The dawn of a new day always suggests possibilities.

The dawn of a new day always suggests possibilities.

Million year old civilizations are not necessarily supercivilizations

The most common way to think about the possibility of very old civilizations is in terms of an ancient supercivilization, in which it is implied that the civilization in question began much as our civilization began, but has continued its trajectory of development for a million years or more. I previously addressed this theme of a million year old supercivilization in Third Time’s a Charm.

It is also possible, however, to conceive of very old civilizations — perhaps even million year old civilizations — that do not correspond to the assumptions implicit in the idea of a supercivilization. Such ancient but not necessarily advanced civilizations would constitute counterfactual civilizations — paths to civilization not taken by humanity, but which were once open to humanity at one time. Indeed, such paths may be open to us yet.

I previously considered counterfactual civilizations in Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution. This post reviews scenarios for civilization absent the industrial revolution; below I will continue this line of counterfactual thought experiments in the history of civilization.

counterfactual graph

Diachronic extrapolation of the pre-industrial past

If we plot out the history of technology and population (among other metrics) on a graph and extrapolate from trends prior to the industrial revolution (when these metrics suddenly spike) we can easily see the possibility of a very old civilization — tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years old — that would be the result of a simple diachronic extrapolation of trends that had characterized human life from the emergence of hominids up until the industrial revolution. That is to say, if we had just kept doing what we had been doing before the industrial revolution, this slow development represented by a shallow angle could have continued indefinitely without ever catching up to the kind of development that followed the industrial revolution.

The very old civilization that would be the result of a straight-forward diachronic extrapolation of civilization prior to the industrial revolution would be a civilization conceived in terms proportional to earlier human history. We often forget that, prior to Homo sapiens, there was a multi-million year history of hominids with minimal toolkits that changed almost not at all over a million or even two million years. This same level and rate of progress might have continued to characterize human civilization in its later stages of development as well. It is at least possible as a counter-factual, and conceivable by way of an analogy with our prehistoric past, that the breakthrough to industrialization had never occurred.

If we were to add to the absence of an industrial revolution several strategic shocks or global catastrophic events — demographic catastrophes such as the Black Death or natural disasters such as a massive supervolcano eruption or an impact by an asteroid or comet — what little gains that may be made by the ever-so-gradual increases in technology and population due to civilization prior to the industrial revolution might be canceled or reversed. Contingent events could result in a contraction or collapse of a civilization that never made the breakthrough to an industrial revolution.

social science

The social science of a non-industrialized civilization

Imagine that there were social scientists prior to the scientific revolution who studied their contemporaneous society much as we study our own societies today, and further suppose, despite the disadvantages such pre-modern social scientists would have labored under, that they manage to assemble reasonably accurate data sets that allows them to model the world in which they live and the history up to that point that had resulted in the world in which they lived. What kind of future would these pre-modern social scientists forecast for their world?

If you were to show pre-modern social scientists the spike in demographics, technology, energy use, and urbanization that attended the industrial revolution, they might deny that any such development was even possible, and if they admitted that it was possible, they might say that a world so transformed would not constitute civilization as they understood civilization. They would be right, in a sense, to characterize our world today, after the industrial revolution, as a post-civilizational institution, derived perhaps from the long tradition of civilization with which they were familiar, but not really a part of this tradition.

I implied as much about the divergence of contemporary civilization from its pre-modern tradition recently when I wrote (in Is society existentially dependent upon religion?) that:

“It could be argued that traditional society… has already collapsed and has been incrementally replaced by an entirely different kind of society. For this is surely what has happened in the wake of the industrial revolution, which destroyed more aspects of traditional society than any Marxist, any revolutionary, or any atheist.”

Prior to the industrial revolution, the entire economy of civilization was based on agriculture. (Elsewhere I have called this biocentric civilization.) On the basis of this biocentric civilization, there was nothing to suggest (or, more cautiously, almost nothing to suggest) the possibility of a civilization with an economy in which agriculture was marginalized to the point of near invisibility to the overall economy. What could possibly replace agriculture in its role as the indispensable employer and primary producer of commodities?


