A Prehistory of the Overview Effect

Among many other contributions, E. O. Wilson is known for the Savannah Hypothesis, according to which human beings are especially suited, both biologically and cognitively, to life on the African savannah, which constituted the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) for our species. E. O. Wilson discusses this in the chapter “The Right Place” in his book Biophilia, in which he characterized this landscape as, “…the ideal toward which human beings unconsciously strive…” (pp. 108-109). Wilson developed this idea over much of this chapter, writing:

“…it seems that whenever people are given a free choice, they move to open tree-studded land on prominences overlooking water. This worldwide tendency is no longer dictated by the hard necessities of hunter-gatherer life. It has become largely aesthetic, a spur to art and landscaping. Those who exercise the greatest degree of free choice, the rich and powerful, congregate on high land above lakes and rivers and along ocean bluffs. On such sites they build palaces, villas, temples, and corporate retreats. Psychologists have noticed that people entering unfamiliar places tend to move toward towers and other large objects breaking the skyline.”

E. O. Wilson, Biophilia, Harvard University Press, 1984, p. 110 (I encourage reading the entire chapter, all of which is relevant to this discussion.)

In this context, the Savannah Hypothesis places human beings in a position to have an overview of the biome that constituted their EEA, that is to say, an overview of their relevant environment, the environment in which their differential survival and reproduction would mean either the continuation or the extinction of the species. As we know, human ancestors survived in such an environment for millions of years, and anatomically modern human beings passed through a bottleneck in such a landscape.

The African savannah was the landscape that played the most recent, and perhaps the most strongly selective role in the human mind and body, and there would be a high survival value attached to having an overview of this landscape. If we seek out prominences from which to take in a sweeping view, we do so for good reason.

Esther Quaedackers’ conception of little big histories.

Little Big Histories and Little Overviews

We can think of this biome overview as a “little overview,” which term I introduce in analogy to Esther Quadecker’s use of “little big histories,” that is to say, big histories that trace the development of some small topic (smaller than the whole of the universe) over cosmological time, from the big bang to the present day, and possibility also extending into the indefinite future. In the unfolding of our “little overviews” over time we have a prehistory of the overview effect as it is fully revealed when we see our homeworld from space.

Little overviews have played an important role in human history. The need for security and surveillance has resulted in the need for watchtowers and for the “crow’s nest” on a ship. Many of the most famous castles are built on high escarpments in order to command the view of the region, which, before telecommunications, was the only way in which to have a comprehensive survey. These precariously perched castles are thrilling to the romantic imagination, but they originally had a strategic purpose of giving an overview of a geographical region that was tactically significant in an age of fighting prior to modern technology. Anything that could happen on a battlefield could be taken in at a single glance.

Everyone will recall that the Persian king Xerxes had a throne erected from which we could watch the Battle of Salamis unfold as it happened. Byron immortalized the image in his Don Juan:

A king sate on the rocky brow
Which looks o’er sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations;—all were his!
He counted them at break of day —
And when the sun set where were they?

A culturally significant little overview is described in Petrarch’s account in a letter to his father of climbing Mount Ventoux, which is one of the most famous accounts of mountain climbing in western literature:

“…owing to the unaccustomed quality of the air and the effect of the great sweep of view spread out before me, I stood like one dazed. I beheld the clouds under our feet, and what I had read of Athos and Olympus seemed less incredible as I myself witnessed the same things from a mountain of less fame. I turned my eyes toward Italy, whither my heart most inclined. The Alps, rugged and snow-capped, seemed to rise close by, although they were really at a great distance…”

Francesco Petrarch, The Ascent of Mount Ventoux

It is something of a sport among historians to debate whether Petrarch was essentially medieval or already a modern mind in medieval times. Certainly there are intimations of modernity in Petrarch. The fact that Petrarch made his ascent of Mount Ventoux, that is to say, the spirit in which he made the ascent, was modern, though his response to the experience was not modern, but medieval. While on top Mount Ventoux Petrarch pulled out a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions (a symbol both of antiquity and of Christendom) and opens to a passage that reads, “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” Petrarch takes this as a rebuke to the worldliness implicit in his ambition to ascend the mountain, and he concluded his letter on the experience with this thought: “How earnestly should we strive, not to stand on mountain-tops, but to trample beneath us those appetites which spring from earthly impulses.”

With this medieval Christian response to a little overview there is much in common with the Stoic “view from above” thought experiment that I previously discussed in Stoicism, Sensibility, and the Overview Effect — the pettiness and smallness of the ordinary world of affairs, the need to transcend this smallness, the potential nobility of the human spirit in contrast to its actual corruption — though the specifically Christian elements are distinctive to Petrarch and place him a distance away from Marcus Aurelius’ disdain for the filth of the terrestrial life. Augustinian theology had declared the world good because God made it, so that the world could no longer be grandly dismissed as with the Stoics. It is the sinful human soul, and not the world, that is to be rebuked and chastised. This is the spirit that Petrarch brought to his experience of a little overview.

