Empiricism: Triumph And Defeat
Humanity has arguably produced two inventions that above all others have changed the course of evolution and enabled our relatively slow and weak species to out-compete every other animal on the planet.
The first invention was the ability to induce combustion. Our ability to make fire, which dates back perhaps as far as one hundred thousand years, changed the way we live. Fire provided many enormous benefits. It enabled us to consume and digest protein-rich foods to a far greater degree than is possible when eating raw inputs; this led to more rapid growth and more resilient bodies. Fire enabled us to keep warm during cold seasons and dry out after being soaked by rain. This helped extend human lifespans by protecting our immune systems from purely weather-related challenges. Fire enabled us to harden the tips of wooden spears and arrows. It enabled us to keep predators at bay (at least to some degree). And it enabled us to partially conquer darkness, so that we had extra hours of the day in which we could huddle round the campfire and share stories, invent fables, and pass on hard-won knowledge.
It was this last benefit that is perhaps the least appreciated yet most important of all, for it enabled our distant ancestors to begin to forge rudimentary cultures.
Later, fire was used to bake a variety of pottery and foodstuffs. It was used to smelt metals, and then to make glass. Ultimately, fire became the basis of the Industrial Revolution.
Fire, in other words, was a pretty big deal. And yet, it took nearly a hundred thousand years to progress from the first primitive camp fires to the steam engines that made the Victorians masters of their world. That’s because each incremental development was largely happenstance, and each improvement was fiercely resisted by the shamans and priests who saw all change as a falling away from whatever dogma their imaginary deities prescribed. Even the ancient Athenians with their perpetual hunger for new ideas continued to cling to tradition. Significant inventions such as the arch and dome and concrete were fostered by the questing Roman civilization, not by the civilizations of classical antiquity.