These days I’m deep in the process of writing a book on power—both physical power (humanity’s power over nature) and social power (the power of some people over others). The book’s first few chapters explore the historical process by which we developed our currently awesome powers, starting with control of fire, simple stone tools, and language. Once we had these, the pace of human empowerment picked up dramatically. We didn’t have to wait for biological evolution to slowly deliver improved organs; cultural evolution could rapidly supply new ideas, behaviors, and tools—which often took the forms of prosthetic organs (such as clothing and weapons) that enabled us to take over habitat from other creatures.
While the pace of cultural evolution was much faster than that of biological evolution, major cultural innovations like the domestication of plants and animals, the creation of the first states, and the emergence of the earliest empires were still spaced thousands of years apart. However, our sudden access to the storable, portable, and concentrated energy of fossil fuels, starting roughly in the 19th century, sped up cultural evolution to the point where disruptive cultural innovations began to be separated by mere decades, sometimes just years.
One of the factors driving cultural evolution is the rebounding interaction of technology and language. Writing, the alphabet, printing, the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, internet, and social media have sped up and spatially expanded human interaction, giving us the ability to cooperate in ever larger groups, in effect granting us expanding power over space and time.
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