British author and preeminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins weighed in recently with another one of his thoughtful tweets, which prompted some ruminating on my part about humanity and our discursive, rather convoluted history as a species.
Did someone invent the ladder or did it grow from climbing trees? Did someone invent the stair or did it grow from helpful step footholds in steep hills? Did someone invent the map or did it grow from reading prey footprints? Why do curious tweets like this provoke hostility?
If invoked no hostility with me. As a matter of fact, I re-tweeted his trenchant observation with my own accompanying observation:
Across eons, humans have improvised a unique networking of language, writing, culture and tech in the course of reacting to contingency. It is our version of a termite mound or a beehive, though infinitely more nuanced and complex. We are ensconced in it.
That, as I see it, is human striving — human history — in a nutshell.
A Culmination of Eons of Responding to Random Events
What we have today in the form of cultural, spiritual and technological achievement is merely the culmination of eons of our species reacting and adjusting to random events. Like all other organisms, we have struggled for hundreds of millennia to secure and to maintain an evolutionary niche to protect us from all manner of threats. And I would argue that we secured this niche by evolving what I call the networked human exoskeleton, which essentially amounts to a nexus of language, writing, culture and technology. Across ages, humans have, in a manner of speaking, woven these elements together in a way that not only protects but also nurtures and sustains us. This exoskeleton has teased out many of the distinctive traits that define us as humans.
In one respect we are not alone. Other species have developed their own unique scaffolding that, to some degree, at least, resembles our own. They have developed these complex structures to protect themselves and to secure their own distinct evolutionary niches. Termite and ant colonies and beaver dams roughly compare to what we’ve achieved. Even so, they pale in comparison to what we humans have achieved.
Much of our networked exoskeleton is largely incorporeal. Much of it isn’t expressed tangibly in the form of shelter and other forms technology but rather intangibly as the spoken and written word and, equally significant, in the operating software carried around in our heads. Moreover, unlike other terrestrial species, we have also used the nontangible facets of our exoskeleton to propel tangible byproducts to the farthest reaches of our solar system and even beyond within the last couple of generations.
We are so integrally linked with this exoskeleton that we are unable to draw a line to delineate where our humanity ends and our exoskeleton begins. Even our biology is owed in no small measure to this apparatus we’ve constructed across eons. For example, the technology of fire-starting that we developed and refined across eons represented a monumental achievement, not only by obviating the need to evolve a second stomach but also by facilitating the ample animal protein intake that resulted in our developing singularly large brains.
Likewise, our palpably soft feet are a testament to the increasingly sophisticated footwear we have developed across the ages, a manufactured substitute for the thick, keratin covering other mammalian species have evolved across thousands of centuries.
Unplanned Human Progress
Yet, as Dawkins’ tweet so ably intimated, most of what we have achieved through the ages wasn’t planned in advance but rather occurred in the course of reacting to the random demands of existence. Throughout most of history, human progress has been tediously incremental.
So much of what we have achieved could be described as improvisation on the fly. I know of no better way of expressing it. We have not thought our way insomuch as we have improvised our way through hundreds of thousands of years of history.
Rodin’s Thinker is how many, if not most of us, perceive tens of thousands of years of human history: an image of smart people engaged in thoughtful reflection, anticipating all that has been achieved as well as what will come next. But that’s is not the way most of human achievement has occurred. To a significant degree, our networked exoskeleton represents an accretion of our improvisational responses to the demands of nature across eons.
Our exoskeleton is the accumulation of our species’ response to randomness across many millennia. In a manner of speaking, memories of these experiences are incorporated into our exoskeleton, where they meet, mate and morph with the memories and observations of previous experiences.
This raises the question: How much stewardship do we have over our exoskeleton, really?
I was reminded of this question recently listening to Prof. Jodi Magness’ lectures on Jewish historical influences on Christianity, particularly as these related to the Babylonian invasion and exile of the Jewish tribal homeland known as Judah beginning in 605 B.C.
Lessons from the Babylonian Captivity
This period in Jewish history not only shaped the destiny of Jews but all of humanity in countless ways, though entirely unintentionally, particularly in terms of the how the first discernible contours of a monotheistic God emerged out of this era of acute turmoil. This period forced Jews, at least, the literate ones among the priesthood and educated classes, to think about God and faith at higher levels of abstraction.
To put it another way, a new understanding of God was not handed down from on high but slowly eked out across the next century as Jews reacted to the sense of shock and cultural dispossession that followed defeat and exile.
