Evolution is shouting a message at us. Yes, evolution herself. That imperative? Get your ass and the asses, burros, donkeys and cells of your fellow species—from bacteria and plants to fish, reptiles, and mammals—off this dangerous scrap of a planet and find new niches for life.
Take The Grand Experiment Of Cells And DNA, the 3.85-billion-year Project Of Biomass, to other planets, moons, orbiting habitats, and galaxies. Give life an opportunity to thrive, to reinvent itself, to turn every old disaster, every pinwheeling galaxy, into new opportunity.
Do this as the only species Nature has generated that’s capable of deliberate travel beyond the atmosphere of Earth. Do it as the only species able to take on the mission of making life multi-planetary. Accept that mission or you may well eliminate yourself and all the species that depend on you—from the microorganisms making folic acid and vitamin K in your gut to wheat, corn, cucumbers, chickens, cows, the yeast you cultivate to make beer, and even the bacteria you use to make cheese. What’s worse, if you fail to take life beyond the skies, the whole experiment of life—including rainforests, whales, and endangered species —may die in some perfectly normal cosmic catastrophe.
Where does this imperative to pierce the sky and to fly beyond the well of Earth’s gravity come from? What does it have to do with the role of culture in the cosmos? And, most important, how does the relationship between culture and the cosmos tell us that space is a key to our future, a key to our evolutionary obligations, and a key to our ecological destiny?
How did culture arise?
Let’s start with a basic question whose answer may come as a surprise. What is culture and when did it begin? Culture is the multi-generational hard-drive of memory, change, and innovation. Culture transforms a record of the past into a prediction of the future; it transforms memory into tradition—into rules of how to proceed. And culture is profoundly social. It exists not just in one mind, but binds together mobs of minds in a common enterprise.
When did culture first appear in this 13.7 billion-year-old universe? The answers are surprising. Most evolutionary experts say that human culture kicked off 45,000 to 35,000 years ago. Paleontologists studying pre-historic Europe call this period The Cultural Explosion. 45,000 to 35,000 years ago, men and women began to perforate, grind, polish, and drill bone, ivory, antler, shell and stone into harpoons, fish hooks, buttons, ornaments, sewing needles, and awls. Frosting the cake, humans invented musical instruments, calendars marked on pieces of antler, and paintings on the walls of caves.
Then there’s the un-standard answer about culture’s beginnings, a rebel timeline of human culture that a relatively new paleoanthropological school is fighting for. This new scientific movement has made its digs in Africa, not Europe, and has come up with radically different dates. Culture, says this upstart school, started approximately 280,000 years ago when humans invented the makeup industry, then followed that up with the invention of jewelry, beads, and trade.
But both of these paleoanthropological schools are wrong about the first birth of culture. Dramatically wrong.
In 1997, we—myself and a cohort of colleagues— started a new discipline. Its name is paleopsychology. Paleopsychology’s mandate is to “trace the evolution of sociality, mentation, cognition, and emotion from the first 10-32 second of the Big Bang to today.”
Paleopsychology is cross-disciplinary. It embraces every science that its participants can bring to the table. Activists in the field have included physicists, mathematicians, microbiologists, animal behaviorists, evolutionary biologists, evolutionary psychologists, entomologists, mycologists, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and neurobiologists. And paleopsychology gives a far different answer to the question of culture’s starting date.
Culture didn’t begin 45,000 or 280,000 years ago. Culture began roughly 3.85 billion years ago. Yes, I said billion! It began when the cosmos was less than ten billion years old. It began when this planet was still so new that planetesimals—hunks of rock the size of small moons—were raining down on this globe’s face, deforming the planet as savagely as a swift kick distorts a soccer ball.
How could this be? There weren’t even primitive brain cells 3.85 billion years ago, much less intelligent societies. Or were there? The story of how culture emerged way, way back when begins with the Big Bang. Culture is a social thing. And this has never been a cosmos of loners. From the git-go 13.7 billion years ago it’s been a social universe, a cosmos of tight, intimate bunches, of massive mobs, and of huge communities. The Big Bang was profoundly social.
In its first flick, 13.7 billion years ago, it set the first mob in motion. It precipitated roughly 1088 quarks. Those quarks rushed into a social process—ganging up in groups of three, trios we call protons and neutrons. The social process of trio-making involved rules of etiquette, the laws of attraction and repulsion that dictate what sort of quarks you, if you were a quark, should hook up with and what sort of quarks you should avoid. Then came another act of sociality, the shotgun marriage of protons and neutrons in families of between two and ten. These proton and neutron families were born of social urgency. Any neutron that didn’t elbow its way into a particle cluster, any neutron that didn’t join a particle gang, disintegrated after less than 10.6 minutes. It underwent beta decay. This was natural selection working on an instant scale. When it came to quarks and neutrons, only the social survived. And sociality—the behavior of couples, trios, teams, crowds, and swarms--is at culture’s core.
When did another ingredient of culture— social memory, a memory that gives a foundation of knowledge, perception, and direction to an entire society—first arise? A firm answer is more elusive than you might think. Why? For the first 300,000 years after the Big Bang, the cosmos was host to a massive social dance. Particle gangs moved at superspeed, colliding with each other like bullets smashing head to head, then bouncing away with ferocious velocity. Astonishingly, the particles involved—particularly the protons—came out of each crash with all their mass and form intact. Was this act of identity-retention a primitive form of memory? Was it tradition arisen before its time?
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