[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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[CBC Radio One]

Science FACTion

The Great Leap Forward

Copyright © 2002 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer writes and presents a weekly science column for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.

The columns, which have the umbrella title Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science, are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.

Recorded 10 December 2002

Host: We all know what Santa Claus is up to right now: he's making his list, and checking it twice. In other words, the jolly old elf is planning for the future. And, according to science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, that means there's no doubt about it: St.Nick is one of us ...

Music: Holiday music

Robert J. Sawyer: It's that time of year again! The holiday season!

Fortunately, we know what to expect, and have been planning ahead: saving a few extra bucks, making lists of who we have to give presents to, and more. After all, we know the routine: the same things happen every year at this time.

But to our ancestors, just because an event happened repeatedly in the past didn't mean it was going to happen again in the future.

That's because even though Homo sapiens has been around in its current physical form since a hundred thousand years ago, minds like ours are much newer.

A hundred thousand years ago, we made no art, we didn't decorate our bodies, we had no belief in an afterlife — and we didn't extrapolate from the past into the future.

Things stayed that way for millennia. And then, suddenly, 40,000 years ago, it all changed. Anthropologists call it "the Great Leap Forward," and it puts Neil Armstrong's "Giant Leap for Mankind" to shame as a turning point in human history.

Neil Armstrong voice clip: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

When the Great Leap Forward occurred, suddenly we started painting cave walls — that was the first art. And we began adorning our bodies with jewelry — the first indication that we had any notion of ourselves as individuals. And, perhaps most intriguing of all, we started to believe in God and an afterlife.

See, up until 40,000 years ago, when we did bother to bury our dead — presumably to keep the stench from attracting scavengers — we just shoved the bodies into holes in the ground. But starting with the Great Leap Forward, we began adding in what archeologists call "grave goods" with the dear departed: things such as spears or supplies of food that could only be of use in a putative afterlife.

Sound Effect: The spluttering of a fluorescent light as it fights to comes to life, and then the steady whine it makes once it's on

It was as if a switch had been thrown in our brains, turning on consciousness — letting us remember the past, and ponder the future.

And that turning on of consciousness only happened to us — good old Homo sapiens.

But we weren't the only kind of humans that existed back then. Also schlepping along on this ball of dust were our burly cousins, the Neanderthals.

Sound Effect: Fred Flintstone shouting "Yabba dabba doo!"

But they just slogged along, without ever taking that great leap. Neanderthals had no art, no religion, and, as far as we can tell, no true consciousness.

Sound Effect: Water splashing / stream

And that means that even if something happened every year in the past — like our winter holidays — the Neanderthals wouldn't assume that it was going to happen again this year.

How do we know that? A little fish told us. Salmon swim upstream to spawn at the same time each year. Ever since the Great Leap Forward, we've always been on hand waiting for them, catching oodles as they go by.

But the Neanderthals never noticed the pattern; we can tell by the distribution of fish skeletons they left in their caves. Every year, it seemed, they were caught unaware by the running salmon. It just didn't occur to our browridged brethren that what had happened each spring in the past was likely to happen next spring, too.

Music: Holiday music again

But for us, ever since the Great Leap Forward 40,000 years ago, planning for the future has come naturally. So, don't fret over the time you're spending preparing for the upcoming holidays. Recognizing that it's time to deal with the "same old same old" is the very essence of what makes us human.

I'm Robert J. Sawyer.

More Good Reading

Other "Science FACTion" commentaries for CBC Radio
"2020 Vision" scenarios for Discovery Channel Canada
Media backgrounder on Rob Sawyer

Rob's novel Humans, which deals with the Great Leap Forward

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