In prior posts we previewed the five waves of innovation that transformed our world, and humanity’s role within it. This week we move beyond words and numbers to discover our ability to bend nature to our will.
Our conquest of nature began by harnessing the gods’ gift—fire. Nameless ancestors domesticated animal, plant and ultimately, our own human nature. Against high odds, their achievements allowed us to graduate from merely human to humane. Today, the rule of law enables civil society, social norms, and each of us to submit to a contract representing the common good.
How did this remarkable transformation begin?
Tame Nature to Tame Ourselves
To rise above our own nature, we subjugate our own desires. The will of the self concedes to the will of the many.
Guess which friend taught us this metamorphosis?
Of course we can’t know who first dared to adopt a carnivorous predator (and pack animal!) to share their lodging, but I imagine it started with one of these.
Our best evidence puts the domesticated wolf-enroute-to-dog in East Asia nearly 25,000 years ago, not long after fire was tamed, leather was tanned, and the winds of our last ice-age still raged.
The earliest human attempts at plant domestication appeared to occur in southwestern Asia, and proceeded with pace as the glaciers receded.
There is evidence for conscious cultivation and trait selection of wild rye by pre-Neolithic groups (c. 12,000 BP) at Abu Hureyra in Syria.
By 10,000 BC the domesticated bottle gourd appeared as a container, before ceramic technology. It reached the Americas from Asia by 8,000 BC, most likely migrating with peoples from Asia to America.
Cereal crops show up around 9,000 BC in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East—pulses such as peas, and grains like wheat.
The Middle East was especially suited to these species; the dry-summer climate was conducive to the evolution of large-seeded annual plants, and the variety of elevations led to a great variety of species.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral
As domestication took place humans began to move from a hunter-gatherer society to a settled agricultural society. This change would eventually lead, some four to five-thousand years later, to the first city states and the rise of civilization.
Domestication progressed in stutter steps—intermittent and localized trial and error. Perennials and small trees came next—apples and olives. Others were domesticated only recently, such as the macadamia and pecan
Many domesticated species barely resemble their natural ancestors. Maize ears are 10s of times the mass of wild teosinte. Strawberries too.
From Rice to Rays
Civilizations spread. Building on the back of mathematics and astronomy, science superseded religion as the more reliable method to decipher nature’s secrets.
This slow accumulation of knowledge began to pick up steam, with the arrival of steam power and the industrial revolution. By the 19th century the foundations of modern science were established, and the disciplines began to cross into life-altering discoveries.
In 1878, David E. Hughes noticed that sparks could be heard in a telephone receiver when experimenting with his carbon microphone. He developed his carbon-based instrument to detect signals over a few hundred yards. Hughes demonstrated his discovery to the Royal Society in 1880, but was told it was merely induction. Sadly, the misdiagnosis caused him to abandon his research.
Thomas Edison and his Menlo Park lab applied in 1885 to the U.S. Patent Office for his “electrostatic coupling system between elevated terminals” finally approved in 1891.
On 8 Nov, 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen accidentally discovered an image cast from his cathode ray generator, projected far beyond the possible range of the cathode rays (now known as an electron beam). Further investigation showed that the rays were generated at the point of contact of the cathode ray beam on the interior of the vacuum tube, that they were not deflected by magnetic fields, and they penetrated many kinds of matter.
A week later Röntgen took an X-ray photograph of his wife’s hand. It clearly revealed her wedding ring and bones. The photograph electrified the general public and aroused great scientific interest in the new form of radiation. Röntgen named the new form of radiation X-radiation (X standing for “Unknown”). Hence the term X-rays (also referred as Röntgen rays, though this term is unusual outside of Germany).
Fleming’s Fantastic Fungus
In 1928 by Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin, which he grew in his lab using mold and fungi. Without antibiotics, infections like strep throat could be deadly. A child born in 1900 could expect to live an average of 47 years, and infectious diseases killed many children before they reached their teens.
In 1938 German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, Austrian physicist Lise Meitner and Meitner’s nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, experimented with neutron-bombarded uranium. They determined that the relatively tiny neutron split the nucleus of the massive uranium atoms into two roughly equal pieces.
In 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick constructed the puzzling double-helix structure of DNA. Their discovery helps physicians research and ultimately treat disease through genomics.
Anticipating the 21st Century
British SciFi author Sir Arthur C. Clarke, was also an, inventor and futurist. Famous for his short stories and novels, among them 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Clarke served in the Royal Air Force as a radar instructor and technician in WWII. He proposed a satellite communication system in 1945, earning the Franklin Institute Gold Medal. He anticipated the geostationary satellite, and was renowned for what came to be known as Clarkes’ three laws:
- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The third law, his most famous, is at the heart of my own field of innovation—the applied science of creative ideation in the service of latent need or unmet demand.
Our boundless curiosity continues to transform the impossible to the probable, and magic to technology.
Anticipate the sixth wave. And get ready to make magic.