let’s talk about human history

Humans are really bad at appreciating scale. Let’s take a look at human evolution and population growth.

Homo sapiens sapiens emerged as a distinct species, say, sometime around 200,000 years ago. Let’s call it the year -197986.00 BCE. We’ll ignore the millions of years of evolution of our predecessors and competitors that preceded our step into the spotlight for now.

For reference, all of “recorded history” (written) has happened since roughly 4,000 BCE. That means that humans have existed for a timespan roughly 50X that of all recorded history.

Here’s a scatterplot of human population since -197986.00 BCE:humanpop

So uh, yeah, not very useful, is it? That’s because all of modern history happened entirely in that remarkable upshoot at the right of the graph. During the 196,000 years prior, we were all still noodling around on the plains of Africa in relatively small numbers. The explosive growth of human technology, the correspondingly exponential growth in population, and everything we know or theorize about “human civilization” has occurred in that tiny fraction of the time our species itself has existed on this planet. On an evolutionary timescale, it’s a very small chunk of time, with a near seismic level of change and upheaval, which requires logarithmic scale to even start to visually appreciate. What can we take away from this?

  • “Human nature”, such as it exists, represents the culmination of millions of years of evolution, culminating in humans that are, like their predecessors, social animals, optimized to organize in small bands of a few dozen to a few hundred individuals. This is not a prescription for social policy or a prediction of the future in a world in which we have billions of individuals, but it may very well be a limiting factor for how we organize.
  • Any proposed system of ideal human social arrangement based on anything that occurred since, say, 4,000 BCE, is based on a view that is cripplingly myopic. It’s making a predictive assumption based on recent, unprecedented growth and dynamic emergent patterns.
  • In short, if you’re assuming stasis or ideal arrangement based on any point on the above logarithmic-scale growth, uh .. you’re probably wrong.