Of all the discoveries and inventions that have changed the world we inhabit, code, software, and the internet will arguably prove the single most influential of anything Homo sapiens has ever devised.
The reason is straightforward. The digital age has exponentially amplified the foundational factors of our unique pattern of evolution. It’s a trajectory that is accelerating at a frightening speed. To understand why code, software, and the internet are unlocking such startling human capabilities at such a frantic pace we need to start where our species did – 300,000 years ago.
It’s a fascinating journey and gets more exciting with every passing day.
Unlocking the secret of fire up to a million years ago gave our evolutionary ancestor, Homo erectus, a revolutionary level of control over its surrounding natural environment.
It also allowed Homo erectus and the subsequent Homo species that preceded our own and the Neanderthals to increase the volume of calories they were able to consume. It is thought that helped lead to the evolution of Homo sapiens’ larger brains.
What followed was a remarkable, and as far as we know utterly unique and lightning-quick (in the context of evolutionary biology), evolution. The first primates, or proto-primates, are believed to have evolved around 66 million years ago. The evolutionary lineage of lesser (gibbons) and great apes split between 12 million and 18 million years ago.
The evolutionary path of orangutans split from that of the other great apes 8 million to 12 million years ago. The line that leads to humans split from first the gorillas, then chimpanzees, between 8 million and 4 million years ago. The first great apes (hominids) appear between 7.2 million and 5.7 million years ago.
The earliest member of the genus Homo, the genus to which we, Homo sapiens, belong is Homo habilis which evolved around 2.8 million years ago. The oldest Homo sapiens fossils date to between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago.
We migrated out of Africa between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago. Gunpowder was invented a little over 1000 years ago. The printing press less than 600 years ago. The steam engine 310 years ago. The electric motor, still used in most electrical devices today, was invented in 1837, the electric telegraph in 1844, and the electric lightbulb in 1878 (Swan) and 1879 (Edison).
The first automobile powered by an internal combustion engine was developed by the German mechanical engineer Karl Benz in 1885.
The pace of technology-powered human development has been amazing but what is even more striking is that it is speeding up.
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Just 8 years after Benz developed the first modern car another development occurred. One that sparked a technology revolution that has moved far faster and further than any other before it, including even the industrial revolution.
In 1883, a woman with the wonderful name of Ada Lovelace began assisting Charles Babbage, an English inventor who was developing an early steam-powered mechanical computer he called the Analytical Engine.
Lovelace also happened to be the only ‘legitimate’ child of the renowned poet Lord Byron. Her mother, Lady Byron, had mathematical training, unusual for a woman at the time. And she insisted her daughter also study mathematics.
Babbage himself was focused on inventing a machine that would compute numbers. Basically, a mechanical calculator.
Lovelace, meanwhile, saw far greater potential for the machine. She envisioned how the numbers Babbage’s machine worked with could represent something far greater than just the amounts of things. ComputerHistory.org describes how Lovelace saw a machine:
“….that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that number could represent entities other than quantity”.
In 1843, Lovelace realised that vision in a rudimentary way to create an algorithm that calculated Bernoulli numbers, a rational sequence discovered in the early 18th century. That algorithm represented the first example of the transition from calculation to computation. She summed up her achievement with the beautiful and memorable line:
“We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”
The next big leap forward in computer science came in 1928 when the English mathematician Alan Turing created his Turing machine. The Turing machine wasn’t a physical device at all but rather a mathematical model.
It was, however, a hugely significant mathematical model and the basis for all computers and software development since. Before the Turing machine, it was presumed computers could only be purpose-built to perform a single computational task. Turing proved it was theoretically possible to build a single machine, a computer, that could be programmed to perform any computational task.
Turing’s model first led to the development of the Bombe code-breaking machine used by Britain to decipher encrypted communication sent back and forth by Nazi Germany. The intelligence it provided is considered one of the key turning points in WWII.
All computers since, and the software written to program them to perform the huge range of tasks they do, are the result of Turing’s breakthrough.
The result has been nothing short of extraordinary. In the less than 80 years since the end of WWII, the evolution of computer hardware and the software developed to run on it has resulted in:
The digitalisation of information and bureaucracy led to huge efficiencies in economic productivity.
The physical foundation of the virtual world.
The greatest single leap forward in humanity’s ability to record, catalogue, and access pooled data and knowledge and collaborate without physical geography being a deciding factor.
Over the estimated 300,000 years or so since our species of Homo evolved there have been many discoveries and inventions that have not only changed the way we live but the very fabric of the planet Earth we came to dominate.
In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explores the unique evolutionary pathway that has transformed Homo sapiens from hunters and foragers to engineers capable of bending the natural world and its resources to our will in just 300,000 years – a blink of an eye in evolutionary biology.
And we’re no longer satisfied with dominion over our own planet. We’ve now set our sights on the world beyond – the solar system Earth belongs to and the vast expanse of the universe beyond.
Far more incremental and localised developments in how other species interact with the natural world around them take millions of years of evolution. Our secret is that we haven’t relied on the glacial processes of biological evolution at all. Instead, humanity’s lightning-quick evolution has been a cultural one.
It’s a fascinating topic and if you haven’t read the book I strongly recommend it. The crux is the hockey stick trajectory of Homo sapiens’s success as a species that has been made possible by us managing to escape the restraints of biological evolution.
