When I was a kid I found a book that changed my life, as they say. It was by some crazy Frenchman named Robert Charroux and was titled 100,000 years of Man’s Unknown History. In the book, the author finesses a great deal of odd and incongruent archeological evidence to support his thesis, which is startlingly thought-provoking: that well before our benchmark era for the beginning of civilization (roughly 4,000 BC), there were multiple highly developed civilizations that rose, flourished, and died away with nary a trace.
The method of their destruction and the reason we can find no trace (or, according to the author, almost no trace) of them? You guessed it – nuclear annihilation.
Time itself provides this fertile compost from which fantastic theories grow. When you think about it, it is mind-boggling that we have existed here on earth pretty much in the same form as we are now (and therefore with similar mental faculties) for some 100,000 years. Yet we have direct knowledge of our activities during only the last 5,000 or so. So only 5% of our collective history as modern man is known to us.
What were they all doing for those other 95,000 years? When I look at Egyptian civilization during the Old Kingdom dynasties, circa 2,500 BC – the building of the pyramids, the high art and culture, the library at Alexandria – or the glory of Athens, circa 400 BC – and compare them with later periods such as the Dark Ages or the present Bush era, I’m convinced that we are not on a one-way journey toward greatness in terms of our civilization’s development. No, it kind of waxes and wanes, like most things seem to do. So why not some highly advanced society – an Atlantis – that rose and fell uncounted millennia ago? Who’s to say it didn’t happen, maybe several times? Not me.
But in contemplating this the other day, I had another intriguing thought (to me at least). Suppose we do avoid blowing ourselves up or poisoning the earth and manage to retain our civilization. Suppose we continue the present tradition of good record-keeping meanwhile. Look ahead to 100,000 years from now, and consider the body of knowledge that will have been built. It staggers the mind, especially when you consider what we have accumulated in just the last 5,000 or so. Now consider that the age of real record-keeping is only several hundred years, a period which provides the bulk of our human library. And science itself – it is a mere fledgling of some 200 years. Yet it has catapulted society along in terms of its growth in technology, medicine, social constructs, natural history, philosophy, and such. Imagine its growth over 100,000 years, a period 500 times as long as its current age. Now realize that our ability to create an imperishable and multi-media history of ourselves (audio, video and electronic data) is only 100 years old. Multiply that times 1,000.
And even multiplying does not do the idea justice. Science and technology, unlike civilization and human societies, do indeed progress on a constant upward scale, and its growth is not additive but exponential. That is, much more has happened in the last 20 years than happened in the previous 50 as far as scientific progress, and so on back through the known history of science. What happens when this equation continues for another 1,000 years, or another 10,000?
Given our propensity to do things with science because we can (rather than because we should) – nuclear weapons, gene therapy, cloning, nanotechnology – the question is, do we want to know? Or perhaps more to the point, will we still be human enough to care?