I want you to take a moment and imagine a visitor from a highly advanced species on another planet.
Her civilization has created the most incredible of inventions: a space ship with the power of interstellar time travel. They can go anywhere in the universe and observe everything around them at any rate of time they’d like. They can move back and forward through time.
One day, our traveler decides to take a trip to a lonely arm of the Milky Way Galaxy.
After travelling around from galaxy to galaxy, star to star, planet to planet, she comes across something that catches her eye. It’s the third planet out from a medium-size orange star. It has one moon. It is covered in blue, green, and white all swirling around one another. She peers down at Earth through a massive telescope.
The planet teems with life, flora and fauna of all shapes and sizes. Bison, horses, and antelope graze the abundant grasslands. Birds fill the sky and fish swim the ocean, rivers, and lakes.
The world is a “pure” ecosystem. No technology or civilization. There is no advanced “intelligence” – as it would come to be known – but this place is no doubt full of brilliance and beauty.
She hits fast forward and watches evolution unfold on this lonely planet. She sees the biomes around the planet shifting. Deserts expand, contract, and shift. Forests because grasslands. Oceans become land. Land bridges come and go. And with every change, species adapt. Some die off as they are outcompeted for resources. Some new life forms come into being. The ones that persist show remarkable ability to adapt to the world around them, changing themselves as their environments change.
But for the most part, evolution on this planet is not yet a story of “progress” – species becoming ever more complex and impressive. Yes, surely there has been some growth in complexity – from ferns to redwoods, from single-celled amoebas to dinosaurs. But moreso, it has been a story of adaption, species changing so as to become more and more fit at surviving in specific environments. The planet as a whole is in a constant state of change, ebbing and flowing into different configurations.
But as she progress through time, one species in particular catches her eye. It’s very similar to a chimpanzee. As she watches it evolve through time, she sees it diverge into several different species. They are all intelligent, perhaps the most intelligent life forms on the entire planet. Some even use rudimentary tools and make use of naturally-occurring fire to heat themselves and cook their food. Some even begin fashioning clothes out of animal hides to keep themselves warm. But again, their story is one primarily of adaptation, not “progress.”
But some seven million years after their emergence, something extraordinary happens, something that would spark an epochal shift in this planet’s evolution.
As she peers down from her spacecraft, she watches as they learn – they teach themselves – to create their own fires intentionally. They learn to keep themselves warm across all seasons and cook their own food.
All of a sudden, they needn’t use so much of their daily energy on chewing and breaking down uncooked foods. They have a considerable amount of new energy to spare. And they use it to grow their minds.
Like lightning in evolutionary time, this new cognitive ability leads to a creative and technological explosion. They paint on the walls of caves depicting their environment and their own lives. They begin creating rituals to bury their dead. They learn to catch fish. They begin wearing jewelry. They began keeping small gardens, slowly changing plants to forms more suited to eating. They learn to tell stories and create concepts, abstracting their experience in a way never before possible. And on and on and on. New discoveries and technologies spread like wildfire, the pace of the invention accelerating faster and faster. Genius abounds at every corner.
This is a profound breakthrough, a startling, stark inflection point for life on Earth. Life has become aware of itself. It has started to guide and foster it’s own evolution intentionally. “Progress” is now the product of the designs of conscious minds, not the whims of random genetic mutations and natural selection.
Fast forward another 125,000 years. There are now over 7.6 billion individuals from this remarkable species Homo sapiens. These billions of individuals have organized themselves into nuclear families. Nuclear families have organized themselves into extended families and communities. Communities have organized themselves into towns and cities often with millions of people and with their own distinct cultures. Towns and cities and the nearby rural communities have organized themselves into nations. At each level of organization are unique cultures with their own belief systems, food, clothing, and traditions. They have developed vast, coordinated systems for healthcare, energy, water, education, social welfare, governance, and more unparalled by anything that had ever come before it.
The nations of the world have come together to form a way to communicate and negotiate with one another without war. The United Nations has existed for several decades now, the safest and healthiest period for humans in their entire existence. It has just brokered a process by which the vast majority of the world’s nations come together to agree to a collaborative solution, the Paris Agreement, to arguably their greatest shared challenge, climate change. They’ve unanimously agreed to collaborate with one in support of other massive challenges, like poverty, hunger, education women’s rights, waste, environmental degradation, ocean health, and more in what are known as the Sustainable Development Goals.
These billions of individuals have demonstrated a remarkable ability to collaborate and devise systems to coordinate their many different needs. And nearly all of them can communicate with one another, in some form, through an invisible global communications network.
From nothing, single cellular, and then multi-cellular life sprung out of the ooze. From there plants and animals continued evolving. Somehow from this point, we now find ourselves with complex human systems that allow us to understand particle physics, harness the power of the Sun, and travel across the planet in a day’s time. Their story of invention and emergence has continued uninterrupted for over a hundred thousand years.
Now, imagine our alien space travel watch this unfold. No doubt, she’ll have seen this very species enslave and torture one another, waste away in front of electronic boxes, watch indifferently as they live lives of luxury while their neighbors live in squalor.
But from any reasonable perspective, beyond good and bad, this story of human emergence must be an incredible, mind-numbingly beautiful story to behold. It is miraculous, remarkable, exquisite.
Do humans today really carry with us this story of miraculous creation and emergence? Do we let ourselves delight in the sheer awesomeness and improbability of it all? Do we stop to consider how incredible and difficult it is to form our massive systems of knowledge, cooperation, and justice? Do we let ourselves admire ourselves for the journey we’ve been on? Do we allow ourselves compassion for all that we have been unable to accomplish thus far?
Consider our alien traveler friend of ours. If you were her watching this seen unfold in front of you – no preconceptions about humanity, no preexisting judgments or fears, no shame stories – would you be more impressed and in awe of this miracle of life emerging below you, or would you be more judgment about all of its imperfections and dissonances? Would you deem this emerging species an abysmal failure, or a promising, remarkable work in progress?