The Modern Overview Effect

We begin to encounter a more fully modern appreciation of little overviews in the earliest accounts of balloon aviation, where we find the distinctive relation between the attainment of a physical overview and a change in cognitive perspective, i.e., the idea that the two are tightly coupled. An early balloon flight pioneer, Fulgence Marion (a pen name used by Camille Flammarion), presents this relation plainly and simply: “We gave ourselves up to the contemplation of the views which the immense stretch of country beneath us presented.” Here the object of contemplate is the overview itself, which Marion describes in rapturous prose:

“The broad plains appeared before our view in all their magnificence. No snow, no clouds were now to be seen, except around the horizon, where a few clouds seemed to rest on the earth. We passed in a minute from winter to spring. We saw the immeasurable earth covered with towns and villages, which at that distance appeared only so many isolated mansions surrounded with gardens. The rivers which wound about in all directions seemed no more than rills for the adornment of these mansions; the largest forests looked mere clumps or groves, and the meadows and broad fields seemed no more than garden plots. These marvellous tableaux, which no painter could render, reminded us of the fairy metamorphoses; only with this difference, that we were beholding upon a mighty scale what imagination could only picture in little. It is in such a situation that the soul rises to the loftiest height, that the thoughts are exalted and succeed each other with the greatest rapidity.”

Fulgence Marion, Wonderful Balloon Ascents, or, the Conquest of the Skies, Chapter III

Petrarch was on the verge of just such an appreciation of the view from Mount Ventoux, one might even say that he felt this appreciation, but then turned from it in order to use the experience as a pretext to return to the Augustinian “inner man.”

Alexander von Humboldt, one of the great synthesizers of scientific knowledge of the 19th century, attempted to provide an explanation of the connection between overviews and cognitive changes. Criticizing Burke’s view that the feeling of the sublime arises from a lack of knowledge, Humboldt argues that past ignorance was responsible for the cosmological errors of antiquity, while our exultation at glimpsing an overview arises from our ability to connect ideas previously separate, so that the cognitive shift in the overview effect is due not to lack of knowledge, but to the expansion and integration of knowledge:

“The illusion of the senses… would have nailed the stars to the crystalline dome of the sky; but astronomy has assigned to space an indefinite extent; and if she has set limits to the great nebula to which our solar system belongs, it has been to shew us further and further beyond its bounds, (as our optic powers are increased,) island after island of scattered nebulae. The feeling of the sublime, so far as it arises from the contemplation of physical extent, reflects itself in the feeling of the infinite which belongs to another sphere of ideas. That which it offers of solemn and imposing it owes to the connexion just indicated; and hence the analogy of the emotions and of the pleasure excited in us in the midst of the wide sea; or on some lonely mountain summit, surrounded by semi-transparent vaporous clouds; or, when placed before one of those powerful telescopes which resolve the remoter nebulae into stars, the imagination soars into the boundless regions of universal space.”

Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1846, pp. 20-21

After Petrarch, the world was changed by the three revolutions — scientific, political, and industrial — and this changed context made possible the little overviews of Fulgence Marion and Alexander von Humboldt, who did not feel the need, as did Petrarch, to turn away to focus on the human soul and its cultivation of piety and salvation. Science changed the way that human beings understood the world, and their place in the world, so that subsequent mountain climbers saw the view of the world from the top of a mountain against a different conceptual background. Here is Julius Evola’s evocation of his contemplation of a little overview:

“…after the action, contemplation ensues. It is time to enjoy the peaks and heights from our vantage point: where the view becomes circular and celestial, where petty concerns of ordinary people, of the meaningless struggles of the life of the plains, disappear, where nothing else exists but the sky and the free and powerful forces that reflect the titanic choir of the peaks.”

Julius Evola, Meditations on the Peaks, “The Northern Wall of Eastern Lyskamm”

Evola’s attitude here more closely resembles that of the Stoic “view from above” thought experiment than Petrarch’s response to climbing Mount Ventoux, though Evola may have been consciously evoking the Stoic attitude, and was probably also influenced by Nietzsche, who spent much of his adult life in Switzerland and often rhapsodized on the views from mountain peaks.

It was a little overview that led to the explicit formulation of the overview effect, as Frank White described in the first chapter of the book in which he named and explicitly formulated the overview effect:

“My own effort to confirm the reality of the Overview Effect had its origins in a cross-country flight in the late 1970s. As the plane flew north of Washington, D.C., I found myself looking down at the Capitol and Washington Monument. From 30,000 feet, they looked like little toys sparkling in the sunshine. From that altitude, all of Washington looked small and insignificant. However, I knew that people down there were making life-or-death decisions on my behalf and taking themselves very seriously as they did so… When the plane landed, everyone on it would act just like the people over whom we flew. This line of thought led to a simple but important realization: mental processes and views of life cannot be separated from physical location.”

