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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hunter-gatherers in outer space

What happens when you take a being whose mind was shaped by hunting and gathering in Africa over the past five million years or so, dress that individual in a spacesuit, and put that individual into a spaceship, sending them beyond the planet from which they evolved? What happens to hunter-gatherers in outer space?

As I pointed out in The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung, the human environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) shapes a worldview based on the standpoint of a planetary surface. Moreover, because the hunter-gatherer lives (or dies) by his attentiveness to his immediate environment, his immediate experience of leaving his planet of origin will make a disproportionate impact upon him. Whereas the hunter-gatherer may intellectually prepare himself, and may know on an intellectual level what to expect, the actual first person experience of leaving his planet of origin and seeing it whole — what Frank Drake calls the overview effect — may have an immediate and transformative impact.

The impact of the overview effect would force the hunter-gatherer to re-examine a number of ideas previously unquestioned, but his reactions, his instincts, would, for the time being, remain untouched. Of course, for a hunter-gatherer to have experienced the overview effect, he will have had to have achieved at least an orbital standpoint, and to achieve an orbital standpoint requires that the hunter-gatherer will have passed through a period of technological development that takes place over a civilizational scale of time — far longer than the scale of time of the individual life, but far shorter than the scale of biological time that could have modified the evolutionary psychology of the hunter-gatherer.

In the particular case of human beings, this period of technological development meant about ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, followed by a short burst of industrialized civilization that made the achievement of an orbital standpoint possible. While it is obvious that the short period of industrialized civilization will have left almost no trace of influence on human behavior, it is possible that the ten thousand years of acculturation to agricultural civilization (and the coevolution with a tightly-coupled cohort of species, as entailed by the biological conception of civilization) did leave some kind of imprint on the human psyche. Thus we might also inquire into the fate of agriculturalists in outer space, and how this might differ from the fate of hunter-gatherers in outer space. It is at least arguable that our interest in finding another planet to inhabit, or even terraforming other planets in our planetary system, is a function of our development of agricultural instincts, which are stronger in some than in others. Some individuals feel a very close connection to the soil, and have a special relationship to farming and food to be had by farming. However, the argument could be made equally well that our search for an “Earth twin” is a function of the homeworld effect more than a specifically agricultural outlook.

The principles to which I am appealing can be extrapolated, and we might consider what could happen in the event of a civilization with a very different history and its relationship to spacefaring, and how it makes the transition to a spacefaring civilization if that civilization is going to survival for cosmologically significant periods of time. Recently in Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilizations: The Preemption That Didn’t Happen I suggested that terrestrial civilization might have been preempted in the second half of the twentieth century by the sudden emergence of a spacefaring civilization, though this did not in fact happen. Late-adopter spacefaring civilizations might indefinitely postpone the threshold presented by spacefaring, which is difficult, dangerous, and expensive — but also an intellectual challenge, and therefore a stimulus. It is entirely conceivable that, on a planet that remains habitable for a cosmologically significant period of time, that an intelligent species might choose to forgo the challenge and the stimulus of a spacefaring breakout from their homeworld, continuing to embody the homeworld effect even after the means to transcend the homeworld effect are available. What would the consequences be for civilization in this case?

In The Waiting Gambit I discussed the rationalizations and justifications employed to make excuses for waiting for the right moment to initiate a new undertaking, and especially waiting until conditions are “right” for making the transition from a planetary civilization to a spacefaring civilization. These justifications are typically formulated in moral terms, e.g., that we must “get things right” on Earth first before we can make the transition to spacefaring civilization, or, more insidiously, that we don’t deserve to become a spacefaring civlization (as though the Earth deserves to suffer from our presence for a few more million years). It would be easy to dismiss the waiting gambit as a relatively harmless cognitive bias favoring the status quo (a special case of status quo bias), except that there are real biological and civilizational consequences to waiting without limit.

The most obvious consequence of playing along with the waiting gambit is that civilization, or even the whole of humanity, might be wiped out on Earth before we ever achieve the promised moment when we can legitimately expand beyond Earth. This is the existential risk of the waiting gambit as a strategy for human history. But even if we could be assured of the survival of humanity on Earth for the foreseeable future (although no such assurance could be given that was not purely illusory), the waiting gambit still has profound consequences. In so far as civilization is a process of domestication (and in Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation I suggested a biological conception of civilization based on a cohort of co-evolving species, which I elaborated in The Biological Conception of Civilization), the longer that human beings live in a planetary-bound, biocentric civilization the more domesticated we become. In other words, we are changed by remaining on Earth in the circumstances of civilization, because civilization itself is selective.

