Monday, October 16, 2017

Modern Science Confirms DeconstructingTime Blog

Cutting-Edge Science Confirms Ideas in This Blog DeconstructingTime

Almost five years ago, when I started this blog, I began with these words:
"While time exists independently of human beings, our perception and experience of time is uniquely human. I believe it is the modern human -- i.e., Homo sapiens sapiens -- sense of time that is the key difference between humans and the other animals."

December 24, 2012

It turns out that these ideas are now current thinking. A recent article in the New York Times said this:
"We are misnamed. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, the “wise man,” but ...what makes us wise? What sets us apart from other animals? What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future. Our singular foresight [ED: my emphasis] created civilization and sustains society.
"A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects."
We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment

This NOAA map shows the three-month outlook for temperature probability 12 months in the future.
This NOAA map shows the three-month outlook for temperature probability 12 months in the future. Thinking about the future is central to human nature, civilization, and survival.

But contemplating the future is intimately connected both to a sense of time and to our abilities to recall the past.

The Times article goes on to say:
" ...studies of children’s development show that they’re not able to imagine future scenes until they’ve gained the ability to recall personal experiences, typically somewhere between the ages of 3 and 5. 
"Perhaps the most remarkable evidence comes from recent brain imaging research. 
When recalling a past event, the hippocampus must combine three distinct pieces of information — what happened, when it happened and where it happened — that are each stored in a different part of the brain. Researchers have found that the same circuitry is activated when people imagine a novel scene [ED: that is imagining the future]."

This key ability to remember and work with "what happened, when it happened and where it happened" is essentially the idea I put forward for in my blog about virtual human meta-time. By human meta-time I meant our shared ability to imagine and conceptualize space and time in the past, present and future which requires the ability to remember and conceive of things with the basic attributes of "what, when and where." See my full blog about this:

Still from the Méliès 1902 sci-fi film: A Trip to the Moon. The command module that held the astronauts was inserted into a super-gun that sent it to the moon. Plus a 1964 NASA drawing of the command module that would take astronauts to the moon.
The human ability to imagine the future and then to create that future is one of our most remarkable traits.
TOP: Still from the Méliès 1902 sci-fi film: A Trip to the Moon. The command module that held the astronauts was inserted into a super-gun that sent the module to the moon.
BOTTOM: A 1964 NASA drawing of the command module that would take astronauts to the moon. The similarity in shape between the 1902 film fantasy and the actual NASA design is remarkable. (NASA)

In another blog, Animal Senses Compared to the Human Sense of TimeI made the point that we humans have a unique understanding of time -- specifically we are the only animal that understands 'when' and can place events in a relative time-line of past, present and future.

The article in the New York Times adds:
"The central role of prospection has emerged in recent studies of both conscious and unconscious mental processes..." and the article links to:
The Special Issue of Review of General Psychology: The Science of Prospection 

This picture shows Tesla's visionary ideas for an electric world that was powered by wireless transmission.
This picture shows Nikola Tesla's visionary ideas for an electric world 
that was powered by wireless transmission. 
This idea has now been put into practice more than 100 years later, but not on a large scale.


But there is one more intriguing idea that this article from the Times suggests.
The central point is that "forethought" is what distinguishes humans from other animals. The article says:
"Our singular foresight [ED: my emphasis] created civilization and sustains society.
"A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects."

But the idea of human nature and "forethought" is ancient going back thousands of years to the myth of Prometheus. The Greek god Prometheus was not only associated with forethought, his name actually meant "forethought." While most people know that he stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, they may not know that according to the Greeks he was the father of mankind, that he made humans from clay, or in another telling of the myth the godly benefactor of humankind. So the idea of forethought has been associated with humankind for a very long time. 

From the Louvre Museum, Prometheus creates humans as Athena watches. (Roman, 3rd Century CE)
From the Louvre Museum, Prometheus creates humans as Athena watches. (Roman, 3rd Century CE)

Forethought was a fundamental ability that Prometheus passed onto humans as he taught them a variety of skills such as how to tell time from the stars, how to farm and how to sail ships -- all of which required a sense of time and planning. And, of course, he famously stole fire from the gods, but even so tending a fire and having the tools and fuel to make and sustain fire required planning and forethought.