Frank White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and the Future of Humanity, third edition, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., 2014, p. 1

Here the modern overview conception is fully stated for the first time in terms amenable to scientific investigation. There is much that is continuous with the ancient and medieval responses to little overviews, and it may be taken as the telos upon which earlier modern accounts like those of Marion, von Humboldt, and Evola converge.

In the ancient, medieval, and modern responses to the overview effect there is both a common element as well as distinctive elements that derive from each period. In common is the sense of elevation above the merely mundane and of converging upon a “big picture” of the relationship between humanity and its homeworld; the distinctive elements arise from the valuation of our homeworld, of humanity, and the conception of the proper relationship between the two. The ancient response draws heavily upon Platonism, seeing the sublunary world as intrinsically less valuable than the superlunary world of the heavens, and humanity is understood to be the better as it tends toward the latter, and the worse as it tends to the former. The medieval response is to reflect on the meanness of human nature in contradistinction to the grandeur of God’s creation. The modern response, while retaining elements of earlier little overviews, begins to pare away the evaluative aspects to converge upon a theoretical expression of the core of the overview experience.

The Future of Little Overviews

Now that humanity is in possession of the overview effect in its most explicit and complete form, as some human beings have seen our homeworld entire with their own eyes, it might be thought that little overviews belong to the past. This would be misleading. The photographs that have brought the overview effect to millions if not billions of persons have been themselves little overviews — an overview that can be held in one’s hand, and which gives us a sense of the actual experience of the overview effect, without actually experiencing the full overview effect for ourselves (like a picture taken from the summit of a mountain by those who did not make the climb themselves). For the time being, the overview effect for most of us will be this little overview, and it remains to some future iteration of our technology to make this view universally available to those who desire it.

Other little overviews also continue to change our perspective on our world and our relation to the universe. The Hubble telescope deep field images — the Hubble Deep Field (HDF), Ultra Deep Field (HUDF), and eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) — are little overviews of the cosmos entire; little because they are a very small sample of the sky, but an overview more comprehensive than any previous human perspective on the universe. In one glance we can take in thousands of galaxies, many of them, like the Milky Way, with hundreds of billions stars each.

Coming to an understanding of the big picture is likely to involve an ongoing dialectic by which we pass from experiences that present us with a more comprehensive perspective, and which serve as imaginative points of departure to contemplation of the cosmos entire, to little overviews that provide counterpoint to our personal experiences and which fill out the expansion of our imagination with greater detail and greater breadth and diversity than the personal experiences of any one individual. Those who can most seamlessly integrate and understand these sources of overviews as a whole, will come to the most comprehensive perspective that can be reconciled with the details and reality of ordinary experience.

Kurt Gödel 1906-1978

An Overview-Seeking Animal

We have all heard that man is a political animal, or a social animal, or a tool-making animal, and so on. We can add to this litany of distinctive human imperatives that man is an overview-seeking animal. The overviews we have attained, perhaps spurred onward by the evolutionary psychology that E. O. Wilson identified as the Savannah hypothesis, have allowed us to repeatedly transcend our previous perspectives, and with this transcendence of physical perspectives has followed a transcendence of cognitive perspectives, i.e., worldviews or conceptual frameworks. Recently in Einstein on Geometrical Intuition I quoted a passage from Gödel (one of my favorite passages, quoted many times) that is relevant to the transcendence of cognitive perspectives:

“Turing… gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”

“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306.

The seeking out of overviews, whether little overviews or grand overviews revealing our homeworld entire, is part of the method of actualizing our cognitive development by adding more terms to the sphere of our understanding. What Gödel approached from an abstract point of view the overview effect gives us from a concrete point of view.

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Overview Effects

The Epistemic Overview Effect

The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

A Further Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought, in the Way of Providing a Measure of Disambiguation in Regard to the Role of Temporality

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Planetary Endemism and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Intuitive Tractability

Stoicism, Sensibility, and the Overview Effect

A Natural History of Overview Effects

Homeworld Effects

The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung

The Martian Standpoint

Addendum on the Martian Standpoint

Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space

What will it be like to be a Martian?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Martian Standpoint

31 March 2016


Mars 0

Red Planet Perspectives

It is difficult to discuss human habitation of Mars scientifically because Mars has for so long played an disproportionate role in fiction, and any future human habitation of Mars will take place against this imaginative background. Future human inhabitants of Mars will themselves read this cultural legacy of fiction centered on Mars, and while some of it will be laughable, there are also likely to be passages that start heads nodding, however dated and inaccurate the portrayal of human life on Mars. And this human future on Mars is seeming increasingly likely as private space enterprises vie with national space agencies, and both public and private space programs are publicly discussing the possibility of sending human beings to Mars.

