Nonetheless, the traditional and long-ingrained views of human history persist. In that old view, the notions of "old" and "origins" go back thousands of years. The ancient world of the pyramids, of Homeric heroes, of "the glory that was Rome."
We are born into civilization, and civilization is something we take for granted, as if it had always been there. But in what we take for granted, whatever is truly remarkable will not be visible to us.
If -- instead of looking back from the world we naturally take for granted, because it is all we have known -- we look forward into that world from the standpoint of how life had been evolving on this planet over billions of years, some vital things become clear.
It took life-on-earth more than 3.5 billion years to evolve creatures -- our species -- who began an experiment absolutely unprecedented in the history of life on earth.
It should be understood as an experiment because, before roughly 10,000 years ago, nothing whatever in life's system on earth had been like the civilized societies that then began to emerged. The essence of what was unprecedented -- what made this a new experiment in the history of life -- was this: for the first time ever, a creature extricated itself from the niche in which it had evolved, and began to invent its own way of life.
Let's take a look at some of the key words in that statement.
By "way of life" is meant how it gathers what it needs from the surrounding world to sustain itself.
Humans had been cultural animals for a very long time--the archaeological evidence shows that humans had been developing language, had gained control of fire, had used tools. But then people began to domesticate plants and animals, rearranging the ecosystem so they could extract from it more of what they wanted. That innovation that marks the crucial point of discontinuity. Until that point, the human cultural group (its hunter-gatherer form) was still essentially continuous -- in its size and structure, and in living off what nature spontaneously provided -- with the primate past from which we emerged.
By "invent" is meant that this transformation in the modus operandi of human life took place through human creativity, not genetic evolution. That is, these transformative innovations in cultural practice occurred without any major changes in genetic heritage.
(Minor changes -- like the development of lactose tolerance among peoples consuming milk from domesticated animals -- do not alter the basic facts of this picture of purely cultural forces driving what, over time, became a radical transformation of human societies.)
But it is the idea of the species extricating itself from its biologically evolved "niche" that provides the hidden doorway into the profound -- and dangerous -- implications of this human step unprecedented in the history of life on earth.
Through natural selection, the evolutionary process crafts not just organisms of mind-boggling complexity. It also selects for ecological systems in which each component performs its life-functions within a niche, an ecological space within a larger whole.
That niche implies an overarching order. And order is something that, for the wholeness of living things, is of central importance.
In our civilized language, we have traditionally expressed our sense of the natural order with phrases like "law of the jungle." Nature as a place of great violence, as in Tennyson's phrase, "Nature red in tooth and claw."