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