Panoramic view of the Payson outcrop near the Opportunity rover’s landing site.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/Cornell)

Panoramic view of the Payson outcrop near the Opportunity rover’s landing site. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/Cornell)

A human population on Mars would eventually come to identify as Martians, even though entirely human — Ray Bradbury already said as much decades ago — and it would be expected that the Martian perspective would be different in detail from the terrestrial perspective, though scientifically literate persons in both communities would share the Copernican perspective. There would be countless small differences — Martians would come to number their lives both in Terrestrial years and Martian years, for example — that would cumulatively and over time come to constitute a distinctively Martian way of looking at the world. There would also be unavoidably important differences — being separated from the bulk of humanity, having no large cities at first, not being able to go outside without protective gear, and so on — that would define the lives of Martian human beings.

Wernher von Braun's Mars mission concept as imagined by Chesley Bonestell

Wernher von Braun’s Mars mission concept as imagined by Chesley Bonestell

At what point will Martians come to understand themselves as Martians? At what point will Mars become a homeworld? There will be a first human being to set foot on Mars, a first human being born on Mars, a first human being to die on Mars and be buried in its red soil, a first crime committed on Mars, and so on. Any of these “firsts” might come to be identified as a crucial turning point, the moment at which a distinctively Martian consciousness emerges among Mars residents, but any such symbolic turning point can only come about against the background of the countless small differences that accumulate over time. Given human settlement on Mars, this Martian consciousness will surely emerge in time, but the Martian conscious that perceives Mars as a homeworld will differ from the sense in which Earth is perceived as our homeworld.

An actual, and not a mythical, canal on Mars.

An actual, and not a mythical, canal on Mars.

Human beings lived on Earth for more than a hundred thousand years without knowing that we lived on a planet among planets. We have only known ourselves as a planetary species for two or three thousand years, and it is only in the past century that we have learned what it means, in a scientific sense, to be a planet among countless planets in the universe. A consequence of our terrestrial endemism is that we as a species can only transcend our homeworld once. Once and once only we ascend into the cosmos at large; every other celestial body we visit thereafter we will see first from afar, and we will descend to its surface after having first seen that celestial body as a planet among planets. Thus when we arrive at Mars, we will arrive at Mars knowing that we arrive at a planet, and knowing that, if we settle there, we settle on a planet among planets — and not even the most hospitable planet for life in our planetary system. In the case of Mars, our knowledge of our circumstances will precede our experience, whereas on Earth our experience of our circumstances preceded our knowledge. This reversal in the order of experience and knowledge follows from planetary endemism — that civilizations during the Stelliferous Era emerge on planetary surfaces, and only if they become spacefaring civilizations do they leave these planetary surfaces to visit other celestial bodies.

A sunset on Mars photographed by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

A sunset on Mars photographed by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

What is it like, or what will it be like, to be a Martian? The question immediately reminds us of Thomas Nagel’s well known paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” (I have previously discussed this famous philosophical paper in What is it like to be a serpent? and Computational Omniscience, inter alia.) Nagel holds that, “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” A generalization of Nagel’s contention that there is something that it is like to be a bat suggests that there is something that it is like to be a conscious being that perceives the world. If we narrow our conception somewhat from this pure generalization, we arrive at level of generality at which there is something that it is like to be a Terrestrial being. That there is something that it is like to be a bat, or a human being, are further constrictions on the conception of being a consciousness being that perceives the world. But at the same level of generality that there is something that it is like to be a Terrestrial being, there is also something that it is like to be a Martian. Let us call this the Martian standpoint.

Seeing Earth as a mere point of light in the night sky of Mars will certainly have a formative influence on Martian consciousness.

Seeing Earth as a mere point of light in the night sky of Mars will certainly have a formative influence on Martian consciousness.

To stand on the surface of Mars would be to experience the Martian standpoint. I am here adopting the term “standpoint” to refer to the actual physical point of view of an intelligent being capable of looking out into the world and understanding themselves as a part of the world in which they find themselves. Every intelligent being emergent from life as we know it has such a standpoint as a consequence of being embodied. Being an embodied mind that acquires knowledge through particular senses means that our evolutionary history has furnished us with the particular sensory endowments with which we view the world. Being an embodied intelligence also means having a particular spatio-temporal location and having a perspective on the world determined by this location and the sensory locus of embodiment. The perspective we have in virtue of being a being on the surface of a planet at the bottom of a gravity well might be understood as a yet deeper level of cosmological evolution than the terrestrial evolutionary process that resulted in our particular suite of sensory endowments, because all life as we know it during the Stelliferous Era originates on planetary surfaces, and this precedes in evolutionary order the evolution of particular senses.

