One of the most misleading ideas of the last two decades has been Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that the end of the Cold War marked the “ End of History”. The idea was not just wrong as a description of where we are on history’s path. But it also had a terribly pernicious effect in framing debate. For many it made it seem as though the only alternatives were either the ideological world of today (the “End”) or some new event, such as the rise of terrorism, to prove we are not at the End.
In the last decade the search for new philosophies and ideas that could propel us forward seemed to be set aside as the alternatives narrowed to the world as it is or some change or event proving we were not at the End.
The ideological debate narrowed to a contest between the existing philosophies of western liberal capitalist societies representing the End and backward looking ideas such as Islamic Fundamentalism or retro Marxism (of the North Korean kind) opposing the End. The debate about a better, and different, future seemed to disappear.
But not only are we not at the “End”, we are nowhere near it and are, in fact, at the beginning of history. Everything looks different once we realize we are at the beginning. Rather than putting the finishing touches on the human political project we are just starting it. There are many new things for us to achieve and we may as well start now. It is time to start exploring the huge range of possibilities open to us, especially as a new US President takes office.
This article reviews three factors which show we are at the beginning of history.
1 Our potential lifespan:
The oldest fossils of anatomically modern Homo sapiens (us) that have been discovered so far (to my knowledge) are just under 200 thousand years old. Fossils of precursor beings go back earlier, but we, contemporary Homo sapiens, only go back about 200 thousand years  .
200 thousand years sounds like a long time until we consider some other beings. Dinosaurs, for instance, lasted for 150 million years . If we, as a species, manage to last as long as Dinosaurs we would now still be in the first 1% of our potential lifespan!
How long could we last? Human life on Earth needs the Sun to provide heat. In about 4-6 billion years the Sun is expected to become a “red giant” at which point our planet will become uninhabitable . Of course the lead up to the red giant stage may also make human life difficult. But even being ultra conservative and reducing the time remaining to a mere 2 billion years indicates we still have had less than one thousandth of that potential lifespan!
We may, of course, find a way to destroy ourselves before then. But most beings are at their most vulnerable when they are young and immature, like us.
I am not a scientist and am using generally known information to make the argument. But even if new discoveries changed the parameters of this argument, for instance showing Homo sapiens started a million years earlier, the calculations would still show we have used up less than 1% of the time available to us. We are at the beginning of history.
2 Our tendency to change:
The long future ahead of us might not matter if we ourselves did not innovate and create. After all what did Dinosaurs achieve in their 150 million years? Very little it seems.
In fact there is no evidence that Dinosaurs made any political or intellectual progress at all during the course of their existence. A Dinosaur Fukuyama appearing after a mere 200,000 years might well have accurately declared that Dinosaurs had already reached the “End of History”.
But our first 200 thousand years show that, unlike Dinosaurs, we never stop coming up with new ideas. We have invented a stream of new religions and philosophies and repeatedly transformed our scientific and technological understanding. Change and innovation has been relentless!
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