile ourselves to the life we must live, a life where we cannot be certain, and yet must act?

Since I cannot be you, and you cannot be me, can we ever really know each other’s meaning?

Even now, at this very instant, are you and I in contact?

Can we look into the infinity of mirrors that is the self contemplating the self, and not be overwhelmed by it?

Is there a self at all, or is there only a continuous stream of feeling and thought?

And finally, can we say that which cannot be said, see what is hidden from our sight, and capture that which recedes inexorably away from us?

We are locked in the cage of humanity until the end of our time. Reality is forever out of our grasp.

And yet, I stretch out my hands anyway. I can do nothing else.