Overthrowing the Gods: How humans have bested the environment

In Greek Mythology, the Titan Prometheus was chained to a rock and had his eyes torn out by eagles for giving humanity power over fire. The gods knew that the gift of fire would end with their overthrowing at the hands of humans. Now obviously this story is not historically true (and a bit gruesome) but it is still significant. Since the acquisition of fire, humans have had power over the environment and that power has increased exponentially as technology has progressed. From fire to agriculture, to ships and trade, humans have slowly surpassed mother nature in strength. In fact, one of the most pressing issues in public discourse today is how much humans have changed the environment. Humans may not currently be stronger than their environment, but as technology and human innovation progresses, that point will be reached.

As stated in the unfortunate story of Prometheus, humanity’s first great technology was the utilization of fire about 1.7 to 0.2 million years ago. This was important because it gave humans the opportunity to actually cook meat. This, in turn, allowed the ancestors of modern humans such as Homo erectus to digest food more efficiently which allowed for higher brain development[1]. Fire also allowed humans to stay warm in harsher climates which made them less dependent on the weather for travel and hunting. Thirdly, it allowed for humans to see in the dark which increased productivity and drove further technological progress.

The larger brain size and higher productivity cultivated from the harnessing of fire led to another technological innovation that empowered humans. This was agriculture. Humans could now change their environment to suit their own needs. Humans could harness natural selection for their own benefit. For example, Mexican Indian farmers changed the corn cob from half an inch to almost six inches by 1500 by only replanting the seeds from the plants which produced the largest cobs.[2] This utilization of natural selection allowed humans to gain more from their crops with less effort. Humans had harnessed the creative process of nature and could use it for their own needs. This utilization of natural selection is what paved the way for the development of all technology. It allows for the prototyping of tools and structures and for updating systems that have failed.

This is also seen in the progression of trade. Not every need of a civilization can be found within that civilization’s immediate vicinity. The ability to travel outside the domain of one’s territory and trade for goods and services can both guarantee greater access to resources and more efficient economies. But the environment of a civilization often becomes a barrier to this trade. An example of this is the need for the European powers such as Spain and Portugal to mount expeditions across oceans so as to find better trade routes. For this, they developed ships which could withstand the stressors of trans-oceanic sailing. These new ships, developed around 1420[3], were fully rigged (having three or more square masts)[4] with square and lateen sails (square for sailing with the wind, lateen for sailing against) which vastly improved the speed and handling of the ships.  They also had sturdier hulls made from a skeletal construction instead of planks overlapped down the hull which had been used earlier[3]. All of these things allowed humans to conquer the oceans and expand their power over the environment.

The timeline of human technological development and independence from the constraints of the environment are one and the same. The ball began rolling with fire and has sped up exponentially with every innovation. Humans may have begun as slaves to the environment but as human technology and innovation progresses, the shackles of the environment become looser and looser until we become the gods ourselves.

[1] Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (London: Profile Books, 2009) 1-5

[2] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), 118

[3] J.R. McNeill, William H. McNeill, Human Web: a Bird’s-Eye View of World History, (New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), 163

[4] John Rousmaniere, The Illustrated Dictionary of Boating Terms: 2000 Essential Terms for Sailors and Powerboaters (New York,  W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 174

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