A Short History of Evolution: The Modern Era

This article is part of Carl Coon’s “A Short History of Evolution” series. Click here to see all the articles in this series.

When you graph global energy consumption over the last thousand years you see what some economists call a hockey stick. That is, the line stays fairly flat, close to zero, for the first three quarters of your graph and then begins to rise. Starting during the eighteenth century the angle increases, and the line continues to rise ever more steeply as we approach the present.

The breakthrough on the energy front came with the switch to fossil fuels as the main source of energy. A good place to start is with the invention of the steam engine in England. It was initially powered by wood but when the forests in England became depleted people turned to coal, which opened up a host of further possibilities. Pretty soon there were coal-powered steam locomotives and steamships.1 Then petroleum entered the picture and, finally, nuclear power. In our time many people are learning to harness solar energy more efficiently, and some are tinkering with fusion power. If they ever learn to harness that we’ll achieve a state where power is as plentiful as air and water.

If evolution is defined by concentration of energy as well as by the emergence of complexity, this exponential increase in our access to power over the relatively short period of a quarter of a millennium has to be ranked among the major events in the evolution of evolution itself.

The hockey stick metaphor can also be used for looking at the rise in the complexity of our social institutions. When the American colonies said goodbye to the British, they resolved to establish a new system of governance that rejected the whole idea of monarchy and renounced the old buddy system between church and state. This was the first major instance of an explicit rejection of the old dynastic system. It worked, helped by good fortune in the form of an equable climate and a vast, nearly untapped reservoir of natural resources. Its success fired the imaginations of political activists over much of the rest of the world, and very soon (in terms of earlier evolutionary tempos) old fashioned governments were being replaced by governments that at least said they were constitutional democracies or monarchies.

On the plus side, slavery was abolished, technology helped bring about an increase in food supplies, and population shot up, following the hockey stick trajectory. The old patriarchal model was shredded. Women demanded equal rights and now, with warfare increasingly a technical matter rather than one depending on brute strength, they are beginning to get them. Modern transportation is destroying spatial barriers and people are mixing as never before, eroding old regional and racial differences. The information revolution that just started is transforming not only the way we communicate, but the way we think.

On the down side, we’ve incurred a whole cascade of new problems. Abandoning the old dynasties for new and relatively untested models brought vast new problems of governance to the fore. By now the older democracies, with generations of experience in handling these problems, have varying degrees of success, but much of the world is still having acute growing pains. We now talk about failed states, as well as developing ones. Regional wars are still endemic, and the threat of a big global war, risking nuclear Armageddon, still hangs over us.

The problems we still face usually involve how to ensure cooperation between groups that have not yet learned to work together. The new structures, to fall back on our architectural analogy, require new systems of interoffice communication, new structural materials to reduce costs and improve performance, and many other innovations. Some of these requirements have been solved and others have temporary fixes, but many still remain testimony to the unfinished business of the new environment humanity created with the industrial revolution.

There is no point in trying to itemize the problems we face and describe our efforts to manage them. Any university course catalogue will do better. Over half of all the courses offered will be responses to meet these new challenges, whether it is, for example, political science or economics or law or business administration. We are at best only halfway toward success in assimilating the fruits of our newly gained access to power.

To cap all this, climate change is looming. Maybe that’s what our perplexed and bothered species needs at this point to persuade us to lift our sights and cooperate for the common good as a single species. We have become too efficient at waging war to have a good brisk one serious enough to scare the countries on the cutting edge into pulling together. Climate change may be coming back to center stage to replace war, as war replaced it ten thousand years ago. There is a certain Shakespearean quality to this sequence.

The central feature of our times is that in everything that counts, we have almost won the race to a very important ceiling. Although governance problems remain acute, we now have workarounds to the point that the infrastructure of global governance is in place. We’ve pushed the frontiers of our knowledge out into the cosmos and down to the depths of subatomic particles. Meanwhile, we’ve come a long way towards gender equality and are busily engaged in reestablishing the essential unity of our species, culturally and even to some extent genetically. We are beginning to learn a bit more about ourselves, and how we relate to each other.

We still have problems and we won’t solve all of them right away. But right now we are not only pushing on a brand new ceiling, we are knocking a few cracks in it, enough to see the light on the other side if we know where to look.

[1] Morris, Ian. Why the West Rules—For Now.  (New York: Random House, 2011), pp. 498 ff.

Click here to see all articles in Carl Coon’s “A Short History of Evolution” series.