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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