The Progression of Progress



Bill Norris

August 8, 2010

The question was raised, “Why did it take so many millenia for progress as we know it to take place?” Communications, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, transportation, food and other advancements have only been recent in the human experience. “What slowed the progress?” To answer these questions I read the National Geographic: A Concise History of Science and Invention which has 352 pages of pictures, charts, and narrative that lay out developments in the human experience.

Modern man appeared in Africa about 160,000 years ago. About 100,000 years ago they moved out of Africa. About 40,000 years ago modern humans lived alongside of Neanderthals in Europe until 28,000 when Neanderthals died out. Stone tools and use of fire were technologies handed down by ancestors. By 10,000 BCE the human population had completed its spread around the globe. About that time cattle, dogs, goats and sheep were domesticated and people in Palestine began living in houses of mud bricks. Ceramics and pottery appeared. Rice came into cultivation in China.

Humans as we know them today, homo sapiens sapiens, came into being between 20,000 and 25 000 years ago. While their ancestors trace back to 500,000 years ago, we are latecomers to the scene. The earliest evidence indicates that they made stone tools, knives, clubs, hammers, spear points, and related items of stones by flaking them. Razor sharp edges were produced by knapping. One very early technology was fire. Originally, early man got it from trees hit by lightening, forests set ablaze in dry seasons, and prairies burning. They kept the precious technology in campfires that they maintained with a steady supply of fuel. Eventually, they learned to create fire from friction by spinning wood on wood with hand drill techniques and by striking flint for sparks over flammable tender. Out of these technologies came skills in hunting and the advantages of cooked meats and vegetables. In these early times they were hunter-gatherers.

Gradually in various parts of the world humans learned to domesticate animals and food crops to produce quantities that resulted in larger groups living together. Villages and towns grew up from the advantages of planting crops and tending animals. Pottery evolved supplying the need for storage and cooking. Early boats appeared. Construction techniques evolved as villages grew. Mud brick, stones and wood were used in construction. These technologies took 10,000 years to develop. The continents and oceans isolated cultures and discoveries. Overland transportation was limited to legs. The exchange of people and ideas were restricted by time and space The camel was domesticated for transport followed by the horse in the open plains. The boat followed. Some people got the wheel and others in the Americas didn’t for lack of draft animals.

The time between 6,000 and 2,000 years ago was a formative period with dramatic progress. More animals were domesticated and used for transport. Marine travel expanded. Food resources were expanded to include animals, birds, fish, fruits, grains and root crops. Cotton and silk were woven into cloth to produce clothes. Mathematics developed worldwide often associated with astronomy. Cities evolved. Building techniques included the arch and stone construction. Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid in Giza rose. Copper was smelted and bronze was produced by adding tin. Gold and silver were used in daggers.

The most important progress was the creation of symbols that were associated with real world things. The letter “a” is described as looking like an animal’s head. Cuneiform writing and an alphabet arose. The alphabet became associated with sounds. From these writing and languages flowered. Medical conditions were described. Hippocrates wrote the medical oath used today among medical doctors. Anatomy of the circulatory system was explained. Aqueducts and Roman roads arose. It was a time of roaming armies.

Kings, emperors, tsars, caesars, pharaohs, and high priests, promoted as gods, held authority and became the arbiters of cultures, traditions, knowledge, truth and religions. Their popular notions swept the minds of the people, answering the major questions of life. They concluded, what else was there to know?

The first fifteen hundred years of of the Current Era continued the development of ideas and inventions useful to humanity. Even in the “Dark Ages” from 500 to 1500 humanity progressed. Coal was used. Iron and steel were developed. Water powered mills and wind turned windmills. Bells of bronze, umbrellas, and astrolabes were invented. Water travel with Viking ships became legendary. The Portuguese and Spanish caravels began long journeys, resulting in Columbus, Vascular de Gama, Magellan and others. Paper was produced. Libraries grew. Copernicus’ observations via his telescope placed the sun in the center of the solar system. He was burned at the stake for his errors. Galileo expanded on Copernicus’ ideas in astronomy, living under house arrest to keep him from spreading his discoveries with his telescope. Gutenberg’s printing press with movable type ushered in a new era in the expansion and dissemination of human knowledge. Tyndale was put to death for printing the Bible in the common language.

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries gave rise to a pattern in science where rational conclusions were drawn from available evidence. Leeuwenhoek’s microscope opened up a new unseen tiny world. Geometry, mathematics, and binary arithmetic grew. By the end of this period many of the principles of modern science were explained. By the Nineteenth Century the growing human knowledge took basic steps toward a new interpretation of the world. In the Twentieth Century the explosion of knowledge, inventions, transportation, medicine and other developments reached its zenith after ten millennia, most of which was at a snail’s pace. Clinical trials that tested theories based on experimentation, observation and rational conclusions revolutionized medicine. 

Early developments in human history were isolated. Millennia passed before transport by land and sea began connecting humans. Languages, writing, and communication were slow in coming. Every discovery and invention was built on the backs of other discoverers and inventors. Progress was like an inverted pyramid where each stone provides the support for the subsequent stones. If fire and chipped stones were the first technologies adopted by humans, then look at what has been build on top of them. As base stones, upon them has multiplied the expansion of knowledge. The point is you can’t make celestial discoveries with a telescope until all the necessary developments in glass, metallurgy, casting, human reason, engineering, and measurements of time are all in place.

Looking back it is easy to indict religion as the prohibiting factor in the slow growth to modernity. Religion did and does inhibit progress. But basic in all the hindrances was the convention of existing knowledge. Change is slow to come. The known is easier to live with. The point is, if you made your living chipping stone tools, you would do everything you could to prevent some guy in the next cave from marketing a sharp bronze blade he had devised. The high priests of the status quo may have been religious or not, but their vested interests in preventing change was the great hindrances of progress. Remember, Socrates was sentenced to death!

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