Non-civilizations and other non-peers

The thought experiment that I have suggested here in regard to the industrial revolution could also be performed in regard to the Neolithic agricultural revolution, although in this case we could not properly speak of an ancient civilization. Humanity as a species might have attained a great antiquity without ever making the breakthrough to civilization; just as we might never have experienced the industrial revolution, we might also have skipped the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. In fact, if Marian scientists had been observing life on Earth for the five millions years or so of hominid history (prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution), they might have said, “Here is an intelligence species with a very long history that has never created a civilization, and shows no signs of creating a civilization.”

It is an especially interesting thought experiment to imagine humanity having attained great antiquity without creating a civilization when we reflect that the uniquely human activities of art and technology predate civilization and may be understood in isolation from civilization. Even without the great impetus of civilization, there would have been some minimal continued development of art and technology. The rate of technological innovation prior to the advent of civilization was very slow, but it was not zero, and extrapolated to a sufficient age it would have produced an impressive technology. It could be argued that such a gradual development of technology, if extrapolated indefinitely into the distant future, could surpass any arbitrary technological measure.

Something like civilization, but not exactly civilization as we know it, might have emerged from a very old human social context that never passed through the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution or the industrial revolution — the two great disruptions in the history of humanity that define civilization, and which have come to define us as a species. Without these definitive events, humanity would be defined very differently.

The non-civilization social institution that could arise from the antiquity of humanity without civilization might qualify as an example of a non-civilization such as i described in my Seven Levels of Civilizational Comparability. In an attempt to define what constitutes a “peer” civilization we need to try to understand alternatives for sentient species that would not constitute peers, and this thought experiment provides just such an example.

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thought experiment

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Third Time’s a Charm

8 February 2014


geological eras of life

The Three Eras of Life on Earth

The Earth, it would seem, has been regularly reduced to biological penury throughout its long history, which has been punctuated by mass extinctions that have very nearly reduced biodiversity to zero. It is possible that, in the earliest history of life on Earth, when our planet was regularly bombarded by objects from space, and exposed to especially harsh conditions, life may have emerged multiple times, only to be wiped out again in short order. There would have been plenty of time for this to occur during the 550 million years prior to the emergence of the earliest life known to be continuous with our own.

The repeated denudation of the planet by mass extinctions constituted a kind of ecological succession on a grand scale. Each time life had to recover anew, and, in recovering, the surviving species (the “weeds” that were the most robust and which went on to colonize the denuded landscape and seascape) underwent dramatic periods of adaptive radiation until, in the global climax ecosystems prior to a mass extinction event, almost every niche for life has been filled — possibly several times over, leading to contested niches where multiple species compete for the same limited resources.

The history of life is such a reliable indicator of geological time that there is an entire discipline — biostratigraphy — given over to the dating of rocks by the fossils they contain. Once life becomes sufficiently complex to leave a record of itself in the rocks of our planet, the development of life is a sure guide to the age of the rocks that contain traces of this past life. Contemporary scientific geology largely got its start through biostratigraphy in the work of William Smith (called “strata Smith” by his contemporaries), whom I have previously mentioned in The Transplanetary Perspective.

Three of the major divisions of geological time are named for the eras of life that they comprise: Paleozoic (old life), Mesozoic (middle life), and Cenozoic (common, or recent, life). These divisions of geological time give a “big picture” view of the history of life on Earth. The mass extinction events at the end of the Permian and at the K-T boundary were so catastrophic that the Earth in the case of the end Permian extinction came perilously close to being sterilized, and while the K-T event (now known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene or K–Pg extinction event) was not as disastrous, it ended the dominion of the dinosaurs over most ecological niches and thereby gave mammals the opportunity to experience an explosive adaptive radiation.

cosmos 06

Million Year Old Civilizations

We know that intelligent life on Earth arose in the late Cenozoic era, but how clement were these earlier eras of life on Earth to intelligent life? If intelligent life had arisen in the Paleozoic, founded a civilization, and survived to the present, that civilization would be in excess of 250 million years old. If, again, intelligent life had arisen in the Mesozoic, founded a civilization, and survived to the present, that civilization would be in excess of 65 million years old. However, both of these counterfactual civilizations that did not happen would have almost certainly have been destroyed by the catastrophic mass extinctions that separated these eras of terrestrial life (unless they had taken adequate measures to mitigate existential risk, which would seem to be a necessary condition for any truly long-lived civilization).