If the time between the advent of civilization and the advent of spacefaring is too short to be selective, then the hunter-gatherer mind is maintained because the genome on which this mind supervenes is essentially unchanged. But if the elapsed time between the advent of civilization and the advent of spacefaring is sufficiently extended so that civilizational selection of the intelligent species takes place, the mind is changed along with the genome upon which it supervenes. At some point, neither known nor knowable today, we will have self-selected ourselves (although not knowingly) for settled planetary endemism and we will lose the capacity to live as nomadic hunter-gatherers. This is an here-to-fore unrecognized consequence of long-lived planetary civilizations. If, on the other hand, human beings do make the transition to spacefaring civilization while retaining the evolutionary psychology of hunter-gatherers, the temporary phase of settled civilization (ten thousand years, more or less) will be seen as a temporary aberration, during which historical period the bulk of humanity lived in circumstances greatly at variance with the human EEA.

One aspect of the homeworld effect is acculturation to planetary endemism. This acculturation to planetary endemism helps to explain the waiting gambit and status quo bias, and if perpetuated it would explain the possibility of an advanced technological civilization that remains endemic to a single planet, attaining a full transition from biocentric to technocentric civilization without however making the transition to spacefaring civilization. This would present a radical break from the past, and thus presents us with the difficulty of conceiving a radically different human way of life — a way of life radically disconnected from the biocentric paradigm — but this is a radical difference from the biocentric paradigm that would in turn be radically different from a nomadic civilization with the entirety of the universe in which to roam. In both cases, traces of the biocentric paradigm are preserved, but different traces in each case. The planetary civilization would preserve continuity with the planet and thus a robust continuity with the homeworld effect; a spacefaring nomadic civilization would preserve continuity with the evolutionary psychology of our long hunter-gatherer past. A successor species to humanity, adapted to life in space, and choosing to live in space rather than upon planetary surfaces, would experience the overview effect exclusively, the overview effect supplanting the homeworld effect, and the homeworld effect might experience historical effacement, disappearing from human (or, rather, post-human) experience altogether.

If nomads were to go into space — that is to say, hunter-gatherers in outer space — they probably wouldn’t speak of “settling” a planet, because they would not assume that they would adopt a planetary mode of life for the sake of settling in one place. Perhaps they would speak of the “pastoralization” of a world (cf. Pastoralization, The Argument for Pastoralization, and The Pastoralist Challenge to Agriculturalism), or they might use some other term. The particular term doesn’t really matter, but the concept that the term is used to indicate does matter. Nomadic peoples have very different conceptions of private property, governmental institutions, social hierarchy, soteriology, and eschatology than do settled peoples; the transplantation (note the agricultural language here) of nomadic and settled conceptions to a spacefaring civilization would yield fascinating differences, and the universe is large enough for the embodiment of both conceptions in concrete institutions of spacefaring civilization — whereas Earth alone is not large enough.

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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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Hegel and the Overview Effect

25 September 2013


G. W. F. Hegel

G. W. F. Hegel

Hegel is not remembered as the clearest of philosophical writers, and certainly not the shortest, but among his massive, literally encyclopedic volumes Hegel also left us one very short gem of an essay, “Who Thinks Abstractly?” that communicates one of the most interesting ideas from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. The idea is simple but counter-intuitive: we assume that knowledgeable individuals employ more abstractions, while the common run of men content themselves with simple, concrete ideas and statements. Hegel makes that point that the simplest ideas and terms that tend to be used by the least knowledgeable among us also tend to be the most abstract, and that as a person gains knowledge of some aspect of the world the abstraction of a terms like “tree” or “chair” or “cat” take on concrete immediacy, previous generalities are replaced by details and specificity, and one’s perspective becomes less abstract. (I wrote about this previously in Spots Upon the Sun.)

We can go beyond Hegel himself by asking a perfectly Hegelian question: who thinks abstractly about history? The equally obvious Hegelian response would be that the historian speaks the most concretely about history, and it must be those who are least knowledgeable about history who speak and think the most abstractly about history.

Previously in An Illustration of the Truncation Principle I quoted a passage from the Annales school historian Marc Bloch:

“…it is difficult to imagine that any of the sciences could treat time as a mere abstraction. Yet, for a great number of those who, for their own purposes, chop it up into arbitrary homogenous segments, time is nothing more than a measurement. In contrast, historical time is a concrete and living reality with an irreversible onward rush… this real time is, in essence, a continuum. It is also perpetual change. The great problems of historical inquiry derive from the antithesis of these two attributes. There is one problem especially, which raises the very raison d’être of our studies. Let us assume two consecutive periods taken out of the uninterrupted sequence of the ages. To what extent does the connection which the flow of time sets between them predominate, or fail to predominate, over the differences born out of the same flow?”

