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Fire and rocks


KENSINGTON -- Among the things that differentiate tigers from other creatures on this planet is the combination of big teeth, big claws and a striped body.

Among the things that differentiate human beings from other creatures is the use of fire.

Evidence of the earliest use of fire dates to half a million years ago in eastern Asia and parts of Europe, and to more than a million years ago in Africa.

Our ancestors were not good-looking people by today's standards -- if your aesthetic judgment is based on the dioramas at the natural-history museums or the reconstructed faces shown in encyclopedias. Those reconstructions are built on fossil skulls of small-brained brutes whose technical name was Homo erectus.

Wisdom from the soil

The immodest species name we've given our modern selves is "sapiens," which comes from a Latin word meaning "wise." Our complete genus-and-species name is Homo sapiens," which can translated as "wisdom from the soil."

The implicit presumptuousness of that self-label might not be so outrageous when considered in the light of the fire that our ancestors have employed for more than a million years. On the other hand, fire is only one manifestation of oxidation, and nearly 4 billion years ago the microbial ancestors of the cells of our bodies first ignited the oxidation processes that power the fundamental processes of life.

The heat in our bodies is the continuation of a flame that was lighted within a billion years of the formation of the earth itself.

Airy fire of the more familiar campfire and gas-stove type, however, is exclusively an agent of human beings -- and of Mother Nature who lights off forests and grasslands by means of lightning or lava.

Even more dramatic than fire as a distinguishing feature of humanness, however, is our clever use of rocks.

Rocks hardly seem dramatically emblematic of anything. But consider: While we still use wood to make our houses and furniture, it's the same material used by our paleolithic ancestors for their houses and furniture. Wood has always been wood, but rocks . . .

Rock makes up most of the surface layer of our planet. The soil is only a thin coating on the underlying rock that extends miles downward. Rock has always been the literal foundation of our social and physical worlds.

Each society uses rock differently. Some hardly at all.

the early 1940s, when American forces advanced from island to island against the Japanese, a traumatic cultural collision took place between Western technical society and the island societies of the South Pacific. A product of that collision was the "cargo cults."

As the Americans arrived on successive Pacific islands, they built airstrips for the airplanes that brought in war-related cargo. The locals watched, and they did not understand.

The cargo cults were featured in a film documentary called "Mondo Cane" back in the Sixties. I heard nothing more about them until the January 1995 issue of Harper's carried a report on the current status of the cargo cults. The article's title is "The Gospel According to Prum." The author is Will Bourne.

The local people saw aircraft descending from the sky -- from the heavens! -- and they saw the cargoes of vehicles and radios and other miraculous things. Naturally, the locals wanted cargo, too, so they built crude airstrips in the island jungles.

Toyotas from the soil

The cults still exist. Mr. Bourne quotes a man named Isaak as referring to "'Cargo -- white man's things -- trucks, refrigerators. We just want these things to give us an easy life."' In the next paragraph, the author says, "Isaak will learn eventually that he must scratch his Toyota from the very soil he grew up on."

Isaak might someday figure out that Toyotas do indeed come from the ground rather than from the sky -- as indeed do all trucks and refrigerators, televisions, radios and computers come from the ground.

That humanity can convert rocks from the ground into the component parts of the physical plant of society shows how adept we've become after a million years of playing with -- actually doing basic research on -- fire and rocks.

Chiseled sand

That million years of basic research now enables us to take ordinary sand and chisel it into its atomic components and then reassemble it into microprocessors whose components can be seen only with the most powerful microscopes -- themselves made from rocks.

I have been trying to promote a narrow definition of the word "science," one that relates to its Latin root, a verb meaning "to know." Science, specifically physical science, is humanity's 0' collective knowledge of the physical world. To "know science" is to have some personal knowledge of that collective knowledge.

As for the "scientific method," well, that is the tireless strategy of testing and testing and testing by which, gradually, the body of knowledge called science is expanded and amended before it is applied to the challenges we face in living on the earth and in the world.

There is one other thing that distinguishes us from the other creatures on this planet.

Speed of light

Because of having played with fire and rocks for so long, we humans are the first life form in the long history of this planet to have developed ways to communicate at the speed of light over the entire earth -- which would have been incomprehensible even in the Western world of only a century ago.

Human societies have always been, metaphorically at least, forms of collective life, single organisms. Humanity, in the collective, is now, in our lifetime, crossing the threshold to becoming, at least metaphorically, a single planet-covering creature whose nerve impulses travel at the speed of light on bundles of digital fire managed by our modified rocks.

Perhaps the word "sapiens" is not the overstatement some cynics might assert. A word whose Latin root is "clever" would be nearly perfect, though.

Robert Burruss is an engineer who writes about technology and society. His e-mail address is ssmitaltech.com.


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