This title of this one might be a little misleading but I’ll try to explain what I mean. Specifically when I say humans I’m talking about humans that have existed during written human history. Something like from today back five thousand years. That seems like a fair number right? That puts us between 3000 BC and 2000AD roughly and within that realm we are looking at people who thought building a stone prism was a great human accomplishment up to people landing humans on an object rocketing through space 400,000 KM away with the technological equivalent of the shittiest cellphone you’ve ever owned. When I say “smarter” I mean a literal distinct “advantage” to being able to learn things. That is to say that people now are evolutionarily more capable of learning than people of Ancient History.
You might be thinking to yourself, oh how great I am, I live in the age of smart humanity. We are brilliant aren’t we? We can tell the composition of stars by their wavelength, we understand relativity, physics, and chemistry. We no longer believe in humors, we’ve found planets outside of Jupiter and Saturn and can even propel ourselves through the sky in giant steel contraptions.
You’d be forgiven if you thought this meant that you were smarter than Aztecs or Ancient Egyptians. I could see how someone might make that mistake. Yes the human brain has come a long way since our nearest ancient evolutionary relatives. But those brain changes happened over millions of years. The change in our brains evolutionarily in the last few thousand years is not quite so significant (it tripled over millions of years, I doubt we’ve seen anything even remotely close to that since 3000 BC).
You have in your head, for all intents and purposes, the same brain that people had in their head in 3000 BC. You might be asking yourself then “Why am I so smart? I can use the internet! I am so sexy and brilliant! Those primitive people were so primitive!” This is the essence of a lot of bigotry in human history. I’ve been meaning to write a post about how Aliens play into all this and I’m going to try my best to not bring them into this particular post. Basically historically Europeans have used this reasoning, the idea of Eugenics (even long before such a thing existed or had a name) to justify pilfering other nations, enslaving other nations, and abusing natural resources.
For them it wasn’t a matter of abusing other cultures but “enlightening” an ancient ignorant people. How then, if we aren’t getting smarter, do these changes happen? How does one group of people geographically or chronologically get out of whack with another? A big part of it is luck. While I suspect the story is embellished, if Newton hadn’t been hit in the head by a falling apple he might have never asked the question “Why doesn’t the moon also fall?”
Before he asked that question there might have been millions of other people who asked it. Much like you or I might ask “Why does a Microwave have a grate?” But of those millions of people only a small fraction of them, perhaps even as few as a dozen, will ever actually research why this is the case. Until this point people just take certain things for granted.
Why doesn’t the moon fall? Because god. Why does the sun rise in the morning? Because god. Ad infintium. This isn’t because they are dumber than you or I but it is usually because nobody has serendipitously experienced the chain of events that leads to either being obsessed by the question or by discovering a new technology that can help answer the question.
Before the telescope was invented (in two separate places at nearly the same time by two separate people who never met by the way, but both were white so we don’t attribute this to aliens). Most recent research suggests that it might have even been invented by as many as five people. Five friggen people, but only one of them was both famous enough and curious enough to point it at the moon and other celestial bodies. Were they smarter? No, they had the same mental capacity of every person in even their relatively distant past.
Eratosthenes figured out the diameter of the Earth with sticks and shadows in ~200 BC (Somewhere in there). Sticks and shadows. How many people do you know in modern times that you can hand a stick and nothing else and get a nearly correct measurement of the Earth? Our ancient past was not filled with millions of people scared they’d fall off the edge of the Earth. These, like many historical stories, were glamorized and white washed to make modern people’s or certain cultures appear much more (or much less) intelligent than they are (or were).
Remember how I mentioned Newton? You can thank a Monk for Newton being so famous because 700 years ago a Monk scraped off the works of one man by the name of “Archimedes” which detailed Calculus. Calculus by Archimedes? You mean that guy born in 287 BC? Yes, yes, that is exactly who I mean. And Archimedes is just the person that we know about. Who knows how many other people discovered Calculus? Much like the microwave question earlier it all was waiting on someone famous enough, loud enough, and curious enough to make it widely known.
Then we have other discoveries like microbiology. Many centuries before it was officially seen with a microscope, people had theorized the existence of bacteria. Why did they do this? Because they had the same brain that you or I have, they had the same eyes, the same senses, the same planet, the same general needs, fears, and wants.
What changes throughout history is not how smart we are but the baseline for our observations. Someone, somewhere, stumbles upon something (like Penicillin) and we suddenly have a new baseline. People learning from that baseline are not smarter. Technically we could argue semantics, but for me I want to squash this notion that ancient people couldn’t have done great things. There is no reason to believe this and there is no biologist in the world that will argue that there is a fundamental necessity for ancient people to be “archaic” or dumb. The number of dumb people then was likely at similar ratio as it is now.
We have a museum in the US where people show ancient humans chilling with dinosaurs. I doubt there were many people in the past so dumb as to suggest that such a thing is the case. Yet here we are, with planes in the sky, cars, boats, spaceships, and all the wonders of the internet, still all this is not enough to stop a museum from showing a man eating grains with a herbivorous Utahraptor.
Our capacity to learn has been largely unchanged. What has changed is the rate at which our brains are stimulated. Information is accelerating and I suspect we’ll find that there is a speed limit for how much data you can take in that will remain meaningful. I also suspect we’ll find we broke that limit and are currently in a place where we need to slow down. But that is for another day.
Even on the face of it this whole belief is kind of moronic. Imagine if you will a culture that sacrifices a thousand people a year (which is a low number), do you really think it is surprising that they would understand surgery? Does anyone really find it odd that people dissecting bodies constantly wouldn’t be highly knowledgeable in them? This is exactly how Leonardo became so well versed in the human body, he tore apart cadavers.
Every culture that ever did anything we find outstanding did so because they had incredible levels of experience in that field. Just like it takes you 10,000 hours to master something it takes basically anyone without a cognitive defect 10,000 hours to be a master at anything.
We need a better word when discussing the differences between modern peoples and ancient peoples. A word that stresses that it is not the mental capacity of the peoples that is different but the technological baseline. Until that point people will continue to make the false claim that we are wise and they were fools. [Don’t even get me started on all the scientific advancements made during the ‘dark ages’. Eurocentric history bothers me.]
Edit: A fun extra: Older than oldest of 7 Wonders: 4,600 yo step pyramid uncovered in Egypt – As time goes on I suspect we’ll find that most cultures were building smaller pyramids and once they got exceptionally good at it they began building bigger and bigger ones. Same with any other wonder. People practice, get good at it, and show off.