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, translated by Peter Putnam, New York: Vintage, 1953, Chapter I, sec. 3, “Historical Time,” pp. 27-29

The abstraction of historical thought implicit in Hegel and explicit in Marc Bloch is, I think, more of a problem that we commonly realize. Once we look at the problem through Hegelian spectacles, it becomes obvious that most of us think abstractly about history without realizing how abstract our historical thought is. We talk in general terms about history and historical events because we lack the knowledge to speak in detail about exactly what happened.

Why should it be any kind of problem at all that we think abstractly about history? People say that the past is dead, and that it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. Why not forget about history and get on with the business of the present? All of this sounds superficially reasonable, but it is dangerously misleading.

Abstract thinking about history creates the conditions under which the events of contemporary history — that is to say, current events — are conceived abstractly despite our manifold opportunities for concrete and immediate experience of the present. This is precisely Hegel’s point in “Who Thinks Abstractly?” when he invites the reader to consider the humanity of the condemned man who is easily dismissed as a murderer, a criminal, or a miscreant. But we not only think in such abstract terms of local events, but also if not especially in regard to distant events, and large events that we cannot experience personally, so that massacres and famines and atrocities are mere massacres, mere famines, and mere atrocities because they are never truly real for us.

There is an important exception to all this abstraction, and it is the exception that shapes us: one always experiences the events of one’s own life with concrete immediacy, and it is the concreteness of personal experience contrasted to the abstractness of everything else not immediately experienced that is behind much (if not all) egocentrism and solipsism.

Thus while it is entirely possible to view the sorrows and reversals of others as abstractions, it is almost impossible to view one’s own sorrows and reversals in life as abstractions, and as a result of the contrast between our own vividly experienced pain and the abstract idea of pain in the life of another we have a very different idea of all that takes place in the world outside our experience as compared to the small slice of life we experience personally. This observation has been made in another context by Elaine Scarry, who in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World rightly observed that one’s own pain is a paradigm of certain knowledge, while the pain of another is a paradigm of doubt.

Well, this is exactly why we need to make the effort to see the big picture, because the small picture of one’s own life distorts the world so severely. But given our bias in perception, and the unavoidable point of view that our own embodied experience gives to us, is this even possible? Hegel tried to arrive at the big picture by seeing history whole. In my post The Epistemic Overview Effect I called this the “overview effect in time” (without referencing Hegel).

Another way to rise above one’s anthropic and individualist bias is the overview effect itself: seeing the planet whole. Frank White, who literally wrote the book on the overview effect, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, commented on my post in which I discussed the overview effect in time and suggested that I look up his other book, The Ice Chronicles, which discusses the overview effect in time.

I have since obtained a copy of this book, and here are some representative passages that touch on the overview effect in relation to planetary science and especially glaciology:

“In the past thirty-five years, we have grown increasingly fascinated with our home planet, the Earth. What once was ‘the world’ has been revealed to us as a small planet, a finite sphere floating in a vast, perhaps infinite, universe. This new spatial consciousness emerged with the initial trips into Low Earth Orbit…, and to the moon. After the Apollo lunar missions, humans began to understand that the Earth is an interconnected unity, where all things are related to one another, and there what happens on one part of the planet affects the whole system. We also saw that the Earth is a kind of oasis, a place hospitable to life in a cosmos that may not support living systems, as we know them, anywhere else. This is the experience that has come to be called ‘The Overview Effect’.”

Paul Andrew Mayewski and Frank White, The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change, University Press of New England: Hanover and London, 2002, p. 15


“The view of the whole Earth serves as a natural symbol for the environmental movement. it leaves us unable to ignore the reality that we are living on a finite ‘planet,’ and not a limitless ‘world.’ That planet is, in the words of another astronaut, a lifeboat in a hostile space, and all living things are riding in it together. This realization formed the essential foundation of an emerging environmental awareness. The renewed attention on the Earth that grew out of these early space flights also contributed to an intensified interest in both weather and climate.”

Paul Andrew Mayewski and Frank White, The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change, University Press of New England: Hanover and London, 2002, p. 20


“Making the right choices transcends the short-term perspectives produced by human political and economic considerations; the long-term habitability of our home planet is at stake. In the end, we return to the insights brought to us by our astronauts and cosmonauts as the took humanity’s first steps in the universe: We live in a small, beautiful oasis floating through a vast and mysterious cosmos. We are the stewards of this ‘good Earth,’ and it is up to us to learn how to take good care of her.”

