Origin Story: A Big History of Everything
By David Christian (2018)
The Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage…. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl…. Yet the GNP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or… the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials…. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
Daniel Dennett writes: “Animals are not just herbivores or carnivores. They are… informavores.” In fact, all living organisms are informavores. They all consume information, and the mechanisms they use for reading and responding to local information—whether they are eyes and tentacles or muscles and brains—account for much of the complexity of living organisms.
Natural selection equipped large organisms with a desire for more information, because good information was vital to their success.
In most mammal species, the cortex accounts for between 10 percent and 40 percent of brain size. In primates, it accounts for more than 50 percent, and in humans for as much as 80 percent.
In human bodies, the brain uses 16 percent of available energy, though it accounts for just 2 percent of the body’s mass.
Close observation of primate societies shows that if you get these social calculations wrong, you’ll probably eat less well, be less well protected, get beaten up more often, and lower your chances of being healthy and having healthy children.
We don’t just gather information, like other species. We seem to cultivate and domesticate it, as farmers cultivate crops.
Today’s consumerist world is utterly different. It is fueled by economic systems that, in the more affluent parts of the world, produce so much material wealth that their very survival depends on massive, sustained consumption by a rapidly growing global middle class.
If the machine breaks down and productivity plummets, we won’t be able to support seven billion people. We will face a grim period of social chaos, warfare, famine, and unchecked disease.