The idea of a civilization a million or more years old was a theme discussed by Carl Sagan on several occasions. Here is an explicit formulation of the million-year-old civilization theme from Chapter XII, “Encyclopedia Galacitca,” from Sagan’s book Cosmos:

“What does it mean for a civilization to be a million years old? We have had radio telescopes and spaceships for a few decades; our technical civilization is a few hundred years old, scientific ideas of a modern cast a few thousand, civilization in general a few tens of thousands of years; human beings evolved on this planet only a few million years ago. At anything like our present rate of technical progress, an advanced civilization millions of years old is as much beyond us as we are beyond a bush baby or a macaque. Would we even recognize its presence? Would a society a million years in advance of us be interested in colonization or interstellar spaceflight? People have a finite lifespan for a reason. Enormous progress in the biological and medical sciences might uncover that reason and lead to suitable remedies. Could it be that we are so interested in spaceflight because it is a way of perpetuating ourselves beyond our own lifetimes? Might a civilization composed of essentially immortal beings consider interstellar exploration fundamentally childish?”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XII, “Encyclopaedia Galactica”

Human civilization could be considered as being more than ten thousand years old if we date the advent of civilization to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. This is an atypical way to think about civilization, but I have seen it in a few sources (Jacob Bronowski, I think, takes this view, more or less), and it is how I myself think about civilization. A civilization ten thousand years old or more is nothing to dismiss; persisting for ten thousand years is a non-trivial accomplishment. Yet the history of terrestrial civilization may be compared to the history of terrestrial life: there is a long period that is nearly stagnant, with painfully slow innovations, and then an event occurs — the Cambrian explosion for life, the industrial revolution for civilization — and what it means to be “alive” or “civilized” is radically altered.

Dating to the Neolithic Agricultural revolution is consistent with my recent suggestion in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization that civilization could be minimally defined as a coevolutionary cohort of species. However, our industrial-technological civilization is barely more than two hundred years old. To consider the geologically insignificant period of time of one hundred years is to contemplate a period of time half again as long as the entire history of industrial-technological civilization. The kind of technological gains that industrial-technological civilization could experience over a period of a hundred years can be quite remarkable, as our experience of the past hundred years suggests.

This year, 2014, we experience the one hundred year anniversary of global industrialized warfare. Not long after, we will experience the hundred year anniversaries of digital computers, jet propulsion, rocketry, and nuclear technology. Some of these technologies have improved by orders of magnitude. Some have improved very little. If the coming century brings commensurate technological innovations (not to mention innovations in science that would drive these technological innovations), even if not all these developments experience exponential development, and many languish in a state of stagnation, our world and our understanding of the world will nevertheless be repeatedly revolutionized.

Given what we know about the rapidity of technological change — bequeathed to our industrial-technological civilization as a consequence of the STEM cycle — we ought to conclude that we can know almost nothing about what a million year civilization would be like, except in so far as we might be able to imagine only the most stagnant aspects of such a civilization. It would be beyond our ability to understand advanced technologies ten thousand years hence, just as our ancestors, only beginning to lay the foundations of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization ten thousand years ago, could have understood our advanced technologies today. Understanding across these orders of developmental magnitude lie beyond the human zone of proximal development.

Octopus evolution

Counterfactual Civilizations

I have written previously that there is an earliest bound in the history of our universe for life, for intelligent life, and for civilization. It would not be possible to produce an industrial-technological civilization as we know it (i.e., a peer civilization) without heavier metallic elements, so that the emergence of industrial-technological civilization must minimally wait for the formation of Population I stars and their planetary systems. That being said, many population I stars have been around for billions of years, and there have consequently been billions of years for industrial-technological civilizations to emerge and to attain great age.