It seems that modern science has now come full circle to confirm an idea that has been an integral part of the Western heritage. 

This is not unusual as many ancient Greek ideas such as 'catharsis' -- an idea put forward by Aristotle in 335 BCE -- are part of our thinking. Meteorology, the study of weather, was a term coined by Aristotle in 350 BCE. Terms like "a siren song" or an "odyssey" are part of our everyday language. And the word astronaut was derived in part from the Greek legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece as those adventurous sailors were called Argonauts. Plus the word psychology and the science of psychology comes from the Greek god Psyche, the goddess of the soul.


To understand the detailed and intimate relationship between human beings and a concept of time and forethought, I want to delve into ancient sources in an attempt to shed some light on ancient thinking.

According to Greek mythology Prometheus made humans out of clay and so he was the father of mankind. Or in another version of the story, he was the benefactor of humankind who endowed humans with all their uniquely human traits at the very beginning. But in addition he passed onto humans his ability to think and plan for the future. As I have said, Prometheus was not only associated with the idea of forethought, his very name meant forethought. 

Word origin of 'Prometheus'
[Greek] Prometheus, lit., forethought <promēthes, thinking before> < pro-, before (see pro) + mathein, to learn (see mathematics)>
Collins English Dictionary

As the father of humankind, he taught humans how to tell time and also how to calculate and and use numbers, in part to work with time. According to the playwright Aeschylus, telling time was the first skill he taught humans and was necessary for all the other skills or 'arts' that Prometheus showed humans.

The following quotes are from the ancient Greek play
Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, 5th Century BCE  (trans. Weir Smyth)

In the following passage from Prometheus Bound, Prometheus said "Listen to the miseries that beset mankind--how they were witless before and I made them have sense and endowed them with reason... [They] managed everything without judgment, until I taught them to discern the risings of the stars and their settings, which are difficult to distinguish." [ED: i.e., how to tell time and the timing of the seasons by the stars]

I think it is significant that Prometheus first taught 'primitive' humans about time and then numbers (see the full passage next) -- an essential skill when measuring or referring to time -- before he went on to talk about the arts that he taught humans. In other words telling time was the key that opened the door to learning the skills and crafts that created civilization.

Here is the full passage from Prometheus Bound:
"[After stealing fire from the gods Prometheus instructed mankind in the arts :] 
Prometheus : Listen to the miseries that beset mankind--how they were witless before and I made them have sense and endowed them with reason. I will not speak to upbraid mankind but to set forth the friendly purpose that inspired my blessing. First of all, though they had eyes to see, they saw to no avail; they had ears, but they did not understand ; but, just as shapes in dreams, throughout their length of days, without purpose they wrought all things in confusion. They had neither knowledge of houses built of bricks and turned to face the sun nor yet of work in wood; but dwelt beneath the ground like swarming ants, in sunless caves. They had no sign either of winter or of flowery spring or of fruitful summer, on which they could depend but managed everything without judgment, until I taught them to discern the risings of the stars and their settings, which are difficult to distinguish.
"Yes, and numbers, too, chiefest of sciences, I invented for them, and the combining of letters, creative mother of the Mousai's (Muses') arts, with which to hold all things in memory." [ED: So in addition to telling time with the stars, he showed them how remember things.]

A modern Prometheus statue at Vidraru Dam in Romania
A modern Prometheus statue at Vidraru Dam in Romania.

There is no definitive Greek 'Bible', as there is in the Judeo-Christian tradition, that tells one single story of Prometheus. Various versions list the following 'arts' that Prometheus taught humans.

He taught men the art of mining and forging of the metals bronze, iron, silver, and gold (Prometheus Bound)
He took credit for the domestication of working animals (Prometheus Bound): "I, too, first brought brute beasts beneath the yoke to be subject to the collar and the pack-saddle, so that they might bear in men's stead their heaviest burdens; and to the chariot I harnessed horses and made them obedient to the rein..."
And he invented the sailing ship (Prometheus Bound): "It was I and no one else who invented the mariner's flaxen-winged car that roams the sea."