Before this upheaval, Jews generally had thought like many other people of their era, even though they had gone a long way toward affirming their own national deity, Yahweh, above others. King Josiah had even succeeded in banishing other deities from the sacred spaces of Judah, though many ordinary Jews, like many other people who inhabited the eastern Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, were still intellectually deeply rooted in the prevailing polytheistic theological views of the time. Jewish elites may have prohibited the worship of other deities, but that did not mean that ordinary Jews did not discount their existence. An attenuated form of polytheism was still prevalent throughout Judah.
The Babylonian defeat and dispossession of the people of Judah, followed by the exile of most of its elites to Babylon, proved to be one of the most significant upheavals in human history — and not simply for the Jewish faith. And in the midst of this profound disruption, no Jew, not even the most learned among them, could have anticipated how their views of God and how they organized and regarded themselves as a people would undergo radical change. Likewise, no one of that time, Jew or Gentile, could have anticipated the exceedingly far reach this disruption would have on humanity in general, particularly in terms of how its residual effects would play out throughout the Mediterranean basin
The first discernible contours of a monotheistic universal God began to emerge from this turmoil. And much of the theology that would underpin the teachings of subsequent Jewish prophets also shaped the cultural, social and technological context in which Jesus would live and teach. As journalist Robert Wright argues in his bestselling book, “The Evolution of God,” the perceived defeat of the Jewish God, Yahweh, by the Babylonian god, Marduk, ultimately forced Jewish theologians to conceive of an even bigger Yahweh. Over time, Yahweh was perceived as using the Babylonian exile to test and to quicken his chosen people so as to serve as standard of righteousness for all the other inhabitants of Earth. The first contours of what would become an all-seeing, universal God were fleshed out in the years following the Babylonian defeat and exile of Judah.
This was only the beginning of what followed: The creation of history’s first Jewish diaspora also held major implications for course of human history. Subsequent Jewish diasporas throughout the Hellenistic world went a long way toward spreading monotheistic thought, providing fertile conditions for the formation of Christianity, the world’s first universal religion.
There are some takeaway lessons here worth considering.
First, to answer to the question raised earlier: We humans have very little stewardship over our history. For the most part, we are not the proprietors of history. To a significant degree, we remain only subjects of it. Only recently have we managed to become more fully apprised of the causes and implications of most historical events, including the ancient ones. In time, our advances in Big Data and Artificial Intelligence possibly will enhance this understanding and may even afford us more stewardship over our exoskeleton and, through it, history.
What we’ve learned within the last two hundred years through disciplines such as biblical archaeology and textual criticism has demonstrated that religion was not handed down from on high but eked out over eons in the course our forebears grappling with all of unforeseen circumstances bound up with existence.
Some prominent atheists and nonetheists, notably the late German philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach, have contended that God is a projection of humanity. But does this really amount to a valid characterization?
God — that is to say, the monotheistic God we know today — was sculpted out of our exoskeleton over the course of time. He is not so much a projection of humanity as he is a product of our forebears’ cumulative responses to randomness and the synergistic effects produced by our exoskeleton as our distant ancestors reflected on and related these experiences across time.
Some people invariably would compare the human exoskeletal concept to Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere. And to be sure, among some, the concept of a networked human exoskeleton, like Chardin’s noosphere, may evoke images of a living organism, though I wouldn’t describe it as such. To be sure, some facets of what we know as the human exoskeleton may ultimately attain consciousness sometime in the future through technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI). It’s even conceivable that AI could overrun humanity at some point, or, at the very least, impose its own ethical and moral system on us, much as the Spaniards imposed theirs on the hapless Incans some five centuries ago.
In time, humans even may be forced to merge with it or, at the very least, to live with this immensely enhanced exoskeleton in a manner that bears a remarkable resemblance to the way Incans learned to live with the conquering Spaniards, forgoing much of the networking of language, culture and technology that defined their previous existence.
Another Critical Take-Home Message
Another take-home message worth mentioning: Our exoskeleton constrains our perception and, consequently, our freedom, every bit as much as it expands and enlightens them. That is because we react to randomness not as simply as individuals but as facets of a highly complex and nuanced filtering system. To put it another way, we do not perceive randomness simply as individuals but as products of an unusually dense networking of language, writing, culture and technology.
To express it yet another way, we, as individuals, bring an array of highly complex, networked experiences and expectations to every encounter. And while we are both individually and collectively changed by truly singular encounters, we must bear in mind that all of these encounters are filtered through a highly dense and nuanced exoskeleton that is comprised of the accumulated experiences of human across time.
This only serves to underscore one of the vital truths of our networked exoskeleton: that it exercises far more stewardship over us than we do over it.