Sometimes the surface of Mars looks strangely familiar, and at other times profoundly alien.

Sometimes the surface of Mars looks strangely familiar, and at other times profoundly alien.

Mars, like Earth, will offer a planetary perspective. Someday there may be great cities and extensive industries on the moon, supporting a burgeoning population, but, even with cities and industries, the moon will not be a world like Earth, with an atmosphere, and therefore a sky and a landscape in which a human being can feel at home. For those native to Mars — for eventually there will be human beings native to Mars — Mars will be their homeworld. As such, Mars will have a certain homeworld effect, though limited in comparison to Earth. Even those born on Mars will carry a genome that is the result of natural selection on Earth; they will have a body created by the selection pressures of Earth, and their minds will function according to an inherited evolutionary psychology formed on Earth. Mars will be a homeworld, then, but it will not produce a homeworld effect — or, at least, no homeworld effect equivalent to that experienced due to the origins of humanity on Earth. The homeworld effect of Mars, then, will be ontogenic and not phylogenic.

The von Braun Mars mission concept was visionary for its time.

The von Braun Mars mission concept was visionary for its time.

If, however, human beings were to reside on Mars for an evolutionarily significant period of time, the ontogenic homeworld effect of individual development on Mars would be transformed into a phylogenic homeworld effect as Mars became an environment of evolutionary adaptedness. As the idea of million-year-old or even billion-year-old civilizations is a familiar theme of SETI, we should not reject this possibility out of hand. If human civilization comes to maturity within our planetary system and conforms to the SETI paradigm (i.e., that civilizations are trapped within their planetary systems and communicate rather than travel), we should expect such an eventuality, though over these time scales we will probably change Mars more than Mars will change us. At this point, Mars would become a homeworld among homeworlds — one of many for humanity. But it would still be a homeworld absent the homeworld effect specific to human origins on Earth — unless human beings settled Mars, civilization utterly collapsed, resulting in a total ellipsis of knowledge, and humanity had to rediscover itself as a species living on a planetary surface. For this to happen, Mars would have to be Terraformed in order for human beings to live on Mars without the preservation of knowledge sufficient to maintain an advanced technology, and this, too, is possible over time scales of a million years or more. Thus Mars could eventually be a homeworld for humanity in a sense parallel to Earth being a homeworld, though for civilization to continue its development based on cumulative knowledge implies consciousness of only a single homeworld, which we might call the singular homeworld thesis.

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The descent to the surface of Mars will shape our perception of the planet.

The descent to the surface of Mars will shape our perception of the planet.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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It cannot be pointed out too often that by far the most extensive period of human history is prehistory. In the past it was possible to evade this fact and its problematic consequences for conventional historiography, because prehistory could be safely set aside as not being history at all. The subsequent rise of scientific historiography, which allows us to read texts other than written language — geological texts, genetic texts, the texts of material culture uncovered by archaeologists, and so on — have been progressively chipping away at the facile distinction between history and prehistory, so that boundary between the two can no longer be maintained and any distinction between history and prehistory must be merely conventional, such as the convention of identifying history sensu stricto with the advent of written language.

The evolutionary psychology of human beings carries the imprint of this long past until recently unknown to us, lost to us, its loss during the earliest period of civilization being a function of history effaced as the events of more recent history wipe clean the slate of the earlier history that preceded it. Scientific historiography provides us with the ability to recover lost histories once effaced, and, like a recovered memory, we recognize ourselves in this recovered past because it is true to what we are, still today.

From the perspective of illuminating contemporary human society, we may begin with the historical recovery of relatively complex societies that emerged from the Upper Paleolithic, which communities were the context from which the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution emerged. But from the perspective of the evolutionary psychology that shaped our minds, we must go back to the origins of the brain in natural history, and follow it forward in time, for each stage in the evolution of the brain left its traces in our behavior. The brainstem that we share with reptiles governs autonomous functions and the most rudimentary drives, the limbic system that we share with other mammals and which is implicated in our sentience-rich biosphere is responsible for our emotions and a higher grade of consciousness than the brainstem alone can support, and the cerebral cortex enables more advanced cognitive functions that include reflexive self-awareness and historical consciousness (awareness of the past and the future in relation to the immediacy of the present).

Each of these developments in terrestrial brain evolution carries with it its own suite of behaviors, with each new set of behaviors superimposed on previous behaviors much as each new layer of the brain is superimposed upon older layers. Over the longue durée of evolution these developments in brain evolution were also coupled with the evolution of our bodies, which enact the behaviors in question. As we descended from the trees and hunted and killed for food, our stomachs shrank and our brains grew. We have the record of this transition preserved in the bones of our ancestors; we can still see today the cone-shaped ribcage of a gorilla, over the large stomach of a species that has remained primarily vegetarian; we can see in almost every other mammal, almost every other vertebrate, the flat skull with nothing above the eyes, compared to which the domed cranium of hominids seems strange and out of place.