A modern compilation of the various myths said:
"He taught men how to farm, build wagons and houses, to tell time from the stars, and how to read, write, count and calculate. He taught them metallurgy and navigation plus many other arts."
 Phil Simpson, Guidebook to the Constellations: Telescopic Sights, Tales, and Myths

Another modern source said:
"It is also said that Prometheus fancied mankind and, according to Hyginus' Fabulae, he taught them how to keep fire alive when they first got it from the gods. He also taught them how to predict future from their dreams, how to make remedies from the plants, how to live and share with each other and also instructed them into occult art among many other things."

In perhaps the most complete version of the story by Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound, Prometheus said (speaking of himself in third person), "-- every art possessed by man comes from Prometheus." This passage indicates that ancient people believed Prometheus instructed humans in all the various arts, crafts and skills that created civilization.

All the 'arts' as Prometheus called them, required a detailed understanding of process. And process requires a sophisticated understanding of time -- what to do, with what, in what order, and by what time. So all of the skills that Prometheus gave men involved an understanding of time.

Farming is a good example. A farmer had to have seeds that he saved from the previous growing season, he had to know when to prepare the ground and when to plant and when to harvest. He had to have a number of tools to till the soil plus work animals to help him plow the fields along with harnesses, feed and shelter for the work animals. All of this required complex planning along with a way to measure and understand the passage of time and an understanding of what must be done in what order.

Statue of Prometheus at Rockefeller Center in New York City
The inscription behind this statue of Prometheus at Rockefeller Center in New York City reads, “Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.” The website about Rockefeller Center goes on to say: "Over time, this classical figure came to represent human striving and the quest for knowledge...(and thus is given credit for civilization and progress)."

A modern interpretation 
of the Prometheus myth 
might read as follows:
Homo sapiens sapiens (i.e., us) were given an innate ability to sense the passage of time (a unique part of the human brain -- see my blog). Over millennia they developed the ability to understand yearly and seasonal progressions from the stars. It was essential that humans understood how to tell time from the stars and then learned mathematical skills before creating the 'arts' necessary to develop civilization. 
NOTE 1: The standard translation for the second half of Prometheus's name, i.e., metheus, is 'thought', but the word 'math' and 'mathematics' is also derived from this root. See the dictionary definition above.
NOTE 2: The importance of telling yearly and seasonal time at the beginning of civilization is also echoed in the Judeo-Christian Bible on the fourth day of creation in The Book of Genesis
(14) "And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
(16) "And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also."

In conclusion, my guess is that the Prometheus myth might yield other insights into the human condition, if modern scientists take a closer look. 


Over the last five years I have written in my blogs that Greek mythology and the myth of Prometheus in particular contained many important ideas about the element of time for humankind and human civilization.
Here is what I said about Prometheus at the end of my blog in August  2014: 
Animal Senses Compared to the Human Sense of Time

The incredibly intuitive ancient Greeks said most of what I have written about the human sense of time through their mythology. In this other version of the myth Prometheus does not create humans but is given the task of endowing humans with unique traits.


"Prometheus was said to be wise and possessed the gift of foresight and often considered what would be needed several years in the future."

The brother of Prometheus, Epimetheus, who was rash and impulsive, was given the job of creating the animals, fishes and birds. Prometheus, a god who was wise and had the power of foresight, took his time making man out of clay. Yet when it came to giving man attributes, it turned out that this brother of Prometheus had already given most qualities away. 

"Epimetheus began by giving the best traits to the animals — swiftness, courage, cunning, stealth, and the like — and he wound up with nothing to give to man. So Prometheus took the matter in hand and gave man an upright posture like the gods."

Yet since the natural qualities of fur, flight and strength etc. and had been taken, Prometheus went a step further to help mankind. He famously stole fire from the gods.

"The Creation of Man" by Prometheus, Roman, 4th Century CE.
"The Creation of Man" by Prometheus, Roman, 4th Century CE.