Are there other constraints upon the emergence of life, intelligence, and civilization that move the boundary for the earliest possible emergence of these phenomena nearer to the present? Is there any reason to suppose, from our knowledge of the natural history of Earth and the complexity of the human brain, that intelligent life and civilization could not have arisen in earlier eras of life — Paleozoic intelligent life or Mesozoic intelligent life, which would, in turn, according to Civilization-Intelligence Covariance, give rise to Paleozoic civilization or Mesozoic civilization? Or, if not here on Earth, why not some other planet orbiting a population I star where life begins 550 million years after the formation of the planet?

Octopi, cuttlefish, and other cephalopods with large brains and highly sophisticated nervous systems — it takes a lot of raw neural processing power to do what some cephalopods do with their skin color — would seem to be ideal candidates for early terrestrial intelligent life. Octopi date back to the Devonian Period, more than 360 million years ago, during the Paleolithic Era, so that ancestors of this life form survived both the End Permian extinction and the K-T extinction (cf. Fossil Octopuses). Why didn’t cephalopods establish a counterfactual civilization during the Permian? There was certainly time enough to do so before the End Permian extinction.

Is a backbone, or something that can serve a similar function like an exoskeleton, a necessary condition for intelligence to issue in the production of civilization? Multicellular life forms without a backbone, or confined to an aquatic environment, might well develop intelligence, but would have a difficult time building a technological civilization — difficult, but not impossible. This is a question I considered previously in The Place of Bilaterial Symmetry in the History of Life and Counterfactuals Implicit in Naturalism.

If we should find life in the oceans below the icy surface of Europa, or any of the other moons in our solar system internally heated by gravitational forces, it would consist of life forms peculiarly constrained by their environment, i.e., possibly more constrained than terrestrial conditions, and therefore more likely to favor extremophiles. Oceanic lifeforms beneath a crust of ice many kilometers thick would not only have the technological disadvantage faced by any intelligent aquatic species, but would face the additional disadvantage of being cut off from the stars. Unable to physically see their place in the universe, such lifeforms might have an even more difficult time that we had in coming to understand the world. The mythology of such a life form would have to be very different from the mythologies created by early human societies, in which the stars typically played a prominent role. Any civilization that might be conjoined with such a mythology might constitute an extremophile civilization.


Inside the Charmed Circle

Many of the questions that I have posed above are variations on ancient themes of anthropocentrism, and from within the charmed circle of anthropocentrism it is difficult for us to see outside that circle. Our minds are quite literally defined by that circle, being the product of human biology, and our imagination is largely circumscribed by the limitations of our minds. But our minds are also capable, with effort, of passing beyond the charmed circle of anthropocentrism, identifying anthropic bias as such and transcending it.

For us, the third time life got a chance on Earth was the charm. Paleozoic life came and (largely) went without producing intelligence or civilization, as did Mesozoic life. It was not until Cenozoic life that intelligence and civilization emerged. But was this the result of mere contingency, or a function of some operative constraint — possibly even a constraint no one has even noticed because of its pervasive presence — that prevented intelligence and civilization from arising in earlier geological eras?

While there might be reason to believe that other forms of life will have something like a DNA structure, or that something like the transition from prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic cells will have taken place, but there is no particular reason to believe that the large scale structure of life on other worlds would have the terrestrial tripartite structure, since this big picture view of life on Earth was a result of particular mass extinction events that seem too contingent to characterize any possible emergence of life. However, there is reason to believe that there will be some mass extinction events afflicting life on other worlds, and at least some of these mass extinction events will result from large scale cosmological events. If solar systems form elsewhere in a process like the formation of our solar system, life elsewhere would also be exposed to asteroid impacts, comets, solar flares, and the like. This is one of the lessons of astrobiology.