As I wrote in Survival Beyond the EEA, “Evolution means that human beings are (or were) optimized for survival and reproduction in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA).” (Also on the EEA cf. Existential Threat Narratives) The long history of the formation of our cognitive abilities has refined and modified survival and reproduction behaviors, but it has not replaced them. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors of the Upper Paleolithic were already endowed with the full cognitive power that we continue to enjoy today, though admittedly without the concepts we have formulated over the past hundred thousand years, which have allowed us to make better use of our cognitive endowment in the context of civilization. Everything essential to the human mind was in place long before the advent of civilization, and civilization has not endured for a period of time sufficient to make any essential change to the constitution of the human mind.

The most difficult aspects of the human point of view to grasp objectively are those that have been perfectly consistent and unchanging over the history of our species. And so it is that we do not know ourselves as dwellers on the surface of a planet, shaped by the perspective afforded by a planetary surface, looking up to the stars through the distorting lens of the atmosphere, and held tight to the ground beneath our feet by gravity. At least, we have not known ourselves as such until very recently, and this knowledge has endured for a much shorter period of time than civilization, and hence has had even less impact on the constitution of our minds than has civilization, however much impact it has had upon our thoughts. Our conceptualization of ourselves as beings situated in the universe as understood by contemporary cosmology takes place against the background of the EEA, which is a product of our evolutionary psychology.

To understand ourselves aright, then, we need to understand ourselves as beings with the minds of hunter-gatherers who have come into a wealth of scientific knowledge and technological power over an historically insignificant period of time. How did hunter-gatherers conceive and experience their world? What was the Weltanschauung of hunter-gatherers? Or, if you prefer, what was the worldview of hunter-gatherers?

Living in nature as a part of nature, only differentiated in the slightest degree from the condition of prehuman prehistory, the hunter-gatherer lives always in the presence of the sublime, overwhelmed by an environment of a scale that early human beings had no concepts to articulate. And yet the hunter-gatherer learns to bring down sublimely large game — an empowering experience that must have contributed to a belief in human efficacy and agency in spite of vulnerability to a variable food supply, not yet under human control. Always passing through this sublime setting for early human life, moving on to find water, to locate game, to gather nuts and berries, or to escape the depredations of some other band of hunter-gatherers, our ancestor’s way of life was rooted in the landscape without being settled. The hunter-gatherer is rewarded for his curiosity, which occasionally reveals new sources of food, as he is rewarded for his technological innovations that allow him to more easily hunt or to build a fire. The band never has more children than can be carried by the adults, until the children can themselves escape, by running or hiding, the many dangers the band faces.

As settled agriculturalism began to displace hunter-gatherers, first from the fertile lowlands and river valleys were riparian civilizations emerged, new behaviors emerged that were entirely dependent upon the historical consciousness enabled by the cerebral cortex (that is to say, enabled by the ability to explicitly remember the past and to plan for the future). Here we find fatalism in the vulnerability of agriculture to the weather, humanism in this new found power over life, a conscious of human power in its the command of productive forces, and the emergence of soteriology and eschatology, the propitiation of fickle gods, as human compensations for the insecurity inherent in the unknowns and uncertainties of integrating human life cycles with the life cycles of domesticated plants and animals and the establishment of cities, with their social differentiation and political hierarchies, all unprecedented in the history of the world.

The Weltanschauung of hunter-gatherers, which laid the foundations for the emergence of agrarian and pastoral civilizations, I call the homeworld effect in contradistinction to what Frank White has called the overview effect. The homeworld effect is our understanding of ourselves and of our world before we have experienced the overview effect, and before the overview effect has transformed our understanding of ourselves and our world, as it surely will if human beings are able to realize a spacefaring civilization.

The homeworld effect — that our species emerged on a planetary surface and knows the cosmos initially only from this standpoint — allows us to assert the uniqueness of the overview effect for human beings. The overview effect is an unprecedented historical event that cannot be repeated in the history of a civilization. (If a civilization disappears and all memory of its having attained the overview effect is effaced, then the overview effect can be repeated for a species, but only in the context of a distinct civilization.) A corollary of this is that each and every intelligent species originating on a planetary surface (which I assume fulfills the principle of mediocrity for intelligent species during the Stelliferous Era) experiences a unique overview effect upon the advent of spacefaring, should the cohort of emergent complexities on the planet in question include a technologically competent civilization.