"Fire was bestowed upon mankind by Prometheus and with it came the beginning of civilization. Prometheus taught man how to craft tools from iron ore. He showed them how to plant crops and live through agriculture. Man learnt to craft weapons to defend themselves from wild animals. With fire they learnt to survive cold winters and defy the seasons. With fire man began to thrive and became superior to the animals of the wild."

In stealing fire from the gods, Prometheus also taught humans how to think ahead because starting a fire, keeping a fire going, cutting wood for the winter -- all took forethought, the skill needed to master time.

By stealing fire from the gods, teaching men crafts and agriculture, Prometheus, the god of forethought, gave man the gift of long term time, a quality more powerful than claws and sharp teeth. He taught humans about planning, about steps in a process, about the concept of 'when'. So only humans were given the ability to understand this dimension of time -- something the creatures impulsively made by his brother, Epimetheus, did not have.

Greek pottery, 550 BCE, Prometheus is on the right,  being punished after stealing fire from the Gods so that he could give it to humans.
Greek pottery, 550 BCE, Prometheus is on the right, 
being punished after stealing fire from the Gods so that he could give it to humans.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Climate Change And Modern Technology


We Have Conquered Nature -- Now What?
In my last blog I outlined how the modern world refuses to deal with the reality of climate change by using more Earth friendly technologies and practices. In this blog I want to expand on Dr. David Burney's finding that all Paleolithic humans radically changed their environment by applying that insight to today's modern world.

Time-lapse photo of a busy US highway at night.

To solve our problems as a species, we must come to terms with our human nature.

We, homo sapiens sapiens, who have been around about 200,000 years have always made drastic changes to the environment -- at least according to Dr. David Burney who studies such matters. In addition he invited others in his field to challenge this finding -- and so far no one has.

Speaking about the movement of early humans from Africa across the globe, Dr. David Burney made this observation in his TED talk. 
A global pattern of human arrival to previously uninhabited land masses, followed by faunal collapse and other ecological changes, appears WITHOUT KNOWN EXCEPTION. No one has contradicted or found exception to this idea.
Rewilding, Ecological Surrogacy, and Now... De-extinction?
David Burney at TEDxDeExtinction

The effect of humans on their surroundings was always significant -- but it was held in check by the earlier technologies that were not sophisticated enough to make major alterations to the Earth's environment. 

A Watt type steam engine, built in 1859 and operated for about 40 years.

However because of the industrial revolution about 200 years ago, we now have much more power to do what we have always been doing -- which is to alter the natural environment and to create a man-made environment where we spend most of our time and effort. The invention of the steam engine and then the internal combustion engine, for example, meant that humans simply had more raw power.

This process, which started around 1800, has only accelerated. Today this power has become widespread with a billion motor vehicles worldwide, tens of thousands of large aircraft that transport about four billion passengers a year ( plus countless factories and electric generating plants. 

Volkswagen assembly lines.

The US publisher Ward's, estimates that as of 2010 there were 1.015 billion motor vehicles in use in the world. This figure represents the number of cars; light, medium and heavy duty trucks; and buses, but does not include off-road vehicles or heavy construction equipment.
As we now know our technology is starting to alter the Earth's total environment in a variety of ways, from greenhouse gases to plastic in the oceans to the extinction of a wide variety of species. 

I am suggesting that we are doing this simply because this is what we have always done. But the difference now is that we have amassed so much power that we can alter the Earth itself. Unless we understand our own nature -- what drives us and what messages we respond to -- we will continue on our 200,000 year-old path. Only this time we have tools that can overpower the immensity of the Earth itself, creating perhaps a toxic situation or at best a fundamentally altered one.

In a sense we are now doing what the famous scientist Archimedes of Syracuse only imagined around 200 B.C.E. He said, "Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world." We, as humans today, have leveraged our power so that we can actually change the world.