That there will be constraints and contingencies that bear upon life we can be certain; but we cannot (yet) know exactly what these constraints and contingencies will be. This is a non-constructive observation: invoking the existence of constraints and contingencies without saying what they will be. What would a constructive approach to life’s constraints and contingencies look like? Is it necessary to adopt a non-constructive perspective where our knowledge is so lacking? As knowledge of the conditions of astrobiology and astrocivilization grows, may we yet adopt a constructive conception of them?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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road closure

In my previous post on The Finality Fallacy I discussed the fallacy of treating open matters as though closed, and quoted Hermann Weyl’s 1932 lectures The Open World as a countervailing point of view. If the world is an open world, an unfinished world, then there will always be unfinished business — no finality, no closure, no resolution, no end of anything — and no beginning either.

Bertrand Russell wonderfully described the ontology implicit in such a conception of the world:

“Academic philosophers, ever since the time of Parmenides, have believed that the world is a unity. This view has been taken over from them by clergymen and journalists, and its acceptance has been considered the touchstone of wisdom. The most fundamental of my intellectual beliefs is that this is rubbish. I think the universe is all spots and jumps, without unity, without continuity, without coherence or orderliness or any of the other properties that governesses love. Indeed, there is little but prejudice and habit to be said for the view that there is a world at all.”

Bertrand Russell, The Scientific Outlook, Part One, Chapter IV. Scientific Metaphysics

There is a subtle difference, of course, between finality and unity; the presumption of unity that Russell mocked could be finitistic or infinitistic in character, but, as I pointed out in my last post, I suspect that Russell and Weyl, whatever their differences, could have agreed that the world is open. Unity may not imply openness, but openness implies the possibility of revision, the possibility of revision implies the iteration of revision, the iteration of revision implies evolution, and evolution implies anti-realism, at least in the essentialist sense of “realism.” Anything that changes gradually over an indefinite period of time may be so transformed by its incremental and cumulative change that it can be transformed into something entirely other that what it once was. This, I have argued elsewhere, is the essence of existential viability.

By the same token, there is a subtle difference between finitude and contingency. I can imagine that someone might argue that finitude implies contingency and contingency implies finitude, but I would reject any such argument. The distinction is subtle but important, and I think that it marks that difference between a naturalistic philosophy, that is essentially a philosophy of contingency, and an anthropocentric point of view that reduces the infinitistic contingency of the world to a manageable finitude because human beings are comfortable with finitude. That is to say, I am suggesting that finitistic modes of thought constitute a cognitive bias. But let’s try to penetrate a little further into what self-described finitists have in mind, and let’s try to find an unambiguously finitistic perspective.

I remember running across the phrase “radical finitude” in some of my past reading, so I looked for the original source in which I had first encountered the term and was unable to find it, but I have found many other references to radical finitude. The name that comes up most often in relation to radical finitude is that of Martin Heidegger (on Heidegger cf. my Conduct Unbecoming a Philosopher and Ott on Heidegger). Heidegger is mentioned by Weyl as a representative of the “thesis of the categorical finiteness of man” in the quote from Weyl in my last post, The Finality Fallacy. Here, again, is an abbreviated portion of the section I previously quoted from Weyl, where Weyl singles out Heidegger:

“We reject the thesis of the categorical finiteness of man, both in the atheistic form of obdurate finiteness which is so alluringly represented today in Germany by the Freiburg philosopher Heidegger…”

Here, on the other hand, is a representative exposition of radical finitude that draws upon the Heideggerian tradition:

“Nonbeing as the principle of finitude is non-being understood in its relative and dialectical character through which it becomes a constitutive factor of human being or Dasein himself. Anxiety in its disclosure of nothingness thus brings man to an awareness of his radical finitude, and what ever else is to be said of existentialist philosophy, it must be said that existentialism is an emphatic philosophy of human finitude. The principle of finitude is central to all the existentialist thinkers, and it emerges with particular emphasis in the philosophy of Heidegger. Heidegger interprets this philosophy of human finitude to be, at least in part, a legacy of Kant’s critical philosophy. With his emphasis on the finite character of human reason and his insight into the negativities of moral striving, Kant paved the way for the development of fundamental ontology formulated in terms of finite structures.”