The homeworld effect is a consequence of planetary surfaces being a locus of material resources and energy flows where emergent complexities can appear during the Stelliferous Era (this is an idea I have been exploring in my series on planetary endemism, on which cf. Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V). We can say that the homeworld effect follows from this planetary standpoint of intelligent beings emerging on the surface of a planet, subject to planetary constraints, just as the overview effect follows from an extraterrestrial standpoint.

We can generalize from this observation and arrive at the principle that an effect such as the overview effect or the homeworld effect is contingent upon the experience of some standpoint (or, if you prefer, some perspective) that an embodied being experiences in the first person (and in virtue of being embodied). This first level of generalization makes it obvious that there are many standpoints and many effects that result from standpoints. Standing on the surface of a planet is a standpoint, and it yields the homeworld effect, which when formulated theoretically becomes something like Ptolemaic cosmology — A Weltanschauung or worldview that was implicit and informal for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but which was explicitly formulated and formalized after the advent of civilization. A standpoint in orbit yields a planetary overview effect, with the standpoint being the conditio sine qua non of the effect, and this converges upon a generalization of Copernican cosmology — what Frank White has called the Copernican Perspective. (We could, in which same spirit, posit a Terrestrial Perspective that is an outgrowth of the homeworld effect.) If a demographically significant population attains a particular standpoint and experiences an effect as a result of this standpoint, and the perspective becomes the perspective of a community, a worldview emerges from the community.

Further extrapolation yields classes of standpoints, classes of effects, classes of perspectives, and classes of worldviews, each member of a class possessing an essential property in common. The classes of planetary worldviews and spacefaring worldviews will be different in detail, but all will share important properties. Civilization(s) emerging on planetary surfaces at the bottom of a gravity well constitute a class of homeworld standpoints. Although each homeworld is different in detail, the homeworld effect and the perspective it engenders will be essentially the same. Initial spacefaring efforts by any civilization will yield a class of orbital standpoints, again, each different in detail, but yielding an overview effect and a Copernican perspective. Further overview effects will eventually (if a civilization does not stagnate or collapse) converge upon a worldview of a spacefaring civilization, but this has yet to take shape for human civilization.

A distinctive aspect of the overview effect, which follows from an orbital standpoint, is the suddenness of the revelation. It takes a rocket only a few minutes to travel from the surface of Earth, the home of our species since its inception, into orbit, which no human being saw until the advent of spacefaring. The suddenness of the revelation not only furnishes a visceral counter-example to what our senses have been telling us all throughout our lives, but also stands in stark contrast to the slow and gradual accumulation of knowledge that today makes it possible to understand our position in the universe before we experience this position viscerally by having attained an orbital standpoint, i.e., an extraterrestrial perspective on all things terrestrial.

With the sudden emergence in history of the overview effect (no less suddenly than it emerges in the experience of the individual), we find ourselves faced with a novel sublime, the sublime represented by the cosmos primeval, a wilderness on a far grander scale than any wilderness we once faced on our planet, and, once again, as with our ancestors before the vastness of the world, the thundering thousands of game animals on the hoof, oceans that could not be crossed and horizons that could not be reached, we lack the conceptual infrastructure at present to fully make sense of what we have seen. The experience is sublime, it moves us, precisely because we do not fully understand it. The human experience of the homeworld effect eventually culminated in the emergence of scientific civilization, which in turn made it possible for human beings to understand their world, if not fully, at least adequately. Further extrapolation suggests that the human experience of the overview effect could someday culminate in an adequate understanding of the cosmos, as our hunter-gatherer drives for locating and exploiting resources wherever they can be found, and the reward for technological innovations that serve this end, continue to serve us as a spacefaring species.

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I am indebted to my recent correspondence with Frank White and David Beaver, which has influenced the development and formulation of the ideas above. Much of the material above appeared first in this correspondence.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Harvesters, 1565,  Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“The Harvesters,” 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

What could explain the particularly brutal symbolic celebrations of mortality salience I described in Agriculture and the Macabre (notwithstanding the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy)? In my previous explorations of this idea I advanced no causal mechanism or explanatory framework for the prominence of the macabre in agrarian civilization, but further thought on this question has suggested a possible explanation, or, rather, a cluster of related explanations that bear upon unique features of agrarian civilization that differentiate it from other modes of human life.

Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is differentiated from the hunter-gatherer nomadism that preceded it both in its economic basis and its ideological superstructure, or, as I prefer to name the two, both economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure. For obvious reasons, the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (or EEA) of our hunter-gatherer ancestors differs radically from the settled life of agricultural peoples, and this alone would be sufficient to introduce a biologically-based discomfiture of settled peoples, whose way of life is essentially at odds with their instincts, the latter refined over millions of years, while their farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species. There is, then, an existential mismatch between the economic infrastructure of the EEA and the economic infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

There is also a mismatch between the intellectual superstructure of agrarian peoples and nomadic peoples. Joseph Campbell frequently made the point that the mythologies of hunter-gatherer peoples differs profoundly from that of agricultural peoples. A hunting people needs to reconcile itself with the daily practice of killing, while agricultural peoples often have myths of sacrifice, because the agricultural cycle demonstrates that life comes out of death, so that to make more life, it is necessary to make more death. The cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is a function of the agricultural mythos of sacrifice, which regards the individual as dispensable, and the intrinsic interest the individual has in his own existence. This sacrificial mythology of settled agricultural peoples is the ultimate affront to individualism, and no matter how much justification and rationalization is deployed, this affront would have been felt by every individual within an agricultural economy at some level.

It is often claimed today that individualism is a social construct of Western Civilization that is not present in other cultures, or, at least, not present to the extent that it shapes western thought. Now, it certainly could be argued that the particular conception and understanding of individualism as we know it today is a result of contingent factors arising from industrial-technological civilization that first emerged in Western Europe. One could readily identify points along the seriation of western civilization at which the individual took on a particular importance — Periclean Athens, the value of each individual soul in the Christian tradition, Florence under the Medici, the priesthood of all believers in Protestantism, the American Revolution, and the special place accorded to individual celebrity in today’s winner-take-all society. However, the idea of the individual, and the presence of individualism in the human condition, is not limited to the particular expression given to individualism since the advent of industrial-technological civilization, nor is it specific to western thought.

Individualism has a biological basis. In a famous paper, “What is it like to be bat?” (to which I previously referred in What is it like to be a serpent?), Thomas Nagel wrote that, “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” We might similarly observe that there is something that it is like to be an individual. The kind of organisms that we are makes our individual bodies a locus of sensation, consciousness, and action. Each individual body is such a locus, sensing on its own, feeling on its own, acting on its own, and conscious of itself as an individual and as a unity. The very idea that there is something that we call the “human condition” is a reflection of the ontological individualism of human being.

One of the features of the human condition that has shaped the human mind most profoundly has been the loneliness of our individual consciousness. The existential loneliness of the self is a function of its emergence from a single brain, which is in turn a function of the kind of individual organisms that evolved on our planet. One might suggest many possible counterfactuals in relation to this isolation of the human condition, but the possibility of alternative forms of consciousness does not alter the individuality of our consciousness. The individuality of human conscious has issued in individualism as a social principle, realized in many different ways across different cultures. Egalitarianism is the social expression of the recognition of the individual as a locus of consciousness and agency. The egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer bands that dominated the vast bulk of human history before the recent emergence of civilization was in part a reflection of this biologically-driven individualism.

There is another counterfactual that interests me more at present than the counterfactuals of other forms of consciousness. Above I wrote, “farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species,” and this is a statement that requires qualification. “Decisively” is the operative word in this context. Farming has undoubtedly shaped our species, but not yet decisively in the sense of resulting in speciation (keeping in mind that behavioral adaptation often precedes structural adaptation, so that the behavioral adaptation of farming might be expected, over a sufficiently long period of time, to give rise to structural adaptations). This suggests an interesting counterfactual, namely, an intelligent species that invents settled agriculturalism and maintains this way of life at a certain equilibrium (a high level equilibrium trap) for a biologically significant period of time, so that the species in question self-domesticates, and this domestication to settled agrarian life is reflected in changes in the genome — and perhaps also eventually in the phenotype.

Important qualifications need to be made to the above. We know from the fact that the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium does not hold that evolution is always occurring, even at a small scale that is only incrementally recognizable at in the genotype and phenotype. This is micro-evolution, and only results in cladogenesis over very long periods of time (more or less Darwin’s original gradualist model); macro-evolution resulting in cladogenesis over shorter periods of time probably involves specific selection pressures. The disruption to human life patterns caused by the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism ought to be sufficient for the emergence of a new species, Homo agrariensis — not metaphorically, as we have so often come to speak of a “new breed” of man, but biologically — except that the developments of civilization continue to disrupt human life in new ways, so that no stabilizing selection occurs specifically driven by the agricultural mode of life.

Settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and even as our civilization today continues to ever so gradually replace the ideological infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastial civilization — like the planks replaced one-by-one in the ship of Theseus — much remains of the agricultural past (and even the agricultural macabre) in our institutions today. Industrialism is extremely recent in evolutionary terms.

While settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and one might assume that civilization simpliciter involves a radical departure from pre-civilized life that must entail compromises with the instinctual life (as was apparently Freud’s position in Civilization and its Discontents), this is not a necessary aspect of civilization. Other kinds of civilization have existed that did not entail the severe instinctual curbs of settled agriculturalism, and other forms of civilization may yet arise that are more in tune with human nature and the human condition.

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