Paul Andrew Mayewski and Frank White, The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change, University Press of New England: Hanover and London, 2002, p. 214

It is interesting to note in this connection that glaciology yielded one of the earliest forms of scientific dating techniques, which is varve chronology, originating in Sweden in the nineteenth century. Varve chronology dates sedimentary layers by the annual layers of alternating coarse and fine sediments from glacial runoff — making it something like dendrochronology, except for ice instead of trees.

Scientific historiography can give us a taste of the overview effect, though considerable effort is required to acquire the knowledge, and it is not likely to have the visceral impact of seeing the overview effect with your own eyes. Even an idealistic philosophy like that of Hegel, as profoundly different as this is from the empiricism of scientific historiography, can give a taste of the overview effect by making the effort to see history whole and therefore to see ourselves within history, as a part of an ongoing process. Probably the scientists of classical antiquity would have been delighted by the overview effect, if only they had had the opportunity to experience it. Certainly they had an inkling of it when they proved that the Earth is spherical.

There are many paths to the overview effect; we need to widen these paths even as we blaze new trails, so that the understanding of the planet as a finite and vulnerable whole is not merely an abstract item of knowledge, but also an immediately experienced reality.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Epistemic Overview Effect

14 September 2013



OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

The Overview Effect

The “overview effect” is so named for the view of the earth entire — an “overview” of the earth — enjoyed by astronauts and cosmonauts, as well as the change in perspective that a few of these privileged observers have had as a result of seeing the earth whole with their own eyes.

One of these astronauts, Edgar Mitchell, who was on the 1971 Apollo mission and was the sixth human being to walk on the moon, has been instrumental to bringing attention to the overview effect, and has written a book about his experiences as an astronaut and how it affected his perception and perspective, The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds. A short film has been made about the overview effect, and an institution has been established to study and to promote the overview effect, The Overview Institute.

Here is an extract from the declaration of The Overview Institute:

For more than four decades, astronauts from many cultures and backgrounds have been telling us that, from the perspective of Earth orbit and the Moon, they have gained such a vision. There is even a common term for this experience: “The Overview Effect”, a phrase coined in the book of the same name by space philosopher and writer Frank White. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative. Even more so, many of them tell us that from the Overview perspective, all of this seems imminently achievable, if only more people could have the experience!

We have a hint of the overview effect when we see pictures of the Earth as a “blue marble” and as a “pale blue dot”; those who have had the opportunity to see the Earth as a blue marble with their own eyes have been affected by this vision to a greater extent than we can presumably understand from seeing the photographs. Here is another description of the overview effect:

When people leave the surface of the Earth and travel into Low Earth Orbit, to a space station, or the moon, they see the planet differently. My colleague at the Overview Institute, David Beaver, likes to emphasize that they not only see the Earth from space but also in space. He has also been a strong proponent that we describe what then happens as a change in world view.

Deep Space: The Philosophy of the Overview Effect, Frank White

In the same essay White then quotes himself from his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, on the same theme:

“Mental processes and views of life cannot be separated from physical location. Our “world view” as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.”

Frank White has sought to give a systematic exposition of the overview effect in his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, which seeks to develop a philosophy of space travel derived from the personal experience of space by space travelers.


The Spatial Overview

There is no question in my mind that sometimes you have to see things for yourself. I have invoked this argument numerous times in writing about travel — no amount of eloquent description or stunning photographs can substitute for the experience of seeing a place for yourself with your own eyes. This is largely a matter of context: being in a place, experiencing a place as a presence, requires one’s own presence, and one’s own presence can be realized only as the result of a journey. A journey contextualizes an experience within the experiences required the reach the object of the journey. The very fact that one must travel in order to each a destination alters the experience of the destination itself.

To be present in a landscape means that all of one’s senses are engaged: one not only sees, but one sees with the whole of one’s peripheral vision, and when one turns one’s body in order to take in more of the landscape, one not only sees more of the landscape, but one feels one’s body turn; one smells the air; one hears the distinctive reverberations of the most casual sounds — all of the things that remind us that this is not an illusion but possesses all the chance qualities that mark a real, concrete experience.

I have remarked in other posts that one of the distinctive trends in contemporary philosophy of mind is that of emphasizing the embodiedness of the mind, and in this context the embodied mind is a mind that is inseparable from its sensory apparatus and its sensory apparatus is inseparable from the world with which it is engaged. When our eyes hurt as we look at the sun we are reminded by this visceral experience of sight — one might say overwhelming sight — that we experience the world in virtue of a sensory apparatus that is made of essentially the same materials as the world — that there is an ontological reciprocity of eye that sees and sun that shines, and it is only because the two share the same world and are made of the same materials that they stand in a relation of cause and effect to each other. We are part of the world, of the world, and in the world.