Calvin O. Schrag, Existence and Freedom: Towards an Ontology of Human Finitude, pp. 73-74

According to Schrag, then, it seems that existentialism can be defined in terms of Weyl’s thesis of the categorical finiteness of man. If this is so, and existentialism is, “an emphatic philosophy of human finitude,” as Schrag said it was, it might still be possible to define another philosophical position, entirely parallel to existentialism, but which would reject the thesis of the categorical finiteness of man. What would we call this logical complement of existentialism? It doesn’t really matter what we call it, but I’m sure there must be a clever moniker that eludes me at the moment.

Although it doesn’t really matter what we would call the infinitistic complement of existentialism, it does matter that such a philosophy would reject finitism (and its tendency to commit the finality fallacy). With a slight change to Schrag’s formulation, we could say that the complement of existentialism imagined above would be an emphatic philosophy of human contingency. This is a position that I could endorse, even while I would continue to reject a philosophy of human finitude. And this formulation in terms of contingency is not necessarily at odds with non-Heideggerian existentialism.

Sartre’s formulation of existentialism — existence precedes essence — is in no sense intrinsically finitistic. I can imagine that someone might argue that existence is intrinsically finite — that the existential is existential in virtue of being marked out by the boundaries that define its finitude — but I would reject that argument. That same argument could made for essence (i.e., that essence is intrinsically finite), and thus for the whole idealistic tradition that preceded Sartre, and which Sartre and others saw themselves as overturning. (Heidegger, it should be noted, categorically rejected Sartre’s categorical formulation of existentialism.) The existence that precedes essence may well be an infinitistic existence, just as the essence that precedes existence in the idealistic tradition may well be an infinitistic essence.

To return to one of the roots of existential thought, we find in Nietzsche that it is contingency rather than finitude that is at stake. In a note from 1873 Nietzsche wrote:

“That my life has no aim is evident even from the accidental nature of its origin; that I can posit an aim for myself is another matter.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Viking, p. 40

Recognition of the contingency of life, and especially (given the anthropocentrism of our human minds) the contingency of human life, is a touchstone of existential thought. Some, as I have noted above, frame contingency in finitistic terms, but as I see it contingency is the infinite context of all existents, stretching out into space and time without end. From this point of view, any finitude is an arbitrary division within the Heraclitean flux of the world, the concordia discors that precedes us, follows us, and surrounds us.

What is the relationship between Nietzschean contingency and Weyl’s openness? I would argue that the open world implies an open life. It was one of the central literary conceits of Plato’s Republic that it is easier to see justice in the large — i.e., in the just state — than to see justice in the small — i.e., in the just man — and this is how Socrates shifts the conversation to an investigation of the ideal state, which, once defined, will give us the image that we need in order to understand the ideally proportioned man. If Plato (and Socrates) are right this this, one might hold that Weyl’s open world can be a guide to the open life.

What would an open life look like? One vision of the open life is described in Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, from the mouth of Jacob Marley:

“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, “Marley’s Ghost”

This is the open life of the individual — to walk abroad, literally and metaphorically — and to share what can be shared. The open life of the species is again another question — a question mid-way between the open world and the individual open life — and one that might simply be answered by asserting that an open humanity is the sum total of open human lives, if one regards humanity as nothing in itself and reducible to its individual instances.

This is the point at which I may perhaps lose my reader, because what I would like to suggest is that the open life for humanity is another way to understand transhumanism. Transhumanism is the openness of humanity to revision, and openness to revision implies iterated revision, iterated revision implies evolution, and the evolution of humanity implies an essentially different humanity in the future than humanity today.

What I have come to realize since writing my last post is that human finitude is one manifestation of human contingency, and, like any contingency, it is subject to revision by future contingencies. Again, our finitude, so far as it extends, is a contingency, and therefore, like any contingency, is subject to change.

The critics of transhumanism who have tried to find ways to praise suffering and death, and who go out of their way to argue that human life only has meaning and value in virtue of its limitation, overlook the role of contingency in human life. They pretend that human life is final, and that its contingent features are essential to humanity, if not necessary to the definition of what it means to be human — which is to say, they commit the finality fallacy. For the prophets of wholesome loss, humanity is finished.

Human being is no more final than any other form of being. The openness of human being means that human viability is predicated upon contingency, and that we must evolve or perish.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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