The key to that is the larger brains we developed being capable of abstraction. Abstraction disconnects knowledge and the impulse to act on that knowledge from direct sensory or motor input.
This process of abstraction is the essence of conceptual knowledge. And conceptual knowledge allows us to, like Lovejoy’s first algorithm, not just calculate but compute.
Abstracted, conceptual knowledge can also be transferred through communication and stored in our brains, ready to be summoned and acted upon when applicable. That unique trait turbo-charged our cultural evolution. It meant human society acted as a reservoir of collective knowledge, with each individual a node in a vast, societally crisscrossing, intergenerational network.
Conceptual knowledge means each individual human can store, catalogue and apply many times more information than any other species to have ever existed. Even those we are not especially far removed from in a biological evolutionary sense.
But there is still a limit to how much applicable conceptual knowledge can be stored in one human brain, as well as biology placing a finite limit on how long it can be stored. That’s where culture comes into the equation.
Culture is defined as the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. If we focus on the ‘ideas’ component of culture, human society acts as a collective bank of conceptual knowledge.
Another strength of our species is our social ability and inclination to collaborate. That allowed us to break through the glass ceiling of how much detailed, actionable, conceptual knowledge a single human can store.
One person doesn’t need to know how to build everything that goes into building a fit-for-purpose house. They just need to know how to secure planning permission, or draw up architectural plans, or build the frame, install the electrics, plumbing, or roof etc.
Effective collaboration allowed for specialisation. And specialisation meant individuals could become true experts in their particular field, raising overall standards and pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved.
By about 3000 BME, the first long-distance trade route had opened between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley in Pakistan. Within a few hundred years trade networks crisscrossed the entire Eurasian continent, linking cultures for the first time in history.
It was not only luxury goods like textiles, spices, and precious metals and stones that flowed along these trade routes but belief systems, ideas, and knowledge. Specialised technologies and methods that had been developed in a particular region and had largely remained localised to isolated communities quickly disseminated across Eurasia. There was a boom of cross-pollination that saw our collective knowledge and abilities leap forward.
If collaboration was the first pillar of Homo sapiens’ unique pattern of rapid cultural evolution and technological progress, the written word was the second. The first writing systems are attributed to the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians a little over 5000 years ago. By antiquity, literacy had become relatively common among the elites of the most technologically advanced civilisations, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, and then Romans. It shouldn’t be a surprise that literacy and technological development have historically gone hand-in-hand.
Like collaboration, the written word allowed for an extension of collective human knowledge, factual and conceptual, beyond the biological limits of our brains. We didn’t have to remember everything if we could refer to a document.
Knowledge and collaboration also no longer relied on a physical meeting between individuals to be stored and passed along. A detailed written document, while not quite as effective as face-to-face instruction, was good enough to transfer knowledge and skills across time and place.
The influence of the written word in Homo sapiens’ cultural evolution was demonstrated beyond any doubt with the invention of the Gutenberg printing press by German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. The printing press is considered by many to be the most significant invention of the second millennium.
By the 15th and 16th centuries, mechanical movable type printing birthed the era of mass communication. The shackles that had restricted the flow of information and ideas suddenly fell off and a sharp increase in literacy followed. Emerging middle classes started to be able to read and write and had access to written information.
The huge increase in the number of people able to access humanity’s collective knowledge bank relatively easily was a major contributor to the flowering of Europe’s Renaissance and rippled out around the known world. There was another stride forward in what humanity became capable of.
The capacity for conceptual, abstract knowledge sets Homo sapiens’ cognitive abilities apart from any other species on the planet. It forms the basis for the cultural evolution that took us from cavemen to spacemen in 300,000 years without the need for any significant biological evolution.
Human society acts as a collective bank of common knowledge and extends the biological limitations of how much knowledge one brain can store and actively apply.
Collaboration allowed us to create more complex ‘things’ by combining the specialist knowledge of individuals. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Long-distance travel expanded the collaboration pool and increased the rate and geographical reach of knowledge transfer. That exponentially increased the complexity of the ‘things’ we could create through collaboration.
Writing systems also exponentially increased Homo sapiens’ collective knowledge bank by providing a means of storing and transporting knowledge through place and time that is both more reliable than word-of-mouth at a scale unrestricted by the limits of biology.
Mass printing and increased literacy rates hugely amplified the positive influence of writing systems in extending our collective bank of knowledge.
Our success as a species has been build on the cultural, rather than biological, evolution that has led to our ability to develop increasingly complex conceptual knowledge and technologies. And that cultural evolution has been founded on:
Historically, every time a development amplified one of those three pillars of our cultural evolution our collective abilities have leapt forward.
In that context, it should be no surprise that the digital age of code, software, and the internet has catalysed our fastest, and accelerating, progress yet. It has again amplified those three pillars, this time almost infinitely:
Further breaking free of biological and physical limitations on how we store, access and use information and abstract knowledge has been the engine of change and progress throughout the history of Homo sapiens. Code, software and the internet has, by a huge margin, been the biggest leap forward yet in that biological and physical jailbreak.
The result is an avalanche of breakthroughs in technology, medicine, bio-engineering, construction and almost every field that could be mentioned.
The invention of code, then software, then the internet is propelling our accelerating trajectory from, as Harari writes, Homo sapiens to Homo Deus – masters of our universe.
The defence of the case for why code, software, and the internet are the most significant inventions in the history of humanity to date rests. Do you agree?
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