Humans Probably Move More Earth Now Than Is Moved By Natural Forces
As an example of how human technology has become so powerful it can alter the Earth itself, here is one report:
In 2004 it was reported that humans probably moved more sand, dirt etc. than the Earth's natural forces of wind, tides, earthquakes, floods, rain etc. Now more than ten years later it seems almost certain that we do. See the following article in Science Daily: Humans May Surpass Other Natural Forces As Earth Movers 

Sigmund Freud and Conquering Nature
During the last few generations mankind has made an extraordinary advance in the natural sciences and in their technical application and has established his control over nature in a way never before imagined. ... Men are proud of those achievements, and have a right to be... This newly-won power over space and time, this subjugation of the forces of nature, ... is the fulfillment of a longing that goes back thousands of years...Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

(Left) A German model of the human brain that operated like a machine,
(Right) Sigmund Freud who tried to understand the forces that drove human nature.


Understanding our human nature is not simple. We are complicated animals who operate like no other on the planet. As I have written many times, I believe we are the only animal that has a complex understanding of time, for example.

Part of the problem is that we tend to think of ourselves as civilized rational beings who respond reasonably. I think it makes more sense to think of ourselves as animals who are doing our best to become rational -- when the situation requires it.

And to make matters even more complicated, I believe that many of our animal traits overlap with the rational conscious reasoning of our civilized cultures such as our intelligence, our ability to make symbols and our curiosity. Even the word 'wise' is part of our animal nature as sapiens means wise.

And there is one more point. I believe that 200,000 years ago humans were just as smart and sophisticated as we are today. Anthropologists agree. Humans have always used whatever technology they had to the Nth degree whether it was the Paleolithic era, the Neolithic era, the bronze age or iron age or today. My point is we are the same species that we were 200,000 years ago; our animal nature is the same and has not changed in any basic way. So the discovery Dr. Burney made applies to both Paleolithic people and people of the modern world.

(Left) Traffic in California USA. (Right) Traffic in Beijing, China

If we are to solve our problem with the environment, then we must find a way to appeal to our basic human nature. We need to realize that dealing with climate change is a matter of survival for our species -- but the full effects will not be felt for some time in the future, perhaps the distant future. 

However, our human sense of time is pretty much limited to our own lifetime. Yet what we do today may affect the Earth in a couple of hundred years. However, if we don't do something now the consequences of our current technology may be irreversible. 

So here's the problem:

We are constantly engineering our environment. This is what we do as humans and what we have always done, according to Dr. Burney.

To make significant changes in our technology so that it does not affect the Earth's environment, we need to learn to think long term. However, standing in our way is the immediacy of human existence, our own brief lifespan, and our animal nature that deals with the here and now and not the distant future.  

And on the other hand there is the very long time it takes for human technology to affect the Earth.

To put it simply, we in the present must give up things and do things that will not benefit us, but will benefit future generations. Long after we are dead, future generations will reap the rewards of what we did. This is a hard nut to crack.

However, recognizing that the urge to change our environment is a basic human trait could give us new insight into the problem.


1. Dr. David Burney asserts that where ever early humans migrated to previously uninhabited areas, they caused major changes in the environment without exception.

2. Anthropologists state that we today are basically the same as early humans. 

3. It therefore seems likely that changing the environment is a basic human trait -- as true today as it was 200,000 years ago.

4. Until the industrial revolution, the changes humans made in the environment had little effect on the overall environment of our planet Earth.

5. However, for the last two hundred years the massive power now available because of technology has the potential to affect the overall environment of the entire planet.

6. Before we can prevent humans from impacting the larger environment of the Earth, we need to recognize that changing the environment is a basic human trait which must be understood and addressed.

If the above summary is valid, then I feel this is an important idea that needs to be explored in more detail. As I have written, we need to understand our own human nature if we are to deal with this situation, because it is our human nature that has created this problem.

"The old bond between humans and nature has been permanently altered by technology. The task of the 21st century artist is to forge a new relationship between humans and the world, since our fate is inseparable from that of the Earth."  Rick Doble (2003)

An assembly hall at a factory in Germany in 1875. 


We humans do not have a good track record when it comes to understanding the consequences of our changes to the environment. See the following list at Wikipedia.

And the related article:

It is now clear that any new technology or major change in a technology needs an 'environmental impact' assessment both near term and long term. While many view this as bureaucratic 'red tape', it should be considered just part of doing business. Our technology today is simply too powerful to assume that it will not harm or have an effect on the environment now or in the future.