Presumably, then, to the present in space and feel oneself kineasthetically in space — most obviously, the feeling of a micro-gravity environment once off the surface of the earth — is part of the experience of the overview effect, as is the dramatic journey into orbit, which must remind the viewer of the difficulty of attaining the perspective of seeing the world whole. This is the overview effect in space.

temporal overview

The Temporal Overview

There is also the possibility of an overview effect in time. For the same reason that we might insist that some experiences must be had for oneself, and that one must be present spatially in a spatial landscape in order to appreciate that landscape for what it is, we might also insist that a person who has lived a long life and who has experienced many things has a certain kind of understanding of the temporal landscape of life, and it is only through a conscious knowledge of the experience of time and history that we can attain an overview of time.

The movement in contemporary historiography called Big History (which I have written about several times, e.g., in The Science of Time and Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time) is an attempt to achieve an overview experience of time and history.

I have observed elsewhere that we find ourselves swimming in the ocean of history, but this very immersion in history often prevents us from seeing history whole — which is an interesting contrast to the spatial overview experience, which which contextualization in a particular space is necessary to its appreciation and understanding. But contextualization in a particular time — which we would otherwise call parochialism — tends to limit our historical perspective, and we must actively make an effort to free ourselves from our temporal and historical contextualization in order to see time and history whole.

It is the effort to free ourselves from temporal parochialism, and the particularities and peculiarities of our own time, that give as a perspective on history that is not tied to any one history but embraces the whole of time as the context of many different histories. This is the overview effect in time.

Knowledge Tree

The Epistemic Overview

I would like to suggest that there is also an epistemic overview effect. It is not enough to be told about knowledge in the way that newspaper and magazine articles might tell a popular audience about a new scientific discovery, or in the way that textbooks tell students about the wider world. While in some cases this may be sufficient, and we must rely upon the reports of others because we cannot construct the whole of knowledge on our own, in many cases knowledge must be gained firsthand in order for its proper significance to be appreciated.

Elsewhere (in P or not-P) I have illustrated the distinction between a constructive and a non-constructive point of view being something like the difference between climbing up a mountain, clambering over every rock until one achieves the summit (constructive) versus taking a helicopter and being set down on the summit from above (non-constructive). (I have taken this example over from French mathematician Alain Connes.) With this image in mind, being blasted off into space and seeing the mountain from orbit is a paradigmatically non-constructive experience, and it is difficult to imagine how it could be made a constructive experience.

Well, there are ways. Once space technology becomes widely distributed and accessible, if a person were to build their own SSTO from off-the-shelf parts and then pilot themselves into orbit, that would be something like a constructive experience of the overview effect. And if we go on to create a vibrant and vigorous spacefaring civilization, making it into orbit will only be the first of many steps, so that a constructive experience of space travel will be to “climb” one’s way from the surface of the earth through the solar system and beyond, touching every transitional point in between. It has been said that the journey of the thousand miles begins with a single step — this is very much a constructivist perspective. And it holds true that a journey of a million miles or a billion miles begins with a single step, and that first step of a cosmic voyage is the step that takes us beyond the surface of the earth.

Despite the importance and value of the constructivist perspective, it has its limitations, just as the oft-derided non-constructive point of view has its particular virtues and its significance. Non-constructive methods can reveal to us knowledge that is disruptive because it is forced upon us suddenly, in one fell swoop. Such an experience is memorable; it leaves an impression, and quite possibly it leaves much more of an impression that a painstakingly gradual revelation of exactly the same perspective.

This is the antithesis of the often-cited example of a frog placed in a pot of water and which doesn’t jump out as the water is slowly brought to a boil. The frog in this scenario is a victim of constructivist gradualism; if the frog had had a non-constructive perspective on the hot water in which he was being boiled to death, he might have jumped out and saved himself. And perhaps this is exactly what we need as human beings: a non-constructive (and therefore disruptive) perspective on a the familiar life that has crept over us day-by-day, step-by-step, and bit-by-bit.

An epistemic overview of knowledge can give us a disruptive conception of the totality of knowledge that is not unlike the disruptive experience of the overview effect in space, which allows us to see the earth whole, and the disruptive experience of time that allows us to see history whole. Moreover, I would argue that the epistemic overview is the ultimate category — the summum genus — that must contextualize the overview effect in space and in time. However, it is important to point out that the immediate visceral experience of the overview effect may be the trigger that is required for an individual to begin to seek the epistemic overview that will give meaning to his experiences.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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